Dec 10, 2023
Dec 10, 2023
S.P. Brodbeck: The Mahabharata Patriline: Gender, Culture and the Royal Hereditary, Ashgate, pp. 329, Rs.8000/-
This is a book that no serious student of the Mahabharata (MBH) can afford to pass by. Unfortunately, it is priced prohibitively. Enormously informative, it is, unlike most scholarly tomes, challenging and provocative. The painstaking reconstruction of Chandravansha, the Lunar Lineage, provides an invaluable resource for scholars, removing the arbitrary confusion Pargiter created. It includes a valuable concordance of the Pune edition and the Ganguli translation. One wishes that Brodbeck had incorporated Sita Nath Pradhan’s work on the ancient chronology of India to enrich his research. The jacket reproduces a late 15th century painting, “The Hunt in the Forest,” which focuses the central role the royal hunt plays in Brodbeck’s argument regarding the patriline. The analysis proceeds in three stages, each preceded by a very helpful summary to keep us focused: from inception to Kuru, post-Kuru to Pandavas, post-Kurukshetra to Ashvamedhadatta, who appears to be the ruler when Sauti recites at Naimisha forest.
Brodbeck’s method opens up a new point of view into the MBH, viewing it through the lens of Vaishampayana’s lineages (first in verse, then, somewhat differently, in prose). He re-arranges the contents of the epic to focus on the patriline, finding in the process that the tales dovetail into the lineages and act as guides through the text. Thus, no longer does it appear to be a monstrous chaos of hodge-podge material, so off-putting to the first Western scholars. Rather, a scheme emerges showing patrilineal problems recurring in the same dynasty with common motifs, e.g. sonless kings, kings victimised during hunts, rulers reneging on pre-nuptial agreements, monarchs falling from heaven, etc. Significantly, this recitation of genealogy occurs at the snake-sacrifice which appears to double as obsequies. It is not, however, merely a shraddha rite, as Brodbeck asserts. It also occurs during the wedding rites of Rama and Sita in Valmiki’s version, but nowhere in any marriage in the MBH. Deliberately, the lines of non-heir sons and maternal lines are bypassed. Brodbeck deduces that success in a royal hunt indicates success in obtaining an heir (e.g. Yayati, Dushyant and Shantanu), while failure symbolises the succession problem (e.g. Uparichara Vasu, Pandu, Parikshit). Primogeniture emerges as a paramount value. Every departure has to be justified, as with Puru, Satyavati’s sons and Pandu. For the same reason, the putrika practice (making the brother-less daughter’s son, or son-in-law, one’s heir) is only a last resort.
Here Brodbeck overlooks the cases of brother-less Ulupi, Chitrangada and Hidimba. In the last three cases, the son remains with the mother, ruling her people. That is why Shakuntala is a marked departure from the accepted tradition, with her son becoming her husband’s and not her father Vishvamitra’s or foster-father Kanva’s heir. However, the succession fails, as we shall see. In Shikhandi’s case, too, the supernatural birth of Dhrishtadyumna as her brother does not perpetuate Drupada’s lineage, which is wiped out by Ashvatthama.
In the course of his study, Brodbeck proffers an important insight into Yudhishthira. In the Shanti Parva, chapters 125-6, Bhishma recounts the tale of Sumitra, asking Yudhishthira not to cherish the vain hope that Duryodhana might have returned the kingdom. Brodbeck suggests that he might also have been hoping for an heir, his son having being slain. However, he does have a living son Yaudheya by Devika, who would have been the logical heir instead of Arjuna’s grandson—a point Brodbeck does not examine. This take-over by a junior line is not the first instance. It begins with Bharata, according to Brodbeck’s thesis.
In a remarkable argument, Brodbeck proposes that the MBH by considering Ila as a putrika (Ila is said to be bother mother and father of Pururava, says Vaishampayana) the original lunar descent [Soma - Budha + Ila = Pururava, vide the Harivamsha and the Ramayana] was replaced by solar ancestry [Vivasvan-Martanda-Surya - Manu - Ila (both father and mother) - Pururava]. This seems to have happened during the hundred years between the Pandavas and Janamejaya. However, Brodbeck has not noticed that Abhimanyu, an incarnation of Soma the moon’s son Varcas, and Yayati’s descendant through Subhadra, kills Brihadbala the solar dynast and ruler of Kosala, it seals the shifting of balance away from the solar to the lunar line.
Study of lineage leads to very interesting insights. In the same dynasty, Pururava, his grandson Nahusha and his son Yayati fall from Swarga. The last one halts in mid-air, saved by his daughter Madhavi’s royal sons (she is not a putrika). But Nahusha has to languish for ages until his descendant Yudhishthira—who has re-established his kingdom of Khandavaprastha—rescues him. This suggests that Yayati’s ancestry has been revived only lately in Pandava times. Ironically, they are his descendants only by proxy, but that is good enough for the MBH patrilineal purpose.
Post-Dushyant we find lineal confusion. Marrying a woman of the forest without father or brother is shown to be inherently problematic. Bharata disqualifies his sons and adopts from Bharadvaja a son named Bhumanyu. But there is also mention of Vitatha who becomes Bhumanyu’s son, though he has other sons of whom Suhotra, the eldest, becomes king. Brodbeck suggests that Bharadvaja was Bharata’s elder brother (by an unmentioned wife of Dushyant?), or Bharata’s putrika daughter’s husband who was displaced initially, but regained the line finally through Suhotra. This could represent a failed attempt by the junior Bharata branch to take over, by suppressing Bharadvaja’s fraternal relationship with Bharata and shifting Bhumanyu from him to Bharata.
Brodbeck gives a fascinating spin to the story of Ganga’s descent. As thereby Sagara’s elder sons regain heaven long after death, it signifies the line passing back to them. Her willing descent from Swarga is the willingness, at Bhagirath’s request, not to be a full lineal link. Similarly, Mahabhisha switching lineages from Solar to Lunar (as Shantanu) with Ganga means her son becomes a Bharata instead of an Ikshvaku dynast. Bhishma’s renunciation parallels that of Puru, with the same intention: that the father should enjoy youthful pleasures. Unlike Puru, he does not continue the line. Brodbeck makes another fascinating link: Uparichara Vasu, cursed by sages, loses his ability to fly above the ground. As Ilina’s son, he is Dushyant’s brother. His fall indicates he is not a direct dynast, except via putrika Satyavati to Parikshit. Brodbeck suggests that the descents through Dushyant and Vasu (Bhishma is a Vasu incarnated) thus unite. He should have noted the fact that Yudhishthira’s chariot also does not touch the ground—and he is in the line of descent from Uparichara Vasu who is Vyasa’s maternal grandfather.
Although Brodbeck, with keen insight, notes Shiva’s role, unfortunately he relegates it to a footnote (p.171). Shiva’s superordinate role has not been mapped fully: while playing dice (an ominous forewarning of the dice-game) he condemns five Indras and Shri to become the Pandavas and Draupadi. By his boon Amba becomes Shikhandi and the hundred Kauravas are born to Gandhari. In particular, Duryodhana is a created jointly by Shiva (the adamantine upper body) and Uma (the enchanting lower part) say the Danavas in the Vana Parva. Durvasa, by whose mantra Kunti has her five sons by gods, is born from Shiva. By Shiva’s grace, Shuka is born to Vyasa, Samba—bane of the Vrishnis—is born to Krishna and Jayadratha is able to cause Abhimanyu’s death, besides his own and his father’s. Prior to that, Shiva gifts Arjuna the Pashupata weapon. Not only does he walk before Arjuna, killing before he does, but empowers Ashvatthama for the nocturnal massacre of the Panchalas and Pandaveyas. Upamanyu relates his thousand and eight names to Krishna.
In the case of Pandu, Brodbeck points out how he copies both fathers, becoming an ascetic like Vyasa, but with two wives like Vichitravirya. Further, he gets five sons, matching the five arrows he shot at the coupling deer-ascetic. The paternity of Bharata and the Pandavas is questioned in Hastinapura where rishis escort them, but their mothers’ word is accepted.
In the context of problems over begetting an heir, the Pandu-Kunti discussion makes it quite clear that “the wife’s fertility is at the husband’s disposal.” This is sought to be justified by references to the eternal dharma (promiscuity) beneficial for women in pre-Shvetaketu times; to the custom of surrogate impregnation (Kalmashpada and Bali’s wives), Vichitravirya’s widows and the Kshatriya widows (post-Parashurama); and, like Sharadandayani, to standing at the crossroads for a Brahmin. Kunti’s example of Bhadra being impregnated by her husband’s corpse is not accepted, but she will not stand at crossroads, or approach some Brahmin, possibly having experienced the sun god’s embraces. So she uses the mantra given by Durvasa to summon more gods, exercising her freedom to do as she wills. No wonder she is celebrated as a kanya in the traditional Sanskrit sloka
Ahalya, Kunti, Draupadi, Tara, Mandodari tatha /
panchakanya smarenityam mahapataka nashaka //
Brodbeck hazards a curious speculation with regard to Iravan, son of Ulupi and Arjuna. Sanjaya tells Dhritarashtra that Iravan’s pitrivya, father’s brother, disliked him and abandoned him. Since Iravan would be, after Ghatotkacha, the eldest Pandaveya, it could indicate Yudhishthira’s annoyance at the confusion this caused in the line of succession. It adds to the underlying tension between the two brothers that explodes in the Karna Parva. Brodbeck does not explain how this would square with Yudhishthira welcoming Arjuna’s marriage with Subhadra during the same exile. It is never clear when Draupadi has her son by Arjuna, as the period of his exile remains vague (12 months/12 years). When the Pandava progeny are listed after Subhadra’s arrival, Draupadi’s are named after Abhimanyu, and Ghatotkacha is the last. In Vaishampayana’s list (Adi Parva, chapter 90), Draupadi’s sons come first, then the sons by other Pandava wives, with Ghatotkacha at the end, totalling 11 in all. No list includes Iravan and Babhruvahana, indicating that these were putrika arrangements and so could not feature in the Pandava succession. In that case, there is no question of Yudhishthira being annoyed with Iravan. It would be Ulupi’s brother-in-law (Takshaka?). Brodbeck’s astute eye spots two other wives in the Ashvamedha Parva who are usually overlooked: another wife of Bhima is the sister of Krishna’s inveterate enemy (Brodbeck suggests Shishupala, but it could also be Jarasandha or Dantavaktra) and Sahadeva’s wife is a daughter of Jarasandha. Are these post-Kurukshetra marriages to bridge enmity with Chedi and Magadha? But Nakula was already married to the Chedi princess Karenumati. So, there would be two contenders for the Chedi throne: Niramitra, son of Karenumati, and the unnamed son of Bhima’s other wife, if she were a Chedi. Jarasandha’s successor is also named Sahadeva—is this an instance of putrika, the son-in-law becoming the successor?
The Nahusha-Bhima-Yudhishthira episode elicits an interesting observation from Brodbeck who finds that Nahusha’s sin was meritocracy: distinguishing which Brahmins merit abuse and which do not. It is the Brahmins’ acceptance of Nahusha’s son Yayati’s meritocratic decision that validates the enthronement of the youngest son Puru. However, the fact that long after Nahusha’s redemption he is still numbered among the snakes by Sauti indicates that the meritocratic approach had not won total acceptance.
Brodbeck points out that the miscegenation that Arjuna had been so afraid of in the Gita episode actually occurs not with the widows of those killed at Kurukshetra, who all drown themselves, but with the Vrishni women who are abducted—an account beyond Vaishampayana’s narrative. It is as if Krishna takes upon himself and his clan all the sins of the Pandava deeds, as he had promised Arjuna in the Gita. He makes the insightful observation (drawing upon Hiltebeitel) that perhaps Narayana’s four arms are Krishna, Arjuna, Vyasa and Draupadi, who combine to relieve the earth of its burden.
In a revolutionary thesis, Brodbeck “reconfigures” Janamejaya’s lineage to make sense of the “extremely mysterious” fifty-odd chapters by Sauti preceding Vaishampayana’s narration. He suggests that Janamejaya’s elder brother is Shringi who is represented as Vaishampayana, as Lomaharsana (Sauti’s father), as Lohitaksha (who forecasts the snake-sacrifice will be obstructed), as Astika and as Somashrava (the officiating priest). He proposes that Parikshit had a son by the putrika daughter of sage Shamika, which is signified by his shooting a deer but failing to kill it. This indicates the son, Shringi, is not lineally obtained. The dead snake around Shamika’s neck indicates that his line would die were Parikshit to take his daughter’s son as his successor. Janamejaya’s mother is Madravati, an appellative indicating a junior wife (like Madri with Pandu, with whom Parikshit is compared twice in hunting). Shringi cursing Parikshit means he elects the maternal over the paternal line. Brodbeck proposes that Takshaka seen flying to heaven after biting Parikshit indicates he is the ancestor of Shamika and Shringi, but fails to advance evidence of this ancestry.
The Pandava-Kaurava tale Janamejaya hears shows him that both Dhritarashtra and Yudhishthira suffered terribly by failing to stop the war. Although Yudhishthira ruled, it was a painful because he had killed his elder brother. Hence, Janamejaya abandons the sacrifice not wishing to kill his half-brother Shringi who had chosen Takshaka’s line. Takshaka does not fall into the flames, so his line survives. In the Ashramavasika Parva, Janamejaya not only meets Parikshit, but also Shringi and Shamika amicably.
On the basis of precedents, Brodbeck argues that Vaishampayana would be Janamejaya’s elder brother. In four successive generations, the eldest does not succeed to the throne: Devapi, Bhishma, Dhritarashtra, and Karna. To these he should have added the greatest dynast: Yayati, whose eldest brother Yati became an ascetic. Vaishampayana could well be the throne-renouncer Shringi, who, as son of a Brahmin mother and Kshatriya father (Parikshit, as Brodbeck proposes), would be a suta. Sauti asks Shaunaka to hear what he has learnt from Vaishampayana and from his father. From this Brodbeck proposes that Vaishampayana and Lomaharshana are the same person. Bhishma’s list of northern rishis names Lomaharshana and Ugrashrava (Sauti). Lohitaksha is the sutradhara, manager, who knows the old stories—again a suta function. So he is the same as Lomaharshana/Vaishampayana. Stretching the logic too far, Brodbeck proposes that Astika is “secretly a suta by dint of his Kshatriya genitor.” But how is either Jaratkaru, his ascetic progenitor, or Vasuki, his maternal snake-uncle (as he is a putrika’s son), a Kshatriya? Again, unless Astika takes his father’s lineage, how can Jaratkaru’s manes be saved (that was the reason for his agreeing to marry)? For Brodbeck, “Jaratkaru’s brief marriage implies Parikshit’s obscured liaison with Shamika’s daughter.” Quite far-fetched!
Shrutashrava, Brodbeck suggests, is another name for Samika—but what is the evidence? The birth of Janamejaya’s priest Somashrava from a snake-woman suggests he is his father Shrutashrava (Shamika)’s putrika daughter’s son. This is similar to the birth of Rishyashringa to Vibhandaka from a deer. Somashrava, Brodbeck proposes, is Janamejaya’s elder half-brother. Both Somashrava and Karna, elder brothers, have the same vow of not refusing a Brahmin anything. Both renounce their paternal lineage.
The snake sacrifice, with the narration of lineages by Vaishampayana, propagates a new family chronicle in the context of a major political and cultural change. It creates a history for use of the new ruler of Hastinapura following the assassination of the king by snakes and establishment of a live-and-let-live understanding with them. The subsequent recounting by Ugrashrava Sauti at Naimisha forest to Shaunaka is the “ratification of that new history.” However, this chronicle is rather ambivalent regarding patrilineal descent, which befits its narrator Vaishampayana being an elder brother who gave up the throne in favour of Janamejaya. There are so many instances of exotic women outside the Kshatriya class being taken as royal wives, which tie in with the sparing of snakes in this history and the warnings against fraternal rivalry and giving way to lust to put up a new paradigm of family history.
Bhishma tells Yudhishthira the story of a Janamejaya, son of Parikshit, who is exiled for killing a Brahmin and is redeemed by the advice of Indrota Shaunaka on promising not to harm Brahmins again, and is cleansed by a horse-sacrifice. Could the snake-sacrifice reflect such an accidental killing? In the Anushasana Parva, chapter 6, Brahma tells Vasishtha that Janamejaya killed Brahmin women (indicated by the omission of Parikshit’s Brahmin wife) and that Vaishampayana killed a Brahmin accidentally (omitting Ugrashrava as his son, so he remains a suta).
Looking at the over-all picture, we have Bharadvaja, Bharata’s displaced elder brother, providing him Bhumanyu as heir. Bhishma becomes celibate to avoid succession problems. Pandu dies not father the sons who continued the line through the grandson of a junior brother. Sarama, enraged by the misconduct of Janamejaya’s brothers, warns him of an unseen danger. Brodbeck, without advancing any evidence, suggests that the last descendant in the dynasty, Ashvamedhadatta, might represent a lineal takeover by a brother of Janamejaya.
Finally, the Mokshadharma Parva turns away from focusing on patrilineality by narrating stories in which kings and Brahmins achieve salvation by following dharma, irrespective of having sons or not. Regardless of the line being sustained or not, the king must rule properly and the Brahmin practise dharma. Such a king makes the age into krita, the best of times, whether he has descendants or not. Such a turning of the entire thesis on its head is what makes the Mahabharata such a unique, magnificent human document.
More by : Dr. Pradip Bhattacharya