Volume 6 - Issue 08
AUGUST - 2008
THE EPIC MAHABHARATA:
The story of Krishna that I narrated earlier does not include a description of the Great War between the Kauravas and the Pandavas which took place at Kurukshetra. This war is a story in itself, and Krishna's role in this war is of paramount significance, particularly because it was at the beginning of this eighteen-day war that Krishna preached the Bhagavad Gita to Arjuna.
The Kurukshetra War was basically a family feud which not only snowballed into a huge conflict but actually became a tussle between righteousness (Dharma) and unrighteousness (Adharma). Initially it seemed as if fortune favoured the forces of evil (as indeed it always appears to). Eventually of course, Dharma triumphed, as it has to always, though throughout history mankind has generally lacked the confidence that it will!
By the way, it is no surprise that Dharma had the final say since the Blessed Lord was personally backing it. As in every other instance, the war left a massive trail of devastation, reminding us that the price of victory is never cheap; but when Dharma itself is at stake, no price is too expensive - that was the moral then and it remains the same today too.
King Santanu's Marriage Vow to Goddess Ganga
The story starts with King Santanu of Hastinapura who one day came across a damsel of extraordinary and bewitching beauty. The young lady was none other than the goddess Ganga (representing the River Ganges) who, for divine reasons, had assumed a human form. Succumbing to her charms, the King begged her to become his wife, which Ganga agreed to but on one condition.
She said: “O King, under no circumstances must you ask me who I am, where I come from, etc. Nor must you ever probe my actions however legitimate your concern might seem to you. If you agree to my stipulations, I shall marry you but be warned that if ever you violate your promise, I shall forthwith leave you for ever.” So infatuated was the King that without a second thought he agreed to all the laid conditions.
Soon a child was born but Ganga, without batting an eyelid, threw the baby into the river Ganges! Santanu was horrified but bound by his promise, could do precious little. Other children came but every one of them was promptly despatched to a watery grave and the count quickly rose to seven. Then came the eighth child and as Ganga was about to throw the baby boy into the river, Santanu picked up courage and tried to stop her.
Ganga then said to Santanu: “O King, you seem to have forgotten your promise and so I have to leave you now. This child I shall not kill but will take him with me; however, later I shall hand him over to you. But before I go let me tell you that I am not a heartless woman given to killing her own children.
Those whom I was forced to destroy were bound by a curse and I was the agency used for implementing the curse.” She said so and disappeared with the baby. About eight or so years later Ganga appeared before Santanu and handed over his son who had been named Devavrata and had already become proficient in the martial arts. Ganga then vanished.
Bhishma's Terrific Vow
Four more years went by and one day, Santanu saw a young fisherwoman named Satyavati whom he wanted to marry. He approached the father of the girl and the father said that he would give his daughter in marriage provided Santanu would make her child the King of the realm after Santanu's death. This, the King would not agree to, because that would amount to rank injustice to Devavrata, now blossoming as a fine prince. Nevertheless, he continued to pine for Satyavati.
Seeing his father in a distraught condition, Devavrata made enquires. Once he came to learn of the reason, he promptly renounced his claim to the throne and in addition swore that he would never marry so that there would be no children through him who could later contest the kingship. On account of this vow Devavrata came to be known as Bhishma or the one who took a terrific vow, a name that replaced the one given by his mother.
Santanu had two sons named Chitrangada and Vichitravirya through Satyavati, and to Vichitravirya were born two sons named Dhritarashtra and Pandu. Dhritarashtra married Gandhari and sired a hundred sons known collectively as the Kauravas. Pandu married two wives - Kunti and Madri - and had five sons in all, known as the Pandavas.
Dhritarashtra, the elder son, was born blind and therefore Pandu was appointed to the throne. At that time, Pandu had no sons. One day he went hunting and as the result of unhappy circumstances came under the curse of a Rishi according to which he, Pandu, would forfeit his life if he sought conjugal pleasure.
Heartbroken, Pandu surrendered the kingdom to his elder brother Dhritarashtra, and retired with his two wives to the forest to lead a life of penance and austerity. Dhritarashtra was advised in the affairs of the state by his able minister Vidura and of course also by his uncle Bhishma.
A Gift from the Sun God
Pandu's elder wife Kunti was actually the sister of Vasudeva, the father of Krishna. You might remember that I have mentioned this before. When she was young she had been given in adoption to a king named Kunti Bhoja and for that reason, she was known as Kunti. As a young girl, Kunti had won a special boon from Sage Durvasa. According to that, by chanting a sacred Mantra and thinking of a deity, she would get a son with all the qualities of that deity.
Tremendously excited, Kunti decided to try it out immediately and chanting the Mantra, she meditated upon Surya (the Sun god). Surya at once appeared before her and said: "I bless you with my son." Aghast, Kunti said, "My Lord, I didn't realise that this Mantra was so powerful and that it would work so fast! I am not married and what would people say if I were to have a son now? Please help me!"
Surya replied, "I am afraid I cannot take back the son. But don't worry, for, the baby would be born right now and you don't have to wait for nine months; also, the birth would not affect your virginity."
Karna, the child of Surya, was born forthwith and putting the baby in a sealed box, Kunti let the box afloat in a river. The box was spotted and picked up by a charioteer named Adhiratha, and Karna grew up under the care of the charioteer’s wife named Radha. For this reason, Karna was also sometimes referred to as Radheya.
Later Kunti got married to Pandu and when she went along with him to the forest, Pandu desiring progeny asked her to invoke the boon granted by Durvasa. Thus it was that Kunti gave birth to Yudhishtra by meditating upon Dharmaraja, the Lord of righteousness and death; Bhima, by meditating upon Vayu, the wind god; and Arjuna by contemplating on Indra, the King of the Devas (angels). On Pandu's request, Kunti taught Madri the same Mantra and helped her to get two sons named Nakula and Sahadeva. In this way, Pandu became the notional father of five sons [collectively known as the Pandavas], but biologically he was not.
Arjuna vs. Karna: A Prelude to War
After the birth of the five sons, Pandu was one day seized with physical desire and sought to enjoy conjugal relations with Madri. Instantly the curse became effective, and he died. The Pandava princes now returned from the forest to Hastinapura and came under the protection of their grandsire Bhishma. The latter appointed Kripa (known reverentially as Kripacharya) as a teacher to the sons of Dhritarashtra as well as of Pandu. Though the Kauravas and the Pandavas grew up together, there was generally no love between them, particularly between Duryodhana, the eldest of the Kauravas, and Bhima. The only one to rise totally above all ill feelings was the eldest of them all, the wise and gentle Yudhishtra (also known as Dharmaputra) who was singularly different.
Sometime later, the task of imparting instruction fell to Drona (also referred respectfully as Dronacharya), the brother-in-law of Kripacharya. One day, Drona announced a public contest to test the skills of his pupils. It was a big event, and besides the king, the elite as well as the general public were invited to witness the proceedings.
One by one the young princes were called upon to display their skills, and when it came to the turn of Arjuna, there appeared in the arena an intruder who dared to challenge Arjuna, and actually displayed equal skill in archery.
Feeling deeply insulted, Arjuna challenged the intruder to a combat; the intruder was none other than Karna. At this stage, Drona intervened to say that a prince could fight only another prince. Would Karna identify himself? Was he a prince? Whose son was he?
Karna, who believed that he was the son of a charioteer, felt deeply pained that he was being kept out on flimsy technical grounds. It was at this stage that Duryodhana came forward to extend support and patronage to Karna, an act that was to have far-reaching consequences.
On the spot, Duryodhana made Karna the King of Anga, a territory lying within the kingdom of Dhritarashtra. Meanwhile the Sun had set and the days proceedings were declared concluded; as a result the fight between Karna and Arjuna did not take place. But deep animosity between the two took root and it lasted till Karna was finally killed in the Kurukshetra war.
Duryodhana's Plot Backfires
When the Kaurava princes and the Pandavas reached the age of assuming responsibility, there was much speculation about how Dhritarashtra would transfer power. On the compelling advice of Bhishma and Vidura [in passing I should mention that Bhishma and Vidura acted as advisers to Dhritarashtra], Dhritarashtra appointed Yudhishtra as the Crown Prince. However, that did not imply, at least in Dhritarashtra's mind, that Yudhishtra would automatically succeed to the throne.
Duryodhana, of course, was in no mood to be deprived of power or even to share it with the Pandavas, and he spared no pains to hatch schemes for the elimination of his cousins. Plotting with his uncle Sakuni and Karna, Duryodhana got built a fabulous palace at a place called Varanavata.
The palace was unusual in that it was built entirely of lacquer, a highly inflammable material, though this was not evident to the eye. Duryodhana's idea was to somehow entice the Pandavas to visit the palace and once they were there, to arrange an "accidental" fire in which his cousins would perish.
The Pandavas duly fell into the trap, but Vidura who got wind of Duryodhana's evil intentions gave a coded warning to Yudhishtra with the words: "A forest fire cannot hurt a rat which shelters itself in a hole."
When the Pandavas reached their destination and discovered that the palace was nothing but a fire bomb, they quietly built a tunnel, set fire to the palace themselves before Duryodhana's agents could do so, and silently escaped through the tunnel into the forest. News about the fire reached Hastinapura and Duryodhana, who did not know that his plan had gone astray, assumed that the Pandavas were dead and secretly rejoiced. Only Vidura knew that the Pandavas were safe and he shared that information with Bhishma alone.
Deeply conscious now that the Kauravas would not stop at anything, the Pandavas chose to remain in disguise as they wandered about. In the process, they came to the kingdom of Panchala (the land of the five rivers, i.e., modern Punjab) ruled by Drupada. Drupada was an enemy of Drona, and he had two sons named Dhristadyumna and Sikhandi. The latter was actually born as a girl but aided by divine circumstances later transformed into a boy; this sex change was to have implications in the elimination of Bhishma in the Great War.
A 'Prize' for the Pandavas
At the time when the Pandavas made their entry into Panchala, Drupada had arranged an exotic archery contest to select a suitor for his daughter Draupadi (also known as Panchali).
Disguised as Brahmins, the Pandavas made their way to the scene of the contest. The contest, which was open to members of the warrior class (i.e., the Kshatriya caste), soon got under way. None could score a success, including Karna, who missed by the proverbial hair's breadth.
At this stage, Arjuna stood up to ask if a Brahmin could make a try. Draupadi's brother Dhristadyumna said that any noble son of a noble mother could do so, whereupon Arjuna with effortless ease shot into the complex target. Without a moment's hesitation, Draupadi followed Arjuna to the hut of the Pandavas.
As the victors were entering, Kunti asked them what they had brought home from the contest. "A prize", was the reply, whereupon, Kunti having no knowledge of the nature of the so-called prize, asked them to share it equally. Naturally this posed a nasty problem, and Draupadi was duly consulted.
She did not mind marrying all the five simultaneously, but her father Drupadha was shocked beyond words - naturally. At this stage, Sage Vyasa arrived on the scene and he told Drupadha that in her previous birth, Draupadi had prayed five times intensely to Siva for a good husband. Her prayers were being answered all together now in this birth, and so, a one-time exception could be made to a woman marrying more than one husband. Vyasa also added that no other woman could invoke this example as an excuse to marry more than one husband. Drupada withdrew his objection, and Kunti welcomed the new addition to their family.
At the time of their marriage, the Pandavas gave up their disguise, and of course, Drupada was most delighted to learn that his sons-in-law were actually princes. The Pandavas returned to Hastinapura triumphantly, much to the delight of Vidura, Bhishma and the general public as well; needless to say that Duryodhana and Karna boiled inside with fury since their plan had completely backfired.
The big question was: "What would happen now?" Bhishma advocated that the best course would be for Dhritarashtra to divide his kingdom into two parts and hand over one of these to the Pandavas to rule, leaving the other half to the Kauravas.
Vidura lent active support and added, "It is a common talk among the people that we tried to kill the Pandavas. This is the only way of silencing such gossip." Though not quite willing, Dhritarashtra yielded as this seemed the best way of securing peace.
Outwitted, Duryodhana tried to make the best of a bad bargain by making sure that the portion of the empire that the Pandavas received was dry, barren and unproductive.
Naming their kingdom as Indraprastha, by sheer hard work the Pandavas transformed it into a lush and prosperous country, whereupon Duryodhana once again became furious and consumed with jealousy.
Meanwhile, Krishna's association with the Pandavas grew, and that is how He came to use Bhima to exterminate Jarasanda. Later, Krishna exploited the opportunity provided by the Rajasuya Yajna performed by Yudhishtra to personally annihilate Sishupala.
Fates Decided by a Game of Dice
Duryodhana's anger against the Pandavas having reached new heights, the plotting against them resumed with renewed vigour. Many plans were considered, outright war being one of them. Karna was fully in favour of a direct attack, but Duryodhana's uncle Sakuni strongly advised against it. He said, "We must use brains and not brawn. Entice them to a game of dice and leave the rest to me." Seeing the merit of the suggestion, the plotters then met Dhritarashtra and sought his blessings to invite the Pandavas for a game of dice.
Dhritarashtra consulted Vidura who was revolted by the idea. However, by exploiting parental softness, Duryodhana had his way and Vidura, the objector, was himself despatched to convey the invitation to the Pandavas for a game of dice. In those days, the etiquette among kings was that an invitation to a sport, especially a game of dice should be honoured and not refused. And thus, it was that Yudhishtra and his brothers came to Hastinapura for what they thought was a normal game of dice.
Duryodhana, of course, had other plans and proposed that while he would make the wagers, the dice would actually be thrown on his behalf by Sakuni. The ever-soft Yudhishtra raised no objections, not suspecting in the least that Sakuni would skilfully manipulate the dice, literally making them dance to his (Sakuni's) tune.
Yudhishtra had a string of failures or bad luck, unprecedented in history but never once did he suspect foul play. In all innocence, he played according to the rules, while his opponents cheated at every conceivable opportunity.
To cut a long story short, Yudhishtra wagered and successively lost jewels, chariots, animals like horses, elephants, even cows, sheep, etc. Having lost all worldly possessions, he then bet his four brothers and lost them too. Egged by Sakuni, he then thoughtlessly offered his own self as a wager, and soon found that he too had become the slave of Duryodhana!
One would have thought that would be the end of the game; no, Yudhishtra was reminded that he still had something he could wager and that was his wife, Draupadi. His discrimination entirely blunted, Yudhishtra took the incredible step of offering Draupadi as a bet and lost her too. And this precisely was what many like Karna were waiting for - to inflict the ultimate in humiliation.
While all this drama was going on in the royal assembly, Draupadi was indoors blissfully unaware that her husband had lost everything including himself and her too. But when Duryodhana's brother Duhsasana burst into her chambers to drag her by her hair to the assembly, the reality of the situation hit her like a ton of bricks. There she was in the assembly, the high and the mighty at one end, her enslaved husbands at the other, and she in the middle held by her hair by Duhsasana, while the Kauravas took turns in taunting her and hurling filthy remarks.
Deep in anguish and eyes drenched with tears, Draupadi looked pleadingly at her husbands, five of them, but there was no help from that quarter. She then appealed to the learned ones like Bhishma and Kripacharya, but they silently looked the other way. And then, rising to new levels of indecent and atrocious behaviour, Duhsasana, at the behest of Duryodhana and Karna tried to disrobe Draupadi in public.
The distressed damsel now had only one resort, and that was to appeal to Lord Krishna Himself. Loudly and pathetically she wailed, "O Krishna, O Lord of Mathura, O Lord of Dwaraka, O my Indweller, where are You in my hour of distress? They say You have a thousand eyes. Are they not watching what is going on?
"And pray, what did I do to deserve all this? My husbands swore by the sacred fire to protect me and my honour. Look at them now standing silently and not lifting a little finger! You are my only refuge and I surrender totally to You; it is now entirely up to You to protect my modesty."
Lo and behold, an extraordinary miracle took place. Even as Duhsasana tried to remove Draupadi's garments, fresh ones kept appearing. He tried and tried to strip her completely, but her sari kept extending endlessly. Eventually he became physically tired and simply quit, after which the proceedings abruptly ended.
Altogether, it was an electrifying drama and different people reacted differently. Dhritarashtra, for one, was frightened out of his wits, and counselled by his Queen Gandhari, he drew Draupadi aside, profusely apologised to her and promised that he would grant any wish of hers. Draupadi merely desired that her husbands be set free; they did not come to her rescue but here she was rescuing them! Dhritarashtra gladly did as asked and offered another boon to Draupadi which she politely refused. However, in a rare mood of generosity, Dhritarashtra gave back to Yudhishtra all that had been won (by unfair means) from him. So, at the end of the day, the Pandava brothers went back with their kingdom intact and a bag full of unpleasant memories.
This scene in the Mahabharatha is full of significance. This I shall elaborate in the next episode. Till then, all the best and may God be with you.
Jai Sai Ram.
(To be Continued...)
– Heart2Heart Team
Vol 6 Issue 08 - AUGUST 2008
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