Monday, March 11, 2013

Epic Love Stories by Ashok K. Banker

Ashok K. Banker's latest offering is five books containing 'Epic Love Stories' - some gave birth to a nation while some stories are written on water. I will be sharing my thoughts on Book 1: Shakuntala and Dushyanta - The love story that gave birth to a nation and Book 5: Devayani, Sharmishtha and Yayati - A love triangle that changed a dynasty.

The others are: Book 2: Ganga and Shantanu - A love story written on water. Book 3: Satyavati and Shantanu - A love story made possible by a son's sacrifice. Book 4: Amba and Bhishma - A love story that was never meant to be.

Umm, can't really classify any of these as books, short novellas would be more appropriate. But we are very familiar with all the five stories, aren't we?

Book 1: Shakuntala and Dushyanta - The love story that gave birth to a nation.

Maharshi Veda Vyasa has documented this story, though Mahakavi Kalidasa too has penned his own version (his play: Abhijnanashakuntala; meaning: 'The Recognition of Shakuntala' or 'The Sign of Shakuntala'). Needless to say, both the versions differ, since Mahakavi Kalidasa is well known for his fine exploitation of the shringar (erotic) element.

This short novella, Book 1: Shakuntala and Dushyanta - The love story that gave birth to a nation, is Ashok K. Banker's version. 

Since we all are very familiar with the story, I will not reproduce it here; would like to share my thoughts on the origin of the name Shakuntala instead.

Shakuntala is the daughter of the brahmarishi (great and enlightened sage) Vishwamitra and the Apsara Menaka. At the behest of Devraj Indra (the King of the Devas), she endeavours to distract him from his deep meditation... and succeeds. Vishwamitra, captivated by Menaka's beauty, enters into a Gandharva Vivaha with her, and in due course she conceives. ['Gandharva Vivaha' represents a short-term union between a male and a female, where there were no rituals involved, though the consent of the female was essential.] Vishwamitra distances himself from the unborn baby and the mother and goes back to his meditation. In fact, he even expresses righteous anger at being 'distracted' by Menaka. [How convenient, right?] Though I do not quite believe that a gust of wind (however powerful) is capable of completely stripping a woman of all her garments; that is clearly an extreme flight of fantasy.

Realizing that she could not leave the child with him, and having to return to Svargaloka, Menakā left the newborn baby on the banks of the river Malini (which rises in the Shivālik hills of the Himālayas and lies about 10 km from the town of Kotdwāra in the state of Uttarākhand).

[Svargaloka/Alkapuri/Indrapuri probably covered modern Kashmir + areas stretching on either side along the foothills of the Himalayan ranges.]

However, the popular version that the baby was being protected from predators by the shakuna birds (vultures) when Rishi Kanva found her... is not quite correct. The foothill of the Himalayas was home to various clans; one of them was the Suparna - a falcon or bald eagle-worshipping clan and/or a clan with a falcon-totem or a bald-eagle totem. A sub-clan of the Suparna was the Shakuna - a vulture-worshipping clan and/or a clan with a vulture-totem. Therefore, Menaka would have left her baby in the care of the Shakuna - the vulture-worshipping/totem-bearing clan. Hence, the baby came to be known as Shakuntala (raised under the care/protection of the Shakuna).

Later, Rishi Kanva, whose ashram (hermitage) too was on the banks of the river Malini, adopted her and brought her up as his own daughter.

Years passed. One day, the young and exceedingly handsome Dushyanta (the mighty king of Hastinapur) came by on a hunting trip and stumbled upon Rishi Kanva's ashram... and Shakuntala. Once again there is a Gandharva Vivaha... resulting in a son - Bharata. After much trials and tribulations Dushyanta and Shakuntala unite, and their son, Bharata, ascended the throne of the Kuru nation. Living up to his name, he maintained and was maintained, bringing about the enduring peace that his father had struggled to keep. In due course, Bharata came to be known as Chakravarti, monarch of all realms and as Sarvabhauma, sovereign of the world.

A Chakravarti is not to be viewed through the size of his kingdom only; a Chakravarti is a wheel-turning king (Sanskrit: chakravarti-raja): a wise and benevolent ruler, an ideal king. Turning his chakra (i.e. by using his wisdom and resources optimally), a wheel-turning king advances without hindrance, overthrows his enemies, establishes peace, and rules with justice and benevolence - wherever he goes.

Bharata is an ancestor of the lineages of the Kauravas and the Pandavas - of the Mahabharata. It is after this Bharata that ancient India was given the name "Bharatadesam", the 'Land of Bharat' or the 'Land of the Bharatas'.

"Bharatadesam" is also known as "Bharatavarsha", which literally means the continent ('varsha'; Sanskrit) that is dedicated ('rata') to light, wisdom ('bha'). Our Vedic Rishis and Munis (i.e. learned and enlightened persons) devoted themselves to the quest for the eternal truth or 'illumined knowledge' (kevala jnana) and the ultimate reality or bliss for the mind and soul i.e. satchidananda.

[Note: Apsaras were not celestial beings but female Gandharvas. Saras = lake or water-body, besides being a reference to the lake-bird - the Saras Crane. [This lake-bird (Sanskrit: Sarasa) is much-venerated in our culture and is also associated with Maharshi Valmiki.] The Saras Crane performs territorial and courtship displays that include loud trumpeting, leaps and dance-like movements. The female Gandharvas, as we know, were adept at the performing arts, and these may have included leaps and energetic dance-like movements to the accompaniment of music. Hence, over time, the female Gandharvas first came to be associated with the Saras Crane, and then gradually began to be referred to as the "Ap-Saras" (possibly: 'saras-like') - which later gave way to "Apsara". They (probably) were also regarded as possessors of great knowledge, be it in the fine arts, performing arts, medicinal herbs, flowers, perfumes, and the like. Urvashi, Menaka, Rambha, Tillottama et al are legendary Apsaras.]

Verdict: I would not like to play the spoiler by discussing the author's take on the trials and tribulations faced by Shakuntala and Dushyanta, specially their meeting in the latter's court. Some of it I agree with, the rest I don't, so you will have to read and decide for yourself. However, our so-called epics are actually our ancient history or pracheen itihasa. The author has, no doubt, tried to explain or flesh-out the narrative in his own way, but its not quite de-coded yet. His description of the meeting between Shakuntala and Dushyant (in the latter's court) - especially the manner in which they reconcile - does not quite gel with moi, it's too theatrical and quite improbable at that.  

However, Book 1 does make for a somewhat breezy read; the language is simple, the production quality is quite good with a glossy and eye-catching cover, and I do not quite recall any editing errors either.

Rating: 2.5/5.

Details of the book: Book 1: Shakuntala and Dushyanta - The love story that gave birth to a nation/ Author: Ashok K. Banker/ Publisher: Westland Ltd/ Binding: Paperback/ Publishing Date: Feb-2013/ Genre: Fiction/ ISBN: 978-93-82618-28-7/ Pages: 90/ Price: Rs. 125.

Picture: The book jacket cover of Book 1: Shakuntala and Dushyanta - The love story that gave birth to a nation. Courtesy: link.

Now for Book 5.

Here are my thoughts on Book 5: Devayani, Sharmishtha and Yayati - A love triangle that changed a dynasty.

Raja Yayati, son of king Nahusha, had five sons. With Devayani: Yadu and Turvasu. With Sharmishtha: Druhyu, Anu and Puru. 

Devayani was the only daughter of Shukracharya, the preceptor of the Asuras. After the first Shrukracharya, all the other preceptors or gurus of the Asura people (the Danavas, the Daitayas and the Rakshasas) may have been known by this name/title. Shukracharya was a descendent of Bhrigu - one of the Sapta-Rishi (or one of the 'seven enlightened sages').

Sharmishtha was the daughter of the great Daitya King Vrishparva. She was also a close friend of Devayani. However, by a sudden quirk of fate, a petty dispute between them resulted in a permanent schism.

Devayani had loved and lost Kacha, the son of Brihaspati - the guru of the Suras/Devas; Kacha had rejected her, he had his own reasons of course, which, given the era and the times perhaps is acceptable. Kacha was sent by his father (Brihaspati) to learn the secret of the Sanjivani mantra (a hymn or perhaps mechanism for reviving the dead) from Shukracharya, the guru of the Asuras. The idea was to help the Devas with this knowledge.

[Note: The Suras/Devas and the Asuras were originally one people/clan, however, with the passage of time, petty disputes arose, along with a quest for greener pastures, etc. Hence, a part of the Sura/Deva clan separated and formed a distinct identity. These were the Asura people; the Danavas, the Daitayas and the Rakshasas were Asura sub-clans.]

Once Kacha refused to marry her (despite a long courtship), Devayani is said to have 'cursed' him that he would never be able to use his knowledge, while Kacha is said to have responded that though he would not be able to use it, he would definitely be able to teach it.

The author has added his own thinking and ideas to this age-old story: Kacha 'cursing' Devayani back that no man would willingly marry her.

Or Devayani invoking dharma: that since Yayati had held her hand (in a bid to rescue her from the bottom of the well - where she had been shoved into), he was, therefore, automatically obliged to marry her. Also, varna indicates: one's aptitude, inclination or pravritti. During Yayati's times there was no such thing as caste or Shudra, or sewage-cleaners for that matter. One look at our ancient drainage systems (courtesy the various ruins) should serve as an eye-opener for us. And... if there were no concept of 'caste', there cannot be 'outcaste'. Plus: a Kshatriya is not lesser than a Brahmin. Brahmin indicates: one who is devoted to the pursuit of the Brahman, i.e. in the pursuit of the Ultimate knowledge, the Ultimate Truth, the Ultimate Reality - the Paramaatma or the Parameshwar. In other words: one who is dedicated to the single-minded quest for illumined knowledge or enlightenment. That is a Brahmin's dharma or duty [whoever was capable of doing this was a Brahmin.] While a Kshatriya is one who defends others from all forms of negativities and profanities - not limited to the battlefield only. That is Kshatriya-Dharma; the sacred duty of a Kshatriya or the Kshatriya way of life. Also: a Kshatriya is a highly learned person, more so, if he or she is a raj-Kshatriya (a Kshatriya of royal descent or a Rajput).  

A child of Brahmin-Kshatriya parentage was a "Suta". [Although even Kshatriyas who shunned weapons and picked up the pen instead, were also referred to as "Suta".]

Devayani, though a Brahmin, was well-aware of and displayed various Kshatriya traits, hence all of Yayati's protestations about not being able to marry her (in this novella) does not seem convincing enough.

Plus: the word 'curse' cannot be taken at face value. This word appears in many of our texts essentially to convey: severe chastisement, physical violence, banishment, extreme humiliation, unfavourable medical condition, untimely demise, etc. We need to choose carefully after examining the narrative.

[Possibly, later interpreters, who were essentially people belonging to the priestly class tried to glorify and elevate the position of the Brahmins by attributing awesome and extraordinary powers to them. And what better way than to (mis)translate our ancient texts, that also served as reference points?]

Shukracharya's 'curse' on Raja Yayati can be interpreted thus: Yayati developed a medical condition that precipitated the aging process, leaving him a doddering old man in the prime of his youth. We must remember that Shukracharya was not only a very knowledgeable person but was also Yayati's father-in-law (he was Devayani's father). Therefore, Yayati would have straightaway approached him after the raj-vaids (royal physicians) failed to provide a remedy.

The narrative says: Shukracharya indicates that Yayati's condition could be reversed only if any of Yayati's progeny willingly takes on his old age in exchange for his youth.

This is nothing but advanced bone marrow transplantation (possibly in conjunction with: advanced stem cell therapy + advanced tissue and gene transfer therapies + advanced xenotransplantation), something that the modern world is yet to see. It is unlikely that all this could happen instantly or overnight.

However, all those mentions of "thousand years" cannot and must not be taken at face value. Granted that people in the earlier eras (yugs) were much different from modern humans of the current era (Kali Yug) and so, their longevity too would have differed greatly. But that does not mean that human beings lived for thousands of years. "Thousand years" essentially meant a fairly long duration. 'Coz when we bless someone by saying: 'may you live for a thousand years' - it is not literal.  

The over-glorification of sons has clearly come in much later. If we are to examine the philosophies of the Sanatan Dharma or the timeless way of life, this will become very clear.

Even stuffs like: it was a king's dharma to bed his maids and sire children through them, etc too are later-day additions. Perhaps, it came about in order to provide a cover to the adharmic (negative) activities of certain kings/chieftains/rulers. Even the priestly class exploited women who were attached to temples by such mumbo-jumbo, thereby reducing the position of the 'devadasis' to that of sex slaves.

Four of Yayati's sons (Yadu, Turvasu, Druhyu and Anu) probably refused to take part in the advanced bone marrow transplant or stem cell therapy - to reverse Yayati's condition. They had their reasons of course.

Finally, the youngest - Puru - willingly agreed, thereby enabling Yayati to regain his youth and vitality, which he then put to good use - by consolidating and expanding his kingdom and looking after his people.

Yayati had earlier indicated that whoever (among his sons) agreed to undergo the medical therapy would become the heir of his (existing) kingdom - as a token of his gratitude. True to his words, Yayati did away with primogeniture to crown his youngest-born - Puru - as his successor.

This novella has needlessly turned Devayani into a vengeful and villainous character, someone who influenced her sons (Yadu and Turvasu) not to help their father. Frankly, if Devayani had been at all upset about Yayati's actions - marrying another woman surreptiously - she had every right to be so. No woman would willingly like to share her man with someone else. It is as simple as that. Devayani may have been a bit haughty, but then nobody is perfect. Also: Sharmishtha is clearly not Yayati's paramour.

As for Puru and Yadu, well, Puru started the Puruvansh (the Puru lineage - to which the Pandavas and the Kauravas belonged), while the eldest - Yadu - started the Yaduvansh (the Yadu or the Yadav lineage - from which Bhagavan Shri Krishna hailed). Puru is the progenitor of the Puru clan i.e. the Bharatas (from which 'Bharatvarsha' derives her name). As you can see, Dushyant and Yayati's stories are interlinked.

Verdict: There are very few editing errors; the book feels good to hold, the cover is glossy and the cover-art is quite imaginative.

The language is not convoluted, though the narrative is very simplistic, to put it mildly. As a result, the overall effect is somewhat like that of a wannabe desi M&B, though it falls flat. Raja Yayati comes across as a crude, shallow man given to feeling "a powerful erotic attraction" or "a stir of arousal" all the time. And what has Devayani and Sharmishtha been reduced to? The former: to that of an unbalanced, haughty, scheming witch with sharp claws, while Sharmishtha... well, read for yourself and decide:

"She contented herself with shooting knowing glances at Yayati at every opportunity and permitting him glimpses of her when possible. One night, she made sure to change her garments directly in front of a lit lamp, so that her naked shadow was projected onto a flimsy sheet that hung on a branch to afford her privacy, knowing that Yayati was watching on the other side of the sheet. Another time, after bathing, she did not dress by the river but ran back circuitously so that he would catch a glimpse of her through the trees, just enough to tantalize and arouse his desires, yet never to satisfy." 

As for the description of Yayati rescuing Devayani from the well, it left me so speechless that I do not even want to write about it.

Frankly, oversimplification is a bane, and has taken its toll here too. If one wants to read the sort of stuff that makes up this novella, there is no shortage of choices in our bookstores. In fact, there is a veritable deluge of it. Contemporisation is all very good, but one must avoid the temptation to turn our ancient and historical characters into farcical figures. We only need to keep in mind their canvas, their life and times and their extraordinary achievements. Can we match any of it? Even a fraction? Then why do this?

Conveying erotic romance is not everyone's forte. I recommend multiple readings of Rabindranath Tagore's dance-drama, Chitrangada - a competent English translation will suffice. Of course one won't metamorphose to Tagore, but it may help... if one is able to imbibe something.

Rating: Not sure I even want to venture there. :)

Details of the book: Book 5: Devayani, Sharmishtha and Yayati - A love triangle that changed a dynasty/ Author: Ashok K. Banker/ Publisher: Westland Ltd/ Binding: Paperback/ Publishing Date: Feb-2013/ Genre: Fiction/ ISBN: 978-93-82618-32-4/ Pages: 109/ Price: Rs. 125.

Picture: The book jacket cover of Book 5: Devayani, Sharmishtha and Yayati - A love triangle that changed a dynasty. Courtesy: link.

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