Dr. Ruth Vanita - Gender and Sexuality in Dialogues between Male and Female Sages in the Mahābhārata

Updated: Jan 23, 2021

On July 11, 2020, Dr. Ruth Vanita, a Professor from the University of Montana gave a talk focusing on a dialogue in the Mahābhārata between the male sage Aṣṭāvakra and female sage Diśā. She began by pointing out the fallacy in creating a dichotomy between narrative text and philosophical text, as many do to form arguments of their own when analysing from a myhtological lens.

The dialogue situated in the Anuśāsanaparva of Mahābhārata begins when Yudhiṣṭhira asks Bhīma a series of questions about marriage. He enquires as to why is it that in the hand-taking ritual in a wedding ceremony, the spouses are instructed to prefer Dharma together. Hence, Yudhiṣṭhira questions this idea of Saddharma, and it's origin. He declares his rejection of the tradition if the authority simply rests on the words of an ancient ṛṣi. He futher raises objections on the Joint-Dharma (Saddharma) in marriage:

  1. Couples rarely die together. So, if Dharma becomes of the joint what happens to the survivor?

  2. Human beings perform a variety pf actions (Karma) and each one person has to incur the fruit of their own actions (karma-phalam) and you cannot incur the fruits of someone else’s actions

Dr. Vanita posited many other such objections by Yudhiṣṭhira, saying that marriage is a social and sexual arrangement in one's lifetime, but each being has its own actions and own attachments. Each moves according to one’s own pace towards life resulting from each’s own Sva-Dharma. Related to gender difference, Yudhiṣṭhira's claim of women as aṛtaḥ (opposed to the cosmic order) as cited in the vedās is challenged by Dr. Vanita.

She asserts that anything which is a part of cosmic order inherently cannot be at odds with it. It is in this reference that Dr. Vanita brings in the question of equality, likeness, and difference. She says that through the perspective of equality, partners can be together even if they are not equal. However, she mentions the two partners must be alike in someway as only two beings who are alike in some way can be thought of sharing the Dharma.

The three questions that Yudhiṣṭhira asks to Bhīma in relation to this Dharma are:

  1. The word Dharma in its original etymology applies to the inherent nature of the law of ones own being which necessitates a range of functions. These functions one has to note are not meritorious and not non-meritorious. On what basis the two are joined and explained.

  2. Is it simply sexual pleasure? Where he says that it could refer to the fact that sex is a duty in the marriage.

  3. It could be for producing children.

So, in order to explain and answer Yudhiṣṭhira’s questions Bhīma tells him a story of sage male sage Aṣṭāvakra and female sage Diśā. Dr. Vanita explains all of the important pointers of the story and says that one can see how Aṣṭāvakra’s rigid ideas about sex and marriage change dues to his encounter with an unusual independent women Diśā who is old, fortunate and established in dīkṣā though she is old she is beautiful and attractive to the heart.

To listen to the entire talk about gender, desire, and sexuality regarding marriage in the Mahabharata, please visit our YouTube Channel!

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