Śāstric Norms and Epic Narratives
This chapter explores the topics of strīdharma or womens's dharma and marriage law as the Mahābhārata portrays them through the three generations of dynastic instability that precede the generation of the epic's main heroes. This skein shows how the women marrying into the central dynastic line, beginning with the river goddess Gaṅgā, make women's dharma central to intersecting dimensions of time in which dharmic norms come under repeated scrutiny. Gaṅgā, who takes an interest in the Bhārata dynasty's “history” (itihāsa) as part of a divine plan, leaves her husband; he then marries Satyavatī, who brings her prermarital son Vyāsa, the Mahābhārata's “author”—and thus something like authorial time—into the line's genealogy. The next generation is then traced through the stories of how Gaṅgā's son Bhīṣma, ineligible to rule and sworn to celibacy, abducts the three sisters Ambā, Ambikā, and Ambālikā to marry them to Satyavatī's one remaining son, and how, once Ambikā and Ambālikā become widows, Vyāsa sires sons with them. The role of the chief queen (mahiṣī) in the Vedic horse sacrifice (Aśvamedha) is drawn into interpreting Vyāsa's unions with Ambikā and Ambālikā. In the third generation, Vyāsa's two flawed sons then marry: Pāṇḍu with Kuntī and Mādrī; Dhṛtarāṣṭra with Gāndhārī; and these three ingenious women then become mothers of the Pāṇḍavas and Kauravas.
Keywords: strīdharma, marriage law, Gaṅgā, Bhārata dynasty, itihāsa, divine plan, Satyavatī, Vyāsa, Bhīṣma, Ambā, Ambikā, Ambālikā, Kuntī, Mādrī, Gāndhārī, mahiṣī, Āśvamedha, Pāṇḍu, Dhṛtarāṣṭra, births of Pāṇḍavas and Kauravas
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