Artificial Insemination and Drona

There are many, many claims in the genre of “All modern technology is to be found in the Hindu scriptures”. They include:

  • “Pushpak Vimana in Ramayana shows that our ancestors had aeroplanes.”
  • “Deadly weapons in Mahabharata show that our ancestors had nuclear weapons.”
  • “Shiva cutting off Ganapati’s head and then replacing it with an elephant’s shows that our ancestors were skilled transplant surgeons.”

All of these assertions are annoying for a variety of reasons. One major one is that a literal reading of the epics makes us think that our ancestors were fabulous scientists and engineers (except for the vital matter of documenting their procedures) while devaluing their skill as creative writers. Another reason is that the corollary of claiming that your ancestor was a brilliant scientist who invented powered flight or interspecies head transplants, is that you are forced to admit that your slightly more recent ancestor was an idiot who lost the knowledge so comprehensively that you had to wait two thousand years for somebody else to invent all this. But so it goes. But there is one assertion which is annoying not only because of the above reasons, but because it is so contrary to reality. I speak, of course, of the claim that the birth of the 100 (plus one) Kauravas, Drona, and Satyavati shows that our ancestors knew all about artificial insemination and cloning.

Specifically, these births are:

  • Satyavati: The king Vasu was called away from his palace and his queen. Never really getting away from this cockblock, he ended up ejaculating while thinking fondly of his wife. He directed the ejaculate on to a leaf, and requested a friendly bird to deliver the payload to his wife. Unfortunately, en route to the palace, this bird was attacked by an eagle, and ended up dropping Vasu’s semen into a river, where it was swallowed by a fish, who then gave birth to Satyavati. (Actually, she didn’t give birth. Satyavati was maintained in utero until the fish was caught by a fisherman, at which point the infant Satyavati was pulled out whole.)
  • Drona: When Bharadwaja went to bathe in the Ganga, he saw the apsara Ghritachi and was so overcome at hear beauty that he ejaculated. Being a neat and orderly person, instead of letting his bodily fluids out anyhow, unlike some current day cabinet ministers, he did this into a pot, called a drona. Out of this semen, and thus, the pot, Drona sprang forward.
  • The Kauravas: at least the conception was reasonably normal here. Vyasa impregnates Gandhari, who then remains pregnant long beyond the expected nine months. In exasperation, she strikes her belly, miscarries a lump, and then the lump is divided into a 101 pieces, placed into jars of ghee, and the lumps then germinate into the 100 Kauravas and there sister.

Because all these births are so removed from the usual way of making babies, some people feel that the Mahabharata shows impressive knowledge of assisted reproductive techniques and human reproduction.

No, you fools! It shows nothing of the sort. What it does show is that both the Mahabharata and you are ignorant of the basic way in which human reproduction works. At least Ved Vyasa lived in an era before human reproduction was studied scientifically. What excuse do you have for not paying attention during the Class IX biology class on Life Processes II? Even if you went to one of the schools where the teacher skipped the chapter out of sheer embarrassment, you could have read it yourself in your free time.

The thing about human reproduction is that it needs a human sperm and a human egg. What we see from the stories of Satyavati and Drona, is that the Mahabharata thinks that all you need is semen. This was a common misunderstanding back in the day. Aristotle, too, claimed that only men had generative capacity, while women were mere incubators. Reading the Mahabharata in translation, chapter after chapter suggests that the view it has of human reproduction is that semen is like a plant seed. We know today, of course, that a plant seed too is formed from fertilisation of two different gametes; and that the comparable analogue to a seed is not semen, but a fertilised egg. But the Mahabharata didn’t. This is such a fundamental and conceptual shortcoming of knowledge that it would make reproductive technology impossible. Where assisted reproduction is concerned, there’s no wiggle room to claim that the ancients had the knowledge, but the not-so-ancients lost it. The ancients didn’t even have the knowledge. With what they knew and recorded, it would have been impossible to make a baby. At least with pushpaka vimanas you can conspiracy-theorise that there was a flying machine, but all documentation on how to build it was lost, and there is no archaeological trace of actual vimanas, but that art and literature are enough proof. Here, the art and literature directly refute the possibility.

Can we at least claim, then, that the weird births of Satyavati and Drona are poetry, or symbolic, or allegory of some sort? Where the Satyavati story is concerned, it’s so full of weird details that I can’t even draw a well formed allegory out of it, and have to conclude that it was just a total storytelling trip. But maybe with Drona, there is a moral to be drawn.

I made the claim above that the Mahabharata thinks that biologically, only semen is needed to create a baby. But it would have taken wildly obtuse people to completely ignore the empirical reality that children do inherit the traits of their mother. So perhaps, in the worldview of the Mahabharata, semen is sufficient to create a body, but the body is imprinted with traits from whoever gestates it.

In Satyavati’s case, this means that she smells of fish. So it goes. But what of Drona? He doesn’t even have a fish-mother, and is born out of a pot. I think that this is a foreshadowing of his personality – filled with rage, carrying grudges all his life, and although born a Brahmin, acting like a Kshatriya.

It’s as though, born without a mother, Drona is also possessed of no feminine – or at least what stereotypes portray to be feminine – traits. He lacks compassion, humility, and and a sense of proportion. Karthikeya aka Subramanya aka Murugan too is born of semen alone, and ends up being the god of war. But he at least has adoptive mothers – the Kritikkas and eventually Parvati. Drona, born and brought up without either female nature or nurture, can only put his immense knowledge and training towards ultraviolence.

This too, is stereotypical and melodramatic, but, hey, at least it’s a step up from making a human being without an ovum and then germinating it inside a fish.

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