Bhimsen: Episode 70

[Episode 69] [Archives]

The coronation was a very subdued affair – it would, Yudhishtira warned us, be in bad taste to organize lavish celebrations at a time when the people were in considerable distress.

Our brother only insisted that there could be no skimping in making the prescribed offerings: gold for the commander of our armies; for the chief priest, a black cow with a streak of white on its back; a pregnant cow for Draupadi, the queen; a horse for the suta who was named chief balladeer; bulls for the palace gardener and his assistants; two bulls for the king’s personal charioteer; an ivory board and coins for the resident chaturanga player; a curved silver knife and red  head-dress for the chief huntsman; a yellow and red turban and a bag of silver coins for the chief messenger…

It was an endless list. “I didn’t know half of these,” Sahadeva whispered to me at one point as Yudhishtira reeled off names and appropriate gifts. “The things kshatriyas have to learn about! Did you know that if our brother had an abandoned wife, he would have had to send her a sickly black cow as gift?!”

Once the prescribed gifts had been handed out, Yudhishtira had to do a tour of the city and meet with his subjects. Uncle Vidura, who was in charge of everything to do with the coronation, and the chief priest led the procession. We brothers walked behind them, with the responsibility of listening to any citizen with a grievance, cataloging the problems that were brought to our notice and at the appropriate time, bringing it to the king’s attention.

Behind us walked the guests of honor. Only Krishna and Satyaki had accepted our invitation to attend. Senesan, to whom we had sent a formal message, was among those who stayed away — instead, a minister from the Kasi court arrived with gifts for Yudhishtira, Balandhara and me.

Yudhishtira, with Draupadi beside him, came last, stopping often to talk to the people who had lined the streets.

When we finally returned to the palace, it was the turn of us brothers to be recognized and honored. Yudhishtira presented each of us with the ornaments and armor of a kshatriya, all made specifically for the occasion and blessed formally by the chief priest.

And then he ascended the throne, for the very first time.

In the order established by tradition, we had to go up on the dais and anoint him. First the priests and invited Brahmins, then the guests of honor, then mother, then the other members of the family in order of seniority starting with uncle Dhritarashtra, uncle Vidura, valiyamma Gandhari and so on, then the commander of the army and various other senior members of the king’s entourage.

In my turn, I dipped the conch into the large golden bowl filled with water from the Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati mixed with the urine of a pregnant cow, and poured it over his head.

The next stage was when Yudhishtira took me by the hand and led me to the small seat set to his right, at a slightly lower level on the dais. I was formally installed as the Yuvaraja – a much shorter ceremony, with only the chief priest and Yudhishtira anointing me. There was no room there for Balandhara, who stood with the rest of our women, watching.

It was time for the king’s first formal proclamations. Traditionally, this took the form of relief for the more deserving of prisoners, whose sentences would be commuted – but Hastinapura’s prisons had been emptied by Duryodhana, who had armed them and sent them to die on the battle field.

Life settled into a routine, and memories of war grew ever more distant. Yudhishtira summoned us one morning to discuss the depleted state of our treasury. Nakula and Sahadeva had completed their inventory, and as we waited for the king to join us, they told us it wasn’t a pretty picture.

“The problem goes around in a circle,” Nakula said. “Our industries are at a standstill because the able-bodied young men are all dead. Therefore, we have no money coming into the treasury — and without money, we cannot revive these industries and start new ones… it is difficult to know where to start looking for a solution.”

“Maybe in the kingdoms of our allies,” Sahadeva pointed out. “We need to bring in young people from Panchala, from Kasi, Matsya… the promise of a bright future under our brother is the best incentive we have to offer.”

When Yudhishtira finally came to the hall, it was in a state of perturbation. “Uncle Dhritarashtra wants to offer prayers and give away alms in memory of the dead – you have to make the necessary arrangements immediately, and there can be no stint,” he told Sahadeva.

“Gold and cows for a thousand Brahmins… alms and food to all who come and ask for it… the expense of conducting theyaga… where are we supposed to find the funds for all this? Hastinapura is bankrupt, doesn’t our uncle know this?” Sahadeva was agitated.

“I don’t know. It is up to you and Nakula to figure out a way, somehow — we cannot refuse our uncle’s request,” our brother the king ordered. “Besides, uncle wants to retire to the forest after the ceremony – he says he cannot find peace here. And,” he added, with a darkling glance in my direction, “it seems some people have been taunting him ever since the war ended, and making his life miserable.”

Trust the old man to take one incident and convert it into a big drama, I thought to myself.

I had wandered into the large assembly hall one afternoon, the one where the dice game had been staged, and found uncle Dhritarashtra and valiyamma Gandhari seated there, all alone.

“Who is that?”

“It is I – Bhima,” I said, and went up to touch their feet.

“Sit down, child, sit with us for a while,” valiyamma said. “Nowadays, no one comes to see us, we spend our days all alone.”

I sat at their feet. Dhritarashtra’s hand reached out, rested lightly on my shoulder. “Killing and dying are an inevitable part of war, my son,” he said, his grip suddenly tightening. “But was it necessary to drink the blood of my son?”

“When I smashed his chest, Dushasana’s blood gushed up and wetted my lips,” I said, off-handedly. “It didn’t taste good, so I didn’t drink any of it.” Detaching his grip on my shoulder, I walked away.

It is not that I minded their presence – it was a large palace, one of several in the courtyard, and there was room enough for all. But I could never rid myself of the thought that more than anyone else, it was this old man who was responsible for the war – for all his pretense, he had time and again acceded to and even egged on Duryodhana as he schemed to bring about our downfall.

Even at the very end, when we asked for five villages as our share of the inheritance, he could have exercised his authority to grant our request, and thus avoided the war.

To see him now wandering the halls, sighing heavily whenever he heard footsteps approach, and playing the victim to the hilt, made my blood boil – though in deference to Yudhishtira’s sensibilities, I tended to avoid the old man as much as possible.

I shrugged. “Let them perform the yaga and retire to the forest if that is what they want to do,” I said. “As long as they are in our midst, we will never be able to put the events of the past entirely behind us.”

*********

The yaga was grand. Sahadeva and Nakula accomplished miracles, and provided for an event far more elaborate than our brother’s coronation.

When the last Brahmin had been fed, and the last alms-seeker duly satisfied, the old couple  prepared to remove to the forest, and that was when we heard that uncle Vidura had decided to accompany them.

I wasn’t particularly surprised – for years now, his life had been that of a grihastha in name alone. Once he had played his part in overseeing Yudhishtira’s coronation, there really was nothing for him to do in Hastinapura, no formal role to play.

The palace servants and the more elderly Brahmins gathered in the courtyard to give the old couple a send off. Servitors bustled around, getting the chariots ready and packing onto a half dozen bullock carts everything they would need to live in some degree of comfort in the forest.

Yudhishtira rushed up just then, in a state of considerable distress. “Mother has decided to accompany them to the forest,” he announced. “I’ve just spent the last hour trying to get her to change her mind, but she is adamant.”

“Oh, let her go,” Arjuna said, his voice harsh. Ever since that day on the banks of the Ganga, he had deliberately avoided mother and, on the rare occasions when she came up in course of our conversations, responded with a bitterness he took no pains to conceal. “She loves drama, and takes a special delight in surprising us.”

Nakula and Sahadeva seemed more disturbed by the news. “What nonsense!”, Sahadeva said. “After all these years, these trials, why does she want to go into the forest when she should be living here in comfort, as the Queen Mother?!”

They went off to try and persuade her and soon returned, shaking their heads. “Go, child,” Yudhishtira told me. “Maybe she will listen to you.”

I found mother in her chambers, giving some last minute instructions to her maid.

“Now what?” I asked her. “What is it you lack here? When we were confused, weary from all those years in the forest, when we wished to avoid war, you were the one who stiffened our resolve.

“If life in the forest was all that you desired, why then did you push us to fight for the kingdom? Why did we shed all this blood, create this kingdom of widows?”

“Because I am a mother, my child, and as a mother the one thing I desired more than any other was to see my children settled in their inheritance, to see their fame spread far and wide. You are kshatriyas, the sons of a king – to fight for your right was your dharma then, and to rule the kingdom you have won is your dharma now. My life is over – I have done all I can for my children; my own dharma now is to do all I can for your uncle and aunt in their last days.

“There is no need for my children to feel sad – rule in peace, with Draupadi and my other daughters beside you.”

I knew mother well enough to realize there was no point in arguing with her. I turned, and walked back to the courtyard.

Leading him by the hand, uncle Vidura helped Dhritarashtra climb into the first chariot. Valiyamma emerged from the palace, her hand on mother’s shoulder. They walked towards the chariot, passing us without even a glance.

Once she had helped valiyamma into the chariot, mother turned to where we stood and beckoned to Draupadi. They talked for a long time; I saw my mother fold Draupadi in a hug – a gesture as surprising as anything she had ever done.

Draupadi walked back towards us, tears streaming down her face. The whips cracked, the chariots moved out of the courtyard and drove slowly through the street.

We stood there for a very long time, watching this last link with the past fade into the distance and feeling within us the enormous weight of an uncertain future.

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33 thoughts on “Bhimsen: Episode 70

  1. Prem,

    A few years ago I discovered all episodes of Mahabharata @ rajshri.com and decided to buy the entire DVD collection asap. Having read Bhimsen, I don’t think I want to do that now 🙂 Brilliant series this!

    and I second Prahalad…Mondays and Thrusdays will be emptier without Bhimsen.

  2. Prem, Somebody recently passed me a .jpg file titled “if pandavas were on facebook”. Not sure if you have seen that already, but if you haven’t I could send you that, please do let me know what email id to send to. It was really hilarious.!

  3. Hi Prem,

    Your writing is indeed an interesting read. Is there an english translation of the MTV novel available. If so could tell me the details. I heard about these blogs of yours only a couple of days ago and I must confess the last two days were really worth the read. There are a lot of questions unanswered in mahabharata and the most primary of them being the parantage of the Pandava’s. You did mention about some yaga named “Niyoga” if i am not wrong in one of the comments. That gave me a completely different thought altogether. I was infact thinking of a fiction where a bunch of research scholars and astrologers come across a ancient document that details about this yaga and as the plots builds up they end up finding more evidence and tangible proof towards the actual parentage of many of the charecters in Mahabharata and the reason behind the why they were named as they were in the epic. Just a thought may be u can work on in later or something…

    Another doubt i had, and this i had from the 1st time i read mahabharata was that ‘the laws of inheritance to be specific abt the heir to the throne’. If my memory is correct the throne passes from the King to his eldest son, to his eldest son and so on. In case of Mahabharata we know that Santanu was a king and both his sons Chitrangara and Vivhitraveryan were kings and they did not have any children. D and P were born to Vyasa who himself was born to parasharamahrshi and styavati b4 she married santanu. So vyasa is not of royal lineage( even though satyavati was but vyasa’s father wasn’t). thus the progeny of vyasa had no legal right to the throne of hastinapur. Bhisma having relequished his right, the kingdom was left heir-less. that means the whole war was fought for the throne that didnt technically belong to either of the side. I personally do find it very difficult to believe that Santanu never had any other son ( irrespective of who the mother would be..he would have been the right ful heir)…just wish ful thinking. I would love to know your views on this

    Regards
    Anup

    • Yeah, it’s called Second Turn and it’s a fairly ordinary read — somehow, the bloke who wrote it in English stayed stuck with translation, and in the process produced clumsy constructs and a narration so bad, it actually made a great novel read like trash. 😦

      Niyoga is a social practice of the time, not a yaga. Typically, barren women are allowed to get themselves impregnated by mortals. However, to avoid jealousy and other issues, they never revealed the names of their human lovers, but instead masked it with the name of some god or other. Here’s a wiki entry on the practice: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Niyoga

      As for succession, yeah, typically it went from eldest son to eldest son — but royal houses seemed able to bend these rules when they wanted to, and absent a direct legal heir, to put on the throne a logical alternate — as was done in the example you mentioned. Equally, Bhisma the rightful heir is still alive, and theoretically, he can chose to pass the throne on to his hand-picked successor, so the successions of Chitrangada and Vichitravirya would be deemed legal. Or so I presume. 🙂 But yeah, I agree with the larger point — the Kurukshetra war was in effect like a unification bout in heavyweight boxing or the chess unification match we had some time ago when Anand became world champion — two contenders each with their own *official* titles, creating the need for one knockout fight to decide who would inherit the combined throne.

      • I think the crucial point that we miss wrt the Niyoga practice is the fact that the children born out of this are still considered the children of the actual couple. The “other guy” is just like a donor. He has no rights over the child born. And he cannot claim them to be his children too.

        So, even if Dhritarashtra and Pandu were born to Vyasa and Ambika and Ambalika, they were considered officially to be the sons of Vichitraveerya. And the reason why Vidura is not at the same level as D and P is because he was not born out of the Niyoga practice. Amba and Ambalika sent a maid to substitute for them. So he will be the son of the maid and not one of the official heir to the throne.

        Similarly, the sons born to Kunti and Madri thru this practice, are still official sons of Pandu and his wives. They are legally heirs to the throne.

        And in this context, Pandu being the rightful king, as D had to abdicate the throne to P due to his inability to rule, Yudhistra becomes the rightful heir. Once abdicated, D’s sons had no right to rule. So in that context, Y becomes the rightful heir while Duryodhana tries to usurp Y’s rights.

        Secondly, Duryodhana being younger to Yudhishtra makes him lose whatever argument he tried to work in his favour of D being the elder son and hence the rightful king.

        The only complication arises here is between D and Y as a result of Dhitarashtra having abdicated the throne. The question of basic rights resulting from the Niyoga practice does not even arise.

        • In that chain of events, though, the point you miss, and the one Duryodhana would base his claim on, is the fact that at some point, for whatever reason, Pandu decided to abdicate, and at that point passed the throne back to his elder brother.

          This was before he had children, so there was no thought that D was ruling as regent while waiting for Pandu’s own children to grow up and claim the throne — Dhritarashtra was king in his own right. Duryodhana would then argue that he was heir apparent twice over: first as the eldest son of the eldest son, and more importantly as the eldest son of the officially entitled reigning monarch.

          But yeah, I agree that you could not at the time question Yudhishtira’s rights on the basis of his actual parentage — once he was claimed to be the son of Pandu, that discussion ends.

          • hmm – I thought D was Pandu’s regent. I don’t think D was made a king officially. At least that was not what I read in any version.

            • Huge gray area that. Pandu just up and went off to the forest, handing over the throne back to his brother. Dhritarashtra was not, to the best of my knowledge, formally crowned, but you could argue — his children would — that the man was the monarch for the better part of two decades, and not a seat warmer for when and if Pandu had children and those children came calling.

              • Prem,

                I think its a case of de facto v. de jure. While, D was certainly de facto the king (once P retired to the forest), he was never crowned as one and hence not de jure a king. The kingdom at that time was more like a protectorate of Vishma.

    • Santanu had 10 sons – 8 born to Ganga and two to Satyavati. Only one son survived – Bhishma. And none had natural heirs.

      7 were killed by Ganga while Satyavati’s two sons died without leaving a heir.

      Santanu is one hell of an unlucky dude. In fact, had he not lusted after Satyavati at an advanced age, Bhishma would have been king and there would have been no Mahabharata.

      • In fact there is a fraction that still considers Bhishma as the chief architect of the whole Mahabharata. After the death of Vichitraverya, Satyavati had asked Bhishma to marry and have a son so that there is a legal hier as all the conditions that satyavaty’s fater had laid towards Santanu were nullified by the death. Still Bhishma chose not respond to her even though it was a direct objection of her Mother’s commnad. Probably he Knew that if he did what satyavati said then there would not be a mahabharata and then he would not be the Bhishma we know him to be today.

        I do also agree to the point of what you said about ‘Niyoga’, what i was wondering is that since even at an advanced age Santanu was lusting for satyavati, its quite possible for him to have had such tendencies even b4 and in that cas had there been a son out of such a situation(which is not a very rare scenario) who would in that case be inheriting the throne.

        Secondly even if D had renaounced his claim and Pandu was the King, Leagally D’s elder son would be the King and not Y (even though Y was elder to D)..as that was one of the contiditons put forward by Satyavati’s father and hence had rendered Bhishma a bachelour for life…

        • To extend your logic, Ram’s dad died a couple of days into his 14 year exile. Did all promises die with Dashratha, and did Ram then return to Ayodhya to claim his throne? Promises/vows do not die with the man who made them.

          • I think you are missing the point here Gaurav. Let me clarify. These are the conditions that were laid by satyavatis father b4 her marriage to santanu. Firstly satyavati would be made queen and her progeny shall rule as king secondly only her progeny should have the right to the throne and not Bhishma’s (as he is the eldest son, his eldest son might have a more legal claim to the throne.). Bhishma gave up the right to become king so that satyavatis son could become king. he agreed never to marry so that at a later date his progeny should not stake a claim at the throne. with the death of vichitraveryan (not satyavatis father) both the conditions put forth by satyavatis father were nullified as none of her sons were alive and none of them had any children when they were alive and that made all the conditions of the promise given by Bhishma void.

  4. Just wanted to check if the pdf is being updated. Havn’t seen it in the last few episodes.

    I guess now that D has retired to the forest, D crushing a metal Bhim won’t be covered. Prem, why did you drop that?

    Kapalik

    • That incident never did appear in the earlier versions of the Mahabharat. It got subsequently added to the text, as yet one more instance of Krishna’s omniscience [it is Krishna who switches the doll for the person]. MT doesn’t go there in the book that is the source of this narration.

      While I have on occasion departed from MT’s narrative, in this case I didn’t see any valid reason to bring the idol crushing incident in here [to do which, I’d have also to find a way to bring Krishna back into the narrative].

      It shows Dhritarashtra’s anger, yes, but I prefer the little interaction between D and B narrated here, and D’s feeling, relayed by Y, that he was being harassed and humiliated.

  5. This description made me realize that all Indian functions and ceremonies are built around gifting. Somehow, the gifting and the gifts for non-specific reasons (like Hallmark would like to promote), tend to lose their significance more quickly – this has been my experience. Thanks, Prem, for the gift of the story.

    Ram

  6. A very interesting chapter Prem. I just get the feeling that all pieces are slowly falling in place for the finish!!!

    But no mention of how Y changed his mind to be king?

    • No. I left that up to your imagination. 🙂 Seriously, it would have been tedious to write a Bhim-Y conversation leading to the change of mind — the previous chapter detailed the history, and was clear that both the women in their lives wanted Y to be king, for their own reasons. B would have gone to Y and they would have had a conversation, but what they spoke about and why Y would change his mind is clearly foreshadowed in the previous chapter and in the discussions that followed — so I skipped that. And yeah, this is something of a stage-setting episode for the next one. 🙂

  7. Great episode again. I am already worried as to what I will do first thing in the morning on Mondays and Thursdays after this gets over! I am sure you too will miss Bhim!!

    • 🙂 Right now, I think I want this thing to end, so I can get a bit of a break from such total immersion in one character. I’ll miss the process though, of thinking through an episode, examining that against the larger frame of character development, and then writing the thing out.

  8. Hi Prem,

    For once, I am the first to comment! The episodes after the war have been very special. I have not read Mahabharata extensively before, but in my mind I never played these events in as much detail. One question, you have called Gandhari as “Valiyamma” throughout. Why did you retain the malayalam name only for Gandhari and not for everyone else?

    Sahadeva’s question “Did you know that if our brother had an abandoned wife, he would have had to send her a sickly black cow as gift?!” was very well thought of and brought a simle. Was it MT or you?

    Thanks,

    Skanda Narayanan

    • I’ve developed this bad habit of reading Prem’s latest episode and immediately reading the relevant portion in MT’s book to see what changes are made. Fascinating exercise. I read MT just now, missed the reference to the sickly cow, re-read it, and found it this time — included inconspicuously in a long para listing all other gifts. Prem seems to have lifted that one out and put it in Sahadeva’s mouth.

      Prem, question: why? Not asked in a critical but in a curious way — the reason I read you and then go back to MT is to see what creative changes you make, and try to figure out the reason. What were you thinking when you broke this down? Maybe if I keep asking these questions, I’ll learn to think better and write better 🙂

      • Ouch, this feels a bit like in school where your answers are graded against the textbook. 🙂

        Anyway, thanks, you answered Skanda’s question so I don’t have to. Yeah, MT had the sickly black cow in his list of gifts. This is one episode where the source details were a touch hazy, unlike most of the earlier ones, so I went back to the book over the weekend and read it through — and found the cow in there.

        Funny thing was, what I remembered was as a boy being sent to buy some veshtis to be given as gifts for Brahmins attending the 14th day rituals after my grandfather’s death. I bought half a dozen very nice ones, with twin gold lines along the border. Uncle threw a fit and asked me if I didn’t even know the basic things — like, when giving gifts for this particular occasion, the veshti has to have a *single* line, not two. Who knew?!

        That memory and this mention had me thinking of how specific, and how hard-coded, every aspect of life was, back in the day. It wasn’t even for whoever the rule maker was to specify gifts — it had to be a black cow with a white streak down the back, for god knows what reason [I sometimes suspect people make complex rules no one can understand, so they become important as the interpreters 🙂

        Anyway — all of that made me want to highlight this aspect, so I took that sickly cow out and put it in Sahadeva’s mouth, in a manner of speaking 🙂

        • Ha ha! Speaking of “black cow with a white streak down the back”, I was told this story by my mother. Once there lived a cat in a house and during all the religious functions, they kept him tight under a basket so that he doesnt run around. This practise was seen by all the new members of the family and never bothered to question this practise. Later on, the cat died. But still the current generation look out for a cat, keep it under the basket whenever there is a religious function. Just because they used to see that practised by the previous generation! So black cow with a white streak down the back would’ve been a preferred choice of someone which is still “religiously” followed!

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