Sage Galava’s story is fascinating in the bizarre turns it takes so the Sage can fulfill his odd promise to his preceptor. It has often been written about from a mythological as well as a feminist perspective and is even spoken of actively in the #Yoga community – given that the sage has a popular arm balance named after him.
I was prompted to write this as recently a favorite yoga influencer on Instagram, wrote about Sage Galava citing him as an example of someone who pursued his goals with great determination and focus. That instead of ‘sending good thoughts and meditating his way out of his troubles,’ he took action and succeeded with due support from a princess named Madhavi. While this narrative would very much align with the modern understanding of Yoga, the real story of Galava is quite to the contrary, and it’s a story that makes one extremely uncomfortable. Let’s take a quick read.
Galava and Madhavi’s story
Sage Galava was a devoted student (and perhaps also the son) of the accomplished Sage Vishwamitra. He got this name because falling on tough times; his mother almost sold him off as a slave by tying a rope around his neck (gala). He grew up to become a devoted pupil and worked extremely hard in the service of his Guru, Sage Vishwamitra. One day satisfied with the services rendered unto him, Vishwamitra gave Galava permission to leave and released him from his duties. As was customary a student always offered ‘Guru Dakshina’ (fee) to his preceptor on completion of his training and education. But Vishwamitra refused to take anything more from Galava as he already felt wholly indebted to his student.
But Galava did not want it to end this way. He was insistent on giving a gift to Vishvamitra as it would make his sacrifice towards his Guru complete, such an act would have earned him high merit. Thus, despite Vishvamitra telling him multiple times to go as he does not want any gift, Galava kept asking him for such a favor. Irritated and angry, Vishvamitra told him to get 800 white horses with one black ear.
It was such an impossible task that Galava even contemplated killing himself. He was a poor ascetic with no means to purchase any horses, let alone with such specifics. At this point, his friend Garuda came over and offered his help. With Garuda’s support and counsel, Galava first approached King Yayati and related his predicament. In return for his help, he told the king we would offer him a share of his austerities – which meant he would credit King Yayati’s karmic account with a certain amount of his good karma earned through his spiritual meditative practices. (Indeed it was his meditation practice that came to his aid here).
As per the Dharma of those times a righteous King never refused a Brahmana. So Yayati was unwilling to turn them away but also unable to fulfill their wish as he did not have any such horses or money to support the Brahmana. Thus, after much deliberation, the King offered his daughter Madhavi to Galava in the hope that her bride price could pay for Galava’s horses. Taking Madhavi him, Galava along with Garuda went looking out for other righteous kings who would be willing to help a Brahmana.
As it turned out, only three kings in the world had such horses, and they had just 200 each. Galava was in a predicament as there were three kings but only one Madhavi. Madhavi was then offered to these three kings over successive years, and she produced a son for each of them. In place of those sons, Galava got 200 such horses from each of the King’s. Because there were no more such horses to be found in the world, he then took the 600 to Vishwamitra and offered Madhavi instead of the horses that were short. Vishwamitra too fathered a son on her.
After this Galava returned Madhavi to her father, who wanted to arrange a Swamyavara (a ceremony in which the bride chooses a groom from an assembly of eligible men) for her. At this ceremony, she passed all the bridegrooms and eventually decided on the forest as her husband, walking into it for life finally on her terms. They say she lived her life like a wild deer and earned great merit for her practice of Brahmacharya.
This is usually the extent to which this story is told in popular media. However, we’re not done yet, there’s more to it which is not often discussed and here’s the rest of the background.
What was the purpose of Sage Galava’s story in Mahabharata?
Sage Galava’s story was being told to Duryodhana to teach him why he should not go to war. Despite repeated efforts, Duryodhana was unconvinced and ignoring all the wise counsel he stubbornly insisted on going to war. This story was narrated by none other than the famous traveling Vedic Sage Narada. It was a lesson about the pitfalls of stubbornness and not listening to the advice of well-wishers. Here is precisely what Sage Narada said before relating Galava’s story:
“O son of Kuru’s race, I think, the word of friends ought to be listened to. Obstinacy ought to be avoided; for it is fraught with great evil. In this connection is cited an old story regarding Galava’s having met with disgrace through obstinacy.”
How did 600 horses of such strange description even exist?
Vishwamitra did not randomly ask for 800 such horses. There’s an account of 1000 such horses in the Mahabharata text out of which 400 had been killed near the river Beas during transit. Thus only 600 existed in the world at Galava’s time, and Vishwamitra must’ve been aware, deliberately putting Galava on this path. Galava’s divine friend Garuda too had this knowledge all along.
How was such treatment of Madhavi allowed in the age of ‘Dharma’?
It appears Yayati did not give away his daughter on a whim. Madhavi had a boon that she would give birth to four kings and Yayati was aware of it. She even had the gift of becoming a virgin each time after giving birth – something she told Galava herself to reassure him that he will be able to offer her to the Kings multiple times over. This probably was a later addition, or that’s what I would like to believe but either way, it is a part of the critical edition of Mahabharata as it is today.
I am of the belief that mythological tales were a means to communicate spiritual concepts. I love to distill relevant philosophical messages from these stories, but this particular one is hard to separate from the patriarchy it represents. In any case, what can be said with conviction is that Madhavi was not Galava’s dutiful subject, she was her father’s obedient daughter. More than Galava’s, this is Madhavi’s story. She endured all the experiences as she was honoring her father’s pledge to a Brahmana. She even gave up her newborn sons and moved from king to king focused only on her immediate duties. Perhaps it is a lesson in forbearance or a warning that the path of Dharma is not for the weak-hearted. Or perhaps it is a reminder that a more significant karmic plan is always at play – Vishvamitra’s odd demand, Yayati’s decision and Madhavi’s boons were just what was needed for four virtuous kings to be born. What do you think?
If you enjoyed this story you can click here for my Mahabharata book recommendations to find more such tales in the great epic.