Devavrat’s vow of celibacy is made much of in the Epic (as I will call the original Mahabharata). The vow is considered so amazing and awful that he was given the name “Bhishma” (The Terrible) by a voice from heaven. Bhishma does not break his vow even when it is a handicap for a rational succession. Keeping to a vow was a core value for Devavrat, and that is why he is unique in literature and legend, as the man who would not violate a vow no matter what happened.
Why did I make Devavrat break his vow?
First of all, let me point out that making a big fuss over a vow of celibacy is silly. Maybe a child, which I once was, would be impressed by somebody who chooses to be so radically different (all men are supposed to marry, as are all women, and if they don’t there is something terribly wrong).
I first read the Mahabharata (Rajagopalachari’s version) when I was eight years old. I may have been a particularly clueless child but I had no idea what celibacy was. The rest of the vow, that he would not marry, would not have children, would not seek the crown, and so on, made perfect sense. The vow to be celibate was merely a summary of the other clauses. It would be another six years before I understood what that vow was about. At that older age, obsessed as I was, like all my male classmates in school, with every female who passed by or whose image glowed out of magazine pages, it seemed to be a truly horrific turn of events.
Just in case it is not clear, I will re-assure the reader, with complete honesty, that too much is being made of this vow. Being celibate is not so terrible and not being celibate is not so earth-shattering (yes, occasionally the earth does move, an observation courtesy Pilar and Hemingway, but to what permanent end).
Even if some modicum of compassion is to be extended to Devavrat, it should be clear that this vow does not merit the title of “Bhishma”. If we look at other instances of people who have been labelled “the Terrible”, we come across the Russian tsar Ivan who tortured the boyars who opposed him in a variety of creative ways. “Terrible is as Terrible does” one is tempted to say. Devacrat’s vow of celibacy does not meet the Ivan the Terrible standard of credibility. It is still a vow and there has to be a solid reason for breaking it. He cannot break it with a non-entity. Amba, the eldest of the three sisters who were kidnapped to be wives of his brother is an obvious choice. He is responsible for her plight, she is beautiful, and she throws herself at him, demanding that he marry her.
Amba is a curious character. Magic surrounds her in the Epic. After many attempts to force Devavrat to marry her, then to kill him, she performs penance until an unnamed God tells her that she would kill Devavrat in her next life. Thereupon, she commits suicide and is reborn as Shikhandin. There is a minor mystery regarding Shikhandin’s sex at birth, but with the help of a little more magic the sex problem is resolved, and Shikhandin becomes a warrior. This dependence on magic and reincarnation can be avoided if Shikhandin is Amba’s son.
So, the complex collection of incredible events that the writer of the Epic had to construct would be enormously simplified if Amba was not reborn as Shikhandin but was his mother! Devavrat is the obvious father. The only knot that this version of Amba’s story has to address is Devvarat’s vow of celibacy, which he must break.
Having made this change, we have to deal with the story that Shikhandin would cause the death of Devavrat. We make Shikhandin hate Devavrat, which implies that he did not know that Devavrat is his father. That would only be possible if Amba left Devavrat soon after he broke his vow, or if he abandoned her. Then Amba would raise Shikhandin to hate Devavrat and not tell him that Devavrat was his father. Devavrat meanwhile does not know that he has a son. This makes the face-off between Devavrat and Shikhandin tragic – father and son duel without knowing who the other is.
Does that sound familiar? Perhaps not, so let me paraphrase.
In the Persian poet Firdausi’s epic Shahnameh, the hero Rustom is incognito and duels his son Sohrab – wrestling to the death in order to end a war. They are equally matched (Rustom is only forty years older than Sohrab, so this aligns with the world of the Mahabharata, where Devavrat is a fearsome warrior despite being 125 years old). Finally Rustom feels that he is getting weaker and he cheats – he stabs Sohrab with a knife. As he draws the knife out, the dying Sohrab tells Rustom that surely his father Rustom would seek revenge for the death of his only son. When he hears this, Rustom looks at Sohrab’s arm where Sohrab’s mother has tied the chain that Rustom gave her the night Sohrab was conceived (the one and only time that Rustom lies with Sohrab’s mother they have a son, a familiar trope. Also, unaccountably, Rustom fails to notice the chain during the long wresting match).
Rustom-e-Sohrab is a tragedy worth emulating – even now, when I read the story, I feel myself choking up as the final revelation comes closer and closer. Devavrat and Shikhandin were meant to be the original Rustom-e-Sohrab, the ur-tragedy of ill-fated duels between fathers and sons.
That then is the aesthetic reason for making Devavrat break his vow of celibacy – it is to make the tragic, if not melodramatic, Rustom-e-Sohrab ending possible.
- The Mahabharata by C. Rajagopalachari
- ShahNama of Firdausi (11the century A.C.E.)
- The Sun also Rises, Heminway.