Mahabharata seems to be the best epic among the three epics as it can be considered as “all-encompassing”. It records the ebb and flow of the generations. The great epic records as many aspects of life and existence as possible. It is said that, Sa prathama sanskriti Viswavara. Mahabharata is considered to be the loftiest Epic in the world. It has in it the most complicated problems and issues of life with the solutions to the same or the proper attitude to deal with them. Mahabharata has been the point of surprise for the readers throughout the ages. The characters both minor and major enlighten the diverse range of human psychology, philosophy and behavioral approach. The very important portrayal in Mahabharata is of the society and the socio-political aspects. It incorporates vast arena from personal to impersonal, individual to universal and vice versa.
Society plays a vital role in Mahabharata. The expansion, the intermingling castes, the motion and the changes are very important and subtle in the text. Each and every aspect of society is seriously dealt with. Be it the gender or administration, economy or human behavior, caste or heredity issues – Mahabharata stands as a benchmark to the world. The epic is written as the reply to the question of Janamejaya, the great grandson of Arjuna who wishes to know about his ancestors. For the convenience of understanding, the time-period of Mahabharata can be divided into three segments – the background, the chief part and the later part. The chief part of Mahabharata is more in focus naturally. The Epic talks about seven generations of the Kuru Dynasty. The transition from one generation to other and the change in that society that environs, significantly changes its color. As the change occur in the society the behavior of the characters change and points out a clear distinction between the different generations. In this paper, I would like to throw light on the fact that the epic records the time of a gradual deterioration that can be seen in the social context of Mahabharata.
The canvas of Mahabharata depicts the vibrant characters proudly in it. One thing that seems striking is that the social atmosphere was degenerating with generations. The socio-political scenario was much friendly and lively at the earlier stage which undergone drastic changes, with the passing of time. The liberty and respect for woman, moderate class consciousness, and unbiased attitude to life narrowed fast and a steady downward movement can be observed which results in the war of Kurukshetra ; the war within a family. These social and psychological changes can be viewed through different situations and incidents. Closely observed, it reveals a kind of degeneration, loss and downfall. The society keeps on changing and it is found that with the progress of time the society was getting complicated, stringent and prejudiced.
The social environment was not very inflexible during the early period, but it became so with the time. The condition of women deteriorated with the time and it became harsh and hard-lined for the ‘second sex’. If we compare Ganga and Satyavati with those of the next or later generations, the difference becomes stark. Both the women, as says Mahabharata, made conditions while they got married. Ganga ensured that she would not be questioned for any of her decisions. To carry out the punishment of Mahabhisha, the king of Ikshvaku Dynasty who was cursed by Bramha for glancing Devi Ganga amorously at heaven, and to release and the Vasus from the curse and Rishi Vashistha as one of them stole his Kamdhenu, Ganga yielded to marry Shantanu (former Mahabhisha). The marriage was not a mere love union; Ganga decided the same as she assured the Vasus to release them from the curse. They took birth in the form of babies who were immediately immersed in the river by Ganga though she mothered them. Whereas Shantanu who completely forgot about his curse of his last birth, sighed and moaned for his kids but could not refrain Ganga from the infanticide. The same man committed a second time to his second wife Satyavati that he would coronate the son of Satyavati and himself depriving the existing most competent one. Ganga and Satyavati belong to two different social status but what strikes is that the power of woman, where a man, though a king cannot abnegate the demand of a woman which seems to be fully unjustified. Even Shakuntala was bold enough to walk into the king’s (Dushyant) court in quest of the reason why he failed to keep his promise and insulted, she walked out and remained away even after she gave birth to Bharata, till she was restored with all her esteem. On the contrary, Gandhari, Kunti, even Draupadi, Subhadra, and Uttara had little choice regarding their marriage. Gandhari’s suit with Dhritarashtra who was not only blind but also would never to become a king for his incapability. This marriage was definitely not for love but for political reasons, but Gandhari’s submission clearly shows that women of that period had to accept whatever assigned by their family. Also her sacrifice of covering her own eyes permanently is not only a complete surrender but also somewhere a self confinement as if a silent acceptance of her misfortune. For Kunti, inspite of her displeasure Pandu married Madri and also that being the wife of Pandu (who was impotent) both of them had to bear children from ‘other’. Another instance is that of Draupadi; the way she was assessed by her husbands and mother-in-law as an object trenchantly hints the treatment of women. Pandavas came and said that they returned with their alms. Kunti told them to distribute it among themselves. Whereas Amba was allowed to marry her lover Shalvaraj which she could not for reasons different, but she faced no big issues to establish her lover to her father. Or Satyavati could decide to marry her admired one and her father Dasraj was not found elated to get the king of Hastinapur for his son-in-law, moreover he asked Santanu to commit his throne to the ancestors of Satyavati. These references sharply show the liberty and power of woman in earlier generations and the suppression of the same in the later period.
One most striking thing is in the context of the names of the women; the names were based on either the land they belonged from or their father. The naming of the women strikingly changed within the duration of a generation and that change became the system ahead. Daughter of Drupad is known as Draupadi, princess of Madra, is Madri and Hidimbaa the sister of Hidimba as well. Prithu’s daughter Pritha had a converted name Kunti when she was adopted by Kuntibhoj. Undoubtedly the transition of name according to the change of guardian is noteworthy. These examples point at the dependence and generic perception wonted for the woman of that period. The woman of the early period, as shown in Mahabharata, was more self reliant and free than those of the later period. Even in case of names we get Amba, Ambika Ambalika, prior to them Satyavati or even before was Shakuntala, the wife of Dushhyant, or Sunanda, (princess of Sivi) wife of Pratipa or his mother Kumari owing nothing from the name of their motherland or sire. The social environment was more comfortable and less complex for the women earlier. I would like to add that it was observed in the central part that is only in the Kuru dynasty hinting that this sternness was coming in them. However, we are introduced to Ulupi, Chitrangada and Subhadra who were the contemporary of Draupadi and do not come under this rule. They are not burdened by the name of their soil Nagaland, Manipur or Gujrat (Dwarka) respectively.
The society was lenient and flexible in the earlier period as recorded in Mahabharat. The attitude towards pre-marital “Niyogpratha” proves it to be true. There were six kinds of son that the religious institutes mentioned of by Vaisampayana to Pandu advising him for a way out for having his heir. Among them, offspring of unwed man or a lady could be accepted as legal heir if any one of the spouse was incapable of bearing children. Kunti, says the epic, on the basis of the boon she received from Durvasa, had three mighty sons from the Gods. If it be Gods or the Rishis in the Tapovan, is not the point to discuss here. Kunti was asked by Pandu to raise offspring to continue his line of descent. Pandu discussed with Kunti, his companion about the same and was quite in a condition to accept Kunti’s son Karna (born before her marriage) in the period of that crisis and it was accepted in the ‘Shastras’( Shastrasammata) . Kunti was well aware of his vulnerable condition but she could not confess about Karna. In comparison, nearly the same situation arrived a generation earlier and that circumstance received a completely different treatment. Vichitravirya died without an heir and Satyavati asked Bhisma to save the dynasty with a son but he denied. Satyavati then confessed about her relation with Rishi Parashara and her son Ved Vyas. The later was immediately called in Hastinapur and became the biological father of Dhritarashtra, Pandu and Vidur. Ved Vyasa always received appropriate respect and identity. Though he was the son of an unmarried woman he was esteemed by the name of his hermit father. But Karna lifelong suffered for his proper identity which he never received. It remains a question and is later discussed by many a critic that was he the son of Durvasa and symbolically Suryadev, was never revealed directly. The mighty ksatriya remained ‘sutaputra’. Why is this disparity within a generation gap? This poignantly brings out the growing rigidity of the social environment. The society was probably no more lenient enough to accept premarital offspring with the change of time. This boon of Kunti is surely unreal which intentionally conceals the reality of ‘Niyogpratha’ as this system was subsiding with the tide of time. The statement can be supported with the logic that no such miracles happened in the earlier generations and I found the miracles of Epic generally conceals the reality which is either unaccepted or disorderly in the eyes of the society.
Another noticeable point in support of degenerating society during the later Mahabharata period is that the differentiation between the Aryans and non-Aryans became stark. The references of the Asuras are found during the tenure of Pandavas. Bheem slayed ‘asuras’ like Bakasur, Hidimba, Kirmira, Jatasur and Alamvush. Other demons like Hidimbaa her son Ghatotkach and his son Barbarik are found in the epic. Bakasur was a demon at the city of Ekchakra, forcing the king of the place to send him lots of food. The so called ‘Rakshasha’ used to devour all including the food-bearers. Hidimba, was killed in the forest believed to be in the Sabarkantha district in Gujrat. Hidimba rather his sister Hidimbaa( also known as Hidimbi) is very signigicant. After killing Hidimba, Bheem married Hidimbaa on request of his mother Kunti. They had a son Ghatotkach. After the birth of Ghatotkach, Bheem joined his brothers again. As says the tradition, Hidimbaa belonged to a Bamun family of Kamrup (Assam). We find Hidimbaa devi temple in Manali, Himachal Pradesh. Kirmira, brother of Bakasura, was killed by Bheem who met the former in the woods of Kamyaka at the onset of the exile of the Pandavas; Jatasur who abducted Draupadi and all the four brothers of Bheem in pursuit of their weapons and also to ravish Draupadi, was crushed and killed by Bheem. The son of Jatasur, Alamvush, who was skilled in fighting with conventional weapons and also illusion was once defeated in the Drona Parva by Bheem and later killed by Ghatotkach after the former killed Iravan, Arjun’s son. Alamvush participated and fought for the Kauravas. Ghatotkach was the son of Bheema who was killed by Karna in Kurukshetra. These demons are none other than cannibal non-Aryan tribal race that dwelt in the midst of forest or in the outskirts of the civilized areas. I want to emphasize that these demons or rakshasas whatever we call are only found during the period of Pandavas. Neither of the earlier kings (Shantanu, Bhishma, Pandu) who also went out for ‘Digdwijay’ from the Kuru dynasty met any of them earlier. Thus it is not the case that kings were restricted within their kingdoms only, and the Pandavas only travelled across lands. This fact sharply points out the tremendous caste discrimination that developed in the society with the growing time. To add more, it can be also referred that Ghatotkach was the son of Bheem and Hidimba. According to the religious institutions father’s identity was applicable for the offspring. The couple (Bheem and Hidimbaa) was married but still their son was classified as Rakshasa and not as a Ksatriya. Thus the approval of Vedvyas though he was a premarital offspring puts a stark difference between that of him and that of Ghatotkach. The whole thing is rightly suggestive of immense casteism that grew in the society with the passing of time.
To conclude in a word or two, the retrograding social environment was no more principally broad or tolerant, it became complex and stringent. The tendentiousness in the aspect of caste, gender, society increased gradually. The increasing constraints and limitations accelerated the demolition of the Kshatriya race. Thus the great epic Mahabharata records the slow but gradual downfall of the social environment.