History of India/Volume 1/Chapter 9

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Title - Page 97 - Chapter IX - History of India Vol 1 (1906).jpg

THE OPENING PAGE OF THE BOMBAY EDITION OF THE MAHABHARATA, REDUCED.

CHAPTER IX

THE EPIC AGE—THE MAHABHARATA

THE tide of Aryan conquests rolled onward. If the reader will refer to a map of India, he will find that from the banks of the Sutlaj to the banks of the Jumna and the Ganges, there is not a very wide strip of country to cross. The Aryans, who had colonized the whole of the Panjab, were not likely to remain inactive on the banks of the Sutlaj or of the Sarasvati. Already in the Vedic Period bands of enterprising colonists had crossed those rivers and explored the distant shores of the Jumna and the Ganges, and those noble streams, though alluded to in the hymns as on the very horizon of the Hindu world, were not unknown. In course of time the emigrants to the fertile banks of the two rivers must have increased in number, until they founded a powerful kingdom of their own in the country near the modern Delhi—the kingdom of the Kurus.

These colonists were no others than the Bharatas renowned in the wars of Sudas, but their kings belonged to the house of Kuru, and hence the tribe went by both names, Bharatas and Kurus. From what part of the Panjab the Kurus came, is a question still involved in obscurity. In the Aitareya Brahmana it is stated that the Uttara Kurus and the Uttara Madras lived beyond the Himalaya, perhaps in Kashmir, but in the epics of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, the land of the Uttara Kurus became a mythical country, although it is identified with the Ottorakorrha of Ptolemy and placed somewhere east of the modern Kashgar; but we would place the Uttara Kuru alluded to in the Aitareya Brahmana somewhere north of the Sub-Himalayan range, i.e. in Kashmir. We assume that the colony of the Kurus on the Ganges rose to prowess and fame about 1400 B.C..

When the Hindus had once begun to settle on the fertile banks of the Jumna and the Ganges, other colonists descended these streams and soon occupied the whole of the Doab, the tract of country between the two rivers. While we find the Kurus or Bharatas occupying the country near the modern Delhi, another adventurous tribe, the Panchalas, seized the tract of country near the modern Kanouj. The original seat of the Panchalas is still less known than that of the Kurus, and it has been supposed that they also came from the northern hills, like the Kurus.

The Panchala kingdom probably rose to distinction about the same time as the kingdom of the Kurus, and the Brahmana literature frequently refers to these allied tribes as forming the very centre of the Hindu world and as renowned by their valour, their learning, and their civilization. Centuries had elapsed since the Aryans had first settled on the banks of the Indus, and the centuries had done their work in progress and civilization. Manners had changed, society had become more refined and polished, learning and art had made considerable progress. Kings invited wise men to their courts, held learned controversies with their priests, performed elaborate sacrifices according to the rules of the age, led trained armies to the field, appointed qualified men to collect taxes and to administer justice, and performed all the duties of civilized administrators. The relations and friends of the king and the warriors of the nation practised archery and driving the war-chariot from their early youth, and also learned the Vedas and all the sacred lore that was handed down from generation to generation. The priests multiplied religious rites and observances, preserved the traditional learning of the land, and instructed and helped the people in their religious duties. And the people lived in their towns and villages, cherished the sacrificial fire in their houses, cultivated the arts of peace, trained their boys from early youth in the Vedas and in their social and religious duties, and gradually developed those social customs which in India have the force of laws. Women had their legitimate influence in society and moved without restriction or restraint.

Civilization, however, does not necessarily put a stop to wars and dissensions; and the only reminiscences we possess of the political history of the Kurus and the Panchalas are those of a sanguinary war in which many neighbouring tribes took part, and which forms the subject of one of the two great epics of India. The incidents of the war described in the Mahabharata are undoubtedly legendary, but nevertheless the great epic is based on the recollections of an actual war of the great Bharatas and faithfully describes the manners and customs of the ancient Hindus in the Brahmanic and Epic Period, as the Iliad describes the manners of the ancient Greeks.

The capital of the Kurus at the time of which we are speaking was the city of Hastinapura, the supposed ruins of which have been discovered on the upper course of the Ganges, about sixty-five miles to the northeast of Delhi. Santanu, the aged King of Hastinapura, died, leaving two sons, Bhishma, who had taken a vow of celibacy, and a younger prince, who became king. This young prince died in his turn, leaving two sons, Dhritarashtra, who was blind, and Pandu, who ascended the throne.

Pandu died, leaving five sons who are the heroes of the epic. Dhritarashtra virtually remained king during the minority of the five Pandavas and of his own children, while Dhritarashtra's uncle, Bhishma, remained the chief councillor and friend of the state.

The account of the martial training of the young Pandavas and the sons of Dhritarashtra throws much light on the manners of royal houses. Drona was a Brahman and a renowned warrior, for caste had not yet completely formed itself, Kshatriyas had not yet obtained the monopoly of the use of arms, nor Brahmans of religious learning. He had been insulted by his former friend, the King of the Panchalas, and had

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THE FIVE PANDUJS AND DRAUPADI.

retired in disgust to the court of the Kurus, where he educated the princes in the art of war.

Yudhisthira, the eldest of the Pandavas, never became much of a warrior, but was versed in the religious learning of the age, and is the most righteous character in the epic. Bhima, the second, learned to use the club, was renowned for his gigantic size and giant strength, and is indeed the Ajax of the poem. The third, Arjuna, excelled all other princes in the skill of arms and aroused the jealousy and hatred of the sons of Dhritarashtra, even in their boyhood, Nakula, the fourth, learned to tame horses, and Sahadeva, the fifth, became proficient in astronomy. Duryodhana, the eldest son of Dhritarashtra, was proficient in the use of the club and was a rival to Bhima.

At last the day came for a public exhibition of the proficiency which the princes had acquired in the use of arms. A spacious area was enclosed. Seats were arranged all round for warriors and aged chieftains, for ladies and courtiers, while the whole population of Kuru-land flocked to see the skill of their young princes.

There was shooting of arrows at a target and there was fighting with swords and bucklers and clubs. Duryodhana and Bhima soon began to fight in earnest, and rushed toward each other like mad elephants. Shouts ascended to the sky, and soon the fight threatened to have a tragic end, but at last the infuriated young men were parted, and peace was restored.

Then the young Arjuna entered the lists in golden mail, with his wondrous bow. His splendid archery surprised his most passionate admirers and thrilled the heart of his mother with joy, while shouts of admiration rose from the multitude like the roar of the ocean. He played with his sword, which flashed like lightning, and also with his sharp-edged quoit, or chakra, and never missed his mark. Lastly, he brought down horses and deer to the ground by the noose and concluded by doing obeisance to his worthy preceptor Drona, amidst the ringing cheers of the assembled multitude.

The dark cloud of jealousy lowered on the brow of Dhritarashtra's sons, and soon they brought to the field an unknown warrior, Kama, who was a match for Arjuna in archery. Kings' sons could fight only with their peers, like the knights of old, and Dhritarashtra therefore knighted the unknown warrior, or rather made him a king on the spot, so that Arjuna might have no excuse for declining the fight. To awkward questions which were put to him, the haughty Kama replied that rivers and warriors knew not of their origin and birth their prowess was their genealogy; but the Pandavas declined the fight, and Kama retired in silence and in rage.

Drona now demanded the reward of his tuition. Like doughty warriors of old, he held revenge to be the dearest joy of a warrior, and for his reward he asked the help of the Kurus to be revenged on Drupada, king of the Panchalas, who had insulted him. The demand could not be refused. Drona marched against Drupada, conquered him, and wrested from him half his kingdom. Drupada swore to be avenged.

Dark clouds now arose on the horizon of Kuru-land. The time had come for Dhritarashtra to name a Yuvaraja, or prince who would reign during his old age. The claim of Yudhisthira to the throne of his father could not be gainsaid, and he was appointed Tuvardja. But the proud Duryodhana rebelled against the arrangement, and the old monarch had to yield, and sent the five Pandavas in exile to Varanavata, perhaps the modern Barnawa, not far from Delhi, and then the very frontier of Hindu settlements. The vengeance of Duryodhana pursued them there, and the house where the Pandavas lived was burnt to ashes. The Pandavas and their mother escaped by an underground passage and for a long time roamed about disguised as Brahmans.

Heralds now went from country to country and proclaimed in all lands that the daughter of Drupada,

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WINNING THE HAND OF THE PRINCESS.

king of the Panchalas, was to choose for herself a husband among the most skilful warriors of the time. The trial was a severe one, for a heavy bow of great size must be bent, and an arrow shot through a whirling chakra, or quoit, into the eye of a golden fish set high on the top of a pole!

Not only princes and warriors, but multitudes of spectators flocked from all parts of the country to Kampilya, the capital of the Panchalas. The princes thronged the seats, and Brahmans filled the place with Vedic hymns. Then appeared Draupadi with the garland in her hand which she was to offer to the victor of the day. By her side stood her brother Dhrishtadyumna, who proclaimed the feat which was to be performed.

Kings rose and tried to bend the bow, one after another, but in vain. The proud and skilful Kama stepped forth to do the feat, but was prevented.

A Brahman suddenly rose and drew the bow, shooting the arrow through the whirling chakra into the eye of the golden fish. A shout of acclamation arose. And Draupadi, the Kshatriya princess, threw the garland round the neck of the brave Brahman, who led her away as his bride. But murmurs of discontent arose like the sound of troubled waters from the Kshatriya ranks at this victory of a Brahman, who, technically, had no right to the use of arms; and they gathered round the bride's father and threatened violence. The Pandavas now threw off their disguise, and the victor of the day proclaimed himself to be Arjuna, a true-born Kshatriya!

Then follows the strange myth that the Pandavas went back to their mother and said that a great prize had been won. Their mother, not knowing what the prize was, told her sons to share it among them, and as a mother's mandate cannot be disregarded, the five brothers wedded Draupadi as their wife. The Pandavas now formed an alliance with the powerful king of the Panchalas, and forced the blind King Dhritarashtra to divide the Kuru country between his sons and the Pandavas. The division, however, was unequal; the fertile tract between the Ganges and the Jumna was retained by the sons of Dhritarashtra, while the uncleared jungle in the west was given to the Pandavas. The jungle Khandava Prastha was soon cleared by fire, and a new capital called Indraprastha was built, the supposed ruins of which are shown to every modern visitor to Delhi. The Pandavas, according to the Mahabharata, now undertook various military campaigns

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THE ILL-FATED GAMBLING-MATCH.

extending to Bengal and even to Ceylon, but the accounts of these distant expeditions are thought to be later interpolations in the poem.

Now Yudhishthira, as Yuvaraja, was to celebrate the Rajasuya, or coronation ceremony, and all the princes of the land, including his kinsmen of Hastinapura, were invited. The place of honour was given to Krishna, chief of the Yadavas of Gujarat. Sisupala of Chedi violently protested, and Krishna killed him on the spot. The tumult finally subsided, however, and
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Old Fort at Indrapat, near Delhi, the Ancient Indraprastha.
From a Photograph.

the consecrated water was sprinkled on the newly created monarch, while Brahmans went away laden with presents.


THE REPUTED BIRTHPLACE OF KRISHNA AT MATHURA.

But the newly created king was not long to enjoy his realm. With all his righteousness, Yudhishthira had a weakness for gambling like the other chiefs of the time, and the unforgiving and jealous Duryodhana challenged him to a game. Kingdom, wealth, himself and his brothers, and even his wife were staked and lost, and the five brothers and Draupadi became the slaves of Duryodhana. The proud Draupadi refused to submit to her position, but Duhsasana dragged her to the assembly-room by her hair, and Duryodhana compelled her to sit on his knee in the sight of the stupefied assembly. The blood of the Pandavas was rising, when the old Dhritarashtra was led to the assembly-room and stopped a tumult. It was decided that the Pandavas had lost their kingdom, but should not be slaves. They agreed to go into exile for twelve years, after which they should remain concealed for a year. If the sons of Dhritarashtra failed to discover them during the year, they would get back their kingdom.
DRAUPADI DRAGGED INTO THE ASSEMBLY.
From Oman's Indian Epics.

Thus the Pandavas again went into exile; and after twelve years of wanderings in various places, disguised themselves in the thirteenth year and took service under the King of Virata. Yudhishthira was to teach the king gambling; Bhima was the head cook; Arjuna was to teach dancing and music to the king's daughter; Nakula and Sahadeva were to be master of horse and master of cattle respectively, and Draupadi was to be the queen's handmaid. A difficulty arose. The queen's brother was enamoured of the new handmaid of superb beauty and insulted her and was resolved to possess her. Bhima interfered and killed the ruffian in secret.

Cattle-lifting was not uncommon among the princes of those days, and the princes of Hastinapura carried away some cattle from Virata. Arjuna, the dancing master, could stand this no longer; he put on his armour, drove out in chariot, and recovered the cattle, but was discovered. The question whether the year of secret exile had quite expired was never settled.

And now the Pandavas sent an envoy to Hastinapura to claim back their kingdom. The claim was refused, and both parties prepared for a war, the like of which had never been seen in India. All the princes of note joined one side or the other, and the battle which was fought in the plains of Kurukshetra, north

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THE PANDUS AND KURUS IN BATTLE.

of Delhi, lasted for eighteen days, ending in fearful slaughter and carnage.

The long story of the battle with its endless episodes need not detain us. Arjuna killed the aged Bhishma unfairly, after that chief was forced to cease from fighting. Drona, with his impenetrable " squares " or phalanxes, slew his old rival Drupada, but Drupada's son revenged his father's death and killed Drona unfairly. Bhima met Duhsasana, who had insulted Draupadi in the gambling-room, cut off his head, and in fierce vindictiveness drank his blood. Lastly, there was the crowning contest between Kama and Arjuna, who had hated each other through life; and Arjuna killed Kama unfairly when his chariot wheels had sunk in the earth and he could not move or fight. On the last or eighteenth day, Duryodhana fled from Bhima, but was compelled by taunts and rebukes to turn and fight, and Bhima by a foul blow (because struck below the waist)

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AFTER THE BATTLE OF EIGHTEEN DAYS.

broke the knee to which Duryodhana had once dragged Draupadi. The wounded warrior was left to die, but the bloodshed was not yet over, for Drona's son made a midnight raid on the enemy's camp, killed Drupada's son, and finally quenched the ancient feud in blood. The Pandavas then went to Hastinapura, and Yudhishthira became king. He is said to have subdued every monarch in Aryan India, and at last celebrated the Asvamedha ceremony, or great horse-sacrifice, by letting loose a horse which wandered for a year at will and which no king dared to stop; thus betokening the submission of all the surrounding monarchs, since all the land traversed by the consecrated steed became the domain of the king who had sent it forth.

Such is the story of India's great epic divested of its numerous legends and episodes, its supernatural incidents and digressions; but it is clear, even from this brief account, that the first Hindu colonists of the Ganges valley had not yet lost the sturdy valour and the stubborn warlike determination of the Vedic Age. How imperfectly the caste system flourished among these sturdy races is shown by many facts which still loom out in bold outline amidst the interpolations and additions of later writers. Santanu, the ancient king of Hastinapura, had a brother Devapi, who was a priest; the most learned character in the epic, Yudhishthira, was a Kshatriya; and the most skilful warrior, Drona, was a Brahman.

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