Mahabharata and gender wars

Gandhari had been pregnant for nearly two years with no signs of a baby emerging. It had been a most difficult pregnancy too. In despair she struck at her belly with an iron rod, and in that instant she went into labour and delivered, not a healthy baby but an unformed, hideous lump of grey flesh. It was as though the fates were mocking her. She wanted the lump disposed of as quickly as possible. Sage Veda Vyas intervened and assured her that all was not lost. He cut up the unformed foetus into a hundred and one pieces and placed them in vats filled with oil. The vats were then buried under earth for a further two years. At the end of two years, Duryodhana emerged first, howling like a jackal; jackals and wolves howled back as if answering the call of a kindred soul. The well-wishers and advisors to the the king and queen suggested that he be abandoned in the forest to be consumed by wild animals, for this baby would bring nothing but doom to his parents, his family, to the entire Bharatvarsha. Gandhari was willing to sacrifice her son for the larger good. But King Dhritarashtra was smitten by his first born and the rest is Mahabharata.

Mythology is seldom what it seems and a closer examination of a tale as old as time, reveals hidden facets.There seems to be a stunning correlation between this story of the birth of one of most evil men of all times and what modern gender based research tells us. Sebastian Kraemer, consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist, says in The Fragile Male ( 2000) his groundbreaking gender study points out:
1.Pregnancies are likely to have bad outcomes if the foetus is male. Women carrying male foetuses often have harder pregnancies.
2.Right from conception the male foetus is at a greater risk of death and damage than the female. In times of maternal stress, a male foetus is at greater risk of being miscarried than the female.
3. Girls, at birth, have the same level of development as a 4-6 week old boy
4.Reading delay, hyperactivity, autism, stammering, clumsiness occur much more in boys than in girls
5.Boys mature slower, are more accident prone due to poor judgement of risk to benefit, and more likely to experiment with alcohol and drugs
6.Suicide rate is higher among boys; circulatory diseases, alcoholism, diabetes are commoner among men; women universally outlive men by several years and the gap is widening.
7.Men tend to have an inability to articulate their emotions. Even as babies, girls are better able to self-regulate their emotional state than boys and this only worsens with age and social conditioning. Boys are more likely to be referred to as ‘difficult’ or ‘violent’, than girl children. But conversely and tellingly so, because baby boys are harder to care for, they don’t perhaps get the optimum care they deserve. Even in a patriarchal country like ours, where we have skewed the male to female ratio with sex determination in our obsession for boy babies, we don’t bring them up better. Our social conditioning and internalised patriarchal structures only aggravates the underlying biology. Quoting Dr. Kraemer, “We add social insult to biological injury” when we expect boys to be tough and resilient and stoic. They are encouraged to become invulnerable. From an early age boys are prevented from expressing themselves freely, crying is frowned upon- #realmendontcry, indeed all emotions are considered ‘girly’ and unwanted. Often harder, more punitive measures are used to discipline boys, than girls. Consequently, men have little or no emotional vocabulary and no mechanisms for coping with high levels of stress and there is a likelihood that men will delay reaching out for medical aid in a bid to grin and bear it.

Mahabharata is often mocked as a wronged woman’s tale of vengeance. And yet all through the Mahabharata, Dhritarasthra, literally and figuratively, turned a blind eye to his son’s bad behaviour. Every time there was a chance for course correction, neither Dhritarashtra nor Gandhari stepped in authoritatively. If anything, they were complicit in his evil with their silence. We see this even now in our society with the free passes it offers men. Anti-social, disruptive behaviour is often addressed as, ‘boisterous’, ‘high energy’ or ‘boys-will-be-boys’. We’ve heard our parliamentarians excuse sexual harassment as everyone (read all men) does it.

Wrestler Babita Phogat recently quipped that the government scheme Beti Padhao, Beti Bachao, should be renamed Beton ko Padhao (teach your sons) Beton ko samjhao (make them understand). She is not far wrong in that we must relook at how we bring up our sons, because what we are doing presently is not working, has not been working for a long time. At the time when humans were hunter gatherers, the risk-taking, dangerous behaviour of the male of the species was perhaps necessary for survival. In a world that has moved on male-female relationships are becoming more and more competitive and antagonistic where they should complementary, we need to parent our sons better with greater sensitivity, the way we do our daughters, else we are headed for another Mahabharata.

First published in the November 2018 issue of The Man magazine.

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