At the onset, let me mention that this myth is trifle disturbing. This tale is told by Bhishma while he was on the bed of arrows, to Yudhishtir, during the war at Kurukshetra, in the Anushasan Parva, of Mahabharata.
Oghavati, a princess was married to a learned sage, Sudarsana. Sudarsana had vowed to conquer death without leaving the path of a householder. He continued to lead a family life, while maintaining his vow. As a part of his vow, he told his wife, Oghavati, that it was their prime duty to be of service to any guest, whosoever came to their cottage, at whatever time and whatever be his need or request. If that meant that she had to offer herself to him, then so be it!
Death, who heard this, kept following Sudarsana wherever he went, hoping to find a loophole in his vow. One day, when Sudarsana was out collecting firewood, a Brahmin guest came to the cottage and sought to be welcomed as a true householder would do. Oghavati welcomed him and offered him water and comfort. She then asked if he needed anything more. The guest replied that he wanted her and as part of the tradition, she should not object to it. Oghavati, tried to offer other alternatives to keep her virtue, but the guest was determined that nothing but her would suffice. It was at this moment, that Oghavati remembered her husband’s words, and reluctantly gave in. Both the guest and Oghavati went to bed together.
Just when the guest had finished making love, Sudarsana arrived and called for Oghavati, but Oghavati was too ashamed to respond to him as she felt that she was defiled and not worthy of her husband, as she was touched by another man. After repeated calling for his wife, the guest from inside the cottage replied that he was a guest and his wife was catering to his bodily needs and that he would have to wait.
Death who was stalking Sudarsana found his chance of the vow being broken and at the slightest tinge of anger or jealousy; it would club him to death. But Sudarsana, without any tinge of jealousy replied that he would wait till they were done and he also hoped that he had enjoyed the act. He also mentioned that he was glad that he was of some help and service to the Brahman guest.
Just then a gush of wind came from the cottage and he heard a voice saying that the guest was none other than the Lord Dharma and that he had arrived to test him and being pleased with him, Sudarsana had conquered death (Dharma being same as Yama/Death). He further proclaimed that Oghavati was one of the most chaste woman on earth and was protected by the virtues and qualities of devotion to her husband. From then onwards, half of her would remain with Sudarsana and the other half would flow as a river, named after her, Oghavati (sometime mentioned as the river Sarasvati), which would help people purify them of their sins.
I did mention at the onset that this was a trifle disturbing as a myth. If we try to unravel the reason of this myth, then one can broadly surmise that a guest is an important person and that he or she should be looked after, as gods sometimes take the form of guests. This goes well with the concept of Atithi devo bhava. So far so good. But there are deeper connotations. To prove that god could take the form of a guest and so the guest should be taken care of, there could have been a rather different myth and not necessarily like the one above.
While Dr. S. Dange had dissected this myth very differently as a study of human-morph, the union of river and fire, etc., 1 for me, the myth raises many an uncomfortable question. Whose test was it, Sudarsana’s or Oghavati’s? By Oghavati reluctantly offering herself to the guest, how did Sudarsana benefit (conquering of death)? Was this perpetuated by a certain class of people to benefit them, as and when they visit someone’s place?
If all myths have a social cause and the way it was told to Yudhishtir, raises some more questions - Was this myth told to Yudhishtir to extol the virtues of Dharma (who also happened to be Yudhishtir’s father)? Was it told to justify the fame of the river Oghavati that bathing in it could rid one of one’s sins, like they do with many other rivers? Did it imply that the sacrifices of a wife could lead to virtues for the husband? Or simply put, did it hint at a case for sex hospitality?
The last seems to be an issue which has a number of cases in Mahabharata, the other being the case of Kunti. Kunti was left to serve Sage Durvasas for a year and she was told that no request, whatsoever, of the sage should be turned down. She was rewarded with an incantation to call for any god when she wanted to. Why would a learned sage give such a ‘blessing’ to a virgin girl? Wasn’t it out of place, even if we see it as a need of the narrative later?
Many have said that the tale of Oghavati directly and that of Kunti indirectly hinted at the presence of sex hospitality in the society, which probably suited a certain class of people and extolling virtues could only make their demands more acceptable, even if there was reluctance. Not to be overlooked is the fact that in both the cases, the guests were Brahmins.
Mahabharat raises many questions, and quite often uncomfortable ones. Not all have answers. The authors of such epics probably wanted people at different times to discuss them and arrive at their own answers, suiting the milieu, if it does at all!
1 Myths from Mahabharat, By Dr. S. Dange