Another embedded narrative that is used to demonstrate the meaning of sūkṣma dharma is the Pativratā Upākhyāna. This extended subtale is part of a longer section of the Āraṇyaka Parvan where Mārkaṇḍeya narrates a number of stories, dialogues, and teachings during the Pāṇḍavas’ period of exile in the forest. Mārkaṇḍeya’s main audience is Yudhiṣṭhira, who is accompanied by all four of his brothers, Kṛṣṇa, and a number of Brāhmaṇas and seers. Crucially, as we will see, both Draupadī and Satyabhāmā (Kṛṣṇa’s wife) are also listening to Mārkaṇḍeya’s narration. The Pativratā Upākhyāna contains two interlinked stories, one which recites the Brāhmaṇa Kauśika’s encounter with a Devoted Wife (Pativratā), and the other which relates his encounter with a Hunter (Vyādha).
The Pativratā (3.196–197)
Mārkaṇḍeya recounts the Pativratā Upākhyāna in response to Yudhiṣṭhira’s request to hear about the greatness of women, sūkṣma dharma, and the difficulties of strī-dharma (3.196.2–8). The fact that Mārkaṇḍeya responds by reciting the story of the Pativratā indicates that he considers this account to be an illustration of dharma’s subtlety, in the same way that Kṛṣṇa recited the stories of Balāka and Kauśika to demonstrate the subtle way of dharma to Arjuna.
Mārkaṇḍeya begins his account with an episode featuring the Brāhmaṇa Kauśika. We will return to the implications of this particular character’s association with stories illustrating sūkṣma dharma below. Unlike Kṛṣṇa, who describes him as unlearned in śruti, Mārkaṇḍeya portrays Kauśika more favorably, as a “distinguished Brāhmaṇa,” “scholar of the Vedas,” “great ascetic,” and “dharma-practicing ascetic,” who had studied all the Vedas, including the Upaniṣads (3.197.1–2). One day, while reciting the Vedas under a tree, a female egret (balākā) defecates on his head.Footnote 13 When Kauśika stares at the egret angrily, she falls to the ground lifeless. Feeling compassion for the egret and tormented by what he has done, Kauśika says to himself: “I have done wrong because passion and hatred overcame me” (3.197.6).Footnote 14 Kauśika then goes to a nearby village to beg for food.
At one of the houses, the Pativratā keeps him waiting at the door while she attends to her husband. In the meantime, Kauśika becomes angry and, when she returns, asks why she had made him wait. The Pativratā replies that she was looking after her husband: “My husband is my greatest deity (daivataṃ mahat), and he came home hungry and tired, and I saw to his wants” (3.197.20). In response, Kauśika accuses her of belittling Brāhmaṇas, reminding her of their destructive powers. She then apologizes, saying that she is aware of the powers of Brāhmaṇas, explaining that through her obedience to her husband, she knows that Kauśika has killed a female egret.
After revealing that she knows what Kauśika has done, she instructs him that a Brāhmaṇa is someone who is “master of his senses, intent on dharma, devoted to Veda study, pure, and in control of desire and anger” (3.197.33). He considers all the world as himself and has love for all dharmas. Proclaiming that the constant (śāśvata) dharma is difficult to know (3.197.39), the Pativratā then describes dharma as subtle: “Many a time dharma has been seen as sūkṣma, great Brāhmaṇa, and you too are aware of dharma, devoted to study, and pious; yet sir, I do not think you know dharma really” (3.197.40). She then concludes her teaching by advising Kauśika to seek out a hunter (vyādha) living in Mithilā, who will instruct him further on dharma. She describes the hunter as “obedient to his father and mother, true-spoken,” and “in command of his senses” (3.197. 41). Although the story of the Pativratā ends here, Mārkaṇḍeya’s narration continues as he recounts Kauśika’s encounter with the Vyādha.
Before moving on to Kauśika’s encounter with the Vyādha, let us reflect on how the story of the Pativratā characterizes the subtlety of dharma. As we have seen, it is Yudhiṣṭhira’s initial question about sūkṣma dharma that prompts Mārkaṇḍeya to narrate the encounter between the Pativratā and Kauśika. Additionally, within the story itself, the Pativratā explicitly describes dharma as sūkṣma, while equating her own knowledge of dharma as emanating from her devotion to her husband.
Although the fact that the Pativratā is teaching a Brāhmaṇa seems to highlight women’s contributions to articulating dharma, her instruction could also be seen as reinforcing a patriarchal agenda that defines the role of women in terms of serving men. Indeed, Arti Dhand has made arguments along these lines. As Dhand points out, despite being portrayed favorably in this story, the Pativratā remains nameless (2018: 99), referred to by her role as “devoted wife” (pativratā)—a role that is often associated with the most restrictive and oppressive aspects of the dharma of women (strī-dharma). As such, Dhand interprets the Pativratā as exemplifying “a specific brand of karmayoga,” which promotes doing one’s duty “even where it meets with indifference, neglect, or abuse” (2018: 100). By strongly connecting the Pativratā with this “specific brand of karmayoga,” Dhand argues that the Pativratā exemplifies the “female subaltern,” who “defends and lauds her subordination as an incontrovertible virtue and chastises others who deviate from it. Its basic imperative of ‘Don’t think, just do’ kills the agency of the female moral agent and consigns her entire intellect to the service of a worldview in which she has no independent worth” (2018: 101).
Similarly, in her analysis of this story, Maithili Thayanithy argues that the representation of “subaltern members of society as preceptors and exemplary followers of householder dharma (pravṛtti dharma)…reinforces the Brāhmanical vision of a hierarchized society” (2018: 189). Furthermore, Thayanithy argues that the portrayal of “women as submissive, disciplined adherents” of the pativratā ideal “arises from the Brāhmanical desire to exert absolute control over them” (2018: 206).
Although both Dhand and Thayanithy raise some crucial issues, I find their interpretations ultimately limiting. As I will suggest, there are ways of reading this episode that highlight the Pativratā’s agency and the potentially empowering implications of her teaching. One of the limitations of their arguments, especially as articulated by Thayanithy, is that their starting point is reading the Mahābhārata as expressing a narrowly conceived ideological agenda. Building on arguments made by James L. Fitzgerald (2006) and Johannes Bronkhorst (2011), Thayanithy states explicitly that her interpretation “is premised on the notion that the Mahābhārata…was fashioned to forge a new brāhmaṇa-kṣatriya partnership in the political domain and to re-establish Brāhmanical dominance in the social sphere through the ideology of dharma” (2018: 190). Although it is not my intention in this article to propose a countertheory for the complex issue of the Mahābhārata’s authorship, I think that the text’s variety of material and diversity of views cast doubt on the theory that it represents a Brāhmaṇical desire to exert control. Clearly, there are many passages throughout the text that express a very conservative and hierarchical understanding of the social order. However, there are also countless examples where such understandings are questioned, challenged, or rejected. With this in mind, I find it more helpful to approach the Mahābhārata, following Tamar Chana Reich (1998: 22–32), as a heterogenous text that includes opposing points of view, sometimes in “contestatory” relationships. In other words, I think we get a deeper appreciation of the Pativratā’s teaching in this story if we see the Mahābhārata as including a number of competing voices that do not always agree with each other.
Another reason why I consider Dhand’s and Thayanithy’s interpretation of the Pativratā’s story to be limiting is because they offer a rather narrow way of understanding agency. Both seem to assume that agency can only be understood in terms of challenging the Brāhmaṇical social system. In seeking a broader understanding of agency, I have in mind the arguments of Saba Mahmood, who criticizes feminist theory for conceptualizing agency as “liberatory” and therefore limited to “the binary model of subordination and subversion” (2006: 42). In other words, agency should not be understood only in terms of challenging the social structure; rather, as Mahmood (2006: 36–37) points out, values that are associated with subordination, such as feminine passivity and submissiveness, can also be idioms through which women assert their presence in a previously male-defined sphere. With Mahmood’s arguments in mind, I think it is reductive to read the story of the Pativratā only in terms of how it might reinforce a conservative Brāhmaṇical agenda. We should also be attentive to what this story might be saying about how the pativratā ideal can be invoked by women to assert themselves in the otherwise male-dominated domain of shaping understandings about dharma.
Indeed, when reading her story in the context of other embedded narratives that demonstrate sūkṣma dharma, we might see the Pativratā, not as lacking agency, but as embodying an understanding of dharma in which she can rely on her own intuitions and judgments. As we have seen, her devotion to her husband and others is made possible through her virtuous conduct (sādhvācārā) and her command of her senses, as well as her good qualities, such as being pure (śucī) and clever (dakṣā) (3.197.14). In this way, her teaching does not characterize her devotion only in terms of submission, but also in terms of combining ascetic ideals of controlling her thoughts and actions with dharmic ideals of responsibility towards others. With this in mind, we might see the Pativratā’s understanding of dharma’s subtlety not as grounded exclusively in her service to others, but more broadly in her ability to control her passion and anger.
It is also notable that when the Pativratā describes dharma as sūkṣma, she contrasts her own knowledge with Kauśika’s lack of understanding. Within the story, the difference between the Pativratā and Kauśika is measured by how they control their emotions. While Kauśika is quick to anger, both when he inadvertently kills the egret and when he becomes impatient with her, the Pativratā is characterized as being in control of her thoughts and emotions. Indeed, in contrast to Kauśika, who loses control when he casts an angry glance, Pativratā describes dharma as constant (śāśvata) (3.197.39), perhaps indicating that her practice does not suffer from momentary lapses of concentration.
We should also note that she includes in her understanding of dharma the study of the Vedas, while invoking an Upaniṣadic ethic of regarding all living beings as having the same nature (3.197.34). This dimension of her teaching indicates that her understanding of dharma is not based completely on servitude, but also on learning traditional texts and teachings. Despite the well-known śāstric injunctions against women learning traditional texts and teachings, the Pativratā not only demonstrates a familiarity with Vedic sources, but also invokes them to support her own authority as a teacher of dharma.
Finally, when Kauśika reflects on sūkṣma dharma, he is persuaded by the Pativratā’s teaching because of “her convincing mention of the egret, and her dharma-like (dharmya) and virtuous (śubha) discourse” (3.198.4). In other words, according to Kauśika’s reflection, the Pativratā demonstrates her understanding of dharma’s subtlety by revealing what she knows and by articulating her knowledge in a convincing way. In this way, the Pativratā is not depicted as merely a passive housewife who performs her duties without question, but rather as actively displaying her knowledge and communicating it to others.
It is also worth noting that the Pativratā is not the only female character to describe dharma as sūkṣma in the Mahābhārata. As mentioned above, Draupadī invokes sūkṣma dharma in her argument for her own freedom after the dicing match (2.60.31). As I have argued elsewhere, Draupadī refers to dharma’s subtlety to help challenge the results of the dicing match and bring attention to her own ethical behavior (Black 2021: 117–34). The Pativratā’s connection with Draupadī is particularly relevant because Draupadī, along with Satyabhāmā, is in the audience when Mārkaṇḍeya narrates the Pativratā Upākhyāna.Footnote 15 After this subtale, Draupadī and Satyabhāmā remain for one more of Mārkaṇḍeya’s narrations, before going inside together to have a private conversation (3.222.1). It is at this point that Draupadī shares with Satyabhāmā her own understanding of the role of the pativratā: “My dharma rests on my husband, as, I think, it eternally does with women. He is the God, he is the path, nothing else” (3.222.35). Here, Draupadī’s teaching might seem to support Dhand’s and Thayanithy’s understanding of the pativratā, as a role for women that is both restrictive and oppressive. However, Draupadī also tells Satyabhāmā that her responsibilities as a patrivratā include managing the household and keeping track of the king’s treasury. Moreover, she twice mentions her husband’s obedience to her (3.222.37, 3.222.56). As Laurie L. Patton argues, Draupadī not only conveys “the classic pativratā devotion,” but she also shows her “awareness of the basic power dynamics between men and women, as well as her sense of her own power and agency within a given situation” (2007: 100, 100–101). Like the Pativratā, Draupadī not only practices everyday acts of devotion, but also does so reflectively and is able to communicate her practice to others. We might infer that it is Draupadī’s practice of pativratā that endows her with an understanding of dharma’s subtlety, which she refers to in the assembly hall after the dicing match (2.60.31).
Returning to the Pativratā, we have noted that Dhand and Thayanithy raise important issues when interpreting her story as reinforcing a submissive and subservient understanding of a wife’s devotion to her husband. Nevertheless, I have also suggested that when we see her story as an illustration of sūkṣma dharma, we can recognize that the Pativratā’s teaching is multifaceted and potentially empowering for women in navigating their own spiritual progress. Although the Pativratā’s dharma requires devotion to her husband, her soteriological accomplishments do not depend on his actions. In this way, the Pativratā has considerable agency in shaping her own destiny. Taken together, the Pativratā’s teaching to Kauśika characterizes sūkṣma dharma as the highest understanding of dharma: an understanding that is based on conduct rather than birth and one that, despite its difficulty, can potentially be achieved by anyone, regardless of gender.
Kauśika and the Vyādha (3.198–206)
Mārkaṇḍeya begins his account of Kauśika’s encounter with the Vyādha by returning to the topic of subtle dharma. According to Mārkaṇḍeya, before seeking out the Vyādha, Kauśika pondered “on the subtle way of dharma” (dharmasya sūkṣmāṃ gatim; 3.198.2). It is at this point that he reflects on the Pativratā’s convincing words and virtuous discourse (3.198.4). When Kauśika finally reaches Mithilā, some Brāhmaṇas help him find the Vyādha. Like the Pativratā, the Vyādha is not given a personal name, but is referred to as a vyādha, which typically means “hunter.” In this story, however, the Vyādha works as a butcher in a slaughterhouse. The Vyādha greets Kauśika and reveals that he knows that the Pativratā has told him to come to Mithilā. They then go to the Vyādha’s house, as he thinks that the slaughterhouse is an inappropriate place for a Brāhmaṇa. After accepting food and water back at the Vyādha’s house, Kauśika addresses him, saying that his occupation does not suit him. The Vyādha responds, explaining that it is his family occupation, passed down from his father and grandfather. He then says that different people have different duties.
At this point, the Vyādha offers a long discourse that includes a number of themes that appear repeatedly in embedded narratives about sūkṣma dharma. The Vyādha defines dharma in terms of conduct rather than birth (3.198.70, 3.203.11) and speaks of the importance of acting selflessly (3.203.43). He also offers a number of teachings with resonances with the Upaniṣads, such as an ethical understanding of karma (3.199.1–3, 3.199.14–15); the immortality of the self (3.200.25–26); and understanding the self (ātman) as the highest knowledge (3.203.46). Moreover, he recites a verse that has strong connections with the chariot metaphor as articulated in the Kaṭha Upaniṣad (3.202.21–22).
The Vyādha also stresses the importance of nonviolence (3.198.80, 3.199.19–26, 3.203.45), at one point calling it the highest dharma (3.198.69). He also extends his emphasis on ahiṃsā beyond the abstention from killing to urging compassion for all creatures (3.198.40, 3.198.81, 3.198.91) and calling nonharm (ānṛśaṁsya) the highest dharma (3.204.41). However, unlike Kṛṣṇa’s unreserved criticism of taking life in the Karṇa Parvan (or Tulādhāra’s teaching below), the Vyādha tempers his teaching with a defense of his position as a butcher in a slaughterhouse. As he explains, one can eat meat without incurring guilt if one makes the correct offerings to the deities and ancestors (3.199.11). He also argues that even those ascetics dedicated to nonviolence are inadvertently violent towards others, even if their practices decrease violence (3.199.28–29).
During his instruction, the Vyādha twice describes dharma as sūkṣma. Both instances appear early on in his teaching, when making the point that dharma does not always follow expected patterns: “Much in this world can be viewed as upside down, good Brāhmaṇa, adhering to dharma or adharma” (3.199.33). Here, the Vyādha concludes: “the way of dharma is subtle indeed” (sūkṣmā gatir hi dharmasya; 3.200.2). Perhaps foreshadowing Kṛṣṇa’s teaching to Arjuna in the Karṇa Parvan, the Vyādha further explains to Kauśika that sometimes a lie is the truth and the truth a lie: “One may voice a lie when about to expire or when about to marry: then the lie becomes truth and the truth a lie. It is generally held that truth is that word that is entirely beneficial, and that the opposite creates adharma” (3.200.3–4). The Vyādha then reiterates: “notice the subtle nature of dharma” (dharmasya sūkṣmatām; 3.200.4). Here, like Kṛṣṇa, the Vyādha associates dharma’s subtlety with the inversion of dharmic norms, such as telling a lie or breaking a vow.
Towards the end of his instruction, the Vyādha takes Kauśika to meet his parents at their house, where he shows that he is a devoted son who treats them like gods. Similar to how the Pativratā describes her loyalty to her husband, the Vyādha calls his parents his “highest divinity” (daivataṃ param) (3.204.17). Continuing on the theme of inverting dharma, he tells Kauśika: “I do things for them even if it means violating dharma, as long as they are pleased” (3.204.24). After leaving his parents’ house, the Vyādha accuses Kauśika of not paying his own parents proper respect when he became a renunciate, urging him to return to them at once to comfort them. As he explains: “You are austere, great-spirited, and delighting in dharma; all this may prove meaningless, unless you placate your parents” (3.205.9).
Kauśika then praises the Vyādha for his teaching, but says he is unconvinced that such a wise discourse could have been transmitted by someone who is not a Brāhmaṇa: “The constant (śāśvata) dharma is obscure to one who has been born a Śūdra. I do not think you are a Śūdra” (3.205.19). The Vyādha replies that he was a Brāhmaṇa in his past life, explaining that once while hunting he shot a hermit by mistake. As a consequence, the sage cursed him to be born a hunter. Out of noncruelty (ānṛśaṁsya), the sage modified his curse, allowing the Vyādha to retain his memory, be a knower of dharma, and pay obedience to his father and mother (3.206.5). Kauśika then proclaims that a Śūdra can attain the status of Brāhmaṇa through conduct (3.206.12). According to Mārkaṇḍeya, Kauśika “was thereafter completely obedient to his father and mother, to his elders, according to the rules, for he was now firmly resolved” (3.206.30). Mārkaṇḍeya concludes the story by returning to Yudhiṣṭhira’s initial question, saying: “I have fully related to you…the dharma about which you asked me” (3.206.31).
As we can see, there are a number of shared signifiers between Kṛṣṇa’s tales of Balāka and Kauśika and this one offered by Mārkaṇḍeya. Both recount the deeds of a Brāhmaṇa named Kauśika, and both include a character referred to as Balāka/balākā (one a hunter and one an egret) and a hunter (vyādha) who mistakenly kills the wrong creature. Both Kṛṣṇa and Mārkaṇḍeya portray Kauśika as a Brāhmaṇa who lacks an understanding of dharma and compare him unfavorably to a hunter known for his loyalty to his parents.Footnote 16 In both accounts Kauśika is depicted as a truth-teller and a vow-takerFootnote 17 who practices severe austerities, but who does not fully understand dharma, and whose lack of understanding leads to the death of innocent living beings. In Kṛṣṇa’s account, Kauśika’s ignorance has particularly severe consequences, as his refusal to break his vow leads directly to the death of an unspecified number of humans. For this he suffers a terrible hell. In Mārkaṇḍeya’s account, Kauśika’s lack of constant attention to dharma leads to an instant where he loses self-control, thus killing an egret merely by staring angrily. Mārkaṇḍeya’s account is generally more sympathetic to Kauśika, despite the fact that his lack of knowledge also leads to an innocent death. Rather than falling to a terrible hell, Kauśika immediately embarks on a path towards redemption by seeking alms. His impatience with the Pativratā indicates that he still has much to learn when he arrives at her door, but nevertheless he is willing to listen to her explanation and then her teaching, declaring afterwards to himself that she understands the subtle way of dharma. He then goes off to seek the instruction of the Vyādha. Although he has his reservations at first, he appears to receive the Vyādha’s teaching with an open mind and by the end indicates that he has been transformed by this teaching. Rather than falling to a terrible hell, as he does in Kṛṣṇa’s story, Kauśika tells the Vyādha: “I was falling to hell and you saved me” (3.205.16).
Given the comparable depictions of Kauśika, it is interesting to note the similarities between the two vyādha characters. Although their occupations are different—one is a hunter, while the other is a butcher—both are known for their loyalty to their parents. This is not expanded upon in Kṛṣṇa’s more concise account, but it is still mentioned, with the detail that Balāka’s parents are blind offering additional emphasis. In Mārkaṇḍeya’s account, the Vyādha’s loyalty to his parents is more explicitly emphasized; indeed, it is one of the central messages of his teaching. Not only does he tell Kauśika about his loyalty to his parents, but he takes Kauśika to their house to meet them. While in their company, he tells the Brāhmaṇa that he reveres them as his highest divinity and refers to his loyalty to his parents as “the constant dharma” (3.204.26). At the end of his teaching, he indicates that Kauśika’s lack of understanding of dharma stems from him not being devoted to his parents. Finally, he instructs Kauśika to go to them immediately (3.205.5–10).
The theme of family obligation is amplified when we see Mārkaṇḍeya’s account of the Vyādha’s teaching in relation to his previous account of the Pativratā. Whereas the Pativratā derives her superior understanding of dharma from her devotion to her husband, the Vyādha derives his from his loyalty to his parents. Considering the Pativratā and the Vyādha together, we see that an important part of sūkṣma dharma is acting selflessly towards others, especially one’s family members. With this mind, we might return to Kṛṣṇa’s story of Balāka and question whether his ascendance to heaven was really down to “moral luck,” as Matilal has suggested. Rather, we might infer that his ability to enact dharma spontaneously was cultivated through his loyalty to his parents, in the same way that the Pativratā and the Vyādha develop their intuitive understanding of sūkṣma dharma through their daily practices of loyalty and devotion to their family members.
Finally, both Kṛṣṇa and Mārkaṇḍeya use their stories to set up a contrast between a Brāhmaṇa’s understanding of dharma and the understanding of someone from a lower or marginal social status. Dhand and Thayanithy, similar to the points they raise in relation to the Pativratā, have questioned the degree to which the Vyādha can legitimately represent agency for subaltern voices. Noting that at the end of Mārkaṇḍeya’s account the Vyādha reveals that he had been a Brāhmaṇa in a previous life, Dhand sees the story as restricting his agency as a Śūdra: “What is notable here is that in this case, the subaltern cannot claim even his wisdom and virtue as his own” (2018: 102). According to Dhand, the Vyādha, “virtuous as he is, represents the archetypal docile native—claiming his servitude as his own fault, evolving an elaborate theodicy of injustice, humbly effacing himself before the elite; surrendering all positive values as the bequest of the empowered” (2018: 103).
Again, Dhand raises some important issues. However, I think some of these concerns are mitigated when we keep in mind the similarities that this story has with others about dharma’s subtlety. As I am suggesting throughout this article, these stories, taken together, demonstrate that sūkṣma dharma is not exemplified through extraordinary acts that only the most advanced ascetics can perform, but rather through the everyday activities through which male and female householders can express devotion and service to others. Although the Vyādha reveals that he was a Brāhmaṇa in a previous life, his teachings also inspire Kauśika to proclaim: “Any Śūdra who is always intent upon self-control, truthfulness, and dharma, I judge him a Brāhmaṇa; for one becomes a Brāhmaṇa through one’s conduct” (3.206.12). Kauśika’s words here could be seen as reinscribing the superiority of Brāhmaṇas, but they can equally be seen as reframing the definition of Brāhmaṇa in terms of conduct rather than birth. In other words, rather than taking agency away from the Vyādha, this story indicates that anyone, regardless of caste or gender, can achieve the highest knowledge.