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Saturday, June 24, 2017

Identity of Karna revealed - Maha Bharatha series 36

I request interested readers  to go to Book 5 of Maha Bharata and read sections 137 to 152. (In the Sanskrit version, these sections are different) It is story-telling at its best. Besides, the discussions are full of noble thoughts expressed in such beautiful words millennia back by Sage Vyasa.

The conversations between Karna and Kunti, Krishna and Karna and Krishna and Kunti are poignant and bring about subtleties of ethics and morals. No wonder these ideals have permeated the consciousness of those of us who were fortunate enough to have been born in India even without our knowing.

This is one area which confirms my bias that our traditional story tellers (Bhagavatars) do not teach us what they should be teaching. I wish they will spend at least an hour going into the details of these three conversations.

We already saw some of the thoughts expressed by Kunti to Krishna as a message to her sons. At the end of Chapter (138) there is a sentence which states that Karna and Krishna were alone in Krishna’s chariot for a long time before Krishna left. I wondered what it was about. In a masterly style, that mystery is clarified after another chapter or two.

This was what transpired between Krishna and Karna. Krishna tells Karna that he is indeed the son of Kunti, and therefore the elder brother of the Pandavas. Krishna asks Karna to join his natural brothers not only because they are indeed his brothers but also because they were on the right side in morals and values. Krishna points out that if he (Karna) joins the Pandavas, it is certain that Yudhishtra will stand aside after victory in the war and insist on Karna becoming the king, as the eldest of the brothers.

The words of Karna are amazing when he tells Krishna why he cannot do that! How many of us will have the courage to follow this kind of reasoning in the modern world and follow up with action? Even God, in the form of Krishna could not change Karna’s mind. Even blood relationship and the assurance of a kingdom could not change his mind. He said: “I know you wish well for me. I realize that morally I am Kunti’s son by Surya and belong to the Pandu’s family. But my mother left when I was so little and helpless without concern for my welfare. Radha and Adiratha raised me like their own son. They performed all my ceremonies and even my wife was selected by my father. All my love and affection are bound to them. I performed all ceremonies with the suta clan. I belong to them. I cannot leave them and become a Pandava for any reason whatsoever. Heaps of gold and the entire earth cannot move me. Besides, I have lived well under the protection of Duryodhana and Dhritarashtra for 13 years. How can I now turn my back on them? Duryodhana depends on me to fight against Arjuna. I cannot let him down and besides I would rather die in battle”.

Then comes the beautiful part. Karna requests Krishna not to tell anyone that he is the son of Kunti and therefore, a brother of the Pandavas. His reason: “ If Pandavas win and if king Yudhishthira, comes to know me as the firstborn son of Kunti, he will never accept the kingdom. If this empire comes to me, I will certainly give it over to Duryodhana. Let the virtuous Yudhishthira  become king forever”. Is this  what is meant by being loyal to one from whose hands we ate – in colloquial words “the hand that gave salt”?

Then, Karna gives a preview of the war and outcome. It is described as if it was a great homa or a sacrifice in which all the Kauravas and Pandavas and their supporters play a part. In this description we find the names of the priests (such as advaryu, hotr etc) who perform several functions.

Karna tells Krishna: “I truly repent for the harsh words I used against the Pandavas. Therefore, you will rather see them win. Oh, Krishna you have already ordained that the entire Kshatriya race will perish so that they can go to heaven. Let it happen in Kurukshetra. The fame of these heroes will last forever and people will recite the story of the great war of Bharatha”.  

Karna’s last sentence is “Please bring Arjuna before me for battle and keep our discussion a secret”. 

Later when Kunti decides, on her own (not knowing that Krishna has already told Karna who his mother is)  that she will tell Karna about her impetuosity as a youth and getting him as a son through Surya. She thought that this will bring Karna to change his mind. She indeed tells him. Surya also comes and tells Karna that this is true. But, Karna is not moved.

Karna says: “I respect you as my mother. I am obliged to listen to you.  But why did you abandon me when I was so young? By that act, I lost my status as a Kshatriya. When you should have taken care of my welfare you did not. Why are you doing this now? May be, it is for your own benefit? If I go to Pandavas, people may say that I am afraid. If just before the battle I claim to be a Pandava and change sides what will Kshatriyas think of me? Kauravas have been supportive of me. They depend upon me to win the battle. How can I leave them at this time having been under their protection for so long? I will have to fight for Duryodhana now and I cannot obey your commands. I will fight with your sons but will not slay anyone other than Arjuna. You will still have 5 sons, either with me or without me".

Kunti says: “The Kauravas will be eliminated and no one can prevent destiny. But you have pledged safety to four of your brothers. Remember that when you are shooting your arrows” and blesses him.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Krishna goes as a Peace Envoy - Maha Bharatha series 35

Krishna asks Yudhishtra not to show any compassion for Duryodhana.  He says: “You have been extremely patient with all the mistreatments heaped upon you and your brothers. You even tolerated Draupadi treated so badly in public. I know that Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva did not destroy the Kauravas only due to their respect for you as their elder brother. People like Duryodhana, whose character is so abominable may easily be destroyed like a rootless tree. However, I will go as an emissary to the Kauravas and try to bring peace”.

At this time Bhima requests Krishna to try hard to obtain peace. Krishna teases him badly by asking how he can talk peace with someone who has humiliated them and their wife. Bhima is hurt and shows his anger. Krishna then says “I did not mean to hurt you. But, I wanted to make sure you are still up to the task. I was testing you”.

Before this, Yudhishtra is recounting all that has passed and says that he does not want to go to war because he does not want to see bloodshed for the sake of land. “In a war only one can win. But the loss of life will be equal on both sides. War begets war. It creates animosity. The loser will seek revenge in some form or another. A Kshatriya cannot live on someone else’s mercy. Therefore, I will be satisfied if the Kauravas cede just five villages. But, they cannot just keep all the land”.

He wonders why Dhuryodhana covets someone else’s property. “When one covets other’s property one loses intelligence, loses virtue and lose all wealth. When one becomes poor it is akin to death, because nothing can be done without wealth. One can retire to the woods, or become someone’s servant. One who is poor from birth does not suffer as much as one who has wealth and then loses it. Such a person gets angry quickly even with friends, loses his senses and does evil acts. Only wisdom can save such a person”.

In Book 5, Section 93 (English translation Section 95), Krishna has gone as a peace envoy and is talking at the assembly of the Kauravas and all their supporters. Krishna specifically addresses Dhrithrashtra: “O King, your family is a noble one. Members of your dynasty have shown joy in the happiness of others, and have tried to alleviate the suffering of everyone. They never injured anyone, were sincere and truthful. How can you let your sons make such a mistake and how can you fall into this mistake?”.

Having said this, he says something special: “Reflect on what I have said and act accordingly”. This is important to me as someone who likes learning and education. Krishna, as the Brahman incarnate can easily say: “I am ordering you. Order your sons to stop fighting”.  In Bhagvad Gita also at the end of His discourse to Arjuna, Krishna uses the same words (Chapter 18- Sloka 63). The same words are repeated by Vasishta to Rama in the book Yoga Vasishta. The point is that even the Lord asks us to think for ourselves and do the right thing, out of conviction and  not out of fear of any punishment or blind faith.

The final sentence in this section is also interesting. At the end of Krishna’s address, Vyasa says that all those assembled (except Duryodhana and his followers) applauded “inside their hearts” but did not say anything in the assembly of Duryodhana!

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Story of Shikandin - Maha Bharatha Series 34

This story starts from Section 174 of Book 5. Bhishma tells the story himself, since he was involved in it from the very beginning. Whatever he was not witness to, he says he got to know through spies he had employed in the territory where Amba (who later became Shikandin) lived and also from Narada.

In short, Amba is the eldest of three daughters of the king of Kasi. The other two are Ambika and Ambalika. Bhishma abducted all three of them (this practice was accepted among the Kshatriyas in those days and is listed as one of eight different kinds of marriages), during their swayamvara. He did that so they can be married to Bhishma’s half-brother Vichitravirya.

Amba had already chosen another king and therefore, she requests Bhishma and Satyavati for her to be allowed to go to her chosen prince. Bhishma agrees. When Amba goes to the prince she had chosen, he refuses to accept her, since she had allowed herself to be abducted by Bhishma. She comes back to Bhisma and requests him to marry her since she now will not have a husband and cannot go back to her father. Bhishma refuses to because of his vow not to marry.

Amba decides to take revenge on Bhisma since he was the immediate cause of her problems. She goes to the forest to do penance. The ascetics try to dissuade her but cannot. It so happens that her maternal grandfather who had taken up asceticism comes by and he wants to use the help of Parasurama, his friend. Since Bhishma was Parasurama’s student, he thinks that Parasurama can get Bhishma to agree to marry Amba.

Bhishma refuses even though he realizes that he is being disrespectful of his teacher. Parasurama who had promised Amba he will make Bhishma accept her gets mad and wants to fight with Bhishma. Bhishma does not want to fight with his teacher, but Parasurama insists and provokes. In the fight that goes for 23 days, neither wins. Both Parasurama’s ancestors (all Brahmins) and Bhishma’s ancestors (all Kshatriyas) intercede and make them stop the fight. Amba is left without a solution for her problem. She is even more angry.

Amba performs intense tapas (meditative sacrifice) which “burns up” Lord Shiva. He gives her a boon that in her next life she will be able to fight with Bhishma. Amba immolates herself.

In the meanwhile, the King of Kasi who wants a son performs penance. Lord Shiva blesses him with a son. But, he is also told that the child will be born a girl, but will become a boy later in life. Knowing this the king and the queen do not let anyone know that a girl was born. They conceal and raise her as a boy. This is Amba in the new birth. This is Shikandi, but goes by the name of Shikandini during life as a girl.

When Shikandini (who will become Shikandi later as per Shiva’s boon) reaches the proper age, the king decides to find a suitable “girl” even though he knew that his child was still a girl. Marriage is performed, the girl finds out the truth, tells her parents. The enraged father of the girl decided to attack Shikandi’s father. Shikandi is sad that all of this happened on “his” account. He goes to a special palace of a Yaksha in the forest. The Yaksha finds out the problem and feels sorry for the girl/boy. The yaksha offers to switch his personal manhood with Shikandini for a brief period.

Shikandini goes back and everyone is delighted to know the prince is a prince, a male (Interesting that he was checked out by girls and women about his manhood. The story does not say how). In the meanwhile, Kubera, the Chief of the Yakshas comes for a visit, finds out what had happened, finds the Yaksha turned into a woman, gets mad and curses that he will remain a girl as long as Shikandi lives.

That is the story. But, the conversations deal with the ethical questions related to the episode. For example, “Human suffering depends on what is destined to happen. But, are there immediate precedent causes which are not part of destiny?”

Abduction was destined to happen. But, Bhishma was the one who did it. Therefore, he is the one who has to be punished. The Salwa king refused; that was only because of what Bhishma did. Therefore, Amba thinks she should not take revenge on that king. Another statement made by the queen of Kasi when the world finds out that their so-called son was actually a girl says:  “Divine grace combined with human effort leads to success”.

So, who was at fault: Amba (for staying quiet during the abduction), her father (for arranging the swayamvara), Bhishma (for abducting her and later refusing to marry her), the King of Salwa who refused to accept her? Later, why should Parasurama interfere and demand Bhishma do what he has sworn against? Can Bhishma refuse his preceptor? Can Bhishma fight with his preceptor who also is a Brahmana?

Rigid stance for their respective positions by Bhishma, Salwa, Parasurama and Amba was at the center of these conflicts. It shows that one should not break a vow for anything. But, rigidity leads to discord. Being flexible may be practical but will result in losing trust in relationships.

All these questions and points of view are discussed in several chapters. I wish the story-tellers (bhagavatars) will spend one session on these chapters and all the ethical points. They only tell the story part. Most folks also are happy with the story and the verbal and memory capacity of the story-teller, not in the substance.

I found two interesting points, in addition to those ethical questions. 1. Throughout Maha Bharatha, “destiny” was given as an explanation for everything, including the war itself. 2. Gods gave boon to people and, also gave conditions under which the boon will work. If the boon was invincibility, there was always a condition in which that invincibility will be lost.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Kunti, Krishna, Bhishma and Karna - Maha Bharatha Series 33

In Book 5, Section 132 Kunti is talking with Krishna after he reports that Duryodhana has rejected the peace offer and asks her for message to carry to her sons. In reply Kunti sends this message to Yudhishtra: “You are looking at virtues in isolation without paying attention to your duties as a kshatriya and as a king. I do not act want you to act in anger and in vanity, but be valorous. Only a king can create history. You cannot take care of your subjects if you are unsteady with too much compassion. As a kshatriya you need to live by the might of your arms. Go and get the kingdom which you lost”. In essence, Kunti wants Yudhishtra to fight.

In a sub-story called Jaya, Kunti even teases him (in Book 5, Sec 133) with statements such as “It is better to die pulling the fangs of a snake than live miserable like a dog” and “It is better to burn fiercely for a few moments than smoke for ever and ever”. After all those sharp remarks she says: “I said all this to test your understanding and manliness and to encourage you, and not to hurt you”.  The son in that story says: “Thanks mother, when you were talking I did not talk much only so I can hear all your sweet words”. She obviously thinks that her son is too patient and passive and wants him to get angry and show some emotion! It is just beautiful to read these passages.

Names of various forms of battle-field formations and names of units and the numbers of infantry, cavalry, elephants and chariots for each unit are mentioned in Section 156. There is a comment that there can be only ONE commander in the field. It says that one cannot win a battle if there is more than one general since there will be conflicting plans and jealousy.

 In secion 160, Dhrithrashtra laments about his inability to control his son, his weakness for his son and says that destiny has determined that there should be war. Sanjaya comes on strong and says: “Do not just blame Duryodhana. When someone gets into trouble due to his misconduct, he cannot blame the gods or time. We all reap the consequences of our actions. When Yudhishtra lost the game of dice, he bore the consequences without complaining. Now, we have to face the consequences of our actions. Is man the agents of his actions? There are three opinions: some say that everything is ordained by God; some say that our acts are the result of free-will; and others say that our acts are the result of those of our past lives (Karma)”.

During the descriptions of the arrangements of the 11 units (Akshauni) of the Kauravas and 7 units of Pandavas, Bhishma is describing the arrangements of Kaurava forces with leaders of each of the units. It is clear that Bhishma did not have good opinion of Karna. He says that Karna seems to boast too much and also too kind hearted.  Bhishma has doubts about Aswattaman also because he “loves life too much”. Bhishma also says that he will put all his efforts as the Commander-in-Chief of the Kauravas, except he will not do two things: he will not engage the five Pandava brothers in personal battle and he will not fight Shikandin who was born as a female and then became male.

Karna also shows that he does not care for Bhishma and says: “he is getting too old and when people get too old they become like children. And, I will not fight as long as Bhishma is in the command”!

Later comes the story of Shikandin. The story-telling style of Vyasa is again at its best when Bhishma himself tells the events leading up to Shikandin making a vow to kill Bhishma. Indeed, that is what happens during the war. Bhishma refuses to engage in battle with a “woman” and therefore becomes the target.