Tracing the Nāga-Bharata Conflict
In our previous article, we had ended with a hypothesis pertaining to a possible Pre-Khāndava Dahana conflict between the Nāgas and the Bharatas, or even the ancestors of the latter. After I had finished the previous article, work had occupied me intensely and energy and time to research and write, could not be found. But I would do a brief, cursory review of texts during breaks. After coming across a reference in an insightful and scholarly, Āṅglīka-Bhāṣā book whose title we may state in Deva-Bhāṣā as “Mahābhārata Pitṛvamśa, I decided to search the Kumbhakona Recension for that verse and found it:
“AyuH purUravA rAjannahuSheNa yayAtinA
tatraiva nivasanti sma khANDave tu nRipottama” Mbh (Kumbhakona) 1.227.44
Source: http://sanskritdocuments.org/mirrors/mahabharata/mbhK/txt/mbhK01.itx (Note: Just Ctrl+F for “Ayuh Pururava”)
The author had given the reference as “1.app108:50-51”. It was obvious that this verse was from Ādi Parva as that is where Dhṛtarāṣṭra, after counsel with Bhīṣma and others, tells the Pāndavas to live at Khāndavaprastha. However “app108” was unclear and after a brief e-mail correspondence with the author himself, I had learnt that this verse was from the appendix passage no.108 from the Southern Recension. Here is a paraphrased form of a part of his clarification:
“I can’t remember where I first came upon this detail. This appendix passage no. 108 is present in all manuscripts of the southern recension (i.e. the manuscripts in Malayalam, Telugu and Grantha scripts) and also in manuscript D4 of the northern recension. So it would be in any translation or edition of the southern recension (e.g. the so-called Kumbhakonam edition)”
As for the appendix passage bearing the exactly same verse, go here.
Again, just Ctrl+F for “Ayuh Pururava”.
Now that we are done with that slightly messy area on manuscript/recension, let us delve into the text as well as other evidences that may shed some light on the Nāga-Bhārata Conflict.
Roughly translated, the above quoted verse would mean that Ayus, Pururavas, Nahuṣa and Yayati all ruled Khāndavaprastha. This verse is found in a sufficient number of manuscripts that it cannot be dismissed as a mere interpolation and even if it is, it still cannot be ignored because interpolations are functional. Thus, there is no case against its significance to understanding the precursors to the conflict.
Also, it would be very difficult for the readers to suppose that the Pāndavas readily agreed to live in a desolate Khāndavaprastha which was now an overgrown forest, without an iota of justification. On the other hand, if Khāndavaprastha had held some sort of ancestral connection, they may have felt less inhibited about taking up residence there. Additionally, given that the decision to allocate Khāndavaprastha to the Pāndavas was made by both Dhṛtarāṣṭra and Bhīṣma, it seems that the Kurus did feel a sense of entitlement and ownership over it.
In that case, could we conjecture that after Yayati’s time, when Puru had established his capital at Pratiṣṭhāna and the others in the Pañcajana had established separate kingdoms, Khāndavaprastha got gradually overtaken by Nāgas? Interestingly, this conjecture is supported by another observation. We had noted in an early post that Purukutsa of the Ikṣvākavas had fought against the Mauneya Gandharvas (mythologized descendants of Gāndhāra of Druhyu clan) from the Narmada region upon the request of Nāgas who were despoiled by them. [Footnote 1] Khāndavaprastha (Modern day Khandwa) is definitely part of the region nourished by the Narmadā river and its tributaries. Since Purukutsa is posterior to Yayati by a few generations (Refer to dynastic list here), it is reasonable to hold that the Nāgas had gradually seized control of the Khāndava region.
Another noteworthy point is the fact that the city eventually built by the Pāndavas at Khāndavaprastha is twice compared to Bhogavatī, the capital city of the Nāgas, for its beauty. These two verses are found in both the Northern and Southern recensions:
“pāṇḍurābhraprakāśena himarāśi nibhena ca
śuśubhe tat puraśreṣṭhaṃ nāgair bhogavatī yathā” 1.199.30
“pañcabhis tair maheṣvāsair indrakalpaiḥ samanvitam
śuśubhe tat puraśreṣṭhaṃ nāgair bhogavatī yathā” 1.199.49
Another point to consider would be that Hastināpura is also addressed as Nāgasāhvya although it is pointed out that Nāga in this instance refers to “elephant” as Hastināpura is also referred to as Gajasahvya. [Footnote 2] Therefore, this cannot be adduced as evidence. However, based on what we have noted so far, we can legitimately allow for a pre-Khāndava Dahana struggle between the Kurus and Nāgas.
1. There seems to be an interesting case of conflict between the Nāgas and the Gandharvas. Apart from the one involving Purukutsa, we may also note the case of Takṣaśilā. This famous city was founded by Takṣa, son of Bharata Dāsarathi after the latter’s defeat of the Sailusa Gandharvas. As we may poignantly note after Pargiter (Refer to Pg. 279 in his book available here), there is no further mention of Takṣa or his descendants and for that matter, none of the kingdoms of Rāma’s brothers and we may thus conclude, in the case of Takṣa that his kingdom may have been absorbed by the Gandharvas (Mythologized form of the Drauhyava descending from Gāndhāra). If this could be assumed, together with the statement in texts that Takṣaka of the Nāgas had taken control of that city during the period of the Mahābhārata narrative, we may conjecture that there was a Nāga-Gandharva struggle.
Is it possible that this struggle reflects a subconscious working of a literary trope pertaining to a violent strife between the aerial (Gandharvas) and chthonic (Nāgas, whose subterranean references are very obvious) forces? Or does it refer to two Central Asian tribes who had maintained a distinct identity outside the mainstream Ārya culture of the Puru-Ikśvākus? Perhaps, the textual references to the fine horses of Gāndhāra should evoke the image of a violent, raiding tribe that had raided and attacked the lands of the serpent-totemic Nāgas who were a settled and probably wealthy people. (Their being gem-rich also makes sense in light of their chthonic associations.)
2. One can find numerous instances of the references to Hastināpura as Nāgasāhvya, Gajasāhvya or even Vāraṇasāhvya in the Mahābhārata. Some argue that the word, “Nāga” also refers to elephants and since “Gaja” and “Vāraṇa” occur in place of “Nāga” and also because the elephantine references cohere well with the story of Hastināpura being founded by Hastin, fifth in descent from Bharata Dauṣyanti (Hastin meaning elephant as well), Hastināpura is not related to the Nāgas. For an interesting discussion of the term, “Nāgasāhvya “and its relation to metrical structure, check this out.