The Complete Ashvamedhika Parva in the Mahabharata of Vyasa transcreated from Sanskrit by P. Lal, Writers Workshop, 2008, 440 pages including maps, genealogical tree. Rs.300 (special edition with original hand-painted patachitra Rs.800).
The Kurukshetra holocaust is over. After the Pyrrhic victory, what does Yudhishthira experience but a wasteland? ‘Son of man,’you know only’a heap of broken images’Only fear in a handful of dust.’
How does the morally sensitive man of Dharma achieve reconciliation after wading through a gory Serbonian bog, trampling over the corpses of kith and kin towards the throne of Hastinapura? Much to the shock of Draupadi and his brothers, instead of joyously quaffing the heady wine of victory, he would rather work out his salvation in a sylvan retreat. For, ever at his back he hears ‘The rattle of the bones and chuckle spread from ear to ear.’ After all, he is the only one to have played chess with death, answering the Mortal Lord’s riddles with his brothers as the stake. How can he recline at ease on the throne of blood? This model of rectitude, this man who is righteousness incarnate, has more than once done the wrong thing for the right reason. He has gambled away his brothers and their wife. He has not hesitated to ask patriarch Bhishma how he may be slain. He has quibbled so that guru Drona lays down arms. He has made uncle Shalya sabotage Karna’s valor and then speared that uncle to death. All the cataracts of wisdom rushing over him from Bhishma, Vyasa, Narada, Vidura and Krishna in the massive corpus of the Shanti and Anushasana parvas have failed to excise the profound mea culpa.
Section 12 has Krishna rebuking Yudhishthira sharply somewhat as he had done Arjuna: ‘Don’t you remember anything?’ Earlier he has reprimanded Dhritarashtra and Gandhari for evading their responsibilities. Krishna points out that Yudhishthira’s lack of ‘shraddha’ prevented his learning the meaning of ‘kama-corrupted karma’ though explained to him repeatedly. Krishna provides a simple solution to cut through all intellectual sophistry:
‘All crookedness leads to death,
simplicity leads to Brahman.
This is the essence of all wisdom.
The rest is idle babble.’ (11.4)
He explains the real meaning of the Indra-Vritra myth: Vritra is the enemy lurking within one’s self causing delusion. Krishna criticizes Yudhishthira for conveniently forgetting the public dragging of Draupadi and Kichaka kicking her, the exile, the sufferings at the hands of Jatasura, Chitrasena, Jayadratha. It is a new war that has to be fought now.
‘The battle with Drona and Bhishma
is over’the lonely battle now
is your battle with yourself.
Grasp the glory of your secret spirit
and perform your sva-karma!
No arrows will help you here,
no servants, no relatives.
You alone can help yourself.
You cannot escape the crisis’
You must fight, and you must win. (12.12-15)
There is no point lamenting time and again over the dead’they cannot be revived. ‘Mine’ is what leads to death; ‘not mine’ to eternity. ‘Kama-control is dharma’, rooted in self-discipline. Section 13 has a brilliant passage in which Kama explains how it deludes human beings by shackling them to desires. Therefore, it should be channeled into charity distributed in yajnas. Hence the need for the Horse Sacrifice.
Vyasa, too, criticizes Yudhishthira (‘your wisdom is weak’) and recommends that the Horse Sacrifice be conducted to earn merit, as Rama and Bharata had done in the past. The wealth needed for this huge ceremony is provided by Vyasa (how often does the author personally intervene in his plot!) who guides him to the gold left by Marutta, one of the very few human kings like Raji and Mandhata whom Indra failed to subdue. The gold Yudhishthira recovers is over 16 crore gold bharas, returning with it to Hastinapura when Parikshit is a month old.
Section 9 contains a rare dialogue between Indra, boasting of his omnipotence, and Agni sarcastically reminding him of his ignominious humbling by Vritra and Chyavana. This time it is Samvarta, Brihaspati’s brother, whose sacrifice for Marutta Indra is forced to sanctify. One of the messengers Indra dispatches to Marutta is the gandharva Dhritarashtra. The Kauravas have links with gandharvas and nagas. Satyavati’s son Chitrangada was killed by a gandharva with the same name; her grandson shares his name with a naga and a gandharva.
Yudhishthira, aware that the era of Kali is approaching, and that the raja’s character shapes the people’s future, rules wisely, inspired by dharma. An idyllic portrait of his reign is given in section 14.
As many as 42 sections are devoted to something quite different. Krishna has been enjoying the company of Arjuna: ‘To be with you/is to find joy/even in a desolate forest.’ Now he wishes to return home. A peripeteia occurs here as Arjuna makes a startling disclosure. Being of fickle concentration, he has forgotten what Krishna revealed on the eve of the battle. Krishna reprimands him:
‘I am maha-displeased by your silliness
in not understanding what I said’.
you seem to lack shraddha
and power of comprehension.’ (16.10)
The Gita is not a command performance. The divine afflatus cannot be repeated on demand: ‘Yoked-in-yoga then/I discoursed on Brahma-realisation’. As a substitute, Krishna offers Arjuna an ancient history that he must listen to with concentration and without questioning (in the Gita he had argued repeatedly). This takes the form of a series of conversations: between a Brahmin named Kashyapa and a perfected Siddha; a Brahmin and his wife (anticipating that between Vaishampayana’s rebellious disciple Yajnavalkya and Maitreyi); Narada and sage Devamata; Parashurama and his manes; finally, a guru and his disciple. This is the Anugita: a summation of the doctrine of liberation that, though profound in its intellection, presumably does not soar to spiritual heights beyond Arjuna’s ken. Krishna says that for a confused or unreceptive mind this wisdom is unattainable and that none but Arjuna has heard it till now (19.58).
The concepts of equanimity (sthitaprajna), Adhibhuta, Adhidaivata, Adhyatman are explained, as also the concept of Vibhutis. Vairagya (renunciation) is celebrated as the key to achieving nirvana that even the low-born and women can adopt. It takes but six months of dedication with faith and shraddha to attain this yoga (19.66). Gods do not value transcending bodily mortality by renouncing the fruits of action. Hence, their realm is for work-obsessed people. It is greed that is the single worst vice: ‘Slice greed with a sharp sword and happiness is won!’ Selflessness, impartiality, absence of desire constitute the supreme path of Dharma. The atman has to be purified by the atman, wiping out all rituals and social formalities to experience freedom.
Much of the symbolism of sacrifices is explained here. It is the ten hotri (priest)-senses who offer the ten sense-objects as libations in the ten fires that are the phenomenal world. The meaning of yajna is service and sacrifice to the divinity Narayana, the soul of all, by ego the hota, mind the adhvaryu, intellect the udgata using the shastra-weapon truth, the dakshina-offering being apavarga (emancipation). Animal sacrifice is explicitly condemned (with the rider that in the past this used to be offered to Narayana) and ahimsa extolled as the supreme dharma as we have first heard in the story of Ruru in the Adi Parva. Instead of the terrifying world-forest of Vidura’s parable in Stri Parva, here is Vidyaranya, the mighty forest of Brahma, where the tree of wisdom blooms with fruit of moksha and the soothing shade of peace.
The Gita’s eidetic symbol of the cosmic tree is repeated here twice (sections 35 and 47) with a different significance. Its seed is the un-manifest, its trunk the intellect, its branches self-conceit, the senses its sap, the five elements its ever-flowering tangled branches, leafy, fragrant, laden with bitter and sweet fruit. Two foolish birds sit on this tree: mind and intellect, neither very percipient. But there is another, the atman, the self-knower, the kshetrajna. He who slices this tree with the sharp sword of knowledge achieves freedom from birth and death. Krishna repeats the Gita’s figure of the nine-gated city fed by three streams of gunas along with a detailed exposition of Sattva, Rajas and Tamas, as also the advice to withdraw one’s senses like the tortoise pulling in its limbs. The Gita’s symbol of the body-chariot, the mind-charioteer, the intellect-reins, the senses-horses recurs. The guru narrating all this is Krishna and Arjuna’s mind is the disciple to whom this wisdom of Adhyatman is a gift of love, which none has heard previously.
We are taken by surprise to find that Shankaracharya’s sublime nirvana-shatakam has its source in section 28. Another serendipitous finding is that section 16 contains these lovely verses that are echoed by the Buddha:
‘Again and again I died,
again and again I was reborn’
I rejected the whirling world
and sought refuge
In the nirakara formless Divinity’
and so by the grace of my atman
I found the perfection I sought.
I shall not be born again’
No, never more!…
I shall be free,
and working for the welfare of others
I will find my fulfillment.’16.32-40
The Buddha says:
‘How many births have I known
Without knowing the builder of this body!…
But now I have seen you, O builder of this body!
All desire is extinct, Nirvana is attained!
The rafters have crumbled, the ridge pole is smashed!
You will not build them again.’ P.Lal: The Dhammapada, 153-154
Haridas Siddhantavagish, who edited and translated the Bengal recension of the epic, pointed out that the recital of the Gita to Arjuna on the battlefield is stated thrice in this parva (16.5 at the beginning, 19.55 in the middle and 51.49 at the end of the Anugita). Similar references occur in the Shantiparva too. Scholars claiming that the Gita is a later interpolation have overlooked this.
Krishna returns to Dvaraka and en route meets the sage Uttanka, whom we have met in the Paushya sub-parva of the first book and who motivated Janamejaya to hold the snake sacrifice. In the Ashvamedha account, his guru is not Veda but Gautama whose wife Ahalya demands, asdakshina, the earrings of the wife of the king-turned-cannibal, Saudasa-Kalmashapada who devoured Vashishtha’s progeny as plotted by Vishvamitra. The sage is furious that Krishna did not enforce peace and caused mass destruction. Krishna stops him from wasting his hard-won ascetic merit in a curse and instructs him about Adhyatman, repeating the concept of avatara and explaining that being born as a human he is forced to act in that fashion and not as the Omnipotent. Krishna blesses him not only with a vision of the Vishvarupa, but also persuades Indra to gift the sage Amrita. Indra approaches the parched Uttanka in the desert as a naked hunter, offering him the water streaming from his penis. Uttanka refuses, despite repeated urging. This parallels the Paushya parva incident where Indra asks him to eat a bull’s dung and drink his urine, both forms of Amrita, and Uttanka obeys because his guru Veda has done so previously. Here, he refuses and loses immortality. As recompense, Krishna assures him that to slake his thirst Uttanka-clouds will invariably appear in the desert to rain sweet water.
The account of the war Krishna gives his father is of interest because of the differences. In it, Shikhandi, not Dhrishtadyumna, leads the Pandava army against Bhishma and fells the patriarch, with no mention of Arjuna. Dhrishtadyumna slays weary Drona, with no mention of Yudhishthira’s quibbling. Karna is slain by Arjuna, with no reference to his chariot-wheel getting stuck. Shalya, leading three armies, is killed by Yudhishthira. Bhima tracks down Duryodhana and kills him. There is no mention of any blow below the belt. At Subhadra’s insistence, Krishna relates how Abhimanyu was deceitfully killed by Drona, Karna, Kripa and Duhshasana’s son. Significantly, the Yadava kinsman Kritavarma’s role is not mentioned.
The obtaining of Marutta’s gold begins, significantly, with the propitiation of Shiva whose presence has waxed, looming over the events more and more. Bhima now directly attributes Arjuna’s successes to Shiva’s grace. It takes them a month to return with the gold by when Uttara’s son has been born dead and revived by Krishna through an act of truth. Even at that climactic moment the very special place Arjuna holds in his consciousness is made clear once again. Krishna swears by the power of no rift having ever existed between him and Arjuna. Thus Parikshit, the remnant of the line, lives.
The remaining sections recount the roaming of the horse, the battles fought against the slender remnants of descendants of those slain at Kurukshetra and a brief account of the completion of the sacrifice. Only some of the encounters are narrated (Trigarta, Saindhava, Pragjyotisha, Rajagriha, Cedi, Dasharna, Nishada ruled by Ekalavya’s son, Dravida, Andhra, Raudra, Mahishaka, Kolla, Saurashtra, Gokarna, Prabhasa, Dvaraka, Panchanada in the west, Gandhara). The Sindhu queen Duhshala, Dhritarashtra’s daughter, approaches Arjuna for mercy, her son having died of fear on hearing of his approach. Anguished, Arjuna rails against the warrior code: ‘Shame on that which has made me/despatch all my relatives’. There are hints that Arjuna is not invincible without Krishna. Twice the Gandiva slips out of Arjuna’s grip (against the Trigartas and the Saindhavas). In Pragjyotisha, Bhagadatta’s son Vajradatta engages Arjuna for three full days.
Vyasa, master raconteur, grips our interest with unexpected reversals. The epic has several peripiteia. Just when we thought the Pandavas were finally victorious, their sons were murdered. In Manipura (Manalura in many manuscripts, located in southern India near Madurai) Ulupi suddenly appears to motivate Arjuna’s son Babhruvahana to fight and slay his father. Then she revives him, having engineered the event to cleanse her husband of the adharmik slaying of Bhishma, for which the Vasus had cursed him. At Arjuna’s request, Babhruvahana is specially honored in Hastinapura along with Ulupi and Chitrangada.
There is a piquant touch in section 87 where Yudhishthira asks Krishna why Arjuna should have to travel and suffer so much despite his body bearing all auspicious marks. Krishna replies that Arjuna’s over-developed ‘pindike’ are the cause. Draupadi casts an annoyed side-glance at Krishna, much to his delight at this sign of her love for Arjuna. ‘Pindike’ has been mis-translated as ‘cheek-bones’. ‘Pindikaa’ means a lump of flesh on shoulders, arms or legs, also ‘penis’. In view of Arjuna’s incessant roaming, it would connote his exaggerated calves.
The description of the Ashvamedha ritual is drastically abbreviated compared to what we find in the Ramayana and the Shatapatha Brahmana. The chief queen has a major role to play in the sacrifice and spends the night lying with the horse. Here Draupadi has no role other than sitting beside the sacrificed animal. In the Harivamsa Janamejaya prohibits performance of this yajna in future because of a scandalous incident involving his queen. In India today we see the peculiar phenomenon of this sacrifice being celebrated by businessmen without an animal sacrifice to purify the environment.
The audience presumes that the parva has now drawn to a close, but Vyasa astonishes them yet again. Suddenly a blue-eyed mongoose appears with a half-golden pelt and laughs to scorn the rich donations of which the Pandavas are so proud. It declares this horse-sacrifice a failure as it does not turn the rest of its pelt golden. Superior by far was the gift of a handful of parched grain by a fasting Brahmin to a guest who was Dharma himself. This story is yet another lesson imparted by Dharma to Yudhishthira on eschewing greed and anger. ‘No number of yajnas can make one virtuous’; ‘Dharma is not happy with maha-luxurious gifts, he prefers the littlest gifts if donated with shraddha and acquired by honest means.’ That is the anagnorisis, the recognition and realization of the core truth.
After this we find a fascinating record of the controversy over animal sacrifice. The ascetics and the gods disputed over whether it was better to sacrifice animals, grains or juices. Uparichara Vasu, asked to adjudicate, sought to wriggle out of the dilemma by ruling that whatever was available could be used. That evasion consigned him to hell. Agastya performs a twelve-year yajna only with seeds, overcoming Indra’s opposition. Thus ahimsa is extolled once again as the supreme virtue. Along with the mongoose episode, this provides a clue to when the epic might have acquired its written form. This would be in the time of Ashoka when non-violence to creatures acquired state sanction.
The Lal transcreation rightly omits the Vaishnava-dharma sub-parva of 1700 verses found after this in the Bengal and Southern recensions which is an obvious sectarian interpolation, having nothing to do with the theme of the Ashvamedhika Parva.
This parva is particularly significant for having inspired two very different but remarkable creative works. One is a novel, The Great Golden Sacrifice, the last part of Maggi Lidchi Grassi’s trilogy on Arjuna’s spiritual journey. The other is an ancient composition by Jaimini, one of Vyasa’s four disciples, whose Ashvamedha Parva is the only portion of his version of the Mahabharata that has survived. Jaimini’s work is larger than his preceptor’s and quite sensational, featuring the heroism of the sons of heroes slain in the Kurukshetra war. It was so popular that the medieval vernacular retellings of the epic and the Persian version Akbar commissioned used Jaimini instead of Vyasa’s composition for this parva.
Unknown to most, its first English translation by Major General Shekhar Sen has been published from Writers Workshop.