Read TWO BOOKS FROM THE ILIAD OF INDIA of Indian Poetry, free online book, by Edwin Arnold, on ReadCentral.com.

INTRODUCTORY

(Now for the first time translated.)

There exist certain colossal, unparalleled, epic poems in the sacred language of India, which were not known to Europe, even by name, till Sir William Jones announced their existence; and which, since his time, have been made public only by fragments by mere specimens bearing to those vast treasures of Sanskrit literature such small proportion as cabinet samples of ore have to the riches of a mine. Yet these twain mighty poems contain all the history of ancient India, so far as it can be recovered, together with such inexhaustible details of its political, social, and religious life that the antique Hindu world really stands epitomised in them. The Old Testament is not more interwoven with the Jewish race, nor the New Testament with the civilisation of Christendom, nor the Koran with the records and destinies of Islam, than are these two Sanskrit poems the Mahabharata and Ramayana with that unchanging and teeming population which Her Majesty, Queen Victoria, rules as Empress of Hindustan. The stories, songs, and ballads, the histories and genealogies, the nursery tales and religious discourses, the art, the learning, the philosophy, the creeds, the moralities, the modes of thought; the very phrases, sayings, turns of expression, and daily ideas of the Hindu people, are taken from these poems. Their children and their wives are named out of them; so are their cities, temples, streets, and cattle. They have constituted the library, the newspaper, and the Bible generation after generation to all the succeeding and countless millions of Indian people; and it replaces patriotism with that race and stands in stead of nationality to possess these two precious and inexhaustible books, and to drink from them as from mighty and overflowing rivers. The value ascribed in Hindustan to these yet little-known epics has transcended all literary standards established in the West. They are personified, worshipped, and cited from as something divine. To read or even listen to them is thought by the devout Hindu sufficiently meritorious to bring prosperity to his household here and happiness in the next world; they are held also to give wealth to the poor, health to the sick, wisdom to the ignorant; and the recitation of certain parvas and shlokas in them can fill the household of the barren, it is believed, with children. A concluding passage of the great poem says:

“The reading of this Mahabharata destroys all sin and produces virtue; so much so, that the pronunciation of a single shloka is sufficient to wipe away much guilt. This Mahabharata contains the history of the gods, of the Rishis in heaven and those on earth, of the Gandharvas and the Rakshasas. It also contains the life and actions of the one God, holy, immutable, and true, who is Krishna, who is the creator and the ruler of this universe; who is seeking the welfare of his creation by means of his incomparable and indestructible power; whose actions are celebrated by all sages; who has bound human beings in a chain, of which one end is life and the other death; on whom the Rishis meditate, and a knowledge of whom imparts unalloyed happiness to their hearts, and for whose gratification and favour all the daily devotions are performed by all worshippers. If a man reads the Mahabharata and has faith in its doctrines, he is free from all sin, and ascends to heaven after his death.”

In order to explain the portion of this Indian epic, here for the first time published in English verse, I reprint a brief summary of its plot:

The “great war of Bharat” has its first scenes in Hastinapur, an ancient and vanished city, formerly situated about sixty miles north-east of the modern Delhi. The Ganges has washed away even the ruins of this the metropolis of King Bharat’s dominions. The poem opens with a “sacrifice of snakes,” but this is a prelude, connected merely by a curious legend with the real beginning. That beginning is reached when the five sons of “King Pandu the Pale” and the five sons of “King Dhritarashtra the Blind,” both of them descendants of Bharat, are being brought up together in the palace. The first were called Pandavas, the last Kauravas, and their lifelong feud is the main subject of the epic. Yudhishthira, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula, and Sahadeva are the Pandava princes. Duryodhana is chief of the Kauravas. They are instructed by one master, Drona, a Brahman, in the arts of war and peace, and learn to manage and brand cattle, hunt wild animals, and tame horses. There is in the early portion a striking picture of an Aryan tournament, wherein the young cousins display their skill, “highly arrayed, amid vast crowds,” and Arjuna especially distinguishes himself. Clad in golden mail, he shows amazing feats with sword and bow. He shoots twenty-one arrows into the hollow of a buffalo-horn while his chariot whirls along; he throws the “chakra,” or sharp quoit, without once missing his victim; and, after winning the prizes, kneels respectfully at the feet of his instructor to receive his crown. The cousins, after this, march out to fight with a neighbouring king, and the Pandavas, who are always the favoured family in the poem, win most of the credit, so that Yudhishthira is elected from among them Yuvaraj, or heir apparent. This incenses Duryodhana, who, by appealing to his father, Dhritarashtra, procures a division of the kingdom, the Pandavas being sent to Vacanavat, now Allahabad. All this part of the story refers obviously to the advances gradually made by the Aryan conquerors of India into the jungles peopled by aborigines. Forced to quit their new city, the Pandavas hear of the marvellous beauty of Draupadi, whose Swayamvara, or “choice of a suitor,” is about to be celebrated at Kampilya. This again furnishes a strange and glittering picture of the old times; vast masses of holiday people, with rajahs, elephants, troops, jugglers, dancing-women, and showmen, are gathered in a gay encampment round the pavilion of the King Draupada, whose lovely daughter is to take for her husband (on the well-understood condition that she approves of him) the fortunate archer who can strike the eye of a golden fish, whirling round upon the top of a tall pole, with an arrow shot from an enormously strong bow. The princess, adorned with radiant gems, holds a garland of flowers in her hand for the victorious suitor; but none of the rajahs can bend the bow. Arjuna, disguised as a Brahman, performs the feat with ease, and his youth and grace win the heart of Draupadi more completely than his skill. The princess henceforth follows the fortunes of the brothers, and, by a strange ancient custom, lives with them in common. The Pandavas, now allied to the King Draupada and become strong, are so much dreaded by the Kauravas that they are invited back again, for safety’s sake, to Hastinapura, and settle near it in the city of Indraprastha, now Delhi. The reign of Yudhishthira and his brothers is very prosperous there; “every subject was pious; there were no liars, thieves, or cheats; no droughts, floods, or locusts; no conflagrations nor invaders, nor parrots to eat up the grain.”

The Pandava king, having subdued all enemies, now performs the Rajasuya, or ceremony of supremacy, and here again occur wonderfully interesting pictures. Duryodhana comes thither, and his jealousy is inflamed by the magnificence of the rite. Among other curious incidents is one which seems to show that glass was already known. A pavilion is paved with “black crystal,” which the Kaurava prince mistakes for water, and “draws up his garments lest he should be wetted.” But now approaches a turning-point in the epic. Furious at the wealth and fortune of his cousins, Duryodhana invites them to Hastinapura to join in a great gambling festival. The passion for play was as strong apparently with these antique Hindus as that for fighting or for love: “No true Kshatriya must ever decline a challenge to combat or to dice.” The brothers go to the entertainment, which is to ruin their prosperity; for Sakuni, the most skilful and lucky gambler, has loaded the “coupun,” so as to win every throw. Mr. Wheeler’s excellent summary again says:

“Then Yudhishthira and Sakuni sat down to play, and whatever Yudhishthira laid as stakes Duryodhana laid something of equal value; but Yudhishthira lost every game. He first lost a very beautiful pearl; next a thousand bags each containing a thousand pieces of gold; next a great piece of gold so pure that it was as soft as wax; next a chariot set with jewels and hung all round with golden bells; next a thousand war-elephants with golden howdahs set with diamonds; next a lakh of slaves all dressed in rich garments; next a lakh of beautiful slave-girls, adorned from head to foot with golden ornaments; next all the remainder of his goods; next all his cattle; and then the whole of his Raj, excepting only the lands which had been granted to the Brahmans.”

After this tremendous run of ill-luck, he madly stakes Draupadi the Beautiful, and loses her. The princess is dragged away by the hair, and Duryodhana mockingly bids her come and sit upon his knee, for which Bhima the Pandava swears that he will some day break his thigh-bone, a vow which is duly kept. But the blind old king rebukes this fierce elation of the winner, restores Draupadi, and declares that they must throw another main to decide who shall leave Hastinapura. The cheating Sakuni cogs the dice again, and the Pandavas must now go away into the forest, and let no man know them by name for thirteen years. They depart, Draupadi unbinding her long black hair, and vowing never to fasten it back again till the hands of Bhima, the strong man among the Pandavas, are red with the punishment of the Kauravas. “Then he shall tie my tresses up again, when his fingers are dripping with Duhsasana’s blood.”

There follow long episodes of their adventures in the jungle till the time when the Pandavas emerge, and, still disguised, take up their residence in King Virata’s city. Here the vicissitudes of Draupadi as a handmaid of the queen, of Bhima as the palace wrestler, of Arjuna disguised as a eunuch, and of Nakula, Sahadeva, and Yudhishthira, acting as herdsmen and attendants, are most absorbing and dramatic. The virtue of Draupadi, assailed by a prince of the State, is terribly defended by the giant Bhima; and when the Kauravas, suspecting the presence in the place of their cousins, attack Virata, Arjuna drives the chariot of the heir apparent, and victoriously repulses them with his awful bow Gandiva.

After all these evidences of prowess and the help afforded in the battle, the King of Virata discovers the princely rank of the Pandavas, and gives his daughter in marriage to the son of Arjuna. A great council is then held to consider the question of declaring war on the Kauravas, at which the speeches are quite Homeric, the god Krishna taking part. The decision is to prepare for war, but to send an embassy first. Meantime Duryodhana and Arjuna engage in a singular contest to obtain the aid of Krishna, whom both of them seek out. This celestial hero is asleep when they arrive, and the proud Kaurava, as Lord of Indraprastha, sits down at his head; Arjuna, more reverently, takes a place at his feet. Krishna, awaking, offers to give his vast army to one of them, and himself as counsellor to the other; and Arjuna gladly allows Duryodhana to take the army, which turns out much the worse bargain. The embassy, meantime, is badly received; but it is determined to reply by a counter-message, while warlike preparations continue. There is a great deal of useless negotiation, against which Draupadi protests, like another Constance, saying, “War, war! no peace! Peace is to me a war!” Krishna consoles her with the words, “Weep not! the time has nearly come when the Kauravas will be slain, both great and small, and their wives will mourn as you have been mourning.” The ferocity of the chief of the Kauravas prevails over the wise counsels of the blind old king and the warnings of Krishna, so that the fatal conflict must now begin upon the plain of Kurukshetra.

All is henceforth martial and stormy in the “parvas” that ensue. The two enormous hosts march to the field, generalissimos are selected, and defiances of the most violent and abusive sort exchanged. Yet there are traces of a singular civilisation in the rules which the leaders draw up to be observed in the war. Thus, no stratagems are to be used; the fighting men are to fraternise, if they will, after each combat; none may slay the flier, the unarmed, the charioteer, or the beater of the drum; horsemen are not to attack footmen, and nobody is to fling a spear till the preliminary challenges are finished; nor may any third man interfere when two combatants are engaged. These curious regulations which would certainly much embarrass Von Moltke are, sooth to say, not very strictly observed, and, no doubt, were inserted at a later age in the body of the poem by its Brahman editors. Those same interpolaters have overloaded the account of the eighteen days of terrific battle which follow with many episodes and interruptions, some very eloquent and philosophic; indeed, the whole Bhagavad-Gita comes in hereabouts as a religious interlude. Essays on laws, morals, and the sciences are grafted, with lavish indifference to the continuous flow of the narrative, upon its most important portions; but there is enough of solid and tremendous fighting, notwithstanding, to pale the crimson pages of the Greek Iliad itself. The field glitters, indeed, with kings and princes in panoply of gold and jewels, who engage in mighty and varied combats, till the earth swims in blood, and the heavens themselves are obscured with dust and flying weapons. One by one the Kaurava chiefs are slain, and Bhima, the giant, at last meets in arms Duhsasana, the Kaurava prince who had dragged Draupadi by the hair. He strikes him down with the terrible mace of iron, after which he cuts off his head, and drinks of his blood, saying, “Never have I tasted a draught so delicious as this.” So furious now becomes the war that even the just and mild Arjuna commits two breaches of Aryan chivalry, killing an enemy while engaged with a third man, and shooting Karna dead while he is extricating his chariot-wheel and without a weapon. At last none are left of the chief Kauravas except Duryodhana, who retires from the field and hides in an island of the lake. The Pandavas find him out, and heap such reproaches on him that the surly warrior comes forth at length, and agrees to fight with Bhima. The duel proves of a tremendous nature, and is decided by an act of treachery; for Arjuna, standing by, reminds Bhima, by a gesture, of his oath to break the thigh of Duryodhana, because he had bidden Draupadi sit on his knee. The giant takes the hint, and strikes a foul blow, which cripples the Kaurava hero, and he falls helpless to earth. After this the Pandava princes are declared victorious, and Yudhishthira is proclaimed king.

The great poem soon softens its martial music into a pathetic strain. The dead have to be burned, and the living reconciled to their new lords; while afterwards King Yudhishthira is installed in high state with “chamaras, golden umbrellas, elephants, and singing.” He is enthroned facing towards the east, and touches rice, flowers, earth, gold, silver, and jewels, in token of owning all the products of his realm. Being thus firmly seated on his throne, with his cousins round him, the Rajah prepares to celebrate the most magnificent of ancient Hindu rites, the Aswamedha, or Sacrifice of the Horse. It is difficult to raise the thoughts of a modern and Western public to the solemnity, majesty, and marvel of this antique Oriental rite, as viewed by Hindus. The monarch who was powerful enough to perform it chose a horse of pure white colour, “like the moon,” with a saffron tail, and a black right ear; or the animal might be all black, without a speck of colour. This steed, wearing a gold plate on its forehead, with the royal name inscribed, was turned loose, and during a whole year the king’s army was bound to follow its wanderings. Whithersoever it went, the ruler of the invaded territory must either pay homage to the king, and join him with his warriors, or accept battle; but whether conquered or peacefully submitting, all these princes must follow the horse, and at the end of the year assist at the sacrifice of the consecrated animal. Moreover, during the whole year the king must restrain all passion, live a perfectly purified life, and sleep on the bare ground. The white horse could not be loosened until the night of the full moon in Chaitra, which answers to the latter half of March and the first half of April, in fact, at Easter-time; and it may be observed here that this is not the only strange coincidence in the sacrifice. It was thus an adventure of romantic conquest, mingled with deep religion and arrogant ostentation; and the entire description of the Aswamedha would prove most interesting. The horse is found, is adorned with the golden plate, and turned loose, wandering into distant regions; where the army of Arjuna for it was he who led Yudhishthira’s forces goes through twelve amazing adventures. They come, for instance, to a land of Amazons, all of wonderful beauty, wearing armour of pearls and gold, and equally fatal either to love or to fight with. These dazzling enemies, however, finally submit, as also the Rajah of the rich city of Babhruvahan, which possessed high walls of solid silver, and was lighted with precious jewels for lamps. The serpent people, in the same way, who live beneath the earth in the city of Vasuki, yield, after combat, to Arjuna. A thousand million semi-human snakemen dwelt there, with wives of consummate loveliness, possessing in their realm gems which would restore dead people to life, as well as a fountain of perpetual youth. Finally, Arjuna’s host marches back in great glory, and with a vast train of vanquished monarchs, to the city of Hastinapura, where all the subject kings have audience of Yudhishthira, and the immense preparations begin for the sacrifice of the snow-white horse.

After all these stately celebrations, it might be expected that the great poem would conclude with the established glories of the ancient dynasty. But if the martial part of the colossal epic is “Kshatriyan,” and the religious episodes “Brahmanic,” the conclusion breathes the spirit of Buddhism. Yudhishthira sits grandly on the throne; but earthly greatness does not content the soul of man, nor can riches render weary hearts happy. A wonderful scene, which reads like a rebuke from the dead addressed to the living upon the madness of all war, occurs in this part of the poem. The Pandavas and the old King Dhritarashtra being together by the banks of the Ganges, the great saint Vyasa undertakes to bring back to them all the departed, slain in their fratricidal conflict. The spectacle is at once terrible and tender.

But this revealing of the invisible world deepens the discontent of the princes, and when the sage Vyasa tells them that their prosperity is near its end, they determine to leave their kingdom to younger princes, and to set out with their faces towards Mount Meru, where is Indra’s heaven. If, haply, they may reach it, there will be an end of this world’s joys and sorrows, and “union with the Infinite” will be obtained. My translations from the Sanskrit of the two concluding parvas of the poem (of which the above is a swift summary) describe the “Last Journey” of the princes and their “Entry into Heaven;” and herein occurs one of the noblest religious apologues not only of this great Epic but of any creed, a beautiful fable of faithful love which may be contrasted, to the advantage of the Hindu teaching, with any Scriptural representations of Death, and of Love, “which stronger is than Death.” There is always something selfish in the anxiety of Orthodox people to save their own souls, and our best religious language is not free from that taint of pious egotism. The Parvas of the Mahabharata which contain Yudhishthira’s approach to Indra’s paradise teach, on the contrary, that deeper and better lesson nobly enjoined by an American poet

“The gate of heaven opens to none alone,
Save thou one soul, and it shall save thine own.”

These prefatory remarks seemed necessary to introduce the subjoined close paraphrase of the “Book of the Great Journey,” and the “Book of the Entry into Heaven;” being the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Parvas of the noble but, as yet, almost unknown Mahabharata.