Satyavati as a Femme Fatale in The Mahabharata

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Raja Ravi Varma, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Female sexuality, the role of women and the portrayal of female characters has always been a significant part of Indian mythology. The vedas, the puranas and the itihasa are rich with such debatable topics. In this paper, I’m going to discuss one such controversial topic focussing on female sexuality and the role and portrayal of the character of Satyavati (Matsyagandha) in The Mahabharata. Satyavati, as we all know, is one of the wives of Shantanu, the king of Hastinapura, and the step – mother of Bhishma (Devavrata), who takes the vow of lifelong celibacy for making Satyavati marry his father, Shantanu. But there is much more about her life which has often been overlooked.

Satyavati, despite being a heroine of the same Mahabharata, in which later her daughters – in – law, Ambika and Ambalika are forced to get ready for niyog by Satyavati herself to consummate with Satyavati’s pre – marital son Vyasa, in which Amba’s life gets ruined because of Bhishma and Satyavati’s selfish motive, in which much later Draupadi is humiliated in front of a huge assembly, turns out to be an unconventional woman. In The Mahabharata, Satyavati is portrayed as a cunning and shrewd lady, who knew well how to get or snatch what she wants. She even knew how to use her beauty and sexuality to fulfil her desires, as she does in the case of sage Parashar and king Shantanu. If her acts in The Mahabharata are scrutinised in – depth, one can come to the conclusion of she being a vamp in The Mahabharata. The aim of this paper is to analyse the character of Satyavati as a femme fatale in The Mahabharata. In this paper, I’ll be commenting on the character of Satyavati on the basis of her portrayal in Krishna Dharma’s Mahabharata: The Condensed Version of the World’s Greatest Epic, Kavita Kane’s Fisher Queen’s Dynasty and Ashok K. Banker’s Satyavati and Shantanu.

Femme Fatale

The term ‘femme fatale’ can be described as a woman who is “a monstrous Beast of the Apocalypse, indifferent, irresponsible, insensible, poisoning”. In simple words, femme fatale refers to a woman who is a vamp. A femme fatale is generally an attractive woman, who seduces men and leads them to deadly traps. She is often a mysterious woman, who is hiding some secrets from the ones she chooses to seduce and use. She is an archetype of art and literature, and is considered to be a lethal woman or maneater. 

Virginia Allen describes:

“Femmes fatales are typically villainous, or at least morally ambiguous, and always associated with a sense of mystification, and unease.”

The main features of femme fatale include promiscuousness and rejection of motherhood. Femme fatales use men and pretend to be in love with them merely in order to take advantage of their money, status, etc. Femme fatales are often already broken – hearted, and therefore, they feel extremely comfortable and indifferent while using and breaking the hearts of others. A femme fatale is usually incapable of loving because of her dark past, and disturbing and mysterious history. She is highly skilled in the art of seduction. That’s why she is considered to be a pro in bed. But all what one gets on being in bed with a femme fatale is only her skin and flesh, i.e., her body, but one never gets her soul and heart.

A femme fatale is considered to be a highly toxic and deadly woman. But if one knows her story right from the scratch till the very end, one can find that she too is often an object of pity for whatever she is, it’s all because of what she had suffered in her past. One can find that it’s the past of a femme fatale which makes her learn the hard way and prepares her to become stone – hearted enough to not repeat the same mistake twice. And, in order to save herself from any future sufferings, she apathetically makes several others suffer.

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Femme Fatale in Indian Mythology

Indian mythology has several complex female characters, where some are imbued in pure whites and blacks, some are a mysterious blend of the light and the dark hues. Such grey female characters of the Indian mythology fall under the category of femme fatale. The main femme fatale characters of the Indian mythology include Mohini, Surpanakha and Kaikeyi.

  • Mohini: Mohini is a quite well – known femme fatale of the Indian mythology. She is considered to be the only female incarnation of Lord Vishnu, whereas some people believe her to be merely a Maya (illusion) of Lord Vishnu. Mohini often seduces the demons, rishis, gods, etc. and causes their downfall.
  • Surpanakha: Surpanakha is the sister of Ravana, who through her deceptive charms tries to seduce Rama and Lakshmana. But when her advances are treated with no regard, she resolves to ruin the lives of Rama, Lakshmana, and their families, and succeeds in doing so.  
  • Kaikeyi: Kaikeyi is the youngest wife of king Dasaratha, who through her beauty and youth, keeps the king always under her control, and later becomes a reason for Rama’s tragic exile of fourteen years and king Dasaratha’s death.

Apart from the three main femme fatale characters of the Indian mythology mentioned above, there exist one more significant femme fatale character in the Indian mythology which has often been overlooked – Satyavati of The Mahabharata.

Satyavati of The Mahabharata

Satyavati, also known as Matsyagandha and Yojanagandha, is a grey – shaded character, who knows well how to use people to her own advantage. One can find all the main features of femme fatale in the character of Shantanu’s second wife and Bhishma’s step – mother, Satyavati. From having a dark, depressing past to being a seductive vamp who uses her body to get all what she wants, Satyavati is no less than the Carmen Sternwood of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep or any other western femme fatale.

Satyavati’s Past 

Satyavati, also known as Daseyi, Kali, Matsyagandha and Yojanagandha, is the only and a well – pampered daughter of Dasharaj, a fisherman chieftain. However, Dasharaj is not her real father. In reality, she was born to the Chedi king, Uparichara Vasu and an apsara in the form of a fish, Adrika. Once king Uparichara Vasu ejaculated while dreaming of his wife, and in order to save his sperm, he sent his semen to his wife through an eagle. But the semen fell off from the clutches of the eagle in a river, and a cursed apsara – fish, Adrika swallowed it. The fish gave birth to two babies – one boy and one girl. The fisherman who found the fish and the babies presented the babies to king Uparichara Vasu, who only accepted the boy and kept him as his son and gave off the girl to the fisherman. The fisherman, Dasharaj kept the girl and raised her like his own daughter, who later came to be known as Satyavati. The way Satyavati was abandoned by a man (her own father) right at the time when she was born whereas her brother was accepted gave rise to the feeling of hatred and selfishness in her. She promised herself that the next time she’ll be with a man, she’ll be the one who’ll win.

Satyavati as a Femme Fatale

All what readers of Indian mythology know in general about the character of Satyavati is that she is the second wife of king Shantanu, the step – mother of Bhishma and the daughter of a fisherman who made Bhishma take the vow of lifelong celibacy. Generally, one doesn’t know much about the character of Satyavati regarding what kind of a woman she was, what she liked and disliked, etc. This is because on reading The Mahabharata, the reader generally dismisses the characters like Satyavati and regards them to be minor ones. But there are numerous intricacies associated with the character of Satyavati which require a scholar’s special attention. Books like, Kavita Kane’s Fisher Queen’s Dynasty and Ashok K. Banker’s Satyavati and Shantanu have shed a significant amount of light on her character.

Satyavati is a vile lady whose only dream is to rule a kingdom; no matter whose kingdom it is or how she’ll get access to it, all what she desires in the beastly possible manner is power. As she was abandoned by the ruler of a kingdom (her father, king Uparichara Vasu) who keeps her brother who later becomes King Matsya, the founder of the Matsya kingdom, she too longs to rule a kingdom. In a time when men used to be the rulers of kingdoms, what Satyavati aspired and aimed for was something quite unconventional for a woman in itself. She had no examples to look forward to, to gain inspiration from, in which women like her became the rulers of kingdoms, yet she dared to dream something far beyond the reach of her sex.

Satyavati and Sage Parashar

When Satyavati meets sage Parashar, she uses his desire for her and manipulates him by stopping in the middle just before they were about to consummate. She takes a boon from him to get rid of her constant fish smell, which made people call her Matsyagandha, and gets as a boon a never – ending bodily fragrance seductive enough to lure the rich and powerful men, which fetched her the name, Yojanagandha (the one with a pleasant smell). When he gives her what she wants, she gives him what he wants, i.e., her body. She further makes him give her a boon of virginity and a promise that in case she’ll conceive from their union, he’ll silently keep the child with him.

At the time of Satyavati and sage Parashar’s union, Satyavati could even have asked sage Parashar for marriage, but she chooses the opposite because being the wife of a rishi couldn’t have fetched her what she so strongly desired, i.e., the status of a queen. So, she manipulates the situation to the best of her use. That’s what a femme fatale does, i.e., to trap men with her charms for her own selfish motives. But Satyavati’s selfish usage of men doesn’t end here. It was just a beginning.

Satyavati and Shantanu

Satyavati, being Yojanagandha, traps Shantanu with her youth, beauty and fragrance. She very well uses the broken state of king Shantanu after Ganga’s exit from his life.  She knows that he comes to her to seek solace, comfort and affection in her. Being adept in the bodily art of seduction and lovemaking, she makes him believe that she is a full – stop to his quest of a true companion cum soulmate. On the other hand, she makes her father, Dasharaj show his disapproval over the alliance of Satyavati and Shantanu, and to agree only on the condition if Shantanu promises to leave the throne after him to the son of Satyavati and Shantanu and agrees to deprive Devavrata (Shantanu’s son from Ganga) of all his rights to throne and property. Satyavati, via Dasharaj, makes Devavrata take the bhishma vow of lifelong celibacy, due to which he comes to be known as Bhishma.

Although Shantanu for a significant amount of time gets enamoured by the fisherman’s daughter, he later after their wedding realizes how lustful his lady love is for power and wealth. He realizes that all what Satyavati wanted from him and for what she was with him was the proud status, the “Queen of Hastinapura”. When he sees the way she uses his son Devavrata every time to her own advantage, he regrets marrying her and curses himself. Satyavati’s indifference towards Shantanu and her blind greed for power and wealth in a way makes her a reason for Shantanu’s death. He dies of grief, remorse and heartache. That’s how Satyavati, being a femme fatale, ruins him. She shatters Shantanu.   

Satyavati and Bhishma

Whatever Satyavati did with sage Parashar and king Shantanu and the way she used them both to her own advantage was nothing in comparison to how gravely she affected the life of Bhishma. In the garb of being a su – mata (good mother), all what she did would make all the ku – mata(s) die of shame for no mother whether real or step can stoop that low merely for the petty sake of power and wealth. Firstly, she deprives Bhishma of his right to his father’s throne and property and his right to get married and sire children. Then she uses him as her all – time puppet, who is always ready to do anything to please his father’s second wife as he believed that she was a source to his father’s happiness. Satyavati makes Bhishma a caretaker, a kind of bodyguard of his sons, Chitrangada and Vichitravirya. When Chitrangada dies in a duel with a gandharva named Chitrangada, she forces Bhishma to rule the kingdom until her younger son Vichitravirya grows up and becomes fit to rule. Till this point of time, things were still somehow tolerable. But when Vichitravirya grows up to the marriageable age, she forces Bhishma to abduct the three beautiful daughters of the king of Kashi to make them marry her spoilt son Vichitravirya. As Bhishma could never say no to any of the commands of his father’s second wife, he abides by her command and ends up becoming a reason who ruins the life of Amba, who later becomes a reason for Bhishma’s death in the form of Shikhandi.

When Satyavati’s second son Vichitravirya dies, Satyavati asks Bhishma to marry his daughters – in – law, Ambika and Ambalika to make them give birth to her heir as an heir is required for her to be able to keep continuing to rule as the Rajmata of Hastinapura. When Bhishma rejects her request and makes it clear to her that he won’t break the promise he gave to his father, she makes her son from sage Parashar, Vyasa do the same and give heirs to her through niyog. This is what Satyavati does throughout her life – convinces people to do her bidding.

Conclusion

Whatever Satyavati does with sage Parashar, Shantanu, Bhishma, Amba, Ambika, Ambalika, and several others is enough to convince us of she being a femme fatale. For her, every evil deed is valid. Satyavati often changes her own rules and commands as per her own convenience. Earlier she plans a lot and uses her father and husband to stop Bhishma from ruling the kingdom. But when Chitrangada dies, she uses Bhishma to become a substitute ruler until her other son grows up to become one. She indirectly by hiding behind her father makes Bhishma resolve to not marry ever and be in any kind of relationship with any woman, but when Vichitravirya dies, the same Satyavati asks Bhishma to marry his daughters – in – law, Ambika and Ambalika to make them sire her heir as she fears that an absence of heir will be a threat to her status of a queen.

Although her past has played a significant role in making her what she is, i.e., a femme fatale, it is no justification to what she did with the innocent Devavrata. It all began with Satyavati being deprived of her birth right when she was abandoned by her real father, Uparichara Vasu (the king of Chedi). But what she does with Devavrata is just the same; she deprives him of his birth right without any fault on his part. Generally, the ones having suffered something know the pain of it and sympathise with those suffering the same. But Satyavati becomes that blinded with the desire to get power and wealth that she herself elevates to the status of a queen, but ends up making Bhishma her doppelgänger – hollow and homeless. Therefore, in conclusion, it can be said that Satyavati indeed is a femme fatale of the Indian mythology.

References: –

Dharma, Krishna, Mahabharata: The Condensed Version of the World’s Greatest Epic (Book link)

Kane, Kavita, Fisher Queen’s Dynasty (Book link)

Banker K., Ashok, Satyavati and Shantanu (Book Link)