There is drama in every little human effort in that struggle. They reveal themselves in their kaleidoscopic dimensions, like a peacock spreading itself in all its glory. The poet records it for posterity, capturing all that happens, all that the characters feel, their grief and joy, meanness and greatness, love and jealousy, bravery and cowardice, truth and falsehood, and all their trials and tribulations, painting the narrative with his imagination, creativity and sensitivity. But the creation cannot exceed the complexities of life, the truth that the humans experience. That is why life is always stranger than fiction. Time plays its role and a myth is born, shouldering its way into literature. Some works fade into oblivion because these are not true to life. Memory rejects them. Some assume the dimensions of an epic because they vibrate with life and have the power to conquer time. They enmesh themselves firmly into human memory. The Mahabharata is such an epic. Slowly, but inexorably, it crept into every household in every corner of the country until it became a part of the Indian way of life-through word of mouth, through the written word, through the antics of the village performer and through folklore. In childhood, the grandmother made the characters come alive in the flickering evening lamp and in adulthood they remain with us like ever present phantoms.
Vyasa wrote the original. And thereafter in every language in the country it was recreated by the vernacular poets, incorporating their own interpretations, which Vyasa could not think of, stories that Vyasa did not write, drawing their inspiration from their own socio-cultural environment. The result is a crop of very fine vernacular Mahabharatas, different in important ways from the original, which enrich our vast legacy of literature.
At the end of the twentieth century, we find a resurrection in a different format. 'In the last decade of the twentieth century,' writes Pradip Bhattacharya (PB), 'there has been an unprecedented efflorescence of the imagination recreating our own mythology in the written and the spoken word, on stage and television.' What was so far scattered all over, was brought together and presented to the masses, packaged in the varied techniques of the modern media. B.R. Chopra, the well-known film maker, and Rahi Masoom Reza, the noted script-writer and author, recreated the Mahabharata again. But Reza did not entirely depend on Vyasa. He dug into the vernaculars too to put together his magnum opus. Then the entire script was translated into English for a B.B.C. telecast by Satish Bhatnagar and Shashi Magan. I must compliment the translators unstintedly for successfully completing such a Herculean task. 'This remarkable script' (PB) is now published by WRITERS WORKSHOP in 10 volumes. Pradip Bhattacharya, a brilliant scholar of the Mahabharata, has reviewed the script. Except for its first 54 pages, the entire tenth volume is devoted to this mammoth review, spread over more than 304 pages.
PB's review, in many ways, is much more than a review. It is an independent work that throws many intimate insights into the mysteries of the epic. He has given his own interpretation, besides pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of Reza's presentation and those of the English translation. Consequently, what we have in the 10th volume is a work of art that not only has incisive criticism, but also creative insights that give us much more than what we have in the script. At the same time, any work, however brilliant, must be subjected to a second look. Therefore. I have assumed the task of looking at the review, the 10th volume, with a jaundiced eye.
PB, it is seen, has looked at the script from different angles. He has first pointed out the strengths of the script. Reza's significant contribution, PB seems to feel, is his sensitivity and intrinsic creativity that have come through very well. Generally, all through the critique, PB has time and again brought out Reza's own exceptionally perceptive interpretation of the epic. He has, with his own erudition and typical empathy, pinpointed every place where Reza has improved upon Vyasa and has in his own way contributed to the Mahabharata in the fine tradition of Indian classical scholarship, in which the shishya adds his own thoughts to the work of the Guru, thereby enriching and expanding it. PB has underlined Reza's originality that departs from the original, but enriches it. But often he has overdone it. Let us look at some such situations.
Reza has invented a battle between Bhishma and Shalva where Bhishma defends Hastinapura against Shalva's attack. PB finds it relevant as it establishes Bhishma's skill in warfare, and 'building up the image of the young crown prince as a redoubtable defender of the Kingdom'. Again, Bhishma takes an additional vow'to serve the occupier of the Hastinapura throne. Of course, here PB objects: 'Reza's introduction of the second pledge does not fit into the scheme of things.'
There is another occasion when Karna refuses to shoot a defenceless Arjuna down'a touch that PB appreciates. There are other instances which PB does not approve of, like the gifting of Madri to Pandu by Shalya (p. 80), Duryodhana calling up a demon to destroy Arjuna (164), Hanuman refusing to take part in battle, Subhadra awaiting news of the battle in Dvaraka (265), opposing camps meeting over the funeral pyre of Abhimanyu (26), Karna approaching Shalya directly requesting him to be his charioteer (288), Bhima rushing with Duhshasana's blood to Draupadi (289), Karna's visit to Gandhari (294), Bhishma telling Duryodhana that Karna was really the son of Kunti (99), Gandhari making Duryodhana's body indestructible (300)'one can quote ad infinitum'there are so many pointed out by PB in his detailed analysis. And, in each case, PB has given detailed justification why he likes it or why he does not approve of it, every time giving the 'right' situation as in the original. These departures, good or bad, from the original, were totally unnecessary. May be that these are taken from the vernacular versions. But always the risk of illogicality exists in such cases of unreasoned interpolations. PB himself says, 'It is not safe to import material into Vyasa's marvellously well-knit epic, as a bloomer is quite likely'. These bloomers abound in Reza's Mahabharata.
They were unnecessary as Vyasa's Mahabharata is diverse enough to provide Reza with a peg on which to hang his film script. Neither is it proper for PB to praise any such examples of 'creativity' which are neither necessary nor relevant.
PB at the very outset has highlighted that the script is authored by Dr. Reza, an Indian Muslim. It is felt that this observation is not called for, even while establishing the universality of the epic. In case we are subjecting ourselves to such lofty ideals as secularism (it does seem so Utopian and far away now), we must not express astonishment at a Muslim writing a Mahabharata. He is an Indian and that is about all. Besides, he is a writer and a professional. He will write, as a good professional, on whatever subject he is asked to write.
PB also says that Reza has lifted 'his subject above and beyond the constricting limits of parochial sentiments' (p.6). It is, in his opinion, 'a stroke of genius'. One is a little confused. If, in all of Indian literature, there is anything non-parochial, it is Vyasa's Mahabharata. No one so far has claimed it to be exclusive, unlike some other authors like Jayadeva. During my travels through India, very interestingly, I have come across so many Vyasa Ashrams, scattered all over the countryside, where Vyasa seems to have resided and composed the Mahabharata. It is indeed proof of the non-parochial nature of the epic. PB himself does not have any doubt about the 'universality of appeal of Rishi Vyasa's epic'. (p. 56). Under the circumstances, his comment'constricting limits of parochial sentiments'is not very clearly understood.
PB seems to feel that introducing time (Kala) as the narrator of the epic instead of Vyasa, with its philosophical choric comments, reflecting Reza's mastery and sensitivity, is a stroke of genius on Reza's part. It is certainly a good idea but not an original one, as PB feels. Reza, first of all, is definitely influenced by the concept of Sutradhara, which is so characteristic of classical Indian plays, jatras and other folk theatre forms of the country. He has used this idea. Secondly, the concept of time being the Sutradhara of the epic is ingrained in the Mahabharata itself. The inherent fatalism of the Indian mind is reflected amply in the epic. The rule of destiny cannot be avoided. Vyasa advises Dhritarashtra in Bhishma parva, Ch. 2, 'Do not grieve. Watch the progress of time.' He says again in Adi parva 'What is going to happen will happen. None can stop the inexorable progress of time.' That is why Sri Amalesh Bhattacharya observes in his Mahabharater Katha: 'It does not matter who the hero of Mahabharata is, the motive force is Mahakala' (p. 84). Adi parva Ch I again states, kritamiva shaghni virchinoti kale, 'Mahakala is collecting its tricks by throwing his dice.' And again Vyasa says in Adi parva chapter 1, shloka 249,
kalah srijati bhutani kalah sanharati prajah/
sanharantah prajah kalam kalah shamyate punah//
In Shanti parva 33/16 Vyasa is found consoling Yudhishthira,
Na tvam hanta na bhomoyamhayam narjuno na yamavapi/
Kalah paryaya dharmena prananadatta dehinam//
Krishna too says bhavitavyam hi tattatha (Ashvamedhika 28).
In Shanti parva 224.5 again we find
Anitya mupalakshyeha kalaparyaya dharmatah
There are myriads of such examples that can be quoted from the Mahabharata. Vyasa time and again tells us that everything is determined by Mahakala. His characters too believe that. The idea of Fatalism runs in the veins of Indians and is reflected all too often in the epics. None can beat Destiny; whatever will be, will be. Therefore, it does not take a very perceptive reader to realise this underlying strain in the Mahabharata. Reza is too sensitive a scholar to miss it. He has done well in taking the cue from Vyasa. It cannot be called a stroke of genius to be able to pick up the obvious. 'Well done!' is all that can be said.
While celebrating Reza's creativity, PB has often dug out certain underlying principles and tenets that Reza has put forth in his script. One such strain concerns the value systems. PB in his discussion has very logically brought out the rise and fall of values as propounded by Reza, at the same time adding his own commentary. To me it seems that it is not Reza who has very consciously made an effort to introduce them into his great work, but it is PB's empathetic eye that has discovered the strain. Any work of this magnitude is bound to reflect the author's philosophy, especially when he is transcreating an epic that enshrines in itself the entire philosophical systems of the ancient Indians, and the value systems of the entire dramatis personae. It is left to the critic to discover the author's own ideas. This has not escaped PB. Therefore, he goes on to establish a definite conceptualisation of values by Reza and over the distance of 300 pages delineates the rise and fall of moral and ethical standards of kings and society, through the pen of Reza. It is a different matter that the conceptualisation at places is somewhat misconceived.
For example, in the case of King Bharata, it was certainly not democracy of which he was supposed to have sown the seed (p. 58). It was, at the most, a certain concern for the people. Otherwise, one can hardly think of such cruelty as making a mother put all nine sons to death just because not one is good enough to be the king of the people. PB himself does not miss the point when he remarks: 'Terming this democratic is questionable ...situation of benevolent monarchy'by no means one of the people electing their own ruler'. Therefore the act of a benevolent monarch lavishly dressed with the blood of his own children cannot be democracy. However, the values of a king are clearly established'that a good king always places the good of the people above his personal considerations and also the law of dynastic succession is not a must if a prince is not found to be a good ruler. PB's further discussion on the rise and total decline of these values during the reigns of the later kings is highly illuminating. Shantanu reversed the ideals set by Bharata. For him personal desire eclipses public good. So he does not hesitate to sacrifice a perfectly good king at the altar of his lust-Devavrata. Also, he upholds the concept of dynastic succession (Bhishma himself contributes to this theory which goes to show that by this time Bharata's ideals were completely eroded). But it is wrong to presume that the responsibility for such degeneration rests totally with Shantanu. These two have been the ruling tragedy of the Chandravamsha right from the beginning and have raised their ugly heads time and again. Lust controlled them and made them violate the principles of good kingship every time. It happened to Puru, Nahusha, Pururava, Samvarana, Pratipa and others before Shantanu. Therefore, Shantanu was merely afflicted with a family disease (cf. PB's Themes and Structure of the Mahabharata for a very illuminating discussion of this concept of lust in the Chandravamsha).
It is not clearly understood why PB wishes that Reza could have 'put to use' the fact that Shantanu was made the successor. If it was to establish the fact that the law of primogeniture was not followed, then again, it was not for the first time. PB has mentioned Nahusha, Pratipa and Puru. This parallel is also not fair. In each case the circumstances were different. Nahusha had six sons: Yati, Yayati, Sanyati etc. Yati renounced the world at a young age, so the second son Yayati became the King. No problem. There is a problem with Yayati because in his succession, the law of primogeniture became a victim because of his irrepressible lust. The youngest became the king while others left the kingdom because they disobeyed their father. Pratipa had three sons: Devapi, Shantanu and Bahlika. Devapi had a skin ailment, so he left the kingdom, renouncing the worldly life. Shantanu, the second son, again became the king while the third son Bahlika went to the Sibi kingdom. PB has committed a slight error in saying that Shantanu was the third son. Here also, the available eldest son became the king. In case of Shantanu's succession, the situation was different. Even though the eldest son was available the younger one became the king. So, we find that the law of primogeniture was violated many times but sometimes for logical reasons and sometimes for entirely personal reasons. Shantanu was not the first case. And whenever this rule was violated the reason was always lust. For all these reasons, justification for PB's comment is hard to grasp.
PB's claim that the absence of the Rajguru as advisor is a shift from the consultative to the absolutist in the authority spectrum is a little laboured. We have found great sages in the earlier times and great sages even during the period of Shantanu and his successors. They were advisors then and they were advisors now. Earlier, Vashishtha, Vishvamitra, Ashtavakra etc were there. We had equally powerful sages like Dhaumya, Maitreya, Vyasa, Brihadashva etc. who from time to time acted as advisors. Therefore, there is no such shift in the authority spectrum. However, if we consider the history of the period, there was always a love-hate relationship between Brahmins and Kshatriyas. Sometime the hate crossed the limits and we find Brahmins taking the Kshatriyas head on. Parashurama decimated the Kshatriyas twenty-one times because of the anti-Brahmin attitude of King Kartaviryarjuna who finally enraged Parashurama by killing Rishi Jamadagni, Parashurama's father. Again, we see the Kshatriyas killing the Brahmins indiscriminately. Rishi Aurvya visited terrible retribution on the Kshatriyas. We know the story of Vishvamitra vexation with Vashishtha that finally turned the Kshatriya Vishvamitra into Brahmas Vishvamitra. We also know about the fierce conflict between Rishi Shaktri and Raja Kalmashpada in which King Kalmashpada became a demon on being cursed by the sage. We have read about the Janaka-Ashtavakra confrontation. We know Vatapi, Srutarava, Brahmashva, Trasadasyu'the quartet of demon Kshatriyas who were destroyed by Rishi Agastya. We have heard the stories of conflict between Nahusha-Bhrigu, Chyavana-Indra, etc. On the other band, we have kings like Janaka, Dasharatha'in fact most of the kings respected the Brahmins and granted special protection to them. So, really speaking, the relationship was a mixed one and there were ups and downs in it. In fact in the contemporary times, we find that on one hand we have kings like Drupada, Jarasandha and Yudhishthira who do not even stir without the advice of the Brahmins; on the other hand we have Dhritarashtra and Duryodhana who pay scant respect to the Brahmins. The age saw a see-saw process'a period of precipitation followed by a period of peace. There were always the peacemakers, because both Brahmins and Kshatriyas realised that there would be prosperity only if these two varnas were at peace with each other. VedaVyasa says
Jyaghoshashcaiva parthanam brhamaghoshashca dhimatam/
Samsrishtam brahmana kshatram bhuya eva vyarocat// (Vana Parva, 26.4 )
Therefore, there is no question of any shift in the authority spectrum, a fall in another value system, but merely a movement in the cyclical process of a relationship.
Among the other values propounded by Reza is the importance of motherhood. This has been very well identified by PB and in fact, this is one of Reza's signal contributions. For Reza, the mother is the Supreme Being. All good emanates from her and the characters draw their strength from their mothers. Some of the most poignant moments created by Reza are reflected in his treatment of the Ganga-Bhishma relationship. Whenever Bhishma is in stress, he goes to his mother for solace and guidance. Vidura proudly refuses to disown his origins and resents Dhritarashtra's insult aimed at his mother. The Pandavas are always seeking guidance from Kunti and never disobey her. On the other hand, Reza's 'villains', as it were, never show any respect to their mothers. Duryodhana never listens to Gandhari, Karna is ashamed of his origin. These moments of the script, where the relationship between mother and son are shown, are moments of rare beauty, created by a master story-teller with all the emotions of his heart. It is in these moments that Reza excels. PB comments: 'The other impression is the repeated stress on the greatness of motherhood voiced most powerfully in episode 29, by Vidura' (p. 118). Occasionally of course, Reza overdoes it. Yudhishthira quietly submits to Kunii's decision to send Bhima to face Bakasura. But in the original, Yudhishthira does not agree but questions her decision. Kunti rebukes him and reads him a lesson on the duty of the King in protecting his subjects. In Reza Yudhishthira is merely hurt. According to PB, 'Kunti's reply is splendid, 'I hold you in trust for Hastinapura'these are aspects we do not find in Vyasa which amplify and enrich the portrayal of the epic characters.' Do they? I think it is otherwise. The dialogue is excellent no doubt, very sharp and sublime, as expected from Reza. But that is not the intention of Vyasa. The reactions of Vyasa's characters are more human. Reza's dialogues are totally out of character. Reza should have followed the original. That would have been more in character than the merely emotional treatment of the sequence. Besides, it would have been authentic. Therefore, I do not agree with PB when he says that it amplifies and enriches the character.
However, I agree with PB when he praises Reza for creating the sequence where Draupadi is able to recognise each of her sons. Let me quote PB's entire paragraph: 'Reza fills in the gap which has irked most readers of the epic: the complete absence of any depiction of relationship between Draupadi and her sons, particularly in view of the 13 year separation from them and between Abhimanyu and his brothers. Reza uses it to extol the greatness of mother'hood through Krishna ('a mother has the universe within her reach,' 'A mother's relationship with her child is far richer than that of God and his devotee'that is why God has taken birth in the world') and by showing Draupadi unerringly picking out each of her five sons despite not having seen them for thirteen years, much to Abhimanyu's astonishment' (91). Such sequences, of Bhishma-Ganga, Vidura, and Draupadi, do deserve praise indeed.
Reza has made Time enunciate another important value, the special relationship between the guest and the host, when the Ekachakra incident took place. This is well done and PB rightly identifies it as 'one of the richest heritages of our culture' (p. 125).
Another concept that Reza has dwelt upon, is the position of women in society. PB comments: 'From the inception Reza begins to stress the fact that women had a significant role to play in the royal court.' He begins with Shakuntala and goes on with the powerful characterisation of Satyavati and Draupadi. There can be a disagreement on the nature of the characters as portrayed by Reza (e.g. his Kunti is merely a soft and caring mother instead of the powerful, acute and politically aware Kunti of Vyasa) but there can be no doubt that he did try to establish his female characters with much care, effort, sensitivity and compassion. It is clear from the excellent treatment of Shakuntala, Draupadi and Satyavati that they received the best of education, were quite frank and erudite when they chose to speak in public, and were not upset by adverse conditions. They have shown splendid guts, foresight and knowledge in tackling even the best of men and taken on a position of equality with them. Reza's Draupadi is even ready to take up arms herself, if the men folk hesitate. PB has brought out these points well but he could have given a discussion, because this is important. His analysis is scattered but I suppose he was somewhat handicapped by the system chosen by him and so comes up with his observations whenever he gets an opportunity in his scene-by-scene discussion.
PB has brought out certain other values propounded by Reza. He observes: 'Through Krishna Reza brings into the forefront of our awareness certain basic values: that engaging in war for selfish reasons is against humanity.' Because innocent people lose their lives in a war, Krishna will not take the responsibility. 'Kshatriyas fight only,' says Krishna, 'in the cause of Dharma and not for selfish reasons.' When Bhima bewails that in a no-war situation his vows will remain unfulfilled, Reza has his Krishna say, 'Is your pledge greater than the welfare of humanity? If you can establish peace at the cost of breaking your pledge, think that you have made a good bargain.' Therefore Reza establishes that peace is of paramount importance and human life is more valuable than anything else. There also are other principles enunciated. Loyalty, Vidura points out to Drona, should not be blind as it cannot save the kingdom. In a similar vein, Reza has thrown up many ideas on values and PB has desirously fielded them, enriching his observations with his characteristic expertise.
The next aspect that catches PB's eye is the embellishments of Mahabharatan facts with Reza's own creativity. Whereas there can be dispute over the justification of Reza's introduction of extraneous material, there can be no doubt about Reza's supreme artistry in this area. Here he is on home ground, spinning webs of excellent dialogues around incidents, holding the spectator spellbound. Here he is at his professional best. By his sheer mastery over words, he makes the scenes come alive. There is tremendous poignance and feeling in the scenes. For example, Bhima's leave-taking of Hidimba, Bhishma's running to his mother, Kunti's outright refusal to attend Yudhishthira's coronation, the Draupadi-Subhadra meeting, the relationship of Arjuna and Bhishma, poisoning of Bhima etc. There is subtlety in the characterisation of Shakuni and Dhritarashtra, Draupadi's summing up of Bhishma as an 'unanswered question', Ghatotkacha's questions, and there is power and imagination in Draupadi's speech at the dice-game, Vidura's strong speech in defence of his mother, Kunti's response to Bhishma's reprimand to Gandhari etc. Who can deny the sweet poignance of the dialogues of Dhritarashtra and Gandhari? Dhritarashtra says, 'This blind Dhritarashtra does not know how to live in brightness, so let me live with my darkness and evil.' Gandhari says, 'We are the shadows of the dark night that has gone by and these shadows will haunt the palace' (p. 316-317). Reza has exhibited his creativity also in the sequence where Shikhandi says that Bhishma is the only coward; since he had not discarded his armour of death-at-will-he is not fighting on equal terms (240). There is creativity in the speech of Krishna upbraiding Draupadi 'for not rising above her narrow vengefulness to see herself as a symbol of the dignity of all womankind' (PB). There is poignance in the scene of the final attack on Bhishma'the fall of Bhishma was a brilliantly conceived scene indeed (p. 249). There is also humour. PB observes the 'delightful vignettes of loving skirmishes between Balarama and Krishna. Very successfully Reza creates for us a Krishna who can be deadly serious'but also a creature of pure mirth and mischief' (p. 131). There are many such vignettes and PB calls them all 'masterpieces of imaginative creation'all of Reza's invention. Particularly well done is the leit motif of blindness in the epic, PB observes (and also that of helplessness). Most of the characters are blind in one way or the other: Dhritarashtra, Gandhari, Duryodhana, Jayadratha and Shakuni. PB, of course, adds his own list of blind people: Karna, Bhishma, Satyavati, Drona etc. There are many more such sequences of high drama, emotion and sensitivity. PB has excellently focussed the spotlight of the reader's attention on them.
One other important contribution of Reza is that he has 'brought out the fact of the contemporaneity of the children of Dhritarashtra, Pandu and Vasudeva and the curious similarity in the children of Pandu and Vasudeva being born in exile/prison. Once again Reza's perceptiveness comes to the fore' (p.94) (PB).
Bhishma's dying speech in the last scene is another of Reza's masterpieces (p. 325). This is Reza's attempt at understanding the character of the colossus of Mahabharata'a very difficult task but certainly a very bold attempt. PB has not missed to recognize Reza's creativity in this. The list of Reza's achievements, as pointed out by PB, is almost interminable. Only a few are mentioned, just to highlight PB's observations.
PB has, on one hand, seen Reza's creativity; on the other, he has not allowed Reza's omissions and commissions to go unnoticed. Those important aspects of the Vyasan Mahabharata, which Reza should have included, but did not, and those aspects that Reza has included but has blundered, are pinpointed with perfect precision and exposed with razor-sharp clarity. To some extent, PB has been unkind. Reza has not depended entirely on the original Mahabharata but also on the vernacular versions. It has already been said that these vernaculars differ, sometimes quite substantially, from the original due to the simple fact that these are influenced by the socio-cultural environment of the author and so include stories and myths that grow locally. It is therefore natural to infer that many of his commissions are picked up from these vernaculars. I am familiar only with the Bengali recension. But PB seems to be familiar with some more. Therefore, while criticising the script, one feels that PB should have made concessions on this account. On the other hand, one also feels that Reza should have stuck to the original. That way he could have ensured authenticity.
Another thing should be mentioned in passing, which in fact should have been mentioned by PB, that somewhere in the translation the translator could have given the names of all the vernaculars that Reza consulted and which appeared in the credit-titles of the serial. It would have served two purposes. One, it would have educated the uninformed'such as myself'and second, it would have left a truly interesting document for posterity. I remember to have read an edition of the famous Bengali play Nara Narayan by Kshirode Prasad Bidyabinode which had the names of the cast, both on-stage, and off-stage of the first night's play. It did make very interesting reading.
To come back to Reza's commissions and omissions, PB, while pointing these out, has also given the various interpretations Reza could have used to make his script more authentic and interesting. Each and every such sequence discussed scene by scene, gives us an in-depth analysis of all aspects reflecting PB's own not inconsiderable knowledge of the minutiae of the epic. The best thing about it is that there is no exhibitionism, no pomposity of the pseudo-intellectual, but the simplicity of a mind, rich in incisive wisdom that is born out of a comprehensive assimilation of available literature. These lend variety and depth to the entire set of the ten volumes and also present a clear picture, to the reader, of the quality of the script- how close or distant it is from the original. It also provides additional information that could have found a place in the script but did not, either due to a possible lack of knowledge or paucity of space resulting from the restrictions of time allotted to the serial. After all, the serial had to be completed in two years. It certainly goes to the credit of Reza that he has been able to give so much in two short years with so much detail, colour, and drama. Only a professional of Reza's calibre could have done it. PB does recognize this and has been properly fulsome in his praise.
Notwithstanding Reza's restrictions, some of his omissions are unpardonable. For example, he misses the Khandava dahana episode completely. It is important because in this episode lay the seeds of some very important incidents of the Mahabharata. Without it we do not get to know who built Indraprastha, the splendid palace of Yudhishthira. This sabha, in turn, invokes the jealousy of Duryodhana that results in the dice game. Therefore the entire Sabha parva rests on the Khandavadahana. Secondly, this is where Arjuna and Krishna get their magnificent divine weapons-the Kapidhvaja, the Gandiva, and the inexhaustible quivers for Arjuna and the Sudarshana and Kaumodaki for Krishna. Varuna gifts them at the request of Agni for the purpose of burning the Khandava forest. Thirdly, this is where Arjuna confronts his father, Indra, for the first and only time. Fourthly, this is where lies the seed of one of the two occasions when Arjuna came so close to death during the battle. On both occasions Krishna saved him. Karna used the Sarpastra (snake missile) in which resided the vengeful Takshaka Ashvasena whose mother was killed by Arjuna during the Khandavadahana. But for Krishna, Arjuna would have lost his head, instead of merely the crown that was presented to him by Indra who in turn got it from Brahma. The other occasion when Krishna saved Arjuna was when Bhagadatta released the Vaishnavastra on Arjuna and Krishna took it on his chest where it hung like a garland. Reza does not include this episode perhaps to justify his Parashurama gifting the Sudarshana and Panchajanya to Krishna at Rishi Sandipani's hermitage. This of course is not there in the epic. Therefore his inclusion of an inauthentic incident in preference to an authentic Khandavadahana cannot be excused. PB, very rightly, is annoyed.
Reza also omits the boons given by the Yaksha to Yudhishthira. It is due to one of the boons that the disguise of the Pandavas during their sojourn with Virata could not be penetrated. This omission has left a remarkable passage incomplete. Reza should have mentioned Parashara's boons to Satyavati by which Matsyagandha became Yojanagandha and also his boon of eternal virginity. Had she remained Matsyagandha, probably Shantanu would have been repelled. Draupadi too was Padmagandha and eternally virgin. Kunti too had the boon of virginity. Satyavati and Draupadi were dark, so one was named Kali and the other, Krishna. PB has an excellent discussion on the similarity of the principal female characters and the concept of eternal virginity. This discussion of PB evokes many new perceptions.
Reza also misses the very important discussion between Kunti and Pandu on the question of begetting sons by both Kunti and Madri with the help of the Brahmin's boon to Kunti. It throws up many issues of social norms and the morality of the time.
The incident of the gifting of Brahmashira missile to Arjuna by Drona, is also ignored by Reza. Here indeed lies the seed of one of the most significant episodes of the Mahabharata: the Arjuna-Ashvatthama confrontation, that resulted in the death and resurrection of Parikshit, the ultimate heir to the throne, and the terrible curse of Krishna on Ashvatthama. PB's discussion is in-depth, as usual. We get information not commonly known. I, for one, did not know that Ashvatthama had approached Krishna for exchanging his Brahmashira with Krishna's Sudarshana Chakra!
Reza organises the cremation of dead bodies at the end of the battle, every day. This is not authentic. In fact, all the bodies were still there at the end of the eighteen days. Gandhari's moving description of the battlefield as quoted by PB, is sufficiently indicative of that. In addition, PB writes, 'As we listen to Gandhari speaking to Krishna in the epic, we realise that here we have both pity and terror, the two classic tragic emotions' (p. 320). In another scene, Reza shows Gandhari to be justifying Bhima's action in killing Duryodhana and Duhshasana unfairly and brutally, when Yudhishthira accuses Bhima of these dastardly acts. It is not true to character. In the epic Yudhishthira never blames Duryodhana. In fact, though he did not approve of Bhima's kicking the fallen Duryodhana. He chose to excuse him saying that Bhima was merely angry because of the past. Also, there is no question of Gandhari being so forgiving. She is very angry over the unfair battle with Duryodhana and the brutal death of Duhshasana. She is so fierce that she burns Yudhishthira's toe-nails with her angry glance.
Reza's Subhadra falls in love with Arjuna. There is no reference to such a love in the epic. What is surprising is PB too chooses the political importance of the Arjuna-Subhadra alliance. Reza's Jara picks up the two halves of Jarasandha to eat them. In the epic, Jara does it to do a good turn to King Brihadratha who worshipped her as Grihadevi. Why Reza portrayed Jara in such a negative manner is not understood. This however has not missed PB's attention.
On page 233 PB has listed some errors committed by Reza. 'There are a number of errors in Reza's rendition of the magnificent tenth chapter. . . . Krishna does not say 'Among the ancients I am Vishnu', but 'among the Adityas' ... He is not Yaja-Jaina but Japa-Yajna, and not Brihaspati among the Brahmins but among the priests. . . A true howler is perpetrated on page 57 when Reza has Krishna say 'Among the poets, I am Shankaracharya' for he preceded Shankaracharya by a millennium. What he says actually is that among Seer-poets (Kavi) he is Ushana (Shukracharya, preceptor of the Asuras).' How much of it is mere printing mistake is not known, but it shows how minutely PB has gone through the script.
In Reza's script Shakuni plays dice with Yudhishthira at Indraprastha and loses. It is supposed to be a bait, so that Yudhishthira does not refuse to play at Hastinapura. This is not there in the epic. Besides, it is so transparently naive that it should have surely attracted severe criticism from PB. But surprisingly we find PB praising it as 'a fine creative touch.' I am sure PB knows that Yudhishthira did not play dice because he was confident of winning. His reasons are intrinsic to his general attitude to life and are clearly explained by himself in both Sabha and Vana parva. He would have played anyway, whether there was any inducement or bait or not, because according to him it was not proper for a Kshatriya to refuse a game of dice, when invited. It is a different question why he kept playing to the bitter end.
It is an important question why Yudhishthira played the dice the way he did. Reza tries to justify by introducing the first game. This is an enigma of the Mahabharata which can hardly be explained away so easily. Let us trace the reasons, which PB should have done.
On Dhritarashtra's bidding, Vidura went to invite Yudhishthira to the game. Vidura, in no uncertain terms, condemned the game of dice as the root of all evil and stated that he too had tried to prevent it, but left the final decision to Yudhishthira. Yudhishthira said, 'I realise that everything is decided by fate. However, I will go, not because Dhritarashtra has called me, but because you are asking me.' First reason: he does not disobey his elder in whom he has absolute confidence.
Perhaps he felt that Vidura, his well-wisher, would not ask him to do anything that would hurt his interest. He further says, 'If I was not invited by the court I would not have played with Shakuni. When I have been formally invited, I cannot refuse. This is my creed.' Second reason: as a king he must accept a challenge. Since it is a formal invitation, to refuse would mean loss of face-a violation of the Kshatriya Dharma. Besides, that was his creed. He could not have gone against it. It is obvious that he was aware of Shakuni's crooked game. This foreknowledge becomes a certainty a little later, when he warns Shakuni before the play starts, to play in a straightforward manner. Reza has surprisingly put the objection raised by Yudhishthira in the epic, in the mouth of Draupadi. His Yudhishthira is very eager to play, like a child, 'What harm is there in a game of dice?' This is totally out of character, and inauthentic. Even while going to Hastinapura for the dice game, Yudhishthira comments, 'Like extremely bright light destroying the eyes, Fate removes wisdom. Every man succumbs to Destiny, as if bound.' Again, we find the central theme of the Mahabharata: Destiny, Fate. When play started, he rebuked Shakuni for praising the dice game, exhorted him to desist from playing and finally asked him to play fairly. Then occurred the most tragic of all events-he lost everything, including his brothers, himself and Draupadi. Why did he have to go on?
Why did he go so far? Merely playing a game or two would have satisfied all his earlier reasons. Yudhishthira tells Shakuni, 'Being invited I will not refuse to play, it is my duty. In a game of dice Destiny is supreme. I am also subject to that Destiny.'
And in reply to Bhima's accusation, Yudhishthira repents, 'When I saw the dice behave as per the dictates of Shakuni, I should have stopped. But my anger overtook my patience and when THE SOUL LOSES ITS PATIENCE, NEITHER PRIDE NOR MANLINESS NOR EVEN BRAVERY CAN CONTROL IT.' How human! It goes to the eternal credit of Vyasa that he has introduced these small touches which elevate the characters from being merely mechanical and humanise them. It was therefore totally futile to make Yudhishthira win an earlier game, make him eager to play again. It is greed. And greed is a base emotion that is offered as a cause. Yudhishthira is neither greedy, nor childish. But anger is an adult emotion which can overtake anyone if sufficient provocation is there. During the dice game, there was only provocation for him. One cannot blame him for getting angry. We have seen, in earlier occasions, as well as later, that Yudhishthira is not beyond anger. It is true to character. Therefore, it was not proper for Reza to invent things that run contrary to character. The reasons run deeper that mere greed and childishness.
After Draupadi saved the Pandavas, Dhritarashtra invited him again to play this time for 13 years of exile. He played again and lost. Why did he play again? He says in Sabha Parva 73.4 and 18 that he knew that due to this game the entire Kuruvamsha would be destroyed. But he could not refuse the orders of an elder, Dhritarashtra. Therefore, he played, fully knowing the consequences.
Vyasa made Vaishampayana comment before the second dice game, 'Rama knew that a golden deer was impossible. Even then he went after it. During moments of misfortune, no one can think intelligently.'
This is again one aspect which an outsider, Vaishampayana, thinks up. But what does Yudhishthira think? Did he think he was an expert? Obviously not. When Bhima was upbraiding him, Rishi Brihadashva came. He laments to Brihadashva, 'I did not know the game and that is why I could be defeated so easily. My brothers and Draupadi were insulted because I lost.' Brihadashva narrated the tale of Nala and Damayanti to him and taught him the Nikhil Akshya Vidya and the Ashva Vidya. This made him an expert in the game which effectively put an end to Bhima's fear, 'You will be asked to play again after we return and lose.' So, before meeting Brihadashva, he was not an expert. Why then did he play again? Was he an addict? Draupadi asked him, 'You are so simple, so soft, so benevolent and so truthful. But then, how did you get this impulse to play dice?' (Vana Parva 30).
Yudhishthira rebuked her, 'You are talking like an atheist ' nastikyantu prabhashase'. Therein lies the answer. To him, it was the dictate of his dharma, which compelled him to play. It was his dharma as a Kshatriya not to refuse to play. It was also an order to an elder which he could not disobey. Lastly, the deeper reason: he was a believer in Destiny. An atheist firmly believes that he can control his actions. For Yudhishthira, everyone is subject to fate. Destiny will always take its course, in spite of all human effort. He believed that there was an unseen power that guided and controlled everything-humans were just playthings. So, whether he played or not, really did not matter. This was his faith. Once again, we find Fatalism, the central theme, coming up. This is what Krishna also says, 'Do your duty, leaving everything to me.' That finally is the justification. A straightforward thinker, true to his faith, till the end, walking the straight and narrow path that eludes everyone else, does his duty leaving everything to Fate and finally guides and leads the Pandavas through all adversity. Sometimes I feel that Yudhishthira is the hero of Vyasa because it is through him that Vyasa has projected the entire philosophy of the Mahabharata.
PB has however brought out another significant flaw in the Reza's Hall of Dice-the Vastraharana episode. PB indicates that the entire episode is presented to 'pander to popular imagination.' In the epic, in fact it is Dharma who protects her, not Krishna. This is the truly startling information provided by PB for readers like us who always thought that it was one of Krishna's miracles. This opens up another controversy-who is this Dharma? Is it Vidura, the Dharma-incarnate? But the epic states 'Dharma, unseen, covered her.' So, it cannot be Vidura who is always vociferously in evidence. Or is it, as PB says, '(it is) the vociferous condemnation by the assembled princes that leads to a heap of clothes-we can visualise the men throwing off their upper clothes to cover Draupadi?' So, here is Dharma unseen-the Dharma or the conscience of the assemblage. In any case, it was not Krishna (could not be, as he was at the time, far away, fighting Shalva) who protected her. A point very well taken by PB.
Another omission of Reza is Bhishma's arguments justifying why 'arghya' should be offered to Krishna in the Sabha parva. Instead he has used high rhetoric. Reza has therefore wasted a Jot of time in giving useless rhetoric when he could have easily given the arguments and been authentic.
Reza commits another bloomer, PB observes, in putting the Gandharva Chitrasena episode of Vana parva before Arjuna's visit to Indra. It takes place after Arjuna's return from Indra's court. This incident in important because it establishes the Paurava sense of family loyalty. Chitrasena captures Duryodhana, the Pandavas defeat and capture him. (The fight is not indicated by Reza.) Chitrasena describes the evil designs of Duryodhana. Even then Yudhishthira asks him to release Duryodhana. PB says that the reason is 'extending shelter to those seeking protection.' Reza says that the tribal chief agrees so that Bhima can fulfil his pledge later in battle. Neither is the right reason. The right reason is family prestige. For this, the family must unite even if there is enmity amongst themselves. Therefore, when Reza adds that 'A family quarrel aught not to be turned into a public issue and the family honour must be redeemed,' he seems to be writing on the right lines and is consistent with the Mahabharata. Curiously, one of the reasons why Bhishma chose to fight for the Kauravas is also thought to be the same by many. Bhishma, many authors have indicated, thought that the Pandavas were violating the family prestige by bringing their traditional enemy, the Panchalas, against the throne of Hastinapura. There is an interesting sidelight. An incident from the Bengali vernacular may be referred to here. Subhadra gave her word to King Dandin and his mare who was really Urvashi and was coveted by Krishna. The Kurus and Pandavas stood together behind Subhadra against Krishna because it was clearly a matter of family honour. Subhadra, after all, was the daughter-in-law of the family and Krishna was an outsider. Reza's Draupadi is found laughing at Duryodhana's discomfiture in the Indraprastha court. PB points out that it never happened in the epic. It goes against the character of Draupadi.
While discussing Bhishma's early life, as depicted by Reza, PB observes, 'On the other hand . . . worsting of Shalva's attack on Hastinapur a single-handed by Devavrata, is relevant'even though not found in the epic'as building up the image of the young prince as redoubtable defender of the Kingdom' (p. 76). Again PB writes, 'His (Shalva's) turning down of Amba is all the more believable because of Reza's creation of that first defeat at Devavrata's teenaged hands' (p. 72). This requires a bit of examination. The first Bhishma-Shalva encounter as created by Reza is totally unnecessary. Also, it is not relevant. If the purpose was to establish Bhishma's expertise with arms, this invention was not necessary. Reza could have very easily included the Bbishma-Parasurama battle. After all, what could be more convincing that defeating the inveterate Parashurama, the greatest exponent of the art of war at the time? Also, he overcame the combined strength of the kings, besides defeating Shalva, after the abduction of the Kashi princesses. So, one notices that Vyasa himself has provided for all contingencies. It is not required to interpolate anything to confirm Vyasa's facts. His creation is rich enough. On the other hand, it is fraught with danger. PB himself has said elsewhere, 'Reza's departures from the original bring about substantial changes in the implications of the incidents as portrayed in the epic' (p. 100). Again, 'It is not safe to import material into Vyasa's marvellously well-knit epic as a bloomer is quite likely'(p. 164).
The question, however, is did Vyasa consider it important to make Bhishma only an expert warrior? Was there something much deeper and much broader in his conceptualisation of Bhishma's character? Because, besides these two battles (and the desperate ninth day battle at Kurukshetra) there is nothing else to show his expertise in arms in his entire long career. PB has called Bhishma a young man, a 'teenager' at the time of the 'first' battle with Shalva. He then becomes the crown prince. He could not have been a teenager. He at least thirty-six. The same mistake (if it is a mistake because my calculation may be wrong) has been repeated in many translations. He has been called a boy, a 'balaka' etc. The epic says that Ganga disappeared after handing over her eight child to Shantanu. How she gets him back is not very clear though. Shantanu then goes on to rule the Kingdom efficiently and goes to the forest for thirty-six years. Bhishma makes a reappearance at this stage.
The twentieth shloka, chapter 100 of Adi parva, says: 'King Shantanu went to the forest for thirty-six years after enjoying the company of women' sa sam shodashashtau ca canastrohashtau tama parah/ratim prapunvan strishu vabhub vanagocarah//. There is controversy also on the translation of ratim prapnuvan strishu but that does not concern us. What concerns us is thirty-six years. It is in the forest that he discovered Bhishma. Ganga came and introduced Bhishma to him. She said that Bhishma had received the best of education'he schooled with Vashishtha, Brihaspati and Shukracharya and learnt warfare from Parashurama. Now he was fit to be a King. Shantanu was elated. He brought Bhishma to Hastinapura and made him crown-prince. He had last seen him when he was a baby, so he could not recognise him. So, even if we assume that Shantanu went to the forest immediately after Bhishma was born, even then Bhishma was at least thirty-six years. There was no further opportunity for him to go to the forest after he brought Bhishma back to the capital. Further, if Bhishma was not thirty-six years at this time, he could not have been the elderly Bhishma of the svayamvara of the Kashi princesses. A simple calculation would show that 11 years passed between his coronation as crown prince and the marriage of Vichitravirya. Four years after the coronation, Shantanu married Satyavati. Chitrangada and Vichitravirya were born. Shantanu dies. Chitrangada by this time is an adult, so he is at least 16 years old. He goes on a conquest and dies in a three-year long battle with Gandharva Chitrangada. So, 5 years pass, Vichitravirya is still not an adult. Then, let us assume, he became marriageable after two years. Therefore, if Bhishma was a boy of sixteen years at coronation, at Vichitravirya's marriage, he would be only 43, not an elderly person. Therefore, the contention that he was a teenager at the time of his first battle with Shalva, is not tenable.
Bhishma's character is an enigma. It is one of the most successful efforts by Vyasa-he created a character who can never be fully understood. Bhishma always eludes you. What did he do in his entire life? He appears in the epic in his late youth, promptly utters his pledges that bind him hand and foot, defeats Shalva and Parashurama in battle, organises matrimony for Vichitravirya, Dhritarashtra, Pandu and Vidura, arranges the birth of Dhritarashtra, Pandu and Vidura in consultation with Satyavati, participates in the Kaurava attack on Matsya and gets soundly thrashed by Arjuna, participates in the Kurukshetra war and dies. He received education from the best of teachers but has not much to show for it. As a warrior his achievements are minimal. Both the battles which he won were foisted upon him. Even then, for some reason, he had a tremendous reputation. As a family elder, no one obeyed him. As a political advisor, his advice was mostly disregarded. As a wise man, he did not do what he should have done and did what he should not have done. He need not have abducted the Kashi princesses which he did only to vindicate his family honour, as a retribution to an insult of not being invited to the Svayamvara. He ought to have prevented the dice game, Jatugriha, Pandava-Vanavasa and finally the war. Only he could have done all this, but chose not to do anything. He was the Regent and protector of the Kingdom. That job also he could not do properly. It is surprising that he did not lift a finger to help young Chitrangada who was desperately fighting for dear life, only a few yojanas away. One certainly expected Pitamaha Bhishma to stand up firmly to prevent the disgrace of Draupadi at the dice-game. But lie remained a silent spectator. Of course, he uttered a few inane platitudes and tried to quieten an extremely angry and virulent Draupadi'his most shameful performance. He did offer sound advice at times, but with a take-it-or-leave-it attitude. Hardly ever do we find him standing firm to force decisions which only lie had the power to do. His advice, as expected, always fell on deaf ears and immediately he assumed a stance of helplessness cursing his fate. He stood by while events pulled the Hastinapur a kingdom into the quagmire of utter destruction. He remained mesmerised by his own vows, a helpless cocoon imprisoned in his own strands of impetuous sanctimony. He does not take up arms to prevent Balarama uproot Hastinapura with his ploughshare. Finally, in the war he joins the Kauravas whom he did not love, against the ones whom he loved. In his wisdom, he must have seen the Dhartarashtras to be the rightful heirs. He too became a plaything in the hands of Destiny and could no nothing.
So, he was an enigma. He was the best of them all, yet did noth