« PreviousContinue »
THE MAHÂBHARATA and Sitâ, Hanuman the king of monkeys, Krishna and the great fights of the Mahâbhârata are the subject of innumerable paintings on the walls of temples, monasteries, and houses. Huge sprawling figures of Bhima with his club are modelled in the river mud. The five Pândava brothers are worshipped in temples both in the city and along the Panch-kôsi road.
The main story of the Mahâbhârata is an account of the great war between the Aryan tribes of northern India, called the Bharatas, assisted by their Dravidian or Kolarian allies, which is supposed to have taken place between 1400 and 1300 B.C. The heroes on one side are the five Pândava princes, sons of Pându, king of Hastinapur, whose names were Yudhishthira, Bhima, and Arjuna by one wife, and Nakula and Sahadeva by another. They were assisted by Krishna, whose worship as one of the incarnations of Vishnu is the chief popular cult of modern Hinduism. After his children were born, Pându took the vow of an ascetic, and retired into the forest, leaving the government of his kingdom to his blind brother, Dhritarashtra, and Bhishma, his uncle.
The opponents of the Pândavas were the hundred sons of Dhritarashtra, known as the Kuru princes, or Kauravas. The eldest, Duryodhana, who claimed the succession to the throne, was mean, spiteful, and cruel, while the Pândavas and Draupadi, “ loveliest of women ”, who was their common wife, were types of chivalry, honour, and virtue. The chief heroes on the Kauravas' side were their uncle, Bhishma, who vainly endeavoured to reconcile the contending parties, and Karna, a half-brother of the Pândavas, who was probably of Dravidian descent. Arjuna and Karna
BENARES, THE SACRED CITY
are the Achilles and Hector of this Indian Iliad. The quarrel finally ended in a Homeric struggle, lasting for eighteen days, on the field of Kurukshetra, outside the modern Delhi. In the terrific slaughter which took place all the Kurus were annihilated, and only seven of the Pându army, including the five brothers, were left. Yudhishthira was then crowned king at Hastinapur.
The climax is the renunciation of the kingdom by all the five brothers, and their journey together towards Indra's heaven, on Mount Meru, beyond the Himalayas. But, except Yudhishthira, none could shake themselves entirely free from worldly attachments, and one by one they perished on the way, until the sole survivor, and a faithful dog which followed him, were met by Indra at the gates of heaven. After further tests of his constancy, in which Yudhishthira refused to part with his dog, and went to seek for the souls of his wife and brothers in the regions of hell, all the Pândavas were at last reunited in Indra's abode of eternal peace,
Around the original story there have accumulated in the course of many centuries a number of beautiful legends—such as that of Savitri, the devoted wife who by her insistence released her husband's spirit from the hands of Death-moral discourses, and religious treatises, including the famous Bhagavat Gita, which is virtually the Hindu Bible of the present day. The Mahâbhârata, as it now stands, contains in poetic form a moral and religious code which is part and parcel of Hindu practice and belief.
The Râmâyana refers to a later period, supposed to be about 1000 B.C., when the Kosalas, another
branch of the Aryan family which claimed descent from the sun, had pushed down to the present Oudh and north Behar, and established there a great city, Ayodhya, which is described as the centre of Aryan culture and religion. The Kâsis, as before mentioned, were at this time in the district of Benares. While the Mahâbhârata stirs the imagination with tales of mighty warriors and political strife, the Râmâyana is pervaded with tender sentiments of domestic virtue and affection, tried by many sufferings and misfortunes.
The first part describes the boyhood and youth of Râma, son of Dasaratha, king of Ayodhya, by his first queen, Kausalyâ, and heir-apparent; his exploits at the tournament, where he breaks the famous bow of Shiva and wins for his bride the fair Sitâ, daughter of Janaka, king of the Videhas. She was miraculously born of a field-furrow. Dasaratha was about to resign the throne in favour of Râma, when an intrigue of the Queen Kaikeyi inveigles him into naming Bharat, his younger son by Kaikeyi, as his heir, and a decree of fourteen years' banishment against the elder.
Râma and Sitâ, accompanied by Lakshman, another half-brother, then wander into the forests of Central India and take refuge with a holy hermit, called Valmiki, the reputed author of the poem. Dasaratha shortly afterwards dies of grief. Bharat, who had refused to accept the regency to which he was not justly entitled, followed Râma to his retreat, and having endeavoured, without success, to persuade him to come back, returned himself to Ayodhya with Râma's sandals to place on the throne as a symbol of the rightful king's authority. The three exiles then
26 BENARES, THE SACRED CITY
And they sang the ancient mantra to the red and rising sun.”l
Their happiness was soon, however, rudely disturbed by the abduction of Sitâ by Råvana, the king of the demons, who appeared before her in the disguise of an anchorite, while Râma and Lakshman were absent, and carried her through the air on his magic. car to his royal palace in Ceylon. The rest of the story describes Sità's despair and sufferings in the demon king's palace, the wanderings of Râma and Lakshman in search of her, and the discovery of her by the help of Hanuman, the monkey king of the Nilgiri' mountains. With Hanuman and his monkey troops Râma attacks and kills Ravana and his demon chieftains, and takes his stronghold by storm. Finally the exiles, accompanied by Hanuman, return to Ayodhya on the magic car taken from Râvana, and Râma and Sità are crowned amidst the rejoicings of gods and men. .
A sequel, of later date than the original story, gives a sad ending to the Ramayana. Some slanderous tongues in Ayodhya began to whisper suggestions regarding Sitâ's conduct while in the palace of Râvana, and Râma's jealousy was aroused by finding
'R. C. Dutt's abridged translation of the Ramayana.