Book Reviews

Wendy Doniger: After the War

Wendy Doniger:
After the War—The Last Books of the Mahabharata.
Speaking Tiger, 2022, pp. 221. Rs. 499/-

‘“This is not Heaven,” said Yudhishthira. He reviled the gods and dharma.’

Doniger’s “After the War” immediately brings to mind Mahashweta Devi’s three brilliant short stories entitled “After Kurukshetra,” a unique imagining of the post-war scenario that, strangely, does not feature in Doniger’s bibliography. Doniger’s latest work is an exciting prospect for Mahabharata aficionados. English translations of these short closing “parvas” of the Mahabharata are limited to the turgid Victorian prose of K.M. Ganguly and M.N. Dutt of the Vulgate and Bibek Deb Roy’s pedestrian version of the Critical Edition which drops many passages. The far superior rendering, and the only one in verse and in prose faithfully following the Vulgate text, of Padma Shri Professor P. Lal is surprisingly, is missing from Doniger’s bibliography as well. The succinct and insightful prefaces of Prof. Lal to each volume are not to be missed. While Doniger’s is a prose translation, the language flows and her style is most engaging.

This book is practically her lecture-notes to the last class she taught at the University of Chicago to second year Sanskrit students translating Books 15-18: the Ashramavasika (Forest Life), Mausala (Clubs), Mahaprasthana (Great Departure) and Svargarohana (Ascent to Heaven) Parvas drawing upon the commentator Nilakantha whose edition is the Vulgate and adding passages from various manuscripts as she wishes, possibly to make the narrative more complete. She omits the 6th and final chapter of the last book which details the benefits of listening to the Mahabharata and how it is to be recited and heard, specifically including the Harivamsha. So this is Doniger’s Wikipedia-text of the last four books, not adopting the Critical Edition which she considers “misguided” and as leaving “the patient in a critical condition…Like Frankenstein’s monster…”  Her omission of the frame story in every case deprives us of the interaction between Janamejaya the audience and Vaishampayana the narrator as well as the outermost frame where Ugrashravas Sauti recites the epic in the Naimisha forest.  It is Sauti who brings the narration to a full circle stating that when Vaishampayana’s recital ended so did the snake-holocaust and Janamejaya returned from Taxila to Hastinapura. Repeating from the opening chapter (Anukramanika), Sauti calls it “Jaya-Victory,” explains why it is called Mahabharata (it narrates the great birth of the Bharatas and is highly profound), that it outweighs the four Vedas and the 18 Puranas and took Vyasa three years to compose. He repeats the claim: “Whatever there is here—about dharma, politics, pleasure and liberation—you can also find elsewhere; but what is not here is nowhere.”

A very illuminating and provocative Introduction running to 60 pages teases out implications of the narrative that we generally overlook. Appendices provide cross-references to the Critical Edition, explain Sanskrit adjectives qualifying characters, list the names of major and minor players, provide a summary of the earlier books and a valuable bibliography. However, there is no index. The cover of this Indian edition of her book is somewhat pedestrian compared to that of the Oxford University Press edition which is a full-colour reproduction of a medieval illustration of Yudhishthira’s vision of hell.

Doniger sees the book split into three parts, each beginning with the arrival of Narada. Therefore, she chooses to begin with chapter 26 (chapter 20 of the Vulgate) in Book 15, omitting the Pandavas’ futile arguments to dissuade their old, grief-stricken uncle who insists on retiring from royal life to live out his last days in the forest and his lengthy advice to Yudhishthira on good governance. Left out also is Bhima’s unremitting assault on Dhritarashtra’s sentiments by repeated loud mentions in his hearing of killing all his sons. When Dhritarashtra needs wealth for the shraddha of the slain, Bhima refuses to part with any. Then Yudhishthira and Arjuna who share their personal riches. Dhritarashtra donates gold, gems, slaves, sheep, goats, cows, blankets, villages, fields, horses, elephants and lovely virgins in the names of Bhishma, Drona, Somadatta, Bahlika, all his sons and Jayadratha:

All the four castes,
one after another, were gratified
with abundant food and drink.
Vestures and wealth and jewels
were its billows,
the mridanga-drumbeats
its maha-reverberations,
cows and elephants its makara-creatures
various gems its whirlpools,
Villages and gifted lands
were its islands,
diamonds and gold
were its rippling waves,–
such was the plenitude
of the cornucopious Dhritarashtra-ocean. 14.12-14 (P. Lal).

Vyasa sees poetic justice here, comparing the departure of the aged royal couple to that of the exiled Pandavas. The Pandavas’ shock when their mother decides to accompany Dhritarashtra and Gandhi to the forest and the reason Kunti gives for her decision are part of this omitted portion revealing the emotional backlash suffered by the victors. Her directive to Yudhishthira to respect Sahadeva, to remember Karna always by donating generously in his honour and always to please Draupadi is also omitted. Having enjoyed the kingdom with her husband, Kunti does not desire that of her sons. This remarkable heroine never desired anything for herself—a true parallel to her nephew Krishna. Sanjaya and Vidura accompany the three.

Dhritarashtra is instructed in the way of forest-life by the royal rishi Shatayupa, former king of Kekaya, at Kurukshetra. Gandhari, Kunti and he, wearing bark-cloth and deerskin, mortify their bodies, attended by Vidura and Sanjaya. Narada visits them and assures him and Gandhari of going to the world of gandharvas and rakshasas after three years, of Kunti joining Pandu who is with Indra, of Vidura entering Yudhishthira’s body and Sanjaya attaining Svarga. Narada mentions one king Shailalaya as the grandfather of Bhagiratha. However, it is Asamanjasa who is the grandfather in the puranic lineage.

All joy is driven from the lives of the Pandavas, Draupadi and Subhadra, their sole consolation being Parikshit. They are unable to carry out royal duties, immersed in grief for their mother, uncle and aunt. Finally, importuned by Sahadeva and Draupadi, Yudhishthira decides to visit them in the Kurukshetra ashram of Shatayupa. Leaving Yuyutsut and the priest Dhaumya in the city, the Pandavas wait outside their capital for five days for citizens to join. Kripa leads the army, crossing the Yamuna to reach Kurukshetra. The meeting of Sahadeva and Kunti brims over with pathos. Yudhishthira runs after Vidura into the dense forest. Vidura is skeletal, naked, filthy, matted-haired, pebbles in his mouth, starving himself to death like a Digambara Jain. By yogic power Vidura joins his self to Yudhishthira’s, as a father does to his son, and dies standing against a tree, proceeding to the Santanika world. There is no mention of Vidura merging into Dharma. A skyey voice prohibits his cremation as he was a world-renouncing “yati”.

Book 15 begins with three questions put to Vaishampayana by Janamejaya: how did his victorious forefathers treat vanquished, forlorn Dhritarashtra; how did Gandhari behave; how long did his ancestors rule. Yudhishthira never objected to the old king pardoning condemned people, going on pleasure trips, spared no expense and ordered his brothers to ensure that the son-less monarch never felt desolate. The Pandavas (except Bhima) were apprehensive that Dhritarashtra might die of despair. The Pandava ladies, Kunti, Draupadi, Subhadra, Ulupi, Chitrangada along with the daughters of Shishupala and Jarasandha, attended on Gandhari. After bearing 15 years of Bhima’s boasting about how he killed the Dhartarashtras, the old king and queen take to eating on alternate days and then twice a week, sleeping on a grass mat on the ground (of which, strangely, Yudhishthira was ignorant). Vyasa urges Yudhishthira to accept their decision. Dhritarashtra discourses to Yudhishthira over three chapters on how to govern. The material is drawn, quite appropriately, from Bhishma’s lectures on raja-dharma lying on his bed-of-arrows, to Yudhishthira. When Dhritarashtra bids farewell to the citizens, they declare how well they had been governed by him and by Duryodhana.

At the request of the ashramites, Sanjaya describes the appearance of the Pandava men and women (Chapter 32; 25 Vulgate), a very rare glimpse indeed. Yudhishthira is golden, lion-like, long-nosed, eyes large and copper-bright. Bhima’s complexion is like molten gold; he is broad-shouldered, massive-armed, wolf-waisted. Ajuna is dark-skinned with leonine shoulders and eyes like lotus leaves. Nakula and Sahadeva are innocuous—simply good looking. Draupadi is middle-aged, dark as a blue-lotus, lotus-eyed. Krishna’s sister (Subhadra) has golden skin shining like the moon. Ulupi’s complexion is like pure gold while Chitrangada’s is like the madhuka blossom. Blue lotus-like in colour is Bhima’s unnamed chief wife (Balandhara), sister of Krishna’s inveterate foe who is left nameless (Shishupala or the Kashi king?). Sahadeva’s wife is the champak-complexioned daughter of Jarasandha. Nakula’s wife with large lotus-leaf eyes has blue lotus-like complexion. With skin like molten gold is Virata’s daughter (Uttara), her son in her lap. Yudhishthira’s wife Devika of Shaibya, mother of Yaudheya, is not mentioned and remains just a name in the Mahabharata.

Vyasa’s appearance in this ashram is a narrative tour-de-force. At Janamejaya’s snake-holocaust at Taxila, it is at his request and on Vyasa’s bidding that Vaishampayana narrates the Mahabharata in which its author himself appears as an actor at critical junctures. Here Vyasa makes some crucial observations regarding the births of Vidura and Yudhishthira. Doniger’s mistranslates “Ordered by Brahma” as “through the Levirate arrangement with a Brahmin,” he fathered Vidura. Vyasa conclusively states that Vidura procreated Yudhishthira “by the power of his yoga,” that “Dharma is Vidura / and Vidura is Pandava Yudhishthira,” and that again “by the power of his maha-yoga” Vidura has entered Yudhishthira’s body.

At this point the narrative re-starts (chapter 36; 29 in the Vulgate) and Doniger inserts a passage from one manuscript to begin that tale afresh with Yudhishthira arriving in the forest-ashram with his entourage. The frame-story passage she omits provides the rationale for this re-telling in questions Janamejaya puts to Vaishampayana about what they subsisted upon and for how long. He is then informed that the Pandavas stayed for a month in that forest-ashram living on varied food and drink. This time several Gandharvas are mentioned by name as being present. Why is Doniger baffled (in a footnote) by the presence of such celestials when celestial sages are also present? After all, celestial beings and humans rub shoulders throughout the epic.

Gandhari begs Vyasa to grant peace of mind to them all. Kunti confesses to him about Karna’s birth, adding that she gave in to Surya only when he threatened to consume both her and Durvasa, as she wished to protect the sage. In earlier accounts she is virtually raped by Surya. Vyasa absolves her of guilt making this astonishing statement, made earlier by Bhishma to Draupadi when she was molested in the assembly:-

“Everything is within bounds for those who have brute power; everything is pure for those who have power. Everything is dharma for those who have power; everything of those who have power is their own.”—Doniger 15.38.23

“The path of the powerful
is always right.
Everything connected with the powerful
is pure.
Everything the powerful do,
is dharma.
Everything there is,
belongs to the powerful.” 15.30.24—P. Lal

In other words, might is right.

Vyasa then informs them of the celestial origins of the protagonists. Doniger gratuitously makes Pandu Indra, which is nowhere in the text. An unexplained, intriguing feature is that the god Surya is Karna on earth, yet he is aligned with rakshasa-Duhshasana, Kali-Duryodhana and Dvapara-Shakuni. Conversely, rakshasa-Shikhandin is on the Pandava side with Agni-Dhrishtadyumna. It is clearly not clean-cut black and white, good and bad. Shades of grey prevail. Both celestial bodies, Surya and Soma, split themselves in half, one part staying in the sky, the other becoming Karna and Abhimanyu respectively.

Now occurs a stunning miracle. Vyasa causes all the dead to appear before the assembly out of the river Bhagirathi, a scene similar to Odysseus seeing the dead appear in Book 11 across a trench full of sheep-blood:

“What a tumultuous clamour
sprang from the waters!
It resembled, O Janamejaya,
the combined uproar
of the battling armies
of the Kauravas and Pandavas.” (P. Lal)

“Then the sound of a great commotion arose from within the waters, like the sound when the two armies of the Kurus and Pandavas met in the past.” (Doniger)

The point is that there was,
“No more bitterness,
no more ahamkara-ego,
no more hatred,
no more jealousy.” (P. Lal)

“They were free from enmity and free from egoism, and they had lost their rage and their vengeful pride.” (Doniger)

This is repeated a few slokas later. As he had done with Sanjaya for the war, Vyasa grants Gandhari and Dhritarashtra divine sight to enjoy the sight. Reconciliation takes place and all spend the night in amity, as if in Svarga. Then they vanish in a trice in the waters of the Bhagirathi.

At this juncture an event occurs that is unique in literature. As Hiltebeitel has pointed out, no author has ever become a character in his own work, killing off his own characters. Here Vyasa urges widows who wish to join their husbands to commit suicide in the river. Believing him, they all do so. The chapter (41; 33 Vulgate) concludes with a recital of the benefits accruing to the listener, which always ends a book. Doniger feels that this is where the second part of this “parva” originally ended. She does not translate the subsequent two chapters in which Janamejaya questions how the bodiless can be seen in the same bodies and then obtains a vision of his father Parikshit. In this narration, twice it is Sauti who narrates, thus reminding us of the original setting of the epic’s recital. Delighted, Parikshit tells Astika (thus the narrative recalls how the snake holocaust began in the first book) that his grief is gone. Astika tells him that the snakes who perished, save Takshaka, have attained the state of his father.

Despite the epiphany, Yudhishthira’s depression persists and he tells Kunti:

“Hollow is this earth now,
devoid of delight.
Kinsmen dead, strength sapped.” (P. Lal)

“This whole earth is empty and gives me no pleasure…Our relatives have been decimated and our power is not what it used to be.” (Doniger)

Sahadeva too (Yudhishthira says Kunti loved him the most) pleads to be allowed to remain. Once again it is Kunti who persuades him and the others to leave as their staying back will hinder her ascesis. Her’s is the role unexceptionable.

Two years later Narada arrives with news of their mother, uncle and aunt being consumed in a random fire as they were wandering in the forest at Haridwar, with no fixed habitation. Kunti, who had burnt a Nishada woman and her five sons alive in the house-of-lac, meets with poetic justice, as does Dhritarashtra who had consented to its construction to consume the Pandavas. Like Vidura, Dhritrashtra starved, pebbles in his mouth. Their tragic death occurs eighteen years after the War (the epic has 18 books; the war lasts 18 days; the Gita has 18 chapters; Krishna dies 18 x 2 = 36 years after the war). Why the sons and daughters-in-law maintained no surveillance, with their fervid protestations of devotion, remains a puzzle. Sanjaya escapes and departs for the Himalayas. What mystifies Yudhishthira most is why they should have been consumed in an unconsecrated fire, not a holocaust, specially when Arjuna had granted Agni a favour long back. Narada offers consolation by spinning a yarn about this forest-fire having arisen from Dhritarashtra’s own sacrificial fire. People are sent to perform rituals with the bones of the dead at Haridwar, while the Pandavas and Yuyutsut do the same at the Ganga outside Hastinapura. Yudhishthira somehow continues to rule, bereft of pleasure. Strangely enough, in their misery they do not turn to Krishna as they always used to.

Years pass. Again, it is the 18th year (36 years after the war as Gandhari had cursed) that sees ominous portents and Yudhishthira receives news of Krishna’s death and how his people slaughtered one another. There is a problem with translating “vimukta” here as applied to Krishna and Balarama. “Freed” or “escaped” cannot be correct, as Ganguly, Dutt and Lal have rendered it. Doniger correctly translates as “finally freed”, i.e. “dead”. Again we wonder why the Pandavas were not in touch with their beloved “sakha” and mentor and the growing social disorder in Dvaraka. Doniger glosses Jambavati as “the daughter of a monkey chief” (fn. p. 116) whereas she was the bear-chief Jambavan’s daughter. She translates Krishna’s killer Jara as “Old Age” although he was his step-brother born to Vasudeva’s fourth wife and was brought up by the Nishadas. By order of the raja (Doniger’s naming him Ahuka is wrong, for he was never king of Dvaraka) the iron club Samba delivers is pulverized and flung into the sea. Prohibition for the first time is imposed on pain of impalement of the brewer and his family, which still prevails in Gujarat. The society begins to degenerate in morals. A lunar eclipse occurs duplicating the Kurukshetra War. Krishna makes a puzzling reference to what Yudhishthira had said on that occasion. Doniger fills in the gap from a manuscript, viz. the best course is to donate, offer oblations to pacify and act righteously. Wishing to fulfil Gandhari’s curse, Krishna orders a pilgrimage to Prabhasa on the seaside. Instead, the citizens pack food and drink for a picnic. The Sudarshana discus and the standards of Balarama and Krishna disappear into the sky. Krishna’s chariot is taken by the four steeds to the sea. At Prabhasa the first to depart is Uddhava who divines the impending carnage.

Once again it is an instance of cherchez la femme. As Draupadi was the immediate cause of the great war, here it is Satyabhama in tears hugging Krishna, reminded by Satyaki of Kritavarma’s role in her father’s murder, infuriating him. To avenge her, Satyaki beheads Kritavarma, setting off a mad frenzy of killing. It is Krishna who, furious at Pradyumna and Satyaki being killed, seizes a handful of reeds that transmute into adamantine clubs and lays about him indiscriminately. Then seeing his other sons and grandson Aniruddha killed, he uses his mace, bow and discus to kill everyone except Daruka his charioteer and Babhru. Balarama does not engage, as he had not at Kurukshetra. Daruka is despatched to summon Arjuna and Krishna rushes to his father in Dvaraka asking him to protect the women. Then he returns to join Balarama only to find him merging with the ocean as the serpent Shesha. Krishna withdraws into yoga and, fulfilling Durvasa’s prophecy of only the soles of his feet being vulnerable, is shot by his step-brother Jara precisely there, as Achilles was by Paris. Doniger is mistaken in her footnote (p.130) that Krishna is the only avatar of Vishnu who dies. Rama dies too as is mentioned twice in the Mahabharata in the account of sixteen great rajas who died and also in the Ramayana. Unnecessarily Doniger inserts at the end of chapter 5 a long passage occurring only in a couple of manuscripts incongruously having four-armed Vani (Speech) asking Krishna to join her in Bhanu the sun where gods cannot enter.

According to the Bhagavata Purana (III.3.15), Krishna realised the earth’s burden persisted even after the great war because of the massive Yadava forces guarded by Pradyumna. None but they could destroy themselves in drunken frenzy. Hence, he organised what follows. In this version Krishna does not engage but rests under a tree. The Jain Bhagavati Sutra (7.9) describes two battles in Mahavira’s time (6th century BCE?) involving King Kuniya/Ajatashatru. One is “the battle of thorns like great stones” in which the touch of thorns was like blows of great stones. The other was “the battle of chariot and club”, Kuniya’s automated chariot with club that killed. The manic violence is as in the Vrishni massacre. The time of composition of the Mausala Parva might be the same.

Krishna refers to Arjuna as “Vibhatsu” which Doniger translates as “the Disdainful” whereas it connotes both “dreadful-deed-doer,” (P. Lal) and “not acting dreadfully”. Vasudeva tells Arjuna about Krishna foretelling that immediately following Arjuna’s departure for Indraprastha Dvaraka will be submerged. Arjuna announces that the Pandavas have realised it is time to move on. Vasudeva’s four wives join his corpse on the pyre. Although Arjuna locates the bodies of Balarama and Krishna, strangely enough there is no account of what he saw. After seven days he leaves the city with all Krishna’s widows, other women, children, youths and the aged in carriages led by Krishna’s great-grandson Vajra. Here Doniger unaccountably introduces a speech by the sea that is found in just one manuscript declaring that it will protect the city with all the people’s treasures for the next avatar in the Krita Yuga.

Now we face a shock. In Punjab invincible Arjuna, unable to summon his special weapons, strings the Gandiva with great difficulty and fails to prevent staff-wielding Abhira dacoits from looting the wealth and abducting the women.

“His divine weapons nullified,
his physical strength sapped,
his bow refusing to nock,
his inexhaustible quiver empty…
O raja, in frustration he said:
‘All is uncertain. Nothing lasts.’” –P. Lal

“The loss of his magical weapons and the waning of the manly power of his arms and the uselessness of his bow and the exhaustion of his arrows broke the heart of Kunti’s son Arjuna…said, ‘This no longer exists.’” –Doniger

Arjuna settles the surviving old men, women and children in Indraprastha with Vajra as ruler; Kritavarma’s son in Martikavat with the women and others of the Bhojas and Satyaki’s son on the banks of the river Sarasvati with old men, women and children. It is not Babhru’s widows as Doniger translates but Akrura’s who retire to the forest. Nor is Rukmini of Gandhara, rather it is Shaibya of Gandhara who, along with Haimavati and Jambavati, enter the funeral pyre. Satyabhama and other women of Krishna enter the forest for ascesis (in the village of Kalapa beyond the Himalayas, as Doniger adds from three manuscripts).

Arjuna approaches Vyasa and reports of five hundred thousand Yadavas perishing and his own humiliating defeat. Vyasa consoles him that Krishna has lightened earth’s burden and that Arjuna has accomplished his divine mission with the help of Bhima and the twins. It is significant that he does not include Yudhishthira here. The time has come for them to leave for the final destination. The inexorable end is at hand.

“The root of all
is Cosmic time Kala.
Cosmic time Kala
is the seed
of the universe.
Kala is the giver,
and Kala is the taker.
That which is strong
is that which becomes weak.
He who rules
becomes he who is ruled.” –P. Lal

“All of this has Time as its root. time is the seed of the universe. And it is Time that once again draws things together into annihilation, spontaneously. Someone who becomes powerful once again becomes powerless; someone who becomes a ruler here once again is commanded by others.” –Doniger

The Book of the Great Departure is profoundly ironic. Abdicating, the Pandavas leave the kingdom in the hands of their nemesis Dhritarashtra’s sole surviving son Yuyutsu, born of a Vaishya maid as regent, installing Parikshit as raja in Hastinapura with Kripa as guru. Note that Parikshit is 36 years of age at this point and should need no regent. Yudhishthira warns Subhadra not to consider taking over Indraprastha where Vajra rules, but to protect him. As once before, the six leave dressed in bark-cloth, followed by a dog. Ulupi enters the Ganges, Chitrangada returns to Manipura. Arjuna cannot let go of his bow and quivers, although they have failed him. When they reach the surging red sea (Lauhitya-Brahmaputra?) Agni appears in human form and takes back the weapons which belong to Varuna. From the east they go south till the salty sea, then turn west to Dvaraka, and thence northwards, thus circumambulating the earth. Doniger needlessly adds passages from a solitary manuscript elongating the journey. Approaching Meru, starting with Draupadi, one by one each collapses. Bhima alone is shocked and enquires—not any of the others. Yudhishthira cites reasons for their fall. His jealousy of Draupadi’s fondness for Arjuna is blatantly exposed. Never once does he look back at his fallen wife and brothers. Vaishampayana for the only time refers to himself in the first person, saying that he has often mentioned the dog following Yudhishthira. When Indra invites him to board the chariot, Yudhishthira begs that his brothers and lovely Draupadi accompany him. Indra assures that having discarded their bodies they are already in Svarga, but he will enter there with his body.

Yudhishthira now refuses to go without the faithful dog despite Indra’s repeated urging that dogs are prohibited in heaven. He explains that he left the others only after their death, but cannot desert a faithful living companion. The dog assumes his true form as the god Dharma and blesses Yudhishthira to reach Svarga in his physical body, which, however, does not happen. Yudhishthira has to give up his physical form by bathing in the heavenly river and only then is he escorted to Svarga by the divine fathers of the Pandavas—Dharma, Indra, Maruts and the Ashvins.

We recall that it all began with the bitch Sarama cursing Janamejaya’s yajna in Book 1. Curiously, Indra is associated with a dog elsewhere. In the Ashvamedha Parva he appears as a Chandala with dogs before Uttanka. Again, In the Anushasana Parva, chapter 93, Indra appears to the primordial Seven Rishis disguised as a wandering mendicant named Sunahsakha accompanied by a dog and saves them from a demoness. Doniger has not commented on this peculiar feature.

Reaching Svarga, Yudhishthira is furious at finding Duryodhana gloriously ensconced and no sign of his brothers and Draupadi and allies there, insists on joining them wherever they might be. He waxes eloquent of his guilt over Karna, whose feet always reminded him of Kunti’s. This is not Svarga in my view,” he says.

“I want to go there where my brothers have gone and where big, dark Draupadi has gone, a woman of intelligence, goodness and virtue, the best of women, the woman I love.” –Doniger

“I want to be
where my brothers are.
I want to be where Draupadi is—
the lovely ample-bodied lady,
the dark-blue-cloud-complexioned lady,
the sattva-guna-endowed lady,
the lady who is youthful.
Take me to my Draupadi.” –P. Lal 

Yudhishthira is then ushered into horrendous hell where he finds them. Enraged, he reviles the gods and dharma, insisting on remaining there, rejecting Svarga once again. This is a stunning reversal of the entire ethic he has represented and defended stubbornly against all odds throughout, which readers mostly overlook. Vyasa rectifies the balance immediately as Dharma re-appears and the horrors vanish. Truly, as Milton’s Satan proclaimed,

“The mind is its own place and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”

This is Dharma’s third test (the first was Dharma as a crane during the forest-exile) and expiation of the lie Yudhishthira told to trick Drona. Now he has to give up his physical body in the skyey Ganga, abandoning which his vengeful pride also disappears. Entering Svarga, he sees Draupadi and is about to question her when Indra stops him. There are no questions in heaven. Each hero merges into a divinity, except Shikhandi who is not mentioned, while Pradyumna, who was supposed to be Kama reborn, here enters Sanatkumara. Krishna’s 16000 wives commit suicide in the Sarasvati and become apsaras staying with him. But here Kunti and Madri are not given any celestial origin (in the Adi Parva they are Siddhi-Success and Kriti-Action, while Gandhari is Dhriti-Constancy). They simply accompany Pandu to Indra’s realm.

But the narration has a stinging shock at the end—the Bharata Savitri. Sauti says that having taught his composition to his son Shuka, Vyasa exclaimed,

“I myself cry out with my arms up, but no one hears me. From dharma comes politics and also pleasure; why is it not practised?”—Doniger

“I raise my arms and I shoutd
but no one listens.
From Dharma comes Artha and Kama—
why is Dharma not practised?” –P. Lal

Is anyone listening? Or is it a host of phantom listeners?


More by :  Dr. Pradip Bhattacharya

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