Engendering the Cause of Social Disability in Devdutt Pattanaik’s Jaya - Critical Insight

By Loveleen Kaur and Shreya Chatterji

Loveleen Kaur -Assistant Professor DAV College Amritsar (luvphoenix@gmail.com)
Dr. Shreya Chatterji-Associate Professor LPU Jalandhar (shreya.20688@lpu.co.in)

 Indian myth is laden with imagery pertaining to disability. Mahabharata as an epic delineates the Indian ideal of Dharma. Most scholars in the past have adhered to western models of studying disability. The analysis of Indian myths upon which Indian society moulds itself does not respond to the western model. Indian myths have multiple layers wherein apart from physical impairment, illegitimacy, class consciousness also makes one socially disabled. Indian system of Varna is work based and so Indian mythic world does not acquiesce to Western modes of inquiry.  The present paper explores four characters in Mahabharata and establishes how in spite of being able bodied / physically abled the characters were rendered socially disabled. The interpretation will derive essentially from the Indian cultural context.
Key terms: Disability, Myth, Mahabharata, Impairment, Socially Disabled
Engendering the Cause of Social Disability in Devdutt Pattanaik’s Jaya
        Disability has been always a part of life since ages immemorial. People who lived with physical, sensory, mental and cognitive abilities have always been treated either with pity or disdain. They have always been under the curious gaze of Indian belief of Karma-Phala i.e. your bad karmas will fetch you towards retribution in next birth by making you deaf, dumb, impaired or disabled. They have always met unique experience of being viewed as an exclusion from the main strand of society and culture. Disability studies hence gain a vector of socially constructed identity. Disability has emerged as a socially assigned position wherein society assumes the role of not fulfilling or adapting to the needs and aspirations of the disabled ones. The valence of disability as reflected in the social behavior and societal role, status, normative behavior as well as sub-cultural features surmount to add upon the social identity of disability. New disability studies have shifted their focus from the narrow perspective of medicine and disability and so trivialization of impairment. New studies have started reaching disability as a capacious category of cultural and social constructions. It has thence yielded new insights into normality making it a category worth studying in similar complex ways as race, ethnicity, class and gender.
The British Council of Disabled People has adopted the following definitions:
                       “Disability is the disadvantage or restriction of activity caused by a society which takes little or no account of people who have impairments and thus excludes them from mainstream activity.” (Chopra, 2015)
        Therefore, disability, like racism or sexism, is discrimination and social oppression. So social disability relates and refers to the disabling prejudices, social exclusions and discriminations. It outlines constraints forced upon bodies by social norms. Impairment may be a short term or long-term result of injury or disease and it may affect the physical attributes of an individual or it may influence upon the functioning of that individual’s mind because of, or regardless of society ultimately leading to pain and fatigue or it may influence communication and reduce consciousness. Disabled people are those people with impairments that society has created by excluding them from mainstream. It means impairment is individual while disability is a social construct.
       We are looking backwards to view the people’s perceptions about disability in the mythological world. Ricoeur(2006) in the Symbolism of Evil defines myth to be, “A traditional narration which relates to events that happened at the beginning of time and which has the purpose of providing grounds for the ritual actions of man of today and, in a general manner, establishing all the forms of actions and thought by which man understands himself in the world.”(8)
       The present study of social disability in the mythological characters aims to rule at the mythical nucleus of social disability which ultimately grounds it and determines it.In consonance with the thought of Claude Levi Strauss (1955) quoted Franz Boas in the Structural Study of Myth that “mythological worlds have been built up only to shatter again and the new worlds are built from the fragments” (428). From the archaic past of the mythological writings to the creative present of the modern world, social disability had a perception of wonder from being terrible to fascinating. Social disability is a negative interaction of the person with impairment                 with the social environment. It refers to the loss and limitation of opportunities in society because of social environment, attitude and stereotypical stigmatization. Disability based prejudice is always because of visible or invisible, existent or imputed impairment or chronic illnesss. It announces the social constraints of the dominant culture that consciously or unconsciously places people who are physically intellectually and psychologically different from arbitrarily defined normal fellows.
          We have chosen Bhishma, Pandu, Dhritarashtra and Karna for study. In the present work while studying social disability in Mahabharata, we are not going to pigeonhole the transcendent and superhuman but we are trying to peep in the human categories which are finite and contingent. With the aim to provide an attitudinal booster towards disabled in the technologically innovative modern civilization; select characters of Mahabharata are being studied.
        At the very profound level, Indian mythology believes in the philosophy of divine justice and disability is perceived to be the punishment for the sins of previous birth; at the mundane level it is viewed as something undesirous and inauspicious and eventually it leads to social marginalization.
 Mahabharata’s labyrinthine plot contains “within it is all the knowledge and wisdom available in India of its time; all the thought and speculation; all moral and ethical reflection; all custom and hearsay; all code and regulation; all fable and legend; all awareness of beauty and pleasure; all earthly desire, all spiritual aspiration; all moonlight and sunshine; all conflict, doubt and possible resolution.”(Bose, 1986) Indeed, the beginning of the Mahabharata states that "whatever here exists elsewhere, but what does not exist here exists nowhere”. ("The Bhagavad Gita as an Integral Part of the Epic Mahabharata", 2017) Mahabharata is laden with the social disability imagery.
At the very outset, people frown to see Bhishma categorized into a disabled. Bhishma the warrior, the commander- in -chief of the Kuru forces for first ten days, was born as Devavrata to the goddess Ganga and king Shantanu . He was the eighth child whom Ganga was about to drown when Shantanu stopped her. She spared the drowning of the infant telling Shantanu that he is one of those eight Vasus who were punished to be reborn as mortals for stealing Vasisthas cow. She further affirmed that “though Man, he will neither marry nor inherit your throne .He will have no family, yet will be obliged to live as a householder. And finally, he will die a death of shame at the hands of a man who actually will be a woman” (Pattanaik ,2010).
Then mother Ganga took her to be trained by the martial sage, Parashurama. After growing up into a handsome prince warrior Devavrata returned back to his father in Hartinapur where people loved him and were eager to see him as a king.
      Shantanu fell in love again with Satyavati a fisherwoman. Satyavati put a condition to his marriage proposal that only her children would be the heirs to the crown. So Devavrata took a Bhishma Pritgya that ‘I shall never marry. I shall never be with a women .I shall never father children.’ (Pattanaik ,2010). Devdatt Pattnaik in his vignettes at Jaya proclaims that in the Jain retelling of Mahabharata there is a suggestion that “Devavrata castrated himself to reassure Satyavati that he would never father a child”. (Pattanaik ,2010)..
       The article on castration in the encyclopedia, written by the French surgeon attempts to explain how castration made a man infertile. “Castration is the act of castrating …… through which one amputes or removes the testicles of a male animal which results in the incapability of breeding.”(Louis,332) It is a sort of debasement of the human body that hollows the illusion of bodily wholeness. When we consider medicalisation of disability it casts human variation as a deviance from norm which is a deficit.
         Whether Bhisma underwent physical castration or his vow admonishes him to have a normal householder’s life of begetting heirs .He was doomed to be forever staying in the lands of death thus not passing out of Vaitarni to Swarga. His disability to produce heir not only emerged as his individual tragedy but also it creates all the social order beyond human comprehension. Mahabharta is essentially a tale of what follows Devavratas vow.
         Satyavati gave Shantanu two sons Chitrangada and Vichitraviraya and  died  leaving  his  wife  and  son  in  care  of  Bhishma. Chitranga died before marriage and Vichitravirya was a weakling .When king of Kashi didn’t invite Vichitraviraya to the swayamvara of his daughters Amba, Ambika and Ambalika as he was considered unfit groom for any princess .Bhishma abducted the three princess and  gave them to his younger brother. Amba after being refused by Shalva and Vichitravirya seeks refuge in Bhishma. She told him that Bhishma took them on his chariot and said “you and not you half brother are our true husband’(Pattanaik ,2010).. Bhishma dismissed her with a wave of his hand and told her of his vow and freed her to go wherever she wishes. Amba questions Bhishma that “if your vow prevented you from marrying, what right did you have to abduct me?” (Pattanaik ,2010).Amba then destined to herself to be Bhishma’s nemesis by invoking gods/Shiva.
          Had Bhishma not been disabled by his vow, he would have married Amba and Mahabharata would have been a different story. His disability to marry again created strange notes in his personal as well as social order.  Vichitravirya died before fathering any children. Satyavati urged Bhishma for Niyog with the widows of Vichitravirya but his disability of not to be with a woman again comes into action and he refused. Eventually Bhisma remained the last of the Kuru bloodline. The sons his father bears on Satyavati die childless and the children of the royal family thereafter are not true Kurus, they are the children of the daughter in law of the household by other men.
             Being an able bodied man he never fathered anybody and even died death of shame at the hands of man who actually is a  woman Arjuna’s arrows suspend Bhishma between the earth and sky because he is rejected by both in death. Outlining the consequences of his disability Devdutt Pattanaik that he “cannot be identified clearly as a householder or as a hermit” (Pattanaik ,2010).. Through born as a man he lives like a non man, meaning he neither fulfill his obligation as a son nor partakes the benefits of being a son ; he doesn’t marry, does not father children , doesn’t inherit his father’s kingdom and in the end dies because of a woman” (Pattanaik ,2010).
               Bhishma practiced adharma. He broke the code of ashramdharma. Though he could choose his death he refused to die, retire and detach himself from his household. Because of his disability to give birth to a child he choose his time of death to be after the winter solstice when Pitr move away from earth in order to remain away from the questioning stares of his Pitr.
        In order to fulfil the dream of Satyavati to mother a lineage of Kings, Vyasa was called for Niyoga after the death of Vichitravirya. Ambika was so disgusted by his looks i.e. matted hair, coarse skin and gaunt features that she shut her eyes when he touched her. The child she conceives was therefore born blind and he was named as Dhritarashtra.
        As per law of the land, only a physically fit man can be the king. So Dhritarashtra is bypassed and the younger brother Pandu is crowned. This caused a great heart burn in the prince but he never voiced the protest. Dhritarashtra was given a wife by Bhishma who brought Gandhari from Gandhara. When she came to know that her husband is blind, she put on a blindfold to herself to share her husband’s suffering. In a way it may be her protest against her marriage. Dhritarashtra would ask Gandhari to give her a son before Pandu could have one that his son may get what was his rightfully.  Dhritarashtra has 101 sons and a daughter with Gandhari and one son Yuyutsu with a maid.
         Dhritarashtra was advised by Vidhura in the political matters. On his advise Dhritarashtra gave the Pandavas the forest of Khandava-prastha. Maya-the demonic architect built a great city for the Pandavas. It was named as Indra-Prastha. When Duryodhana visited Indra-Prastha for the coronation of Yudhishtra, he fell into a pond while staring the roof of Indra prastha. Daraupadi ridiculed him by calling him ‘blind son of blind parents’. Duryodhana was socially marginalized because of the disability of his father.
           Dharitarashrta remained blind to the megalomania of Draupadi’s Vastraharna but finally intervened as king to Draupadi for forgiveness as “I am old and blind and foolish” (Pattanaik ,2010). He futher gave her three boons. It reminds us of King Lear’s lamenting about blindness also when he outcies “Here I stand your slave, A poor, infirm, weak and despised old man” (Halio,2005)
           The blind king and his wife were narrated the incidents of the great war of Kurukshetra .Dhritrastra though a king didn’t and couldn’t participate in the war because of his physical impairment. The king who could not lead his army in war is no king.
        After winning the Kurukshetra war, Pandavas went to meet Dhritarashtra. On the advice of Krishna, Bhima put an iron image of his before him which Dhritarashtra crushed as if it is made of soft clay. He in his rage wanted to kill Bhima and later regretted it. Dhritarashtra continue living in Hastinapuri where Yudhishtra ruled as a king. Bhima continue hurling sarcasm and shame upon the blind king each day. Whenever it is time for meal, they were to eat food and Bhima would talk endlessly about Duryodhana’s death.
       Dharitarashrta at last gathered the courage to renounce all things and walk out of palace. He has realised that it was not the absence of eyes, but his attachment to palace comforts that prevented him from seeing truth of his pathetic condition. When in the ‘Vanaprastha’ Dharitarashrta on sniffing the smoke of fire asked Sanjay Gandhari and Kunti to run and later realized that it’s time to go and sat in mediation and got engulfed by the fire.    

           When Vyasa went to the other wife of Vichitravirya i.e. Ambalika she grew pale on seeing him and so she gave birth to a pale weakling called Pandu. Kunti, daughter of Surasena who was adopted by his cousin Kuntibhoja have her as a wife to Pandu whom Kunti choose in her swayamvara Because of Pandu’s inablility to father a child on Kunti, a second wife ‘Madri’ was purchased for her.
           Pandu though is physically unfit with disablity (sterility or impotency) is not as evident a blindness, so he was bethroned to be the crowned prince of Hastinapuri. Pandu once went on a hunt to vent his frustration of his disability to bear a child with much fertiled Madri. He killed antelope that was mating with a doe. It was sage Kindama and his wife who turned themselves into animals to make love freely in the open. The sage cursed Pandu that he will never know the pleasure of love making and will die if ever he touches a woman. Dismayed Pandu who is aware of his disability to create progeny refused to go back to Hastinapuri and so renuciates the crown.  
             A few months later his wives returned to him and Kunti told Pandu about her magical formula through which she could invoke a god and have a child with him instantly. On Pandu’s suggestion Kunti called upon Yama, Vaju, Indra to beget Yudhishtra, Bhima and Arjuna. She further called the Ashwin Twins to give Madri twin sons.So Pandu though impotent fathered five sons who have the qualities of perfect king like honesty, strength, skill, beauty and wisdom. This way Pandu is also a father to Karna. Pandu was doubly disabled as his father Vichitravirya was impotent too and he himself couldnot give birth to any of his sons.
             One day Pandu touched Madri and died. Before dying he ordered his sons not to cremate him but eat his flesh because with years of celibacy and meditation he has embedded great knowledge in his body. Sahadeva ate a part of his body’s piece which ants were eating and gain the external knowledge. Pandu because of his disability voluntarily renounced, the crown. Society has never been kind to the disabled.            
                   Karna was an illegitimate child of Kunti. Pleased with her services, Durvasa had given Kunti a magic formula by which she could call upon any Deva she wished and have a child. Ignorant of her action Kunti invoked sun god and gave birth to Karna instantly. The child was born with golden armour and celestial earrings. But Kunti being unmarried got terrified. She put the child in a basket and left it to a river’s whim. So Karna was found by Adiratha, a charioteer and raised as his child by him and his wife Radha.
           His illegitimacy becomes his disability though he was a Kshatriya at heart, he remained unhappy sticking to his father’s trade. After Drona’s refusal to teach him archery, Karna went to Parashuram as a Brahman .He took his lessons from Parashurama disguised as a Brahman but when his Guru one day found his falseness, he cursed him that he would forgot all his teaching on the day he needs it most .
            Being the foundling, he was a butt of rebuke for one and all except Duryodhana who loved him. Duryodhana sees his capabilities and he made him Prince of Anga. When he went to the Swayamvara of Draupadi, he was not allowed to participate because of his social status. His illegitimacy remained a great disability. During the Kurukshetra war Karna choose to sit till Bhishma remained the commander in chief .But after that he fought fiercely with Pandavas. He promised Kunti that he will not kill any of her sons expect Arjuna .He fought barvely with all for Pandavas exept Arjun and won against them but didn’t kill them. He became commander in chief of Kauravs after the death of Drona.
             Indra came in the guise of a Brahaman and took away the celestial mail and earrings of Karna thus disabiling him against Arjuna. In response to the impairment (Vaikartan) that Indra has caused, he gave Karna a dangerous weapon with which Karna killed Ghatotkacha. Karna, being disabled without his armour and earrings fought Arjun bravely but another disability starts engulfing him. He started forgetting the mantras with which he could have invoked power to the arrows. His guru’s curse comes into action.As per the modern medical terminology, Karna got Amnesia. Amnesia is partial or complete loss of memory. Owing to this mental disability, Karna could not launch his Brahmastra ie. divine arrows. While he was trying to remove the wheel of his chariot out of mud, Arjun pierced his body with arrows and chopped his head..
      Disability is an umbrella term for impairments, activity limitation and participation restrictions of an individual in context of its social factors. As to quote Tobin Siebers (2011) “..disability studies define disability not as individual defect but as a product of social injustice, that requires not the cure or elimination of defective person but significant changes in social and limit environment.”
         Impairment is not a necessary condition for disability. As Harris notes, disability as “a condition Cthat someone has a strong rational preference not to be in and one that is moreover in some sense a harmed condition [where] a harmed condition is defined relative both to one’s rational preferences and to conditions which might be described as harmful [and] relative to possible alternatives” (166). He therefore believes he can unproblematically define “It is notoriously hard to give a satisfactory definition of disability, although I believe we all know pretty clearly what we mean by it” (Harris 1999, 166).
              All bodies are socially constructed so we moved on with the premise that Disability becomes undesirable when it interacts with social environment. Able bodied Bhisma and Karna became disabled because of social behaviours, requirements and illegitimacy. On the other hand we have Dhritarashtra and Pandu who were impaired physically meted with the social behaviours of exclusion and so were denied the legitimate place in society. All this perhaps shows a growing discomfort with disability, a society that does not know how to make room for those they find unfit. In mythology, everybody's fighting some kind of stereotype, and people with disabilities are no exception. In studying disability in antiquity has the benefit of viewing Mahabharata in a fresh perspective along with it also historicizes disability. In the present study disability was constructed to reflect on such issues as health, skill (and so 'ability'), difference and status. 

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