Vashishtha - Vishvamitra Katha

 (This is the seventh of the Introductions to the Mahabharata Katha Series of Padma Shri Professor P. Lal published by Writers Workshop, Kolkata. Sections 172-185, Pp. 885-960 of The Complete Adi Parva)

The Chaitraratha section of the Sambhava in the Adi parva is, in a way, a regression to the Adivamsavatarana, being largely “historical” in content. Here the Pandavas learn about their ancestress Tapati, daughter of the Sun god. In typically Vyasan manner, this story, in which Vashishtha plays a major role, becomes the occasion for relating one of the most important episodes in Puranik lore: the Vashishtha-Vishvamitra feud which is also recounted in theRamayana by Satananda, Janaka’s priest, on the occasion of Rama’s wedding.

From the very beginning of this section, Vyasa’s emphasis undergoes a significant shift. So far, Bhima has constantly occupied centre-stage. It is against him that Duryodhana’s plots have been directed; it is he who set fire to the house of lac and bore his exhausted brothers and mother to safety; it is he who rescued them from fearsome cannibals and stood forth as the saviour of an entire town. Arjuna has been noticed only briefly when he needles Bhima’s self-esteem to goad him into despatching Hidimb swiftly. But even this redoubtable archer has been carried in his brother’s arms during the initial flight. Now, for the first time, we find that as they reach the river Ganga,

“From here Dhananjaya
walked ahead with a torch, 
to light the way for them
and to protect them.” (172.4)

The last line is extremely significant. Vyasa is giving Arjuna a new role as protagonist, having abruptly left him in the lurch after building him up during the training under Drona and the vanquishing of Drupada. He does this to prepare us for his winning of Draupadi. Otherwise, normally we would have expected Bhima to win the princess. It is, indeed, quite surprising that when the Gandharva king Chitraratha insolently and aggressively announces:

“I am Angaraparna, 
the Gandharva who knows no power 
save his own. I am strong!
Proud! I am Kubera’s close friend…
And when I am here,
none comes here—no god, 
no human, no corpse-eating beast,
Who do you think you are?” (172.13, 15)

It is Arjuna who retorts and is the sole speaker throughout, while we would have expected the impetuous and passionate Bhima to have exploded in indignation at such insolence. The only other speaker is Yudhishthira, who has a couple of lines to his credit by way of pardoning the defeated Gandharva. The rhetorical exchanges between Angaraparna and Arjuna are rather interesting. Arjuna launches into an elaborate description of the Ganga, its tributaries and its holiness, extending his reply precisely to one shloka more than the Gandharva’s challenge—a bit of one-upmanship, epic style!

“This is the holy Ganga 
from the golden peaks 
of Himavant
into the ocean
where seven streams enter…” (172.19):

The descent of the Ganges is one of those archetypal memories of Hinduism, captured for all time in living rock in the massive Mamallapuram sculpture, and related in the Ramayana, with Shiva singing her praises in the Brahmavaivarta Purana. The next shloka refers to the seven streams famed in ancient India: Sarasvati,plakshajatam “born of the plaksha-tree”, Ganga, Yamuna, Rathastha, Sarayu, Gomati and Gandaki. In shlokas 21-22, Krishna Dvaipayana is brought in as having stated that the twin aspects of Ganga are Alakananda flowing through the celestial regions and Vaitarani running through the sphere of the manes.

The combat that ensues is the second duel in the epic. The only previous confrontation between two opponents has been the Bhishma-Shalva fight. Arjuna, we find, has been carrying a shield, with which he blocks Angaraparna’s arrows, and retorts with the fire-missile gifted by Drona, after giving, in typical epic-fashion, the genealogy of the weapon. The question remains how these weapons appear, because so far there has been no sign of the brothers carrying any arms. The reader had presumed that the weapons had been left behind in the burning house of lac so as not to arouse any suspicion of the Pandavas’ survival. Be that as it may, Arjuna justifies the use of so supernatural a weapon by mentioning that “gandharvas are said / to be superior to mortals” (172.28). We recall that while giving Arjuna this weapon, Drona had warned him not to use it on a human being or anyone of little strength (141.11). Not to be outdone, the Gandharva, though defeated, launches into a similar description of his magical power, acquired through the acrobatic feat of standing on one leg for six months. Arjuna, obviously not impressed with being able to hallucinate as one desires, rejects the offer of this magical sight. He chooses, instead, to accept the gift of a hundred horses for each of the brothers, possibly the first record of Arab horses being presented to Indian princes:

“Gods and gandharvas ride them;
they are divinely-hued, 
and thought-swift; they look lean,
but never tire of slacken.” (172.49)

Arjuna gladly gives his fire-missile in exchange, counting the horses as equally valuable, for they are the strength of Kshatriyas.

A curious point is that Arjuna does not bother in the least to preserve their disguise. In 172.37 he flamboyantly announces to the Gandharva that “Yudhishthira, ruler of the Kurus” has spared his life. We do not find either Kunti or Yudhishthira reprimanding Arjuna for disclosing their identity. Is this also preparation for the final unmasking of the Pandavas at the svayamvara? Ofcourse, it could also be that Gandharvas were not known to interact with humans and therefore there was little danger of the secret reaching Duryodhana.

Very cleverly and unobtrusively, Vyasa slips in the phrase “scion of Tapati” twice in Angaraparna’s speech, inevitably prompting Arjuna’s query. This leads to the love story of Samvarana and Tapati, which has been superbly recreated by Subodh Ghosh in Bharata Premkatha*. Vyasa’s version is typically bare and masculine in its rugged-appeal but for a single passage where, with his characteristic brevity and trenchant force, he describes Tapati:

“Her body shone
like a straight flame, 
her spotless beauty
was like the moon’s.
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.” (170.26-28)

A second Cleopatra indeed in Chitraratha-Enobarbus’ glowing description! And how superior the transcreation is to the Ganguli and the van Buitenen translations!

“In splendour of her person she resembled a flame of fire though in benignity and loveliness she resembled a spotless digit of the moon. And standing on the mountain-breast, the black-eyed maiden appeared like a bright statue of gold. The mountain itself with its creepers and plants, because of the beauty and attire of that damsel, seemed to be converted into gold.” - (K.M. Ganguli)

“The mountain plateau on which the black-eyed girl was standing seemed with its trees and shrubs and lianas to be bathed in gold.” - (van Buitenen)

Tapati is also set apart from the conventional full-hipped, heavy breasted and plantain tree-thighed, elephant-gaited Indian beauty by the repeated emphasis on her large black eyes.

Samvarana, crazed with love for Surya’s radiant daughter, seeks the help of his priest Vashishtha who obtains Surya’s concurrence to the union, and brings Tapati with him.

“The lady of ravishing eyes
descended from the sky 
like lightning irradiating
the ten points of the heavens.”

Samvarana’s infatuation with Tapati leads to his neglecting the kingdom, resulting in a twelve year long famine from lack of rain, till Vashishtha makes him return to his capital. It will be recalled, that in 94.35-47 (pp.461) Vaishampayana had stated that, during Samvarana’s reign, his kingdom was afflicted with famine and the Panchalas drove him out of his kingdom into the forest. Here the reason cited is the king’s infatuation. The kingdom is won back through Vashishtha’s help (94.45-46, p.462). Hence the importance of having a priest of prowess. It is, again, poetic justice that the descendants of Samvarana, who was deprived of his kingdom by the Panchalas, should have them as allies against their Dhartarashtra cousins. 

Section 176 administers something of a cultural shock: here is Arjuna, a royal prince allegedly well versed in the Vedas and Vedantas, ignorant of so famous a sage as Vashishtha:

“O chief of the gandharvas, 
who was this bhagavan rsi 
whom you have described
as the purohita of my ancestors?” (176.4)

From the silence of the other brothers and Kunti, it is apparent that they are no better off. Shall we infer that their schooling was limited to weapons-training and a superficial acquaintance with vedic rituals, with the Puranas completely left out? Even their Vedic knowledge must have been limited to the Brahmanas and Sutras because Vashishtha is the rishi of the seventh mandala of the Rig Veda just as Vishvamitra is of the third. Anyone studying these mandalas would have come to know Vishvamitra’s hatred of Vashishtha (sukta 53). Arjuna’s query reveals that the Rig Veda was already well in the background with the emphasis on the Yajur Veda and the Sutras, i.e. the ritualistic aspects. The Rig Veda had already become incomprehensible for the Mahabharata generations who did not have a single rishi among them besides Vyasa. We find references only to priests adept at rituals, not to seers composing suktas embodying their perceptions of Rita, the Eternal Truth behind evanescent creation.

The ensuing account of the Vashishtha-Vishvamitra feud, related from the latter’s view-point in the Ramayana, deals with one of the most gripping and tragic episodes in Puranik lore, which has been brilliantly used by K.M. Munshi in his Bhagavan Parashuram and by Sri Aurobindo in his Bengali short-story Kshamar Adarsha(“The Ideal of Forgiveness”). Munshi depicts Vishvamitra as the visionary Kshatriya-turned-sage whose goal is to unite the Dravidian and Aryan cultures and mould them into a single civilisation. Vashishtha opposes this fanatically, resulting in the ruinous War of the Ten Kings described in the Rig Veda. Vishvamitra is also the great seer who created the immortal Gayatri Mantra, recited by Brahmanas to this day, and the rescuer of Shunahshepa from being sacrificed in one of the rare instances of human-sacrifice in the Puranas. In this incident many have seen the hidden hand of Vashishtha, for Shunahshepa was Vishvamitra’s nephew and Vashishtha, as Harishachandra’s priest, advised this human sacrifice to placate Varuna who had afflicted the king with dropsy for having broken his vow.

The conflict, as narrated by Chitraratha, revolves round Vashishtha’s wish-fulfilling cow. Vishvamitra, king of Kanyakubja, chances upon Vashishtha’s hermitage, exhausted after a hunt. The sage entertains the king and his retinue with all types of food and gifts with the help of this miraculous cow. Naturally, Vishvamitra decides he must have Nandini, and uses force when the sage refuses to part with her. Nor will Vashishtha oppose the king with violence for, as he tells Nandini,

“But what can I do? I am a Brahmin.
I must overlook Vishvamitra 
though he beats you
and drags you away”… 
But the maha-muni 
would not give up patience, 
nor would he break his vow,
though touched by Nandini’s suffering. 
Vashishtha said, “A Ksatriya’s strength
lies in his body, a Brahmin’s 
lies in the spirit of fortitude.
I will not give up fortitude.” (177.24.27-28)

This sublime non-violence, however, does not mean that he acquiesces in the rape. He clarifies to Nandini that she is free to stay on if she can. The moment she hears this, the cow produces myriads of Dravidas, Keralas, Kanchis, Simhalas, Pahlavas, Shakas, Yavanas, Kiratas, Paundras, Hunas, Chinas, Barbaras, Chibukas, Pulindas, and other mlechchha armies who rout the king’s forces. This list of barbarians is itself a revealing social commentary on which peoples were considered outside the Aryan pale—mostly those in the deep south and the north-west and north-east. Vashishtha himself foils all Vishvamitra’s arrows and missiles with his spiritual powers. This impresses the king so deeply that he renounces his kingdom and takes up ascesis to win the same powers, aspiring to be styled “brahmarshi”. He does not attain this level as long as the spirit of envy and rivalry activates him. For, though he says that “Real strength lies in tapasya” (177.53) he has no hesitation in having a cannibal-spirit possess king Kalmashapada and in instigating him to slay all the progeny of Vashishtha. Yet this embodiment of Brahminhood does not hit back:

“When Vashishtha learnt
that Vishvamitra had schemed 
and got his sons killed, he bore his grief
as maha-Meru bears the earth…
decided to sacrifice his life
rather than harm Kaushika-Vishvamitra.” (178.43-44)

His attempts at suicide are frustrated because two rivers refuse to cooperate (hence named Vipasha and Shatadru). He gives up the idea when he finds that his daughter-in-law is carrying his grandson, Parashara. So here we link up with Vyasa’s father! 

When Kalmashapada tries to devour her, Vashishtha frees him from Rakshasa-hood. The amazing extent of his nobility is seen now. This king, who has destroyed all Vashishtha’s children, begs the sage to give him a son. Vashishtha agrees and it is inshloka 44 that Vyasa gives us the bare truth about how childless kings managed to have children by having rishis “bless” their queens:

“During her fertile period,
the maha-rsi Vashishtha 
had intercourse with her,
as enjoined by divine precept.”

No wonder Vashishtha was so named, for his name means “sense-subduer.” Such perfect self-control is unparalleled in the Puranik lore. 

This episode is part of what we have seen as a common affliction of royal dynasties: the inability to have children. In both the Solar and the Lunar lineages this remains a knotty problem for which special rituals have to be performed and austerities undergone. Kalmashapada becomes a precursor of Pandu just as Parashara parallels Janamejaya. Like Pandu, while roaming in the forest, the cursed king eats up a Brahmin while he is engaged in coitus with his wife. She curses him that should he have intercourse with his wife, he will die. That is why the king has to approach Vashishtha to impregnate his wife. 

What about the queen, Madayanti? What was the state of mind of the royal wives who were made to suffer impregnation by unknown persons? Satya Chaitanya has written a superb recreation of this in his short story, “A Woman of Ayodhya, a womb desecrated”, just as Buddhadeb Bose has with Ambika and Ambalika in his playAnamni Angana.

The next two shlokas describe the first caesarean operation as the queen uses a stone (“ashma”) to deliver her child when it is not born after twelve years. The operation should more appropriately be known, at least in India, as “Ashmakan” instead of “caesarean.” The parallel with Gandhari’s delayed delivery is obvious. Curiously, instead of succeeding Kalmashapada in Ayodhya, Ashmaka founds a town named “Paudanya”. 

While Chitraratha stops his narrative of the Vishvamitra-Vashishtha conflict at this point, Sri Aurobindo went beyond this in his short story to describe the moment when Vishvamitra, at last genuinely penitent and free of envy, approaches Vashishtha to beg forgiveness. Now the magnanimous sage hails Vishvamitra as “brahmarshi,” that recognition which he has been fruitlessly striving to win from the world and for which he has committed so many crimes. It is in achieving true humility that Vishvamitra achieves the highest level of seerdom.

An interesting hint concerning further causes of the rift between the two sages is given in 178.15, where it is mentioned that they had a quarrel concerning who would be Kalmashapada Mitrasaha’s priest. If we take the Rigvedic, epic and Puranik accounts in their totality, this feud assumes an extremely significant place in the political history of those times. Vashishtha was originally the priest of the Ikshvaku dynasty of Anaranya in the time of king Traiyyaruna whose son was the notorious Trishanku, so named for having raped a Brahmin’s newly wedded bride, eaten a cow of Vashishtha’s and disobeyed his father. He had been banished and lived with Chandalas. Hence, on Traiyyaruna’s death, it was Vashishtha who ruled the kingdom as regent, keeping Trishanku out of the throne. At this time a famine also took place, and Vishvabandhu the Kanauj king, attacked Vashishtha’s realm. However, with the help of tribal and non-Aryan armies, Vashishtha succeeded in worsting Vishvabandhu, who fled to the forest. Here Trishanku looked after his family during the terrible famine, earning his gratitude. Vishvabandhu helped Trishanku to regain his throne after this famine, alienating Vashishtha totally. When Trishanku wanted to carry out a sacrifice, Vashishtha flatly refused to officiate. At this, Trishanku called in Vishvabandhu who had started calling himself “Vishvamitra” and had composedsuktas for the Rig Veda. Vashishtha, however, organised a very successful boycott of this ceremony, which prompted Vishvamitra to create new deities. 

In sukta 9 of the third mandala of the Rig Veda, Vishvamitra refers to 3339 gods in place of the 33 mentioned in the Vedas. These are the new gods. Consequently, Vashishtha gave up his post here, proceeded to Sudasa, king of North Panchala, and became his advisor. In the Battle of Ten Kings, Sudasa won chiefly because of Vashishtha’s advice. Vishvamitra, who was with his opponents, lost. Yet, we find that later in Sudasa’s yajna it was Vishvamitra who officiated. Possibly because of this Vashishtha left him and went to the Paurava king Samvarana, who had been routed from his kingdom by Sudasa. With Vashishtha’s help, Samvarana defeated and killed Sudasa and won Tapati as his wife. Hereafter we find Vashishtha in the kingdom of Kalmashapada, king of south Koshala, another Ikshvaku prince, who is used by Vishvamitra to destroy Vashishtha’s entire family. It is quite possible that this occurred before Vashishtha went to Samvarana, as that would explain his abandonment of the ungrateful solar dynasty of Ikshvaku in favour of the lunar dynasty of Puru. 

After this we find Vashishtha once more back at his original post in the Anaranya dynasty as Harishachandra’s priest, counselling him to carry out a human sacrifice for appeasing Varuna. Cleverly, he refuses to officiate at this horrendous ceremony. As the victim, Shunahshepa, Vishvamitra’s nephew, is chosen and it is through Vishvamitra’s intervention that he escapes. The frustrated Vashishtha now shifted to Northern Koshala, ruled by Dasharatha. But even here Vishvamitra appeared on the scene and stole all the glory by arranging the marriage of Rama with Sita. Vashishtha has hardly any role in the Ramayana, while Vishvamitra becomes responsible for the momentous destruction of the Rakshasas infesting the forests by bringing about Rama’s coming.

Another interesting point is that Vishvamitra’s sister married the Bhargava sage Richika and the Bhargavas were preceptors of the Asuras. When Vishvamitra revolted against the established gods and “created” new deities, new hymns and a new sacrificial mode in Trishanku’s sacrifice, this relationship must have been one of the considerations prompting the gods ultimately to take part in the ceremony despite Vashishtha’s ban. This has been examined at length in Acharya Chatursen’s superb Hindi novel Vayam Rakshamah.

Sections 180-188 reiterate a problem dealt with in the Astika parva. Here both Aurva and Parashara are determined to exterminate an entire race, the Kshatriyas and the Rakshasas respectively, just as Janamejaya set about destroying the Nagas, decades later. This theme of the attempted annihilation of an entire community becomes a leit motif of the Adi Parva, along with the theme of lust, which will recur in Saudasa Kalmashapada.

Parashara, like Ashtavakra, calls his grandfather “father” and determines to take revenge on his father’s murderer on being apprised of the truth. The difference is that where Ashtavakra was content with defeating Vandin, Parashara determines to annihilate all creation. In order to dissuade him, Vashishtha narrates the story of Aurva. The Haiheyas slaughter the Bhrigus, including unborn children, seeking to seize their wealth till they are struck blind by the effulgence of Aurva, who springs forth from his mother’s thigh like Chyavana with Puloman. Aurva determines to destroy all creation, incensed at the quiescence of the gods in the face of this horrendous massacre. Thereupon, his ancestors’ manes reel out a bit of astonishing special pleading claiming that they had deliberately invited the calamity, being bored with life and not wanting to commit suicide. The sophistry is quite mind-boggling because suicide is made out by them to be only the taking of one’s own life by oneself, and not deliberately motivating another to kill oneself. Aurva’s replies are possibly some of the most memorable passages in the Adi parva. The anguish that throbs in every shloka finds an echo in every reader’s heart:

“I am not one whose anger is empty, 
whose curse fruitless. 
My anger unfulfilled will destruct me
as fire does dry wood. 
The man who suppresses
righteous anger
for whatever reason, 
will find himself frustrated 
in the three-fold path
of Dharma, Artha, and Karma.” (182.2-3)

He points out that no one stirred a finger to save the victims. He passes on to voice a sentiment echoed by all victims of injustice:

“Oh, if there was only someone
to punish the wicked, 
would there be any wickedness left
in the world to punish?” (182.9)

Shloka 11 is a famous one, immortalised in Tagore’s adaptation:

“The man with power to punish
who does not punish 
who he knows deserves punishment,
himself becomes guilty.”

The climax of this angry young man’s indignation is reached in shloka 12:

“Many rajas and nobles
could have saved my ancestors
yet they did not—they chose 
riskless luxury instead.
But I—I have righteous anger
on my side!
I have the power to punish!
I don’t have to obey you! 
If I, who have power to punish, 
do not now punish, 
what is to prevent other men
from repeating the crime?” (182.12-14)

How refreshingly alive the transcreation is compared to the laboured and stilted renderings of previous translators! Aurva casts his wrath into the ocean, as advised by his manes, and this becomes the vadavagni, the mare-headed, water-consuming fire that erupts to cause universal dissolution at the time of pralaya.

Hearing this story, Parashara diverts his creation-annihilating anger and pinpoints it on the Rakshasas, organising a great sacrifice. Vashishtha wisely does not try to dissuade his grandson from this second vow: he knows the hot-blood of youth and does not presume on his authority too far. The sacrifice is powerfully reminiscent of Janamejaya’s which Astika managed to stop. The only difference is that in the case of Aurva and Parashara the yajamana is himself a Brahmin while in the latter it is a king. Parashara discards the fire on the northern side of the Himalayan forest where it is still aflame. It is a team of five famous seers who succeed in putting an end to the holocaust: Atri, Pulastya, Pulaha, Kratu and Mahakratu. The first four are the mind-born sons of Brahma while Pulastya is the ancestor of the Rakshasas and Ravana’s grandfather. The word “Mahakratu” also connotes “great sacrifice”, and may not be the name of a seer, as we do not find any sage of this name in the Puranas. The logic trotted out by them is analogous to the peculiar sophistry of Aurva’s manes:

“No raksasa, O muni,
could have devoured him
if he had not done
what he did.
Vishvamitra was merely
an agent in the affair, 
like raja Kalmashapada.
Sakti is now happy in heaven.” (183.16-17)

This looks like shrewd thinking to forestall another vow by Parashara, this time to destroy Vishvamitra and Kalmashapada. In case this is not enough, Pulastya adds that Shaktri and all the other sons of Vashishtha are enjoying themselves like gods in heaven, and that Vashishtha knows this. It is rather peculiar that Parashara does not retort that the same logic can apply in his case, and that he is merely an agent in this destruction of the Rakshasas, just as Vishvamitra was just a blameless instrument in the death of his father. Anyway, the plea succeeds, and the sacrifice is stopped.

It is only at this stage that Vashishtha also chips in, presumably corroborating Pulastya’s assertion that he is in the know of his progeny’s celestial bliss, which only emphasises the speciousness of the argument. If Vashishtha had known this all along, why did he not say so to prevent Parashara from starting this Rakshasa-holocaust? Actually, it is Pulastya himself who almost acts as the devil’s advocate by saying:

“grandson of Vashishtha,
you are being used 
In this sacrifice as a tool
for the extermination of
these rakshasas.” (183.19-20)

It is not clear whose tool Parashara is supposed to have been—presumably Fate’s. One suspects that young Parashara stops the sacrifice more out of respect for these renowned sages who are pleading with him than because he is convinced by what they say. Aurva’s case is also similar. After the indignant refusal to give up his revengeful resolve, he ultimately takes the advice of his ancestors.

The theme of this narrative appears to be the virtue of forgiveness. Besides the supreme example of Vashishtha, this is brought home through Shaktri’s case as well. Shaktri, like Shringi much after him, has not learnt to master his anger. His rage, bursting forth against Kalmashapada, recoils upon himself just as Vishvamitra’s jealousy of Vashishtha consistently boomerangs until he conquers his own pettiness. The true Brahmana is known by this power of total self-control, by possessing immense spiritual prowess but never using it selfishly.

Section 184 provides an interesting parallel to the Pandu story. Arjuna leads Angaraparna back to section 179 and wants to know if it was proper for Kalmashapada to bid his wife have a child by Vashishtha and whether the sage was not violating his code in agreeing to have intercourse with another’s wife. Besides the fact that this reveals the extremely shallow education received by the princes (Bhishma had narrated instances precisely of such niyoga custom to Satyavati and these puranik stories were supposed to be the staple of the brahmachari’s schooling), it also suggests that Arjuna has a sneaking misgiving about his and his brothers’ parentage. Knowing that he and his brothers were fathered on Kunti and Madri by persons other than Pandu, Arjuna is seeking some sort of an assurance that thisniyoga custom, long outmoded by his time, is sanctioned by dharma. He, of course, has not had the benefit of listening in to Bhishma’s recounting of this ancient practice. One would dearly like to know what was going on in Kunti’s mind when Arjuna posed this query. Here is a situation worthy of Iravati Karve’s pen, which, alas, is silent forever.

Angaraparna, whom Arjuna admiringly addresses as “all-knowing”, gives a reply that seems to have been moulded deliberately to satisfy the Pandavas. Like Pandu, Kalmashapada is cursed by a Brahmin’s wife for having killed her husband in the act of intercourse. The curse is also identical: to die in the act of intercourse. The only difference is that she graciously indicates the solution as well: he will have a son through Vashishtha’s intervention. Kalmashapada, again like Pandu, forgets this curse in his lust. Madayanti, unlike Madri, repulses him, reminding him of the curse. Thereupon the king seeks out Vashishtha, and prays that he father a son on Madayanti, just as Pandu had made Kunti solicit three ‘gods’. It is significant that at this point Arjuna should say, “Gandharva, you seem to know everything” (185.1).

180.10 refers to Vashishtha as “son of Mitravaruna”, which ought to have been glossed, as it is one of the most important of Puranik myths. Vashishtha, unlike Vishvamitra, is doubly celestial in origin as both Mitra and Varuna had intercourse with Urvashi, as a result of which Vashishtha and Agastya were born.

In section 185 we find the Pandavas picking Dhaumya, brother of Devala, to be their priest, as advised by the Gandharva. The choice of Dhaumya itself reveals the decline in spiritual stature of Brahmanas. This Brahmana is renowned, presumably, as one of the finest specimens of the current culture, but how far below he is of Vashishtha, Vishvamitra, Gautama, Bhrigu, Chyavana and the rest! Dhaumya is no better than a Brahmana well versed in the scriptures. He is no seer, nor imbued with Chanakya’s statecraft. The same can be said of Drupada’s purohita. In this epic we find the picture of a transitional stage when these Brahmana-priests have yet no role to play in policy-making, with the Kshatriyas fully in control of the society, unlike the rishi-dominated Vedic period. The time of all-powerful Brahmana counsellors is yet to come, which is to culminate in Kautilya. However, having Dhaumya with them acts undoubtedly as a tremendous morale booster because they feel that they have as good as won Draupadi and obtained their kingdom and lost glory (185.9). The admiration appears to be mutual (185.11).

It is interesting to compare this account of the strife between the two great rishis with the one given in the Ayodhya kanda of the Ramayana. Where the Mahabharataversion centres around Vashishtha and is more favourable to him, the Ramayanaversion highlights Vishvamitra’s unique achievement for the benefit of Rama and Lakshmana who seem as ignorant of his prowess as Arjuna is about Vashishtha’s.

Love Stories from the Mahabharata (translated by Pradip Bhattacharya), Indialog, New Delhi, 2005

Image : Ravi Varma painting of Vishvamitra rejecting Menaka and the infant Shakuntala


More by :  Dr. Pradip Bhattacharya

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