Book Reviews

The Story's the Thing

‘Shells were exploding over Leningrad. Enemy bombs were falling on the streets stirring up clouds of dust. On one of those spring days during the siege, Sanscrit language was being heard in the building of the Academy of Sciences on the Neva River embankment, in a room overlooking the side that was safer during the artillery strikes. First, in the original, and then in translation, Vladimir Kalyanov, a specialist on India, was reading Mahabharata, a wonderful monument of Indian literature, to his colleagues, who remained in the besieged city. He had started the translation before the war. He translated during the hard winter of 1941, with no light, no fuel and no bread in the city. Two volumes of books - one published in Bombay and the other in Calcutta - were lying on the table in the room. In the dim light of a wick lamp, he was comparing these two editions of Mahabharata, trying to find the best and the most accurate translation of the Sanscrit into Russian’. The translation of the Indian epic into Russian was never interrupted. [i]

What is it in this epic-of-epics, eight times larger than the Iliad and the Odyssey combined, denounced as ‘a literary monster’ by Winternitz, and as ‘monstrous chaos’ by Oldenberg’ that appeals so irresistibly to the modern man in search of his soul, when the audience for which it was composed ‘the enthroned monarch and the forest-dwelling sage’ has long sunk into the dark backward and abysm of time? Vyasa, master raconteur, weaves together a bewildering skein of threads to create a many-splendoured web from which there was no escape for the listener of those days and there is none even for the reader of today. The thousands of years that separate us from Vyasa have not, surprisingly, dimmed the magic of his art that had entranced Janamejaya and Shaunaka.

We find here a storyteller par excellence laying bare, at times quite pitilessly, the existential predicament of man in the universe. If, later in the epic, Vyasa shows us what man has made of man, here, in the very first book, he plumbs the depths of the humiliatingly petty pre-occupations of the Creator’s noblest creation. Indeed, the dilemmas the characters find themselves enmeshed in cannot even be glorified as ‘tragic’. Perhaps, that is why we find the epic so fascinating for, how many of us are cast in the heroic mould? We do not have to strain the imagination to reach out and identify with Yayati or Shantanu. We need no willing suspension of disbelief to understand why the Brahmin Drona should sell his knowledge to the highest bidder, or why Drupada does not protest too much when his daughter is parcelled out among five brothers who had routed him in a skirmish. Passions do, indeed, spin the plot and we are betrayed by what is false within. Then, as now, there is no need to look for a villain manoeuvring without.

If we resonate in empathy with the sense of tears in human things, we also thrill with joy on meeting the indomitable spirit of woman in an epic that many misconceive as celebrating a male chauvinist outlook. Whether it is Shakuntala proudly asserting her integrity and berating the mean-minded Dushyanta in open court; or Devayani demanding that Kacha return her love and imperiously brushing aside a lust-crazed husband; or Kunti refusing to pervert herself into a mindless son-producing womb to gratify the twisted desires of a frustrated husband time and again, it is woman standing forth in all the splendour of her spirited autonomy as a complete human being that rivets our attention and evokes our admiration.

This transcreation by P. Lal, Padma Shri awardee, Jawaharlal Nehru Fellow and Mircea Eliade Professor, allows the epic to grow on the reader through 19 chapters without any critical paraphernalia, for ‘the story’s the thing, catching conscience of commoner and king’ as he writes so perceptively. A companion volume contains the individual prefaces, notes and glossaries to the 26 fascicules of the original edition. [ii] This is the only English rendering that follows the Sanskrit text of the epic verse by verse as it is current today (the ‘vulgate’) in all the recensions ‘‘the full ragbag version” as he puts it, eschewing the not very consistent text of the Critical Edition that J.A.B. van Buitenen translates with its numerous excisions. Unlike the 19th century translators K.M. Ganguli and M.N. Dutt, Lal neither omits sexual passages ‘for obvious reasons’, nor Latinises them. It is also the sole translation that is a transcreation, consciously aiming at providing a sense of the original by effortlessly shifting from lyrical verse to trenchant prose as Vyasa’s text demands, while preserving the Sanskrit ethos. It is a transcreation that is, above all, meant to be heard. After all, that is what the hermits in the Naimisha forest were doing. Lal himself has been giving public readings of his transcreation every Sunday from October 1999, bringing home the oral and aural quality of the epic. How true are Vyasa’s prophetic words in the ?divams?vatarana (‘Down-comings’) chapter:

‘What is in this epic
on Dharma, Artha, Kama, Moksha,
may be elsewhere.
What is not in this epic,
is nowhere else’
It is recited in the present,
it will be recited in the future.’

We are not brought up short by jarring medieval turns of phrase that are anything but Vyasa as with van Buitenen’s ‘barons’, ‘chivalry’ and the like, nor have we to stumble over the archaic Victorian prose of Ganguli and Dutt. Mahatma, pranama, namaskara, ashrama and similar words, redolent with the flavour of Bharatavarsha’s air and earth and water, abound. The opening verses describing Creation are some of the most majestic compositions of all time, transcreated with biblical and Rigvedic reverberations:

‘At first, there was no light,
no radiance, only darkness;
then was born the egg of Brahma,
exhaustless and mighty seed of life’

Lal’s verse rendering is far better than any of the translations so far; terse yet poetically evocative and mellifluous:

‘She stood, a black-
eyed beauty on the hill-top,
like a golden girl.
The hill, its creepers,
its bushes, all flamed
With the golden beauty
of the golden girl.’

Tapati is another Cleopatra indeed in Chitraratha-Enobarbus’ glowing description which is immeasurably superior to the Ganguli and van Buitenen prosaic translations. Or take the unconventional ‘rakshasan’ rhythm he adopts for Hidimb’s slavering monologue where one feels as if Vyasa were writing in English itself; so natural, unforced and appropriate is the transcreation:

‘My favourite
My mouth
My sharp
Eight teeth
Will bite
I’ll crunch
The throat
And veins,
And drink

The Astika chapter has Vyasa at his best as the weaver of tales: stories spring from within one another in delightful succession till the parva becomes a veritable Chinese box of unending surprises with Sauti the raconteur weaving a magic web spellbinding his audience.

James Fitzgerald, the translator of the critical text of the Stri and Shanti parvas published in 2004 makes an extremely important point about the epic:
‘The Mahabharata argued for a cultural revolution that was historically successful in several important ways, I have come to see the Mahabharata not simply as an ancient monument of bygone times. Many themes and motifs in this epic require consideration by the thoughtful people of all kinds today, whether they are particularly interested in India and its history or not. [iii]

Looking back at the Adi parva, a multitude of salient features; thematic, stylistic and eschatological; swim into one’s ken. Here we get to know that the epic has three beginnings: ‘Some read the Mahabharata from the first mantra, others begin with the story of Astika; others begin with Uparichara.’ There is the recurrent motif of Lust in Action with its attendant Quest for Immortality. Initially, they emerge as two separate themes in the Churning-of-the-Ocean and the Kacha-Devayani episodes, which coalesce in the existentially tragic figure of Yayati. Yayati, inheriting the taint of lust from his father Nahusha, sums up in himself the entire experience of the self-destructive poison of lust, with its initial violence of sensual orgiastic bliss, seeking in vain to gorge itself to satiation until the body is worn out. Yet, the flames of desire continue to lick the spirit into fresh agonies of torment, forcing Yayati into the very apotheosis of lust in replacing his worn-out senses by the vibrantly youthful body of his son, only to discover that lust is insatiable. Yayati’s life, indeed, is an interesting study in hubris that culminates in a veritable peripeteia as he is flung down from Heaven in a total reversal of situation, till he who prided himself on being the most generous in the giving of gifts (he even gifted away his daughter to earn unprecedented merit) is forced to accept gifts from his own grandchildren to win back his place in Svarga. Unfortunately, this blood-taint follows his dynasty as its nemesis, virtually wiping it out. It kills P?ndu. The Pandavas are his foster-children by unknown surrogates, veritable parvenus aspiring to the ancestral throne.

Yet another pattern is that of the disqualified eldest son beginning, again, with Yayati whose elder brother Yati becomes a sage. Of Yayati’s five sons it is the youngest, Puru, who becomes the dynast. Next it is Riksha, Ajamidha’s youngest son, who founds the Hastinapura dynasty. Of Pratipa’s sons, the Brahmins challenge Devapi’s right to the throne because of his skin-disease. Like Puru, the youngest son Shantanu becomes king of Hastinapura. Instead of Devavrata, Shantanu’s eldest son, it is the youngest, Vichitravirya, who becomes king.

At this stage, the theme of the disqualified eldest is interwoven with an interesting set of parallels: Bhishma-Vyasa and Satyavati-Kunti. Both Bhishma and Vyasa are born of Ganga and Satyavati respectively before the dynastically crucial Shantanu-Satyavati marriage. Both are unmarried and deeply involved with the Kurus, one as protector, the other as surrogate-dynast. Kunti, like her grandmother-in-law, has a pre-marital son who disappears immediately after birth. Here the Parallelism dovetails into the Pattern, for Karna, the eldest Kaunteya, cannot inherit because of his illegitimacy. In relation to the Pandavas, he stands much in the same relationship as Bhishma to the Shantvanas. The parallel is stressed deliberately in the repeated confrontations between the two, culminating in Karna’s Achilles-like sulking in his tent so long as Bhishma leads the armies. All the eight Pandava sons are killed and Kunti’s dynasty continues only through Parikshit, Arjuna’s grandson via his junior wife Subhadra, a Yadava, thereby restoring the throne to the line of Yadu, Yayati’s eldest disinherited son.

An allied motif is the difficulty in begetting successors. Beginning with Bharata who had to adopt Bharadvaja, it recurs with Shantanu who deliberately discards the eminently eligible Devavrata only to have his eldest son by Satyavati die prematurely, followed by the death of his second son Vichitravirya also without any heirs. The engendering of Dhritarashtra and Pandu is itself a traumatic affair and both are physically challenged. Pandu, cursed to die in intercourse, cannot beget children. Gandhari aborts her inordinately long pregnancy out of sheer frustration. The Pandavas lose all their sons. Their grandson Parikshit, while in Uttara’s womb, is mortally wounded by Ashvatthama and has to be revived by Krishna, just as Gandhari’s aborted foetus is saved by Krishna-Dvaipayana-Vyasa.

From the stylistic view-point, there are such highlights as the all-prose Paushya parva and the dynastic account after Samvarana-Tapati; the story of Yayati almost wholly in dialogue-form; and the majestic Vedic chants in the Paushya, Pauloma and Khandavadahana parvas, all addressed to Agni, the mystic fire of the Rig Veda. The Vyasan technique’or perhaps the raconteur Sauti’s’is to weave in skilled unmindfulness: present the pith of the matter first, allowing details to be drawn out gradually through answers to questions skilfully interposed at critical stages of the narrative. It is not only the professional bards, Sauti et. al, who recite the epic, but also Brahmins such as Lomasha, Markandeya and, of course, Vaishampayana. It is not, as van Buitenen argues, that the baronial-bardic lore was giving way to a tradition of wandering reciters of brahminic lore. After all, Vaishampayana recited the epic before it was picked up by Sauti.

The Adi parva, carries Vedic mythology on to a new stage where Indra has been reduced just to being king of the gods, worsted by the bird Garuda and the men Krishna and Arjuna, powerless to protect Takshaka who seeks sanctuary, paying the price of arrogance by being imprisoned in a cave by Shiva and forced to incarnate on earth. He is no longer the mighty rescuer of the celestial herds stolen by the Panis, riving open Vritra or Vala to release the celestial streams of light. Even Vishnu does not play much of a role here, the accent having shifted to a new duo of divine sages: Nara and Narayana. By identifying Krishna and Arjuna with them, beginning with the invocatory verses, the new myth is given more ‘body’ and appeals more powerfully to the popular imagination. As the epic unfolds, it reveals more and more of an infusion of a devotional strain orientated towards Shiva and Krishna, particularly in the discourses of Bhishma lying on his bed of arrows. The day of Vedic Indra, Agni and Varuna is past and the puranik Shiva-Vishnu rivalry is implied through the strenuous attempts to make each extol the greatness of the other in the Anushasana and Shanti parvas.

How does the Adi Parva leave us where the story of the Kurukshetra War and the Pandava-Kaurava conflict are concerned? The seeds of the fratricidal feud are sown during the childhood sports, culminating in the lacquer-house episode. In the meantime, a new figure has been introduced: Karna, who will figure prominently in the coming feud. The Drona-inspired attack on Drupada has laid the basis of a deep hatred of the Kurus in the defeated king that moves him to seek alliance with the Pandavas as a counterpoise against the Dhartarashtras and Drona. The intervening period, occupied by the Hidimba, Chitraratha and Baka episodes, is the training ground for the future inheritors of the Kuru kingdom. Simultaneously, these events help to span the time-gap and convey the sense of the long duration of the exile. The marriage with Draupadi and the coming of Krishna provide the Panchala-Vrishni-Pandava triangular set-up to oppose the Kurus at Hastinapura even more effectively with the establishment of a new kingdom at Khandavaprastha on the Yamuna facing Hastinapura on the Ganga.

The next book of the epic, Sabha Parva, is concerned with these two capitals and their two Halls of Kings. Vaishampayana has told Janamejaya that the story of his ancestors is concerned with division and loss, battle and restoration. In the Sabha Parva the narrative moves swiftly from the Pandavas’ escape from Duryodhana’s death-dealing moves to their restoration as heirs to the kingdom through the winning of the Panchala princess Draupadi in a contest of skill. Draupadi emerges gratuitously at the end of a sacrificial rite performed to wreak vengeance, like the kritya sent by the Kashi prince against Krishna to avenge his father’s death and the kritya invoked by demons to bring them the suicidal Duryodhana to restore his morale. Yajnaseni also resembles the blue and red (nilalohita) kritya of the Rig and Atharva Vedas. Like Janamejaya’s serpent-holocaust ritual performed by priests in black robes, the rite draws on non-shrauta tradition, a departure from the normal sacred sacrifice and partakes of the nature of abhichara (black-magic), death-dealing, because of which Upayaja, whom Drupada approaches first, refuses to perform it. Here, too, there is a resemblance with Kunti because Durvasa’s boon is described as abhichara samyuktam’varam mantragramam, invocations linked to black magic. In particular, it is linked to Yudhishthira’s birth. Pandu specifically urges Kunti to summon Dharma with abhichara rites, upacharabhicharabhyam. [iv]

Draupadi’s emergence is an unintended bonus for Drupada who performed the rite for obtaining a son to kill Drona. Her birth is accompanied by a skiey announcement that this lovely dark (Krishnaa) lady will destroy all Kshatriyas. Therefore, she appears to fulfil not Drupada’s purpose but that of the gods responding to the Earth’s anguished prayer to lighten her burden of oppressive Kshatriyas. Significantly, despite being aware of this announcement ‘or being conscious of it’ the gods-engendered Pandavas wed her and destroy the Kauravas whose birth is entirely human. Her marriage to the son of Yama-Dharma, Yudhishthira, reinforces her ominous links with death. Her very first appearance is as a mysterious femme fatale in the context of a twelve year sacrifice that Yama, the god of death, performs on the banks of the Ganga, during which there is no death in the world. In Ganga’s waters her tears turn into golden lotuses that attract Indra whom she leads into a nether-world like cave where four other Indras lie imprisoned for rebirth as the Pandavas. [v] Like Athena springing cap a pie out of Zeus’ head and Durga taking shape from the combined fury of the gods, Yajnaseni emerges in the bloom of youth from the yajna vedi, fire-altar, which is repeatedly cited as a simile for her hour-glass figure. Her manifestation does not require the matrix of a human womb, ignoring the absence of Drupada’s queen who does not respond to the priest’s summons as her make-up is unfinished. ‘Panchali’, as she is called when she first appears, is pregnant with double meaning: ‘of Panchala’ and ‘puppet’. This presages how she lives her entire life, acting out not just her father’s vengeful obsession, but as an instrument of the gods to bring death back to the world, which had halted during Yama’s yajna on the banks of the Ganga.

As the only kanya whose appearance is described in detail, the description is worth noting:

‘eye-ravishing Panchali,
Dark-skinned Panchali,
Lotus-eyed lady,
Wavy-haired Panchali
Hair like dark blue clouds,
Shining coppery carved nails,
Soft eye-lashes,
Swelling breasts and
Shapely thighs’
Blue lotus
Fragrance for a full krosha
Flowed from her body’
Neither short
nor tall, neither dark nor pale,
with wavy dark-blue hair,
eyes like autumn-lotus leaves,
fragrant like the lotus’
extraordinarily accomplished,
soft-spoken and gentle’
She is the last to sleep,
the first to wake
even earlier than the early-rising
cowherds and shepherds.
Her sweat-bathed face is lovely,
like the lotus, like
the jasmine; slim-waisted like
the middle of the sacred
vedi, long-haired, pink-lipped,
and smooth-skinned.’ (I.169.44-46, II.65.33-37)

Vyasa categorically states that the creator had so fashioned her that her loveliness surpassed that of all women (reminiscent of Valmiki on Ahalya) and enchanted everyone. The South Indian cult of Draupadi sculpts her holding a closed lotus bud symbolising virginity, as opposed to the open lotus of fertility Subhadra holds. ‘The parrot symbolizing the principle of desire,’ writes Archna Sahni, ‘is poised atop the bud to tease it open, so as to begin creation. Draupadi, carrying the two interdependent and interactive symbols of desire and creation is none other than the goddess as the genetrix of all things.’ [vi] The kings in the svayamvara hall are described as so tormented by the arrows of desire (kandarpabanabhinipiditangah) that even friends hated each other (I.186.5). When the brothers look upon her in the potter’s hut, they all lose their hearts to her. Noticing this, Yudhishthira recalls Vyasa’s prophecy and announces that she will be their common wife (I.190.12-14). Kunti’s announcement is by no means fortuitous. It is carefully planned. We tend to overlook the fact that Yudhishthira and the twins are already with her when Arjuna and Bhima return with Draupadi from the svayamvara sabha. Kunti is desperately keen that her words do not prove to be false. Vyasa turns up at the right moment to persuade the reluctant Drupada that having five husbands is pre-ordained for Draupadi.

Dark like Gandhakali, hence named Krishn?, and gifted with blue-lotus fragrance wafting for a full krosha like Yojanagandha, she ‘knows’’like her mother-in-law Kunti and great grandmother-in-law Gandhakali’more than one man. Like Kunti she is also described as an amorous lover in the Brahmavaivarta Purana (IV.115.73): Draupadi bhratripati ca pancanam kamini tatha. Dr. Nrisimha Prasad Bhaduri [vii] records an account narrated by Pandit Anantalal Thakur in which Duryodhana’s wife Bhanumati sneers at Draupadi asking how she manages five husbands, ‘kena vrittena Draupadi pandavan adhitishthasi’. Draupadi swiftly responds that among her in-laws the number of husbands has always been rather excessive, ‘pativriddhi kule mama’ a right royal riposte that encompasses in a fell swoop her mother-in-law Kunti, grandmothers-in-law Ambika and Ambalika (who are Bhanumati’s too) and great-grandmother-in-law Satyavati. The story shows how the popular memory has treasured Draupadi for her acute intelligence and forceful personality that took nothing lying down. Yet, hers is an immeasurably greater predicament compared to those women of her husbands’ family. Where theirs were momentary encounters, Draupadi has to live out her entire life parcelled out among five men within the sacrament of marriage. [viii] She shares with Satyavati and Kunti an imperishable, ever-renewable virginity:


‘The divine rishi, narrating this wondrous,
miraculous and excellent event said,
‘Lovely-waisted and noble-minded indeed,
she became virgin anew after each marriage’’ (I.197.14)

Is there a link with the Vedic marital hymns where the bride is first offered to Soma, Gandharva and Agni and only then to the human bridegroom as her fourth husband?

Somah prathamo vivide gandharvo vivida uttarah/
Tritiyo agnishte patisturiyaste manyushyajah//

‘Soma obtained her first of all; next the Gandharva was her lord.
Agni was thy third husband: now one born of woman is thy fourth.
Soma to the Gandharva, and to Agni the Gandharva gave:
And Agni hath bestowed on me riches and sons and this my spouse.’ [ix]

According to the Villipputtur’s Tamil version of the epic, Draupadi bathes in fire after each marriage, emerging chaste like the pole star. [x] This emergence from fire reinforces the kritya image. It also reminds us of Rider Haggard’s ‘She-who-must-be-obeyed’, renewing her youth by bathing in fire, an Anima archetype. She transforms herself into stone, like Ahalya, when touched by the demon Kempirnacuran by invoking her chastity in an act of truth. [xi] She resembles Madhavi, ancestress of the Kurus, in retaining her virginity despite being many-husbanded. [xii] Kunti herself describes Draupadi to Krishna as sarvadharmopacayinam [xiii] (fosterer of all virtues), using the identical term by which Yayati describes his daughter Madhavi while bestowing her upon Galava. [xiv] The conjunction of both occurrences of this epithet in the same parva is surely deliberate on part of the seer-poet for drawing our attention to these correspondences. Madhavi regains virginity every time after giving birth to a son each to the kings Haryashva of Ayodhya, Divodasa of Varanasi and Ushinara of the North West and to the sage Vishvamitra. Even after this Yayati holds a bridegroom-choice ceremony for her, but at that point she chooses to retire to the forest and become an ascetic. Sharadandayani, whom Pandu mentions when persuading Kunti to have children by others, stood at night at crossroads and chose a passer-by from whom she had three sons. However, neither Madhavi nor Sharadandayani nor Kunti had to live out their lives adjusting repeatedly to a different husband from among five brothers at specified intervals, so that by turn she had to relate to each as elder or younger brother-in-law. Possibly the only comparison can be with two women Yudhishthira mentions, both non-Kshatriyas: Marisha-Varkshi mother of Daksha married to the ten Prachetas rishis and Jatila spouse of seven sages, of whose lives we know nothing else.

A true ‘virgin’, Panchali has a mind of her very own. Both Krishna and Krishna appear for the first time together in the svayamvara sabha and make decisive interventions. It is Draupadi’s sudden and wholly unexpected refusal to accept Karna as a suitor (significantly, here Vyasa does not call her ‘Panchali’, the puppet) that alters the entire complexion of the assembly and, indeed, the course of the epic itself. The affront to Karna sows the seeds of the assault on her in the dice-game. It is her sakha-to-be, Krishna, who steps in to put an end to the skirmish between the furious kings and the disguised Pandavas.

The Southern recension of the epic states that in an earlier birth as Nalayani (also named Indrasena) she was married to Maudgalya, an irascible sage afflicted with leprosy. She was so devoted to her abusive husband that when a finger of his dropped into their meal, she took it out and calmly ate the rice without revulsion. Pleased by this, Maudgalya offered her a boon. She asked him to make love to her in five lovely forms. As she was insatiable, Maudgalya got fed up and reverted to ascesis. When she remonstrated and insisted that he continue their love life, he cursed her to be reborn and have five husbands to satisfy her sexual craving. Thereupon she practised severe penance and pleased Shiva, obtaining the boon of regaining virginity after being with each husband. [xv] According to the Brahmavaivarta Purana (Prakriti khanda, 14.54 and Krishna Janma khanda 116.22-23), she is the reincarnation of the shadow-Sita who was Vedavati reborn after molestation at Ravana’s hands, and would become the Lakshmi of the fourteen Mahendras in Svarga, of whom five incarnated as the Pandavas. Because she existed in the three yugas (in Satya as Vedavati, in Treta as shadow-Sita and in Dvapara as Draupadi), she is known as trihayani and being vaishnavi krishnabhakta is named ‘Krishna’. Draupadi’s astonishing intellectual acumen also has its roots in Vedavati, who was so named because the Vedas were ever present on the tip of her tongue (ibid.14.64):

satatam murttimantashca vedashcatvar eva ca/
santi yasyashca jihvagre sa ca vedavati smrita//

Significantly, this text states (14.57) that after the fire ordeal, the lovely and youthful shadow-Sita was advised by Rama and Agni to worship Shiva, While doing so, kamatura pativyagra prarthayanti punah punah, tormented by sexual desire and eager for a husband, she prayed again and again, asking the three-eyed god five times for a husband.

As Draupadi replaces Kunti as the central female interest in the epic with the Sabha Parva, there appears to be a sudden decline in the status of women itself. This begins with her silent consent to the shocking dispensation of becoming the common wife of five brothers. Her father and brother protest, but she does not utter a word throughout the multiple exchanges between them, Kunti, Yudhishthira and Vyasa. This is significant because, immediately before this, she astonished everyone by publicly refusing to accept Karna as a suitor despite Drupada’s announcement that anyone passing the test would win her hand. The very first night in the potter’s hut sees mother-in-law and daughter-in-law paralleling each other in the manner in their sleeping postures. Kunti lies horizontally at the Pandavas’ heads, while Yajnaseni lays herself down similarly at their feet, silently. Does Vyasa’s story of her asking for many husbands in an earlier birth represent a psychological truth about Krishn? the kanya? [xvi]

As women, both Kunti and Draupadi are singularly ill fated. Like her mother-in-law, Draupadi never enjoys possession of her first love. Kunti had chosen Pandu above all kings in the svayamvara ceremony and soon thereafter lost him to the voluptuous Madri. How deeply this pained her is voiced frankly as she finds Pandu lying dead in her co-wife’s arms (I.125.23). Similarly, before Arjuna’s turn came to be with Draupadi, he chose exile. Her anguish at losing him to Ulupi, Chitrangada and Subhadra in succession is expressed with moving abhimana, hurt self-image:

‘Go son of Kunti,
where she of the Satvatas is!
A second knot loosens the first,
however tightly re-tied.’

Later, the manner in which she is described by her husband Yudhishthira, as he stakes her like chattel at dice, wipes out her very individuality as a human being. We are reminded that when she emerged from the fire-altar she was called ‘Panchali’, ‘puppet’. The manner in which she is publicly humiliated bring home Naomi Wolf’s condemnation of masculine culture’s efforts to ‘punish the slut’, the sexually independent woman who crosses the ambiguous lakshmana-rekha separating ‘good’ from ‘bad’. [xvii] Vimla Patil, editor of Femina, writes, ‘Most Indian women would agree that like this passionate heroine of the Mahabharata, millions of women are publicly humiliated and even raped as a punishment for challenging the male will or for ‘talking back’ at a man. Many men are known to use violence against wives merely because they ‘back-answer’!’ [xviii]

A telling example of this occurs in Kashiram Das’ early 18th century version of the epic in Bengali rhymed verse. During the forest exile, Draupadi prides herself on her fame as a sati exceeding that of any king. Krishna crushes her pride by creating an unseasonal mango that she craves for and has Arjuna pluck for her. Krishna warns that this is the only food of a terrible ascetic, whose anger will turn all of them into ashes, and that only if they confess their secret desires will the mango be re-fixed to its branch. The mango almost touches the tree as the brothers state what obsesses each of them, but falls down when Draupadi states that revenge is her sole desire. Arjuna threatens to kill her, and then she has to confess that having Karna as her sixth husband has been her secret wish. Bhima, her invariable rescuer, upbraids her unmercifully for her evil nature. [xix] Here we have evidence of a male backlash expressed through inventive myth-making.

Just when we had least expected it, suddenly we find a complete reversal from meek passivity to an extraordinarily articulate and forceful expression of a personality that towers above all the men in the royal court. Fire-altar-born Yajnaseni shocks everyone by challenging the Kuru elders’ very concept of dharma in a crisis where the modern woman would collapse in hysterics. Her questions show her to be intellectually far superior to all the courtiers. Instead of meekly obeying her husband’s summons, as expected from her conduct so far, she sends back a query that remains unanswered till the end of the epic: can a gambler, having lost himself, stake his wife at all? She has a brilliant mind, is utterly ‘one-in-herself’ in Esther Harding’s phrase for the ‘virgin’, and does not hesitate to berate the Kuru elders for countenancing wickedness. As Karna directs her to be dragged away to the servants’ quarters, she cries out to her silent husbands. Finding no response, with quicksilver presence of mind she seizes upon a social ritual to wrest some moments of respite from pillaging hands. Her speech drips with sarcasm. The elders whom she ceremoniously salutes, deliberately using the word ‘duty,’ have remained silent in the face of Vidura’s exhortation to do their duty and protect the royal daughter-in-law. Significantly, it is only Vikarna, a junior Kaurava, and a maidservant’s son Vidura who voice their outrage. The epic says that it was Dharma (Vidura’s other name) who protected Draupadi when she was sought to be stripped. The miraculous intervention by Krishna is shown up as an interpolation in the Vana Parva where he states he was unable to prevent the disastrous dice-game being away fighting Shalva. Indeed, the very episode of stripping is never referred to by Draupadi herself in her numerous upbraidings nor by anyone else, not even by Bhima when killing Duhshasana.

Let us attend to Draupadi’s choice of words:

‘One duty remains, which
I must now do. Dragged
by this mighty hero,
I nearly forgot. I
was so confused.
Sirs, I bow to all of you, all my elders
and superiors. Forgive me for
not doing so earlier.
It was not all my fault,
gentlemen of the sabha.’ (II.67.30)

It is a ‘mighty hero’ who is dragging into public view his single-cloth-clad menstruating sister-in-law by her hair. She has ‘nearly forgot’ her duty, while the elders are wholly oblivious of theirs, despite being reminded by a maidservant’s son. It is surely not her fault that she is being outraged, and certainly it is not she who is ‘so confused’, but rather the Kuru elders of whom Bhishma says,

‘Our elders, learned in dharma,
Drona and others, sit
Here with lowered eyes like dead men
with life-breaths gone.’ (II.69.20)

Yajnaseni succeeds in winning back freedom for her enslaved husbands and Karna pays her a remarkable tribute, saying that none of the world’s renowned beautiful women had accomplished such a feat: like a boat she has rescued her husbands who were drowning in a sea of sorrows (II.72.1-3). Later, (Udyoga Parva 29.41-42), Krishna reiterates her remarkable deed saying:

‘That day Krishna did a deed exceedingly pure and difficult.
Herself and the Pandavas she lifted up
as in a ship from the swell of the terrible sea.’

With striking dignity, she refuses to take the third boon Dhritarashtra offers. For, with her husbands’ free and in possession of their weapons, she does not need a boon from anyone.

The transformation of the jungle that was Khandavaprastha into Indraprastha is founded on a terrible holocaust of flora, fauna and human beings that reaps as fruits not only the wondrous Maya-sabha (that materialises not in a trice but takes fourteen months to build) but also an implacable pursuit of vengeance by Takshaka Naga culminating in the assassination of Arjuna’s grandson, Parikshit. This is also the occasion when the weapons that the heroes are renowned for are given to them: Arjuna’s Gandiva bow, Kapidhvaja chariot and Devadutta conch; Bhima’s club; Krishna’s discus and Kaumodaki mace. Khandavaprastha was the capital of Yayati, and it is here that the restoration of the descendants of his disinherited eldest son Yadu takes place when the Pandavas establish Krishna’s grandson Vajra in Indraprastha.

In this parva, we are in the thick of political intrigue. Krishna uses the Pandavas to remove the greatest threat to his clan: Jarasandha of Magadha, clearing the way for Yudhishthira being crowned emperor. Then, in the coronation ceremony, he removes a rival clansman, Shishupala. The doomsday bell begins to toll with the insult to Duryodhana emanating from the magical assembly hall, where the Pandavas behave like the noveau-riche, much in the manner of the ‘night-grown mushroom’ Gaveston in Edward II’s court. The devastating reply to the thoughtless slight is tortuously prepared and delivered in the Kaurava Sabha in Hastinapura, repeating the earlier exile-gambit. Nothing prepares Krishna and the Pandavas for the catastrophic game of dice in which Yudhishthira’s greed (as he admits in the Vana Parva) for winning Hastinapura leads to Draupadi (significantly, called ‘Panchali’ here, one meaning of which is ‘puppet’) being staked and lost. But this puppet breaks out of the assigned role and exposes the feet of clay of the colossi we imagine the Kuru elders to be, putting a question that remains unanswered to the very end of the epic ‘ has she been rightly won or not?

It is Yudhishthira’s craving to be emperor that proves to be the apple of Eris, because of which he agrees to Krishna’s plan to kill Jarasandha, ignoring Narada’s warning that the Rajasuya sacrifice brings ruinous war in its wake. The warning of what is to come is heralded by Shishupala’s abusive assault on Krishna There is a chariot duel between Krishna and Shishupala (described by Dhritarashtra in the Udyoga Parva, and at length in Southern recensions of the Sabha Parva), and no miraculous decapitation as is popularly believed. This is accompanied by a host of ill omens, to which the Pandavas, drunk on their new-found wealth and status, remain blind. The deadly riposte this time is not a sugar-coated poison-pill like Varanavata, but full thirteen years of exile in the forests. One suspects that Yudhishthira secretly welcomes the forest exile, glad in his heart of hearts to be free from the burden of kingship. We find him ill at ease in the Sabha Parva and most himself in exile amid the sylvan surroundings of Vana Parva, which we look forward to in the P Lal transcreation.

The Mahabharata of Vyasa Books 1 and 2: The Complete Adi and Sabha Parvas transcreated from Sanskrit by P. Lal, Writers Workshop, Kolkata, 2005, pp. 1218 and 499. Rs 1200 and Rs 600 (hardback), Rs 800 and Rs 500 (flexiback). (A special numbered-and-signed edition has original hand-painted frontispieces by a patua-artist of Jagannatha temple, thematically appropriate for each volume)

[ii] A detailed examination of the entire Adi Parva transcreation is available in P. Bhattacharya, Themes and Structure in the Mahabharata: the Adi Parva (Dasgupta & Co., Calcutta).
[iii] J.L. Fitzgerald, The Mah?bh?rata vol. 7, University of Chicago Press, 2004, p. x
[iv] C. Minkowski: ‘Snakes, Sattras and the Mahabharata’ in Essays on the Mahabharata ed. A. Sharma, Leiden, E.J. Brill, 1991, p. 391 and A. Hiltebeitel: Rethinking the Mahabharata (University of Chicago Press, 2001), p. 188.
[v] Hiltebeitel ibid. pp. 190-191.
[vi] Archna Sahni, personal communication and ‘Unpeeling the layers of Draupadi’ forthcoming.
[vii] Dr. Nrisingha Prasad Bhaduri: ‘Draupadi’, Barttaman, annual number1396, p.26.
[viii] Pratibha Ray portrays this at length in her novel Yajnaseni: the story of Draupadi (RUPA, New Delhi, 1995, translated by Pradip Bhattacharya). Roopa Ganguli conveyed the anguish dramatically in the Bengali teleserial Draupadi.
[ix] The Hymns of the Rigveda 10.58.40-41, translated by R.T.H. Griffith, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1973. Repeated in the Atharva Veda XIV.2.3. Sayana explains that till sexual desire arises in the girl, Soma enjoys her. When it has arisen, Gandharva has her and transfers her at marriage to Agni from whom man takes her to produce wealth and sons cf. S.D. Singh, Polyandry in Ancient India (Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1978).
[x] Alf Hiltebeitel: The Cult of Draupadi, Vol. I, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1988 p. 438.
[xi] Hiltebeitel ibid. p. 220, 290. Greek mythology is replete with instances of metamorphoses undergone by virgins to protect themselves against rapists (Daphne, Chloe etc.).
[xii] Three outstanding artistic creations on the predicament of Madhavi are Subodh Ghose’s remarkably insightful Bengali retelling ‘Galav and Madhavi’ in Bharat Prem Katha (translated by Pradip Bhattacharya, RUPA, Calcutta, 1990), Bhisham Sahni’s play Madhavi (translated by Ashok Bhalla, Seagull, Calcutta, 2002) and Dr. Chitra Chaturvedi’s Hindi novel Tanaya (Lokbharti Prakashan, Allahabad, 1989).
[xiii] Mahabharata, V.137.16.
[xiv] Ibid. V.115.11. A. Hiltebeitel: The Ritual of Battle, Cornell University Press, 1976, p. 222-4.
[xv] Vettam Mani: Puranic Encyclopaedia, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1975, p. 549. He does not provide the reference to the source of this story. Also M.V. Subramaniam: The Mahabharata Story: Vyasa & Variations, Higginbothams, Madras, 1967, p. 46-47. The Jaina Nayadhammakahao picks this up and tells of suitorless Sukumarika reborn as a celestial courtesan because of her passion who is born as Draupadi (B.N. Sumitra Bai’s ‘The Jaina Mahabharata’ in Essays on the Mahabharata ed. A. Sharma, Leiden, E.J. Brill, 1991, p.253).
[xvi] Dr S.D. Singh describes this as ‘the significant but eloquent silence of Draupadi. She is neither appalled nor outraged by the prospect of Pandava polyandry’She is exceedingly trustful and as willing as a woman could be, if her deportment serves as any guide.’ Polyandry in Ancient India (Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1978) p. 92-93.
[xvii] Naomi Wolf, best-selling feminist author and advisor to the American President and Vice-President, in Promiscuities quoted in TIME, 8.11.1999, p. 25.
[xviii] Op.cit.
[xix] ‘Draupadi’s pride crushed’ by Pradip Bhattacharya


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