READING FROM THE MARGINS: NAGAS IN THE MAHABHARATA

Key words- Aryan, Rakashasa, Civilization, Periphery, Decipher, Assimilation, Culture, Decay, Possession, Cohabiting, Conflict, Revenge. Abstract- History represents perception of the victorious. The Mahabharata, earlier called ‘Itihasa’ is a reservoir of the information about the politics, society, culture and values of the period through which it had developed gradually. With the main stage set in the Aryavarta (North Indian plains), the main focus of the epic is on the life of the Aryans and their culture, who subjugated the pre-Aryan indigenous people. Yet, we find glimpses about the people who remained outside or on the periphery of the Aryan civilization and culture. They are usually regarded as „Others‟ and demonized. The „Others‟ are usually termed as Rakashasas, Danavas, Asuras, Nagas and Kiratas. This paper is an attempt of exploring one group among them who frequently comes in the Mahabharata. They are „the Nagas‟. Though sometimes represented as snakes, the Mahabharata describes their cities and their dialogue with human being. This clears the doubt that they were definitely people living on the periphery of the Aryan civilization. Kurus, the Aryan ruling house at Hastinapur came in contact with the Nagas in a different manner. They got into conflict for the possession of land which led to mass killing of the Nagas. Sometimes a natural desire of a man and women to unite also brought them together, like union of Arjuna and Naga princess Ulupi. The case of Ulupi, the Naga princess is an interesting case study of the attitude of the dominating race towards the women from the margins. Arjuna had relation with her and then dumped her. Only her son was used as a cannon fodder to fight for the Pandavas.

The Mahabharata, a literary monster, is seven times larger than the Odyssey and Iliad combined together. Earlier known as Jaya with eight thousand verses, it was enlarged to be Bharata with twenty four thousand verses and finally emerged as The Mahabharata with nearly one lakh verses. The Mahabharata is having many variations and it had also inspired literary creativity in many Indian languages. Though the historicity of the events narrated in the Mahabharata is questionable, as a popular literature it is a reservoir of the values and ethos of the Indian society, its inspirations and conflicts. Aryans, the authors of the Vedic civilization came to India and replaced the pre-Aryan settlers. As History represents a perception of the victories, the Aryan way of life dominates the Sanskrit literature produced during the Ancient period including the epics; the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Yet we get glimpses of the life of those who were living on or outside the periphery of the so called „Aryan civilization‟1. These „other‟ people are usually named as Rakashasas, Asuras, Nishadas, Nagas and Kiratas. This paper is an attempt of reconstructing the lives of one group among them i.e. the Nagas. The Nagas- Snakes or Human beings ? Description about the Nagas that we find in the Mahabharata is many times confusing. Sometimes the Nagas are described as snakes, but they talk to the people, have family, rule over
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the kingdom and also have matrimonial alliances with the Aryan people, this clears doubt that they were the group of the people having different way of life than the main characters of the Mahabharata. The Nagas-the Indigenous or the Migrants?- The names of the Nagas that we find in the Mahabharata are similar to the names of the Aryan people like Virochana, Sakuni, Sushena, Parasara and Aruni. This indicates long association with the Aryan people and process of acculturation. It also raises doubt if the Nagas were a branch of the Aryan people who came to India before the Vedic Aryan and developed a civilization. The Aryans who came subsequently distinguished themselves from them and called the earlier group Nagas, may be because they were snake worshippers. The Mahabharata repeatedly refers to friendship between Naga chief Takshaka and Aryan God Indra. Some of the Nagas are also mentioned as worshipping the God Brahma. (Adi Parva, Section XXXVI) This strengthens the hypothesis that the Nagas of the Mahabharata were group of the Aryan people. The sequence of the migrants coming to India, building a civilization, reaching a high stage of affluence and then being replaced by the later migrants is very often repeated in the Indian history. Though contentious, history gives ample evidence that the Indian soil and climate snaps the vigor of men and makes them indolent. This makes them vulnerable from the more enterprising migrants from the hilly regions from the North-West. The migrants Aryans replaced the Pre-Aryan Indian settlers, Later during Medieval period they were replaced by Turks and Afghans, Turks and Afghans were also replaced by the Mughal after few centuries. Nagas, the builders of the affluent civilization-- The Mahabharata describes the cities of the Nagas,
“……beheld the region of the serpents infinite in extent, filled with hundred of palaces and elegant mansions with turrets and domes and gateways, abounding with wonderful places for various games and entertainments.” (Adi parva ,Section III)2

The description suits a city of very highly civilized and affluent people. Mentioning of domes in the cities of the Nagas is particularly intriguing. Because it is believed that use of dome in India became widespread after the establishment of Turkish rule in the 13th century. The description indicates that probably these Pre-Aryan Naga people were good at constructing the cities, like the authors of Indus valley civilization. Description of the beautiful cities of the Nagas is repeated in the Mahabharata,
“He saw that the region lay extended thousands of Yojanas3 on all sides. Indeed, o blessed one, it was equipt with many walls made of pure gold and decked with jewels and gems. There were many fine tanks of water furnished with flights of stair-cases made of pure gold and decked with jewels and gems. There were many fine tanks of water furnished with flights of stair-cases made of pure crystal, and many rivers

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of clear and transparent water…………the gate of that region which was full five Yojanas high and a hundred Yojanas in width.” (Aswamedha Parva, Section LVIII)

Walls and staircases of gold, jewels and gems is obviously exaggeration, but it does give an indication of the perception about the Nagas. Perception cannot be entirely without foundation. There cannot be imagination without memory! The beautiful cities are associated with the Nagas. The beautiful city built by the Pandavas at Khandavprastha was compared with Bhogvati, the city of the Nagas. As the poet says,
“……that foremost of cities looked resplendent like Bhogvati (the capital of nether kingdom) decked with the Nagas.( Adi Parva Section CCIX)

The Mahabharata describes Bhogvati,
“This foremost of cities that thou beholdest and which resembles the Amravati of the chief of the celestials himself, is known by the name of Bhogvati. It is ruled over by Vasuki, the king of the Nagas………There dwell in happiness innumerable Nagas-possessed of diverse forms, and decked on ornaments of diverse kinds, bearing the signs of gems, Swastika, Circles and Drinking vessels.” ( Udyoga Parva, Section CIII)

The name of the city of the Nagas was Bhogvati which literary means city of pleasure. This indicates that probably the Nagas lived a luxurious life. Bhog means pleasure and it is used generally to indicate sensual pleasure. Does it indicate that the Nagas were overindulgent as usually happens with the people who lives on accumulated wealth? Probably this had weakened them and they were defeated by the Aryans. History gives many evidences, when people build high civilization and then overindulgence leads to their decay. The Mahabharata also describes the industries in the domain of the Nagas,
“…..he then looked about him and beheld two women at a loom weaving a piece of cloth with a fine shuttle; and in the loom were black and white threads. And he likewise saw a wheel, with twelve spokes, turned by six boys.”(Adi Parva, section III)

Following description gives information about the splendor of the Nagas,
“Ye Serpents, subjects of King Airavata, splendid in battle and showering weapon in the field like lightning-charged clouds driven by the winds! Handsome and of various forms and decked with many colored ear-rings, ye children of Airavata, ye shine like the sun in the firmament! On the northern banks of the Ganges are many habitations of serpents. ……… When Dhritarshtra (Airavata‟s brother) goes out, twenty-eight thousand and eight serpents follow him as his attendants.” (Adi parva ,Section III)

The description indicates that probably the Nagas had an extensive kingdom around the river Ganga. The Nagas are also described as shining in the Sun. So probably the Nagas were fair skinned people and so their assimilation in the Aryan society was relatively easy than other darkskinned non-Aryan people.
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Conflict between the Aryans and the NagasAdi Parva, Section CCXXV to Section CCXXXVI, describe the episode of the burning of Khandava forest. The forest is mentioned as abode of Naga Takshaka and his family. Arjuna and Krishna set the forest on fire and killed the animals who tried to escape from it. The description indicates that it was not only the animals that were killed during this, but there were many human beings as well. The poet describes,
“And while the forest was burning, hundreds and thousands of living creatures, uttering frightful yells, began to run about in all directions. And some clasping their children and some their parents and brothers, died calmly….”( Adi Parva, Section CCXXVIII)

Obviously animals cannot clasp their children or recognize parents and brothers. Takshaka, who is described as the chief of the Nagas, was not there at the time of the burning of the forest but went to Kurushetra. His son Aswasena escaped from the slaughter, but his mother was killed. Was Arjuna so cruel and inhuman as not to spare even women who were running away! And surprisingly one of his name was „Vibtsu‟ i.e. someone who does not indulge in a ghastly act! There was some other Non-Aryan tribes in the forest apart from the Nagas. The description also gives some information about fighting machinery used by them.
“And there came also, desirous of battle, innumerable Asuras with Gandharvas and Yakshas and Rakshasas and Nagas sending forth terrific yells. Armed with machines vomiting from their throats (mouths?) iron balls and bullets, and catapults for propelling huge stones, and rockets, they approached to strike Krishna and Partha” (Adi Parva, Section CCXXIX)

Mentioning of Asuras, Gandharvas, Yakshas, Rakshasas and Nagas together indicates that all these forest dwellers joined hands together against Krishna and Arjuna, who wanted to encroach on their land. The description also indicates that these forest dwellers were familiar with the use of some war machine that threw iron balls and stones. The episode represents traditional conflict between forest dwellers and people who wanted to reclaim land for agriculture or for dwelling places. The forest was burnt, the inhabitants who resisted the burning were killed and the city of Indraprastha was built by the Pandavas with the help of Asura Maya, who was spared during the burning of the Khandava forest. The affiliation Asura indicates that he was a Non-Aryan mansion. However how the Nagas, who are described as dwellers of the splendid cities, landed in the forest? There are many contradictions in The Mahabharata, which makes the construction of the history form the Mahabharata difficult. It is quite probable that they were driven away in the forest. The Mahabharata gives ample evidences of the conflict between the Pandavas and the Nagas. During the burning of Khnadava forest, the abode of the Nagas was destroyed and many
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Nagas and other aborigines were killed. The snake, Ashwasena who escaped from the slaughter tried to kill Arjuna during the great Mahabharata war. He also assisted Karna against Arjuna (Karna Parva, Section XC). But he did not succeed. He was killed by Arjuna during the war. Takashka, who also escaped from the slaughter during the burning of the Kahandava, avenged himself by killing Parikshit, the grandson of Arjuna. In retaliation, son of Parikshit, Janmejaya arranged the mass killing of the snakes (Nagas) in his Sarpyagya (snake sacrifice). As recorded in the epics, many times the Yagya, the sacred sacrifice and the war against the enemies continued simultaneously. Kurushetra, which literally means the field of the Kurus is also mentioned as dwelling place of the Nagas. Probably this place was snatched by the Kurus long back and was named Kurushetra. Burning of Khandava forest, attack of Naga Ashwasena on Arjuna, killing of Parikshit by Naga Takashaka and then mass killing of the Nagas by Janmejaya in „Sarpayagya’ is indicative of the perpetual enmity between the Kurus and the Nagas. The snake sacrifice( may be a well prepared attack and mass killing of the snakes) of king Janmejaya(Son of Parikshit and grandson of Arjuna) was stopped by Astika, the son born out of the union of Brahmin sage Jaratkaru and sister of snake chief Vasuki. Matrimonial alliances between the Aryans and the NagasAdi Parva Section XIV, mentions that the snake chief Vasuki offered his younger sister Jaratkaru to a Brahmin of the same name. This is indicative of the marriage alliance between the Nagas and the Brahmins. Here, however the alliance is eagerly sought after by Vasuki and purpose was to save the snakes from death, that will be caused during the Sarpayagya of the king Janmejaya. Does it indicate a marriage alliance due to political consideration? It was believed that the son that will be born to the Brahmin father Jaratkaru and the Naga princess (also named Jaratkaru) will save the snakes from complete annihilation. A son was born to them whose name was Astika and he saved the Nagas and other snakes from death.( Adi Parva Section XV) By forging matrimonial alliances with the Aryans the defeated Nagas probably tried to save their kingdoms and lives. The examples of matrimonial alliances between the Aryans and the Nagas are numerous. A cursory look at the Indian history will prove that the defeated people tried to save themselves and their kingdoms by forming matrimonial alliances with the victorious, like some of the Rajput rulers have done during medieval India. They formed matrimonial alliances with the Mughals, which not only ensured survival of their kingdoms but brought some political gains. However in these kinds of alliances, it is daughters and sisters of the conquered people that were given in marriages to the victorious people and not other way round. So we see patriarchy working here as well! The matrimonial alliances between the Aryans and the Nagas also follows similar pattern. It is usually Aryan male and Naga female and not vice versa.
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Arjuna and Ulupi- Adi Parva describes the episode of the Naga princess Ulupi. The poet describes,
“…..the mighty armed hero (Arjuna) was dragged into the bottom of the water by Ulupi, the daughter of the king of the Nagas, urged by the god of desire. And it so happened that the son of Pandu was carried into the beautiful mansion of Kauravya, the king of the Nagas.” (Adi Parva, Section CCXVI)

Here we see a Naga princess herself dragging Arjuna to her home. In the conversation that is followed she openly confesses about her carnal desire for Arjuna. She says,
“…….beholding thee descended into the stream to perform thy ablutions, I was deprived of reason by the God of desire. O sinless one, I am still unmarried. Afflicted as I am by the god of desire on account of thee, o though of Kuru‟s race, gratify me today by giving thyself up to me” (Adi Parva, Section CCXVI)

After this Arjuna spent one night with Ulupi. By this account it is quite probable that the Naga women were relatively free and could assert her sexual desires more freely as Ulupi solicits union with Arjuna. It is also probable that Ulupi was deliberately portrayed as seductress, who was responsible for breaking the vow of Brahmacharya (Celibacy) that Arjuna was following during that time. This was done to highlight the innocence of Arjuna and shift the blame of transgression entirely on the shoulders of Ulupi. The Mahabharata narrates that it is to satisfy the wishes of Ulupi that Arjuna agreed to have physical relation with her. This was probably a deliberate attempt on the part of the authors/interpolators of the Mahabharata to portray the women belonging to „other‟ group in a poor light. A son, Iravat was born out of the union between Arjuna and Ulupi. As Arjuna do not take any responsibility for the son it was necessary to portray Ulupi in a bad light so that it was she who could be held responsible for the consequences of the union. No wonder that it was she alone who takes the responsibility of looking after the son, as Arjuna leaves both mother and son in the abode of the Nagas. Later during Bhishma Parva, Section XCI, it is mentioned that Ulupi‟s husband was slain by Garuda and later she had a relation with Arjuna. This is not mentioned when her meeting with the Arjuna is described earlier in Adi Parva Section CCXVI. Ulupi says that she is unmarried. Did she tell lies to form union with Arjuna? Or probably widows were allowed to cohabit with the men in the Naga society. From the description given in the Bhishma Parva, we get some glimpses of the childhood of Iravat. The poet writes, “Abandoned by his wicked uncle from hatred of Partha, he grew up in the region of the Nagas, protected by his mother.” (Bhishma Parva Section XCI )

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So this child of Arjuna and Ulupi faced discrimination in the Naga kingdom and it was Ulupi alone who shouldered the responsibility. Ulupi was not brought to the Pandavas capital, Indraprasatha immediately after the marriage, but Subhadra, Krishna‟s sister whom Arjuna married after his romantic encounter with Ulupi was brought to the Panadava capital immediately. Arjuna will not dare to abandon Subhadra as he had done to Ulupi. Subhadra had a backing of her powerful brothers, Krishna and Balarama and she was from the respectable royal family! Arjuna also did not feel any necessity to bring his son begotten on the Naga princess to Indraprastha. Only he was called to fight in the Great war to be used as a cannon fodder. Another son of the Pandavas begotten on Non-Aryan women and only used as a cannon fodder was Ghatotkacha, the mighty son of Bhima and Rakashsi Hidimba. Portrayal of „Other‟ women like Ulupi as a seductress also served one more purpose. It highlighted the so called „virtues‟ of the Aryan women. In the Mahabharata we find attempts of desexualizing the Aryan women. In contrast to sexually assertive Ulupi, the Aryan women like Draupadi is being portrayed as docile and passive in their interaction with men. During the period of the Pandava‟s exile, when she was approached by Kotika, the messenger of Sindhu King Jayadratha, Draupadi says,
“Being alone in this forest here, I should not speak unto thee, remembering the usages of my sex” (Vana Parva Section CCLXIV)

The patriarchal influence is obvious in Draupadi‟s attitude. In comparison the Non-Aryan women like Ulupi and Hidimba appears to be much freer and earthly when it comes to dealing with the opposite sex. The women in the patriarchal society lead almost a mechanical existence. They are to be won at the Swyamvara, put as bait at dice, possessed and protected. All attempts are made to suppress their sexuality but the „other‟ women are allowed to have assertive carnal desire as they serve the purpose of satisfying the baser instinct of the men. The epical attitude is not a thing of the past, but similar attitude continues to shape our behavior even today, one has to just remind ourselves about the treatment given to the girls from the North East by the „civilized‟ citizens of the national capital. The „Other‟ women are perceived as easy target and readily available. Missing Naga women?-In Adi parva, Rishi Srutasrava tells king Janamejaya about his son Somasarva,
“……my son……is born of (the womb of) a she-snake that had drunk my vital fluid.” (Adi Parva, section III)

A she snake drinking a vital fluid (semen) and a human male child being born due to this is incredible. It is probable that the forest dwelling sage had relation with a forest dwelling women.
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As she is referred as a she snake, she might be from a community, who identified with snakes, may be Nagas. Out of this union a child was born and to hide the transgression on the part of the sage, the birth was mythologized. Similar is the case with the Birth of Dronacharya and Kripacharya. They were also narrated to be born without mother from the semen of the sages. This cannot be true; probably these three people i.e. Drona, Kripacharya and Kripi were born out of the union between Brahmin sage and a forest aborigine woman. To hide the identity of their mother the story of their birth was mythologized. Probably the interpolators of the Mahabharata were more particular in covering the secrets of the lives of the Brahmin Rishis. The obvious reason behind this is that they themselves were Brahmins and as the Brahmins were considered as intellectual leaders of the society, a transgression on the part of a Brahmin will invite heavy censor and so it needs to be hidden! Chitarangada and Ulupi, both non-Aryan wives of Arjuna were brought to Hastinapur after the Great War. This indicates that probably Naga and Manipuri wives of the Aryans began to be accepted in the Aryan society. The acceptance is also indicative of the gradual assimilation of the Non-Aryan tribes in the Aryan fold. However it may be mentioned here that the Rakshasi wife of Bhima, Hidimba was not remembered neither was she brought to Hastinapur. It indicates the traditional discrimination against the dark complexioned people. A fair skinned Naga and Manipuri wives of the Aryan princes can be accepted, but not a dark-skinned Rakashasi! The Nagas of the Mahabharata and the Nagas of Nagaland - The Mahabharata, being a very complex narrative baffles the researchers. As mentioned in the Adi Parva, the first book of the Mahabharata (out of total eighteen), Ulupi, the Naga damsel had her romantic encounter with Arjuna at Haridwar, which is in modern day Uttarakhand . But later on during the Ashwamedha Parva, which is the fourteenth book of the Mahabharata, she surfaces at Manipur. How did she reach such a long distance? Is the Manipur mentioned in the Mahabharata is same as today‟s Manipur? These are the questions which are waiting for the answers. Though nothing can be said assertively now, but probably associating present day Manipur with the Mahabharata was an attempt of Arynazation of the region and culturally unite India. In the Mahabharata we find the attempt of unifying west and east India. Some People of Himachal and people of Kachar in Assam both claim that Hidimba, the Rakashasi princess who cohabited with the Pandava prince Bhima was from this region. One of the easy way of associating with the epic and subsequently with the Sanskritic-Aryan culture is to create a myth about marriage between a local girl and a Pandava hero or claim one of the wives of the Pandava belonged to the region. This kind of myth created a psychological space and identity for the tribals who were slowly assimilating in the wave of the Aryanization. The Mahabharata played an important role in the process of nation building. People from Himachal to Assam can identify themselves with the Mahabharata. Ulupi reaching present day Manipur from far of places like Haridwar during those days is less likely.

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Conclusion- The narrations in the Mahabharata cannot be taken as historical evidence. The purpose of this paper is not to reach any conclusive finding about the Nagas as it is not possible to do so by writing a paper entirely based on the Mahabharata. It needs a sustained and extensive research. The hypothesis that I presented in the paper needs to be corroborated by other resources as well. But I hope to set the ball rolling towards that direction which had remained relatively unexplored. The personality of the Non-Aryan characters like Eklavya and Hidimba and Half-Aryan character like Ghatotkacha, Iravat and Vabhruvahana still remains unexplored. As the recent trend is towards subaltern history, the characters mentioned above seems to be shouting for attention and bubbling to tear the veil of the time and lurch forward to become live through the pens (or computers) of the researchers and writers. ------------------------------------------------------

Explanatory Notes1. Aryan Culture- „Aryan‟ represents a racial meaning originally, but assumed a cultural and linguistic significance later. What we call a Aryan culture today, have many nonAryan elements into it. 2. All the quotations of the Mahabharta are taken from Ganguli K.M., „The Mahabharata of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa‟, Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi, 2008. 3. Yojna was a unit of measurement, however it is not certain one Yojna means how much long? But the word comes repeatedly in the Indian mythology. References1. Ganguli K.M., „The Mahabharata of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa‟, Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi, 2008. 2. ‘Srimanmaharashi Vedvayasapranit Mahabharata’ (Hindi) (In six parts), Gitapress, Gorakhpur. 3. Karve Irawati, „Yuganta‟, Orient Blackswan, Hydrabad, 2008. 4. Arvind Sharma, „Essays on the Mahabharata‟, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 2007. 5. Sharma TRS, „Reflection and variations on the Mahabharata‟, Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi,2009. 6. Dr. Viyogi Naval, „Nagas: the ancient rulers of India‟, D.K. Publishers, New Delhi, 2002.

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Submitted ByDr. Ravi Khangai Asst. Prof. Department of History Ambedkar College, Fatikroy Dist- North Tripura Tripura-799290 E mail- ravikhangai@gmail.com M- 9402168854

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