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.  

Thursday, January 25, 2018


(This story is remarkable in that it connects the loka katha  (folk literature) with the classical in a fascinating and non-intrusive manner.)

Our ancients created a colourful and delightful universe in which there were cognitive existences other than the humans: devas (gods), asuras (demons), gandharvas, kinnaras, apsaras and bhutas (ghosts), among others. In popular talk in Odisha (elsewhere too, we would think), none is treated with greater disrespect than bhuta. In Odia, it is a cover term that includes bhuta, preta, petini, pitasuni, chiriguni, dahani etc. They are believed to be the lowest among all existences in the universe. They populate our loka kathas (popular literature) and oral tales. These supernatural beings, having super human energy and power, are of no interest in themselves; there are hardly any ghost stories in Odia which enlighten us about the ghost community -  about their mutual interactions, life styles, struggles, aspirations, etc. They enter the world of the narrative only when they interact with the humans because they are conceptualized as the living human dead (I have not heard about a “snake ghost” or a “tiger ghost”), existing in a non-material form in the world in which they had once lived. In ghost stories, ghosts are most often malignant, revengeful and extremely harmful although one does occasionally come across some friendly ghosts as well. However, no matter how powerful and malignant the ghosts might be, they can be controlled by means of some special (that is, tantrik) knowledge. Those who have that knowledge can overpower them. 

   Although without material form, they share physical space with the humans and try to harm anyone who they think has invaded their space. They are generally believed to live in ruined and abandoned houses, cremation or burial grounds, some specific trees in lonely places, and the like. In Odia the names of the ghosts often relate to places where they are believed to stay: masani bhuta (ghost of the cremation ground), kaian gacha bhuta (ghost of the kaian tree) a, puri bhuta kothi bhuta (ghost of the Puri ghost house), etc. What names they give themselves, if at all they do, we would never know, but we know the names that humans have given them. It seems the only exception to this naming system is “Babana bhuta”.

   Incidentally, bhuta is not restricted to the oral tradition alone. There are references to bhuta in puranic texts also, such as Shiva Purana and Srimad Bhagavat Gita. There are bhutas in Shiva loka.  They are among his companions. Srimad Bhagavat Gita says that ghosts are worshipped by some people (9: 25), who upon their death, go to the land of the ghosts (17:4). Unlike the ghosts of loka kathas, these bhutas are not malicious and do not hover over the mortal world. They are of virtually of no interest to the teller of the ghost stories and are of no interest to us either, for now.

   There are at least two Babana bhutas in Odia and the story of one of them occurs in Sarala Mahabharata. The other has not yet attracted story tellers’ attention, for probably the same reason why the bhutas of Shiva loka have not. This Babana bhuta is more like a divine servitor of Bhagawan Jagannath. He guards Gundicha Mandira, where the Deities reside for only seven days a year, from the evil forces when the Deities leave the temple. Now, sadly, even the local people have forgotten him, so let us too leave him alone. As for the Babana bhuta of Sarala Mahabharata, no one knows whether it is Sarala’s creation or adaptation of an existing tale. It has no equivalent in Vyasa Mahabharata. Just as parts of classical narratives are said to have their origins in long forgotten oral tales, similarly we wish to think that bits from written literature become part of the repertoire of the oral tradition in the form of tales, proverbs, idioms, wisecracks and the like. 

   The story of Babana bhuta occurs in Udyoga Parva. Duryodhana’s wife, the virtuous Bhanumati, told him the story.  Yudhisthira did not want a war in the family. Neither did Arjuna, Nakula and even Bhima, despite his oaths to drink Dussasana’s blood and break Duryodhana’s thigh. Yudhisthira would be content with just a village, as would Arjuna, and Bhima wanted two villages for himself, as did Nakula – one for Sahadeva and one for himself.  Sahadeva knew what was in the avatara’s mind, thus he knew what was going to happen; so when Krishna asked him, he said nothing about whether he wanted or did not want war. He merely told him how to ensure that war took place and by doing so, he served the avatara in the fulfilment of his avataric purpose. Neither Yudhisthira nor anyone else knew what had transpired between Krishna and Sahadeva. 

   In the Kaurava court, Krishna told Duryodhana that if he gave only five villages to the Pandavas, the latter would not go to war against him as they did not want a fratricidal war. Accepting Bhishma’s advice, Duryodhana was inclined to give the Pandavas two villages but Sakuni counselled him against it. The Pandavas must be given nothing at all and let Krishna empty-handed, he told king Duryodhana. When the noble and the virtuous Bhanumati heard of this, she told her husband the story of Babana bhuta

   In the village named Gyanapura, near the river Tungabhadra, for some unknown reason, its inhabitants became pretas (ghosts) after death. A tantric named Sudraka Raula, came to live in that village with his family and soon gained the good will and the respect of the inhabitants because of his good nature. One day he noticed an unused, cultivable piece of land near the hill and sought permission of the villagers to cultivate it. They had no objection but they warned him against doing so because some notorious ghosts had taken possession of that land. Sudraka told them that he wasn’t afraid and that he would imprison the ghosts if necessary. He sent his ploughmen and labourers to till the land. When the ghosts harassed them, he caught them in a net using his tantric knowledge. Then the ghosts made peace with him and obtained their release by giving him a considerable measure of til (sesame seed). After sometime, their king, Babana bhuta, a very dangerous and wicked ghost, arrived and he was furious to find that their play field had been usurped and was being used for cultivation. Despite the warnings of the ghosts, he possessed Sudraka’s only son, but got terribly scared when the tantric tried to imprison him with iron nails. He was released when he promised Sudraka that he would give him a huge amount of paddy. This his ghosts collected by attacking people of the neighbouring villages.

   One would end up like babana bhuta, said Bhanumati to her husband, if one enjoyed the property alone that belonged to all.  It was her suggestion and her warning.  The kingdom of Hastinapura belonged to the Kurus; that is, the Pandavas and the Kauravas both. Depriving the Pandavas of their share of the kingdom was unjust and would certainly lead to trouble for the Kauravas. Duryodhana did not follow her sage counsel; he told her that if she were not a woman, he would have punished her. He chose to follow Sakuni instead and perished. That story is well known. 

Saturday, August 19, 2017


After Bhishma withdrew, obeying Krishna, the divine arrows he had shot to kill Arjuna, he asked the avatara, still on his chariot, why he did not kill him. He had deliberately used those arrows, he told him, knowing that he would have to intervene openly in order save Arjuna. That had happened. With his sudarshana chakra Krishna had rushed to Bhishma’s chariot in everyone’s view. He had broken his promise to his elder brother, Balarama, that he would not hold any weapon in the Mahabharata War. This happened on the ninth day of the war. Bhishma had won his personal battle against the avatara; he had told him before the war that he would not be able to keep his word to Balarama.

But the Kuru elder was extremely disappointed. He told Krishna that he was longing to die in his hands which would have given him mukti and a place in Vaikuntha and that he had attacked Arjuna with those divine arrows, hoping that he would kill him. “O Merciful One, why did you deny me your mercy?”, a downcast and dejected Bhishma asked Krishna. “I will take you to Vaikuntha, have no worry, O the wisest of men”, said Krishna. Then he told him that he wanted him to do something for him. But what could he, a worthless, despicable, miserable man, who had never offered him bhakti, do for Narayana Himself, said Bhishma. “The Pandavas are dear to me,” said Krishna, “O mahatma, do not be hostile to them”. “In that case, come with the Pandavas to my place tonight. I will tell you the secret of my death.”, said Bhishma.

Krishna did not ask him about the secret of his death. Narayana had done that only once. Unable to kill them, He had asked Madhu and Kaitabha how they would be killed. That was aeons and aeons ago. And in Sarala Mahabharata, Krishna was not going to be the sole receiver of that crucial secret from Bhishma. In Sarala’s conception, he is the Causer and the Doer, but at the laukika level, he would have humans believe that they are the deciders and the doers of things. Such is his maya.

Anyway, with that assurance, Krishna had returned to Arjuna’s chariot. The fight resumed. Bhishma was unstoppable; he was death incarnate.

The conches blew as the sun set; the fight came to an end for that day. Krishna told the Pandavas that Bhishma had told him in confidence that he should go to his place along with the Pandavas and that he would tell them the secret of his death. “Let us go, Sahadeva”, he said. Sahadeva told him that Bhishma had not been honest to him; he was not going to tell them anything. “Let Arjuna go to Duryodhana and ask him for his jewelled crown.” said the bhuta bhavishya jnata (knower of the past and the future). But that was a special crown, said Krishna. He was wearing that crown during his coronation as the king of Hastinapura; why would he give it to Arjuna, he asked.

He was promise-bound to him, said Arjuna. Gandharva Chitrasena had once defeated him, tied him up in his chariot and was going to punish him when at Yudhisthira’s bidding he had fought with the gandharva and had freed him. At that time, in gratitude, Duryodhana had insisted that he asked something from him. Whatever he wanted, he would give him, the grateful king had said. Arjuna hadn’t asked him for anything then. Falling at his feet, Arjuna had told him that when the need would arrive, he would request him to lend him his bejewelled crown and he had agreed. Duryodhana being a man of honour, said Arjuna, would not deny it to him now – Sarala had nicely created an open space in his narrative to be filled later and the context for it had emerged.

Krishna, Arjuna and Sahadeva went to Duryodhana’s camp. He was in the august assembly of his commanders. Arjuna paid his respects to him. Duryodhana was extremely happy to see him and embraced him most fondly. He enquired after his and his brothers’ welfare. Arjuna told him that he had come to ask him for something. Most happily, Duryodhana promised him that he would give him whatever he wanted. All he wanted, said Arjuna, was his jewelled crown. He just wanted it for that night and promised him that he would return it to him before sunrise.

Drona, Shalya, Aswasthama, Kripacharya, Karna, Dussasana and the king’s brothers laughed derisively. What a thing to ask for! And why must Duryodhana oblige! Sakuni told them that Duryodhana had given Arjuna his word and he, the greatest of the kings, and a man of virtue, would honour it. One earned disgrace and brought dishonour to one’s lineage by going back on one’s words, said Sakuni. Then a grateful Duryodhana told the assembly how when Chitrasena had tied him up in his chariot, Bhishma, Drona, Karna, Bhurishrava and the other celebrated warriors, were all there. They had all abandoned him. It was then that Arjuna had challenged the gandharva and freed him. One who forgot the good done him perished in narka, he said. If Arjuna chose to ask for his head instead of the crown, he would readily cut it off for him – “have no doubt,” he told the assembly.

But Arjuna needed only that special crown for the remaining part of that night. Duryodhana gave it to him. They must go to Bhishma’s camp in the last phase of the night, said Sahadeva to Krishna and Arjuna.

They did and saw that Bhishma was engaged in puja in his puja room. They stood outside. Arjuna stood at the door and Krishna and Sahadeva a little behind him. From the inside, if Bhishma looked at the door, he would see only Arjuna. Krishna put a thread into his nose and sneezed. Bhishma looked out and his eyes fell on the bejewelled crown. He uttered a blessing: “May you live long!” and returned to his puja. Krishna sneezed again. This time Bhishma did not look out, knowing who was there and uttered another blessing: “May my years be added to your life! May you live long!” When Krishna sneezed again, Bhishma said, “May you defeat your enemies!”

Krishna went inside along with Arjuna and Sahadeva. “O the Lord of Maya (Cosmic Illusion), did you orchestrate this?”, Bhishma asked Krishna, “seeing the crown, I thought it was Duryodhana at the door and I uttered the blessings that were appropriate for him.” “You are a true kshatriya; you are wise, virtuous and without blemish”, O Bhishma”, said Krishna, “your words will not go in vain”. “But how can we ever win, O the incomparable warrior,” asked Arjuna of Bhishma, “when you are our adversary?”

“My child, let me tell you about what had happened long ago”, said the venerable Kuru elder and then he told him part of his story beginning with his mother Ganga marrying his father Santanu by mistake, her deserting his father and her parting words in anger, which, although unintended to be a boon, turned out to be so for him: he would die only when he would choose to (ichha mrityu) to why, although he was going to marry princess Amba, he suddenly and unexpectedly chose to remain unmarried throughout life, how Amba had committed ritual suicide so that in her next birth she would be the cause of his death, how out of the same sacrificial fire from which Draupadi was born, she too  had emerged as Shikhandi, to fulfil her wish in her previous birth. “O Arjuna”, said Bhishma, “let Shikhandi face me in the battlefield today and you remain behind her. The moment I see her, my energy will desert me, as will my will to fight. I will become extremely feeble and vulnerable.” He did not say anything more. He didn’t need to. Arjuna knew what to do.

In Jagannatha Das Mahabharata, the narrative is slightly different. On the ninth day of the war, Bhishma had told Krishna that he would not fight the Pandavas any longer and that he must come with the Pandavas to him that night and he would tell them the secret of his fall. Here the Jagannatha Das narrative adds a little story.

That night the informer of the Pandavas told them in the presence of Krishna that Bhishma had five deadly arrows with him with which he would kill the Pandavas on the following day. Duryodhana had gone to meet him after the fight had stopped for the day and Bhishma had shown him the arrows. “None would be able to protect the Pandavas tomorrow: neither Hari nor Brahma, Shankara or Indra: boila suna durjyodhana/ e astre pandabe nidhana // rakhi na paribe shrihari/ brahma, shankara, bajradhari ((Bhishma) said /listen, Duryodhana The Pandavas would die by these arrows// Sri Hari will not be able to protect them/ (Neither would) Brahma, Shankar, the wielder of vajra//), Bhishma had told Duryodhana. The Pandavas were shocked, as was Krishna.

Krishna told the Pandavas that Bhishma had told him that that night he would tell them the secret of his death. Sahadeva told him that he was not going to do that. Arjuna should go to Duryodhana and ask him for his bejewelled crown. The rest of the story is the same as in Sarala Mahabharata. Except that when he asked him for those deadly arrows, which do not figure in the Sarala version, Bhishma gave those to Arjuna.

What could be the significance of the story of the five infallible arrows? Does it merely introduce an element of the spectacular to the narrative? Was it this feature of the story that had inspired Radhanath Ray, the great nineteenth century Odia poet, to write his celebrated poem “Bana Harana (Stealing of the Arrows)”, based on it?  Or maybe it serves the narrative by providing a context for Sahadeva’s scepticism that despite his assurance to Krishna, he was not going to help the Pandavas the following day!