Book Reviews

Interlude-in-Incognito and the Gathering Storm

Change of scenario, shifting of the spotlight from one protagonist to another, a sudden speeding up of pace— all these come to the fore in Vyasa’s narrative art in the Virata and Udyoga Parvas, the fourth and fifth books of the Mahabharata. In the Sambhava sub-parva of the first book, Arjuna took over centre stage from Bhima-the-rescuer till the focus shifted to Yudhishthira in the shattering climax of the gambling match. In the forest exile, the prime attention swayed between Bhima and Arjuna with the eldest brother and Draupadi anchoring the centre. When we come to the incognito phase, the spotlight stays on Bhima, turning only at the end to highlight the grotesque figure of Brihannala laying low Duryodhana’s forces.  

It has become fashionable, since van Buitenen’s translation and Peter Brook’s dramatisation, to label the fourth book of the Mahabharata as Vyasa’s udyoga at burlesque— all because the brothers and their wife assume low class disguises followed by a theatrical victory over enemy forces. On study, however, patterns emerge that continue and reiterate themes articulated in the earlier books. There is much anguish, considerable trauma and little of fun-and-games (Kichaka caressing Bhima disguised as a woman; Brihannala, skirts flapping and braid flying, chasing the fleeing Uttara— but in both cases the momentary hilarity is transformed into brutal blood-letting). In this fourth book, Vyasa looks before and after; there are interesting parallels and contrasts.

The attack by the forces of Hastinapura, with which the fourth book of the epic climaxes, is a reiteration of a see-saw conflict over succession between the cousins—one set whose parentage is unquestioned and the other who suffer from dubious fatherhood—that began with the mountain-dwelling Pandavas finding a royal home but having to escape the flaming house-of-lac and live disguised as wandering Brahmins, as they have to again years later. Their fortunes turned with Arjuna first obtaining a gift of wondrous hoses from a Gandharva and then winning Draupadi. A skirmish followed with the frustrated princely suitors, prefiguring Kurukshetra, that was beaten back by Bhima (who threw Shalya down) and Arjuna (from whom the awed Karna withdrew) and was dissipated by Krishna who, in his very first appearance, commanded immediate compliance. The glory of Indraprastha and the royal Rajasuya sacrifice crowned the restoration through the removal of two major obstacles—Jarasandha and Shishupala—and the creation of the fateful Maya-sabha that fed Duryodhana’s envy afresh, leading directly to the gambling hall.

A second reversal of fortunes occurred in two stages: Arjuna enjoying a long self-imposed exile in which Krishna played a major role at the end; and the gambling away of Indraprastha twice over, with Krishna absent (in the Vana Parva he says that had he been present none of this would have occurred). These and the outraging of Draupadi’s modesty sowed the seeds of inevitable fratricide.

The next reversal occurred in the forest, with the advantage going to the Pandavas in rescuing Duryodhana from the Gandharvas while Karna fled the scene, as he does again in the Virata Parva. Krishna had no role. In this incident Vyasa replicates a Vedic motif absent in Valmiki—cattle as prime wealth—repeating it in the Virata Parva once again with Duryodhana who assumes the role of the Panis vis-a-vis the Indra-Pandavas.

There is a graded shift from encounters with demonic beings in the forest starting with Hidimb the cannibal, then the terrifying Kirmira, both strongly reminiscent of Valmiki’s Rakshasas, followed by Draupadi—the “Shri” (good fortune) of the Pandavas—being abducted first by Jatasura disguised Ravana-like as a Brahmin, and again by the human Jayadratha. The Pandavas win her back promptly, with even Yudhishthira fighting for the first time in the second event. In Kurukshetra, Jayadratha, released magnanimously by Yudhishthira, will defeat all of them and cause Abhimanyu’s death. Krishna continues to be off-scene. The mysterious mythic worlds of the forest—where lakes bloom with supernal blossoms guarded by demons; where an ape and a python can immobilise invincible Bhima—now give way to the rough-and-tumble of urban life in Virata’s city.

In Virata’s court they assume the disguises of a Brahmin gambler, a cook-cum-wrestler, a dance-and-music tutor with “a long reed”, a groom, a cowherd, and a chambermaid, which Dumezil tried hard to fit into his tri-functional Indo-European paradigm. Arjuna’s eunuch-hood and its verification by young women inversely parallels Shikhandi’s, while his sex-reversal parallels the Yaksha Sthunakarna’s. Draupadi’s modesty is outraged for the fourth time and she is even kicked in the court, with two of her husbands and the king remaining silent— a parallel of the Hastinapura scene. As this occurs during the Brahma festival, van Buitenen equates it with Saturnalia and Holi, which socially sanction the licentiousness that he finds inspiring the parva. Draupadi succeeds in getting Kichaka killed, but is abducted yet again to be burnt alive with his corpse. She calls out the secret names of the Pandavas, all of which are linked to the “Jaya” that is a synonym for Vyasa’s composition. Of these only “Vijaya” is a real name, being Arjuna’s, who does not respond. It is Bhima who, once more, saves Draupadi. Now Duryodhana launches a full-scale attack featuring all the heroes who later figure in Kurukshetra. The entire lot is knocked unconscious, except Bhishma, by Brihannala (presaging Shikhandi in the Great War). Krishna is absent. Indeed, the disguised Arjuna is to the terrified and demoralised Bhuminjaya-Uttara what sakha Krishna becomes for him in dharmakshetre-kurukshetre, even to the extent of the significances of the many names/vibhutis of Arjuna/Krishna and the words in which Uttara begs pardon for having addressed Brihannala lightly. To believe that without Krishna the Pandavas are nothing is to reveal an extremely superficial reading of Vyasa’s complicated epic narrative.

A remarkable feature of this book, brought out in the transcreator’s insightful preface, is the breathtaking speed at which the narration proceeds. Prof. Lal’s effort to provide an English approximation of Sauti’s recitation is most satisfying. After the slow-moving, elaborate descriptions of forest life and holy pilgrimages in the preceding book, the complete change of scenario to the cut-and-thrust of court life is so well transcreated that the orality of the epic comes through forcefully. Vividly we listen to different voices speaking, the exchanges between apprehensive Sudeshna and pleading Sairandhri, the gossiping maids and humiliated Draupadi, lustful Kichaka and desperate Panchali, boastful Uttara and flustered Brihannala, sobbing Draupadi, unmoved Kanka, timid Virata and furious Ballava, the giggling girls and pig-tailed Brihannala. In contrast, the Udyoga Parva presents a “heady mix of sincerity and duplicity”, with the spoken word holding us in thrall. “Nowhere”, writes Prof. Lal, “(is it) more charming and cunning, more straight and double-edged, more selfish and altruistic…A wonderful exercise in public relations and double-speak.” In this “Vyasan U.N. of sorts” each speaker is a mouthpiece, exploiting language to the maximum for pushing a case, irrespective of his personal beliefs, both sides bent on war. Such posturing can only result in the Ragnarok of Kurukshetra. As the fulminations die down, Vyasa introduces a wondrous vignette: Krishna-Karna-Kunti face-to-face, leaving it to us, Prof. Lal points out, to figure out where the moral rectitude lies. Is Karna right or Kunti; is Kunti the “real” mother or Radha; is Krishna right in tempting Karna with Draupadi? Buddhadeb Bose, in Pratham Partha, added another layer to the scenario by making Draupadi approach Karna in person.

Some issues need to be raised: why does the transcreator begin with an invocation saluting Vyasa that is not in the Mahabharata? The original runs: “Bowing to Narayana, and Nara, the best of men, and to the goddess Saraswati, utter Jaya.” A baffling incident in the Virata Parva is Brihannala assuring Uttara that he will not be defiled by climbing up the Sami tree to bring down the weapons because “There is no corpse on this tree” (41.4) although one specifically described as “foul smelling” was tied there by the Pandavas. Incidentally, this is the only place (section 43) where the bows, arrows and swords of the Pandavas are described lovingly in detail. Uttara’s description of a “bee-headed and bee-symbolled” sword (42.11 & 20) is a mistranslation of “shili prishtha shili mukha” which connotes “frog”. The translation of “Bibhatsu” as “the Loathsome One” (44.18) is also questionable, “horrific deed-doer” or “the Horrifier" being more appropriate. Curiously, Arjuna explains it as the opposite: “one who never commits any horror”, just as “Janardana” means “grinder of the people” but signifies the opposite for Krishna. The transcreation of 53.21 contradicts this by reversing Arjuna’s explanation in his announcement to the Kaurava host, “I am dreadful-deed-doer Bibhatsu” (53.21). It is difficult to make out the meaning he gives of being named “Krishna”. According to Lal and Ganguli, Pandu gave it out of affection, as he was “the dark boy of great purity”. Van Buitenen translates, “out of love for that little boy of the dazzling complexion” which provides an interesting link with his soul-mate, Krishna. In 66.13, victorious Arjuna can hardly ask Uttara, “Escape from the field!” The correct translation is “go out through the middle while they are unconscious”, collecting their upper garments, which avenges the Pandavas’ loss of their uttariyas in the gambling hall. When the Hastinapura army departs, Arjuna does not stand “still silently” (66.25). Rather, he follows them momentarily to pay his respects silently (the mode is described in the next two verses). In introducing Draupadi to his father, Uttara does not refer to her as “golden-skinned beauty” (71.18), but as “kanakottamangi… nilotpalabha”, “bedecked with gold ornaments…glowing like a blue-lotus”.

In the Udyoga Parva, on page 408, verse 19 of section 89 has not been translated. Instead, the last two lines repeat the preceding verse. This should run: “Then Dhritarashtra’s priests greeted Janardana as was proper with offerings of cow, honey-curds and water.” On page 724 verse 9 of section 171, the reference is not to Shishupala, who is long dead, but to Dhrishtaketu. The puzzle of why the sons of Draupadi are not considered for Uttara is answered in the Udyoga Parva where Draupadi speaks of her five sons led by Abhimanyu avenging her. This means they were all born later, which casts an interesting sidelight on what did not happen in Indraprastha during Arjuna’s exile. But Vidura’s prescription that cooked food, salt, honey, milk, curd, ghee, oil, meat, sesame seeds, roots, fruits, red cloth, molasses and perfumes should not be sold is puzzling and unglossed.

Before the incognito exile begins, the priest Dhaumya’s advice on how to behave with kings depicts the ruler as a self-willed tyrant— precisely the converse of the dharma-raja and giving us some idea about the Kshatriyas whom Parashurama destroyed and who are infesting the land once again. It is at the beginning of this book that, for the first time, we find a description of what the ominous dice looked like. Yudhishthira carries golden dice set with sapphires instead of the traditional vibhitaka nuts. Prof. Lal’s transcreation (red and black dice and ivory, blue, yellow, red and white pawns) is more correct than van Buitenen’s dice made of beryl, gold, ivory, phosphorescent nuts and black and red dice. The disguise he chooses is that of a royal sabhastarah, one who spreads the rug for dicing, for which Lal’s “courtier” is hardly adequate. Yudhishthira’s invocation to Durga for protecting them— hailing her first as Yashoda and Nandagopa’s daughter— is clearly a late interpolation coterminous with the Shakta puranas, as is the later prayer to her by Arjuna in the Bhishma Parva. Curiously, Virata’s capital remains nameless (surmised to be Bairat near Jaipur) and the only place-name we have in his kingdom is Upaplavya where the action of the Udyoga Parva is located. Bhima undertakes to wrestle but not to kill any challenger, yet that is precisely what he does with Jimuta in the Brahma festival that becomes the occasion for Kichaka’s assault on Draupadi whose appearance is described more often in this book than anywhere else by Yudhishthira, Sudeshna and Kichaka. When the attack by the Trigartas is beaten back and Bhima drags Susharma to Yudhishthira addressing him as their slave—as he had done with Jayadratha—the eldest Pandava repeats the mistake by releasing him with foolish magnanimity. Jayadratha and Susharma become the causes of Abhimanyu’s death, one by preventing help from reaching him; the other by keeping Arjuna fully engaged elsewhere.

A hitherto unknown aspect of Draupadi comes to the fore in this book— her ability to use her sexual appeal to get her way. She approaches not Arjuna, knowing his total subservience to Yudhishthira, but the emotional Bhima who has not given a second thought to risking his life on several occasions in the forest to please her fancy. How succinctly yet memorably Vyasa paints the scene: “The room was ablaze with her beauty/and mahatma Bhima’s splendour.” Her seduction of Bhima is an elaborate affair spanning over 200 verses spread over five sections beginning with twining herself around him as he sleeps. The images Vyasa uses are all from the wild, evocative of primal passion: mating forest-born heifer and bull, female and male cranes, lioness and lion, she-elephant and tusker. Beginning with a plangent lament that plays skilfully on his psychology, she administers the coup-de-grace by holding out to him her hands chapped by grinding ointments for the queen. Simple Bhima’s reaction is all that she had hoped for: he covers his face with her hands and weeps in anguish. Bhima’s attempt at consoling her by quoting examples of five renowned satis of the past includes a reference to Indrasena-Narayani that is of great interest because it looks back to the account Vyasa gives Drupada of Draupadi’s previous birth. Incidentally, Indrasena is also the name of Nala and Damayanti’s daughter who married Mudgala the eldest of five sons of Brhamyashva who founded the Panchalas. A number of manuscripts contain the account of Indrasena-Narayani’s remarkable devotion to her husband, the irascible and leprous sage Maudgalya, which led to her being cursed to have five husbands in the next birth. In the Rig-Veda (10.102) she is valiant Mudgalani, driving her husband Mudgala’s chariot, acting like “Indra’s dart” to win back stolen cattle. A passage in one of the manuscripts refers to yet another previous birth of Draupadi that links her to the Matsyas too. As Shaibya, daughter of Bhumashva, she wedded in a svyamvara the five sons of king Nitantu named Salveya, Shurasena, Shrutasena, Tindusara and Atisara who founded five branches of the Matsyas paralleling the five of the Panchalas.

What finally forces Bhima’s hand, however, is her threat of committing suicide, saying,

“Where will your maha-dharma be then
O my dharma-seeking husbands?
You will keep your word,
but you will lose your wife.”

It is a tactic she repeats with him at the end of the war for avenging the murder of her brothers and sons by Ashvatthama. We are given an extremely rare glimpse into Arjuna’s heart, most sensitively transcreated, when he tells Sairandhri, who reproaches him with enjoying himself in the women’s quarters while she suffers:

“Brihannala has griefs too, terrible ones,
She is fallen into the womb
of an animal.
You will not understand anything of this,
my good girl…
No one can look into the deepest places
of another’s heart.
You don’t know me,
you don’t know what I feel.”

But nowhere does Draupadi ever recall an attempt at stripping her. Even when Ashvatthama berates Duryodhana he mentions her being dragged in her period in a single cloth into the gaming hall, but nothing more. When Arjuna rebukes Karna, it is only for letting a “wicked rascal” drag Panchali into the sabha. In his peace embassy, Krishna accuses the Kauravas of this same dragging by the hair only. Was the attempt to strip added later?

Despite all her fulminations against her eldest husband, the complexity of Draupadi’s relationship is instructive indeed. When Virata gives Yudhisthira a nose-bleed—the first ever physical wound he has suffered—he has only to glance at Sairandhri for her to understand immediately and catch the blood in a vessel so that it does not drop on the ground to cause famine and to hide it from Arjuna’s eyes.

This parva provides a rare chronological clue when Brihannala tells Uttara that Arjuna carried the Gandiva for 65 years (43.7), which could be stated only by someone who knew the end of the epic and has to be an interpolation. In the Udyoga Parva (52.10) Dhritarashtra says that 33 years ago Arjuna burnt the Khandava forest, which provides another indicator. An information of interest is that a special area was set apart to be ruled by Suta chiefs like Kekaya whose children were Kichaka and Sudeshna. The Suta Karna’s conduct vis-à-vis Draupadi is paralleled here by Suta Kichaka, whose unrestrained passion conflates Duryodhana and Duhshasana, his brothers being like the Dhartarashtras. The Udyoga Parva presents another parallel in Nahusha’s lust for Indrani, recounted by Shalya to the eldest Pandava. Similarly, the laying low of the Kaurava heroes by Brihannala, including the knocking down of Bhishma without his losing consciousness, anticipates Shikhandi’s role in the fall of Bhishma. Arjuna defeating a joint attack by six heroes anticipates the similar attack by them on his son. Arjuna’s double sex change (man-eunuch-man) parallels the conflation of Shikhandi (woman-man) and Sthunakarna (man-woman). Virata’s bewilderment when Arjuna refuses to wed his daughter parallels Drupada’s when faced with the opposite demand regarding Draupadi. Arjuna’s reaction reveals not just his sensitivity to social mores but also Virata’s insensitivity—the exact reverse of the Pandavas’ attitude to Panchali’s polyandric marriage. Krishna pours Yadava wealth into Pandava coffers thrice over: when they marry Draupadi; when Arjuna marries Subhadra; and at Abhimanyu’s marriage. There might be a patron-bard issue involved in shaping the narration since Janamejaya, to whom the epic is being recited, is Abhimanyu’s grandson.

Shiva plays a crucial role in these critical events: he grants Drupada the boon of getting a Bhishma-killing son and gives Amba the boon of killing Bhishma as a man. It is the leader of his hosts, Kubera, whose attendant bestows his manhood upon Shikhandi. Draupadi’s five husbands are Shiva’s boon, and it is he who curses five Indras to be born as the Pandavas. Shiva blesses Chitravahan’s ancestor with one son per generation because of which Chitrangada is brought up like a son (paralleling Shikhandi), whom Arjuna weds and is killed by his son from her. The gem by virtue of which Ulupi resurrects Arjuna is Shiva’s gift to Shesha-naga. By Shiva’s grace Krishna obtains his son Shamba who becomes the nemesis of the Yadavas.

The peculiar conduct of Bhishma anticipates what he will do in Kurukshetra. He provides Duryodhana with clues to track down the Pandavas and marshals his forces to oppose Arjuna, with no scruples in aiding Duryodhana in rustling cattle! The picture he paints of the kingdom where Yudhishthira resides is a virtual Rama-rajya. The battle with the Trigartas continues into the night as will happen in the Drona Parva. Kripa advises that six of them should jointly attack Arjuna, as Drona will do with Abhimanyu. Uttara’s vainglorious boasting contains an apocryphal reference to his defeating “Surya’s son Karna” (36.6) which is a mistranslation of “Karnam vaikartanam”, the reference being to his slicing off his skin-armour which is shown when Arjuna’s arrow rips through his coat of mail into his flesh (60.26). The same mistake in translation occurred in the passage describing the skirmish between Karna and Arjuna after Draupadi was won in the Adi Parva (192.10) where “Vaikartana” was translated as “Vikartana’s son”.

In the dice-game, Yudhishthira’s response to the assault on Draupadi had been silence. Her independent thinking was never to his liking. Here the gambler Kanka’s response to Kichaka’s kick contains the notorious verse:

“A woman is never free.
As a girl, she is protected by her father;
as wife, by husband;
in old age, by her son.”

He adds a sly dig at Sairandhri, stating that a devoted wife, whatever her sufferings, “never criticises her husband”. What this reveals of his attitude helps us to make sense of his callous explanation at the end of the epic about why Draupadi cannot make it to heaven.

After the Brahma festivities comes the gathering storm. Post-wedding, the Pandavas marshal their allies: Satvata-Vrishnis (Kritavarma and the Bhoja-Andhakas are with Duryodhana), Matsyas, Ushinaras, Chedi, Panchalas, Magadha, Kashi, Kekaya princes (whose forces are with Duryodhana). The southern Pandya king is an intriguing addition till we find that in southern recensions Chitrangada is the Pandya princess, a detail that van Buitenen misses out and hence finds this inexplicable. The split among the Yadavas is now open as Balarama’s sympathies lie with the Dhartarashtras whom he praises and blames Yudhishthira for walking into disaster with open eyes. It becomes quite clear that the Panchalas are the real force behind the anti-Hastinapura alliance, which is why Dhrishtadyumna is designated commander-in-chief. Bhishma’s long account of Amba mentions that much before Drupada organised the ritual for obtaining a Drona-killing son, he had propitiated Shiva demanding a son who would kill Bhishma. Duryodhana does not ask Bhishma why and van Buitenen annotates “there is no reason for Drupada to hate Bhishma.” The reason is given in the Harivamsa, appropriately styled the appendix to the epic. After Shantanu’s death, the Panchala usurper Ugrayudha had demanded that Satyavati be handed over to him in exchange for a handsome bride-price. Bhishma slew him; hence the enmity. Van Buitenen presciently notes that the Pandava alliance stretches from Mathura in the north to Magadha in the east, all along the right banks of the Yamuna and the Ganga. The five villages asked for are also located here. The Kauravas range from the northwest to the southeast along the left bank of the Ganga (Gandhara, Kamboja, Sindhu-Sauvira, Shalva, Madra, Trigarta, Pragjyotisha, and Avanti and Mahishmati near the Vindhyas, southwest of the Pandava coalition). They clash at Kurukshetra on the right bank of the Yamuna. Interestingly, the last scion of Rama’s dynasty, Brihadbala of Koshala, fights against the Pandavas and dies at the hands of Krishna’s nephew.

Besides the geographical conglomeration there is a deeper political impetus that ranges these kingdoms on either side. Sri Aurobindo has pointed out that with the Kauravas are those who refuse to accept Krishna’s new concept of a samrat, an overlord who will bring disparate chiefs under a single umbrella of righteous rule. In Indian history it is these areas which always remained recalcitrant to any type of unification, efforts for which were invariably articulated from the lower reaches of the Ganga.

This parva gifs us a unique scene of Krishna and Arjuna with their wives in the inner apartments (section 59.7) when Sanjaya visits them, where even Abhimanyu and the twins do not enter. A preliminary glimpse of this was given before the burning of the forest in the first book when they retired with the women for a riverside picnic. Sanjaya finds them reclining, drinking,

“Keshava’s feet rested in Arjuna’s lap
and mahatma’s Arjuna’s feet
reposed in the laps of Krishnaa
and Satyabhama.”

Krishna makes a significant comment: he is yet to repay the debt owed to Draupadi for not aiding her in distress. There was, therefore, no miraculous supply of garments in the gaming hall and the attempt to disrobe Draupadi is most likely a subsequent addition.

The gathering storm reveals the Kautilyan side of Yudhishthira once he knows that Duryodhana has beaten him to obtaining the alliance of Shalya (a parallel to Arjuna and Duryodhana vying for Krishna as ally). The dharma-raja asks him to betray Karna and repeats this, after listening to his lengthy account of how Indra regained his throne by perfidy, till he obtains the promise. The story of Nahusha’s fall as a python Shalya recounts links up with Bhima’s encounter in the Vana Parva and with Yayati’s fall because of overweening pride in the first book. Quite uncharacteristically we find Yudhishthira telling Krishna that artha, wealth, is the basic dharma (72.29), anticipating Arjuna’s celebration of this in the Shanti Parva.

The message Drupada’s priest conveys contains the intriguing assertion that the Pandavas are stronger despite having a smaller army, an unexplained statement that Duryodhana repeats to Bhishma at the beginning of the Gita. Dhritarashtra’s discourse to Sanjaya tells us that Shishupala had a chariot-duel with Krishna and it was no miraculous decapitation inside the Rajasuya sabha. Several manuscripts contain lengthy passages describing this duel at the end of which Krishna uses the chakra. Sanjaya’s embassy to the Pandavas contains a bitter truth, “neither winning nor losing/will bring any good…what joy will you get/after you have killed (elders and cousins)” that strikes home at the end of the war when Yudhishthira repeats this realisation and wishes to abdicate. Yudhishthira himself echoes this while urging Krishna’s peace-embassy. This speech includes ominous forecasts about many jointly killing one (Abhimanyu), of survivors grouping to wipe out victors (Ashvatthama). He even uses the image of dogs fighting which Arjuna repeats in the Ashvamedha Parva when lamenting before Duhshala over the loss of kin. It is supremely ironic that Yudhishthira’s reply to Sanjaya repeats his ancestor Yayati’s warning,

feed upon desires
like fire upon ghee”

but directs it at the Kauravas, oblivious of his own admission in the Vana Parva that he had gambled hoping to win Hastinapura. Sanjaya’s reply and Krishna’s—both here and in response to Yudhishthira’s plea to undertake the peace-embassy and in reply to Bhima—state doctrines regarding dharma and karma that anticipate the Gita. Krishna also uses the Anukramanika Parva’s image of two massive trees for the two sides. Sanjaya’s report to Dhritarashtra contains several passages regarding the atman that anticipate the Gita as does Vidura’s advice and the oft-repeated verse,

“Where dharma, truth, simplicity
and humility are,
Govinda-Krishna is.
And where Krishna is, victory is.”

Vidura speaks the famous verse that Krishna repeats in the Hastinapura court:

“For the family, sacrifice a man;
for the village, a family;
for the country, a village;
for the atman,
the world”

and warns to curb craving, repeating Yayati’s advice from the Adi Parva. Sanata-Sujata, like Krishna, declares that the Vedas and sacrifices cannot liberate men, but jnana, ascesis and renunciation of attachment can. He also celebrates the thumb-sized, heart-dwelling eternal Purusha.

The Udyoga contains fascinating myths that hark back to the Rig Veda (Indra treacherously murdering Trishira and Vritra), and the Adi (a different version of Vishvamitra’s attainment of Brahminhood; Yayati’s fall from heaven and his daughter Madhavi’s polyandry, the subject of plays by Bhisham Sahni and Girish Karnad and novels by V.S.Khandekar and Chitra Chaturvedi). It creates new myths like that of omnipotent Garuda being foiled in his prey (the theme of Subodh Ghose’s brilliant creation, “Sumukha and Gunakeshi”) and humbled by the female ascetic Shandili; Amba’s sex change (the theme of Chitra Chaturvedi’s recent novel); folk-tales like the mice (Kauravas) and the hermit-cat (Yudhishthira). We also come across lost myths, like the reference to Divodasa making love to Madhavi as Narada did to Satyavati, Shukra to Shataparva and Pulastya to Pratichya.

Duryodhana is the only Kaurava clear-sighted enough to realise that it is Krishna who seeks to destroy them and make Yudhishthira the samrat. Krishna, like Rama, has no pretensions to divinity and tells Arjuna plainly that he does all that is humanly possible but cannot alter what destiny (daiva) dictates (79.5-6). It is quite a surprise to discover that the only husband of Panchali to urge war is not Bhima, as one would expect, but Sahadeva, the youngest. No wonder Draupadi, feeling let down, says that her old father, brothers and adolescent sons will avenge her. That is when Krishna declares his vow in implacable terms recalling Devavrata’s:

“The Himavant hills may move,
the earth shatter
in a hundred pieces, heaven collapse;
my promise stands.”

Yet he undertakes the embassy so that none may say that he never tried to stop the world-destroying war. Unfortunately, despite this, that is precisely what Gandhari accuses him of and curses him.

The two Krishna-Kunti meetings expose the anguish behind Pritha’s iron façade. She blames her father most of all for her misfortunes, beginning with giving her away in childhood “like money squandered by a rich man”, and also holds her father-in-law responsible for her griefs of which the greatest is the insult to Draupadi. The message she conveys through her nephew to her sons is an elaborately structured rhetorical exercise that moves deeply while trumpeting a resounding call to arms. Its highlight is the exhortation of Vidula to her defeated son Sanjaya that Sri Aurobindo translated into English for rousing the martial spirit in Indian youth against foreign domination.

Duryodhana’s response to the embassy via Uluka has interesting convoluted logic: he refused to compromise so that the Pandavas would be motivated to wipe their mother’s tears with a victory and to prove that they were true Kshatriyas, not mere loud-mouths! He is not in the least impressed with Krishna’s cosmic manifestation (for which we have been prepared in the Vana Parva by Lomasha’s description of Parashurama seeing the cosmos in Rama and Bhima seeing it in Hanuman, as Dr.Vasudev Poddar has pointed out), which he dismisses as magic that he himself can replicate. His words even echo the message Kunti sent her sons (“the reason for which a kshatriya lady gives birth to a son is here”). But, in the allies he enumerates he makes a slip by including the Matsyas who are on the other side (160.103). His words fly straight to the mark as he points out that the Pandavas were saved from slavery not by Bhima’s mace and Arjuna’s Gandiva but by Parshati-Panchali.

Krishna’s embassy contains quite a few surprises. He announces that the Pandavas are willing to have Duryodhana as the crown-prince and his father as the ruler if they get back Indraprastha (124.60). There has been no mention of this in the consultations in Upaplavya. Similarly, he offers Karna overlordship with the added attraction of bedding Draupadi. Her reaction, had she got to know of this, offers rich scope for a creative writer. Most unexpected is Karna’s foreknowledge about his own death and the annihilation of the Kauravas. He paints a vivid picture of the war in terms of a ritual sacrifice and narrates a dream that is an exact parallel of Avindhya’s portentous dream in the Rama-katha (Vana Parva) of Lakshmana seated on a heap of bones, gulping boiled milk-and-honey rice. Buddhadeb Bose’s play, The First Partha is a gripping recreation of the Karna-Krishna-Draupadi and Karna-Kunti encounters with fascinating innovations offering new insights going well beyond Tagore and Vyasa. As the book ends, the Kaurava ranks split wide open. Bhishma succeeds in exploiting Karna’s hubris so that his pride overcomes his concern for Duryodhana and he opts out of the war, warning that the army’s morale is being sapped by Bhishma who ought to be dismissed.

This fifth book is unique because of two possible historical references. Vidura’s warning about an angry Brahmin destroying a kingdom could be a reference to Chanakya and the Nandas and dates the final text of the epic as post-Mauryan, tallying with Hiltebeitel's thesis in Rethinking the Mahabharata. There is also a great chariot-hero Paurava named by Drupada with the kings of northwestern India recommending him as an ally, whom Arjuna defeated along with the Kashmir chieftains in the Sabha Parva. Paurava becomes Duryodhana’s ally and there is no record of his death in Kurukshetra. Van Buitenen argues that this is a reference to the Poros of Arrian’s Indica whom Alexander honoured. Gilles Schaufelberger has noted that Guy Vincent in his lecture on the 21st May 2005 at the University de Provence identified  Kalayavana and Alexander. We have, therefore, at least three identifiable historical figures, both denoting the same historical period.  

* The Complete Virata and Udyoga Parvas of the Mahabharata: transcreated from Sanskrit by Padma Shri Prof. P.Lal, Writers Workshop, Kolkata pp.407 and 962. Hardback Rs.400 and 1000, flexiback Rs.300 and 600 with 80 and 130 pages respectively of facsimile reproductions showing the extensive revisions and additions; special limited edition, numbered and signed, with original hand-painted pata-chitra Rs.800 and 1500.


More by :  Dr. Pradip Bhattacharya

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