Tuesday, June 09, 2020

Mahabharata Part 3

War ensues. Almost everyone is killed on both sides in the 18 days of war. On 19th morning, a war which saw most of the janapadas existent in India at that time participate, left not many alive.
The ground was slippery with human flesh and blood. A war which started with (supposedly) 4,000,000 people left less than 15 alive. 7 on Pandava side (Pandavas, Krishna, Satyaki), 3 on Kaurava side (Ashwathama, Kripa and Kritavarma),  Yuyutsu (Half brother of Kauravas but fought from Pandava camp) and Vrishaketu (Karna's son).

One could say Bhishma did survive the war but was fatally wounded. In many ways MB reflects the purposelessness of Bhishma's life. It unmasked an old man who many thought was great but he himself probably had severe insecurities about his greatness. He never rose to the occasion when fate demanded - not on behalf of Amba, not on behalf of Draupadi, not on behalf of Pandavas, not on behalf of Karna, not on behalf of justice. He could have prevented the war - but he ended up being an utter and complete failure.

When Yudhishtir stands atop the ruin of war, corpses being eaten by vultures, his own elder brother Karna dead (he never knew Karna was his elder brother till the end),  he realizes the futility of all wars and how his success is absolutely meaningless.

"Jayoyam ajayakaro jayatasmat parajayah". His famous lament which roughly translates as "at this very moment of success, i realise we won but we lost, this success is ultimately a failure".

Duryodhana had cursed him saying while Duryodhana was king, he ruled a state full of prosperity, happy cries of children, blessed families - husbands, wives & mothers, where as Yudhishtir will inherit a sea of remorse, a country of corpses and an ocean of widows. And thus it happened.

Many wished it didn't happen. At least on Pandava side there was a clear wish to avoid bloodshed, if at all possible. The two people who were dead against not fighting were two women - Draupadi and Kunti. Two feisty characters who stood their ground in a patriarchal society (one could question this general premise since women enjoyed a far more freer existence in these times than years latter in India) and made their sounds heard and words count. One for revenge, the other for justice.

Draupadi had clear reasons for revenge. She was abused and molested by Kauravas in the Hastinapur royal hall in front of so called stalwarts of dharma including Bhishma, Drona and Vidura, not to mention Dhritarashtra, who should have considered her equal to his own daughter. Draupadi, also referred to as Panchali, since she was princess of Panchala (In today's Uttar Pradesh, close to Himalayas), was gambled away by Yudhishtir, her senior most husband. In what would be India's own "Nora moment" (a.la Nora of Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House), she asks if she was gambled before or after Yudhishtir gambled himself and his brothers away in the game of dice against Shakuni (brother of Gandhari). When it was confirmed that the pathetic Yudhishtir had gambled himself before her, Draupadi questions his legal right to put her at stake since he had already become a slave and with that surrendered his right over her. Unfortunately none in the royal court came to her rescue and she was molested in spite of it being illegal and ofcourse adharmic. Some later version of MB says Krishna came to her rescue and gave her a cloth piece to hide herself in, which was of infinite length. Most scholars now agree this was a later addition and not part of the original story. Krishna was not present there and if he was it is highly unlikely Mahabharata war would happened since he would have prevented the unjust treatment of Draupadi, one key factor that played in the final war.

Kunti had lived as a dependent ever since Pandu died. Though she was outwardly respected by all, it was clear no one listened to her after Gandhari became the queen. But revenge was not her driving force. Justice for her sons were. She asks Krishna to not push unequal, unjust negotiations at any cost and exhorts Pandavas to pick arms against their cousins.

Finally though, it is women who loose everything. Gandhari her hundred sons, Draupadi all her sons, most married women their husbands, most children their fathers. Kunti escapes least hurt but loses her first born son Karna who fought from Kaurava side. More importantly the justice she badly wanted came too late for her children and when it did come, there was no meaning nor celebration in the victory.

Jayoyam ajayakaro jayatasmat parajayah....

Sunday, June 07, 2020

Mahabharata : Part 2


The basic story plot has already been explained in the previous parts. But it is the associated discussions that show why MB has become so core to Indian discourses even today. In that sense it is quite different from an Iliad or Odyssey or any other western classic. Many of these are likely only taught in specific courses in universities. However epics in India lives even to this day - across political, cultural, historical, theatrical, cinematic, poetic and pretty much all stages of art. These days there are even attempts to bring MB into the fold of science with varying degrees of success and oftentimes incredulous failures.

When we enter, what I call the "ecosystem" content, which leads the path from Jaya to MB, there is proliferation of myths, local stories, tall tales, clan history, political geography and explanations of local ways of life. Hence even talking about scientific history of MB as such is futile and I would not even try to do so.

Given this, it is still worthwhile to know the overall plot genesis and progress, as confusing as it might get at times.

The Kuru Clan

There was once a king Shantanu who is at the top of Kuru clan pyramid. Shantanu marries a river, Ganga (Yes!). They have a son named Bhishma (actual name Devavrata). Later Shantanu falls in love and also marries Satyavati whose mother is a fish and foster father is a ferry driver. However for this to happen, Devavrata has to promise Satyavati's parents that her son and not himself, will sit on Kuru throne after Shantanu. This gives Devavrata his famous name of Bhishma - the one who makes difficult promises! Oh and by the way, Satyavati's actual father was a king whose semen was dropped in river by a hawk which was carrying it to his original wife, whose father was mountain and mother a river. This dropped semen was responsible for Satyavati's mother being a fish. Satyavati had a pre-marital relation with a sage from whom she had another sage as son, who is Ved Vyas, the first assumed author of Mahabharata (or for more precision,  let us say Jaya). Confusions are typically pardoned at this juncture !

Satyavati had a son named Vichitraveerya, who had to be put upon the Kuru throne in line with Bhishma's pledge to Satyavati's parents. Bhishma steals three girls for him to procreate and thereby progress the Kuru clan (not a lot of feminist ideals then, you see !) These were Amba, Ambika, Ambalika. Amba pleads Bhishma to let her go, since she is in love with another King. Bhishma leaves her but her lover refuses to accept her and she suicides, but not before getting a boon that she will be reborn as a transgender, Shikhandi, who would later become the cause of death of Bhishma in the Mahabharata war.

Meanwhile Vichitraveerya marries Ambika and Ambalika. Unfortunately, he dies without fathering any children with the two queens. Now as per the tradition of the land, Satyavati invites Bhishma to father kids on behalf of his half brother with his half-sister in laws ! But since Bhishma is known never to waver from his pledges, he refuses his step-mom. Instead, she invites Vyasa (her son from her extra marital affair, the author who writes MB/Jaya - probably) who was wandering the forests to father kids with the queens. She asks the two queens to be ready in the night for receiving a man. Queens believe (as per the tradition) Bhishma has agreed and is mentally prepared to receive him at night. However, to their shock they see an uncouth, forest dwelling sage in their bed at night. First it was Ambika, who closes her eyes at the moment of coitus unable to look at her partner. Hence the son born in this union (Dhritarashtra) turns out to be blind.

Next is the turn of Ambalika. She faints at the sight of the sage instead of the prince in her bed. Hence the union produces an offspring (Pandu) who is pale (likely an albino). I'm sorry - I know it's bullshit, but bear with me. We will get to the meaty content in a bit !

Unhappy with the end products from Vyasa's activities, Satyavati asks Ambika to be ready to take him again. This time, Ambika tricked everyone by asking one of her servant maids to be her body double. Voila, Vyasa has an amazing time and the union produces an intelligent human - Vidura who would go on to become the prime minister of Hastinapur. Unfortunately, since he was born of a low class maid (and hence not from the kshatriya /warrior class) , he would never be accorded the respect he is due - and never considered for leadership positions or the throne itself. It's worthwhile to note that everyone defers to his words, especially, the senior most Pandava prince, Yudhishtir, but he cannot take important decisions or define the future of the kingdom or the clan.

Bhishma now arranges brides for the blind Dhritarashtra and pale Pandu, namely Gandhari and Kunti, the former he brought from Afghanistan (Gandhara in those days) not divulging the fact that she would marry a blind man. When Gandhari gets to know that she has been cheated by Bhishma, she ties her eyes with a bandana promising never to open it again. She accepts blindness as a mark of protest - a slap on the face of Bhishma and others who led her to this life of being queen to a blind king.

In due course, Pandu is made king of the Kuru kingdom (albinism over blindness, both albinism and blindness over lack of kshatriya blood)

Soon Dhritarashtra and Gandhari have many sons (the myth says 100 sons, not impossible though unlikely) the eldest one and rightful owner of the throne being Duryodhan. These 100 brothers came to be known as Kauravas (the rightful heirs of Kuru clan). Pandu could not have children with Kunti. Meanwhile he falls in love with another princess named Madri and marries her also (but again no kids). So he takes both queens to a forest with a few trusted lieutenants. They live in the forest for a period of time during which Pandu requests Kunti and Madri to spend time with various sages. Through these "interactions" Kunti gets three sons (Yudhishtir, Bhim and Arjun) and Madri gets two (Nakul and Sahadev). They form the mighty pancha pandavas (The five born of Pandu, though Pandu is not their real father), cousins to Kauravas.

Events leading to war

Multiple events happen over time ; Pandavas are defeated in a gambling match and have to go to forest for 13 years. They lose everything to the wily fox Shakuni (who is the brother of Gandhari and came to stay with her from Kandahar, with the sole motive of destroying the house of Hastinapur as revenge for Bhishma destroying the life of his sister by forcing her to marry a blind man).

Once Pandavas come back they request for land where they could live as kings. When Kauravas refuse to yield land to them, they send Krishna (Their mother Kunti's brother's son, and hence their first cousin) to negotiate with Kauravas. He was given the mandate to even agree for five villages for Pandavas to avoid war. Kauravas reject even that. With no options available in front of them, Pandavas go into the war with Kauravas to get back what they think is rightfully theirs.

Monday, June 01, 2020

300 BCE - 200 CE : Mahabharata (Part 1)

Mahabharata : Introduction, context, historicity

As I have written elsewhere, Mahabharata originated out of what could have been a turf war between cousins in a large chiefdom in Nothern India, that of the Kuru dynasty whose capital was at Hastinapur. The war is supposed to have happened at Kurukshetra, in current Haryana, around 170+ km from Hastinapur. It was fought between sides led by Pandavas (5 brothers and sons of Kunti and Pandu) and Kauravas (innumerable brothers, thought to be around 100, sons of Gandhari and Dhritharashtra) which finally the Pandava side won after 18 days of brutal battle. This is the gist of the overall story.
However, more than the core story itself, it is the impact that this "itihasa" has had on Indian culture, art, history, politics, and overall social narrative that makes it one of its kind. What started of as a 8800 shloka (simplest meaning, verse) long "Jaya" a celebratory poem of victory of Pandavas in the battle sung by charioteers (soothas and magadhas, classes assigned to care for horses and in evening sing paens of kings around the war camp fires) grew to become 25,000 odd shloka Bharata, and finally in its last stage becoming 100,000 shloka strong Mahabharata, which has been among other things called a "most monstrous chaos" by befuddled western scholars.
They can be pardoned for becoming flummoxed by something that is 8 times the size of Iliad and Odyssey put together. (You might want to read what I have written on the same a year back, here).

Mahabharata (here after referred only as MB for efficiency) is not just an epic for Indians. MB itself calls it "itihasa" - meaning "thus it happened", which makes it to mean in simple terms, history. Though there has been debate as to whether any part of MB has real historicity, it has now been more or less accepted by everyone that there indeed was a war that happened in Kurukshetra around 1000-900 BC or slightly latter based on archaeological diggings at main sites and the weapons excavated from the area etc. It is worth noting here that there are some far left historians, atheists and even some western scholars who maintain that nothing of that sort ever happened and it is all pure myth which are no amenable to scientific scholarship. (Personally, in transparency of stating my position, I do not agree with them)

Though I tend to believe the war referred to in Jaya (and by extension in MB)  did happen, it is impossible for the war to have been as grand as it is proclaimed in MB. MB says the Pandava faction had 7 akshauhinis (comparable to platoons in today's military terms) and Kauravas had 11. Each akshauhini is composed of around 2,20,000 people. This in fact means the total war had around 40 lakh people. To have a 4,000,000 strong army, the country should have had around 40 Million people (assuming as high as 10% of the society are in military, which obviously is too high a number). The absurdity of this number hits hard when you realize population of whole of India even in 500 BC (almost 300-500 years after MB) was around ~25 Million. Hence it is fair to say some war happened but not at the grandeur that it is mentioned in the book.

Narrative structure

Narrative structure of MB is probably one of the most complex in any written literature. In many ways it can be attributed to the vast refinements and additions that the text has had in its multi century  development from sometime in 300-400 BCE all the way to 200-300 CE. So its absolutely not clear when did first narration start, who narrated about someone narrating it which was witnessed by someone else who then narrates etc etc. You peel the onion peel by peel - challenge is you don't know where to start because you don't know which is the outer peel, which is the inner one.

Originally, the contexts of narratives are as follows

1. There was once a 12 year yagna (ritualistic sacrifice) being conducted in the forest named Naimisha, into which comes a bard named Ugrashrava. Shaunaka and other rishis present there asks him where from is he coming to which he answers that he is coming from up north after having seen the blessed land of Kurukshetra from where he heard the blessed story of Bharata clan (MB). At the Kuru land there was a snake sacrifice being conducted on behalf of king Janamejaya ( who was son of Prikshit who was son of Abhimanyu, a young war hero who died in MB and was in turn son of one of the Pandavas named Arjuna). Vaishampayan (student of Vyasa, supposed author of MB) had recited the MB there for the audience - this is where Ugrashravas says he heard the story from.

The first narrative structure of MB thus is, as told by Ugrashrava to Shaunaka and other rishis at Naimisha forest.

2. Ugrashrava is not the author. He just hears the story. He hears it from Vyasa's student Vaishampayan. Janamejaya had a grudge against snakes (likely a tribal chiefdom with snake totem as symbol instead of the reptiles itself) who had killed his father Parikshit. The tribals kill Parikshit ,in turn, as revenge for destruction of their forests and land by Parikshit's grand father, Arjuna with the help of Krishna. To avenge this, Janamejaya starts a sarpa satrah (huge sacrifice to kill all snakes, likely symbolically means preparing for a way against the tribal chiefdom). It is said Vaishampayan retells the story to let Janamejaya know the futility of revenge and of war and asking him to let bygones be bygones. Bloodshed begets more bloodshed and in the end no one really wins.

3. Vaishampayan is not the author either. He is just retelling the story written by his guru (teacher) Ved Vyas. Vyas literally means "an editor". Many scholars are clear that there is no way a single authorship can be attributed to something as complex and huge as MB. That too something that developed over 1000s of years unless one assumed Vyas was immortal. Earliest references to authorship of MB (likely Jaya) assumes it was written by someone named Krishna Dwaipayana (literally a black man from an island, likely someone who took birth in one of the many islands in river Ganga or Yamuna) who is assumed to be the first Vyasa (compiler). He likely compiles the victory songs of all the sautas (bards) through whose tongues the story of a major war has survived over the course of 500 +years to form Jaya 8800 shlokas.

Ved Vyas is not only the author but also a participant in the story, which complicates matters even further.

So it is fair to assume Vyas composed the core of MB - but it is worth noting that he taught 5 of his students (including his own son, Shuka) and that the narratives for each was supposedly slightly different. One of the narratives survive to this day (Vaishampayana's), 3 are completely lost (that of Sumantu, Pyla, Shuka) and one has survived partly (Jaimini's). Some of the tribals and scholars believe Jaimini's version had Kauravas as the dharmic (righteous) fighters and not Pandvas. Essentially Pandavas cheated their way to victory !

It's also worth noting that MB is not sruti (its no revelation like vedas, which mantra drashtas, seers, "see" in their minds), its part of Smriti (that which is remembered) and hence human derived.

The other much debated aspect of narrative structure and ownership is one based on class structure prevalent in India at that time. Ugrashrava is soota (one of the lower castes) where as every other narrative is shown as brahmins. It wouldn't have been any miracle if Ugrashrava himself had the narrative ownership since anyways the core of MB were songs of victory that people like him had sung for ages at war tents. This has inspired some scholars atleast to profess that MB originally was literature coming from sub-alterns whose ownership was usurped by the brahmins while putting it into text. It is difficult to prove it one way or the other, but it is nevertheless an important point to note.