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In Mythology, Adoption is not an Act of Desperation, but a Kindly Choice

Babies milk water

Sita. Karna. Kunti. Satyavati. Shakuntala. What do they have in common?

They were all ‘adopted’. If adoption is another mode to have a child, mythology is much more complex when it comes to adoption.  There are various kinds for various reasons, not always because of childlessness, the most cited yet strong enough for adopting a child.

The celibate Rishi Kanva adopts an abandoned girl he finds nestled among a flock of the birds shakun, thereby earning her a name Shakuntala and a foster father. Unmarried, he brings her up as his daughter in his ashram, and could well be called a single father.

Goddess of All Things

Adoption, interestingly, makes for some fine fathers.  Like Rishi Kanva, Dasharaj, a fisherman, brings up a foundling girl as his daughter Daseyi or Matsyagandha later to be famously known as Satyavati, the matriarch of the royal Kurus in the Mahabharata, though ironically it was her bloodline that tinted the royal dynasty.

King Shantanu of Hastinapur is another father who adopts the abandoned twins Kripa and Kripi lying in the woods.  A distraught Shantanu, whose wife Ganga had recently left him with their new born son Devavrat, yearns for a child and immediately picks them up and takes them to his palace.  Suspecting them to be the children of a rishi, he brings them up as one.

While the other alternative of having a child was surrogacy – as discussed in my previous article – adoption was a common practice, be it planned or accidental.

Mythology often questions everything about the ‘naturalness’ of motherhood and through the various cases of adoption it proves this point, wherein each individual case and way almost unquestioningly refutes this supposed naturalness, ascribed only to women.

Sita, of course, is the most famous ‘adopted’ child again ‘found’ by the childless King Janak and his wife Sunaina in a furrow by the field, thus getting her name, Sita. This raja-rishi does not pine for a son like his friend King Dashrath of Kosala nor does he wish to ‘adopt’ a son: but is passionate about the joys of adoption and treasures the importance of it, refuting the common premise that ‘naturalness’ means nothing in motherhood. The royal couple later have a daughter Urmila, the ‘natural-born’ child but it is always Sita who is known as Janaki and Vaidehi, the daughter of her father Janak of Videha.

A charioteer Adirath finds a beautiful baby in a basket afloat on the river. He and his wife Radha are childless and a happy man, he gladly adopts this unknown,child, little knowing that he is the illegitimate son of the unmarried princess Kunti and the Sun god, Surya.  Naming him Vasusena, the child of wealth (because of the glittering kavach-kundal), he   is believed to be lucky for them as later the couple is blessed with several sons, but the adopted boy who grows up to be the glorious Karna remains their favourite and the most devoted. Years later, when his royal birth is revealed, Karna refuses to abandon his parents. For him, Radha is his mother, never Kunti.

Kunti, herself was adopted but the reason for her adoption is very unusual, unlike her eldest son. Born as princess Pritha to King Sursen, she is given away to his childless friend King Kuntibhoj, who renames her Kunti after himself.

A similar case is seen in the Ramayana with Shanta, the daughter of King Dashrath of Kosala and Queen Kausalya who is later adopted by the childless King Romapad of Anga and his wife Vershini, Kausalya’s sister.

Two odd instances are of Krishna and Kartikeya. Krishna though born to princess Devaki of Mathura, is brought up by an unsuspecting foster mother, Yashoda, the wife of Nanda, the chief of the Gopas, in far off Gokul.

Likewise, Kartikeya is raised by numerous ‘mothers’ –  goddesses like Parvati, Ganga, Sharavana (the goddess of the forest) and the Krittikas, the six star-goddesses besides a pair of male gods as well –  Agni (the fire-god) and Vayu (the wind-god) bringing out the unconventional definition of family, where a child is known by the person who rears him and not incontrovertibly who bears him.

Motherhood is not necessarily a woman’s fate and future; neither  defining nor ‘completing’ her.

With adopted fathers like Kanva, and Dasharaj the concept of selflessness, a prerogative attributed to maternal love, is redefined. You need not be a mother to bear a child or become a father by begetting one.  When the apsara Menaka abandons her two daughters Pramadvara (from the gandharva Vishwavasu) and Shakuntala (from rishi Vishwamitra), she does not feel guilty, or that she has missed her destiny. Other apsaras too are known to desert their children to be later adopted by either kings or rishis.

Touching affiliated topics like illegitimacy, bigamous marriages, spousal abandonment, mythology ironically does not always reaffirm the motherhood myth. It quite often shatters the stereotype of the ‘naturalness’ of motherhood or the ‘curse’ of childlessness and the dread of barrenness.  King Bharat disillusioned with his nine sons, adopts another – Bhumanyu – to declare him his heir.

An abandoned Shakuntala instills the life of Kanva with a new purpose. For King Janak or the fisherman Dasharaj, it is not about a life of lacking, with a loss of what might have been: they adore their daughters.

All these tales in mythology reveal the surrogate form of families, where a father bring up a child without a wife, a mother loves another’s child as her own and children of such giving parents grow up to be happy, healthy adults, always the winner, never the whiner.

Adoption is rarely shown as an act of desperation but a kindly choice, even a happenstance or an odd circumstance, but it leaves all with a contented, fulfilled life.

 

Adopted Children in Hindu Mythology
  • Sita
  • Shakuntala
  • Karna
  • Kripa and Kripi
  • Kartikeya
  • Bhumanyu/Vitath
  • Satyavati
  • Kunti
  • Shanta