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Ashtamahishi – Radha Viswanath

Ashtamahishi – Radha Viswanath

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Ashtamahishi – Radha Viswanath

Shweta Kapoor

 

Ashtamahishi or the eight wives have often not been documented well or overlooked in the Hindu texts. Can you tell us about your research, and what texts you read before writing this book? 

 Yes, it is true that nothing much is known about the eight remarkable women that Krishna, the only “Sampoorna Avatar” of Mahavishnu, married individually. Nor is there much information regarding the reasons for, and the circumstances in which these marriages happened. In fact, even the names of these women – collectively referred to as Krishna’s “ashta-mahishis” meaning eight queens – remain largely unknown. Rukmini and Satyabhama are the only two familiar names. Jambavati is another name which rings a bell in people conversant with Indian mythology. 

Three or four texts proved helpful in finding the names of the Ashtamahishis – . One is a text in Telugu, popularly known as “Potana Bhagavatamu”. This 15th century composition is said to be a translation of Sage Vyasa’s “Bhagavata Purana”. Another is “The Krishnavatara” by Kanaiyalal Maneklal Munshi (K.M.Munshi) and “Krishna Charitra” by Ajjarapu Venkata Rao, which draws heavily from K.M.Munshi’s Krishnavatara. The Mahabharata is another text that needed close reading as this epic is unfolding during the period when Krishna entered matrimony. 

These books also do not throw much light on the character of any of the Ashtamahishis. Their names – Rukmini, Jambavati, Satyabhama, Kalindi, Mitravinda, Bhadra, Lakshana and Naagnajiti; their parentage and a bit of background by way of the kingdoms from which they hailed, was available here. There was also a brief account of the manner in which these marriages happened and the battles that Krishna fought in the process. Beyond this, there is little else. To that extent, my book is a work of complete fiction about these important characters from Indian mythology. 

 

Even though all the eight wives of Krishna were important in his life, could we say that it was his wife Rukmini who understood him more than anyone else? Also, according to various texts Rukmini is considered an avatar of Lord Vishnu’s wife Lakshmi, yet the book never mentions this? 

 I feel that this widely held perception – that Rukmini was the best – is not correct. Rukmini was definitely very special – she was Krishna’s first wife, the girl whom he married first. Going by the Puranas, Rukmini was a bold girl, was the first girl to have written a love-letter and proposed marriage to her lover (Krishna).As the senior-most wife, Rukmini stood by her husband through thick and thin, managed the homefront enabling him to pursue his goals. This is not to lessen the importance of Krishna’s other wives. Each of them was completely devoted to Krishna in her own special way and Krishna lived up to their individual expectations. This made him a “perfect” husband to each and every one of them. 

Yes, it is true that Rukmini is considered an avatar of Goddess Lakshmi. However, since I dealt with Krishna as a young man in search of a balance between his ideals and the practical situations he finds himself in, his own divinity not really acknowledged by him at that point in his life, attributing divinity to Rukmini would have disturbed the book’s narrative. So I did not bring it up. 

Also, in Ashtamahishi, I attempted to de-deify Krishna; portray him as a youngman in search of his ideals and trying to strike a balance between idealism and pragmatism. For this, the narrative could not have accommodated divinity in any character. It is for this reason that I attempted providing a rationale for events like lifting of Govardhanagiri and Tulabharam, where Krishna, who could not be weighed against tons of gold and silver by Satyabhama, equalled the weight of a single Tulasi (basil) leaf placed in the scales by Rukmini.

 

Why is it that despite his insistence on marrying on the basis of mutual love and respect, Krishna never married Radha? 

 Radha is a delicate wildflower from Vrindavan and Krishna’s childhood love. She would have been a misfit in the politically surcharged urban milieu where Krishna spent a major part of his adult life. She would have suffocated and withered away, whereas she would remain blissfully happy with Krishna’s memories. Also, the Radha-Krishna love is ethereal, beyond social mores. That is the reason why Radha’s name remains intricately intertwined with Krishna’s as synonymous with perfect love. Krishna, in leaving Radha behind in Vrindavan, respected her need for her natural environs. And he left his ‘Murali’ behind with her; in effect, leaving his music behind with her. He never played his Murali after he left Vrindavan, indicating that Krishna left his music behind with Radha. 

 

Can you tell our readers about an excerpt/chapter from your book that you enjoyed writing the most? 

 That is a tough question. I developed each character, each chapter and each interaction with great love and care. They are all like my own children, my creations. Having said that, I must confess that there is one chapter that gave me great pleasure as it shaped in my hands. This is one where four women, all connected through Krishna, exchange confidences. Draupadi – wife of the Pandavas, Subhadra – Krishna’s younger sister, Kalindi – foster daughter of river Yamuna whose interaction with humans was non-existent before she married Krishna and Mitravinda – a rajkumari and cousin to Krishna. 

Then there is one chapter towards the end of the book, where six of the Ashtamahishis confront Krishna and Rukmini regarding the disappearance of Satyabhama after the Tulabhara fiasco. Here, the mutual respect and bonding shared by these women comes through beautifully.. 

Krishna’s conversations with Rukmini on the banks of Yamuna, where he articulates his doubts about his ‘dharma’ and his interactions with his other wives also gave me great pleasure in shaping. Krishna romanced each of these women in tune with their own respective needs and aspirations and it was pure music while they poured out of my fingertips. 

 

You were a political journalist for 30 years, yet both of your books are in the Hindu mythology genre. How did you develop a passion for mythology? 

 Sheer coincidence. Once, I travelled through the interiors of Andhra, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka in connection with some work. I came across several temples in small towns and big villages, dedicated to little known avatars of Vishnu and Shiva – avatars the Gods took to slay one or the other Rakshasa.The concerned Rakshasas shared certain traits. All of them were strong and disciplined, intent on becoming the most powerful. Their tapasya which earned them boons from the Gods, also made them headstrong, cruel and insensitive. This in turn, invited divine intervention to neutralise them. 

I felt that this is not a myth. This very pattern continues to prevail in our society and politics even today. Who does not know that power corrupts and we also acknowledge that absolute power corrupts absolutely, irrespective of one’s stated political ideology. While it was divine intervention that brought down the vengeful rakshasas in those mythical times, that power to teach a lesson to erring political parties lies in the hands of the common man in contemporary times. It is the collective power of mere mortals that brings them down – through elections wherein mighty people in power are thrown out. 

The thought remained with me and I began my journey into mythology, trying to gain detailed information about these Rakshasas and how their stories panned out. The exercise proved exhilarating, eye-opening and engrossing. It laid the foundation for my abiding love affair with Indian mythology, its layered and rich texture, its non-judgmental approach to personalities and situations. Starting a retelling of these tales in a contemporary context was just the next logical step. 

 

What are some of your all time favourite mythology authors? Which ancient Indian text would you say is the most undocumented text in mythological fiction today? 

 Devdutt Patnaik leads a long list. I will not go into further details. 

As for the second part of your question, I do not claim sweeping knowledge of all our mythological texts. Yet, to the extent that I have read, I feel that a lot of the Puranic lore that we have has mutated in the process of repeated retellings. There seems to be a western prism through which our mythological texts are viewed and interpreted. While the Indian mythology is intricately meshed and layered, is not judgmental of any character, a tendency to view the lore as a tussle between good and evil, wherein finally “good” triumphs over “evil”. 

In this kind of structuring, it is inevitable that nuances get lost and characters come through as half-baked. Talking in the most general of terms, villainous characters and women characters have suffered most in the process. 

Given the fact that just the 18 major puranas include no less than four million verses. This is a virtual treasure trove of stories that needs to be explored. I am not even half-way through. All I can say is that the so-called villains – the Rakshasas – are interesting characters, and in a way, have much in common with us (humans of today). 

 

Which characters do you find the most interesting and fascinating in Indian mythology? Are you working on a next book? 

 All, without exception. Every character is fascinating in its own way. And the beauty of Indian mythology is that we come across cross references of characters in different texts, adding to detail and depth of these characters. However, being a woman, I look closely at the portrayal of the woman-characters in any work. I try to unravel their aspirations, motivations through their actions, decipher them in a contemporary context. I find the exercise exhilarating, fulfilling and challenging. For me, filling in the missing gaps to make up a well rounded character is a particularly satisfying past-time. 

Yes, I am working on a next book, taking the theme from the Bhagavata Purana. I also have quite a long list of women characters whose stories I want to narrate. 

About the Interviewee:

I love stories - be it listening to stories being told or reading them for myself. I also love telling stories and making up stories is a past-time that I love most.
This love that caught me as a little girl hearing stories from grandparents remained a part of me through life and all the paths that life lead me on. Drama and theatre are a natural corollary to my love for stories. As part of an amateur Telugu theatre group, I acted in several stage plays and have a national best-actress award to show for it. I penned a couple of plays - one of them a children’s play, which went on to win at a competition of children’s plays under my direction.
I was trained to be a teacher - a noble profession I had little opportunity to practice. I stumbled into journalism as a mother of three children. Journalism those days was still a male-dominated field and I floundered to find my feet and make a mark. To that extent, it gives me great satisfaction that I became the first woman-journalist to have gained access to the Central Hall of Parliament. I am also happy to have been a founding member of the Indian Women’s Press Corps (IWPC), a premier national body of women journalists.
The experience gained through extensive travels across the country for election coverage and other assignments fine tuned my understanding of how people think, feel and act, and what they aspire for in life. My three decades as a political journalist, when I followed the nuances of political discourse, provided a close look into the intricacies, challenges and compulsions of nation-building initiatives and processes of governance.
I quit journalism when I shifted to Mumbai to be close to my children. Telling stories to my grandchildren continues to be high on my agenda while I turned to mytho-fiction for my writings.