Literary Shelf

The Encounter Between the Forest and the City

Parva and Dansha


In very interesting analysis of Gita Mehta’s A River Sutra, Julie Mehta points out that increasingly, contemporary S. Asian writers, whether writing in English are trying to understand the present through the age old myths and legends. She calls it a complex nexus between the ancient-sacred and the contemporary secular. [1] However, this is true not only of writing in English but also in the various regional languages The Mahabharata in particular provides a fertile field for both multiple reinterpretation of the myth and their use in the understanding of the present because of its episodic narrative structure and fluidity. Speaking of The Mahabharata, Maria Shevtsova says

The Mahabharata in contemporary India does not give rise to a single, uniform interpretation. How could it in such a vastly heterogeneous society where, to boot, the cultural heritage is constantly up against the demands of a modern, industrialized society and all the inroads it has made on the habits, customs and values bequeathed by tradition? The linguistic richness of the Republic of India, with its fourteen major languages recognized by the Constitution and some 220 dialects, alone suggests that multiple cultures have forged the national culture and continue to ferment in the country, destabilizing what in fact is not one but many traditions and providing not one but many encounters with a market economy. Social reality is the link between The Mahabharata’s encyclopaedic scope and its plural meaning[2].

Two novels, Rajendra Mohan Bhatnagar’s Dansh [3] and S.L. Bhyrappa’s Parva [4] explore one of the burning issues in modern India, the clash between the forest and the city through Vyasa’s Mahabharata by taking two well known episodes connected with Bhima and Hidimba; and Eklavya and Drona. However in Vyasa’s Mahabharata their implications are not elaborated and they just form a part of the tradition. As Arvind Sharma points out, read in contemporary light several interpretations are possible. [5] The Eklavya episode can be seen both as the supreme example of the devotion of a pupil to his teacher or as a shameful act of Drona symbolizing the cruelty of a system which privileges social status by birth over merit. Bhima’s abandoning of Hidimba the Rakshasa forest queen after the birth of their son Ghatotkacha and then seeking her help during the Mahabharata war can be read as Hidimba’s sacrifice and love or Bhima’s irresponsibility and selfishness.

Why is there a growing tendency in literature to use Mahabharata to raise issues and explore tensions in their contemporary milieu? This is because Vyasa’s Mahabharata is not merely an ancient tale dealing with the fratricidal war between the Kauravas and the Pandavas for the throne of Hastinapur, it is also an ‘itihas’ or a work that projects the significance of events in infinity through the sequence of events in a specific portion of time. Hence the stories are always subject to interpretation by each generation according to their times and perspectives.

Rajendra Mohan Bhatnagar in the Preface to Dansha gives an insight into why a writer feels the need to turn to an ancient epic to confront his current realities. When a novelist, he says, finds his times so complex that he feels unable to overcome the prevailing biases, prejudices and hypocrisies, then he turns to the past, whether a purana or an itihas. In an effort to throw light on the present, he juxtaposes the complexities of his time with the relevant part of past whether it is political, social, economic, scientific, religious, cultural, familial or personal. When he finds that such juxtaposition leads to an analysis and some understanding of the present it gives him a glimmer of what might be the way ahead in the future. It is thus legitimate to draw a thread of continuity from the Mahabharata to contemporary India.

Literature and civilization or ‘sahitya’ and ‘sabhyata’, if we use the Hindi words are intimately interconnected. ‘Sahitya’ means something that is for the good of others and ‘sabhyata’ comes from the word ‘sabha’ or a gathering of people, members of a community or a group of people with common bonds. ‘Sabhyata’ would imply the dominant values that the group of people subscribes to and how they apply them to deal with the issues, conflicts and endeavors of their society or community. Therefore ‘sahitya’ is a product of ‘sabhyata’ and in turn moulds it. It holds up a mirror to the community, society or civilization and in turn influences it through the ideas that it communicates and disseminates. It does so not by being overtly moralistic but by creating an awareness or consciousness leading to reflection and analysis of the warts and moles in the society that often arise from the distortions that take place in the practices and ritual manifestations of values over a period of time.

Awareness alters our way of thinking and so helps in problem solving. ‘Sahitya’ presents us with material that we recognize because we are not only part of the collective unconscious of the society in which we are embedded but it also gives us slightly altered versions of it. It thus places different possibilities before us. It becomes an aid to remembering the past and making us see it differently when we need to. Hence, ‘Sahitya’ can become powerful agent for creative and healthy change. Or it can create a consciousness, affirmative as well as tragic, of living in a human world which, in so far as it must embody value cannot have an ultimate grounding. Although ‘myth’ or as in this case ‘itihas’ may initially appear to be archaic counter to modernity, it is thus also the paradigm on which modernity has repeatedly reconstructed or come to understand its own life forms. The very term ‘myth,’ by combining the rival meanings of a grounding narrative and a falsehood, encapsulates a central problem of modernity: how to live, given what we know.

As Rajendra Mohan Bhatnagar points out, Eklavya did not come to the forefront suddenly nor did the authority exercised by guru Dronacharya. To willfully overlook the contemptuous neglect and intrigue that a person is subjected to so that the status quo of inequitable power structures can be maintained is not only intolerable but also detrimental to the future well being of society. This aspect was not taken seriously at the time of Mahabharata nor, feels Bhatnagar, is it being honestly looked at today. Hypocrisy and intrigue are driving public pronouncements pertaining to the deprived and the under privileged to the forefront and it is projected that those advocating their welfare know what is best for them; even better than the people they seek to speak for and are their only true sympathizers and well wishers. The politics of the present led Bhatnagar to relook at the Drona-Eklavya episode and make Eklavya the protagonist of his novel Dansh. [6]

The effort to understand the present by juxtaposing it with the past can also be seen in the demythification of Mahabharata by Bhyrappa in his epical novel Parva. At least one strand in Parva is the manipulation and subjugation of the forest dwellers by the Aryans through their unethical use of ‘dharma’, and by embroiling the forest people in their own rivalries using women as pawns and instruments in their power games. This is seen in the relationship between Bhima and Hidimba, and the sacrifice of their son Ghatotkacha together with the ruin of the forest people. There are other alliances between Aryans and the ‘rakshasas’ as the forest tribes are called by the Aryans in the union between Ugrasena’s wife and Drumile, the king with ‘rakshasa’ blood in him, which led to the birth of Kamsa. The powerful king Jarasandha’s mother was a ‘rakshasa’ woman while his father Brihadratha was the Aryan king who while he loved his wife, hated the “rakshasas as a tribe” and “hunted them as if these were wild animals, killed them and skinned them.” In every encounter, the people of the tribes are the losers and the victims of prejudice or power games.

The stories of Bhima and Hidimba and of Eklavya and Drona have many implications as more and more sections of society challenge the hegemony of the ruling class and their privileges. These texts explore the relationship of the ruling Aryan classes with the forest tribes; the differences in the values of the two especially with regard to the ownership of land which, for Aryans, is owned by the possessor as opposed to the common ownership of land. While the forest people own land collectively as a community, for the Aryans, land is the exclusive property of the owner. This difference of how land is owned and possessed has implications for women their status in family and society. The individual ownership of land leads to the patriarchal ordering of the society and conflicts with the more egalitarian values of the forest people. These are aggravated by the spread of the city with its urban culture, patriarchal norms and hierarchical norms. The consequence is the ensuing power struggles ensuing power struggles. These issues have become acute, intense and immediate in our times.

Bhima and Hidimba in Parva

As war becomes inevitable, Krishna tells Bhima to go to Hidimba and get her support. Bhima is hesitant. He doesn’t want to go begging to Salakatenkati as Hidimba is called in the Parva because he had abandoned her and their child Ghatotkacha. While Krishna understands Bhima’s hesitation and sense of guilt he points out that she is his wife and is bound to aid him. Bhimais in a quandary because he did not visit his wife and son even once after he left them. And so how could he now go and request them to join him together with the Rakshasa army. Krishna points out,

….. everybody is bound by the norms and rules of the caste community to which he or she belongs. Aren’t there communities in which the father has no responsibility for nurturing the children, which falls entirely to the lot of the mother? In such groups, one never asks a father why he neglected one’s upbringing. It is even likely that she may not complain that you never returned to her. In any case, all of your time was spent in exile and servitude. What was the question of your bringing her? If you explain, won’t she understand? I can understand your embarrassment. (122)

Bhima was angry with himself and with Krishna at being placed in such a difficult situation, but the exigencies of war and politics leave him with no option. Duryodhana was sending emissaries to negotiate alliances with the Rakshasas who were waiting for a chance of revenge as Bhima had slain many of their prominent and respected leaders -- Hidimba, Bakasura, Kimeera and others.
As Bhima travels on his way to Salakatankati his mind goes back to the first time he saw her. Unlike Draupadi, who always spoke in riddles, Hidimba was straight “as a bamboo shoot; straight in speech and behavior.” (139) True to her character, she told him in her very first encounter with him,

My name is Salakatankati. We are Rakhsasas. My elder brother is the king of the Raksasa tribe here. I saw you by accident while on my night rounds. As soon as I saw you, I fell in love with you. I desired you. You are not like those fellows lying asleep on the ground. You are handsome like a Raksasa. Be my husband. (140)

She spoke in the Rakshasa language which had similarities with the Aryan language but was more like that of the Deva folk in the Himalaya. The Rakshasas, according to Bhima, are “Red like us. They do not clad their bodies fully, but expose them to the wind and the sun, to some extent. They become therefore tanned a little.” (145) Hidimba, elder brother of Salakatankati, was extremely angry with his sister who, instead of guarding the territory had actually fallen in love with a stranger. He turned to her and said, “you who said you would roam along the boundary, what are you doing here talking to this stranger outside our caste? I have overheard your words of love. Well, I shall deal with you later. Don’t forget I am not only your brother but also a king of this land”. (145-146)
Hidimba fought Bhima. Rakshasas, explained Bhima, were very powerfully built but they were not as strong as him although stronger than the usual Aryan wrestlers. But Bhima killed Hidimba after which the Rakshas begged him to marry his sister Salakatankati and become their king. It was Kunti who forcefully persuaded Bhima to the alliance and made them get marry according to Aryan rites. But the same Kunti later got so worried about Bhima’s love for Salakatankati that she became equally determined to separate them. When Bhima thought about it now his anger flared up and added to his guilt. He recalled the injustice of it all

…poor Salakatankati laboured so hard to keep mother and us four brothers in comfort! For our sake she made arrangements for tasty cooked meat, and running counter to her people’s custom, she even got built huts on the ground, surrounded by a fence, well guarded in the night by Raksasas. She managed to proide us with a regular supply of roots, fruits and shoots, and yet mother was so anxious to leave the place! I myself overheard mother say, ‘Bhima is hopelessly trapped in Salakatankati’s love, and is prepared to settle down here. We must see that he agrees to leave may be after the delivery of a child by Salakatankti. (153)

Salakatankti was anguished that Bhima had decided to desert her following the wishes of his mother. The whole episode shows the unfairness of their treatment of Salakatankti and how her trust was betrayed. She entreated Bhima,

Do you want to desert me? Your mother told me that it would not be possible for you to stay here. Tell me what I should do to please her and persuade her to stay here? In the night, scared that I might slip away unnoticed, she entwined her arms with mine, resting her heavy belly on one side. She indicated several times that my other brothers could marry any Rakhsasa damsels of their choice; right from the start, mother never had any unqualified love for her. Now I understand it all beter. It was she who suggested that her name be changed from Salakatankati to one better suited to an Aryan wife. So she named her Kamalapalike. And with what enthusiasm she accepted the new name! she repeated it at least ten times to herself! She ordered all her people to use only that name! It never occurred to me then why mother named her Kamalapalike, the Guardian of Lotus, one who has the duty of looking after a lotus – why not Kamalamukhi, the Lotus-eyed One? Bhima recalled her face, her form, her beauty, her full-fledged flesh, face round like a lotus, fair complexion, and… mother was unfair, even deceitful, in giving her a name; she showed discrimination, particularly in naming her. Mother was worried, “No matter how secure and fearless our life here, no Aryan food, or clothes. If we stayed here longer we shall become indistinguishable from the Rakhsasas. (153-154)

Kamalapalike or Salakantankati pleaded with Bhima to stay, but all she got was abuse from Kunti because Kunti detested the Rakshasas. Once again Bhima’s anger bubbled over as he thought of his separation from Salakatankati and of his son Ghatotkacha:
I was told that I looked like this at birth. In fact, this baby was even bigger than I was as a baby, mother said. I got very angry with mother. Why did she take me away from the big baby and its mother? Was it because she feared that if I had stayed longer, I would have become deeply attached to the baby and preferred to remain behind for good? She also did not handle that baby much. Never kissed it, fondled it. She pulled me away from the weeping mother and then saw to it that I left that land. Wicked, that was what she the appeared to be. (185)

Bhima, journeying through the Rakshasa territory realizes that it hasn’t changed much. If it had been Aryan land it would have been transformed beyond recognition because it would have been cleared of trees and vegetation and made ready for cultivation, the emergence of new human settlements, construction of cattle sheds and roads. This is what the Pandavas themselves had done to Khandavaprastha when they converted it into Indraprastha. They had burnt down the forest cruelly entrapping all its inhabitants in the blaze. Only Mayasura, a naga, had managed to escape and he had been allowed to survive only because he was a master architect. He built the magnificent city of Indraprastha for the Pandavas in return for his life having been spared. Bhima found the Rakshasaland on the other hand totally isolated. Even the surrounding villagers did not graze their cattle there.

They were stopped by Rakshasas who informed them that their king was Ghatotkacha. Twenty eight years had elapsed but some of the Rakshasas recalled Bhima and informed him that after he left Salakatankati, “gave up meat, drink, roots and fruits, wasting herself. If the child had not been there, she might have perhaps starved herself to death! She lived only for the child.” (187) Bhima’s heart melted, full of anguish. He was proud of her, of her love and loyalty. He felt that his coming there had not been in vain. One of the Rakshasas Raka, continued, “For two or three years she abstained from all male company.” (188) These last words suddenly deflated his pride. He felt enraged, itching to get hold of that new man to strangle him. As he was gnashing his teeth, Raka added,

Even to this day she remembers you. Even now she weeps that you left her, listening to the advice of your mother. She has been asking all these years, ‘Can’t he return just once?’ Then she weeps. That was four or six years after you left. I shall report to her of your arrival. I am sure she will be so happy that she will reward me with an ankle-ring. (188)

Once Bhima realized that Salakatankati had taken on other husbands, he was overpowered by a whole range of emotions – anger, contrition, humiliation, helplessness. He was angry with the other Rakshasas and his mother but, more than anyone else, he was angry with himself.

Past mid night, he was escorted by his son Ghatotkacha, a spitting image of himself, accompanied by four others, to Salakatankati, who had now grown old. The other four were Ghatotkacha’s brothers but lacked his stature. According to the norms of Rakshasa land, since Bhima was his father and his mother’s first husband, he was considered to be the father of all of them. The others who had accompanied Bhima were not allowed to enter the Rakshasa land as they were strangers. They had to stay where they were and about twenty Rakshasas were left behind to protect them.

Ghatotkacha asked Bhima to climb on his shoulder and when he protested, Ghatotkacha silenced him by saying that these were his mother’s orders. The bond between father and son got established as Bhima’s chest swelled with pride at his son’s strength. Bhima’s meeting with Salakantankati was an emotional one as she hammered his chest with her fists and collapsed into tears. At that time a young rakshasa woman carrying a small boy in her arms descended the steps to where they were. This was Ghatotkacha’s wife, Kamakatanketi and the child was Bhima’s grandson, Barbaraka.

Gradually Bhima realized that Salakatankati had no other husband than him. According to her custom, she explained, a wife could remarry if her husband had absconded for a year as he was then taken to be as good as dead. Bhima had not promised to return but she had waited for him for four long years. The Rakshasa tribe would not have tolerated a queen who did not produce many children. Yet she never married anyone else, just co-habited with a man, and four children came out of it. Bhima could justify his action by saying that he had not given any word to her and therefore did not break any promise, and evade the issue smoothly. But he had spent twelve years in exile in the forest after losing in a game of dice with his brothers. He could have spent that time in her forest as well. Then why didn’t he come? Did his mother prevent him? She had never disobeyed his mother, or done anything to bring dishonour to her, then why did she not accept her?

The questions reverberate in the depths of the silence in his mind. The idea of returning to her forest had never even occurred to him but he could not fathom why. He just felt ashamed.

But several issues had to be sorted out – understood and answered for. Finally, Salakantankati asks Bhima, “Why do you hate the Raksasa tribe?” When he protests she asks him why then had he killed Baka and then some ten or thirteen years later, Baka’s brother, Kirmeera. Bhima explained how Baka had plunged the whole kingdom into a terrible plight and because of that he had to kill him to repay the debt the Pandavas owed to the people who had given them shelter and sustenance. Salakantankati mulled on this and then asked again,

Do you know what has happened now? It seems you and your enemies will be locked in a battle of death. Wherever they are, all Raksasas are planning to gang up against you to kill you. Their wrath has focused on you alone. After all, who is there among your tribes who can challenge and confront the Raksasas, excepting you? Naturally, you are their sole target. Not your brothers. Raksasa chiefs from various forests had assemble here. They told us, ‘You are one of the largest groups of Raksasa. Ghotatkacha has the caliber to lead the entire Raksasa population. You join us.’ They were insistent that we join them with enthusiasm. Then I invited him up to my nest, and counseled him, ‘He is your father. Through your brothers were born to another man, they, too, are his sons since he is my only husband.’ He asked me why you did not care to visit him even once if you really were his father. Tell me, was he right in asking that question? Tell me yourself. (196)

Bhima could not meet her eyes. He should not have come on this mission. There was joy in returning to Salakatankati and the forest but what answer could he give her. Salakantankati continued to explain,

Now the Rakshasa people are split into two factions. That day itself they threatened Ghatotkacha, saying. ‘You were born to our enemy; we shall first finish you and your mother.’ But it is not that easy to beat us here on our own ground. They said, ‘He might have produced you. But commitment and loyalty to one’s people is over-riding, understand rightly the Dharma.’ They had tied him up in words. After their departure, he came to me, asked me, ‘Tell me what I should do. Now I am not sure what is my Dharma. Tell me yourself, please… (197)

Parva embodies the clash of values and vision between the Aryans and the others. It can be read as the progressive subjugation and exploitation of other tribes and clans by the Aryans. This can be seen in the plight of Salakatankati who supported Bhima in spite of all opposition and her son Ghatotkacha died for his father’s cause. But their forest was razed after the war and turned into a graveyard by the Kuru men of the Khandava region. As the Rakshasas point out to Bhima who returns to the forest after the war in search of Salakatankati,

We all went to the war on your behalf. All our men. Our queen Salakatankati sent all our youth to the front, assuring them that the women would take care of the defence of the forest. Well, seizing this opportunity, your Aryan folk rushed from two sides and set fire to the forest. Though winter, the twigs were dry. They had enough material to feed the fire. Well, the forest burnt for three days and three nights…. (947)

Why did they do it? Because the forest land was very fertile and so they wanted “to burn it, cut it, and turn it into cultivable land. All died including Salakatankati, trapped in the forest fire.

Acquisitions mean that land and material goods are individual possessions to be passed on to sons to the exclusion of others rather than their being held in trust as a common holding of the community to be equally shared among its members. Ownership of property leads to issues of inheritance which in turn makes legitimacy and lineage vital. The site of the battle becomes the womb of the woman and who owns it; whether the woman has the right over her body or is she to be sacrificed to the property rights of men, their ownership and control of land and its produce.



Rajendra Mohan Bhatnagar weaves several contemporary debates and discourses into his novel as he contrasts the Bhil society with its closeness to nature and greater traditions of personal freedom and egalitarianism with the hierarchical, rule bound prosperous and manipulative society of Hastinapur. It devolves into a contrast between the social organization of forest dwellers with that of the urban courtly and mercantile social organization of Hastinapur. Nature is not idealized into a benign nurturing force but its destructive cruelty and ability to take revenge when tampered with is squarely faced. Kesho, commenting upon the destructiveness of the storm and hail in which they are caught warns that it is dangerous to interfere too much with nature. Forests should not be cut as they are the natural habitat of animals and other beings of the forest from which they derive sustenance and where they roam about freely. On their well being depends the well being of human beings.

As Kesho, Eklavya, Kaka, Pipariya, Sonaka and others travel to Hastinapur to sell their wares, Sonaka asks Kaka why do the Bhils live in the forests. Kaka does not know how to tell him, without causing resentment that at one time their ancestors lived in Hastinapur. That poison of history he has kept hidden within him. The reflection of it could occasionally be found in the games, songs and dances of the forest people. He does not answer but Pipariya who gets a glimpse of the injustice that was done to them asserts that those who suffer wrong are worse than those who perpetrate it. Kaka does not want to encourage this line of thought although he is aware that the seeds of rebellion have been growing among the people for several years. He points out that the forest had given them refuge. They were the rulers of the forests where they lived according to their own laws and where they were safe in every way. They lived in the lap of nature protected by Mahadeva, Parvati and their gods. Then why should they not live peacefully in the forest without hankering after city life?

Eklavya wonders whether they could not live thus in the city too. Kaka explains that cities were for the city dwellers and the forests for the forest people. He does not want thoughts of revenge to come up. But as they near the sights and sounds of Hastinapur and see its opulence and comforts, the contrast becomes glaring. In the markets of Hastinapur, Eklavya suffers loss as his arrows are not a match to the new kinds of more lethal arrows made by his rival Kheta.

The dissatisfaction with Hastinapur is a running strand in the novel. When Eklavya suffers heavy loss in the sale of bows and arrows to Hastinapur, a meeting of the people is called which provides an occasion to people to express their dissatisfaction at the way they are treated by Hastinapur. It is recalled that two years earlier, when a fatal disease had spread among them, Hastinapur had not done anything for them. It is also felt that their own society has been stagnating. No innovation had taken place in the making of bows and arrows and hence the market for their produce was drying up. If they wanted to succeed they would have to work differently from their traditional way of doing things.

Eklavya, however, is not really interested in the business of bows and arrows. What he truly wants is to be an archer rather than a mere maker of bows and arrows. As he searches for a teacher, he realizes that Kesho is a very good archer. Kesho encourages Eklavya to set his sights on achieving what he truly aspires to do. Leave everything to Mahadeva he counsels and start working and practicing archery without any worry.

Eklavya retreats to the forest and begins his sadhana but there are self doubts. His uncle tells him that blessings come when one strives whole heartedly. One has to have the purity of mind, speech and action, the integrity and passion to strive and practice for years. The aspiration to succeed must remain as must faith and courage. But, wonders Eklavya, how is it possible to do all this for an uneducated, neglected and ordinary person, a forest dweller like him. His uncle explains that the whole universe has been created by Mahadeva who resides in every being. If everyone and everything has been made by him, how can there be distinctions of big and small, poor and rich, or lowly and great. All these had been created and propagated by selfish and narrow minded men. No one was weak.

Eklavya is not convinced. What his uncle says has not been found to be experientially true for generations. But his uncle asserts that these distinctions had to be removed. Man can do what even the gods can’t. He tries to instill confidence in Eklavya by pointing out that inner strength was unlimited and eternal. It could not be destroyed and so if a person surrendered to god and trusted his own self, his strength would grow more and more. What was required was faith in one’s own capacity to achieve one’s goals. But how could you develop this confidence? By meditating on your own self and tapping into your inner strength. You have to find your own inner resources, Eklavya’s uncle tells him, without worrying about the fruits of the consequences. The first step was to become fearless, to be not scared of anything or anybody. There was no mantra, or teacher or guru who could get rid of a person’s fears. The person had to do that himself.

Rajendra Mohan Bhatnagar also dwells on the psyche of Drona. Drona was Drupad’s classfellow. While Drupad became king, Drona remained a very poor Brahmin who could not even afford milk for his son. Insulted and humiliated by Drupad on seeking his help, Drona wandered despondently in the forests where he met Kesho. Kesho, on the look out for a teacher for the Bhils and in particular for Eklavya, tried to persuade Drona to stay with them and teach them. Kesho wants to do something for his people so that they can come out of their poverty and ignorance. He knew that they needed education and skills to be able to compete with others on equal footing and not be driven out of the towns and made to live in the forests. When Drupad rejects his proposal Kesho begins to wonder whether there was anyone to support the forest people. No one it seemed. Even Drona who had no occupation and was extremely poor, would rather go to the city than remain in the forest with them. Why should he waste his life on them whom he considered poor, ignorant and ill-fated?

Eventually Drona became a teacher to the Kuru princes but at the cost of his integrity. He had to teach even his own son stealthily because he had to ensure that Arjuna became an unrivalled archer in the kingdom. Hence even if someone had more potential, he could not be allowed to excel Arjuna.

Eklavya retreats deep into the forest to concentrate on practicing archery with faith in god. All the bhils feel that only Drona could be appropriate teacher for someone as talented and dedicated as Eklavya. Sudas tells Hiranyadhanu that he must go to the Kuru king and seek his permission for Eklavya to be taught by Drona. He points out that the Bhils have a claim on the Kurus as Hiranyadhanu has often come to the aid of the royal family. On one message from the Pandu king when Hastinapur had been surrounded by the enemies, Hiranyadhanu had reached with his forces and defeated the aggressor. It had been a fierce battle in which they had lost many lives but Hiranyadhanu had helped without hesitation.

But, says Hiranyadhanu, it was their duty to protect the kingdom and not a favour. After all danger to Hastinapur was also a danger to them. But Kaka reminds him of the loss of life and limb that they had suffered. At the end of it, the Pandu king had publicly acknowledged that he had been saved by Hiranyadhanu and that he would forever remain indebted to him. This was the time to test how much his words meant.

Kaka and Sudas insist that Hiranyadhanu must prevail upon the king of Hastinapur to permit Drona to teach Eklavya. When Hiranyadhanu points out that Drona was only supposed to teach princes, they remind him that Eklavya, although a bhil, was also a prince; he was the prince of bhils.
Hiranyadhanu is hesitant. They were adivasis, bhils and underprivileged who could not claim to be equal to the Hastinapur princes. How could they aspire to and reach those heights? They should not forget their limitations imposed on them by tradition and customs. These had been followed by the ancestors and that was why their offspring had never been educated with princes. He himself was a living example of this. But this statement revealed a hidden hurt and sense of injustice.

Sudas does not agree. Limitations and hierarchies had to change with times. Tradition could not be static. Change was the gift of time. To ignore change was to insult time. Kaka added that the bhils could not remain in their dark, ignorant and neglected world forever. Their new generation had also begun to ask these questions and wanted equal rights. The time, he felt, had come to let the upper caste society know that the class that they used but overlooked when it came to any benefits, the class which was without any rights and was considered to be even without any backbone to demand it, also wanted to establish its distinct identity.

Hiranyadhanu was stunned to see the seeds of revolt and tried to assuage them by saying that while their point of view was right, they had to work positively towards satisfying their aspirations and not negatively. There should be no rashness, hatred or violence. When Sudas insisted that one way of heralding change would be to send Eklavya to Hastinapur, Hiranyadhanu said he would have to consult Eklavya first.

Of course, Eklavya had always secretly desired to be the student of a great teacher like Drona but had not dared to hope. He knew of his lowly status. For example, he accepted that he was not entitled to do tapasya because it was prohibited for Bhils. Besides, as Sudas points out, teachers were usually Brahmins and all they thought about was how to serve the king as that was their path to respect, fame and wealth. He could not remember any rishis or sages who had taught a Bhil.

Kaka feels that they should place the proposal of asking the king of Hastinapur to allow Eklavya to become the pupil of Drona in front of their sabha and also emphasize that whenever there had been a need, they had supported Hastinapur to their best, hence their demand was legitimate. In spite of the unswerving loyalty of the Bhils, Bhil young men had not been allowed entry into the royal armed forces. They had been deprived of the required education and kept away from prestigious positions in the court. If they acquired as much knowledge and ability as others, they would be able to serve the kingdom even better. That is why the Bhil Sabha recommended that Eklavya, being a Bhil prince, should be trained by Dronacharya.

While Hiranyadhanu does not want to make this proposal into their prestige issue, Kaka and Sudas point out that it was a question of their prestige and that of the Bhils. The Bhil kingdom also had pride and significance and Hastinapur needed to be reminded of that. They were not just material to be sacrificed at the time of danger. They needed to get facilities for which the court of Hastinapur had to support them. When Hiranyadhanu says that this has never happened before, Sudas counters that hitherto they had never felt so small and their pride had never been so hurt. Also, a person as talented and dedicated as Eklavya had also not been there amongst them. The demands of the Bhil youth were valid. How long would they continue suffer simply because they were born as Bhils. A more conciliatory approach was counseled by Hiranyadhanu.

When Eklavya, Hiranyadhanu and others meet Bhishma and ask him to point Drona to teach Eklavya, he does not help. Rather he avoids the issue by saying that it was for Drona to decide whom he wanted to accept as his pupil. Kesho and Kaka were not convinced. Besides, Bhishma had been discourteous. They felt as he did not even offer them a glass of water. They believed that these kings and princes were extremely self serving and so got determined to approach Drona. Drona tested Eklavya’s ability and realized that he was already a master archer. However, it was precisely because of this bound by his loyalty to Hastinapur he could not accept Eklavya. He had to serve his master, the king of Hastinapur as he had not forgotten his days of poverty and had no desire to return to them. He rejects Eklavya telling him that he had to understand the difference between a king and a pauper. Although Eklavya was as capable as the princes, the harsh truth was that he was not a prince. He tries to convince Eklavya that his lot was the consequence of his actions in his past life. Hence he had to accept his fate and first atone for the actions of his past life rather than aspire to something that he was not entitled to. Eklavya’s very ability becomes his enemy because Drona realizes that he can rival and exceed the princes, which he must not be allowed to do.

Since the return of Hiranyadhanu and others from Hastinapur, the news of how they had been humiliated spread and a new awakening began to take place in the forests. The insult had to be avenged. Hiranyadhanu wanted to rather treat it as a personal matter so as not to aggravate the situation, but his prime minister disagreed and impressed upon Hiranyadhanu that he had to accede to the demand of a public meeting on the subject. He points out that if the Bhils felt suppressed and were not allowed to voice their feelings, they might even revolt. Sudas who was also tired of the arrogance and the autocracy of the brahmins and the kshatriyas emphasized that it was a matter of Bhil pride and self respect. Hiranyadhanu however, knew that revolt was useless. Every time the Bhils had revolted, they had lost. Eklavya also did not want a rebellion but the issue of equality became sharply focused in his mind too.

The Bhil sabha takes place under a tree as they have no building for it. The question arises why should the Bhils support Hastinapur if the court had no respect or concern for them. Their society, they argue, has always been kept out of the developmental stream. What was so special about the brahmins and the kshatriyas, the ruling classes, that the bhils should always remain inferior, neglected and pitiable. While they suffered loss of both men and material, the kingdom did not give them anything –jobs or any other facilities.
It was an indication that the suppressed sense of injustice and exploitation was coming to the fore. However, the pivotal person was Eklavya and he did not want matters to escalate. He also did not want to harbour feelings of revenge and hatred. He counsels love and sacrifice, the development of inner resources and strengths, as the way to the fulfilling their aspirations. However, at the end he becomes a willing sacrificial goat at the hands of Dronacharya. He cuts off his thumb and lays it at his feet because he regards him as his guru. Dronacharya thus achieves his purpose by unfair means and is so callous that he leaves Eklavya’s severed thumb lying in the dust and goes away. The only thing he does is that while leaving, he indicates to Eklavya how he can use his index and middle fingers to string the arrow on the bow and shoot.


The question arises why does Eklavya accept his lot? Ghatotkacha’s grandson seems bent on revenge but is his rage destined to be an impotent one? No answers are available. So can texts like these create enough awareness to bring about a change? Will those who suffer from ills or infirmities imposed by the upper classes revolt or are they already revolting? If yes, is their revolt definitive enough to radically alter the power structures?

In an interesting seminar in the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies on Dissent, Protest and Reform in Indian Civilization, the proceedings of which were edited by S.C. Malik, and brought out as a book in 1977, some insights have been given. [7] One answer by Damle is that change in India is slow because people who suffer from various kinds of inequities have been socialized to accept their lot without complaining, and the fatalistic interpretation of the philosophy of Karma is used to keep them bound to their position in life. This is how Drona seeks to justify his rejection of Eklavya when he tells him that he is a Bhil prince and not an Aryan prince as a consequence of the actions of his past life and that he must accept this position and atone for his misdeeds rather than aspire to rise above his station in life. Eklavya is thrown into confusion and even while resenting what Drona has said feels bound to accept it. Is that what makes him give his thumb so willingly to Drona? [8]

Another perspective is that of Devahuti who sees in India a cultural idiom of consensus and agreement rather than that of dissent and revolt. S.C. Malik adds to it by pointing out that in India it appears that the tendency is to attempt to simultaneously change and also maintain status quo in the name of stability. [9]

C. Badrinath’s answer points to something more insidious in the culture of India. [10] Authority he says is repeatedly challenged but no real change takes place, because traditionally authority itself is considered to be the arbiter of truth. India has prided itself in the creation of a dharmic society with its ethical ambiguities in which authority is seen as the source of all knowledge. This accounts for the absolute authority of the guru that demands willing and slavish subservience from the student and gets it. In such a situation disputation becomes a mere skill while thought becomes powerless. It makes adherence to one’s allotted role in life a duty and congeals social stratification in which the governed are bound by their dharmic and karmic duty to accept the supremacy of the ruler. Authority and hierarchy then become more than functional arrangements and submission to them is seen as the path to both worldly goods and spiritual salvation. As J.S. Grewal points out, even the reaction of the upholders of tradition against the protagonists of change and reform, belongs primarily to the study of ‘tradition’ and only secondarily to ‘reform’. And thus dissenting movements usually get gradually absorbed into the framework of the tradition itself. Is that the secret of eternal India? Its timelessness? Continuity amidst change? [11]

But unswerving and blind obedience in whatever sphere of life cannot be a part of democracy which by its very nature must guarantee equal opportunities to all and uphold the rule of law. It is a mode of governance that seeks to turn the reverence for authority and hierarchy on its head and makes rulers subservient to public will.

The questions raised in the two novels challenge tradition but even if this thought process spreads, will it be transformative or bring about a rupture? That only time can tell. As Dorothy Figueira points out,

The present is fractured; it consists of competing pasts. By posting the past as a special case of the present, one not only remakes the present, but creates a new past and redefines identity (as kin, race, family) through an act of memory. The past thus possesses sociopolitical instrumentality when perceptions of “history” are made relevant to the present. Conflicts concerning the past are, in fact, struggles suggesting the proper shape the present should take. In such instances, history may be elevated to myth, when the needs of the present are read into the past and an image of the past is imposed on the present. History, once transformed into myth, becomes an instrument to construct social forms. It shapes the present through an evocation of the past and specific groups that inhabit it. [12]


  1.  Julie Mehta, “Myth as Metaphor: The Reflection of the Sacred in the Secular in A River Sutra, “Transverse: A Comparative Studies Journal, Issue No.2, November 2004, p.9
  2. Maira Shavtsova,”Interaction-Interpretation: The Mahabharata from a socio-cultural Persperctive,” Peter Brook and the Mahabharata: Critical Perspectives, david Williams ed., London and New York: Routledge, 1991 p.209
  3. Rajendra Mohan Bhatnagar, Dansh, Delhi: Rajpal and Sons, 2010
  4. S.L. Bhyrappa, Parva: Tale of War, Peace, Love, Death, God and Man. Translated into English from Kannada by K. Raghvendra Rao, New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1994, 2nd 2009. All Quotations are from the 2009 edition.
  5. Arvind Sharma, “Seeing the Same Things Differently,” (Unpublished Article)
  6. See the Bhatnagar Preface to Dansh
  7. S.C. Malik, ed. Dissent Protest and Reform in Indian Civilization Simla, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, 1977
  8. Y.B. Damle, “Protest, Dissent and Social Reform: A Conceptual Note,” S.C. Malik, ed. Dissent, Protest and Reform in India Civilization, pp 28-33
  9. S.C,. Malik, ed. Dissent Protest and Reform, p.34, p 39-41
  10.  C. Badrinath, “Dissent, Protest and Reform: The Historical Context,” in S.C. Malik, ed. Dissent Protest and Reform, pp 42-46
  11.  S.C. Malik, ed. Dissent Protest and Reform, p 36
  12. Dorothy M. Figueria, Aryans, Jews, Brahmins: Theorizing Authority through Myths of Identity, State University of New York Press, 2002, p.1


More by :  Dr. Kavita Sharma

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