Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Rightful Heir

Even though the Mahabharata covers an all pervasive area of human psychology and morality, and a plethora of events, there's no denying that the main narrative is based on the Kurukshetra war, which again, despite all it's far reaching impacts and influence, was essentially a battle for the throne of the kingdom of Kuru. Therefore, determining the rightful heir to the throne is a key element while discussing te epic.

The Kurus apparently didn't have a well defined rule for determining successors to the throne. Yayati made Puru his heir even though he wasn't the eldest of his sons. Bharata, the great patriarch and the founder of Bharata Dynasty, made Bhumanyu ascend to his throne, denying all his nine sons, because he considerd them incompetent. Shantanu became king ahead of his elder brothers Devapi (who was denied because he had a disease and who later went out to become a hermit) and Bahlika (who went to rule his maternal kingdom). And there probably are more such examples. In all these cases the common aspect was that the present ruler decided who would become his heir.

Now in the case of the Pandavas and Dhartarashtras, Duroydhana, truly was the heir of choice of the then present ruler, Dhritarashtra. On the other hand, the Pandavas, too were sons of the previous ruler. If Dhritashtra was appointed regent, then the legal heir of the kingdom would have been one of Pandu's sons. If Pandu, when he left Hastinapura had denounced the throne completely for himself and his heirs (like Bhishma did), the legal heir would have been Duryodhana. Unfortunately the Mahabharata does not provide an answer to this question, which makes one feel that there wasn't any decision made prior to Pandu's death.

Under such circumstances a division of the kingdom seems to be the only reasonable solution. And that was eventually done, by giving the Pandavas the woodlands of Khandavaprastha`and making Duryodhana the heir apparent to Hastinapura. But such a settlement proved to be too unstable to maintain, with proud and powerful warriors getting hungry for more on both sides of the border, and with the long history of rivalry between the two groups. Within a few years, with the dice game and Draupadi's harassment, the war became inevitable.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Places of the Mahabharata : The Eastern Kingdoms

Determining the actual locations of the different places in the Mahabharata is an enigma that has fascinated me for a long time. I will hereby discuss the important places, their location and a brief history of each. I am starting with the Eastern states.

The five major states in Eastern India were Anga, Vanga, Pundra, Kalinga and Sumha. According to the Mahabharata, these kingdoms were named after their founders, the five sons of queen Sudeshna, wife of the Asura king Vali (One shouldn't confuse this Sudeshna with King Virata's wife.).


Based on Mahabharata evidence, the kingdom of the Angas roughly corresponded to the region of Bhagalpur and Munger in Bihar and parts of Bengal; later extended to include most of Bengal. River Champa (modern Chandan) formed the boundaries between the Magadha in the west and Anga in the east. Anga was bounded by river Koshi on the north. The capital of Anga was Champa, located on the right bank of river Ganga near its junction with river Champa. The relics of actual site of ancient Champa are stated to still exist near Bhagalpur in Bihar in the names of two villages called Champanagara and Champapura. Champa was noted for its wealth and commerce. It was also a great center of trade and commerce and its merchants regularly sailed to distant Suvarna-bhumi for trading purposes. The ancient name of region and kingdom of Champa of central Vietnam (Lin-yi in Chinese records) apparently has its origin in this East Indian Champa. Other important cities of Anga are said to be Assapura, Malini and Bhadrika.

Karna was made the king of this state as a gift from Duroydhana, and during his conquests he subjugated the other Anga kings; who later participated in the war on Duryodhana's side. Lomapada, Chitraratha, Vrihadratha, Vasuhoma and Dhadhivahana were among famous rulers of Anga.


Vanga was most likely located in modern Bangladesh, in the East of the Bhagirathi-Hooghly. The rulers of Vanga were vanquished by Bheema, Karna and Arjuna during their respective conquests. Sabhaparava of Mahabharata (II.44.9) mentions Anga and Vanga as forming one country. Apparently parts of the region were dominated by the kingdoms of Anga, Pragjyotisha and Magadha. They sided with Duryodhana in the Kurukshetra War and were described as remarkably skilled in Elephant warfare. Like Anga, it succumbed to the expanding Magadha Empire during the time of Bimbisara


The Pundra kingdom appears to have been located in modern day Purnia district in Bihar and parts of North Bengal, roughly bounded on the east by the river Kasataya (Koshi?), on the west by the modern Mahananda, which separates it from Anga, on the south by the modern Padma, and on the north by the hills, which were inhabited by aboriginal hill tribes. A king of the name Paundraka Vasudeva had great rivalry with Vasudeva Krishna and was later killed by him. The Pundras sided with Duryodhana at Kurukshetra.


Kalinga comprised of most of the modern state of Orissa, as well as some northern areas of the bordering state of Andhra Pradesh. It was a rich and fertile land that extended from the river Subarnarekha to Godavari and from Bay of Bengal to Amarkantak range in the West. Dantapura and Rajpura were two famous cities in this kingdom. Shrutayu, the king of Kalinga joined his forces with the Kaurava army and became a general; and was later killed by Bheema along with other princes from Kalinga. Later Kalinga became a republic and was noted for its maritime expeditions in South East Asia.


Suhma was the last of the five kingdms mythically linked to the legend of queen Sudeshna. It was situated roughly in South Bengal, West Bengal and gets a passing reference in the Mahabharata. It was not a very important state. Tamralipta, an ancient sea port and a copper mining site excavated near present day Tamluk, though mentioned as a sepaerate state probably had some links with Suhma. The latter was on an ancient trade route, and it bears evidence of human settlements since the Neolithic Age.


The only important North Eastern Kingdom mentioned in the Mahabharata was Pragjyotisha, situated probably in modern Assam. It was described as an Asura kingdom and Naraka, the king was strangely depicted as the son of an earth goddess. Naraka had a great battle with Krishna in which he and many of his demoniac allies perished. His son and successor Bhagadatta joined the Kaurava army, fought with valour and died at the hands of Krishna. The Naraka king mentioned at various places in Kalika Purana, Mahabharata and Ramayana covering a wide period of time were probably different rulers from the same dynasty.


Magadha was by far the most powerful and prosperous of all the Eastern Kingdoms and was situated in Southern Bihar, with its capital in Girivraja, near modern Rajgir. The kingdom was established by Brihadratha, who, according to legend, had his roots in the Chedi Kingdom of Central India and was the sixth in line from Emperor Kuru through his eldest son Sudhanush. Magadha rose to power during the reign of Brihadratha's son, Jarasandha who assumed the title 'Raj-chakravarti' and extended his empire across a large part of Eastern India. He brought together several powerful kings, including King Shishupala of Chedi, King Bhishmaka and Kamsa of Mathura along with many chieftains of Eastern India and set out to build an empire. It appears that under Jarasandha's leadership a strong anti-Krishna coalition was formed. As Jarasandha took control of a large part of Eastern India and pushed on his forces along the Gangetic Plains, several tribes succumbed, while many fled towards the West. After Kamsa's death he raided Mathura on several occasions and the Yadavas at last migrated to Dwaraka, at the Western fringes of India. Jarasandha was finally killed by Bheema in a wrestling duel and Magadha's hegemony soon ended. Jarasandha's son Sahadeva and Jayatsena, another Magadha king fought and died on the Pandava's side.

Magadha has a key role to play in the context of unraveling the historical facts associated with the Mahabharata, since it is only one of the two kingdoms of which the Puranas provide a chronological list of Kings upto historical times. Jarasandha's descendants were succeeded by kings from the Pradyota, Shishunaga, Haryanka, Nanda and Maurya dynasties respectively. Buddha's contemporary kings Bimbisara and Ajatasatru belonged to the Haryanka line and it is from about this time that we get a more or less continuous history of Magadha, as it started to emerge as a superpower.


Among less significant kingdoms of Eastern India, Sonita (located in Sonitpur, Assam and ruled by Banasura, its princess married Krishna's son Pradyumna), Odra (parts of Orissa) , Utkala (North Western Orissa) and Lauhitya (a Naga territory on the Brahmaputra basin, in parts of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh) may be mentioned.

It is debatable whether the Kurus and Panchalas of epic age had much contact with the kingdoms of the East and much of the descriptions are speculated to be later additions. But it is clear from the above discussion that these parts still maintained a decidedly non-Aryan, non-Vedic tradition. The legend of the five princes stated in the beginning, Bhagadatta's reference as a 'Yavana', the mention of an earlier Naga stronghold in Magadha and the repeated passages of the Mahabharata that renounce these people as Mlechchhas and Yavanas further reinforce this argument. Gradually though, with increasing contact such cultural disparities receded with time.

The map roughly depicts estimated locations of the seven kingdoms discussed. It is by no means accurate.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Draupadi: An Analysis

I've decided to take up the major characters one by one and do a bit of analysis. I'm starting with Draupadi, who happens to be my favourite female of the epic.

Draupadi was the daughter of king Drupada of Panchaal. She was allegedly born out of a sacrifical fire; and her birth was accompanied by an oracle which declared her, "the greatest among all women", but also warned that she would bring calamity to the Kshatriyas, those of the warrior clan. Perhaps the story of her miracle birth is an allusion to the fact that she was an adopted daughter of the King; or it might be an attempt to glorify her further and ascent her to superhuman status.

Whatever may be her origin, there is no doubt that Draupadi, also called Krishnaa for her dark complexion was the most attractive lady of her time. Time and again, the poet of Mahabharata has been full of praise of her lotus eyes, of her cascade tresses and her beautiful appearance. Arjuna won her at the archery competition; but because of a supposed misunderstanding among the five brothers and their mother, she eventually became the wife of all five. A more feasible explanation (than Kunti unknowingly asking her sons to divide their earnings equally, and them acting accrodingly, considering the princess as a prize) would be that all five of them were so hopelessly mesmerized by her charm that that was only way to ensure harmony among brothers. When Shakuni won her at the dice game, even Dhritarashtra could not hide his excitement; although he hadn't even seen her. Duryodhana, Karna and Dusshasana always had a lustful eye on her. She must have been in her middle ages when Jayadratha saw her for the first time, and yet he wistfully said,

"Is she of the human kind? I have no need to marry if I can secure this exquisitely beautiful creature. Will this ornament of womankind, this slender-waisted lady of so much beauty, endued with handsome teeth and large eyes, accept me as her lord? I shall certainly regard myself successful, if I obtain the hand of this excellent lady. Having once seen this lady, other women now seem to me like so many monkeys."

And her beauty aroused similar desires in the minds of Jataasura and Keechaka.

But there are many beautiful women in our literature. What makes Draupadi stand apart is her personality. She is not the kind without her own opinion, nor the one to follow her husbands' authority timidly. She speaks for herself. She is conscious about her rights and doesn't falter to point a finger when she sees them violated. She spoke for herself whilst in tears, after Yudhishthira staked and lost her at the dice game, while being disrobed by Dusshasana and insulted by Duryodhana and Karna,. And when all the elders of Hastinapur remained silent, she asked:

" She whom even the winds and the sun had seen never before in her palace is to-day before this assembly and exposed to the gaze of the crowd. Alas, she whom the sons of Pandu could not, while in her palace, suffer to be touched even by the wind, is to-day suffered by the Pandavas to be seized and dragged by this wretch. Alas, these Kauravas also suffer their daughter-in-law, so unworthy of such treatment, to be thus afflicted before them. Where is that virtue for which these kings were noted? Ye Kauravas, I am the wedded wife of king Yudhishthira the just, hailing from the same dynasty to which the King belonged. Tell me now if I am a serving-maid or otherwise. I will cheerfully accept your answer. This mean wretch, this destroyer of the name of the Kurus, is afflicting me hard. Ye Kauravas, I cannot bear it any longer. Ye kings, I desire ye to answer whether ye regard me as won or unwon. I will accept your verdict whatever it be."

At which, Bhishma, the foremost of the Kurus, the expert on ethics brooded over the complexity of morality itself and failed to give a clear verdict.

She was fully aware of her identity and never hesitated to remind her husbands that they were the cause of her miseries. The way she lamented to Krishna while in exile at the woods is perhaps rare in world literature:

"Krishna, how could one like me, the wife of Pritha's sons, the sister of Dhrishtadyumna, and the friend of thee, be dragged to the assembly! Alas, during my season, stained with blood, with but a single cloth on, trembling all over, and weeping, I was dragged to the court of the Kurus! Beholding me, stained with blood in the presence of those kings in the assembly, the wicked sons of Dhritarashtra laughed at me! O slayer of Madhu, while the sons of Pandu and the Panchalas and the Vrishnis lived, they dared express the desire of using me as their slave! O Krishna, I am the daughter in-law of both Dhritarashtra and Bhishma! Yet, O slayer of Madhu, they wished to make of me a slave by force! I blame the Pandavas who are mighty and foremost in battle, for they saw (without stirring) their own wedded wife known over all the world, treated with such cruelty! Oh, fie on the might of Bhimasena, fie on the Gandiva of Arjuna, for they, O Janardana, both suffered me to be thus disgraced by little men! This eternal course of morality is ever followed by the virtuous--viz., that the husband, however weak, protecteth his wedded wife! By protecting the wife one protecteth his offspring and by protecting the offspring one protecteth his own self! One's own self is begotten on one's wife, and therefore it is that the wife is called Jaya. A wife also should protect her lord, remembering that he is to take his birth in her womb!

The Pandavas never forsake the person that soliciteth their protection, and yet they abandoned me who solicited it! By my five husbands five sons of exceeding energy have been born of me: all of them of energy that cannot be baffled. For their sake, O Janardana, it was necessary to protect me! Even as (thy son) Pradyumna, they are, O Krishna, mighty warriors all! They are foremost of bowmen, and invincible in battle by any foe! Why do they bear the wrongs inflicted (on me) by the sons of Dhritarashtra of such contemptible strength? Deprived of their kingdom by deception, the Pandavas were made bondsmen and I myself was dragged to the assembly while in my season, and having only a single cloth on! Fie on that Gandiva which none else can string save Arjuna and Bhima and thyself, O slayer of Madhu! Fie on the strength of Bhima, and fie on the prowess of Arjuna, since, O Krishna, Duryodhana hath drawn breath even for a moment! Why do these that are gifted with strength and possessed of the prowess of the lion, sit indifferently, beholding me thus afflicted by enemies so despicable? Suffering such wrongs at the hands of wicked and evil-doing foes of small strength, am I to burn in grief so long? Born I was in a great race, coming into the world in an extraordinary way! I am also the beloved wife of the Pandavas, and the daughter-in-law of the illustrious Pandu! The foremost of women and devoted to my husbands, even I, O Krishna, was seized by hair, O slayer of Madhu, in the sight of the Pandavas, each of whom is like an Indra himself! "

And yet she didn't abandon them; and yet she accompanied them during their exile at the forests for 12 years (as the only wife to do so), and later at King Viraata's palace in cognito as a parlourmaid; even though opportunities were many. And when Dhritarashtra wanted to grant her a wish in order to appease her after her insult she asked for the freedom of her husbands; the same husbands who had gambled her away as a mere wealth item moments ago. When Satyabhama mockingly asked her about the secret of her relationships with the Pandavas, what she replied essentially meant that she was obedient to them always and never did anything that may disturb them in any way.

Draupadi had with her five of the best men of the generation, in terms of glamour, might and handsomeness; and apart from the incident at the dice game they did their best to protect her. They honoured her and were eager to make her happy. Of course, the relationships she shared with them were not identical; each were special in their own way. She looked up to Yudhishthira as somewhat of a naive elderly person; whom she censured often for his ultra righteous notions and for being the root cause of their travails at the wilderness but also loved and respected in a sympathetic manner. Nakula and Sahadeva were like young ones of the family needed to be taken care of, and to be sheltered from the adversities of life. Bhima and Arjuna had more important roles. Arjuna was the one who had won her through a competition of the utmost skills of archery, and either for that reason or simply because of his fascinating personality she had a pronounced preference for him. That preference was reflected when she eyed Subhadra with an askance look when the latter arrived as Arjuna's new wife. When she fell during the "ascent to heaven", Yudhishthira asserted that her love was prejudiced towards Arjuna, and that brought about her downfall. Arjuna (who had several other wives as well), on the other hand, apparently had a preference for Subhadra. Bhima was probably the most devoted lover and husband that Draupadi had. He was the first to take bloodcurdling oaths at the Kuru court vowing to smash Duryodhana's thighs and to drink Dusshasana's blood. Draupadi knew of his passionate feeling towards her and made good use of it too. Whenever she needed something to be done, be it serious (like punishing Keechaka) or trivial (like acquiring the thousand-petal lotus); she relied on Bhima. She well understood the psychology of her men and she motivated them accordingly.

She bore five sons to the five Pandavas. Although she loved them dearly, she probably didn't see much of them as they grew up at Dwaraka under the watchful eyes of Subhadra while the Pandavas and Draupadi spent their thirteen years of exile. The youths survived the great battle but ultimately fell prey to the butcherly night time ambush by Ashwatthama; and in one night Draupadi lost all five of them, along with her brothers Dhrishtadyumna and Shikhandi. And sadly enough, either because their nerves were hardened by eighteen days of gory warfare, or because of the lack of a genuine affection; the Pandavas did not react in a way they should have reacted. Apart from Yudhishthira, nobody appeared to be too affected, and the culprit was ultimately let go on the pretext of being Guru-putra, or the son of a teacher; which was a lame excuse as the Guru or the teacher Drona himself had already been killed in the war.

Draupadi is not worshipped as an ideal woman like Sita, but she is mentioned as one of the five maidens of India (Panchakanya) whose rememberance relieves one from all his sin. She epitomizes quite precisely "the woman of substance" that feminism so much speaks of today, and the world needs more like her kind for its own good. In all her tragedy, she proudly stands as a dignified lady; strong, determined and exceedingly powerful.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Science in the Mahabharata

I have come across many people who are of the opinion that the Mahabharata is not some sort of a fairy tale based on a few basic facts, but an undistorted history of a bygone era, when human beings had supernatural powers and interacted regularly with the gods. There is another theory that those people were incredibly advanced in technology, the 'gods' were aliens, the vimanas were spaceships, and the divyastras nuclear and biological weapons. While the first speculation cannot be true, the second might have some amount of truth in it. The likes of Daniken or Rael may possibly be too far fetched in their assertion that human civilization is a gift of the extra terrestrials, but it's likely that the ancients had an amount of scientific and technical knowledge that would seem incredible to us.

Unfortunately, whatever they knew has been lost under layers of poetic distortion and exaggeration, through ages of ignorance. A great deal of research needs to be carried out before we may reach at a conclusive theory on the advancements of Ancient Indian Science. Developed as they were in terms of Physiology, Medicines, Mathematics and Astronomy, we do not have enough evidence to conclude that they were equally advanced in terms of technology. On one hand we have descriptions of weapons that are almost identical to nuclear missiles, intricate description of Vimanas, and on the other we have fallacious notions about the solar system and planets.

Was the birth of Duryodhana and his brothers an example of human cloning?

Were the Pandavas born of artificial insemination?

Were there weapons that could obliterate millions in the blink of an eye?

Did the Shalwa King actually attack Dwaraka from a spaceship?

Sad as it seems, we would probably never find answers to these questions. Perhaps we would never be able to uncover the reality of a science that remains hidden behind strata of later additions and modifications made by a less intellectual progeny.

The Mahabharata

The Mahabharata, like its less illustrious predecessor, the Ramayana, has left a larger than life impact on the Indian psyche. Perhaps the fact that it entails all the possible dimensions of human behaviour is a reason people still identify so intensely with this wonderful piece of literature. The aim of the Ramayana is but to sing the glory of the Maryada Purushottam , and thus put forward a life story that is supposed to be perfectly ideal in all respects. And in a bid to glorify Rama, the Ramayana has done little justice to the other main characters; their personalities have been painted shabbily and casually, most being severly unidimensional.

The Mahabharata, on the other hand, does not have any central character: and though the basic story revolves around the clash among Kuru princes for power, there are stories within stories, and branches coming out of the stem that lead to twigs and leaves. Even the villains have virtues, and the heroes have vices, and it is difficult to single out a spotless character in the entire epic. All the main characters are painted as strong, emotional and determined individuals who are keen to speak their hearts out. They behave in manners that appeal even to the modern man. Even Yudhishthira, the epitome of virtuousness gets criticised by his younger brothers for his folly. Draupadi doesn't weep in sorrow for the abuse she faces, but censures her husbands for her misery. It is here that the Mahabharata by far surpasses the Ramayana. The great warriors no longer remain aliens fighting a space odyssey, but people like us, people who think and feel the way we think and feel. And through this realization, our heart bleeds for Karna's misery; our hatred ignites to see Dusshasan's atrocities and our conscience cries against Bhishma's helplessness.

Traditionalists might argue religiously that the aim of this epic is to spread the lessons of the Bhagavatgeeta, but in fact, the book is much larger and much greater than that inspiring speech attributed to Krishna. The Mahabharata is more than just the history of a family feud. It's a reflection of life itself. And like life, its appeal is eternal.