How's my Luck now?

Reflections, views and descriptions during my stay at IIM Lucknow from July 2004 to March 2006

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Location: India

Sunday, August 14, 2005

'Yugaant' - II

The next essay is on Draupadi. Here, a comparison between Sita and Draupadi, both daughters of the earth as such, is made. But unlike Sita, Draupadi is shown to be a 'true daughter of the earth', in that she had very earthly emotions of pride, hatred, revenge, etc. Astonishingly, the author says that when Duhshasan was committing great indignity to her in the Kaurav court, she wasn't actually praying for help from Krushna. Instead, she was vociferously debating a legal point with the Kaurav elders on whether Yudhishthir could indeed stake her, once he had himself become a slave. She was quite jealous of the Pandavs' other wives, particularly Subhadra, Arjun's wife. Ultimately, when the Pandavs leave for the Himalayas, she is the one to fall first because, as Yudhishthir said, out of her five husbands, she really loved Arjun the most. In her dying moments, Draupadi is shown to realise that it was Bhim who really loved her the most.

The next essay is on the Pandavs' great palace called Mayasabha, built in Indraprasth. The story of how this palace came to be built is narrated. The Khandav forest was burnt to the ground by Arjun and Krushna, and so ruthlessly that they allowed but a handful of animals and humans to come out alive. An asur called Maya, in gratitude for sparing him, built them the palace out of multi-coloured ceramic tiles (when most of the Aryan housing used to be made of wood). In real terms, the author says, this is meant to show how the Aryans actually acquired land for cultivation. They razed the forests around the vast areas on the banks of the Ganga to the ground, leaving the great Gangetic plain that we see today.

Drona and Ashwatthama form the subject for the next essay. Drona, originally a poor brahman, is shown to take revenge on Drupad, his 'batchmate' :), by having the Pandavs attack him and annexing half his kingdom. In the Mahabharat times, unlike the later empire-building era, Kshatriyas kings could defeat other kings, but only receive a tribute from them, not annex their kingdom. Drona, a brahman, did not need to follow this tradition. Although neutral during the formative years of the Kauravs and the Pandavs, during the war, he suddenly turned fiercely against the Pandavs and during the three days he was general, killed large parts of the Pandav army. His son, Ashwatthama, was even less of a brahman than his father. He was sly and cunning, learning the use of special weapons from his father, unknown to Arjun. He had no qualms in killing Draupadi's sons and brother at night, but showed great cowardice in running away from a dying Duryodhan as the Pandavs approached. Here is one character in the Mahabharat who really had nothing much to redeem himself with.

Karna is widely perceived to be perhaps the most tragic character of the Mahabharat. But he displayed numerous failings in his life. His obsession with the injustice done to him at birth made him so headstrong that Bhishma did not classify him as a mahaarathii at the time of the war. He was also not as great a warrior as he is made out to be, as he was also routed by Arjun in Bruhanallaa's guise. He was also defeated totally and escaped when the Gandharvas once attacked the Kauravs' hunting party and took Duryodhan prisoner. His personal obsession and jealousy towards Arjun sometimes took precedence over his famed friendship with Duryodhan. This is shown in the fact that he promised Kunti that he would try to kill no other Pandav but Arjun, when in fact such a promise was not at all necessary. Again, at the moment of his death, he needlessly tried to extricate his chariot from the mud instead of taking a reserve chariot. Thus, Karna's tragedy was more self-wrought than inflicted by others.

The essay on Krushna is absolutely fascinating. The author says that, the Bhagavat being composed later than the Mahabharat, godhood was actually given to Krushna in the latter. In the Mahabharat, Krushna never appears as an incarnation of God, but a very astute man with great political acumen. His friendship with Arjun is dwelt on, as are his politically significant moves in killing Jarasandh, keeping brother Balram from actively siding with the Kauravs, handing his Narayani army to Duryodhan while himself siding with the Pandavs in the war, etc. He is shown to have had a personal ambition of being called a Vasudev. In those times, only one person in an era came to be called Vasudev, the greatest of men. Ram was one in his time; Krushna wanted to be one, and he achieved his ambition. After his death, godhood was given to him by the tribe of Abhirs, who captured Dwarka after the destruction of the Yadavs. Being cowherds themselves, the Abhirs made Krushna a cowherd and made all those stories about the gopii-s and the butter-stealing.

The last chapter is an excellent summary of the theme of the book. The end of the Mahabharat is shown to be the end of a yug, an era in the modern sense. The next few centuries were times of changing social climate in India, as Brahmans first gained ascendancy, then were subdued by the advent of Buddhism. The empire-building era started. The Mahabharat, a concise and matter-of-fact epic about the true nature of human beings, was modified to make additions to make characters more heroic or villainous than they were. Hero worship began, which continues to this day. The author gives the example of two versions of the story of Harishchandra to show this process of change. Other practices, like the eating of beef and the drinking of wine, came to be looked down upon and eventually banned. Interestingly, horse-riding was actually learnt by the Indians in this later era, while in the Mahabharat times, the most highly regarded skill was to drive a chariot.

Such nuggets are but small pieces of the puzzle that the author puts together to give us a new, radical, matter-of-fact view of ancient Indian society.