Book Reviews

Rajasuya - The Apple of Eris

Shishupala-vadha Katha - This last publication Padma Shri Prof. P. Lal oversaw is unique because a Quantum physicist and a management expert have combined to embellish it. The splendid introduction is by Dr. A. Harindranath of the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics who maintains, the most comprehensive website on Mahabharata and Harivansha. The appendix by Satya Chaitanya, professor of management in Jamshedpur, provides an account of the killing that is very different from what we are familiar with.

Initially we may be puzzled by Prof. Lal’s selection of this episode for inclusion in the Mahabharata Katha series but, on going through the narrative, it dawns upon us that it is the Rajasuya Yajna that is harbinger of the Kuru-Pandava bloodbath. The terse introduction, not a word wasted, brings this out while the appendix demythifies the incident. The transcreation itself is, as always, free-flowing with not a single hiccup.

Pandu’s injured amour propre at not being accorded the same status as Harishchandra in Indra’s sabha leads to his sending Narada, ever the harbinger of conflict, to Yudhishthira’s sabha with the request to perform the Rajasuya sacrifice. Neither on earth nor in heaven has Pandu learnt that desire is the root of destruction, despite his ancestor Yayati being thrust down from Svarga because of his overweening pride. Rajasuya becomes the Apple of Eris, a major step towards the war-as-yajna, the stage for which has been set already at the cosmic level to relieve Prithivi of her excessive burden caused, ironically, by Yama because of his twelve-year long sacrificial rite at Kanakhala.

Harindranath points out that Narada, while conveying to Yudhishthira his father’s desire adds that it is invariably followed by a terrible war and advises him to deliberate over this before deciding. The first Rajasuya performed by Varuna at the Yamuna, was followed by a mighty war between the Devas and the Danavas. The second, celebrated by Chandra, was succeeded by the Tarakamaya war over his abduction of his guru Brihaspati’s wife Tara in which the Asuras supported Chandra. Harishchandra performed the Rajasuya and underwent terrible suffering. When Rama wished to perform this ritual, Bharata dissuaded him because it results in the destruction of the royal clans. Yudhishthira seems to be unaware of past history and, strangely enough, puts no questions to the celestial sage. Narada is quite excited, knowing that Vishnu has incarnated as Krishna to ensure the destruction of Kshatriyas. 

In the southern recension, Harindranath states, Narada provides Yudhishthira with a lengthy description of ominous omens (reproduced in the appendix) foretelling the destruction of Kshatriyas and pointing out that these are occurring now. Most significantly, after the beheading of Shishupala instead of a rain of celestial flowers a thunderstorm erupts and the very earth shakes. Yudhishthira asks Vyasa about their meaning and the answer is brutal: these ill omens will continue for 13 years, ending in the destruction of the warrior clans. Vyasa adds that Yudhishthira will be the cause of it all. Our hero, however, has forgotten this by the time he receives the invitation to the game of dice in another sabha—that of Duryodhana. Did the craving to become “samraaj” overshadow these warnings?

The cause celebre of this katha is the Pandavas’ public acknowledgement of Krishna’s pre-eminence despite his not being a monarch (kingship was denied to the Yadavas by Yayati’s curse on his eldest son Yadu). The conflict between the Dhartarashtras and the Pandavas is paralleled among the Yadavas. First, Krishna’s maternal Kansa usurps his father’s throne and imprisons him—the only such instance in the Indian epics. Krishna kills him. Shishupala is his paternal aunt’s son but has allied himself with Jarasandha, the nemesis of the Yadavas, and the demonic Keshi and Naraka. Another cousin whom Krishna will kill is his paternal uncle’s son Ekalavya reared by a Nishada chieftain. The simmering internecine strife within the Yadavas will finally erupt in a bloodbath, wiping them out. Again, it is Krishna who will actively participate in the furious killing spree. No wonder he describes himself as all-devouring Kala in the Gita!

Bhishma’s extensive account of Krishna’s exploits reads like a miniature Harivansha. It will be partially repeated by Arjuna later in the Vana Parva. These are the only two places in the text where the exploits of the child Krishna in Vraja are recounted. The intention appears to have been to establish the supreme divinity of Hari-Krishna by identifying him with Narayana whose avataras are recounted. What is of interest is that this might be the version preceding the Puranic accounts since the Fish and Tortoise incarnations are missing. Instead the Boar incarnation is much celebrated, along with the killing of Madhu and Kaitabha by Narayana-Vishnu. The Narasimha avatara account contains no mention of Prahlada. Dattatreya is listed as one of the incarnations. Parashurama refrains from destroying Shalva, leaving that to Krishna and lays aside his weapons. The Rama-avatara narrative has no exile of Sita. Krishna’s killing of Naraka occupies much space, followed by that of Bana in the course of which Krishna defeats Maheshvara. Dvaraka is described at length. There is a reference to Balarama and Krishna’s bewitching sister Ekananga (“Ekanamsa” in Harivamsha) “who was the cause of the killing of Kansa” (this is not elaborated). The Kshatriyas (anachronistically, Bhishma mentions Shishupala too) and demons killed by Krishna are listed. He overran the kingdoms of Pandya, Paundra, Matsya, Kalinga and Anga and Venudari. Bhishma also says that when Krishna departs, the sea will drown Dvaraka. These futuristic pronouncements brand the entire section as a Puranic interpolation.

It is the appendix by Satya Chaitanya that is of great interest providing an excellent translation of 107 verses dropped in the Critical Edition. Here there is no miraculous decapitation within the Rajasuya sabha, but a lengthy chariot-duel between Shishupala—deserted by frightened kings—and enraged Krishna. Krishna is pressed so hard that his charioteer Daruka cries out that he is at the point of death. That is when the dvesha-bhakti concept is articulated by Krishna: Shishupala is one of Vishnu’s guards who had incarnated first as Hiranyakashipu and then as Ravana. “Maya” is now used and the discus is invoked to behead Shishupala.

In the Mahabharata we find a similar difference between the war books and the version Krishna gives his father on returning to Dvaraka. His narrative is devoid of the miraculous elements found in them which appear to be embellishments added by enthusiastic redacteurs. By providing a hitherto unknown instance from the Sabha Parva, Dr Harindranath and Prof. Satya Chaitanya have done great service to students of the Mahabharata.   

Shishupala-vadha Katha transcreated by P. Lal, introduced by A.Harindranath, appendix by Satya Chaitanya, Writers Workshop, Kolkata, 2010, Rs.250/-, pp.160.


More by :  Dr. Pradip Bhattacharya

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