Mythology for the Millennial: Illegitimate offspring abound in Mahabharata, but none so pivotal as Satyavati

Bastards — in literature anyway — often have a somewhat noble patina around them. I'm thinking of Game of Thrones, of course, and Jon Snow (until the big reveal in the seventh season), but let's not forget Ramsay Bolton was also a bastard and tied for number one villain with that other bastard, Prince Joffrey.

It's a curse word, and when I use it to swear, I have to asterisk some letters so that you, gentle reader, won't be shocked. B*st*rd! As though you don't know what I mean, just because I replace the “a's”. It's not even such a very bad word, as most curses are, when they're stripped down to their elements. All it means is someone whose parents weren't married. An illegitimate child. A bastard. Bastards can be male or female, but often in the case of stories where an inheritance or title depends on who your father is and what your gender is, it's used for boys. Girls didn't really matter, because they couldn't inherit anyway.

In the Mahabharata, bastards abound. The story begins with an illegitimate child — Satyavati, whose origin story involves the artificial insemination of a fish by a king. The king was out hunting, and had a sexy dream, and rather than waste his sperm, he parcelled it up and sent it with a falcon to his wife. (They'd been wanting children anyway.) The falcon got into a fight with a hawk, and the semen package fell into a river where it was eaten by a fish. Surprise! This was no ordinary fish, it was an apsara cursed to be a fish, and when she was finally caught and cut open, the fisherman found two children in her guts —a boy and a girl. The boy was given to the king whose semen it was, and the girl stayed on with the fisherman, and basically changed destiny for that whole dynasty.

Interestingly, Satyavati's story is the only one in the Mahabharata to feature a heroic journey by an illegitimate girl child.

Every other example is about men, how they overcame the prejudices against them and rose up, but Satyavati is true to who she is from the beginning. And no mention is made again of her twin brother. (I was so inspired by this story, I used it as a jumping off point for my novel The One Who Swam With The Fishes.)

Satyavati's journey is also significant, because she is the one bastard who gives birth to another — the sage Vyasa. Vyasa is born as a fully grown adult male, because the sage Parashara can't resist the beauty of young Satyavati. Once he seduces her, he promises that not only will she return to her virginal state, she will also give birth to a great man.

Raja Ravi Varma's depiction of Shantanu wooing Satyavati. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Raja Ravi Varma's depiction of Shantanu wooing Satyavati. Image via Wikimedia Commons

There is a whole legacy of illegitimate children born after Satyavati, in fact. When her sons of marriage die, she is left with two childless daughters-in-law, Ambika and Ambalika, which is when she calls on an old Hindu law that states that if one brother dies and leaves his widows without children, another brother can step in to take his place, just so the gene pool carries on. So, she asks Vyasa to “do the needful” as it were, and he sleeps with each daughter-in-law in turn. Unfortunately, being a sage, his personal hygiene was not tremendous, so it was more than a chore for young Ambika and Ambalika. One closes her eyes, and eventually her son of the union — Dhritarashtra was born blind. One leaves her eyes open, but is pale with fright, and her son Pandu, is an albino.

Vyasa, by the way, curses each girl after they've had sex with him, not before, as a warning, but after, so there's nothing they can do about it. He tells them about the blind son and the albino son, and Satyavati hears of this and sends Ambalika in again just so she can have a non-handicapped grandchild. But Ambalika can't bear to face him, so she sends in a lady-in-waiting, who steels herself, has a normal night, and gives birth to the one normal kid out of the three of them — Vidura. And here we go again — Vidura can be as normal as he likes, the best choice for a king in fact, but he can't actually be king because his mother isn't a princess and so he's illegitimate. Never mind that the other two sons are illegitimate too. So the whole line of the Kurus we hear about in the Mahabharata — the family that these three belong to — isn't actually related to the Kurus who went before them.

Finally, there's Karna. Born to Kunti and the sun god (more about the Pandavas and their sperm donor dads here), Karna's is one of the most tragic stories in the whole epic. Kunti casts him into the river so no one knows that he belongs to her, and he's picked up by a charioteer and his wife. This adoption meant that Karna's life would change, primarily because of his caste. Charioteers were mostly sutas, children born to Brahmin women from Kshatriya fathers, and since so many of them took up that job, the word “suta” was used interchangeably for “charioteer”. Even though Kunti sent off her baby with earrings to denote his Kshatriya status, people, especially the “good guys” we're used to cheering on, picked on him for his suta origins a lot.

First, he couldn't find a tutor — then when he finally did, he wasn't allowed to compete with Arjuna because of his caste. It was the villainous Duryodhana who took Karna in, offered him a kingdom, so that he could be a king, and therefore on equal footing with everyone else. It was the one good deed that Duryodhana did, perhaps also motivated by his insecurity around his cousins, and Karna proved to be a capable and loyal friend.

Fathers. Whether they were gods or humans or sages, they determined everything. But remember, it all began because of a mother, an illegitimate girl, who wanted to marry a king.

Read more from the 'Mythology for the Millennial' series here.

Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan is the author of several books, including The One Who Swam with the Fishes: Girls of the Mahabharata. She tweets @reddymadhavan

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Updated Date: Sep 17, 2018 13:48:51 IST

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