Book Review: The Winds of Hastinapur!

Have you guys been enjoying the current Mahabharat Series on Star Plus? (It is about to end, by the way). Have you been missing the posts here? Yes, there might be a correlation. Personally, I am relishing the series, enjoying reading a few books, so you can say I am more in a receptive mode these days. Also, have been busy with my kartavya (read office work) which hasn’t allowed me to post here in some time. But some things need a mention, especially the one in the first sentence of the next paragraph.

I came across this book named the “Winds of Hastinapur” by Sharath Komarraju some time back and as is the case with every epic-based book I come across, buying it was a snap decision. Took me some time to begin reading though, considering my rate of buying books is always greater than my rate of reading them. I have always regretted this fact, and very heavily especially this time when I completed WOH (taking the liberty of using the acronym).

In the times when feminism is gaining traction in our country (mostly on social media yet hardly in action), WOH becomes one good selection if you want to read something about the Mahabharata. Being a man, Sharath has written this book from the point of view of women, and has done a fantastic job of thinking from not one but from the perspective of multiple women who dominate different chapters of the epic at different points (I can only wonder how a young lad can manage to think from so many women’s perspective in the first place).

The book starts the story of Mahabharata from Ganga and goes to first explain in detail the curse of the 8 vasus (summary here) and then Ganga’s emotions about the idea of being the savior for the vasus from the curse. The latter half of the book is through the lens of Matsyagandha/Satyavati or Kali as you would call her and the details of her desire and almost brutal ambitions. Reading Ganga’s side of the story might appear slightly fantastical while Satyavati appears highly relatable, something that should be obvious as Satyavati resembles more of a common man (no gender hint intended) while Ganga is seen as a goddess (by which I mean not being dominated by inferior emotions as much as humans are). When you consider this factor, the contrast makes total sense.

The author makes you dive rather deeply into the waters of Ganga when he talks about her emotions and you also feel that you are walking with the winds of Hastinapur in your face while reading the book when he mentions the story of Satyavati. In terms of writing, Sharath has mastered  the art of making the reader imagine just what is required to understand and relate to the story well. Caveat: If you know nothing about the Mahabharata, beginning your journey of the epic from this book can be similar to beginning your cricket coaching directly from the Master Blaster. But in case you have undergone preliminary lessons, there are high chances you’re going to love it. You will still require some patience though, because you would have not thought from Ganga’s or Satyavati’s point of view so much ever before and while reading these details the impatient-for-the-masala-moments readers might want to ask – “OK, then?”. At many points in the book you would want to pause and think about what was just mentioned and say “Wow” to yourself because that thought probably never occurred to you before. Narration from Ganga and Satyavati is something that makes this book unique as most retellings have been from an external point of view or at max from the main characters’ point of view (eg., Palace of Illusions or Mrityunjaya).

I happen to know for a fact that the next book in the series will be from the point of view of Amba, Kunti and Gandhari something that should be even more interesting to read as their characters and decisions have always been deemed more controversial or difficult.

Hope you guys cross this book some day during your journey of gaining wisdom through the Mahabharata.

Happy Reading!

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P.S. Please feel free to comment below on how you find the book or what you think about the review.

 

8. Bheeshm Pratigya! – A Terrible Sacrifice of a Son

Devavrata was now an adult and had been declared the heir to the kingdom. Everyone had full trust in his capabilities and Shantanu also relaxed the reigns of Hastinapur into the hands of Devarata.

One day Shantanu thought of taking a break from the daily kingdom chores and go for what Kuru kings did best – hunt! During the hunt in the forest, he reached the banks of Ganga, where a gentle breeze brought to him a heavenly fragrance. The fragrance aroused in Shantanu the desires that he had been unaware of ever since his wife Ganga left him. Shantanu realized that the source of fragrance was a woman who was ferrying across the river; daughter of the leader of fishermen. This woman was Satyavati.

Shantanu ordered his charioteer to stop the chariot and alighted from it to proceed towards Satyavati. He told Satyavati that he had fallen in love with her (Love at first sight is the trend in our generation. In those days love happened at first sniff!)

Shantanu: Marry me and be my queen. The kingdom of Hastinapur has not had a queen in quite some time.

Satyavati: Maharaj, I am not the one who can decide this on my own. If you wish to marry me, you should ask my father for my hand in marriage.

Within an hour, Shantanu and Satyavati were in the cottage of the head of the fisher-folks, Daashraaj. Shantanu told Daashraaj that he wished to marry Satyavati. Daashraaj was more than happy at knowing this but he had to refuse Shantanu. On being questioned, he said that since his daughter was destined to become a mother of kings, marrying Shantanu who had already declared Devavrata his heir would be a hindrance to that prediction. The revelation infuriated Shantanu. Even though he was madly in love with Satyavati, he could not deprive his beloved Devavrata of his rights for anything.

Shantanu: Kurus are not famous for taking back their words and depriving the rightful people of what they deserve. If you have such a condition, then I shall not marry your daughter.

Shantanu left the cottage without looking in Satyavati’s direction for even an instant. On that day, and on the following days Shantanu again felt the void that had been created ever since Ganga left him. In his old age, the void seemed to hurt more and he was also losing his capability of hiding his sorrows.

Devavrata could not see his father sad and so he tried to investigate but Shantanu never told anything. He then went to Shantanu’s charioteer expecting that the charioteer might reveal to the prince what the father was not revealing to the son. The charioteer told the entire story to Devavrata.

On the very evening, when the thick clouds were eclipsing the moon desperate to shower themselves on the city of Hastinapur, the fisher community heard the sound of armies proceeding in their direction. The fisher-folks were convinced that the audacity of their chief had succeeded in incurring Devavrata’s wrath and that he had come to savage the entire village that dared to harm his prospects of inheriting the throne.

Powerful men are usually understood by the weak.

Devavrata summoned Daashraaj, who came along with his daughter and asked him what stopped him from giving his daughter’s hand to the king of Hastinapur. Daashraaj explained the foretelling and its implications.

Devavrata: It was not wise on your part to have asked from my father what is mine, Daashraaj. My father could not promise to your grandsons the throne of Hastinapur because he has already given it to me. And if this is what is keeping my father away from happiness then I promise you that I will never sit on that throne. You can now proceed with the arrangements of the wedding. Mother Satyavati shall marry my father with no further delay.

Daashraaj: That’s very kind and brave of you my prince! History will always remember your sacrifice. But I have a question. If your father had no right to promise on your behalf, then how come you have the right to promise on the behalf of your sons? What if your sons raise swords against my grandsons for this very throne. How can I be sure of their future?8. Bheeshma Pratigya - A terrible sacrifice of a son

Devavrata: You are right dude! I cannot decide and promise on behalf of my sons. But I can certainly decide something for myself. And so to remove all your doubt and apprehensions about future of your grandsons, I decide never to marry. May Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesh hear it today; may the devas and asuras hear it today; may all the directions hear it today; may all organic and inorganic forms of matter hear it today; may earth, fire, wind and water hear it today clearly – I, Devavrata, the son of Ganga and Shantanu, pledge never to marry and father children on any woman. I SHALL LIVE WITHOUT A WIFE AND A SON AND I SHALL DIE WITHOUT A WIFE AND A SON. THIS IS MY ULTIMATE PROMISE TO YOU!!!

The pledge disturbed the rhythm of the cosmos, the clouds burst into heavy rains and the devas descended on Earth to shower Devavrata with flowers and blessings. Time had never seen such a terrible oath being taken by anyone. Time would never see such a terrible oath being taken by anyone. There were tears in the eyes of every soldier that had accompanied Devavrata. Princes were known to slaughter the weak to show off their might and here they had the mightiest of their leaders sacrificing everything for the sake of his old father and his kingdom’s future. They felt blessed to have seen the most historical moment in time.

This terrible oath, also known as Bheeshm Pratigya in Hindi, earned Devavrata the title of Bheeshm. Though Bheeshm sacrificed everything to ensure that the king of Hastinapur stayed well and so did Hastinapur, he did not foresee the implications that this terrible oath would have and how his rigidity towards his oath would cost Kuru clan dearly. There were certain things only time could tell and this was one of those.

6. Devavrata – The Son of Ganga

Sixteen years later, after Ganga had left him, Shantanu was seated in his palace when a messenger informed that some warrior had dared to obstruct the flow of river Ganga near the capital of Hastinapur. This warrior, with his arrows, had created a barrier in the middle of the river and obstructed the flow of its waters. Shantanu was infuriated at this flagrant display of valour that was causing harm to the organisms inside the river as well as forcing the river-form of his beloved wife to be obstructed.

Shantanu immediately reached the river-bank where this nearly impossible feat was taking place. He witnessed that a young lad was practicing his archery skills on Ganga. An angry Shantanu sought clarification for this. The young lad revealed that he was just practicing his skills on the water of Ganga; by no way did he harm any organisms. But Shantanu was too impatient to listen to anything. He raised his bow and challenged the young lad to fight.

Suddenly, the waters of Ganga moved in a whirlpool, taking a human form and appearing in front of Shantanu. It was Ganga, his long-gone wife.

Maharaj, the young lad that you challenge is no enemy. He is your own son. The same son who I took away sixteen years back to return to you. He was just practicing his archery skills that he learnt from sage Parshuram. His name is Devavrata.”

“What? He’s my son? After sixteen years of isolation, today I am seeing my son. What an auspicious day this is!” Shantanu cried in happiness.

6.2 Bheeshm - The Son of Ganga“Yes Maharaj! He’s the same son for whom you broke your oath. Today I am returning him to you as my duty is over. Today, there is no one in Jambudweep (Indian Peninsula) who is more skilled and knowledgeable than Devavrata. He has learnt the scriptures from Sage Vashishta; Sage Brihaspati and Sage Shukracharya are his teachers in political science and Sage Markandeya is his spiritual guru. On my request, Sage Parshuram made an exception to teach martial arts and archery to this Kshatriya son of yours.  I hand over this son to you Maharaj!” said Ganga to Shantanu.

Turning over to her son, Ganga said, “Your father has seen a lot in his life. Make sure he is never sad with you around. You must live your life and direct your dharma towards your father and Hastinapur. It’s time for me to leave now. Whenever you feel like meeting me, just visit my banks. Your mother will always be there to guide you.” Saying this, Ganga disappeared in her own waters.

The void in Shantanu’s life was partly filled with the arrival of his capable son. Even though the love of his life was not there, at least the heir of Hastinapur was. (His new-found love is about to come in the next post though.) The father and son spent years together discussing the intricacies of kingship, politics, strategies, vedas and the history of ancestors and great kings and warriors. In due course, the young prince gained fame among the people of Hastinapur and considering his knowledge, wisdom and power, Shantanu declared Devavrata as his successor.

After seeing its king Shantanu lonely and depressed for years, the people of Hastinapur finally saw a ray of hope in the form of Devavrata – he who will become the new king and expand the boundaries of the kingdom, will begin a new family and fill the palace with new princes and princesses, the symbol of growth and happiness of the kingdom at large.

What one expects does not always come true! At times things take a different turn on their own; at times one turns them at one’s will. The destiny of Hastinapur and Devavrata were about to take a massive turn that would impact the generations. The impact of Vashishta’s curse would take its effect soon. Time, gritting its teeth in fear, was waiting for the day.

The Curse of the Eight Vasus

The eight vasus are the eight demi-gods Anala, Anila, Soma, Ahas, Dhara, Dhruva, Pratyoosha and Prabhasa. Together, they represent the very elements of the Mother Nature.

Once, the wife of Prabhasa persuaded her husband to get her a cow which actually belonged to Rishi Vashisht. Prabhasa was initially reluctant to ask for anything from a Brahmin but disarmed by the usual weakness of a man towards his wife, he agreed to steal the cow for her. With the help of his seven brothers, the eight vasus purloined away Vashisht’s cow for Prabhasa’s wife. Rishi Vashisht, through his ascetic powers, figured out that the stealth was an act of the vasus. He cursed the eight vasus to be born on earth as mortals and suffer the pain like all mortals do.

The eight vasus begged Rishi Vashisht for mercy, but as I mentioned here, a curse could not be taken back. It could, at best, be modified. Rishi Vashisht granted some relief to the seven vasus that their lifetime on earth would be short and after that they could ascend to paradise. But the eighth vasu, Prabhasa, who instigated the other seven to steal the cow out of his passion for his wife would suffer the pain of the account of all the seven vasus.

He who committed a crime out of desire for his wife will never know the pleasure of a woman. Even without a wife and sons, he will spend his entire life struggling to serve his household. And in the end he will die at the hands of a woman, for his desire for a woman made him turn vasus into criminals.

The Eight Vasus

The eight vasus then went to the Mother of all beings, Ganga to help them keep their stay on earth short. Ganga, who too was cursed by Brahma to suffer as a mortal on earth promised them that she would give them birth through her own womb and will drown them in the waters of Ganga to set them free from the curse the moment they would be born. Ganga drowned the seven vasus immediately on their birth, but Rishi Vashisht’s curse came true when she was about to drown Prabhasa and she was stopped by Shantanu. It was Prabhasa who grew up as Devavrata, later to be known as Bheeshma for his terrible oath, the oath that will be the cause of all his suffering and also, in a way, the cause of the Kurukshetra war.

5. Shantanu and Ganga – A Love Story based on a Promise

There are certain things in life that are preordained, either due to our destiny or due to our karma. The sagacious ones, thus, often say that destiny is nothing but our karma yielding its consequences. On top of that, our ignorance coupled by our momentary passions blended in our ego, ends in cul-de-sac. The greatest human folly does lie in the fact that we don’t learn from History, we repeat it.

The kings who inherited the throne of Hastinapur after Bharata repeated the mistakes of their ancestors not once but multiple times, sometimes due to innocence and sometimes due to ignorance.

Once Pratipa, a descendant of the Kuru bloodline, was meditating under a tree when he was approached by the river-goddess Ganga. She requested Pratipa to make her his daughter-in-law for reasons unstated. Not wanting to turn away the beauty who was considered a goddess and had approached to be a part of his family line, Pratipa agreed to it and assured her that his son, Shantanu, would marry her one day. Pratipa addressed Shantanu and made his intentions clear. Shantanu, being an obedient son, agreed to his father’s will without even trying to know the reason.

5.1 Ganga and Shantanu

Years later, the young and handsome Shantanu (if you do not remember what I mean by an italicized “young and handsome” then click here) was out on a hunt near the banks of Ganga when he saw a young beautiful woman. A face as serene as the Gangotri glacier and a complexion as flawless as the pure river Ganga (of those times, not today) captivated Shantanu in an instant. On inquiry, Ganga revealed that she was none other than goddess Ganga in a human form. Driven both by his promise to his father and the uncontrollable desire that was a result of Ganga’s exquisiteness (majorly because of the latter), Shantanu put forward the proposal for Ganga to be his queen. Ganga who was already willing for this readily accepted to the proposal putting forward a condition, much in the way Urvashi had put forward a condition for Pururava (click here to see how).

***

Ganga: Promise me, that you will never ask me any question.

Shantanu: I promise! Neither will I ask a question nor will I ever stop you from doing what you want to.

Ganga: If you ever ask me a question, I will still answer it but will be gone from your life forever.

Shantanu: Such a day will never come. I promise.

***

As you might have guessed, such a day did come but after years and with revelations far beyond Shantanu’s wits.

Shantanu was busy enjoying his married life with Ganga, neglecting his kingdom and focusing only on giving an heir to Hastinapur. The king succeeded and the news spread out in the kingdom that Ganga was ready to conceive Shantanu’s first child. The entire kingdom and Shantanu waited for the maids to bring the news of the birth of a prince/princess. Ganga gave birth to a child and before anyone could have a glance, she was seen to be leaving for the banks of Ganga, with her new-born in her hands.

5.2 Shantanu and Ganga

Ganga, being a goddess wasn’t as weak as usual women get after delivery. The delivery had not had any impact on her appearance or her strength and she moved towards the banks of Ganga without any assistance. Shantanu followed her but didn’t ask her anything keeping with the promise he had made – the promise that was the basis of their marriage. What he saw next horrified him and burnt his heart with agony. Ganga drowned her new-born into the waters of river Ganga and Shantanu could only see and do nothing. Ganga replied to the glaring anger on Shantanu’s brow with her enchanting yet cold smile, the one that had seduced Shantanu in their very first meeting.

Since there was no question to be asked and no answer to be given, Shantanu finally submitted to the queen again and their lives continued like before with thousand questions in his heart but not one on his lips. 

A few weeks later there was news of Ganga being pregnant again and the entire kingdom again became hopeful waiting for an heir while at the same time fearing that the second child would suffer the same fate as the first. The fears did come true. The very next moment Ganga drowned her second child too. Shantanu was aghast to see how a mother could drown her new-born into a river with such ease. He was aghast to see how a wife could deprive her husband of his sons. He was aghast to see how a queen could deprive a kingdom of its heir. Was the woman he married a heartless witch or a demoness seeking some revenge? The Kshatriya, Chakravarti king of kings of the Kuru clan could only ponder upon and do nothing.

One after the other, Ganga drowned seven of her new-born babies in the river not being stopped or questioned by anyone. The entire kingdom was flabbergasted with the queen and deeply annoyed with the king who did nothing out of his promise (many suspected it was his lust that was a slave of Ganga’s pulchritude) to stop her. Shantanu himself lost all hopes of having any heir as he had grown old and he knew that with Ganga as his wife hopes will remain only hopes, never turn into reality.

And then, there was the news that Ganga is pregnant again. With the eighth child in his wife’s womb, Shantanu was determined to have his heir this time whatever it might cost him. On delivery, Ganga proceeded towards the river in the same fashion, but this time Shantanu was not like the earlier one.

“STOP!”, he cried. “What kind of woman are you to have drowned your seven children in the river on their very birth. Even a nagin is better than you to leave its child alive. What have these harmless souls done to deserve this fate? You have already deprived me of my seven sons, I will not allow you take this one from me.” said Shantanu with a voice filled with anger that Ganga had never seen before.

Ganga stopped herself and turned. She saw Shantanu standing there with a pitiable face, not at all characteristic of a Kshatriya, and eyes full of disgust for Ganga. She went to Shantanu with that forever enchanting smile.

Ganga: Today you have broken your promise by asking me a question. I knew this would happen one day. You have suffered enough to see what all you had to.

Shantanu: Why did you do all this? Why did you kill seven of our innocent sons?

Ganga: I did not kill them Maharaj. I just set them free from this world, Mrityulok, where there is so much suffering. It was a curse that I was living, you are living and a curse that your sons were living.

Shantanu: Which curse?

Ganga: In your previous life as king Mahabhishak, you were a great warrior and a friend of the lord of the devas, Indra. You were a more than occasional visitor to his court that is famous for its wine and damsels. One day, I, accompanied by my father Brahma, visited that court where you were already present. In our very first encounter you kept gazing at me and so did I. A wind blew that caused my upper garment to slip from my shoulders that I did not realize. The court full of devas lowered their eyes out of respect but you kept glaring at me unabashedly. I too could not take my eyes off you. This public display of desire angered my father Brahma and he cursed you to be born on earth as a mortal and suffer the pain that mortals do. I too was cursed to descend on earth as a mortal and return only after breaking your heart. Today, after asking me this question you have set me free from my curse, just like I set seven of your sons from their curse.

Shantanu: Which curse were my sons living? Were they too pawns at the hands of the devas?

Ganga: These sons of yours are the eight vasus who were cursed by Rishi Vashisht to be born on earth as mortals and suffer the pain like them. (To read the details of the curse, click here). The eight vasus approached me, the mother of all beings, to save them from this. I promised to give them birth through my own womb and set them free as soon as they were born. That is what you had been seeing all this while, shocked, as you had no idea about your previous life and the curses. The cause of all sufferings is rooted in our past karma.

Shantanu: But at least, I have my one son alive now who will be my heir and three of us can live together happily, now that everything is revealed.

Ganga: I apologize but I do not see that happening, my king. You have broken your promise and this means I will have to leave you now. By obstructing the flow of destiny, you have managed to save your eighth child but happiness is not something that he will know for long. He is a great soul but not destined to be an heir nor to see his progeny inheriting the throne.

Shantanu: That’s not true! I will not let this happen. He is my son and I will ensure that he inherits my throne.

Ganga: Try as you will. What’s written in the destiny cannot be changed. All I can do for you is to take him away and impart him education from the best teachers in the world. He will be a master at politics, philosophy, religion and martial arts. He will follow the code of conduct of a Kshatriya like no other man has ever followed, no other man ever will. After he graduates, I will send him back to his father well prepared. Time will tell the rest of the story. 5-3 Shantanu and Ganga

***

Saying this, Ganga left with her eighth born to return later, leaving Shantanu alone. Shantanu wondered what life had for him ahead and how much of it was now dependent on his past karma that he was still unaware of.