Book Reviews

Ashramavasika Parva of the Mahabharata

“Calm of mind, all passion spent” or “the bitter tastelessness of shadow fruit”?

The brotherly butchery is over; kin-killing has been expiated by a horse-sacrifice; Yudhishthira has been persuaded not to abdicate. The stage seems to be set for “And they reigned happily ever after”. But Vyasa’s vision is existential. With remorseless precision he lays bare,

“the gifts reserved for age…offering no promise
     But bitter tastelessness of shadow fruit
     …the conscious impotence of rage
     At human folly, and the laceration
     Of laughter at what ceases to amuse.
And last, the rending pain of re-enactment
     Of all that you have done, and been; the shame
     Of motives late revealed, and the awareness
Of things ill done and done to others' harm
     Which once you took for exercise of virtue.
     Then fools' approval stings, and honour stains.”—T.S.Eliot, “Little Gidding”

Just as Bhishma was frozen in a perpetual “brahmacharya-ashrama”, the old royal couple blindly continue in the “grihastha-ashrama” instead of retiring to the forest despite having lost all. Dhritarashtra lives royally, enjoying earning popularity by granting gifts generously in the process of funerary rites for his sons for years on end. None dares protest out of fear of Yudhishthira’s displeasure. Kunti, Draupadi and the other wives of the Pandavas—Arjuna’s three, Nakula’s Karenumati of Chedi and Jarasandha’s daughter Vijaya married to Sahadeva [Bhima’s wife Balandhara of Kashi, and Yudhishthira’s wife Devika of Shibi are not mentioned]—diligently serve Gandhari. Bhima alone openly expresses his rancour within hearing of Dhritarashtra who, after bearing this for 15 years, decides to enter the third phase of life, “vaanaprastha” and retire to the forest. The Pandavas and the subjects are shocked. They give in with extreme reluctance, compelled by Dhritarashtra and Gandhari having taken to eating only every fourth day to exert moral pressure—a strategy rediscovered and used so effectively by Gandhi and being tried out now by Anna Hazare

Kunti leads Dhritarashtra,
Gandhari to the forest,
by Dhanu 1598,
from the book Razmnama.

But then comes Vyasa’s master-stroke: the brothers—and we—are thunderstruck by their mother’s announcement that she will also depart. When the anguished Bhima asks why, then, did she enthuse them to wade into the sea of blood she tells them that, hurt most of all by Draupadi being dragged by her hair (there is no reference to attempted disrobing, which could well be an interpolation), she got them to win back their birthright. Having succeeded, her duty was done and she had no desire to remain in the world. In renouncing the fruits of the pyrrhic victory—for which she had coached her sons all along— and spending the rest of her life serving the architects of her suffering, Kunti exemplifies the “sthitaprajna” Krishna extolled, that “Calm of mind, all passion spent” that none else in the epic achieves, least of all the recipient of the Gita. 

As they take leave of the subjects, the people give us the interesting information that Duryodhana had been a good king to them and they have not the slightest complaint against him and his father. They attribute the holocaust to the will of the gods, pronouncing Duryodhana and his advisors blameless, echoing what Vyasa has said in the Adi Parva.

For three years Dhritarashtra and Gandhari, accompanied by Kunti, Sanjaya and Vidura (but not their wives—had they predeceased them?), mortify their bodies on the banks of the Ganga. It is Sahadeva who motivates his brothers to visit them and we have a unique scene of the special bond between him and Kunti as he sprints ahead to fall at her feet and she embraces him tearfully. Yudhishthira says that she loved him most of all. It is here (section 25) that Vyasa provides some description of the Pandava wives through Sanjaya, all except Devika. During this visit Yudhishthira seeks out Vidura and we are shocked once more. The avatara of Dharma roams the forest naked, smeared with filth, starving himself to death in the non-Vedic Jain way. While dying, he infuses his spirit into Yudhishthira, as a father does to his son. Dharma was the first deity Pandu got Kunti to summon. The “devara” is the first to be called to perform “niyoga” and beget progeny on his childless brother’s wife. Vidura’s corpse is not cremated. He was ever an outsider, on the fringes of royalty and strife, remaining even in death outside the Vedic dharma.  

At Gandhari’s request, followed by Kunti’s who aches to see her first-born, Vyasa brings up the spirits of all the dead warriors from the Bhagirathi that night, a scene paralleled in the Odyssey and the Aenied. Here reconciliation takes place with Karna and the others, all grief is dispelled, all hatred wiped out. As we can well appreciate, Janamejaya cannot believe this. He requests that Vyasa show him his father Parikshit, and this is granted. That ends the snake-sacrifice, ironically with the assassin Takshaka going scot-free. 

Now occurs a remarkable incident: Vyasa, presumably wanting to free the new regime of the large band of grieving widows, encourages them to plunge into the river to join their departed husbands. No other epic poet is so active an actor in his own composition, not only tendering advice but engineering mass suicide. Vyasa also proffers consolation by reiterating that the bloodletting had been decided by the gods—just as in the Cypria Zeus decided to lighten the burden of over-populated Gaia by bringing about the Trojan carnage. He also enlightens them about the deities incarnated as various heroes of Kurukshetra. Here there are a few differences from the Adivamshavatarana account. Puzzlingly, the sun-god incarnates as Karna “to foment friction and conflict” and, curiously, Shikhandi is said to be a rakshasa like the sons of Dhritarashtra. Arjuna, though born of Indra, is named as the seer Nara while Krishna is Narayana—the two invoked at the opening of the epic along with goddess Sarasvati. 

Two years after this visit Narada informs Yudhishthira that Dhritarashtra, Gandhari and Kunti were burnt alive in a forest fire, while Sanjaya escaped to the Himalayas and died there. We can see in this the result of Kunti’s karma of burning to death a Nishada woman and her five sons. In her inspired short-story “After Kurukshetra”, Mahashweta Devi has that Nishada woman’s daughter-in-law watch Kunti hemmed in by flames, satisfied with the poetic justice that overtakes her.

“What a terrible way to die…getting burnt to death”, we exclaim with Yudhishthira and ask with him, “I am completely mystified—how could the mother of Yudhishthira, Bhima and Vijaya perish helpless in a forest-fire? What was the point of Savyashachi gratifying the fire-god in the Khandava forest?... Skin-and-bones Pritha must have shuddered and cried: ‘Hari! Tata! Dear Dharmaraja!’ in the terror of her maha-trauma. ‘Save me, Bhima! Save me!’ Shrieking out her fear…” Vyasa provides no answers. It is Yuyutsu, the only son of Dhritarashtra left alive, who leads the Pandavas in the funeral obsequies at Gangadwar. 

Never one to flinch from portraying reality, Vyasa ends the fifteenth book of the epic with this telling verse: “Without his relatives and friends, king Yudhishthira, afflicted with mental unease, ruled the kingdom, somehow.” The transcreation is, as ever, mellifluous and contemporary, while retaining the spirit of Bharat.

P. Lal: The Complete Ashramavasika Parva of the Mahabharata, Writers Workshop, Rs.150 (hardback)  

A shorter version of this review was published in the 8th Day Literary Supplement of The Sunday Statesman of 4th December 2011 


More by :  Dr. Pradip Bhattacharya

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