– On the field of righteousness, on the field of the Kurus –
What are the joyous fruits of victory?
Ah! hapless wives of those mail-clad sons of Troy!
Ah! poor maidens, luckless brides, come weep,
for Ilium is now but a ruin; and I,
like some mother-bird that o’er her fledglings screams,
will begin the strain.
These words that fell from the lips of Hecuba, queen of Troy, on the Athenian stage when Euripides staged it in 416 BC (the Mahabharata took shape around the same time) could as well have been spoken by Vyasa’s Gandhari. Aeschylus’ The Trojan Women has been celebrated as the greatest piece of anti-war literature by those not familiar with Vyasa’s Stri Parva.
The Kurukshetra holocaust is over. Of the 18 armies only 10 warriors survive. The immense scale of slaughter is recounted by Yudhishthira to Dhritarashtra as numbering ten arbuda, sixty six crores and twenty thousand dead (1,660,020,000). A huge cremation rite is held for all of them. It is here that for the first time, in the Lal version, we come across the name of Abhimanyu’s slayer: Duhshasana’s son Sudarshana (the critical edition leaves him nameless).
Indian scholars have overlooked Vyasa’s repeated use of the image of war as a ritual sacrifice, which sets the Kurukshetra war well apart from the Trojan. It was Alf Hiltebeitel who highlighted this in The Ritual of Battle. James Fitzgerald has further elaborated it in his translation of the Stri Parva.
The Book of Women takes us back to the Book of Effort where Karna, imaging the ensuing war to Krishna as Duryodhana’s massive weapons-yajna, foretold:
When the wives of Dhritarashtra’s grandsons huddle together,
Keshava-Krishna, having lost their protectors, their sons, and their husbands,
And lament in the presence of Gandhari,
with dogs and vultures roaming the battlefield, that will be the yajna’s final bath,
Janardana-Krishna. – Udyoga 141.50-51, the Lal transcreation.
Sanjaya, consoling Dhritarashtra, makes this even more clear:
Into the sacred fire
Of the sacrificed bodies
Of the heroes, were poured
The ghee oblations
Of the arrows
Of their enemies – Stri 2.17
Ladies never seen outdoors now stream forth, clad in single white garments (as Draupadi had cursed after the dice-sabha), like screeching ospreys onto the corpse-strewn field, their complexion turned copper-brown by the sun as they frantically seek to match limbs to bodies and heads – often fruitlessly. Repeatedly Vyasa says that the scene resembled doomsday, yuganta. There is wailing and gnashing of teeth. David’s anguished lament rings in our ears:
Thy glory, O Israel, is slain upon thy high places!
How are the mighty fallen!
Tell it not in Gath,
Publish it not in the streets of Ashkelon;’
Ye daughters of Israel,
How are the mighty fallen in the midst of the battle!
And the weapons of war perished!
The previous translations of the Stri Parva are all in prose, the latest being James Fitzgerald’s in 2004. The anguish captured in the anushtubh shloka (from shoka came shloka said Valmiki) cannot, however, be conveyed thus. It is like couching David’s lament and Hecuba’s grieving in prose. The poetic Lal transcreation communicates it with great sensitivity, the mood set by the Preface itself. It is an extract from his remarkable long poem, The Man of Dharma and the Rasa of Silence recreating the stunning parable about the meaning of life that Vidura relates in response to Dhritarashtra’s frantic question: “But what is the way?…How does an un-winged bird like me fly? How does an unsonned sun like me shine?” The very unusual dedication that follows reinforces the tone:
“to the kanyas, devis, apsaras, dharma-patnis, kinnaris and other ladies in the Mahabharata whose shakti energises the kala-chakra of the Kshatriyan cosmos.”
Vyasa never proceeds along expected lines. He is the narrator par excellence who always has a surprise in store. The incidents of this parva are set in-between the murder of the sleepers and the capture of Ashvatthama in the preceding Sauptika Parva. Abruptly, with Duryodhana’s death, the heroic aura disappears and the survivors stand before us as ordinary men, terrified of the victors. Dhritarashtra and the widows, en route the battlefield, are met by Kripa, Ashvatthama and Kritavarma who give him the news and flee on horseback, splitting up lest the Pandavas catch them. Yudhishthira leads his brothers and sorrowing women to meet his blind uncle and aunt on the banks of the Ganga. The Kuru widows put to him a rhetorical question which he will echo later, wishing to abdicate:
You have killed father,
sons and friends’
is this kingdom to you
without fathers, brothers, without
And Draupadi’s sons? (12.7, 9)
Dhritarashtra dissimulates, asking to embrace Bhima. Krishna’s brilliant prescience saves the Pandavas once again by substituting a metal image that the blind king crushes in rage, shedding crocodile tears. The two Krishnas, Vyasa and Vasudeva, bluntly point out to Dhritarashtra and Gandhari their responsibility for the war by not controlling Duryodhana and persuade them to cast aside vengeful thoughts. Dhritarashtra then calls for “Pandu’s second son, Bhima (not Arjuna as translated)” to caress him (13.15). Bhima, terrified, lies to Gandhari that he did not drink Duhshasana’s blood, justifying his other acts by citing the outrage committed on Draupadi. There is no mention of any attempt to strip her, only to her being dragged by the hair. But Gandhari’s fury has to have an outlet. As Yudhishthira, stooping to touch her feet, begs her to punish him, her glance from below the blindfold deforms his lovely fingernails. Section 15, shloka 30 is mistranslated as: “toe-nails of the king/instantly became black.”
Yudhishthira is stooping, or falling prone, at Gandhari’s feet; her glance would naturally fall on his finger-nails not his toes which are beyond her lowered glance. The original is angulyagrani, finger-tips, with no reference to pada (feet). Vyasa presents a lovely vignette here: seeing Yudhishthira’s plight, invincible Arjuna scurries to hide behind Krishna. Noticing this, Gandhari’s anger is quenched.
Besides Gandhari, we would have expected Draupadi to lament at length. Instead, it is limited to two verses addressed to Kunti who helps up the prone Draupadi and takes her to Gandhari who greets her coldly:
What good is grieving?
All dead. Grief is useless.
You and I are the same-
victims of grief’ (15.44)
There is none of the loathing that throbs in Hecuba’s reference to Helen: “A thing of loathing, of shame to husband, to brother, to home. She slew Priam, the king, father of fifty sons, she wrecked me upon the reef of destruction.” Shloka 44 of section 15 has Gandhari telling Draupadi that both are “rejected by all”, which ought to read “who will comfort us?” Gandhari ends with, “I am responsible for the slaughter of my family,” hinting that so is Draupadi because of her inveterate vengefulness.
Prior to all this, Vidura’s interaction with the grief-stricken king contains gems of philosophical insights: cosmic time is unavoidable, impartial, loving or hating none, merely cooking all creatures indiscriminately. The image of the body as chariot, the senses the horses, rational acts the reins recurs side by side with that of the world as the chariot of Yama. The sense-controller is free of the world-wheel, “He moves in the world./The world/does not move him. (7.16)” Grief can be cured only by not indulging in it. You are your own friend and your own enemy: do good, be happy; do bad, suffer, for “Always, everywhere,/ your deeds bring fruits-/ nothing else does.” The Gita’s image of discarding bodies like old clothes and that of the potter’s wheel are repeated as the sole eternal reality. In section 5 comes the wonderful image of the world as a wilderness in which man (named Samaraditya in Haribhadra’s Jain text) is lost that became so well known in medieval Europe – via Persian, Arabic and Greek – as the parable of the man in the well told by Saint Barlaam to prince Josaphat (Bodhisatva). Towards the end of section 7 Vidura stresses character as the pre-requisite for a sorrow-free mind, dependant on discipline (dama), detachment (tyaga), alertness (apramada). Interestingly enough, this same triad features on the Besnagar Garuda pillar of Heliodorus and forms a critical part of Buddhist teaching.
It is extremely rare that the author should himself appear within his own composition. Vyasa does so in section 8 specifically to bring the narrative full circle, taking us back to the Adi Parva to reveal to Dhritarashtra “the eternal secret of the gods”, providing an eye-witness account of the plan for this carnage drawn up by Vishnu at the over-burdened Earth’s request to the gods. He reminds us also that Duryodhana was a partial incarnation of Kali and that Shakuni (Dvapara) and Karna were born to assist in the carnage. This raises a puzzling issue over Surya fathering Karna who is ranged on the side of evil. Undoubtedly, to reconcile his affiliation with the anti-god Kauravas, some redactor added on the passage in the Vana Parva that Narakasura would possess Karna. Vyasa informs that during the Rajasuya ritual he had told Yudhishthira of this and Narada too had warned him of the impending destruction. The Sabha Parva, however, has no such warning by Narada, though after Shishupala has been beheaded Vyasa does foretell doom. This may well indicate a missing passage.
Vyasa now rings a marvellous change by replacing Sanjaya’s special gift of omniscience with that of Gandhari who paints for Krishna – appropriately called here “Janardana, crusher-of-people” – a heartbreaking picture of the battlefield spanning as many as ten sections (16 to 25). In it we find instances of erotic horror, as in Bhurishravas’ queen’s cradling his severed arm and recalling intimate caresses. Speaking of her brother Shakuni, Gandhari suddenly shifts to juxtaposing opposites: he won a kingdom by trick – and lost his own life; once soothed by the breeze of golden fans, today he is fanned by flapping birds; Shakuni has become the feast of shakunta-birds. Her mounting anguish is again transformed into rage directed at Krishna as Janardana, persecutor of people, for deliberately destroying the Kaurava dynasty. She curses him to become the doom of his own people after thirty six years and to die a shameful, disgusting death while his women weep like the Bharata ladies. Imperturbable Krishna acknowledges that this doom is inevitable. Thus, the Mausala Parva is anticipated.
When least expected, as Yudhishthira is offering water oblations to the dead in the Ganga, Kunti suddenly erupts with grief and stuns her sons with the truth about Karna’s birth. What a climactic scene Vyasa creates in the midst of the sea of tears! To Yudhishthira, this revelation is more agonising than the death of the Pandava children and the Panchalas. The agony of being responsible for his eldest brother’s death finds expression, as with Gandhari, in a curse pronounced by the dharma-king with which the Book of Women ends:
“Let no woman
from today keep a secret.”