On “Maha·bhárata VII: Drona (volume one of four).” and “Maha·bhárata VII: Drona (volumes three to four of four).” Vaughan Pilikian

I first came to the Maha·bhárata as a student of Sanskrit, a fugitive from the Western classical languages in search of something even more recondite and obscure. In those early days the Maha·bhárata loomed somewhere off in the murk behind the austere pronouncements of the mystics and ritualists of the brahmanical tradition. Monolithic it truly was; getting though Homer had been enough of a challenge but it was impossible to know how to begin to make sense of this unruly gargantuan that commanded an entire shelf to itself. In the end, translation offered a way in—in fact, it was Will Johnson’s darkly shining English version of the “Sauptikaparvan” (Maha·bhárata Book X) that swung open the door. After months of biting down on the dust cakes of scholastic debate and prescriptive doctrine here was a rich and refreshing brew that as a sometime Classicist was more to my palate. I was far from the familiar scenes of ancient Hinduism, witness instead to a drama with a cast of hundreds played out in a world that pulsed with sex and violence. Naturally I was hooked.

As I continued to read, I noticed what little attention had been paid by scholars to what seemed to me to be the heart of the epic—the eighteen-day battle between the Káuravas and the Pándavas. At best, the scenes of the conflict were ignored as Orientalists fled for the higher ground where the wise men of its dramatis personae outlined sober theological teachings or expounded learned exegesis, while at worst, they were ignored as a gory tangle of ‘proof’ for whatever it was the “Bhagavad Gita” was understood to be saying. But I found within these scenes a nuanced and vivid depiction of human behaviour in a register of savage poetry and tragic lyricism similar to that found in Homer and Sophocles. It seemed to me then, and it still does now, absurd to suggest that the characters in the epic were anything other than individuals who happened to live in a city called Hástina·pura, but who revealed their needs and flaws in word and deed much as did the Orestes of Argos or the Othello of Venice. And it was in the catastophe of war that the humanity of this cast was stripped bare. They would boast and soliloquise, lie and plot, fulminate and excoriate, only erratically aware of the ironies of their shifting postures. At one point in the “Dronaparvan,” when struggling to break the enemy array, Yudhi·shthira manipulates Árjuna’s young son Abhimányu into leading a doomed attack that culminates in the boy being outnumbered, overwhelmed and cruelly slaughtered by his Káurava opponents. Yudhi·shthira berates himself after the event in a speech of great tragic force, its irregular tone a figurative battleground for his guilt and vanity as they vie with a bitter and rebarbative despair:

Abhimányu is dead. Brave and strong son of my brother. So fervently did he want to help me, and he did: Drona’s array has been broken. Like a lion let loose among cattle he plunged into its depths and destroyed it from within, drove its archers, nimble and wild though they are, back into defeat. His arrows soon left our sworn enemy Duhshásana lost and confused at his own front line. Boldly he crossed the fathomless sea of Drona’s seething array all the way to the feet of Duhshásana’s heir before at last he departed for the harbour of the sun. Abhimányu is dead. How will I look Árjuna son of Kunti in the eye? Or the flawless Subhádra when she comes looking for her dear son? Will I reply to Hrishi·kesha and Dhanan·jaya with empty words? Will I evade their questions? Twist what I say? It was rejoicing that I wanted to bring to Subhádra, so dearly did I hope to seal victory for Krishna and for Árjuna. And instead I have caused this calamity. A desperate fool cannot wake from his delusions for he cannot see beyond the desires that spring from his folly. I yearned for the sweet taste of victory and it made me blind to how things would end.

Love and sleep, the pleasures of the road, jewellers’ work: these were the preserve of a youth like Abhimányu. I placed a mere boy at the head of my troops. How could I have done such a thing? A young child with no experience of fighting, a foal in a pack of stallions with none to protect him. O but I too should lie down upon the earth at his side before his father returns and I must suffer the flames that will come leaping from his murderous eyes to brand me for what I have done. How Árjuna will hate me now—Árjuna, man of peace and wisdom, of intent and strength and goodness, a beloved hero who cares for his nearest, one who sets nothing above the high goal of truth. Sages tell of his deeds for he does things beyond the reach of normal men. He it was who crushed beneath his might the Niváta·kávachas and Kalakéyas, he it was who came unafraid to smash the golden city and the foes of great Indra who with the cohorts of Pulóman dwelt therein. Such is his generosity that he has mercy even for his despisers if it is mercy they ask for. Yet today I could not even save his son.

With what they have done Dhrita·rashtra’s great army has brought a terrible destruction upon itself. The Káuravas will be scorched away to nothing before the fury that his son’s death will light within Partha. Petty tyrant in his petty court, Duryódhana will bear witness to the annihilation of his friends and he will give up his life in a bonfire of sickness and of sorrow. Of this I am certain. But be it victory or the throne, immortality or the realms of the gods, nothing could bring me joy again. For I have seen life bursting and without limits suddenly stoppered up. I have seen none other than the son of the son of the greatest of gods struck down before me, dead.

While the battle rages, any overarching principles the world maintains begin to crumble. Order is buried in the anarchy of action, justice unbalanced by conspiracy as these wounded players clash, stumble and flail. The “Dronaparvan”’s characters are kings and priests from a distant world and a lost society and are lavishly appointed in the burnished colours of epic, yet in the crises they face and the dramas that provoke them they can appear curiously modern: prone to confusion, sudden anger, compulsive fear or crippling uncertainty. They move in a bloodsoaked and chaotic world of shattering violence that seems ruled at times by the unpredictable behaviour of individuals and at others by competing and mysterious forces beyond normal human comprehension. Despite its atavism of language and metre the epic’s idiom is remarkably close to us in visuality and sweep. There is a lot here we can recognise; one might say that the Maha·bhárata was, and in some parts of the world still is, a cinema before electricity:

With Karna downcast Sáubhadra did not wait and loosing his vulturefletched shafts he rushed at the next row of warriors. Gloried in fire, Abhimányu began to break apart the warp of elephants and horses and men with the force of his wrath and splendour. Even Karna slid away with his swift steeds beneath the crush of arrows that he fired and the vanguard then was broken. As Abhimányu’s arrows flew it was like the air had been filled with locusts or rain. Nothing at all could be made out. Cut down by those sharp shafts not a single of your fighters stood his ground except for the son of Sindhu. O bull of the Bháratas, as he blew into his conch, Árjuna bull in the world of men flew in a blur at the army of your kin and whirled on deep into the heart of the Bhárata horde. Through chariots and through elephants and through horses and through men he plunged and studded them with biting darts and piled up the limbless dead upon the earth. And transfixed by the fine shafts born of Sáubhadra’s bow his victims blundered over their own companions as they ran in desperation to save their lives. Terrible and deadly sharp were the spearlike shafts that tore through chariots and elephants and horses and then thudded to rest in the bounteous earth. Among the swords, thumbrings, platemail and torcs that lay strewn across the plain there glittered all manner of apparel and ornaments of gold. Arrows and bows and swords and the trunks and heads of the dead came to rest in their hundreds upon the earth, still bedecked in earrings and woven wreaths. The ribs of the chariots, their seats and curved handles and crushed axles and buckled wheels and a thousand yokes, and bows and arrows and spears and fallen standards and armour, and more bows and more arrows were scattered as far as the eye could see and, o lord of men, the earth lost beneath this maze of dead warriors and horses and all their paraphernalia was a passing vision awful to behold. O best of the Bháratas. As the sons of kings died and cried out to one another a grim chorus gathered to fill the whole world in a rumble that struck terror into our trembling hearts. And on Sáubhadra rode on his spree through horse and car and man, and on and on he raged through his foes like a fire billowing through a forest of dead trees, on to the very centre of the gathering of the Bháratas. For a moment we glimpsed him but in seconds as he wheeled through every point in the compass and then each in between the fog of the battle closed around him and we could see him no more. For a moment I saw him once again risen like the midday sun as he stole away the breath from the throats of the creatures that moved there. He was the son of the son of Indra, and that day it was Indra that he became.

Of course one striking feature of the Maha·bhárata distinguishes it from all of its cousins ancient and modern: its sheer volume. The “Dronaparvan” is in itself a vast text, and runs almost to the length of the entire Iliad. Yet it is only a sliver of the epic as a whole. At first glance the reader finds scene after scene of confrontation and bloodshed that seem to blend into one, and indeed, that is precisely what happens in the bizarre and apocalyptic nocturnal massacre of the book’s closing chapters, when the fighting collapses into a haze of indistinct and totally unconstrained violence. There is a definite sequence of events in the “Dronaparvan” about which smaller episodes cluster, and these salient moments extend from Drona’s accession to the post of commander of the Káurava forces, through Abhimányu’s tragic death, to the demise of Jayad·ratha and Ghatótkacha and at last the vicious deception and beheading of Drona. Concision is not the point; the story is a chronicle of sorts as much as a literary work and is unencumbered by the literary conventions that we might expect of it. But wound about this sequence is the undulating texture that is the poetry of the epic. The reader will find that a certain synaesthesia is the inevitable consequence of close association with it—the text can fruitfully be approached like a piece of music, but one in form much closer to the organic, ramifying and tumultuous swell of a raga rather than the singular frozen arc of a symphony. The deeper we delve into the detail of what happens, the more is revealed to our eyes and ears. Phrases are never repeated precisely but are inflected, recast or transmogrified, and all the time line by line the tale moves on, riverine and enveloping, occasionally meandering gently, at other points twisting suddenly, like the haunted streams of blood that crisscross the plain of Kuru·kshetra.

The horizon could no more be seen nor the space near or far above our heads, nor the earth beneath our feet. The sunset was invisible through the dust and under that wooden darkness spread upon us by the bow Gandíva we could no longer see the battlefield before us. There were only arrows.