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Jaya Jaya Mahabharatham - 1
|by Dr. Prema Nandakumar|
narayanam namaskritya naram chaiva narottamam /
1. Dharma is Supreme
Writing about the foundations of Indian culture which were laid thousands of years ago and recorded in the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Itihasas and the Puranas, Sri Aurobindo said:
“The Mahabharata is the creation and expression not of a single individual mind, but of the mind of a nation; it is the poem of itself written by a whole people. It would be vain to apply to it the canons of a poetical art applicable to an epic poem with a smaller and more restricted purpose, but still a great and quite conscious art has been expended both on its detail and its total structure. The whole poem has been built like a vast national temple unrolling slowly its immense and complex idea from chamber to chamber, crowded with significant groups and sculptures and inscriptions, the grouped figures carved in divine or semi-divine proportions, a humanity aggrandized and half uplifted to super-humanity and yet always true to the human motive and idea and feeling, the strain of the real constantly raised by the tones of the ideal, the life of this world amply portrayed but subjected to the conscious influence and presence of the powers of the worlds behind it, and the whole unified by the long embodied procession of a consistent idea worked out in the wide steps of the poetic story.” 1
Such a compendium is not easily summarized. The main narrative, also known as Jaya, concerns the history which led to the fratricidal conflict on the field of Kurukshetra. But there are innumerable branch-stories, ethical teachings, moral perspectives apart from the fact that we find ourselves in an atmosphere that is totally different from the world view we have come to possess today. Whatever be the reality, we do affirm at least verbally, the need for democratic governance, gender-equality and the rest. In the Mahabharata-world Dharma is invoked for almost everything. It was dharma to wage war and win, but dharma also insisted on the use of fair means in war; it was dharma to honour and cherish women but the same dharma is invoked to consider her as a domestic chattel that can be bartered away.
“Unsleeping Bala-slaying Indra
Action, then, but without attachment. Krishna details the ways of a Kshatriya who follows his dharma and delivers the stern admonition:
“Killing a robber is a virtuous act.
Thus, in a swift movement, by unveiling the core-message of the Mahabharata, Sri Aurobindo proved that it was a total mistake to think of the Indians as given solely to contemplation, a myth which is often used to explain away the poverty and non-development which keeps India down. The nation has always believed in dharmic righteousness, which is the subject of the Mahabharata. Which is why the Indians have never tired of retelling the epic tale in various ways. Sublime epic poetry or lilting folk songs, each work has made the characters of Vyasa alive and very, very close to the Indian psyche.
2. The Central Story
While it is a near-impossibility to indicate even the central thread of the Pandava-Kaurava conflict in a brief resume, we can take a cue from Chakravarti Rajagopalachari’s marvellous condensation of the epic which places the starting point of the epic in the incident of Bhishma taking up his sublime vow.
King Shantanu of the Kuru dynasty was one day walking along the banks of the Ganges river when he came across an extraordinarily beautiful lady. For him it was love at first sight. He proposed marriage to her even without knowing her antecedents. She agreed, but on one condition: Shantanu must not question any of her deeds, even if they appear distasteful. He agreed and there followed a time of bliss. Soon he noticed that his wife was in the habit of drowning their children as soon as they were born. Horrified, yet love-struck, the king kept silent. He could not bear it any more when she proceeded to the Ganges to drown their eighth child, also a handsome male baby. When he remonstrated, she told him that she was the Goddess Ganga. The eight heavenly Vasus had been cursed to be born as mortals. On their request she minimized the tribulations they would have to undergo on earth by killing them as soon as they were born. However, she would not kill the eighth child but return with him to King Shantanu after a while. Ganga kept her word, brought back the son Devavrata as a young man, a full-fledged hero. Handing him over to the father, she withdrew.
King Shantanu later on married Satyavati of the fishermen’s community. The marriage could not take place till Santanu assured her father that her son alone would become the king and not Devavrata. Devavrata took a vow of life-long celibacy and helped the conduct of the marriage. Devavrata’s terrible vow made the gods react with cries of “Bhishma” which means one who has achieved a wondrous act. In the epic of Vyasa, it is Bhishma who is with us from these beginnings till the end of the Kaurava-Pandava conflict on the battlefield of Kurukshetra.
Dhritarashtra, Pandu and Vidura were the sons of Shantanu’s son Vichitravirya. Apparently their births seemed auspicious for the land of Kurujangala, Kurukshetra and the Kuru race. The shlokas placed here by Vyasa bring us a rare peace: God is in his heaven and all is right with the world!
Dhritarashtra was wedded to Gandhari and Pandu married Kunti and Madri.Since Dhritarashtra was born blind, Pandu became the king. Guided by Bhishma, Pandu expanded the empire. At the height of his power and fame, he became the victim of a curse. He renounced the empire and retired to the forest. Kunti gave birth to Yudhistira, Bhima and Arjuna. Madri had Nakula and Sahadeva. When Pandu died, Madri committed suttee with him. Kunti returned to Hastinapura with her young sons and they grew up together with the one hundred sons of Dhritarashtra who was now the king. Dhritarashtra’s eldest son was Duryodhana. From their student-days onwards, Duryodhana and his brothers could not get on with their cousins, the Pandavas. As the years went by, things became worse since Duryodhana tried to kill the five brothers.
Unfortunately, Dhritarashtra favoured his son’s ways, though outwardly he acted as if his sympathies lay with the Pandavas. Meanwhile Arjuna won the Drupada princess Draupadi in a contest and she became the wife of all the Pandavas. Bhishma was happy and proud of the Pandavas and successfully persuaded Dhritarashtra to share power with them. Though in the division of the kingdom the Pandavas did not get a fair share, they did not mind. Instead, they set out to improve what had been given to them. The inaccessible Khandava forest was burnt down and there arose in its stead the handsome capital of Indraprastha. The Pandavas conducted a magnificent Rajasuya Sacrifice which only increased the frustration of Duryodhana. He was particularly jealous of Arjuna and Bhima and thought his own shame was written in the gaze of the manly Arjuna and the giant Bhima! In his Panchali Sapatham, Subramania Bharati points out how Duryodhana’s heart was corroded:
“As when fire from earth’s deep centre
Giving in to his pleadings Dhritarashtra invited Yudhistira to Hastinapura for a game of dice. Despite Vidura’s appeal not to fall into the trap, Yudhistira accepts the challenge as a true philosopher. Duryodhana gets his evil-minded uncle Sakuni to play on his behalf. Yudhistira is systematically denuded of all his possessions, and even the personal liberty of the five Pandavas. Challenged further by Sakuni, Yudhistira makes Draupadi a stake. It is a terrible, soul-scorching scene as Panchali is lost. The Pandavas are frozen by the calamity while the Kauravas exult and call upon the ‘slave’ Draupadi to present herself in the court. On Duryodhana’s command, she is dragged into the Assembly Hall by Dushasana. Her pleadings and arguments in the Kaurava court are in vain. Even Bhishma expresses his helplessness in the name of received tradition when she questions him regarding a woman’s place in the society: is woman an independent person or merely a chattel owned by man? Her words pour forth with terrifying intensity:
“Finely, bravely spoken Sir!
Subramania Bharati had unerringly chosen a theme that would symbolize the problems then facing the country and his own faith in Mahashakti to overcome the ills of helpless human beings. He was writing at a time when Mother India was in shackles and downtrodden by foreigners and when women were being mistreated by men in every way. This multi-pronged signification of the Mahabharata heroine by Subramania Bharati has been well brought out by K. R. Srinivasa Iyengar:
“Just as Vidula’s exhortation to her son Sanjay in the Udyoga-Parva comes to us today with the fervour of a stirring national anthem, so too the story of Draupadi’s travail and ultimate triumph is seen invested with a high potential of significance that comprehends all instances of hard dealing, all records of wickedness, all manifestations of man’s cruelty to man, all terror-haunted crucifixions, jehads, Belsens and Noakhalis. Draupadi, seen in this light, is the hunted amongst us, haunted by the spectre of Duhshasana approaching us with unclean aggressive hands, dazed by a feeling of the futility of the Bhishmas, Viduras and Dronas that drone their somnolent words, strong only in our strength to die and in our unfaltering faith in God. More particularly, Draupadi the blessed eternal feminine is also Bharata Mata reduced to slavery and penury by her own dear ones, taunted and manacled and humiliated by the greedy foreigner no less than by the treacherous ‘friend’, starved in her body and maimed in her soul, isolated, trapped, mutilated– and yet somehow alive, alive with the strength of her Faith, alive in the knowledge of the puissance of God’s timely succour. Draupadi whose soul is hurt by the spectacle of human cruelty, Bharata Mata whose body is bruised and whose soul is writhing in agony, and the Great Creatrix– the seed-of-all, womb-of-all—coalesce together and confuse our familiar categories of understanding. Draupadi is no doubt Woman–she is all the women who have borne the burden of suffering in this sullied sublunary sphere—but she is also, seen from another angle, the Shakti to whose awakened eyes the Parashakti has revealed Herself, and Her Personalities and Powers. Bharati’s Panchali Sapatham viewed thus in the context of the Aurobindonian and Gandhian revolutions of our time is somewhat of a mantra of redemption, an enunciation of the religion of patriotism.”
In this moment of utter despair, Draupadi makes the supreme gesture of complete surrender to God. Her faith in God is absolute, her rejection of all earthly support is final. She lifts both her hands from the portion of the garment covering her and joins them in an act of prapatti, a symbol of the charama sloka in the Gita: “Abandon all dharmas, and take refuge in Me alone. I will deliver thee from all sin and evil. Do not grieve.”
When Krishna’s grace flows over her as streams of garments, one must needs go to Bharati again for the visual and the similes:
“Like the woes of liars,
The crisis is past but not the woes of the Pandavas. Infuriated by the act of Duhshasana, Bhima vows that he would tear open his chest and drink his blood. The assembled courtiers are also disillusioned and cry out against Duryodhana. Sensing the mood of the assemblage, Dhritarashtra gifts the freedom of the Pandavas to Draupadi. However, they are called back again by Dhritarashtra for another round of dice. Fate-impelled Yudhistira loses everything again to Sakuni. The Pandavas and Draupadi go to the forests in exile for twelve years to be followed by a year of living incognito before claiming back their kingdom.
The Vana and Virata Parvas form the scenes for the Pandavan wanderings and incidentally give us innumerable branch stories that have since then become part of the racial consciousness. For instance, the legend of Nala that closely parallels that of the Pandavas which is narrated to them by Sage Brihadaswa has been a living experience for Indians who go to Tirunallar even now to worship Shani Bhagawan and be rid ofkali-dosha. For, the Kali attack on Nala and Damayanti has been a dreaded page in our cultural history. Such has been its closeness to the Indian psyche that it has been a tradition to recite a sloka in the morning that is said to keep us away from danger throughout the day:
Karkotakasya nagasya, damayantya Nalasya cha,
(Sing of the Karkotaka snake, Damayanti, Nala and the royal sage Rituparna– to destroy the effects of Kali.)
And we are told that if we wish to escape the destructive effects of Kali, we ought to narrate to ourselves or others the story of Nala and Damayanti. The tradition must already have been there and so listening to Nala’s story would help the Pandavas overcome the evil effects of Kali. We must note that in Sage Brihadaswa’s telling there were some important points. Thus when Pushkara challenged Nala to stake his wife, the latter did not. Instead, he threw down his ornaments and those of Damayanti and both of them went out of the palace. For three nights they stayed in the outskirts of the capital subsisting on fruits and roots. Since Pushkara had let it be known that anyone found helping Nala would be punished with death, none dared to come close to them. The travails of Nala and Damayanti had begun. All is well that ends well, they say. The story of Nala must have brought comfort to the Pandavan exiles; and certainly the indictment insinuated by Sage Brihadaswa was well-taken. Draupadi was not made a stake again.
Shanti Parva and Anushasana Parva are full of important instructions regarding the way one must lead a dharmic life on earth. Here we see the great warrior Bhishma as an equally great teacher. And the stories keep coming, never a dull narrative! It is in Anushasana Parva that we get to hear of Shiva’s greatness through Upamanyu who also recites the Shiva Sahasranama. The amazing tale of the disciple Vipula, the bereaved mother Gautami’s compassionate message… there is nothing of human experience that has not been noted down in the Mahabharata! Ashvamedhika Parva describes the Horse Sacrifice performed by King Yudhistira. Ashramvasika Parva has Dhritarashtra, Gandhari and Kunti going away to the forest to end their days. It is significant that Queen Mother Kunti takes the decision not to remain in the midst of royal pomp and prefers to spend her last days serving those whose decisions had resulted in the terrible war. Maushala Parva is about the internecine warfare among Yadavas and their total destruction. Mahaprasthanika Parva records the feelings of the Pandavas on hearing of the passing away of Krishna, the crowning of Parikshit and their undertaking the final journey.
“As they had once before left
Bound to their yoga, they travelled far and wide, crossing many rivers and even seas (saritah sagarastata). On their way Agni appeared before them and advised Arjuna to give up his Gandiva to Varuna which he did. Thus circumambulating the earth, they came to the Himalayas. Passing beyond it, Draupadi, Sahadeva, Nakula, Arjuna and Bhima fell down dead one after another. Yudhistira alone, accompanied by the dog moved further on. Indra arrived in his chariot to take Yudhistira to heaven but the Dharmic brother would not agree. He wanted to go where his brothers were. Indra assured him they were in heaven. Now Yudhistira wanted the dog to accompany him to heaven. When Indra asked him to forget the dog, Yudhistira rejected the idea repeatedly;
“O thousand-eyed god!’
Indra is pleased and invites him to ascend to heaven but once again Yudhistira refuses as he would not like to be at a place where his brothers are absent. In the final Book, the Svargarohana Parva Yudhisitra gets to see the Kauravas in heaven and his own brothers in hell. Rishi Narada’s words bring him no comfort. He prefers to stay in Hell. Now Yama-Dharmaraja speaks to Yudhistira:
“O king, I am greatly pleased, O thou of great wisdom, with thee, O son, by thy devotion to me, by thy truthfulness of speech, and forgiveness, and self-restraint. This, indeed, is the third test, O king, to which I put thee. Thou art incapable, O son of Pritha, of being swerved from thy nature or reason. Before this, I had examined thee in the Dwaita woods by my questions, when thou hadst come to that lake for recovering a couple of fire sticks. Thou stoodst it well. Assuming the shape of a dog, I examined thee once more, O son, when thy brothers with Draupadi had fallen down. This has been thy third test; thou hast expressed thy wish to stay at Hell for the sake of thy brothers. Thou hast become cleansed, O highly blessed one. Purified of sin, be thou happy. O son of Pritha, thy brothers, O king, were not such as to deserve Hell. All this has been an illusion created by the chief of the gods. Without doubt, all kings, O son, must once behold Hell. Hence hast thou for a little while been subjected to this great affliction.” 12
Having cast off his human body by bathing in the celestial Ganga, Yudhistira gained the form of a deva. He joined the celestial group in heaven where all his people were found in a state beyond joy and grief. Thus ends the Mahabharata in a mood of peace that passeth mere human understanding.
King Shantanu was delighted and soon after he crowned Devavrata as the heir-apparent. The prince brought joy to everyone by his natural goodness. Four years later, Shantanu happened to be walking on the banks of Yamuna. Here he met the daughter of the chief of fishermen and wished to marry her. The father said he had no objection to the marriage provided the king would assure him that the girl’s son would succeed Shantanu to the throne. Shantanu refused to give any such assurance and returned to Hastinapura. When some time had passed, Devavrata noticed that his father was not the same as before and some worry was eating him from within. On being asked, the king merely said:
“That I wonder, son of Ganga,
Being intelligent Devavrata did not argue. He went to a trusted minister of Shantanu and learnt of the real cause of the king’s depression. He went straight to the girl’s father who was holding court, and promised him that her son would be king after Shantanu. The father remained unconvinced. Devavrata was a man of honour, but suppose his sons were to create problems later on, holding up the law of primogeniture? Without a moment’s hesitation Devavrata said:
“O Dasa-raja! Finest of men!
Vyasa says that immediately the gods above rained flowers upon the head of Devavrata saying, bhishmoyam iti abhruvan (this person is terrible). Indeed a person who could undertake such a vow of life-long brahmacharya must have heroic self-control. As a result, Devavrata came to be known as Bhishma (the terrible) for all time. Events followed in quick succession after the youthful prince took the vow. He brought Satyavati to Shantanu at Hastinapura and conveyed to the assembled courtiers all that had happened. While they applauded him, Shantanu accepted her and bestowed upon Bhishma the boon of svachchandamaranam (death at will).
“Scriptual sanction I hunted out,
Bhishma could not have been happy when his beloved Arjuna was made to share his wife with all his brothers. Was it not adultery? But he had kept silent. Sengupta insinuates that from the day he took the vow, he had been lying upon a metaphorical bed to which arrows were added in succession. Had he not failed all women with whom he had come in contact? He had brought Amba by force to Hastinapura and her life was in ruins. He had chosen Gandhari for Dhritarashtra without realizing how disappointed the young princess must feel at a connection which she could not refuse. And Panchali! Had his vow of brahmacharya rendered him into a physical stone when it had to face a crisis involving a woman? He had remained in his seat unmoving when the great Drupada’s daughter, the sister of Drishtadhyumna, his own grand-daughter-in-law was dragged into the Hall by Duhshasana by her tresses. When Draupadi asked him whether this was right, whether a wife could be gambled away in dice, he had no answer. He who had not been humanised by a woman’s presence hid himself in the profound term, Dharma.
“Bhisma said, ‘fortune-favoured lady,
That is all! What cowards can heroes be! As Sengupta races towards the end of the old man’s soliloquy, we can only pity a broken spirit:
“Vainly in youth throne and wife I sacrificed
It then becomes obvious that Bhishma’s vow was the false start of a great but star-crossed life. Sengupta feels that Santanu’s boon of svachchandamaranam turned out to be as much a curse as the vow itself. Of course the characters and events of the epic can face any number of readings. However, as far as Bhishma is concerned the boon of ‘dying at will’ brings to us one of the most poignant episodes in the Mahabharata. On the tenth day of the battle Sanjaya describes the scene to Dhritarashtra:
“Just before sunset, while your sons watched,
It is Dakshinayana still. Ah, there is no need for Bhishma to hurry to the abode of Yama. Lying on the spread of arrows, he seems to cover the earth and the sky. It is a mystic moment when he hears voices as from nowhere. “How can Gangeya, the noble archer, master of Time, the best among men, leave his body during Dakshinayana?” Who is this speaking? His mother? Or his mother’s emissary? Did Bhishma think of Ganga then? Did he send a message to her through his heart? Vyasa writes:
“Respecting his desire
We must remember that all this is occurring in the middle of the battlefield. The war has another week left of adharmic hostilities. And yet, in this terrible moment, a mother’s undying love for her child gets into action. All her child wants now is the destruction of adharma and the victory of dharma. Bhishma has had enough of his alignment with Duryodhana’s party. He must die only after seeing Yudhistira crowned, Arjuna safe and Panchali vindicated.
“A clear jet of pure, auspicious water
If Manasa Ganga had sent rishis to remind Bhishma of the coming Uttarayana, it appeared now that Patala Ganga herself had sprung up to assuage her child’s thirst. It is a great thought to remember that Ganga as a mother is thus seen closest to her son as he lay dying on the field of Kurukshetra. She must have been doing that throughout the rest of Bhishma’s life on earth while he watched the battle draw to a close, heard that Yudhistira had been crowned, taught him Dharma and revealed the Supreme in Krishna by reciting the Sri Vishnu Sahasranama.
“You mix with the mean,
Now all the hatred is gone and it is time for peace and togetherness. Bhishma prays to Karna to unite with the Pandavas. Karna refuses with due respect.
“’Maha-muscled one’, Karna replied,
They part in peace, Bhishma blessing Karna to go on the way chosen by him. “Freed from pride, and relying on thy (own) might and energy, engage in battle, since a Kshatriya cannot have a (source of) greater happiness than a righteous battle.” For, on the morrow Karna would begin to take part in the Kurukshetra war.
“The goddess Bhagirathi, after those oblations of water had been offered by them unto her son, rose up from the stream, weeping and distracted by sorrow. In the midst of her lamentations, she addressed the Kurus, 'Ye sinless ones, listen to me as I say unto you all that occurred (with respect to my son). Possessed of royal conduct and disposition, and endued with wisdom and high birth, my son was the benefactor of all the seniors of his race. He was devoted to his sire and was of high vows. He could not be vanquished by even Rama of Jamadagni's race with his celestial weapons of great energy. Alas, that hero has been slain by Sikhandin. Ye kings, without doubt, my heart is made of adamant, for it does not break even at the disappearance of that son from my sight! At the Self choice at Kasi, he vanquished on a single car the assembled Kshatriyas and ravished the three princesses (for his step-brother Vichitravirya)! There was no one on earth that equalled him in might. Alas, my heart does not break upon hearing the slaughter of that son of mine by Sikhandin!” 23
Krishna comforts her with soft and truthful words:
“O amiable one, be comforted. Do not yield to grief, O thou of beautiful features! Without doubt, thy son has gone to the highest region of felicity! He was one of the Vasus of great energy. Through a curse, O thou of beautiful features, he had to take birth among men. It behoveth thee not to grieve for him. Agreeably to Kshatriya duties, he was slain by Dhananjaya on the field of battle while engaged in battle. He has not been slain, O goddess, by Sikhandin. The very chief of the celestials himself could not slay Bhishma in battle when he stood with stretched bow in hand. O thou of beautiful face, thy son has, in felicity, gone to heaven. All the gods assembled together could not slay him in battle. Do not, therefore, O goddess Ganga, grieve for that son of Kuru's race. He was one of the Vasus, O goddess! Thy son has gone to heaven. Let the fever of thy heart be dispelled.” 24
Comforted thus, the greatest of rivers, Ganga, descended back into her waters. Having honoured the Ganga river, Krishna and others took leave of her and came away. Thus ends the history of one of the greatest heroes of the Mahabharata.
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