PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION & MANAGEMENT:
Edited Administrative Training Institute Monographs 1-20. Kolkata. 2005-2009:
Edited Samsad Series on Public Administration. Kolkata, 2007-8:
Madhusraba Dasgupta: Samsad Companions to The Mahabharata and The Ramayana, Shishu Sahitya Samsad, Kolkata, Rs. 1200 and Rs.800; pp. (large size) 608 & 400
The sheer magnitude of India’s epics has proved a great challenge as much to the scholar as to the aficionado, besides putting off the common reader—but no longer. Thanks to the astonishing labour of Smt. Madhusraba Dasgupta, who has put together single-handedly everything there is to know about both epics, even the quizmaster will now have an easy time finding material to draw upon. For the Mahabharata, she has used the Pune Bhandarkar edition, the Bengal Asiatic Society edition, and its translation by K.M. Ganguli, which she unaccountably refers to as “P.C. Ray” although he was only the publisher. Every entry is referenced with respect to both editions—an extremely useful feature. The publisher, Debajyoti Dutta, deserves our gratitude for publishing these volumes with such excellent production values.
Long ago, Sorensen had compiled an index to the Mahabharata arranged in dictionary form. A Hindi version by Ramkumar Rai was published in several volumes in the Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series, with a parallel “kosha” for the Ramayana in the early 1980s. If, however, one wishes to find out what weapons were used, what the terms mean and what the army formations were, that information was not found there. Dasgupta groups the data under eight headings “to kindle enthusiasm and ease the exertion of the reader who wants to see beyond a mere account of facts.” These are: the parvas and sections; identities; the ancient world (then and now); races, tribes, castes; troop formations, weapons, accessories; specific terms; other names of characters; an appendix providing select genealogies, the last without providing any reference to the text. She has formulated her own pronunciation guide, departing from the internationally accepted diacriticals, finding that inadequate.
The introduction to the Mahabharata volume is rather slender. She makes the interesting point that no detailed physical description of any character is found—what we have is quite vague. Besides listing characters and places, she also provides the inhabitants of different regions, the social orders. She points out the lack of mention of any temple or idol. However, in Ganguli’s translation of the Sabha Parva section 79, we find Vidura telling Dhritarashtra, “And jackals and vultures and ravens and other carnivorous beasts and birds began to shriek and cry aloud from the temples of the gods and the tops of sacred trees and walls and house-tops.” In section 32, there is reference to temples of gods, and to a temple of Shiva in section 15 in which Jarasandha imprisoned princes. Dasgupta claims that there is archaeological evidence of the Kurukshetra battle. Actually, no such evidence has been found. Only pottery was dug up in the early 1950s, but nothing that connects to what we find in the Mahabharata. Strangely enough, there has been no excavation here since then, despite all the breast-beating about unearthing and preserving ancient Indian heritage. The astronomical evidence she refers to as fixing 1500 BC, as the time of the war is as dubious as the Yudhishthira Era of 3102 BC is. She refers to the epic having had 8,800 verses initially, an erroneous notion propagated by Weber. This is the number of verses that Sauti refers to as “knotted slokas,” very difficult to understand. Nor does the Mahabharata consist of one lakh slokas, but extends to over 90,000 verses.
Anyone wanting a list of all the pilgrimage spots mentioned will find it readily in this volume. The spots Balarama visits could have been mentioned in a cluster as has been done for the Pandavas. All forests, lakes, rivers, mountains, kingdoms, cities, villages and even steeds and standards are listed! Besides vyuhas (troop formations), parts of the chariot, the various modes of fighting, celestial weapons and normal ones are catalogued. She has tried to identify, as far as possible, the current names of the places mentioned, so that the geography comes alive to us today. Unfortunately, there is no map in both volumes, which would have enhanced their usefulness.
The entry on Shiva seems to contain a few errors. It was Agni, not Shiva, who gifted the Gandiva bow to Arjuna. Shiva’s pinaka is not a small drum but a pike or trident. What he holds is a dambaru which is an hour-glass shaped small drum. His going before Arjuna killing those whom his arrows later slay has been omitted.
Some of the entries could have been a little more informative. Where can we find the names of the eight sons of Kavi? Surya was named Martanda (dead-egg) because he was stillborn (like Parikshit). Also, as Martanda is also the name of Yama, it hints at why he was called lord of death. Again, Ekalavya is not the son of Nishada king Hiranyadhanu, but his adopted son, born to Krishna’s paternal uncle Devashrava who gave him away. He is, thus, Krishna’s agnate cousin whom he kills, as he does his aunt’s son Shishupala. Again, Jara, Krishna’s killer was his stepbrother, being Vasudeva’s son from a Shudra wife who became a Nishada chief (cf. Harivansha, Vishnu Parva, 103.27). In the genealogy provided in the Appendix, these relationships are not indicated, nor the fact that Pritha-Kunti was of Yadu’s lineage and the sister of Vasudeva, and names of the mothers of Balarama, Krishna and Subhadra. Balarama and Krishna’s wives are also missing. One would have thought that the very critical role women play in the Mahabharata would have motivated Smt. Dasgupta to include all the names of women in the genealogies. She overlooks references in the Ashramavasika Parva to two more wives: another wife of Bhima is the sister of Krishna’s inveterate foe (Shishupala/ Jarasandha/Dantavakra?) and a wife of Sahadeva is a daughter of Jarasandha. Their names and progeny are not mentioned. How many of us realise that when Abhimanyu killed Brihadbala, ruler of Kosala, it was in effect the Lunar Dynasty wiping out Ayodhya’s Solar Dynasty! In the genealogy, no link is shown between Pratipa (Paryashravas in a parallel version) and Shantanu, despite their being father and son. The fact that Bharata adopted Bhumanyu from Bharadvaja, disinheriting his nine sons, has not been indicated.
One misses a list of the partial descents (amshavatarana) of gods, demi-gods and anti-gods that is an important part of the framework of the epic, which is to relieve the earth of its burden of demonic rulers. Surya’s two wives, their progeny and how Surya was partly shorn of his blaze are missing. Though the names of Yayati’s disinherited sons are given, what happened to their lineages is missing. However, bhaktas will readily find here the 1008 names of Shiva and Vishnu conveniently grouped at one place.
The introduction to the Ramayana Companion is satisfyingly long, providing features of the three cities that are in conflict: Ayodhya, Kishkindha and Lanka, along with the living patterns, culture, and an overview of the characters and the pantheon. Unlike the other volume, this draws not upon the Baroda critical edition, but only on the vulgate, i.e. the Gita Press and the Calcutta edition of 1907. Besides the sectional headings of the preceding book, added here are creatures, heavenly bodies, flora-fauna, gems, musical instruments, food and drink, transport, units of measures and weights. These additional sections indicate that the society of the Ramayana is more developed than that of the ostensibly later Mahabharata which is quite Hobbesian in being nasty and brutish. Interestingly enough, there is no paean listing multiple names of any deity in Valmiki’s composition, which does suggest an earlier culture. The geographical section omits the name of Shravasti, the capital of Northern Kosala ruled by Lava. The unfortunate omission of an index in the Mahabharata volume has been remedied here so that one can easily locate the relevant entry.
No praise is adequate for the extraordinary work Smt. Dasgupta has done. Hers is a signal contribution to Indological studies. The publisher, too, richly deserves accolades from all readers.
Indologica Taurinensia 43 (2017)
PRADIP BHATTACHARYA, trans. from Sanskrit, The Mahabharata of Vyasa: The Complete Shantiparva Part 2: Mokshadharma, Writers Workshop, Kolkata, 2016, pp. 1107, Rs. 2000/-
The book reviewed here is Pradip Bhattacharya’s translation of Mokṣadharmaparvan in the Śānti-Parvan of Mahābhārata, which starts from Section 174 of the Śānti-Parvan in Kisari Mohan Ganguli’s (KMG) prose translation, and corresponds to Section 168 of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (BORI) or Pune Critical Edition (C.E).
Padma Shri Professor Purushottam Lal, D. Litt. began the first ever attempt to a verse “transcreation” of the Mahabharata in 1968; unfortunately, his timeless ongoing work lost to time in 2010 with his untimely demise, so that “transcreation” of sixteen and a half of the epic’s eighteen books could be published. Bhattacharya takes up the unfinished job of his Guru, and offers this verse-prose Guru–Dakṣiṇā to his “much-admired guru and beloved acharya”, Prof. Lal. He however, is on his own in that he does “translate rather than transcreate”.
Bhattacharya proposes to “keeping to the original syntax as far as possible without making the reading too awkward” and sets out on his translation venture “in free verse (alternate lines of ten and four-to-six feet) and in prose (as in original) faithful to Prof. Lal’s objective of providing the full ‘ragbag’ version.”
Mokṣadharmaparvan being the philosophic and soteriological culmination of Mahābhārata and Ancient India’s message and wisdom, Bhattacharya’s work is culturally important in bringing to the English speaking world this very important parvan.
The idea of Mokṣa that Kṛṣṇa teaches Arjuna in the Gītā (Udyoga Parvan) and found elsewhere (though mostly in the sense of liberty from any Tyrannous Power) is elaborated in Mokṣadharmaparvan through Itihāsa-Puraṇa, narratives, recollections and fables. Mokṣa is the final of the Four Puruṣārthas – following Dharma, Artha and Kāma; yet it would not arrive automatically or inevitably by law of chronology unless Puruṣakāra blends with Daiva, and Daiva may favour only when Balance of Puruṣārthas – Dharma-Artha-Kāma – is attained through Buddhi, Upāya (Strategy/Policy), Will and Karma.
The parvan stands out as unique in its advocacy of Liberal Varṇa System (portraying non-Brāhmiṇ characters like Sulabhā, prostitute Piṅgalā and Śūdras as qualified for higher merit and social status through wisdom), and carries the important and interesting message that understanding Gender Relation or Evolutionary Nature of Gender is essential for Prajñā leading to Mokṣa. Yudhiṣṭhira learns all these theoretically from grandfather Bhīṣma, who is then on his Bed of Arrows. This is not without significance. Bhīṣma’s physical life-in-death or death-in-life is apt parallel and metaphor for Yudhiṣṭhira’s mental state. Yudhiṣṭhira and his brothers and Draupadī qualify to gain knowledge on Mokṣa–Dharma only after their growing realization through dialogues, debates, experiences and feelings that victory in war has been futile, and Kurukṣetra War is as much external as internal. Yet, at the end of Śānti-Parvan, theoretical knowledge does not suffice, and the Pāṇḍavas and Draupadī emerge Dynamic in their quest for more quests – that sets the stage for further of Bhīṣma’s advice in Anuśāsana Parvan. The message that emerges from Mokṣadharmaparvan is that, one has to actually attain Mokṣa; mere theorizing is only furthering Bandhana.
Bhattacharya has long been a critic of the C.E considered almost sacrosanct by perhaps most of the Videśi and Svadeśī scholars alike, while, ironically, even V.S. Sukhtankhar (1887-1943), the first general editor of the project, was tentative in calling it an approximation of the earliest recoverable form of the Mahākāvya. Bhattacharya’s taking up the massive project of translation is, in a way, his critical commentary on C.E through action; he boldly declares about his project “whatever the C.E. has left out has been sought to be included” – ringing like Mahābhārata’s famous self-proclamation – yad ihāsti tad anyatra yan nehāsti na tat kva cit (1.56.33).
Bhattacharya’s project is thus, what James Hegarty calls “(recovery of) embarrassment of riches” and perhaps more, because it is “a conflation of the editions published by the Gita Press (Gorakhpur, 9th edition, 1980), Āryaśāstra (Calcutta, 1937) and that translated and edited by Haridās Siddhāntavāgiś Bhattacharya in Bengali with the Bhāratakaumudī and Nīlakaṅṭha’s Bhāratabhāvadīpa annotations (Bishwabani Prakashani, Calcutta, 1939).”
Bhattacharya has done an invaluable job to English readership by providing four episodes found in Haridās Siddhāntavāgiś (Nibandhana-Bhogavatī, Nārada, Garuḍa and Kapilā Āsurī narratives) and many verses not found in the Gorakhpur edition. Of these, the Kapilā Āsurī Saṃvāda at Section 321-A (p-815) is only found in Siddhāntavāgiś edition (vol. 37, pp. 3345-3359). Just as in archaeology, every piece of human-treated rock delved from earth is beyond value, I would say that every unique variation or every narrative in Mahābhārata recensions is of similar value particularly in marking a curious interaction point between Classical and Folk Mahābhārata – that no serious Mahābhārata scholar can ignore.
Bhattacharya deserves kudos for bringing into light the stupendous work and name of Siddhāntavāgiś, an almost forgotten name even to most Bengalis, and an unknown scholar to most Mahābhārata scholars or readers, almost eclipsed by the other popular Bengali translator Kālī Prasanna Siṃha.
Translation is a difficult and complex ball-game, particularly when it comes to Sanskrit. India and the Mahābhārata-World have witnessed much Translation Game all in the name of scholarship. The Translation Game as a part of Colonizer’s Agenda as well as the Game-calling is already cliché – having been pointed out and criticized by stalwarts from Rsi Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay to Edward W. Saïd. Sometimes Agenda sometimes peculiar whims have done injustice to Sanskrit. While Alf Hiltebeitel’s constant rendering of Itihāsa as “History”, or Mahākāvya as “Epic”, or translation of Dharma as “religion” or “law” or “foundation” (the latter also in Patrick Olivelle) is the most common example of the former, Van Buitenan’s rendering of Kṣatriya as “Baron” is a signal case of the latter.
The whole Vedic (later, Hindu) tradition is contained in culturally sensitive lexicons that should not be subjected to Free Play in the name of translation. Needless to say, Dharma holds the Key to Bhāratiya Itihāsa as also understanding Mahābhārata. Given the inclusion of Dharma in Oxford dictionary, and given definition of Itihāsa in Kauṭilya’s Arthaśāstra (anywhere between c.a 300 BCE – 300 CE) and Kalhana’s (c. 12th century) Rājātaraṅgini, I wonder why Dharma has to be translated at all, or why Itihāsa has to be translated as “History”, a signifier that falls shorter to the signified of Itihāsa. Bhattacharya arrives at a compromise by rendering “Itihāsa-history” (e.g. Section 343, p- 998).
Bhattacharya’s translation venture has to be understood at the backdrop of above-mentioned translation-scenario. He declares he has been cautious on the matter of translation in having cross-checked with Kaliprasanna Sinha’s Bengali translation (1886), KMG’s first English translation (1883-96) and the shorter BORI edition. Such crosschecking with available translations in different languages of a time-tested Sanskrit work is no doubt the safest and most appropriate translation-methodology that every aspiring translator of already rendered works should follow. Mahābhārata can neither be reduced into simplistic narratives, nor it can be thought in terms of Grand Narrative; more so because Sanskrit denies singular and straightjacket interpretation of signifiers. Varied translations are actually explorations of various narrative possibilities in the Sanskrit lexicon and Ślokas. The wise way therefore, is to keep open to different narrative possibilities.
As one reads Bhattacharya’s translation, one finds that his work is as much experimentation with translating Sanskrit into English, as much with English language itself. If Sanskrit is not a translatable language, then English must transform into a worthy receptacle language – this, it seems, is Bhattacharya’s underlying purpose and belief. He retains Sanskrit words that are in the Oxford English Dictionary, and following Prof. Lal’s style of rendering some Sanskrit words and giving their common or contextual English synonym with a hyphen, also coins Sanskrit-English compounds or retain Sanskrit word as it is. In latter cases, initially, the unused eye and ear may miss the rhythm; however, the Sanskrit-English compound has a rhythm of its own, adds to poetic flavor, enables Bhattacharya to maintain syllable counts in feet, and also enables him to be the simultaneous translator and reader.
Bhattacharya’s Sanskrit-English compounding is utilitarian and perhaps Political too, and surely comes under the purview of Skopostheorie. The reader has the option either to make sense of the Sanskrit on his/her own, or take the English suggested by Bhattacharya. In ‘pure’ translation, this option is unavailable and the reader has to be at the receiving end.
At times, however, over-use of Sanskrit-English compounds makes the reading strenuous and breaks the rhythm. For example, “Likewise by force do I Pṛthivī-earth verily for the welfare of all creatures” (Section 339, verse 71, p- 936) is not a sonorous rendering. Similarly, in “Niṣāda-tribals” (Section 328, verse 14, p- 863), compounding ‘tribal’ is neither politically correct, nor historically or Mahābhāratically correct, because Niṣāda is Varṇasaṃkara (12.285.8-9), and sometimes considered Kṣatriya – though “fallen”, and overall a very complex entity.
In some cases, where the Śloka itself offers the explanation to an epithet or name, Bhattacharya’s retaining the Sanskrit word for what is already explained in the Śloka is a laudable strategy to introduce the Sanskrit word into English vocabulary. For example, “śitikaṇṭha” (verse 98) and “Khaṇḍaparaśu” (verse 100) at Section 342 (p- 990). However, the “ś” in former is small, but “K” in later is in capital; consistency should have been maintained, as also in the case of “maha”. For example, mahāprājña (12.200.1a) rendered as “Maha-wise” is with capital “M” (verse 1, 12, p- 157, 159), whereas it is not in other 6 cases like “maha-rishis” (p- 1026, 1027). ‘P’ in Puruṣottama is not capitalized at Section 235 verse 39 (p- 908), but capitalized at page- 910 (verse 53). Guṇa is not transcripted (Sec- 205, verse 10-12, p- 142); it is with small “g” in most cases, even at page-143, verse 17 where once it is small and once with a capital “G”. Kāla is transcripted but in same verse-line saṃsāra is not (Sec- 213, verse 13, p- 217). Similarly, “atman” (Ātmā) is sometimes with small “a” sometimes capital “A” (e.g. p-386-7).
Bhattacharya may address these minor issues in his next edition; minor, because his laudable retention of culturally exclusive words like “arghya” (e.g. Section 343, p- 1000) and “āñjali” [“palms joined in āñjali” (e.g. Section 325, verse 30 & 32, p- 846)], as also Praṇāma in “pranam-ed” (verse 19, p- 176) and “pranam-ing” (Sec- 209A, verse 25, 28, 29, 33; p- 177), outweighs occasional capitalization-italicization inconsistency or misses.
Even if it is not “inconsistency” but deliberate, Bhattacharya’s dual strategy of transcripting Sanskrit words in IAST, and non-transcripting Oxford accepted Sanskrit words, may appear confusing to readers. For example, he does not transcript the prefix ‘maha’ or italicize it. Similar is “rishis”. In my opinion, the recurrence of the prefix ‘maha’ could have been avoided in some cases. For example, “maha-humans” (Section 343, p- 999) and ‘mahāyaśāḥ’ (12.200.33a) translated as “maha-renowned” (Sec- 207, vn. 33, p- 161) sounds odd and breaks the rhythm.
The translation experimentation is Bhattacharya’s commentary too – which Sanskrit words English should accept in vocabulary instead of futile indulging in Translation Game. Take for example the word Puruṣa, which is a Key word in the Mokṣadharmaparvan and in the doctrine of Puruṣārthas. Puruṣa has been translated in various ways. Renowned scholars like Julius Eggeling, Max Muller, Arthur Berriedale Keith and Hanns Oertel have mostly translated Puruṣa as “man” or “person” in their renderings of ancient Vedic texts. Needless to say, these renderings are misleading because originally, it is a non-gendered concept. Bhattacharya has it both ways; he retains Puruṣa and offers different compounding in different contexts – Puruṣa-Spirit (e.g. Sec- 348, p- 1026), “Puruṣa-being” (e.g. Sec- 321, verse 37, p- 817; Sec- 343, p- 1000), and “Puruṣa the Supreme Person” (Sec- 334, verse 29, p- 900). While the contextual compounding offers the reader the choice to make his own sense of Puruṣa, in my opinion, Bhattacharya could have retained Puruṣa as it is, because the compounded English translation is at times etymologically problematic. For example, Bhattacharya translates ekāntinas tu puruṣā gacchanti paramaṃ padam (12.336.3c) as “those exclusive devotees, reaching Puruṣa-spirit the supreme station” (Sec- 348, p- 1026). But, ‘Spirit’ from PIE *(s)peis– “to blow” does not go well with Puruṣa (though “ru” connotes “sound”), and though the Latin spiritus connotes “soul” (other than “courage, vigor, breath”), the modern English connotation (since c.1250) “animating or vital principle in man and animals,” and Puruṣa is indeed identified with Prāṇa in Brāhmaṇas and Āraṇyakas, yet Puruṣa is much more than all those combined connotations and significances. Perhaps, Bhattacharya could have left Puruṣa as Puruṣa, and Pada as Pada given the immense significations of Pada. “Supreme station” does not seem to be an adequate translation of paramaṃ padam. ‘Station’ from PIE base *sta– “to stand” is rather Static, whereas, Puruṣa is a Dynamic principle in Vedas with “thousand feet” (RV- 10.90). Bhattacharya seems to have followed Griffith’s translation of Paramaṃ Padaṃ as “supreme station” (e.g. Griffith’s trans. in RV- 1.22.21 – “Vishnu’s station most sublime” for viṣṇoḥ yat paramam padam). Further, the punctuation ‘comma’ is missing after Puruṣa-spirit.
Bhattacharya has sometimes quoted the whole Sanskrit Śloka and then given its translation. Mostly these are well-known and oft-quoted famous Ślokas; at times, it seems these are his personal favourites. This strategy is a severe jolt to conventional translation. Bhattacharya makes the point that despite reading translation, the reader must have the reminder of the original. In some renderings, he has used popular English idioms in addition to the translation, which carry the sense of the Śloka though not literally implied. Such experimentation makes the communication forceful. For example, he translates karoti yādṛśaṃ karma tādṛśaṃ pratipadyate (12.279.21c) as “as is the karma done, similar is the result obtained”; and then further adds, “as you sow, so shall you reap” (verse 22, p- 639). This being a popular idiom, succeeds in better communication with the reader, which is no doubt the translator’s achievement.
Bhattacharya’s translation is crisp, compact and lucid. For example, KMG renders – manoratharathaṃ prāpya indriyārthahayaṃ naraḥ / raśmibhir jñānasaṃbhūtair yo gacchati sa buddhimān (12.280.1) as “That man who, having obtained this car, viz., his body endued with mind, goes on, curbing with the reins of-knowledge the steeds represented by the objects of the senses, should certainly be regarded as possessed of intelligence.” The result is loosening and dispersing of the original sense; besides, “curbing” adds negative dimension. Bhattacharya translates this as “obtaining this chariot of the mind drawn by the horses of the sense-objects, the man who guides it by the reins of knowledge…” – which is a more practical and easy-flowing rendering, retaining the poetic flavour; besides, “guiding” instead of KMG’s “curbing” is positive and does justice to the optimistic philosophy implied here.
Bhattacharya’s task is indeed a “Himalayan task” (preface, p-6) as he is aware of the “challenge”. With all humbleness that befits an Indian scholar’s Śraddhā to Indian tradition, Bhattacharya is open-minded to revise towards perfection and admits “all errors are mine and I shall be grateful if these are pointed out” (Preface, p- 6).
As an experimentation in translation, Bhattacharya’s methodology is here to last; future translators of Sanskrit may improve the system, but surely cannot indulge in whimsical translations without mentioning the original Sanskrit words that hold the key to the overall meaning of a Śloka or a section or even the whole Text.
The annexures provided at the end of the translation work is useful and enlightening. Annexure-1 gives the internationally accepted system of Roman transliteration of the Devanāgari. Annexure-2 is Prof. P. Lal’s sketch of the Mahābhāratan North India (based on the Historical Atlas of South Asia) showing important places and rivers; however, one feels, the sketch could have been magnified a bit for better legibility. This document and Annexure-3, another sketch of the whole of India, is historically valuable as reminiscence of Prof. P. Lal. Annexure-4 provides a comprehensive list of all the episodes of Mokṣa–Dharma parvan courtesy Madhusraba Dasgupta. This document is an instant information provider of what is contained in Mokṣa–Dharma parvan. One wishes, Bhattacharya could have provided the corresponding page numbers to the episodes of his translation.
In final analysis, Bhattacharya’s rendering is a must in library for serious scholars and readers alike.
Associate Professor, Department of English
Kalyani Mahavidyalaya, West Bengal, India
“Man is born unto trouble,” says Job, “as the sparks fly upward,” and, he points out, this “affliction cometh not forth of the dust, neither doth trouble spring out of the ground.” An engrossing study of the root cause of this “trouble” was made in the West, in this century, by Eugene O’Neill in Desire Under The Elms. But are we Indians aware of Vyasa’s fascinating portrayal of “Desire Under the Kalpataru” in the Mahabharata? Such a remorseless expose of the frailties that the flesh is heir to, spanning the entire gamut of human existence, is unrivalled in world literature. Leaving aside the sheer narrative brilliance of Vyasa, it is the perception of over-arching symbols, such as the Kalpataru, which gradually dawns on the readers, stirring the innermost depths of their psyche, as they voyage across the one hundred thousand verses of this ocean among epics; that fascinates them, compelling them to return, time and again, to the Mahabharata.
To appreciate the thematic brilliance of this concept, it is first necessary to recount the story of the Kalpataru, the Wish-fulfilling Tree, described in eidetic detail by Krsna in the beginning of chapter 15 of the Gita. Its roots are in the heavens and its branches permeate the cosmos, paralleled in occidental mythology by the Norse Yggdrasill. The parable has been recounted by P. Lal in his introductory essay to Barbara Harrison’s Learning About India, and by Christopher Isherwood in Vedanta for the West.
Into a room full of children at play walks the proverbial “mama” (maternal uncle)” who invariably “knows better.” He tells them to lift up their eyes, look out of the window and see the huge Kalpataru outside. He tells them that they should cast aside their silly indoor games, and go to the tree which will grant them whatever they wish – the real stuff! The children rush out, stand under the all-encompassing branches, and ask. They ask for what all children crave: toys and sweets. The tree grants them their wishes. But with it, they also get a bonus: the built-in opposite of the wish! Along with the toys they get boredom; and with the sweets they get tummy-ache. Sure that something has gone wrong with their wishing, the children ask for bigger toys and sweeter sweets. The Tree obliges, along with greater boredom and more painful stomach-ache. Time passes. The children grow up into young men and women. Their wishes change with their age. Now they “know more”. They ask for wealth, fame, power and sex. Unquestioningly, the tree grants their desire, but also gifts them cupidity, insomnia, anxiety and frustration. Time passes. The askers are now old. They gather in three groups under the tree. The first group exclaims that all this is an illusion. They are fools and have learned nothing. The second group is “wiser” and decides to wish better next time. They are greater fools and have learned less than nothing. The third group, disgusted with everything, asks for death. The tree grants their desire and, with it, its opposite, re-birth, and under the same tree. For, where can one be born, or re-born, but within the cosmos! They are the most foolish of all.
All this while, one child has been unable to move out of the room. Being lame, he was pushed aside in the rush to the door as his playmates ran to get to the tree. He has been riveted to the window, watching the lila (the play) of the Kalpataru unfold itself. He has watched his friends make their wishes, get them along with their built-in opposites and suffer; yet, compulsively, continue to make more wishes. Transfixed by this fascinating play and counterplay of desire and its fruits, a profound swell of compassion wells up in the heart of this lame child, reaching out to his companions. In that process he forgets to wish for anything (not even remembering to forget). In that moment of spontaneous compassion for others, he has sliced through the roots of the cosmic tree with the sword of non-attachment, of nishkama karma. He, alone, is the liberated one, the mukta-purusha.
It is this parable of the Kalpataru, whose roots are upwards and whose branches pervade the cosmos, which is the over-arching symbol encompassing the Mahabharata.
Pururava, monarch of the lunar dynasty, is the first of those driven by desire, who believe “The world will be your wish- fulfilling cow” (Gita 3.10). Infatuated by the heavenly courtesan Urvashi, his desire to possess her is granted. However, it is inevitably accompanied with the penalty of losing the very object of his desire. In the agony of that loss, he even goes mad. This is not the only instance of the fruit desire bore for this king. Pururava once stole the wealth of some Brahmins out of greed, and refused to return it.
As smoke smothers fire,
as dust films glass,
as womb enfolds seed,
So greed destroys judgment.
Greed is a fierce fire.
It destroys judgment.
Greed is a fierce fire.
It destroys judgment.
It fools the wise.
It destroys the atman. (Gita, 3.38-39)
He was cursed by the Brahmins with loss of his prosperity, the precise opposite of his desire.
Pururava’s grandson is Nahusa, who is crowned king of the gods in Indra’s absence, but then falls prey to desire for Saci, Indra’s wife. The result is that he is cursed by the sages, whom he forces to carry his palanquin to meet Saci, and turns into a python, crawling in the dust.
Nahusa’s son is Yayati, the most famous instance in world mythology of lust and its doom. Driven by lust, he possesses Sarmistha in secret, and is struck with senility. Those very sons, “children of his heart, ” whom he has fathered on Devayani and Sarmistha, scornfully turn away from his anguished plea to assume his decrepitude so that he can enjoy the pleasures of the flesh for some time more. Even when that wish is granted, he finds that lust only consumes and does not satisfy. Later, desiring heaven, he achieves it, only to be thrown down from there because of his overweening pride in his merit. Yayati is, indeed, the archetypal figure of desire and its fruits as given by this cosmos, which is the Wish-Fulfilling Tree.
Yayati’s wife, Devayani, is herself a telling example of this parable. Obsessed by the desire to avenge the humiliation suffered at the hands of Sarmistha, she achieves her goal of turning the princess into her hand-maiden. Eager to prove that despite being a Brahmin’s daughter she can best the daughter of the Danava King, she over-rules the objections of the reluctant Yayati to an inter-caste marriage, and compels him to marry her. Soon, thereafter, she loses her chosen husband to her hand-maid! Further, not only has she only she only two sons by him while Sarmistha has three, but also none of her sons inherit the throne, despite being elder. It is Sarmistha’s youngest son, Puru, who is chosen by Yayati as dynast for having willingly parted with his youth for his father’s sake. In a similar way, one of his descendants, Devavrata, will sacrifice his youth to subserve his father’s sexual appetite.
It is in the same dynasty that Samvarana is born, who is so sun-struck by Tapati, daughter of Surya, that he neglects his kingdom. Significantly, as with his descendants Santanu and Pandu and his ancestor Pururava, desire seizes him in its constricting coils while he is engaged in hunting. Lust goes hand-in-hand with anger and cruelty:
Her body shone
Like a straight flame…
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…
She had trapped his mind
And his eyes. He stood
Transfixed, as if tied
With ropes, as if senseless. (Adi parva, 173.26-28, 31)
This is precisely the point that Krsna makes in the Gita, that lust, hiding in the senses, destroys judgment like an all-consuming flame. Samvarana’s condition, when Tapati suddenly disappears, is like that of Pururava bereft of Urvashi:
Like a man crazed
He wandered in the woods
… the love smitten
king fell on the ground.
The imagery used by Samvarana in his appeals to Tapati revolves around raging fire, senselessness, fury, loss of self-control—all the typical signs associated with the madness desire is seen to inflict on its victims.
Then a fearful-faced messenger came
And shouted loudly, thrice:
Lost! Lost! Lost!
And I fell from Nandana. (Adi parva, 89. 17-20)
The fourth, Samvarana, gets his desire at the cost of his kingdom. Neither he, nor his descendant Shantanu, appear to have drawn any lessons from the tragic lives of their ancestors.
Ironically, Shantanu’s name means “the child of controlled passions,” as he was born to his parents in their old age. He seems to have a special penchant for unknown tribal women encountered by the riverside:
He stood there,
All his body
With both eyes
He drank in her beauty
To drink more. (Adi Parva, 97.28)
Smitten by the sight of Ganga—who had wantonly solicited his father Pratipa and was politely rejected as not belonging to the same caste — he unthinkingly accepts all her conditions so that he can make her his own:
Captivated by her charms,
The king was not conscious of
The months, seasons, years that rolled by.
The lord of men enjoyed her whenever he wished. (Adi parva, 98.11,12)
The Kalpataru grants him that sexual gratification which he so passionately desires like Pururava, Yayati and Samvarana. But, along with it, he has to undergo the repeated experience of watching seven of his sons being consigned to the river, one after another, year after year, by that same object of his violent infatuation, Ganga. Well might we say,
“La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!”
In his old age, this “child of controlled passions” is infatuated with yet another maiden-by-the-river, Matsyagandha, fish-odorous, who has been transformed by the sage Parasara into Yojanagandha, lotus-fragrant-for-a-yojana (a unit of distance), in return for having enjoyed her body. Once again, Santanu has no regard for propriety, status, or the rights of Devavrata, his Crown Prince. He must have her:
She was fragrant,
Santanu saw her,
And desired her…
The fire of desire
Ravaged his body
…desire maddened him.
He kept thinking of
The daughter of the fisherman. (Adi parva, 100.49,56,75)
The symptoms could virtually be describing Samvarana’s state after Tapati vanishes. The same discrimination-destroying, judgment-clouding fire of desire afflicts both Samvarana and Santanu. In both cases, it is the kingdom which suffers. Santanu himself, having learned nothing from his experience with Ganga, dies, leaving behind two children, both weaklings. both die prematurely. The elder, Citrangada, dies unmarried. The younger, Vicitravirya, is another instance of the Kalpataru in action. Under the instructions of Satyavati (Santanu’s second wife), Bhishma (his son by Ganga) obtains not one, but two brides for his foster brother, so that the future of the dynasty is assured:
Both were tall.
black, wavy hair.
Fingernails and toe nails
Painted red, pointed.
Hips round and full.
Swelling and large breasts.
driven by passion, became
A victim of his own lust. (Adi parva, 102.65, 66)
He dies after seven years without any issue. Thus, the dynasty of Pururava comes to an end.
What has Satyavati got out of the Kalpataru? As a nubile maiden, her dearest desire was to rid herself of the powerful fishy odour. This she was granted, at the cost of her virginity. After Santanu met her, the desire of her father (or foster-father, if we accept the story that king Uparicara Vasu of Cedi was her real father) is that through her he should be the dynast of Hastinapura. The Kalpataru grants this wish through what becomes renowned as the most terrifying of all vows: Devavrata becomes Bhishma (one who has taken the vow of celibacy) so that Satyavati’s children alone succeed to Santanu’s throne. Santanu himself does not live long after this marriage, and Satyavati becomes the Queen Mother, with minor children. She sees one killed in a skirmish, and the other die of consumption, both without issue. Now, both the Dasa-king, her father, and she find that the greatest obstacle to perpetuating the dynasty of Santanu is precisely that very vow which they had demanded as the security for ensuring their hegemony over Hastinapura in perpetuity through their children! Bhishma stonily refuses to break his vow and father progeny on the widows of Vicitravirya by following the custom of niyoga (sexual union with another’s wife).
Satyavati, like the people clustered under the Kalpataru in the parable, has not learned anything from her experiences, so far, of desire and its fruits. “Hungry for grandsons,” she summons Vyasa, her illegitimate son by Parasara, and orders him to practice niyoga on Ambika and Ambalika. Vyasa advises a year-long vow on their so that they purify themselves of the lust they have been tainted with through seven years with his foster brother. Satyavati cannot wait. Her judgment is warped by her insensate desire to have grandsons immediately. She leads her daughters-in-law to believe that Bhishma will be coming to them. Hence, being wholly unprepared for the horrendous looks and malodorous body of Vyasa, they give birth to the blind Dhritarastra and the anaemic, jaundiced Pandu. Even now, Satyavati has learned nothing. She had wanted grandsons at any cost. The Tree fulfilled her desire; but, along with it, gave her offspring incapable of being proper monarchs. Yet, she again asks Ambika to like with Vyasa. Ambika deceives her, and sends in her maid instead, who is without fear and aversion, and has only profound respect for the sage. Their child is the virtuous Vidura, possibly the sole true grandson of Satyavati, born of her son and of a Sudra (low caste) maid like herself. He is the only one born whole in mind and in body, and is untouched by the craving to rush to the Kalpataru. He, too, however, dies childless. Her other grandson, Pandu, dies, like his putative father Vicitravirya, without having been able to father progeny.
Thus, in her lifetime, empire-hungry and progeny-hungry Satyavati sees her husband, her two sons and one grandson die; the eldest grandson born blind; the youngest one not qualified to be king, being base-born, despite being the only fully healthy and virtuous issue, (although by that argument her sons, too, should not be kings, as she is a fisherman’s daughter. Hence, probably, the legend of her having been fathered by the king of Cedi on an apsara-turned-fish).
Perhaps, after Pandu’s death, the coming of the Pandavas to the Hastina court and the sibling rivalry which breaks out, Satyavati might have come to realize what it means to ask of the Kalpataru. And, perhaps because of that realization, she meekly obeys her son Vyasa when he advises her to leave the court and retire to the forest with her daughters-in-law:
The green years of the earth
are gone. . . . .
Do not be a witness
to the suicide
of your own race.
Satyavati and her grand daughter-in-law Kunti share various similarities. Uparicara Vasu of Cedi sends off his fish-born daughter Matsyagandha to be brought up by a Dasa-chief among fishermen. Pritha is the daughter of King Sursasena of the Vrishnis who gifts her to his cousin Kuntibhoja, who renames her Kunti, respectively. Both Satyavati and Kunti have pre-marital sons. In both cases the issues are discarded and reappear full grown, as does Devavrata. One appears before us as the sage Krsna-Dvaipayana Vyasa, the Dark Island-born Arranger. The other comes as Vasusena, born with the wealth of skin-armour and ear rings, also called Karna. Both Parasara and Surya gift-armour and ear rings, also called Karna. Both Parasara and Surya gift Matsyagandha and Kunti with unimpaired virginity as the reward for becoming willing partners in their concupiscence. This virginity is not merely a physical attribute, but very much of a psychological quality with they share with Draupadi, who is said to regain her virginity before living in turn with each of her five husbands. In that respect, Draupadi is carrying on a special trait found long back in the ancestry of the family into which she marries.. Yayati’s daughter Madhavi also had this boon of regaining her virginity even after giving birth to a child. On the strength of that, Galava loaned her to Haryasva, Divodasa, Usinara and Visvamitra to fulfil his guri-daksina (graduation fee pad by pupil to teacher).
The precise opposite of this can be seen in the Madri type of woman, who is dependent on what others think, regardless of what her real opinions might be, and always acts as a female counterpart to a male and is not “one in herself.” The psychologically virgin woman is not, however, thus dependent. Dr M. Esther Harding writes in Women’s Mysteries (Rider, 1971), “as virgin, she is not influenced by the considerations that make the nonvirgin woman, whether married or not, trim her sails and adapt herself to expediency…she does what she does not because of any desire to please, not to be liked, or to be approved, even by herself; not because of any desire to gain power over another, to catch his interest or love, but because of any desire to gain power over another, to catch his interest or love, but because what she does is true. Her actions may, indeed, be unconventional. She is what she is because that is what she is.” (pp.125-6) such a personality is wholly integrated and autonomous-in-herself, defining herself in her terms and not dependant on others for finding and acting out her role in life.
Kunti is by no means the conventional wife typified in Madri. She is one found fit by Durvasa to be the custodian of the mighty spell which forces even gods to respond to her desires for progeny. It is she who, single-handed, provides Pandu with five foster-children through herself and through Madri, and guards them amid all the venal politics of the Kuru court till they can hold their own in life.
What did Kunti ask of the Tree? Her first desire was to test the efficacy of Durvasa’s mantra. This desire was granted promptly, swiftly followed by the anguish of having to abandon its fruit and , later by the excruciating agony of being forced to remain a silent spectator to this death at the hands of her fourth son. In abandoning her first born, she is akin not only to her “direct” grandmother-in-law Satyavati, but also to her grandfather-in-law’s first wife, Ganga, who threw into the river seven sons, one after another. Of course, Pritha herself is her father’s discarded offspring.
Kunti’s second desire is for Pandu. Pandu is the only one in the Kuru dynasty to go to a svayamvara (husband-choosing), and this is ere Kunti chooses him above everyone else. Immediately thereafter, she loses him to Madri, who is brought by Bhishma to Hastinapura after payment of heavy bride-price, in accordance with the Kuru tradition. So, the Tree granted her Pandu, but with it , gave her the opposite: the anguish of losing the object of her desire to another and, ultimately, seeing him die in the arms of that another:-
Princes of Vahlika! (she tells Madri)
You are fortunate indeed…
I never had the chance to see
his face radiant in intercourse. (Adi parva, 25.23)
Even in death, Kunti is not allowed by Madri to accompany her chosen beloved. It is Madri who immolates herself with Pandu’s body.
Kunti’s sole desire now is to establish her sons as rulers of a kingdom. This desire, too, is granted. But in its wake she has to undergo a triple agony: first, she has to witness the enslavement of her children and the attempted stripping of her daughter-in-law in the royal court; then, she has to bear their exile to the forests for thirteen years; ultimately, she has to see her first-born slain, when defenceless, by her fourth-born, at the urging of her nephew, Krsna, who alone, besides herself and her first son, knows of the relationship. How tragically ironic it is that, by revealing the secret of this relationship on the eve of the battle to Karna, Kunti should have effectively ensured the death of Karna and the victory of her other sons. For, while they know only that they are fighting to slay the detested charioteer’s son, he knows that he is facing his cognate brothers, whom he has sworn not to harm!
Kunti desires that marriage should not sunder the unity of her five sons. Hence she strives to ensure that Draupadi does not belong only to Arjuna who won her. The Kalpataru grants her this too, with the consequence that Draupadi, though five-husbanded, is actually anathavat, without a husband, to protect her from molestation by Duhsasana, Jayadratha, Kirmira and Kicaka. None of the five husbands turns back to help her, let alone wait at her side, when she falls down, dying on the slopes of the Himalayas during their last journey together.
Like Kunti, Draupadi’s burning desire, born as she is full-grown out of the sacrificial fire, is to rule over the kingdom of Hastinapura and thus avenge the humiliation of her father at the hands of the Kauravas. It is worthwhile, at this point, to note that although it is the Pandavas who imprison Drupada at Drona’s command, his vengeance is directed against the throne of Hastinapura, of which Drona is a servant. This is a legacy of the ancient rivalry between the Pancalas and the Kurus which began when Samvarana left his kingdom defenceless in his infatuated pursuit of Tapati. Drupada arranges the contest for Draupadi’s hand in such a fashion that only an archer of Arjuna’s skill can succeed, and through that alliance he hopes to wreak his revenge.
Draupadi’s interaction with the Kalpataru is indeed an engrossing spectacle. Her desire for a kingdom is granted as Indraprastha comes into being, “a miracle of rare device.” Along with this she is granted her first taste of sweet revenge when she sees Duryodhana flounder into the pool created by illusion. The consequences are terrible: first, the kingdom is gambled away; then, she herself is unspeakably humiliated in public. Like Satyavati, Draupadi does not learn from these experiences. Her consuming passion remains revenge, now an intensely personal raging desire. That, too, is granted her by none other than the Kalpataru itself, incarnated in the person of Krsna (as he describes himself in the Gita.) She gets a field of ashes to rule over, with not a single son left alive to enjoy life with.
What of Draupadi’s desire for Arjuna— that desire which Yudhishthira coldly cites, without so much as a backward glance at her prone, dying form, as he cause of her inability to reach heaven in the physical body? By the time it was Arjuna’s time to live with her, he was away as an exile in the course of which he had no scruples in obliging the amorous Ulupi, wooing Citrangada and abducting Subhadra. This last he did only after obtaining the consent of Yudhishthira. Vyasa does not tell us that the eldest Pandava bothered not to pass on the information to Draupadi. He was, perhaps, pleased that Arjuna should have fallen in love elsewhere and ,particularly, that it should have cemented an alliance with the powerful Krsna clan. So, when her beloved Arjuna returned to Indraprastha, it was with Subhadra, who had his heart. The greatest archer won her, but was never hers. Even in the thirteen-year exile, she was bereft of his company, for he was sent off by Yudhishthira to obtain celestial weapons. When he returned, it was as a eunuch, merely enquiring of her how she had managed to escape the murderous clutches of Kicaka’s henchmen, who had dragged her off to be burnt with his corpse. Never did Brihannala (Arjuna’s name during the period he had turned eunuch) raise a voice in her defence, either in the Kaurava court, or in the court of Virata (where the Pandavas had to live incognito).
Draupadi’s relationship with the Kalpataru goes back to her previous birth, as narrated by Vyasa to Drupada, Apparently, she had carried out severe penance and begged off Siva that he grant her a husband. The moment she wished this, it was granted, but with a five-fold bonus, because, it seems, she had said “husband” five times! Thus, the cosmos grants her intense desire, but also provides its built-in opposite by multiplying it five-fold.
In being five-husbanded, she resembles her mother-in-law Kunti, who has “known” five men or gods: Surya, Pandu, Dharma, Vayu and Indra. She is also like her great-grandmother-in-law Satyavati, in being of unknown parentage and brought up by foster parents. Both are famous for the enchanting odour emanating from their dark bodies. Satyavati is renowned as the dark (“kali”) “Yojanagandha” (whose scent extends for a yojana); while Draupadi-Krishna’s complexion is like that of the blue lotus and the sweet scent of her body wafts for a krosa. Both are left with no children. One (Satyavati) built up the huge Kaurava dynasty, while the other (Draupadi) annihilated it. Neither seems to have learnt anything from the experience of making wish after wish under Kalpataru.
The two handicapped brothers, Dhritarashtra and Pandu, themselves exemplify the Kalpataru syndrome. Pandu is one of the rare few in the epic who, like his ancestor Yayati, realizes how he has victimized himself. Not content with being the chosen of Kunti, he espouses Madri, and his inveterate appetites lead to the incurring of the fatal curse. We recall Shakespeare’s unforgettable lines describing lust as:
… murderous, bloody, full of blame
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel.
Perversely hunting down a deer-sage in the coital act, Pandu himself is cursed to die in the act of intercourse. Thus, his love of the hunt is duly gratified, but with what tragic consequences! Pandu exclaims bitterly:
Noble blood is of little help.
Deluded by passions, the best
Of men turn wicked, and reap
the evil that they sow.
My father was born noble,
his father was noble too.
Lust was his ruin, he died
While still a youth.
And in his lustful field
I was sown by Krsna Dvaipayana…
And I am a victim of the hunt!
My mind is full of killing… (Adi parva, 119.2-5)
Obviously, despite all the ancestral praise-chanting by the sutas and magadhas, Yayati’s descendants have not learnt anything either from the history of their ancestors, or from their own harrowing experiences. It is this fatal attraction of Desire, which people are aware of, yet deliberately give in to, which has been expressed so poignantly by Shakespeare in sonnet 129:
Mad in pursuit and in possession so. . .
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe. . .
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.
Pandu is perhaps the clearest instance of the ultimate end of Desire. Ironically, when Kunti initially refuses to accede to his requests for surrogate children, she cites the legend of Vyusitasva and Bhadra, with the telling words:
So strong was their passion,
So frequent their indulgence,
that he soon fell a victim
To consumption. (Adi parva, 121.17,18)
Despite this, and although Pandu is fully aware of its fruits,
Passion overpowered him
it seemed that he wanted
To commit suicide, as it were.
First he lost his sense,
Then, clouded by lust,
he sought the loss of his life. (Adi parva, 125. 121-3)
The tragedy of these desire-driven kings of the lunar dynasty is their compulsive refusal to heed the agony of generations of
“… pale kings, and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all; ”
“starved lips in the gloam
With horrid warning gaped wide.”
That dire warning,
“La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!”
though voiced with desperate urgency by Yayati, and despite its destructive aftermath being exemplified repeatedly in the lives of Pururuva, Nahusa, Samvarana, Santanu, Vicitravirya and Pandu, goes unheeded by the hungry generations of their descendants.
How closely this exemplifies the warning of Krsna!~
Greed is a fierce fire.
It destroys judgment.
It fools the wise.
It hides in the mind,
The intellect and the senses.
It destroys the atman
By working through them.
Therefore, first control the senses (Gita, 3.39-41)
As for Dhritarashtra, his intense craving for being king—- which he feels to be his birthright as the eldest—is duly obliged, but at the cost of his entire progeny. He is left alive to experience the fruits of desire after the Kurukshetra holocaust. His predicament is expressed in his own lament to Sanjaya:
“My own sons were impulsive, and disliked me for I was old and blind. I endured it, because I loved them, because my state was miserable. I was a fond old father to a son whose folly grew daily.” (Adi parva, 1.143)
Neither of the two brothers learns anything from his experiences of desire and its fruits. The same holds true for the unusual duo of Duryodhana and Karna.
The case of Duryodhana is so obvious as not to require elaboration. However, in Karna’s case it is easy to miss the finer shades of the play and counter-play of light-and-shade as the myriad leaves of the Kalpataru and its counless branches respond to his intense cravings. Karna is the egotistical sublime paralleling Bhishma in his own esteem. His consuming desire for public status is granted almost miraculously in the tournament arena, but did Karna ever perform the duties of a king with respect to Anga? Is not his kingship veritably but in name? Again, the craving to acquire supremacy in weapon-craft is granted; but, along with it, the curse that this precious knowledge will desert him in his greatest need. Perhaps it is Karna who experiences, in the most direct form possible, what it means to desire anything. The fruits come to him almost immediately. His triumphant obtaining of the infallible weapon from Indra in return for the slicing –off of skin-armour also turns out fruitless, as he is unable to use it against Arjuna. Karna’s intense desire for fame is gratified when he finds out that he is not only royal, but also half-god. Yet at what cost? He can never share the joy of kinship with his brothers, and must bear the recurrent whiplash of their contempt for the charioteer’s son. But, most of all, his life-long desire to know who he truly is becomes the root cause of his destruction. That knowledge brings in its wake the pledge not to slay his brothers, with the inevitable implication that he must die at their hands. And so we are presented with the heart-rending spectacle of the eldest Kaunteya being shot down, unarmed, by the fourth son of Kunti, at the behest of her nephew.
Perhaps, it is only Kunti who learns something about this Kalpataru-lila. Each of her three major choices bears soul-searing consequences: Each of her three major choices bears soul-searing consequences: calling Surya; choosing Pandu; insisting on her sons sharing Draupadi. Notice her peculiar predicament each time she is told by Pandu whom she must lie with. She has no choice in the matter. The only time she did choose, she had to abandon the fruit of that union: Karna. Yet, when she is made to pass on her power to Madri, Pandu does not impose on his second wife any similar directive. Madri is free to choose! Possibly, it is a result of the realization of the inexorable nature of desire and its fruits that , after the war, Kunti refuses to stay on with her children as Queen Mother. She insists on following Dhritarashtra and Gandhari into the forest. Unlike Satyavati, these three have witnessed the suicide of their progeny; Kunti has five sons but not a single grandson and no husband, despite the fathers of her three sons being alive. Gandhari and Draupadi have husbands, but nothing else left. It is Kunti who has learned. That is why Iravati Karve in Yuganta imagines Kunti telling Gandhari and Dhritarashtra that, instead of trying to escape from the forest fire, they should walk towards it with open arms as a liberator from this harsh world, where we draw our breath in pain, where, as King Lear said, we are bound
Upon a wheel of fire, that (our) own tears
Do scald like molten lead.
What of Gandhari? Yoked to a blind husband, she would have looked forward to giving birth to the first Kuru scion. Indeed, she conceived first, but carried the embryo for two years. By then Kunti had given birth to Yudhishthira and was pregnant with Bhima. Vyasa fulfilled her desire to be a mother, but this was followed by its opposite: her sons became wicked, arrogant, and disobedient. In open court, Duryodhana defied her commands to accept Krishna’s peace proposals. If Draupadi, though five-husbanded is without a husband, then Gandhari, despite having a hundred sons is sonless, much like her grandmother-in-law Satyavati who, despite having two sons, ended up having none. In both cases, the ambition to become Queen Mother is fulfilled, only to find the sweet fruition of an earthly crown turning into the bitter ashes of disillusionment.
Perhaps the most striking image of desire and attachment in its most intense and complex form, after Yayati, is Gangadatta-Devavrata-Bhisma. Bhishma and Krsna are two colossi bestriding the Mahabharatan universe, one as the mightiest bulwark of an age which does not wish to pass away; and the other as the herald of a new epoch. Bhisma’s dearest desire—and in this he parallels his ancestor Puru vis-à-vis Yayati—is to see his father happy; a father whom he has not known from birth; a father who has mutely witnessed Ganga consigning seven siblings of his to the river; a father to whom his mother hands him over in teenage and disappears. For the sake of fulfilling this desire, Devavrata sacrifices not only his paternal heritage but also his personal marital right and the right to receive the offerings of his progeny in death. But, beyond this, he also sacrifices the paramount, super-ordinate goal, the welfare of the kingdom and its people, which is the reason for the very appellative RAJA, one who looks after the general weal, not the welfare of only one father. The Tree grants his desire. Santanu is beside himself with joy, and grants his son what looks like a boon but is actually a curse: the power to hold death at bay, and to give in to its call only at will. Is it a boon at all to be not only a witness, like Gandhari and Kunti, to the suicide of one’s race, but be an active participant in it, fighting on the side which one knows to be in the wrong and against those whom one loves and knows to be in the right? Is it a boon to be able to hold death at bay and slay millions of innocent soldiers continuously over a period of ten days? The pangs of conscience multiplied over decades of silent witnessing of the poisoning of Bhima, the gutting of the lacquer house, the cheating in the dice-game, the stripping of Draupadi, the exiling of the Pandavas— are all these the scorpion-stings symbolized in the bed-of-arrows on which he like torturing himself, as if expiating his inaction, until the holocaust is over, and the suicide of the dynasty is complete?
Bhishma is also responsible for acting indiscriminately as the instrument of his stepmother for fulfilling her insensate longing for grandchildren. Instead of getting one bride for her son, he abducts all the three daughters of the king of Kasi. In doing so, he fulfils his desire to establish the supremacy of Hastinapura before all the kings. In that process, however, he also sows the seeds of his own destruction by arousing the fury of the woman scorned —-Amba. So strong is his attachment to his vow (the change of his name to Bhishma itself connotes that the two—man and vow—are one, knit together in an indissoluble bond) that it steels him against all human obligations. Caught up in that intense egotism, he destroys the lives of the three princesses of Kasi. His desire to please his father appears t have undergone a metamorphosis into an adamantine will to please himself. We find him turning into the egotistical Sublime of the epic. As for the fruits of his desire, they grow on the field of Kurukshetra, amid the quagmire of blood, sweat and gore, littered with grinning skulls and broken, bones. The Kalpataru granted his desire: his vow remained unbroken, but was it worth the cost of eighteen aksauhinis (a very large unit of counting) and a world bereft of youth, peopled by widows and infants, echoing to the sound of wailing women and lit up by the smoky flames of innumerable funeral pyres?
Between Krsna and Bhishma a strange parallelism exists. Both are the eighth-born and the only surviving sons of their parents. Each is the unquestioned leader of the opposing party in the fratricidal strife. Both are renowned not only as warriors par-excellence, but also as statesman and masters of the scriptures. Vyasa portrays two sublime moments in which these two similar, yet opposing, proponents of two dharmas, two ages, meet. One is in the Rajasuya yajna of Yudhishthira, where Bhishma explains why the arghya ought to be offered to Krsna as pre-eminent among all present. The other is on the battlefield, when Krsna, furious with Arjuna for failing to control Bhishma’s unremitting slaughter of the army, breaks his own vow and rushes to slay him. In words of exquisite beauty, Bhishma welcomes death at Krishna’s hands. But this is not granted him. The fruit of his desire is to be slain by the eunuch Shikhandi, whom he knows to be Amba reborn. But the real point is that Krsna has no hesitation in breaking his vow of remaining a non-combatant where lives need to be saved. This is where he differs totally from Bhishma’s enslavement to his vow, to his twisted dharma of loyalty to Dhritarashtra. Unlike Bhishma, Krsna never hesitates to root out wickedness, be it in the form of his kith and kin (Kamsa, Shishupala, Satadhanva), or otherwise.
Krsna appears to have had two major desires: the bringing together of carious clans such as the Vrsnis, Andhakas, Bhojas, Yadavas, Kukutas, etc. to form a single community at Dvaraka, safe from the depredations of the imperialistic ambitions of Magadha and Hastinapura. This was granted him. As its counterpoint, he witnessed his kith and kin destroy one another in a drunken orgy of senseless violence, with Krsna himself joining in that destructive spree.
His second desire, subsuming the first one, was the establishment of an empire based upon dharma, righteousness, doing away with warring petty kingdoms and bringing them all under a single sovereign of impeccable rectitude. This, too, was granted him. But what subjects were left for Dharmaraja Yudhishthira to rule over? A filed of ashes filled with millions of mourning widows! The Stri Parva is a merciless commentary on the fruit of Krishna’s desire and has found expression in words of unsurpassed poignancy voiced by Gandhari as she stands in Kurukshetra:
“See, Krsna, where Duryodhana, general of eleven aksauhinis, lies bloody-bodied, embracing his mace. His wife and Lakshmana’s mother lies fallen on his breast. My daughters-in-law, bereft of husbands and sons, are running about with hair unbound on this battlefield. Look, look there, the young bride of my Vikarna is desperately trying to drive away the flesh-greedy vultures, but is failing. Jackals have eaten away half of my Durmukha’s face. Kesava, that Abhimanyu, whom people used to describe as more valiant than even you or Arjuna, even he is slain; and mad with grief his bride, the adolescent Uttara, is crying, ” O hero, you were killed just six months after our union.” Alas, Karna’s wife has fallen unconscious on the ground, for the jackals are tearing at the body of Jayadratha, king of Sauvira, and my daughter Duhsala is trying to kill herself while abusing the Pandavas. Oh, oh, look! Duhsala, not finding her husband’s severed head, is running about madly in search of it. Krsna, see, Sakuni is surrounded by vultures, and even that wicked soul will attain heaven because he died in battle.”
What is the end of Krsna? The death of a hero, brought down in a duel of epic dimensions by an opponent of mighty prowess? Hardly, Leaving a Dvaraka filled with wailing widows and children, having seen his elder brother Balarama die, he lies down under a tree and dies of the injury caused by an arrow shot into his foot by a ere tribal hunter, a nisada, not even a warrior out on a hunt. So that is what gets from the Kalpataru along with the granting of his two desires.
This, then, is the picture of “Desire under the Kalpataru”: that desire, if powerful, does get fulfilled, but brings in its wake a price to be paid which, more often than not, outweighs the gratification experienced through fulfilment of the desire. In a way, it is very much like Stevenson’s bottle imp. It is Yayati who sums it up in words of deceptive simplicity that go straight to the mark:
Desire never ends,
Desire grows with feeding,
Like sacrificial flames
Lapping up ghee.
Become the sole lord of
The world’s paddy fields, wheat-fields,
Precious stones, beasts, women…
Still not enough.
This disease kills. The wicked
Cannot give it up, old age
Cannot lessen it. True happiness
Lies in controlling it. (Adi parva, 85.12-14)
The experience of Vyasa’s Yayati is echoes by a great epic poet of the occident, John Milton in Paradise Lost:
…They, fondly thinking to allay
Their appetite with lust, instead of fruit
Chewed bitter ashes.
This is the existential experience with pervades the Mahabharata and which Vyasa, the oriental seer-poet, envisions as an outcome of man’s fascination with the Kalpataru. Vyasa creates a marvellously eidetic picture of this symbol in the words of Krsna in the Gita (15.1-3):
Mention is made of a cosmic fig-tree
whose leaves are said to be the Vedas;
the knower of this fig-tree
is the knower of the Vedas.
Its branches reach out below and above,
its flowers are the objects of the senses;
below the ground flourish more roots,
giving birth to action.
You may not see its real shape,
nor its end, birth and existence.
Slice this fig-tree with non-attachment.
N.B. The extracts from the Mahabharata and the Gita are from the P. Lal transcreation (Writers Workshop, Calcutta, 1969).
S.C.Bhattacharya, V.Dalmiya, G.Mukherji (ed): Exploring Agency in the Mahabharata —ethical and political dimensions of Dharma. Routledge, 2018, 253 pages, Rs. 895/-
This collection of 16 papers is a sequel to 2014 publication from the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies exploring the perennial relevance of the Mahabharata (MB). The 12 papers in it provided meaningful insights into the contemporaneity of the epic. The current book has as its central theme the age-old face-off between “daiva” (fate) and “purushartha” (free will) as seen in the MB. In its first chapter, Anukramanika, Dhritarashtra laments that he is the helpless victim of circumstances. If all is pre-determined, why should Arjuna struggle in the throes of a dilemma and why does Krishna need to extricate him? If Fate is final, why do Kunti, Draupadi, Arjuna and Bhima berate Yudhishthira in exile, urging him to fight? The book examines these questions in three parts of four essays each: Action, Actor and Epic Agency and Retellings.
Sibesh Bhattacharya explores how “itihasa” in the MB is passive, setting an example or clarifying, not an active agent shaping current lives and events. He examines Karna as an example of an independent agent despite appearing doomed like Duryodhana (the tree of which the former is the trunk). Their lives seem to substantiate the Manusmriti’s epigram: dharma killed kills; dharma protected protects. The irony lies in Karna’s despairing protest that although he has always (as he thinks) protected dharma, it does not protect him! The converse lies in Duryodhana’s defiant dying declaration that he is going to Svarga while the Pandavas live on miserable. When Yudhishthira finally reaches Svarga, he is shocked to find Duryodhana already there resplendent on a golden throne!
Amita Chatterjee examines the concept of self-determination and finds the MB suggesting that alternative paths exist from the present to the future. The story of Gautami and her son dying of snake-bite depicts this at length. The serpent, Yama, Time are all agents but the boy’s own intentional acts make him responsible for his acts and their result.
Christopher Framarin studies the theory of karma and finds that Markandeya fails to answer Yudhishthira’s questions about rebirth and how acts produce corresponding consequences for the actor. All only establishes that karma alone determines the human lot. How past acts determine future births remains a mystery that neither the virtuous butcher nor Vidura, nor Brihaspati explain when asked. Framarin concludes that in the MB the theory of karma is underdeveloped, put aside as “the secrets of the gods”. The only clue offered is in the Gita: desires lead to rebirth.
Arti Dhand’s paper on karmayoga is a good example of blinkered vision quite unexpected from the author of Woman as Fire, Woman as Sage (2008). She sees karmayoga as an ingenious Brahminical response to heterodoxy “deftly packaging a philosophy of world renunciation in the garb of worldly engagement,” charting a middle path between renouncing samsara and falling victim to worldly passions. Karmayoga benefits both the self and society, which sanyasa does not. Dhand argues that by linking it to the doctrine of svadharma it perpetuates oppression of the have-nots by enslaving them, blindly adhering to traditional roles which perpetuate noxious practices. Svadharma, she argues, “obviates moral reflection” as seen in Rama beheading the Shudra ascetic. Dhand finds that while the epic’s soteriology upholds ahimsa, this is undermined by its commitment to the hierarchical model of society so that karmayoga provides a justification for social injustice. Dhand makes the common mistake of understanding karmayoga to connote “acquiescence to one’s lot in life—however unjust, however debased”. She bewails that the wisest of Vyasa’s sons, Vidura, was not made king because he was born to a servant maid. She condemns the concept of Stridharma which lauds the wife’s enslavement, killing her agency. She overlooks several pronouncements clarifying that character and conduct determine a person’s caste, not his birth. There is no “smothering” of resistance to social situations. King Trishanku becomes an outcaste because of his reprehensible conduct, and regains his station for his subsequent good deeds. The Kshatriya Vishvamitra becomes a great rishi, as does Matanga, a barber’s son. Yuyutsu, born to a Vaishya maid-servant, becomes the regent of Hastinapura. None of the epic heroines—Satyavati, Kunti, Gandhari, Draupadi, Damayanti, Savitri—can be described as devoid of moral agency.
Gangeya Mukherji focuses on agency and violence. After all, the genocide against nagas is what the epic begins with. Yet, the tale is retold after a non-venomous snake speaks of ahimsa being the supreme dharma. However, the question of non-violence remains unresolved in the Dyumatsena-Satyavat debate. Violence is certainly not the last resort, as Mukherji argues, where Nahusha’s descendants are concerned. All are addicted to hunting to sate blood lust. Key events shaping the epic narrative occur during a hunt. Mukherji suggests that Arjuna depicts “judicious violence” as opposed to Ashvatthama’s nocturnal massacre. But the latter is sanctioned by Rudra, while the former’s destruction of Khandava forest and its denizens is at Agni’s behest. Further, what do we make of Vishnu’s avatar Parashurama’s genocide against Kshatriyas which Ashvatthama seems to replicate? The dharmic butcher points out that violence is unavoidable in life, as does Krishna in the Gita. The beauty of the MB lies in its conflation of opposites: Agastya argues that in yajnas grains and not animals are the sacrifice, whereas the devas insist on the opposite. Mukherji argues that the war results from the overweening ambition of “two Brahmins.” This is puzzling as he names Dhritarashtra and Drona. The former is not a Brahmin at all! The justification for war as dharmic is completely undercut when Yudhishthira finds Duryodhana seated in Svarga with no sign of his brothers, and in rage exclaims, “This is not heaven!”
Shirshendu Chakrabarti examines Yudhishthira as the prime example of true human agency based on hovering between readiness for violence, living as a householder, and becoming a sanyasi. He is constantly conscious of manifold dharmic possibilities and their consequences—disastrous and otherwise. His irresolution vanishes en route Svarga when he is alone. Chakrabarti misses the similar situation at the end of the Vana Parva where Yudhishthira is tested with the corpses of his four brothers around him and similarly shows no signs of hesitancy. In his quest for humanity he is distinct from the West’s Faustian man seeking to be superhuman. It is interesting that he chooses no guru and remains the genuine agent, ever questioning the self.
MB is a rare epic that also features animal fables. These form Arindam Chakrabarti’s fascinating exposition of non-human agency. After all, if dharma is Vyasa’s core concern, he has a lizard first state that ahimsa is the supreme dharma, has a naga-raja expound dharma to a Brahmin, a mongoose laugh to scorn the Ashvamedha yajna, and embodies the deity first as a crane and finally as a dog. The narrative is thus “de-centred” from the anthropocentric to a parallel track of animal life whose moral agency occurs through speech. But it seems to culminate in silence, for, as the bird Pujani says, only one who has not known intimately the pain of others can hold forth in public.
Winning brides is one of the recurrent motifs in the MB. Uma Chakravarti focuses on the use of abduction for this, the rakshasa mode of marriage which, strangely, Kshatriyas celebrate. The reason is never stated. The other form they prefer is the “gandharva” i.e. love marriage for which no sanction of elders is required. In Amba she sees the problem of male violence against women represented. Her subsequent ascesis is for regaining the lost autonomy in choosing a spouse. Bhishma’s agony on the bed of arrows mirrors her physical and psychological anguish: “the distortions of an enforced sexual control over women are a fundamental factor in the Mahabharata narrative of war.” Presciently she notes that even svayamvara, the bridegroom-choice ceremony, is fraught with violence as in the cases of the Kashi princesses, Draupadi and Duryodhana’s wife the Kalinga princess. Marriage, therefore, is not uncontested among Kshatriyas. Indeed, it is a motif that persists to recur in the legend of Prithviraj and Samyukta centuries later.
Sundar Sarukkai examines the Ekalavya episode as “the first, most important theory of learning,” though prior to it we have the MB tell the stories of three disciples in the early Paushya Parva, each learning by a different method. As in the case of Ekalavya later, Aruni, Upamanyu and Utanka show that learning occurs “in and through the student.” No less than the tribal youth, these three are “allegorical figure(s) for education.” One can hardly agree with Sarukkai that the slicing off the thumb represents “the act of dissolution of a student into the teacher.”
B.N.Patnaik’s study of Sarala’s Oriya version of the Ekalavya episode shows how the regional imagination transformed epic narrative. He analyses Drona’s justification at length. Drona asks for no “dakshina”. Rather, Ekalavya insists he accept it—much as Utanka did with his guru Veda. By agreeing, Drona ritually accepts him as pupil. Krishna has Kunti take as “dakshina” from Karna his two invincible weapons. Krishna asks Kiratasen for his head as a donation. In Sarala, therefore, Ekalavya’s “dakshina” is not unique. In Ekalavya, Kiratsena and Jara Patnaik sees Sarala’s attempt to integrate the tribal culture with the urban “civilized” world.
Sudipta Kaviraj studies Rabindranath Thakur’s reading of the MB by stating he will discuss two poems but analyses only the Karna-Kunti encounter. His finding—which is well known—is that here the inner springs of action are revealed, and Karna’s tragedy in the epic is turned into Kunti’s tragedy too. The other poem that deserved close study is the Kacha-Devayani interaction which is so very cryptic in the MB.
Lakshmi Bandlamudi uses a striking image to describe her engagement with the MB: it is like “entering a hall of mirrors where we see ourselves seeing ourselves…an opportunity to find the Self in the self.” Dialogic interaction characterizes the MB throughout. While dharma in the Ramayana is fixed, the MB shows it as context-dependent. It exemplifies Nietzsche: “the ambiguous character of our modern world—the very same symptoms could point to decline and to strength.” Paradox is the central theme of the epic. She is mistaken, however, in going along with J.L. Mehta’s opinion that Vyasa’s work carries no signature and that he is a “strange absentee author.” He enters at critical junctures in the action to mould events and his poetic style is quite distinctive. Her reading is flawed in referring to Draupadi laughing at Duryodhana—which she never did—and in stating that in the Treta Yuga Narayana manifests as Nara. Bandlamudi unnecessarily uses jargon e.g. “unfinalizability and unsystematizability”. What is valuable is her insight that despite being the great story of Bharat, the MB speaks to different lands, peoples and times including contemporary issues: “the centripetal and centrifugal forces in the MB demand answerability from lived life as a form of rhythmic closure.”
What is surprising in this anthology is the absence of awareness regarding Duryodhana as an agent with Shakuni behind him, just as Arjuna is an agent impelled by Krishna. A study investigating this area would be beneficial indeed.
(A shorter version was published on 17.2.2019 in the 8th Day supplement of The Sunday Statesman) at http://epaper.thestatesman.com/2024758/8th-Day/17TH-FEBRUARY-2019#page/2/2
Kevin McGrath: Karna the Sanskrit Hero, (Brill, 2004)
In this fascinating work, McGrath seeks to study how Karna has been portrayed as a heroic-Aryan ideal from both archaic and classical viewpoints in the Mahabharata and attempts to illustrate how the typology still obtains in modern society, as evinced in Tagore’s poem on Karna and Kunti composed in response to scientist Jagadish Chandra Bose’s request to adopt Karna as mythic paradigm for the modern Indian, and in songs about Karna in Gujarat celebrating him as a hero who brings water and fertility to the community. Even in Indian cinema, the tragic figure of Karna has a perennial appeal, his story being woven into various film scripts in modern guise. The occidental indologist’s interest in Karna and the tendency to look upon him as the epic hero is understandable because he displays quite a few resemblances to Achilles, the hero of the Iliad. Both have special, divinely crafted armour; both have a celestial parent; both sulk and stand aside from the battle initially out of wounded amour proper; both are ultimately struck down by archers.
Adopting Blackburn’s paradigm of epic aetiology in contemporary India as developed by Gregory Nagy where the epic is seen as evolving from ‘uneven weighting’ towards ‘even weighting’, McGrath finds Karna’s epic being subsumed under the weightier Arjuna-epic in the written tradition. Underlying their confrontation is an ancient Vedic substratum: the antagonism between Surya and Indra pointed out by Georges Dumezil (Indra detaches Surya’s chariot wheel; Surya’s natural mother abandons him and the adoptive mother brings him up). McGrath does not notice that in the Ramayana the same rivalry is perpetuated through Bali and Sugriva, the sons of Indra and Surya respectively, the situation being reversed. It is Surya-Sugriva who has Indra-Bali slain by Vishnu-Rama while, usually, Vishnu helps Indra to slay his adversaries through a trick. This issue warrants deeper examination.
A good point made is that we never find out how the name of Karna is given. Adhiratha and Radha name him Vasushena and appropriately he is indiscriminately liberal like the Sun. In a footnote, McGrath makes an important point that deserved exploration in the book: the only other ‘ear-ringed’ heroes are Skanda, and the Maruts. Indra makes the one general of the celestial host against the Titans and has the others as his assistants after an abortive attempt to destroy them in the womb. While in exile, Bhima refers to the enemies being led by Karna as a helmsman steering the Dhartarashtra boat across the raging sea of battle. In the same passage Skanda is celebrated as a great donor. Both unhesitatingly gift Indra what he craves. McGrath does not, however, investigate why Karna becomes infused with the demon Naraka following Duryodhana’s capture by the Gandharvas. In the 18th century Tullal songs of Kerala he is the demon Sashrakavacha (thousand-armoured) reincarnated. No Indo-European hero has this demonic aspect. Yet, at the end of epic, Karna is very much a solar hero, celebrated by Kunti as ‘A hero, ear-ringed, armoured, splendid like the Sun’, seen by Yudhishthira as attended by twelve suns (dvadashaditya sahitam) and finally merging with the Sun (ravim).
McGrath overlooks how Surya browbeats adolescent Kunti into submit to his sexual needs. It is a measure of her strength of character that even as an adolescent girl that she is able to stand up to him partially and obtain boons ensuring her impaired virginity and her son being special. In this, she parallels her grandmother-in-law Matsyagandha vis-‘-vis the importunate sage Parashara. In saying that Karna is seen in action first when he accompanies Duryodhana to count cattle in the forest, McGrath forgets the confrontation in Draupadi’ssvayamvara where he retreats, astonished at the ‘brahmin’ Arjuna’s bowmanship. Nor does he note that Karna’s much-vaunted prowess is decisively undercut here as also twice more in the cattle-counting and rustling episodes, which Bhishma, Drona and Kripa taunt him with. The contradiction between fidelity to Duryodhana as Karna’s declared paramount value and his refusal to fight so long as Bhishma is in the field, and later not taking Yudhishthira prisoner despite having him at his mercy, also remains unexplored.
The most rewarding part of the book is McGrath’s exploration of Karna’s critical relationships. Like the typical epic hero, Karna has an opposite number who is designated as his ‘share’: Arjuna. The parallelism is articulated in the very first appearance where Karna does all that Arjuna has displayed in the tournament and then challenges him to a duel. At Kurukshetra, they kill each other’s sons. Karna is the only hero on the Kaurava side who converses with gods (Surya, Indra), as Yudhishthira does with Dharma and Kubera, Arjuna with Indra and Shiva. The Krishna-Karna interaction before the war is a clear parallel to and a reversal of the Krishna-Arjuna dialogue that follows. The difference, as McGrath points out, is that here it is Karna who tells Krishna what is going to happen, including his own death, rising to an apocalyptic level that is never Arjuna’s. The Karna-Shalya colloquy is yet another variation that stands the Krishna-Arjuna model on its head. Karna’s last speech to Shalya is a unique passage in the epic conflating a multitude of emotions: insult, confession, boating, abuse, threat, forgiveness, summing up ‘the strange imbalance between potence and irresolution that is so part of his make-up.’
Karna’s fidelity to his word and to liberality for winning fame ‘ his pre-eminent concern ‘raise him to heroic levels that no other character reaches. Yet, Karna is far more mundane in his sufferings and conquests than Arjuna who destroys hosts of Daityas whom the gods cannot defeat, and duels with Shiva himself. Nor is Karna brutal and unfeeling like Bhima who does not even mourn Ghatotkacha and is quite demonic in his deeds. This humanity is what makes him more appealing as an epic hero and is the secret behind the numerous vernacular compositions celebrating him. Karna is defined by two crucial relationships: with Duryodhana it is one of inseparable confidante and advisor, paralleling that of Krishna with Arjuna; with Bhishma it is one of contention arising out of a curious similarity. The origin of both is linked to the heavens (Surya, Dyaus); both emerge out of the Ganga; both are Parashurama’s disciples; both are advisors of the Hastinapura court’Bhishma of the titular monarch and Karna of the actual ruler; both command the Kaurava army in turn and are regarded as the major hindrances to Pandava victory.
McGrath isolates six crucial speeches Karna makes to Surya, Indra, Krishna, Kunti, Kripa and Shalya, concluding that his use of speech as a form of assault sets off the epic’s movement towards the battlefield. Dhritarashtra refers to Karna as one characterised by bitter speech while Yudhishthira speaks of him as ‘one whose teeth are spears and arrows and whose tongue is a sword’. McGrath identifies four levels in Karna’s persona where loss increasingly overwhelms him. In the interactions with Indra and Kripa he lacks nothing. In the speech to Krishna a sense of doom looms which he repeats when declaiming to Duryodhana on fate, for he is no longer invincible. Ultimately, shedding tears at his son’s death, he is vulnerable like Achilles weeping over Patroklos, and Ravana over Meghanada. His own death soon follows, for the epic hero needs must succumb to mortality to be celebrated eternally.
McGrath makes a valuable point regarding the cult of the hero that is common to occidental and oriental myth when he notes the large number of hero-stones existing in Maharashtra celebrating heroes killed while protecting cattle. He quotes Bhishma from the Shanti Parva stating that heroism is the supreme value in the three worlds, for all is based on the hero. Seeking for sculptural proof of this as in Greek society, he points us to two singular references in the Bhishma and Drona parvas to statues of Kuru kings housed in the temple trembling, laughing, dancing and weeping and to the banners of Draupadi’s sons exhibiting images of the Ashvins, Indra, Martus and Dharma. Karna’s qualification as a hero is borne out by the fact that both enemies and friends sing laments for him. Further, like the Indo-European hero, Karna is the eternal solitary. Like the Senecan tragic hero, he can very well have as his motto, ‘I am myself, alone!’