P. Lal: The Complete Mahaprasthanika & Svargarohana Parvas of the Mahabharata,
transcreated from Sanskrit, Writers Workshop, Rs. 150 (hardback).
Vyasa is full of surprises. Suddenly, in the penultimate book of the Mahabharata, we encounter a dog that won’t leave! We have come full circle. It is with Sarama, the hound of heaven, that the epic began when her children were beaten up in Janamejaya’s yajna, inviting her curse that his ritual would remain incomplete. The baffling symbolism needs unravelling.
The Great Exeunt pursued by a dog starts eastwards— a strange procession in single file, Draupadi bringing up the rear, followed by the dog. Arjuna clings on greedily to his divine weapons despite the fire-god blocking their path and demanding he return them to Varuna. Fire and water are integrally interlinked. The brothers have to persuade him to cast the weapons into the red waters (Brahmaputra/Bay of Bengal?) as the Excalibur has to be thrown into the lake. Turning south, from the sea they move west to submerged Dvaraka whence they turn north to Meru through a sea of sand beyond the Himavant.
Vyasa’s debunking of the heroic continues relentlessly from the Mace-Massacre. Starting with his heroine, who appeared full-grown out of nowhere from the sacrificial flames and caused the destruction of Kshatriyas, one by one each of his surviving grandsons collapses on the Himalayas. What puzzles is the reasons Yudhishthira cites for their inability to reach heaven. They are so trivial! Yet, each has been weighed and found wanting: “mene mene tekel upharsin”. Unhesitatingly he abandons them, without a backward glance, let alone tarrying by their side. But, he won’t abandon a dog. What sort of loyalty or compassion is this? Are the failings really venial? An inscription at the Delphic oracle read, “meden agan, nothing in excess”. Each suffers from hubris: excessive love for one husband [does Yudhishthira reveal his jealousy when he says, “She enjoys today the fruits of her favours (to Arjuna)”?], pride of wisdom, narcissism, arrogance of prowess, gluttony. We see, once again, Yayati’s descendants ignoring his warning: pride is the gate to hell.
Why do the Pandavas entrust the kingdom to Yuyutsu, a Dhartarashtra, when Arjuna’s grandson Parikshit is not a minor, being at least 35 years old? As blood-money combined with assuaging blood-guilt? And what about the Pandavas’ older sons by their other wives—Yudhishthira’s Yaudheya of Shibi, Bhima’s Sarvaga of Kashi, Arjuna’s Babhruvahana of Manilura/Manipura, Nakula’s Niramitra of Chedi and Sahadeva’s Suhotra of Madra? The answer lies in the Yadava ancestry of Parikshit, great grandson of Vasudeva through his daughter Subhadra, which received primacy because Kunti was Vasudeva’s sister. Besides, there was the unique Krishna-Arjuna relationship.
Yudhishthira refuses to board Indra’s chariot without the dog, placing loyalty to the bhakta above personal happiness, though Indra repeatedly points out that it is a polluting creature, destroying merit. Indra finally questions his claim of renunciation since he cannot give up this dog. The answer deserves attention: one cannot like or dislike the dead and they cannot be revived. “I did not abandon them when they were alive—only after they died.” Abandoning a “bhakta” equals the combined demerit of rejecting a refugee, killing a woman, stealing from a Brahmin and betraying a friend. Such unswerving compassion wins him the unique boon of bodily attainment of heavenly felicity from the god Dharma who was testing him for the second time as this dog.
Prof. Lal’s excellent preface poses provocative questions besides providing remarkable insights. Even the wickedest character is not consigned permanently to hell. Nor is heaven permanent for the virtuous. Karma and its fruits remain a mystery even for the gods.
But the tests are not over. Shown heaven and urged to conquer human attachment, the seventeenth book ends with Yudhishthira demanding to be taken to his brothers and to
the lovely ample-bodied lady,
the dark-blue-cloud-complexioned lady,
the sattva-guna-endowed lady,
the lady who is youthful.
Take me to my Draupadi.
Instead, his first sight in heaven is of a radiant Duroyodhana seated on a dazzling throne. Bitterness wells up. He shouts that because of Duryodhana Draupadi was dragged in the hall (he does not mention any stripping) and turns away, insisting “Where my brothers are is heaven. This is not heaven.” Narada, praising Duryodhana’s heroism, asks Yudhishthira to rise above earthly hatred, but he will not enter a heaven where those who died for him have no place but “the man responsible for the ruin of the world” has. He burns with grief, repeatedly recalling how Karna’s feet resembled his mother’s. So, he is guided to hell. As, dizzy with the horrors, he turns back, voices of his loved ones arise, begging him to stay as his presence brings joy and peace, for
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.
When Yudhishthira determines to remain, Indra and the gods arrive, hell vanishes. This was Dharma’s third test, the experience necessitated by his lying to kill Drona. They whose bad karma exceeds the good enjoy heaven first. That appears to mollify Yudhishthira’s outrage at finding Duryodhana in heaven. However, he does not reach heaven in the physical body. He has to discard it in the celestial Ganga to see Krishna, his five brothers and Draupadi radiant in heaven.
Suddenly, Vyasa throws in a twist. Yudhishthira is about to question Draupadi when Indra intervenes, introducing her as the goddess Shri whom Shiva created as Draupadi. Yudhishthira’s unvoiced question remains as much a mystery of the Mahabharata as Draupadi’s unanswered question in the sabha. Draupadi’s identity as Shri is intriguing, for the goddess is Vishnu’s spouse, while on earth she is the Pandavas’ wife. Perhaps that is why she is Krishna’s “sakhi”.
The Ascent to Heaven transcreation is a diglot Sanskrit-English edition with a valuable preface discussing what is Dharma and why moksha finds no mention here. There are a couple of errors in the transcreation. Shloka 4.21 should read, “See the son of king Shantanu, Bhishma” instead of “See the son of Shantanu, king Bhishma”. Shloka 5.64 should be “This is the Bharata-Savitri” instead of “This is the Savitri-Gayatri of the Mahabharata.”
Vyasa ends by throwing us into confusion. After declaiming that in this world of samsara, forever in flux, the fool suffers by rejoicing and being fearful while the wise remains serene, he exclaims in frustration:
I raise my arms and I shout
but no one listens!
From Dharma comes Artha and Kama—
why is Dharma not practised?
Why does this verse conclude the “Bharata-Savitri”, the essence of the epic? To tease us out of thought into eternity?