When I was in school, my knowledge about World War II was built up by reading war comics -- or Commando Comics, as they were called in the 1960-70s. This had led me to believe that the British soldiers were all smart and brave whereas the Germans were either fools or cowards and could only shout "Achtung ! Achtung !!" before they were all killed ! It was only much later, when I had come across an English translation of “The Foxes of the Desert” by Paul Carell that I came to realise that the Germans too were equally brave and smart. I also understood that history is generally written by the winners and in such history, the winners always come across with flying colours.
Could this be the case with the Mahabharata ? And in this epic story of the war between Good and Evil, is it that the Pandavas are shown to be righteous and good simply because they won the war and had the luxury of writing the history ?
How honest and righteous were the Pandavas anyway ? Consider the following ...
The four main Kaurava generals were all killed through deceit and chicanery, not through fair and honest combat. Bhisma was killed by Arjuna who used the transsexual Shikhandi as human shield because he knew that Bhisma was gracious enough not to harm women or transsexuals. Drona was killed after he was demoralised by the false propaganda about his son's death propagated by Yudhisthira -- the one man whom Drona thought he could trusted completely. Karna was killed by Arjuna when his chariot was damaged and he was on the ground, even though under the rules of war he had specifically asked for respite. Duryodhana was killed by Bhima in a blatantly illegal blow of the mace that hit him beneath his waist and crushed his thighs. To be fair to the Pandavas, Arjuna's son Abhimanyu too was also killed in an unfair battle, but that does not absolve the Pandavas from the charge of using unfair means.
The Mahabharata tries is apologetic about this dishonesty in the "otherwise righteous" Pandavas when it has the allegedly divine Krisha rationalising that since the Kauravas were evil, the forces of Dharma -- righteousness -- must use dishonest tactics to eradicate evil. To me, this argument is untenable. If you are resorting to dishonesty, then it is no more a great war between Good and Evil -- it is merely a great war between two equally evil ( or equally good ) sides. From this perspective, the moral high ground that the Pandavas claim to occupy crumbles and it is a level playing field once again.
But this is not the only place where the Pandavas are shown in poor light. Karna was supposed to be equal to Arjuna in skill and valour but except for the final battle where Karna's chariot was broken, Arjuna never dared to accept Karna's challenge to a duel -- in each case, whether at the swayamvara of Draupadi, or in the battle of the princes, circumsances were contrived so that he could avoided direct confrontation by referring to Karna's allegedly low birth. In fact Arjuna was so frightened of another "lowly born" individual, Ekalavya, that he prevailed upon Drona to have Ekalavya's thumb chopped off so that he would never have to prove his worth against Ekalavya ever again.
Promiscuity was perhaps par for the course in those days but the level of illegitimacy in the Pandava ( and to a lesser extent in the Kaurava ) bloodline is amazing. The common great-grandmother, Satyabati had an illegitimate child Vyas, through a pre-marital affair, and it was Vyas who impregnated the two wives of Satyabati's legitimate child Bichitrabirya to give birth to the blind Dhritarashtra and the impotent Pandu.
But why should the senior Dhritarashtra be denied the throne in favour of the junior Pandu ? Both had a physical deficiency and should have been considered equally eligible or equally ineligible. Perhaps blindness is more obvious than impotence -- so we have a semi-plausible reason to go along with this decision but the next decision is very difficult to accept.
Since Pandu was impotent, his wives were impregnated by sperm donors -- euphemistically referred to as Gods. So by the principle of jus sanguinous -- right of blood -- Pandu's children, the Pandavas, should have been excluded from the succession. Once again we are told that the practice of niyoga -- or artificial insemination by a donor -- is equivalent to the right of blood and so the Pandavas can continue to be in the running for the throne.
Which brings us to the third point. If we eliminate the blind Dhritarashtra and the impotent, and by now dead, Pandu, who is next in line ? The choice between Dhritarashtra's legitimate first born, Duryodhana and Pandu's quasi-legitimate first born Yudhisthira could have been settled by the principle of primogeniture -- who was born first.
The official version claims that Yudhisthira was born before Duryodhana and so was the natural heir to the throne of Hastinapur but there is a lot of fuzziness in this claim. Pandu's senior wife Kunti summoned her first sperm donor only after she had heard of the pregnancy of Dhritarashtra's wife Gandhari. So logic dictates that Gandhari should have delivered Duryodhana before Kunti could have delivered Yudhisthira ! Which would have meant that Duryodhana ( and the Kaurava's ) had the natural right to the throne of Hastinapur, not Yudhisthira. This is where the official version of the Mahabharata weaves a story that is really hard to believe : Even though Gandhari should have delivered first, her pregnancy runs into a complication, the birth is delayed, the foetus is deformed – or possibly conjoined -- and only after a very complicated surgical procedure is Duryodhana born -- thus leaving the field clear for Yudhisthira claim to the throne.
This is where the story really starts reeking of conspiracy : First Gandhari is in labour in the capital city under the watchful eyes of state whereas Kunti is in labour in the jungle, out of sight. No one quite knows when his son Yudhisthira is born. But she would insist that she delivered first and her first born Yudhisthira is indeed the logical king. There is great scope for manipulation here.
The rest of the story -- the story of Mahabharata -- is well known and there is no point in repeating it here.
But suppose it was otherwise ?
Perhaps it was Duryodhana who was born first and he indeed had the right to the throne of Hastinapur. Perhaps it was Yudhisthira who, aided and abetted by his mother Kunti, put in a false claim for the throne of Hastinapur and in this he was assisted by his mother's nephew Krishna. Then after winning the war using the unfair means suggested by Krishna how would the Pandavas go about re-writing the history ?
First they will introduce the cock-and-bull story about Gandhari's difficult and delayed pregnancy and so justify their own claim to the throne.
Second they will change all references to the Kauravas so that they appear in poor light. Stuff like Duryodhana yelling like a jackal as soon as he was born fall into this category.
Third they will insist that Yudhisthira lost the game of dice because Shakuni was a cheat. Anyone who loses has a natural tendency to claim that the opponent cheated but if you are writing the history it is easy to turn this claim into a fact, while forgetting that you are incompetent.
Then to make things look even blacker for the Kauravas they will throw in the false story of how the menstruating Draupadi was stripped and humiliated by the evil Kauravas.
Fortunately for us, this is where the first crack appears in the Pandava version of the history as documented in the Mahabharata. The Pune Critical Edition, which is universally acclaimed as the most authoritative version, DOES NOT CONTAIN any reference to the stripping of Draupadi in the court of Hastinapur ! It was added later, possibly by the Vaishnavas to establish the divinity of Krishna in his role as a saviour, but possibly there could have been a deeper design.
Once you suspect the credibility of the story of the Mahabharata other possibilities emerge. But if we assume that the Kauravas were the good guys and the Pandavas were the bad guys then quite a few things fall into place. For example why did all the honest, upright characters – like Bhisma, Drona and Kripa fight on the side of the the evil Kauravas ? Would they not have the courage to stand up for the right cause ? Of course they had, and they did fight for the right cause -- the Kaurava cause !
Again how can such basically decent people stand and watch the Pandava Queen being humiliated in public ? Of course they cannot and they did not because no lady was ever assaulted in the court of Hastinapur ! except in the "version" of history written by the Pandavas !
But despite all that rewriting and sanitising of the story, the truth somehow leaks out ! The Mahabharata finally strikes back when it declares that when the hurly-burly is done, and the battle is lost and won, it is the Kauravas who end up enjoying the joys of Heaven and it is the Pandavas who have to go to Hell ! Which ties in neatly with my thesis that the Kauravas were the Good guys and Pandavas were the Bad guys.
Is that how stories should end ? Should it not be that good triumphs over evil ? Of course that is what happens in a story but then the Mahabharata is not a story, it is history ! The Mahabharata gives you a picture of the world and reminds you not to expect the world to be fair.
Unlike the Ramayana – which idolises Rama as the perfect individual, without any flaws – the Mahabharat is more realistic because it shows that there is no one who is perfectly black or white, they are all shades of gray. However the bias in the underlying tone is that the Pandavas were the Good Guys – or at least the better ones. Perhaps it is time to question this bias and explore whether an alternative version could exist.
The last question is whether there is any hard evidence of such an alternate version of the Mahabharata and unfortunately I do not have any answer. All that I can say is that it is likely : Had the Nazi's won the war, I am sure that Commando Comics would have been in German and would have painted a very different picture. The closest analogy to such alternate Mahabharata comes from the story of the Nag Hammadi scriptures where a completely different version of the Christian Bible -- the New Testament -- was found in a village in Egypt. So I can say that it has happened once in the past, with the Bible and it can happen once again in future with the Mahabharata.
[ post updated on 6th May 2010 ]
Before you accuse me of heresy, please read my original post on the historicity of the Mahabharata.