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Hidimbi. A powerful woman, the first Pandava wife, who raised a mighty son as a single mom, yet sidelined in the Mahabharata. Because she was a rakshasi, not upper caste enough?
An independent single mother, who raised a mighty son, Hidimbi is certainly one of the most powerful women in the Mahabharata. Her contribution to the success and well-being of the Pandavas is undeniable. Yet, she is never celebrated the way Draupadi is, simply because of her caste.
Much has been written and said about the injustices that Draupadi had to face in the Mahabharata. She is recalled repeatedly, as a symbol of righteous female rage, and a feminist icon.
Hidimbi (sometimes referred to as Hidimba) too underwent an equal injustice. She stood by the man who killed her brother, and took care of his family. When he abandoned her after having a child with her, she did not complain, and instead she raised him on her own. Even that child, she sacrificed, so that her husband’s family would win a war with which she had nothing to do.
Yet, no one calls out these injustices – because these injustices were perpetuated by the ‘heroes’ of the epic, and because she was a ‘rakshasi.’
After the Pandavas escaped being burnt in the House of Lac, they passed through a forest. When they stopped to rest, they were spotted by a rakshasa, Hidimba, who wanted to eat them. Hidimba sent his sister, Hidimbi to kill them on his behalf.
Hidimbi however, fell in love with Bhima, and expressed the same to him. Even as Bhima was explaining to her that he could not possibly leave his mother and brothers for her, Hidimba, angered by the delay arrived at the scene. Seeing that Hidimbi was now on Bhima’s side, he threatened to kill her.
A fierce duel ensued, in which Bhima killed Hidimba. Hidimbi, overcome by her love for Bhima, approached Kunti and requested her to let him stay with her. Kunti agreed, and instructed Bhima to marry Hidimbi.
Hidimbi built a cottage for the Pandavas, brought them food, and protected them for a period of one year, during which Bhima spent the days with her and the nights with his mother and siblings.
When the year was up, the Pandavas left a pregnant Hidimbi, who brought up her son, Ghatotkacha on her own.
A lesser known part of the legend, based on the Sarala Das’s 15th-century Odia Mahabharata, goes that she was jealous of Draupadi, and considered her to be ‘immoral’ for having five husbands. So, when Ghatotkacha went to attend the Rajasuya Yagna, she specifically instructed him not to pay respects to Draupadi. Draupadi, angered by this, cursed Ghatokacha that he would be killed by a divine weapon. In turn, Hidimbi cursed Draupadi, that her as yet unborn children would also be murdered one day.
The curses do come to pass, when Ghatotkacha is killed by the divine Shakti arrow, by Karna; and when Draupadi’s children are killed by Ashwatthama, who mistakes them for the Pandavas.
Strangely, there are no other mentions of Hidimbi in the Mahabharata (at least none that I can find – I welcome hearing from readers about any stories they might have heard), almost as if the entire purpose of her existence was to be useful to the Pandavas.
Many incidents in the Mahabharata highlight the bias against women (Draupadi, Kunti, Amba), and against those from/perceived to be from marginalized castes (Ekalavya, Karna). As a rakshashi, Hidimbi stands at the intersection of both these identities, and as such faced discrimination on both these fronts. Even in today’s world, ‘rakshasi’ is an insult often hurled at DBA women who are vocal about the injustices they face.
Feminists have celebrated Hidimbi for being a brave and independent woman, who raised her son on her own, not unlike the single mothers of today, and she certainly deserves credit for that.
However, in more traditional circles, her ‘sacrifice’ is glorified, and that is an idea that shouldn’t sit right with any feminist.
For one, she is admired for standing with her in-laws, in opposition to her own brother – much like is expected from women in traditional households today. After all, a ‘good wife’ must put her loyalty and responsibility to her marital home above everything and everyone else.
Secondly, she served the Pandavas sincerely during their stay in the forest, and even after, when she sent her son to fight for them, without asking for anything in return. This again, is a reflection of the way a ‘good Indian wife’ is expected to be a meek, uncomplaining martyr.
Hidimbi is admired for being a sex-positive woman, who did not hesitate to make the first move and express her desire and love for Bhima. While this is admirable, we must consider it in the context of caste.
As Christina Dhanaraj writes in her essay, Swipe Me Left, I’m Dalit (part of the book Love Is Not A Word: The Culture and Politics of Desire, edited by Debotri Dhar), the value of a woman, and the conversation around sexuality and sex positivity, depend on where one is on the caste hierarchy.
For one, when Hidimbi approaches Bhima, she does so as a ‘beautiful maiden’ of the “fairest complexion” – a form that is not her true form. Quoting Christina, “The highest value, as defined by Hinduism, has traditionally been ascribed to the Brahmin woman, followed by the Kshatriya, the Vaishya and the Shudra. The modern-day ideal is also a savarna or savarna-passing woman, who is typically light skinned and able bodied, belonging to a family that has monetary and social capital, and embodying qualities considered to be feminine.”
Hidimbi certainly does not meet many of these conditions, and so her value to the Pandavas is limited. She is useful to them, when they are themselves powerless. However, the moment they get a way back to power and prestige, they abandon her.
Her open sexuality too, is a reflection of the stereotype that DBA women are ‘loose’ or ‘promiscuous.’ As Jenny Rowena writes, “upper caste women are constantly imagined and represented as chaste and sexually controlled, in opposition to lower caste women who are repeatedly portrayed as sexually loose, hyper and ‘immoral,’ a process that starts right from the representation of Sita and Shoorpanaka in Ramayana.”
The only difference really, is that Shoorpanakha stood with her brother and Hidimbi did not. Perhaps that is the only reason why she is not vilified like the former.
In the Mahabharata too, Draupadi then is shown as being sexually ‘pure’ – she literally regains her virginity after every year she spends with one of the Pandavas. Hidimbi though, is shown to be a ‘forward’ sexual being. We may call it ‘sex-positive’, but for DBA women, it means an entirely different thing, as it makes their bodies the “site of sexual pleasure and entertainment without the need for legitimacy,” to quote Christina Dhanaraj.
In fact, Dr Ravi Khangai, quotes the Gita Press translation of the Mahabharata to question whether the sexual relationship was even consensual. “The general acceptance of Hidimba being a pushy proposer and Bhima being a passive who had to be cajoled into alliance gets a rude shock in Drona parva(Section CLXXVI) when Rakasha prince Alayudha tells Duryodhana, ‘I want to kill Bhima because he had raped the Rakashi princess Hidimba’,” he writes.
Christina further says that the savarna partner, as the savarna man, is never threatened by his relationship with a Dalit woman, simply because of this lack of legitimacy.
So, it is no wonder that Hidimbi never receives the same position and respect as Draupadi.
The story of Hidimbi underlines the importance of intersectional feminism. If we see her only as a woman, we miss how caste plays an important role in her mistreatment. If we see her only as a tribal/Dalit, we miss the effects of patriarchy.
It is time, to tell Hidimbi’s story. The whole story, about her whole identity, and to grant her, at least in our imaginations, the rage that rightfully belongs to her.
Author Note: The author is a Savarna woman, and does not claim the lived experience needed to write this post. Nor is this post intended to speak over DBA voices. The author has referred to the works of DBA people, especially women, to write this post, and they have been credited in the text for their ideas and quotes from their work.
If any mistakes have been made, the author takes responsibility, and is willing to learn.
Image source: a still from the trailer of Hidimbi: an Arrow from the Past
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