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One would think that divinities would be perfect in their lives and leave nothing to criticism. But we have ample examples of poor fathers from legends and mythology as well. Some of them are depraved enough to be almost unimaginable. They are shown to be as much the slaves to the senses as humans are, being very fond of power and the pleasures of the flesh. They have failed their children by their deeds and by their absences, and the results have been less than perfect. We can find such poor fathers across cultures and ages and in all nationalities. They often fail in their fatherly duties, and can be accused of indifference at best and sheer callousness at worst. These tendencies mentioned above are some of the reasons why the philosopher Plato wanted to banish the Iliad and the Odyssey from his curriculum: if the gods themselves were knaves, why should not ordinary humans be?
In the Indian context, we do not find such depravity and regrettable behaviour, though some the sons can be quite obnoxious. They may interact with the divine, and may be even born of the divine, but they are very human and have failings that can be understood among the most degraded and degenerate masses—one of them was actually killed in drunken brawl along with his entire tribe.
The father-son relationship is an ideal place to show human degeneracy and cynicism given the fact that the relationship itself is considered to be sacred only after the mother-son relationship. Perhaps the conflict between the expected and the perceived is the cause of the horror—and deep fascination—in the stories of father-child relationships gone bad for some reason or the other. Often the two are reconciled or part amicably, but the tension is new far below the surface. What follows are brief descriptions of this relationship from India.
Bhima and Ghatotokacha
So called because he was bald and had a head shaped like a ghatam, Ghatotokacha was a mix of rakshasa blood with the Aryan line. A fierce warrior who also had magical powers, he was destined for greatness. He wreaks havoc in the Kaurava ranks and constrains Karna to use up his precious Vasavi Shakthi, a divine weapon he was saving for use against Arjuna. Not only does he save the hero but he uses his magical powers to grow in size and crush a whole division of the Kaurava army under him, thus obtaining strategic advantage for his side. His powerful body makes him a true son of Bhima, but he grew up at his maternal home without much of paternal guidance. That is perhaps why he is more of a Rakshas than an Aryan. The tragedy of the War swallows up the flower of the Kaurava and Pandava youth, be they born of the principal queens or the children of relatively casual affairs. In any case, the poignancy of the death is deep and disturbing.
The Four Sons of Arjuna
Arjuna had four sons through four different romantic attachments, and the all seemed to be equally promising and capable. Of the four, Abhimanyu is the one who achieved the greatest fame, and died a hero in the Great War. Arjuna’s other sons are left relatively vague, with his son through Draupadi being born after their return from exile, and he would have been too young to make any meaningful contribution in the War. Perhaps the climactic event of the War threw everything into relative insignificance, and makes a natural closure leaving only the fates of the prime characters to be settled. However, it is worth noting that all the four would have received comparatively little paternal love and guidance given the circumstances. In the death of Abhimanyu, Arjuna shares the fate of his older brother Bhima who also loses his son Ghatotkacha
Mahabali and Banasura
Banasura initially began as good man who pleased Shiva himself, and obtained the boon of invincibility from Him. But power seems to have got to his head and his arrogance and oppression needed divine intervention in the form of Krishna. The thousand arms he used to play music for Shiva’s Divine Dance were also used to fight Krishna. An Asura like his father, he was a mix of good and evil. His thousand arms in fighting Krishna are symbolic of the power that evil can marshal against good, and the need to keep it under control. Perhaps such stories show how close good and evil are, and the role of individual freedom in choosing a career or a way of life.
Bharatha and Bhumanyu
Bhumanyu was Bharatha’s adopted son after his nine natural-born sense were found to be unworthy of succeeding him. Bhumanyu means the Ruler of the Earth. The characters in the Mahabharata are descendants of Bhumanyu. He is born from a sacrifice, but he barely manages to get out of his illustrious father’s shadow, who, after all eponymously gave his name to the nation. To Bhumanyu’s credit, he fulfils his adopted father’s hopes, and is a successful king. His grandson is Hastee, after whom the famous city of Hastinapura is named. It is to Bharatha’s credit that he chose to ignore his own sons for the welfare of his country.
Prahlada and Virochana
Though Prahlada was an Asura, he was a great devotee of Vishnu, and that is what redeems him. Virochana himself begins on an auspicious note, and goes to Prajapathi to learn about the atman along with Indra, the King of the Gods. But he misunderstands the teachings and decides that the body is central to salvation, and thus begins to worship corpses. He makes the choice of the mundane and ephemeral, and is thus condemned to ignorance and damnation. He fathers Mahabali who has chequered history in India being generally regarded as an Asura, but also as a good king in Kerala, who cyclically rises to check on the well-being of his people.
Krishna and Samba
Samba was Krishna’s son by Jambavathi, born after a long time. He was a favourite of his Uncle Balarama, and was rescued by the latter when he was arrested for kidnapping Duryodhana’s Lakshmanaa, the younger sister of Lakshmana Kumara. To his credit, he was a brave warrior, and could win what he desired. But being open to other vices such as drink and lese-majesty, this time in case of a sage, he plays a trick and becomes the cause of the annihilation of the Yadava clan. The process in which this is realised is bizarre to say the least. The mace is ground to powder and is thrown into the sea which rises and kills all the members of the tribe, a tribe that was ungovernable and untameable. It seems that the seeds of destruction are inherent even in the Best of Men, for his Father Krishna, could guide the whole of humanity but His son did not imbibe anything such as diplomacy, humility, and other such good characters from Him.
Ramachandra and Luva-Kusha
The story of Rama as the Maryadapurushottam is an ideal for any person in any age. His commitment to His wife, his filial love that brooked no barrier or limits, His fraternal munificence and love are the stuff of legend. As a ruler, He was a democrat nonpareil, and subordinated His family to His duties as King for which he banished His beloved wife to the forests where his twin sons were born. Competent warriors in their own right, they had sterling character that would have made any parent proud. But Rama was not with them to watch them grow up, and in this sense, He was not an ideal father. Luva and Kusha are variously shown to be fighting and defeating their own Father’s army until they are invited to Ayodhya and crowned kings as their Father abdicates. Perhaps there are relatively unknown because their Father was so thorough in annihilating evil from the earth. Popular belief has it that the modern city of Lahore in Pakistan is named for Luva.
Dronacharya and Ashwatthama
This is one father-son duo who have the closest relationship possible with the love between them complete and unconditional. Drona accepts a position at Hastinapur for the sake of his wife and son, and the latter grows up with the Kurus. He is a skilled warrior, but Arjuna seems to be by far the teacher’s favourite. In the Great War, Drona is invincible and the Pandavas trick him into a state of helplessness by falsely announcing the death of his son. At this time, the prophesied killer of the Guru appears and beheads him. Ashwatthama extracts a savage revenge after the War in which the next generation of the Pandavas is nearly annihilated. The son seems a little unworthy of the great father who seemed incapable of deceit, but Ashwatthama’s own ambushes and destructive actions are justified by the treachery bred during the War from both sides. Cursed by Krishna to wander thirsty and suppurating for three thousand years, he can be said to have atoned for his crimes to some extent. The story of this father and son is a poignant in the context of their circumstances and the choices they make during the War.
Rishi Kashyapa and his Asura sons Hiranyakashipu and Hiranyaksha
Rishi Kashyapa is one of the Seven Rishis who had attained the highest standards of spirituality. He becomes the father of two cursed divinities Jaya and Vijaya who are born as two brothers. They are named Hiranyakshipu and Hiranyaksha, and when the latter is killed for his evil deeds by Vishnu in his Varaha form, Hiranyakashipu swears revenge for which he propitiates Brahma through his penance and wins the boon of immunity from death during night or day inside or outside, at the hands of man or beast. For this he is killed at twilight on the threshold by Narasimha who is man and beast combined. His persecution of his son Prahalada for being a devotee of his hated enemy is the immediate cause of his undoing. The story gains a sliver lining when we realise that Jaya and Vijaya had the privilege of being killed by the Lord Himself, and they are in the end more than happy with this honour.
Rishi Vyas and his sons, Dhritarashtra, Pandu and Sanjaya
Rishi Vyas is the author of the great epic the Mahabharata with Lord Ganapathi Himself as his amanuensis. The three sons he has are central characters in the epic as the first two become the fathers of the Kauravas and Pandavas respectively. But they are unable to meet the needs of kingship as the first is blind and the second is stricken by a debilitating disease. While Dhritarashtra is a doting father and allows his evil sons to have their way, Pandu is an even more shady figure. Unable to stop the evil actions of his sons the blind king survives to learn of their death from his brother Sanjaya who narrates the events of the War to him in a running commentary. His is a voice of sanity that goes unheard and he allows himself to be overruled by his stubborn sons. The story of the three sons is illustrative of the role of fate and freewill at different times in their careers.
The Father-Child relationship seems to be fascinating in its range— we have a mix of docility, determination, stubbornness, cussedness, and caring, to mention just a few qualities. But they are all revetting. They are both, warnings and models, for anyone who cares to read them. Some of the fathers are born great, some have greatness thrust upon them, and some achieve greatness, while some seem to simply be very ordinary. Whatever the case, the bond between father and child endures and shapes lives—and history. But in general, fathers continue to be models and guides to their children. There are, of course, cultural differences. In India, parents support their children deep into their adulthood, a situation very rare in the West. On the other hand, we must admit that Indian parents love their children, but they have no respect for them—barely any parent explains why the child has been asked to do something or refrain from it. The command of the parent is enough to justify the order. In spite of all these variations and deviations, the father-child relationship is pivotal in the growth of the child, both in character and career.