“As when fire from earth’s deep centre
Boils and makes way to the crust
And its great heat melts the rock
And the lava flows and spreads;
The volcanic envy in his heart
Erupted in his mind and soul,
All strength and manliness melted,
Valour and honour were lost.”7
Giving in to his pleadings Dhritarashtra invited Yudhistira to Hastinapura for a game of dice. Despite Vidura’s appeal not to fall into the trap, Yudhistira accepts the challenge as a true philosopher. Duryodhana gets his evil-minded uncle Sakuni to play on his behalf. Yudhistira is systematically denuded of all his possessions, and even the personal liberty of the five Pandavas. Challenged further by Sakuni, Yudhistira makes Draupadi a stake. It is a terrible, soul-scorching scene as Panchali is lost. The Pandavas are frozen by the calamity while the Kauravas exult and call upon the ‘slave’ Draupadi to present herself in the court. On Duryodhana’s command, she is dragged into the Assembly Hall by Dushasana. Her pleadings and arguments in the Kaurava court are in vain. Even Bhishma expresses his helplessness in the name of received tradition when she questions him regarding a woman’s place in the society: is woman an independent person or merely a chattel owned by man? Her words pour forth with terrifying intensity:
“Finely, bravely spoken Sir!
When treacherous Ravana, having carried away
And lodged Sita in his garden,
Called his ministers and law-givers
And told them the deed he had done,
These same wise old advisers declared:
‘Thou hast done the proper thing:
‘Twill square with dharma’s claims!’
When the demon king rules the land
Needs must the sastras feed on filth!
Was it well done to trick my guileless king
To play at dice? Wasn’t it deceit,
A predetermined act of fraud
Meant to deprive us of our land?
O ye that have sisters and wives.
Isn’t this a crime on Woman?
Would you be damned for ever?8
Subramania Bharati had unerringly chosen a theme that would symbolize the problems then facing the country and his own faith in Mahashakti to overcome the ills of helpless human beings. He was writing at a time when Mother India was in shackles and downtrodden by foreigners and when women were being mistreated by men in every way. This multi-pronged signification of the Mahabharata heroine by Subramania Bharati has been well brought out by K. R. Srinivasa Iyengar:
“Just as Vidula’s exhortation to her son Sanjay in the Udyoga-Parva comes to us today with the fervour of a stirring national anthem, so too the story of Draupadi’s travail and ultimate triumph is seen invested with a high potential of significance that comprehends all instances of hard dealing, all records of wickedness, all manifestations of man’s cruelty to man, all terror-haunted crucifixions, jehads, Belsens and Noakhalis. Draupadi, seen in this light, is the hunted amongst us, haunted by the spectre of Duhshasana approaching us with unclean aggressive hands, dazed by a feeling of the futility of the Bhishmas, Viduras and Dronas that drone their somnolent words, strong only in our strength to die and in our unfaltering faith in God. More particularly, Draupadi the blessed eternal feminine is also Bharata Mata reduced to slavery and penury by her own dear ones, taunted and manacled and humiliated by the greedy foreigner no less than by the treacherous ‘friend’, starved in her body and maimed in her soul, isolated, trapped, mutilated– and yet somehow alive, alive with the strength of her Faith, alive in the knowledge of the puissance of God’s timely succour. Draupadi whose soul is hurt by the spectacle of human cruelty, Bharata Mata whose body is bruised and whose soul is writhing in agony, and the Great Creatrix– the seed-of-all, womb-of-all—coalesce together and confuse our familiar categories of understanding. Draupadi is no doubt Woman–she is all the women who have borne the burden of suffering in this sullied sublunary sphere—but she is also, seen from another angle, the Shakti to whose awakened eyes the Parashakti has revealed Herself, and Her Personalities and Powers. Bharati’s Panchali Sapatham viewed thus in the context of the Aurobindonian and Gandhian revolutions of our time is somewhat of a mantra of redemption, an enunciation of the religion of patriotism.”
In this moment of utter despair, Draupadi makes the supreme gesture of complete surrender to God. Her faith in God is absolute, her rejection of all earthly support is final. She lifts both her hands from the portion of the garment covering her and joins them in an act of prapatti, a symbol of the charama sloka in the Gita: “Abandon all dharmas, and take refuge in Me alone. I will deliver thee from all sin and evil. Do not grieve.”
When Krishna’s grace flows over her as streams of garments, one must needs go to Bharati again for the visual and the similes:
“Like the woes of liars,
The fame of the wise,
Like woman’s pity,
Like the waves of the troubled sea:
Even as, when people praise the Mother
The tide of their fortunes surges more and more,
As Duhshasana dared the outrage,
Their came robe after robe
By the grace of the Lord;
They came without end,
Clothes of colours how many,
And clothes innumerable.”9
The crisis is past but not the woes of the Pandavas. Infuriated by the act of Duhshasana, Bhima vows that he would tear open his chest and drink his blood. The assembled courtiers are also disillusioned and cry out against Duryodhana. Sensing the mood of the assemblage, Dhritarashtra gifts the freedom of the Pandavas to Draupadi. However, they are called back again by Dhritarashtra for another round of dice. Fate-impelled Yudhistira loses everything again to Sakuni. The Pandavas and Draupadi go to the forests in exile for twelve years to be followed by a year of living incognito before claiming back their kingdom.
The Vana and Virata Parvas form the scenes for the Pandavan wanderings and incidentally give us innumerable branch stories that have since then become part of the racial consciousness. For instance, the legend of Nala that closely parallels that of the Pandavas which is narrated to them by Sage Brihadaswa has been a living experience for Indians who go to Tirunallar even now to worship Shani Bhagawan and be rid of kali-dosha. For, the Kali attack on Nala and Damayanti has been a dreaded page in our cultural history. Such has been its closeness to the Indian psyche that it has been a tradition to recite a sloka in the morning that is said to keep us away from danger throughout the day:
Karkotakasya nagasya, damayantya Nalasya cha,
Rituparnasya rajarsheh kirtanam Kali nasanam
(Sing of the Karkotaka snake, Damayanti, Nala and the royal sage Rituparna– to destroy the effects of Kali.)
And we are told that if we wish to escape the destructive effects of Kali, we ought to narrate to ourselves or others the story of Nala and Damayanti. The tradition must already have been there and so listening to Nala’s story would help the Pandavas overcome the evil effects of Kali. We must note that in Sage Brihadaswa’s telling there were some important points. Thus when Pushkara challenged Nala to stake his wife, the latter did not. Instead, he threw down his ornaments and those of Damayanti and both of them went out of the palace. For three nights they stayed in the outskirts of the capital subsisting on fruits and roots. Since Pushkara had let it be known that anyone found helping Nala would be punished with death, none dared to come close to them. The travails of Nala and Damayanti had begun. All is well that ends well, they say. The story of Nala must have brought comfort to the Pandavan exiles; and certainly the indictment insinuated by Sage Brihadaswa was well-taken. Draupadi was not made a stake again.
Each experience of the exiles became a scripture of dharma for the reader. The Yaksha-prashna, for instance. It is pure wisdom! After successfully completing their exile in Virata where they remained unrecognized, the Pandavas emerged in the open and demanded their kingdom back. Duryodhana refused. Most of the Pandava group wanted war as they could not forget the insults and indignities they had suffered at the hands of Duryodhana and his henchmen. Krishna went as an ambassador on their behalf to the Kauravas. Duryodhana would not listen to reason.
It is a curious situation. Bhishma, the grandsire of the Kuru dynasty, knew full well that dharma was on the side of the Pandavas. He loved Arjuna deeply, yet he led the Kaurava forces. Draupadi’s brother Dhrishtadhyumna, was the commander-in-chief of the Pandava forces. The war raged for eighteen days and on the Kaurava side there had to be changes made regularly to lead the army. Bhishma’s command lasted for ten days; he was followed by Drona as the Commander-in-chief for five days; Karna took over for the following two days; Salya’s command was only for half a day, while the rest of that day was taken up with the duel between Bhima and Duryodhana. During all these eighteen days Dhrishtadhyumna was the unwearying Commander-in-chief of the Pandava forces and he was felled in the middle of the eighteenth day’s night by the unheroic and dastardly crime committed by Aswattthama, Kripacharya and Kritavarma.
If the earlier narratives gave us plentiful of upakhyanas, the Books of War (Bhishma, Drona, Karna, Shalya and Sauptika) give us plenty of information to think about what constitutes dharma and what goes against it. Some of the greatest scenarios– dreadful mostly– occur in these Parvas. Abhimanyu who was killed when he was unarmed, the ancient Pragjyotisha king Bhagadatta who tied his drooping eyelids up and fought riding his huge elephant Supratika, Ghatotkacha who could be killed only by Karna’s Shakti missile, the amazing discourse on yogas by Krishna to Arjuna, the recounting of the Lord’s one thousand names by Bhishma even as he lay on a bed of arrows mortally wounded, the moment when Karna forgot missile-mantras due to Parasurama’s curse, the end of unarmed Bhurishravas… so many! The Great War ends but there is no joy or excitement. We have the Stri Parva where the great heroines weep for their dead fathers, brothers, husbands, sons and grandsons seen through the eyes of Gandhari, in an exceptionally heart-rending lamentation.
Shanti Parva and Anushasana Parva are full of important instructions regarding the way one must lead a dharmic life on earth. Here we see the great warrior Bhishma as an equally great teacher. And the stories keep coming, never a dull narrative! It is in Anushasana Parva that we get to hear of Shiva’s greatness through Upamanyu who also recites the Shiva Sahasranama. The amazing tale of the disciple Vipula, the bereaved mother Gautami’s compassionate message… there is nothing of human experience that has not been noted down in the Mahabharata! Ashvamedhika Parva describes the Horse Sacrifice performed by King Yudhistira. Ashramvasika Parva has Dhritarashtra, Gandhari and Kunti going away to the forest to end their days. It is significant that Queen Mother Kunti takes the decision not to remain in the midst of royal pomp and prefers to spend her last days serving those whose decisions had resulted in the terrible war. Maushala Parva is about the internecine warfare among Yadavas and their total destruction. Mahaprasthanika Parva records the feelings of the Pandavas on hearing of the passing away of Krishna, the crowning of Parikshit and their undertaking the final journey.
“As they had once before left
After losing the dice-game,
With Draupadi making a group of six.
But the brothers were cheerful.
Yudhistira’s decision was final,
And the Vrishnis were all wiped out.
The five brothers set out,
Krishna-Draupadi making the sixth.
Following them was a seventh,
Bound to their yoga, they travelled far and wide, crossing many rivers and even seas (saritah sagarastata). On their way Agni appeared before them and advised Arjuna to give up his Gandiva to Varuna which he did. Thus circumambulating the earth, they came to the Himalayas. Passing beyond it, Draupadi, Sahadeva, Nakula, Arjuna and Bhima fell down dead one after another. Yudhistira alone, accompanied by the dog moved further on. Indra arrived in his chariot to take Yudhistira to heaven but the Dharmic brother would not agree. He wanted to go where his brothers were. Indra assured him they were in heaven. Now Yudhistira wanted the dog to accompany him to heaven. When Indra asked him to forget the dog, Yudhistira rejected the idea repeatedly;
“‘O thousand-eyed god!’
For a man of character
To do a deed
Is extremely difficult.
I want no glory
That involves abandoning
A bhakta of mine…
This is my vow,
I will not swerve from it.
I will not abandon
A bhakta, a brutalized,
Or one who is helpless,
Even if my own life
Is in danger.”11
Indra is pleased and invites him to ascend to heaven but once again Yudhistira refuses as he would not like to be at a place where his brothers are absent. In the final Book, the Svargarohana Parva Yudhisitra gets to see the Kauravas in heaven and his own brothers in hell. Rishi Narada’s words bring him no comfort. He prefers to stay in Hell. Now Yama-Dharmaraja speaks to Yudhistira:
“O king, I am greatly pleased, O thou of great wisdom, with thee, O son, by thy devotion to me, by thy truthfulness of speech, and forgiveness, and self-restraint. This, indeed, is the third test, O king, to which I put thee. Thou art incapable, O son of Pritha, of being swerved from thy nature or reason. Before this, I had examined thee in the Dwaita woods by my questions, when thou hadst come to that lake for recovering a couple of fire sticks. Thou stoodst it well. Assuming the shape of a dog, I examined thee once more, O son, when thy brothers with Draupadi had fallen down. This has been thy third test; thou hast expressed thy wish to stay at Hell for the sake of thy brothers. Thou hast become cleansed, O highly blessed one. Purified of sin, be thou happy. O son of Pritha, thy brothers, O king, were not such as to deserve Hell. All this has been an illusion created by the chief of the gods. Without doubt, all kings, O son, must once behold Hell. Hence hast thou for a little while been subjected to this great affliction.”12
Having cast off his human body by bathing in the celestial Ganga, Yudhistira gained the form of a deva. He joined the celestial group in heaven where all his people were found in a state beyond joy and grief. Thus ends the Mahabharata in a mood of peace that passeth mere human understanding.
Of the hundreds of characters in the Mahabharata, there are many who seem to be our shadows. They walk with us all the time. Of these again, seven persons remain with us, whether we are awake or asleep. The first and foremost of them is Bhishma. His is the haunting image of the doughty warrior. What is it that he has not seen in his long, long life? To have sailed through it all without a shadow cast on his personal integrity makes us wonder at the noble Dharma that was created by our ancestors. The holiness of a vow, a pratijna. This is something which is not set aside with impunity even in these days of moral turpitude. In a way, the long, tragic life of Bhishma was perhaps of his own making. Had he not decided, so early in his life to take a terrible vow? We go to the very beginnings of the Mahabharata to know the circumstances of the vow.
Mother Ganga had brought Devavrata as a young man to Santanu. A heir to the haloed throne of Kuruvamsa! King Sgantanu must have been the happiest of man that day. The mother herself assured the king about Devavrata’s attainments:
With Vasishta he studied
The Vedas and Vedangas;
he’s a fine archer, like the raja of the gods
Indra himself in battle.
Both the gods and anti-gods
regard him highly.
Whatever Vedas and sastras
Sakra-Indra knows, he knows too.
Whatever Vedas and sastras
the son of Angiras,
honoured by gods and anti-gods, knows
this child knows too.
All weapons that were known
to the son of Jamadagni, Parasurama,
are known to this shining,
He is a splendid archer,
he knows the arts of war,
and the dharma of rajas.
O raja, take hm home.”13
King Shantanu was delighted and soon after he crowned Devavrata as the heir-apparent. The prince brought joy to everyone by his natural goodness. Four years later, Shantanu happened to be walking on the banks of Yamuna. Here he met the daughter of the chief of fishermen and wished to marry her. The father said he had no objection to the marriage provided the king would assure him that the girl’s son would succeed Shantanu to the throne. Shantanu refused to give any such assurance and returned to Hastinapura. When some time had passed, Devavrata noticed that his father was not the same as before and some worry was eating him from within. On being asked, the king merely said:
“That I wonder, son of Ganga,
should anything happen to you ..
what will happen to our dynasty?
You are more than a hundred sons to me.
It isn’t that I wish to marry
again. My only wish is
that you should prosper,
and our dynasty continue.
Wise men say: One son
is no son at all,
having one son only is
like having one eye only.
That eye lost, means body lost.
That son lost, means family doomed.
Agni-hotr-fire-worship and Veda-knowledge
do not give one-sixteenth
the merit that comes
with the birth of a son,
In this respect, it is said,
all creatures are alike.
O maha-learned Bharata!
I believe firmly that heaven
is his who has a son.
The eternal Vedas, essence of the Puranas,
The three shining lights are:
children, karma and knowledge.
My dear child, tata, of these
the greatest is children.
You, my son, O great Bharata,
are strong-willed, you are always
practising various war weapons.
should you die in battle,
What will be the fate, my dear son, tata,
of our race, our dynasty?
This is the cause of my sorrow.
now you know.”14
Being intelligent Devavrata did not argue. He went to a trusted minister of Shantanu and learnt of the real cause of the king’s depression. He went straight to the girl’s father who was holding court, and promised him that her son would be king after Shantanu. The father remained unconvinced. Devavrata was a man of honour, but suppose his sons were to create problems later on, holding up the law of primogeniture? Without a moment’s hesitation Devavrata said:
“O Dasa-raja! Finest of men!
Listen to my words
which I utter in the presence
of these great kshatriyas …
Did I not, O Kshatriyas,
give up my right to the throne
a little while ago?
let me settle this once and for all now.
Fisherman, from today
I adopt celibacy.
I am now a brahmachari.
Sonless, nonetheless I will find heaven.”15
Vyasa says that immediately the gods above rained flowers upon the head of Devavrata saying, bhishmoyam iti abhruvan (this person is terrible). Indeed a person who could undertake such a vow of life-long brahmacharya must have heroic self-control. As a result, Devavrata came to be known as Bhishma (the terrible) for all time. Events followed in quick succession after the youthful prince took the vow. He brought Satyavati to Shantanu at Hastinapura and conveyed to the assembled courtiers all that had happened. While they applauded him, Shantanu accepted her and bestowed upon Bhishma the boon of svachchandamaranam (death at will).
This vow of life-long brahmacharya turned out to be the cause of Bhishma’s fame as well as his sorrow-laden life. There are no soliloquies about the state of Bhishma’s mind during his long life when this vow had come in the way of smoothening out a major problem. Jatindra Mohan Sengupta has tried to do exactly this in his long poem, Bhishma’s Bed of Arrows (1928). From the moment he proclaimed, adhyaprabhruti me daasa brahmacharyam bhavishyati to the instant when he fell from his chariot in the Kurukshetra field like the flag of Indra, his had been a life of action, not contemplation. Now lying still on the bed of arrows, he has a longish remembrance of things past. Regrets? He must have definitely wondered, was it all worth the sacrifice? Was it right that he refused to marry Amba when she was directionless? After all, was it not Bhishma who had caused her problem? When Satyavati herself asked him to get children through Ambika and Ambalika after Vichitravirya’s death, he refused and instead went for Vyasa:
“Scriptual sanction I hunted out,
sacrificing sound sense.
In my family arrived
blind and anaemic sons.
Hear, O Lord,
my bed-of-arrows' not without cause.
That sordid act with Kuru wives
burns my heart still.
"Or dharma would have been violated!"—they say,
perhaps that very day
Kuru dynasty would've ended;
but with it all Kshatriyas of Bharata
wouldn't be extinct.”16
Bhishma could not have been happy when his beloved Arjuna was made to share his wife with all his brothers. Was it not adultery? But he had kept silent. Sengupta insinuates that from the day he took the vow, he had been lying upon a metaphorical bed to which arrows were added in succession. Had he not failed all women with whom he had come in contact? He had brought Amba by force to Hastinapura and her life was in ruins. He had chosen Gandhari for Dhritarashtra without realizing how disappointed the young princess must feel at a connection which she could not refuse. And Panchali! Had his vow of brahmacharya rendered him into a physical stone when it had to face a crisis involving a woman? He had remained in his seat unmoving when the great Drupada’s daughter, the sister of Drishtadhyumna, his own grand-daughter-in-law was dragged into the Hall by Duhshasana by her tresses. When Draupadi asked him whether this was right, whether a wife could be gambled away in dice, he had no answer. He who had not been humanised by a woman’s presence hid himself in the profound term, Dharma.
“Bhisma said, ‘fortune-favoured lady,
I know a man with no wealth
cannot stake another’s wealth
I also know a wife
is at her husband’s command.
What can I say?
It is all very puzzling.
Dharma is very subtle.
Yudhistira will give up the entire world
rather than deviate from dharma.
‘I have been won’. Very confusing.
I don’t know what to say.”17
That is all! What cowards can heroes be! As Sengupta races towards the end of the old man’s soliloquy, we can only pity a broken spirit:
“Vainly in youth throne and wife I sacrificed
for family's sake;
Truth itself departs from him
who swears for falsehood's sake.
Who opens the path to sin
Gains not renouncing's merit.
Divine-play is revealed when man loses humanity:--
behind Shikhandi, Partha battles,--
on the chariot Hari smiles,
fortunate Bhishma had the boon
to die only at will.”
It then becomes obvious that Bhishma’s vow was the false start of a great but star-crossed life. Sengupta feels that Santanu’s boon of svachchandamaranam turned out to be as much a curse as the vow itself. Of course the characters and events of the epic can face any number of readings. However, as far as Bhishma is concerned the boon of ‘dying at will’ brings to us one of the most poignant episodes in the