The largest cowboy expedition in literature

In Hastinapura, as a storyteller recounts the Pandavas’ forest-life miseries to Dhritarashtra, the king laments the turn of events, blaming himself in part.

Published: 11th June 2018 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 10th June 2018 10:06 PM   |  A+A-

In Hastinapura, as a storyteller recounts the Pandavas’ forest-life miseries to Dhritarashtra, the king laments the turn of events, blaming himself in part. But he’s also fearful of the wrath that is brewing inside the Pandavas. About Bhima, Dhritarashtra says: “He is heaving terrible and warm sighs, as if he wants to burn down my sons and grandsons.” There are enough hints in this monologue about the oncoming destruction of the dynasty, a fate that Dhritarashtra by now regards as inevitable.

When Duryodhana and Shakuni inform Karna of the king’s premonitions, the king of Anga allays the Hastina’s prince’s fears by trying to convince him that his recent prosperity, equal to what Yudhistira had enjoyed in Indraprastha, has been won through his own valour and dexterity. Karna encourages Duryodhana to go to Lake Dvaitavana in full splendour and torment the Pandavas by showing off his riches. Duryodhana is delighted at the suggestion, though he is also sure that his father will not give him permission to undertake the journey. Therefore, he requests Karna to invent a reason for the travel and propose it to the court assembly in Hastinapura.

A cattle expedition for the buying (or stealing) of calves is the reason that Karna comes up with. At first, suspecting that the travel may lead to a confrontation between the cousins, Dhritarashtra rejects the idea. Shakuni responds to the king, telling him that the Kaurava expedition shall have no intention of engaging with the Pandavas. Also, Shakuni reminds Dhritarashtra of the goodness of Yudhistira, implying that the Pandavas, too, shall follow dharma and not look for a fight. Reluctantly, Dhritarashtra gives Duryodhana and his entourage permission to go.

What we have next is probably the biggest cowboy expedition in all of literature. “There were eight thousand chariots, thirty thousand elephants, many thousands of infantry and nine thousand horses, carriages, shopping carts, whores, traders, bards and men who were skilled in hunting, in hundreds and thousands.” In the camps each night, Dionysian parties that put the opening of Gustave Flaubert’s Salammbo to shame take place. Of course, they are only suggested in the text, though there is clear mention of the cowherds’ daughters pleasuring with the princes.

As the Kaurava army prepares to build pleasure houses in the forests abutting Lake Dvaitavana, they engage in a conflict with an army of creatures called Gandharvas (Chitrasena’s subjects). A battle ensues with Karna at the head of the Kaurava army. Initially, he causes great harm to the Gandharvas, but when Chitrasena enters the battle and uses magical weapons, the tide turns and the Kauravas start losing miserably. Eventually, Duryodhana and his brothers are all captured. His aged advisers, who had survived the battle by hiding, approach the Pandavas and seek their help.

Bhima sees justice in the Kauravas’ plight, but Yudhistira reminds him that the Kauravas are related to them by blood, and so despite their internal feud, the Pandavas shouldn’t allow strangers to harm their brothers.

Tanuj Solanki


The writer is reading the unabridged Mahabharata

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