https://vimeo.com/64069030 is Rinku Kalsy’s video interviewing me and others on the women of the Mahabharata.
IN THE NEWS
My English translation in free verse line-by-line of Bengal’s Adi Kavi, Sanjay’s Bengali version of the Mahabharata has been published by Dasgupta & Co., 54/3, College Street, Kolkata-700073, firstname.lastname@example.org, in 2 volumes, A-4 size. Sanjay created fascinating tales, the most striking of which is his account of Draupadi and the Yadava ladies attacking the Kaurava army after Abhimanyu was slaughtered and utterly routing them, including Drona, Karna, Duhshasana, Duryodhana!
KOLKATA: Most of us think that the Mahabharata translated in ..
The Mahabharata of Vyasa: Book XII, The Complete Shanti Parva. Part 2: Moksha-Dharma
Translated From Sanskrit by Pradip Bhattacharya. Writers Workshop, Kolkata. 2015
All human pursuits have for their end, said ancient India, either one or a combination of the four ultimate human goals: the common good [dharma], wealth [artha], pleasure [kama] and spiritual freedom [moksha]. The Mahabharata is an enquiry into these four human goals in the context of the grand family saga of the Bharatas. While in general the focus of the other parvas of the epic is on the narration of the story with sagely and worldly wisdom thrown in here and there, the Shanti Parva focuses almost entirely on philosophical enquiries into the human condition and discusses how life could be lived happily and meaningfully both as an ordinary individual and as a person responsible for the welfare of others, such as a king, keeping dharma as the guiding light.
The Shanti Parva is voluminous and consists of nearly fourteen thousand verses of which the biggest chunk is the Mokshadharma Parva, which centrally concerns itself with the highest of the four dharmas, moksha. It is this parva that Dr Pradip Bhattacharya has brilliantly translated into English.
Dr Bhattacharya’s is the first ever verse to verse translation of the Mokshadharma Parva and forms a huge volume of 1077 pages, excluding the appendixes.
Mokshadharma Parva has devotion, yoga, meditation, dispassion, the ascetic way of life and other forms of spirituality for its subject matter. We would expect the spirituality that a book like the Mahabharata teaches us to be conventional. But far from it! One of the most fascinating aspects of the parva is that, while it does speak of conventional spirituality, much of its teaching is irreverent to tradition and takes very unconventional stands. The very second chapter has a son teaching spirituality to his father! Later the brahmana Jajali who has become proud of the frightful asceticism he has performed for years is sent to the merchant Tuladhara to learn from him, reversing traditional roles completely!
We have another story of role reversal in the Mokshadharma Parva in which a woman teaches the highest spirituality to a man – a story that introduces to us one of the most fascinating spiritual teachers in the entire Indian spiritual lore: the great yogini Sulabha. This great master of yoga arrives at the court of King Dharmadhvaja Janaka, reputed to be an awakened man, and using her yogic powers enters the king’s head to debate with him about what true yoga is from within him. Towards the end of the discussion the yogini explains why she did not engage him in the debate in the open court in the presence of his ministers and courtiers: so that the king would not shamed before them!
The king begins the discussion and claims, giving numerous reasons, that he is an enlightened man. Sulabha counters all his arguments and ends the debate by declaring bluntly that he is no master but just a pretender.
You are not liberated
yet you are proud of being
liberated, O King! You should be prevented
by your well-wishers, as
the unconscious indeed is from drugs.
She also tells him:
You have heard, but not listened to the scriptures,
I think, or else
heard false scriptures, or you heard what seems like
scriptures, or heard otherwise.
Sulabha’s main argument is that Dharmadhvaja has not developed anasakti, detachment while being engaged, the true mark of enlightenment, something the Bhagavad Gita would completely agree with. Sulabha points out to Janaka that he is still attached to his body, his gender, caste, position as king and so on. How can such a man be liberated, she asks?
She tells him:
Fallen from the householder’s order, you
have not obtained
hard-to-reach moksha and stay in between
the two, merely
talking about moksha.
Yogini Sulabha would be an ideal teacher for our age of Kali when in the world of spirituality pretentions are more common than true achievements and knowledge of books is considered enlightenment!
We have several Gitas in the Mokshadharma Parva. In the short sparkling Bodhya Gita, a great sage in another role reversal declares that his gurus are a prostitute, an arrow smith, a young girl and so on:
Pingala, the osprey, the snake, the bee
searching in the woods,
the arrow-maker and the virgin, these six
are my gurus.
Apart from the Bodhya Gita, the Parva has other Gitas like the Manki Gita, Parashara Gita, Hamsa Gita, Sampaka Gita, Harita Gita, Vritra Gita and so on, each enriching the Parva in its own way.
As the Upanishads do, the spirituality of the Parva holds heaven in contempt. Rejecting heaven, the Parva equates it to hell in comparison with moksha, spiritual liberation. All acts leading to heaven are declared as ultimately worthless because they only keep you wandering within the world of bondage.
The Parva rejects animal sacrifice. Though hermit spirituality too is discussed, the stress is on what can be practiced living the family way of life. In fact, one of the questions Yudhishthira asks is if a man living with his wife at home can climb to the highest peaks of spirituality – a question that is very pertinent to himself and to all of us. In response, we are told the fascinating story of Suvarchala who asks her father to find a husband for her who is both ‘blind and not blind’ at the same so that she can live with him a life of the highest spirituality.
We have in the Parva a Brahmin svayamvara, the self-choice ceremony in which a woman chooses a husband for herself, usually limited to royal families!
The women of the Parva are all brilliant, be it Suvarchala who tells her father she would choose her husband by herself, Yogini Sulabha who using her yogic powers enters Janaka’s head to debate with him, the wife of Nagaraja who teaches her anger-prone husband the importance of managing anger, or anyone else.
Among the numerous rare gems we can find in the Mokshadharma Parva is the story of Gautama’s and Ahalya’s son who is only mentioned by the name Chirakari, Slow-to-Act, who has been asked by his father to chop off the head of his mother as a punishment for committing adultery, a story in which reversing convention, slowness is praised rather than speed in action. Reflecting on his father’s order, Chirakari says to himself:
No shade is there like the mother, no refuge
is there like the mother,
no protection is there like the mother,
is there like the mother.
The chapter has Chirakari telling us:
There is no offence in women. Man indeed
offends. Held guilty of
offence in every work, a woman
does not commit offence.
This first ever complete verse translation of the Mokshadharma Parva by Bhattacharya is an invaluable contribution to Indological studies in general and Mahabharata studies in particular. As translation, it is a monumental piece of work as well as a superb literary achievement. For Bhattacharya, though, it is more than these: it is his gurudakshina, his sacred offering to his guru, Prof. P. Lal, who had over a period of several decades ‘transcreated’ in a unique verse form and self-published the entire Mahabharata except the Mokshadharma Parva before he passed away. With this volume, the transcreation is complete – though Bhattacharya claims he has not trascreated it but has only translated it, following as closely as possible the master’s style.
A unique aspect of the translation is the retention of Sanskrit words that are in the Oxford English Dictionary. An example for this could be found in the parva-opening question itself in which Yudhishthira asks, “O Pitamaha-Grandfather, you have….” A new reader would find this as somewhat unsettling, but once you are used to it, you discover it has a charm of its own, giving the entire work a surreal quality. And of course, it avoids, as the translator points out, the need for annotations, colophons and dovetailing explanations. The rest of the Mahabharata transcreated by Prof. P. Lal follows this style and for that reason it is appropriate that Bhattacharya too follows the style.
While no disrespect is meant to the existing, time-honoured monumental complete prose translation of the epic, for which the entire world should forever be indebted to K.M. Ganguli, for the purpose of bringing out the precision, beauty and brilliance of Bhattacharya’s translation, I would like to compare one verse in the two translations.
Death is that by which the world is assailed. Decrepitude encompasses it. Those irresistible things that come and go away are the nights (that are continually lessening the period of human life). When I know that Death tarries for none (but approaches steadily towards every creature), how can I pass my time without covering myself with the garb of knowledge? – K.M. Ganguli
Death wounds the world,
Decay besieges it,
Days and nights fall away,
How do you not understand this? – Pradip Bhattacharya
Incidentally, Bhattacharya’s translation is not only much more poetic, it is also closer to the original Sanskrit.
While Bhattacharya has tried to walk in the footsteps of his revered guru and inspiration Prof. P. Lal whose monumental work of transcreating the Mahabharata into verse he is continuing in the Mokshadharma Parva, he explains in the Preface to the book why he has “tried to translate rather than transcreate, keeping to the original syntax as far as possible without making the reading too awkward”: He is not a poet like Prof. Lal. I believe this is the translator’s humility speaking – I found the poetry of the translation splendid. It constantly reminded me of Kimon Friar’s superb English translation of Nikos Kazantzakis’s 33,333-lines magnum opus Odyssey: A Modern Sequel.
Following Prof. Lal who chose to give no list of contents and no section headings to his Mahabharata transcreation work saying ‘the suta does not need them,” Dr Bhattacharya in the Mokshadharma translation too gives no list of contents or section headings.
Memorable verses of the parva have been reproduced in Sanskrit – which I found very useful and felt added great value to the book partly because of my love for Sanskrit, partly because the original Sanskrit verses reproduced are such that they register practically on their own in your memory. Besides, several of these verses are already widely known and are either in full or in part integral parts of all Indian languages.
The thoroughness of Bhattacharya’s work and the immense depth of his research deserve appreciation by all Mahabharata lovers. Such thoroughness and depth would not have been possible without the translator’s profound love for the Mahabharata which could be guessed from the fact that he has authored several books on the epic, each a major contribution to understanding the beauty of the Mahabharata, each bringing out the rarest gems lying on the bed of the vast ocean that the epic is. Rather than just picking up any one particular text of the Mokshadharma Parva and translating it, what he has done, as he himself explains, is to collate the editions published by the Gita Press [Gorakhpur, 9th edition,1980] , Aryasastra [Calcutta, 1973] and that edited by Haridasa Siddhantavagisa Bhattacharya with the Bharatakaumudi and cross checked with Nilakantha’s Bharatabhavadipa annotations [Bishwabani Prakashani, Calcutta 1939] cross-checked with Kaliprasanna Sinha’s Bengali translation [Hitavadi Karyalaya, Calcutta 1866], the first English translation by K.M. Ganguli [1883-1896] and the shorter Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute edition. As a result of the inclusion of passages from Siddhantavagisa Bhattacharya and the collation with the other works just mentioned Dr Bhattacharya’s work makes this the most complete translation of the Mokshadharma Parva ever.
Two maps have been appended to the translation, one of Aryavarta at the time of the Mahabharata and the other of the India of that time, both helpful in correlating the events of the epic with their geographical locales, particularly for those not sure of them. Also appended are three reviews of Prof Lal’s transcreations of three parvas of the epic: the Karna Parva, the Stri Parva and Shanti Parva Part 1 [Rajadharma]. The long review of Karna Parva brings out the excellence of the transcreation of the parva. In his review of Prof. Lal’s Stri Parva, The Book of Women, appended to the book, Dr Bhattacharya points out how Prof Lal’s poetic transcreation of the parva succeeds in capturing the screaming anguish of the original text whereas earlier prose translations fail to do so. The appended review is also noteworthy for correlating the Stri Parva with Euripides’ Trojan Women. I found the third appendix of special interest since it is a review of the Rajadharma, Principles of Governance, section of the Shanti Parva, the Sanskrit text of which I have been using extensively for years in business schools where I have been teaching Indian leadership philosophy to Management students, corporate officers and bureaucrats.
I first came across Writers Workshop books in the Public Library in Chennai in 1975 and was immediately captured by their uniqueness, superiority and distinct appearance. They were all hardbound, had a distinctively Indian touch to them, and, as I later learnt, they were printed in small hand-operated presses and manually bound. Mokshadharma Parva published in 2015, forty years later, follows the same admirable tradition which sets it apart from mass-produced, commercially marketed, books.
Bhattacharya’s mastery of the English language is astounding. With amazing fluidity, the mighty torrent of the translation flows on for nearly eleven hundred pages, carrying you with it effortlessly, making you realize what the boundless ocean called the Mahabharata truly is and revealing the rare jewels lying in its profound depths.
Dr Bhattacharya’s translation is a superb example for what encyclopedic knowledge, hard work, superb literary talent, total commitment and tireless energy can achieve. The work is a masterpiece of Sanskrit translation, an inspiration for all translators not only from Sanskrit to English but from any language to any other language. As a translator Bhattacharya eminently succeeds in achieving all the aims he sets for himself and gives the English reading world that cannot read the Mahabharata in original Sanskrit a wonderful gift that that is as close to the original as is possible.
Naama Shalom, Re-ending the Mahabharata: The Rejection of Dharma in the Sanskrit Epic. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2017. 266 pages.
This is an important work, being the first study to focus solely on how the Mahabharata ends. Naama Shalom’s thesis is that instead of extolling Dharma—the general presumption—the last book actually denounces it in the persona of Yudhishthira. She uses the word garh (condemn) as a “Mahabharata search engine” to achieve three goals: unravel the thematic structure; survey its doubts about dharma; and define how dharma operates in different contexts. Exploring the paradox of dharma’s “garhification” (denunciation) is the agenda.
Shalom shows how re-tellers of the epic altered the ending to provide a pleasant closure. Of them, only three epitomes, all medieval, deal with the ascent to heaven: Kshemendra, Amarachandra, and Agastya in the eleventh, thirteenth, and fourteenth centuries CE. Earlier adaptations neglect the last book, possibly because it is deemed too unsettling. She analyzes the stance adopted by the three Kashmiri Sanskrit aestheticians Anandavardhana, Abhinavagupta, and Kuntaka (ninth to eleventh centuries CE). The first two stress that the ending creates the rasa (emotional experience) of shanti through rejection of the rasas of heroism, wonder, and horror created earlier, thus dissociating it from the rest of the epic. Kuntaka condemns the ending as a prime example of a faulty conclusion that future poets should alter.
Dharma is referred to by both Bhıshma the patriarch and Yudhishthira the son of Dharma as very subtle, as secreted within a cave, hence difficult to determine. At crucial junctures there is doubt about what it is. Shalom does not explore the fact that only three persons are never troubled by such doubts: Krishna, Dharma’s avatar Vidura, and Bhıma. The first two die miserable deaths. Yudhishthira abandons dying Bhıma but will not abandon a dog. Then he rejects Svarga, electing to stay in horrific Naraka with the siblings and the wife he had abandoned. The confusion this ending creates, Shalom argues, has to date not been explored.
Reviewing the research, she concludes that the ending formed part of the epic from at least the third century CE as in the damaged Spitzer Manuscript where the seventeenth and eighteenth serials in the parva-list are intact, though the Mahāprasthānika and Svargārohaṇa parvas are not mentioned. Here she refers to the initial Jaya epic of 8,800 verses, while in fact this is the number of riddling slokas.
She claims to have discovered “a hitherto unknown retelling” entitled Bhārataprabandha by the Malayali poet Melputtur Narayana Bhatta (ca. 1550–1650 CE), which includes the Svargārohaṇa. However, Kalamandalam Eswaranunni, A.Harindranath and A.Purushothaman have edited scholarly editions with detailed explanations and introductions, self-published from 2014 to the present. Bhatta is the only re-teller who has Yudhishthira denounce Indra, Dharma, and the other gods for the illusion of hell.
Shalom concludes that the epic does in fact reach an organic resolution, being a tapestry into which many “garh” episodes are interwoven. Part of this tapestry is the disrupted sacrifice motif introduced in the beginning. The core of the thematic matrix is the examination of what constitutes right action through experimentation with the concept of dharma. She argues that finally Dharma turns in on itself through self-denunciation (Dharma’s son condemns Dharma) voiced by its protagonist Yudhishthira, which scholars have previously overlooked.
Is a later, more “sophisticated” audience uncomfortable with the unabashed existential stance of Vyasa instead of appreciating its nuances, as Shalom claims? Perhaps not. Her study is heavily influenced by Emily T. Hudson’s one-sided Disorienting Dharma: Ethics and the Aesthetics of Suffering in the Mahabharata (Oxford University Press, 2013), showing no awareness of James Hegarty’s balanced exploration of the topic in Religion, Narrative and Public Imagination in South Asia: Past and Place in the Sanskrit Mahabharata (Routledge, 2012).
Being so focused on validating her claim, Shalom overlooks the Bhārata Sāvitrī of four slokas at the end containing Vyasa’s final message. Is he a voice in the wilderness, ignored by all, shouting aloud with upraised arms “From Dharma flow Profit and Pleasure; why is dharma not practised?” In the very next verse he stresses that dharma must not be discarded; for, while joy and sorrow are fleeting, dharma and the jīva–ātman alone are eternal, not the body. The composer himself thus reasserts Dharma’s validity after its “garhification.” And a host of phantom listeners are listening, their stillness answering his cry.
This compelling work needed a good editor. The argument running to 174 pages is supplemented by 50 pages of elaborate endnotes, much of which should have been included in the text. The reader is irritated having to flip back and forth frequently between them. Moreover, there is avoidable repetition: each chapter begins with a summary and ends with a conclusion, both repeating in brief what will be/has been stated. However, Shalom’s book will stimulate fresh thinking about the enigmatic ending of the Mahabharata and as such open up fresh avenues of research.
International Journal of Hindu Studies (2019) 23:355, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11407-019-09268-x
|P. Lal: The Complete Mausala Parva of the Mahabharata transcreated from Sanskrit,
Writers Workshop, Kolkata, Rs.150 (hardback)
|Vyasa’s narrative art is spread across a broad spectrum. Besides operating within a series of frameworks—boxed within one another like Russian dolls or Chinese boxes—it changes suddenly from the dialogical question-and-answer method to the administration of sudden shocks. The war books, for instance, invariably begin with Sanjaya reporting that the current general of the Kaurava army is dead and then entering into a detailed flashback narrative. The Mausala Parva suddenly reverts to that style, shaking us out of the somnolent depression of the preceding Ashramavasika Parva that closed with Yudhishthira continuing to rule the kingdom “somehow” after losing his elders in a forest-fire 15 years after the great war. Now we are told that 36 years after the war Yudhishthira receives the shocking news of the slaughter of the Yadavas and, unbelievably, of the death of Balarama and Krishna. Gandhari’s curse has come true. The internecine blood-letting did not end at Kurukshetra; it is paralleled at Prabhasa.
What sets the tragedy in motion is the supreme arrogance of the Vrishnis who find themselves the unrivalled power in the country following the fall of the established kingdoms and their eighteen armies. Traditionally, India has upheld the ideal of Brahma-tej (brahmanical virtue) being backed up by Kshatra-tej (the warrior’s heroism) as the foundation of society. Neither the Kauravas nor the Yadavas had any respect for the wisdom of sages. It is the act of mocking Vishvamitra, Narada and Kanva that brings crashing down upon the Yadavas the curse of destruction by an iron club birthed by Krishna’s handsomest son Samba. Ugrasena has the club ground to powder and thrown into the sea. Washed ashore, these ashes grow into adamantine reeds. The Vishnu Purana (5.37) adds a detail: one piece of the club defied all attempts to grind it and ended up in the belly of a fish. A hunter named Jara (old age) made it the head of an arrow which became the mortal dart for Krishna for whom, as with Achilles, the foot was the vulnerable spot. The Harivansha (Vishnu Parva, 103.27) informs that Jara was Vasudeva’s son from a Shudra wife and became a lord of Nishadas. Thus, as Krishna kills his cousin Ekalavya, so is he in turn slain by his cousin Jara. The destruction of the Yadavas is but a continuation of the fratricidal Kurukshetra war. Recalling that Satyavati was a Nishada, and through Vyasa her blood ran in the Kauravas, it is finally the Nishadas’ revenge on the architect of the Kurukshetra holocaust. But in terms of narrative art, the story has come full circle. According to Nilakantha, the 17th century commentator on the epic, Jara was a Kaivarta (fisherman). Sauti told us that one of the three beginnings of the Mahabharata is with the story of Uparichara Vasu and his children born of a fish, the daughter becoming Matsyagandha and the son the chief of the Matsyas. The story has come full circle.
Dr. A. Harindranath has pointed out that according to Hanumanatakam, Jara is the Ramayana’s Bali reborn to avenge the injustice done in his former life. In Ezhuttachchan’s Malayalam Bharatam Kilippattu, Krishna tells Jara, “I deceived you in the previous birth. This is your revenge for that. Now you can reside in heaven without any grief.” Satya Chaitanya finds that in the Oriya Sarala Mahabharata Jara is a Sabara tribal and a great devotee of Krishna. There is a battle between Jara and Arjuna, who is furious with him for killing Krishna by mistake. The battle between the two is stopped by a skyey voice announcing that Arjuna is the Ramayana’s Sugriva and Jara is Angada, while Krishna is Rama.
The Bhagavata Purana (canto 3) gives short shrift to the event, comparing it to the fire produced by bamboos rubbing against each other in a forest. It avoids Krishna’s participation in the killing, concentrating instead on his being reminded by the gods that he has stayed on earth for over a hundred years and ought to return to his heavenly abode. It does say that Krishna is aware that unless the Yadavas are wiped out—and they are too powerful to be destroyed by anyone but themselves—the earth’s burden will not be lightened. This clan has become asuric, drunk on its prosperity and power. Ironically, like Jarasandha, they have to be removed for the fledgling “dharma-rajya” of the Pandavas to put down firm roots.
Paul Dundas has pointed out that the Jain Bhagavati Sutra (7.9) provides a fascinating historical parallel to the “reeds massacre” in two battles in Mahavira’s time involving king Kuniya-Ajatashatru. One called “Mahasilakantaya samgama,” (battle of thorns-like-great-stones) was so intense that the touch of thorns, leaves and twigs was like blows from huge stones. The other was “Rahamusala samgama”, the battle of Kuniya’s chariot-fitted-with-clubs. The Mausala Parva’s powdered iron club that becomes deadly “trina” (grass/reeds) is analogous to the Jain sutra’s “kantaya” (thorns), as is the manic violence. It is believed that the Mahabharata was written around this time in the 6th-5th century BC.
Abruptly, after the sages curse the Yadavas, prohibition is promulgated. The Mahabharata is silent regarding the reasons. The Samba Purana tells of Narada, annoyed by Samba’s pride of his beauty, plying Krishna’s junior wives with liquor, creating a scenario that leads Krishna to believe that they are enamoured of his son. Krishna curses Samba with leprosy and his wives with being abducted by robbers—thus explaining Arjuna’s failure to protect them. The punishment of impaling the brewer of liquor along with his family is ineffective. Throughout the epic no lessons are learnt from the tale of Yayati the Lunar Dynast:
The Vrishnis perpetrated crimes,
Time (Kala), a major theme of the epic is personified by Vyasa for the first time, appearing as a shaven-headed, terrifying man of black-and-tawny complexion sneaking in and out of Yadava homes. This may well be a reference to Buddhist monks who shaved their heads and wore ochre robes, as the epic seeks to stand against the Buddhist (pashanda) and Jain (kshapanak) creeds. A grinning white-toothed black female (Kali) slinks into households, snatching away the auspicious wrist-threads. Krishna’s celestial discus, chariot and Garuda pennant disappear. Noticing the ill omens and recalling Gandhari’s curse, Krishna gives orders to go on pilgrimage to Prabhasa.
It is Balarama who, violating his own commands, starts drinking, followed by the rest. Earlier, in a drunken frenzy, Balarama has slain Rukmini’s brother Rukmi during a gambling match and then the Suta Lomaharshana. The massacre begins with drunken Satyaki abusing Kritavarma who had not only killed the sleeping Panchalas but also Satyabhama’s father Satrajit. Satyabhama bursts into tears and sits in Krishna’s lap, instigating him. Krishna glares at Kritavarma, and Satyaki beheads him and attacks indiscriminately. Unable to stop his drunken fury, Krishna does not intervene when others batter Satyaki and Pradyumna to an ignominious death with soiled pots and plates. Seeing his sons and brother Gada slain, Krishna snatches up a clump of eraka reeds that transform into an adamantine club with which he “slaughtered his entire clan…Demented with drink…Not one of them had the good sense to flee the carnage.” Balarama does not participate, just as he had avoided the Kurukshetra war. His alienation from Krishna followed the theft of the Syamantaka gem by Satadhanva.
Vyasa silently poses questions to which we still seek answers: the inglorious death of Purushottama Krishna at the hands of a mere hunter. Shravan Kumar and sage Kindam had at least been shot by royalty (Dasharatha and Pandu)! All traces of Dvaraka are submerged.
The volume has a preface by the trans-creator that is valuable for the insights offered, relating the massacre to the current times and asking, “What happens to the ‘maha’ of the Bharata is no one listens to the epic?” which is what bewilders both Vasudeva and Arjuna—why did the omnipotent Krishna do nothing to prevent the slaughter?
Although Mahabharata is the biography of his sons and grandsons, Vyasa’s is a ruthless gaze where it comes to revealing the pitiable plight to which the greatest of heroes is reduced. As Prof. Lal writes, “Karma is ruth-less…not callous; it is unsentimental. The laws of nature do not forgive…They grind slow, and very small. What about the laws of morality?…Vyasa does not say.” Invincible, ambidextrous Arjuna for whom Krishna’s love “was wonderful, passing the love of women,” fails to fight off lathi-wielding Abhiras who laugh at his vain efforts to protect the Yadava women. Utterly humiliated, he rushes to Vyasa who tells him he ought to realise that it is time to depart. It has been not a reign spanning epic dimensions, but a rule of just 36 years. Vyasa sends him back to Yudhishthira with these profound words, transcreated with memorable simplicity that will long ring in our ears:
“Cosmic Time Kala
The Complete Ashvamedhika Parva in the Mahabharata of Vyasa transcreated from Sanskrit by P. Lal, Writers Workshop, 2008, 440 pages including maps, genealogical tree. Rs.300 (special edition with original hand-painted patachitra Rs.800).
The Kurukshetra holocaust is over. After the Pyrrhic victory, what does Yudhishthira experience but a wasteland? ‘Son of man,’you know only’a heap of broken images’Only fear in a handful of dust.’
How does the morally sensitive man of Dharma achieve reconciliation after wading through a gory Serbonian bog, trampling over the corpses of kith and kin towards the throne of Hastinapura? Much to the shock of Draupadi and his brothers, instead of joyously quaffing the heady wine of victory, he would rather work out his salvation in a sylvan retreat. For, ever at his back he hears ‘The rattle of the bones and chuckle spread from ear to ear.’ After all, he is the only one to have played chess with death, answering the Mortal Lord’s riddles with his brothers as the stake. How can he recline at ease on the throne of blood? This model of rectitude, this man who is righteousness incarnate, has more than once done the wrong thing for the right reason. He has gambled away his brothers and their wife. He has not hesitated to ask patriarch Bhishma how he may be slain. He has quibbled so that guru Drona lays down arms. He has made uncle Shalya sabotage Karna’s valor and then speared that uncle to death. All the cataracts of wisdom rushing over him from Bhishma, Vyasa, Narada, Vidura and Krishna in the massive corpus of the Shanti and Anushasana parvas have failed to excise the profound mea culpa.
Section 12 has Krishna rebuking Yudhishthira sharply somewhat as he had done Arjuna: ‘Don’t you remember anything?’ Earlier he has reprimanded Dhritarashtra and Gandhari for evading their responsibilities. Krishna points out that Yudhishthira’s lack of ‘shraddha’ prevented his learning the meaning of ‘kama-corrupted karma’ though explained to him repeatedly. Krishna provides a simple solution to cut through all intellectual sophistry:
‘All crookedness leads to death,
simplicity leads to Brahman.
This is the essence of all wisdom.
The rest is idle babble.’ (11.4)
He explains the real meaning of the Indra-Vritra myth: Vritra is the enemy lurking within one’s self causing delusion. Krishna criticizes Yudhishthira for conveniently forgetting the public dragging of Draupadi and Kichaka kicking her, the exile, the sufferings at the hands of Jatasura, Chitrasena, Jayadratha. It is a new war that has to be fought now.
‘The battle with Drona and Bhishma
is over’the lonely battle now
is your battle with yourself.
Grasp the glory of your secret spirit
and perform your sva-karma!
No arrows will help you here,
no servants, no relatives.
You alone can help yourself.
You cannot escape the crisis’
You must fight, and you must win. (12.12-15)
There is no point lamenting time and again over the dead’they cannot be revived. ‘Mine’ is what leads to death; ‘not mine’ to eternity. ‘Kama-control is dharma’, rooted in self-discipline. Section 13 has a brilliant passage in which Kama explains how it deludes human beings by shackling them to desires. Therefore, it should be channeled into charity distributed in yajnas. Hence the need for the Horse Sacrifice.
Vyasa, too, criticizes Yudhishthira (‘your wisdom is weak’) and recommends that the Horse Sacrifice be conducted to earn merit, as Rama and Bharata had done in the past. The wealth needed for this huge ceremony is provided by Vyasa (how often does the author personally intervene in his plot!) who guides him to the gold left by Marutta, one of the very few human kings like Raji and Mandhata whom Indra failed to subdue. The gold Yudhishthira recovers is over 16 crore gold bharas, returning with it to Hastinapura when Parikshit is a month old.
Section 9 contains a rare dialogue between Indra, boasting of his omnipotence, and Agni sarcastically reminding him of his ignominious humbling by Vritra and Chyavana. This time it is Samvarta, Brihaspati’s brother, whose sacrifice for Marutta Indra is forced to sanctify. One of the messengers Indra dispatches to Marutta is the gandharva Dhritarashtra. The Kauravas have links with gandharvas and nagas. Satyavati’s son Chitrangada was killed by a gandharva with the same name; her grandson shares his name with a naga and a gandharva.
Yudhishthira, aware that the era of Kali is approaching, and that the raja’s character shapes the people’s future, rules wisely, inspired by dharma. An idyllic portrait of his reign is given in section 14.
As many as 42 sections are devoted to something quite different. Krishna has been enjoying the company of Arjuna: ‘To be with you/is to find joy/even in a desolate forest.’ Now he wishes to return home. A peripeteia occurs here as Arjuna makes a startling disclosure. Being of fickle concentration, he has forgotten what Krishna revealed on the eve of the battle. Krishna reprimands him:
‘I am maha-displeased by your silliness
in not understanding what I said’.
you seem to lack shraddha
and power of comprehension.’ (16.10)
The Gita is not a command performance. The divine afflatus cannot be repeated on demand: ‘Yoked-in-yoga then/I discoursed on Brahma-realisation’. As a substitute, Krishna offers Arjuna an ancient history that he must listen to with concentration and without questioning (in the Gita he had argued repeatedly). This takes the form of a series of conversations: between a Brahmin named Kashyapa and a perfected Siddha; a Brahmin and his wife (anticipating that between Vaishampayana’s rebellious disciple Yajnavalkya and Maitreyi); Narada and sage Devamata; Parashurama and his manes; finally, a guru and his disciple. This is the Anugita: a summation of the doctrine of liberation that, though profound in its intellection, presumably does not soar to spiritual heights beyond Arjuna’s ken. Krishna says that for a confused or unreceptive mind this wisdom is unattainable and that none but Arjuna has heard it till now (19.58).
The concepts of equanimity (sthitaprajna), Adhibhuta, Adhidaivata, Adhyatman are explained, as also the concept of Vibhutis. Vairagya (renunciation) is celebrated as the key to achieving nirvana that even the low-born and women can adopt. It takes but six months of dedication with faith and shraddha to attain this yoga (19.66). Gods do not value transcending bodily mortality by renouncing the fruits of action. Hence, their realm is for work-obsessed people. It is greed that is the single worst vice: ‘Slice greed with a sharp sword and happiness is won!’ Selflessness, impartiality, absence of desire constitute the supreme path of Dharma. The atman has to be purified by the atman, wiping out all rituals and social formalities to experience freedom.
Much of the symbolism of sacrifices is explained here. It is the ten hotri (priest)-senses who offer the ten sense-objects as libations in the ten fires that are the phenomenal world. The meaning of yajna is service and sacrifice to the divinity Narayana, the soul of all, by ego the hota, mind the adhvaryu, intellect the udgata using the shastra-weapon truth, the dakshina-offering being apavarga (emancipation). Animal sacrifice is explicitly condemned (with the rider that in the past this used to be offered to Narayana) and ahimsa extolled as the supreme dharma as we have first heard in the story of Ruru in the Adi Parva. Instead of the terrifying world-forest of Vidura’s parable in Stri Parva, here is Vidyaranya, the mighty forest of Brahma, where the tree of wisdom blooms with fruit of moksha and the soothing shade of peace.
The Gita’s eidetic symbol of the cosmic tree is repeated here twice (sections 35 and 47) with a different significance. Its seed is the un-manifest, its trunk the intellect, its branches self-conceit, the senses its sap, the five elements its ever-flowering tangled branches, leafy, fragrant, laden with bitter and sweet fruit. Two foolish birds sit on this tree: mind and intellect, neither very percipient. But there is another, the atman, the self-knower, the kshetrajna. He who slices this tree with the sharp sword of knowledge achieves freedom from birth and death. Krishna repeats the Gita’s figure of the nine-gated city fed by three streams of gunas along with a detailed exposition of Sattva, Rajas and Tamas, as also the advice to withdraw one’s senses like the tortoise pulling in its limbs. The Gita’s symbol of the body-chariot, the mind-charioteer, the intellect-reins, the senses-horses recurs. The guru narrating all this is Krishna and Arjuna’s mind is the disciple to whom this wisdom of Adhyatman is a gift of love, which none has heard previously.
We are taken by surprise to find that Shankaracharya’s sublime nirvana-shatakam has its source in section 28. Another serendipitous finding is that section 16 contains these lovely verses that are echoed by the Buddha:
‘Again and again I died,
again and again I was reborn’
I rejected the whirling world
and sought refuge
In the nirakara formless Divinity’
and so by the grace of my atman
I found the perfection I sought.
I shall not be born again’
No, never more!…
I shall be free,
and working for the welfare of others
I will find my fulfillment.’16.32-40
The Buddha says:
‘How many births have I known
Without knowing the builder of this body!…
But now I have seen you, O builder of this body!
All desire is extinct, Nirvana is attained!
The rafters have crumbled, the ridge pole is smashed!
You will not build them again.’ P.Lal: The Dhammapada, 153-154
Haridas Siddhantavagish, who edited and translated the Bengal recension of the epic, pointed out that the recital of the Gita to Arjuna on the battlefield is stated thrice in this parva (16.5 at the beginning, 19.55 in the middle and 51.49 at the end of the Anugita). Similar references occur in the Shantiparva too. Scholars claiming that the Gita is a later interpolation have overlooked this.
Krishna returns to Dvaraka and en route meets the sage Uttanka, whom we have met in the Paushya sub-parva of the first book and who motivated Janamejaya to hold the snake sacrifice. In the Ashvamedha account, his guru is not Veda but Gautama whose wife Ahalya demands, asdakshina, the earrings of the wife of the king-turned-cannibal, Saudasa-Kalmashapada who devoured Vashishtha’s progeny as plotted by Vishvamitra. The sage is furious that Krishna did not enforce peace and caused mass destruction. Krishna stops him from wasting his hard-won ascetic merit in a curse and instructs him about Adhyatman, repeating the concept of avatara and explaining that being born as a human he is forced to act in that fashion and not as the Omnipotent. Krishna blesses him not only with a vision of the Vishvarupa, but also persuades Indra to gift the sage Amrita. Indra approaches the parched Uttanka in the desert as a naked hunter, offering him the water streaming from his penis. Uttanka refuses, despite repeated urging. This parallels the Paushya parva incident where Indra asks him to eat a bull’s dung and drink his urine, both forms of Amrita, and Uttanka obeys because his guru Veda has done so previously. Here, he refuses and loses immortality. As recompense, Krishna assures him that to slake his thirst Uttanka-clouds will invariably appear in the desert to rain sweet water.
The account of the war Krishna gives his father is of interest because of the differences. In it, Shikhandi, not Dhrishtadyumna, leads the Pandava army against Bhishma and fells the patriarch, with no mention of Arjuna. Dhrishtadyumna slays weary Drona, with no mention of Yudhishthira’s quibbling. Karna is slain by Arjuna, with no reference to his chariot-wheel getting stuck. Shalya, leading three armies, is killed by Yudhishthira. Bhima tracks down Duryodhana and kills him. There is no mention of any blow below the belt. At Subhadra’s insistence, Krishna relates how Abhimanyu was deceitfully killed by Drona, Karna, Kripa and Duhshasana’s son. Significantly, the Yadava kinsman Kritavarma’s role is not mentioned.
The obtaining of Marutta’s gold begins, significantly, with the propitiation of Shiva whose presence has waxed, looming over the events more and more. Bhima now directly attributes Arjuna’s successes to Shiva’s grace. It takes them a month to return with the gold by when Uttara’s son has been born dead and revived by Krishna through an act of truth. Even at that climactic moment the very special place Arjuna holds in his consciousness is made clear once again. Krishna swears by the power of no rift having ever existed between him and Arjuna. Thus Parikshit, the remnant of the line, lives.
The remaining sections recount the roaming of the horse, the battles fought against the slender remnants of descendants of those slain at Kurukshetra and a brief account of the completion of the sacrifice. Only some of the encounters are narrated (Trigarta, Saindhava, Pragjyotisha, Rajagriha, Cedi, Dasharna, Nishada ruled by Ekalavya’s son, Dravida, Andhra, Raudra, Mahishaka, Kolla, Saurashtra, Gokarna, Prabhasa, Dvaraka, Panchanada in the west, Gandhara). The Sindhu queen Duhshala, Dhritarashtra’s daughter, approaches Arjuna for mercy, her son having died of fear on hearing of his approach. Anguished, Arjuna rails against the warrior code: ‘Shame on that which has made me/despatch all my relatives’. There are hints that Arjuna is not invincible without Krishna. Twice the Gandiva slips out of Arjuna’s grip (against the Trigartas and the Saindhavas). In Pragjyotisha, Bhagadatta’s son Vajradatta engages Arjuna for three full days.
Vyasa, master raconteur, grips our interest with unexpected reversals. The epic has several peripiteia. Just when we thought the Pandavas were finally victorious, their sons were murdered. In Manipura (Manalura in many manuscripts, located in southern India near Madurai) Ulupi suddenly appears to motivate Arjuna’s son Babhruvahana to fight and slay his father. Then she revives him, having engineered the event to cleanse her husband of the adharmik slaying of Bhishma, for which the Vasus had cursed him. At Arjuna’s request, Babhruvahana is specially honored in Hastinapura along with Ulupi and Chitrangada.
There is a piquant touch in section 87 where Yudhishthira asks Krishna why Arjuna should have to travel and suffer so much despite his body bearing all auspicious marks. Krishna replies that Arjuna’s over-developed ‘pindike’ are the cause. Draupadi casts an annoyed side-glance at Krishna, much to his delight at this sign of her love for Arjuna. ‘Pindike’ has been mis-translated as ‘cheek-bones’. ‘Pindikaa’ means a lump of flesh on shoulders, arms or legs, also ‘penis’. In view of Arjuna’s incessant roaming, it would connote his exaggerated calves.
The description of the Ashvamedha ritual is drastically abbreviated compared to what we find in the Ramayana and the Shatapatha Brahmana. The chief queen has a major role to play in the sacrifice and spends the night lying with the horse. Here Draupadi has no role other than sitting beside the sacrificed animal. In the Harivamsa Janamejaya prohibits performance of this yajna in future because of a scandalous incident involving his queen. In India today we see the peculiar phenomenon of this sacrifice being celebrated by businessmen without an animal sacrifice to purify the environment.
The audience presumes that the parva has now drawn to a close, but Vyasa astonishes them yet again. Suddenly a blue-eyed mongoose appears with a half-golden pelt and laughs to scorn the rich donations of which the Pandavas are so proud. It declares this horse-sacrifice a failure as it does not turn the rest of its pelt golden. Superior by far was the gift of a handful of parched grain by a fasting Brahmin to a guest who was Dharma himself. This story is yet another lesson imparted by Dharma to Yudhishthira on eschewing greed and anger. ‘No number of yajnas can make one virtuous’; ‘Dharma is not happy with maha-luxurious gifts, he prefers the littlest gifts if donated with shraddha and acquired by honest means.’ That is the anagnorisis, the recognition and realization of the core truth.
After this we find a fascinating record of the controversy over animal sacrifice. The ascetics and the gods disputed over whether it was better to sacrifice animals, grains or juices. Uparichara Vasu, asked to adjudicate, sought to wriggle out of the dilemma by ruling that whatever was available could be used. That evasion consigned him to hell. Agastya performs a twelve-year yajna only with seeds, overcoming Indra’s opposition. Thus ahimsa is extolled once again as the supreme virtue. Along with the mongoose episode, this provides a clue to when the epic might have acquired its written form. This would be in the time of Ashoka when non-violence to creatures acquired state sanction.
The Lal transcreation rightly omits the Vaishnava-dharma sub-parva of 1700 verses found after this in the Bengal and Southern recensions which is an obvious sectarian interpolation, having nothing to do with the theme of the Ashvamedhika Parva.
This parva is particularly significant for having inspired two very different but remarkable creative works. One is a novel, The Great Golden Sacrifice, the last part of Maggi Lidchi Grassi’s trilogy on Arjuna’s spiritual journey. The other is an ancient composition by Jaimini, one of Vyasa’s four disciples, whose Ashvamedha Parva is the only portion of his version of the Mahabharata that has survived. Jaimini’s work is larger than his preceptor’s and quite sensational, featuring the heroism of the sons of heroes slain in the Kurukshetra war. It was so popular that the medieval vernacular retellings of the epic and the Persian version Akbar commissioned used Jaimini instead of Vyasa’s composition for this parva.
Unknown to most, its first English translation by Major General Shekhar Sen has been published from Writers Workshop.