Sunday, June 17, 2012

Mahabharata Vol. 5, by Bibek Debroy - Part 1

Mahabharata, Vol. 5, translated by Bibek Debroy

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Amba and Shikhandi, and Bhishma - A Chapter, Begun in the Court of the King of Kashi, Will End on the Battlefield of Kurukshetra
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Review: Part 1
(Edited Oct 31, 2012)
First off, let’s go over what the fifth volume of the unabridged translation of the Mahabharata by Bibek Debroy covers. It contains sub-parvas sixty through sixty-six. It completes the Udyoga Parva (fifth Parva) with the "Amba Upakhyana" (or "Ambopakhyana") sub-Parva (60th sub-Parva).  It contains the entire "Bhishma" Parva (sixth parva), which in turns contains the "Jambukhanda-Vinirmana", "Bhumi", "Bhagavad Gita", and "Bhishma Vadha" sub-Parvas. Volume 5 begins the "Drona" Parva (seventh parva), and within it contains the "Dronabhisheka" and "Samshaptaka-vadha" Parvas (sixty-fifth and sixty-sixth sub-parvas, respectively). This volume therefore covers the first 10 days of the Mahabharata war on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. The only major warrior to fall in the first ten days is Bhishma. Fittingly enough, the volume begins with the story of Amba, the eldest daughter of the king of Kashi, and how she was reborn as Shikhandi, and how she turned into a man, permanently. The word ‘permanently’ is pertinent, as I will explain. Amba, reborn as Shikhandi, was responsible for Bhishma's death on the battlefield.

There are two tales, a sermon, and ten days of war described in this volume. And oh yes, more death and gore than you can count.

Once the battle has begun, I was treated, in a manner of speaking, to some gory descriptions of the carnage wrought by the war and by warriors like Bhima. Some of the passages however became repetitive, and after some time I found it difficult to distinguish one day’s battle from the other. The descriptions of the days’ battles take up a bulk of the book, and each day’s battle is described in two-three chapters. While there is no hard and fast rule followed, you will however find that one chapter describes the beginning of the day and the battle, while a second chapter will describe the battle till afternoon, while the third chapter will take us through the end of the day’s battle. There are descriptions of vyuhas designed by the commanders of the Kuru and Pandava armies, but what significance they have on the outcome of that day’s battle is also not clear. We know that the chakra vyuha on the thirteenth day will prove to be fatal to Abhimanyu, but that’s only on one day.

Let us look at the two principal stories that are described on the eve of the war, in the "Amba Upakhyana" (or "Ambopakhyana") sub-parva. As I had written, Vol, 4 ended on the tantalizing note of Bhishma about to begin why he would not attack or kill Shikhandi.

Before we can hear Shikhandi’s story, we need to know Amba’s tragic story.

The only reason why Amba, the eldest daughter of the King of Kashi, was rejected by Shalva seems to be ego. Shalva could not bear to see the woman he loved be carried off by another, even as he felt himself powerless to fight the mighty Bhishma. The short of it is that Bhishma had gone to the king of Kashi, where the king's three daughters were being offered for marriage as "viryashulka" (and not in a swaymvar, as is mistakenly thought; the concept of viryashulka itself is less than wholesome to my mind), put them on his chariot, defeated the gathered princes and kings, and brought them to Hastinapur for marriage to his step-brother Vichitravirya, son of Satyavati. Amba however wanted to marry Shalva, and Bhishma agreed, sending her to Shalva, accompanied by maids and brahmanas. Shalva however was an angry, defeated, petulant, and frustrated man. He took out his frustration on Amba, and refused to marry her. "You were won by Bhishma and seemed to be delighted then." No amount of persuading or pleading by Amba worked, and Shalva abandoned Amba, "the way a snake discards its old skin." He did however, at the end of Chapter 835, admit the reason behind his rejection - "I am frightened of Bhishma. You are Bhishma's property." That is neither a chivalrous nor a very decent attitude to take. Nonetheless, it is what he did, and Amba was all alone and confused. In frustration, she blamed Bhishma, her father ("whose intelligence is foolish"), herself, Shalva, and even the creator. She was then advised by brahmans against staying on in the forest ("On seeing you alone in this deserted and dense forest, kings will solicit you"), and nor did she want to back to her father ("I will be disrespected by my relatives"). Eventually, a learned brahmana, Hotravahana, advised her to go see the great Parashurama. After listening to Amba, Akritavrana, Parashurama's follower, asked her to clarify what she wanted of Parashurama - Shalva to be asked to take her back, or Bhishma to be vanquished. One course of action would have been to right a wrong, the other to avenge a wrong.

Parashurama was reluctant to take up arms, saying, "But I cannot take up weapons in any way, unless I am instructed to do so by brahamans. That is my resolution." Amba and Akritavrana argued back and forth with Rama (Parashurama). Finally, Parashurama agreed, but not to do outright battle against Bhishma if it could be avoided. He wanted to first try and persuade Bhishma, but was also clear that should Bhishma not agree to his request, he would slay Bhishma - "... I will kill that insolent person. The arrows that I unleash do not remain in bodies." Irresistible force.

Bhishma was in a dilemma because Parashurama had also been his teacher, his guru, "... you yourself taught me the four kinds of weapons." The four kinds of weapons, Bibek Debroy, the translator, tells us are "mukta", "amukta", "mukta-amukta", and "yantra-mukta" (it's quite an intelligent taxonomy when you read about it in the footnote). A guru therefore cannot be killed. "...I cannot kill a preceptor in battle, especially one who is a brahamana..." Bhishma however also had to face the realty that Parashurama was promising to vanquish him in battle. His kshatriya dharma was clear. "If one sees a brahmana with an upraised weapon ... dharma is clear that no sin is committed from killing a brahmana."  And he was also quite self-assured, some may say arrogant, about his prowess. "You have often boasted in assemblies that you have exterminated kshatriyas from the world. But listen to my words. At that time, Bhishma had not been born and there were no kshatriyas like me." Immovable object.

After several days of fierce battle between the two, Bhishma one night prayed that he may find a way to defeat Parashurama. Early in the morning brahmanas come to him in his sleep and advise him to use the "Prajapatya" weapon, also known as "prasvapan", created by Vishwakarma, and which could put anyone to sleep. Note that a similar weapon, by a different name, was used by Arjuna against the Kurus during the Go-Harana episode. The next day, as Bhishma got ready and aimed that weapon at Parashurama, the celestial sage Narada appeared before him and advised him not to discharge the prasvapan weapon. Bhishma acceded, and accordingly withdrew the weapon. Parashurama considered that to be his defeat, since, Bibek Debroy, the translator, writes in a footnote, "Bhishma had voluntarily withdrawn the weapon and in a way, Parashurama had been defeated."

Left without any possibility of anyone defeating Bhishma now, since even the mighty Parashurama had failed, Amba performed terrible austerities for twelve years, and finally Shiva appeared before her. He told her that she would be born as "a maharatha in Drupada's lineage."
Upon hearing this, Amba could wait no longer, and made "an extremely large funeral pyre and set fire to it." The text brings out very vividly the terrible nature of the hatred that Amba harboured against Bhishma - "When the fire was blazing, with rage igniting her senses, she said, 'This is for Bhishma's destruction.'" and "entered the fire." The fire of vengeance that had been burning inside Amba for more than a decade now culminated in literally consuming her. And thus ended one chapter.

The tale of Shikhandi is an equally painful one, though not one with such a fiery end. Shikhandi was Amba, reborn as Drupada's daughter. Why Drupada wanted a son who would kill Bhishma is not clear. Perhaps, as some translations have suggested, he wanted to wreak vengeance not only on Drona, but also on Bhishma. After all, it was Bhishma, the patriarch of the Kurus, who had appointed Drona as the guru of the Kuru princes, and therefore could have been seen by Drupada as also culpable. It is another matter that all three of Drupada's children, Shikhandi, Dhrishtadhyumna, and Draupadi, end up living fairly tragic lives.

Lord Shiva, also known as "Shambhu", granted the boon of a son to Drupada, but not in a straightforward way. Why Lord Shiva chose the circuitous way of granting Drupada’s wish is not clear. He told Drupada that he would have a daughter who would later turn into a man. After a daughter was born to Drupada's queen, Drupada had it proclaimed that "A son has been born to me." and also "... concealed the facts and had all the rites performed for a son, as if he had a son." Perhaps Drupada had hoped that the daughter would turn into a man shortly after birth. That did not happen, and the girl came of age. Drupada decided to get her married, to a woman - such was the desperation of the man - the daughter of the lord of Dasharna. One wonders just how did Drupada think the fact of Shikhandi's gender would remain hidden, especially after her marriage! And find out the truth did her wife. One can imagine the anger of King Hiranyavarma at this terrible deception. He promised to "kill King Drupada, together with Shikhandi."

It is perhaps fitting that the Mahabharata allude to Drupada's character in this episode, when it says, "King Drupada was timid by nature. In addition, the lord of men was guilty." Guilty of deception. He approached his queen for help, who sought somewhat to take the blame upon herself. When Shikhandi learned of these troubles his parents were facing, she "was overcome with grief" and "made up her mind to kill herself" and left the capital of Panchala (now modern day Aligarh) for a "deep and deserted forest." There a yaksha named Sthunakarna took pity on her, and in a most extraordinary act of generosity, offered this exchange - "For a limited period of time, I will give you my male organ. But I tell you truthfully that when the time is over, you must return to me. ... I will bear your female organs." Shikhandi agreed - "When King Hemavarma has returned to Dasharna, I will become a maiden again and you will become a man." And thus was Shikhandi able to help out his father and also pacify his father-in-law. This exchange, however, was temporary, right? Did it become permanent? Yes. It did. It so happened that one day Kubera, the god of wealth, came by Sthuna's residence. Kubera was incensed on hearing what had happened, and cursed Sthuna, ".. you have committed an act that has never been done before. Therefore, from now on, you will be a woman and not a man." The only concession he offered was that "When Shikhandi has been killed in battle, the yaksha Sthuna will regain his old form."

And so it came to pass that Bhishma told Duryodhana why he would "not shoot arrows at a woman, one who had earlier been a woman, one who has the name of a woman and one who has the form of a woman."

Duryodhana then asked Bhishma and others how much time they would need to destroy the Pandava army. Bhishma and Drona both estimated one month, while Kripa estimated it would take him two months. Ashwatthama estimated ten nights, while Karna thought he could decimate the Pandava army in only five nights. This elicited a scornful retort from Bhishma, "You are capable of saying a lot and saying anything that you want."

Thus ends Udyoga Parva.
And begins Bhishma Parva.

I had thought of putting up the entire review in one post. That proved to be difficult for two reasons. The first is that I have not yet finished reading Volume 5, and it is already Sunday night. I wanted to put up a review this weekend. If I did not, I would have to wait till the next weekend to do so, or longer. A partial review, that stopped at some logical point, would have to suffice for this weekend. Second, Bhishma Parva contains the Bhagvad Gita parva, which I do not want to include as a section in a review. Far be it from me to claim that I will be able to understand the Gita, but I do want to reserve some blog posts exclusively for that.

There you go.

Bibek Debroy, the translator, is an economist with a difference. 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 fifth volume, five volumes have been released, with each volume appearing roughly every six months, the most recent one, Vol. 5, published in June 2012. The sixth one, the author informed, has been completed, and is scheduled for publication in November 2012.

Disclosure: I received this fifth volume of the Mahabharata translation ex-gratis from Penguin Publishers India, due in no small part to the translator, Dr. Bibek Debroy, who read my reviews and was kind enough to appreciate them.

Book Details:
Publisher: Penguin
No. of Pages: 632
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Publishing Date: 2012

Vol. 5 Kindle Excerpt:

Mahabharata, Vol. 4
Amazon, Kindle, India PlazaFlipkart
My blog post
My review on Amazon

© 2012, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.