About the Book
The Great Epic of India is also the universal epic of humanity. In Peter Brook's film adaptation, Vyasa calls the Mahabharata the 'political history of mankind'. A great war leaves no lasting fruits of victory. Does not the prediction of a mournful existence for his victors by the dying Duryodhana, remind one of the victorious Duke of Wellington's words that only a battle lost is as sad as a battle won? This message, apart from the inexorability of Time and Destiny, is central to the essence of the Mahabharata. It is exalted tragedy, made unique by the central role of Krshna as the Blessed Lord of the Bhagavad- Gita - the main mover for good in the Just War at Kurukshetra; by the valour of Bheeshma, Drona, Arjuna, Bheema, Kama and others; by the uniqueness of Draupadi as a many-faceted heroine; and by the scholarship and philosophy of the righteous Yudhishthira. The Mahabharata is tragic not only because of the mutually destructive civil war it depicts, but also for the ushering in of the amoral Knli-yuga. The Mahabharata tragedy, with its deep message of stoical quietism, sensitizes us into viewing the ephemerality of life's pleasures and pains, with tranquil detachment.
About the Author
ABHIJIT BASU, one-time research scientist and former administrator of government finances, is presently engaged as part-time independent director in the corporate sector. An avowed admirer of the ideal of the Renaissance Man, Basu has also been a life-long follower of the liberal arts, especially Sanskrit, English and Bengali literature, and history, apart from his keen interest in the sciences.
Of late, Basu has been busy as an author and polymath editor, covering a broad spectrum of topics and ideas. His first book, 'a collection of critical, scholarly and absorbing essays,' titled Prophets, Poets and Philosopher-Kings: Sketches on India's Spiritual & Literary Heritage (Celestial Books 2012), was well received:
Versatile scholar Abhijit Basu's analytical and interdisciplinary research into the eternal and transnational relevance of the overwhelming ancient India, enriched with lucid prose and current bibliography, is invaluable for aspiring researchers and students of literature and cultural studies. (The Tribune, 20 May 2012.)
Basu hails from an old Kolkata-based house of civil servants, professionals and academics. He considers himself blessed in having had gentle exemplars as parents, and now an attached family to shower affections upon.
Vyasa's Mahabharata, with its enormous spread and depth, has engaged readers and writers through the ages in search of ever-newer insights. The introductory words of Sauti - that while some can memorise the epic, others are inspired to comment upon it - are as true today as on the occasion of its pristine narration in the old Naimisha grove. The Great Epic of India is a narrative apart. It is unique in its multiplicity of facets: as literature in the form of poetic drama; as a chronicle comprising a core of history overlaid with legend and myth; and as an encyclopaedia of ancient philosophy (with the Bhagavad-Gita as an eternal bequest to mankind), secular knowledge and thought. The grand appeal of the Mahabharata lies in this plurality of characteristics - something not found matched by any other epic of the world.
The Mahabharata is more regaling to those who look at it with a macro-vision rather than with a narrow tunnel-view. Admittedly, it has a good deal of 'mythical' content. But its value as great literature sinks in only when there is a 'willing suspension of disbelief'. After all, supernatural episodes like Yudhishthira's exchanges with the crane-guard (baka-yaksha), or his last great journey to heaven, are quintessential to the Mahabharata's timeless charm. Then again, is Yudhishthira himself fact or fiction? Vedic literature makes no reference to him, though his (or rather his brother Arjuna's,) descendants - Pareekshit and Janamejaya - find mention therein. Panini, of the late Vedic age, does however illustrate the grammatical significance of his name.' Similarly, for all the perceived layers of didactic deposits on the Krshna story, there plausibly was a towering personality at the core of those ~biding legends. True, the battle of Kurukshetra was not quite as calamitous as some modern wars the world has seen, yet it is hard to discount the age-old civilisational memory of a great tribal conflict that sucked into its implosive vortex warriors from practically the entire Indian subcontinent and its neighbourhood.
Today's general stance on the Mahabharata story seems to lie somewhere between the two extremes of diehard scepticism and rigid faith, with regard to its historical core. Now, if one accepts the authenticity of the Mahabharata war, the next logical question is: when did it happen? After sifting the available collateral indications, three dates emerge - 3100 BC (derived from an Aryabhata reference); 1500 BC (Bronze Age); and 1000 BC (Iron Age). Taking a median-conservative reckoning and the broad time-band of the two later dates (1500-1000 BC), this is what was happening in India and the world at around the time of the Kurukshetra battle."
In the Indian subcontinent, the Indus Valley Civilisation had vanished and Indo-Aryans were spreading across its northern plains, heralding the initial transition from a pastoral-farming- warrior culture to a proto-urban farming-warrior one. There was also some shift in the nuances of India's spiritual continuum. The early Vedic elemental gods - Indra, Agni, and Surya - were gradually being overshadowed by the triad of Brahma, Vishnu, and Rudra-Shiva, with the third absorbing much of the so-called pre-Aryan faith. There was also a parallel intellectual movement towards Vedantic monism.
China, in those 500 years, was laying its own milestones of an advanced literate civilisation, expanding progressively from the initial Shang to the later Zhou dynasties, with rice-farming continuing to spread into Southeast Asia and the Korean peninsula. Around the same time, in West Asia, the powerful Bronze Age empires of the Hittites (Asia Minor), and Babylonia, as well as the Mediterranean Egyptian Empire, waxed and waned, alongside newer developments such as the use of iron, invention of the alphabet, and the rise of monotheistic Israel. Europe too, was experiencing upheavals, with the Greek (Mycenaean) and Cretan (Minoan) civilisations initially flourishing and then sinking into oblivion, to the accompaniment of large population movements.
Coming to the description of the Mahabharata war, if one discounts such arguable exaggerations as use of 'celestial' missiles, the rest contains interesting leads to the organisation and conduct of war in those days. The basic army formation was built round Divisions (Akshauhini) comprising four parts (Caturanga): elephants, cavalry, chariots and infantry. War elephants were first employed in India, the practice extending to the Greeks, Persians, and the Mediterranean. To ancient soldiers and their horses, a rampaging elephant with its humongous bulk and destructive power, presented a potently intimidating spectacle. Alexander himself was so impressed by the war elephants of Porus and the Nanda Empire that he established an elephant force to guard his palace at Babylon, and created the post of Elephantarch, to lead his pachyderm units." Later, the Carthaginians, under Hannibal, with their elephant units, wrought havoc in the Roman ranks in the early Punic War, till the genius of Scipio Africanus devised a strategy to trap or goad away those formidable beasts in the final Roman victory at the Battle of Zama (202 BC).
It is in the matter of war ethics that the Kurukshetra battle stands out by virtue of its civilised norms. The rules for the conduct of war, mutually agreed upon by the opposing sides, are described at some length in the very first chapter of the Bheeshma-parva (see Supplementary Notes), and are no less chivalrous than the modem international pro to cols laid down in The Hague and Geneva Conventions of 1907 and 1949 respectively. After sunset, there was to be a break in hostilities (but there were occasions when engagements spilled into the night). One who resorted to a war of words (to galvanise oneself or intimidate the opponent), was to be countered with words - weapons were to be used only with due notice. An unready or otherwise overwhelmed opponent was not to be struck. Nor was harm to be directed at one who was unarmed, bereft of his carrier, seeking mercy, or without protective armour. Soldiers leaving their formation were not to be killed. Fighting was to be between equals - charioteers with charioteers; cavalry with cavalry; elephant- riders with elephant-riders; and infantry with infantry. Under no circumstances ere non-combatant helpers to be attacked. Engagements were to be on the battlefield only, at agreed hours. This rule was, however, breached by Ashvatthama in the Sauptika- parva. There were other interesting facets to the war. The main protagonists had chariots with four horses. The flag-staff rose from within the chariot; when injured, the warrior would hold onto it for support. Famous chariot-warriors were surrounded by guards, and had vehicles laden with shafts and other missiles. There were also brothel-camps near the battlefield.
The Mahabharata - Some Nuances, Some Facts
PART I - THE STORY
THE ENIGMATIC SAINT-CHRONICLER
PART II - THE HISTORY
SEARCH FOR HISTORICITY
THE CRITICAL EDITION
EPICS & EPICS
NAMES & PLACES IN THE MAHABAHRATA
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