Sometime back the Sunday Indian Express had carried, as its cover story, the ruminations of Professor Manoj Das, the eminent litterateur, on what makes for the spell exercised by the Mahabharata over a society separated from it by millennia. The article concentrates on certain “enigmatic situations and characters” which pose to the modern reader critical issues regarding ethical conduct because, the author argues, much has been left unsaid in the epic, leading to a loss of perspective over the ages. However, are the enigmas he cites really perplexing episodes, or are they the consequences of those unknown suta-rhapsodes in whose hands Vyasa’s Jaya of 24,000 verses ballooned into the largest epic in the world, covering 100,000 shlokas?
One of these enigmas is Draupadi, the miraculous preservation of whose modesty is seen as “the Divine’s response to a devotee when everything else . . . had failed her,” Actually, the Kannada version is even more particular in emphasising this. No succour comes when Draupadi cries out Govinda dvarakavasin krsna gopijanapriya, clutching on to her single cloth with one hand. It is only when she lets go, lifting both hands in supplication, that the miracle takes place. This is an obvious attempt to create a parallel with the “stealing-of-garments” (vastraharana) episode of the Bhagavata Purana where Krishna steals the clothes of the Vraja maidens while they are bathing in the river, and returns them only when they approach him, casting aside shame, both hands uplifted in prayer.
However, a careful study of the disrobing episode reveals more than one hand at work. It is a later poet, intent on establishing Krishna as deity, and writing at a time when the hero had been established in society as a godhead, who had embellished the original with the miracle of an unending stream of cloth protecting Draupadi’s modesty. Vyasa’s statement is unambiguous: it is Dharma who covers her and protects her. Who is Dharma? Is this not the other name of Vidura, younger brother of Pandu, who is also the one sanctioned by social mores (niyoga) to be called upon first if the elder brother is unable to procreate? Vidura is the incarnation of Dharma and it is he, who is the father of Yudhishthira and the father-in-law of Draupadi, who comes to her rescue. Agitated by the appearance of ill omens, general indignation and the admonitions of Vidura and Gandhari, Dhritarashtra puts a stop to the horrendous proceedings.
In the Vana Parva, the interpolation becomes glaringly obvious. Krishna comes to meet the exited Pandavas and exclaims that had he been present, such atrocities could never have been perpetrated. He states that he had been preoccupied battling Shalva when the fateful dice-game was on in Hastinapura. There is, therefore, no question of his miraculous intervention to save Draupadi’s modesty. Moreover, nowhere in the epic does Draupadi ever refer to her modesty having been preserved by Krishna. Manoj Das’ insight into “the essence of the incident” as Divinity’s response to devoted humanity’s distress is, thus, not founded on the textual evidence.
What Draupadi does tell Krishna, which is lost sight of by most interpreters but for Nrisinhaprasad Bhaduri, is an utterly human and characteristically feminine expression, of abhimana. She upbraids him, saying that she is wholly alone, as if bereft of husband, sons, brother, friend, and even he, Krishna himself. And she asserts authoritatively that she has a four-fold claim on Krishna’s protection:
caturbhih karanaih krsna tvaya rakshyasmi nityasah
sambandhad gauravat sakhyat prabhutven ca kesava
Firstly, she is related to him as the daughter-in-law of his paternal aunt. Secondly, she is born of the yajna vedi, the flaming sacrificial altar, and, therefore, is entitled to be protected like the sacred household fire. Thirdly, she enjoys a unique relationship with him as his sakhi (intimate friend), tava krsna sakhi vibho (she never describes herself as his devotee or inferior). Fourthly, since Krishna has influence over everyone, she looks to him for protection. It is this unique sakha-sakhi relationship that is truly an enigma worth pondering over.
Das has cited Kunti’s command as the cause of the five-husbanding of Draupadi, and that satisfies him as the answer to the enigma of the polyandrous union. However, this is only a partial account of Vyasa’s epic. The description of Draupadi’s bridegroom-choice ceremony explicitly states that after Arjuna had pierced the target,
“At the height of the confusion,
Yudhishthira, accompanied by the
twin paragons, Nakula and Sahadeva,
slipped out of the enclosure.” --[Adi Parva 190.29 ]
When, therefore, Bhima and Arjuna arrive with Draupadi at the potter’s hut, their three brothers are already there and must have informed Kunti of what had happened. Kunti’s response to Bhima-Arjuna’s announcement, that they should enjoy together what they have brought, is by no means a casual remark. It is a calculated move in the game plan painstakingly laid out by Kunti to secure the unity and thereby the success of her sons from the very beginning. Her uncanny ability to sense the potential mischief in a situation and act ruthlessly to avert the danger is borne out as the five brothers look at Draupadi:
“Each had her in his heart”, says Vyasa. Draupadi’s feelings in the matter are of no consequence to the Pandavas and their mother. From the beginning, she is for them an object of much price. That is why Yudhishthira does not hesitate to stake her like any other prized possession. His attitude is unambiguously clear from the description he launches into in response to Shakuni’s suggestion, in the same manner as he has earlier extolled his material wealth, without any demur or restraint:
“. . . neither short
nor tall, neither dark nor pale,
with wavy dark-blue hair.
Eyes like autumn-lotus leaves,
fragrant like the lotus ... .
soft-spoken and gentle,
the ideal wife . . .
She is the last to sleep,
the first to wake . . .
Her sweat-bathed face is lovely
like the lotus, like
the jasmine; slim-waisted like
the middle of the sacred
vedi, long-nailed, pink-lipped,
No wonder ‘the elders present in the sabha murmured, “Shame! Shame!”’
Kunti had acted as swiftly and equally remorselessly earlier at Varanavata, plying with drink a Nishada woman and her five sons, so that they burnt to death in the lac house and served to disguise the escape of the Pandavas. Truly, Kunti is a remarkable picture of maternal heroism created by Vyasa.
The enigma that does surround Kunti-Pritha relates to her unexplained silence during the two dice-games. Indeed, this is the only occasion when the sons do not even meet their mother before leaving Indraprastha, let alone take her advice. We find that after the installation of Yudhishthira at Indraprastha Kunti recedes into the background, only to flare up in an unforgettable moment when she asks Krishna to narrate to her sons the story of Vidula, for inspiring them to win back the kingdom, for it is a tale
“that shall make men gods for might, Kindling fiery joy of battle . . .
... the warrior hearing turns to flame”. [Sri Aurobindo: Vidula ]
Kunti’s last moments are perhaps the greatest enigma of all. After the war has been won, she does not stay on as the Dowager Queen to preside over a victorious Pandava empire. Instead, she accompanies the shattered Dhritarashtra and Gandhari, along with Vidura-Dharma in whose house she had spent the 13 years of her sons’ exile. With them she perishes in a forest fire, as bereft of her sons as Gandhari. Vyasa proffers no explanation for this decision of Kunti.
Perhaps we can find the clue to an answer in that secret of her maidenhood of which she is so ashamed: Karna. And this is where Manoj Das’ argument breaks down. He argues that Kunti’s sons are not to be judged by human standards since they were emanations of gods, who were all different aspects of Indra and thus one in essence.
Vyasa provides Drupada with two myths for persuading him to agree to the polyandrous marriage. In the first of these, his daughter is a mysterious maiden who is the cause of five Indras being trapped in a cave by Shiva, who curses them with rebirth on earth. In the second myth, Draupadi in her previous birth prayed for a husband, and repeated her prayer five times, hence Shiva blessed her with five husbands in the next birth! Both compositions are stylistically not by the same hand that composed the bridegroom-choice ceremony and its aftermath. These are instances of special pleading by later redactors uncomfortable with the social stigma on polyandry, and seeking to supply some mythical sanction for it. The actual justification is provided quite baldly by Yudhishthira himself to Drupada: “We follow the practice of our ancestors” (Adi Parva. 107.28), referring to their birth and upbringing in the Himalayas where polyandry was practiced by the “northern Kurus” and is still prevalent in the Garhwal region. Keeping this in mind, we understand why Duryodhana argues that the Pandavas are not legitimate offspring of Pandu, as, unlike in his own case, their fathers are unknown.
In this exchange with Drupada, Yudhishthira’s first reply to his objections is immensely ironic and it lashes back at him from the mouth of Bhishma in reply to Draupadi’s anguished appeal in the assembly hall.
Yudhishthira says. “Dharma. your majesty, is subtle—who knows how it works?” It is very significant that even at this stage Kunti has no regrets about her so-called “slip-of-tongue”. She urges Drupada and Dhrishtadyumna,
“I fear my words will become as pointless as lies.
And if that happens, will I not be tainted with untruth?”
The avid concern is solely for her own reputation, with not a thought or word to spare for the bride won by Arjuna, whom she is condemning to perpetual social stigma by insisting that she be shared by five brothers. We recall that Kunti herself has been five-manned by Surya, Pandu, Dharma, Vayu and Indra. The typical mother-in-law, she forces her daughter-in-law into a worse predicament, condemning her to live out her entire life with five husbands, where her own plight was limited to single encounters with five separate persons, none related to the others. Draupadi, born of the sacrificial flames, is but a sacrifice in the fire of Drupada’s and Kunti’s ambitions to wrest the kingdom of Hastinapura, and in the flames of the Pandavas’ desire.
Kunti has no hesitation in appearing in Hastinapura with five grown sons claiming that they are sons of gods. Yet, she cannot bring herself to acknowledge Karna, also son of a god according to her. Nor does she do anything to stop the barrage of insults showered upon him in the tournament by Bhima etc. on account of his belonging to the suta caste. Yet, both Dhritarashtra and Pandu are also really sutas, being born to Kshatriya princesses by a mixed-caste Brahmin father, Vyasa.
A hint of the secret is available in the peculiar conduct of Kuntibhoja in placing the nubile Kunti fully at the disposal of the sage Durvasa, who gifts her with a “mantra” and she is pregnant with Karna almost immediately after his departure. Vyasa says that Durvasa gave her the spell knowing of the future difficulties she would face. This is merely another way of saying that, in order to provide her with some cover to stave off social calumny in the future, Durvasa left her with the story of a “mantra” for public consumption. While recounting the incident, Kunti states that although the sage gave enough cause to infuriate her, she retained her composure. What sort of behavior would have infuriated an adolescent, nubile maiden left completely at the mercy of an eccentric hermit?
At a time when Satyavati could acknowledge her illegitimate son Vyasa before Bhishma, what prevented Kunti from following suit with the same Bhishma present? Does she repeat with her first-born the treatment meted out to her by her father Sursasena, who gave her away to Kuntibhoja? However, her precarious position in Hastinapura, where she has been accepted despite it being known that Pandu was cursed with inability to procreate, can be imperiled if the fruit of a pre-marital union were acknowledged. Yet, it does not explain why she does not tell Pandu about Karna when he is lecturing her on different types of sons, including those born out of wedlock, and pressing her to get him surrogate sons.
What is of interest is that Kunti does not scruple to reveal the truth to Karna just before the war begins. Her intention is quite plain: Duryodhana has to be deprived of his staunchest ally. Not succeeding in that attempt, she concentrates on saving the Pandavas from their strongest foe, and virtually blackmails Karna emotionally to elicit a promise that he will not slay anyone of them except Arjuna. The result is that, despite having each of them in his grasp, including Yudhishthira whom Drona had vainly tried to imprison and thereby win the war, Karna lets them go, thereby forfeiting the kingdom that he could have gifted Duryodhana. Thus, the fact of motherhood is used remorselessly by Kunti as a political weapon to win the battle for the Pandavas, and Karna remains rejected at the end as he was at birth. Where Karna knows that he is facing his younger brothers, whom he has promised not to harm, they are but raring to kill the detestable charioteer’s son. It is a foregone conclusion.
The types of interpolations that give rise to so-called enigmas form an intriguing study.
For instance, Shri Das praises Gandhari as a symbol of the respect given to motherhood, along with the unquestioning obedience offered to Kunti by her sons in sharing Draupadi. In the Tamil recension, when Draupadi rushes to Gandhari to escape from Duhshasana, Gandhari coldly tells her that, after all, it is only her brothers-in-law calling her and she might as well go! The very nature of her motherhood is an enigma. She enters the Kaurava palace after deliberately blinding herself on hearing the duplicity practiced upon her by Bhishma in forcing her parents to give her in marriage to a blind prince. This is not the act of a devoted wife, for thereby she deprives her husband of the opportunity to see through her eyes for both of them. That is what an ideal wife like Sukanya had done for Chyavana. It is an act of terrifying masochistic proportions, taken without consulting her parents, her brother, or anyone else. This reveals not only her singular ability to stand alone, to take life-marring decisions with lightning swiftness, but also an indomitable will.
Within Gandhari is a tremendous hunger to become the: mother of a king, because she cannot be the wife of one (Dhritarashtra being only the figurehead, with Bhishma wielding all the power). For two long years she bears the fetus. When she hears that Yudhishthira has been born to Kunti despite the curse on Pandu, she loses control and, in frustrated fury, strikes at her womb to deliver a ball of iron-hard flesh, reflecting her adamantine nature. She does not find it necessary to consult her husband about the decision to abort the fetus. Her decision is purely the result of fierce jealousy at being beaten in the race to queen-motherhood by Kunti. For two years she had been patient, secure in the knowledge that Pandu would die childless thanks to the deer-sage’s curse.
When Vyasa asks Gandhari what she is about to do with the fetus, she answers that, having heard that Kunti had given birth to a son bright as the sun, she, in sorrow, had brought about this abortion. As a matter of fact, Kunti truly had given birth, earlier, to the son of the Sun god, and like Gandhari had, on her own, disposed off Karna. The two wives of Hastinapura’s royal palace are both self-willed.
Kunti chooses Pandu as her husband in a svayamvara, only to face the problem of her husband being unable to procreate. She has to attain motherhood by approaching others, albeit at her husband’s insistence. Gandhari is given away by reluctant parents to a blind but virile husband, yet is unable to become a mother by natural means. This feature of difficulty in obtaining lawful progeny is a leit-motif of the Adi Parva (cf. my Themes and Structure in the Mahabharata Dasgupta, Calcutta, 1990, pp. 203-240, 383), going back to the Kshatriya women faced with the prospect of no men of their caste, after Parashurama has rid the earth twenty-one times of Kshatriyas.
Gandhari-of-the-iron-will exacts a terrible price for the marriage she was forced into with a blind man. She neither looks upon the faces of-her children, nor does she fulfill a mother’s duties towards her hundred sons, who are allowed to grow uncontrolled like rank weeds along the Ganga flowing by Hastinapura. Here Vyasa has juxtaposed the remarkable example of Kunti, who combines the roles of nurturing mother and controlling-guiding father vis-à-vis the five Pandavas, though to Karna she is no different than Gandhari to the Dhartarashtras. The unquestioning obedience the Pandavas offer Kunti is, therefore, never Gandhari’s to command from her sons, nor Kunti’s from Karna. Never does Gandhari ask them to desist from their litany of envy and hate against the Pandavas all through their childhood and adolescence. Ultimately, when she does seek to intervene in the Sabha and the Udyoga Parvas, Duryodhana cavalierly brushes her aside—something wholly unimaginable for the Pandavas where Kunti is concerned.
In the Sabha Parva, before the second dice-game, Gandhari. for only the second time in the epic approaches her husband (the first being when she urged her husband to stop the first game after the attempted disrobing of Draupadi), advising him to discard Duryodhana and not be party to the destruction of the dynasty, as this second game would “rekindle a dead fire, topple a bridge re-built.” Her words are but ashes before the tornado of Dhritarashtra’s love for his sons. But what is of significance is that here, a millennium ago, a wife uncompromisingly tells her husband that, enslaved by his love for his progeny, he has lost control over them. Characteristically, Gandhari overlooks her own abdication of her responsibilities!
It is this unusual ability to speak the bitter truth to her husband’s face which emerges again in presence of the full court in the Udyoga Parva when Dhritarashtra, for the first time, asks Gandhari to be brought into the court to try if a mother’s love can din some simple sense into Duryodhana’s obdurate head. Gandhari appears and, much as Draupadi had shamed the Kuru elders in open court, she upbraids her husband in words that fly unerringly to the mark, like the infallible arrows of a master-archer. When Dhritarashtra tells her that her ill-willed son is disobeying him and has grossly insulted all elders in the court, Gandhari asks Duryodhana to be summoned so that she can rebuke him in public. She also tells Dhritarashtra that it is his fondness for his son that is to blame, for, despite knowing his unrighteous desires, he has pampered and supported him in his insatiate hunger for the kingdom. “It is too late now for force,” she says, possibly referring to the pampered childhood, for which she was equally responsible. She points out that, having left the kingdom to wicked Duryodhana and his crooked cabal, Dhritarashtra is now reaping the fruits of his irresponsible acts. Urging him to be firm now, she cites a reason that shows her remarkable insight, despite being as blind as her husband, into the political scenario: “Your enemies are laughing at this family break-up.” Even more impressive is her analysis of the results of war: Duryodhana will lose because the mighty warriors he depends on—Bhishma Drona, Kripa—may fight on his side being “rajapinda bhayat” (borne on the Kaurava exchequer), and may even give up their lives in that process, but they will never harm the Pandavas because of their superiority in dharma. Duryodhana does not scruple to insult his mother by stalking out in a tearing rage, little realizing how prophetic her analysis is, which, if heeded, would have kept him alive.
It is not motherliness that characterizes Gandhari, but her adamantine will and her sense of dharma. She refuses to bless her son with the boon of victory, because he is not on the side of dharma. At the very end, her agony at the loss of all her children is revealed in two small incidents of searing intensity. As Yudhishthira touches her feet, begging forgiveness, his nails are burned black by the flaming agony searing through a space between Gandhari’s bandage and her eyes. Then, tormented by the horrifying scenes of lamentation on the battlefield, she unleashes on Krishna the curse that he will witness the destruction of his own kith and kin too. Within Gandhari is a simmering volcano of bitter rage born of frustration, which finds its consummation in the forest fire that she calmly welcomes to give her a longed-for release from a lifetime in which she drew every breath of married life in pain. What did she feel, we wonder, when her blind husband took to his bed a Vaishya maid during her pregnancy? The fruit of that union was Yuyutsu, the sole survivor of the carnage, who fought on the Pandava side and ultimately became the regent of the kingdom.
It is during the 13-year exile that the enigma that is Yudhishthira gets even more perplexing. If we explain away his pledging of Draupadi in the dice-game as an aberration, what indeed are we to make of his pardoning of Jayadratha’s abduction of her? This inexplicably generous gesture (Duhshala, their cousin, must not become a widow, exclaims Yudhishthira) leads to the death of Abhimanyu. Then we have Yudhishthira rebuking Draupadi for “creating a scene” in Virata’s court, when Kicaka kicks her and she appeals to the king. He does not lift a finger in her defence, let alone avenge her. Left to her own resources, she motivates Bhima to take revenge. Yet it is this man who does not hesitate to send a 16-year old to break the wheel-formation of Drona that even Bhima cannot demolish, knowing that Abhimanyu cannot break out of it. He nearly gambles away a dearly won pyrrhic victory by announcing to Duryodhana that he may choose any one of the five to fight, and if he wins, the kingdom is his! It is his good fortune that Duryodhana is too arrogant to take on anyone but his equal in strength, Bhima, otherwise the entire war would have ended differently. And, yet, it is this same Yudhishthira who touches the depths of human knowledge and experience in his thrilling replies to the soul-searching medley of questions put to him by Dharma over the corpses of his four brothers, and again in his answers to the questions of Nahusha-turned-python who has Bhima in his deadly coils.
Manoj Das writes of the Pandavas, “They owed an unbroken allegiance to her (Draupadi)”. This, however, is factually incorrect. Each of the five brothers had at least one other wife, while Arjuna had as many as three more. It is one of the enigmas of the epic that none of these wives accompanied their exiled husbands. As only Sita accompanied Rama and Lakshmana in their 14 year long exile, so was Kunti with the Pandavas during the post-Varanavata exile as their sole female companion. In the 13-year exile it is Draupadi who assumes this role.
The secret of Draupadi’s success in handling five husbands is located by Manoj Das in a passage where she replies to Satyabhama’s queries on this in a tone wholly out of character. As far back as 1886 Rishi Bankim Chandra had shown in his Krishna-Charitra that this passage has to be discarded as a late interpolation in the Vana Parva, clearly introduced to provide a homily on virtuous conduct for wives. What we find at the core of the epic is the traumatic agony of a nathavati anathavat, a woman five-husbanded yet husband-less at precisely those moments of extreme anguish when the very meaning of womanhood and the significance of being a saha-dharmini is at stake. The Draupadi of the Vana Parva homily is not the fire-born Yajnaseni, but a product of the post-Manu Samhita period where the wife is but the husband’s chattel, not his companion, let alone becoming even his guide where need be. The image of women in the original stratum of the epic is that which is etched out in the words of Shakuntala, as she upbraids Dushyanta for fickleness:
“A wife is a man’s half,
A wife is a man’s closest friend;
A wife is Dharma, Artha and Karna,
A wife is Moksha too . - .
A sweet-speaking wife is a companion in happy times;
A wife is like a father on religious occasions;
A wife is like a mother in illness and sorrow.
The wife is a means to man’s salvation . . .
Happiness, joy, virtue, everything depends on her.”
This is very far, indeed, from the love-sick, swooning, helpless maiden that is Kalidasa’s Shakuntala. Vyasa casts his women—Kunti, Draupadi, Gandhari, Shakuntala, Devayani, Savitri, Damayanti—in the heroic mould, of whom one could well use Shakespeare’s words, “bringers forth of men-children only”.
The blazing personality that is Draupadi finds memorable expression in her abrupt salutation to the Kuru elders watching her plight in Duhshasana’s hands. Das is mistaken in citing this as her sense of good manners in apologizing to the elders for not having greeted them when she was dragged into the court by her hair. As Karna asks Duhshasana to take her away to the servants’ quarters, Draupadi cries out to her silent husbands. Finding no response, she, with quicksilver intelligence, seizes upon a social ritual to wrest a moment’s respite from pillaging hands. What she says drips with sarcasm since the elders whom she bitterly salutes, deliberately using the word “duty”, have remained silent in the face of Vidura’s exhortation to do their duty and protect the daughter-in-law of the house. Look at the words she uses:
“One duty remains, which I must now do. Dragged
by this mighty hero, I nearly forgot, I
was so confused. Sirs, I bow to all of
you, all my elders and superiors. Forgive me for
not doing so earlier. It was not all my fault,
gentlemen of the sabha.”
It is a mighty hero who is dragging his sister-in-law by her hair and attempting to strip her in public. She has nearly forgot her duty, while the elders are wholly oblivious of it. It is surely not her fault that she is being outraged; and certainly it is not she who is so confused, but rather the Kuru elders, of whom Bhishma says:
“Our elders, learned-in-dharma,
Drona and others, sit here with lowered eyes like dead men
with life-breaths gone.”
We should not, also, lose sight of a bit of perfect caste-upwomanship in Draupadi’s svayamvara. She raises her voice against wedding a charioteer’s son, but is mute when a Brahmin enters the competition. Krishna feels no qualms in using his sakhi as a bait in urging Karna to change sides, telling him that Draupadi will welcome him too as a husband! As Helen brought about the destruction of the topless towers of Ilium, so Draupadi is the cause of the passing of a yuga, marked by a carnage of unprecedented proportions, annihilating each one of her five sons, her father, her brothers and relatives. It is a curious similarity of situation that she shares with Gandhari: both have husbands alive, but not a single son left to inherit the throne, all having been killed by a single warrior (Bhima/Ashvatthama). Similarly, both Kunti and Gandhari witness their sons slain by their brothers. What a meaningless victory it turns out to be! In a profoundly suggestive image, Karna sums it all up when he tells Krishna that he has seen a dream in which
“Powerful Yudhishthira climbed a hill
of human bones, smiled and ate sweet ghee-curd from
a golden cup.”
However, it is not sweet curd but bitter ashes that the Pandavas chew, with not a single son left to carry on their heritage and inherit the throne; with their mother refusing to stay with her victorious sons, preferring to die in a forest-fire; with their friend-philosopher-guide Krishna himself participating in the destruction of the Yadavas and dying most ordinarily at the hands of a hunter; and with the mighty Arjuna unable to protect the Yadu women from ordinary bandits, just as he had been unable to protect Draupadi from Duhshasana and Kicaka. And Draupadi herself, who constantly urged on the dharma-yuddha, the righteous war, what does she have left with her five husbands busy with the kingdom and their other wives, and without the slightest hint of any inclination to tarry by her side when she collapses during their final journey together? Where, then, is the victory of Dharma? Did Duryodhana have the last word when he said, felled by unfair means:
“I have studied the scriptures, given away gifts as prescribed, ruled over the sea-girt earth, placed my foot on the heads of enemies and enjoyed that rare pleasure savored by gods which is the envy of other kings, possessed the greatest wealth and ultimately won the death in battle which is prayed for by Kshatriyas following dharma. Hence, who can equal me in good fortune? Now I proceed to heaven with my brothers and friends, while you all stay behind on this earth, the living-dead, with hearts wrung with sorrow.”
Dharma is the most vexed issue in the epic, and at the centre of the controversy stands the supremely enigmatic figure of Bhishma. Das’ explanation for Bhishma siding with the Dhartarashtras despite his excelling wisdom and righteousness is remarkably simplistic:
“He knew that with Krishna on the side of the Pandavas it mattered little even if a hundred Bhishmas were in the other camp.”
Surely, the existence of the avatara in the opposing camp does not justify the wisest patriarch stationing himself on the side of evil and slaying thousands of innocent soldiers for over ten days? The question agitating readers of the epic is why Bhishma should have made this inexplicable choice.
Bhishma has to be in the Dhartarashtra camp for two reasons. He himself tells Yudhishthira that Kripa, Drona and he himself are bound to the Kauravas “by need”, that is, having been brought up on the munificence of the Kuru king, they cannot change sides. There is, however, a much deeper laid cause, a far more profound reason. Bhishma bestrides, like a colossus, the corpus of the ancient dharma that laid down loyally to the clan as supreme and did not look beyond it to public welfare in general and the country as a whole. Krishna is the herald of the new dharma that places the establishment of righteousness above all else as conducive to the general weal, lokasamgraha. That is why Krishna does not hesitate to rise above the bonds of kinship and kill tyrannical Kamsa and Shishupala, He opposes the Dhartarashtras because of their asuric nature, intent on self-aggrandizement and least concerned over the swiftly expanding imperialism of Jarasandha, enslaving kingdom after kingdom. The killing of Jarasandha restores independence to a hundred chieftains and relieves the Sursasenas of Mathura and the Yadavas-Bhojas-Vrishnis of Dvaraka of the spectre of this all-swallowing, constricting python of imperial hegemony.
It speaks volumes for the much vaunted wisdom of Bhishma that he never once looked eastwards beyond Hastinapura at the truly alarming growth of the power of Magadha, Pragjyotishpura, and Pundra, each of them under a ruthless tyrant. It was Krishna who slew each of them and put an end to imperialistic ambitions. Bhishma did not lift finger when his stepbrother, the juvenile Chitrangada, hopelessly outmatched in battle by a powerful Gandharva, was killed. Bhishma did not keep track of the welfare of Pandu and his two queens in the Himalayan wilds. He did not make any attempt to persuade Pandu not to leave Hastinapura, It is as if having the blind Dhritarashtra as the figurehead, with the actual reins of government in his own hands, was very much to his liking. After all, it is Bhishma alone who carries in his veins the blood of Shantanu and is the last royal Kuru. That is why he is irrevocably chained to the throne of Hastinapura, for better or worse. The man who earned the sobriquet “Bhishma” because of his vow of celibacy and came to be renowned as the greatest of all renouncers, should actually be bound with adamantine chains of attachment to his father’s throne!
It is the vow itself that shows the narrower dharma of Bhishma. All that he is concerned about is pleasing his father, who is a victim of concupiscence in old age. The crown prince does not spare a thought for the future of the kingdom, nor does he consult the ministers, but jumps straight into high drama. We need to recall that he has never had both parents. At birth his mother took him away and then turned him over, fully trained, to a father he did not remember, and disappeared. Shantanu, his father, does not even go through the motions of expressing shock or attempting to get him to revoke his vow. He accepts the bride with indecent haste, gifting his son with the highly dubious boon of death-at-will. In his single-minded attachment to his vow, Bhishma ruthlessly destroys the lives of Amba and Gandhari without any compunction. He will not accept his responsibility for Amba’s predicament that leads to her suicide. Nor does he hesitate, for the sake of Hastinapura, in pressurizing the king of Gandhara to marry his daughter to the blind Dhritarashtra.
Bhishma watches the dynasty crumble, as one by one Satyavati, Ambika, Ambalika depart to the forest so as not to witness the suicide of the race. For him, the four stages of life prescribed by the scriptures do not exist. He is frozen in an eternal brahmacharya, subscribing to a dharma that is as sterile as his celibacy, producing nothing but frustration and a wasteland. One stepbrother dies in a skirmish, with the redoubtable warrior Bhishma mysteriously absent from his side. The other dies of over-indulgence in sex, brought about by Bhishma providing him with two wives at a tender age. Thus, Hastinapura is left kingless. Bhishma’s attachment to his own vow surpasses obedience to his stepmother and concern for the welfare of the kingdom. He will not practice niyoga and save the dynasty. Hence, Vyasa has to be brought in with disastrous results that are the cause of the ensuing carnage.
Thus, Bhishma’s is an intensely self-centered dharma, finding fulfillment only in self-glorification, not in reaching out to embrace the world and succor the public. It is precisely this intensely selfish sadhana of the world-renouncing ascetic which Krishna broke away from to promulgate the yoga of nishkama karma, of achieving salvation by living and acting in the world, not by withdrawing into an island concerned only about oneself.
Bhishma’s insensitivity to human feelings comes out yet again when Pandu brings home Kunti. This possibly annoys him, for Kuru monarchs do not attend svayamvaras and risk being rejected. They purchase princesses, as Bhishma promptly does with Madri and Gandhari. It is Madri who becomes the cause of Pandu’s death. As far as Gandhari is concerned, Bhishma never asks her not to bandage her eyes or argue that her husband needs her eyes. The price Hastinapura pays is that Shakuni becomes a permanent resident, infesting the palace and spinning the web of intrigue that destroys the dynasty, with Bhishma again remaining a passive witness to Duryodhana’s poisoning of Bhima, the gutting of the lac house, the division of the kingdom, the cheating in the dice-game and the disrobing of Draupadi. He does not even attend to minor matters such as putting down traditional foes such as the Panchalas, which is left to Drona to bring about with his fledgling disciples. This misogynist par excellence, who ruins the lives of Amba, Ambika, Ambalika, Kunti, Gandhari and watches, without turning a hair, the attempted disrobing of Draupadi, is also a commander-in-chief who deprives his army of its best warrior Karna by insulting him so grossly that he withdraws from battle. Then, he announces that he will not slay any Pandava, and will befriend them in his thoughts at night although he will fight them during daytime! It is a peculiar dharma, indeed, which prevents him from fighting on the side of virtue against vice.
It is that same Dharma that chains Karna, who cannot rise above his obsession with his low birth and his sense of obligation to Duryodhana, despite being aware of his evil designs. The effects of such a flawed dharma are seen when it leads Karna to terming Draupadi a harlot and ordering her to be stripped in public, as Bhishma, Kripa and Drona watch silently.
It is this outdated, severely limited Dharma that Krishna made his mission to root out and replace with what he sings of in the Gita. It is a validation of this fact about Bhishma that we find him never having practiced all that he advises Yudhishthira to do as a king, from his bed-of-arrows. In a Kshatriya the “witness” stance only brings about the destruction of the kingdom. The Kshatriya must fight to protect the weak, for that is his dharma, the truth of his nature. Not to be true to this because of a self-imposed vow brings destruction and misery in its wake not only for oneself, but also for the society of which such a person is a pillar.
Drona’s treatment of Ekalavya is lauded by Shri Das because the latter had learnt nothing about the code of conduct that must temper the knowledge of archery, as shown by his filling the mouth of a barking dog with arrows. The facts, however, are otherwise. Arjuna’s ego is pricked at this instance of a skill beyond his competence. He complains to Drona that the assurance he had received regarding his pre-eminence is proven false. That is why Drona demands Ekalavya’s thumb and is pleased (says the epic) to find Ekalavya’s skill gone, his aim imprecise, his swiftness impaired. Vyasa goes on to say:
“And Arjuna was pleased.
His anxiety disappeared. None will equal Arjuna--
Drona’s words now had truth.”--(Adi Parva 134. 59)
The mainspring of Drona’s actions is. the desire for revenge, the craving to humiliate Drupada, who had insulted him in public. His very adoption of weapon-craft goes against his dharma as a Brahmin. He approaches Drupada for wealth, again a non-Brahmin trait. In him there is no trace of the world-renouncer or the devotee of the Divine which characterizes the true Brahmin. He is a flawed guru because he imparts knowledge with a condition relating to the fees that must be his on completion of the course: the defeat of Drupada. This is a world very different from that which Vyasa depicts in the Paushya Parva, the world of Veda, Utanka, Upamanyu, Ayoda Dhaumya, Uddalaka, Vashishtha—preceptors who delight in the giving of wisdom and do not ask for any return—and pupils who do not exhibit jealousy at anyone equaling or surpassing them. The problem with Drona is precisely that his concern is not the soul of the disciple, which Shri Das rightly states to have been the primary concern of the guru of yore. Drona’s lessons merely succeed in boosting the egos of his disciples. Humility is wholly alien to his training system.
Drona also tries to impart special training to his son secretly, but is foiled by the alert Arjuna. Drona is unashamedly on the side of those in power and supports the Dhartarashtras in the war, being in their pay. As a Brahmin, he is untrue to his calling by indulging in bloody carnage, as the sages bring home to him before his death. He even goes so far as to encircle the adolescent Abhimanyu and have him slain by seven mighty warriors attacking him together. How can such a person be described as a true follower of Dharma? Self-interest and his son’s advancement were his only objectives in life, as Bhima bluntly tells him in the Drona Parva. That is why his death is essential, like that of Bhishma. As Vyasa says,
“Dharma, cultivated, preserves; Dharma, violated, destroys.”
Drona did not cultivate that greater Dharma of subserving the greater good as distinct from the narrow self-serving dharma.
“There are dharmas and dharmas – different codes of conduct for beings of different levels of consciousness,” writes Manoj Das most perceptively. That is precisely what the epic is about: the replacement of the dharma of a lower stratum of consciousness by one of a higher level. The problem is: can we agree with him that while the war destroyed tyrants, it “ushered in a new climate of freedom”? It is a devastated Bharatavarsha, bereft of heroes, peopled by wailing widows and orphans and the aged, broken up into fragmentary principalities. Hastinapura itself declines into such a non-entity that the king of Kashi enquires who is Janamejaya (the great-grandson of Arjuna) when the latter approaches him for his daughter’s hand. And this although the princesses of Kashi were the mothers of Dhritarashtra and Pandu!
Historically speaking, we can only say that this great holocaust ushered in the birth of the janapadas, in which we find the republican system taking root in India. Rulers now had to attend closely to the general weal. The new religions Buddhism and Jainism appeared, eschewing rituals and stressing the working out of the salvation of society and the individual in harmony.
However, the greatest enigma of the epic remains unanswered. That enigma is posed by none other than Vyasa himself. Ironically, it is placed in the book entitled “Ascent to Heaven” Svargarohana:
“I lift my arms and I shout-
but no one listens! From dharma conies success and pleasure:
why is dharma not practiced?”
To this anguished cry of Vyasa, echoing down the dusty corridors of recorded time, there is no answer. It seems destined to remain the eternal enigma, an immutable sphinx confronting each passing generation with this vexed question on the crossroads of life.