As one explores the great Indian mythological epics, ones amazement knows no bounds; which is probably why I have been writing about them since the past year or so and still have no view of the horizon. Every time, one takes a little dip into this vast ocean, emerging refreshed with newer thoughts is guaranteed. So, when I was watching a few episodes of the Mahabharata recently, I was struck by a thought which relates to the very basis of these tales – a thought about how REAL these tales must have been.
The Ramayana and Mahabharata, to us, are essentially DIVINE tales. Indian Mythology tales are distinct from their western counterparts in the sense that they remain deeply intertwined with religion and in many cases even form the basis of the religious understandings and practices. So, it is quite obvious that many of these tales are completely divine to our understanding, where even human characters appear quite super human. Kings would rule for 100s of years, Warriors would lift mountains with a mere flick or one man alone would decimate armies and so on.
And hence sometimes, attempts have been made to understand the human or the REAL aspect of these tales, to be able to understand and relate to them better. For instance in Ramayana, the Vanaras (Monkeys) are supposed to represent the Jungle men, who are domesticated or are taught the law of society by the Ayodhya princes. After all, there is a strong belief that these tales must only be magnified and glorified versions of REAL events of the past.
If we extend this analysis to the Mahabharata, the most striking factor which emerges to be REAL is the basis of the battle – Ownership of Land. In the ancient and medieval world, and probably even today, one of the greatest assets of a country, kingdom or man was the land. The more the merrier! It was a measure of wealth, power and similar such attributes. Hence, it sounds quite credible that the Kauravas did not wish to share any piece of the kingdom and thereby the land with their cousins, the Pandavas. Duryodhana had declared that he would not give land measuring even the tip of a needle to the Pandavas. Eventually, all members of one family and many more were annihilated and the other carried forward its own lineage. All this could easily have happened at some time or other in the past.
However, apart from this, almost everything remains lofty about the Mahabharata. Be it the divine weapons wielded by the warriors, or even the presence of GOD in the story, it is difficult to relate the rest to REALITY. It is with this understanding in background that I happened to watch the 60th Episode of the tele-serial Mahabharat. The Pandavas are spending the final days of their Agyatvaas in the Matsya kingdom. Keechaka, the brother in law of King Virata has recently been murdered (by Bhallava, who is Bheema in disguise). Now, Keechaka could only have been killed by mighty warriors like Duryodhana, Balarama and Bheema. As Bheema was the only one incognito among these, the Kauravas strongly felt that Bheema had killed Keechaka and that the Pandavas were hiding in the Matsya kingdom. To ensure success in identifying and capturing the Pandavas, the Kauravas ask the archrival of King Virata, ruler of Trigarta kingdom, King Susharma to attack Matsya and engage its army. A day later, the Kauravas would launch an attack on Matsya, hoping to find the Pandavas isolated.
Now, for the important part: When the sentry rushes into the palace of King Virata, he announces to the King – ‘O Sire, King Susharma of the Trigarta Kingdom has attacked our farms. He has killed our cowherds and his cowherds have taken away our Cows, Bulls and Horses.’ Hearing this, the Virata calls his Army to arms to defend its country and leads the way. This brings out another REALITY check of this epic. Every other war we know of, which features in the epics, has been long, grand and even divine – Rama v/s Ravana, the Kurukshetra War to name a few. It is quite difficult to believe that every war was fought like this, which probably makes us wonder how REAL must these battles have been.
But the incident emboldened above seems very much REAL and can be fit in any of the ancient or the medieval times. In those days, land and cattle formed the backbone of any kingdom’s economy. As today, battles were not always fought face to face, especially those between neighboring kingdoms. Hence it seems highly credible that Susharma attacked Virata’s cows to attract him to the battlefield. Such skirmishes have been recorded in history as attempts to disrupt a kingdom’s functioning; not with the intent of causing wide spread damage, but to send a signal, merely announce ones presence to the opponents or irritate them into taking rash actions. This can be equated to attacks by insurgents of one country on another, which is highly commonplace today.
Generally speaking, the above information and analysis don’t have much impact on the outcome of the epic or our understanding of it. But identifying other such incidents and attempting to make sense of them, can help us appreciate the background against which this epic was composed or probably even OCCURED. This can help us relate much better to these tales and even enjoy them…