Part 6! Back to the main storyline after a detour into Krishna and Karna. Although I guess there will be more detours here, that’s what the Mahabharat is about, all the little stories that make us think about how things happen, how they begin and end.
The Mahabharat is all building up to one big final battle, on the field at Kurukshetra. Most likely this battle is a true historical event. There is a true historical field there. It is where the refugees were put in the thousands after Partition, one great historical disaster from thousands of years ago being replaced by another. Every time Indian society fractures in half, somehow this one place holds the center of that fracture.
(Kurukshetra 1947. 300,000 refugees)
Imagine India of thousands of years ago. It’s underpopulated, communities are scattered and separated. And one of the first biggest areas to be civilized hosts the first major battle of the land. The story of it travels from place to place all over India, meanings and reasons and arguments are added on to the central idea of this one big battle. And eventually, after dozens of generations and hundreds of years, we have reached here. The Mahabharat, a great philosophical document wrapped around one historic event with variations on the story and the philosophy depending on which region of the country you are in.
At the end of the last section, we had the last great compromise between the Pandavas and their cousins the Kauravas. The Pandavas lost everything (including Draupadi’s body) in a dice game. But their uncle helped broker peace again, they agreed to leave the kingdom and wander for 12 years, then be in hiding for the 13th year, before finally returning home. And if they returned before that, or were discovered while in hiding, they would give up all claims on the kingdom.
There are many stories from these 12 years. All 5 Pandavas found additional wives besides Draupadi. And they had adventures while in disguise, including Arjun living for a year as a Eunuch, working as a dance teacher to a princess in a royal palace. At the end of the year, his true identity is revealed and the king offers him marriage to the princess. Arjun refuses, as he feels she is like a daughter to him after all this time of teaching her, but instead suggests marrying her to his young son with Subhadra, Abhimanyu.
(Thus the many many film plots that revolve around the hero pretending to be a dance teacher, a professor, all the other tricks to get close to the heroine. Only, they don’t usually end by saying “I am too old, marry my son”)
But these 12 years were all just a prologue. All their adventures, the small battles they fought, were leading up the confrontation they knew was coming. And indeed, after 13 years, they returned home to ask for return of their kingdom (if you remember, the Pandavas and Kauravas had previously agreed to split the territory and the Pandavas had built their own kingdom, which they then lost in the dice game but were promised would be returned after the 13 years of exile). The Kauravas argued that they had not succeeded in remaining in disguise all those years, that they were discovered. The Pandavas argued that they were discovered, but only after the 13th year was completed, so it does not count. Finally, there is no other choice. The two sides separate and agree to meet again in battle.
Think of the final battle like Captain America: Civil War. Each of the players has had their own adventures, made their own allies and enemies, gained knowledge and skills. And now they have all come here, to one place and at one time, and have lined up on opposing sides. And both sides have heroes.
I already talked about Karna, the greatest hero of the Kaurava side. But there was also Bhishma. Bhishma was noble, but lacked the ability to see beyond his nobility. Bhishma had given up his own right to marriage, children, and inheritance so that his father could remarry. Bhishma made this choice in order to serve others, but he also gave up all his responsibility for his own actions at the same time. One of the most complex parts of the Bhishma story is when he kidnapped the three princesses on behalf of his brother. The princesses were taking part in a Swayamvar, it was more or less accepted practice that if they were taken that would mean the one who took them “won” them. The pure fact of the kidnapping at this moment was not a problem. The problem started because Amba, the oldest princess, was already in love and planning to choose for herself her lover the king Salva at her Swayamvar.
(Of course, the two sisters who married the king would then end up being raped by a priest leading to their children being born weak and unhealthy. Life was tough for a woman in the Mahabharat!)
Salva followed and tried to take her back, Bhishma defeated him but spared his life. Bhishma continued on and presented the three princesses to his little brother as his wives. But Amba, the oldest, protested. She spoke to the council of Brahmins and defended her right to choose her own true love. Bhishma agreed, and offered to escort her back to Salva himself. But when they arrived, Salva refused her. Saying that Bhishma had defeated him and therefore, according to Kshatriya traditions, he had lost his right to Amba and she belonged to Bhishma now.
In despair, Amba went back to Bhishma because she had no where else to go. But Bhishma declared she was not good enough for his brother since she loved another man. And he would not take her himself because of his Great Vow. Amba had a Great Anger against him. She went into the forest and performed terrible rites for years (despite being told by everyone to just give up and go home to her father), asking the Gods that she be reborn as the one person who could kill Bhishma. Finally, the Gods took pity on her.
(Think of it like Pardes. Only if in the end Shahrukh had really just left Mahima at her father’s instead of turning back at the last minute. Would she hate her father and her fiance more, or would she hate their tool, the servant they used to trick her and woo her and make her fall in love?)
Bhishma had been given the boon that he could not be killed by any man. And so Amba was reborn as a man who lived in the body of a woman. He was Draupadi’s brother, raised as a boy. Only on his marriage was his true sex revealed. He went into the forest to pray and an ascetic offered to change his sex for the prince’s, making him a man outwardly as well as inwardly. Amba in this new life was now on the field at Kurushektra, dedicated to finally having her revenge on the man who destroyed her life in every possible way. And Bhishma was there, with his great ability and wisdom and boon of a life that could never end.
(Amba before battle in the newest TV adaptation)
That is one story of a feud that finds its end on this field. There are many others, enemies fated to face each other. Some of them in the right in their personal battle but in the wrong in the greater fight, some in the wrong in their personal battle but in the right in the greater fight.
Next to Bhishma, the wisest warrior on the side of the Kauravas was Drona. Drona was born a Brahmin, and therefore born in poverty. As a child, he became friends with the prince of the kingdom, they studied together. He grew up and excelled at knowledge of tactics and warfare. He benefited from his Brahmin status as a young man, he heard that the great fighting Brahmin Parashurama (a previous incarnation of Vishnu, before Krishna) was giving away all his possessions to Brahmins. He approached him as a Brahmin, and the king had nothing left but his weapons. He offered them to Drona, along with the knowledge of how to use them. Drona then became the most powerful and knowledgeable of all fighters.
Drona was wise, but still lived in poverty. As a Brahmin, he was not expected to work for money or gain power or wealth. With a wife and a young son, Drona was saddened to watch his family struggle. So he went to his childhood friend, the king, and asked for assistance, redeeming his childhood vows to always help. And was turned down. Told that, as children they could play together, but as adults they were no longer equal. The king would give him alms in his begging bowl, as is correct for a ruler to give a Brahmin, if he begged for them as a Brahmin. But he could give him nothing as a friend and an equal, because they were not friends or equals.
(Yes, this is the story of Billu. Only, Billu is based on Krishna and Sudama, Krishna’s impoverished childhood Brahmin friend. Krishna gave and gave, as an equal, because they were friends)
Drona was furious. He swore vengeance and kept that fire of anger burning in his heart for years. In the meantime, he began wandering the country teaching all who came to him. Well, almost all. Drona, after being abused for his caste, turned around and abused others.
He was delighted to teach the Kaurava and Pandava princely cousins, especially proud of his favorite pupil Arjun. But when an lower caste boy approached him and asked for teaching, Drona rejected him. The boy, Eklavya, gathered together the mud that Drona had walked on and built a statue of him. Eklavya worshiped the statue as his Guru and learned to become the greatest archer in the land, even better than Arjun. Eklavya came back to the attention of Drona when Arjun found a dog that had his mouth blocked by arrows in such a way that he could not bark, but was not hurt. Drona was stunned at this achievement and asked who did it. Eklavya presented himself. Drona asked who was Eklavya’s Guru, he replied “you are” and explained about his statue.
Drona accepted this story, and then suggested that if he was Eklavya’s Guru, Eklavya owes him a final Guru gift to mark the end of his learning. And he asked for Eklavya’s thumb, crippling him and making him unable to ever shoot again. Smiling, Eklavya cut it off and left it at his feet. Drona enforced the rules of proper status and rules for others while for himself he resented them and let them burn into a desire for vengeance. Eklavya went on to fight against the Pandavas, eventually killed by Krishna.
(A recent art work inspired by the Eklavya story)
Drona had his vengeance against the one who had attempted to bring him low, through another use of Guru Dakshina. He asked his students the Pandavas and Kauravas to defeat and capture his friend and bring him to Drona. Drona demanded half his kingdom as ransom, finally making them equals again. Drona was content and forgot his anger. But his friend was infuriated, and performed many feats of devotion asking for children who would defeat Drona for him. Now, at this battle, Drona is facing his favorite student (Arjun), his old friend, and the children of his friend who are destined to kill him.
And so the battle begins. With formality and rules. Rules which will be broken over the course of the next 18 days as the war goes on and on. Battles are supposed to be fought only from sunrise to sundown. Fights must be one on one. Fighters must have equal weapons. No one may harm a warrior who surrenders. No warrior may kill or injure an unarmed, unconscious, or unaware warrior. No warrior may kill or injure a non-combatant person or animal, especially women. And one way or another, all of these rules were eventually broken. Such is war, all rules of engagement are merely suggestions in the end. The only rule that lasts is “win at any costs”. And then even that fades, as it becomes clear that past a certain point, no one wins in war. By the end of the 18 days, every child of the Pandavas would die. They won, but they won nothing.