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The hunter's regret

There have been a lot of stories in the papers recently about people who go hunting, often for animals that are protected. A few months ago it was the Nawab of Pataudi, former captain of India’s cricket team and father of Saif Ali Khan. Saif too has been arrested for hunting protected animals, and so have Sunjay Dutt and Salman Khan. Animals are protected because they are endangered -- if we continue to kill them there may soon be none left. Like the extinct dodo bird from the Australian continent.  

Why do people hunt? You will find some answers to that in another section on this website. But we do know that kings and hunting have long been part of the stories that have come down to us through the ages. Even the Ramayana and the Mahabharata contain stories about kings who hunt. As it happens, the hunts have important and unpleasant consequences for Dasaratha and Pandu.

Dasaratha was the unfortunate king whose beloved son Rama was banished into the forest for 14 years. His young wife Kaikeyi demanded that her son be made king and that the people’s favourite, Rama, be exiled. Dasaratha had to agree because he had earlier given his queen two boons for saving his life in battle. The king died of a broken heart as soon as Rama left for the forest.

But there was another reason for Dasaratha’s separation from his son and for his death. Long ago, when Dasaratha was a young man, he went hunting, as all kings do. He was an excellent marksman and could locate his prey simply by the sound it made. He heard a sound far away -- he strung his best arrow into his bow and listened again. In the distance he thought he heard an elephant drinking water. He loosed his magnificent arrow in the direction of the river and almost immediately he heard a cry of pain as the arrow found its mark. He ran to where the sound came from, trampling through the bushes and reeds. When he came to the riverbank, he saw what he had struck. It was a young boy filling water from the river.

Dasaratha was deeply upset -- he had not meant to kill another human being. The boy was still breathing and he told Dasaratha that he was the only son of an old couple that lived in the forest. His mother was ill and frail and his father blind -- he was their only means of support. He begged the king to tell them what had happened to him and to take care of them in the future. Dasaratha went to the boy’s aged parents and asked for their forgiveness. But they were distraught and cursed him -- that he too would die of grief for his beloved son who would be taken away from him. That curse was fulfilled through the boons that Kaikeyi asked for. Dasaratha was separated from Rama and died, knowing that he would never see him again.

And then there is the story of Pandu, from the Mahabharata. Pandu had a wife, Kunti, and three sons who were strong and brave -- Yudhisthira, Bhima and Arjuna. But he fell in love with the beautiful princess Madri and decided to marry her as well. Soon, she bore him twins, Nakula and Sahadeva. One day, when Pandu was out hunting in the deep forest, he shot and killed a male deer that was in the act of making love to its mate. The deer, that was actually a rishi (sage), cursed Pandu as he died, saying that if Pandu were ever to touch his wives again he would die. Pandu stayed away from his wives as long as he could, but one day he could bear it no longer. He called Madri to him and as he embraced her, he fell down dead. His five sons suffered greatly as a result of their father’s death. Their rivalry with their cousins, the Kauravas, resulted in the great war of the Mahabharata in which there were no victors and at the end of which the world lay in ruins.

These stories from our famous epics clearly tell us that even though kings hunt as a pastime, hunting has terrible consequences. Both the kings that we have looked at die and their sons suffer as a result of their fathers’ actions. Their wives too are left at the mercy of other people. Valmiki, the author of the Sanskrit Ramayana, was so moved when he saw the grief of a bird whose mate had been killed by a hunter that he poured out a verse of mourning.

All the stories indicate that the animal world, which is so much a part of the larger world we live in, is horribly affected by men hunting for sport. The grief of an animal that loses its mate can be turned onto the human killer as a curse. Perhaps we no longer believe in magic, in curses and boons, but we can still take the point that our actions in the animal world have far-reaching and devastating consequences, if not immediately for us then for the animals that we strike down for our pleasure.

--Arshia Sattar

InfoChange News & Features, February 2006

The hunter's regret
Sati and the myths that surround it