On “Maha·bhárata IX: Shalya (volume one of two).” and “Maha·bhárata IX: Shalya (volume two of two).” Justin Meiland

The Maha·bhárata is the kind of text that can grip a person for a lifetime. Certainly in my own case, the epic has always had a special hold on me, ever since my first exposure to Sanskrit literature when I, like so many other beginners, read the haunting tale of Nala and Damayánti. It is hard to pinpoint exactly what is so captivating about this vast and unwieldy text. Voluminous and diverse almost to a fault, it would challenge the most managerial of mind-sets. And yet it is perhaps this very unruliness that gives it its charm. While poets such as Kali·dasa and Ashva·ghosha delight with their refinements, it is something of the Maha·bhárata’s rough-edged character, its dark and apocalyptic content, its propensity toward chaos and self-questioning, that drew me back to the epic again and again.

That it is not to say that the Maha·bhárata is without organization. The epic as a whole follows a clear trajectory, charting the war between the Káuravas and Pándavas, and cross-references abound, cutting across the text through a mesh of allusions and citations. Like a series of embedded dolls, successions of layered boxes frequently form the structure of the Maha·bhárata, as sub-sections group themselves within larger sections and individual narrations exist within intersecting cycles. Scholars have also devoted vast amounts of energy to uncovering latent patterns of fours, fives, or otherwise. Nevertheless, certainly in comparison to its relative, the Ramáyana, the Maha·bhárata appears significantly unbounded in character, willing to accrete material in an endlessly encyclopedic outlook, as is famously declared by the often quoted verse (Critical Edition 1.56.33):

Whatever exists here may exist elsewhere;
whatever does not exist here exists nowhere else.

It is not only the apparent open-endedness and versatility of the Maha·bhárata that invests it with its unruly nature. If one turns to its thematic content, the epic seems almost obsessively concerned with transgressing boundaries and disputing categories, and it is perhaps this subversive quality that above all startles and challenges the reader. Brahmins such as Ashva·tthaman thus fight as kshatriyas, and kshatriya ascetics such as Vishvá·mitra strive to attain brahminhood. Kinship breaks down, as brothers kill brothers and fathers fight against sons. Constant dilemmas are posed, as debates rage unresolved over the relative superiority of fate or free-will, or the ethical propriety of breaking moral codes to attain higher goals. Sacrifices fall apart, threatening to spin out of control and consume the world in apocalyptic destruction. Warriors are compared to demons in one passage and then to gods in another.

The uncertainties and ambiguities that pervade the epic are exemplified in the flawed natures of its heroes. Árjuna, normally so determined and unwavering in his martial outlook, breaks down with doubt before the great battle commences. Yudhi·shthira, renowned for his subscription to truth and righteousness, resorts to lies in order to triumph over his enemy. Perhaps most flawed of all is the Káurava king Duryódhana, a paradigm of martial strength but so blinded by his pride and arrogance that he brings ruin to his allies and clan. It is this hero’s tragic demise that attracted me primarily to translating the Shalya Parvan – a man at once reckless and foolish but at the same time somehow noble, a poignant representative for a fading warrior age.

As the fourth of the Maha·bhárata’s five battle books, the Shalya Parvan devotes a great deal of material to war. It is here, in the relentless suffering of the battlefield, that the confusion and instability of the world becomes most realized, its fickle violence described as ‘a game of dice in which life is the stake’ (15.9) and its horror expressed through accumulated images of baroque-like intensity and gore.

Numerous arms quivered and writhed with violent jerks, chopped off like the trunks of royal elephants. One could hear the thud of heads falling to the ground, just like that of coconuts falling from palm-trees, great king. The earth glistened with blood-soaked fallen heads that looked like golden lotuses in season, descendant of Bharata. As if covered with lotuses, Your Majesty, the earth shone with these lifeless, mutilated heads, their eyes wide open. (9.17ff.)

War was then waged without limits in all directions. Troops from both your army and the enemy were slaughtered. Warriors shouted and fine conches blared. Archers bellowed and cried out lion-roars. The battle became extreme, my lord, as vital organs were pierced and soldiers charged about, eager for victory. Destruction occurred everywhere; the earth became full of grief; and multitudes of noble women tore out their hair. While this dreadful, vast battle continued without limits, terrifying omens appeared, spelling destruction. The earth, with its mountains and forests, shook and groaned. Meteors struck the sphere of the sun and fell to the ground from the sky, scattered on every side, along with sticks and blazing coals. Winds arose, swirling in every direction and pouring down gravel. Elephants shed tears and trembled violently. (23.16ff.)

Unrestrained chaos characterizes ‘this horrific and unbounded battle’ (9.34), as once ordered armies become transformed into a sea of turmoil (10.65): ‘As they massacred each other in their violent fury, the armies became churned up like rivers in the rainy season.’ Soldiers are described as shipwrecked (3.5f., 19.2) and their ability to distinguish their surroundings becomes so impaired that they slaughter their own kind (23.73):

Many on the battlefield became maddened and deranged by the smell of blood and indiscriminately killed anyone they came across, whether their own troops or the enemy.

Attempts are made to tame the chaos, as individual heroes curb their enemy’s storm (10.5f.):

Shalya then violently attacked the great army of the Pándavas and restrained it on his own in battle, just as the shore contains the surging sea. The mass of the Pándava army came to a standstill when it encountered Shalya in battle, just as when the force of a river comes up against a mountain.

Inevitably, however, the war degenerates once more into disorder, as one warrior’s death leads to another’s thirst for revenge and as pauses in the battle lead only to a more furious return. This almost demented willingness to return to the bloodshed, as warriors continuously re-engage in battle, ‘taking no notice of the terrifying and awful portents’ (23.23), is also mirrored by King Dhrita·rashtra’s own insistent desire to learn the full account of his sons’ slaughter, despite the suffering it causes him, throwing the audience repeatedly back into the turmoil of the war (2.54):

Although tormented by great suffering, the bull of the Bharatas once again asked that charioteer, the son of Gaválgana, to describe what had happened, Your Majesty.

It is in the context of this gruesome and chaotic battle that the Shalya Parvan describes the deaths of two major heroes in the Káurava army: Shalya and Duryódhana. The Shalya Parvan can be seen as a book of two halves, one half dedicated to each hero. The heroes’ ends, however, could not be more different. Whereas Shalya is defeated in a duel that is conspicuous for the honorable way in which he is killed, Duryódhana, like so many of his allies before him, is defeated through tactics that overtly transgress the warrior code. Even at this point, at the destruction of the most deluded and reckless of the Káurava warriors, the Maha·bhárata thus still strives to problematize, to breed ambiguity and uncertainty. Indeed Krishna himself openly admits that the tactics he condones are immoral (58.4f.)

Bhima·sena will not win if he fights justly. He will only kill Suyódhana if he fights by unlawful means. We are told that the gods conquered the demons through deceit. Shakra used deceit to defeat Viróchana and it was through deceit that the slayer of Bala removed Vritra’s power. Bhima should therefore employ a form of attack that uses deceit.

Furthermore, the deformities that occur at Duryódhana’s fall highlight the transgressive nature of Bhima’s deceitful act (58.55ff.):

The directions became pervaded by horrendous looking torsoes. With their many feet and many arms, they danced and inspired fear, Your Majesty. Men bearing standards, arrows, or weapons trembled when your son was felled, Your Majesty. Lakes and wells vomited blood, best of kings, and rivers began to flow upstream with strong currents. Women took on the characteristics of men and men took on the characteristics of women when your son Duryódhana fell, O king.

The timing of Duryódhana’s downfall is also significant. His duel with Bhima occurs just after a lengthy passage describing the pilgrimage of the hero Rama along the sacred sites of the Sarásvati river. The passage provides a sense of release from the violence of the war, as one reads of Rama’s devout worship at sites sanctified by acts of asceticism and purity. However, the tone and content of the section could not form a stronger contrast to the duel in which Duryódhana is so dishonorably killed. Indeed Rama himself is so horrified at the event that he leaves the scene in disgust, castigating the Pándavas and condemning them as immoral.

The victory of the Pándavas is thus far from one of unqualified triumph. Nor is it even a victory of joy. On the contrary, when Yudhi·shthira sees his arch-enemy destroyed, he tells him that to survive the war is a lot far worse than death (59.26ff.):

You are not to be pitied. Your death is to be praised, faultless Duryódhana! We are the ones who now ought to be pitied in every way, Káurava. We will live a wretched life, bereft of our dear kinsmen and distraught with grief for our brothers and sons. How can I look at the widows who are overwhelmed with grief? You alone are in a good situation, O king. For your place in heaven is secure. But we will endure that terrible suffering called hell.

Fate may have been fulfilled, but it is a path about which the Maha·bhárata, in its unruly and questioning manner, continues to pose dilemmas, challenging us ever more.