The Ramayana Cycle
Dasharatha, king of ancient Ayodhya, had three queens and four sons, the youngest queen having given birth to two. The eldest of the princes, Rama grew up into a paragon of virtue and valour. He married Sita, the adopted daughter of a neighbouring king, who was supposed to be a daughter of mother earth. He won her hand by breaking a God-gifted bow, a condition which her other suitors could not fulfil. In one of his heroic sojourns, he also brought back to life the wife of a sage who had turned to stone because of her husband's curse. This sage had aspired to heaven through severe penance, disregarding all the natural claims of his wife. The god of heaven, fearing usurpation, visited the sage's wife disguised as her husband and seduced her. The husband discovered the deception, and his curse transformed the wife into a mound of stone (Agony of Love).
The old king now decides to hand over the reins of the kingdom to the eldest son and preparations are made for the coronation. Just then his second wife, to whom to king was especially attacked, asked for two deferred boons which she had earned through a special service to the king, and which he had promised to grant whenever she asked for them (The Vow and the Vision). She now wants to get her own son declared the heir to the throne, and the eldest prince to be sent into exile for fourteen years. The king is shocked and recalls the curse of a blind sage, which he incurred by accidently killing the sage's only son.
But the eldest son, Rama, accepts the conditions and sets out for the forest accompanied by his wife Sita and a younger brother, Lakshmana. Years of travel in the forest finally bring them to the southern seashore, on the other side of which lives Ravana, a demon king of great power, dreaded even by gods. The sister of this king, in the course of her ramblings, protestations of love, he spurns her, chopping off her ears and nose. She reports this to her brother. To avenge her, he kidnaps Sita, artfully conniving to send Rama and Lakshmana off in chase of a decoy in the form of a golden deer, which Sita fancied. The brothers, on their return, see through the treachery and prepare for battle to reclaim the honour of the kidnapped wife (Pride's Pilgrimage)
In the battle that finally takes place, the demon king is killed. Sita proves her chastity through an ordeal of fire. One of the brothers of the demon king, critical of his vanity and misdeeds, and the widow of the demon king, see in the view dispensation a new order emerging out of chaos (Quest of Love).
After fourteen years Rama comes back to rule over the kingdom of Ayodhya. But the people grow suspicious of the chastity of their new queen. To please the subjects' clamour for justice the new king banishes her and leaves her, pregnant now, at the hermitage of the sage who is known as the author of this epic (Image of a Dream).
The Mahabharata Cycle
Shantanu, king of Hastinapur, met a beautiful woman, Ganga, during one of his hunting spells and at once fell in love with her. She accepted his proposal of marriage on the condition that he would never oppose any of her doings. Ganga consigned the seven children born of this marriage to the waters of the Ganges immediately after their birth. When she was about to do the same to the eighth child, the king intervened, and Ganga walked out on him with the child. These eight children were demigods, cursed to be born as human beings, and seven of them returned to their immortality immediately after their birth because of the minor nature of their crimes. The eighth had to remain alive and suffer because he had stolen a sage's cow and cast amorous glances at a hermitage girl (The Curse and the Vision)
The child returned to Shantanu, his father, as a young man. A few years later Shantanu, during another hunting spell, fell madly in love with Satyavati, a fisher king's daughter. This ravishing beauty had a affair earlier with a sage, resulting in the birth of a son who later became a recluse. When the king proposed marriage with Satyavati, the father laid down the condition that only her progeny should inherit the throne. The king thought Devavrata, coming to know of the cause of his father's dejection, first renounced his claim to the throne and then took a vow not to marry. Satyavati then became the queen, and Devavrata, who was later known as Bhishma, was blessed with the boon that he would die only when he wished (Strange Ramblings).
When Satyavati's two sons attained marriageable age, Bhishma took possession of three princesses of a neighbouring kingdom. As one of them had already been betrothed to a king, the two other sisters were married to the two princes and the third was sent to her lover, who, however, refused to accept her. She returned to Hastinapur and offered herself to Bhishma who, because of his life-long vow of celibacy, could not accept her either. In anger and frustration and in her desire to avenge the insult, she returned as a eunuch through rebirth, and became finally instrumental in his death (Revenge and Love)
The two princes died young, without leaving any heir to the throne. Satyavati, in a helpless mood of defiance, called her son of unwedded love and asked him to produce successors for the throne. The sage recluse, at his mother's behest, caused two sons to be born; one, however, was blind and the other pale. In later years, the younger of the two became king, as custom would not allow the elder, because he was blind, to be the successor. Both the brothers married; the elder acquired hundred sons and a daughter, and the younger two wives and five sons-though, the younger brother being physically incapable of fatherhood, his wives had their children through others. (His first wife, Kunti, had a child even before her marriage, whom she abandoned and who was adopted and raised by a law-born charioteer and his wife. In later years this child, Karna, became a great fighter and a rival to Kunti's recognized sons (Mother and Son))
In the mean time, the king suddenly died under a curse, necessitating the installation of the blind elder brother, Dhritirashtra, as surrogate king. He was married to Gandhari who had been kept ignorant of his blindness prior to the wedding. Despite a sense of personal deprivation she tried all her life to be a devoted and understanding wife. But her brother vowed to wreck the whole dynasty for this deception, which he eventually did (Tether's End).
In the blind king's old age, both his own sons and those of his deceased younger brother laid claim to the throne. Since the eldest son of the younger brother Pandu was the eldest of all the brothers, the claim of the Pandavas (Pandu's sons) appeared to be more legitimate, but the eldest son of the elder brother (Dhritirashtra) refused to give in. with his maternal uncle he conspired to burn the Pandavas alive, but they managed to survive and during their period of homeless to burn the Pandavas alive, but they managed to survive and during their period of homeless wandering, won the daughter of a king as their wife, due to Arjun's-the third brother's-extraordinary skill in archery. Draupadi, their wife, had prayed for wisdom, strength, valour, beauty and scholarship in her future husband, and each of the five brothers represented one of these virtues individually. With their wife they then returned to Hastinapur to claim their legitimate place. After much altercation it was decided to divide the kingdom into two parts and make the eldest son of each brother king of one half. The arrangement worked for some time, but the eldest son of the elder brother (Duryodhana) wanted to grab the whole kingdom. Taking recourse to wile, with the help of his maternal uncle who had his own reasons for wishing the destruction of the whole family, he invited the king of other half (Yudhishtira) to a game of chess in which the latter lost everything, his kingdom, his brothers and their wife. Bondsmen now, they were ordered to live in exile for thirteen years, incognito for the last year, on Draupadi was brought to court and disrobed in the presence of the august assembly. But, miraculously, unwind as they might, they could not strip her of her covering cloth. Her second lord took a vow to avenge this insult, which the did by killing the depraved cousin who tried to strip her naked (The Remorse and the Revenge).
During the period of their exile, once the four brothers, dying of thirst, came to drink the water of a lake, but the spirit of the place asked them to answer his questions first and then drink. In angry defiance they drank the water and died one after the other. Then came the wisest and the eldest of them all. Similarly thirsting, but he answered the questions, and got his brothers restored to life through the grace of the satisfied spirit (The Voice and the Truth.)
After thirteen years, the sons of Pandu returned to claim their share of the kingdom, but the reigning cousin proclaimed that not even an inch of land would be given up without a fight. In preparation for battle all the kings of the country joined one side or the other. All veterans of the land had to support the ruling monarch. The sons of Pandu, however, had as their guide and friend that supreme dispenser of events and great statesman, Krishna, who also had his great enemy, the destroyer of his kinsman, eliminated through the Pandavas. This Krishna, born in a prison, escaped death through an associate of his imprisoned parents. The assassin was a maternal uncle who had killed all Krishna's brothers in p
esponse to a prophecy that he would be killed by his sister's son. Krishna was brought up in Vrindavan by his foster parents, in the midst of pastoral plenty, and spent his youth among cowherd friends and beautiful women, the most coveted of whom was Radha The Lord of Love.
In the battle that finally engulfed the whole land, all the renowned warriors were killed, the whole brood of the hundred brothers was destroyed, and the eldest son of Pandu ultimately became the sole monarch. Having ruled for thirty-six years the king realized the futility of it all, the victory and the cost of victory-his aunt, who had lived with blindfolded eyes in sympathy with her blind husband, reminding him constantly of the nightmare they had all gone through. So he now decided to set out on the last journey. His other brothers and their wife, who had lost all her sons in the battle, also decided to accompany him. On the way they died one by one. The eldest reached heaven only to realize that even there, the highest human virtues, forgiveness, mercy, acceptance, are the way to the truth of experience (The Last Journey).
From the Jacket:
The Ramayana and The Mahabharata, with their multi-textured tapestry of personalities, issues, values, relationships and tales-within-tales, have been a fertile source of creative expression down the centuries. Thinkers, writers, poets and artists have revisited these epics and cast them anew. Each has read them in a particular way, and rendered them according to an individual creative and philosophical purpose.
Time's Harvest is part of this colourful tradition. Different characters from the epics come alive in all their human frailty and complexity in the pages of this book. The poems, several of them in the form of long dramatic monologues, are rich in human psychology and emotion. Sensitively written, each centres on the thoughts and feelings of a personality from the epics, who emerges as a warm, living human being rather than a mere character in a saga. Interestingly, the poet turns his attention to incidents and figures which are not commonly stressed, and thereby enriches our own knowledge of the epics. He also adds a new dimension to that knowledge by introducing a fresh point of view. Here, for example we have the voice of an aged Dasharatha, in shock at the cruel stipulations of his queen Kaikeyi, mourning the imminent loss of a beloved son; of Ravana, in a quiet moment, cogitating over the train of events that led him to avenge his honour by abducting Sita; of Ravana's queen, saddened by his gentler, more sympathetic younger brother; of Satyavati and Gandhari, looking back over a life of betrayed dreams; of Yudhishtira preparing for his final journey.
The vivid drawings in the vigorously inimitable style of master artist Jogen Chowdhury complement the deeply humane tone of the poems. The artist spent a long time in the world of the poems, getting to know them well before he began to work on his part of the collaboration. The result is a suite of visuals which combine with the words to create a poetry uniquely their own.
About the Author:
Professor Dr. Amaresh Datta is Emeritus Professor of English at Guwahari University, Assam. He was formerly Chief Editor, Encyclopaedia of Indian Literature, Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi and Professor and Head of Department of English, Dibrugarh University.
Jogen Chowdhury is a leading artist of India, with a distinctive style which has gained him much recognition. Since 1987 he has been at the Department of Painting, Kala Bhavan, Santiniketan.
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