The epics of a civilisation are the recorded documents of that civilization’s glory and accomplishments. The exploits described therein were actual events that were handed down to posterity. Ours being the oldest civilization on the planet, our major epics are the records of our ancient culture.
These epics contain specific references to how seriously the women of yore took their maternal responsibilities during pregnancy and after childbirth. They were fully aware of the environmental and cultural influences on the fetuses and harnessed that knowledge for the benefit of the children and the community. The West had to wait until the invention of the ultrasound to realize this age-old phenomenon.
Let’s look at some examples from our epics of noble women who shaped the future of their children, and of the children who shaped the history of mankind. These women are the perfect representatives of aryan tradition in its best sense—noble, lofty, distinguished—with no temporal or geographical connotations.
Prahlāda, while in his mother’s womb, was exposed to Narada’s devotional songs in his hermitage, and consequently became a ‘Bhāgavatottama’, the foremost among devotees. He was taught by Narada as a child as well. He became a great devotee of Vishnu, to the dismay of his father, the demon-king Hiranyakasipu, who considered Vishnu his mortal enemy.
After warning the child Prahlāda, he had him tortured in every possible way, but Prahlāda survived unscathed. The venomous snakes that were supposed to bite him made themselves into a bed for him to sleep on. The elephants who were supposed to trample him to death became his docile playmates. Holika, the non-combustible sister of Hiranyakasipu, in whose lap he was supposed to burn to death, burnt to death instead, while Prahlãda coolly walked away, thanks to Vishnu’s help. Eventually, Hiranyakasipu became so intolerant of his son’s devotion that Vishnu had to jump out of a palace pillar in the shape of a man-lion, the only way to make short work of the demon protected by a variety of boons.
Note that just the environment in which the fetus grows itself has a tremendous impact on it, even without any special effort on the part of the mother to mould it.
Sri Rama, the earliest evidence in our epics of how parents were able to influence their future children occurs in the Ramayana. Desirous of progeny, Dasaratha performed the special sacrificial rite of putrakamesti on the recommendation of Sage Vasishta, at the completion of which the God of Fire appeared with a bowl of rice pudding and told the king to have his queens eat it. This act of purification resulted in the birth of Rama, Lakshmana, Bharata, and Satrughna—the four princes of extraordinary character, valor, and virtue- Rama being the noblest of them all. In addition to the devotion of the King, it was the collective aspiration and prayer of the residents of Ayodhya who were sumptuously rewarded that culminated in the glorious descent of Sri Rama.
Selfless and charitable acts by anyone targeting the fetus influence its future, which may become manifest much later in its life.
The Pandavas, Kunti and Madri were the queens of King Pandu of Hastinapura. Pandu once accidentally killed a sage and his wife. As he died, the sage cursed Pandu that he would be unable to have children by his queens. However, Kunti had a prior boon from Sage Durvasa that she could have sons by any god that she prays to through immaculate conception. God of Dharma granted Yudhishthira, who was thus the embodiment of Dharma. Vayu, the wind God, granted Bhima, the epitome of physical prowess. Indra’s grace resulted in the birth of Arjuna, the consummate warrior. Kunti shared the boon with Madri, to whom were born Nakula and Sahadeva, the handsome twins, due to the grace of the Asvins. The story of the birth of the Pandavas is a perfect example of the unlimited benefits and the power of prayer.
Speaking of the uncles, the Kauravas, their mother Gandhari was a woman of high moral stature, who always exhorted her sons to follow dharma and not fight with their cousins. Virtuous though, she was jealous towards her sister-in-law Kunti because she had sons before herself, sons who happened to be highly honorable and praised by everybody. That base emotion stayed on with Duryodhana whom even Lord Krishna failed to reform. Once the baby’s personality has been crystallized in the mother’ s womb, it sticks with the child and then the man throughout his entire life. She was thus a combination of virtue and weakness, somewhat of a cautionary tale.
It is evident that care must be taken by the mother not to give in to the least negative feeling or emotion during pregnancy.
Abhimanyu, the boy warrior and son of Arjuna and Subhadra, Krishna’s sister, learned the art of penetrating the complex military formation known as the lotus array (padma vyūha) in his mother’s womb, while his father Arjuna was explaining it to Subhadra.
Subhadra dozed off while the discussion was going on, but Abhimanyu in her womb was quite alert. Knowing the child’s destiny, Krishna took Arjuna away on some pretext before he had explained the exit strategy. So, Abhimanyu never got to learn how to get out of the formation unharmed. Abhimanyu’s story tells us how alert the fetuses are even when the mothers are in the sleep mode, and how they sponge any and all information that they hear around them.
Parīkshit, the son of Abhimanyu who started off the Kaliyuga, had a magnificent vision of the Lord while in the womb and looked all around for the Lord even after his birth. Hence his name, meaning looking around intently. Fetuses just don’t sleep 24/7 in the mothers’ tummies.
It is amazing how perceptive and receptive the tiny fetuses are!
Mārkandeya, Sage Mrikandu and his wife Marudmati worshipped Lord Siva with a view to obtaining the boon of a son from Him. Mrikandu chose a short-lived but illustrious son. When Markandeya’s allotted life-span expired, the God of Death, Yama appeared on his buffalo mount and found the young boy deeply meditating on Siva. On seeing Yama, he instinctively hugged the Śivaliṅga, and Yama’s noose tightened around Siva’s neck! Siva didn’t take kindly to it and promptly vanquished Death, releasing the boy from his clutches. Markandeya thus became immortal (cirañjīva) and went on to write his famous Makandeya Purana, and the Lord Siva earned for himself the title Kālāntaka, the vanquisher of death.
The takeaway here, as in the other stories we have alluded to, is that the seed sown by the mother in the baby in her womb will continue to blossom throughout the child’s life.
The ancient Sage Ashtāvakra (literally, malformed in eight limbs) happened to get that way owing to a curse that his father pronounced on him while in the womb, because he was enraged by the baby’s reference to his erroneous enunciation of a Vedic mantra. Tradition says that the father later relented and suggested to his now grown son to bathe in a certain pond to regain his normal physique. Ashtāvakra’s parents were Kahoda and Sujata, who were both students of Aruni, Sujata’s father. Obviously, fetal Ashtāvakra had a lot of opportunity to hear the Vedas recited correctly. He remembered enough of it to correct his father and get into trouble.
The point here, though, is that fetuses can absorb any amount of information while we think that they are sleeping blissfully in their mothers’ wombs. They bring all that information into the world with them and use it to influence their societies.
Madālasā, an ancient queen married to King Kuvalayāsva, was a yogini and a highly spiritually accomplished person. She had made her first three children saints by singing to them spiritual lullabies while rocking them to sleep. They then left for the forest to practice further austerities. When the king, who needed an heir to the throne, mentioned his concern to his queen, she said that their child could be groomed to be the ruler of the kingdom, because it was within her power to do so. Lo and behold, they did have a fourth son who became a great ruler and continued his father’s rule of the kingdom as desired by him.
Madalasa proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that the mother can make or break the personality of the baby she is carrying. We also note that young children through the age of three are still highly impressionable. In other words, the mother can influence her child for a few years after its birth.