skin colour

Vidyasankar Sundaresan vidya at
Wed May 14 00:59:21 UTC 1997

On Tue, 13 May 1997, Noel Salmond wrote:

> Is it relevant that the good guys in the Mahaabhaarata war are the sons of
> Paan.d.u and that Paan.d.u means white or pale in Sanskrit?

No. The good guys and bad guys are all related to one another. 

> I mention this because I noticed that the popular guru in the States, Swami
> Satchidananda writes (p. xxiii) of his <The Living Gita>:
> "...Dhritarashtra was blind, while his brother Pandu is said to be
> white-skinned. This isn't a reference to his race. The word pandu means
> white, which represents sattva, purity and tranquility. The five sons of

Not really. With all due respect to the learned Swamiji, his 
interpretation is mistaken. Dhritarashtra and Pandu were both conceived
according to the law of levirate, by Vyasa, on the widows of
Vichitravirya. Ambika, the elder queen, was terrified by Vyasa's DARK
complexion and matted hair, so she shut her eyes. Amabalika, the younger
queen, turned pale with fright upon looking at Vyasa. Consequently,
Ambika's son, Dhritarashtra was born blind, while Ambalika's son, Pandu,
was born pale-white (albinic?). Far from being a complimentary or a
positive attribute, Pandu's pale complexion is a result of his mother's
negative reaction to Vyasa. 

If there is any character in the epic who represents sattva, purity and
tranquility in that generation, it is Vidura, Vyasa's son by a servant
maid. When Satyavati, the queen mother, hears from Vyasa that one son will
be blind and the other pale, she asks Vyasa to father another son with one
of her daughters-in-law. Note that she is not happy with the prospect
of a pale-white skinned grandson. However, the two queens do not really
wish to meet Vyasa again, and conspire to send their servant maid to Vyasa
instead. This third son of Vyasa is Vidura, who is given the status of a
brother to Pandu and Dhritarashtra, although because of his mother, he is
considered to be of lowly birth. I am not aware if Vidura's complexion is
particularly noted in the epic. (Comic books of the Amar Citra Katha 
variety show both Vidura and Yudhishthira as fair-skinned, although they
are both aspects of Dharma/Yama, who is invariably dark-skinned, because
he represents death. To give Amar Chitra Katha some credit, Duryodhana,
his brothers, Sisupala and other sundry bad guys are also shown as
fair-skinned as any of the good guys.)

There is a lesson to be learned in this story somewhere, isn't there?
Vyasa, the brAhmaNa, is *dark-skinned*, and Vidura, his son by a SUdra
mother, is the virtuous son. In the Mahabharata, Dhritashtra's blindness
and Pandu's paleness are both flaws, caused by the negative mental states
of their mothers during conception. 

> Pandu are the products of tranquility and represent the virtuous human
> qualities."

Well, according to the epic, Pandu's sons are really sons of Kunti and
Madri, their fathers being various gods (Yama, Vayu, Indra and the 
Asvins). Any human genetic/racial characteristics of the Pandavas came
solely from their mothers! Pandu, although "white" had nothing to do with
it. Also, Yudhishthira, the only Pandava really noted for tranquility and
virtue, has a natural affinity for Vidura. Later in the epic, Draupadi and
the four younger brothers all find fault with Yudhishthira for his pacific
nature and conduct unbecoming of a kshatriya. 

> Does this contribute to, despite the good Swami's disclaimer about any
> reference to race, the association of white with the preferred (however
> unconsciously) in India?

Maybe. Unfortunately, nobody seems to appreciate that the Mahabharata
revels in complexity. It cannot be analyzed in simple black-and-white
terms. To begin with, there is a remarkable amount of sleeping around, so
much so that Arjuna's concern about varNa-sankara as a negative result of
war comes very late in the day! There are legitimate children from all
kinds of relationships - pre-marital, extra-marital, polygamous,  
polyandrous, you name it. Vyasa is a brAhmaNa, although his mother 
is a fisher-woman. However, Vidura, his son, is lower than both brAhmaNa
and kshatriya, because his mother is a servant woman. Kunti's sons by the
various gods, after her marriage to Pandu, are considered kshatriyas, but
Karna, her pre-marital son from Surya, ends up being a low caste (although
fair-skinned in comic book depictions). 

S. Vidyasankar

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