In the Adi Parva of the Mahabharata, responding to a question from Janamejaya, Vaishampayana tells him stories of his royal ancestors, the lunar dynasty of kings. In some texts of the epic, this happens before the story of Shakuntala and in others, following her story.
The lunar dynasty produced numerous magnificent kings who for all times to come became beacon lights for India. They carved out paths which all coming generations of rulers aspired to follow. In spite of this, lust remained a running theme in the tale of the dynasty from the beginning till the end. Here is the story of the moon god [known variously as Soma, Chandra, Chandrama, Shashi, Indu and so on] from whom the lunar dynasty gets its name.
Soma’s story too is a story of lust. Besides, we probably have here the world’s first tales of adultery.
The Mahabharata does not tell us much about Soma, the founding father of the lunar dynasty to which the Bharatas belong. For this reason, we have to combine what it says with what other texts have to say about him.
The myth about the birth of the moon god, Soma, is perhaps the most beautiful birth story in world mythology. And the story is uniquely Indian – no other culture in the world could have produced a story like this.
The story tells us of Sage Atri being asked by Brahma to engage in creation. Atri wanted to acquire the power needed for this and with that intention, started a powerful form of tapas called anuttara.
The name means the highest tapas, beyond which there is no other tapas.
Sage Atri was purity itself and such was his commitment to the tapas that he soon reached the highest peaks of spirituality, and the Ultimate Reality, the Brahman, appeared reflected in the still lake of his mind. As the pure ecstasy of the experience possessed him, tears of supreme joy started flowing from his eyes: the bliss that passes understanding, born of self-realization. And, as those tears began flowing down his cheeks, the story tells us, the guardians of the eight directions transformed themselves into exquisite women and drank up those tears. They were in love with those tears and wanted to conceive children out of Atri’s ecstasy.
The women became pregnant but found themselves incapable of enduring the powerful fetuses in their wombs and pushed them out of their wombs. Brahma, the Creator, gathered the fetuses and joined them to form a single magnificent child who instantly grew into a youth. This was Soma, the moon god. The Creator endowed him with every imaginable weapon and thus empowering him, took him to his world, the Brahmaloka, where the brahmarshis requested him to make the youth their lord. The luster of the youth grew steadily as sages, gods, gandharvas and apsaras sang the Sama hymns in his praise.
Prajapati Daksha gave twenty-seven of his daughters in marriage to Soma.
Later Soma, himself born of tapas, entered a long period of tapas. His chosen deity was Vishnu. Vishnu was pleased with the tapas and appeared before him and asked him to seek a boon from him. “I want to perform a Rajasuya sacrifice in the heavens,” said Soma. “When I do that bless me that all the great Gods like Brahma should be present in the sacrifice. And I want the trident-wielding Shiva to stand guard at the gate of the sacrificial place.”
The moon god had acquired so much power that at his desire the great Gods had to be at his beck and call.
The Rajasuya began. Every celestial attended the sacrifice: the gods, Vasus, Maruts, Brahma, Vishnu, Arti, Bhrigu, all. As desired by Soma, Shiva himself stood guard to the sacrifice. And when the Rajasuya ended, Soma gave the three worlds as dakshina to the priests who officiated in the sacrifice.
The sacrifice ended with the avabhrita ritual bath. As Soma stood up, glowing in indescribable glory after the ritual bath, the goddesses present there could not contain themselves. Nine of them fell in love with him instantly. Not only did they fall in love with him, great passion for him raged in their hearts. Blazing lust screamed out from every part of the goddesses’ body, seeking immediate fulfillment. While the gods, the sages and other guests stood watching aghast, these nine goddesses threw themselves at him openly: Vishnu’s wife Lakshmi, Kardama’s wife Sinivali, Vibhavasu’s wife Dyuti, Dhata’s wife Pushti, the sun god’s wife Prabha, Havishman’s wife Kuku, Jayanta’s wife Kirti, Kashyapa’s wife Anshumali, and Nanda’s wife Dhriti. These goddesses abandoned their husbands and openly sought pleasure from Soma. And he pleasured them all as no one else could pleasure a woman. The god’s were infuriated and wanted to curse Soma for this audacious sin, but found themselves powerless to do anything against him. The Rajasuya had made him all powerful and rendered everyone else powerless before him.
Some say it was when Tara saw Soma as he stood in all his glory after the ritual bath that concluded the Rajasuya that she became infatuated with him, like the nine goddesses. The Devi Bhagavata Purana, which tells us this story in detail, has a different story to say.
Before we go into that story, the word ‘tara’ means a star, and in mythology all over the world the moon and the stars are closely linked together. In our own mythology, the moon god is wedded to the twenty-seven daughters of Daksha, who are all stars: the twenty-sever stars of astrology – Ashwati, Bharani, Kartika, Rohini and so on. Tara’s infatuation with the moon god is thus supported by the logic of mythology. Tara’s husband Brihaspati is the planet Jupiter, who pales in comparison with the lustrous glory of the moon in the night sky.
According to the Devi Bhagavata, one day Tara went to the house of Soma. Tara was beautiful beyond words, a lusty woman at the peak of her youth, intoxicated with youthful passions. Soma saw the irresistible Tara and instantly desired her. And Tara too took one look at Soma and straight away fell in love with him. Carried away by the stormy passion they felt, they neither could, nor wanted to, resist the fiery longing they felt for each other and had sex. Following which, Tara decided to stay on in Soma’s house, rather than go back to her husband Brihaspati.
Soma is a god and Brihaspati is the guru of the gods. According to Indian culture, the relation between Soma and Tara is that of a disciple and his gurupatni – his guru’s wife. Indian culture speaks of an erotic relation between the two as the worst possible sin, a mahapataka. And it is this dreaded sin that the two were indulging in without any compunctions.
Brihaspati waited for a few days for Tara to come back. When she did not, he sent one of his disciples to Soma’s house. But drunk with the love of Soma, Tara refused to go back to Brihaspati. Days passed and Brihaspati once again sent a disciple, asking Tara to go back to him and Tara did exactly what she had done earlier – she again refused to go back to Brihaspati. This happened again and again and eventually Brihaspati decided to go on his own and take Tara back.
Brihaspati was in a fury when he reached Soma’s residence. Addressing the moon god, he said angrily: “What have you done, you fool? I am your guru and Tara is your gurupatni. You can protect her, revere her, but you cannot have any other relationship with her. What have you been doing keeping her in your house? Were you protecting her or were you having sex with her? Don’t you know that for you to have sex with her is to commit one of the gravest sins in the world? You are not fit to live among the gods. Give my wife back to me and let me take her back to where she belongs – my home. Do as I say before I lay a curse upon you.”
Soma laughed haughtily at the enraged words of the guru. He began by attacking Brihaspati for losing his self mastery. “It is only those brahmanas who have full mastery over their emotions that deserve honour. You seem to have no mastery over yourself and for that reason you cannot curse me either. The curse of a man without mastery over himself will have no effect.”
“As for Tara,” Soma continued, “she is here on her own. I haven’t kept her a prisoner here. And she is enjoying herself. When she has had enough of enjoyment, she will come back to you and you can have her back. Let her stay here so long as she wants to. What harm can it do? ”
Soma reminded Brihaspati quoting the scriptures that a woman never becomes impure from adultery. She is purified month after month when she has her period.
Brihaspati saw he had no options but to go back. But at home he was tormented by longing [smara-aaturah] for Tara. Soon he was back at Soma’s place. This time, however, the watchmen who stood guard at the gate did not even let Brihaspati go in.
Brihaspati waited long, but Soma did not appear. The furious guru could no more contain his anger and shouted aloud from the gate: “You wretch! You vilest of gods! No one is more depraved than you are. Tara is your gurupatni. She is like your mother! You have forcibly kept her a prisoner in your house and you have been living in sin with her! Give her back to me this instant or I shall reduce you to ashes.”
Soma now came out and spoke to Brihaspati with a smile on his face. He said, “Why do you talk such nonsense! Your beautiful wife is here because you cannot give her the satisfaction she seeks. And in any case, she is too beautiful for you. She is endowed with every imaginable feminine perfection. Such a jewel of a woman is not fit for a beggar like you. Why don’t you take some ugly woman for a wife – she would be fit for you. It has been ordained that exquisite women should have handsome husbands. And the kamashastras [books on the erotic science] too say that beautiful women should have for their husbands men who are equal to them in beauty, youth and prowess. You seem to be totally ignorant of the Kamashastra! Now go away. I have no intension of giving her back to you. And let me tell you, your curse will have no effect on me, for you are in the grips of lust.”
Insulted, humiliated, furious, Brihaspati went straight to Indra, his chief disciple and the lord of the gods and told him what happened. Indra took matters into his own hands and sent a messenger to Soma explaining to him the evil nature of his relationship with Tara and asking him to give her back to Brihaspati. Indra reminded him of the twenty-eight wives he already had [according to some counts Daksha had given twenty seven of his daughters to the moon god as his wives, and according to some others, twenty-eight.]. He reminded him of the celestial courtesans like Urvashi and Menaka. He could have them for his pleasure if he so wished, said Indra – but this relationship with his gurupatni was certainly a shame for any man, and particularly so for a man whose father was a sage like Atri.
Soma told him that the whole notion that a man can own a woman is wrong. Tara had gone to him on her own and she was happy with him, just as he was happy with her. Tara hated Brihaspati and she wouldn’t go back to him on her own. No power in the world was going to separate her from him against her will.
The moon god did not forget to remind Indra of his own adultery and the adultery of Brihaspati, which he stated as one of the reasons why Tara hated her husband.
This was a challenge to the power of Indra and the gods in general. Soma, who was so haughty about his power, had to be taught a lesson through power. There was only one solution now: a war against Soma. With all the gods on one side and Soma on the other.
Acharya Shukra, the guru of the asuras, heard of the problem in the celestial world. He took Soma’s side and offered him assistance if there was a war – his own and that of the asuras.
The armies gathered, ready for war.
Brahma, however, decided to interfere at the last moment. Brahma was Sage Atri’s father and hence Soma’s grandfather. Soma finally listened to Brahma and agreed to send Tara back to Brihaspati. Tara was given no choice in the matter. She certainly was not happy about this, but she had no alternative and reluctantly went back to her husband. Brihaspati was delighted that he got his wife back. Taking her with him, he went home.
The story does not end here.
Tara was pregnant when she went back. When the child was born, Brihaspati became very happy and made arrangements to celebrate the birth and perform the rituals. But Soma would have none of it. He laid claim to the child, telling it was born of him. This time it was Brihaspati’s turn to refuse, saying the child was his and it resembled him.
Once again the celestial world was hot with anger and the gods and asuras assembled ready for war. This time too, it was Brahma who interfered. He asked Tara to tell the truth: Whose son was it? And Tara coyly whispered that it was Soma’s and, embarrassed, hurried back to her inner apartments.
The war was avoided once again.
Soma named his son Budha and it is with Soma that the child grew up.
Soma is the first king of the lunar dynasty and Budha, the second. Budha’s son Pururava is one of the greatest legends in the lunar dynasty filled with legendary kings. His life with the apsara Urvashi has fascinated our culture for ages and inspired numerous works of literature, from the most ancient times right up to our own times.
One of the puzzling things in the stories of the moon god is his strong association with sexual desire. It is not puzzling in the sense that this is a rare connection found only in Indian mythology – on the contrary, this is a near-universal connection and hence, in that sense, not puzzling at all. It is puzzling because he is born of the tears of a sage’s ecstasy of self-realization.
But then, Indian culture has associated sexuality with sacredness right from the beginning. We have looked upon [sexual] desire, kama, as the very source of life. The Nasadiya Sukta of the Rig Veda, the Sacred Hymn of Creation, speaks of kama as the first born and the origin of everything born subsequently: “There arose Primal Desire in the beginning, the seed of the mind, the first born.” [Kamastadagre samavartadhi manaso retah prathamam yad aseet.] Krishna too speaks of kama as sacred – as himself, as God – so long as it is not against dharma. [dharmaviruddho bhuteshu kamo’smi bharatarshabha. Gita 7.11] But when that sexuality takes you over, possesses your mind, enslaves you, then it is bad.
In the case of the moon god, what we find is his becoming a slave to his sexuality and because of this sexual slavery, practicing precisely the opposite of the kind of kama that Krishna calls sacred. In spite of all the arguments he gives, in both the stories above we find him a slave to his sexuality. In the first case, there is only one reason why he would respond to the open, public demand of the nine goddesses – his own sexual desire for them, originating as much from his maleness as from his sense of power and sense of arrogant superiority over the other gods. In the second case again, we find him not a master, but a slave to not just sex, but to one of the worst forms of sexuality that Indian culture speaks of: his sexual partner is a woman he should look upon as his own mother. He not only has sex with her, but has an ongoing sexual relationship that lasts for quite some time. And there is no attempt on his part to hide that relationship– he openly declares it, flouts all sexual morality when he says any woman can choose any man she likes as her sexual partner and contemptuously tells Brihaspati that the reason why his wife left him is because he, Brihaspati, is not an adept in the sexual arts and cannot give satisfaction to his wife.
Perhaps what we find here is the mind at play. The moon is the deity of the mind in both Vedic literature and subsequent Indian philosophy. And the mind is a slave to passions. The reasons Some gives, when he chooses to give reasons, are not the true reasons, but the ‘good’ reasons. At least in the case of the affair with Tara, the Devi Bhagavata makes the true reason very clear: the first thing that the Devi Bhagavata tells us of this affair is that at the first sight of the beautiful Tara, Soma became kamaaturah – tormented by lust for her.
Perhaps the contradiction in Soma’s obsession with sex and the story of his birth from the tears of a sage’s spiritual ecstasy could be resolved if we remember that when Atri attained self-realization, he was doing tapas to empower himself for creation.
In any case, a legacy of the moon god thus is one of powerful sexual longing – amoral or immoral – and this becomes the legacy of a vast number of kings in the lunar dynasty. King after king falls because he becomes a victim to unbridled sexuality.
A third story we have about Soma is about his obsessive passion for one of his wives, which makes him neglect his other wives. According to this story, which the Mahabharata itself tells us, Daksha gave twenty-seven of his daughters in marriage to Soma. They were all beautiful, but the most beautiful of them all was Rohini. Soma is besotted with her and in his obsession with her, totally ignores his remaining wives. They go to their father and complain to him about it. Daksha instructs Soma to mend his ways and behave equally towards all his wives, but his infatuation with Rohini is such that he continues to ignore them. His wives once again go to their father and Daksha again reminds Soma of the need to be with his other wives. This time too Soma ignores the advice. It is after Daksha’s daughters went to their father a third time that Daksha curses Soma. The story tells us how Daksha’s curse brought the dreaded disease rajayakshma [tuberculosis, the wasting disease] upon him. A repentant Soma was later asked to go and bathe in the sacred waters of Prabhasa and this bath changed his yakshma into the current monthly waxing and waning we see the moon passing through.
Indian literature tells human stories in the name of the gods. What we read here are some such stories. It is also possible that the episodes are speaking of cosmic astronomical events which the Puranas narrate in human/celestial terms. Tara and Soma as well as Tara and Rohini are astrologically linked; and Soma and the goddesses could also be so linked.
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