Verse translations of Vyasa's mighty poem are rare. R.C. Dutt polished off the Book of Sleepers in seven rhymed couplets in his 1898 rendering of the Mahabharata. The World's Classics published in 1998 The Massacre at Night, a metrical translation of the critical edition of this Parva by W.J. Johnson. Now we have Prof. Lal's free verse transcreation of the most complete Sanskrit version.
The special edition carries a frontispiece of "Durga/Kali invoked by Ashvatthaman" which is erroneous. It is Mahadeva who is invoked and Kali appears during the carnage on her own.
What is the backdrop for the Sauptika?
Yudhishthira has killed the last Kaurava general, Shalya; Bhima has smashed Duryodhana's thighs; the war has ended in a Pandava victory. Or has it? Strangely enough, Krishna leads the five brothers and Satyaki away from the camp for the night. We sense that something ominous is brewing. Ashvatthama, swearing eternal vengeance, has been anointed by Duryodhana as the last commander leading a force of two: Kripacharya and Kritavarma. What follows is the Book of Sleepers (named in the last verse of section 3 referring to the Panchala army). Its very first verse has Ashvatthama, Kritavarma and Kripa proceeding south, the direction ruled by Yama, lord of death, to perpetrate a horrendous massacre that assumes the dimensions of a holocaust.
All-devouring Time (picturesquely termed by Prof. Lal as "the Black Hole of Kali") has no use for human canons of battle; it consumes the virtuous and the wicked indiscriminately. What a twist in the tale does Vyasa the master raconteur weave into the incredibly complex web of meaning that is the Mahabharata!
Deep underneath the turgid current of blood and marrow flows silently the stream of Karma, inexorably pursuing its victims like the Erinyes; what Prof. Lal - paraphrasing Dan Michelis of the 14th century and James Joyce - calls, "the agenbite of private in-wit, the purifying tapasya of penance". His preface succinctly differentiates between Christian guilt and Karma that is irredeemable, that rides on one's back like the Vetal on Vikram's or the old man of the island on Sindbad's. For Ashvatthama, the pangs of conscience are to last for 3000 years, with a body oozing blood and pus. What is of interest is that while one accomplice Kritavarma is killed in the Mausala Parva, the other, his maternal uncle Kripa, suffers nothing. As he told Yudhishthira in the Bhishma Parva, he cannot be killed in battle and seems to be beyond even criticism!
There are problems, however, with the 8 chirajivi Prof. Lal lists as "immortals". Monier-Williams' Sanskrit dictionary defines chiranjivin as "long-lived" and applying to Markandeya, Ashvatthama, Bali, Vyasa, Hanuman, Vibhishana, Kripa and Parashurama. Narada does not feature, nor does he strum a one-stringed guitar, but plays the veena. Parashurama is mentioned by Narada to Shrinjaya (Drona Parva 70.1, 24) as one of the 16 rulers who died with desires unfulfilled. Further, he made 5, not 7, lakes of blood. Bali was overcome by Vishnu incarnated not as a boar but as a dwarf (Vamana).
This parva is loaded with the irony of reversal. The blind king rhetorically asks Sanjaya how he, once supreme ruler, can be expected to listen to Bhima's barbed words now. Yet, that is precisely what he will have to undergo for 15 years, until it becomes so unbearable that he has to retire to the forest. A distinct change of viewpoint occurs in section 9 where Duryodhana shines like an altar ringed by three flames,
"radiant like gold,
this master of the mace,
supine on ground
next to the gold-filigreed mace
he loved so much!"
Vyasa brings home the bitter irony of life:
"hundreds of rajas once
paid fearful homage to him.
he lies on the ground,
surrounded by fearful beasts."
Once Brahmins waited upon him for munificent gifts; now carnivores wait to feast on his body.
Sanjaya reports of the gruesome mission,
"those who had killed us
themselves dead" (section 8.151).
Yudhishthira echoes this in section 10.12:
"Our meaningful victory
has turned into
a meaningless defeat."
The theme repeatedly articulated is "the topsy-turvy/ turnabout tricks/of Cosmic Time Kala" (9.14) which is another name for daiva, fate that upsets the best efforts of mortals.
Even in this most terrible of war books there are astonishing bursts of evocative poetry. The taut, grim tension of the fleeing, fearful trio is suddenly relieved by a marvelous description of the enchanting forest with lakes teeming with lotuses, the star spangled sky tapestried in gold and silver embroidery. The three Kaurava survivors shelter under a giant banyan tree of thousand branches, hauntingly reminiscent of the cosmic tree, Yggdrasil. But it is also thousand limbed Kala that inspires Ashvatthama to imitate the night-ranging owl, ripping apart wings, slicing heads, legs, indiscriminately killing crows sleeping in its branches.
It is typical of Vyasa that should present conflicting world-views. Ashvatthama discourses on ends and means, concluding that success justifies means. Bhishma's code is abandoned in favor of a nameless treatise advising killing enemies by any means, even if asleep. Ashvatthama admits that though born a Brahmin he unfortunately practices Kshatriya dharma and argues that it would be ignoble to abandon it now and revert to Brahmin dharma. Kripa advises him in vain not to chase success moved by anger, fear and greed and, being confused by disaster, to seek the advice of Dhritarashtra, Gandhari and Vidura. Kripa warns that the most learned man without humility mistakes the true sense of Artha and Dharma, for which intelligence, sense-control and concentration are imperative. Repeatedly, here and in the subsequent parvas, it is advised to rule the atman by the atman, the ego by the super-ego. Kripa's warning to his nephew to heed him or repent later is proven true. Ashvatthama, no less than Duryodhana, is blinded by his passions. Vyasa shows us time and again that, despite clear warnings, no one listens! Puzzlingly, Kripa joins in the carnage and intriguingly escapes all blame.
Ashvatthama sees himself as the raging forest fire. This is the first reminiscence of the remorseless burning of Khandava forest that recurs frequently in these later parvas. The image of Rudra the annihilator is consciously evoked and presides over this book. Ashvatthama imagines himself as the raging, all-annihilating, Pinaka wielder, to avenge his father's murder and the wrongs the Pandavas committed in killing Bhishma, Bhurishrava, Karna, Duryodhana. Ashvatthama condemns Krishna and Arjuna for proudly claiming to know dharma and then looking the other way.
Another image that grows more and more powerful in these later parvas is that of the war as yajna, climaxing in Ashvatthama offering himself as a sacrifice to Rudra. He determines to wrench Dhrishtadyumna's head like a sacrificial beast's so that he does not die weapon in hand and attain heaven. Twice the three assassins are described as three blazing sacred yajnic fires (the minimum prescribed) around a sacrificial altar (5.39, 9.8). By setting fire to the camp from three sides, turning it into a yajna-vedi as it were, they perpetrate veritably a ritual holocaust.
The apparition Ashvatthama sees at the camp's entrance is terrifyingly horripilating, in no way less than the image of all-devouring Kala in the Gita. From the flames of its apertures issue millions of Hrishikeshas and Janardanas, implying the oneness of Vishnu and Shiva. As in Arjuna's encounter with Mahadeva disguised as a Kirata in the Vana Parva, there is the same fearless attack, the same consuming of all missiles by Mahadeva and finally the same surrender that wins his grace.
Ashvatthama had always been Arjuna's rival for Drona's favours. Maggi Lidchi Grassi's remarkable novel, The Battle of Kurukshetra has Ashvatthama and Arjuna as the narrators, standing on opposites, but with a shared history, their lives interwoven.
Ashvatthama has a moment of sanity when he is worsted by the apparition and admits that he has swerved from the eternal path of the scriptures and faces disaster because the asleep or helpless are not to be attacked. Yet he persists, choosing the path less trodden. He uses his intellect to argue that the unsuccessful man is one who foolishly abandons a mission out of fear. Macbeth-like, he even wonders if what he sees is a projection of the adharma he is pursuing, the fearful fruit of his decision. Significantly, he invokes Mahadeva in his destructive Rudra aspect, a skull garlanded ascetic, the plucker of Bhaga's eyes, drawing down darkness on the world. The paean that follows is particularly evocative, the original shlokas being quoted with the English transcreation following. Hordes of nightmarish creatures erupt, culminating in Ashvatthama offering himself as the sacrificial oblation with the Soma mantra (not given in the original, but thoughtfully supplied in Devanagari by the transcreator). This Mahadeva is certainly not the Rigvedic deity but has powerful malevolent traits that we first come across in the Taittiriya and Vajaneseyi Samhitas and in the Yajur Veda’s “Shatarudriya” hymn.
Mahadeva reveals the secret of the Pandavas' success: he has been protecting the Panchalas to honour Krishna. Now their time is up. He infuses Ashvatthama with himself and gives him a divine sword. The innumerable Hrishikesha and Janaradana manifestations are no longer seen, indicating the withdrawal of Krishna in spirit complementing his physical absence that has occurred earlier. Ashvatthama is now Ishvara himself, sweeping through the camp "like doom-dispensing Kala" on rampage, like the fire of doom at yuga-end. The manner of killing is, however, differentiated. The Panchala principals are, like beasts, throttled for sacrifice for Pashupati, Ashvatthama doing a Bruce Lee with them, grinding their vital parts with his heels. As with Bhima after killing Duhshasana, all think him to be a demon.
Blood splattered all over him -
blood from sliced
wriggling bodies, blood from
from corpses, blood from
the hurled sword.
He was a swaying sword,
a glittering mass
of blood - 8 .43-44
Transvestite Shikhandi is sliced in two. Bhima's son Sutasoma's sword arm is lopped off (as Bhurishrava's was by Arjuna) and his chest is ripped open (like Duhshasana's by Bhima). Transgendered Arjuna's son Shrutakarma dies horribly disfigured, his face sliced open. Satanika, son of Nakula the handsomest of all, loses his head. There is confusion over Shrutakirti who is killed next. Is he Sahadeva's son Shrutasena?
Goddess Kali now appears (section 8), singing and swinging a grisly noose whirling away men and animals. Soldiers recall dreaming of her and Ashvatthama from the beginning. Ashvatthama severs ears, shoulders, heads, legs, arms, waists, backs, flanks, foreheads, slicing in two, grievously mutilating-never cleanly killing. The soldiers exclaim that Arjuna never kills anyone asleep, careless, unarmed, supplicant, fleeing; only demons do so. Kripa and Kritavarma-Sanjaya calls both ill-minded- kill even supplicants and roar with delight, clapping their hands (8.149). From three sides they set the camp on fire with Ashvatthama in murderous chase like enraged Pashupati, lord of creatures, and Kripa-Kritavarma manning the only exit. Creatures of flaming Khandava forest were similarly hemmed in by Arjuna and Krishna and slaughtered pitilessly. How infallible is Karma's pursuit! Ashvatthama's avenging sword is welded to his hand, recalling Parashurama's battle-axe while avenging his murdered father in five lakes of Kshatriya blood at Kurukshetra and Brahma's fifth head getting glued to Rudra's hand. To Dhritarashtra's pertinent query as to why Ashvatthama did not do all this earlier, Sanjaya provides the revealing answer that it was because he was afraid of Krishna and the Pandavas, so he wrought havoc in their absence.
Ashvatthama announces to Duryodhana that finally only 7 Pandavas and 3 Kauravas are left alive. The earth has been relieved of almost all its burden (the Yadavas are still left). The plan of the gods that had its seeds in Yama's yajna in the Adi Parva is finally fulfilled jointly by Vishnu and Shiva. Duryodhana dies, pleased to hear that Shikhandi and Dhrishtadyumna are dead, not concerned about the others. This confirms that the war was a basically a Panchala-Kaurava face-off. It is curious that the three heroes are so scared that they do not take any care of Duryodhana's corpse but quickly flee the spot. Sanjaya, deeply disturbed, rushes the next morning to the capital to report and, the war being over, he loses his special sight (9.62). Vaishampayana takes over as narrator once more.
Yudhishthira, after musing on the victory that is actually a defeat, suddenly switches track to Karna, extolling him as one who never fled the field-though we have seen that he did so many a time. Yudhishthira had thought that those who escaped death at Karna's hands were safe; but now they are all dead. He describes Drona's battle in terms of a raging ocean, Bhishma as a raging fire, recalling Khandava, and notes that carelessness, over confidence, of the survivors led to their death. There is not a word about why the brothers did not warn the Panchalas of the danger of relaxing. Curiously, none of the brothers speak a word about their sons' deaths. It is as though these were "extras" tagged on to the epic for form's sake.
There is a rare glimpse of the human side of Yudhishthira when he voices his apprehension about Draupadi as she has grown frail with sorrows. When Draupadi swoons, Bhima swoops to support her, as always. Characteristically, Draupadi first pours sarcasm on Yudhishthira, then vows to fast to death unless the murderer is killed and the gem in his head is shown to her as proof. As ever, it is to Bhima that she turns, praising his unequalled valor, repeatedly equating him (in Arjuna's silent presence) with Indra, citing his protective and avenging role in Varanavata, Hidimba's forest and the Kichaka affair. As usual, Bhima rushes off impetuously to do her bidding.
Krishna now narrates a revealing incident to show Ashvatthama's nature. When Drona gave Arjuna the world-destroying missile Brahmashira, Ashvatthama also demanded it and he obliged reluctantly, knowing his son was impulsive and ill-spirited. Drona warned him never to use it against humans and feared he would not follow the noble path. Upset, Ashvatthama roamed about and visited Dvaraka. Here he offered the missile to Krishna in exchange for his discus, which he wanted to use to fight him. However, he was unable to lift it. Krishna told him that even Arjuna-than whom none was dearer and to whom he could give everything, even wives and sons-never dared ask for it, nor did his sons or Balarama. He describes Ashvatthama as a fool, anger-ridden, wicked, erratic, crafty, and cruel.
In Vyasa's ashram, seeing Bhima rushing towards him, Ashvatthama shoots the missile to slay the Pandavas, infusing it in a blade of grass. At Krishna's urging, Arjuna releases his missile to counter it. Narada and Vyasa stand between the two missiles since their collision would turn the land barren for 12 years. At their bidding Arjuna retracts his-a task even gods cannot do- being "a strict-vowed brahmachari" (this does not connote celibacy here but self-restraint) who never used it even in the worst extremity. Ashvatthama is unwed, but a slave of his wrath and cannot recall the missile. Vyasa assures him that he will not be killed and persuades him to surrender his gem which, like the earrings of Paushya's queen in the Adi Parva, keeps one safe from weapons, disease, hunger, from gods, demons, snakes, thieves.
Section 16 begins with Krishna delighted that the missile's target is the wombs of Pandava women, and not the Pandavas themselves. We are reminded of his incongruous delight at Ghatotkacha's death. As Vishnu fosters creation after Rudra has destroyed it, Krishna prophesizes that he will revive Uttara's still-born son to rule for sixty years. He curses Ashvatthama to roam for 3000 years, solitary, shunned, stinking of pus and blood, wracked by terrible diseases for his horrible crimes. Vyasa confirms the curse as Ashvatthama has been disrespectful of Narada and him and done a dreadful deed, particularly as though born a Brahmin he assumed Kshatriya dharma. Drona seems to have escaped being cursed by discarding weapons and accepting death. Legend has it that Ashvatthama still visits the Shiva temple in Asirgarh (near Burhanpur in Madhya Pradesh) every morning and offers a single flower. Those who see him are struck blind or dumb. He is very much alive today. "Ashvatthama's mad again"; witness Rajmohan Gandhi's striking chapter in Revenge and Reconciliation entitled "Ashwatthama - the vengeful rishi- is still alive and active".
In section 17 Yudhishthira asks Krishna how the carnage could happen. Arjuna will put a similar question to Vyasa in the Mausala Parva later. Krishna extols the supreme power of Mahadeva, relating three myths to bring this home. Shiva, at Brahma's request to create creatures, engaged in ascesis immersed in the waters, produced the linga, but, enraged at Brahma having had someone else create in the meantime, cut it off. He destroyed the gods' sacrifice for not keeping offerings for him, a variant of which is the Daksha-yajna myth. Vyasa had mentioned this to Arjuna at the end of the Drona Parva when speaking of Shiva's greatness. With variations, this is repeated in the Shanti (section 274) and the Anushasana parvas (section 145). Rudra creates a bow and pierces the sacrifice. It flees as a deer to the sky and shines as the Mrigashira asterism with Rudra in pursuit as Ardra (Betelguese, the red giant), both in the Orion constellation. With the bow-end he slices Savita's arms, gouges out Bhaga's eyes, smashes Pusha's teeth.
Worshipped by them, given his share, he restores everything, casting his rage into sea to become the Vadava (submarine fire). The Rigvedic deities are forced to accept the primacy of the people's god. Krishna's point is that when Shiva is enraged, everything is upset and "chaos is come again". Therefore, Ashvatthama must have gratified him. It is all Mahadeva's doing, not Ashvatthama's. We are reminded of Arjuna telling Vyasa in the Drona Parva that he saw Shiva advancing before him, destroying everything that he later targeted with his arrows. Similarly, in the Gita Krishna tells Arjuna that he has already slain the enemy.
Indeed, "All Time is unredeemable", and, we may add, all Karma. No wonder the percipient transcreator's dedication is addressed "to Maha-Kala, the presiding spirit of the Sauptika Parva and of every parva in the drama of life."
Transcreated from the Sanskrit into English by Padma Shri Prof. P. Lal
Writers Workshop; Rs. 200 hardback, Rs 100 flexiback, Rs.500 for a special numbered and signed edition, with an original hand-painted Oriya pata-chitra.
First published in The Statesman's Eighth Day Literary Supplement, November 16, 2008