Wednesday, June 19, 2019


For Draupadi, that was a terrible, terrible day. She was dragged to the Kaurava court by her Kaurava brother-in-law, Dussasana, and Duryodhana asked him to disrobe her in front of all present. What needs to be noted is that neither Duryodhana nor Dussasana nor Sakuni or for that matter, anyone in the Kaurava family, had any complaint against her and was waiting for an opportunity to take revenge. Had Yudhisthira listened to the venerable Bhishma and stopped playing the game, Draupadi would have been safe at home; loss would have been only to the Mahabharata narrative.

   Till she was reduced to the status of Duryodhana’s slave, she wasn’t in anyone’s mind. After losing himself and his brothers, in a moment of sick frenzy, the hurt loser, who was unable to cope with defeat, ignored his grandfather’s words and pawned wife Draupadi in the game of dice and lost her. Instigated by Sakuni, Duryodhana wanted her to be brought to the court. There was nothing wrong in it, he was assured, because a slave had no right to privacy. Sakuni’s secret agenda was to push the Pandavas and the Kauravas to the battlefield. His father’s words came to his mind and he realized that his time had come (for details, see “The Revenge of the Dead: The Story of the Special Dice of Sakuni”, in this blog, posted on May 21, 2017). Humiliation of Draupadi would be the humiliation of the Pandavas - many-fold! - and once she was disrobed in public, that would have meant that for the Pandavas and the Kauravas, the point of no return had been reached.

   Duryodhana surely didn’t feel comfortable with the idea of Draupadi being his slave. Would a king ask his brother to go and bring a slave to his presence? What prevented him to send a few soldiers, if he thought that one might not be enough? Dussasana had dragged her from the palace but not into the court yet. When he told his brother that Draupdi was in her periods, Duryodhana said that he wouldn’t want her in the court because seeing a woman in her periods brought only misfortune.

   Sakuni must have sensed that his plan was going to go awry; so he readily thought of a different way to persuade Duryodhana.  His fear was unjustified, he told Duryodhana; misfortune would come if the woman in periods was virtuous and since Draupadi, with five husbands, was not, no harm would come to anyone who would see her. Further details are unnecessary here. (Essentials of the disrobing episode are given in the piece entitled “The Disrobing of Draupadi and the Sun god”, which was posted in this blog on April 4, 2008.)

   We may note that she was a pawn in the hands of Yudhisthira and a means in the hands of Sakuni.  She wasn’t the cause of her suffering; she had done no wrong. Thus, she didn’t have the comfort of coming to terms with her suffering through acceptance, which comes to the conscientious sufferer when he realizes that the suffering was morally deserved – a just punishment for the wrong he had done earlier. And not just Draupadi, we may also note that once Yudhisthira lost her in the game of dice, Duryodhana also became an instrument, a means, for Sakuni. And again, not just him, but all those, who, one way or the other, became part of that chain, Dussasana and Bhima, among others, unknowingly became his instruments. No one, except, of course, the One who knew everything and perhaps Sahadeva, who had the knowledge of the past and the future, knew that Sakuni was the agent, but neither would tell. Neither Bhima nor Draupadi ever bayed for Sakuni’s blood.

   Returning to Draupadi’s humiliation, if it did not move Yudhisthira, in the sense that he did not want revenge, it did another of her husbands, Bhima, who thundered revenge - he would tear apart Dussasana’s body and break Duryodhana’s thigh. But that would happen in future; on that day, none of her five husbands came forward to protect her from Dussasana.  To what extent Draupadi felt reassured that her torturers would perish one day, we do not know. We only guess that in the Kaurava court Bhima’s thunder meant almost nothing to her. Five affectionate and caring husbands; yet, when she was face-to-face with the gravest crisis of her life, instead of the help she needed, all she got was the assurance of revenge. For the first time in her life, she realized her vulnerability and the powerlessness of her husbands to respond adequately in her moment of crisis.

   But come to think of it, that day was not really her torturers’ day. It had turned out to be her day instead. She could not be disrobed and in the court, she was hailed as a virtuous woman. Her angry look directed at Duryodhana’s palace, burnt the women’s quarters and the royal inmates rushed out and were exposed to the public gaze. What Duryodhana wanted to do to Draupadi, in a way recoiled on his very own. Another angry look, this time at Dussasana, still at pulling her clothes and he collapsed on the floor. Dritarashtra and Gandhari came to the court and prayed to Draupadi to pacify her. Dhritarashtra, the head of the Kaurava family, gave Draupadi what she asked for - her husbands’ freedom and the wealth they had lost.

    By the way, it was also Sakuni’s day. He had attained his objective for that day; he must have believed that war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas would certainly take place someday. How else would Bhima redeem his vows? As for Draupadi’s disrobing, he had absolutely no interest in it. And he knew that that was not going to happen. In Sarala Mahabharata, didn’t he tell this to Krishna, after the fire in the lac palace: “Since you are protecting them, what harm can the imbecile and worthless Kauravas cause them?”
   That day, the Pandavas left Hastinapura in a pleasant atmosphere. There was bonhomie among the Kauravas and the Pandavas. Says Sarala, “aneka priti badhila sate uttare panchubrate (there was a lot of affection among the hundred and five brothers)”. Draupadi’s untied hair and Bhima’s suppressed anger could not spoil the geniality of the mood. And that surely wouldn’t have made her feel good, one would think.

   Unable to cope with defeat in the game of dice, her husband Yudhisthira went to Hastinapura desperately wanting a win. So the game was played again. This time, her youngest husband, not Sakuni, rolled the dice (for details, see “The Second Game of Dice” in this blog, posted on May 7, 2010). And Yudhisthira lost.

   Draupadi found again how vulnerable she was during the twelve-year long exile and a year’s incognito living. She realized, for the first time, that she couldn’t protect her husbands when they faced what threatened to be a calamity for them. Sage Durvasa, who would not forgive anyone for failing to satisfy his wants, arrived with his disciples and demanded food from Yudhisthira and went for ablutions. Now, Draupadi was the family’s food giver and she had nothing to give the guests. It is another matter that things so happened that day that the awe-inspiring sage did not return.  

   She found herself vulnerable again, when one day, her brother-in-law, Jayadratha, Duryodhana’s sister’s husband, took advantage of her being alone in their hut and tried to molest her. She would have wanted him dead, but her eldest husband would allow Bhima to only humiliate him. Kin could just not be punished with death. During their incognito living, the mighty Kichaka lusted for her. This time Yudhisthira did not constrain Bhima and he crushed Kichaka to a ball of meat. That immensely pleased Draupadi. 
   Only once after that she was in that state. That was when Bhima poured the blood from the mangled Dussasana’s body on her hair. As the blood trickled down, her tongue touched it. For two aeons she had been waiting for this (see “The Killing of Dussasana” in this blog, posted on April 3, 2008). After thirteen long years of waiting, she tied her hair. She invited Bhima to spend that night with her.

   She must have come to know that her five children had been killed before Duryodhana died. He had humiliated her and with his death, her revenge was complete. But that was not in her mind then. The loss of her children had devastated her. She told Krishna that she would kill herself. Then she told him, “mora putra bairi maribu ehiksani (Right now kill the enemy of my sons)”. Not to her husbands, but to Krishna she had turned this time. Maybe she knew that Yudhisthira would not allow his guru’s son to be killed – hadn’t he disallowed Jayadratha’s killing? The guru’s son had a much higher status than kin.

   Now, all Krishna did was dispossess Ashwasthama of his weapons. And that too, through cheating, which means he didn’t harm him physically. He showed the weapons to the weeping Draupadi and told her that he had stolen them. She was “pleased”, says the poet: “draupadi chhamure dileka debahari / dekhi sananda hoile je dropada kumari ((He) gave (the stolen weapons) to Draupadi / Seeing that, the daughter of Drupada was pleased)”.

   Was she really pleased? A reader of Sarala Mahabharata would ask, in disbelief - she isn’t someone who would be content with so little. She would ask for a sound justification, at the very least. She did nothing of that sort. So, did she only pretend to be pleased, realizing that there was no point in pursuing the matter since beyond Krishna there was just nothing? And there was no point asking Krishna. In Sarala Mahabharata, his answers and explanations were like his doings. Lila (cosmic play) does not explain itself. Trying to understand it, the mortals and the immortals construct their own explanations. And no one’s is privileged.

   The war over and won, the Pandava family were talking animatedly about on whose account the victory was achieved. Draupadi claimed that it was her. But so did everyone else: the five brothers, Kunti and Subhadra. She didn’t argue. Her ahamkara (arrogance) was gone, with the death of all her sons, her brother and her father. She became the queen but the episode of Yudhisthira’s rajyabhisheka (enthronement) hardly makes a mention of her. One would wonder what happiness the grieving mother would have felt, sitting with her husband on the throne during the ceremony of inauguration.

   She faded into the background in the narrative. It had lost interest in her. She had emerged from the sacred fire to kill. Her children’s death had doused the fire within. In her private moments in the royal palace of Hastinapura, she must have shed copious tears for her beloved little ones.  All alone. As did Kunti. She spent sleepless nights grieving over the death of Karna, Ghatotkacha and Abhimanyu and she condemned Arjuna for killing her son. As for Gandhari, what can one say? She had a hundred sons and she had lost them all. She wept alone, like did Kunti, like did Draupadi, although the poet Sarala ignores her in the last parvas (cantos) of his retelling. We do not know from Sarala Mahabharata how she felt when Krishna passed away.  

   After they left Hastinapura on their vanaprastha, Draupadi figured in the narrative meaningfully only once.  In the Himalayas, feeling extremely cold, tired and unwell, she pleaded with Yudhisthira to be allowed to rest for a while. Yudhisthira said, no. They had come to give up their bodies in the sacred mountains, so why indulge it, he told her. “A world without Krishna is unfit for living”, he said. She said nothing. Was she convinced by Yudhithira’s words? We do not know.

   Soon after, she had fallen to her death, before she had accepted death.

   Let us end with this: if my understanding of Draupadi in Sarala Mahabharata is correct, with Krishna, and Krishna alone, deep down, Draupadi felt “at ease” even when she gave vent to her anxiety, frustration or anger in front of him and sometimes even targeting him. But his presence calmed her, deep down. The feeling of ease that we are talking about cannot be called “happiness”, because happiness is an experience of the ego. She connected with Krishna with an attitude of surrender, where ego dissolves.  And no wonder, since theirs was a relationship aeons old. It was just that her birth in the mortal world had wiped out that memory.       

Sunday, June 16, 2019


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Monday, June 10, 2019


asked Sriparna, the computer scientist, the other day.  One would think she must have been, she said; for if one day, one of her husbands was cross with her, there was enough room for compensating comfort – there must have been at least one other of them from whom she would have received care and affection on that day. But life being a tale of many twists, did it really happen that way to her, she asked.

   It didn’t, said the computational linguist, Sobha. That was what Pratibha Ray’s famous novel “Yajnaseni” suggests, she said. One gets the same impression from S.L. Bhyrappa’s well-known novel “Parva” as well.  Only the contexts are different and the victims, surprised and hurt, are different. In Ray’s novel it was the wife Draupadi. In Bhyrappa’s, it was the mother Draupadi. The mother Draupadi realized that Arjuna was teaching Abhimanyu, his son from Subhadra, military strategies that he did not teach his son from her. Maybe he found Abhimanyu more intelligent and more receptive; after all, didn’t Drona teach things to Arjuna which he was disinclined to teach his son? Draupadi felt too badly let down to even think of such a thing. 

   Dealing with five husbands, we guess, who were five different personalities, she might have been emotionally drained and often felt lonely, when she found time to be alone. In any case, that was a very demanding task, Sarala’s Bhima told Yudhisthira in the snowy Himalayas, and she had performed it with much grace and √©lan. She was extraordinary, he said.

   One gets the impression from Sarala Mahabharata that that each of her husbands desired her, respected her and was genuinely fond of her (although one of them – Yudhisthira -  was not at ease with her, but he kept his discomfort to himself till when saying it out loud wouldn’t hurt her) and she didn’t seem to fail in performing her wifely duties with respect to any of them. None of them said anything to the contrary. Till after she fell in the Himalayas. “She fell because of her sin”, said Yudhisthira to Bhima. And what was the sin? Taken aback, Bhima wanted to know. What he said shocked and shook Bhima but it is not relevant to our present concern, namely, whether she was happy; so let that pass.

   Yudhisthira’s response to Bhima’s question in Vyasa Mahabharata is relevant to us. He said that though she was the wife of all the Pandavas, she was partial towards Arjuna. On that account, she had failed in her stree dharma (wifely duties). Now, as far as we are concerned, doesn’t it show that she lived a life of compromise in the matter of her heart and had tried to conceal it all through her life? Now, was she happy?

   She had concealed something else too, according to Sarala Mahabharata, although the edition that I use makes no reference to this, namely that although he had five husbands, she was attracted towards Karna. In “Yajnaseni”, the author, drawing from both Vyasa Mahabharata and a certain edition of Sarala Mahabharata, makes a connection – Karna, a Kaunteya, was a brother of the Pandavas. We can think of it this way: before she saw Draupadi, Kunti had asked her sons to share whatever they had brought. That turned out to be a young woman, not alms. That there was an absent son when she said this, no one knew - not that she had him in mind then. But words, once uttered, are no more bound to the utterer, his intentions and the specific circumstances. Sometimes they materialize in the form predicted and sometimes in a form entirely unexpected; sometimes on account of the utterer, sometimes, on account of the context of the utterance.

   Born from the sacred fire of a yajna, performed for an unholy purpose by the great sage Vyasa himself for king Drupada, Draupadi was born to be the instrument of revenge. After giving two children to the jajman Drupada, the holy fire was unwilling to give him another; the gods eventually relented because of Vyaa’s spiritual energy, and the girl had emerged. Drupada wanted to avenge his suffering in the hands of the Kauravas. He needed a daughter who would fulfil his dark wish. He had prayed to Bhagawan Shiva to grant hi the boon that would enable him to kill the Kauravas. The great god, who is easily pleased and who readily grants boons without a thought, did not oblige; he told him that he would never be able to kill the Kauravas; only Arjuna could do that. He would give the girl in marriage to Arjuna, and one day, Drupada told Vyasa, there would be war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas and Arjuna would destroy the Kauravas and he would have his revenge. From the yajna fire had emerged, first, the one, neither male nor female, who came to be known as Sikhandi, then the boy, who came to be known as Dhristadyumna. Drupada was very upset but Vyasa asked him to look after them well because Shikhandi would be the cause of Bhishma’s death and Dristadyumna, of Drona’s and it would be only after their death that the Kauravas could be killed, he told him.

   Little is said about Draupadi’s upbringing in Drupada’s palace. We can imagine though what kind of upbringing she would have had, knowing that for her revenge-obsessed father, she was an instrument for the attainment of his objective.

   Incidentally, what had the Kauravas done to Drupada? They had given him a sound thrashing which he did not deserve and when he was not in a condition to defend himself. It was certainly a wicked act by the Kauravas. But for that did they deserve to be eliminated? And for that to happen, if venerable and virtuous persons like Bhishma and Drona had to be killed, Drupada wasn’t concerned in the least. When one thinks of Drupada’s revenge, Sakuni comes out as a saint! (About Sakuni’s revenge, see the posts “Concerning Duryodhana’s killing of his Maternal Grandfather” and “The Revenge of the Dead: The Story of the Special Dice of Sakuni” in this blog.)

   One dark and rainy night the fire in the lac palace had happened and it upset Drupada’s plans. He heard that the Pandavas had perished in the fire. He now had to find someone who could kill the Kauravas.  So he arranged a swayambara for Draupadi. It was swayambara only in name; Draupadi had to marry the person who would succeed in the archery test. She had no say at all with respect to her wedding. Destiny would decide things for her and her destiny had a manifestation: Krishna! He wanted Draupdi to marry Arjuna, so he succeeded in the archery contest – let’s ignore the details. He sanctioned her marriage to the five Pandavas, so she married them all.
   Without going into details, let us note that her married life was uneventful in Sarala Mahabharata until her humiliation in the Kaurava court. There is not even a faint suggestion that any elder in the Kuru family was unhappy with her. Almost nothing is said about her interactions with Duryodhana’s wife, Bhanumati or any other princess in the Kaurava family. She didn’t do anything that would have upset any Kaurava brother. “The blind man’s son is blind” is what she had said in some other versions of Mahabharata, not in Sarala’s. There is no mention of her being impolite to Sakuni. As for Karna, in Sarala’s version, everyone knew that Karna was Kunti’ eldest child; thus, there was no relation of disrespect between her and Kunti’s eldest. She had not stopped Karna from participating in the archery test and Krishna had not suggested to her that she did so. Obviously, there is no place for that in a narrative in which Karna’s identity was no secret, namely, that he had grown up in the suta’s house but was Kunti’s eldest. Karna did not participate in the archery test to win her for himself; he wanted to win her for Duryodhana. He failed to hit the target; only the Creator god Brahma in the abode of the gods and sage Vyasa on earth knew how he failed, and of course, did Krishna. Let’s leave this matter here because it has nothing to do with our present concern. All in all, Draupadi’s wedded life was smooth; so perhaps she was happy; perhaps she was not. For the wife, especially for someone like Draupadi, sensitive, intelligent and self-confident, and wife to five persons, a quiet married life can be interpreted either way.

   Having five husbands had made her conceited and arrogant, was what Yudhisthira thought of her. He wasn’t really wrong. Now, anxiety and unhappiness are companions of conceit and arrogance. The arrogant person tends to take offence easily and loses self-control and becomes unhappy as a result.  

   In Sarala’s narrative, the first time she felt insulted in public was during the rajaswiya jajna of Yudhisthira. Bhima’s son, Ghatotkacha, from his demoness wife, Hidimbaki (Hidimba, in some versions) had arrived - his presence was needed. Following his mother’s advice, he bowed to his father, Krishna, Vyasa and Yudhisthira in that order. His mother had strictly forbidden him to bow to Draupadi, who, with five husbands, was a fallen woman for her.  The one who had emerged out of fire would not tolerate being slighted in public and she pronounced a curse on him: he would die the most dishonourable death in the battlefield. Hidimbaki came out of her hiding and cursed her that her yet unborn sons would die, when still children. How much it troubled her, the poet hasn’t told us. Sitting with Yudhisthira as a queen in the sacred jajna, among the Kuru family, sages and kings and princes, would have been a fulfilling experience for her had she not forgotten that she was like a mother to Ghatotkacha. What would have been a fulfilling experience for her turned out to be extremely unpleasant.

   To be fair to her, this was an exception, when it comes to her conduct as a member of the Kuru family. Incidentally, she hadn’t acted out of jealousy; that Hidimbaki was her husband, Bhima’s, first wife, or that her son was the first child in the Pandava family do not seem to have mattered when she cursed Ghatotkacha. 

   Bhima had married Hidimbai before he married Draupadi. But Arjuna had other wives after his marriage with Draupadi. However, apart from Subhadra, none of his wives lived with him. Draupadi had to swallow her pride and accept that situation because Subhadra was Krishna’s sister. We do not know about their interaction; we do not know whether they preferred to avoid each other rather than meet and talk like friends. In Sarala Mahabharata there is no murmur that they were unfond of each other, but there is no suggestion either that their relationship was truly cordial.

   Now what would one say? Was Draupadi happy or suffering so many compromises in life she had forgotten that there was an experience called happiness?

Tuesday, March 26, 2019


When a war comes to an end and life limps painfully to normalcy, comes the time for questions: about its cause, about who must be held responsible for it, among others. The voice may be agonizingly loud or fearfully subdued. It was no different in the case of the Great War at Kurukshetra. Two facts of relevance in Sarala’s retelling are these: Duryodhana had started it, when he had ordered his army to attack his brother Durdasa who, responding to Yudhisthira’s call, had just declared that he was joining the Pandavas. Shortly before that, as the Kaurava and the Pandava armies, facing each other, were waiting for permission to attack, Duryodhana had turned down Yudhisthira’s desperate plea for peace - he wasn’t willing to give the eldest Pandava even a single village. Given these facts, who else, but he could be held responsible for the war, one would think! But that is at one level –the “formal level”: it is the king who decides on the war and on when to start the attack. However, at the informal - indeed the more important - level in the narrative, the same question was raised and responded to by quite a few characters. And only a few named Duryodhana as the one directly responsible for that calamitous war. One was Arjuna, not unexpectedly. And then Krishna, somewhat indirectly though.

   In Swargarohana Parva, when Draupadi fell, Yudhisthira, the very embodiment of dharma in the mortal world, squarely blamed Draupadi for the war; for thirteen long years she had left her hair untied, had used her untied hair to remind her husbands about her humiliation in the Kaurava court and had provoked them relentlessly to take revenge. She had tied her hair after consuming ninety-nine Kaurava brothers, the son of god Dharma told Bhima. He condemned Sahadeva too for the war. He had the knowledge of the past and the future; instead of keeping his mouth shut, had he told him what was going to happen, the war would not have taken place. Incidentally, here, unlike in some versions of the great narrative, Sahadeva was not constrained to tell what was to happen, unless asked. Only that he would have to tell when one specifically asked him – je tote pacaria gata agata katha / abashya tu kahibu bhuta bhavishya barata (Whoever would ask you about the past and the future / You will have to tell him about the past and the future). Surely Sahadeva had his reasons for his silence, but a proper articulation of the same would need detailed discussion, which is out of place here.

   For Gandhari, Krishna was responsible since he did not stop the war when it was within his power to do so. She was certain that had he pressured the Pandavas and the Kauravas enough and sincerely to opt for peace, sooner or later, they would have listened to him. They all held him in great reverence, which was true. Considering the matter at the laukika or the worldly level, rather than at the supra-human, cosmic level, one could say that it was not really in Krishna’s hands to stop the war; all he could have done was postpone it. Even that was by no means certain. In any case, the postponement wouldn’t have helped anyone; it would only have made things even more stressful for the Kauravas and the Pandavas and the relation between them would have worsened further. Krishna of course said or suggested none of this. What he told Gandhari was that had she listened to the wise Vidura, things would not have come to such a pass. He had always asked her to control her children. Incidentally, possibly a little out of the context here, he had often reminded Dhritarashtra that had he listened to him and given up Duryodhana soon after his birth, his other sons would have been safe.  Duryodhana would be the cause of the destruction of his line, he had warned him then.

   Both before and during the war, Yudhisthira and Arjuna blamed the Kauravas for it; it was thrust on them, they said. Bhishma did not agree. He told Arjuna that the Pandavas’ commitment to peace was not strong enough. If it was, then they would have retired to the forest, leaving the kingdom to Duryodhana. He did not of course blame the Pandavas for the war; he merely said that they could not hold Duryodhana solely responsible for the war and absolve themselves of the responsibility. In his last meeting with Duryodhana, Dhritarashtra told him that he had been the cause of his brothers’ killing, but it is clearly not the same thing as blaming him for the war. That he never said, never believed to be the case. He did not explicitly say it but he must have been disappointed with Yudhisthira. Once he became aware of the Pandavas’ might and started worrying about Duryodhana, he drew solace from his belief that the embodiment of virtue would never allow a fratricidal war, how strong the provocations. He knew that Duryodhana was safe because Yudhisthira was committed to dharma.

   Dhritarashtra and Gandhari had often warned Duryodhana against trusting Sakuni. Gandhari had told him clearly that Sakuni would work for the destruction of the Kauravas and thereby avenge his father’s and uncles’ killing by him. Kunti often blamed Bhima for the hostility between the Pandavas and the Kauravas. He was dusta (wicked), he would tell him. Yudhisthira had the same opinion bout Bhima. He too often called him dusta. Krishna knew he was dusta by nature and could be easily provoked to do things wicked. Now, if Kunti and Gandhari were less insecure, more cordial and less jealous of each other, when the Pandavas and the Kauravas were growing up in Hastinapura, the princes would not perhaps been so confrontational towards each other, right from their childhood. But that was not possible. Gandhari wanted Duryodhana to succeed Dhritarashtra, and Kunti wanted Yudhisthira to become the king. As children, neither prince was probably aware of their respective mother’s ambition, but the Kaurava and the Pandava princes had not failed to sense the hostility their mothers had towards each other. At the same time, Gandhari and Kunti did not encourage their children to be antagonistic towards one another. As Kunti often chided Bhima for his bellicosity towards the Kauravas, Gandhari did not fail to scold Duryodhana for his hostility towards the Pandavas. The fire in the lac palace or Duryodhana’s feeding Bhima poisonous sweet had not changed Kunti. She changed only after the humiliation of Draupadi in the Kaurava court. Before he went to Duryodhana as Yudhisthira’s emissary for peace, Krishna, unknown to the eldest Pandava, had met each of his four brothers and Draupadi and Kunti separately to know whether they shared Yudhisthira’s disinclination towards war. He found that the last two alone wanted war. And desperately. But no one ever blamed Kunti for the war. Much later, Yudhisthira did make a mention of her instigating them to go to war against the Kauravas, but his tone said that he was not really holding her responsible for the war.

   No one blamed Yudhisthira directly either. Bhishma’s observation about the Pandavas’ weak commitment to peace, as mentioned above, can be construed as the closest criticism of Yudhisthira in the relevant regard. Now, suppose the second game of dice had not taken place. Would there have been a war? The Pandavas got back whatever they had lost in the first game of dice. When they left, there was considerable bonhomie between the Kaurava and the Pandava brothers. No one from the Kaurava side invited Yudhisthira to return for another game of dice. Yudhisthira went to play because he wanted to win. The defeat in the first game had upset him. The defeat in the second game led to the Pandavas’ twelve year- long exile in the forest and a year’s incognito living. Suppose all this had not happened. Just as, suppose, Sahadeva had spoken!

   For many listeners / readers of Vyasa Mahabharata or Sarala Mahabharata, Sakuni would be the one primarily responsible for the war. In Sarala’s version, Duryodhana was willing to give two villages to Krishna for the Pandavas but it was Sakuni who persuaded him not to do so. That was the immediate cause of the war. Yet none in the world of Sarala Mahabharata, except one, considered Sakuni responsible for the war.

   And that was Sakuni himself. Only Krishna, Arjuna, Sahadeva, Sanjaya and Vidura knew that he was committed to avenge the treacherous Duryodhana’s gruesome killing of his innocent father and his relatives. He masterminded the complete destruction of the Kaurava brothers through a terrible war. As he was fighting Sahadeva in the battlefield, he told him that he was responsible for the war. There is no evidence in the text that Sahadeva agreed with him.

   When Gandhari held Krishna responsible for the war, Krishna told her something else too, apart from what has been mentioned above. He told her that he had been insulted in the Kaurava court and that he had had his revenge through the war. This amounted to his putting the blame for the war on Duryodhana. However, there is no persuasive evidence in the narrative that directly or indirectly support Krishna’s assertion. As for Krishna’s being revengeful, one might cite three examples from the narrative, but none is really convincing. After the war, in a certain context, his sister Subhadra claimed that he had destroyed the Kauravas to punish them for their killing of her son, Abhimanyu. But the narrative says something very different: it says that Krishna had actually orchestrated his nephew’s killing; he had given the divine, which Abhimanyu really was, word that he would return to his natural abode, the Swarga loka, once he completed fourteen years in the mortal world. Krishna had not got Jarasandha eliminated because he had inflicted many defeats on him, thereby insulted him. Jarasandha’s killing had to do with Yudhisthira’s rajaswiya jajna. Details do not concern us here. Although the matter is really complex, involving aeons and rebirths and redemption, one might isolate the incident and argue that he killed Sishupala for insulting him. Now, if Duryodhana had insulted him and he wanted to punish him, did he have to have such a destructive war? What he told Gandhari is best understood as a retort to her almost like this: “Your son insulted me, so I gave him well-deserved punishment. Why are you blaming me?” And this goes well with what he also told her, namely that she should have heeded Vidura’s advice.

   Now, you, my friend, who has obliged me by reading this piece so far, what do you think who was responsible for the war? Forget for a moment who blamed who in the world of Sarala Mahabharata, extremely important though it is. Or putting it differently, what the poet thought about the question of responsibility; after all, he was the creator of that world. Maybe, you are inclined to think that not a single individual, but all those mentioned above, and probably more, were. You might think that an event of such dimensions cannot just have a single cause and a single causer or doer. I would agree, enthusiastically! But think of this:  

   When there was one throne to inherit and two parties staking claims to it, and no party willing to make the sacrifice needed, namely, giving up his claim, the issue had to be settled in the battlefield. Those like Sakuni, Karna and Ashwasthama complicated matters and made the narrative very much dramatic and enjoyable. As for Krishna, as Sarala, the devotee, transformed a simple narrative of succession to Vishnu Purana, he transformed his doings into the purna avatara’s (complete manifestation of Narayana) lila. Now, one does not sit on judgement over lila, one only witnesses it and celebrates it.

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.