Monday, June 25, 2012

Mahabharata Vol. 5, by Bibek Debroy - Part 2

Mahabharata, Vol. 5, translated by Bibek Debroy 

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Peace Runs Through a River of Gore and Blood

Review, Part 2 (Part 1)
(Updated Oct 31, 2012)

This is the second part of my review of Vol 5 of the Mahabharata, translated by Bibek Debroy. The first part of my review covered the Amba Upakhyana Parva, and ended with the transformation, a permanent one, of Shikhandi from a woman to a man, thus fulfilling the first part of Shiva's boon to Drupada, of having a daughter who  would later turn into a man.

Bhishma Parva is notable for three reasons. The first is that the proper war at Kurukshetra begins in this parva. Second, Krishna’s sermon to Arjuna, Bhagvada Gita, is contained in this parva. Thirdly, this is the first parva where descriptions of war are described in the most gruesome of terms. There is a hint of the terrible effects of war in the Khandava-dahana parva, but this parva excises none of the horrors of war. The parva begins with the warring sides agreeing to the rules of the war. By the time the eighteen days ended, every single rule would end up being broken, either by the Pandavas or the Kauravas. Some accuse the Pandavas of being the first to break the rules of war, by fielding the once-woman Shikandi against Bhishma, while others accuse the Kauravas of breaking the rules of war, when seven warriors ganged up on the lone Abhimanyu.
"Those who engaged in a war of words would be countered with words. Those who had withdrawn from the midst of battle would should not be killed under any circumstances. ... Any striking should be in accordance with appropriateness, valor, energy and age and after issuing a challenge had been issued. It should not be against one who was unsuspecting or distressed, or was engaged in fighting with another, or was distracted and retreating." [Jambukhanda-Vinirmana Parva]
Sage Vyasa offered divine sight to Dhritarashtra so he may witness the battle, but the King refused. Sanjaya instead was bestowed with the divine sight. The sage delivered some plain talking to the blind king, Dhritarashtra - "Death himself has been born in the form of your son" alluding to Duryodhana.

There are several shlokas that follow that describe the island of Sudarshana, which seem out of place in the narrative, and are also "... difficult to understand" as Bibek Debroy notes. Similarly, Bhumi Parva seems incongruous, and can be skipped over without losing context.

The Bhagavad Gita Parva (sixty-third sub-parva, and the third parva in the Bhishma Parva) does not begin with one of the most recognizable shlokas of all, "dharmakshetrey kurukshetrey, samaveta yuyutsavah... ." Instead, we are told that Sanjaya rushed from the battlefield to Dhritarashtra to inform him that Bhishma had fallen in battle. We can therefore surmise that this would have been on the night of the tenth day, or perhaps on the morning of the eleventh day of battle. Or maybe not, because Sanjaya goes on to mention the end of Drona later on, as he starts to recount the eleventh day of battle. It is not clear, at least to me, at this point, when exactly Sanjaya returned to Hastinapur. Dhritarashtra is shocked and grief-stricken, and wants to know about the battle.
Thus begins Sanjaya's description of the battle.

In chapter 877 we get to read about the standards of some of the warriors in the battle. Bhishma's, for instance, had "a large palm tree with five stars", while Drona's "had a golden altar ... adorned with a water pot and the sign of a bow". Duryodhana "had a bejewelled elephant", while Jayadratha had "a beautful silver standard, marked with the sign of a boar."

It is chapter 883 that sees the beginning of the Bhagavad Gita, with these words, "Dhritarashtra asked, "O Sanjay! Having gathered on the holy plains of Kurukshetra, wanting to fight, what did my son and sons of Pandu do?"
I will leave out the Gita from this review, except to draw attention to a couple of points. The first is that the Gita translation in this volume is more than a translation. While Bibek Debroy adds footnotes on several pages in the translation, sometimes to clarify, sometimes to add an explanatory note, or sometimes to point out an inconsistency or perhaps error in the Critical Edition, these are relatively sparse. In the Gita however, the footnotes are copious. There are pages where the footnotes take up more space than the translation itself. To call these chapters a translation would be incomplete. I would rather describe them more as an "annotated translation".
The second point is that it is not a straightforward case of an annotated translation either. There are several footnotes where Bibek Debroy makes us aware of, or draws attention to, the fact that while the Gita itself may be the spoken words of the Lord, they do have a subtext, a context, to them that we should be aware of. For instance, one footnote, #157 to be precise, notes, "The expression without finding fault is significant. There must therefore have been opposition to this view or teaching. For instance, there was the school of sannyasa or renunciation, which advocated the giving up of all action."
In some ways, Vol. 5 can be read only for this annotated translation of the Gita.

After the Bhagavad Gita parva begins the Bhishma Vadha sub-parva. This is a long parva, and describes the first ten days of the battle. It contains close to 4000 shlokas. While this parva has vivid and detailed descriptions of the battle, brutally frank at times, especially when describing the mayhem that takes place, these descriptions are are also sometimes repetitive. It is somewhat difficult to get an estimate of the relative strengths of the two armies as the days progressed. We are however told of which army had the better measure of the other at the end of each day, with some exceptions.

Before the proper war could begin, Yudhishtra "removed his armour and cast aside his supreme weapons" and proceeded on foot towards the Kaurava army, which brought cries of alarm from his brothers and the Pandava camp, and shouts of derision from the Kaurava army. Yudhishtra however was seeking blessings from his elders, and more importantly, and cunningly perhaps? asking some key questions. "We are inviting you to fight with us. O father! Grant us the permission. Give us the blessings."

Bhishma's anguish at having to fight on the side of the Kaurava army wass evident as he lamented, "The Kouravyas have robbed me through wealth."
The question that Yudhishtra asked Bhishma was, "How can an enemy kill you in battle", while he asked Drona, "How can we vanquish you in battle?" Bhishma was not in the mood to oblige, just yet, and he brushed off Yudhishstra, saying "I do not see anyone who can defeat me in battle. The time for my death has not arrived. Come to me again later." Drona was more helpful, "As long as I am fighting in battle, you cannot be victorious. ... Except when I am ready for death and have withdrawn myself from weapons and my senses, no warrior can kill me in battle." Vol. 6 will reveal the details of how an elephant came to be killed, how Dharmaraja came to utter a lie, temporarily discarded his dharma, and how the guru came to lay down his weapons.

Krishna once again appealed to Karna, Radheya, "Until Bhishma has been killed, come over to our side. O Radheya! If you perceive both sides to be equal, after Bhishma has been killed, go fight again and help Dhritarashtra's son." Krishna perhaps perceived that Karna would be burning up at the thought of not taking part in the battle. The prospect of fighting alongside Arjuna would have been too much for Karna however. Karna was anyway not a mercenary of sorts that he would have cared for fighting for the sake of fighting. Karna anyway, as we all know, refused.

As the fighting begins, so do the killings. As the killings happen, accounts of sufferings also arise. As you read this parva, it also disabuses you of any notion of war as an antiseptic, sanitized affair, settled with the discharge of celestial weapons fired from afar that bring down soldiers from either army. No. The gore and horrors of war are brought in such vivid terms that it would be a rare soul who will read these chapters and not feel revolted by war. To that extent the war comes off as a terrible price to pay for peace, as it should.
"Driven by the desire to kill, the warriors could not distinguish between their own and those of the enemy. ... the men called loudly for their relatives, their sons, fathers, brothers and kin, their maternal uncles and nephews. In that field of battle, some others called for others. ... Their thighs were broken and their hands and arms torn apart. Their sides were shattered. Some were still alive and could be screaming from thirst. ... With the heads sliced off, some supreme among men still stood, with their bows raised and holding weapons."

Arjuna, when not fighting Bhishma, is a terrible sight to behold, and the destruction he wreaks is terrifying.
"Kiriti made an extremely terrible river flow on the field of battle. The blood was the bodies of men wounded by weapons. The foam was human fat. Its expanse was broad and it flowed swiftly. The banks were formed by the dead bodies of elephants and horses. The mud was the entrails, marrow and flesh of men. ... The moss was formed by heads, with their hair attached. ... The bones of men, horses and elephants were the stones. A large number of crows, jackals, vultures and herons and many predatory beasts like hyenas were seen to line up along its banks."

Dhritarashtra, as he listened to the account of the battle from Sanjaya, sometimes despaired, sometimes accused Sanjay of being partial in his account of the battle. Either way, he remained stubbornly steadfast in refusing to accept the karmic cause of this terrible battle. He is, in some ways, the antithesis of Krishna. "It is my view that destiny is superior to human endeavour" - he repeats often.
"You always tell me that the Pandavas are not being killed and are happy. O Sanjaya! You tell me that those on my side are devoid of manliness and have fallen down, or are falling down, or are being killed. ... I do not see any means whereby the Pandvas may decay and those on my side are able to obtain victory in this battle."

"Such a preparation on earth has never been seen before, by men, or by the immensely fortunate and ancient rishis. ... It they should be killed in battle, how can that be anything other than destiny?"

Sanjay, on his part, kept reminding his king as to where the blame truly lay, and that fate was not to be blamed for this massacre. "Nothing was accomplished because of mantras and nothing was caused by maya." "It is because of your own sins that you have confronted this calamity."

Yudhishtra is Dharmaraja, but as I read Vol. 5, yet the sight of reversals gets him ruffled. He wants victory, but doesn’t seem to trust Arjuna to have the heart to do what is required to achieve it. A conflicted soul.
After the end of battle on the first day, where Bhishma had had the better of the Pandava army, Yudhishtra lamented to Krishna, "He consumes my soldiers with his arrows, like a fire consumes dry grass. How can we possibly glance at the great-souled one? He is licking up my soldiers, like a fire fed with oblations. ... Without a boat, I am immersed in the fathomless waters of Bhishma."
And then, he vented some frustration at Arjuna also. "I see Savyasachi stationed in battle, as if he was a neutral spectator. Bhima alone remembers the dharma of khshatriyas." These were strong words from the eldest Pandava. It is not as if Yudhishtra was over-optimistic of their chances of victory either. Before the fighting began, he had been "overcome with grief" upon seeing the massive Kaurava army, to which Arjuna had replied and consoled his brother, "I do not see any reason for despondency. You have the lord of the universe and the lord of the thirty gods and because of this, you are assured of victory." At the end of the ninth day, when it was clear that Bhishma would soon destroy the entire Pandava army if left unchecked, Yudhishtra again lamented, and asked Krishna, "... tell me what I should do. O Keshava! But this should be without contravening my own dharma. ... O Madhava! As you had promised, help us, but without taking part in the fight.

Arjuna's heart seemed to be less than fully committed to the battle, as Yudhishtra had observed. Though he fought, he was less than effective against his grandsire, Bhishma. On Day 3, Bhishma had been in devastating form, and there was chaos in the Pandava army. Despite Krishna's exhortations to fight, Arjuna was "mild". "Krishna witnessed Bhishma's valour in the battle and saw the mildness with which the mighty-armed Arjuna countered him. ... Bhishma was killing the best of the best among the soldiers of Pandu's son. Bhishma was like the fire of destruction amidst Yudhishtra's army. The lord Keshava, the destroyer of enemy heroes, could not longer tolerate this."
Krishna decides to take matters into his own hands, literally. "I will kill Bhishma and his followers and Drona. ... I will kill all the sons of Dhritarashtra... Vasudeva's son discarded the reins of the chariot and raised the chakra in his hand." Though Bhishma welcomed the lord, Arjuna tried to restrain Krishna. Such wass Krishna's strength and anger, that "Vishnu dragged Jishnu after him with great force. ... Partha forcibly grasped him by the feet. O king! Thus grasping him with force, Kirit succeeded in stopping him at the tenth step." It is interesting that this show of anger from Krishna did not have its effect on Arjuna for long. On the ninth day, less than a week later, the same drama repeated itself, in almost identical fashion.

Bhima alone was the warrior who approached this war with a clear mind, free from doubt and confusion. He set about methodically destroying the Kaurava army.
"He killed some with his legs. He brought down others and pressed them down. He beheaded some with his sword and frightened others with his roars. The force of his thighs brought others down on the ground. Others fled on seeing him, dying out of terror. ...
We saw dead elephants strewn along whichever path Bhimasena took, like mountains. ...
His body was smeared with fat, blood, lard and marrow. Vrikodara whirled his club, drenched with the blood of elephants. He seemed to be as terrible as Pinaki, the weilder of Pinaka."
On Day 6, Bhima, leaving his charioteer Vishoka behind, "descended from his chariot and grasped a club. With this, he began to kill the soldiers of the sons of Dhritarashtra, which was like a great ocean." In some ways, I am more inclined to think of Bhima as the true karmayogi in the battle.

Duryodhana is dismayed that his eleven akshaunis and the mighty warriors in his army were unable to get the better of the smaller Pandava army. He coaxed, chided, and remonstrated with the commander of the army, Bhishma, almost every single day of the battle. 
On the night of the eighth day of battle however, Duryodhana could take it no longer. He consulted Karna, Shakuni, and Duhshasana. Karna suggested that "Let Bhishma, Shantanu's son, withdraw from this great battle. ... I will kill the Parthas." Bhishma was naturally pained at this suggestion, and "Overcome with grief and anger, he thought for a long time." Bhishma resolved to "kill all the assembled Somakas and the Panchalas", except Shikhandi. Duryodhana asks his brother to make sure that Bhishma was adequately protected from Shikhandi, lest "Shikhandi not be like a wolf that kills a tiger."

On the night of the ninth day, Yudhishtra and others approached Bhishma, who himself told them the way to remove him from battle. Now that it had been decided that the tenth day of battle would see Shikhandi fight in front of Arjuna, and that the decisive battle with Bhishma would take place, Arjuna "was tormented by grief" He asked Vasudeva, "As a child, I used to play with the great-minded one. .. I used to sully the great-souled one's garments with the dust on my body, when I used to climb onto his lap as a child." A heartbreaking moment for Arjuna.

On the tenth day, as Shikhandi advanced towards Bhishma, and showered him with arrows, Bhishma did not retaliate. "Gangeya glanced at Shikhandi with anger blazing in his eyes. ... He seemed to burn him down the look in his eyes."

Despite all the fighting, it was only towards the end of the tenth day of battle that Bhishma finally fell, not to Shikhandi, but to Arjuna's arrows. He spoke to Duhshasana, "They have been shot in a continuous stream. These cannot be Shikandi's arrows. They have penetrated my firm armour and have mangled my inner organs. They have struck me with the force of clubs. These cannot be Shikandi's arrows. ... These are Arjuna's arrows. These cannot be Shikandi's arrows."

On the night of the tenth day, there was a stream of visitors to the fallen Bhishma. One of them was Karna. Bhishma told Karna of his parentage, "You are a Kounteya. You are not a Radheya. I have known this from Narada and from Krishna Dvaipayana and Keshava. ... I have spoken harsh words towards you for the sake of reducing your energy. It is my view that you hated the Pandavas without any reason." How did Dhritarashta's react to this stunning piece of news. Remember that this is Sanjaya’s account of the battle to Dhritarashtra. Surely the blind king could not have been but affected by this news. One of the three pillars of Duryodhana, along with Duhshasana and Shakuni, Karna was the trunk of the tree that was Duryodhana. What did Dhritarashtra think of this event? We never do learn of Dhritarashtra’s reaction.

Drona took over as the commander of the Kaurava army after Bhishma fell. Karna also joined the Kaurava army. And the battle continued.

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 has been completed, and is scheduled for publication in November 2012.

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.

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
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© 2012, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.