All Mahabharata quotations are from the excellent, inspired translation by Kisari Mohan Ganguli.
Colin Wilson once said that killing could, for some people, be a rapturous experience. It gives the killer – especially for one who kills repeatedly and brutally– a God-like feeling. It’s a power-game – which in its moments of climax not just thrills, but transports the winner into ecstasies akin to orgasmic moments. Modern psychology concurs with this.
Perhaps it is the same for a warrior trained from birth to look upon glory in battle as the most desirable goal in life, as the Mahabharata warriors undoubtedly were. Duryodhana has this to say to Kripa in the Shalya Parva of the Mahabharata,
“Fame is all that one should acquire here. That fame can be obtained by battle, and by no other means.”
I do not think any warrior worthy of his ancestors, on his side or on the other, would have disagreed with it. To them battles were peak experiences, accompanied by rapturous ecstasies. They lived for such experiences and when an opportunity arose, even the danger of death did not prevent them from courting these. If anything, that threat added excitement to the challenge. And they accepted the challenge exultantly, entered the battle ecstatically and fought as though in throes of joy. No other pleasure in life was anything comparable to the joy of fighting valiantly a worthy opponent. And the more ferocious that warrior they fought was, the greater his reputation for valor, the greater his mastery of weapons and the art of using them, the greater were the transports of joy.
Death was but a small price they paid for such ecstatic experiences. It was something before which they did not flinch, something they even courted as desirable. As highly desirable, in fact. For, for a warrior death on bed, surrounded by relatives and friends, was a matter of shame. Glorious was the death one achieved in the battlefield. To slaughter the enemy ruthlessly in honorable battle was noble indeed. And to be pierced by a hundred arrows in every limb, to have one’s head chopped off with a single stroke of the enemy’s sword or a well-shot arrow was equally noble. And equally desirable.
“The death that a Kshatriya meets with at home is censurable. Death on one’s bed at home is highly sinful. The man who casts away his body…in battle…obtains great glory. He is no man who dies miserably weeping in pain, afflicted by disease and decay, in the midst of crying kinsmen.”
These sentences leave no room for any doubt about their attitude towards war.
Warriors in the Mahabharata come to the battlefield dressed in their best, as though for a festive occasion. For instance, as they begin their march, the mood in the army of Shalya, one of the first to start to join the war, is one of celebration. They are dressed in their best for the occasion. They have their weapons with them, of course. But they also wear wonderful clothes and lovely necklaces and other beautiful ornaments. All the other alankaras are on, too. It is indeed a festive occasion!
There is a general air of festivity, of celebration, of sports, even to the fiercest of battles. Bheeshma in the middle of a terrifying battle is several times described as ‘as though playing’ – kreedanniva. Once the Mahabharata says that he looked as though he was dancing in the battlefield – nrittyanniva – and at that time he was engaged in one of the fiercest encounters in the eighteen-day war! And it is not just individual soldiers that dance, but whole armies do so, too: “The two armies, as they advanced to meet each other, seemed to dance.”
Take a look at the description of an encounter between Arjuna and Ashwatthama:
“The son of Drona then, O Bharata, pierced Arjuna with a dozen gold-winged arrows of great energy and Vasudeva with ten. Having shown for a short while some regard for the preceptor’s son in that great battle, Vibhatsu (Arjuna) then, smiling the while, stretched his bow Gandiva with force. Soon, however, the mighty car-warrior Savyasachi (Arjuna) made his adversary steed-less and driver-less and car-less, and without putting forth much strength pierced him with three arrows. Staying on that steed-less car, Drona’s son, smiling the while, hurled at the son of Pandu a heavy mallet that looked like a dreadful mace with iron-spikes.”
Smiling the while, both of them – in the battlefield, engaged in deathly battles! In fact, once Krishna had to chide Arjuna for playing about too much. He asks:
"Why, O sinless one, dost thou sport in this way? Grinding theseSamsaptakas, haste thyself for Karna’s slaughter." Arjuna obliges. “Saying, ‘So be it’ unto Krishna, Arjuna then, forcibly smiting the remnant of the Samsaptakas with his weapons, began to destroy them like Indra destroying the Daityas.”
War was indeed a game! Played in the best of spirits! In the spirit of sports!
Dead did not matter. They embraced it with the same eagerness with which they embraced life. Embraced battle. Fought and killed. And death too welcomed them with the same warmth and passion as they had found in the arms of life. They had lived as masters of the Earth and in dying, they were only resting on her breast. Describing the death of Shalya, Sanjaya tells the blind king:
“Stretching his arms, the ruler of the Madras fell down on the Earth, with face directed towards king Yudhishthira the just, like a tall banner erected to the honor of Indra falling down on the ground. Like a dear wife advancing to receive her dear lord about to fall on her breast, the Earth then seemed, from affection, to rise a little for receiving that bull among men as he fell down with mangled limbs bathed in blood. The puissant Shalya, having long enjoyed the Earth like a dear wife, now seemed to sleep on the Earth’s breast, embracing her with all his limbs.”
Erotic imageries about in the description of battle scenes.
One often gets the feeling that the kings and warriors who came to fight came not caring much for the cause for which they fought. What mattered was the battle itself. They enjoyed a battle and they did not want to be left out. The Mahabharata war was the most glorious event in a long, long time, and they wanted to be part of it and celebrate it. Who would want to miss the greatest mela on earth? Did it really matter on whose side they fought – so long as they fought?
Shalya is Madri’s brother and the Pandavas’ uncle. He is invited by the Pandavas to join their side and fight for them. He begins his journey towards them along with hismaharathi sons and a large army. However, Duryodhana goes forward and meets them on the way. Pleased by his hospitality, Shalya decides to join the Kauravas! Which does not make him an enemy of the Pandavas, though. He visits them, too, affectionately and gives them his blessings! Eventually towards the end of the war, after the death of Karna, Shalya becomes the commander-in-chief of the Kaurava army. He had started out to fight against them!
Relationships did count. But the battle was bigger than all relationships. As the epic says,
“There the son recognized not the sire, the sire (recognized not) the son of his loins, the brother (recognized not) the brother, the sister's son (recognized not) the maternal uncle. The maternal uncle (recognized not) the sister's son, the friend not the friend.”
They just fought.
Rukmi, Krishna’s brother-in-law, first approached the Pandavas – Krishna was there and he wanted to forget the old enmity between them and begin with him on a new footing, while also finding glory in the battle. He had come with a full akshauhini. But there he committed the faux pas of telling Arjuna, in the presence of his brothers, Krishna and other kings, that if he, Arjuna, was afraid, he was there to help him in the war. Smiling, Arjuna replied that he was born in the line of the Kurus, was, besides, the son of Pandu, was a disciple of Drona, had Krishna as his helper, and had the Gandeeva in his hand – how could he then say he was afraid? He told Rukmi he was free to stay or go, as he pleased. An insulted Rukmi departed with his akshauhini and approached Duryodhana and repeated his words there. Duryodhana did not consider himself any more scared than Arjuna was, of course! And Rukmi returned to his kingdom. The Mahabharata specially mentions that Rukmi and Balarama were the only two great warriors to keep away from the war.
Truly, what counted was that you fought – not for whom or for what cause you fought. Many who fought on the Kaurava side were very close to the Pandavas and some who fought for the Pandavas, close to the Kauravas.
Of course, how you fought counted. How valiantly you fought, how fearlessly you fought, how skillfully you fought, how heroically you fought, how recklessly you fought – these counted. You had to laugh at death. Mock it. Mock the horrors of the battlefield. See beauty in red blood flowing. See beauty in severed arms writhing. See beauty in brave heads tumbling. The most savage battle should delight you. Should enthrall you. Then you are a true Kshatriya. True blue blood.
Battle scenes go on and on. The author never tires of describing them. Chapter after chapter after chapter. Endless details are given – again and again and again. And always ecstatically. The author’s rapture comes through, even when the scene described is horrifying.
The encounter between Bheema and Dushshasana stands unrivalled for horror. Listen to the eloquence of the Mahabharata as it eulogizes this hair-raising scene in a true ode to savagery.
“Like a lion of fierce impetuosity rushing towards a mighty elephant, Vrikodara [Bheema], that foremost of heroes, rushed towards Dushshasana in that battle and attacked him in the very sight of Suyodhana and Karna. Jumping down from his car, he alighted on the ground, and fixed his eyes steadfastly on his fallen foe. Drawing then his whetted sword of keen edge, and trembling with rage, he placed his foot upon the throat of Dushshasana, and ripping open the breast of his enemy stretched on the ground, quaffed his warm life-blood. Then throwing him down and cutting off, O king, with that sword the head of thy son, Bheema of great intelligence, desirous of accomplishing his vow, again quaffed his enemy’s blood little by little, as if for enjoying its taste. Then looking at him with wrathful eyes, he said these words, "I regard the taste of this blood of my enemy to be superior to that of my mother’s milk, or honey, or clarified butter, or good wine that is prepared from honey, or excellent water, or milk, or curds, or skimmed milk, or all other kinds of drinks there are on earth that are sweet as ambrosia or nectar."
Once more, Bheema of fierce deeds, his heart filled with wrath, beholding Dushshasana dead, laughed softly and said,
"What more can I do to thee? Death has rescued thee from my hands."
They, O king, that saw Bheemasena, while he filled with joy at having quaffed the blood of his foe, was uttering those words and stalking on the field of battle, fell down in fear. They that did not fall down at the sight, saw their weapons drop from their hands. Many, from fear, cried out feebly and looked at Bheema with half-shut eyes. Indeed, all those that stood around Bheema and beheld him drink the blood of Duhshasana, fled away, overwhelmed with fear, and saying unto one another,
"This one is no human being!"”
In a different reading of the Mahabharata, we have Bheema, after rushing to the fallen Dushshasana and kicking him in the neck, ask him in a voice that shakes the whole battlefield to tell him with which hand he had touched the hair of Draupadi. And the fallen Dushshasana, proud warrior that he is, raises his arm and says:
"Here is my arm, mighty like the trunk of an elephant, with which I have crushed the breasts of pretty women, slaughtered kshatriyas and given in charity thousands of cows."
Bheema climbs on Dushshasana’s chest and challenges all his enemies to come and save Dushshasana if they can, for he is going to pull that arm out his body. And he does exactly that. Standing on his chest, the mighty Bheema plucks out with a mighty pull the mighty arm of Dushshasana from his mighty body. And then he thrashes Dushshasana with that plucked out arm. It is then that he proceeds to tear Dushshasana’s chest open and drink the heart-blood of the man who had dared to touch his wife. Not content, pushing back to the ground Dushshasana who is still trying to get up, devoid of his arm and his heart open, a roaring Bheema cuts off his head and raising it above his head, drinks the blood flowing from it – slowly, deliberately, enjoying every drop of it. Now he says those famous words:
"I have drunk the milk of my mother’s breasts. I have drunk honey. I have drunk exquisite liquor. I have drunk other delightful drinks. But none of them equals in taste the blood of my enemy."
Interestingly, as often happens with the author of the epic, the emotional intensity of the scene, its immense power, forces him to change the meter of this scene from his usual anushtubh to the more evocative, the more powerful, trishtubh, certainly more appropriate for paying homage to this scene so pulsatingly full of the veebhatsa rasa.
The original Sanskrit trishtubh slokas are riotous in their flow and bring out with effortless ease the rapture and awe in the poet’s heart as he describes the scene.
The rapture is not confined to the description of battles between giants. Even ordinary encounters are described ecstatically. Here is an encounter that could be happening anywhere at any moment in the war, an encounter with no great names mentioned.
‘Then commenced the battle between the Kurus and the Srinjayas, O monarch, that was as fierce and awful as the battle between the gods and the Asuras. Men and crowds of cars and elephants, and elephant-warriors and horsemen by thousands, and steeds, all possessed of great prowess, encountered one another. The loud noise of rushing elephants of fearful forms was then heard there resembling the roars of the clouds in the welkin, in the season of rains. Some car-warriors, struck by elephants, were deprived of their cars. Routed by those infuriate animals other brave combatants ran on the field. Well-trained car-warriors, O Bharata, with their shafts, dispatched large bodies of cavalry and the footmen that urged and protected the elephants, to the other world. Well-trained horsemen, O king, surrounding great car-warriors, careered on the field, striking and slaying the latter with spears and darts and swords. Some combatants armed with bows, encompassing great car-warriors, dispatched them to Yama’sabode, the many united battling against individual ones.”
This one too is a general encounter:
“Those Kshatriyas, O monarch, …longing to take one another’s life, began to slay one another in that battle. Throngs of cars, and large bodies of horses, and teeming divisions of infantry and elephants in large numbers mingled with one another, O king, for battle. We beheld the falling of maces and spiked bludgeons and Kunapas and lances and short arrows and rockets hurled at one another in that dreadful engagement. Arrow showers terrible to look at coursed like flights of locusts. Elephants approaching elephants routed one another. Horsemen encountering horsemen in that battle, and car-warriors encountering car-warriors, and foot-soldiers encountering foot-soldiers, and foot-soldiers meeting with horsemen, and foot-soldiers meeting with cars and elephants, and cars meeting with elephants and horsemen, and elephants of great speed meeting with the three other kinds of forces, began, O king, to crush and grind one another.”
Of course, after this encounter,
“the Earth, O Bharata, covered with blood, looked beautiful like a vast plain in the season of rains covered with the red coccinella. Indeed, the Earth assumed the aspect of a youthful maiden of great beauty, attired in white robes dyed with deep red. Variegated with flesh and blood, the field of battle looked as if decked all over with gold.”
Battlefields are beautiful! Nietzche who found a marching army the most beautiful sight in the universe, and the sound of their marching the most exquisite music, is neither alone nor is original!
Here is an example of an ecstatic description of the ‘resplendent’ beauty of a battlefield from the Shalya Parva
“The field, O monarch, indented with the hoofs of those steeds, looked beautiful like a beautiful woman bearing the marks of (her lover’s) nails on her person… Strewn with those fallen heads that were crimson with blood, the Earth looked resplendent as if adorned with gold-colored lotuses in their season. Indeed, with those lifeless heads with upturned eyes, that were exceedingly mangled (with shafts and other weapons), the field of battle, O king, looked resplendent as if strewn with full-blown lotuses. With the fallen arms of the combatants, smeared with sandal and adorned with costly Keyuras, the earth looked bright as if strewn with the gorgeous poles set up in Indra’s honor.”
A battle is beautiful and thrilling like an act of love in bed! The hoof marks on the ground are nail marks on the beautiful woman, which makes her still more beautiful! Fallen heads bathed in blood are like full-blown lotuses! The beauty of the earth strewn with fallen heads crimson with blood is thrilling!
Here is another scene of horror described in terms of dazzling beauty, this from the Bheeshma Parva:
“Many steeds with garlands of gold on their heads and with their necks and breasts adorned with ornaments of gold, were seen to be slain in hundreds and thousands. The earth, O king, was strewn with fallen steeds. And some were deprived of their tongues; and some breathed hard; and some uttered low moans, and some were void of life. The earth looked beautiful, O chief of men, with those steeds of such diverse kinds. At the same time, O Bharata, she looked fiercely resplendent, O monarch, with a large number of kings slain by Arjuna in that battle. And strewn with broken cars and rent banners and brilliant umbrellas, with torn chamaras and fans, and mighty weapons broken into fragments, with garlands and necklaces of gold, with bracelets, with heads decked with ear-rings, with head-gears loosened (from off heads), with standards, with beautiful bottoms of cars, O king, and with traces and reins, the earth shone as brightly as she does in spring when strewn with flowers.”
Bheema with blood oozing from his several wounds looks like a kinshukaplant in flowering! Bheeshma, deeply pierced, covered with blood “looked beautiful like a red Asoka variegated with flowers!” A severed head fallen between two severed arms “looked resplendent like the Moon himself between two bright constellations!” “Bathed in blood, the Bhoja king looked beautiful like a mountain streaked with streams of liquefied red chalk after a shower.” “With those shafts sticking to his shoulder-joint, Shikhandi looked resplendent like a lordly tree with its spreading branches and twigs.”
“And the field of battle, overspread with blood, dyed coats of mail and golden ornaments of many kinds, looked exceedingly beautiful as if with (scattered) fires of mild flames. And with ornaments of diverse kinds fallen off from their places, with bows lying about, with arrows of golden wings scattered around, with many broken cars adorned with rows of bells, with many slain steeds scattered about covered with blood and with their tongues protruding, with bottoms of cars, standards, quivers, and banners, with gigantic conches, belonging to great heroes, of milky whiteness lying about, and with trunkless elephants lying prostrate, the earth looked beautiful like a damsel adorned with diverse kinds of ornaments.”
Such a celebration of bravery and heroism, of red blood and savage death, is not without an audience. There is an audience. And they are thrilled.
“Beholding the unsupported Shalya thus afflicted by those great car-warriors (and seeing him successfully repel those attacks), loud sounds of applause were heard, and the Siddhas (who witnessed the encounter) became filled with delight. The ascetics, assembled together (for witnessing the battle), declared it to be wonderful.”
Besides Sidhdhas and ascetics, there are Gods watching, and Yakshas and Kinnarasand Gandharvas and a multitude of other supernatural beings. And they are all rapturous. They applaud, exclaiming ‘wonderful, wonderful!’ and shower flowers on the warriors, and sing and dance, celebrating what is going on, on the ground. Nothing as gratifying as this has ever happened, they declare again and again, since the wars between the gods and the asuras.
The encounter between Bheema and Keechaka is
“like that between two powerful elephants for a female elephant in the season of spring, or like that which happened in days of yore between those lions among monkeys, the brothers Vali and Sugriva,” “like that between two mighty bulls,” “like that of two furious tigers” and as those mighty combatants fought on, “the crash of their arms produced a loud noise that resembled the clatter of splitting bamboos.” “As they roared at each other in wrath, that excellent and strong edifice began to shake every moment.” The battle goes and on, gaining in fury minute by minute. Eventually, “in order to pacify Krishna's wrath Vrikodara grasped Kichaka's throat with his arms and began to squeeze it. And assailing with his knees the waist of that worst of the Kichakas, all the limbs of whose body had been broken into fragments and whose eye-lids were closed, Vrikodara slew him, as one would slay a beast. And beholding Kichaka entirely motionless, the son of Pandu began to roll him about on the ground. And Bhima then said, 'Slaying this wretch who intended to violate our wife, this thorn in the side of Sairandhri, I am freed from the debt I owed to my brothers, and have attained perfect peace.'
And having said this, that foremost of men, with eyes red in wrath, relinquished his hold of Kichaka, whose dress and ornaments had been thrown off his person, whose eyes were rolling, and whose body was yet trembling. And that foremost of mighty persons, squeezing his own hands, and biting his lips in rage, again attacked his adversary and thrust his arms and legs and neck and head into his body like the wielder of the Pinaka reducing into shapeless mass the deer, which form sacrifice had assumed in order to escape his ire. And having crushed all his limbs, and reduced him into a ball of flesh, the mighty Bhimasena showed him unto Krishna.
That night in Sauptika Parva when Ashwatthama enters the sleeping Pandava camp, he exults in slaughtering. He is “like death itself,” “like Rudra himself.” He kicks Dhrishtadyumna to death, refusing him the honor of death by a weapon, kills Uttamauja with his feet like an animal, massacres Yudhamanyu, the five sons of Draupadi, Shikhandi and thousands of other warriors including the Prabhadrakas, the Viratas and the Srinjayas. The warriors in the camp see Kalaratri herself present among themselves –
“in her embodied form, a black image, of bloody mouth and bloody eyes, wearing crimson garlands and smeared with crimson unguents, attired in a single piece of red cloth, with a noose in hand, and resembling an elderly lady, employed in chanting a dismal note and standing full before their eyes.”
Soon elephants and horses break free and run all over, crushing everyone and everything. In the confusion that followed,
“sires recognized not their sons, brothers recognized not their brothers. Elephants assailing rider-less elephants, and steeds assailing rider-less steeds, assailed and broke and crushed the people that stood in their way. Losing all order, combatants rushed and slew one another, and felling those that stood in their way, crushed them into pieces. Deprived of their senses and overcome with sleep, and enveloped in gloom, men, impelled by fate, slew their own comrades… Thousands of men had fallen down deprived of life, innumerable headless trunks stood up and fell down…and…the illustrious son of Drona mangled the backs of some, cut off the heads of some…he cut off some at the middle…and pressed down the heads of some into their trunks.”
What makes this possible – this festival of death? This orgy of blood, of violence, of savagery, of horror, which of course is also an orgy of valor, of heroism? What makes it possible for the epic to talk of the death of millions in exultant, orgiastic terms? What makes it possible to talk of the earth covered with blood as a youthful maiden of great beauty, attired in white robes dyed with deep red? Of the field indented with the hoofs of steeds as beautiful like a pretty woman bearing the marks of her lover’s nails on her person? Of Bheema with blood oozing from his several wounds as a kinshuka plant in flowering?
The Bhagavad Gita is considered the heart of the Mahabharata – as well as the heart of Krishna. And ahimsa is often considered to be at the heart of the Bhagavad Gita. What then makes the epic sing of flowing blood and savage death in such thrilled words? What makes Krishna tell Arjuna, his best friend, cousin and brother-in-law, to whom he has only recently revealed the Gita, to stop playing and hurry and begin the more serious business of killing the mighty warriors?
The code of honor the kshatriyas lived by, perhaps. As the samurai did until more recent times in Japan. And heroic soldiers did at all times everywhere.
And the philosophy of the Gita itself, perhaps. Death is nothing but a changing of clothes. Life is nothing but a game. One neither dies nor kills… Nainam chhindanti shastrani, nainam dahati pavakah… Leela. Maya.
A dangerous philosophy at the best of times and in the best of heads, no doubt, but one India has lived for ages. Along with the philosophy of ahimsa.
It could also be because the Mahabharata is a men’s book. Authored by a man, or men, for men, about men. As all epics are. And chances are, even if there was more about women, and for women, in it, to begin with, which is unlikely, over millennia of telling and retelling, almost exclusively by men, for a male-dominated society, that was gradually reduced until eventually so little is left.
That is unless of course you dig into the depths, into what is not visible on the surface. Then there is a lot. Plenty. Almost endless. But on the surface there is not much that the traditional Indian society would like to project as ideals for its women. None of its major female characters stands out as an ideal for them. Unlike the Ramayana, where Sita is there, as the blazing, ultimate ideal of Indian womanhood. And there are others – like Kausalya, Sumitra and so on, projected as ideal wives, as ideal mothers, though their influence is of course not as great as Sita’s is.
When it comes to the Mahabharata, whom do you project as an ideal, as a role model, for the traditional Indian woman?
Not Satyavati who marries an old king on conditions and takes away the claims of his eldest son. Besides, hers was not really a happy marriage. And then the husband dies while she is quite young, leaving her a widow, which by no means is a desirable condition either. Also, eventually Satyavati, as the empress, becomes a power center independent of men. Her sons are too young to rule, Bheeshma defers to her and she is perhaps capable of ruling on her own. Not exactly the ideal woman. We must remember that even Sati is ‘punished’ for taking the independent decision to visit her father Daksha’s yaga to which her husband Shiva was not invited. By going there on her own, against his wishes, she loses her life.
Kunti? The woman who gave birth to a child before her marriage? The woman who begets three more children through someone other than her husband? Not really.
Nor Madri – though her satitva is one shining example for Indian woman to follow. But not otherwise. Apart from other things, she too begets children by someone other than her husband. And she ‘tempts’ her husband, fails to stop him from having fatal sex with her. She fails him.
Gandhari – yes, to a small extent. Because of the traditional view that she chose to be blindfolded as an act of sacrifice. Chose to deny herself the visual pleasures of the world, the visual dimension of the world, because it was denied to her husband. But that alone does not qualify her to be an ideal for Indian womanhood. That mother of a hundred evil sons is not a role model for Indian women.
Draupadi? No. We do not want our women to share their sexuality with five men, even if they are her wedded husbands. And in any case, polyandry is certainly not the ideal for Indian womanhood. Besides, she makes us uncomfortable. In many ways. Her beauty is too fiery – not the gentle beauty of Sita. She is too assertive for our comforts. Perhaps too capable. She is not the role model, though today a section of Indian womanhood finds her independence and strong will, her assertiveness, worthy of emulation. She is worshipped as a Goddess, too, but not in the mainstream Indian tradition. We do not hear new brides being blessed “May you be like Draupadi!” as Nabaneeta Dev Sen observes in her beautiful article Lady Sings the Blues: When Women Retell the Ramayana (Manushi, Issue 108). Just as we do not hear the new bride being blessed “May you be like Gandhari!” Or Kunti. Or Madri. Or Satyavati, Ambika or Ambalika. Or Uttara.
The only one who comes anywhere close to being the ideal is Subhadra. Sister of Krishna, the self-erasing, constantly Draupadi-serving, Kunti-serving, wife of Arjuna, whose son Abhimanyu continues the Pandava line. But even her story, once the glorious elopement-abduction is over, is narrated in muted terms by the Mahabharata.
There certainly are ideals and role models for women in some of the subplots. But only in the subplots.
The Mahabharata we know is about its men – and women’s stories are narrated only as they are relevant to their men’s stories. To that extent and no more. Draupadi’s suffering at Virata is part of the sufferings of the Pandavas. Amba’s story, where it is originally narrated is very sketchy. But it is given in much greater details where she becomes relevant to Bheeshma, decisive to the fate of Bheeshma in the war.
Had the Mahabharata been not so exclusively a men’s book, had it been a little more a women’s book too, I believe there would have been less odes to bloodshed and savagery in it. And perhaps there would have been more of what Kunti and Draupadi and Gandhari and other women lived. What happened to them and how they experienced these, what went inside them. Their agonies, their ecstasies, their losses, their hopes, their disappointments, their small joys – their world. More domestic details, more about weddings, pregnancy, childbirth, more about infancies and childhoods before men became men and women their shadow beings…
We are told by the Mahabharata five children were born to Draupadi. When exactly were they born? And where? What were Draupadi’s experiences during these five pregnancies – assuming there was only one child each time? Her experiences of watching them grow up? All we really know, all we are really told, is that each of the Pandavas had a child by her. Their names are explained. When we see them next, they are heroic warriors in the Mahabharata battle. Nothing in between. Nothing of what she felt about them all these years of bearing them, giving birth to them, seeing them grow up.
It is not her story that is being told.
True we hold some of these women as worthy of daily remembrance – Draupadi and Kunti are two of the pancha-kanyas whom we are asked to remember every day because they are destroyers of great sin. But here again, they are not ideals for us to follow. They are to be revered, but not emulated. Emulation will lead to disaster.
The Mahabharata is definitely a men’s book.
That, then, could be the other reason why there are so many odes to red blood and savage deaths in it.