Sunday, October 13, 2013

Mahabharata Ch 41-50, Adi Parva, Astika Parva

[Ch 36-40 « Ch 41-50  » Ch 51-60]
Parva:Adi; Upa-parva:Astika; Chapter:41; Shlokas:30
The story now returned to Jaratkaru. He had been constantly on the move, "having adopted the vow of sleeping at night wherever he happened to find himself in the evening." Thus one day he came upon his ancestors, in a cave, hanging upside down, "hanging on to a single thread of grass" and even "that single strand was being eaten away by a rat that lived in the cave." A distressed Jaratkaru asked these "wretched ones" who they were and if he could help them, by giving a quarter, a half, or even all his austerities. The ancestors replied that they were in this state because of austerities. They "were descending into this hell because of lack of offspring." They said that they were rishis named "yayavaras". The single strand that bound them and prevented them from falling headlong into the cave was the last one in their lineage, someone named Jaratkaru, but who "in his greed for austerities, ... had reduced us to this state."
"This single strand of grass that you see, the one from which we are hanging, is the strand of our family lineage. O Brahmana! The strands that you see being eaten up, are being eaten up by time. O Brahmana! The half-eaten root from which we are all hanging is the last of our lineage, practicing austerities. O Brahmana! The rat that you see is time, immensely powerful. He is slowly killing the misguided Jaratkaru, engaged in austerities, who is greedy for austerities, but has lost his mind and senses."
The ancestors then said that it was the view of the learned that "austerities, sacrifices and other sacred and great acts are inferior to obtaining offspring", and asked Jaratkaru to give Jaratkaru (since they didn't know that the brahmana in front of him was Jaratkaru himself) this message.

[This is somewhat of a repetition, since this story of Jaratkaru's encounter with his ancestors has been recounted in Ch 13.
The frequent use of analogies in the Mahabharata can be witnessed here also - how time is shown as a rat nibbling away at the lineage - represented by roots.]

Parva:Adi; Upa-parva:Astika; Chapter:42; Shlokas:20

A shaken Jaratkaru told his ancestors that he was their "evil" son. When asked why he hadn't married, he replied that it had been his intention to carry his seed inside his body and to "take this entire body to the next world." He then said that he would take a wife, but the conditions were that she bore the same name as his, came to him "of her own volition", was given to him as alms, and whom he would "not have to maintain." With so many conditions, it was but inevitable that "[T]hough he grew old, he could not find a wife." An old and distraught Jaratkaru one day went to a forest and lamented that he "was looking for a maiden as alms." The snakes that had been deputed to keep an eye on Jaratkary "took this news about his intentions to Vasuki."

Upon hearing this, Vasuki immediately went to the forest with his sister, and offered her to Jaratkaru. Jaratkaru, ever suspicious, did not immediately accept, and "asked Vasuki for the maiden's name and said that he would not support her."

[In Ch 13, when Jaratkaru asks for a wife when in the forest, he does so "in a faint voice"!
While Jaratkaru states his reasons for not marrying, and he then agrees to take a wife for the sake of his ancestors, his placing so many conditions for marriage seem to indicate continuing ambivalence towards marriage.]

Parva:Adi; Upa-parva:Astika; Chapter:43; Shlokas:39

Souti continued the story. Vasuki then told Jaratkaru that the maiden's name was Jaratkaru, she was his - Vasuki's - sister, an ascetic, and that Vasuki would support and protect her. Jaratkaru then accepted Vasuki's sister as his wife. He laid down one condition with his wife - that she never do anything to displease him. If she did, he would leave her. "In great anxiety and great sorrow, the sister of the king of snakes agreed" and served her "husband with the dedication of a white crow." ("Shvetakakiya. This is an unhappy translation, though white crow is right. However, the sense is that the dedication has the watchfulness of a dog, the timidity of a deer and the instinct of a crow.")

In due course of time, she conceived a child.

One day, Jaratkaru "fell asleep with his head in his wife's lap". The sun started to set, and this worried his wife, who was now caught in a dilemma. If she woke up Jaratkaru, he would certainly be angry. However, if she let him sleep, the time for evening prayers would pass, and that, in her opinion, was the greater evil. She gently spoke to Jaratkaru, asking him to wake up and to make the offerings to the sacrificial fire. Jaratkaru woke up, angry, "his lips quivering with anger", and said that he had been insulted, and that he would leave.
"If I am asleep, I know for certain that the sun does not have the power to set."
Much as Jaratkaru pleaded, Jaratkaru had made up his mind to leave.
"Her mouth was dry. Her eyes were full of tears. Her voice choked with sobs. Her heart trembled."
She told him that she was innocent and that it was nor proper of him to so leave her. She also told him that her purpose - to obtain a son who would save the nagas from the snake sacrifice - was not yet complete. Jaratkaru then told her that the "one in your womb" would become a great rishi. Jaratkaru then went away.

[It is difficult to see Jaratkaru the husband in a sympathetic light.]

Parva:Adi; Upa-parva:Astika; Chapter:44; Shlokas:22

Jaratkaru then went back to her brother and told him this "unpleasant news". Vasuki consoled his sister, and then asked her whether the purpose for which she had been given to Jaratkaru. Even though he realized it was "not appropriate that I should ask you a question on such a subject", Vasuki had to know from his sister. Jaratkaru replied that he - Jaratkaru - had indeed said "it is there". Vasuki then "worshipped his sister with kindness", and the "immensely radiant embryo grew in her womb like the luminiscent sun, like the moon waxing in the sky during shuklapaksha", and in due course she gave birth to a child who was named Astika. He was so named because "while he was still in his mother's womb, his father went away to the forest, saying asti". ("Asti can be translated as 'it is there'. Jaratkaru meant that an embryo was there in the womb.")

Parva:Adi; Upa-parva:Astika; Chapter:45; Shlokas:28

Shounaka then asked (Souti) what had King Janamejaya asked his ministers about his father's death ("ascent to heaven"). Souti replied that Janaejaya asked his ministers to tell him in "complete detail" what had happened to his father. The ministers started to tell Janamejaya about Parikshit, that he had been Sharadvat's disciple, that Govinda had loved him, and that he had been born in "Uttara's womb when the Kuru lineage was almost destroyed" ("Parikshina means to become weak, thin, lean, emaciated. Since this is what had happened to the Kuru lineage, he came to be known as Parikshit"). Parikshit was a wise king who had conquered the six vices ("kama (desire), krodha (anger), lobha (greed), mada (ego), moha (delusion), and matsarya (envy)").

The ministers then told Parikshit that his father had always been "addicted to hunting, like the greatly fortunate warrior and great archer, Pandu. He handed over all matters concerning the running of the kingdom to us." It was thus that a "sixty years old" Parikshit had that fateful encounter in the forest with Shringi's father.

[Sharadvata would be Kripa. It is possible that Kripa could have been Parikshit's guru, but unlikely given his age, since Kripa was Kripi's brother, and Drona's brother-in-law, and would have been in his late eighties or nineties by the time Parikshit would have come of age.
On the one hand, Parikshit is said to have conquered the six vices - which does not seem to be the case when he encountered a silent Shringi's father, and on the other hand he was addicted to hunting. So, he was very much not in complete control of at least two vices - krodha and lobha.
Also note how a vice - love of hunting - brought about the downfall of two Kuru kings: Pandu and three generations later, Parikshit.]

Parva:Adi; Upa-parva:Astika; Chapter:46; Shlokas:41

The ministers continued the story, and told Janamejaya that the person his father, Parikshit, had insulted had been a great sage, and how Shringi - the sage's son, and who "had been born from a cow" - had cursed the king in anger, and how his father had sent this message to Parikshit, asking him to be prepared. The ministers then said that Parikshit had taken all precautions, and on the seventh day, brahmarishi Kashyapa had been intercepted by Takshaka, and been sent away with riches, and how Takshaka had then disguised himself and gone and burnt Parikshit with his poison.

Janamejaya now wanted to know how the ministers had come to know of this encounter between Kashyapa and Takshaka, and who had been its witness. The ministers said that a man had climbed up a tree, "looking for dry twigs that could be used as kindling", and that he was unseen by both Takshaka and Kashyapa. This was the same tree that Takshaka burned down, with the person, and was revived when Kashyapa restored the tree. This man then came into the city and told the ministers the story.

Janamejaya was distraught on hearing this story, and decided that Takshaka had been the most at fault, since he also prevented Kashyapa from going to Hastinapura. Janamejaya decided his father had to "be avenged, to bring great pleasure to me, Utanka and all of you."

[We learn that Shringi had been born from a cow. This story however is not recounted.
Note Janamejaya's insistence of verifying the facts before deciding what to do. The critical act in this sequence of events was Takshaka bribing Kashyapa, and the veracity of that event is what Janamejaya wanted to establish. 
Utanka's name makes a brief appearance, in the last shloka of this chapter. ]

Parva:Adi; Upa-parva:Astika; Chapter:47; Shlokas:25

Janamejaya took an oath to undertake a snake-sacrifice. He called his "priest and officiating priests" and asked them if they knew of a sacrifice "whereby the snake Takshaka and his relatives" could be "hurled into the blazing fire?" The priests replied that there was indeed such a sacrifice, known as the snake-sacrifice. The king ordered the priests to "collect the required ingredients" for the sacrifice.

The priests measured out a piece of land for the sacrifice.

However, when the sacrificial platform was being built, a suta, "extremely wise", "skilled in the knowledge of architecture", and also a bard, said that the "land on which the platform was constructed and the time at which it was measured indicate that this sacrifice will not be completed. A Brahmana will be the cause." The king ordered that "no one should be allowed entry without his knowledge."

The snake sacrifice started, with the priests dressed in black and with their eyes "red from the smoke". Soon enough, the snakes started dropping into the "blazing flames, wretched and screaming piteously at each other", in large numbers.

[It is not very clear why there is a mention of the suta who forewarns the disruption of the snake-sacrifice. Perhaps it is to bring into context the king's decision to bar anyone from entering till the sacrifice continued.]

Parva:Adi; Upa-parva:Astika; Chapter:48; Shlokas:26

Shounaka now wanted to know from Souti who were the rishis "who acted as sacrificial priests" at this sacrifice. Souti answered who were the ritvijas at the sacrifice.
"The hotar was the Brahmana Chandabhargava, who was born in Chyavana's lineage... The wise and old Brahmana Koutsarya Jaimini was the udgatar. Sharngarava was the brahmana and Bodhapingala was the adhvaryu. ("Usually, there were four types of ritvijas - hotar (one who recited prayers, identified with the Rig Veda), udgatar (one who chanted or sang prayers, identified with Sama Veda), adhvaryu (one who officiated, identified with Yajur Veda) and brahman (chief priest, identified with Atharva Veda)")
At this sacrifice, Vyasa was a "sadasya", along with his sons and disciples.

The "fat and marrow of the snakes thus burnt in the sacrificial fire and flowed like rivers...".

A worried Takshaka went to Purandara, confessed his sin, and "fearfully sought refuge." Indra told him that he had already "pacified the grandfather (Brahma)" and that Takshaka had nothing to fear. A reassured Takshaka stayed at Shakra's (Indra) palace.

However, Vasuki was much distressed at this diminishing of his lineage, and pleased with his sister Jaratkaru to save him and their race.

[This is the first chapter in which it is mentioned that Vyasa was actually present at the sacrifice, but only in an assistive capacity. There may be some doubt whether this Vyasa is Krishna Dvaipayana, but seems unlikely this is some other Vyasa.]

Parva:Adi; Upa-parva:Astika; Chapter:49; Shlokas:28

Jaratkaru then called her son Astika and asked him to do what was necessary to save them. Astika asked his mother to describe all in detail, including why she had been given to his father, so that he could then "do what is necessary." Jaratkaru told Astika the story, starting with Kadru's cursing her snake sons.

Astika agreed and told his uncle Vasuki that he would do what was required. He proceeded to the sacrificial grounds, but was barred entry by the gatekeepers. Astika then started to praise the sacrifice.

Parva:Adi; Upa-parva:Astika; Chapter:50; Shlokas:17

Astika praised the sacrifice as in now way inferior to Varuna's and Prajapati's sacrifices. He praised it as equal to one hundred of Shakra's sacrifices. He compared it to the sacrifices of Satyavati's son, Krishna Dvaipayana, Yudhishtra, Ram, Gaya, King Vaishravana, and others. He compared Janaejaya to Dilipa, Nabhaga, Bhishma, Valmiki, Vasishtha, Yama, Krishna and others in various qualities.

This pleased the king, queen, sadasyas, and others. Pleased, Janaejaya spoke.

[The purpose of this long speech by Astika was not only meant to praise Janamejaya, and thus gain entry into the sacrificial hall, but to also convey to the king that he, Astika, was a learned person who was praising the king.]

These chapter summaries are based on the unabridged translation of the Mahabharata done by Dr Bibek Debroy, and published by Penguin Books India, and which I have been reviewing on my blog. The Sanskrit shlokas are from the electronic text of the Mahabharata - based on John Smith's revision of Prof. Muneo Tokunaga's version of the Mahabharata Critical Edition of the text from and copyright of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute.

© 2013, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.