Kevin McGrath: Bhishma Devavrata—authority in epic Mahabharata, Orient Blackswan, 2018, pp. 180, Rs. 945/-
So far there have been only two novels on the patriarch of the Mahabharata (MB): M.M. Thakur’s “Thus Spake Bhishma” (1991) and Kamesh Ramakrishna’s “The Last Kaurava” (2015). McGrath’s is the sole book-length study of how Bhishma comes to be regarded as the supreme moral authority. So much so that Krishna, instead of advising Yudhishthira himself, has Bhishma from his death-bed lecture Yudhishthira on various aspects of dharma over an astonishing period of two months speaking as both prince and priest.
McGrath finds that in MB morality is fourfold: a behavioural value-system; variable depending upon conventions; transcendent (the Gita); and personal. The last aspect is also the most vexed because this “pitamaha” (grandfather) is celibate and does not continue his lineage. Ambivalence characterizes him. He is torn between duty to the throne and affection for the Pandavas and their right to the throne. McGrath argues that Bhishma’s understanding of right conduct stems not from tradition and shastras but from an epiphany. McGrath argues that the theophany to which Krishna exposes Bhishma in Dhritarashtra’s court engenders a detachment because of which he can fight against those whom his heart favours and accept death without a murmur. Drona underwent the same experience, but we do not find him evincing such “vairagya”. Both fall undefeated, voluntarily laying down their arms and enter into meditative trance to die.
His authority stems from his being the only true descendent of Kuru. True, his eldest paternal uncle Devapi became a sanyasi being denied the throne by Brahmins because of a skin defect. But how do we forget the existence of Shantanu’s brother Bahlika? He had a son named Somadatta who fought in the war. It is not clear how Bhishma getting Pandu married to Madri would restore the patriline as she has nothing to do with Bahlika.
McGrath does not resolve how Bhishma reconciles keeping Karna out of the war for ten days with loyalty to the throne. The parallel with Achilles sulking in his tents is pronounced. This is paralleled by Karna, despite his much-vaunted loyalty to Duryodhana, not capturing Yudhishthira after trouncing him, Bhima, Nakula and Sahadeva. Further, both Bhishma and Karna are displaced eldest sons, a leit motif in the epic. The two greatest philosophers, Krishna and Bhishma, are both eighth sons with their elder siblings murdered.
McGrath does not clarify how Duryodhana displays magus or shaman-like characteristics. Neither is it correct that the Dhartarashtras have no cult status. Temples to Duryodhana (and Karna), Shakuni and Gandhari exist in Garhwal, Kerala and Bangalore. Nor is it that Bhishma is not worshipped anywhere. Allahabad has a temple in Daraganj built in 1961 with an image of Bhishma on the bed of arrows. Special puja is conducted during the “pitri-paksha”. Narkatari Temple with a pond called “Bhishma Kund” is at Kurukshetra commemorating where Bhishma lay. It is not purely a Kshatriya view of the universe that is depicted. Bhishma’s discourses include a considerable portion portraying varying Brahmin views as well. Further, Sanjaya does not merely see and recount; he actually participates in the war, being almost killed by Satyaki. Sanjaya is the world’s first war-correspondent.
The reference to Vyasa as “chiranjiva” (p.5), ever-living, is puzzling as he is not described thus, unless it is taken as a reference to this appellative being given to the series of such editors/compilers of whom Krishna Dvaipayana belongs to the Dvapara epoch. Again, with the detailed description of the wondrous hall constructed by Maya, how can we say that MB depicts “an idealized culture where there is…no substantive architecture”?
McGrath’s point is well taken that precise portrayal of rituals is missing, as though these had become unfamiliar. Similarly, physical details of characters are few. They are mainly moral figures. Vyasa’s conjuring up of the shades of the dead who rise with “a great sound” from the Ganga is taken as a metaphor for the making of the “maha-kavya”. We, like Dhritarashtra, visualise in the mind’s eye what Vyasa (and Sanjaya) narrate.
It is curious that there is no reference to the Harappan culture (unless we count Shiva as one) and few to Shramanic tradition which would have been prevalent alongside. There is a solitary reference to a “kshapanak” (naked Jain mendicant) and to “pashanda” (Buddhist/Jain heretic) besides the lokayata Charvaka whom Brahmins kill for condemning Yudhishthira. Some of the stories Bhishma tells are similar to Buddhist jatakas. Romila Thapar has suggested that the Harappan was a matrilineal society. A late Buddhist text lists Gujarat as one of the “pancha-dravida” lands. The Kshatriya lineage destroyed by Parashurama is regenerated by its women who approach Brahmins for sons. Such progeny are “suta” by class, making all later royalty’s claim to Kshatriya-hood spurious, unless Parashurama’s annihilation was restricted to the Haiheya clan. In Hastinapura the matriline begins with Satyavati making her pre-marital son Vyasa (of mixed caste) continue Shantanu’s line. It is also shown in the overwhelming influence of Satyavati over Bhishma and of Kunti, her nephew Krishna and Draupadi over the Pandavas. Finally, the MB portrays a Yadava take-over: the great-grandsons of Kunti and her nephew Krishna ultimately rule Hastinapura and Indraprastha. McGrath even argues, “it is his (Bhishma’s) role to advance this Yadava coup.”
McGrath is the first scholar to point out Kunti’s culpability in causing the partition that culminated in the war by concealing Karna’s identity. On a different level, Surya bears equal blame in not supporting his son effectively whereas Indra comes to the aid of Arjuna powerfully. Kunti’s causation of the “bheda” is structural, while Draupadi’s is temporal, constantly goading her husbands towards the holocaust. Their influence is far more pervasive than those of Kryseis and Briseis in the Iliad to whom McGrath compares them.
It is not only that we have no idea of which text of the MB Nilakantha (late 17th c.) was commenting upon, as McGrath says. In 1584-86 when it was translated into Persian as Razmnama, there is no indication of what text was used. The names of the scholars Akbar appointed indicate that they were drawn from all corners of India, showing awareness of the existence of different versions. However, we do know from the illustrations Akbar commissioned that for the Ashvamedha Parva the Emperor chose Jaimini’s composition instead of his guru Vyasa’s.
McGrath maps six crises in Bhishma’s story which bring about his fall: the abduction of Amba and its results; his advice to partition the kingdom; his offering the supreme honour to Krishna in the rajasuya yagya; his aloof stance in the molestation of Draupadi; his silence about Karna’s birth and his acceptance of marshal-ship in Kurukshetra. Thus heroic Bhishma is at the very core of the collapse of order in the narrative.
There is a seventh decision that plays a critical role in the plot: his appointing Drona as royal tutor knowing his obsessive animosity against Drupada. In the Harivansha (I.20) Bhishma recounts how the usurper of Panchala, Ugrayudha, demanded that the widow Gandhakali (Satyavati) be handed over to him. Bhishma killed him in a mighty war and restored the kingdom to Prishata, Drupada’s father. Vyasa never clarifies why Drupada holds a yagya seeking a son to kill Bhishma.
Bhishma’s regency is described in ideal terms, making him the authority for declaiming on governance. People clamoured for him to become their raja, he tells Durodhana (V.145.25). His description of Yudhishthira’s rule in the Virata Parva (IV.27) echoes this idealistic picture. However, later the people criticise him for not protecting the Pandavas against Duryodhana’s machinations and say that he “does not attend to dharma” (I.137.5). When the Pandavas depart on exile they revile him again, along with Vidura, Drona and Kripa (here McGrath mistakes “Gautama” as referring to Drona who is a Bharadvaja, whereas Kripa is a Gautama). The vow he takes gives Devavrata the appellative “Bhishma”, “terrific” and that is what characterises his speech. The only person to vilify him, and at length, is Shishupala. Bhishma’s response is to offer up himself as an animal sacrifice. Instead, it is Shishupala who is beheaded. Bhishma repeats this in the Bhishma Parva, and his offer is accepted. Although McGrath says that the killing in the rajasuya is not commented upon, Vyasa categorically prophesies calamities as a consequence on being asked by Yudhishthira.
It is, however, difficult to agree with McGrath’s repeated assertion regarding Bhishma’s “transcendental awareness” of dharma as truth attained through dhyana-yoga as it is not manifested in his conduct. The unique lucidity of behaviour that McGrath praises is nowhere in evidence in the dice game episode where he is the epitome of confusion. Even the code of battle he lays down is not observed during his marshal-ship. However, it is true that Bhishma stands as the moral standard in the poem as far as his discourses are concerned, which are in a didactic poetic tradition totally different from what has gone before. It is another matter that Duryodhana gives him short shrift, yet cannot escape making him the marshal.
By stating that Bhishma and Vyasa are descendants of the rishis Vishvamitra and Vasishtha, who were contemporaries, McGrath creates a chronological problem. Vyasa is Vasishtha’s great grandson, but Bhishma is many generations after Vishvamitra and is descended from his daughter Shakuntala, who is half-human as is Bhishma himself having Ganga for his mother. It is interesting that the three preceptors of the Dhartarashtras—Bhishma, Drona and Kripa—are born of apsaras. On the other hand, their opponents, the Pandavas, have devas for fathers, with Bhishma being the Vasu Dyaus (sky) reborn. Like Krishna, the other avatar, he is the eighth born with his elder siblings having been killed. Bhishma remains caught in the middle, a predicament that Krishna easily side-steps. Unlike Vidura, Bhishma never asks Dhritarashtra to reject Duryodhana. Karna, born of Surya, queers the pitch of the Dhartarashtra-Pandava balance. As with Karna, Bhishma’s sense of personal honour supersedes loyalty to Duryodhana. Neither will kill the Pandavas (Karna makes Arjuna the exception, as Bhishma does Shikhandi) though it may cost Duryodhana victory. The phrase, “egotistical sublime” can well describe both.
Beginning with driving Satyavati to Hastinapura to wed his father, Bhishma becomes the bride-supplier to its princes. Kunti is the only exception. The repeated rite of abduction whereby Bhishma, Arjuna and Karna (for Duryodhana) obtain brides raises the question why this form of marriage named “rakshasa” was approved for Kshatriyas. Why was the royalty adopting a custom of people they condemned?
McGrath makes the very striking point that the MB is about adharma as it deals with the onset of the “impoverished” Kali Yuga when dharma stands on just one foot. Thus, only a fourth of all action and speech is dharmic! All characters are, therefore, compromised, Bhishma most of all. He chooses to act on loyalty instead of upholding moral judgement. “Kinship is the absolute, not ethics.” That is why this is such an existential poem and in that inheres its tragic appeal to us.
It is interesting to find McGrath asserting that the battle in the Virata Parva is drawn from a different poetic tradition, very archaic in style, because many Western scholars opine that this is a burlesque added on later. Sri Aurobindo held that this parva shows the young Vyasa at work.
Bhishma is the warrior of unrivalled excellence and he describes his ability at length to Duryodhana.. When McGrath argues that Bhishma is never defeated, he forgets the Virata Parva encounter where he and everyone else is laid low by Arjuna. Bhishma Where Drona is called “the more experienced warrior” has not been cited. Nor does Bhishma call Karna “a half charioteer” (p. 71). The word he uses is “ardha-ratha,” i.e. “half-chariot-warrior”. Bhishma’s supremacy as warrior is established by his victory over his guru Parashurama, the decimator of Kshatriyas. There is a contradiction here because Parashurama would not tutor anyone but a Brahmin, as Karna finds out to his cost. Further, in the beginning in the list of contents (I.2.79) Bhishma is described as guarding Chitrangad. No evidence of this is forthcoming as this young prince dies in a duel with no sign of his protector being around. Indeed, Bhishma’s regency is characterised by status quo, with no awareness of Jarasandha’s imperial designs reaching out from Magadha to adjoining Mathura and surrounding areas, imprisoning numerous kings.
McGrath alone has pointed out that Bhishma’s reluctance to fight his guru prefigures Arjuna’s predicament. Both events occur at Kurukshetra which is also the scene of the philosophical discourses of both Bhishma and Krishna. McGrath states that whereas Arjuna overcomes his qualms about violence, Bhishma does not (fn. 33). If that were so, Bhishma would not have gone on slaughtering ten thousand troops daily for ten days.
It is not only Bhishma’s charioteer who goes unmentioned, as McGrath remarks, but Drona’s too, which is very peculiar as the charioteer’s role is seen as crucial. It is as though Bhishma were totally alone in war, as solitary as in his celibacy, not needing another presence. He never loses control even when Krishna loses his composure and rushes at him twice over. Apart from Vidura who is no warrior, he is possibly the only character truly detached from his own self, so much so that he reveals how he can be brought down. Karna, too, gives up his impenetrable skin-armour, and in doing so values adherence to his word over loyalty to Duryodhana, just like Bhishma. Both are altruistic, but Bhishma does not behave thus for sake of glory. That is the nature of his renunciation, “vairagya”. He never voices his emotional anguish and only announces that he is tired of his body and invites Yudhishthira to kill him.
The special death that he, Drona and Vidura undergo, suggests McGrath, is a result of the theophany experienced during Krishna’s embassy to the Hastinapura court. McGrath trips up here in writing that Vidura dies in the Mausala parva, whereas it is in the Ashramavasika Parva. McGrath feels that Bhishma “is the truest practitioner of Krishna’s Gita teaching…able to practise vairagya” in action, unconcerned about the fruits of his acts. Arjuna forgets the teaching and asks for a repeat performance in the Ashvamedha Parva. Bhishma alone sings paeans to Krishna, not Arjuna. His is a profound moral understanding of the cosmos, symbolised by the hamsa (swooses) who appear when he falls. No wonder that he should be the one to discourse on the paths to attaining moksha at great length. The adharma-centred eleven books are more than balanced by the two massive tomes on dharma.
McGrath asserts that Bhishma’s discourses on governance form the template of the Gupta imperial rule, being quite different from the type of kingship modelled by Yudhishthira, which is power shared with brothers and Krishna, and characterised by seeking revenge for justice. What Bhishma depicts at very great length is a codified system of judgement that we find in the dharmashastras and Kautilya. It is common in late Bronze Age cultures (Hittite, Assyrian, Judaic), none of which are anywhere as encyclopaedic. In doing so he also reveals a massive store of oral tradition replete with moral tales of incredible variety and speaks in multifarious voices (McGrath counts as many as 280) but without emotion, despite the anguish he has suffered far longer than anyone else. That lifelong suffering, despite which he has not deviated from his principles, also sets him on a moral pedestal because of which his authority extends well beyond the poem into all audiences.
McGrath is quite correct in positing that the Anushasana Parva was originally part of the Shanti Parva which thus consisted of four dharma-texts: raja, apad, moksha, anushasana. Indeed, the list of contents does not mention the Anushasana separately. Further, the oldest list of parvas found in the Spitzer manuscript (1st-2nd century CE) in a cave in Xinjiang province of northwest China does not mention it. Vyasa informs Yudhishthira that Bhishma learnt all this from Brihaspati, Ushana, Chyavana, Vasishtha, Sanatkumara, Markandeya and Indra. The discourses are in a style completely different from the preceding heroic mode.
Where Dharma’s avatar Vidura is only a speaker, except where he rescues the Pandavas, and where the son of Dharma Yudhishthira violates dharma at critical moments, Bhishma speaks most powerfully and also acts righteously. However, McGrath bypasses the issue that at crucial junctures he does violate morality by omitting to act, e.g. in failing to protect the young Pandavas from Duryodhana’s villainy and Draupadi from being publicly molested. We should add to this his deliberate obfuscation of the truth about Karna’s birth, which is surely not moral by any standard.
It is curious that McGrath should be unclear about the effect of Shiva in the narrative. His presence is quite pervasive. He sends the five Indras down to earth with Shri as their common wife; his boons to Amba and Drupada produce Shikhandi as Bhishma’s killer; he provides Arjuna with divine weapons; he precedes Arjuna’s arrows killing those he aims at; he empowers Ashvatthama to massacre the Panchalas and Draupadeyas; by his boon Krishna obtains Samba the source of his clan’s annihilation. Bhishma himself in his three paeans to Krishna refers to him as Rudra and Shiva, while Krishna sings Rudra’s praises in the Drona, Shanti and Anushasana Parvas as McGrath notes. Thus, Bhishma’s devotion to Krishna includes Shiva. We do not find any other hero displaying such devotion which is independent of ritual and this elevates him to a unique level of spirituality.
In the context of Shiva we should not overlook the symbolism conveyed by the names of the Kashi princesses: Amba, Ambika and Ambalika. All are names of the Supreme Devi. Vyasa rapes two of them. The consequence is defective progeny. In the affront to Amba, which leads to her invoking Shiva, and the omission to act to protect Draupadi, Bhishma is arousing the rage of Shakti. We find Kali appearing amidst the carnage of Kurukshetra. Since both Bhishma and Vyasa represent patriarchy (both are “pitamahas”), the extinction of both their lineages (Vyasa even loses his son Shuka) suggests that the final establishment of Yadava hegemony represents the victory of the matriline.
Following Russell Blackford, McGrath sees Bhishma’s authority in three dimensions: “objective moral” (the Pandavas’ right to rule); “inescapable practical” (loyalty as an employee of Duryodhana) and “transcendent” (gladly falling to Arjuna’s arrows). He infuses the epic with the overtone of normative action and expresses it in speech that influences the audience so powerfully even today. The beauty of the MB is that everyone believes he has a right to act as he does. It is the wide variation in these views that, McGrath holds, produces the clash between adharma and adharma, not dharma and adharma. But would that not mean that Bhishma’s “objective moral authority” favouring the Pandavas is adharma?
McGrath’s footnote admiring Narendra Modi has taken a vow of celibacy like Bhishma is intriguing. McGrath feels that as with Gandhi and Aung San Suu Kyi (married and separated), this feature lends great moral authority. In Bhishma’s case it is refraining from “biological union with all of life” that accounts for his moral authority even today. It is important that no judgement is passed on Bhishma’s decisions (Gandhi-like “experiments with dharma?”). This is left to the audience.
In an interesting section, modern perceptions of Bhishma are surveyed as in Tharoor’s The Great Indian Novel, Peter Brooks’ play and the several TV versions of the MB. Brooks’ five-finger exercise provides the least insights about Bhishma. McGrath concludes that moral authority vests not in any character but in the MB itself which “remains a charter myth” for modern India.
McGrath shows that dhyana-yoga is the means whereby Vyasa composed the MB, veritably creating an entire world and portraying its destruction, just like kala-Time itself. By paralleling the action of cosmic time, the epic becomes the authority on dharmic awareness for its audience. It achieves this through speech which conveys thought and is then translated into action. It is Bhishma who is the most prolific speaker in the MB, charging it with power “that it intrinsically transcendental and suprahistorical”. That is why it remains the greatest commentary on adharma for the world.
The passage from the Bhishma Parva that McGrath quotes admiringly (p.135) depicting the radiant whiteness of his appearance has a parallel in the first tournament where the young princes face-off in Hastinapura. There Drona’s appearance is described in almost identical terms:-
White his robes
White his sacred thread
White his hair
White his beard
White the flower-
Garland on his body
White the sandal paste
Smeared on his body. (I.136.19-20, the P. Lal transcreation).
A very fine point is made in analysing the presence of violent death in the epic, a keynote struck from the beginning. That is why Akbar called it Razmnama, the Book of War. As in the Greek epics, its depiction is devoid of bodily pain. This is achieved through the multiplicity of metaphors used to turn a field of blood into a thing of beauty. It is a remarkable feat how death is made aesthetically appealing to the audience who come to realise that it is the ultimate truth. It is that truth which Bhishma encounters fearlessly and this is what makes for his moral pre-eminence. In celebrating Bhishma, the MB projects an awareness existing on the border of life and death. This dwelling upon the fine margin of transition from one state of existence to another constitutes the unique splendour of the MB. Very perceptively McGrath refers to the World War poets shrouding carnage in beauty and sadness instead of horror. He turns our attention to Anandavardhana’s assertion that the purpose of the MB is to generate disillusionment with worldly life and lead to peace and liberation. Hence the predominant presence of death. “Kurukshetra, the site of so much deadly and lethal violence, is the source and ground of generation for the lovely aesthetics and moral semantics of this work.”
The concluding section is a fascinating analysis of how the redactors arranged the poem to secure moral influence. Beginning with the voice of an anonymous poet (who speaks again after an interval), we find Ugrashrava reciting, Dhritarashtra lamenting, succeeded by Sanjaya describing, then revert to Ugrashrava. About the first two-thirds of the first book McGrath writes, “The evidence is of a rough and syncretic compilation…not a labour of inspiration but of …literary anthologists with a particular socio-politico agenda in mind” moving back and forth in time.” The Adi, Vana, Shanti and Anushasana Parvas cobble together numerous narratives like a patchwork quilt (the Bengali “kantha”) or bricolage. The others are inspired composition. It is questionable, however, that Ugrashrava is performing long after Janamejaya’s death since he states that he is just coming from that king’s snake-sacrifice. Nor does Vaishampayana state that the epic’s performance needed three years. Rather, that rising daily, Vyasa completed composing it in three years. Vyasa did not recite it to Janamejaya as McGrath states (p. 158) but asked Vaishampayana to do so in his presence. P.L.Vaidya, whom McGrath quotes, is mistaken in asserting that the recitations by Vyasa’s pupils retained the same contents with different wording. We have evidence of the vast difference in content that exists in Jaimini’s version of the MB, of which the Ashvamedha and Ashramavasika Parvas are extant.
In the considerable number of passages the Shanti Parva shares with the Manusmriti the Bhargava hand is clear, Bhrigu expounding the latter. His name occurs 135 times in Bhishma’s discourses. He is a paramount exponent of moral order whom Bhishma imitates. Indeed, the MB begins with tales of Bhrigu’s lineage, creating a world of mythical wonder. Through Bhishma’s defeat of the Bhargava superhero Parashurama were the editors projecting him as their icon representing the ideal of dharma expounded in the Shanti and Anushasana Parvas? Further, it is significant that the Gita is embedded in the Bhishma Parva. McGrath likens their work to that of Lonnrot with the Finnish Kalevala, of Virgil with the Aeneid and of Wagner with The Ring cycle.
McGrath is the only scholar after Andre Couture to bring to bear insights from the Harivansha on the MB. He points out Vyasa’s use of the word lekha, “signs” or “writing” (114.27) indicating that much after the epic’s composition its written form became authoritative instead of oral performance. That is why the merit accruing from listening to the MB includes gifting a copy of it.
In establishing Bhishma as the supreme moral figure, however, McGrath “doth protest too much” as in the repetitive assertions in the latter half of the book. One cannot also agree that Bhishma is “an icon of justice” because though he spoke of it profusely in action he did not exemplify it.
“Between the idea
And the reality…
Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response…
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow.”
A shorter version of this review was published in The Sunday Statesman of 3rd June 2018 in the 8th Day Literary Supplement.
The Mahabharata of Vyasa: The Complete Shantiparva Part 2: Mokshadharma
translated from Sanskrit by Dr. Pradip Bhattacharya,
Writers Workshop, Kolkata, 2016, pp. 1107, Rs. 2000/-
Padma Shri Professor Purushottam Lal, D. Litt., Jawaharlal Nehru fellow, began transcreating the Mahabharata in 1968 in free flowing English verse. It was indeed a mammoth effort and unique because no one else had attempted a translation of the epic in verse before him. Unfortunately, he could transcreate and publish sixteen and a half of the epic’s eighteen books before he breathed his last in 2010. Mokshadharma Parva of Shanti Parva and the Anushasana Parva remained to be completed. Perhaps, like a true guru, he wished to test the abilities of his shishyas to take up the challenge of completing his unfinished project. And Dr. Pradip Bhattacharya, a worthy shishya of a great guru, took up the challenge of translating, and not transcreating as he says, the remaining part of the Shanti Parva, the Mokshadharma Parvadhyaya. It is indeed very brave of Bhattacharya as this part, in my opinion, is the most difficult section of the epic revealing the essence of Vyasan philosophy. In many ways, Bhattacharya is the right person to undertake this work, given his deep and extensive scholarship about the epic. Besides, he has his own reasons. He writes in the Preface:
‘Professor Lal was my much-admired guru and beloved acharya in every sense. He gifted me a copy of his extensively revised edition of the complete Adi Parva (2005) with the inscription, “for Pradip, chelaextraordinaire, shubham te astu,” leaving me overwhelmed. It was therefore, a wonderful opportunity to offer dakshina when his son, Professor Ananda Lal, handed me the Professor’s copy of the Gita Press Shanti Parva volume and asked me to complete the project – a signal honour and a great challenge.”
The book under review has a short preface, the main text and a few interesting annexures. These include maps of Aryavarta and of India at the time of the Mahabharata sketched by Prof. Lal, a list of stories narrated in the Moksha Dharma Parva (courtesy Madhusraba Dasgupta’s Samsad Companion to theMahabharata) and reviews penned by Bhattacharya of Karna Parva, StreeParva and Shanti Parva, Part 1, (Raja Dharma) transcreated and published by Prof. Lal earlier. These elegant reviews were published in The Statesman’s 8th Day literary supplement and provide interesting reading. The Preface explains the methodology followed: keeping to the original syntax as far as possible, in free verse and prose faithful to Prof. Lal’s objective of providing the full ragbag version. “The text is a conflation of the editions published by the Gita Press…Aryashastra and that edited by Haridas Siddhantabagish Bhattacharya with the Bharatakaumudi and Nilakantha’s Bharatabhavadipa annotations, cross-checked with Kaliprasanna Sinha’s Bengali translation, the first English translation by K.M.Ganguly and the shorter Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute edition.”
After the Kurukshetra holocaust, Yudhishthira, stricken with sorrow and guilt, receives instruction from Bhishma on three aspects: Rajadharma, principles of governance, Apaddharma, principles to be followed in extremity and Mokshadharma, principles for attaining liberation. The book under review deals with Mokshadharma. It starts from Section 174 of the Shanti Parva (Section 168 of the Pune Critical Edition).
Having been instructed on the principles of governance, Yudhishthira shifts gear and ascends to the higher level of philosophy with the question,
“O Pitamaha-grandfather, you have
spoken on auspicious
Rajadharma, the dharma of governance.
O Earth-lord, speak.
now of the best dharma of ashramites!”
He follows it up with a series of questions which reveal a supremely disturbed mind trying to find solace, seeking a way, a method by which he can get over the guilt, the sorrow and the confusion arising out of losing all his relations and friends in the pyrrhic battle for which he holds his own greed responsible. Bhishma tells him that everyone must try to obtain moksha, liberation, by way of detachment which can only come if one remains unaffected by worldly emotions and possessions. One must rise above sorrow and happiness as these are ephemeral. True nature of the Self, atma–gyana, must arise before liberation can be achieved. That emancipates him from the liability of rebirth and that is the highest goal of human existence. That is the only cure for the affliction Yudhishthira suffers from.
Easier said than done! So, for the next two hundred and one chapters, Bhishma holds forth on how to succeed in obtaining liberation, answering myriad questions from the troubled Yudhisthira, opening up the vast expanse of epic philosophy, proceeding from one concept to the other. He talks about removal of sorrow and attainment of supreme joy, removal of attachment and giving up of desire, renunciation, truth, samadarshana-equity, importance of japa, reciting the name of god, dhyana, dana (gift) and tapasya-ascesis. He talks about the four ashramas and due observation of the duties prescribed for each, underlining the importance of sadachara, virtuous conduct. Non-violence must be practised and therefore slaying of animals in sacrifices cannot be approved (even though we observe the continued performance of Ashvamedha!). To explain each concept Bhishma narrates stories and dialogues. There are fifty-five such engaging stories (with, of course, many sub-stories, stories within stories), in the MokshadharmaParva establishing a tradition followed later perhaps by works like Panchatantra, Hitopadesa, etc.
Samkhya philosophy has been dealt with at some length because ignorance is the root cause of misfortune. An ignorant man can never achieve moksha. Therefore, knowledge is of primary importance. In this Parva we find the Samkhya theories of Devala and Panchasikha, a detailed delineation of the cosmic principles by Yagyavalkya to Janaka and also discussions on concepts like avyakta, gyana, buddhi, manas, mahat, ahamkara, prakriti, pancha-bhuta, vikaras – the twenty-four principles later modified to twenty-five and then to twenty-six, in short. Panchasikha of course had thirty-one principles in his conceptualisation. It assumes the three gunas and that everyone comes under the influence of these. Therefore, Samkhya basically emphasises that renunciation and knowledge of all these principles are necessary preconditions for obtaining moksha. Dharmadhvaja-Janaka says to Sulabha, disciple of the Samkhya philosopher, Panchasikha,
“…renunciation is the supreme
means for this moksha and
indeed from knowledge is born renunciation
…That supreme intelligence obtained, I
free of opposites,
here indeed, delusion gone, move free of attachment.”
Though this is the basic tenet of samkhya, interestingly Sulabha takes this far deeper in response to his question, who she was and from where she had come, saying,
“Who I am, whose I am, from where I have
come, you asked me.
…If you are free from dualities of
“This is mine,” perhaps
“This is not mine,” O ruler of Mithila,
then what need of
words like, “Who are you? Whose? From where?”
She goes on to deliver a very lengthy lecture on Panchasikha’s Samkhya, saying,
“Not attached am I to my own body.
…Not, surely, did you hear the entire moksha
with its means,its Upanishad, its adjuncts
and its conclusions.”
For Sulabha, nothing is one’s own. One’s self is part of the same self in any other body which is composed of the elements that revert to the unmanifest source. For Asita Devala the ultimate goal is Ananda in the state of Brahman.
Yoga is a necessary addendum of Samkhya. Mahabharata describes two kinds of yoga: the Raudra and the Vedic ashtanga, laying down the rules of diet etc., and the methods of attaining ultimate bliss. Samkhya gives knowledge and Yoga, health. Through Samkhya one attains knowledge and through Yoga one attains direct perception. According to the epic, both are complementary and both are equally efficacious.
In course of the Brahmanisation of the epic, many stories were added almost deifying the Brahmins. But the epic still reflected thoughts displaying a great extent of catholicity. One becomes a Brahmin not by birth but by his gunas, qualities and consequent karma, not by birth. In the Vana Parva Nahusha tells Yudhishthira,
“Truth, self-control and charity,
and the practice of dharma –
not caste and not family –
are the means to perfection.” (Vana Parva, 181-42/43).
The Gita displays similar catholicity and the same generosity is displayed in the Mokshadharma Parva too. Having described the characteristics of variousgunas, Bhrigu tells Bharadvaja,
“If these characteristics exist in
a shudra and
they are not in a twice-born Brahmin,
that Shudra is
indeed no Shudra and that Brahmin is
not a Brahmin.” (Shanti Parva, 189.8)
That is the reason why even in a strong Brahmin-dominated society this Parvacelebrates non-Brahmins like Sulabha the Kshatriya, Pingala the prostitute, Tuladhara the merchant, etc. and bestows great wisdom on them.
In fact, a major part of the Gita is included in the Mokshadharma Parvadhyaya. The concepts of Karmayoga, Gyanayoga, Rajayoga, etc are more or less covered in this Parva and though Bhakti is not specifically mentioned, it flows as an undercurrent through the Parva. Many of the protagonists mention bhakti in passing as an essential element for achieving success. The resplendent Bhagwan appeared before Narada and told him that the maha-rishis Ekata, Dvita and Trita craved for his darshan, but
“They were unable to see me. None can
see me save those
excellent ones exclusively devoted
to me, and indeed you
believe in the ultimate.”
Bhishma’s total surrender to Krishna is sufficient to indicate that Bhakti was never far from his thought process.
While going through Bhattacharya’s translation, two things appear to be worthy of specific note, viz., the emergence of Shiva and the Nara-Narayana duo as important deities in this Parva in the Krishna-dominated epic. Though we have seen Shiva earlier in the Samudra-manthana (Adi Parva), Kirata and Arjuna episodes (Vana Parva) and the Ashvatthama-Shiva encounter (Sauptika Parva), it is in this Parva that Shiva gets his due place as a principal deity. In the story of Vritra, it is Shiva who infects Vritra with fever and empowers Indra with his energy which enables Indra to slay Vritra. This is immediately followed by the Daksha-sacrifice episode in which Shiva creates Virabhadra and Parvati, Bhadrakali, born of her anger. The two together destroy the sacrifice. Most importantly, at the conclusion of the sacrifice Shiva, who till now was not entitled to a divine share in sacrifices, a mark of godhood, becomes entitled and consequently gets recognition as a deity. Daksha sang a paean to Shiva describing his greatness and reciting his one hundred and eight names. In the Shukracharya episode Kubera approaches Shiva requesting him to recover his wealth from the usurper, Shukracharya. Shiva subdues Shukracharya in the most interesting manner, confirming his divine powers. In the story of Shuka, Vyasa himself prays to Shiva for a son, as pure as the five elements. By Shiva’s boon Vyasa gets Shuka as his son.
The Supreme Soul Narayana incarnated in four parts as Dharma’s sons, Nara, Narayana, Hari and Krishna. Of these, Nara and Narayana performed severe ascesis in Badrikashrama where Narada met them. To behold Narayana’s original form Narada, with the permission of Nara and Narayana, went to Shvetadvipa where he met the divine inhabitants, supermen who were totally dedicated to Narayana. Narayana was pleased to appear before him in his cosmic form. Some scholars locate Shvetadvipa somewhere near Egypt or Asia Minor and claim that the legend is influenced by Christian thought. Winternitz however says, “In my opinion, the description of Shvetadvipa…does not remind us of the Christian Eucharist, but of heavenly regions such as Vaikuntha, Goloka, Kailasa and the Sukhavati paradise of Buddha Amitava (History of Indian Literature, Vol. 1, p 440).”
However, Narayana goes on to describe his characteristics, incarnations and activities which involve removal of evil and establishment of good, etc. During that dialogue he mentions that when he, with Arjuna, destroys the Kshatriyas in Kurukshetra, it will be said that Nara and Narayana destroyed the Kshatriyas. So, Nara and Narayana are incarnations of the Supreme Soul and, therefore, gods. To establish that concept on firm footing, the duo are depicted as defeating Shiva-Rudra in a battle. Narada returned to Badrikashrama, spent a thousand years there and worshipped Nara-Narayana. Since then Nara and Narayana are worshipped as gods.
At the end of it all, Yudhishthira asks his last question of MokshadharmaParvadhyaya:
“Grandfather, the dharma relating to
moksha-dharma you have stated. The best
dharma for those
in the ashramas, pray tell me, Sir!”
In fact, that was his first question too! Bhishma then proceeds to tell him the story of the Brahmin Dharmaranya and the Naga chief Padmanabha. The Brahmin faced a dilemma: there are so many dharmas; for moksha, which one should he follow? Padmanabha told him the story of the Brahmin who obtained moksha by unchhavritti, gleaning, once again by the grace of Shiva. The Brahmin’s doubts were removed and he took up unchhavritti. Unchhavritti seems to be the favourite option for Vyasa as through it all the behavioural parameters for mokshacan be achieved. He not only ends the Shanti Parva with such a story but also the Ashvamedhika Parva. There, too, another Brahmin attains moksha by practicingunchhavritti.
But all of Bhishma’s wise discourses fall on deaf ears. Yudhishthira is not fully convinced and tells Bhishma, “You have described to me many fine tenets by which to obtain peace. But even after listening to all of it attentively, I am not getting peace.” So, Bhishma continues with the Anushasana Parva. But that is another story.
The most important quality of any translation is its readability and authenticity. Most translations suffer from the use of extraneous verbiage and loss of material. Bhattacharya has very carefully avoided these traps. He has stuck to the text diligently. Moreover, he has managed to communicate the content and meaning of the concepts, which are, to say the least, very difficult to comprehend. One can move easily with the easy flow of language of the text. Bhattacharya has worked hard indeed to bring Mokshadharma to the readers’ easy comprehension.
The second quality that strikes one is the excellent poetry of Bhattacharya. It is rich yet simple. The reader never stumbles as he goes along. The use of rhetoric is fetching. It has the easy flow of a river and the cadence of raindrops and that is what makes the translation so attractive. Consider just one stanza,
“Wrapped in many-fold threads of delusion
as a silk-worm envelopes itself, you
do not understand.” (329.28)
Also, it must be remembered that Bhattacharya is the first scholar who has translated the Mokshadharma Parva in verse.
Lastly, the depth of research that has gone into this translation is amazing. He has gone through so many other editions, viz., the Mahabharat of Haridas Siddhantabagish, the Critical edition of BORI, K.M.Ganguly’s English translation, Kaliprasanna Singha’s Bengali translation, the Southern recension, etc. The additional stories and verses that he found have been included in the translation, justifying Prof. Lal’s objective of providing the reader with a “full ragbag version”. The additional stories that he has included are two from the Southern recension (Narada and Rishi story), four from Haridas Siddhantabagish (Nibandhana-Bhogavati, Narada, Garuda and Kapila-Asuri) and many verses not found in the Gorakhpur edition. This has given the book the kind of comprehensiveness which even Prof. Lal did not achieve.
Now a few words about the annexures. The map of India at the time of Mahabharata gives us the location of all the principal monarchies in the country. Similarly, the map of Aryavarta gives us a detailed description of the places and kingdoms in the northern part of India where the main events of the epic took place. These are very informative and help us to visualise the events as they occur while reading the text.
The production of the book is excellent. The readers will be pleased to see that Writers Workshop continues Prof. Lal’s innovation of handloom sari-bound production with gold-lettering in his unique calligraphy. In his own words, “Gold-embossed, hand-stitched, hand-pasted and hand-bound by Tulamiah Mohiuddin with handloom sari cloth woven and designed in India, to provide visual beauty and the intimate texture of book-feel…Each WW publication is a hand-crafted artifact.” Happily, it still is.
What makes the reviews penned by Bhattacharya most interesting is his frequent references to characters and events from folk literature, literature of other Indian languages and world literature, which he uses to draw comparisons. Comparing Karna with Achilles (Iliad) and Edmund (King Lear), reference to Karna in Gujarati songs, comparing and contrasting Hecuba and Gandhari, reference to the works of Hiltebeitel and Fitzgerald, Haribhadra’s Jain text, the text engraved on the Garuda pillar of Heliodorus, David’s lament, Deor’s Lament, reference to Arthashastra and various Dharmashastras etc are fascinating. Besides enriching the knowledge of the reader, these make the reviews multi-hued, enhancing the readability level manifold.
The Mahabharata, like the ocean, hides many gems in its huge bulk, generally not available in the popular editions offered in the market. It requires deep insight and study to find them. Bhattacharya has these in good measure. He has brought out information not easily perceived by the reader. Karna, considered “the never-retreating hero” by Dhritarashtra, who haunted Yudhishthira wherever he went and of whom Krishna himself was apprehensive, actually fled the field thrice during Drona’s command, was knocked unconscious by Yudhishthira and Bhima and mangled and dazed by Abhimanyu’s arrows during the war. Even before that he was bested by the Gandharvas in the Vana Parva and by Arjuna in the VirataParva. In Vana Parva he becomes infused with the Asura Naraka and in the Tullala songs of Kerala he is the demon Sahasrakavacha reincarnated! Chitrangada is actually a Pandya (not Manipur) princess in the Southern recension. Interestingly, in the epic the slayer of Mahishasura is Skanda, not Durga. We also are informed about a mini-myth of Shiva engaging Parashurama to annihilate the Daityas. We come to know that Karna was 168-finger length taller than Arjun. Bhattacharya has also identified the possible interpolations at various places of the Parvas reviewed. No one really knows who slew Abhimanyu. Bhattacharya informs that Sudarshana, son of Duhshasana, slew him. He points out how Vidura’s concept of the dama-tyaga-apramada triad forms the basis of Buddhist teaching. Even though Yudhisthira fears Karna and is angry with him for his misconduct, his anger strangely dissipates when he looks at Karna’s feet because they resemble Kunti’s! Sibling instinct? Or an interpolated afterthought?
Some of us may feel somewhat uneasy to know that cow-slaughter in honour of a special guest is a Vedic practice and King Rantideva killed 20000 cows to feed guests. We also are informed by Bhattacharya that the insect that bores through Karna’s thigh resulting in Parashuram’s curse, is in fact the demon Damsha cursed by Bhrigu for raping his wife. Administrative policies appear to be both catholic and practical. Shudras could hold the exalted position of a minister and daughters could become the ruler if and when necessary. Lying, prohibited in the Gita, is permitted to save a life, for sake of one’s guru, to win over a woman and to arrange a marriage. Krishna’s lament giving vent to his frustrations over the despicable behaviour of his kith and kin is another unknown but moving vignette Bhattacharya draws our attention to. The most telling observation however comes in the last review (on Rajadharma) in which Bhishma equates the ruler with Fire, Sun, Death, Yama and Vaishravana. The ruler must have the qualities of these gods. As Bhattacharya says, “There is more than enough guidance available here (Bhishma’s advice in Shanti Parva) for our own times – provided we are interested.” He has also underlined Prof. Lal’s philosophy reflected in the Introduction to the Shanti Parva, his last transcreation, where he explains the implication of Chaturvarga: Artha, Kama, Dharma and Moksha. Each of these have two distinct alternatives, individual and universal. Which one should be chosen? “…it is our disciplined choice that changes one into the other.” Says Prof. Lal. How true!
The reviews of Bhattacharya have these and many more insights. These make the reading informative as well as interesting. After reading these the reader will no doubt wish to read the text and find out for himself.
The only problem I perceived was the inclusion of what Bhattacharya calls “memorable shlokas”. These cause the reader to stumble; he must pause and try to read and comprehend, which causes a break in the continuous reading. These perhaps were not really needed. Also, while discussing the appearance of Karna on the Bengali stage (review of Karna Parva), he could have mentioned Buddhadev Basu’s remarkable play, “Pratham Partha”. However, these are minor issues. In short, Dr. Bhattacharya, a difficult and colossal job, well done!
The Spitzer manuscript, a highly-fragmented Sanskrit manuscript discovered in Qizil in Eastern Turkestan, does not have the Virata and Anushasana Parvas. Most probably, the texts of these two parvas were included in the preceding Vanaand Shanti Parvas. That appears to be logical since the story of the secretly-lived one year, the Virata Parva, is just a part of the Pandavas’ stipulated period of exile (the Vana Parva) while the Anushasana Parva, Bhishma’s continued instruction of Yudhishthira, is merely an extension of the Shanti Parva. We hope Bhattacharya will go on to complete his guru’s project by translating the Anushasana Parva too. Having done the Mokshadharma, it should not be difficult for him at all.
(A shorter version was published in The Sunday Statesman’s literary supplement 8th Day on 25 December 2016.)
Re-imagining the Mahabharata
Kamesh Ramakrishna: The Last Kaurava, Frog Books, 2015, pp. 533, Rs. 525/-
Considerable control is called for while reimagining myth so that it does not degenerate into fantasy. The first successful attempt at this with the Mahabharata was by the Bengal civilian Nabin Chandra Sen in his Bengali epic trilogy, Raivatak, Kurukshetra, Prabhas (1887-1896). Gajendrakumar Mitra did so in the novel Panchajanya (1963), a trend continued today by Dipak Chandra. In Gujarati, K.M. Munshi recreated Vedic India and the Mahabharata in Bhagwan Parashuram and the unfinished octology Krishnavatara. In Hindi, Gurudutt, Acharya Chatursen and Narendra Kohli novelised Vedic and Puranic India. Marathi, Kannada and Malayalam fiction drew upon both mahakavyas. In English, in the 1980s came Maggi Lidchi-Grassi’s magnificent Mahabharata trilogy exploring the psychological quests of its characters. Ashok Banker started off a rediscovery of Indian myth as fiction with his Ramayana heptalogy. This stream has grown from a trickle in the late 1990s to a gushing river by 2015. What is particularly interesting is that now engineers and management executives are turning to this massive narrative heritage to create novels. Unfortunately, except for Krishna Udayasankar’s Aryavarta trilogy and Rajiv Menon’s Thundergod, the rest leave much to be desired in terms of language and style. Since most Indian publishers scrimp on editors, these flights of mythic fiction are riddled with errors of idiom, spelling and grammar. This is where Ramakrishna’s debut novel—the first of a trilogy—comes as a welcome surprise. A software architect with a doctorate in computer science from Carnegie-Mellon, reading him is a rare pleasure. He reimagines the events as occurring in 2000 BC. This is India north of the Vindhyas with a non-literate oral culture, bereft of iron, horses and chariots, with onager and cattle drawn carts, mud wattle cottages, bows, arrows and bronze weapons. There are no missiles, no aircraft, no huge gem-encrusted palaces and gleaming silken attire. But why are there no ornaments when archaeological evidence exists?
Beginning with the reminiscences of the dying Kuru patriarch Bhishma is not a new device. Pratibha Ray used it very dramatically, opening Yajnaseni with Draupadi’s life flashing before her dying eyes. In somewhat similar fashion, the dead Karna speaks to us in Shivaji Sawant’s Mrityunjaya. The Mahabharata is a series of extended flashbacks at several levels, beginning with Dhritarashtra’s plangent lament over past incidents that presaged no hope for victory—tada na shamse vijayaya sanjaya! However, Ramakrishna does start with a shock: Bhishma, ambushed by Shikhandin (his son by Amba), kills him and is shot by Arjun. Vengeful Amba drives the arrow deeper into him.
Ramakrishna creates the Kavi Sangha, a guild of bards, functioning as the memory of over 2000 matriarchal communities led by the Purus, trading with Mesopotamia, Persia and Egypt. Ramakrishna calls Egypt “Pitri-vihara-naad”, the land of temples to ancestors, although its original name still remains “Misra”, a mixed people, harking back to the Bhavishya Purana which speaks of sage Kashyapa with his son Misra going to that country and Brahminising the people. As the Sarasvati basin dried-up, the Purus migrated from Panchanad (Indus etc.) to the banks of the Yamuna and Ganga, establishing Hastinapur as a trading outpost to the east. In the process, they pushed out the slash-and-burn Naga culture and clashed with the hunter-gatherer Rakshasa tribes. A transition occurred from a matriarchal trading and forest-based life to a patriarchal urban society with an army of farmers. Ramakrishna is quite the geographer, drawing a clear picture of the how the changing courses of rivers brought about changes in prehistoric cultures. He is an ethnographer too, providing details of the matriarchal, matrilocal and matrilineal cultures at tedious length. He is also a linguist discoursing on the Phoenician alphabet used by the trading “Baoga” (Sanskritised “Bhargava”) and the development of a phonetic, metrical script (Sanskrit) by Vaishampayana, who is prejudiced against writing. He is persuaded to dictate the memorised archives to a Bhargava scribe, as narrated by Bhishma to the archivist Lomaharshana in the presence of the Vyasa named Shukla, Satyavati’s brother.
The problem is one of verisimilitude. Nowhere in Indian myth are the Nagas depicted as matriarchal. Ramakrishna could easily have kept to the original Nishada descent of Satyavati without any problem. The Nagas were an ethnic group living in and around the original kingdom of Yayati at Khandavprastha which the Pandavas reclaimed as Indraprastha. Ramakrishna creates a siege of this city by Suyodhan who cuts off the water supply, foolishly allowing the Pandavas to escape into the forest. He goes to great lengths to set up Bhishma as the dynast of a trading family who builds an army to establish a comity of communities along the Himalayan foothills against Saka inroads. The proposition may not be difficult to swallow for readers unfamiliar with the Mahabharata.
The Kavi Sangha’s chief is called “Vyasa”. Anachronistically, Ramakrishna makes Vasishtha and Vishvamitra precede Bhrigu as Vyasas. This guild functions as the Chanakya-like advisor to the ruler, imposing a one-child norm on migrants from Panchanad to the Kuru habitation and upon the Nagas who are the crop-growers. To set an example, Shantanu has to do away with all his sons from Ganga born after Devavrat. Ganga commits suicide in despair. Devavrat, though taken with Satyavati of the Meena-Nagas (also called “Matsya”), sacrifices his desires for his father’s sake. Satyavati’s brother Shukla spins the plot whereby her sons get the throne instead of Devavrat—an interesting twist. Another innovation is in the death of her son Chitrangad, rashly attacking marauding horse-riding Sakas. Ramakrishna paints a gruesome scene in which Devavrat, finding that the Sakas have blinded Chitrangad and torn out his tongue, secretly cuts his throat to spare him further agony and spreads the tale that he was killed by Gandharvas. Devavrat acquires the sobriquet “Bhishma—Terrible” because of his horrific torture of captured Saka families in revenge. From the Sakas he rescues the Naga maiden Amba, falls in love with her and brings her with her two sisters to Hastinapur. Satyavati constantly upstages her co-regent Bhishma, even forcing him to have the widowed queens live in his palace so that they imbibe the true Kuru aura, pleading that physicians have so advised! Bhishma is shown to be clueless about what was happening within the palace, always busy with constructing water-works and building an army to establish an empire. There is no mention of the levirate custom. Amba, driven away Satyavati when pregnant with Devavrat’s child, delivers Shikhandi among the Panchals, the traditional foes of the Kurus. Ramakrishna’s Panchals are a standing Naga army set up to tackle the rogue Naga band led by Takshaka. Draupadi is the matriarch of the Panchals, Krishnaa Agnijyotsna, the Dark Lady. Whatever happened to King Drupada and what is gained by naming Drona “Kutaja”?
Unaccountably, Ramakrishna makes Dhritarashtra the son of the younger Ambalika instead of Ambika, whose son he names Mahendra, called “Pandu” being an albino. Disagreeing with Bhishma’s policies, Mahendra exiles himself. Duryodhan repeatedly shouting “Shut up!” at his father jars because in the Mahabharata he does not insult Dhritarashtra, as he draws all his authority from him. The grand heroic scale of Devavrat’s vow is diminished drastically. There is an incongruous reference to the Roman deity Saturn as arbiter of fate on page 415.
The novel ends with Bhishma’s shock at discovering from the Vyasa Shukla that Dhritarashtra and Pandu were not of Vichitravirya’s blood, but are progeny of the son of Parashara, the earlier Vyasa, and Satyavati. This is a signal departure from the original where it is Bhishma who advises resorting to levirate by an eminent Brahmin and assents to Satyavati summoning her illegitimate son Vyasa. However, Ramakrishna’s insight is correct, that neither of the contending cousins had any Kuru blood in them. At least Dhritarashtra was Satyavati’s grandson, while the Pandavas are not her grandchildren, each having a different, unknown father. Thus, the Kavi Sangha, guild of bards, came to wrest the throne from the trading dynasty of Purus. Ramakrishna may have drawn inspiration from the Brahmin Pushyamitra Sunga wresting the throne of Pataliputra from his Mauryan master.
The book has an excellent map, a helpful family tree and a descriptive glossary of names. For a welcome change, there are practically no typos and the novel reads very well, except that it could have been tighter by omitting the excursions into geography, linguistics and ethnography which the appendices cover in detail. We certainly look forward to the sequels.