Wednesday, December 19, 2018


Friends, more than two years ago I had posted the story of Lakshmana Kumara here but was very uneasy about the ending of that episode - it can indeed be emotionally very unsettling to write about God not honouring His assurance to His devotee. In the context of Sarala Mahabharata, which Sarala himself called “Vishnu Purana”, this, I felt, was quite odd. That disquiet had troubled me off and on during these two years but I couldn’t just return to the episode until last week, thanks to Ms. Ankita Pandey's post on Lashmana Kumara in her blog on Hindi Sarala Mahabharata. A resolution of my problem occurred to me and I have posted it as “Note” to the post “Lakshmana Kumara”. Would you kindly have a look?

Thursday, October 11, 2018


(Note: This paper was written in July (2018) for a Workshop on "Variation in Mahabharata". The idea of the Workshop was to propose projects on this theme. To an extent, this essay has that orientation. It couldn't be presented because I could not attend the Workshop. I thought it wouldn't be inappropriate to post it here.)   

This paper is about certain matters relating to the hitherto neglected but extremely challenging and promising field – not just a topic, that is - which may be called “Variations in Mahabharata”, using Odia language Mahabharatas here for illustrative purposes. The observations, needless to say, would apply to Mahabharatas across our vernacular / regional languages. It suggests that both the retelling / translation of, and the scholarly work on, the vernacular Mahabharatas into English (and other regional languages) be undertaken together - one of these projects must not wait for the completion or near-completion of the other. The scholarly work project is very necessary for the retelling/ translation project, partly but significantly, because it justifies, these versions to audiences across linguistic boundaries in a different age and in a different intellectual milieu. 


There are at least three versions of Mahabharata in Odia: Sarala Mahabharata (fifteenth century), Jagannath Das’s Mahabharata (sixteenth century), which is also referred to as Jagannath Das Mahabharata and Krushna Singh’s Mahabharata (eighteenth century), also referred to as Krushna Singh Mahabharata. In the nineteenth century, Phakir (also spelt “Fakir”) Mohan Senapati attempted to write Mahabharata but he could not complete it. In the twentieth century, Nilakantha Das wrote Pilanka Mahabharata (Mahabharata for Children) in prose. We will say nothing about the last two here. In a more comprehensive study the last named could perhaps be included, it being a complete version of Mahabharata - does not matter that it is intended for a particular audience. Of the three versions of Mahabharata chosen for discussion here, only the first is well-known and has received some scholarly attention. Jagannath Das is best known as the author of Odia Bhagavata, which is a sacred text. Suryanarayan Das, in his widely acclaimed history of Odia literature, takes Jagannath Das to be the author of Jagannath Das Mahabharata but there are dissenting voices. Some say that it has only gone in the name of Jagannath Das but the one who really composed it was someone else. Barring a couple of paragraphs in Das’s book, there is very little meaningful discussion on this work and nothing at all, to the best of our knowledge, on the authorship issue by even those who disagree with Suryanarayan Das. Krushna Singh’s Mahabharata has also not received much scholarly attention.

   Much of Sarala Mahabharata scholarship is concerned with the differences between Vyasa Mahabharata, the canonical text and Sarala Mahabharata. In all probability, Pandit Gopinath Nanda Sharma was the pioneer in this effort. He did not merely list some of the differences but arranged these in four different categories: (a) episodes or sub-episodes which do not exist in the canonical version (Duryodhana’s crossing of the river of blood, for example) but exist in Sarala’s, (b) episodes that occur in the canonical version but do not occur in Sarala’s (for example, Aswasthama’s punishment, (c) some episodes are conceptualized differently (Draupadi’s disrobing, Pandava’s exile, to choose just two) in Sarala’s version. (d) And some parvas (“the name of a constituent unit” – Mahabharata has eighteen parvas) are shorter than in the canonical version (Shanti Parva), and some longer (Mousala Parva - Musali in Sarala Mahabharata). In Sarala’s version, there is no Bhagavat Gita, although there is Arjuna’s reluctance to fight (more correctly, start the war), Hastinapura is never divided in Sarala’s retelling and Duryodhana dies as the king of Hastinapura, not as its crown prince, and Sakuni is a great devotee of Krishna and works with him for the destruction of the Kauravas. There are differences too at a deeper level, for example in the conceptualization of Krishna and of divine intervention in the affairs of the humans. These apart, in certain ways the poet Sarala localized his narrative – thus after leaving the Kailas mountains for a temporary period, Bhagawan Shiva lives in the Kapilas hills of Odisha and Yudhisthira marries an Odia girl during his vanaprastha, among others.

   However, not all the differences between Vyasa Mahabharata and Sarala Mahabharata have been listed. This is a project that needs urgent attention. The categories suggested by Nanda Sharma to organize these differences seem to be adequate but during the preparation of the complete list, it may be found necessary to have more categories.

   There is also the need to compare the three versions of Mahabharata mentioned above in Odia language. This project has not even begun.  Responding to the many deviations by Sarala from Vyasa’s in his retelling, Krushna Singh is believed to have composed his Mahabharata to give his readers a feel of the canonical text. But his Mahabharata is a much shorter version of Vyasa Mahabharata. It would be interesting to find out and deliberate on the strategies he had used to shorten it. As for Jagannath Das’s Mahabharata, Suryanarayan Das has observed that it is a summary of Sarala Mahabharata, written in the nabaksari brutta (a form of verse in which each line of a couplet has nine “letters’ of the alphabet). This is the verse form he had used in his Srimad Bhagabata.  I have noticed that although it is rightly considered to be a shorter version of Sarala Mahabharata, there are subtle differences between the two at places. These need to be documented and studied.

   Incidentally, Krushna Singh had raised the question of fidelity to the original in the context of the rendering of Vyasa Mahabharata into Odia by Sarala Das. He may or may not have been the first to do so among the Odia Mahabharata scholars but he was certainly the first person who had not only raised that question but also created a narrative – his Mahabharata - that embodied his response to it. Nilakantha Das did the same when he retold the canonical story for children.

   To sum up the discussion so far, we suggest that two projects need to receive priority with respect to Mahabharatas in Odia language by the relevant community of re-tellers, translators and researchers: a complete list of the differences between Vyasa Mahabharata and Sarala Mahabharata and a comparative re-telling and study of the Odia language Mahabharatas with the explicit purpose of foregrounding the differences among them.


 As far as the deviations in Sarala Mahabharata from the canonical version in Sanskrit is concerned, the work has begun, although a great deal more must be done, as mentioned above but without waiting for a completion of that project, it is time to take the next step. So what, one may ask rhetorically, if there are episodes in the canonical version which are not there in the vernacular version and the other way round? Once it is accepted that the vernacular language poets were “retelling” the “original” texts (in the present case, the Mahabharata) and not “translating” them and that retelling is a legitimate intellectual engagement with the classical texts, one must expect variations of diverse kinds in these retellings. So, from the mere listing of the differences, the discussion must proceed to trying to find explanations for each such difference.

   It would be incorrect to say that this work has not started at all; there is some discussion on these lines published in English and Odia languages, but it is grossly inadequate. Many Sarala Mahabharata scholars have tried to explain the non-occurrence of the Bhagavad Gita in this work and the conspicuous shortening of the explication of raja dharma (duties of a king) by Bhishma to Yudhisthira from his bed of arrows in terms of the nature of Sarala’s audience, which didn’t have the benefit of education and thus were believed to have lacked the ability to absorb the intellectually sophisticated discourses on philosophical matters. But this view is persuasive only to an extent. His audience might not have been interested in the explication of raja dharma, a subject that was very much remote for them but the same cannot be said about some of the main themes of the Bhagavad Gita discourse, such as death and existence after death, attachment, need for non-attachment in life, the Universal Form of God, among others. Could Sarala not have presented the essence of some of these thoughts in a simple, accessible form to his audience? Not that he didn’t deal with these topics. Consider the way he deals with the issues of attachment, death and life after death, etc. in the episode on Abhimanyu’s death. He embodies deep thoughts on the subject in simple, accessible language. So, the non-occurrence of the Gita discourse would need a different explanation.

   Besides, much existing discussion on the non-occurrence of the Gita in Sarala Mahabharata has not taken account of the fact that Arjuna’s problem, which was the cause of his reluctance in Sarala Mahabharata, is very different from what it is in Vyasa Mahabharata. In Sarala’s version he is reluctant for a different reason. His concern was about being the one to start the war (by shooting the first arrow at the enemy, which was what Krishna wanted him to do); it was not about having to kill one’s kin for kingdom, as is in Vyasa Mahabharata. The belief was that all the sins of the war, which involved the killing of the innocents, who were not directly connected with war but had to fight because their kings had participated in it, would accrue to the one who started the war. When the Kaurava and the Pandava armies stood face-to-face in the Kurukshetra battlefield, neither attacking the other, Krishna asked Arjuna to attack the enemy. That would have started the war. Arjuna flatly refused because he did not want to be the one who started the war. He had no objections to fight and kill his enemies if they attacked him. When Krishna complained to Yudhisthira about Arjuna’s attitude, he told the avatara that his brother was right. The moral issue here is no less grave than the one in Vyasa Mahabharata. We are reminded about the position of some countries today with respect to the use of nuclear weapons: “no first use”.

   Significantly, that was not the only time Arjuna had shown reluctance to start the fight. On the day Abhimanyu was killed, Arjuna was not in the Kurukshetra battlefield but elsewhere, in another battlefield, where had assembled a huge army of the demons. Obviously, none were his kin or acquaintances. He told Krishna that he couldn’t attack those who were not his enemies, who he didn’t even know. Doing so would be sinful, he told the avatara. Soon the demons attacked him and he fought with them. Details do not concern us here.  

   Incidentally, Yudhisthira and Sakuni were both aware of the problem of the killing of the innocents in a war and they articulated it in different situations in different ways. Shortly before the war started, Yudhisthira suggested to Duryodhana that since the issue of the war concerned only the Pandavas and the Kauravas, only they, the one hundred and five of them, should fight, so that the blood of the innocents must not flow. Duryodhana disagreed. In his last fight in the war, Sakuni told Sahadeva, who he was fighting with, that he wanted to punish himself and thereby atone for the sin he had committed by being the cause of a war where great warriors and innumerable innocent soldiers were killed.

   The above shows that Arjuna had a moral problem at a different level and its nature was such that it could not be resolved in terms of a spiritual discourse of the kind of the Gita. To repeat, he was not unwilling to fight, not unwilling to kill. He had no hesitation to kill whosoever faced him as his enemy in the battlefield. For him, there were absolutely no exceptions in this regard. Therefore his problem could not be resolved in terms of deliberations about the nature of death, karma and non-attachment towards one’s action as a way of escaping from the fruits of karma, etc. The only way it could be resolved was to have the war started by someone else or for the war to get started somehow. That was close to what happened in the Kurukshetra battlefield that day; the war started with no contribution from either Arjuna and Krishna. Once that happened, Arjuna participated in the war in Sarala’s retelling.

   There are other aspects to this discussion, which we may skip since our present purpose is to suggest the possible kind of form the explanation of the differences between the Vyasa and the Sarala versions of Mahabharata might take. The discussion above invites attention to yet another thing: saying merely that Bhagavad Gita occurs in one but not the other narrative is quite inadequate.  And non-occurrence of the Gita must not be viewed in the narrative as an isolated phenomenon in the Sarala version. There are episodes related to it and these must be considered together when one tries to construct some plausible and persuasive explanation as to why Vyasa’s and Sarala’s versions differ on this specific matter.

   Consider the episode of the dishonouring of Draupadi in Vyasa’s and Sarala’s versions. The accounts are different. In the canonical text, her dharma – virtue – protected her. Or as the popular narrative goes, it was Krishna who did, but he wasn’t physically present there, which is in harmony with the idea that it was her dharma which had come to her rescue. Of Sarala Mahabharata, the same could indeed be said. Draupadi’s clothes were unending. That was all that everyone saw. What was invisible was that it was god Sun’s spouses, Chhaya and Maya, who had clothed Draupadi. The god was repaying to Draupadi what he had owed her in one of her earlier existences in another aeon. Krishna’s role was indirect; ignoring details, he had strongly reminded Sun god about his obligation and his duty. These details need to be included when the difference between the two versions on Draupadi’s humiliation is considered.

   The above needs explanation. However, the question why the poet chose to give this form to the episode may not lead to any meaningful answer. This amounts to asking about the poet’s intentions.  One would never know what they were. One could only speculate but one guess would be as good as another. A more meaningful question would be about the text and the meaning that the reader gets from it. The shift would be from the author and his intentions to the text and the meaning that the reader derives from it. From this point of view, it would be reasonable to ask what Sarala’s version achieves by presenting the episode in the way it does. It brings in Krishna but assigns to him the role of the causative agent. What poetic or narrative (or any other) purpose is achieved by introducing Sun god into the narrative? Or is it just a matter of increasing the interest value of the story by bringing in the element of the spectacular, just for its own sake? A creative narrator like Sarala could not have done that for just to keep his “drowsy” audience “awake”!  

   Then there is the well-known story of the mango of truth in Sarala Mahabharata. There is nothing corresponding to it in Vyasa’s version. Yudhisthira needed a ripe mango to give it to a sage who had asked for it as dana (ritual gift) from him. The sage was Gauramukha, Duryodhana’s spy in disguise, who he had sent to the forests to trace the Pandavas, who were already into their ninth year of exile after losing the second game of dice. It was autumn and not the mango season. Yudhisthira invoked Krishna and he arrived. He invoked Vyasa and Vyasa came. Vyasa planted a mango seed and at Krishna’s wish a plant appeared. Krishna then asked each of the Pandavas and Draupadi to speak some truth about themselves so that at the end a ripe mango would emerge. He warned them that if anyone told a lie then the tree would burn to ashes. First spoke Yudhisthira, then Bhima, then Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva in that order and finally Draupadi spoke. Seven ripe mangoes appeared. Krishna gave one to the sage. Later the mangoes disappeared. That was of course Krishna’s doing but that story does not concern us here.

   Draupadi is said to have uttered the following: although she had five husbands, she wished for Karna. One could say that this is the narrative purpose of this episode. But the version of Sarala Mahabharata, edited by Artaballav Mohanty and published by the department of Culture of the government of Odisha does not contain this. Here she said something else; she talked about her having the same weakness as other women, namely that when they saw a handsome person, who might even be their blood relative, they would desire him. She also said that she had a special fondness for Arjuna. This is not surprising enough to justify this episode. What the Pandavas had said was not surprising either for a reader of Sarala Mahabharata. It does not contribute to the development of the plot or throw any new light on the characters. If this is correct, then what could be the narrative purpose? My own view is that through the story Sarala was articulating his perspective on the nature of cosmic truth and illusion; notice that it is the mango, its creation and disappearance both, and not the Pandavas and their truth, not Draupadi and her sexuality, that are at the centre of the episode. (For some details, see my post “The Mango of Truth” in the blog In any case, these are among the question to ask about each of the differences between Vyasa’s and Sarala’s versions: what is the best interpretation of the difference? What is the narrative purpose for this in the retelling? What are its consequences on the retelling in conceptual and aesthetic terms?

   Certain differences might trigger questions of a somewhat different kind. In Sarala Mahabharata, there is the episode of Belalasena, son of Bhima, whose severed but living head had witnessed the Kurukshetra war. At the end of the war, in the presence of his brothers and Krishna, Bhima asked him what he had seen in the war. Krishna had brought them to the severed head when they fought among themselves on the question of on whose account they had won. Kunti, Draupadi and Subhadra each had also claimed that the victory was due to her. The severed head told him what he had seen: no human or demon had killed anyone. Only a chakra, a discuss, dazzling with the glare and the brilliance of a myriad suns unceasingly moved to and fro from one part of the war field to the other and killed the fighters. This can be said to be, in essence, an implementation of the idea in Srimad Bhagavad Gita, expressed in the eleventh chapter - that the Supreme Lord had already killed all those who were to fall in the war. Humans would only act as the killer; such is His leela (play) and such is how the cosmic and the laukika (mundane) levels interact. This is how the Gita had unobtrusively entered Sarala’s narrative.  Now Belalasena had seen the reality underlying the illusion because Krishna had granted his dying wish to be able to witness the war. He would see who He had chosen to see.  

   Now, in Vyasa Mahabharata there is no Belalasena or an equivalent episode. There is of course a narrator, Sanjaya, who was witnessing the war and narrating what he was seeing to the Kaurava King, Dhritarashtra, whose army was fighting with the Pandavas’. Sage Vyasa had given him the special vision because of which, sitting with the blind king, he could see the happenings at a distance in the Kurukshetra battlefield. In Sarala Mahabharata, Sanjaya did inform Dhritarashtra, the blind, old father about the happenings in the war and commented on them, but he did not do so because of any special vision. He himself fought in the battlefield and also obtained information about what had happened in other parts of the war field and used his experience, intelligence and insight to comment on the war and even make predictions about what was going to happen in the battlefield. In sum, there is no Belalasena in Vyasa’s version and there is no Sanjaya with special vision in Sarala’s version.  Now, is this asymmetry purely accidental or can one read a purpose behind it, is a matter worth considering.


Comparison between the Odia language Mahabharatas are likely to be fascinating in the same way; it’s a project that is waiting for scholarly attention. One would expect clear differences between Krushna Singh’s and Sarala’s versions because the former wanted his version to be faithful to the original. But how faithful it was, is a matter for study, considering that Singh’s is a much-abridged version of the canonical text and that abridgement obviously entails selection and elimination of episodes, among others.

   A close study of Sarala Mahabharata and Jagannath Das Mahabharata, which, as mentioned above, is described as a summary of the former, would show that there are differences at a subtle level. Consider one example in this connection. Before the start of the war, one late night, Krishna, Sakuni and Sahadeva met. In both the texts, Krishna and Sakuni talked about whether the war should take place or not. The net result is the same, but there is a subtle difference. In Sarala’s version, Krishna gave the option to Sakuni to decide; in other words, it would be the humans and not the avatara who would decide the question of war. Sakuni of course persuaded him that it would have to be the avatara’s decision. In Jagannath Das’s version, Krishna gave no such choice to Sakuni - the humans had no choice about it; the avatara settled the issue of whether or not the war would take place. Now, this difference in the narrative, seemingly very minor, but extremely significant, must be explained in terms suggested earlier.


Comparative studies of Mahabharata across vernaculars can perhaps gain if the boundaries of the field can be extended so as to include narratives from outside of Mahabharata. In Sarala Mahabharata, there are numerous references, explicit and implicit, to the Ramayana. For instance, Arjuna would cut off Karna’s head and a new head would appear because there would be the flow of amrit (divine nectar) from three different parts of his body where it remained. With three different unfailing divine arrows shot at him simultaneously, the flow of amrit was stopped and he, killed (see “The Killing of Karna” in the blog mentioned earlier). The echo of the killing of Ravana is so distinct in this.

   Turning to a somewhat different but related matter, consider the case of Sakuni in Sarala Mahabharata. Duryodhana had used treachery of the meanest kind to imprison Sakuni’s father, king Gandharasena and his brothers and relatives and had starved them to death. The doomed victims of Duryodhana had denied themselves of food to keep Sakuni alive. Gandharasena believed that Sakuni was the one who could avenge their brutal killing. He believed that Sakuni would be free one day and had told him what to do to take revenge. It so happened that Duryodhana freed Sakuni and so great was his faith in his intelligence and ability that he made him his chief adviser, even against the warning of his mother that her brother would avenge the death of their father and the others who had perished. Sakuni carefully planned his revenge and succeeded. In Vyasa Mahabharata, Sakuni’s motive for revenge is very different.  Sarala scholarship in Odia has treated Sarala’s conceptualization of Sakuni’s revenge to be Sarala’s own.

   However, Vikas Kumar and B.N.Patnaik (forthcoming) have shown that there are ancient literary works, apart from the Mahabharata, which show the same pattern of revenge as in Sarala Mahabharata. The pattern is this: a powerful person, along with his family and relations, is thrown into prison by the ruler, unexpectedly and treacherously and everyone but one of them dies there, who is either the eldest or the youngest son, and he solves a puzzle or does something comparable and is released from the prison by the ruler himself. He is given an important position in the administration. Later he avenges the killing of his family. Thus, what has been believed to be Sarala’s original is indeed not so. It is the creative implementation of the pattern that already existed.

   Give this, is there any streak of originality in Sarala’s narrative with respect to Sakuni’s revenge? There is, if one carefully studies the last episode concerning this character. In his retelling, Sarala gives Sakuni a second chance and this is Sarala’s masterstroke and his originality. Sakuni, as mentioned earlier, chooses to die on the battlefield, rather than return to his kingdom to rule, having his mission of revenge accomplished, which was what Sahadeva suggested to him as they were fighting. He told Sahadeva that he had to sacrifice himself at the battlefield for harming his nephews and being the cause of a devastating war. It is this act of his that showed him to be a man of dharma and it is this act that spiritually redeemed him.

   To conclude, this paper suggests that variation studies of Mahabharata – an extremely important project that will inform us about our rich and multiple literary traditions, creativity in philosophical explorations and literary innovativeness outside of the Sanskrit-centric tradition and connect us intellectually to our cultural past , enrich our understanding of our communicative resources and strategies for dissemination of our great cultural narratives, among others - can be at three levels: one, listing of variations between each of the vernacular language rendering of Mahabharata and Vyasa Mahabharata, which would not ignore any of the subtleties; two, listing of the variations among the versions of Mahabharata composed in every single vernacular language and three, identifying differences among the versions in various vernacular languages. The next step would be to attempt to find the logic of the variations at these three levels. These apart, it would be extremely worthwhile to study Mahabharata in relation to other ancient Indian narratives so that we can understand our collective literary and philosophical tradition better.

Friday, June 22, 2018


Sahadeva was not the one who volunteered to tell anyone what would happen, in Sarala Mahabharata as well. He knew the past and the future but would tell only when asked. And he was constrained to tell, be it pleasant or unpleasant. It was his fate. He would die if he didn’t. But was he also constrained such that he would not say things on his own about the future when not asked? It seems at least his brothers didn’t think so. At different times, Bhima, Arjuna and Yudhisthira had each condemned him for having kept quiet in critical moments and not warning them about what was going to happen. When he fell to his death in the snowy Himalayas, Yudhisthira told Bhima that he was a sinner, who had kept quiet when his speaking would have helped. And at that point in the narrative Yudhisthira’s voice was the voice of Dharma.

It was the last phase of the night. The Pandavas had just heard that Drona was going to use the formation named chakra vyuha for his army on the following day. How to penetrate it and how to emerge from it was not known to even gods and demons, as the poet says and as for humans, apart from Drona and Arjuna, no one knew. Abhimanyu knew but only partially; he knew only how to enter the formation. Knew, of course, the source of all knowledge, Krishna, but there was no telling what form his leela would take.

As the Pandavas were worrying, Krishna took Sahadeva aside and told him what was troubling him in the extreme. He had had a frightful dream that night - he had seen a young warrior rushing towards him and attacking him with Vaishnava chakra. He told the Pandava that he had made up his mind to leave the battlefield that day and hide himself in the sea.

“You are the lord of all the worlds”, said Sahadeva, “what can harm you and what is beyond your control, O the Wielder of Sudarshana Chakra. Listen to what the dream means. Listen to what you yourself had designed. You had wished to take avatara in the mortal world and you wanted the Aadi Devi (the primordial mother goddess) to be born immediately after your birth. Then you asked Draupadi and Aadi also to be born in the world of the humans. Aadi Devi was born as Yashoda’s daughter and she played the role you had asked her to play. She gave you protection and soon after her birth she left for her heavenly abode. Aadi and Draupadi stayed on with you. You gave word to Aadi that he would return to the land of the gods on the completion of his fourteenth year. Today he completes his fourteenth year. If you don’t send him to swarga today itself, he would create havoc – he will spare none; neither Arjuna nor Hari, as he had told you.”

Krishna told Sahadeva that so long as Arjuna was there in the battlefield, no one would be able to kill Abhimanyu. “There is a way, my Lord”, said Sahadeva, “to separate Arjuna from Abhimanyu today”. He told him how the mlechas (asura-like people) had organized their army in a configuration known as jalandhara vyuha but he didn’t say why they had done so. Those demon-like people were known as great and ruthless fighters and also as those who used much deceit and sorcery while fighting. Krishna should take Arjuna away from the Kurukshetra battlefields to fight them. He would be engaged there for the whole day. Sahadeva told the avatara that they, the remaining four Pandava brothers, would have Abhimanyu lead them that day. He would enter the chakra vyuha and they would follow him. But Jayadratha, blessed by Bhagawan Shiva to defeat them four Pandavas, would stop them from following Abhimanyu into the formation. Abhimanyu would be trapped inside and the Kauravas would kill him. Immensely relieved, Krishna blew his conch.

Soon after, Krishna and Arjuna went to Yudhisthira. They told him details about Drona’s formation of the Kaurava army that day and told him who all would be at the seven entrances of the chakravyuha: Drona himself would be at the first entrance, then Jayadratha, then in the third, Karna, then Shalya, then Kripacharya, then Bhurishrava and the kauravas would be there at the seventh and the last entrance. The chief of the Pandava army, Dhristadyumna, told them about his strategy; Arjuna would penetrate into the chakravyuha, and the four Pandavas would follow him. He himself would engage Drona, Shikhani would Jayadratha, Abhimanyu, Karna, Uttara, Shalya, Drupada, Kripacharya, and Satyaki would fight Bhurishrava. The Kauravas would suffer immeasurable loss, said Dhristadyumna.

Krishna told Yudhisthira that Mayasura, the king of Melaksa, who Duryodhana had done a great deal to please, had assembled a huge army near the river Saraswati. He had arranged them in a very intricate formation called ‘Jalandhara” and he would probably attack Varunavanta, where the Pandavas lived, once the Pandavas went to the war that day. Those cruel, ruthless mlechas could do anything: destroy villages and kill ruthlessly. They would rob the people and rape their women. No heinous act was beyond them.

Incidentally, there is nothing that the poet says that suggests that Duryodhana was involved in all this. He even had no idea that Mayasura had organized his massive army for a war. There was no talk about it in the Kaurava army. At the same time, poet Sarala says nothing to indicate that Mayasura was planning to attack Varunavanta, taking advantage of the Pandavas’ being engaged in the Kurukshetra War. But then why at all he had formed jalandhara vyuha, the poet does not say anything about that. In any case, it suits the narrative purpose – Krishna had to separate Abhimanyu from Arjuna that day.

Returning to the Pandavas’ camp, everyone was extremely worried. No one had heard of that formation. Arjuna fell at the avatara’s feet and beseeched him to take him to Mayasura’s vyuha. Krishna told Yudhisthira that he must not worry. Along with Arjuna, he himself would fight the asuras and destroy them. They wouldn’t take long and would return to destroy Drona’s chakra vyuha. Till their return, they must not try to enter the vyuha because it was beyond them to do so and engage the Kaurava army in small battles outside the vyuha. They must also not worry if Arjuna and he got late in joining them; they would enter the vyuha even after sunset. He again expressly warned all the great warriors of the Pandava side not to try to enter Drona’s vyuha.

Krishna drove Arjuna to the banks of the river Saraswati. There Arjuna saw the huge army of the asura king spread across a very vast area (fifteen jojanas, about three hundred kilo meters and more). The army chiefs were terrible looking and aggression was their mood and they were heavily armed with various kinds of weapons. 

Arjuna was unfazed. He could easily destroy them, he told Krishna. But he had a moral problem: the asuras had done him no harm, they were not his enemies and they had no issues with him. Therefore, if he killed them, he would commit grievous sin, he told Hari. He was however curious to see the jalandhara vyuha, he told Krishna. He hadn’t seen it before, neither had he heard of it. His guru had never mentioned it. Krishna told him that he would drive him to the formation. As he would drive his chariot into it, Arjuna should keep shooting arrows at the asuras ceaselessly. When they reached the vyuha, the asuras attacked them. Arjuna showered arrows on them in retaliation. Starting a battle without due justification would be a great sin but countering an attack would not be – it was an act of self-protection.  

The episode describes a terrible fight in which asuras used asuric (associated with demons) magical powers and Arjuna had to use divine arrows to counter them. Krishna asked Arjuna not to feel inhibited about using unethical means in fighting because the asuras were using it. In a war, one side could not afford to stick to the established, time-honoured code of war when the adversary was violating it relentlessly. Then it so happened that Krishna, Arjuna and Hanuman got separated. This story need not detain us. Taking advantage of that, the asuras tied up Arjuna, who stayed trapped in the vyuha. When Krishna did not see Arjuna, he attacked the asuras. When he was about to kill an asura chief named Jatasura, he beseeched him to spare him. He would take him to where Arjuna was in the formation. He then led him to a deserted, deep well and told him that Arjuna was there in that well. Krishna jumped into the well and thus he was trapped.

Such details as how they were freed from their respective traps and how they then destroyed the vyuha and routed the asuras is of no concern to us for the present. Only this much is what we need to know now: the fierce engagement ended the moment Krishna knew that Abhimanyu had been killed. The asuras, who the divine weapons of Arjuna had killed and yet failed to kill since they had lived again to fight, were not seen again. The vyuha, which had proved immensely difficult to penetrate, almost melted away.

The sun had set and by the time they reached the battlefield of Kurukshetra, it was dark. There lay the mutilated body of Abhimanyu, waiting for them, in a manner of speaking. As he had promised him, the avatara had freed Aadi from his mortal bondage of fourteen years. He had returned to his divine abode, assumed his divine form and at god Indra’s bidding, was already fighting the demon named Udekabandha.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018


In the name of Krishna, whose devotee he was, guru Drona had promised the suppliant that he would give her whatever she wanted from him. The stranger asked him for Abhimanyu’s head. He was shell shocked. When he recovered, he was furious. He condemned her and threatened to curse her.

The one without equal, Bhishma, had fallen and Drona had assumed command of the Kaurava army. It was during his leadership that Abhimanyu was killed and that too in a manner totally against the code of the war that the Pandavas and the Kauravas themselves had formulated together in Krishna’s presence before the start of that Great War. The virtuous and noble guru had become part of that killing because he had given word to that strange woman who had asked him for a daana (ritual gift) at a time when he would refuse no one. Before she expressed her wish, the woman had insisted that he must commit himself in the name of Krishna that he would give whatever she asked for.

This is the content of a giti natya (dance drama) entitled “Rahasya (mystery)” that was telecast on the National Odia TV channel at 9 PM on September 3, 2011. I could see only parts of it. However, for my present purpose what little I gathered about Abhimanyu’s story is by no means insufficient. I do not know who the author of this story was and what was his source.

To return to the story, Drona controlled himself. He didn’t utter a curse but prayed to Krishna and the avatara arrived. He advised him to honour his word. He told him that he had already taken Abhimanyu’s mother’s consent in that regard; he had told her that her son was a celestial who had taken birth in the mortal world and that time had come for him to return to his natural abode. Obeying Krishna, Drona organized Abhimany’s death. He had become a nimitta (instrument) for the avatara.

After Arjuna killed Jayadratha to avenge his son’s killing, Krishna took him and his widowed daughter-in-law Uttara to swarga loka. Abhimanyu had joined his celestial consort who, in the guise of a mortal, had extracted that promise from Drona. They were very happy together.

He didn’t recognize the people from the mortal world. He insulted them and threatened to kill them if they didn’t leave him alone. Barely a couple of days had passed since he had left the world. The father and the wife realized that he was not the same Abhimanyu that they knew.

Interestingly, the basic ideas embodied in this story are the same in the corresponding story in Sarala Mahabharata but at the level of detail, Sarala’s story is very different. In both, Krishna is the orchestrator of Abhimanyu’s death. However, unlike here, in Sarala’s narrative, Subhadra and Drona have no role in his death. It is Sahadeva, the knower of the past and the future, who plays the determining role. There is no celestial consort of the divine in Sarala’s story, desperate for her husband to join her in swarga. In both the stories, Abhimanyu is destined to die on a specific day. Krishna – another name for “Destiny” - had to make that happen – in different ways in these narratives. He had to make the following happen too: humans had to acquire some understanding of the nature of relationships in the mortal world. The message of both the stories is that but for divine grace, humans can never acquire that knowledge. And the human situation is such that this illuminating, liberating knowledge does not remain with them for long. Such is Narayana’s maya (cosmic illusion).

Why did Abhimanyu have to die the way he died? Why was his all-conquering father not there in the battlefield to protect him? Why did the wise Drona at least, who had the sense of discrimination, disgrace and degrade himself by being party to his killing?  The answers to these are too well known to recount here. But these are satisfying only at the laukika (roughly, worldly / experiential / rational) level. In the context of our puranic texts where the phenomenal world interacts with the transcendental world, where happenings have ambiguous meanings in the sense that they are explainable in worldly terms and also in those of cosmic purpose and where the human situation is explicated in respect of contrastive perspectives of illusion and illumination, such answers as indicated above would be unsatisfying to a sensitive reader of the puranas. In these compositions, life in the mortal world is only a single link in a long chain and for that reason must not be seen as either complete or autonomous. In this journey of life across existences, what one perceives as its end, is only a return and this coming and returning goes on, mainly governed by one’s karma. There are other factors as well; for instance, the Supreme god Vishnu’s avataras are not governed by karma.

In Sarala Mahabharata, Abhimanyu was born in the mortal world, not because of karma, but because Narayana had asked him to. Before He descended to the world of the mortals and entered Devaki’s womb, He had asked goddess Ugratara and her son Adi (more correctly spelt as “Aadi”) – his name in satya yuga, the aeon of Truth - to take birth in the world for His sake. The Supreme god had asked the goddess to be born as Yashoda’s daughter moments (“three dandasdanda is a measure of time in ancient Indian texts) after his birth. She returned to her divine abode, in accordance with His will, when, soon after her birth, Kansa smashed the new born against the wall but she slipped from his hand. This story is also very well known.

“You will be born as Subhadra’s son”, Narayana had told Adi, “and for fourteen years you will be with me”. Adi was very reluctant to leave swarga. He told Him that since it was his duty to protect the land of the gods, he could not leave it. “But I cannot refuse you,” he told Him, “now promise me that I will return the day the fourteen years are over. And I am telling you this: if I stay for even one day thereafter, I will kill my father and return. If you, my Lord, stand on my way, then I will kill you too.” Narayana granted his wish. What His purpose was in dislocating Adi for fourteen years, only He knew.

In Sarala Mahabharata, Krishna explains himself only if he wishes to. The characters of course would assign their interpretation of his words or doings going by their own insights, as would the poet’s audience across the centuries, but he alone knows the truth about himself. Trapped in the cosmic illusion, gods, demons and mortals try to penetrate the same illusion to see the truth behind the veil. Such is the situation of all beings as depicted by Sarala Das in his magnificent retelling of the ancient story.

To return to Abhimanyu’s story, it was Sahadeva who told Krishna all this about him. Krishna knew that Arjuna had to be separated from his son if he was to die. Sahadeva told him what to do to make that happen. Not involved in this design in the least was any Kaurava or anyone from their army. When Drona planned chakra vyuha (the name of a certain formation of the army. Only Arjuna from the Pandava side knew how to deal with it. Abhimanyu knew how to enter the formation but did not know how to get out of it. All this is well known too.) for his army on the following day, he did not know that on that day Arjuna would not be there on the Kurukshetra battlefield.

Arjuna was beside himself with grief when he heard details about how his son’s killing. Soon he was overcome by intense rage. Krishna tried to pacify him with words of wisdom but that had no effect on him. “Listen O Hari, unwilling to face Drona and Karna, it is my cowardly brothers who pushed my son to his death. I will behead each one of them.’

“No one is responsible for Abhimnyu’s death”, Krishna told him. Indra needed him in swarga to fight the demon named Udaya Kabandha. He had attacked swarga and even the greatest of gods had failed to defeat him. The Creator god Brahma told Indra that the demon was fated to die in the hands of Abhimanyu; so the lord of the gods had taken him to swarga. He told him that at that very moment, in the land of the gods, Abhimanyu was fighting a fierce battle with that demon. “I will believe it when I see it”, said Arjuna, “O Hari, show me my son.”

So Krishna took him to the land of the gods. From under a big banyan tree, they saw Abhimanyu shooting countless arrows at the demon ceaselessly. When he saw the two, he was concerned about their safety. “Move away, you two venerable ones from the mortal world, otherwise my arrows might hit you accidentally and kill you,” he warned them. Arjuna wanted to embrace him. Krishna dissuaded him; “He doesn’t recognize you. You are no more his father.”

Arjuna was very hurt. Right from his birth he had taken such great care of him, he told Krishna, and had given him so much love and it took him just a day to forget him, his father, who had doted on him! He was his son in the mortal world, Krishna told him, but that relation does not carry over when one comes to the land of the gods. “If such is the nature of things here, then let us leave this heartless land,” said Arjuna. He had a glimpse of the truth; it was another matter that he was unable to cope with it.

Back among his utterly distressed family, in the midst of a piteous, wailing mother and a devastated daughter-in-law, and an inconsolable Draupadi, Arjuna returned to the snares of moha (worldly attachment) again. Thus he had to avenge the killing of his son and kill Jayadratha the following day.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

French, German and Hindi translations of this blog

Some posts from this blog have been translated into French (by Gilles Schaufelberger,, German (by Christa Scheler, and Hindi (by Ankita Pandey,

Monday, March 26, 2018

"Language Matters"

My book "Language Matters" (132 pages) was published last month (by Dhauli Books, Bhubaneswar). It's a collection of 32 short essays (only a few contain more than 2000 words) on various topics: communication, language and its study, language in education, football, books (including Sarala Mahabharata), haunted houses, etc. These are "personal essays", written in a somewhat conversational style. I have tried to articulate how I have experienced some ideas, places, aspirations and how I have responded to some people, both well-known and not known. 

Available with Amazon. 

Saturday, February 24, 2018


In Vyasa Mahabharata, Sanjaya had divya chaksu – divine (“special, extraordinary” in this context) vision – bestowed on him by the great sage, Vyasa. Sitting with King Dhritarashtra, away from the battlefield, he could see the many battles being fought on the different battlefields of Kurukshetra and narrate them to the King. The blind Kuru elder and the fond father had decided that listening about the systematic destruction of his very own as it was taking place on the battlefield would be much less agonizing than seeing it. He did not want divya chaksu for himself; thus his minister Sanjaya became his eyes. And not just Dhritarashtra, Vyasa’s listeners and readers across centuries saw the war through Sanjaya’s eyes. In Sarala Mahabharata, the story is not the same. Sanjaya received no divya chaksu but he performed a similar role as his counterpart in the canonical narrative. He was informing the old father about the war, but not the way Vyasa’s Sanjaya had done. Incidentally, Dhritarashtra was not the king then; he had long ceased to be the king, having handed over the kingdom to his eldest born. Besides, on being asked, Sanjaya was also telling him about why unexpected things were happening, like the decapitation of the great preceptor Drona. He was occasionally telling him too about what was likely to happen; he had told him about Bhishma’s fall hours before the incomparable Kuru elder fell. Was he preparing Dhritarashtra for it? May be! The wise Sanjaya was the knower of the past and the future; so he did not need special power to see what was going to happen.  This apart, often Sanjaya went to the battlefield to fight for the Kauravas. He wasn’t there with Dhritarashtra all through the day to tell him about what was happening.

   In Sarala Mahabharata, the one who had divya chaksu was Belalasena, Bhima’s son from his asuri (demon) wife, Hidimbaki. Krishna himself had given him this power. His living severed head, placed on a tall pillar in the battlefield, could see what was happening.  And who did he tell what he had seen? Asked by Krishna, he told Krishna what he had seen. The Pandavas were with Krishna then, but his words were not directed towards them. In Vyasa Mahabharata, there is no Belalasena or any character that performed the same narrative function at the end of the war. From the point of view of the narrative, Belalasena had just one function, namely to tell us about what had happened in the war. Once that was over, he disappeared from the narrative.   

   The narrative needed one narrator to inform about the war in all its details to those who were not witnessing it. Sanjaya did that. With Sanjaya in the narrative, who was the knower of the past, the present and the future, what was the need for Sarala to have in it another witness of the events? The answer is obvious: there must be something that Belalasena saw and would tell us which would be different from what Sanjaya did, and that would make us see things from another and a deeper perspective.

   The Great War had ended. It was time to claim credit for the victory. This has been the way of the victors. The Pandavas, mother Kunti, Draupadi and Subhadra were together with Krishna. Bhima said he had won the war for the Pandavas, having killed each of the Kaurava brothers. But it wasn’t a matter of how many one killed but who one killed. Could the war have been won if Bhishma, Drona, Karna, Aswasthama and other great archers on the Kaurava side had remained undefeated? Was it in Bhima’s powers to defeat them? Therefore Arjuna told them that he indeed was the architect of the victory. Nakula highlighted his role in the war to argue that he was indeed the one who deserved credit for victory. Sahadeva said that had he not told his brothers the secrets about the weaknesses of the Kaurava warriors at the appropriate time, victory would surely have eluded them. Yudhisthira said that it was his steadfast commitment to dharma that indeed had brought them victory. Kunti said that it was her fervent prayers to the gods that made the Pandavas victorious. Draupadi asserted that none but her really deserved to be credited for the victory. Subhadra said that her brother had avenged the killing of her son, so she indeed was the root cause of the destruction of the Kauravas. Apart from her, no one had mentioned Krishna even in passing while talking about the victory in the Great War. Not Arjuna, not even Yudhisthira, who had always said that he was the savior of the Pandavas, which tells us how heady success can be and how it can go to one’s head, even of the alert and the virtuous.

   Krishna told them to calm themselves and suggested that they ask the severed head what he had seen. No one would have seen things more clearly and with complete purity; so no one would know better. He took them to Belalasena. Krishna told him the context of their coming to him. Since he had seen everything, who did he think could be credited for victory in the war, the avatara asked him. The head uttered the words of truth. He, who had seen the truth behind the appearances, had not seen anyone killing anyone, he told Krishna. All he had seen was that a resplendent chakra (discuss), shining with the brightness of ten million suns, emerged from one battlefield, killing fighters there and would move to other battlefields where it killed other fighters and went on moving back and forth in the war zone killing and killing. “Why are the Pandavas fighting with one another?”, he asked.

   Belalasena’s words greatly enraged Bhima. He slapped the head with all his might, condemning him for not supporting his father. Of what worth is a son, if he cannot stand by his father! The head fell from the top of the pillar and as it died, Krishna absorbed his essence in him and freed him from the karmic cycle. Sarala was a bhakta; he had explicitly stated that his aim in retelling the Mahabharata was to celebrate the lila of Narayana.  Therefore his narrative required that the transcendental truth inaccessible to the humans in the bondage of maya (illusion), be told; once that happened, he freed Belalasena from the narrative.

   Why was Belalasena so divinely privileged? Vaibasuta Manu did not interrupt the sage Agasti and ask him this question. As Belalasena’s just severed head was proceeding to the vantage point from where he would witness the war, he was saying “Hari... Hari”.  Vaibasuta Manu had wanted to know who he was. Belalasena was to witness the war, but none had expected that he would see through the illusion that was believed by the mortals to be the reality, the all-knowing Sanjaya and Sahadeva being no exception.  Sarala does not tell us why this time a similar question did not arise in the great king’s mind. Perhaps the wise Vaibasuta Manu had figured it out by himself: he alone sees the truth who He chooses to see the truth.  

   Incidentally, in Vyasa Mahabharata, a very similar vision is articulated, although in a rather subdued manner. One day while fighting, Arjuna felt that before his arrow would hit its target, a shadowy figure had hit him and killed him. He asked Krishna about this and Krishna told him that that shadowy figure was Mahadeva. In the eleventh chapter of Srimad Bhagavad Gita, Krishna in His Universal Form told Arjuna he had already killed all those who would fall in the battlefield. He was Kaala (Time) and had determined their time. Which would suggest that they would have died anyway, even if there was no war  – maybe an earthquake would have swallowed them or the waves of the sea drowned them or they would have been the victim of some other natural calamity - and that it was merely accidental that they would be dying on of the battlefields of Kurukshetra in stead. The creative storyteller that he was, Sarala executed this insight in the form of a beautiful story. The narrative of lila unfolded the transcendental truth in a spectacular manner; explicit pronouncements were not needed. This is what great literature is, to a significant extent, essentially about.

   Now, how does this perspective about the true agency of killing - of all actions and all happenings indeed – relate to dharma yuddha (righteous war)? Poets have traditionally conceptualized the Great War at Kurukshetra as dharma yuddha where the Pandavas were fighting the forces of adharma, represented by their cousins. They were fighting for a just cause that related to their claims to the throne of Hastinapura. How elegantly does it cohere with the vision that people die when their time comes? From this alaukika (roughly, cosmic or transcendental) perspective, how they die need not matter:  whether they die of natural causes or are killed, whether they die an eye-catching death or an uneventful one, whether they die in glory or in shame – all this is illusion, maya. 

   This question does not arise in Sarala’s narrative. The Great War is dharma yuddha here too. But it has nothing to do with the cause of the war or with whose claims on the throne of Hastinapura were just and whose were not. After the Kauravas and the Pandavas had arrived at a code for the conduct of the war in the presence of the Kuru elders and other venerable warriors and Krishna himself, Duryodhana called upon everyone not to transgress the code. They were participating in a dharma yuddha, he told them, because Narayana Himself would be there in the battlefield and He would be the observer, the witness. The battlefields would be sanctified because of His presence.