Indian Classical Literature Unit 2 Selections From Epic Sanskrit Literature

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Indian Classical Literature Unit 2 Selections From Epic Sanskrit Literature

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Indian Classical Literature Unit 2 Selections From Epic Sanskrit Literature Notes cover all the exercise questions in UGC Syllabus. The Indian Classical Literature Unit 2 Selections From Epic Sanskrit Literature provided here ensures a smooth and easy understanding of all the concepts. Understand the concepts behind every Unit and score well in the board exams.

Selections From Epic Sanskrit literature


  • Vyasa,
  • The Dicing and 
  • The Sequel to Dicing 
  • The Book of the Assembly Hall
  • The Temptation of Karna, Book V
  • The Book of Effort, in The Mahabharata

Q 1. Explain the games in The Mahabharata: ‘The Dicing’ and ‘The Sequel to Dicing’. 

Ans: Before the dicing ,a lot of discussions were there, but Yudhistira is obliged to play. But Shakuni comes in to play for Duryodhana.During the dicing event Yudhishtira stakes his wealth jewellery, Anuprastha,and the belongings of his brothers one by one and loses one by one.Shakuni, mocks and provokes Yudhistira at each stage and demands to stake. He thus loses his brothers Nakula, Sahadeva. Then Shakuni mocks Dharmaraja that at best those are the step brothers he (Dharmaraja) lost, but Arjuna and Bhema are the not so and Dharmaraja won’t bet them.

This forces Yudhistira to stake Arjuna, and then Bheema. But he loses them also.Then he loses himself and his liberty at the stake as demanded by Shakuni.At this moment of his complete defeat including himself, he is again mocked to stake Draupadi.Yudhisthira stakes Draupadi and loses her also. There were strong reac-tions from the assembly when Yudhistira staked her.Draupadi questions the legality of stalking her when she was forced and dragged in front of the assembly.She asks the for the whole assembly and the intellectuals that the staking of her by Yudhistira was after his losing him-self and his freedom.

There were favouring reactions to her questions. Interestingly,Vikarna , a young brother of Duryodhana , reacts in support of Draupadi. He says courageously that Yudhistara is enticed to play the game deeply plotted by Duryodhana and Shakuni. And that a lost Yudhistira has not the right to keep the bet Draupadi. Moreover, it is against the rules of the play to demand anything to be kept as the bet. The assembly supported him . But Karna silenced him, by saying that he is too young before the others in that hall. 

Duryodhana in the open court chides Draupadi and invites her to sit on his thigh , painting and baring his thigh. He orders Dushasana to disrobe her in front of the court. Dusshana begins to execute the act. But Draupadi cannot be bared. She is endowed with the divine grace of being in a new dress to whatever extent the clothes are pulled by Dusshasana. The strong Dusshana fails and exhausts tired.The Assem-bly stands stunned at the miracle.Bheema sends shivering signals by oath that he will tear open the Dusshana’s heart and drink the blood of him, and he shall break the thigh of the Duryodhana on which draupadi was tauntingly in-vited to sit. Plus the invincible Draupadi by the Divine blessing made Dhritarastra still more afraid of the Pandavas. He asks the pardon of Draupadi and releases all that was won in the Dicing events. 

Of course, the unsatisfied by Dhritarastra’s act,Shakuni and Duryodhana once agains plead before Dhritarastra for another dicing event with Yudhistira . In the second spell of dicing event , again Yudhitira is defeated and goes for exile for 12 years ,of course , they should live in forest by the condition and the 13th year they should live in disguise without being identified by anybody. If they(any of them) are identified by anybody during the period of disguise, they should repeat again 12 years of exile in for-est and the 13th year in disguise. 

Q 2. What is the Mahabharata ? 

Ans: Mahabharata is called a kavya. A kavya is generally regarded as a story that narrates the lives of personages of high status in society. As an epic, it is a recounting of the lives and actions of kings and queens in a dignified, elevated language. The ex-pounding of a noble purpose is also considered as part of the epic tradition of which Mahabharata is a model. According to Wendy Doniger, the epic cloaks its nar-rative in Vedic terms and perhaps preserves many memo-ries of the Vedic period. For instance, it places a lot of value on ostentatious rituals. It begins with the King. Janmejaya’s snake sacrifice and looks back at Yudhistira’s horse sacrifice, which was an important event in the Mahabharata narrative. Yet, it is very much a product of its times, that is, the centuries before and after the first millennium BC in which it might have been compiled. 

In the tradition of the epic, people look back at another heroic age, belonging to the past, with nostalgia. So, in the many stories and narratives of the epic, at-tempts are made to reconstruct that past. Yet, this re-construction of the past may be disordered to some extent, due to the multiple retellings of it. An epic like Mahabharata spans many societies and generations and has been recited countless number of times to different audiences. 

The primary narrative or story in the Mahabharata revolves around the resolution of the question of suc-cession or the struggle over royal kingdom and power between the Kauravas and Pandavas, who are the main actors in the epic. It is this struggle which is at the core of the epic and is part of the reconstruction of a past age of heroes. Moreover, besides various aspects of laws and ideas governing human life and conduct like karma, artha and moksha, the Mahabharata has a great significance in Indian thought and philosophy because of its important, all permeating exposition on dharma or the order of things in the universe and human life, in a very attractive and comprehensible manner. It has there-fore been given the status of the fifth Veda. It deals with many other aspects of human life in a way which is accessible even to the common man on the street. This has been achieved in the epic through a rich use of many narrative techniques like legends, fables and ele-ments from folklore and vernacular tradition. 

Despite the fact that the Mahabharata grew and changed with time across various traditions of thought, it is not a literary hodgepodge. Rather, an intertextuality of Hindu thought and ideas made it a conversation between various sources who added to its hybrid, con-tested narrative. Wendy Doniger claims that “The con-tradictions at its heart are not the mistakes of a sloppy editor but enduring cultural dilemmas that no author could ever have resolved.” 

However, precious little is known about the compo-sition or even the dissemination of the epic Mahabharata. In fact, very little is known about who composed the text or even where it was composed. According to the traditional view, the author of the Mahabharata is said to be Vyasa, a.great sage who is born of Rsi Parashara and a fisher woman of unknown antecedents. He is said to have also sired the blind King Dhrtarastra and Pandu of the Kuru clan. Thus, in the person of Vyasa, both fatherhood and authorship coalesce.” Vyasa is recount-ing the story of his own creation, that is, lives of his sons and grandsons. But it is most unfortunate that he has to witness the destruction of his own creation in the brutal, apocalyptic Mahabharata war. However, many critics argue that Vyasa is not the author of the epic but the one who finally compiled it in written form. Yet, the complex relationship between oral tradition and transmission of epic through writing makes the idea of the single author-Vyasa – problematic. Interestingly, the meaning of the word Vyasa is one who arranges and edits.” 

According to tradition, this small text of Jaya or victory song with further additions became larger in the Bharata text of the epic narrative and later, with more interpolations and addition of new material to it, it grew to become the Mahabharata. The new material added to the epic through a slow process of accretion has made it almost impossible to assign a particular date or even authorship to the epic period. 

Recent scholarly research on the composition and transmission of the text has challenged the view that the text was originally composed orally and was later com-piled into a written one. Critics have argued that this is a simplistic view and that the Mahabharata, as we know it today, is a product of an environment in which writing and the tradition of oral dissemination of knowledge were linked to each other in far more complex ways. In a way, the recreation of an early Mahabharata text, known as the Poona text through collating of various manuscripts from both northern and southern recensions of the Mahabharata, shows this complex relation between oral tradition and writing that are part of the composition of the Mahabharata.” 

Q 3. Mahabharata as a Literary Text 

Ans: Mahabharata is the story about a brutal war, fought between two sets of cousins, the Kauravas and the Pandavas over the Kingdom of the Bharatas. Although the war between the two sets of cousins is often seen as a tussle for power, questions like what the war is about, whether it can be averted and why it takes place at all, abound in the epic. As a literary text belonging to the epic tradition, the Mahabharata contains many twisting tales and riddle questions. These ques-tions that have not been resolved conclusively in the epic form an important aspect of its central narrative. In fact such tales are also part of the most confounding of its many riddles. They contribute to its meaning as a literary text in interesting ways. 

In Book 5 of the epic Mahabharata, the extreme measures that the Pandavas take to secure peace have been described. They send Krishna to Duryodhana as their emissary of peace and implore him to persuade Duryodhana to avoid war. And even though a divine figure acts as a messenger of peace, war is imminent in The Mahabharata. But the question remains that given all the efforts by the Pandavas, why can not the war be averted? 

Many of the problems and riddles, such as this one about peace and war, are never resolved conclusively in the Mahabharata. These form a tissue of unresolved questions which contribute to the thematic and formal complexity of the epic. In fact, a crucial ‘literary feature of the epic is its “riddle-question design.” “s” For in-stance, Yudhistira was most reluctant to wage a decisive war and upon hearing the staggering number of those who died in the apocalyptic, brutal carnage along with his own kinsmen, Yudhistira finds he is unable to rule as a king and go beyond his immense grief. So, a question posed here is – could the war and the bloodshed that followed be averted? This is a riddle which cannot be resolved in the narrative of the epic, even after the Mahabharata war. 

Emily T. Hudson argues that “many of the ‘prob-lems’ or riddle-questions that the Mahabharata raises and never conclusively resolves revolve around two related issues: the power of human agency and the complexities of the moral life.” Such riddles are linked to the exploration of other concepts in the epic and are an important part of the epic’s literariness. The unre-solved question of Yudhistira’s grief and suffering due to the war, for instance, is inextricably tied up with the epic’s concern with `dharma’- what is dharma, does following dharma ensure well-being? 

Moreover, beside this, the Mahabharata has many unique literary features which provide a sense of coher-ence to an otherwise dizzyingly complex text. The epic, in fact, contains a story about why it is full of so many knots and riddles. This is included in a popularly known passage, which was probably a later addition, and describes how Vyasa composed the epic verbally by seek-ingout as his scribe, Ganesa. Ganesa, who is also known as Lord of Obstacle, however, put forward the condi-tion that Vyasa dictate the entire epic without any single pause. So Vyasa, when he needed time to think about what he would include next, deliberately introduced mysterious knots or complex narratives and elements in the text to stump the scribe, Ganesa. 

Furthermore, the text’s narrative structure of ‘stories within stories’, that is the use of frame stories as a mode of narration, many times with audiences built in the text itself, adds to its complexity and provides the epic with textual and literary means to convey its meanings in different ways.” 

For example, the Mahabharata begins with a narra-tive of Ugrasrava, who is asked by a group of Brahmins headed by one called Saunaka, to narrate to them the story of the epic. Ugrasrava is an expert on stories about kings. He agrees and tells the Brahmins that he himself heard the story of the Bharatas at King Janmejaya’s yagya or sacrifice performed to kill and annihilate all the Nagas, so he could avenge the death of his father, King Parikshita, by Takshaka who is the king of Nagas. To avoid carnage similar to the Mahabharata war which brought untold misery to the world, King Janmejaya is persuaded to give up the Yagya by Vyasa himself. He is told the story of the Mahabharata by Vaishampayana in the presence of Vyasa. This complex mode of narration with many frame stories foregrounds the idea of presenting the epic in multiple ways, rejecting any single meaning of the text or any singular perspective with which to view it. 

King Janmejaya’s snake sacrifice not only provides the inner frame of the story of the epic Mahabharata but also helps to emphasise upon the significance of recep-tion of this story by the audience. For example, the direction of the story is determined to a large extent by Janmejaya’s promptings and questions. Indeed, each narration was somewhat like a theatrical performance with meanings and concepts conveyed in relation to familiar human experiences. 

Like Janmejaya’s questions driving the narrative forward, the reference to the audience’s present circum-stances, and the.presence of multiple narrators enriches the text by creating shifting points of view of any char-acter, event or problem. 

An interesting fact about this dual recitation of the epic is that a Brahmin-Vaishampayana recites it to Kshatriyas including King Janmejaya and later a non-Brahmin- Ugraravas to a group of Brahmins, which is a curious inversion in itself. “And both these narrators claim that their recital is exactly that which has been composed by Vyasa. Therefore, once again it becomes important to reiterate that it is difficult to assign the authorship of the epic to any single author. 

It is noteworthy that numerous narratives, characters, concepts all contribute to the epic Mahabharata’s mind boggling size and its almost encyclopaedic nature. As David Shulman points out, “Vyasa, it is said, left behind him (in his work) the entire world.” “Known as itihasa, it is the summation of an entire way of life and culture; an open text which includes the world itself. 

Q 4. Game of Dice in the Mahabharata 

Ans: The dicing scene in the Mahabharata is a piv-otal one. In this scene, Duryodhana and Sakuni invite Yudhistira to a rigged game of dice in which he loses his kingdom, entire wealth, his brothers, himself and finally even his wife, Draupadi. Throughout the epic, the immense destruction and suffering that has been brought on through the war is seen by the characters as resulting from the game of dice. Janmejaya calls the game of dice as the root or origin of the destruction brought to the entire world. 

The Dicing episode: 

In this episode Duryodhana is burning with envy at having witnessed his cousin Yudhistira’s rise to the po-sition of a sovereign. In this impassioned condition of mind, he is tricked into believing a pond for a piece of land in Yudhistira’s grand palace hail into which he falls to public humiliation. Arjuna, Bhima and in one version of the story, Draupadi’s laughter at his falling prey to tricks add to his discomfort and fury. In some ways then, it points towards his inability to see anything beyond that which he perceives to be real. His sense of humiliation figures later in Draupadi’s abusive humiliation in his court. He seeks revenge and is aided by Sakuni, his uncle, in the game of dice. 

It is significant that Duryodhana seeks to obtain his father, King Dhrtarastra’s approval for the game. Dhrtarastra, at first, refuses to give his permission, say-ing that gambling will divide the family. In the end, how-ever, he gives in to Duryodhana’s heated persistence5 after much wavering. Dhrtarastra then sends his brother Vidura, who is one of the wisest men in the epic, to summon Yudhistira to his hall for a game of dice. Yudhistira is unwilling to go, yet has to follow Dhrtarastra’s commands. He laments that both fate (daiva) and dharma bind him. Yudhistira begins the game of dice with losing a modest stake of a string of pearls to Sakuni. He accuses Sakuni of playing a trick, that is, of playing the game through Maya. 

Upon losing in the subsequent stakes, seventeen in number, he gambles away his entire kingdom, his mas-sive wealth, his four brothers and finally himself. He also loses his queen and wife, Draupadi in the nineteenth stake in the game of dice. A menstruating Draupadi is then dragged into the assembly hall by Duhsasana, one of the hundred Kaurava brothers, by the hair in the presence of King Dhritarashtra and other elders, who watch her disrobing helplessly in the assembly hall. 

Draupadi, however, at her most magnificent, raises some tricky questions of dharma and legality, which challenge the wager that makes her a crucial stake in the game of dice. The staking of Draupadi thus becomes more ambiguous rather than decisive as Draupadi asks Yudhistira whether he wagered her before or after los-ing himself. 

None can answer this question including Bhisma, Vidura and Yudhistira, considered the three wisest men amongst those gathered in the assembly and hence, the game is interrupted. Due to such questions challenging the game of dice itself by Draupadi, in addition to the various inauspicious omens like the howling of the jack-als, Dhrtarastra comes to his senses and grants three boons to Draupadi who uses them to get freedom for her husbands. The Pandavas, now free, leave for indraprastha, their kingdom. However, they are exiled for twelve years in the forest and one to be lived out in disguise in the city after they are summoned back to the assembly hall for one last throw of the dice. 

The conclusion of the dice game is pregnant with a sense of impending doom. In fact, beginning with the game of dice, a weight-of despair and suffering falls on the Pandavas who face a long chain of destructive events beginning with the fateful game until the very end of the epic’s narrative. They lose their kingdom and face exile. Their attempts at peace negotiation with the Kauravas fail and which causes them much pain. After the war, they emerge victorious as rulers of a kingdom which has witnessed carnage and is now empty and finally, they succumb to death.” 

Q 5: Context and Significance of the Game of Dice 

Ans: In the Mahabharata the game of dice is significant as it provides an opportunity to sort out or settle the question of power or succession that can otherwise be resolved only through a destructive war. The game of dice then becomes that realm of make-believe in which winning or losing the game turns out to be a matter of life and death. Many issues of dharma-adharma, bee. human desires and actions and questions of politi-cal power are played out in the game of dice. The main issue to be settled through the game is the question of power and succession to the kingdom. The law of primogeniture and succession demands that the eldest son must succeed. Yet in the Mahabharata it is not a simple matter of good versus evil, as is often made out to be in popular retellings of the epic. Such popular versions of the epic narrative pose Yudhisthira and Duryodhana as upholding good and evil values of con-duct, respectively. 

Yet, one must not forget that Duryodhana has a strong claim as the successor of the kingdom.Dhrtarastra, the eldest son born of Vyasa is blind and cannot succeed to the throne. Pandu, the younger son, becomes the King violating the rule of primogeni-ture. Thus, the application of the rule of primogeniture to questions of power is riddled with complexities. Duryodhana, being the eldest son of Dhritarashtra, who though elder to his brother Pandu could not become the King because of his blindness, has a justified claim to rule the kingdom. However, he is younger than Yudhistira, who is the eldest son of the rightfully anointed ruler Pandu apart from being the eldest of the entire Kuru clan. 

The claim to inheritance being equal on both sides, the kingdom had been equally divided, to Duryodhana’s dissatisfaction. Hence, the game of dice became the means to resolve this question of rift within the family. 

An important point to be noted in this context is the idea that the game of dice could be seen as the rival ceremony of Yudhistira’s Rajasuya yagna. Duryodhana undertakes the game of dice to posit a rival claim to the right to rule as a sovereign. And since it is suggested in the epic that the game of dice is part of the ritual of Rajasuya, it is not necessarily an evil proposal as is made out in popular perception. Historians claim that the distribution of land for grazing animals amongst rival chiefs was achieved many times through a game of dice. Hence, throwing the dice was another means for distribution of wealth and resources in society. 

Furthermore, the game of dice in which the Kauravas win should have made their claim to the kingdom legiti-mate and the story of Mahabharata should have come to an end with this event, but for other important con-siderations like that of dharma, fate, et cetera, which remained unresolved throughout the epic.

Q 6: Political Power and Social Structures in the Mahabharata. 

Ans: In an interesting essay on the economic data in the Mahabharata, Romila Thapar argues that the epic as a genre looks “for a past age of heroes and the clans to which they belonged. This slowly gave way to the present where the heroes are less important in a society governed by kings and the code of castes. The nature of authority is more focused and therefore different in kingship, or a monarchical set-up from that of a clan-based society. In a monarchical society, the determination of status and social attitude is by reference to caste and gradually becomes more predictable.”

The first few books of the epic narrate the story of the Kauravas and the Pandavas with the game of dice as the central event to a point where war between the two seems imminent.

Providing an analysis of Yudhistira’s stakes in the game of dice, Thapar notes that the society is one of clan-based, lineage networks. The identity and social functions are brought out through membership of the family and clan. The items of wealth wagered in the game point towards a form of produce largely associ­ated with pastoralism and primitive agriculture.

However, by the end of the war a substantial his­torical change seems to have occurred in the epic. Advancement in agriculture led to a more settled way of life. In the latter parts of the epic, one can see that this sort of economic structure, based on stable agriculture in part, led to a transition from an egalitarian network of clan-based social organisation to concentration of greater power in the figure of the monarch. This is brought out well in the war when Arjuna is dismayed by the thought of killing his own kinsmen and family members. In a clan based society the killing of kinsmen was considered a heinous crime. However, in the battle, Krishna tells him that it is his a Kshatriya to fight against evil, even if it involves the killing of one’s family members and kins men. This indicates the hardening of caste structures in a monarchical, agriculture-based society.

The Mahabharata was perhaps composed, or compiled in the period (400BC to 400 AD), that witnessed the rise and fall of the first great empire of the Mauryas in India. It depicts a period of chaos and change after the fall of this great empire. Various historical sources provide evidence for extension of stable agriculture into forest areas. This was different from pastoralism. It probably resulted in unequal distribution of wealth in society during that time, which sharpened social hierar­chies and differences.

The period also saw the rise of various social groups like specialists in craft and also sectarianism in Hinduism and Buddhism. The growth of ascetic groups was an important part of this change which posed a threat to the Brahmin-Kshatriya nexus of power in society, as it questioned the authority of Vedic Brahmins over issues of knowledge and dharma. Apart from the ongoing tussle over power between Brahmins and Kshatriyas, tensions arose in society as lower classes gained greater eco­nomic and political power, thereby challenging the status of these upper classes. The epic’s examination of issues of kingship, social structures and rituals to be performed in society and also its exploration of dharma in part can be explained through a consideration of such a socio political and historical milieu in which it might have been composed.

Indeed when Yudhistira renounces kingship after having witnessed the violence of the Mahabharata war, Bhisma through a long discourse on various categories of dharma, including rajadharma, tells him to govern the kingdom as a king. This kingship was then viewed as a superior form of political structure in that period.

At a textual level, in the opening passages of the episode of the dicing game, the audience is forewarned that the game will take place and will have disastrous consequences. Thii disclosure is prompted by the ‘inner frame’ story of Janmejaya asking Vaishampayana about how such an unfortunate event came about. 

The important point to be noted here is that the text itself breaks the suspense about whether the game of dice will happen by making Janmejaya inform the audi-ence that it will happen. This shifts the attention of the audience to questions of how and why the game of dice took place, thereby prompting a search for answers to many of the riddle questions that the epic attempts to examine. The answers to some of these pertinent ques-tions can therefore be better understood through an analysis of the moral dilemmas that characters like Duryodhana, Dhrtarastra and Yudhistira face and which, in a way, lead on to the game of dice in the Mahabharata.

Q 7: Role of Duryodhana.

Ans: Duryodhana can be considered as the driving force behind the game of dice. And although the game is Sakuni’s idea, he plays the most important role in its implementation through various ways. Therefore, to understand why and how the dicing episode happened, an analysis of the mental state and emotions that lie behind the actions of Duryodhana is a crucial exercise. Indeed the text itself provides the clues to this and thereby helps the audience to achieve that critical distance from the character of Duryodhana, which will help us under­stand the motives behind some of his actions.

The epic, in fact, evades at the textual level, a clear answer to the question of why Duryodhana falls prey to tricks and deceptions which lead him to commit some of the most cruel acts in the dicing scene or even why does the dicing scene came to be at all. Duryodhana tells Sakuni that since the time he has witnessed Yudhistira’s grand sacrifice and his sway in the king­dom, he has been agonised and tormented by feelings of resentment, which has resulted in him being miser­able. Also, as mentioned earlier, the humiliation that he faces at the hands of the Pandavas (except Yudhistira) and their servants in their grand palace, results in the audience’s sympathising with his misery to some extent. However, as he spins out of control under the influ­ence of the frenzy of revenge, while convincing his fa­ther to give his consent to the game, he seems to lose his grip on any sort of reasonable behaviour.

This tex­tual strategy distances the audience from the character of Duryodhana to critically evaluate and understand the motives behind his action that have a crucial bearing on the dicing episode. During the game of dice, he causes the cruel act of getting a menstruating, half naked Draupadi to be humiliated in front of the men in the assembly hall of Dhrtarastra’s palace. Thus, the text in some sense helps the audience to question such inconceivable behaviour on the part of Duryodhana. His speeches to his father and uncle reveal that his mind became evil with jealousy, greed and resentment which made him miserable and unsteady. This was perhaps the cause of his despicable behaviour. Therefore, it is sug­gested that to some extent human conduct depends not on some inherent evil or vice in a person, but springs from the quality or state of mind. he or she is in. This idea of human conduct resulting from a confused state of mind and not just from some innate source of evil, further complicates the issue of what is the right conduct and dharma.

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