The Pregnant King by Devdutt Pattanaik is a tale told of a man, a king of a prosperous kingdom who finds himself bearing a child. Due to this ‘aberration of nature’ he finds his mind in a turmoil. His feelings for his child are more maternal than paternal and he finds himself grappling with issues of Dharma and of existence itself. Although this mythical tale of Yuvanashva is set in time more ancient than Mahabharata, the author takes the liberty of setting it parallel to parable of Pandavas.
Through the tale, we learn the ambiguous roles that many kings had to play. There were both feminine and masculine sides to them, their subjects learnt to revere them for their ability to portray the best of both sexes as an additional blessing instead of a curse for their multi-sexuality. We learn many of the old traditions that were coined for the good of people, the vedic way of life that ensured harmony and prosperity. The caste system which is much reviled now, was a means of allowing people in different walks of life to live with dignity.
However the fissures in this perfect way of life were already evident. When Ashwathama discarded his varna to become king, when Kshatriyas used deceit to win the war, when Dharma was abandoned in an attempt to cling to power. Then, as now, the final message is that it is Love that is most important, in its most sublime form, Compassion.
Here is a gem from the book – “Careful of the word unnatural. It reeks of arrogance. You are assuming you know the boundaries of nature. You don’t. There is more to life than your eyes can see. More than you can ever imagine. Nature comes from the mind of God. It is infinite. The finite human mind can never fathom it in totality.”
The tale is carefully woven. As in Mahabharata when the seeds of discord were sown generations before the actual war, here too we go back to the story of Yuvanashva’s mother, the widowed regent Shilavati and go on to learn life in Vallabhi the kingdom into which she is married. Yuvanashva is a sheltered child and needs to fulfill his primary function, father a son and provide and heir to the throne of Vallabhi before he can become king. It becomes hard to fathom whether Shilavati is hanging on to power for its own sake or as a maternal instinct to protect her son and allow him time to procreate. Kaliyuga is about to dawn and it is indicated when people use dharma to further their own end.
The wisest of Rishi’s Angirasa laugh when the Chief Priest Mandavya wonders why power corrupted the mind of Shilavati, she was a woman after all. “He thinks women are not corrupted by power” they laugh. The Angirasa also descend on the Pregnant King and seek to pray to him as they think he is a special signal from Gods. They open his mind to the ambivalence of human forms. Not all are rigidly male or female.
Myths are philosophic tales to educate us through entertainment and exist to inform us that nature is more powerful than any of us. Those readers who loved reading stories from Chandamama, tales of Mahabharata and Ramayana, Vikram and Betal stories will love this book. I was able to devour the 149 page book in 5-6 hours of continous reading, I found it gripping and unputdownable. The finale was satisfying and disturbing at the same time.
Devdutt Pattanaik has made a career out of studying the ancient myths and decoding them. He has his own website here.