On “Maha·bhárata V: Preparations for War (volume one of two).” and “Maha·bhárata V: Preparations for War (volume two of two).” Kathleen Garbutt
The fame of this story will exist eternally, for as long as the mountains stand and the rivers flow, Janárdana. When brahmins are gathered together, they will tell the tale of the great war of the Bharatas and tell of the wealth of the warriors’ fame, Varshnéya.

The second volume of “Preparations for War” could, in fact, be said to be one of the most dramatic and interesting sections of the entire epic. While the cinematic scope of the puranic stories interspersed within the main narrative are at times breath-takingly beautiful, with images of underworld realms and depictions of hair-raising flights over the ocean to inspire the imagination, ‘Preparations for War’ also contains awe-inspiring drama and fascinating psychological figures.

There are scenes of such visual and dramatic power that they remain lasting images in the mind. Duryodhana’s conspiracy to kidnap Krishna leads to a climactic scene in the assembly, where Krishna reveals his true celestial magnificence to an audience of hundreds of kings and divine sages.

As high-souled Shauri laughed, all thirty thumb-sized gods were released from his body, as dazzling as lightning and flashing like fire.… Great terrifying flames of smoky fire shot all around from his eyes, nose and ears, and rays of light, like those of the sun, burst forth from the pores of his skin. As they watched this dread person of great-souled Késhava, the kings closed their eyes and their hearts trembled - all that is except Drona, Bhishma, highly wise Vídura, noble Sánjaya and the sages of ascetic wealth, for the blessed lord Janárdana bestowed the gift of celestial sight upon them. Once they had seen Mádhava’s great miracle in court, divine kettle drums boomed and a rain of flowers fell.

What better way to illustrate Krishna’s dominance and the inevitable victory of his allies who spring illuminated from his celestial form? How fitting that Dhrita·rashtra is blind to Krishna’s majesty and Duryódhana does not look? Scenes like this perfectly illustrate the psychology of the protagonists and the plot in a single image.

But dramatic as this book is, what has really impressed me and stayed in my mind are the fascinating psychological figures this book offers. The characters of Karna and Amba in this volume are so unusual and complex that they have inspired modern psycho-analytical discussion; Amba for the links to the Oedipus complex, and Karna for his complex issues with his parents.

But quite apart from her psychological importance, is there any other figure in Indian epic to match Amba? Her struggle of female emancipation is extraordinary. In fact, her tale is so bizarre by normal standards within the “Maha·bhárata” that people debate the authenticity of the story. But I find it almost impossible to see how that would be one’s first thought on reading her tale. She is a woman who lives in a time when her position in society and very life is entirely dependent upon male acceptance. She is a woman who is unjustly rejected by men, and then failed by the men who swore to help her, until she finally takes matters into her own hands. Womanhood allows her no refuge, no defense and no power, so through force of will alone she becomes a man in order to defeat her enemy herself, proving that if you can’t beat them, you have to join them.

While there are arguments for examples of “strong” women within the “Maha·bhárata,” who else can match Amba? Dráupadi and Kuntí, like most troubled women in epic, repeatedly bemoan their fate and pester men to rescue them, but Amba outdoes them all. Finding that even Rama, the greatest figure of his age is of no help to her, she challenges the natural order and will eventually play her part in the defeat of Bhishma; a task her world would not allow her to achieve as a woman.

I will certainly never return again to Bhishma! I will go where I myself can fell Bhishma in battle!

Bhishma drove me away and deprived me of my lawful husband, so I am consecrated for his destruction rather than for another world.... In such a situation I am neither woman nor man! So I will not stop before I have killed the son of the Ganges in battle, ascetics. This is the intention of my heart and this is what I vowed. I am utterly disgusted with being a woman, so I have made up my mind to become a man! I want to take my revenge upon Bhishma and I cannot be prevented from doing so!

When told she must die to achieve her goals, she doesn’t hesitate, but immediately builds her own funeral pyre.

Then, in the view of those great sages, the blameless and flawlessly-complexioned woman gathered wood from the forest. Once she had built an enormous pyre, she set fire to it, and when the fire was blazing, great sovereign, and her mind too was ablaze with fury, she cried, “For Bhishma’s death!” So it was that the king of Kashi’s eldest daughter entered the flames, my king, by the river Yámuna.

Amba’s story is a great one, but in this book of constant drama and marvels, it is a mere side-note. It is a shame that Amba is not allowed greater attention. The scope of her tale could fill an epic in itself, and in the universe of the “Maha·bhárata” she is an unparalleled figure, though not perhaps unparalleled in the classical world. When one reads Amba’s tale of rejection, vengeance and death, how can one fail to recall the death of Dido? Two women of extraordinary strength, scorned and rejected by the man they love, who immolate themselves, single-mindedly focused on vengeance. Upon translating this passage Amba struck me as the Dido of India, tragically denied the voice and poetry Virgil grants his heroine in the Aeneid, but if she were given her due platform would her words be any less poignant? Amba, however, is stronger and perhaps even more remarkable than Dido: “I shall die unavenged,” says Dido on her pyre, but Amba dies for vengeance. Dido curses Aeneas, but Amba will punish her enemy in person. In the first volume of ‘Preparations for War,’ even Bhima, notoriously merciless and belligerent though he is always depicted, advocates humiliating peace before war, but Amba surpasses even him. Her focus never wavers.

Amba, however, is not the only figure of interest in this volume. Karna, a figure often depicted as a one-dimensional villain, is unexpectedly revealed to be a surprisingly moral and complex tragic hero. Though Krishna attempts to tempt him with power, money and women, Karna proves to be a wise and disciplined hero who refuses to betray the family that raised him and the friends who supported him. This revelation is entirely unexpected and a fascinating insight into one the epic’s most poignant figures. In one fell swoop one’s expectations are undermined. Krishna, righteousness incarnate, acts underhandedly to try to manipulate Karna, but in response, Karna is noble, unswervingly faithful and selfless. Though ‘Preparations for War’ is constantly inverting norms, this role reversal is an unparalleled and extraordinary episode. Karna is instantly transformed from vicious monster to tragic hero. He reveals to Krishna that not only is he aware that he has behaved badly, and that he is sorry for his past misconduct, but that he knows his allegiance will cost him his life. His prophetic dream shows that he is well aware of his fate, and the fate of his allies and enemies. His sacrifice is all the more noble for his prior knowledge that no good will come of it.

In my dreams I saw Yudhi·shthira and his brothers climbing up into a thousand-pillared palace, Áchyuta. They all appeared with white turbans and white clothes and I noticed all their seats were gleaming white. In my dreams I also saw you, Krishna Janárdana, scattering the blood-polluted earth with weapons. Immeasurably energetic Yudhi·shthira ascended the pile of bones and happily ate his buttered rice from a golden bowl. I watched as you gave Yudhi·shthira the earth and he swallowed it, so evidently he will enjoy power over the world. Vrikódara, the tiger-like man of fearful accomplishments, ascended a tall mountain, mace in hand, and seemed to gobble down the earth. It is quite clear that he will slaughter us all in the great battle. I am aware that victory appears where there is law, Hrishikésha. Dhanan·jaya mounted a white elephant, with the Gandíva and with you, Hrishikésha, and there he blazed with supreme glory. I have no doubt that all of you will slaughter the kings whom Duryódhana leads in battle, Krishna. I saw Nákula, Saha·deva and the mighty warrior Sátyaki, decked with spotless bracelets and necklaces, and covered with gleaming garlands and decorations. The three tiger-like men had mounted superb vehicles, carried by men, and were furnished with white umbrellas and white clothes. Three white turbaned men also appeared in Dharta·rashtra’s armies, Janárdana Késhava. They were Ashva·tthaman, Kripa and Krita·varman Sátvata. All the other kings seemed be wearing red turbans, Mádhava. Bhishma and Drona, that pair of mighty warriors, had mounted a vehicle drawn by camels, and they travelled with me and Duryódhana to the region ruled by Agástya, long-armed lord Janárdana. Before long we reached Yama’s realm. So I have no doubt that I and other kings, as well as the circle of kshatriyas, will enter the Gandíva’s fire.

In reality, he is well aware of the Pándavas’ moral highground in the dispute, but is prepared to sacrifice himself to repay the debt he owes to those who have helped him.

The Dharta·rashtras have presented me with my every desire and honoured me as I please, so how could I of all people render their kindness fruitless? Now that they are tied up in a quarrel with their enemies, they serve me and bow to me constantly, as Vasus bow to Vásava. They believe that they will be able to challenge their enemies with the help of my power, so how could I shatter their hopes? How could I abandon them when they want to cross the impassable ocean of battle with me as their boat? They have no other means of reaching the far shore! The time has indeed come for those who take their livelihood from Dharta·rashtra, and I must pay my debt, even if it means risking my life.

‘Preparations for War’ is an extraordinary book, filled with powerful and dramatic episodes, and in the first volume, passages of high philosophy. What more could one ask from any single book? Beautiful mythical visions fuse with intense drama and startlingly profound explorations of the complexities of its characters. This is surely one of, if not the most exciting volume of the entire epic.