One of the common questions posed about the Mahabharata is, “How did Yudhishthira, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva – who weren’t born to Pandu – all come to be known as Pandavas (sons of Pandu) and claim the throne of Hastinapur over legitimate 100 sons of Dhritarashtra (elder brother of Pandu?” This article by U. Mahesh Prabhu tries to answers this question in depth.
Critics of Vedic texts have often posed tough questions to those who claim to follow Vedic philosophy. Usually, self-styled scholars of Vedic knowledge take their own mythological interpretations of Vedic texts to ridiculous levels, making it difficult for rational people to comprehend their answers.
Vyasa’s Mahabharata is a book of practical wisdom blissful living. It was written for not just entertaining but also educating people about Dharma. It presented a complex story, without melodrama. It was written in Sanskrit, a language which most “Hindu Scholars” barely understand, although many are able to read it. Many admirers of Hinduism are essentially chauvinists who desire to believe what their minds chose to believe – scoptoma. Not knowing that “Blind allegiance to anything or person is sheer ignorance. And the path of ignorance is verily a guide to Adharma,” as declared by the revered sage Vasistha in Ramayana.
One of the common questions posed about the Mahabharata is, “How did Yudhishthira, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva – who weren’t born to Pandu – all come to be known as Pandavas (sons of Pandu) and claimed the throne of Hastinapur over legitimate 100 sons of Dhritarashtra (elder brother of Pandu?”
Going by the western perspective, the Pandavas could be interpreted as bastards since they were “…born of parents not married to each other.” Two of Pandu’s wives, Kunti and Maadri – according to modern interpreters of the Mahabharata – begot their sons through “blessings” of “gods.” But, was that so? What if Pandu allowed his wives to have children out of wedlock and adopted the kids and brought them up as his own? What if Kunti and Maadri did have “affairs” as many people do? What if it was custom as well as a tradition that was followed during the time? After all, the Mahabharata also claims that Vyasa was Dhritarashtra, Pandu and Vidura’s father. Vyasa himself was born out of wedlock – through a union between Parashara and a fisherwoman named Matsyagandha who later became a Queen of Hastinapur – Satyavati.
So, the Pandavas weren’t the first of their kind to be born out of wedlock. But, the question remains, “How did they claim the throne of Hastinapur?” Additionally, “How did the righteous Krishna support their claim and aid them in winning it through a bloody war?”
These questions are normal. When asked, there is no need for admirers of Vyasa’s Mahabharata to get upset. Most are unaware of the complete story of Mahabharata since they have read the “modern renderings”, not the original one in Sanskrit.
At the beginning of Mahabharata is the story of Vishwamitra, who had a fling with a beautiful damsel named Menaka. Their affair led to the birth of Shakuntala. Disowned by her biological parents, she was brought up by yet another revered sage named Kanva. Shakuntala married King Dushyanta and had a son – again born of out of the modern concept of wedlock – Bharata. This sub-continent – or the land of Bharata – was named after him. King Bharata was an ancestor of the kings of the Kuru Dynasty, which ruled a significant part of the subcontinent, with Hastinapur as their capital.
King Bharata had three wives and three sons with each of them – a total of nine children. When they came of age, he found all of them unfit to be his successors. He was concerned about the welfare of his subjects. A king is a father to his subjects first, then his own. Kings’ favoritism towards their progeny often resulted in chaos. This can be seen in the Mahabharata, too. It was Dhritarashtra’s blind love for his sons that led to a violent war. When his sons and courtiers confronted him, he cited the Dharma Shastras, mentioning the definition of a father:
जनिताचोपनेताच यस्तुविद्यांप्रयाच्छति |
अन्नदाता भयत्राता च पञ्चैते पितरास्मृता: ||
Meaning: Our biological father, one who initiates us into the world of education, one who gives us knowledge, who feeds us in times of need as well as the one who protects us from external enemies are our fathers.
King Bharata was supported in this radical step to pass the baton away from his son to a deserving successor by his Raja Guru Bharadwaja. It was Bharadwaja who helped Bharata find Bhumanyu, who eventually succeeded Bharata after his death.
It’s important to also note here that according to various Vedic rishis a person does not become a father just by transmitting his seed into a woman’s womb. A person becomes a father when they educate their children, impart knowledge that lasts a lifetime; when they provide for sustenance and do everything in their power to protect their children, particularly when we are least equipped during their formative years.
We instantly connect with anyone who’s related to us by blood. Vedanta calls this Mohamaaya – emotional cord – which makes us delusional. Kings are fathers to their subjects. The welfare of their subjects was beyond that of their sons according to the Raja Dharma, moral duties of kings. If a son is unfit and, yet, elevated to the position of power only because of his royal lineage, it was to be considered Adharma or immoral. The welfare of their people was above everything – including a king’s own life. Therefore, when, to ensure the wellbeing of his subjects, Bharata disqualified his children’s right to rule, he wasn’t just supported by Bharadwaja & Vamadeva; but was hailed as the Rajadhiraj – the king of kings – by later sages.
Concerning the term “bastards,” it’s important to note that just because someone is born out of wedlock, it doesn’t mean that he’s unworthy of respect. We’ve so many “bastards” even in non-Vedic texts who’ve achieved substantially for themselves as well as for their people.
Many would be surprised to know that Confucius, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Paine and Lawrence of Arabia were born out of wedlock. The Vedic literature identifies people by their true conscious self (Atman) – it’s the business of the people to judge them based on their character and accomplishments, and not by their parents. Sins of the father aren’t the sins of their sons – the same logic applies to virtues. That’s the reason why the Vedas suggest, “Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future if only he can let go his path of sins.”