The Mahabharata (Mahabharata, #1) by Krishna-Dwaipayana VyasaFact / Fiction
From 2010 to 2014, volumes from Bibek Debroy’s grand project of translating the Mahabharata from the original Sanskrit appeared in the market. A few months ago, I bought the entire box set. Ever since, I’ve been purporting to start my Mahabharata journey. I’ve often taken out a book from the set, turned it in my hands, and been teased by the back cover blurb that calls what is inside ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told’.
In his introduction to the first book, Debroy attempts to place the events in the Mahabharata in history. No conclusive timeline – none shorter than a range of a thousand years – appears. There is speculation that the events in the Mahabharata might be from an era before the events in the Ramayana – this is contrary to the commonly held belief that Ram precedes Krishna by an era (Treta Yug comes before Dwapar Yug). Debroy’s guess is based on observations regarding the relatively refined violence in Ramayana which, compared to all the gore in Mahabharata, would suggest itself as a product of a later, more measured civilization. Debroy also notes that if his conjectures about the historicity of the events in Mahabharata were true, it likely followed that the central conflict in the epic was actually all about cattle. That the cousins fought over land might be a plot alteration mandated not by historical truth but by the importance of land in the era that the epic was effectively composed in.
That Mahabharata was composed entirely by Vedvyasa in a single lifetime is also marked as an impossibility. The epic was composed and refined, no doubt, over hundreds of years. A long oral tradition perpetuated it. Authorship is largely irrelevant.
Yet, Vedvyasa’s delightful presence in the plot, that too not as a distant, unrelated observer but as a critical node on the Kuru family tree, and the references to him by the two main narrators of the Mahabharata—Vaishampayana and Lomharshana—suggest that things did begin with him.
Vedvyasa, in fact, is a title. The real name is Krishna Dvaipayana. Krishna Dvaipayana was the child of sage Parashar and Satyavati (Shantanu’s wife), and sired Dhritrashtra and Pandu with the wives of his own step-brother, Vichitravirya, who was Satyavati’s son with Shantanu. Thus, the fathers of Kouravas and Pandavas are in fact children of Krishna Dvaipayana Vedvyasa, the one granted credit for the shlokas of the epic.
Perhaps it would not be outlandish to credit Vedvyasa as the creator, rather than just the biological father, of Dhritrashtra and Pandu. What if the two brothers were Vedvyasa’s fictions, and everything that followed from them was also, therefore, fictional. The offense (to some) of the suggestion notwithstanding, it is no doubt charming to embed oneself in a royal family, father fictional heirs with royal wives, and concoct stories of conflict among one’s own grandchildren.
That’s a fertile imagination if there ever was one.
Going by the eighteen parva classification of the Mahabharata, the tale begins with the Adi Parva. However, the 100-parva classification perhaps better suits the length of the epic, and going by that that the Adi Parva itself holds nineteen parvas in it, beginning with the Anukramanika Parva.
The Anukramanika Parva, instead of beginning the story itself, provides a summary of the events in the epic. Clearly, those composing the Mahabharata felt it prudent to provide a gist to remind people of the story they have always known in summary. The end of the section details the benefits of a Mahabharata reading, thereby giving added incentive for carrying on. These benefits are extraordinary hyperbole, with the following sentence structure as a template: ‘if one reads only one line of a shloka, all sins are destroyed.’ The matter of reading the Mahabharata (or the Jaya, or the Bharata, the other names that are also used for the epic) is turned into a redemptive one, and it is no doubt that a little amount of the epic’s perpetuity owes to its status as a near-religious text. Another interesting point to note is that the Anukramanika Parva splits the summarizing in two parts. The first summary is provided in person by Ugrashava, referred to as ‘Souti’ by the sages who demand a narration of the tale from him. The second summary is in the voice of Dhritarashtra. It is an emotional account to Sanjaya (Dhritarashtra’s commentator) after the war is over. Dhritarashtra tells Sanjaya of all the junctures in history when he had sensed that there was no hope of victory for Duryodhana.
It is my claim that through this twin narration, the Anukramanika Parva also readies us for a continuous shift in (or morphing of) the narrator’s identity. Here, Dhritarashtra’s narrative voice is nested inside Ugrashava’s. Through this structure, whose direct relevance is difficult to see, one should probably understand that such nested narrators will abound in the epic too.
One also notices a difference in the two narrative voices. Ugrashrava’s immediate narration is straightforward, as if he were simply summarizing history. His recreation of Dhritarashtra’s narration is poetic and affecting.
The Anukramanika Parva is followed by the Parvasamgraha Parva, in which Ugrashrava provides the two classifications—into hundred and eighteen parvas. It is interesting to note that the classifications of the text are provided inside the text. It follows that Ugrashrava’s own retelling in the Anukramanika and Parvasamgraha parvas was already included in the classification! How is that possible? How could he tell a tale in first person and provide his telling as already-included in a historical classification?
This is a delightful warp, a post-modernish touch. The more tempered view might require us to assume that the text allowed the two opening parvas to be rendered freely by the narrator, and we happen to have only one of many renderings in Ugrashava’s retelling.
The Wars Magnitude
Every war is followed by an attempt to quantify the damage brought by it. The audit, so to say, might have more practical purposes, but one of its doubtless outcomes is to nourish that ugly strain in human nature which feeds on a certain fascination with carnage and often stoops to compare catastrophes.
Insofar as literature has been about wars and conflicts, it has played the dirty role of valourizing them, gleefully providing estimates of ‘war losses’ to generate a response of awe in the reader. In fact, it is perversely wise for a poet to over-report war damages, since the intent is to establish their war as superior among all the wars, and, by relation, their work on that war as superior among all similar works.
The Mahabharata, arguably the supreme war epic, also felt the need to assert the fact that it was concerned with a war bigger than any other. To merely allow the reader to believe the magnitude of the carnage would not be enough; it had to be provided in numbers. (Here I’m reminded of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Columbian novelist, who pointed out that literary exaggeration works better when a number is provided. For example, it is not believable when one says ‘elephants were flying in the air’. Yet, as soon as one says, 12 elephants were flying in the air,’ the reader’s disbelief begins to be suspended.)
The war numbers are provided inside in the Parvasamgraha Parva. Bibek Debroy, whose translation is the one that I’m reading, mentions that the parva was most likely a later addition to the original text.
There, the sages ask Ugrashrava about an akshouhini (army), urging him to provide the exact details of the size of one. Ugrashrava answers by moving from the smallest unit composing an akshouhini to the largest, eventually reaching staggering numbers. An akshouhini was apparently composed of 21,870 chariots, 21,870 elephants, 109,350 foot soldiers, and 65,610 horses. And: ‘eighteen akshouhinis of the Kurus and the Pandavas were made up according to these numbers and the cause destroyed them all’!
Ugrashrava’s answer is a direct invitation for the reader to make further calculations regarding the loss of human and animal life in the Mahabharata. And the numbers are mind-numbing for a conflict that concluded inside eighteen days. Assuming that each animal or chariot was manned by at least one person, the annihilation of eighteen akshouhinis leads us to an average death count of 2,18,700 men per day, forgetting the animals. This is beyond credulity, especially if we imagine the war as taking place at a single site. The mere disposal of corpses to clear the ground for battle the next day would require a couple of akshouhinis of its own.
The conclusion: either the war took place everywhere in ancient India, or we have to accept these numbers as exaggerated.
King Janamajeyas Snake Sacrifice
We see that the first two parvas of the Mahabharata provide only a summary of the events, a gesture akin to adding a table of contents before a long book. The third parva is called the Poushya Parva. There, we are in the time of Janamejaya, Arjuna great-grandson, who is now the ruler of Hastinapur. The section is haphazardly told, and often appears aimless. We follow a multitude of characters, all attempting to placate their gurus or preceptors. One puts his own body on the line to plug a dam breach. Another almost starves to death (and also loses his eyesight, which he later recovers) while trying to ensure that all comestibles are offered first to the preceptor. A third one, named Utanka, stays at his preceptor’s house for fulfilling household duties, where he is goaded on to perform the husband’s duties on the preceptor’s wife. ‘You must stand in his place and ensure that her period does not go barren,’ say the household women to Utanka. The passage is one of innumerable junctures where the Mahabharata shall present itself as a text of thoroughly patriarchal times, where women had little agency, especially with regards to sexual matters. Utanka refuses, but is ultimately charged with the duty of getting a queen’s earrings for the preceptors’s wife. On the way, a man on a bull urges him to eat the animal’s dung (bullshit, literally). On his return journey, the earrings are stolen by the naga king Takshaka.
To recover the earrings, Utanka is advised by a man to blow into a horse’s anus (please grant me pardon, but this is how it is). The man is Indra, the horse Agni; pitted against the gods, Takshaka is forced into submission.
Nevertheless, Utanka remains angry at Takshaka, and goes to Janamejaya to inform him of the facts of his father’s death (just why brahmins previously held back this information from Janamejaya isn’t clear). It emerges that Parikshit, Arjuna’s grandson and Janamejaya’s father, was killed by Takshaka.
To avenge his father’s death, Janamejaya announces a massive snake sacrifice - meaning a big fire in which all the snakes (nagas) of the kingdom and beyond are to be thrown in. The sacrifice is a critical event in the Mahabharata, for it is there that the flashback, through which Janamejaya’s ancestors’ stories [basically, stories of the great war] are narrated to him, begins.
The snakes we talk of here are shape-shifters, capable of taking human forms. Snakes had kingdoms and kings then, according to the text. It is, in fact, not beyond imagination that the word ‘snake’ is being used here for an ethnic group, and that Takshaka is a rival leader fighting a guerrilla war against the powers in Hastinapura.
And therefore, Janamajeya’s sacrificial act should perhaps not be seen literally, as simply that of extraordinary cruelty against an animal species. Perhaps it is an act of genocide, fueled by rage. The task of stopping Janamejaya was done by a brahmana named Astika, who for his contribution got a complete parva of the Mahabharata named after him (the fifth parva).
Astika’s intervention is a story of the power of nonviolence, and is quoted even before it transpires in the text. In the Pouloma parva, a series of stories about the Bhrigu lineage ends with the sage named Ruru attempting to kill a non-poisonous snake, who turns out to be an accursed sage itself. The sage tells Ruru how brahmins have prevented violence against harmless beings, and gives the specific example of Astika’s intervention in Janamajeya’s sacrifice. It is probable that this contrivance exists only to point out how violence is the domain of kshatriyas, and that brahmans ought to avoid it. Caste distinctions are, of course, rigidly impressed multiple times in the text.
A notable thing is that even before we reach Astika’s intervention in Janamajeya’s snake sacrifice, the text tries to convince us that the sacrifice was a pre-destined event. This could be read as an attempt to exonerate Janamajeya, to show the sacrifice as ordained by powers greater than his own. In the Astika Parva, Astika’s origination story includes digressions in which a clairvoyant woman curses snakes to be consumed in the impending sacrificial event. [The snakes are actually her sons: once again, human and snake forms interchange]
We see, thus, a non-linear narrative structure in which what precedes and succeeds a given event is presented even before the event. One could say that this heightens tension, and removes all doubts regarding the importance of the event itself.
“The source of our danger is destiny” - thus speak the snakes in the Astika parva, the fifth parva of the Mahabharata. They have been cursed and the curse entails that they be completely erased from the face of the earth in the Pandava king Janamajeya’s [Arjun’s great-grandson] snake sacrifice.
Destiny truly is in play here, for the curse comes into force long before the sacrifice itself has been instigated. During this period, Vasuki, the lord of the snakes, learns of a way through which the impact of the curse might be lessened. He is told how a sage named Jaratkaru will sire a son named Astika, who in turn will advise Janamajeya against annihilating the nagas. Vasuki’s role is to help the process by offering his sister to Jaratkaru.
Vasuki’s sister is also named Jaratkaru, which helps because the sage had once announced that he would only marry a woman who had the same name as him [jara means decay and karu means gigantic, so Jaratkaru perhaps thought that he would never get to marry given the uniqueness of his name].
As mentioned earlier, Janamajeyas sacrifice is instigated when helearns that his father, Parikshit, was killed by a naga named Takshaka. The text doesn’t allow us to think of it as a simple murder, though. It turns out that Parikshit’s death, too, was predestined. In fact, he was cursed to be killed by Takshaka, as punishment for putting a dead snake around the neck of a meditating sage.
Despite the ever-imaginative ways in which one incident follows another in the Astika parva, the iffy inevitability of the larger events becomes too much to take. One wonders how an epic with a reputation for posing delightful ambiguities could begin with such rigid causality and predestination. To a modern reader, the fact that the template of a curse is being repeatedly used as a plot device and / or predestination marker is another irritation.
Earlier, I have surmised that the nagas could have been in fact a rival ethnic group. If that were true, the snake sacrifice’s predestination could be seen as a ruse to exculpate Janamajeya from genocide. That even Takshaka’s killing of Parikshit was predestined complicates matters further, for implicit in it is Takshaka’s innocence. It can, however, be argued that this is an even defter touch, for it leaves us at a juncture where neither Janamajeya nor Takshaka have any agency. Only the brahmins, those followers of austerities, have agency, for it is they who hurl curses upon others and thus move the narrative forward. The text would like us to believe that the events were ordained by the brahmins’ curses. The truth could be the opposite. It is plausible that it is, in fact, the curses that were invented, post facto, to make things easier for the egos of those who mattered.
In the Sambhava parva of the Mahabharata is provided the incredibly topsy-turvy story of king Yayati, generally understood as a figure whose entire life is an obsession about the sexual function. The story begins as Yayati gets himself entangled in the long-running rivalry between two powerful women - Devayani and Sharmishtha. All this, in case it needs clarification, happens an eon before the great war.
Devayani is the daughter of sage Shukra, the preceptor of the asuras and also of their king Vrishaparva. Sharmishta is Vrishaparvas daughter . The two are friends to begin with. The rift in their friendship is instigated by none other than the king of gods, Indra. One day, when Devayani and Sharmishtha are frolicking naked in a forest. Indra takes the form of wind and mixes up their garments. Since Devayani’s father is Sharmishtha’s father’s preceptor, Devayani has reasons to assume that she is superior to Sharmishtha. She is thus enraged upon seeing Sharmishtha attempt to wear her clothes. She insults Sharmishtha who, daughter of a demon-king as she is, is so chafed by her words that she throws Devayani in a nearby well and walks away.
King Yayati comes to the same well to provide water to his thirsty horse. Seeing Devayani inside, he provides her a hand and pulls her out. Devayani then goes to her father and complains. Politics follows: Shukra threatens Vrishaparva with abandoning him; Vrishaparva, sure that Shukra’s abandonment of the asuras would mean their conclusive defeat before the devas (as the asuras would lose the power to reemerge from death) is committed to pacify the sage; the pacification requires that Sharmishtha accept to be Devayani’s slave and follow her everywhere. Sharmishtha, as a woman who bears the burden of deciding the fate of her entire race, has no choice but to agree.
King Yayati again meets Devayani and Sharmishta in the same forest. This time, Devayani reminds him how he had once touched her, and how that entails that he has to accept her as his wife. Scared by the prospect of an inter-caste marriage, Yayati doesn’t agree at first. Before Shukra, he specifically asks: ‘Let no great sin descend on me as a consequence of my begetting offspring of mixed caste.’ Even the kings, as can be seen here, were terrified of breaking the codes of the caste system.
The marriage between Yayati and Devayani is approved by Shukra. After a few years, the slave Sharmishtha is able to seduce Yayati and gives birth to three sons. On their discovery, Devayani again takes the matter before her father. Yayati’s defence is classic: ‘A man who refuses when a desiring woman privately solicits him, is called a killer of an embryo by the learned.’ Perverted as this thought is, one takes solace in knowing that the ancients at least thought of killing embryos as a crime.
Shukra curses Yayati with immediate old age. Yet allows him the power to transfer this old age to a willing son of his.
[the rest of this review will be posted to a blog soon, and linked from here]
Karna in the Mahabharata
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Mahabharata, in a sense, is somewhat similar to The Holy Bible. Every Indian knows the basic story. However, being the longest epic poem ever written , couplets — Whoa!! I was extremely excited when I came to know economist Bibek DebRoy has undertaken a project to translate a ten volume Mahabharata in modern English. I finally bought the box set a few months back and I am half way through it. Not sure if I am too fickle minded but Mahabharata has rekindled my interest in mythology.