Sunday 21 March 2021

Indian mythology has a problem with disability

 Our epics teach us to discriminate against disabled people by portraying them negatively and telling us their condition is because of sins committed in past lives.

It is said that one can find every aspect of life in the Mahabharata and if one doesn’t find what one want’s there, then there is little chance that one will find it elsewhere. But while it is true that the Mahabharata contains elements of philosophy, life, war, intellect, passion, jealousy and treachery, one element is not discussed as it should have been – disability. The character associated with it is Dhritarashtra, who is negatively portrayed throughout the text. In fact, many believe that he is to blame for the epic battle between the cousins (Pandavas and Kauravas) because he adamantly insisted that his son, Duryodhana, should be king after him, instead of the more worthy Yudhisthira.

Since very few people in India have actually read the Mahabharata, the don’t know about the character of Dhritarashtra before he became king – an aspect that has been cautiously kept hidden. Both Dhritarashtra and his step-brother Pandu had a very cordial relationship. Pandu, being the younger brother, held Dhritarashtra in very high-esteem – and the feeling was reciprocated.

Both were disciples of the great Bhishma, their uncle who was also looking after the administration of the kingdom since there was no king on the throne at the time. Bhishma himself couldn’t take the throne because of a vow he had made earlier in his life. Since Dhritarashtra was older, he was trained to be a king, while the younger brother, Pandu, was trained as a warrior and lead the army and became the senapati. Bhishma trained the brothers so the kingdom could go into safe hands.

Sanjaya meets Dhritarashtra as his envoy for peace negotiations. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Bhishma’s idea was sage, because Dhritarashtra was visually impaired from birth and thus couldn’t fight wars. He was trained in administration, management, decision-making, delivering justice – all very important aspects of being a king, while the aspect of war was left to Pandu, who could militarily assist his older brother. As a team, they could have achieved wonders.

But when Dhritarashtra was being crowned, Vidur, the young prime minister, who was also taught by Bhishma, objected to him becoming king. How can a blind man sit on the throne of a king, he had argued. How could the kingdom be a great empire if the king is blind? How could important decisions be made on the battlefield if the king is sitting safe in the capital?

Nobody said anything to Vidur’s questions because a king with a disability was unprecedented. As a result, Dhritarashtra had to step down; his disability was taken as his inability. Denied his rightful place, this became a turning point for Dhritarashtra and guided the person he was to become.

After a short period of time though, Dhritarashtra was made the king because Pandu left his throne and eventually died. It was only out of compulsion that Dhritarashtra was accepted as king. Had he been made king the first time around, he wouldn’t have been made as conscious about his ‘disability’. Now, he was a ‘sloppy second’, someone’s ‘reject’ and he knew this very clearly. Now the question is, when Dhritarashtra sat on the throne, was the Kaurava empire anything short of a mighty empire? Was the administration poor, were people unhappy, was justice not delivered? The answer is no, because Dhritarashtra had people like Bhishma around him, along with Vidur, who took care of the intricacies of administration.

All the wrongs began to emerge later, when his son Duryodhana was born. Dhirtarastra wanted him to be king after him, even though Duryodhana was unworthy, simply because he wanted to ‘undo’ the injustice done to him. He wanted to ensure that his son wouldn’t be a ‘sloppy second’ like him and that’s why his son was raised believing the throne was his birthright.

Nobody is born bad but it’s society which ‘makes’ or ‘breaks’ an individual. Our society just saw the bad person Dhritarashtra became, but turned a blind eye to what led him there. Since he was disabled, people who have historically discriminated against differently-abled people were further encouraged to justify their attitude towards differently-abled people.

One may wonder what mythology has to do in this context. Indian society is deeply affected by our mythology and its characters. The illiterate know about these stories. The impact of our mythology is such that people identify with the characters and inculcate values drawn from them into their own lives. The depiction and characterisation of disabled people in Indian mythology is extremely negative and people have used the stories to justify their discriminatory attitude against differently-abled people.

The case of Dhritarashtra is not just about a disabled person who has been depicted in poor light. If one looks at the Ramayana, the character of Manthara has also been demonised to a great extent. In fact, she has largely been blamed for sending Rama into exile for 14 years. Manthara was the maid of the queen, Kaikeyi, and is seen as instrumental in convincing the queen to ask Dasharatha to grant her the two boons that he had promised her a long time ago. Under Manthara’s influence, Kaikeyi asked the king to make his son Bharat the next king of Ayodhaya instead of Rama. 

However, some folktales point out how Manthara didn’t have anything to gain by sending Ram to exile. Instead, she suffered heavy public scrutiny that linked her character to her orthopaedic disability, because of which she couldn’t stand erect.

Mostly, our mythological texts have shown disabled people either as powerful, cunning and mischievous characters or as beggars in a state of extreme pain and poverty. Also, disability and mocking disability is justified in the name of sins carried from their previous births. Rarely does one come across portrayals of disabled characters in a positive light. One such character was Ashtavakra, who was physically disabled since birth. Born in a Brahmin family, he mastered the Vedas and other holy scriptures at an early age. He was mocked by the intellectuals in King Janaka’s court on account of his disability, where he had gone to participate in a shastrartha (philosophical debate).

Ultimately, he defeated his mockers and earned a lot of praise from everyone. But this story from the Chandogya Upanishad sets a dangerous precedent, if observed carefully. The subtext is that if you are intellectually capable, your physical disability doesn’t matter.  The moral seems to be that a disabled person has to be extraordinary to earn basic respect, a phenomenon that continues today.

The time has come to ask tough questions, to point out the wrong messages which have been disseminated by these texts and to re-interpret these texts in the light of the present day so that differently-abled people are not judged by the wrong morals of our mythological texts that relegate disability and disabled people to the margins.

(Source: The Wire)

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