Ancient History & Civilisation

Chapter Forty-Four

The Bharata War

In northern India, around 950 BC, the idea of kingship causes a great war between clans

WHILE THE ZHOU KINGS were negotiating with the outlying tribes, the people of India were spreading through the north of their adopted land. The Aryan-Harappan mixture had wandered farther and farther from the Indus, and now lived in the Doab, the land east of the modern city of Delhi, a curve lying between the northern flow of the Ganga and the branch known as the Jamuna. In the Mahabharata, a mythical later work which may preserve earlier tradition, the king Santunu falls in violent love with the goddess Ganga and marries her; this is very likely an echo of the Aryan journey into the river valley of the Ganga.

We do not know much about the peoples who lived here before the Aryan advance into their home. The Rig Veda makes reference to a people called dasa who lived in fortified cities which advancing Aryans broke down; a people who became servants of the conquerors. Dasa has sometimes been interpreted as a reference to the Harappans, but this is unlikely, since the Harappan cities had crumbled before the Aryan advance. And if the “Dasyu” refers to indigenous people of the Ganga valley, the fortified cities are an anachronism; they were village-dwellers.

Most likely, dasa is a general reference to other tribes encountered during the Aryan spread; some of the dasa may even have been Aryans who had migrated separately into other parts of India.1 The Aryans fought the dasa as they fought each other. It seems likely that they also occasionally married them, since the related forms dasa and daha pop up in the names of legendary Aryan kings. There is no simple racial division here between Aryans and others; simply a shifting pattern of warrior clans moving east and claiming land for themselves, sometimes at the expense of other settlers.

Between 1000 and 600 BC, the fertile lands around the Ganga were tropical forest and swamp, covered over with a thick, mysterious, tangled green.2 The earliest tales of these forests populate them with vicious demons, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that the people who lived there put up violent resistance to the Aryan newcomers. The forest itself was an enemy. Trees had to be felled, by a people unaccustomed to such work. Roots, thicker and deeper than they had ever seen, had to be dug out of the ground. Poisonous snakes and unfamiliar animals lurked in the dark thickets.


44.1 Aryan Clans of India

But the warrior clans drove ahead. Iron—previously used mostly for weapons, blades, and arrowheads—now proved useful for axes and thick plows. In the Satapatha Brahamana (one of the prose commentaries attached to the poetic Rig Veda, sacred poems originating between 1000 and 700 BC), we find a vivid description of the fire-god Agni spreading his flame eastwards, eating forests; more than likely this describes the drastic clearing of the thick woods by fire.3

Over several centuries, the woods were cleared. The settled agricultural life that had been the norm in the Indus valley, centered around villages and small cities and their fields, was slowly established in the valley where unbroken forest had once lain.

And then a great war broke out. It took place between the northern reaches of the Ganga and the eastern reaches of the Indus, just south of the Himalaya mountain range, on a plain known to geographers as the Indo-Gangetic plain.

Although the historical details of this war are lost in time, later poets chronicled it as an epic struggle in the Mahabharata—just as the Trojan War would be immortalized by Homer, who overlaid a core of ancient truth with the customs and preoccupations of his own time.4According to the Mahabharata, the war grew out of a very complicated genealogical tangle.105 The king of the Kuru clan has died without issue, which meant that the royal line of Kuru is almost extinct. The only remaining members of the royal family are the queen mother, the two surviving (and childless) wives of the dead king, and the dead king’s older brother, Bhisma. Bhisma, however, is of no help, since some years earlier he had taken a solemn and dreadful vow to give up any claim to his brother’s throne, and a second solemn and dreadful vow to remain celibate.

In such a fix, the queen mother decides on drastic measures to perpetuate the family line. She summons a great ascetic and sage named Vyasa—a mysterious wise man who is also known as Krishna, “on account of his dark complexion.”5 When Vyasa arrives, the queen mother asks him for a favor: she wants him to impregnate both of her daughters-in-law, so that they can give birth to royal heirs.106

Vyasa agrees to sleep with the senior of the two daughters-in-law. (“If she does not mind my body, my appearance, my garb, and my odour,” he remarks, in passing.) The princess closes her eyes, submits, and “in due time” gives birth to a son and heir to the throne. But the baby, whom she names Dhritarashtra, is blind.

The queen mother, troubled by the prospect of a blind king, sends Vyasa to the second daughter-in-law; in due time she too gives birth to a child, a son named Pandu. To provide backup, the queen mother then tells her oldest daughter-in-law to go back to Vyasa a second time, so that she might have one more son to stand in the royal line. But the princess, remembering Vyasa’s “repellent odor,” sends her maidservant instead. The girl becomes pregnant and gives birth to a third child of Vyasa, a boy named Vidura.

Now there are three half-brothers to stand in the royal line. All three are raised by their uncle, the celibate Bhisma, who trains them in the skills of kingship. Vidura grows to be one of the wisest and most devout of men; Pandu excels in archery; and Dhritarashtra, despite his blindness, becomes immensely strong and is appointed heir to the Kuru throne.

THIS MYTH catches the Indian clan of the Kuru at the point of a transition: from a nomadic life in which a network of warriors watched over the good of the clan, towards a more hierarchical idea of kingship, where one man in the clan can claim a hereditary right to rule over the rest. The knotted genealogy of the three brothers shows a culture in which the idea of direct royal succession is present, but disordered. The structures of kingship were just beginning to break apart the old blood relationships of the ex-nomadic clans, and the passing of power from father to son—as in the days of Etana—was still new enough to require supernatural intervention, as the next chapter of the story shows.

Dhritarashtra, the blind oldest son, marries a devout and beautiful woman named Gandhari, a princess from the clan of Gandhara to the north. She wants a hundred sons, so that her husband’s royal line will be forever secure. So she appeals to her father-in-law Vyasa, who again appears and uses his powers to produce a supernatural pregnancy that lasts for two years. When Gandhari’s child is finally born, it is not a baby but a lump; Vyasa cuts it into a hundred pieces, and they become children. Technically all of these sons are the same age, but the acknowledged “oldest son” and heir apparent is Duryodhana.

Meanwhile, the second brother, Pandu, has also married. Going one better on his older brother, he marries two princesses from two different neighboring clans, the Yadu and the Madra. His older wife gives birth to a son, Yudhishtra. Because of Gandhari’s two-year pregnancy, this son is born before Gandhari’s baby-lump; thus Yudhishtra can also claim to be the oldest royal heir in the family.

Unfortunately Pandu had been rendered impotent sometime before by the curse of a short-tempered sage. This suggests that someone else had been visiting his wife in secret—multiple times, since she then gives birth to two more sons, while Pandu’s junior queen has twins.

In other words, there is not a single clear line of blood heritage in the entire Kuru clan. Clearly the whole idea of a hereditary kingship was fraught with all sorts of uncertainties.

With the uncertainties came conflict. Both Dhritarashtra and Pandu brought their families to live in the royal palace. Before long, a civil war broke out between the hundred sons of Dhritarashtra (the “Kauravas,” led by the eldest prince, Duryodhana) and the five sons of Pandu (the “Pandavas,” led by their oldest brother, Yudhishtra).

The territory over which they quarrelled was centered around Hastinapura, the Kuru capital which stood on the upper Ganga. The Kauravas first gained the upper hand, taking control of the city. Meanwhile, according to the Mahabharata, the five sons of Pandu all married the same woman (a rare case of polyandry)—the beautiful Draupadi, daughter of the king of Pancala, a clan which lay to the east.6

Draupadi is described as “dark in complexion, with eyes like lotus petals”7—physical details which, along with the eastern location of her homeland, suggest that she was the daughter of an indigenous king. As Vyasa is also described as dark complexioned, this does not mean that the “dark” Pancala clan was totally unrelated to the Aryans. Clearly the Aryans and the native clans had been intermarrying for decades.8

But the clans to the east likely had more indigenous and less Aryan blood. The Aryans had a name for the speech of the people who lived in the eastern Ganga valley: it was mleccha, language that had been changed and distorted.9 The Pancala clan was one of these mostly indigenous clans. The Kaurava brothers had allied themselves with other arya clans, but the Pandava brothers were making strategic alliances with the native peoples.

Some years after completing the alliance with the Pancala, the Pandavas built a palace at Indraprastha, on the southeast edge of the land claimed by the Kauravas. They also coronated their oldest brother Yudhishtra as king, in an out-and-out challenge to the authority of the Kaurava king who ruled in Hastinapura.

This was obviously infuriating to the Kauravas, especially considering the magnificence of the palace (it was filled with golden pillars that glowed like the moon, and the assembly hall featured an enormous aquarium “embellished with lotuses…and stocked with different birds, as well as with tortoises and fish”).10 The Kaurava king Duryodhana visited his cousin’s palace, by way of checking out the competition, and was embarrassed by its magnificence; when he reached a hall with a mirrorlike floor, he thought it was water, and drew his clothes up to his waist before realizing his error. Then, coming to a pond, he thought it was made of glass and fell in. “The servants laughed at this,” the Mahabharata explains. So did all of the Pandava brothers, their great-uncle Bhima, and “everybody else…. And Duryodhana could not forgive their derision.”11

But open war had not yet broken out between the cousins, and Duryodhana decided on a more subtle challenge: he invited the Pandavas to see his own palace, and then challenged them to a game of dice. Yudhishtra agreed to play on behalf of his brothers and lost first his jewels, then all his wealth, then his army, and then his queen Draupadi. Finally he waged his territory, agreeing that—should he finally lose—he and his brothers would leave Indraprastha and go into exile for twelve years.

Judging from a poem in the Rig Veda (“The abandoned wife of the gambler mourns! In debt, fear, and need of money, he wanders by night…!”), gambling fever was not unknown among the Indians of the first millennia.12 This particular gambling fever proved fatal to Yudhishtra’s crown. Unable to walk away when luck turned against him, Yudhishtra lost everything. His brothers followed him reluctantly into exile, while Duryodhana and the other Kauravas took over their palace and their land.

This exile was into the forest to the east, that mysterious and uncivilized place. But during their twelve-year exile, the Pandavas grew stronger at battle. Their new bows and arrows were, according to the stories, unbreakable because they were supernaturally blessed; more likely, they were made of new wood, green wood previously unfamiliar to the Indus-dwellers.13

In the thirteenth year, when the Pandavas returned, Duryodhana refused to give back the palace and their land. At this the hostility between the cousins broke out into open war: the Bharata War.

The Pandava cousins rallied behind them various relatives and native clans, including the Pancala clan; so did the Kauravas, who did a better job of claiming the loyalty of those wavering uncles and and generals who were equally related to both clans and torn between them. This made the Kaurava army slightly larger (eleven divisions to the Pandava seven). Judging from the traditional numbers assigned to a “division,” the Kaurava forces had something like 240,000 chariots and an equal number of war-elephants, along with over 700,000 cavalry and over a million foot soldiers, with the Pandava army fielding three-quarters of a million infantry, 460,000 cavalry, 153,000 chariots, and the same number of war-elephants. These figures are unlikely, but certainly there was a massive clash when the two armies met.

The Mahabharata account, like the Homeric account of Troy, undoubtedly pastes the conventions of later, more stylized warfare over the primitive scramble for power that ensued. According to the epic, the fighting was governed by elaborate rules of fair play: a single soldier could not be set upon by a group, one-on-one combat could only take place between men with the same weapons; the slaughter of wounded or unconscious men was prohibited, as was any attack on a soldier from behind; and each weapon had its own elaborate rules for use which must be followed.

These sorts of courtly rules lend the war a very civilized air, but they spring from the preoccupations of men who lived centuries afterwards. Certainly the most famous section of the Mahabharata, the Bhagavad Gita or Song of the Lord, is centered around the sort of wartime dilemma which is unlikely to have worried the mythical combatants. In it, Krishna himself, disguised as the charioteer of the Pandava prince Arjuna (the middle brother, and the one most renowned for his might), helps Arjuna grapple with an ethical dilemma. Since so many of his own relatives are arrayed against him, in this civil war between cousins, should he attack—or would it be more righteous to allow himself to be killed?

But the ancient battle was fought between clans who were not so far away from their old days as nomadic warriors. Despite all the ethical concerns put into the mouths of the warriors, the Mahabharata gives us an occasional involuntary glimpse of the savagery. Bhisma, the great-uncle of both Pandavas and Kauravas, fights on the side of the Kauravas; when he slaughters the Pandava prince Dushasana, who is in fact his own cousin, he drinks the man’s blood and dances a victory dance on the battlefield, howling like an animal.14

THE WINNERS of the great war were the Pandava brothers: those who had allied themselves with the indigenous people. But the victorious Pandavas won at enormous cost to themselves. Almost all of their soldiers were lost in a massacre just before the Kaurava surrender.

The Mahabharata itself laments this bloody resolution of the war. At the end of the tale, the Pandava prince Yudhishtra, ascending to the afterlife, plunges himself into the sacred and celestial Gangas and emerges, having washed away his human body. “Through that bath,” the story tells us, “he became divested of all his enmities and his grief.” He finds his brothers and cousins also in the celestial realm, also cleansed of their hatreds. And there they remain, the Pandavas and the Kauravas, “heroes freed from human wrath,” enjoying each other’s company without strife, in a world far removed from the ambitions of kings.107


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