Book Reviews

How are the Mighty Fallen!

P. Lal: The Complete Mausala Parva of the Mahabharata transcreated from Sanskrit,
Writers Workshop, Kolkata, Rs.150 (hardback)

Vyasa’s narrative art is spread across a broad spectrum. Besides operating within a series of frameworks—boxed within one another like Russian dolls or Chinese boxes—it changes suddenly from the dialogical question-and-answer method to the administration of sudden shocks. The war books, for instance, invariably begin with Sanjaya reporting that the current general of the Kaurava army is dead and then entering into a detailed flashback narrative. The Mausala Parva suddenly reverts to that style, shaking us out of the somnolent depression of the preceding Ashramavasika Parva that closed with Yudhishthira continuing to rule the kingdom “somehow” after losing his elders in a forest-fire 15 years after the great war. Now we are told that 36 years after the war Yudhishthira receives the shocking news of the slaughter of the Yadavas and, unbelievably, of the death of Balarama and Krishna. Gandhari’s curse has come true. The internecine blood-letting did not end at Kurukshetra; it is paralleled at Prabhasa. 

What sets the tragedy in motion is the supreme arrogance of the Vrishnis who find themselves the unrivalled power in the country following the fall of the established kingdoms and their eighteen armies. Traditionally, India has upheld the ideal of Brahma-tej (brahmanical virtue) being backed up by Kshatra-tej (the warrior’s heroism) as the foundation of society. Neither the Kauravas nor the Yadavas had any respect for the wisdom of sages. It is the act of mocking Vishvamitra, Narada and Kanva that brings crashing down upon the Yadavas the curse of destruction by an iron club birthed by Krishna’s handsomest son Samba. Ugrasena has the club ground to powder and thrown into the sea. Washed ashore, these ashes grow into adamantine reeds. The Vishnu Purana (5.37) adds a detail: one piece of the club defied all attempts to grind it and ended up in the belly of a fish. A hunter named Jara (old age) made it the head of an arrow which became the mortal dart for Krishna for whom, as with Achilles, the foot was the vulnerable spot. The Harivansha (Vishnu Parva, 103.27) informs that Jara was Vasudeva’s son from a Shudra wife and became a lord of Nishadas. Thus, as Krishna kills his cousin Ekalavya, so is he in turn slain by his cousin Jara. The destruction of the Yadavas is but a continuation of the fratricidal Kurukshetra war. Recalling that Satyavati was a Nishada, and through Vyasa her blood ran in the Kauravas, it is finally the Nishadas’ revenge on the architect of the Kurukshetra holocaust. But in terms of narrative art, the story has come full circle. According to Nilakantha, the 17th century commentator on the epic, Jara was a Kaivarta (fisherman). Sauti told us that one of the three beginnings of the Mahabharata is with the story of Uparichara Vasu and his children born of a fish, the daughter becoming Matsyagandha and the son the chief of the Matsyas. The story has come full circle.

Dr. A. Harindranath has pointed out that according to Hanumanatakam, Jara is the Ramayana’s Bali reborn to avenge the injustice done in his former life. In Ezhuttachchan's Malayalam Bharatam Kilippattu, Krishna tells Jara, “I deceived you in the previous birth. This is your revenge for that. Now you can reside in heaven without any grief.” Satya Chaitanya finds that in the Oriya Sarala Mahabharata Jara is a Sabara tribal and a great devotee of Krishna. There is a battle between Jara and Arjuna, who is furious with him for killing Krishna by mistake. The battle between the two is stopped by a skyey voice announcing that Arjuna is the Ramayana's Sugriva and Jara is Angada, while Krishna is Rama. 

The Bhagavata Purana (canto 3) gives short shrift to the event, comparing it to the fire produced by bamboos rubbing against each other in a forest. It avoids Krishna’s participation in the killing, concentrating instead on his being reminded by the gods that he has stayed on earth for over a hundred years and ought to return to his heavenly abode. It does say that Krishna is aware that unless the Yadavas are wiped out—and they are too powerful to be destroyed by anyone but themselves—the earth’s burden will not be lightened. This clan has become asuric, drunk on its prosperity and power. Ironically, like Jarasandha, they have to be removed for the fledgling “dharma-rajya” of the Pandavas to put down firm roots.

Paul Dundas has pointed out that the Jain Bhagavati Sutra (7.9) provides a fascinating historical parallel to the “reeds massacre” in two battles in Mahavira’s time involving king Kuniya-Ajatashatru. One called “Mahasilakantaya samgama,” (battle of thorns-like-great-stones) was so intense that the touch of thorns, leaves and twigs was like blows from huge stones. The other was “Rahamusala samgama”, the battle of Kuniya’s chariot-fitted-with-clubs. The Mausala Parva’s powdered iron club that becomes deadly “trina” (grass/reeds) is analogous to the Jain sutra’s “kantaya” (thorns), as is the manic violence. It is believed that the Mahabharata was written around this time in the 6th-5th century BC. 

Abruptly, after the sages curse the Yadavas, prohibition is promulgated. The Mahabharata is silent regarding the reasons. The Samba Purana tells of Narada, annoyed by Samba’s pride of his beauty, plying Krishna’s junior wives with liquor, creating a scenario that leads Krishna to believe that they are enamoured of his son. Krishna curses Samba with leprosy and his wives with being abducted by robbers—thus explaining Arjuna’s failure to protect them. The punishment of impaling the brewer of liquor along with his family is ineffective. Throughout the epic no lessons are learnt from the tale of Yayati the Lunar Dynast:

The Vrishnis perpetrated crimes,
They mocked Brahmins
     and pitris and gods…
Pouring wine in the food
     prepared for mahatma Brahmins,
the Yadavas fed the wine-flavoured dishes
     to vanara-monkeys…
They insulted gurus and elders…
     Wives cheated on husbands,
and husbands cheated on wives.   

Time (Kala), a major theme of the epic is personified by Vyasa for the first time, appearing as a shaven-headed, terrifying man of black-and-tawny complexion sneaking in and out of Yadava homes. This may well be a reference to Buddhist monks who shaved their heads and wore ochre robes, as the epic seeks to stand against the Buddhist (pashanda) and Jain (kshapanak) creeds. A grinning white-toothed black female (Kali) slinks into households, snatching away the auspicious wrist-threads. Krishna’s celestial discus, chariot and Garuda pennant disappear. Noticing the ill omens and recalling Gandhari’s curse, Krishna gives orders to go on pilgrimage to Prabhasa. 

It is Balarama who, violating his own commands, starts drinking, followed by the rest. Earlier, in a drunken frenzy, Balarama has slain Rukmini’s brother Rukmi during a gambling match and then the Suta Lomaharshana. The massacre begins with drunken Satyaki abusing Kritavarma who had not only killed the sleeping Panchalas but also Satyabhama’s father Satrajit. Satyabhama bursts into tears and sits in Krishna’s lap, instigating him. Krishna glares at Kritavarma, and Satyaki beheads him and attacks indiscriminately. Unable to stop his drunken fury, Krishna does not intervene when others batter Satyaki and Pradyumna to an ignominious death with soiled pots and plates. Seeing his sons and brother Gada slain, Krishna snatches up a clump of eraka reeds that transform into an adamantine club with which he “slaughtered his entire clan…Demented with drink…Not one of them had the good sense to flee the carnage.” Balarama does not participate, just as he had avoided the Kurukshetra war. His alienation from Krishna followed the theft of the Syamantaka gem by Satadhanva.

Vyasa silently poses questions to which we still seek answers: the inglorious death of Purushottama Krishna at the hands of a mere hunter. Shravan Kumar and sage Kindam had at least been shot by royalty (Dasharatha and Pandu)! All traces of Dvaraka are submerged. 

The volume has a preface by the trans-creator that is valuable for the insights offered, relating the massacre to the current times and asking, “What happens to the ‘maha’ of the Bharata is no one listens to the epic?” which is what bewilders both Vasudeva and Arjuna—why did the omnipotent Krishna do nothing to prevent the slaughter?

Although Mahabharata is the biography of his sons and grandsons, Vyasa’s is a ruthless gaze where it comes to revealing the pitiable plight to which the greatest of heroes is reduced. As Prof. Lal writes, “Karma is ruth-less…not callous; it is unsentimental. The laws of nature do not forgive…They grind slow, and very small. What about the laws of morality?...Vyasa does not say.” Invincible, ambidextrous Arjuna for whom Krishna’s love “was wonderful, passing the love of women,” fails to fight off lathi-wielding Abhiras who laugh at his vain efforts to protect the Yadava women. Utterly humiliated, he rushes to Vyasa who tells him he ought to realise that it is time to depart. It has been not a reign spanning epic dimensions, but a rule of just 36 years. Vyasa sends him back to Yudhishthira with these profound words, transcreated with memorable simplicity that will long ring in our ears:

     “Cosmic Time Kala
is the seed
     of the universe.
Kala is the giver,
     and Kala is the taker…
He who rules
     becomes he who is ruled.”   


More by :  Dr. Pradip Bhattacharya

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Views: 3426      Comments: 3

Comment Your most recent piece on Mausala backfills the sparse Critical Edition account of the end of the Yadavas with so many informative narratives, from the Harivamsa on. A truly edifying and inspiring piece. Thanks so much.

Sorry to have missed you in New Delhi. Simon Broodbeck read your paper with great vigor and clarity, as only he can do. Since you were not there and the reading filled the allotted time, there was little discussion, but an elderly gentleman of your land arose at end to say the keshakarshana covers for both elements in the keshambarakarsana, with the ambarakarshana being too improptioutous to mention. It is an additional argument I have thought of making on the basis of attitudes among Draupadi cult performers, who treat the tuyil-urital very delicately, in begging Draupadi's forgiveness on the side, as you know; and morever, it is not performed at some festivals simply because it is so inaspicious. In other words, Vyasa and his characters could (and I would say would have similar reasons to) be silent about it as a matter of delicacy and discretion. But I don't often risk publically such an argumentum e silentio, so have kept my own silence on it till now. In the vein of your two most recent pieces on the Mbh's closing books in Lal's transcreation, though, where you mention parantheticlly that Yudhisthira did not mention the disrobing to Duryodhana in heaven, there particularly I think one has a good case for Yudhisthira keeping silent on this particular aspect of his old grievences. Moreover, he knows by now that this is something he would have to blame not on Duryodhana but on his elder brother Karna, with whom he wants to be and is about to be quasi-restored.

Alfred Hiltebeitel
20-Jan-2012 08:13 AM

Comment For Kathie Brobeck: I haven't seen this panel. Where can it be viewed online?

pradip bhattacharya
19-Jan-2012 09:21 AM

Comment Interesting that the 5 Vrshnis all become aspects of Vishnu, and not individual men, later. Have you seen the panel of them with Narasimha from Andhra?

Kathie Brobeck
18-Jan-2012 09:24 AM

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