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A revolutionary thesis

Pradip Bhattacharya |

The Mahabharata Patriline: Gender, Culture and the Royal Hereditary



Rs. 8000

Though priced prohibitively, this is a book that no serious student of the Mahabharata (MBH) can afford to ignore. It is enormously informative, challenging and provocative. The painstaking reconstruction of the Lunar Dynasty is an invaluable resource for scholars, removing the arbitrary confusion Pargiter created. It contains a valuable concordance of the Pune edition and the Ganguli translation. Incorporating Sita Nath Pradhan&’s work on the ancient chronology of India would have enriched Brodbeck&’s research. The analysis proceeds in three stages, each preceded by a very helpful summary: inception to Kuru, post-Kuru to Pandavas, post-Kurukshetra to the end of the dynasty (Ashvamedhadatta). 

Brodbeck adopts a new point of view, looking into the MBH through the lens of Vaishampayana&’s lineages (first in verse, then in prose). He re-arranges the contents of the epic to focus on the Patriline and finds that the tales dovetail into the lineages and act as guides through the text. Thus, it is no longer a monstrous chaos of hodge-podge material. Rather, a scheme emerges showing patrilineal problems recurring in the same dynasty, with common motifs: sonless kings, kings victimised during hunts, kings reneging on pre-nuptial agreements, falling from heaven. Significantly, this recitation of genealogy — a  shraddha rite — is done at the snake-sacrifice which appears to double as obsequies. Deliberately, the lineages of non-heir sons and maternal lines are bypassed. Primogeniture emerges as a paramount value (every departure has to be justified, as with Puru, Chitrangad and Pandu). For the same reason, the putrika practice (making the brother-less daughter&’s son one&’s heir) is only a last resort. Brodbeck overlooks here the cases of brother-less Shakuntala, Ulupi, Chitrangada and Hidimba. In the last three cases, the son remains with the mother, ruling her people. That is why Shakuntala becomes a marked departure from the accepted tradition, with her son becoming her husband&’s and not her father’s heir. Success in a royal hunt is found to indicate success in obtaining an heir (Yayati, Dushyant and Shantanu), while failure means sonlessness. 

In a remarkable argument Brodbeck proposes that in the MBH, by considering Ila as a putrika (Ila is said to be both mother and father of Pururava, says Vaishampayana) the original lunar descent (SomaàBudha + Ila = Pururava, vide Harivamsha and Ramayana) was replaced by solar ancestry [Vivasvan-Martanda-Suryaà ManuàIla (father & mother) àPururava]. This change seems to have happened in the hundred years between the Pandavas and Janamejaya. 

Study of lineage leads to very interesting insights. In the same dynasty, Pururava, his grandson Nahusha and his son Yayati fall from Swarga. The last one halts in mid-air, saved by his daughter Madhavi&’s sons (she is not a putrika). But Nahusha has to languish for ages until his descendant Yudhishthira — who has re-established his ancient kingdom of Khandavaprastha — rescues him. This suggests that Yayati&’s ancestry has been revived only lately in Pandava times. Ironically, they are his descendants only by proxy, but that is good enough for the MBH patrilineal purpose.

Post-Dushyant there is lineal confusion. Bharata disqualifies his sons and adopts from Bharadvaja a son named Bhumanyu. But there is also mention of Vitatha who becomes Bhumanyu&’s son, though he has other sons of whom Suhotra, the eldest, becomes king. Brodbeck suggests that Bharadvaja was Bharata&’s elder brother (by an unnamed wife of Dushyant?), or Bharata&’s putrika daughter&’s husband, who was displaced initially, but regained the line finally through Suhotra. This could represent a failed attempt by the junior branch (Bharata) to take over, by suppressing Bharadvaja&’s fraternal relationship with Bharata and shifting Bhumanyu from him to Bharata. 

Brodbeck gives a fascinating spin to the story of Ganga&’s descent. As, thereby, Sagara&’s elder sons regain heaven long after death, it signifies the line passing back to them. Her willing descent from Swarga is the willingness not to be a full lineal link at Bhagirath&’s request. Similarly, Mahabhisha switching lineages from Solar to Lunar (as Shantanu) with Ganga means that her son becomes a Bharata instead of an Ikshvaku dynast. Bhishma&’s renunciation parallels Puru&’s with the same intention: that the father should enjoy youthful pleasures. Brodbeck makes another fascinating link: Uparichara Vasu loses his ability to soar above the ground by the curse of sages. As Ilina&’s son, he is Dushyant&’s brother. His fall indicates he is not a direct dynast, except via  putrika Satyavati to Parikshit. He suggests that the descents through Dushyant and Vasu (Bhishma is a Vasu reincarnated) thus unite. But if Satyavati were a  putrika, her sons would have been Chedi kings. So Brodbeck&’s argument fails. He should have noted the fact that Yudhishthira&’s chariot also does not touch the ground — and he is in the line of descent from Uparichara Vasu who is Vyasa&’s maternal grandfather.

The superordinate role of Shiva has not been mapped in full before Brodbeck, who unfortunately relegates it to a footnote (p.171). While playing dice he condemns five Indras to become the Pandavas and Shri to become Draupadi. By his boon Amba becomes Shikhandi, the hundred Kauravas are born to Gandhari, Samba-bane of the Vrishnis  is born to Krishna and Jayadratha is able to cause Abhimanyu&’s death, besides his own and his father&’s. Prior to that, he gifts Arjuna the Pashupata weapon. Not only does he walk before Arjuna killing before he does, but finally he empowers Ashvatthama for the nocturnal massacre of the Panchalas and Pandaveyas. 

Brodbeck hazards a curious speculation with regard to Iravat, son of Ulupi and Arjuna. Sanjaya tells Dhritarashtra that Iravat&’s  pitrivya, father&’s brother, disliked and abandoned him. Since Iravat would be, after Ghatotkacha, the eldest of Pandava progeny, it could indicate Yudhishthira&’s annoyance at the confusion caused in the line of succession. It adds to the underlying tension between the two brothers that explodes in the Karna Parva. Brodbeck does not explain how this squares with Yudhishthira welcoming Arjuna&’s marriage with Subhadra during the same exile. It is never clear when Draupadi has her son by Arjuna, as the period of his exile remains vague (12 months/12 years). When the Pandava progeny are listed after Subhadra&’s arrival, Draupadi&’s are named after Abhimanyu, ending with Ghatotkacha. In Vaishampayana&’s other list (Adi Parva, chapter 90), Draupadi&’s sons come first, then the sons by other Pandava wives, with Ghatotkacha at the end, totalling 11 in all. No list includes Iravat and Babhruvahana, indicating that these were putrika arrangements and so could not feature in the Pandava succession. Brodbeck&’s astute eye spots two other wives in the Ashvamedha Parva who are usually overlooked: Bhima&’s another wife is the sister of Krishna’s inveterate enemy (Brodbeck suggests Shishupala, but it could also be Jarasandha or Dantavaktra) and Sahadeva&’s wife is a daughter of Jarasandha. Would these be post-Kurukshetra marriages to bridge enmity with Chedi and Magadha? But Nakula had already married the Chedi princess Karenumati. So, there would be two contenders for the Chedi throne: Niramitra, son of Karenumati, and the unnamed son of Bhima&’s other wife, if she were a Chedi. Jarasandha&’s successor is also named Sahadeva — is this an instance of putrika? 

Brodbeck points out that the miscegenation that Arjuna had been so afraid of in the Gita episode actually occurs not with the widows of those killed at Kurukshetra, who all drown themselves, but with the Vrishni women who are abducted — an account beyond Vaishampayana&’s narrative. It is as if Krishna takes upon himself and his clan all the sins of the Pandava deeds, as he had promised Arjuna in the Gita. Brodbeck makes the insightful observation that perhaps Narayana&’s four arms are Krishna, Arjuna, Vyasa and Draupadi, who combine to relieve the earth of its burden.

In a revolutionary thesis, Brodbeck “reconfigures” Janamejaya&’s lineage to make sense of the “extremely mysterious” fifty-odd chapters by Sauti, before Vaishampayana&’s narrative. He suggests that Janamejaya&’s elder brother is Shringi who is also Vaishampayana, Lomaharsana (Sauti&’s father), Lohitaksha (who forecasts the snake-sacrifice will be obstructed), Astika and Somashrava (the officiating priest). He proposes that Parikshit had a son by the ascetic Shamika&’s daughter (represented by his shooting a deer). As the deer runs away, it indicates the son is not lineally obtained. Shringi is the son of Shamika&’s  putrika daughter. The dead snake around Shamika&’s neck indicates that his line would die were Parikshit to take the daughter&’s son as his successor. Janamejaya&’s mother is Madravati, an appellative indicating a junior wife (like Madri with Pandu, with whom Parikshit is compared twice in hunting). Shringi cursing Parikshit means he elects the maternal over the paternal line. Takshaka being seen flying to heaven after biting Parikshit indicates he is Shamika and Shringi&’s ancestor.

The Pandava-Kaurava tale that Janamejaya hears shows him that both Dhritarashtra and Yudhishthira suffered terribly by failing to stop the war. Although Yudhishthira ruled, it was very painful because he had killed his elder brother. Janamejaya abandons the sacrifice because he does not wish to kill his half-brother Shringi who had chosen Takshaka&’s line. Takshaka does not fall into the flames, so his line survives. In the Ashramavasika Parva, Janamejaya not only meets Parikshit, but also Shringi and Shamika amicably.

On the basis of precedents, Brodbeck argues that Vaishampayana would be Janamejaya&’s elder brother. In four successive generations, the eldest does not succeed to the throne: Devapi, Bhishma, Dhritarashtra, and Karna. To these we should add the greatest dynast: Yayati, whose eldest brother Yati became an ascetic. Vaishampayana could well be the throne-renouncer Shringi, who, as son of a Brahmin mother and Kshatriya father (Parikshit), would be a  suta.  Sauti asks Shaunaka to hear what he has learnt from Vaishampayana and from his father. From this Brodbeck proposes that Vaishampayana and Lomaharsana are the same person. Bhishma&’s list of northern rishis names Lomaharshana and Ugrashrava (Sauti). Lohitaksha is the sutradhara, manager, who knows the old stories — again a suta function. Stretching the logic too far, Brodbeck proposes that Astika is “secretly a suta by dint of his Kshatriya genitor.” But how is either Jaratkaru, his ascetic progenitor, or Vasuki, his maternal snake-uncle a Kshatriya? Again, unless Astika takes his father&’s lineage, how can Jaratkaru&’s manes be saved (for which he agreed to marry)? For Brodbeck, “Jaratkaru&’s brief marriage implies Parikshit’s obscured liaison with Shamika&’s daughter,” which seems quite far-fetched.

The birth of Janamejaya&’s priest Somashrava from a snake woman suggests he is his father Shrutashrava-Shamika&’s daughter&’s son (she would be a  putrika). Somashrava, Brodbeck proposes, is Janamejaya’s elder half-brother. Both Somashrava and Karna, elder brothers, have the same vow of not refusing a Brahmin anything. Both renounce their paternal lineage.

The snake sacrifice, with the narration of lineages by Vaishampayana, propagates a new family chronicle in the context of political and cultural change. It creates a history for use of the new ruler of Hastinapura following the assassination by snakes, establishing a live-and-let-live understanding with them. The subsequent recounting by Ugrashrava Sauti at Naimisha forest to Shaunaka is the “ratification of that new history.” However, this chronicle is rather ambivalent regarding patrilineal descent, which befits its narrator Vaishampayana being an elder brother who gave up the throne in favour of Janamejaya.    

There are so many instances of exotic women outside the Kshatriya class taken as royal wives that tie in with the sparing of snakes in this history and the warnings against fraternal rivalry and giving way to lust.

Finally, however, the Mokshadharma Parva turns away from patrilineality with stories of kings and Brahmins achieving salvation by following dharma, irrespective of having sons or not. Regardless of the line being sustained or not, the king must rule properly. Such a king makes the age into krita, the best of times, whether he has lineal descendants or not. Such a turning of the entire thesis on its head is what makes the Mahabharata such a unique, magnificent human document.

The reviewer&’s PhD was on the  Mahabharata. He retired as Additional Chief Secretary, West Bengal