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In the patriarchal world of Indian mythology, women are supposed to obey, to follow rules, to yield to male control. The story of Ganga is the outlier.
Of all the heroines of Indian mythology I have read about, a special place in my heart is reserved for Ganga. In the Mahabharata when Ganga marries the king Shantanu, she sets a condition that I have heard no mythological female character ever ask for — that he will never question her actions, no matter what she does.
This is as badass as it gets. In the patriarchal world of Indian mythology, women are supposed to obey, to follow rules, to yield to male control. The story of Ganga is the outlier.
Ganga right at the beginning declares an intention directly opposite to these expectations. Not only will she not be controlled or questioned for her choices, but she will also leave Shantanu if he crosses that boundary. Which simply means she HAS somewhere to go to — she has a life outside of her relationship with him. She has power of her own, which is as ‘unwomanly’ as it gets.
No ideal wife material is our Ganga. Maybe Shantanu would not even have married a woman like that if he had not fallen so hopelessly in love with her.
So what is the story of Ganga as I see it?
Ganga is also the only woman who brings a purpose of her own to her motherhood. She has committed to liberate the eight Vasus from their karma by giving them a human birth and then bringing them to a quick death. Her powerfully metaphorical act of drowning all her male progeny flies in the face of patriarchy like nothing else does. In patriarchy the highest-value commodity that a woman can produce is a male heir, but the unflappable Ganga doesn’t give a damn about squandering son after son after son by drowning immediately after birth as Shantanu watches, getting more and more and more maddened with each precious lost heir.
And since this purpose is her’s alone, she feels no need to explain it to Shantanu either. In her take on marriage — and oh boy! She HAS a take on marriage that is all her own too — the role of her partner is to love her and stand by her even if he doesn’t understand her.
In all of this Ganga shows up as the quintessential phenomenal woman — the one that can neither be understood nor be controlled by patriarchy. She is a force of nature — woman and river at once — and to her birth, death, love and motherhood all hold a meaning quite different from and beyond the grasp of the puny rights and wrongs of the conditioned world.
Like a river that can both nourish and devastate each in it’s own season, like a lioness who sometimes saves her cubs by giving them her food and sometimes eats her cubs to save her own life according to the survival situation, (Source: National Geographic) she is in service of LIFE itself and must act as she sees fit to best serve LIFE. Which is why she does what she needs to do so dispassionately, not giving a damn who gets her and who doesn’t.
Her whole experience with marriage and motherhood is like a blip in the vast continuum of her existence — too tiny to define or contain her.
Of course Shantanu fails her. Ganga is just too much for him to grasp. There is only so much his patriarchally conditioned eye can see. He fails to recognize her phenomenal nature. He sees a ‘problem’ with her actions and tries to ‘solve’ it the only way he knows how — by trying to control her.
And that is where love must end. A phenomenal woman cannot be controlled, and in his marriage Shantanu has failed to grow beyond his need to control. She loves him but she cannot compromise on being true to herself. And so she gives him what he wants — their last infant son — the last of the eight Vasus who still has karmic debt to pay — and an explanation to settle his maddening confusion. And she sheds him and her life with him like a snake sheds her skin in her season, and walks away, back into her wild phenomenal life, without wasting another word or gesture on him. She knows he is not worthy, and there it ends.
For his troubles Shantanu gets a lifetime of loneliness. What is more he compromises his precious heir to fulfill his aging lust for the young fisherwoman Matsyagandha, tying the young Bhishma to a life of celibate loneliness and unquestioning dedication to the throne of Hastinapur without agency of his own. He is forced all his life to be a mute witness to injustice and fight and kill those he loves in a war that goes against his moral compass. So much for Shantanu’s paternal ‘love’.
Actually through his inability to grow out of his conditioning and connect with the phenomenal in Ganga, Shantanu starts a torturous karmic cycle that not just Bhishma but three generations of Shantanu’s offspring have to suffer through. And it can end only in a bloodbath that finally not just destroys the male lineage of the Kuru clan once and for all, but also devastates everyone and everything it touches.
There could have been many other ends to the story of Ganga and Shantanu. If Shantanu had not tried to control Ganga, she may have stayed with him and birthed more children with him after liberating the Vasus — powerful sons and daughters carrying her phenomenal energy through whom she might have guided history into a totally different trajectory. Or when Ganga walked away, he could have dropped his kingship and the accompanying paraphernalia of narrow power-seeking and gone on a spiritual journey of growth and renewal to find the worthiness to reunite with her, as it happens in so many ancient tales. But Shantanu is simply not large enough for any of this and Ganga does not wait for him to grow.
In the whole of Mahabharata, or even Ramayana, or any of the other mythological texts I have read, I have not found a single character quite as powerful as Ganga, male or female.
The women who appear after her in Mahabharata all struggle for survival and some satisfaction within the patriarchal mould. They do the best they can with what they have, and end up with tragic consequences. Matsyagandha sees power in being the mother of a king — the stereotypical source of power for women in patriarchy–and so extracts a promise from Shantanu at a huge cost of injustice to Bhishma. In the death of her royal son, she risks losing this power, and so in her desperation to get a grandson who can be king, she forces her daughters-in-law to have sex with a strange man. She was herself violated likewise before her marriage by the ascetic Parashara, and forced to give birth to the wandering ascetic Krishna Dwaipayana (Vyasa) — again, for the sordidly patriarchal purpose of continuing the royal bloodline. She simply passes the wound to Ambika and Ambalika who are mere pawns in the game of power, and gets broken, pathetic heirs born out of loveless unions for her troubles.
Kunti, who has a divine boon and so can potentially hold her own a bit more than others, also uses her power for approval from the patriarchy. She let’s go of Karna, the child of her own desire, and ties her identity to the sons she produces with different gods under the orders of her impotent husband. These sons give her the legitimacy she craves within the patriarchal power structure, and to protect their interests she does not hesitate to compromise her first-born. Her woundedness is also reflected in the chillingly casual way in which she commands Draupadi to be ‘divided up’ between her five sons — another case of generational trauma passed on.
And Gandhari subsumes her identity and vision into the blindness of her husband. Her only decisive actions are to protect her sons from the consequences of their misdeeds, while she is powerless to stop them from committing them. She stops Draupadi from cursing the Kauravas for her violation, failing to see that they have already cursed themselves beyond redemption. She tries to use the power of her tapas to protect Duryodhana, only to find that he does not possess the inner purity to honour the mother-son dynamic as she needs him to. She is the quintessential enabler who finally fails on all fronts.
All these women are what in modern terms we may call the foot soldiers of patriarchy — women who get their power by attaching themselves to men in power and serve these men by subjugating younger women to the requirements of power politics.
And then there are Draupadi and Amba (reborn as Shikhandi), the wronged women who seek revenge as the way to restore their lost sense of self, and end up contributing to the final bloodbath. They too remain embroiled in the drama of power seeking having no existence of their own outside it.
And the male characters, if anything, have even less substance to them than these women. Apart from the totally marginalized Nakul and Sahdev who have a bit of art, and by extension, heart, to them, all the men on both sides of the battle-lines seem to have nothing in their lives beyond the sordid seeking and keeping of power. The winners — moral or political — are no less pathetic than the losers.
Even Krishna, who we are told is the incarnation of the boss-daddy of all gods and has really cool superpowers, is not a patch on Ganga. The sum total of his glorious destiny appears to be failing to stop a war and then justifying it in high sounding poetry as brothers kill each other, and also slaughter a lot of innocent poor people and animals who had nothing to do with their bitter family feud. For all his shenanigans, he too is not able to salvage anything worth salvaging. The vanquished die horrible deaths and the victors get nothing but ashes for their troubles.
What distinguishes Ganga from all of these other characters is the fact that unlike everyone else who is seeking power, one way or the other, she already HAS power. She enters and exits the human drama as she chooses because her true alignment is to LIFE itself which is much larger than the petty but dangerous shenanigans of these others.
The only character I have seen who comes anywhere close to this largeness is Sita from the Ramayan, in her last moments when she finally pulls away from Ram and his people-pleasing demands of her, and chooses to return to her phenomenal self as Earth Woman. In the moment when she takes her identity back from both husband and sons and chooses to pursue her own path. Not bothering if her husband commits suicide or what becomes of her sons, the heirs of his royal identity.
But Sita starts life as a conditioned being, and has to grow into this power through many many heartbreaks and painful awakenings. Ganga is rooted securely in this power from beginning to end.
That is why Ganga still flows mightily when all the others have long since been reduced to dust. I dont see her metaphorical personification as a river as an accident. That is what the phenomenal woman is — one with the forces of nature and endowed with limitless power of self-renewal. And she will continue to flow when we too are gone with our dams and pollution and pretty water trading agreements. She is the Primal Waters of Life — one with the Oceans, one with the Clouds, one with the Snow. She will outlast us all into the renewal of Earth’s innocence.
And maybe that is also why the story of Ganga as a mature woman has received so little attention. The story of Ganga we hear more frequently about her is that of her taming by Shiva in her formative years when she was still discovering herself. Because that is a story that patriarchy finds palatable. There is nothing more delicious to patriarchy than a wild young woman tamed and made docile. It does not like the phenomenal woman that Gangs eventually grows into — it can’t control her or find anything to grasp her with.
Image source: By Raja Ravi Varma – Link
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Aparna Pallavi's current callings are as a therapist, contemplative writer and researcher of indigenous
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