The Makar Sankranti festival brings up various emotions in me. When I was a kid several decades ago, Sankranti meant kites, music,
Like many other children, I and my brothers parked ourselves on the terrace early in the morning. Kites were the main reason why we got up at the crack of the dawn ( 4 a.m) and made our way to the terrace.
As I grow older, the Makar Sankranti festival is somewhat different to me. For me, this day is about some events that define the Indian/ Hindu character.
Seven thousand five hundred years back…
Makar Sankranti is and will always be connected to that invincible warrior-Bhishma- who led the Kaurav armies in the epic battle also known as Mahabharat.
Bhishma, also known as Dev Vrat, was the patriarch of the extended Kaurava family. In his youthful days, he was the heir apparent of his father’s kingdom. But one day, this young man willingly gave up his right in the favor of his unborn half-brother.
A new wife….
Shantanu, Bhishma’s father, had lusted after a young woman and had wanted to make her his wife. She came from a humble background.
The girl, sensing an opportunity, agreed to the offer but laid out one condition- her son would be the heir to Hastinapur.
Shantanu agreed to this caveat meekly. He did not know whether his adult son, Bhishma, would agree to this prenuptial arrangement.
The young man agreed to this condition promptly, bewildering all those who mattered. Bhishma also promised one more thing which was quite unnecessary actually.
What is Makar Sankranti about?
He vowed to never ever marry in his life so that his unborn half brother could rule Hastinapur unchallenged.
The guardian angel
As days turned into months and later into years, Bhishma entered his 40s and took on the role of the guardian of Hastinapur. His half-brother, Vichitravirya, was still too young to be an effective king. Plus, the young monarch was still single.
There weren’t many kings in India who were willing to make the young king their son-in-law. If the situation continued for long, then the king of Hastinapur would die issueless in his old age.
The problem had to be solved urgently.
The solution was simple. And straightforward.
One fine day, Bhishma rushed to the kingdom of Kashi ( modern Varanasi) and kidnapped the three daughters of the king. Putting them forcibly in his chariot, he brought the three shell-shocked girls to Hastinapur and forced two of them to marry his half-brother.
The third girl, unable to bear with this humiliation, committed suicide by burning herself.
Now, why am I bringing this topic up today? What’s the connection?
Little less than a rapist
Simply this- Bhishma, to me, is a little less than a rapist.
In his lifetime, he was considered a wise man by his contemporaries. But in the final analysis, he was an enemy of womanhood.
I don’t know why Draupadi appealed to him while she was being disrobed. Wasn’t she aware of his shady past?
Or, was she too overwhelmed by Bhishma’s status in the Kaurava society that she forgot his blunder/ crime.
Anyways, let us come to the connection between Bhishma and Makar Sankranti.
It was on this day that this patriarch of the Kaurava- Pandava clan passed away. His personality is such that I always associate Sankranti with Bhishma Pitamah.
Surprisingly, many Indians still -after 7,500 years- consider Bhishma as a model of virtue and good conduct.
But for me, he will always be a villain.
The Makar Sankranti festival and the Maratha rout
14 January , 1761 marked the eclipse of the Maratha empire in north India. On this day, nearly 100,000 Maratha troops were killed at the hands of the Afghan marauder, Ahmed Shah Abdali.
This massacre took place in Panipat which is at a short distance from Kurukshetra where Bhishma perished thousands of years ago.
But what is so special about the Maratha defeat, you might ask. After all, wars happen all the time and result in wins and losses.
Well, this defeat wouldn’t have happened had the Marathas not resorted to superstition.
Many in India believe that no auspicious work should be done between December 15 and January 14. No marriages, no fresh construction, no military expeditions , nothing.
Our Marathas did absolutely nothing on January 14 as they stood facing the Afghans on the plains of Panipat. The former were advised by their astrologers to launch their attack only after a particular moment.
The Afghans were wiser; they knew this fundamental weakness of the Marathas. The Afghans knew that that the numerically strong Marathas relied on superstition.
The rest, as we all know, is history. The Marathas not only lost their influence in north India but they also ceded control of this territory to the British several decades later.
What all can silly superstition lead to!
My point is that it is all right to follow rituals and tradition as long as it does not destroy you. Today, many Hindus will once again take their dips in the Holy Ganga in Prayagraj and other Indian cities. I wish that while washing themselves during the Kumbh and Magh melas, those people also remembered the events of Panipat.