The Bombay Mahabharata


The Five Pandus and Draupadi
[ Click all images for large version ]

Feb 01, 2013 — CANADA (SUN) — A three-part summary of the epic Mahabharata, with woodcut illustrations.

In 1906, historian A. V. Williams Jackson published an encyclopedic tome entitled, History of India, comprised of nine volumes written by himself and six other academics of the day. Volume I of the series, produced by Indologist R.C. Dutt, covered India 'from the earliest times to the sixth century B.C.'. In this volume we find a chapter dedicated to 'The Epic Age - the Mahabharata', illustrated by images from a manuscript known as the 'Bombay Mahabharata'.

The beautiful woodcut engravings, done in the style of classic Bengali woodcuts, provide unique depictions of famous Mahabharata scenes. The illustrations alone make the Bombay Mahabharata of great interest, and author R.C. Dutt's comments also provide some historical perspective. His presentation of history moves forward from one of several schools of opinion on the Aryans, and mirrors the historical perspective on North India's geography, as recently described in the "Scotsman in the Himalayas" series. In fact, it is almost certain that R.C. Dutt relied upon the travel journal of James Baillie Fraser in composing his own historical commentary.

In Volume 9 of History of India, R.C. Dutt offers this (excerpted) commentary on the epic Mahabharata:

"The tide of Aryan conquests rolled onward. If the reader will refer to a map of India, he will find that from the banks of the Sutlaj to the banks of the Jumna and the Ganges, there is not a very wide strip of country to cross. The Aryans, who had colonized the whole of the Panjab, were not likely to remain inactive on the banks of the Sutlaj or of the Sarasvati. Already in the Vedic Period bands of enterprising colonists had crossed those rivers and explored the distant shores of the Jumna and the Ganges, and those noble streams, though alluded to in the hymns as on the very horizon of the Hindu world, were not unknown. In course of time the emigrants to the fertile banks of the two rivers must have increased in number, until they founded a powerful kingdom of their own in the country near the modern Delhi – the kingdom of the Kurus.

These colonists were no others than the Bharatas renowned in the wars of Sudas, but their kings belonged to the house of Kuru, and hence the tribe went by both names, Bharatas and Kurus. From what part of the Panjab the Kurus came, is a question still involved in obscurity. In the Aitareya Brahmana it is stated that the Uttara Kurus and the Uttara Madras lived beyond the Himalaya, perhaps in Kashmir, but in the epics of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, the land of the Uttara Kurus became a mythical country, although it is identified with the Ottorakorrha of Ptolemy and placed somewhere east of the modern Kashgar; but we would place the Uttara Kuru alluded to in the Aitareya Brahmana somewhere north of the Sub-Himalayan range, i.e. in Kashmir. We assume that the colony of the Kurus on the Ganges rose to prowess and fame about 1400 B.C.

When the Hindus had once begun to settle on the fertile banks of the Jumna and the Ganges, other colonists descended these streams and soon occupied the whole of the Doab, the tract of country between the two rivers. While we find the Kurus or Bharatas occupying the country near the modern Delhi, another adventurous tribe, the Panchalas, seized the tract of country near the modern Kanouj. The original seat of the Panchalas is still less known than that of the Kurus, and it has been supposed that they also came from the northern hills, like the Kurus.

Opening page of the Bombay Mahabharata

The Panchala kingdom probably rose to distinction about the same time as the kingdom of the Kurus, and the Brahmana literature frequently refers to these allied tribes as forming the very centre of the Hindu world and as renowned by their valour, their learning, and their civilization. Centuries had elapsed since the Aryans had first settled on the banks of the Indus, and the centuries had done their work in progress and civilization. Manners had changed, society had become more refined and polished, learning and art had made considerable progress. Kings invited wise men to their courts, held learned controversies with their priests, performed elaborate sacrifices according to the rules of the age, led trained armies to the field, appointed qualified men to collect taxes and to administer justice, and performed all the duties of civilized administrators.

The relations and friends of the king and the warriors of the nation practised archery and driving the war-chariot from their early youth, and also learned the Vedas and all the sacred lore that was handed down from generation to generation. The priests multiplied religious rites and observances, preserved the traditional learning of the land, and instructed and helped the people in their religious duties. And the people lived in their towns and villages, cherished the sacrificial fire in their houses, cultivated the arts of peace, trained their boys from early youth in the Vedas and in their social and religious duties, and gradually developed those social customs which in India have the force of laws. Women had their legitimate influence in society and moved without restriction or restraint.

Civilization, however, does not necessarily put a stop to wars and dissensions; and the only reminiscences we possess of the political history of the Kurus and the Panchalas are those of a sanguinary war in which many neighbouring tribes took part, and which forms the subject of one of the two great epics of India. [ ]

The capital of the Kurus at the time of which we are speaking was the city of Hastinapura, the supposed ruins of which have been discovered on the upper course of the Ganges, about sixty-five miles to the northeast of Delhi. Santanu, the aged King of Hastinapura, died, leaving two sons, Bhishma, who had taken a vow of celibacy, and a younger prince, who became king. This young prince died in his turn, leaving two sons, Dhritarashtra, who was blind, and Pandu, who ascended the throne.

Pandu died, leaving five sons who are the heroes of the epic. Dhritarashtra virtually remained king during the minority of the five Pandavas and of his own children, while Dhritarashtra's uncle, Bhishma, remained the chief councillor and friend of the state.

(To be continued...)


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