Thursday, 11 September 2014

Dilemmas in Mahabharat

Sage Vyas, the author of Mahabharat, was such a master of his craft that the dilemmas and conundrums he has woven into the saga have brought modern readers at loggerheads with each other as passionately as the contending characters in the epic.

Obviously, Vyas doesn't merely want to tell a story but wants his readers to pause and ponder.

I must make it clear that here I intend to discuss only those dilemmas that are integral to the plot of the epic and not those debates among scholars which have not been raised as part of the plot by Vyas. For example, ‘Was Yudhishthir Vidur’s son?’ (Ref. Irawati Karve); ‘Was Karn Durvas’ son?’; ‘Was Vidur the eldest or youngest of the three brothers?’ (Ref. Indrajit Bandopadhyay) are speculations. In my humble opinion these scholars are confused about ‘what is hidden by some characters from other characters’ and ‘what is hidden by the author from the reader’.  If Yudhishtir were Vidur’s son by niyog or Karn was Kunti’s son from a pre-marital encounter with Durvas, what was there to prevent Vyas from narrating it to the reader, even if Kunti chose to hide it from the world?

The issues I have presented here have engendered much debate among the characters within the epic as well as among readers; some of these questions have answers in the epic itself, whereas we have to arrive at some answers by inference, and some don’t have a clear answer.
    1. Who was the real successor to the throne of Hastinapur – ‘Duryodhan or Yudhishthir?’
    2. ‘Did Kunti and Yudhishthir burn six persons in the house of lac at Varnavat?’
    3. Draupadi’s question in the gambling hall – ‘Did Yudhishthir lose himself first or did he lose Draupadi first?’
    4. Completion of the term of exile – ‘Did the Pandavs complete their term of exile and anonymity?’
    5. Yudhishthir’s untruth – ‘Man or Elephant?’

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Who was the real successor? Duryodhan or Yudhishthir?

The main conflict between the sons of two brothers in Mahabharat is built around a dilemma. Out of the two heirs of the deceased King Vichitraveerya, the elder Dhrutarashtra is blind, so the younger son Pandu is anointed King. The King retires to the woods and his elder brother is appointed Regent. The King’s tragic death in self-exile gives rise to the question – who of the two contenders should be appointed Crown Prince: Duryodhan, the eldest son of the elder brother who is only a Regent or Yudhishthir, the eldest son of the younger brother who was the King. To further complicate the situation, the eldest son of the younger brother is one year older than the eldest son of the elder brother.

This riddle causes a rift not only among the members of the Kuru dynasty, but also among the readers and scholars of Mahabharat. Some argue in favour of Duryodhan, the eldest son of the eldest brother, for apparently it was in keeping with the tradition existing then. This was Duryodhan’s own view too. While those in favour of Yudhishthir argue that Pandu and not Dhrutarashtra was ordained King and as his eldest son Yudhishthir was the rightful heir.
In this matter, however, an advice given to Duryodhan by Dhrutarashtra himself is of much interest. When Krishna, in an attempt to bring about reconciliation between the two sides goes to Hastinapur, Dhrutarashtra beseeches Duryodhan to follow Krishna’s advice. Dhrutarashtra narrates two instances from the past of the Kuru dynasty [Udyogparv, Section CXLIX]*. One of their ancestors Yayati had two sons – Yadu and Puru. Yayati did not ordain Yadu crown prince, though elder, since Yadu was arrogant and wicked. Yayati expelled Yadu from the kingdom (who then propagated the Yadav clan in which Krishna took birth after several generations) and the virtuous younger son Puru became the King of Hastinapur. Both the Kauravs and Pandavs belonged to Puru’s line. In the second instance that Dhrutarashtra recounts, his own grandfather King Shantanu was the youngest son of King Pratip. Pratip did not choose the eldest son Devapi as he suffered from a skin disease, and Shantanu ascended the throne. As readers of Mahabharat are aware, Bhishm was Shantanu’s son from Ganga and Chitrangad and Vichitraveerya from Satyavati.

Now that the question, ‘whether the second son’s line can continue if the elder son is unfit?,’ is  settled in the affirmative by precedence among the Kurus, the question needs to be answered – who among the two contenders was more suited to head the kingdom, Duryodhan or Yudhisthir? There are many who feel that Yudhishthir was better qualified as a leader. Within the epic itself such Kuru stalwarts as Bhishm and Vidur are of this opinion. However, this view is disputed by some scholars favouring Duryodhan; they argue that barring his wicked behaviour against the Pandavs, Duryodhan’s conduct was beyond reproach. During the thirteen long years of the Pandav’s exile and absence from Hastinapur, Duryodhan was the Crown Prince and his tenure in that capacity was unblemished.

It will be interesting to compare the conduct of both these aspirants to the throne of Hastinapur. Until the Pandavs arrived in Hastinapur from the Shatshrug Mountain, during the years the Pandavs ruled Indraprasth and after they were exiled on losing the gambling match, Duryodhan had no competition, he was assured of ascending the throne after his father. The kingdom had no enemies, his grandsire Bhishm and minister Vidur were capable statesmen and he had no worries on that count. It is only when persons face adversities that their true mettle is tested. And Duryodhan fails miserably when his position is challenged by the Pandav presence. All the base aspects of his personality come to the fore – the plot to assassinate Bheem by poisoning, the plot to burn the Pandavs alive at Varnavat, the intense jealousy on seeing the wealth of Indraprasth during the Rajsuya sacrifice of Yudhisthir, the cunning invitation for the gambling match and the subsequent insult to Draupadi reveal Duryondhan’s character.

Duryodhan outlines in no uncertain terms to his father the strategy of winning over citizens and kings to his side – appeasement and ingratiation. Here one may recall how he insinuated King Shalya of Madra to join his side by cunningly providing him with luxurious rest places while the latter was on his way to join Yudhishthir at Kurukshetra. Duryodhan tried to win over Krishna with the same tactics when Krishna arrived at Hastinapur for peace talks. Duryodhan had arranged banquet and expensive gifts, but his attempt turned futile when Krishna turned down his invitation. Yudhisthir’s method of winning allies was quite different. Before the battles began on Kurukshetra, Yudhishthir openly appealed to those from the Kaurav side to join the Pandavs if they thought his was a just cause. In response, Duryodhan’s half brother Yuyutsu left the Kaurav ranks and joined the Pandavs.

Duryodhan’s own mother Gandhari after censuring Dhrutarashtra in the presence of Krishna, several kings and sages present in the royal court, castigated Duryodhan. She calls Duryodhan ‘that kingdom-coveting, sick son of mine’, ‘of uncultivated heart’, ‘completely possessed by lust and wrath’, ‘doth not deserve to govern a kingdom’. [Udyogparv, CXXIX]*.

Yudhisthir’s character stands out in stark contrast. Yudhishthir treats all classes of citizens equally. Two incidents in the epic are worth noting in this regard. There is this incident during the prestigious Rajsuya sacrifice in Indraprasth, in which Yudhishthir invites the lowest ranked Shudras along with the Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas to participate in the Yadnya. The other incident is during the Pandav’s stay at Varnavat where the house of lac is built, Yudhishthir accepts invitations to visit their houses from all citizens irrespective of their standing in social hierarchy. Yudhishthir has been lauded by some scholars as ‘precursor of Ashoka’s tradition’ [Vyasaanche Shilp, Narahar Kurundkar].

As opposed to Duryon’s humiliating treatment of Draupadi, Yushishthir had the captured Kaurav women rescued from the Gandharvs during the Dwait lake incident, and he applauds and readily permits Yuyutsu (Dhrutarashtra’s sole surviving son) to safely escort the grieving Kaurav widows back to the capital after the war [Shalya Parva, Section 29, Hrada-Pravesh Parva].

Yudhishthir keeps his word in extreme adversity and completes the full term of exile. Even when Duryodhan treats him as his enemy, Yudhishthir always insists on calling him by his actual name ‘Suyodhan’ [great warrior] and not the acquired one ‘Duryodhan’ [malevolent warrior].

However, one must mention here that Yudhishthir’s character is not without flaws; none of Vyas’ chief characters are two-dimensional. It was Yudhishthir’s addiction to the game of dice that led to his offering his brothers and wife as stake and consequent dire consequences. But, I do not think he can be blamed for the untruth he speaks at the time of his master Dron’s slaying, and I have dealt with it in one of the next riddles.

There is yet another angle, that of different versions of Mahabharat. It is believed that Vyas taught Mahabharat to four of his disciples - Vaishampayan, Jaimini, Sumanthu, Pail and his son Shuk. These five are supposed to have narrated the history of the Kurus to different audiences and each one’s version varied from the other to some extent. Some people believe that Jaimini’s version favoured Duryodhan over Yudhisthir. However, only a part of Jaimini’s version, relating to the Horse sacrifice of Yudhishthir conducted after the Kurukshetra war, is available. The version of the epic available to us today is based on the one narrated by Vaishampayan at the snake sacrifice of King Janmejaya, grandson to the Pandav Arjun. Sauti, who had heard Vaishampayan recite it at the snake sacrifice, retold it to the sages gathered at Shaunak’s yadnya in Naimish forest.

Whatever may have been the views of the authors of the other versions of Mahabharat we have available in the mainstream Sauti’s version and it shows Duryodhan as ineligible to be king on both counts – precedent and leadership qualities. However, since most of us have read abridged retellings or tv serials and rarely the full text of the epic, some of us have mistaken views about who was the real successor to the throne of Hastinapur.

Completion of the term of exile

There is yet another dispute in Mahabharat for which Vyas does not provide a clear cut answer and leaves it to the readers to draw their own conclusion. After their defeat in the game of dice, according to the terms set, the Pandavs had to spend twelve years in the forest and one year in cognito. The term further stipulated that if their identity is discovered in the thirteenth year, they will have to repeat the whole twelve plus one year term.

The Pandavs, after successfully completing twelve years in the forest, change their identities and live quietly in King Virat’s Matsya kingdom in the thirteenth year. After eleven months have passed uneventfully, in the twelfth month Virat’s general and Queen’s brother Kichak returns to the Matsya capital from a campaign. The all powerful commander sees Draupadi disguised as Queen Sudeshna’s maid, is enamoured by her and convinces his sister to send her to him. Harassed by his persistent attention Draupadi is in fear of molestation by him. However, Yudhishthir exercising self-control decides not to act against Kichak despite Draupadi’s provocative words, as that would lead to revelation of their identity. Draupadi then approaches Bheem in the quiet of the night and he agrees to slay Kichak. She invites Kichak for a secret rendezvous where Bheem slays him. When the news of Kichak’s slaying reaches Hastinapur, the Kauravs realize that a powerful warrior like Kichak could have been slain only by Bheem, since the two other persons capable of achieving that feat – Shalya and Balram had not done it.

In an attempt to expose the Pandavs’ identity, the Kauravs collaborate with Susharma, the King of Trigart and carry out a raid on the Matsyas. The Pandavs decide to help King Virat without revealing their identity. Yudhishthir along with Bheem, Nakul and Sahdev go to the Northern front where the Trigarts lead a diversionary attack on the first day. Yudhir warns his brothers to take care not to reveal their identity. After Virat is captured by Susharma, Bheem rescues him and captures Susharma in turn. However, Yudhishthir requests King Virat to pardon and release Susharma. The victorious Matsyas camp in the battlefield for the night and before they return to the capital, next morning the Kauravs launch the main attack. With all the Matsya braves away at the Trigart front, it is left to Arjun, disguised as Bruhannalla, to drive the Matsya prince Uttar’s chariot. When Uttar tries to desert the battlefield in awe of the Kauravs, Arjun has to reveal his true identity and rescue the Matsya cattle from the Kauravs singlehanded.

Duryodhan immediately announces that the Pandavs have been exposed before completion of the thirteenth year, but Bhishm, with his own computations, declares that the Pandavs have completed their full term of exile. However, the reader is not convinced either way when after the battle Arjun asks Prince Uttar not to reveal Bruhanalla’s identity to his father.

Further doubt arises when Yudhishthir praises Arjun as Brhuhanalla and not as Arjun in front of King Virat (for which Virat hurts him by throwing the dice at him thinking that Yudhishthir is belittling his son Uttar’s achievement). Yudhishthir decides to reveal their identity three days after the battle for the cattle. Why does he take this time?

Although Krishna and Vidur subsequently say that the Pandavs have completed their term of exile, they do not demonstrate this by any calculation of days and months. This is one riddle which is not clearly answered in the epic.

Draupadi’s Question

In one of the most important incidents with far-reaching consequences in Mahabharat, Draupadi poses a question to the Kuru Court. The question stumps the luminaries present on various counts. Some try to avoid it and some try to answer in their own ways.

When Yudhisthir is challenged by Duryodhan to a game of dice he agrees to Shakuni, the clever master of dice, to play on behalf of Duryodhan. After losing all his belongings, he offers one by one his brothers and then himself as stake, loses promptly and declares he has nothing more to offer. At that point Shakuni suggests, “there is still one stake dear to thee that is still unwon... Stake thou Krishna, the princess of Panchal. By her, win thyself back.” [Sabha Parva, Section LXIV]*. Yudhishthir, thinking in a typical gambler’s way, imagines that Draupadi will bring him luck as he had gained Indraprasth after marriage with her, offers her in a gamble to win back what he has lost and ends up losing her too.

In a disastrous sequence of events Duryodhan first orders Vidur to take Draupadi to the maids’ quarters. However, Vidur refuses castigating Duryodhan and opines that she is not a slave, since Yudhishtir lost her after losing himself. Then Duryodhan sends a messenger to take Draupadi to the servants’ quarters. Draupadi, having ascertained that Yudhishthir lost himself first and then her, refuses to come to the hall as she was in her monthly period and clad in but one garment. Instead she raises the question implying, “How can Yudhishthir offer me as stake, after he has lost himself?” Duryodhan sends back a message asking her to come to the court and present her question in person. When the messenger fails to bring her to the hall, Duryodhan orders Duhshasan, who drags her by the hair to the hall.

Draupadi then poses the question to the assembled gathering. The Kuru elders Bhishm, Vidur and the preceptors Krupa, Dron are unable to provide a clear answer to Draupadi’s question, nor does Dhrutarashtra. Even Yudhishthir does not answer Draupadi.

Vikarn, one of Duryodhan’s younger brothers, unable to brook the atrocity committed on that chaste woman, ventures to offer his answer. His reply is quite logical and precise. He opines that Draupadi has not been won by Duryodhan on three counts. First, gambling is one of the four vices attributed to Kings. The acts of person engaged in a vice cannot be said to be of any authority. Secondly, Shakuni prompted Yudhishthir to offer Draupadi as stake; Yudhishthir did not do so on his own volition, which is against the rules of the game. Thirdly, Draupadi is not only Yudhishthir’s wife but the common wife of all five brothers and since he has not taken permission of his brothers, he cannot offer her as stake. Lastly, Yudhishthir had lost himself, so he had no right to offer Draupadi as stake. He concludes, “Drapadi has not been won by Duryodhan.”

Duryodhan’s friend Karn counters Vikarn’s statement by saying, “Yudhishthir had already lost her when he lost himself.” Strangely enough, in the same breath Karn contradicts himself by saying, “O handsome one, select thou another husband now, one who will not make thee a slave by gambling... Thy husbands that are slaves cannot continue to be thy lords any longer...

In my own view, a fitting reply to Karn’s contention that ‘Yudhir lost her when he lost himself’, would be ‘why did Shakuni then suggest to Yudhir to offer her as wager, if she were already won?’ Shakuni is the mastermind behind all of Duryodhan’s plots. He would not suggest Yudhir to play again with Draupadi as stake, if she were already won. Surprisingly, no one in Mahabharat extends this argument.

Various scholars have diametrically opposite opinions on this issue. In Ravindra Shobhane’s opinion, Draupadi is a supercilious and vain woman and her question is preposterous (Mahabharatacha Moolyavedh, Dr. Ravindra Shobhane, p. 134). Whereas M.A. Mehendale applauds Draupadi for her very intelligent question (Prachin Bharat Samaj Ani Sanskruti, Pradnyapathshala Mandal, Vai, 2001, p. 65-83). He examines the whole sequence of events step by step. He points out that, when the Kuru leaders fails to answer her question, Duryodhan asks the Pandavs to answer it. Bheem, out of respect to Yudhishthir deigns, but Arjun asks, ‘whose owner can he be when Yudhishthir lost himself.’ It is after Arjun’s answer that Dhrutarashtra conferred boons on Draupadi. Using this opportunity, Draupadi asked for Yudhishthir and then the other Pandavs to be released from slavery. It is important to note that she did not ask herself to be freed from slavery for she had already proved that she was a free woman.

Unlike Ravindra Shobhane, I consider Druapadi to be one of the intelligent women in the epic. It will not be out of place here to recall a dialogue between Draupadi and Krishna’s wife Satyabhama while the latter visited the Panadavs in the forest during their period of exile. In that conversation, Draupadi tells Satyabhama, that ‘she managed’ ‘the staff’ and ‘the treasury of Indraprasth.’ [Van Parva, Section CCXXXI]* This does not concur at all with the view that her question to the court was supercilious. In fact if she had not posed this question, she along with the Pandavs would have become Duryodhan’s slaves. One has to conclude, that it was Draupadi who, with her intelligent question, rescued the Pandavs from slavery.

The house of lac at Varnavat

When Duryodhan plotted to burn alive the Pandavs and their mother in a house made of resins at Varnavat, minister Vidur tipped them of the conspiracy and made arrangements to rescue them by sending a miner to dig an underground passage beneath their mansion.

Kunti arranged feasts to distract Duryodhan’s man Purochan (or Virochan) who was in charge of construction of the house and was watching the Pandavs. The epic says that on the night the Pandavs planned to escape via the secret tunnel, drawn by fate a woman and her five sons arrived at the feast. They became inebriated and slept in the mansion and were charred to death when the Pandavs set fire to the building before escaping by the underground tunnel. The discovery of the carcasses of these six at the site led people of Varnavat to believe that the Pandavs had perished in the conflagration.

Some scholars have concluded that the Pandavs deliberately invited the six unfortunate persons and let them sleep in the house, in order to escape. The question is - could Yudhishthir the Just have indulged in such a heinous crime?

A careful examination of the various aspects of this issue can help in solving this mystery.
  1. The Kauravs had planned to instantaneously burn the Pandavs in sleep with chemical fire, for they knew that if the Pandavs woke up when the house was set on fire, they could easily escape. Bheem could bring down the building with a kick or Arjun could invoke the water weapon.
  2. This means the remains of the Pandavs would be at the spots where their beds stood and not elsewhere in the building.
  3. The guest woman and her sons could not have slept in the royal beds. The epic does not say that the Pandavs enticed them to sleep in their beds. And even if the visitors agreed to do so, how would Purochan, who was on constant guard, allow it?
  4. Anyone who has seen the result of a cremated body knows that all that remains is a handful of charred bones. There was no need to substitute and let six people burn instead.
  5. The entire rescue operation was planned by Vidur and executed by his men – he had not only sent a miner all the way from Hastinapur to dig a tunnel to escape but also appointed a person with the secret word to lead them to the ship he had kept ready at the river to transport Pandavs when they emerged from the underground tunnel. Vidur’s man was careful enough to close the mouth of the tunnel located in the house the day after it was burnt down. This shows the extent of Vidur’s planning. If it were necessary for remains of bodies to be found why would Vidur leave to chance for exactly one woman with five sons to arrive for dinner and burn in place of Pandavs? He would have simply asked his man to place a handful of bones in the places where Pandavs slept, but he didn’t do it for it was not necessary in that chemical fire.

Indeed, Yudhishthir and Kunti were known for their compassion. One may recall the compassion with which Kunti offered her own son to replace the victim from the Brahmin’s family who had given the Pandavs shelter at Ekchakra. Her compassionate nature was also evident when she brought up Madri’s children with more care and affection than she brought up her own children. The same can be said of Yudhishthir; when the Yaksh at the lake offered to revive one of his dead brothers, Yudhishthir opted for one of Madri’s sons to live, and not one of his own brothers. His compassionate nature also showed when he pardoned and released Jaidrath after the latter was caught trying to abduct Draupadi. He did the same with the Trigart King Susharma when the latter was captured in the battle of Virat.

If at all Vyas had really shown Yudhishthir/Kunti deliberately causing someone to burn in their stead, Vyas’ stature as author would be considerably diminished for it would run totally against the grain of his main characters.

The only conclusion one can draw from these observations is that the Pandavs need not, could not and did not deliberately cause the tribal woman and her sons to burn in their place and their death was purely accidental.

"Man or Elephant’

Yudhishthir, known as the Just King, spoke one half-truth during the Kurukshetra war and it led to Dron’s slaying by Dhrushtadyumna. This act of his is fiercely debated by characters in the epic and by readers alike. It will be beneficial to examine the sequence of events surrounding Dron’s slaying.

After Bhishm’s death, who had commanded the Kaurav army for ten days, Dron was appointed supreme commander. He led the Kaurav forces for five days, but was not successful in capturing Yudhishthir – the task he had undertaken.
  1. On the fifteenth day of the war instigated by Duryodhan’s stinging remarks Dron prepared to deploy the Brahmasra to exterminate the entire Pandav army.
  2. When Krishna saw this he suggested that if Dron receives some sad news, he will give up the weapon.
  3. Bheem had a brainwave and killed an elephant named Ashwatthama and conveyed the news to Dron, implying that his son Ashwatthama had been slain. (This was not part of Krishna’s suggestion.)
  4. Dron did not trust Bheem’s words as he knew Ashwatthama could not be slain so easily.
  5. Dron approached Yudhishthir to know the truth.
  6. Yudhishthir misleads him to believe his son is dead by saying, “Ashwatthama is dead,” and adds in a low voice, “man or elephant.”
  7. Dron continues to attack the Pandav army, Bheem chastises him.
  8. Dron gives up his weapons and is slain by Dhrushtadyumna.

It is clear that the conception and execution of killing the elephant called Ashwatthama was entirely Bheem’s. Moreover, the intention of this exercise was merely to deter Dron from using the Brahmastra. Neither the Pandavs nor Krishna imagined that Dron would give up weapons and sit in lotus position and Dhrushtadymna would slay him mercilessly.

Yudhishthir was drawn in the incident because Dron approached him. At that juncture Yudhishthir was left with two options.
  • Tell the truth and attain personal glory at the cost of destruction of an entire army.
  • Tell a lie and save the army at the cost of personal reputation.

Yudhisthir chose the latter as befitted a king responsible for the welfare of his troops. But he received his punishment as his chariot, which always rode a hand’s span above the ground sank to ground level. For this sacrifice he faced the ire of Arjun, “Thou, O monarch, hath told thy preceptor a falsehood for the sake of kingdom! Although thou art acquainted with the dictates of righteousness, thou hast yet perpetrated a very sinful act. Thy ill fame, in consequence of the slaughter of Drona, will be eternal in the three worlds with their mobile and immobile creatures, like Rama's in consequence of the slaughter of Vali!”

After Arjun criticized Yudhishthir, Bheem chastised Arjun and Dhrustadyumna justified his action of beheading Dron. With Satyaki supporting Arjun a fierce debate raged among the Pandavs. Satyaki and Dhrushtadyumna were on the verge of coming to blows, but timely intervention by Bheem and Sahdev avoided a full-fledged showdown. [Dron Vadha Parva, Section CXCVIII]*

I cannot but marvel at Vyas’ ability in bringing forth the different aspects of Yudhishthir’s and Arjun’s personalities. Arjun was an accomplished warrior, the best of Dron’s disciples; he also has obtained celestial weapons from Shiva and Indra. Yet in the face of action he dithered.  Whereas, Yudhishthir is no great warrior, and like Arjun he faced moral dilemma before the war. But once war became inevitable, unlike Arjun, Yudhishthir is firm and decisive. He knew the importance of defeating Dron and saving his army and takes a quick decision to utter the untruth, which at that juncture was the right thing to do.