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Sulabha and Janak

Maybe you should consider calling Rishyashringa to Mithila,’ was the advice Janaka received often enough. Since the arrival of Sita, his wife, Sunaina, had given birth to a daughter who was named Urmila, and his brother, Kusha-dhvaja, had become father of two daughters, Mandavi and Shrutakirti. Four daughters to two brothers in the land of Videha, but no sons!

Janaka would respond, ‘The Earth grants Janaka what he deserves. The fire grants Dashratha what he wants. I choose the destiny of daughters. He submits to the desire of sons.’ Word of this reached a woman called Sulabha. In beautiful attire, in beautiful form, she approached the king and demanded a private audience with him.


Illustration/ Devdutt Pattanaik

Everyone wondered why. Sulabha noticed the king’s awkwardness and asked, ‘This land is called Vi-deha, meaning ‘beyond the body’. I assumed the king of this land would value my mind more than my body. But I assumed wrong.’¬†Janaka felt acute embarrassment at being chastised so.

Sulabha continued, ‘Humans are special. We have a mind that can imagine. With imagination we can, without moving, travel through same and time, conjure up situations that do not exist in reality. It is what separates humanity from the rest of nature. Such a mind is called manas, which is why humans are called manavas. You are a manava with male flesh and I am a manava with female flesh.

We both see the world differently, not because we have different bodies, but because we have different minds. You see the world from one point of view and I see the world from another point of view. But our mind can expand. I can see the world from your point of view and you can see it from my point of view.

Some, like Vibhandak and Rishyashringa, instead of expanding the mind use the mind to control nature through tapasya and yagna. They reject destiny and celebrate desires. Why? Enquire into the human mind, Janaka and you will better understand the flesh and the world around this flesh. That is Veda, wisdom.’

Inspired by these words, Janaka invited to his land all the rishis of Arya-varta to share the knowledge of the Veda. They emerged from caves, from mountaintops, from riverbanks and seashores and travelled to Janak’s court to exchange ideas, discover other ways of seeing the world. This conference of intimate conversations that would eventually broaden the gaze of humanity came to be known as the Upanishad.

An extract from Devdutt Pattanaik’s new release Sita an illustrated retelling of the Mahabharata (Penguin India)

The author is Chief Belief Officer of the Future Group, and can be reached at devdutt@devdutt.com. The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.¬†

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