Mar 28, 2023
Mar 28, 2023
The great Kannada dramatist, T.P. Kailasam wrote an English play, Karna: the Brahmin’s Curse in 1946. Beginning with his abandonment by Kunti, destiny defeats Karna at every turn and he dies with the hate in his heart for Arjuna unquenched. In this play, Draupadi’s speech is justly famous:
‘Twas royal Drupada,
Obsess’d of hate, in rite of hate did force
The sacrificial fire to yield him triplets, tongues
Of flame in me and brothers two, with but
A single purpose in our lives; the burning of
This house to less than cinders …
I am but flame! And all assembled here
Are food for me – a flame begat of hate;
A flame brought forth to burn this house
Of cold cold moon!”
We learn of this extraordinary birth of Drupada’s children as we go from Ekachakra town to Panchala city with the Pandavas and Kunti. When they were students of Drona, the Pandavas and Kauravas led by Arjuna had brought King Drupada as a captive to their teacher as guru-dakshina. Though Drona and Drupada did become friends thereafter, Drupada could not forget the humiliation suffered at the hands of Drona. After a long search he found a Brahmana Yaja who was willing to perform a terrifying sacrifice that would produce a child to kill Drona. Out of the sacrificial fire arose a resplendent youth while a disembodied voice boomed that he would kill Drona, and bring glory to the Panchala kingdom.
Presently a maiden arose from the sacrificial altar. At once a voice was heard that she will be the first among women and because of her the Kuru race will meet many disasters. Since the words were heard by those present in the yajna, they must have reached the future victims. Drona, however, did not give much thought. He even received the boy Dhrishtadyumna as his student and taught him all the intricacies of warfare.
When Arjuna won Draupadi in the swayamvara she must have been delighted. Even in his robes of a poor Brahmin, the young Pandava looked very handsome. Soon she had to accept as her destiny the strange fate of being a wife to five husbands. This is not the place to discuss the socio-historical presence of polyandry. Suffice it to say that once the decision had been taken, she proceeded to make a success of it. There is even a warm, meaningful dialogue between Sathyabhama and Draupadi which gives us an idea of her domestic management. The Pandavas and Draupadi are in the forest undergoing the long exile. Many sages come to see them and comfort them with tales of far away and long ago. Krishna and Satyabhama also come to meet Draupadi. Satyabhama had heard so much about the domestic bliss of the Pandavas that she asks Draupadi how she manages her household. Draupadi gives a memorable reply.
Decrying the various arts of seduction as well as incantations which are used by wicked women, Draupadi speaks nonchalantly of the humdrum activities of the householder. In the midst of all the high-toned and sometimes shrill boasts and passionate lectures in the Mahabharata on Dharma and the duty of the Kshatriya, the conversation between Satybhama and Draupadi relaxes our tension. For this too is a very important portion of Dharma, the Grihastha-ashrama-dharma on which revolves the entire social structure of humanity.
“I keep the house and household goods and food
Organized and spotlessly clean.
I store rice,
and serve meals punctually.
I do not lose temper,
I do not speak harshly,
I do not imitate loose women.
Never idle, always pleasant,
I laugh only when someone jokes,
I do not linger at the house-gate
I do not take too long
To complete my morning ablutions,
I do not loiter
I avoid breaking into loud laughter
or showing irritation,
I do not converse
with low-minded men,
I do not criticize others.
I just serve my husbands.” 60
High wisdom! Also that Draupadi never speaks ill of her mother-in-law and serves her with diligence, thus pleasing the husbands. She also gives some sane advice to Satyabhama. Do not go about gossiping with others, nor reveal to the outside world what the husband has spoken in the secret of the bedchamber. This dialogue is definitely an oasis for our over-stressed nerves. When Satyabhama takes leave of Draupadi she assures her of the good days that are coming and how the Upa-Pandavas and Abhimanyu are growing up happy and strong in Dwaraka under the guidance of Subhadra.
For the larger audience, it has always been Draupadi asking for justice in the Kuru Court. So many versions in so many languages in so many forms! It could be a sophisticated critic poring over tomes of Mahabharata-inspired literature, a classical musician pouring forth the agony of Draupadi and her self-forgetful ecstasy when invoking Krishna, a Street Play troupe late at night enacting the incident. Always the reaction is the same. How could this happen? How could human beings prove to be such shameless beasts? And the thrill that goes through as the Divine saves the moment. The great Queen who has surrendered everything to the Lord questioning him:
Govinda Dvarakavasin Krishna Gopijanapriya
Kauravaihi paribhutaam maam kim na janaasi Keshava
When it happens, the miracle appears as natural as an everyday occurrence, the rising of the sun in the east, the appearance of tender leaves in a plant quite early in the morning:
Creator of the worlds!
Atman of the worlds!
I am losing my senses in the clutches of the Kauravas!
O save me!’
She covered her face,
and sobbed loudly;
She kept thinking of Hari-Krishna,
lord of the three worlds.
Krishna heard Yajnaseni-Draupadi.
Deeply stirred, he rose.
Moved by compassion,
he hurried to her on foot.
Yajnaseni-Draupadi prayed for help
Vishnu, Hari, Nara;
and mahatma-Krishna came as Dharma,
unseen, and covered her.
with a variety of lovely dresses.” 61
The scene is etched deep in the devotional consciousness of India. Hymnologists are fond of recalling the terribilita of the scene and the swift answer of the Divine. No barriers nor time-differential between the call of the devotee and the answer of the Divine! Villipputturar, author of the Tamil version of the Mahabharata, provides one of the most powerful and poetically sublime passages for Tamil literature in his version:
“Even before the Kuru Prince came to command,
‘Hand over your garments’, the Five removed
The upper garments from their chest which had
Never been bared earlier; without any shame,
Duhshasana now approached the lady to seize
Her dress; with both her lotus-like palms
Held together in supplication, she meditated
Upon the two feet of the Lord.
With the two eyes streaming floods of tears
Mixed with collyrium, her tresses loose,
Her hand that held the garment loosened
By Duhshasana’s grip go limp, she said nothing
Except call out, ‘Govinda! Govinda!’
With that, her body grew cool, the mouth
Grew sweet with the nectarean words,
And her entire form melted in devotion.
The Lord who had been repeatedly hailed
By a thousand names, the ears of Krishna
Whose feet rivalled lotuses, were now filled
With the terms uttered by Draupadi;
The Lord who was like the rain-laden cloud
Appeared in the heart of Draupadi whose tresses
Were decorated with scented flowers,
Helped her overcome trepidation,
Without anyone else knowing about it.” 62
After this scene, is there another equal to it in Draupadi’s life that can draw us to the sublime? Draupadi was a true Kshatriya lady. She could be brave, but also be compassionate. She knew Dharma. We see this in the Sauptika Parva.
At the very moment of victory, her life was shattered. In the evening of the 18th day of the war, the Pandavas had emerged victorious. But at midnight Ashvatthama had come to the tents when everyone was asleep and killed her dearest brother Dhrishtadyumna ingloriously. The hero who had been the Supreme Commander of the Pandava forces had been killed in sleep. Her other brother, the equally powerful Sikhandin had died because of the Rudra-astra wielded by Ashvatthama. All her sons had been killed without compunction as they lay asleep in their tents. A universal lament fills the Pandava camp.
Draupadi is inconsolable. Is there any way to slake her anguish? Her first reaction is of a mother whose children have been murdered and is understandable. The murderer should be killed immediately! And she must have a permanent reminder that her brothers and sons have been avenged. She knows of Ashvatthama being born with a gem on his head. He must be killed and the gem brought to her so that she can place it on the crown of Yudhistira!
Krishna and the Pandavas go out and get hold of the fleeing, cowardly Ashvatthama who even makes a last-ditch attempt to destroy the foetus of Uttara. Since he is a Brahmin, Arjuna lets him go, after pulling out the gem from his head. The Pandavas and Krishna return to Draupadi and give her the gem. Ashvatthama has no weapons any more nor this gem. Only his body remains, Bhima tells her.
A true child of Mother India which sees the guru as the divine, now Draupadi does not call for the killing of Ashvatthama. Instead she says: Guruputro gururmama, the preceptor’s son is also my preceptor, I must revere the guru’s son as I would the guru himself. She had asked for avenging the murder of her children. She is now satisfied with the gem, and Draupadi gives it to Yudhistira. The great Yudhistira accepts it and places it on his crown as a blessing-gift from his preceptor Drona, guror uchchishtamithi.
We take leave of Draupadi, the inspiring legend for all womankind in the Mahaprasthanika Parva. After all the fret and fury of earthly life the Pandavas decide to go away on their great journey. With the same will power with which Draupadi followed her husbands to the forest, now she gives up the pomp and glory of being the Queen of the land, wears a bark dress and with yogic nonchalance follows them into the unknown. She may have been the first to fall down on the way, she may be no more than a distant legend, the episode of disrobement and the subsequent miracle may not have happened at all. But none of this matters. It is Draupadi the brave woman that is the inspiration of womanhood. We need no myths to prove Draupadi’s incomparable yogic strength.
K.R. Srinivasa Iyengar in his Sati Sapthakam (1991) makes this point clear and avoids the disastrous episode of miraculous enrobement. It is more attuned to the modern world, like Mahashweta Devi’s classic short story, ‘Dopdi’ based on the insult hurled at Draupadi. Like Mahashweta Devi’s ‘Dopdi’, Iyengar’s Draupadi faces her torturers with the strength of the Mother Divine:
“Then for a few second she closed her eyes,
Invoked the Immaculate,
Remembered Sage Vyasa’s Pratismrit,
And was lost in Sri Krishna.
Now once more to the fray: ‘What’s this hideous
Perversity of the male
Of the human species that it turns him
Into Woman’s enemy?
Come, come, O odious Duhshasana,
And you, malicious Karna,
And you, cheap thigh-slapping Duryodhana:
Come, disrobe me if you dare!
There’s a fire ablze in my heart of hearts,
In my soul’s sanctuary;
And the wages of such crimes as yours will
Rage one day like forest fires!”
Inspite of millions of evils on the attack, that fire in the heart of Draupadi continues to guard womanhood till today.
Who is this Krishna of the Mahabharata? Is he quite different from the Flute-player of Brindavan? For anyone who wants to know about Krishna of the epic, Bankim Chandra Chatterji’s Krishnacharitra must be at the top of the bibliography. Bankim Chandra bores through the epic for passages concerning Krishna and finds different approaches, presupposing different hands at work. Thus Krishna is seen by him only as a hero-warrior and strategist in most of Vyasa’s work. Sometimes Krishna is also perceived as the Supreme who has incarnated on earth to punish evil and assist good in achieving victory. Though Bankim Chandra would have Krishna as just a supremely capable human being and no more, he is yet not a dry rationalist. Coming from the Bengali milieu which had been electrified by Chaitanya and numerous hymnologists, his faith in Krishna was unwavering. Then, why did he embark on this adventure? “It is the discussion of his human nature which is my intention. I myself believe in his divinity; that faith, too, I have not concealed.”
That would be our plank too when we anchor ourselves in the Mahabharata to draw close to Krishna. When we sit down to read patiently all the eighteen Parvas of the entire epic, we are certainly astonished to find plenty of new and important information about the various characters in the epic. This is because even Draupadi and Karna have not entered the Indian consciousness as totally as Krishna. But, none of the episodes concerning Krishna in the huge poetic compendium would come as a surprise to us. It shows how deeply he has been studied even by the common man. When engaged with the Mahabharata, it is only the Yadava hero whom we see, not the baby who killed Putana and the boy who danced on the serpent Kaliya, nor the mischievous prankster who stole butter and the clothes of the cowherdesses. He is an unwavering friend, a kindly relative, a splendid statesman, a master strategist.
We first meet the handsome Yadava Prince in Draupadi’s swayamvara in Panchala city. Krishna had come with his brother Balarama and neither was in a very happy frame of mind. Their aunt Kunti Devi and her five sons were reported to have perished in a fire. They were all dear to the Yadava brothers. The keen intelligence of Krishna can be noted by us for he now wonders about the five Brahmins in the concourse. Vyasa says that all the other kings and heroes had eyes only for Draupadi. So it was for the five Pandavas. Krishna and Balarama alone seem unaffected and prefer to watch the audience. Krishna’s eyes are all for the five Brahmins:
“Krishna spotted the five Pandavas
like five splendid rutting elephants,
the finest of the herd,
beside a lotus-filled lake,
or like flames suppressed in ashes,
and he began to think deeply.
He said to Balarama:
‘That is Yudhistira;
that is Bhima, that Jishnu-Arjuna,
and there the twin heroes.’
Balarama looked around slowly,
and smiled at Janardana-Krishna.” 65
When the kings get angry that a brahmin has won Draupadi, they attack Drupada and the Brahmins. To the surprise of everybody present, Bhima and Arjuna give the kings a real beating. Now there is no doubt in Krishna’s mind and Balarama is delighted that his beloved aunt had escaped the killer fire in the house of lac along with her sons. Krishna’s hold in any assembly was total. Right in the midst of the melee in Panchala, his voice is heard assuring those present that Draupadi had been justly won by the Brahmin and the assembled kings should desist from fight. Immediately they accept his verdict and melt away. Apparently by his sheer presence Krishna could subdue clamorous heroes.
From now onwards there is no Pandava action without the presence of Krishna. Bhishma, Drona and Vidura say that Dhritarashtra must give half the kingdom to the Pandavas but this is opposed by Duryodhana. Karna speaks out harshly against the elders. However Dhritarashtra assents to the advice since Vidura says that the Pandavas are surrounded by powerful friends. They have Krishna on their side and all know that where Krishna is, everyone goes and there is victory, yatah Krishnastatah sarve yatah Krishno tatasjayah. Apparently these are no idle words and already Krishna is seen as invincible.
The Pandavas are given half the kingdom but the land they receive is actually an unreclaimed forest region known as Khandavaprastha. Here the hard work and insightful planning of the Pandavas creates the new capital city of Indraprastha. Soon the entire region becomes an environmental heaven full of greenery, flora and fauna. When the Pandavas are well settled, Krishna returns to Dvaraka.
After a while, Arjuna had to go to the forest in self-exile. He had several experiences and met Krishna at Prabhasa. A festival was on and he happened to see Krishna’s sister Subhadra. Finding him fallen in love hopelessly, Krishna eggs him on to abduct his sister. When Arjuna seizes Subhadra in his chariot and rides away, Balarama and others are aghast. And what does Krishna say?
“Gudakesa-Arjuna has done nothing
to insult our race.
On the contrary, his action
has added to our honour.
we are not greedy for money.
He also knows that the outcome
of a svayamvara is unpredictable.
And what kind of a man
would accept a bride as a gift
as if she were an animal?
And what kind of a father is he
who would sell
his daughter to a husband?
Kaunteya-Arjuna saw through the defects
in our marriage customs,
and preferred to abduct my sister
as decreed by dharma.
This union is perfectly proper.
Subhadra is illustrious, so is he.
He surely had this in mind
when he abducted her.
Who here would not like
to have Arjuna for relative?
Arjuna is a Bharata, of Santanu’s race,
Kuntibhoja’s daughter’s son.” 66
Certainly a divine lawyer! Soon we watch Krishna giving Arjuna right advice in the events connected with the burning down of the Khandava forest and the performance of the Rajasuya Sacrifice. He is a careful planner too. Perceiving Yudhistira’s desire to perform the Rajasuya sacrifice, he asks him to subdue first major antagonists like Jarasandha. Always ready with a design to overcome hurdles, he must have had immeasurable patience to help the Pandavas achieve victory. For, they could be tiresome at times. Yudhistira could go on about Dharma, little realizing that in the event of adharma facing them, a brahminical adherence to dharma would not bring victory to righteousness. Brahma-tej had always to be backed by Kshatra-tej. At the same time a Bhima-like readiness to go for attack could also prove counter-productive. Again, when the same Bhima feels despondent, it is Krishna who has to rouse him to action. Strategy was important, and Krishna was a master strategist, as indeed the Pandavas acknowledged with delight. Before setting out to Magadha, Yudhistira says:
“What could be better for us
than to follow you, Govinda-Krishna?
You know the art of diplomacy,
you are respected all over the world.
Krishna knows means and ends,
Krishna is strong in wisdom and action.
Anyone bent on success
should follow the dictates of Krishna.
With Arjuna behind you,
O best of the Yadavas,
and Bhima behind Arjuna,
we are sure to succeed!
Tact, strategy and strength
combined will bring victory.”
If the slaying of Jarasandha is accomplished by Krishna with his alert planning, the Sisupala episode brings out the real warrior-hero in him. A hero is not one who goes for the kill at the very first instance of opposition. As Bhishma correctly puts it, Krishna is like a lion that is asleep, suptah simha iva Achyutah. We notice it ourselves, because of Sisupala’s intolerable diatribe. Krishna stands silent watching Sisupala rant, his followers make gestures, Bhima jumps around in wrath ready to kill Sisupala but is restrained by Bhishma and Bhishma himself speaks of Sisupala’s past and present with effective contumely. Only when Sisupala falls silent does Krishna summarise in a soft voice, mrudupurvam idam vachah. He summarises Sisupala’s shameful misdeeds. Even as Sisupala begins to crow about Rukmini having been betrothed to him, Krishna notes loudly that he had been patient with one hundred offences committed by his adversary. Immediately the discus appears in his hand, chakre hastagate. Sisupala’s head is slashed off and a brilliant energy from the fallen body reaches out to Krishna, worships him and merges into him.
Krishna who is with the Pandavas during each one of their crises is absent when they face the most trying test in their lives. Draupadi is being disrobed in the Kuru court. It is a very brief, horrendous and at the same time an ennobling scene of total surrender to the Divine. Elders like Bhishma look on helplessly, the Pandavas stand like statues and there is no man or woman who is prepared to come and stop the outrage. Realising her total helplessness, Draupadi now addresses the Lord who never fails: Krishna Krishna mahayogin visvatman visvabhavana! With Krishna present, miracles do not appear supra-human. They are just as natural as the scene where he bathes his horses, rests them and feeds them while acting as Arjuna’s charioteer.
Krishna as an ambassador to the Kaurava court reveals the ideal statesman. He tells the assembled Virata, Panchala and other powers who have gathered behind the Pandavas and are willing to go to war immediately that Duryodhana’s ways do need to be punished. But one must exhaust all ways of peace before deciding upon war. A long speech with a sage conclusion:
“Moreover none knoweth the mind of Duryodhan rightly, what he meaneth to do, and what can you decide that shall be the best to set about when you know not the mind of your foeman? Therefore let one go hence, some virtuous, pureminded and careful man such as shall be an able envoy for their appeasement and the gift of half the kingdom to Yudhistere.”
Commenting on this Sri Aurobindo says:
“It will be seen from Krishna’s attitude here as elsewhere that he was very far from being the engineer and subtle contriver of war into which later ideas have deformed him. That he came down to force on war and destroy the Kshatriya caste, whether to open India to the world or for other cause, is an idea that was not present to the mind of Vyasa. Later generations writing, when the pure Kshatriya caste had almost disappeared, attributed this motive for God’s descent upon earth, just as a modern English Theosophist, perceiving British rule established in India, has added the corollary that he destroyed the Kshatriyas (five thousand years ago, according to her own belief) in order to make the line clear for the English. What Vyasa, on the other hand, makes us feel is that Krishna, though fixed to support justice at every cost, was earnestly desirous to support it by peaceful means if possible.” 69
War becomes inevitable. We have never tired of discoursing on the incidents concerning Krishna in the epic. Duryodhana’s attempt to incapacitate him in the Assembly Hall, Krishna preferring to dine at Vidura’s home, his decision not to take to arms in the war and giving away readily his entire army to Duryodhana. Krishna the Charioteer expounding the Gita; Krishna consoling the Pandavas in their innumerable tragedies; Krishna trying to get Karna on the Pandava side; Krishna covering the sun to help Arjuna avenge Abhimanyu; Krishna rushing towards Bhishma’s chariot; Krishna saving the babe in Uttara’s womb, Krishna, Krishna …
And the abiding image of Krishna standing with a loving smile looking at Bhishma during his last days on the earth, on the battlefield of Kurukshetra full of putrefaction and the howls of ghouls in the background, not unlike the terror-ridden, noise-ridden, pollution-ridden earth of today. Canto after canto Bhishma speaks of Krishna’s greatness, and how gods like Mahadeva worship this Supreme. Still Krishna stands silently and the entire audience listens in hushed tones the enduring prayers including the garland of thousand names of Vishnu, the guardian-amulet for those residing in Dharma, recited by Bhishma: “Even this, in my judgment, is the foremost religion of all religions, viz., one should always worship and hymn the praises of the lotus-eyed Vasudeva with devotion. He is the highest Energy. He is the highest Penance. He is the highest Brahma. He is the highest refuge.”
Paramam yo mattejah paramam yo mahattapah /
Paramam yo mahatbrahma paramam yah paraayanam //
It is no easy task to take leave of the characters in the Mahabharata. After all, they are superb personifications of our racial experience. As for Sri Krishna, even if we want to take leave of him, he will not allow us to do so. Our beloved Flute-player keeps us as willing prisoners of the anahata naada (unheard sound) he generates within us, so that we can sail safely on the waves of this samsara:
“The world’s jarring notes and violences
Are nothing: Prema-Bhakti,
Love of Krishna – the plenary Delight
Of Being – is everything.
The stirring and the splendid resonances
Are heard by the inner Self,
And the heavenly harmony sublime
Cancels out the joyless tunes.
And Nav-Chetana is active all round
And charges the Will with right direction
To attain the destined Goal.”
I was initiated into Mahabharata studies in my father’s personal library sixty years ago, and received his personal guidance for half a century on the subject. As I took up Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri for my doctoral subject in 1957, the ties with Mahabharata became stronger. When I was married in 1958, my husband gifted me the first Sanskrit edition published by Pratap Chandra Roy which had belonged to his great-grandfather. I felt blessed and since then the epic has been an unfailing inspiration for my personal and literary work in innumerable ways.
I was delighted when Sri R. Krishnaswami, Secretary, Natyarangam of the Narada Gana Sabha of Chennai invited me as the resource person for a week-long production of the epic tale in terms of Bharata Natyam. From 27th August to 2nd September, 2009, seven major characters were brought alive on the stage by seven well-known Bharata Natyam artistes: V.P. Dhananjayan (Bhishma), Priya Murle (Amba), Chitra Chandrasekhar Dasarathi (Kunti), Sridhar and Anuradha (Karna), Sreelatha Vinod (Draupadi), N. Srikanth (Arjuna) and Sheejith Krishna (Krishna). As part of the assignment I had to present a paper on the epic with particular reference to the characters chosen for the programme which was released as a souvenir at the inauguration of the dance festival on 27th August. My thanks are due to Sri Krishnaswami for helping me wander again in my favourite haunts in our cultural spaces; and to Srimati Sujatha Vijayaraghavan, Sri Charukesi and Srimati Janaki who helped me interact with the dancers during the months prior to the actual production for this too proved to be an immensely rewarding experience.
My grateful thanks to Pradip Bhattacharya for patiently going through the script. Once again I learnt the truth of the dictum: It is not knowledge which is vast but one’s own ignorance that is immeasurable!
References to slokas in Sanskrit follow the Gita Press, Gorakhpur edition of Mahabharata. For English translations used in this essay, I have preferred the versions of Kisari Mohan Ganguli who translated the complete epic in 1896 and Purushottama Lal who has published his rendering in this century. My sincere thanks to Prof. Lal for having demonstrated how one can forge new accents to hear Vyasa’s character speaking in a way we can understand with ease. Though more than a hundred years divide the two adaptations, one can also notice that Vyasa remains firm on his pedestal, as sublime as ever.
Bharatam paramam punyam Barathe vividhaah kathaah /
Bharatam sevyate devaih Bharatam paramam padam //
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More by : Dr. Prema Nandakumar