On “Maha·bhárata II: The Great Hall” Paul Wilmot

An immense sense of space pervades the Indian world, in every dimension of the word. Distances, quantities, time: all are transformed into something vast and blurred, as if to hint at the infinite, the incomprehensible beyond. Perhaps nowhere is this more strongly felt than in the Maha·bhárata, whose sheer length, a huge expanse of over a hundred thousand stanzas, is in itself an expression of this magnified vision. During the gambling match of “The Great Hall,” as the stakes become more and more perilous, Yudhi·shthira exclaims:

There are still countless riches in my possession, Sáubala. Why do you enquire after my wealth? I can stake hundreds of thousands and millions and tens of millions and hundreds of millions and billions and tens of billions and hundreds of billions and trillions and tens of trillions and hundreds of trillions! This is my stake, O king. Let us play!

Vaisham·páyana paints a glorious picture of the Pándavas’ assembly hall:

That palace, O Bhárata, was built of pillars of pure gold; it covered a vast area ten thousand cubits long and wide; it blazed with a fiery light as intense as the sun, white as Soma.

I had only the vaguest conception of the epic when I first came to “The Great Hall.” I had thrown myself into the study of Sanskrit almost on a whim, convinced it would lead me somewhere rather extraordinary. Four years later I found myself standing at the foot of Mount Maha·bhárata. The lofty epic had always seemed like some kind of austere guru, an awesome and charismatic presence, but rather impenetrable, wishing to impart only fragments of his knowledge in the belief that his pupil should make the necessary connections himself. The ancient cliché ‘what is not here is nowhere’ led me to believe that if I ever succeeded in getting a foothold on this vast territory, if I ever managed to walk on water, perhaps India might at last seem comprehensible. Well, three thousand verses and a year and a half later, India remains as incomprehensible as ever, but I have reached a certain vantage point.

The game of dice is the climax of “The Great Hall” and its most famous episode; after the match, nothing can ever be the same again, and the violence of the later books is only a matter of time. The drama of the situation is palpable and intense. Duryódhana and Yudhi·shthira, two very different forces, one frenzied and demonic, the other good and frail, play not only for their possessions, but one feels, for the future of the world. Yudhi·shthira approaches an occidental hero more closely than any other character, even if disturbing shadows contradict his essential nature. Yet, for all his wisdom and magnanimity, he is also a holy fool, like Dostoevsky’s Prince Mishkin. His taste for moral perfection and acceptance to play dice leads directly to the carnage of the battle to come. He tells his brothers:

Listen to the vow I shall now proclaim, to which I am committed from today: For thirteen years what purpose will I serve in living? I shall not utter a harsh word to my brothers or to any king on earth. I shall live a life of virtue as my kinsmen command. If I live in this manner, there will be no cause for disagreement between my family and any one else; this is the kind of discord which leads to conflict in this world. In order to keep conflict at bay I shall do only what pleases others, bulls among men; I shall not become a target for gossip in the world.

Why does he accept to play dice? Is it because of this vow? Was he fulfilling a ritual obligation related to the Consecration Sacrifice performed just before the game? Or did he have a passion for dice? The Maha·bhárata answers none of these questions; perhaps they are beside the point.

The character that struck me most at this pivotal moment was not Yudhi·shthira, Shákuni or Duryódhana, but Dráupadi, whose passionate speech before the assembly of kings shatters many preconceptions surrounding Indian women. It is easy to forget shakti, the female principle without which the world does not function. During rehearsals for Peter Brook and Jean-Claude Carrière’s renowned stage adaption of the Maha·bhárata, the actress Mallika Sarabhai, who played Dráupadi, had to argue to ensure that the Pándava queen was taken more seriously, that she did not appear like a ‘wimp.’ Nothing could have been more appropriate.

Draupadi’s five husbands never question her actions; in fact she is the only one in the marriage to argue. Her intellectual qualities come to the fore during the dice game, when Yudhi·shthira, with nothing left to gamble, having gambled even himself away, stakes his wife and loses. Dráupadi, whom Duhshásana subjects to frightful indignities, calls upon both honor and reason to fight for her defense. She raises a very subtle question with a legal flavor: had Yudhi·shthira staked her whilst he was still a free man, or after he had become a slave? In other words, if Yudhi·shthira gambled himself away before he staked her, was he in a position to stake her? If he no longer owned himself, had she been genuinely lost or not? In what sense, if at all, did Yudhi·shthira play voluntarily? None of the elders present can muster up a satisfactory response. Even Bhishma, a paragon of virtue and authority on dharma (the personal order of every human being which he must realize and obey, which guarantees—if followed faithfully—the order of the cosmos) is defeated:

Dharma is subtle, dear queen, and I fail to resolve this puzzle. A man without property cannot stake property belonging to another, but then wives always act upon a husband’s orders. Yudhi·shthira might renounce the entire earth and all its riches, but he would never abandon dharma. The Pándava said, ‘I have been won!’ It is impossible for me to decide this matter! No man is Shákuni’s equal at dice, but Yudhi·shthira still played with him voluntarily—he does not believe he was cheated. I cannot solve this riddle.

Bhishma is at a loss. In his confusion about what must have been a central preoccupation for an Indian of the ancient world, namely a certain clarity with regard to dharma and ability to act upon it, one detects a kind of metaphysical angst. This most modern of problems suddenly seems to have traveled across vast stretches of time and space. His feelings are shared by Vídura and all those present wishing for a morally satisfactory outcome to the situation.

I was struck by how much dharma is linked with time at this moment. If the sequence of events had been slightly different, there would be no confusion. Time—past, present, future, and the secrets which link them together—is an ever-present force throughout the text, and not a very benign one. Vyasa comes into his own story to warn Yudhi·shthira that his actions will lead to the destruction of the world. Yudhi·shthira is horrified and vows never to displease others—he thus accepts the challenge to play dice, which sparks off the descent into chaos and destruction. Vyasa knows the future, and plays with it in the present—past, present and future become blurred, lose their relevance. I couldn’t help recalling the opening to T.S.Eliot’s Four Quartets:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.

Another scene that I found particularly inspiring was the beheading of Shishu·pala:

Thereupon the enemy-tormenting Yádava sliced off Shishu·pala’s head with his discus. The mighty monarch fell to the ground like a cliff struck by lightning. Then, O king, the great crowd saw a great fire flow out of the Chedi king’s body; it was as if the sun had sailed high into the sky. The blazing mass of energy worshipped Krishna, the lotus-eyed deity honored by all on earth, and entered his body. The kings were numb with astonishment at this fantastic sight. When Krishna slew the Chaidya, the skies poured with rain, though there were no clouds, and flashes of lightning flew down from the heavens. The earth began to tremble.

Krishna slays Shishu·pala with his discus—an act of great violence, but very elegant violence! The ambiguities surrounding Krishna accentuate the drama of the scene. He is the most human of the deities, incarnation of Vishnu, a radiant, enlightened character, ‘lightness.’ One wonders where the emotion is in Krishna—perhaps it is simply ‘not personal.’ Shishu·pala’s fall is framed by a spectacular, marvelous vision, reminiscent of a Wagnerian climax.

At other moments one just wants to bask in voluptuous descriptions of Ancient India, imagine the vastness of nature and unspoilt beauty of landscapes and towns:

This, O Partha, is Mágadha’s glorious capital, filled with fountains and fine houses, free of sickness and where cattle roam at will. Vaihára mountain shoulders above it, huge, as do the high peaks of Mounts Varáha, Vríshabha, Rishi·giri and Chaitya. These five great mountains, covered in cool forests, seem to join together to protect Giri·vraja city. The broad mountain slopes spread hidden beneath forests of fragrant lodhra trees—so dear to trysting lovers—whose branches hang heavy from ravishing blossoms at their tips. It was here that the illustrious sage Gáutama of steadfast vows and the serf Aushínari gave birth to Kákshivat and other sons. Since Gáutama chose to live close to their seat, the Mágadhan kings showered favors upon him, and the sage had great affection for the dynasty. In times of old, Árjuna, the Angas and Vangas and other mighty kings visited Gáutama’s dwelling place where they passed their days in joy. Look, Partha, at the gorgeous rows of fig and lodhra trees which line the paths around Gáutama’s abode!

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I felt a wonderful sensation of warmth on reading this passage, just one of many pulsating with the ardor of this ancient, far-removed world. A reassuring diversion from the Maha·bhárata’s uncomfortable truth that we are all, deep down, individually responsible for the universe. A particularly uncomfortable truth for twenty-first century man, only too aware of the massive destruction perpetrated around him, in his name.