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As August Comes to an End, I Am Suddenly Reminded of Dhritarashtra’s Embrace

Dhritarashtra’s embrace is one of the most interesting anecdotes from Indian folklore. Accepting any proposal from a powerful opponent, without properly examining it, is likened to risking one’s life.

A painting that shows Dhritarashtra embracing Bhima's statue. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A painting that shows Dhritarashtra embracing Bhima’s statue. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

“The problem [in Kashmir] will be solved neither by abuse nor bullets – it will be solved by embracing all Kashmiris… And we are moving forward with this resolve.”
∼ Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Independence Day, 2017

The war ended, lasting a mere 18 days. Yet they call it the Mahabharata – an epic tale – for it began much before the Kaurava and Pandava forces faced each other in the battlefield. The Pandavas spent 12 years in exile, and the 13th in anonymity. Upon their return, the Pandavas asked for five villages. Krishna tried to mediate a deal, but intoxicated by the lust for power and control, Duryodhana did not listen to him and refused to share even an inch of land. Krishna returned empty-handed.

And then the war began. It was inevitable. The Kauravas had the massive Akshauhini army on their side, while the Pandavas had Krishna as their strategist. What ensued was not a war but a carnage, in which the Pandavas were victorious. But the price was immense – the sacrifice of Bhishma and Dronacharya, both aware of dharma yet forced to fight for adharma.

Bhishma’s was a weightier sacrifice, for he witnessed the massacre of his kin while awaiting death on the arrow bed. He urged his disciple Arjuna to tie him to the Earth on a bed of arrows. Where is glory in death if not in one that comes on such a bed, coupled with the pain of awaiting an end to war and attaining immortality?

The contrast faded away between neeti-aneeti (morality-immorality), dharma-adharma (righteousness-unrighteousness) and karnya-akarnya (action-inaction). Balarama was startled to see his younger brother Krishna offering tips of treachery and deceit to the Pandava brothers one after another. His anger knew no bounds when Krishna signalled to Duryodhana’s thigh, which had remained hidden behind Gandhari so far. Bhima struck him at the thigh. And everything ended there.

Reproached by his elder brother, Krishna could only say sadly, “Bhaiyya, that is why I wanted to stop war. War is unethical in itself. Once it begins, the goal is not dharma but merely victory. My work was to ensure victory.”

What was Duryodhana’s argument for legitimising war and refusing to accept the demands of the Pandavas? “I know what dharma is, but there is no penchant for it. I know what adharma is, but there is no escape from it.” The question, once you’re in power, is of obligation.

The war reached its climax. Gandhari and Dhritarashtra heard the tales of how their sons were slaughtered. The Pandavas were devastated too. There was no one who hadn’t lost a son, no family that had remained unscathed.

Krishna then told the bloodied yet victorious Pandavas to visit Dhritarashtra and Gandhari; they were elders even if rivals.

The Pandavas stood before their father’s brother and his wife. Dhritarashtra was burning with rage over his lost sons. A storm was rising within him. Yet, blind as he was, he stretched his arms out for, signalling an embrace, and called out to Bhima. But why Bhima alone?

As Bhima was stepping forward, Krishna brought out an iron statue of Bhima for Dhritarashtra to embrace. The reality – of his angry retaliation – was harsher than the mellow show of affection had signalled. As he enveloped the statue in his arms, taking it for the real man, everyone saw the statue shatter into pieces. Dhritarashtra instantly realised what he had done and cried out loud, “Ha! What have I done!” It was then he was told that he had been saved from a major sin, it was only a statue. 

A still from the <em>Mahabharata</em> TV show.

A still from the Mahabharata TV show.

Taking this incident out of context, the Indian masses gave it a new definition – it was read as a warning on how when you are faced with your rival, you should listen to their sentimental words without being moved by them, without forgetting the realities.  

Dhritarashtra’s embrace is one of the most interesting anecdotes from Indian folklore. Accepting any proposal from a powerful opponent, without properly examining it, is likened to risking one’s life.

Is Dhritarashtra’s embrace a euphemism for ‘Mooh mein Ram, bagal mein chhuri (Chanting god’s name while hiding a knife up your sleeve)’ – or as they say, a wolf in sheep’s clothing? The message is the same, but the embrace intensifies the severity of the act, the hypocrisy.

Going a little further, one could also suggest that if someone tells you to become one with them, that proposal must be examined carefully. A union like this involves them taking over and seizing your identity, until you are completely merged and lost in theirs. And so whenever you hear someone tell you, “Come, let us become one”, instead of running towards the call, stop and try to understand the one who calls.

I don’t know why, as the month of August nears its end, I am suddenly reminded of Dhritarashtra’s embrace. 

Apoorvanand teaches in Delhi University.

Translated from Hindi by Naushin Rehman. You can read the Hindi version of this article here.

  • kujur bachchan

    Chief Ministers of Opposition ruled states, be wary of the ‘Serial Embracer’ who is out there prowling in search of new ‘shikaar’.

  • K SHESHU BABU

    The ‘ embrace’ has already begun ….how long will it last is left for the future to unfold and explain …

  • http://socioproctology.blogspot.co.uk/ windwheel

    Did Kashmiris kill Modi’s best beloved son and heir? No. Modi comes from a different part of India and has no children.

    It is false to say that the proper Hindu acceptation of ‘Dhritrashtra’s embrace’ is- ‘ Accepting any proposal from a powerful opponent, without properly examining it, is likened to risking one’s life.’ On the contrary, it is ‘even a weak and defeated opponent will not be able to overcome his rancour and thus seek to harm, even unconsciously so, the person who has shed the blood of his son.’

    In other words, be vigilant even in victory.

    What is the context of Modi’s statement re. embracing all Kashmiris? Well, Modi has become known for hugging people. It is an internet meme. Even the Americans are aware of it.
    The Media has analysed it and come to the conclusion that it is merely an affectionate gesture which sets the right tone for cordial but frank discussion. There is nothing sinister in it. Nobody suggested that Modi was trying to put the squeeze on Trump to make him back-down on his stated aim to repatriate IT jobs from Indian outsourcing centres.

    I don’t know why the distinguished author is suddenly reminded of Dhritrashtra’s embrace. Perhaps his eyesight is failing him. Perhaps his sons have been killed and his property snatched from him. Maybe he himself wants to squeeze someone to death. Perhaps that someone is Modi. No doubt, having written this article, the author thinks he has grappled with Modi, in this article and reduced the Gujerati strong-man to a fine powder thanks to the power of his rhetoric.

    Sadly, this blind Dhritirashtra is utterly feeble. Surely, there must be at least one intellectual in India who can formulate a logically coherent criticism of Modi? Or does the man have magic powers? Has he cast a spell on the Wire’s editorial board?

    Come on guys, make an effort why don’t you?