Thursday, 27 August 2015

Narration of Conflict between Urban people and forest dwellers in Sanskrit literature of Ancient India; reflection on the Mahabharata.

Abstract- During the process urbanization, it is natural that the people who were building cities came in conflict with the forest dwellers. The reliable record of this process in Ancient India is not available. But the reflection of this conflict is found in the Mahabharata, which is believed to have taken written form during 500 B.C. to 500 A.D.
In the Khandava-Daha Parva of the epic, the forest was burnt and the land was cleared for building the city of Indraprastha. The forest dwellers who resisted the burning were killed.
The events narrated in the epic cannot be taken as historical facts. But it is most likely that the memories of this urban-forest dweller conflict had remained in the collective conscious of the masses and finally found its way in the epic.
The description of the burning of the forest and the resistance offered by the creatures, who were killed and burnt to death clearly indicates that they were not only animals, birds and reptiles but there were human beings who jointly fought against Krishna and Arjuna, the two epic heroes who were instrumental in burning and mass murder.
The proposed paper is an attempt of exploring the reflection of urban-forest dweller conflict in the epic.
Key words- cities, forest, burning, conflict, reflection.
Popular literature is like a mirror of the society. It gives insight into the social values, practices and prejudices of the society. Indian Epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, developed over a long period of time are like encyclopedias of the Indian society. The Mahabharata, a literary monster, is seven times larger than the Odyssey and the Iliad, the two Greek epics combined. Earlier known as Jaya with eight thousand eight hundred verses, the epic was enlarged to become Bharata with twenty four thousand verses and finally emerged as The Mahabharata with nearly one lakh verses.
Though  tradition attributes the authorship of the epic to sage Vyasa , but obviously it is not a work of a single person. Ballads which were in circulation among the masses through the ages had found their place in the epic. As generally known, ballads are over glorified accounts inspired by some historical event/person. The oral narratives of historical events are handed down from generation to generation and in the process get mythologized. There cannot be imagination without memory. The memory of a poet is conditioned by the circumstances in which he/she is being brought up or by the collective consciousness of the society to which he is exposed.
Even though the reliable records of the conflict between urban and forest dwellers during Ancient India are not found, the reading of the Khandava-Daha Parva of the Mahabharata, gives an indication that this particular episode is reflection of the similar conflict. 
To avoid conflict between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, the kingdom of Hastinapur was divided. The tract given to the Pandavas was covered with forest. The Pandavas cleared the land, settled down and after this embarked on the policy of expansion culminating in the Rajsuya Yagya. As the first stage in the expansion, the forest that surrounded their city was burnt down and land was cleared to build a beautiful assembly hall. To bring sanctity to the act, it was made out that fire (God Agni) disguised as a Brahmin approached Krishna and Arjuna and demanded forest and forest dwellers in the form of food. (Khandava-Daha Parva, Ch.215)
God Agni asks Arjuna and Krishna to burn down the forest and to assist them also provides them with the divine chariot and weapons. After this the God Agni assumed his energetic form and started consuming forest from all directions. The text describes,
“When he surrounded the forest from all sides, he roared like clouds and burnt all the beings. ….The blazing forest looked like Meru, king of mountains, golden in its great radiance” (Khandava-Daha Parva, Ch.216)
As the creatures in the forest tried to escape, they were killed by Arjuna and Krishna. The text describes,
“Those two tigers among men stationed themselves on their chariots on both sides of the forest and a great slaughter of all being begun in every direction” (Khandava-Daha Parva, Ch.217)
The great violence and plight of the creatures is described as,
“As Khandava blazed, thousands of beings leapt in the ten directions……………some clung to their sons, others to their fathers and mothers. Out of affection, they were unable to let go and perished” (Khandava-Daha Parva, Ch.217)
Obviously, a concept of family is not as developed among the animals as it is among the human beings and probably no animal will die clinging to sons, fathers and mothers.
The harassed creatures sought refuse with God Indra. God Indra poured down the rain to save the forest. But Arjuna repulsed the shower of rain with arrows. The forest is mentioned as an abode of the Naga people. Takshaka, the king of Naga was not there at the time of the burning but had gone to Kurushetra. But his son Asvasena was there. Though Asvasena could escape the slaughter, Arjuna killed his mother. This act of killing a woman by Arjuna was against the code of conduct prescribed for the Kshtriya. But the code was probably applied only when the conflict was with other people belonging to Aryan group and there was no need to follow the code when the conflict was with the forest dwelling tribes. This is indicative of the attitude of contempt towards the forest dwelling people. Takshaka was probably not a proper name of an individual Naga, but was title of the chief of the Naga community, which frequently comes in the epic.
The burning of Khandava forest seems to have led to the perpetual enmity between the Kurus and the Nagas. The imperialist on the one hand and the forest dwellers on the other! The imperialist interest was attached with the growth of agriculture and towns and forest dwellers like Nagas, Rakashasas and Asuras were interested in protecting the forest. Abode of the Nagas was destroyed and many Nagas and other aborigines were killed. Ashwasena, Takashaka’s son who escaped from the slaughter tried to kill Arjuna during the great Mahabharata war. He also assisted Karna against Arjuna (Karna Vadha Parva, Chapter 1216, 66). But he did not succeed. He was killed by Arjuna during the war. Takashka, who also escaped from the slaughter during the burning of the Kahandava, avenged himself by killing Parikshit, the grandson of Arjuna. In retaliation, son of Parikshit, Janmejaya  arranged the mass killing of the snakes (Nagas) in his Sarpyagya (snake sacrifice) (Astika Parva, Ch. 47). As recorded in the epics, many times the Yagya, the sacred sacrifice and the war against the enemies continued simultaneously.
 To fight against the burning of the forest by Arjuna and Krishna, many tribes seemed to have joined hands. The text describes,
“At that, the gods, the gandharvas, the yakshas, the rakshasas and the serpents rose up, uttering loud roars and desiring to fight. They were armed with iron clubs, chakras and bhushundis, with lightning in them. They were intent on killing Krishna and Partha” (Khandava-Daha Parva, Ch.218)
The Gods, the Gandharvas, the Yakshas, the Rakshasas and the Serpents are mentioned as joining hands together to fight against Krishna and Arjuna. They were also refereed as armed with different weapons like iron clubs, Chakras and Bhushundis. Obviously the animals cannot be wielding weapons.
The text further describes that God Indra was angered at this act of Krishna and Arjuna and along with other Gods i.e. Yama, Kubera, Varuna, Shiva, Ashvini, Rudra etc. rushed at them with the desire to kill them. (Khandava-Daha Parva, Ch.218).Gods getting angry at Krishna and Arjuna is indicative that what they were doing was unethical. Indra joining hands with the Nagas against his own son Arjuna is rather confusing, but probably it hints that the warring Aryan groups also took help of native aborigines while fighting among themselves.
Arjuna defeated Indra and other Gods and the slaughter continued. The text further describes the plight of danavas, rakshasas, serpents, hyenas, bears, elephants, tigers, lions, deer, buffaloes, birds, other forest-dwellers and nishacharas. They were cut down in hundreds and hurled into the fire. (Khandava-Daha Parva, Ch.219).
As the forest was burning and the creatures were killed by Krishna and Arjuna, an Asura named Maya attempted to escape from Takshaka’s abode. As Krishna was about to kill him, Maya sought refuse with Arjuna and his life was saved. (Khandava-Daha Parva, Ch.219).
As the life of Asura Maya was spared, he built a magnificent Sabha (assembly hall) for the Pandavas (Sabha Parva, 226,1). He also gave special club to Bhima. The text also says that on Maya’s instruction eight thousand rakashasas, guarded and protected the Sabha. Maya took fourteen months to build the Sabha. (Sabha Parva, 228,3).
The episode gives indication that some people out of the forest dwelling community had surrendered to Arjuna and Krishna and later on they were utilized for constructing and guarding.
Apart from Takahaka and Maya, four Sharngakas were also spared by Agni. These Sharngakas are described as children of Rishi Madanpala and his wife Sharngaka she-bird Jarita. (Khandava-Daha Parva, Ch.220). The sage having a she-bird as a wife and having children with her is out of question. Probably she was some forest dwelling woman who was a wife of Rishi Madanpala and to hide this supposedly transgression of a Rishi taking a forest dwelling woman (probably a tribal) she was mytholized as a bird.  When the fire was devouring the Khandava forest, Rishi Madanpala requested fire to spare his sons. On the request of the Rishi, the lives of his four sons were spared.
As the epic had gone through layer and layers of coating one has to be careful about the information that can be deciphered from the epic. But the general contempt of the authors of the epic towards the lives of the forest dwellers is obvious on many occasions. Before the episode of burning of Khandava forest, Kaurava prince Duryodhana hatched conspiracy against the Pandavas and tried to burn them to death at Varnavat. (Jatugriha-Daha Parva, Ch. 136), but instead a Nishada women along with her five sons were burnt to death. The treatment given to the Nishada women and her five sons by the authors of the epic is again indicative of the contempt with which the lives of the forest dwelling people were treated. The lac house was made as trap for the Pandavas and their mother was to be burnt along with six of them. But to save their lives the Pandavas trapped the Nishada woman and her five sons. They gave feast and invited the forest dwelling people. The text describes,
“Driven by destiny and in search of food, a hunter woman also happened to come to the feast, accompanied by her five sons. All of them drank wine, until, with her sons, she was completely drunk………she and her sons lost their senses and slept in that house, as if dead” (Jatugriha-Daha Parva, Ch. 136)
After this Bhima set the lac house on fire and all the Pandavas escaped from the lac house. Though it is not clearly mentioned, but the description points out that probably Bhima was aware that some people were sleeping in the house, but escaping from the house and saving their own lives was more important and who cares for the lives the insignificant Nishada woman and her children! The Pandavas, hard pressed to save their own lives, did not feel any necessity to think about the lives of the Nishadas. This is a general behavior of the people who feel marginalized or who live in the conflict zone. People whose own existence is under threat, do not generally respect the lives of others. The war brings out a devil in us! That is one of the important reason of having more peace and less conflict. The violence and violation of somebody’s rights creates a spiral effect. People who had experienced the violence are more prone to react violently.  Oppressed people are more likely to become oppressor. By reading between the lines one can postulate that the Nishada woman and her sons were deliberately drugged to be made scapegoat for the Pandavas and Kunti.
The epic does not hold Bhima or the Pandavas responsible for the death of the Nishada woman and her five sons, but says that she came to the Lakshsagriha driven by destiny. So if she is burned to death, it was due to her fate. Their death is dismissed very lightly by the epic as the text describes,
“When they stirred the ashes to look for the Pandavas, they found the burnt hunter woman and her five sons” (Jatugriha-Daha Parva, Ch. 137)
The contempt shown by the authors of the epic to the forest dwelling community is reflected at number of places in the epic. Episode of Eklavya is another glaring example of imperialistic forces (represented by Drona and Arjuna) conspiring and nullifying the possibility of any challenge that this prince from the forest dwelling community of the Nishada might pose to imperialism. 
The psychology of the oppressed becoming the oppressors seems to have worked in the burning of the Khandava forest burning. The Pandavas were given the forest land and were probably carrying the feeling of being deprived, making them more inclined towards violence. It is generally believed that we usually give back to the world what we have got from it. Many times the oppressed people cannot turn against the oppressors as they found it suicidal and so the pent up anger is turned against those, who are relatively weaker. It is rather unusual to find that Arjuna, who is referred as ‘Vibtsu’ in the epic i.e. ‘one who do not indulge in a heinous act’ becoming irrationally violent and not even sparing the life of a woman who was running away to save her life.
Iravati Karve points out that as the assembly hall of the Pandava’s new capital was built after perpetuating so much of violence, how there can be a peace in that capital? As she puts it poetically,
“Born in violence, its dazzling demonic splendor turned out to be a fleeting dream” (Karve, p.120)
Very soon we find that the capital was snatched from the hands of the Pandavas during the infamous Dyuta Parva (the gambling with dice). Draupadi, who became queen in the same hall built after perpetuating so much of violence was inhumanly insulted and the Pandavas were exiled to forest. This had further led to spiral of violence and counter-violence.
In a subtle manner probably the epic raises a question. Snatching the land of the forest dwellers and replacing the natural forest with concrete jungles is a process that we are indulging since centuries with the hope of making our lives better. But has it really added to the gross happiness of human being or there could be an alternative way of making life more comfortable and more joyful? The epic though raises the question, does not give a straight black and white answer and that is precisely it is closure to human life. The canvas of human life cannot be painted as entirely black and white, there are many grey sheds, which we experience but not able to describe.  
1.      Debroy Bibek, ‘The Mahabharata, Volume 1,2,7’, Penguin Books, New Delhi, 2010.

2.      Karve Irawati, ‘Yuganata, the end of an epoch’, Orient Blackswan, Hydrabad, 2008.