Yet another misinterpretation of Hindu thought foisted on his unsuspecting readers by Devdutt Pattanaik, who comes across more as a myth-maker than a mythologist, concerns the reference in the Mahābhārata to the sexual freedom of women in ancient times. He says here:

Hindu mythology reveals that patriarchy, the idea that men are superior to women, was invented. The epic, Mahabharata, for example, refers to a time when there was no concept of marriage. Men and women were free to go to anyone, until it became important to establish fatherhood (‘this son is mine’), for which ownership and fidelity of women became critical (‘she is the field for my seed’).

Fatherhood became important because property became important (‘this is mine’) and with it the idea of inheritance (‘what is mine shall go to my sons’). Property and inheritance became important because they offered humans the delusion of immortality (‘I may die but what I have will outlive me through my sons’).

This passage neither mentions the context in which the reference to the practice occurs in the Mahābhārata nor correctly explains the circumstances of its prohibition. I could not find the reference in the Gita Press edition of the Mahābhārata but it occurs in the translation of Krishna Mohan Ganguly, Section CXXII of the Ādiparva. The practice is explained by Paṇḍu to Kunti as follows:

But I shall now tell you about the practices of old, indicated by illustrious ṛṣis fully acquainted with every rule of morality. Women formerly were not immured within houses and dependent on husbands and other relatives. They used to go about freely, enjoying themselves as best as they liked. They did not then adhere to their husbands faithfully, and yet they were not regarded sinful, for that was the sanctioned usage of the times. That very usage is followed to this day by birds and beasts without any (exhibition of) jealousy. That practice, sanctioned by precedent, is applauded by great ṛṣis. The practice is yet regarded with respect amongst the Northern Kurus. Indeed, that usage, so lenient to women has the sanction of antiquity. The present practice, however (of women being confined to one husband for life) has been established but lately. I shall tell you in detail who established it and why.

As typically occurs in the itihāsa-purāṇa genre, an explanation consists of a story rather than theoretical arguments. In this case, Paṇḍu narrates the tale of Śvetaketu, son of the ṛṣi Uddālaka, who put an end to the practice of sexual liberty.

One day, in the presence of Śvetaketu’s father a brāhmaṇa came and catching Śvetaketu’s mother by the hand, told her: ‘let us go.’ Beholding his mother seized by the hand and taken away apparently by force, the son was greatly moved by wrath. Seeing his son indignant, Uddālaka addressed him and said: ‘Be not angry, O son! This is the practice sanctioned by antiquity. The women of all orders in this world are free; men in this matter, as regards their respective orders, act as kine.’ Śvetaketu, however, disapproved of the usage and established in the world the present practice as regards men and women. The existing practice dates from that period among human beings but not among beings of other classes. Accordingly, since the establishment of the present usage, it is sinful for women not to adhere to their husbands. And men, too, violating a chaste and loving wife who has from her maidenhood observed the vow of purity, became guilty of the same sin. The woman also who, being commanded by her husband to raise offspring, refuses to do his bidding, becomes equally sinful.

This story makes apparent several points but before we attend to them let us consider the context in which Paṇḍu narrates this story to Kunti. He is desperately seeking a son, not because he considers ‘it important to establish fatherhood’ (as Pattanaik suggests and links causally to greed) but because it is held that all his good works do not confer merit on a sonless man. Of the four debts of man – to the gods, to the ancestors, to the ṛṣis and to other men – Paṇḍu has fulfilled all but the second. Through his yajñas, ascetic learning and humane behaviour he has paid his debts to the gods, to the ṛṣis and to other men, respectively. He needs a son so that his debt to his ancestors can also be paid. For this, however, it is not necessary for him to beget the son himself – as, indeed, he cannot due to the curse which has divested him of his power of procreation.

Therefore, he requests Kunti to beget a child from another man who is equal or superior to him in worth, an idea that his chaste wife considers abominable. Hence, he describes to her the ancient custom of sexual liberty that was approved of by the ṛṣis. Giving examples of women who got other men to sire them an offspring, he tries to persuade her that it would not be contrary to virtue to do his bidding.

Further, when we consider the narrative itself, it becomes evident that the practice of sexual liberty appears to have been more a case of varṇa communism. The reference to the birds and beasts suggests that just as they mate freely within their own order, so was the case with men and women within the same varṇa. It is also the case that in the narrative, Śvetaketu’s mother is taken away by a brāhmaṇa i.e. a man from the same varṇa. Finally, the clause ‘as regards their respective orders’ is added proof. As to the prohibition of the practice, again, it is obvious from the narrative that it has nothing to do with the establishment of fatherhood, as Pattanaik suggests. In fact, it is revealing that the prohibition was instituted not by a husband with regards to the loss of his wife but by a son with regards to the loss of his mother.

It is also evident from the narrative that the woman was taken away against her will. She was ‘seized by the hand and taken away apparently by force.’ We do not know the details of the relationship between Uddālaka and his wife or between her and her captor but the point of the narrative is clear: Uddālaka could not protect his wife because he had no right to do so and she could not resist her captor because she was under no obligation to do so. It is precisely to check this disorder which sexual communism had caused, albeit restricted to the varṇa, that Śvetaketu, moved by the helplessness of both his parents, forbade the practice. The restriction, as it is also clear, applied equally to men and women.

The contextualisation of this narrative within the dilemma confronting Paṇḍu and Kunti suggests a profoundly human approach to the ancient practice of sexual liberty and its prohibition. As Paṇḍu explains, it was not seen as backward or immoral but rather as one that was in accordance with the natural order and approved by the ṛṣis. However, it was open to abuse and on account of malpractice, it had to be stopped. Yet, it had its merits for there are times when men and women may reasonably seek relationships outside marriage, out of pleasure or necessity. That is the whole point Paṇḍu is trying to make – given the trying circumstances that had befallen them, there was no fall in virtue for Kunti to resort to another man for a child.

Whether we take the episode of Śvetaketu or of Paṇḍu, this humanity in the face of moral dilemmas is really what the ancient Indian texts are all about. It is this humanity which makes Śvetaketu take a hard stand to ban a customarily accepted practice. It is this humanity which makes Paṇḍu call for a soft appeal to relax a customarily prohibited practice. Devdutt Pattanaik’s erroneous interpretation is only a symptom of how we are no longer able to apprehend the humanity of our texts, how they have become reduced to a battleground in the war against patriarchy and the post-modern need to read into them the great modern values of feminism, sexual freedom and the rest of it.