For Bibek Debroy, who has taken upon himself the gigantic task of translating The Mahabharata from the original Sanskrit into simple English, the journey has reached the halfway mark with the fifth volume of the translated epic. It is significant for two reasons. One, having completed 66 of the 98 sections in the unabridged edition of The Mahabharata, Debroy, by his own admission, can now see the horizon of what began as a long, personal voyage. Two, the sections of The Mahabharata that are covered in the fifth volume constitute what many consider the heart of the epic — the Bhagavad Gita (the teachings of Krishna to Arjuna) and the unfair battle leading to the downfall of Bhishma — the celibate who gave a new meaning to the idea of dharma.
What might endear the fifth volume to many readers is neither the Bhagavad Gita nor the death of the man who critics believe to be the root cause of all that happened to the Kuru dynasty. This is the section in which Bhishma battles Parashuram, the fiery Brahmin sage whose idea of correctness comes into conflict with the duties of a Kshatriya warrior. Unlike many other sub-plots in The Mahabharata, the battle between Bhishma and Parashuram is central to the main storyline of the epic.
Bhishma, empowered by the many boons he has secured for himself, cannot be killed by either a man or a woman. He has also taken a vow of celibacy and to protect the Kaurava empire against all its enemies. When the Pandavas (remember that they too were part of the Kuru dynasty and fell out after losing their father in childhood) decided to fight the Kauravas, they also reckoned that without the invincible Bhishma’s death they cannot claim victory in the Kurukshetra war. So, how could the Pandavas eliminate Bhishma? The clue lies in this section.
It is a fascinating story of how Bhishma made the mistake of trying to force a woman, Amba, to marry his half-brother, but soon retracted, realising that she was betrothed to somebody else. The damage, however, was done as Amba’s fiancé rejected her once he discovered Bhishma’s desire to marry her to his nephew. Amba, thus rejected by her fiancé, returned to her father’s home. But even her father declined to give her shelter. An aggrieved Amba demanded justice from Bhishma, who could offer no help. She then turned to the Brahmin sages and who else but the mighty Parashuram decided to take up arms against Bhishma, because he was the one responsible for Amba’s plight.
The section on the battle between Bhishma and Parashuram has two distinct phases. In the initial stage, there is a long exchange of arguments between the two on the subject of Bhishma’s responsibility to Amba after her travails. The nature of the arguments here are indicative of the social biases and prejudices that prevailed then, traces of which exist even in modern India. The role of women, the duties of a king or the social hierarchy of a Brahmin — all come under close scrutiny when Bhishma and Parashuram engage in an oral duel on how Amba’s problems should be resolved. Eventually, Bhishma refuses to take care of Amba, citing his vow of celibacy. Parashuram’s arguments are no less convincing, but Bhishma refuses to accept them. With no resolution in place, the second phase of the battle begins.
It is a war between two giants on a scale that is equalled only by the one that took place later at Kurukshetra. The difference is that in this war no one is a winner or a loser. Aided by an intervention from Narada, the war ends, but not before you sense the tense relations that prevailed between the Brahmins and the Kshatriyas as neither of the two is willing to lay down arms and accept defeat. In the end, Bhishma makes the first conciliatory move and Parashuram agrees to a cease-fire.
The sequence of events will undoubtedly correct the impression of those who believe that The Mahabharata is just about a fratricidal war and Krishna’s teachings to Arjuna on the nature of the cosmos, life and death. As the Bhishma-Parashuram battle signifies, The Mahabharata also brings out the intense social dynamics that prevailed between the Brahmins and Kshatriyas. Amba may not have got immediate justice, but she is to be reborn as a woman, who later will adopt the form of a man. Known as Shikhandi, he will then be responsible for the death of Bhishma. Remember that Shikhandi is neither a man nor a woman and, therefore, it was possible for Bhishma to be killed by such a person. The Brahmins, led by Parashuram, finally had their say.
Debroy’s translation also brings out the consummate art of story-telling employed by Vedavyasa, the original writer of The Mahabharata. The two sections containing the Bhagavad Gita and the events leading to the death of Bhishma cover a time span of ten days of war at Kurukshetra. However, the section on the Bhagavad Gita begins with the news of Bhishma’s death, after which follow the Bhagavad Gita and the battle that culminates in the death of Bhishma after ten days. The technique of telling a story in flashback appears to be as old as The Mahabharata.
Thus, there is greater empathy with Arjuna’s reluctance to take up arms against his kith and kin. It is this reluctance that prompts Krishna to expound on the futility of such thoughts and the relevance of Nishkama Karma (action without the desire for its results). The central message of the Bhagavad Gita is easily accessible in Debroy’s translation. The annotations in this section are a great help. The ten days of war end with the death of Bhishma. The anointment of Dronacharya as the leader of the Kaurava army on the battlefield and the failed attempt of the Samshaptakas to kill Arjuna are also covered in this volume. These will enhance your understanding of The Mahabharata. But the big takeaway from it is undoubtedly the significance of the war between Bhishma and Parashuram.
Translated by Bibek Debroy
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