Saturday, March 24, 2012

Mahabharata Vol. 4, by Bibek Debroy - review

Mahabharata, Vol. 4, translated by Bibek Debroy

"Negotiating and Preparing - The Inexorable March to Destruction"
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(My review on Amazon - highly censored version, because four times Amazon rejected my submission.)
5 stars   This is a notable book I read and reviewed. Click to see more such books.
(Revised and edited September 13, 2012; for clarity and to correct errors)
With the twelfth year of exile coming to a close, the Pandavas need to - "... spend the thirteenth year in disguise, but in inhabited places", as per the conditions of the bet (Ch 292, Anudyuta Parva). They settle upon the Matsya kingdom, and decide how each of the six is going to disguise themselves and enter the kingdom. The thirteenth year safely negotiated, but not without Bheema almost giving the game away, twice, and a concerted effort by Duryodhana to force the Pandavas to come out of hiding, the negotiations begin. The Pandavas ask for their kingdom, and the Kauravas refuse. After several rounds of discussions, war is inevitable. The preparations for the war begin, and the last sub-Parva in this volume ends with Bhishma, the commander of the Kuru army, enumerating the warriors on both sides - Ratha-Atiratha Samkhya.

This fourth volume contains the entire Virata Parva, the fourth parva (as per the 18-parva classification), and most of the fifth parva, Udyoga Parva. Going by the 100-sub-Parva classification it contains Sub-Parvas 45 through 59, the 45th Sub-Parva being Vairata Parva, while the 59th Sub-Parvas is Ratha-Atiratha Samkhya. Vol. 4 contains all the sections (adhyayas) of the Udyoga Parva, with the exception of the last adhyayay, Ambopakyana Parva, which I guess recalls the tale of Amba after she left the Kuru assembly, seething with rage and looking for revenge against Bhishma. The longest parva in this volume is Bhagavat-Yana Parva, clocking in at 2055 shlokas, which, as the name suggests, covers Lord Krishna's travel to Hastinapur to plead for peace one last time.

The first parva in this book is Vairata Parva, in which Yudhishtra and the Pandava brothers discuss how and where to spend the thirteenth year of their exile, incognito. In this unabridged translation of the critical edition, Arjuna states, "I promise that I will undertake the duties of a eunuch." Without any additional information here, it is difficult to understand why Arjuna alone decides on this particularly embarrassing disguise. The Critical Edition excises the episode where Urvashi the apsara curses Arjuna. That would have at least provided a narrative coherence to the very handsome and manly Arjuna disguising himself as a eunuch. On the other hand, Arjuna was ambidextrous ("savasachi" (सव्यसाची ), and could shoot arrows using both hands. Should we read into this an explanation, a hint, to explain Arjuna’s transformation? In any case, Arjuna had learnt the arts and dance from Chitrasena, the Gandharva, while in heaven - this comes in handy since he spends the thirteenth year teaching Princess Uttaraa (the Prince was named Uttara, hence the princess is sometimes spelled with an additional “a” to differentiate the two in writing) dance. Yudhishtra acts as an advisor, Bhima as a cook - of course, and Nakula and Sahadeva as stableboy and cowherd respectively.

Before the Pandavas leave for the Matsya kingdom, their preceptor Dhoumya instructs the princes on how to lead the life of courtiers and commoners, lest they attract unwanted attention.
"For an entire year you will be unknown and will not be shown any honour, even though you deserve honour. When you are shown the door, take to the door.
Kings dislike those who disagree and people who speak lies.
When there is an occasion for laughter, one should laugh gently, and not like one who is mad. But one should not be too solemn."
Droupadi, before entering Queen Sudeshna's service, places two conditions that the queen accepts - "... I am not served any leftover food and where I am not asked to wash anyone's feet."

The first real sign of danger comes as the thirteenth year is nearing an end. Kichaka, the chief of King Virata’s army and also the brother of Queen Sudeshna, sees Droupadi, and is smitten by her - not the first, but certainly the last of the villainous characters who will lust after her. Kichaka’s end is described in the Kichaka-Vadha Parva. This is also the parva where we see a considerable amount of humour too - perhaps more humour is packed into this parva than all other parvas combined. Sample this line describing Kichaka's state of mind upon hearing from Droupadi that she was willing to come see him, at night, in the dancing hall: "Though he would soon be freed of all prosperity, he seemed to increase in prosperity." Or when Bhima, lying in wait in disguise for Kichaka, tells him, "I do not think that you have ever been caressed the way you are going to be  caressed." However, Kichaka's end is anything but a matter of levity. Bhima pounds Kichaka into a pulp - "He forced his feet, his hands, his hand, his neck and all his limbs into his trunk..." - so much that when the guards entered the dancing room and saw Kichaka's corpse, they wondered, "Where is the neck? Where are the feet? Where are the hands? Where is the head?"

By the time the Kauravas launch an expedition against the Matsya kingdom, the Pandavas’ thirteenth year has come to an end. Why they continued to live in disguise is however not clear. The Pandavas break their disguise only after the mini-battle in the Go-Grahana Parva. As the name suggests, this sub-Parva describes the stealing of the cows from King Virata's kingdom. Again, contrary to popular opinion, Duryodhana does not suspect that the killing of Kichaka may have something to do with Bhima and the Pandavas. it is King Susharma, ruler of Trigata, who decides to launch an expedition against the Matsya kingdom to rob it of its riches, jewels, food-grains, and cattle. It is only when the Kurus, on the battlefield, hear the roar of the chariot and the "blast of the conch" (Devdutt), that Drona recognizes it as Arjuna's conch: "From the roar of the chariot, the blast of the conch shell and the trembling of the earth, it can be no one other than Savyasachi."
As the fight begins in earnest between Arjuna and the Kuru army, you can sense that the battle between Arjuna and Bhishma is not being fought in earnest - "Using weapons to counter weapons, those bulls among men seemed to be playing." - neither warrior, grandfather and grandson, is as yet ready to engage in a deadly duel. That will have to wait.

The thirteenth year over, the negotiations begin. This is the Udyoga Parva - the name of both the fifth Parva as well as the first sub-Parva within the Udyoga Parva - and it begins with consultations between the Pandavas and the others in King Virata's assembly hall. Abhimanyu's marriage to Uttara has been concluded, and it is time to start negotiations with the Kurus for the return of Indraprastha to the Pandavas. Krishna suggests sending a messenger to Hastinapura - "With the intentions of the enemy not being known, how can one decide on an appropriate course of action?" After Krishna, Balarama and Satyaki also speak. Balarama is not in any rush to pass judgment on Shakuni, and leads a possibly lone voice of dissent among the Vrishnis - "Yudhishtra was addicted to gambling and they approached him with affection. ... He was warned by all his well-wishers. ... Having commenced, he lost his head and was convincingly defeated. Therefore, there is no crime that attaches to Shakuni."

While Drupada's priest prepares to leave for Hastinapur, preparations for war have already begun in earnest. Two important events take place during this time. The first is Arjuna and Duryodhana's visit to Dwarvati (Dwarka) to ask for Krishna's help in the war between the Kurus. The second is when Shalya, the maternal uncle of the Pandavas (he was the brother of Madri, mother of Nakula and Sahdeva), is tricked by Duryodhana and drafted into the Kaurava camp.

At this point, however, rather incongruously so, the main story takes a pause, a wholly unexpected pause, and we are taken into a different time and the story of Indra and Vritra is recounted.

Drupada's priest, and messenger, delivers his message to the Kurus. Bhishma is somewhat taken aback by the tone of the message, and opines, "It is my view that because you are a brahmana, your words are too sharp." Karna, on the other hand, is having none of this, and remains implacably hostile  - "... Karna glanced in Duryodhana's direction and angrily and insolently said, 'O brahmana! What you have said is not unknown by any being in the world. What is the point of repeating it again and again?"
Thus ends Udyoga Parva (of the 100-parva classification, and also the first parva of Udyoga Parva in the 18-parva).

Sanjaya-Yana Parva talks about Sanjaya's mission to Upalavya as Dhritarashtra's messenger.  Dhritarashtra, despite the long message he has for Sanjaya, actually has only item on his agenda - "... whatever you think should be said for the welfare of the Bharatas, say that in the midst of the kings, but do not say anything that incites them to the war." Without anything to offer to the Pandavas, it is clear that Sanjaya's mission is bound to fail. As it does. The actual chapters that detail the exchange of views between Sanjaya and Yudhishtra, and then between Sanjaya and Krishna, are riveting. We are still some ways away from the battlefield of Kurukshetra and the Lord's message to Arjuna - that the world would later come to know as the Bhagavad Gita -  but there is still no mistaking Krishna's philosophy. This is what he has to say on deeds and knowledge, in a manner that really leaves no room for doubt as to the Lord's stance on the superiority of deeds over knowledge.
"On the present issue, there is a difference of opinion among the brahmanas. Some say that deeds bring success in the hereafter. Others discard deeds and say that success comes from learning. It is known to brahmanas that those who have food, but fail to eat it, will remain hungry. It is only knowledge which leads to deeds that bears fruit, not other kinds."
Krishna is also very clear on where the fault lies: "Whether riches are stolen secretly in private, or whether they are stolen forcibly in public, the two crimes are equally reprehensible. O Sanjaya! How is the act of Dhritarashtra's son different? ... You did not speak of dharma in that assembly hall. But you see it fit to instruct the Pandavas now."

Before Sanjaya departs for Hastinapur, Yudhishtra makes his final offer - "We wish for peace. Give us one province from your kingdom - Kushasthala, Vrikosthala, Asanti, Varanavata and whichever else you pick as the fifth and the last."

Sanjaya returns to Hastinapur, and is granted an audience with Dhritarashtra even though it is night. His message is not palatable - "I censure you for discord among the Bharatas." Dhritarashtra is restless after hearing Sanjaya. He cannot sleep. He calls for Vidura and asks for words of wisdom.

Thus begins Prajagara Parva - a brilliant exposition on right-and-wrong, on dharma, on political philosophy, and one of several mini-philosophical treatises that dot the epic. Here's a brief sample:
There are two sharp thorns that dry up the body - desire on the part of those who are poor, and anger on the part of those who are powerless.
.. a greatly strong king should avoid consultations with four - those who have limited intelligence, those who procrastinate, those who are lazy, and those who are flatterers.
There are five who follow, wherever you go - friends, enemies, those who are neutral, those you live on and those who are supported by you.
There are six who live off six others and there isn't a seventh like this...
Krishna now decides to make one last effort at peace. He will go to Hastinapura and appeal for peace. While all the Pandavas speak with Krishna before he departs for Hastinapura, Bhima's message is uncharacteristically mild and contrary to his nature - "O Madhusudhana!You should speak in such a way that the Kurus resort to peace. Do not frighten them with war!" Why Bhima chooses to speak thus is not clear - after all, hadn’t he taken two terrible vows in the gambling hall at Hastinapura? What would happen to those vows should the Kauravas accept the offer of peace?

As Krishna proceeds to Hastinapura, Duryodhana has palaces built for him along his journey, and Dhritarashtra discusses with Vidura the gifts he is planning to give to Krishna. Vidura is unimpressed, and tells the king bluntly, "It is because of deception and falsehood that you are giving him all these gifts. O king! Despite your external deeds, I know your inner secrets."
Krishna meets Vidura, Kunti, and the Kuru elders. The talks fail, expectedly, but not without Duryodhana attempting yet another villainy by trying to have Krishna captured.

Krishna, on the other hand, pursues his policy of sama, dama, danda, and bhed (साम दाम दंड भेद). He takes Karna in his chariot and tells him the secret of his birth. This is the Karna-Upanivada Parva. When Karna responds, "I also know everything about my being Pandu's son under the norms of dharma" it is not clear when and how did Karna came to know the secret of his birth. Or was he saying this to hide the shock at this revelation?

The book ends with the Ratha-Atiratha-Samkhya Parva, where Bhishma gives his assessment of the strengths of the warriors on both sides of the armies, but not without causing more grief to Karna. The book ends on a tantalizing note, with the promise of the story of Shikhandi, and Amba, to follow in the next parva.
"I will never kill someone who has been born as a woman, or someone who has been a woman earlier. O king! You may have heard that Shikhandi was earlier a woman. ... I will not fight with him. ... I will kill all the other lords of the earth, whomsoever I encounter on the field of battle, with the exception of the sons of Kunti."

Bibek Debroy, the translator, is an economist with a difference. How so? Well, let's just say different. Consider this. In the early 1980s, while at the Presidency College in Kolkata, the author wrote a paper where he did a "statistical test on the frequency with which the five Pandavas used various weapons in the Kurukshetra war." Yes. Different.

The author has followed the Critical Edition from the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (Pune), for his translation. The entire series is expected to run into ten volumes, and so far, at the time of my writing this review of the third volume, four volumes have been released, with each volume appearing roughly every six months, the most recent one, Vol. 4, published in Nov. 2011.

You can get these books from Amazon in the US, or from most quality bookstores I would hope. In India there is a plethora of choices. Several brick-and-mortar stores sell them, including Crosswords, Landmark, and Sapna Book House (in Bangalore). For online shopping, while Flipkart continues to offer amazing service and blazingly fast deliveries, their prices are no longer competitive for several books, and their discounts are substantially less than what other online stores offer. They are selling this fourth volume for Rs 50915% discount. However, IndiaPlaza is selling the book at a whopping 40% discount, for Rs 359 - truly a bargain. The fourth volume has seen a INR 50 increase in price over the previous volumes, with a list price of Rs 600.

Vol. 4 Kindle Excerpt:

Mahabharata, Vol. 1
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My review on

Mahabharata, Vol. 2
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My blog post
My review on

 Mahabharata, Vol. 3
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My blog post
My review on Amazon 

© 2012, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.