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MAHABHARATA WAR - A BACKDROP
Gita is supposedly the advice given by Shri Krishna to Arjuna on the first morning of the 18 day Mahabharata war on the Kurukshetra battleground. The causes of the family feud and the consequent war lie in the events which occurred a couple of generations earlier and expose the fickleness as well as the greatness of man. It goes to show how apparently normal events can have a far reaching consequences. Readers may please note that what follows has been written from an historical standpoint and not from a mythological standpoint to which the pious are generally exposed.
THREE GENERATIONS EARLIER
The appropriate point to start this history would be the late 12th century BC when king Shantanu, 42nd in the lineage of the lunar dynasty of the Aryan kings (as given in the Bhagwat Purana), ruled Hastinapur (About 60 km NW of New Delhi, on the banks of the Ganges). The roots of the Mahabharata war may be traced to his two marriages.
Shantanuís first marriage Once when Shantanu went hunting, he came across a beautiful woman and fell for her. She agreed to marry him on the condition that he would never question her deeds. He agreed. In the following years, she gave birth to seven children every one of which, as soon as it were born, she would take to the river and drown it. Shantanu became sad but could not question her because of the mutual agreement. However, when the next child was born he secretly followed her and stopped her from drowning the boy. She revealed that she was the River Ganga personified and had to drown the first seven children because of a curse. The eighth child was to have survived and was to be handed over to Shantanu but now that he had broken his promise she would leave him taking the son with her. Ganga left with the son but returned him to Shantanu when he grew to be a youth well versed in all branches of knowledge and in martial arts. The boy was named Devavrata and grew to be a brave warrior and a wise person, well versed in the code of righteous behaviour (i.e. Dharma). It was expected the he would succeed Shantanu, but events took a different turn. One may trace the root cause of the Mahabharata war to these events.
Shatanuís second marriage Shantanu once came across a fisherman's daughter named Satyavati and fell in love with her. Her father agreed to give her in marriage to Shantanu on the condition that it would be her son who shall succeed him on the throne. Shantanu refused but was depressed in spirit. When Devavrata noticed this and found the reason he coaxed his father into the marriage. In order that his father be able to keep the promise regarding the succession to the throne, Devavarata himself denounced his right to the throne and besides took a vow that he would remain a celibate and would not get married so as to eliminate any chance of successors being born to him. This vow was so severe that Devavrata was called by people as Bhishma or severely frightening. Even today a serious vow is called a Bhishma-pratidnya or vow of Bhishma. Thus Shantanu was married to Satyavati. In return Shantanu gave a boon to Devavrata that he would die only when he wished it so.
Pandu and Dhritarashtra Shantanu had two sons from Satyavati. The elder son died in a battle. The second son Vichtravirya was a weakling but Bhishma supported him having the welfare of Hastinapur at his heart. In order to get Vichitravirya married Bhishma invaded Kashi and won three daughters of the king of Kashi. One of them prayed that she was already in love with another prince and was let go. Vichitravirya was thus married to the two remaining princesses Ambika and Ambalika. Vichitravirya however died without a son and heir to the throne. By the custom of those days it was permissible to breed a son through the brother of the husband, and the heir would be considered as legal. Note that this process was aimed not for pleasure but only towards the goal of procreation. There was no living brother to Vichitravirya, but before her marriage to Shantanu, Satyavati had a son from the Rishi Parashara, grandson of the great Rishi Vashishtha. This son was the famous great Rishi Vyasa who edited the Vedas, wrote Puranas and after the Mahabharata war composed the book Jaya which is the precursor to the epic Mahabharata. Satyavati, in consultation with Bhishma, called upon Vyasa to beget children for the two wives of the late Vichitravirya in order to have a successor to the throne. Unfortunately the elder son Dhritarashtra was born blind while the second son was anaemic and was therefore named Pandu. At the request of a slave of the palace, Vyasa also begot a son from her. This was Vidura who later turned out to be a great learned sage and played a significant role in the affairs of the kingdom.
PANDAVAS AND KAURAVAS
Because Dhritarashtra was blind, Bhishma who was a kind of regent, made Pandu ascend the throne. Pandu had two wives, Kunti, daughter of King Ugrasen of Yadava clan and Madri, the daughter of the king of Madra in Punjab. Kunti was thus the sister of Vasudeva, Shri Krishnaís father. Pandu had three sons from Kunti and two from Madri. Kuntiís sons were Yudhishtira (or Dharma), Arjuna (or Partha) and Bhima. Madriís sons were named Nakul and Sahadeva.
Dhritarashtra was married to Gandhari the princess of Gandhar (now Kandahar in Afganistan). In deference to the blindness of her husband Gandhari throughout her life covered her eyes by tying cloth over them. They had hundred sons known as the Kauravas and a daughter. The eldest son was Duryodhana who was very ambitious and cunning. His second son was Duhshasana who was also like his elder brother. These brothers hated the Pandavas because they were better in character as well as in other qualities like bravery etc. and were liked by all.
Actually Pandu was not the real father of these sons. Legend goes that before her marriage, Kunti had served the great Rishi Durvasa who gave her a boon of six mantras which she could use whenever she wished for a child. (Pandu was anaemic and unable to bear children so Mahabharata seems to use this good ruse to legalise Kunti's and Madriís children as Pandu's. But note that this system was socially accepted in those days and the Pandavas were never considered inferior in any way because of this. Also considering the qualities of the five sons there is no doubt that their real fathers were no ordinary persons.) Immediately after she received the boon Kunti, out of curiosity, tried one mantra while she was a virgin and prayed to the Sun God. He came in person and gave a son to Kunti. Kunti was frightened and secretly put the baby in a basket and left him afloat in the river. He was found by a charioteer and was named Karna also known as Radheya because his adopted motherís name was Radha. When he grew up he joined the Kaurava group and was very close to Duryodhana. Karna played a major role in the Mahabharata war and led it after Bhishma retired from the war after getting seriously injured. Karna is considered as one of the greatest characters of the Epic Mahabharata, thrown by fate into the Kaurava camp in spite of being the eldest of the Pandavas and never wavering in his allegiance to Duryodhana even when the secret of his birth was revealed to him. He was as good as Arjuna in war and had to be killed by a trick arranged by Shri Krishna. Thus traditionally one speaks of only five Pandavas. According to the above legend Yudhishtira the eldest of the Pandavas was born from Yama the god of death, Arjuna from Indra the king of the gods and Bhima from Vayu the wind god. Yudhisthira was known for his truthfulness and morals while Bhima was very strong even as a child and became an expert in wielding the club or mace. Kunti passed on two mantras to Madri the other wife of Pandu. Her sons Nakul and Sahadeva were begot from the twin Ashwinikumars, the twin deities of medicine. Yudhisthira was known for his truthfulness and morals while Bhima was very strong even as a child and became an expert in wielding the club or mace.
Panduís death and Dhritarashtraís enthronement Pandu died while he was in forest. Madri committed Sati by burning herself on the funeral pyre. Probably because Yudhishtira the eldest son of Pandu was too young, Bhishma enthroned Dhritarashtra even though he was blind.
After their fatherís death the Pandavas along with Kunti returned to Hastinapur and stayed with their uncle Dhritarashtra. Both Kauravas and Pandavas studied together under the royal Guru Dronacharya, the martial arts, especially archery, the main weapon of those days as well as other branches of knowledge.
Kauravasí enmity Pandavas and Kauravas studied Shastras and marshal arts, especially archery together under the royal Guru Dronacharya. The Kauravas always bore jealousy and animosity towards the Pandavas who were liked by all due to their excellent skills and personal qualities. Yudhisthira was known for his truthfulness and morals while Bhima was very strong even as a child and became an expert in wielding the club or mace. Arjuna was the best archer with unsurpassed skill with bow and arrow and was the most favourite student of Dronacharya. Duryodhana also was an expert with the mace. The Kauravas out of jealousy always tried to create trouble for the Pandavas and even tried to kill them by poisoning and by burning them, but Pandavas were saved by their well-wishers especially Vidura and Shri Krishna, who were aware of the vengeful nature of the Kauravas. The feud between the Pandavas and the Kauravas grew as the boys reached adulthood.
Pandavas marry Draupadi Kauravas, especially Duryodhana and Duhshasana once tried to poison Bhima but failed due to his strong constitution. Another time they plotted to burn them alive by inviting them to a house which they had especially built with inflammable materials. The Pandavas escaped but to create a false impression that they had died and thus avoid further attempts on their life, they had to travel around incognito, posing as Brahmin mendicants, hiding from the Kauravas lest they would be murdered. During this incognito stage they reached the kingdom of Panchala where a competition was held by the king Drupada in order choose a bridegroom for his daughter Draupadi or Panchali (also known as Krishnaa since she was dark complexioned). The competition consisted of hitting the eye of a revolving fish with an arrow while taking the aim through its reflection in water. While going around for alms the Pandavas reached the place of the competition. The difficult test was won by Arjuna. The Pandavas returned to their home with the princess Draupadi. Their mother, not knowing that Arjuna had won a princess, instructed them to share the gains equally among the five brothers. As they could not go against her command all five of them married Draupadi. (There are other examples of polyandry mentioned in the Puranas. But note that there are tribes in the northern hill regions of India where polyandry is still practised. Since social customs are well merged with religion it is difficult to change such practices.) Draupadiís time was divided equally among the brothers and there does not seem to be any complaints. Shri Krishna was a cousin of Pandavas and always supported them. He was especially close to Arjuna. Draupadi considered Shri Krishna as her brother while Arjuna was married to Shri Krishna's sister Subhadra for which again shri Krishna was responsible.
Pandavas get Indraprastha When Pandavas became older they asked for their share of the kingdom. Dhritarashtra who was heavily under the influence of his sons refused but finally he had to give in and gave them a small piece of kingdom nearby. Its capital was Indraprastha which is also now part of New Delhi. People were very happy in their kingdom.
Pandavas kingdom Lost by gambling The Kauravas, advised by their maternal uncle Shakuni, the king of Gandhar, made a plan by which Pandavas would lose their kingdom in a gambling bout since it was not possible to win against Pandavas in any battle. It was considered the duty of a Kshatriya not to refuse to a duel or a gambling game. Taking advantage of this custom, Duryodhana invited Yudhishtira for a gambling bout. They used loaded dice which the Pandavas did not know. Yudhishtira who was known for his righteousness and truthfulness lost all he had including the kingdom. Duryodhana then challenged him to continue to play by putting on bet the liberty of his brothers which also was lost. Thus the brave Pandavas became slaves to the Kauravas. Now that the Pandavas were slaves the Kauravas unfortunately pulled Draupadi (who was under menstruation at that time) into the court where the game was being played. Duhshasana even tried to undress and molest her. Unfortunately all this was happening under the eyes of Bhishma and the other elders who had to keep quiet for keeping the unity of the kingdom. The episodes created a big furore in the court and it was finally decided that Pandavas should be condoned from being slaves and instead they should be banished to forest for twelve years and after that for one more year they should remain incognito. If they were identified during the incognito period then they were again to go to forest for another twelve years. Pandavas had to accept this proposal and they left the kingdom with Draupadi.
Coming out of incognito period Twelve years passed during which Kauravas tried a lot to trouble and humiliate the Pandavas but every time they failed. During the thirteenth year they went to King Virat as servants under different guises. Draupadi also remained as servant in the palace. Kauravas tried to discover their whereabouts but could not succeed. But towards the end, Kauravas invaded Virat to take away his wealth of the cattle when Arjuna had to take part in the battle and defeat the Kauravas. Thus, Arjuna was discovered. However that day was also the end of their one year incognito period. They therefore immediately claimed their kingdom back.
But things were not so simple. They had completed one lunar year (354 days) but Kauravas insisted they were meaning solar year (365 days). (See notes at the end of Ch. 8) This dispute was not resolved and finally it was decided that only a full scale war would decide the question of inheritance. To give Kauravas a final chance Shri Krishna tried to mediate but the Kauravas were blind with arrogance and power and tried to even arrest Shri Krishna. War became inevitable. But this was not a sniper war of today. Both parties conferred regarding the date of the war as well as the rules. Among the rules was that the war was to start every day at sunrise and the warriors were to stop fighting at sunset. Thus the Mahabharata war is called a Dharmayuddha or a war fought according to the rules of Dharma or a code of conduct.
Decision of war Both parties sent calls to their relations and supporters and people came from as far away as Afganistan which had Aryan kingdoms as well as from the east and the south. The venue of the war was Kurukshetra not far from New Delhi. (You may find it on a map of India. ) Shri Krishna played an interesting role in the war. Both Duryodhana and Arjuna went to meet Shri Krishna for his assistance in the war. Both reached his palace early morning and waited for Shri Krishna to wake up. Proudly, Duryodhana sat near his head while Arjuna sat humbly at his feet. When Shri Krishna woke up he first saw Arjuna and asked what he wanted. Thus the discussion started. Shri Krishna said that he himself would support one side and lend his army to the other. He also said that he would not handle any arms during the war. Duryodhana opted for the army while Arjuna opted for Shri Krishna. Shri Krishna acted as Arjuna's charioteer during the war and saved him from death many times. He was intelligent and shrewd and it is this shrewdness which mainly made Pandavas win the war. Bhishma. Dronacharya fought on Kauravas side as their duty but their heart was with Arjuna and Yudhishtir. However they did not become lax in their duties. The tales of the war and how Shri Krishna's tricks saved Pandavas is interesting and legendary but that is a different topic.
ARJUNA FEELS REMORSE
On the first day of the war Arjuna asked Shri Krishna to steer the chariot to the centre of the battlefield so that he can have an overview of the armies. But Shri Krishna advised him that he was merely doing his duty. That advice in expanded form is Gita. On the morning of the first day of the war, both armies were facing each other. Before the war was to start, Arjuna asked Shri Krishna, his charioteer to take the chariot to the centre between the armies in order to have a look at the warriors gathered there, because it was necessary to know with whom he was going to fight. Shri Krishna did so and indicated to Arjuna his elders like his grand-uncle Bhishma, his guru Dronacharya and other kings.
When Arjuna saw among both the armies his elders, brothers, cousins, uncles, friends and relatives and even grand-children (Arjuna was 65 years old at the time of this war. Shri Krishna was 83, Dronacharya 85 and Bhishma was more than 100 years old; Vasudeo, father of Shri Krishna did not fight but was 140 years old. It appears that people lived long in those days). the reality of fighting his own kith and kin, especially his grand-uncle Bhishma and Guru Dronacharya faced him. He realised the genocide that was going to occur for the sake of winning the kingdom and in a despondent mood, overcome with grief and compassion Arjuna said to Shri Krishna, "By seeing all these friends and relatives gathered here for war, I am feeling un-nerved and my mouth has gone dry. I am feeling confused. I do not think we will gain by killing these friends and relatives. The persons for whose benefit we desire the kingdom are those who have come here to sacrifice their life and wealth. I can see that this war will destroy many family lineages and when I see the horror of this destruction, how can I ignore the sins of that destruction? Because such a destruction leads to the destruction of morals. I am wondering how we became ready to commit this sin in the first place!" So saying Arjuna kept down his bow and sat quietly.
This was a shock to Shri Krishna. He said to Arjuna, "How did these thoughts of compassion, unbecoming to an Aryan, came into your mind in this time of crises? Shed this weakness and get ready for the war."
But Arjuna did not move. He said, "How can I strike persons like Bhishma and Dronacharya whom I should actually be worship? The blood will be on my hands. I am really confused and am not able to think what is right and what is wrong. Consider me your disciple and advise me what is proper." And then Arjuna fell silent. Shri Krishna then gave him the advice on duties of a person towards himself, the society and God. This advice presented as a dialogue between Arjuna and Shri Krishna is the Gita. It convinced Arjuna that he has to fight the war more as his dharma (righteous conduct and duty) as a Kshatriya (warrior caste) rather than for the gains of the kingdom. Thus convinced, he picked up his bow and arrows and got up to fight the war.
Portrayal Shri Krishna as Supreme God As readers would have concluded from the Prologue, Gita is not a factual report of the dialogue between Arjuna and Shri Krishna, if it really occurred at all. It is a later addition by Sauti to the Mahabharata, of which Gita is a part. It was written some centuries after Shri Krishna was deified and considered as an avatar of Lord Vishnu thus enabling Sauti to present Shri Krishna as the Supreme God. Having assigned the role of an avatar to Shri Krishna, he is mentioned in Gita (and Dnyaneshwari) as Bhagwan (God). In fact much of the advice to Arjuna rendered by Shri Krishna is in this role of Bhagwan which Arjuna also recognises. Thus Gita is usually mentioned as Bhagvadgita or Gita told by Bhagwan.
Both Shri Krishna and Arjuna are mentioned by various other names in the Bhagvadgita, but we shall maintain the names Shri Krishna and Arjuna in this translation for the sake of convenience.
Dhritarashtra, being blind could not participate in the war. Mahabharata (Sautiís addition) tells us that he requested Shri Krishna that he should be able to learn about the events of the war. Shri Krishna granted divine sight to Dhritarashtraís charioteer Sanjaya so that he could see the events of the war and describe them to Dhritarashtra. Thus Dhritarashtra and Sanjaya also knew the contents of Gita almost at the same time as Arjuna. But blinded by love for his sons it had no effect on Dhritarashtra. What he was interested in was only whether his sons were winning or not.
Life struggle compared with Kurukshetra war Mr Yardi has commented on this situation in very beautifully and analytically comparing the war to our struggles in life in the following words (Bhagvadgita as a Synthesis, M.R.Yardi, 1991. See Prologue): "Usually the author (meaning Sauti) gives an indication of the purport of the text in the very first sentence. Gita calls Kurukshetra the dharmakshetra implying thereby that the Pandavas are waging a righteous war against the Kauravas. The human mind vacillates between two tendencies, the divine and the demoniacal, each struggling for the supremacy over the other. Life is therefore the battleground for the settlement of great moral issues. This is true not only for the individual but also for the society as a whole and the human race. If man follows the path of dharma in a disinterested spirit, he grows in spiritual stature. But if he follows the path of adharma (i.e. lack of dharma), he sinks into the very depths of degradation. The blind king stands for a man who is blinded by self-love and affection for his wife and family, and who, instead of following the path of duty, spends his life-time in the mad pursuit of wealth, power and domination. This attitude naturally leads to conflict between individuals and nations. The Gita tells us how to resolve such conflicts and to attain salvation from the turmoil of life even while living."
Epilogue to the Mahabharata war The war lasted for eighteen days. Only survivors were the Pandavas, Dronacharya's son Ashwathama, Shri Krishna and a few others. Kauravas and their allies were completely decimated. It was one of the greatest genocide in history were young strong blood vanished. All Pandava's sons died so there was no heir to the hard won kingdom. Ashwathama as a revenge on behalf of the Kauravas tried to kill the foetus of Abhimanyu's child (Arjuna's grand child) but Shri Krishna by his yogic powers made it survive. Thus Pandavas had a heir after all. His name was Parikshit. Bhishma who had a boon of dying by his own will waited in injured condition until Uttarayana, the northward travel of the sun started. (Currently it starts on December 21. See notes under Ch 8.)
Yudhishtir became the king and reigned for 36 years. Just towards the end of his reign, Shri Krishna, while sitting under a tree in a forest (near Somnath in Gujarat state, Western part of India), was shot by an arrow in the leg by a hunter who mistakenly thought he was shooting a deer. Thus Shri Krishna died after an illustrious career at the age of about 118 years. He was cremated at Prabhas on the bank of the river Patan nearby. Shri Krishna was the king of the Yadava clan and his kingdom was Dwaraka, an isle off the west coast of Gujarat. Soon after his death the Yadavas fought among themselves and killed each other. Dwaraka was swallowed by sea. When the news of Shri Krishna's death came the Pandavas felt like orphans. Arjuna was given the task of escorting the widows of the Yadavas to Hastinapur but while Arjuna was escorting them the tribes on the way attacked him and took the women away. Arjuna had no power left as he was now old. He returned to Hastinapur shamefaced and very soon all the brothers went to the forest for passing their last days as was the custom in those days. Parikshit succeeded the throne.
Hindu tradition believes that Kaliyoga began with the death of Shri Krishna. After putting together various types of scientific, historical and other information Mr. Yardi concludes the date of Mahabharata war as 1011 BC give or take 50 years and in no case earlier than 1136 BC. This agrees fairly well with the broad estimate of approximately 1400 BC by the historians but differs greatly from the orthodox Hindu tradition which instead of 975 BC puts the start of the Kaliyuga at 3101BC said to be based on a single unsubstantiated statement of the famous astronomer-mathematician-philosopher Aryabhat.
REVISED November 2010
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