Monday, August 15, 2016

Tales from the Mahabharata - 19 - Karna and the fear of abandonment

Kunti abandoning Karna
(image credit:
I will stay with Karna for this post also (the previous post was also about Karna and how his life can also be viewed as a cautionary tale against distractions).

Karna was abandoned almost immediately after his birth. His mother, Kunti, "flung" (ch 104, Adi Parva) him into the river, where he was found by Adhiratha, adopted by his wife Radha, and grew up the son of a charioteer. He later became the lifelong friend of Duryodhana, the king of Anga, and a mortal enemy of Arjuna.

A question comes to mind - why did Kunti need to fling her first-born son into the water? It was because of a boon granted by the "fearsome" sage, Durvasa. His boon to Kunti was thus - "Whichever gods you summon through the use of this mantra, will grant you sons through their grace." Durvasa had granted this boon to Kunti because "he knew that she would face the dharma that is indicated for times of distress." Once Kunti had this boon, she became "curious." Curiosity led her to invoke the boon, summon Arka (the sun god), who placed an embryo in her womb. Thus Karna was born, and almost immediately thereafter, abandoned by his mother.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Tales from the Mahabharata - 18 - First Things First, A Lesson Karna Forgot

It is not without reason that the character of Karna has attracted so much fascination and attention from readers of the Mahabharata. People have seen and identified in him an ideal friend, an ideal giver, and above all - the fatally wronged son who never got his due from either his brothers or his mother. The right warrior who fought on the the wrong side.

But among all that has been written in the Mahabharata, is there an underlying narrative, hiding between the pages, that that may tell us something more about Karna, and therefore, about human nature itself? To do that, it is instructional to revisit some of the pivotal moments in Karna's life.

Parashurama sleeping on Karna's lap
[image credit: Wikipedia]
A young Karna had convinced Parashurama to train him in the use of weapons. So desperate had Karna been to receive this knowledge that he had described himself as a brahmana, and not as the kshatriya he was (a suta perhaps, but certainly a brahmana he wasn't). Parashurama would teach no kshatriya. One day, as Parashurama slept on Karna's lap, a bee stung Karna. Not wanting to disturb his guru, Karna bore the pain. When Parashurama woke up and saw the blood, he accused Karna of having deceived him. No brahmana - or so Parashurama believed - could have withstood so much pain. Parashurama cursed Karna that he would forget the knowledge of his weapons when he would need them most. This is well known. The question is - why did Karna not get up or otherwise take some step to swat the bee away? Why was it so important to show that he could withstand huge amounts of pain, if only to not displease his guru?

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Tales from the Mahabharata 17 - Charity

When trying to opine on an epic like the Mahabharata, perhaps the most appropriate way to keep one’s ego in check to be reminded of a verse from Ch 279 of the Shanti Parva, Moksha Dharma, that describes among the reasons for grief being "a foolish person who is eloquent." I pray that I avoid the curse that otherwise may befall the eloquent but foolish person!

Yudhishthira, Bhisma
[credit: Mahabharata, Gita Press]
The festival of lights is with us. There is talk of giving and charity and receiving and wanting and wishing in this time of Diwali. It is only appropriate that we take a look at a story about Lakshmi, found in Ch 218 of Shanti Parva, Moksha Dharma. Indra saw Shri emerge from Bali. Bali had seen better days; he now roamed the earth in the form of an ass, bereft of all his riches, his power, his glory. Indra, never one to let go of an opportunity to gloat, approached Bali, taunting him. In-between their dialogue, Indra saw Shri emerge from Bali. Intrigued, he approached her. She replied, "I am known as Duhsaha and also known as Shri, Lakshmi. … Dhata and Vidhata cannot control me. Time determines my movement." Shri then asked Indra to bear her; i.e. she had left Bali because he had left the path of dharma, had become intoxicated with power. She wanted to reside elsewhere. Much as Indra was a jealous god, even he knew his limitations. And by the way, we know that Indra is to blame (or should take at least substantial credit) for the start of the Bharata dynasty, for wasn’t it on his bidding that Menaka, the celestial apsara, descended down on earth to tempt Viswamitra from his tapasya. Wasn’t the union of that distraction the birth of Shakuntala, who would become the mother of Sarvadamana. Sarvadamana - who would go on to be known better as Bharata? Indra replied to Shri’s request, "There is no single man amongst gods, humans, or amongst all beings, who is capable of bearing you forever." Shri then asked Indra to divide her into four equal parts. And thus Shri was vested one quarter on earth, one quarter in clear water, one quarter in the fire, and one quarter in the virtuous.

Friday, November 6, 2015

When Bhima Was At a Loss of Words

Bhima throws an elephant at Karna
(credit: Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)
That Bhima was a man of action is not in dispute. One could write an epic in itself on Bhima's love for letting his actions do the talking. But do not think his words lacked a punch either! Far from it. Bhima was never short of strong words either. Let us examine a few instances.

Yudhishthira's weakness for gambling combined with his ineptness at the game to hand over his kingdom, liberty, his brothers and wife to the Kauravas. Bhima had watched quietly as Yudhishthira had gambled away - losing round after round - everything, but Droupadi's insult in the assembly hall was too much for him to bear. He turned to his elder brother and spoke - "O Yudhishthira! Gamblers have many courtesans in their country. But they are kind even towards those, and do not stake them in gambling. ... I think you committed a most improper act in staking Droupadi. She did not deserve this. ... It is because of her that my anger descends on you. I will burn your hands. O Sahadeva! Bring the fire." [Dyuta Parva]

Friday, October 16, 2015

Playing By the Book? I Don’t Think So!

Playing by the book to win is a myth that has cost us dear. We should know better, but we're probably poor learners! Among several arguments put forth to explain Indians’ losses against foreign invaders, one of the more commonly heard one is that Indians could not – or refused to – adapt to the new rules of warfare and insisted on fighting by the more traditional, dharmic, rules of war. But is that really the case?
Kripa and Shikhandi fight
(credit: Wikpedia, the free encyclopedia)

Let’s use the Mahabharata to evaluate this assumption more closely. Was this war at Kurukshetra fought as a dharmic war? The Pandavas certainly believed theirs to be a just war, yes. But the means? Most would disagree, I hope. Women were not supposed to take part in the war – at least one did. There was not supposed to be any fighting at night – there was. The unarmed were not to be attacked – they were. A warrior was not to be engaged in battle without warning – he was. Warriors were not to be attacked when sleeping - they were. And so on… Every single rule was broken, by both sides.

Shikhandi had been born Shikhandini – a woman. You could also see her as Amba reborn. A yaksha gave Shikhandini his male form, and she thus became Shikhandi. Bhishma looked at Shikhandi as a woman and refused to engage him in a duel. The Pandavas used this to shield Arjuna from Bhishma. Thus was brought down the first commander of the Kaurava army. Rules of engagement were clearly asymmetric. The Pandavas adapted when faced with rules that put them at a disadvantage.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Fated to Fail, the Sarpa Satra

Sarpa satra of Janamajeya
(credit: Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)
Yagyas do not always end happily in the Mahabharata. I wrote about two such sacrifices earlier, both performed by Yudhishthira. The most famous was the first one - the Rajsuya Yagya. It ended with the death of Shishupala at the hands of Krishna, and initiated a series of events that culminated finally with the eighteen-day war on the battlefield at Kurukshetra.

My favourite however is the Sarpa Satra. This was the sacrifice initiated by Janamejaya to avenge his father's death, who had been bitten to death by Takshaka. The sacrifice was to ensure the destruction of all snakes. The sacrifice started, but did not complete. It was halted, at the instructions of Janamejaya himself! What followed thereafter was the first public retelling of the tale of the sons of Krishna Dvapayana.

So who were batting - so to say - for the sacrifice to be successful?

Monday, September 7, 2015

Gita for Children, by Roopa Pai

The Gita for Children, by Roopa Pai

Yes, there is a need for one more book on the Gita. This one fits a particular niche quite well.

On the one hand you have over-simplified adaptations of the Bhagavad Gita that throw in a sentence or two from the text but fail to either capture the essence or its substance, leaving the young reader none the wiser at the end. On the other hand you have scholarly translations with detailed commentaries that bring a life's worth of study to bear on the subject, are a joy to read, but are ipso-facto mostly out of reach of most children, unless assisted by an adult. Then there are books that seek to bridge this gap, like Swami Chinmayananda's "Gita For Children" - but even that is more a parent's reading companion than a book meant to be read by children.

Roopa Pai's book, "The Gita For Children", therefore fills a much-needed gap. It's a book written for children, makes even the difficult sections of the Gita accessible to children, and which patiently explores some of the knottier questions that arise when reading the profound work. Actual shlokas from Gita are also present - the most obvious ones are all there - but used sparingly.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Black, White, and Coloured Too

Kurukshetra (credit: Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)
The Mahabharata has lived for thousands of years for the reason that it serves as that vast ocean human emotions in which everyone can pour their own understanding and find acceptance without judgment.

There is an innate human desire to see and interpret things in a monochromatic palette of black-and-white. One could argue that stereotyping is an "energy-saving" device that allows us to make "efficient decisions on the basis of past experiences." ("Stereotypes as energy-saving devices: A peek inside the cognitive toolbox") . Therefore, is it any surprise that many of us look at the characters in the Mahabharata also through similar, stereotypical lenses? It simplifies things if we view Duryodhana as the jealous usurper, Shakuni as the manipulative uncle, Bhishma as the noble but helpless elder, Arjuna as the hero, Karna as the tragic and righteous hero fighting on the wrong side, and so on. No, it is not quite proper or kosher to include in this group of admirers (and critics) of the Mahabharata those that bring their own neuroses and neo-colonial prejudices!

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Yudhishthira's Chilling Words

A chilling side to Yudhishthira's personality came to the fore as the Kurukshetra war was dying down. My piece appeared in Swarajya on 12th April, 2015.

Not a quarter given
Yudhishthira is revered as dharma-raj, the man who never uttered a lie (except for one very prominent occasion during the War and at least one other occasion when he knowingly chose to remain silent lest he be proven a liar). Yudhishthira saved his brother Bhima when he had been trapped in a python's coils - Nahusha in a cursed form. Yudhishthira's wisdom was what revived his brothers during the famous Yaksha prashna samvad in the Aranyaka Parva. His insistence on the truth was noble, indubitably, but at times it grated. His brothers - Bhima mostly, but Arjuna also - chafed under the yoke of what they saw an unreasonable burden of dharma.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Something About Yudhishthira and Sacrifices

My piece on the curious tendency of yagya's to not go off as planned in the Mahabharta was published in Swarajya on April 5, 2015.

Among the many sacrifices described in the Mahabharata, three stand out. There is the Rajsuya Yagya, performed by Yudhishthira, and described in Sabha Parva. Then there is the Sarpa Satra, the snake sacrifice that became the raison d'être for the first public telling of the story of the Bharata family. The third is the horse sacrifice, performed by Yudhishthira after the Kurukshetra war. There are also other sacrifices - like the sacrifice that resulted in the birth of Droupadi and Dhrishtadyumna - but those are not described in as much details as these three are.

Among the three listed above, the Rajsuya and Ashvamedha sacrifices are very interesting, but not quite for the reasons that would immediately come to mind.