I’m just a soul whose intentions are good (2022)

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Michael Simpson

Jul. 14, 2015

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Mahabharat: Characters and dilemmas

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  1. 1. 1“I’m just a soul whose intentions are good. Oh Lord, please don’t let me bemisunderstood.”– Nina SimoneThe Indian epic of the Mahabharata tells the story of two sets of cousins, theKauravas and the Pandavas, and their battle for succession to the throne of the KuruKingdom. The story progresses, and the sole Kaurava calling for war is the eldest son,Duryodhana. Duryodhana is the son of Dhrtarastra. Dhrtarastra, though being the oldestson in his generation, was passed over for succession because of his blindness. As aresult, his younger brother, Pandu, succeeded as king. On Pandu’s side, are the sons ofKunti, the Pandavas. Kunti is the reigning queen of the kingdom after the death of herhusband before he had the chance to have sons. Kunti, fearing the death of her husband’sline, has three sons, each to a different celestial diety. First, there is Yudhisthira, whosefather is Dharma, or Law, second there is Bhimasena, whose father is the Wind, or Vayu,and lastly there is Arjuna, son of Indra, king of the gods.The tale itself is being told to ancestors of Arjuna’s son, and it seems, to me, thatthe entire epic is told in a way that paints the Kauravas as evil and the Pandavas as good.Specifically in our preceptorial, we oftentimes were quick to jump to assign valuejudgments on these characters. I feel that its important to look at all perspectives inancient works, and to not assign values like ‘good’ and ‘evil’ until the epic has beencompletely read. By suspending judgment, we can take into accounts all angles of thestory. Not suspending value judgment is a dangerous way to read ancient works, or anyworks of history. As such, I think it will be helpful to see how Duryodhana is portrayed,as opposed to his archrival, Yudhisthira. I think it will also be helpful to makecomparisons between the battle of the Devas and the Asuras with the battle between the
  2. 2. 2Kauravas and Pandavas, as I think we may find more similarities than we initiallythought were present. By comparing the ‘evil Kaurava’ with his demigod cousin,Yudhisthira, we may find that the picture painted by Vyasa in his telling of the epic is onethat favors the Pandavas from the beginning.Taking a moment to walk two hundred bow lengths in the expensive silk shoes ofDuryodhana, we may find that he felt his intentions to be good, so long as we entertain afew alternative viewpoints. Firstly, that Vyasa, the storyteller, intentionally told the storyto positively portray the Pandavas and to the negatively portray the Kauravas. His motivefor this was that the spectators of the telling of the epic were direct descendants of theline of Arjuna, one of the Pandava brothers. As a result, Duryodhana’s character mayhave been altered slightly to portray him in a more malevolent light. Secondly, that Vyasacompletely removes any blame from Yudhisthira and Draupadi for the provocation of thegreat war, and places all of the blame only on Duryodhana. Though Duryodhana was astrong force in the lead up to the war, he wasn’t the only force. Vyasa completely dropsYudhisthira, Draupadi, and even Krsna from any responsibility. Lastly, Duryodhanadenied the godhood of the Pandava brothers, and as such recognized them as men, andnot what they really were: demigods. Duryodhana cannot be blamed for this, consideringthat oftentimes Vyasa refers to the equality of Duryodhana and Bhimasena, have bothtrained under the same martial arts master, and both being of comparable size. Asdemigods, the Pandavas had extreme prowess in strength, wisdom and agility, andDuryodhana, as a simple man, could not stand a chance against the sons of gods.However, since he was unwilling to accept the Pandavas as demigods, nor their advisorand mentor Krsna, as an avatar of Vishnu, he failed to recognize his futility in attacking
  3. 3. 3them. Taking these alternative viewpoints into account, one may begin to see how thisstory could have portrayed Duryodhana had the Kauravas been the direct ancestors ofJanamejaya.It’s also interesting to note the similarities between this story of the Pandavas andthe Kauravas and the story of the Devas and the Asuras. Intitially, the Asuras we notperceived as malevolent deities, that value judgment was placed upon them later on byhistory. The Asuras assisted the Devas in the first Soma sacrifice, rendering the consumerimmortal and allowing them into the kingdom of heaven, only to be denied the elixir byIndra and an avatar of Vishnu, Narayana. The Kauravas assisted the Pandavas inmaintaining the kingdom in their absence, only to be denied any acceptance into thedramatically larger kingdom of the Pandavas by Krsna, an avatar of Vishnu. The way thestory is told by Vyasa, it seems that Vishnu has some vested interest in maintaining theline of his brother, Indra. By preventing the Asuras from drinking the elixir, he securedIndra’s place as the king of heaven. By provoking the Kauravas into battle, he securedIndra’s grandson, Abhimanyu, a place as the king of the Kurus.Let’s take a moment to look at the characterization of Duryodhana in the text. In“The Partial Incarnations”, it is written;“Prince Duryodhana, evil-spirited, evil-minded disgracer of theKurus, was born on earth from a portion of Kali; he was a creature ofdiscord, hated by all the world; it was he, meanest of men, who caused themassacre of all the earth, he who fanned the great feud into a blaze thatwas to put an end to the beings. (245)”This is Vyasa’s characterization of the Prince Duryodhana to Janemejaya’s court.While his name is noted here as Duryodhana, I think its also important to point out thathe is also referred to a few times by another name, Suyodhana, the distinction of which I
  4. 4. 4think is important. According to Volume 3 of Dermot Killingley’s Beginning Sanskrit,the suffix of the name, ‘yodhana’, means ‘to conquer, or to struggle’. The prefixes are theimportant difference here. ‘Duh’ means ‘bad, badly, or difficult’, so this can translateDuryodhana to mean either ‘bad conqueror’ or ‘difficult to conquer’. ‘Su’ means ‘good,or well done’, so Suyodhana can translate to ‘good conqueror’ or ‘well done conqueror’.We can see why this distinction is important. Born Suyodhana, I imagine it wasn’t untilthe later tellings of the epic that his name was changed from Suyodhana to Duryodhana.Throughout the Mahabharata, several characters go by many names, so it’s interestingthat the majority of the time Duryodhana is referred to in the majority by something otherthan his birth name. While Arjuna was born named Arjuna, he also has many other namesincluding Partha, Jinsu and Phalguna. However, he is in the majority referred to by hisbirth name, Arjuna. It is the same with Bhimasena, and Krsna, as well as many othercharacters in the epic. So it seems odd that another central character would be referred toprimarily by a nickname, when that doesn’t seem to be the standard. This is a goodobservation of a possible manipulation of the epic by the storyteller.Above it can also be noted that Duryodhana, allegedly, has been possessed by thedemon Kali. The tale of Kali is interesting for several reasons. First, Kali, as a characterin the Mahabharata, possessed the king Nala, who eventually lost his entire kingdom tohis brother in a gambling match. We can see the parallels within the story already. Kali,throughout ancient India, was looked at as an avatar of Vishnu, who once again appearsas a ‘mover’ in the epic. However, though Kali is an avatar of Vishnu, he represents theexact opposite of what Vishnu represents. Vishnu represents creation, so Kali represents
  5. 5. 5destruction, destruction of the whole world, in fact. So, we can see how attributing Kalito Duryodhana can add to the negative portrayal of him as the destroyer of the Kuru line.In the above quote, Vyasa also mentions that Duryodhana is the sole cause of the‘massacre on earth’, clearly forgetting the tale he himself is telling. Thought I’m notdenying Duryodhana’s hand in causing the battle, one cannot forget that many others,specifically Yudhisthira, also played a very large role in fanning ‘the great feud into ablaze that was to put an end to the beings’. It was Yudhisthira, who once he had a smalltract of land in the Kuru Kingdom, who sent his brothers out to conquer the rest of theworld, from China to Greece. It was Yudhisthira, who agreed to the gambling match thateventually led to him losing the entire kingdom, his brothers, and himself. It wasYudhisthira who agreed to bet his own wife, Draupadi, in a gambling match. In our laterreads, it is Draupadi that is one of the loudest voices for war; specifically for revenge forthe way she was treated during the gambling match. However, she blames Duryodhana,and not Yudhisthira, even though it was Yudhisthira who gambled her in the first place.To Draupadi, thousands of soldiers should be killed in battle as a result of her treatment.Draupadi should not be forgotten as an integral element in the fanning of theflames of the epic battle. First off, as I mentioned before, she wrongfully holdsDuryodhana to blame for her harassment, even though Yudhisthira had to agree to anyand all terms before the gambling began. As a result of this displaced anger, Draupadicalls for the death of Duryodhana and his allies. This portrays her as a haughty princesswho had never known anything but getting exactly what she wants. Here, in The Book ofEffort, this side of her character truly comes out, where soldiers’ lives are meaningless toher until she gets her revenge on Duryodhana;
  6. 6. 6“’It has been said often enough…has there been a woman like meon earth[?] [W]ho in holy radiance equal[s] five Indras[?] I, a woman ofsuch standing, was grabbed by the hair and molested in a men’s hall, whilethe sons of Pandu looked on…[t]he Pandavas watched it without showinganger or doing anything…A curse on Bhimasena’s strength, a curse on thePartha’s bowmanship, if Duryodhana stays alive for another hour.’ (357)”Krsna replies;“Soon…you shall see the woman of the Bharatas weep! Theyshall, timid woman, weep for their kinsmen and relatives who are killed.They at whom you are enraged, radiant woman, have already lost theirfriends and troops.’ (358)”Here we see Draupadi’s true nature. Sure, she was stripped in front of a room ofmen while she was menstruating, but her husband agreed to it all when she was gambledwith over a game of dice! She wrongly places the blame on Duryodhana, considering thateverything had to be condoned by Yudhisthira. Regardless, she feels that all of the Kurusmust be punished for what has been done. Personally, I just think she should have justmade Yudhisthira sleep on the couch.In doing a bit of research for this paper, I came across a version of the story of thePalace of Illusions from a very credible source, the Mahabharata television series. Inepisode forty-four, Duryodhana slips and falls on the crystal. But instead of just laughsfrom all of the Pandava brothers, there also is included an insult of Duryodhana byDraupadi regarding his father’s blindness; ‘andhey ka putra andha’or ‘the son of a blind man is blind’. From the way it is portrayed in the episode,Duryodhana is actually impressed by the Palace of Illusions, and it wasn’t untilDraupadi’s insult that he became upset and then envious. While I realize that theMahabharata Indian television series may not be the most reliable source, I thought it was
  7. 7. 7interesting that this small incident was left out of the text, even though it drasticallychanges the story of the Palace of Illusions.Taking this into account, maybe with a grain of salt, and also that Vyasa seems tocompletely deny Yudhisthira and Draupadi from having any part in provoking the greatwar. By removing blame from both the Pandavas and Draupadi, and placing it solely withDuryodhana, I think we may be able to see another example of possible manipulation bythe storyteller.Another important point is that Duryodhana does not recognize the demigodstatus of the Pandava brothers. He says in The Book of Effort:“’The Parthas are the same as other men, born just as they are, sowhy do you think that victory is theirs solely? We are all born the samefrom human wombs, grandfather, so how do you know that victory will goto the Parthas?’ (331-332)”By not recognizing the superhuman status of the Pandava brothers,Duryodhana denies himself the realization that he has no chance against thedemigods. He had been raised alongside them, was of comparable size, and wastrained by the very same martial arts instructor, Drona. Vyasa even remarks attheir similarities during one of their many challenges, in The Book of theBeginning:“Suyodhana and the Wolf-Belly descended, as always in highspirits, clubs in hand, like two single-peaked mountains. The strong-armedprinces buckled their armor, hell-bent on showing off their masculineprowess, like two huge rutting bull elephants joining battle over a cow.(277)”By turning a blind eye, no pun intended, to the godhood of the Pandavas,and instead believing them to be the sons of men, Duryodhana cannot be blamed
  8. 8. 8when he thinks that he can defeat them. If we take this into account it starts tobecome a bit clearer that he may have really believed that his intentions weregood, and that he truly believed he had the ability to defeat the Pandavas in battle.The winners always tell the stories of history. Generally, the winners portraythemselves as always in the right, on the side of good. For example, oftentimes in theAmerican history books about World War II, we leave out the fact that the United Statesmaintained internment camps of their own, but instead of Jews, these camps consisted ofJapanese immigrants. This fact is generally left out of the history of one of the mostgruesome wars of our times. This is just one example of how the winners havemanipulated or omitted parts of history to portray themselves in a better light.In the case of the Mahabharata, the winners’ ancestors only hear the stories ofhistory, and as a result, that history may be misconstrued to make the winners morebenevolent and the losers more malevolent. This epic may be a perfect example of that.The story itself is being told to the ancestors of the winners, who, in order to fully enjoythe story, must feel that their war was won for noble purposes. As a result, the storyteller,Vyasa, portrays the two sides as a battle of good versus evil, with good prevailing in theend. However, these value judgments of good and evil were merely incorporated into thestory many generations afterwards. It is clear that while Duryodhana was a driving forcein the cause of the great war, he was never the sole initiator. His cousin Yudhisthira, andYudihisthira’s wife, Draupadi played very large roles in the build up to the struggle thatalmost ended the line of the Kurus. This is not the only instance where the Pandavas areportrayed as good and the Kauravas are portrayed as evil. There is also the manipulationof Duryodhana’s name from Suyodhana, ‘good conqueror’ to Duryodhana ‘bad
  9. 9. 9conqueror’. This is a clear rewriting of history by Vyasa, though it seems to godramatically overlooked. Finally, there is Duryodhana’s denial of the demigod status ofthe Pandavas. As a result, he truly felt that he could conquer them and rule the kingdomhimself, completely unaware that he could never stand a chance against the sons ofcelestial beings.In the end, I believe Suyodhana truly believed that his motives were in the right,and that he was ultimately enacting what he felt was for the best of the kingdom. It wasVyasa, and his manipulation of Suyhodhana’s character, that eventually made him out tobe the evil individual we read about in the epic. What’s most important is that when weread ancient texts, we remember that it is the winners who are writing these texts, andthat the winners will always portray themselves to be on the side of good. It is when we,as students of the text, blindly assign these values to the sides that we overlook theperspectives of the losers. It is always important to look at all sides in a conflict, and it iswhen we make judgments before we find out the whole story that we disrespect thememories of the losers, and oftentimes, cannot fully understand the conflict itself.

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