(This is the sixth of the Introductions to the Mahabharata Katha Series of Padma Shri Professor P. Lal published by Writers Workshop, Kolkata. The Complete Adi Parva, Pages 73-93, Section 3)
The Paushya sub-parva in the Mahabharata is possibly the most ‘teasing’ portion of the Adi Parva. After the dull Parvasamgraha, it suddenly sparks our interest and delights with its poetry, at places teasing us out of thought into eternity. And yet, it is the only parva that is largely in prose.
The story of Uttanka is retold in chapters 53-58 of the Ashvamedhika parva, with Indra disguised as an untouchable instead of a cowherd, along with a fascinating confrontation with Krishna. In this version, Uttanka’s preceptor is Gautama who does not give him permission to leave and become a householder although he has grown old serving him. Finally, Uttanka, collapsing under a load of firewood, complains to Gautama who marries him to his daughter. On approaching Ahalya, Gautama’s wife, when he insists on giving guru dakshina, she wants him to bring the earrings of King Saudasa’s wife. Saudasa is King Kalmashpada, turned into a rakshasa by Vashishtha’s curse (Adi parva, sections 175-176). Uttanka obtains the earrings, escapes being eaten-up, loses them to a snake of Airavata’s family and recovers them with the help of Indra and Agni in horse form. Some details about the earrings are given by Queen Madayanti: they produce gold and their wearer is free from the pangs of hunger and thirst and is safe from poison, fire and wild animals. The gold-producing quality links them up with the earrings of Aditi, mother of the gods, that are stolen by Narakasura and have to be recovered by Krishna (Harivamsa). The encounter with Indra-as-bull is changed into a separate episode where Indra as an untouchable chandala offers thirsty Uttanka his urine to drink. Uttanka refuses, (as in the Adi parva he initially rejects the order to eat the bull’s dung) and later learns that this was amrita . Furious with Takshaka who stole the earrings from him disguised as a kshapanaka (naked Jain mendicant), Uttanka reproaches Janamejaya for not taking revenge for his father being stung to death and urges that he destroy Takshaka in a holocaust of snakes. Thus the stage is set for the recitation of the epic during thesarpasattra.
Take, for instance, the title itself: Paushya is casually mentioned only midway in theparva as having appointed Veda his preceptor, as did Janamejaya (shloka 84); and it is Veda’s disciple Uttanka who is asked to fetch the ear-rings of Paushya’s wife. Theparva could, as well, have been named after Uttanka, who is the subject of 102 out of the 187 shlokas in this section. Paushya is mentioned barely a dozen times.
Then, again, why the peculiar narrative of a dog being beaten up by Janamejaya’s brothers, with which this parva opens? The yajña that Janamejaya is engaged in when the parva opens is not the great holocaust of snakes but a sacrifice he was conducting at Kurukshetra. The Shatapatha Brahmana (13.5.41) refers to such a horse-sacrifice by the king and his three brothers. He starts thinking of thesarpasattra yajña only at the very end of the parva after Uttanka has urged him to avenge his father’s assassination by Takshaka.
A little textual analysis reveals that a master storyteller is at work. Sauti has started weaving his incredibly involved web of narrative, where an apparently irrelevant episode turns up hundreds of shlokas later as the seed of a crucial event. At times, the intricacy is so great that Sauti himself forgets to link up the loose thread finally. An example of this is the opening section of the parva. The curse of Sarama leads Janamejaya to seek out Somashrava, born of a snake that drank Shrutashrava’s semen, and make him his priest. Somashrava observes a special principle: he will immediately grant whatever a Brahmin asks. Then, Janamejaya leaves on a campaign to annex Taxila and the narrative abruptly shifts to Ayodah Dhaumyah and his disciples. The intention appears to have been to link Somashrava to Astika, both snake-born. Astika would ask for the snake-sacrifice to be stopped and Somashrava, bound by his principle, would have to agree. Unfortunately, by the time Sauti comes to this point in the 56th chapter of the Astika parva, he has forgotten all about Somashrava—who thus loses his only claim to memorability—and has Janamejaya persuaded by all the Brahmins present to give in to Astika. And so, the first 22shlokas of the Paushya parva remain in limbo.
We now have what seems to be a digression about the virtues of blind and punctilious obedience to the guru’s commands: the stories of Aruni, Upamanyu and Veda, the three disciples of Ayodah Dhaumyah. Here is a teacher who bids fair to surpass Dickens’ Squeers—using Aruni as a plug for a breach in a field-canal and driving Upamanyu blind through starvation. Veda, the lucky one, is merely condemned to the existence of Man Friday. Veda, in turn, has a disciple named Uttanka who is cheated by Takshaka and, in revenge, persuades Janamejaya to hold the snake-sacrifice. Thus we find the cunning artificer at work as Vyasa the “arranger” finally brings his epic to its starting point, answering the unasked question present in the mind of every reader right from the beginning: why did the sarpasattra take place, which became the venue for the recital of the Mahabharata?
The episodes concerning these three disciples cast fascinating light on the teacher-taught relationship in ancient Bharatavarsha in which utter dedication and unquestioning faith in the teacher’s commands were required of the pupil. This attitude built up a state of receptivity in the student and the various experiences he underwent acted as stepping-stones to the achievement of the final goal (shlokas 34-35).
Aruni achieves this and, in the process, is metamorphosed into Uddalaka, using not just his finger but his entire body to plug a breach in the dyke. Aruni-Uddalaka is the famous originator of the doctrine tat tvam asi (“you are that”) in the Chhandogya Upanishad, and the father of Shvetaketu who laid down the law regarding monogamy for Brahmins (Adi Parva section 121).
His compatriot Upamanyu has a weakness for cow’s milk. We meet him again in the Anushasana parva section 14, where Krishna seeks guidance from him concerning the glory of Shiva, and learn the cause for this craving. His parents, like Ashvatthama’s, were too poor to afford a cow and the craving led to his tapasya for Shiva’sdarshana. Upamanyu’s guru relentlessly prevents him from concentrating on his stomach by prohibiting him, in stages, from partaking of alms, milk and even the froth spat out by suckling calves until, driven by hunger, he chews arka (Calotropis gigantea) leaves and goes blind. That is when he turns his sight inwards to invoke a vision of dazzling beauty with numerous Rigvedic echoes (shlokas 62-63), particularly of the Ashvins rescuing Vandana from a pit to the light (Rig Veda X. 39) and restoring sight to Rijarashva (I.116). The passage is a veritable Vyasa kuta for any translator and is as difficult as Uttanka’s invocation in shlokas 146-148.
The Paushya parva is remarkable for a passage that is possibly unique in puranik lore: the exchange of curses between Paushya and Uttanka. Uttanka revokes his curse when Paushya admits his mistake, but the king cannot because the Kshatriya’s heart is not forgiving (shloka 124). Uttanka tells Paushya that the curse is futile being based on misapprehension (shloka 126). This is the only instance of a curse failing and that too on extremely logical grounds. Durvasa’s victims would surely long for Uttanka-like courage and logical force to overcome his totally irrational and off-the-cuff curses. This incident raises certain basic questions about the very nature of a curse: is it pre-cognition or some type of induced mental-block or enforced emotional impulse?
But to hark back to the theme of teacher-taught, which is one of the major concerns of this parva, if not its only theme, the third pupil of the terrifying Ayodah Dhaumyah is Veda who is exceptionally lucky. Or perhaps it is just his over-all mediocrity that saves him from experiencing the sort of merciless flaying his two colleagues go through. He is merely asked to stay with his guru and serve him as an ox bears the yoke. Veda, when he himself becomes a guru, remembers those hard days and is never strict with his own pupils. Uttanka, one of them, wins Veda’s appreciation simply by refusing to have intercourse with his guru’s wife in his absence, though urged to by her companions as it is her fertile period. On his return, Veda, understandably, pats Uttanka on the back and gives him leave to push off. Uttanka, however, is not to be fobbed off so easily. He seems to belong to Ayodah Dhaumyah’s breed, and insists on paying tuition-fees before he can call it quits. Galava, whom we shall meet later in the epic, is another such obstinate disciple. Typically, Veda refers him to his wife—that same lady whom Uttanka had refused to impregnate. She demands the earrings of Paushya’s queen, warning him that if they are not produced on the fourth day, “you know what to expect” (98). Showing gratitude to the pre¬ceptor could be fraught with mortal danger if his wife had not been appeased. The experience of Galava with Vishvamitra (Udyoga Parva, section 106) is a similar lesson.