Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Week 08, The Mahabharata

Book-by-Book Notes on The Mahabharata.

Book 1. “Origins” (959-65).


960. Be careful what you wish for, as the saying goes: Kunti has borne Karna (Vasushena) to the Sun God, and GQ9dhara the wife of Dhrtarashtra, who having pleased the sage Vyasa had wished for 100 sons just like her husband, strikes her womb in frustration. But Vyasa again helps her, giving her instructions on how to bring about the birth of those 100 sons. Duryodhana is the first to be born. The Brahmanas warn that the omens are bad, that the boy will destroy his race, but the blind Dhrtarashtra’s love prevents him from destroying the child first. We also hear that Pandu’s eldest son Yudhisthira has become king upon his father’s death.

961. Karna survives his mother’s attempt to kill him. The young man respects the Brahmanas, and Indra rewards him with a sword. (The four classes or castes of early India are the Brahmans or learned men, the Kshatriya or warriors, the Merchants, and the Laborers.)

962. Here is related the manner in which Kunti chose Pandu as her husband. But then Pandu shoots what appear to be two deer mating, and it turns out that the male is actually a sage. He curses Pandu, who is told he’ll die the next time he has relations with his wife. Well, this interdiction leads indirectly to the birth of “the sons of Pandu” when Kunti declares that she will bear children by several gods. So by Dharma she has Yudhisthira, by Vayu she has Bhima, and by Indra comes Arjuna.

963. Madri, Pandu’s other wife, bears Nakula and Sahadeva by the divine Asvins. But when Pandu is overcome by desire for Madri, he dies. His sons excel Dhrtarashtra’s, which creates enmity especially in the eldest, Duryodhana. He and Bhima (born on the same day), we can see, will become rivals. Drona is born, and Drupada becomes King of the Northern Pancalas.

964-65. Drona gets angry at Drupada, and goes to Hastinapura, where Bhisma appoints him tutor to his grandsons. Drona extracts a promise from Arjuna, the exact nature of which as yet he doesn’t specify. Arjuna shows his skills in martial contests, creating envy. Karna (who is unknowingly a half-brother to the Pandu sons), performs with equally great skill, and his challenge to Arjuna endears him to resentful Duryodhana.

966. When the question of rank arises, Duryodhana simply declares Karna King of Anga, cementing the affinity between the two men. Drona now calls in his favor, which is that he wants Drupada captured and brought to him. Drupada is freed, but resents Drona fiercely. Drupada’s daughter Draupadi is born around this time.

Book 2. “The Assembly Hall” (967-83).

967-74. Yudhisthira is challenged by Duryodhana to a dice match, which, as the editor’s note explains, is by no means improper since Yudhisthira is only meeting his responsibility as Universal King and obeying the Kshatriya code by accepting a challenge. Well, he loses all he has, including his brothers, his wealth, himself, and their common wife Draupadi. The question is, was he still his own man when he gambled away Draupadi? This becomes a legal conundrum for both the Pandavas and Kauravas assembled in the Hall. Duhshasana treats Draupadi with contempt on 973-74, infuriating the Pandus but causing delight in Karna. Bhisma does not know how to resolve the legal dilemma.

975-83. Arjuna counsels patience to Bhima, explaining to him the “The king was challenged by his foes, and, remembering the baronial Law, he played at the enemy’s wish. That is our great glory!” But again they argue over the riddle, and again Duhshasana mistreats Draupadi. At 977, Bhima is infuriated with Duhshasana when the latter disrespects Draupadi. At 981, a frightened Dhrtarashtra pacifies Draupadi, who redeems Yudhisthira and the Pandavas. Bhima remained outraged at the conduct of the Kauravas, and has to be restrained. Why did Dhrtarashtra allow the game to go on? He explains, “I wished to see my friends and find out the strengths and weaknesses of my sons. Yudhisthira goes into exile with his fellow Pandavas, and as the summary explains, the Karauvas refuse to give back what they had taken.

Book 5. “The Preparation for War” (983-89).

983-85. Krishna, at the behest of Dhrtarashtra, tries to persuade Duryodhana not show such disrespect for the scriptures, for Dharma. But Duryodhana refuses to listen, and Krishna accuses him of merely being envious. “By poison, by snake, and by rope, in fact by every means, you have attempted the destruction of the sons of Pandu” (984-85). At this, Duyodhana hisses like a serpent and stalks out of the court.

985-89. Karna plots to capture Krishna to keep him from combining with Dhrtarashtra, and Dhrtarashtra can’t control events anymore, if indeed he ever could. The plot against him earns Krishna’s scornful laughter. At 986-87, Krishna informs Karna that he is “morally the son of Pandu” because of his status as Kunti’s son by the Sun God. Karna refuses to abandon Duryodhana even when his mother pleads with him and the Sun-god himself makes it clear that he supports reconciliation with Arjuna. Karna apparently cannot abide what he believes would be the dishonor of betraying Duryodhana, and says that, win or lose, he will retain either “merit” (if he wins) or “great glory” (if he should lose). He will fight Arjuna, who pairs up with Krishna, his divine charioteer. At 989, Bhisma says that while he will not kill the sons of Pandu, he will at least aid Duryhodhana’s Kauravas; Bhisma is bound not to harm them since he promised a long time ago to help the king of Hastinapura without regard to persons. On 989, Balarama says that the great struggle to come “is surely ordained by fate and cannot be averted.” He avows his equal love for his two pupils Bhima and Duryodhana, and goes off to purify himself; he will not stay to see the Kurus destroying one another. But later he will return to see Bhima and Duryodhana fight.

Book 8. “The Book of Karna” (990-94).

990-91. Karna requests that Duryodhana ask Shalya to serve as his charioteer since Arjuna has the divine Krishna. At first, Shalya is insulted because he doesn’t consider Karna’s birth high enough to merit his aid, but he responds to flattery. Karna confides his troubled state of mind regarding the curse leveled at him by Parasurama, whom he had tricked into giving him a celestial weapon. (This is a bit confusing—is it a different weapon from the one given him by Indra earlier?) It’s said that he will forget the invocation necessary to make the sword function just when he most needs it.

992-94. Bhima savagely kills Duhshasana in battle, and says, “I consider the taste of this blood superior to that of my mother’s mil, or honey, or ghee, or wine…” (992), avowing further that the second half of his vow—to kill Duryodhana—will soon be fulfilled. Karna duly suffers a chariot accident and forgets the magic invocation for his weapon, and Krishna first upbraids him for his poor behavior in insulting Draupadi during the dice game episode, and then kills him. Karna’s death is described in heroic terms; it is said that his head “fell like the Sun disappearing in the blood-red sunset behind the western hills” and that “from the body of the fallen Karna a light, passing through the atmosphere, illumined the sky” (994). The Kauravas flee the field in dismay.

Book 9. “The Book of Shalya” (994-98).

995-96. Duryodhana takes flight from the battle, and goes down into the waters of a lake that he has “charmed by the power of his wizardry” (995). The Pandavas hunt him down, but at first Duryodhana is reluctant to fight; he says “clad in deerskins I shall retire to the forest. Friendless as I am, I have no desire to live” (996). But he finally comes around when Yudhisthira promises him he will be king if he wins. Balarama comes to watch his two disciples Bhima and Duryodhana fight; he will witness what the others call the two warriors’ “skill in battle” (996).

997-998. When Balarama objects to the way the battle plays out, Yudhisthira excuses Bhima’s murderous fury against the fallen Duryodhana (the hero has kicked him in the head), saying that the Kauravas had brought this sort of treatment upon themselves by betraying the Pandavas in their exile.

Book 11. “The Book of the Women” (998-1000).

998-1000. Dhrtarashtra is brought low by sadness, knowing that he has lost so much after disregarding Krishna’s good advice to make Duryodhana allow the Pandavas five villages rather than taking their entire kingdom. Krishna allows Dhrtarashtra to vent his anger against a statue of Bhima, which is smashed while the real warrior is elsewhere. Dhrtarashtra is relieved to hear that he has not really killed Bhima. Then the Pandava brothers visit Gandhari, who has lost her one hundred sons. Bhima’s explanation of his “unfair” tactics by no means placates her (he says he had to kill Duryodhana in an unfair manner since it wasn’t possible to kill him fairly). Why did the Pandavas have to kill all one hundred of Dhrtarashtra’s sons? Her anger somewhat scorches Yudhisthira. After consoling Draupadi and Gandhari, Kunti curses Krishna: “Thirty-six years hence you shall, after causing the death of your kinsmen, friends, and son, perish by ignoble means in the wilderness” (1000).

Book 12. “The Book of Peace” (1000-01).

Yudhisthira and the Pandavas undergo a month of purification, but the king is in despair, saying, “I am an evil-doer and a sinner and the cause of the destruction of the earth. Seated as I am now, I shall starve myself to death” (1000). He is consoled effectively by Vyasa, and his kingdom is restored to him. He then pays homage to his uncle Dhrtarashtra as supreme lord. Bhima is made crown prince, and Arjuna becomes “responsible for resisting hostile forces and punishing the wicked” (1001).

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