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.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Mahabharata Vol 10 - Review

The Mahabharata, Volume 10

Translated by Bibek Debroy

This review first appeared in DNA India on April 12, 2015.

Where does the Ramayana end? When Sita returns to Ayodhya with Rama? Or is it when she is banished to the forest? Or when Rama is captured by his own sons and Sita returns to Mother Earth? Or when Rama's life on earth finally comes to an end? What about Hanuman? Oh, but he is one of the few immortals.

With the Mahabharata one can ask similar questions - where does it end? For most of us the answer may be - after the eighteenth day of battle. That would be true in many ways, but it is not the complete truth. What about Gandhari's curse? When did that take effect? What happens to the Pandavas after that? What about Dhritarashtra and Gandhari - the now defeated king and queen? With the Mahabharata, one is even tempted to ask - where does the epic begin?

Friday, May 8, 2015

On Pollution

My post on what the Mahabharata says on pollution appeared in Swarajya Magazine on March 10, 2015.

Here is the original article:

Jayadratha comes across as a rather despicable character in the Mahabharata. He tried to kidnap Droupadi - his sister-in-law - while the Pandavas were in exile, and escaped with his life only because of Yudhishthira's intervention. During the war, on the thirteenth day, he held back the Pandava army from entering the formation - the chakra vyuha - that Drona had formed, and thus preventing help from reaching the beleaguered Abhimanyu. The Kaurava warriors ganged up against the lone teenager and killed him in a battle most unequal and most unfair.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

How Ushanas Became Shukra

My ninth story in the series, Tales from the Mahabharata, was published in Swarajya Magazine on March 1, 2015.

Here is the article as it appeared.

Let me tell you a tale. Once upon a time the devas were locked in a deadly battle with the asuras. Try as they might, the asuras seemed incapable of being defeated. For the asuras would fall one day, felled by the devas, only to be revived by their preceptor, Kavya Ushanas - also known as Shukra. You see, Shukra knew the knowledge of sanjivani - the secret of bringing the dead back to life. Brihaspati, the guru of the gods, didn't.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Mahabharata Vol. 9 (First review)


Mahabharata: Volume 9
Translated by Bibek Debroy

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The Beginning of the End

After the seventeen day war was over, the battlefield at Kurukshetra littered with the bodies of the millions who had died, Hastinapura under the control of the Pandavas, the survivors no more than what could be counted on one's fingertips, what else was left? When all had been said and done, or so one thought, it turns out that there was still a lot left to be said.  If you believe that the Mahabharata at one point consisted only of a small and relatively short core of approximately twenty-thousand verses, then its current size of a hundred thousand shlokas is sure to baffle (though it must be pointed out that the Critical Edition, including Hari Vamsha, is a shade less than eighty thousand shlokas). Among the many questions that may arise, the principal one is likely to be - "where?!" "Where" as in where did the epic become an epic, in a literal manner of speakingiterally speaking? When did "Jaya" become "Bharata" and then "Mahabharata"? The short answer, and I use the word "short" deliberately, is in the Shanti and Anushasan Parvas - the twelfth and thirteenth parvas respectively. The long answer is nineteen and a half thousand verses. If you take the seventy three thousand shlokas that constitute the Critical Edition of the Mahabharata - as compiled over nearly half a century by the scholars at Pune's Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, and not counting the approximately six and a half thousand shlokas of Hari Vamsha, which is considered a "kheel" (appendix) to the epic -  then twenty six per cent - a full quarter and then some - of the epic is contained in these two parvas.

Mahabharata Vol. 9 (Second review)


Mahabharata: Volume 9
Translated by Bibek Debroy

"A wife must always be honoured and cherished. When women are not honoured, all the rites become unsuccessful. When daughters-in-law grieve, the family is destroyed." Very strong words spoken in defence of women - and pointedly addressed to both the husband and the parents-in-law. The sanctity of marriage not only results from the vows, but also from the "injunction of dharma that a husband must regard his wife as having been given to him by the gods." What about parents who sell their sons - basically yoke a son to the family who will give the maximum dowry? Such a person has to "progressively pass through seven terrible hells known as "Kalasahvya". After death, he feeds on sweat, urine and excrement." An unpalatable fate that still does not seem to deter many.
Forget dowry, even the act of giving to the undeserving can invite such a fate - "the giver remains in hell for ten years - surviving on excrement."

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Tales - Putting Conditions, Except When There Are None

Tales from the Mahabharat, Episode 7 - Of Conditions and Exceptions - my seventh installment of "Tales from the Mahabharata" was published in the Swarajya Magazine on January 10, 2015.

This is the full text of the article as it appeared:

The Mahabharata presents many a different face to different people. A story of friendship, filial jealousies, passions run amok, and much more. In between the main story, there are a number of side stories and tales that have found their way into the epic. Even one version of the Ramayana is contained in the Mahabharata! The other fascinating element found frequently enough is one of conditions and exceptions. Ignoring or acting upon these results in unintended consequences, which is the thread that pervades the epic. Like the story of Karna's earrings and armour, and how an anxious Indra came in the guise of a brahmana to ask Karna to give them away.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Tales - Renunciation for what?

My sixth installment of "Tales from the Mahabharata - To Renounce The Throne Or Not" - was published in the Swarajya Magazine on December 14, 2014.

This is the full text of the article as it appeared:
Arjuna benefited from Krishna's wisdom - most famously before the start of the eighteen day war at Kurukshetra. The wisdom helped guide Arjuna through the war, helping keep his focus on what his dharma was. Arjuna still found himself giving in to his emotions, but by and large he proved to be the ideal warrior. Yudhishthira on the other hand had to wait till after the war to bathe in an elder's wisdom - Bhishma. What he received by way of wisdom was much longer than the 700 verses of the Bhagavad Gita though. But more on that later.

When the war came to an end, Duryodhana was dead, Ashwatthama had committed the unpardonable sin of foeticide and had been cursed by Krishna for it, Gandhari had cursed Krishna, the final rites of those departed had been performed (described in Shraddha Parva - and the death toll stood at more than one billion (the exact number given by Yudhishthira in response to a question by Dhritarashtra in Shraddha Parva is "One billion, twenty thousand and sixty six crore" - bringing the total number of 1,660,020,000. The ninth verse from the twenty sixth chapter of the eleventh parva has the shloka: दशायुतानामयुतं सहस्राणि च विंशतिः 
कोट्यः षष्टिश्च षट्चैव येऽस्मिन्राजमृधे हताः ).

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Tales - Parikshit and Ego

My fifth installment of "Tales from the Mahabharata - Parikshit: Ego, Deja Vu" - was published in the Swarajya Magazine on December 2, 2014.

This is the full text of the article as it appeared:
Parikshit’s is a most unusual tale, in more ways than one. The posthumous son of Abhimanyu, Parikshit was given life by Krishna himself. Yet he died a most gory death, burnt to ashes because of the poison of Takshaka. Why? Because of the curse of Shringi, the son of sage Shamika. Yes, but why Takshaka, the serpent king? Well, one could argue that Takshaka’s abode, the Khandava forest, had been burned to the ground by Arjuna and Krishna. So what better revenge than to kill Parikshit—the grandson of Arjuna who had been given life by Krishna. But Takshaka per se is not what I want to dwell upon here.
Let us take a brief look at the incidents that led to Parikshit’s demise.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Tales - Was Yudhishthira a Forgiving Man?

My fourth installment of "Tales from the Mahabharata - Forgive Now and Fight Later?" - was published in the Swarajya Magazine on November 16, 2014.

This is the full text of the article as it appeared:


Forgive Now and Fight Later?

Was Yudhishthira a forgiving man? One might be forgiven, pardon the pun, for thinking that he was. After all, didn't he forgive Duryodhana and the entire Kauravas for the many evils they perpetrated on the Pandavas over the years? Well, yes, he did, for the most part. Yudhishthira also quoted these lines from a song sung by sage Kashyapa on the topic of forgiveness:
"क्षमा धर्मः क्षमा यज्ञः क्षमा वेदाः क्षमा श्रुतम्
...क्षमा ब्रह्म क्षमा सत्यं क्षमा भूतं च भावि च
क्षमा तपः क्षमा शौचं क्षमया चोद्धृतं जगत्
...."
Translated: "Forgiveness is dharma. Forgiveness is sacrifices. Forgiveness is the Vedas. Forgiveness is the sacred texts... Forgiveness is the brahman. Forgiveness is the truth. Forgiveness is the past and the future. Forgiveness is austerities. Forgiveness is purity. Forgiveness holds up the entire world."

Tales from the Mahabharata - Fratricide, Suicide, and more!

My third installments of "Tales from the Mahabharata - When Krishna Stopped Arjuna from Killing Yudhishthira" - was published in the Swarajya Magazine on November 2, 2014.

This is the full text of the article as it appeared:
When Krishna Stopped Arjuna from Killing Yudhishthira.
Attempted fratricide, attempted suicide - a bizarre turn of affairs on the seventeenth day!

Krishna may have uttered the most profound 800 shlokas ever at the beginning of the war (Bhagvad Gita Parva). He was successful there - Arjuna picked up his weapons, and the rest, so to say, is history. His words however failed to prevent the war itself. His visit to Hastinapura (Bhagavat-yana Parva in the Udyoga Parva), as a last resort to get Duryodhana to cede to the Pandavas at least five villages did not yield the desired results. Krishna was successful on at least two other occasions in preventing needless violence, once against Arjuna and once against Bhima - but that's another story for another day and time though. Happily enough, Krishna's war prevented at least one fratricide during the war itself - between Arjuna and Yudhishthira!