Pradip Bhattacharya raises some interesting issues in this review in The Statesman. I truly appreciate the detailed inspection he has done, for it gives me the opportunity to address question that any serious reader would have. I have itemized his comments and provided responses:
- This is India north of the Vindhyas with a non-literate oral culture, bereft of iron, horses and chariots, with onager and cattle drawn carts, mud wattle cottages, bows, arrows and bronze weapons. There are no missiles, no aircraft, no huge gem-encrusted palaces and gleaming silken attire. But why are there no ornaments when archaeological evidence exists?
I described the clothing, the houses, the carts, etc., but did not go into as much detail when describing the ornaments. There are places where I describe ornaments as items for trade. There are episodes where a more extended treatment would have been possible, so this is an oversight that I will try to correct in a future book.
2. Ramakrishna calls Egypt Pitri-vihara-naad, the land of temples to ancestors, although its original name still remains “Misra”, a mixed people, harking back to the Bhavishya Purana which speaks of sage Kashyapa with his son Misra going to that country and Brahminising the people.
The oldest name of Egypt is hwt-ka-Ptah (as explained in the Appendix), which means “The land of the temple of Ptah”. The name Msr does not appear till about 300 B.C.E. My rationale begins there.
It was a deliberate choice not to use the Puranas as a source for information about names etc.. Instead I’ve gone in the opposite direction — I’ve tried to work out what might happen in an exchange between a person from some other land and a South Asian trader.
For instance, a trader asks an Egyptian, “What’s the name of of your country?” and the Egyptian replies, “Het-ka-ptah”. Then, “What does that mean?” and the Egyptian translates into simpler language, and ultimately a translation into the trader’s language. In this case, I created a name by translating “Hwt-ka-ptah” into Sanskrit as “Pitr-Vihaar-Nad”.
The derivation of the name “Misr” from Kashyapa’s son “Misra” is based on imposing one cultural tale on another. In addition, the Bhavishya Purana is the least credible of the Puranas, partly because of its own narrative structure as a “History of the Future”! The result is mischief, not comprehension. The name “Misr” is a Arab/Semitic word that means “Land” or “Country”. The use of the generic “Misr that is any country” for the specific “Misr that is Egypt” appears in the Quran as the name for Egypt (see http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/kmt.htm).
As a general rule, I have chosen to translate the local name for an entity into a Sanskrit word that may mean the same. So, the Purus call the “Nile” as “Krishna” because the ancient Egyptian name for the Nile was “The Black River”.
I have broken this rule in a couple of places – I said that Shantanu’s brother Bahlika went off and populated Bactria and his name became the name for the country, i.e., Bahlika ->Bactria. But note that this could be “Bahlika -> Baluchi” as well.
I chose Bactria because archaeological evidence indicates that soon after 2000 BCE a fortified city culture appeared “spontaneously” with many settlements in Bactria & Margiana (called the Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex or BMAC).
Also, Bactria is already not the local name for the region — it is the Hellenized version of the Persian name for Bactria under Cyrus the Great! That’s a bit like the name “India” for Jambudvipa (though it may be our good fortune that the Persians did not call it “Hambodipa” which the Greeks changed to “Iambodypus” — we Indians would then be calling ourselves “Iambodypusians” and the Constitution might have the phrase “Iambodypus, that is Bharat” 😁).
- The problem is one of verisimilitude.
I agree with Bhattacharya that what I have assumed does not match what Indian myth portrays. For instance, Bhattacharya says,
Nowhere in Indian myth are the Nagas depicted as matriarchal.
This is true but irrelevant. Indian myth has developed over thousands of years and during such development, both conscious and non-conscious decisions can and do cause a drift. Meanings of words change; practices once common become incomprehensible; morals and mores change, and the poet of a future generation is left to grapple with the mystery of what has come down through oral transmission.
Classical Indian myth does not portray ANY matrilineal inheritance. The matrilinearity shows up in events that are unusual in a patrilineal context — princesses who dress as men to fight; powerful women characters in unusual settings, and so on.
We also have ancient models of matrilineal inheritance from different parts of India – from the Nayars of Kerala and the Khasis of Assam. Under the pressure of modern patriarchal and patrilineal social pressure, the original Khasi matrilineal model has been modified – the Khasis will tell you that “when the girl is a heiress, her husband will go live with her, but if not, she comes to live with him.”
Before the advent of British rule, the Khasis were purely matrilineal. Under pressure from new laws and judges who did not understand the system of inheritance, the Khasis changed their own practice that made it possible for an outsider to make sense of inheritance among the Khasis. The first Englishman who dealt with the Khasis would have paid his respects to the “king” rather than the “queen” – as the English gained in power their preference for dealing with the “king” would have enhanced the king’s status with respect to the queen. The English laws of inheritance would have destroyed the queen’s ultimate source of power, wealth.
Such small and apparently insignificant changes accumulate and the world that may have been described originally is replaced by one we can understand now.
4. Ramakrishna could easily have kept to the original Nishada descent of Satyavati without any problem.
Satyavati’s birth (and descent) is a magic event – a spurt of semen, a fish that swallows the semen, the tiny baby girl found in the fish and raised by the king, her adopted father, and so on. That’s in the original. The original also has a variety of ethnic groups in and around India — these groups are attested to in later historical periods but there is no evidence as to what existed pre-1500 B.C.E.. So I made a “design” decision to simplify the entire picture by only having three groups — urban Panchnad, forest-dwelling slash-&-burn agriculturalists called Nagas, and forest-dwelling hunter-gatherers called Rakshasas. Within that division, Nishadas are not Panchandis, and given where they live, Naga is a better fit than Rakshasa.
5. The Nagas were an ethnic group living in and around the original kingdom of Yayati at Khandavprastha which the Pandavas reclaimed as Indraprastha.
I’ve given up on understanding the distribution of ethnic groups in pre-1000 BC India. Recent genomics research seems to indicate that Indian castes had “founder effect” in the period between 2000 to 1000 BCE. That suggests that the situation in 2000 BCE would be of a pre-caste time, and hence of much greater homogeneity in the population.
I was able to build a back-story for how the distribution of Panchnad, Naga, and Rakshasa bands came about. This may be found on the internet.
6. The Kavi Sangha’s chief is called “Vyasa”. Anachronistically, Ramakrishna makes Vasishtha and Vishvamitra precede Bhrigu as Vyasas.
The Vyasa lineage is one place where I could have put more effort into getting it synchronized with what the Puranas and Vedas say. I don’t need the Vyasas and the Kavi Sangha concept for the main narrative and the result is a bit superficial. For instance, Vasishtha is the founder of the Kavi Sangha because he helped Samvarana recover his kingdom in the Mahabharata and I wanted to retain that story. Vishvamitra as a mercenary who becomes a Kavi Sangha member and aspires to the the Vyasa is a re-interpretation of the classical story of Vasishtha and Vishvamitra. But after that I had to fit in Vyasas until the reign of Shantanu. I chose names of rishis who have been associated with theories of how a state should be governed. My error is that I ignored other constraints on the specific names (such as Bhrigu who is associated with the Rig-Veda, which is considered to pre-date the Mahabharata by many centuries.
This problem can be solved in many ways — I expect to use one that re-imagines the arrangement of the Rig-Veda in a future book.
7. There is no mention of the levirate custom.
The levirate custom (also called niyoga) is a strictly patriarchal concept. In a matrilineal system, replacing one male father-candidate by another would be business-as-usual. The problem for Satyavati was that Hastinapura was developing patriarchal rules of behavior. She was concerned that inheriting the crown if the father was known to be her son rather than Shantanu’s son would arouse opposition.
8. Whatever happened to King Drupada and what is gained by naming Drona “Kutaja”?
We haven’t come to that story. Probably Book 4 (The Last Matriarch) will explain Drupada.
The Introduction contains my explanation for the changes in the names of characters. In the case of Drona, he is referred to as Kutaja at least once in the critical edition of the Mahabharata.
9. Unaccountably, Ramakrishna makes Dhritarashtra the son of the younger Ambalika instead of Ambika, whose son he names Mahendra, called “Pandu” being an albino.
This was an editing (cut-and-paste) error and is fixed in The Making of Bhishma.
10. Disagreeing with Bhishma’s policies, Mahendra exiles himself.
There will be more on this in a later Book (probably Book 4 (The Last Matriarch).
11. Duryodhan repeatedly shouting “Shut up!” at his father jars because in the Mahabharata he does not insult Dhritarashtra, as he draws all his authority from him.
The Mahabharata is inconsistent in how it portrays the relationship between Suyodhana and his father. There are places where he denigrates his father. There are other places where he is the dutiful and respectful son. This kind of inconsistency does not make sense.
I’ve chosen to stereotype Suyodhana as an impatient young man who wants his father to stop interfering in his life.
12. The grand heroic scale of Devavrat’s vow is diminished drastically.
I disagree with this viewpoint. The original vow is considered great because it is a vow of celibacy. I do not agree. A vow of celibacy made by an inexperienced 14-year old boy is almost a joke. I’ve tried to rationalize it by increasing the pathos in the vow and the slow recognition of how it affects the boy’s life.
13. There is an incongruous reference to the Roman deity Saturn as arbiter of fate on page 415.
In Greek mythology, Saturn is a Titan. Saturn was identified by the Greeks with the planet Saturn. Meanwhile in South Asia, the same planet was named Shani. In both cultures, the planet is considered to be the arbiter of fate. For that reason, I have used “Saturn” instead of Shani.
The precedent is that books on Indian astrology written in the last 100 years use both Saturn and Shani to denote the planet.
14. The novel ends with Bhishma’s shock at discovering from the Vyasa Shukla that Dhritarashtra and Pandu were not of Vichitravirya’s blood, but are progeny of the son of Parashara, the earlier Vyasa, and Satyavati. This is a signal departure from the original where it is Bhishma who advises resorting to levirate by an eminent Brahmin and assents to Satyavati summoning her illegitimate son Vyasa. However, Ramakrishna’s insight is correct, that neither of the contending cousins had any Kuru blood in them. At least Dhritarashtra was Satyavati’s grandson, while the Pandavas are not her grandchildren, each having a different, unknown father. Thus, the Kavi Sangha, guild of bards, came to wrest the throne from the trading dynasty of Purus. Ramakrishna may have drawn inspiration from the Brahmin Pushyamitra Sunga wresting the throne of Pataliputra from his Mauryan master.
Yes, an early version of the frame story had it providing the general Pushyamitra Sunga the drive to depose King Brhadratha.
15. The book has an excellent map, a helpful family tree and a descriptive glossary of names. For a welcome change, there are practically no typos and the novel reads very well, except that it could have been tighter by omitting the excursions into geography, linguistics and ethnography which the appendices cover in detail.
Thanks for the compliment. I worked intensively with both my editors. There is still much to improve, but I feel that they did an impeccable job.
16. We certainly look forward to the sequels.
Thank you, thank you, thank you! That is high praise from a master.
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