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

DIVYA CHAKSU


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

THE STORY OF BABANA BHUTA

(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

THE STORY OF A BLESSING BY MISTAKE

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!


Tuesday, August 15, 2017

THE STORY OF BELALASENA

Belalasena’s story is in two parts: the first part is about his decapitation; the second, about his saying what he had seen happening in the battlefields of Kurukshetra. The avatara had asked for his head and he had prayed to him to behead him. He wanted to see the Mahabharata war, so by Krishna’s grace, his severed head remained alive. That is essentially the substance of the first part of his story. The severed head saw the war and when Krishna asked him to tell him and the Pandavas, who had accompanied him to the severed head, what he had seen, he said that he had seen a chakra, dazzling with the brightness of a thousand suns, moving to and fro in the battlefields, now killing some from one side and then killing some from the other side, and repeating it ceaselessly. He said that he had seen nothing else. He hadn’t seen anyone killing anyone else. This story is reminiscent of Barbarik’s story but the two stories are not identical.

Interestingly, in Sarala Mahabharata, edited by Artaballava Mohanty and published by the department of Culture of the government of Odisha in 1966 (“Orissa”, the spelling of "Odisha" at that time) and since then, has been generally regarded as the standard version, the first part does not occur. The second part does but with a note by the editor, which says that although in the concerned pothi (palm leaf manuscript), it is not there, Mohanty had chosen to include it because it was there in a different pothi (what that story was he did not say) and also because the story was there in the Sanskrit text. Which text, Mohanty did not mention. One is inclined to think that the text in question was Vyasa Mahabharata.

There is a version of the Mahabharata that goes in the name of Jagannatha Das, who is known as the author of Odia Bhagavata. His Bhagavata is revered and worshipped as a sacred book in Odisha. Jagannatha Das’s Mahabharata is said to be a kind of “summary” of Sarala Mahabharata, although the poet himself  does not say so. His narrative occasionally deviates from Sarala Mahabharata. For instance, whereas the first part of the Belalasena story occurs here, the second part, which occurs in Sarala Mahabharata, as mentioned above, does not.

The first part of the story is this:

The Pandavas and the Kauravas had assembled on the battlefield of Kurukshetra for the division of the battlefield. In Krishna’s presence, it was divided into two parts and Krishna himself drew the dividing line. The eastern part was occupied by the Pandavas and the western part, by the Kauravas.  “O Ananta, the One without End,” said Sakuni to Krishna, “now place a witness.” Krishna asked Bhima to bring the agara tree from the mountains of Kundali. At that time it was indeed more a trunk than a tree, having lost its top – the result of having been used for years as the target by the learners of archery. It looked like a pillar. It was huge and a thousand wrestlers of great strength could not even shake it. But for Bhima it was no task. He uprooted it effortlessly and brought it to Krishna. Then he dug a big hole and tried to put the tree in it but that he couldn’t do; he tried many times but the tree was unsteady. Krishna asked Sahadeva about it but for once the youngest Pandava was clueless. “O Lord Padmanabha, ask the tree yourself”, he said. “Why aren’t you stable?”, asked Krishna of the tree. The tree manifested itself in its divine form and told him that he wanted a sacrifice.

Krishna told Sahadeva that the tree wanted sacrifice of a Pandava. Unknown to everyone else, Sahadeva told Krishna that there was one who lived in the nether world: Bhima’s son, Belalasena. When Bhima was in the naga loka (the land of the snakes), after being fed poisonous sweets by Duryodhana, he had married a naga princess and they had a son. Bhima should go, said Sahadeva, and bring him to Kurukshetra. Krishna went to Bhima and asked him to invoke his son, Belalasena. “let everyone see him”, said Krishna. He did and there in the nether world, his son was restless.

“My eyes are twitching continuously, mother,” said Belalasena to his mother,” why is it so?” “Your father is remembering you, son. There is soon going to be a war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas.”, his mother told him. At once the young man left for Kurukshetra, taking with him his bow and just one arrow. Reaching there, he bowed to the avatara first, then to Yudhisthira, his father, his uncles, Bhishma, Drona and the other elders. Everyone was happy seeing this young naga prince, whose head was marked with seven hoods.

Evening had set in and Krishna suggested that all assembled should retire for the night. He then left for Dwarika. That night his father asked Belalasena what to do to win the war. He must not worry on that account, he assured his father; he would be able to defeat the Kauravas in just a day.

In the morning, Belalasena was busy sharpening his arrow on a slab of stone by the river when Krishna arrived. He bowed to the avatara. Krishna asked him why he was sharpening his arrow. Belalasena told him that with that one arrow he would be able to kill everyone in the battlefield and the war would be over in a day. Would he really be able to do that, asked Krishna. Belalasena dipped the tip of his arrow into vermilion and instructed his arrow to put a mark on the heads of all those it could kill. Unknown to all except Belalasena and Krishna, it left a mark on the head of everyone: Pandavas, Kauravas, their soldiers. Only one was excluded – that was Krishna. 

“Will you give me something, child?”, Krishna said. “Anything you want, Lord. Tell me what you want. I will give you the dana. I promise!”, said a happy Belalasena. Krishna told him that he would tell him what he wanted some other time. As he left, Belalasena resumed sharpening his arrow.

Krishna met the Pandavas. He was sad. Yudhisthira was deeply worried. What was troubling him, he asked Krishna. Krishna looked at Bhima. “Only if you promise to give me what I want, I will tell you why the tree is not staying steady”. Bhima told him that he would give him anything he wanted from him. Then Krishna told the Pandavas that the divine tree wanted a strange thing: it wanted a Pandava as sacrifice. The Pandavas were utterly confused, completely nonplussed.

Nakula started crying. He was sure that he would be chosen for sacrifice. After all, he and Sahadeva were only the step brothers of Yudhisthira. Besides, Krishna would never choose Yudhisthira, Bhima and Arjuna. Yudhisthira told him that he had no reason to feel insecure. “Why are you crying, my brother”, said Yudhisthira. “For your sake, I will go to the forest again.” Krishna told him not to worry. There was someone but only if Bhima willed to give him. Bhima promised the avatara that he would give him the one he wanted. “Tell me where is he, O the One without End,” said Bhima. “Give me your son, Bhima”, said Krishna.

Bhima flatly refused. He told Krishna that he was willing to suffer the consequences of committing the gravest of the grave sins of dishonouring his promise, but he would not let his son be used for sacrifice. Krishna said nothing, moved a little away from the Pandavas and sat there alone looking glum. Bhima was unmoved.

But what was beyond the avatara! He concentrated on the goddess of words and asked her to make Bhima say what he wanted. Soon Bhima came to Krishna and told him that he would give him his son. But he must persuade Belalasena to submit himself for the sacrifice. It was goddess Saraswati who had uttered those words.

Without saying a word, Krishna went to Belalasena and told him that he wanted his head as dana. “I will give it to you, O Lord,” said the young prince, “please grant me a wish. Severe my head with your chakra with which you had severed Shishupala’s head and given him mukti. Then place my head on the shubha khamba (auspicious pillar) and allow me to witness the Mahabharata war.” “So be it!”, said Krishna.

Krishna took him to the shubha khamba and with prayer in his heart, Belalasena sat in the posture of meditation at Krishna’s feet. The chakra descended from the sky and severed his head. As Krishna put the body in the hole where the tree stood unsteady, it steadied at once. And as the head was going up on to the top of the auspicious pillar, it was uttering “Hari”, “Hari”.

Full of divine delight, Vaibasuta Manu asked of sage Agasti, “Who was he in his previous birth?” The venerable sage, who was telling him the story of the Mahabharata, told him about that but let us leave that story out.

This is the first part of Belalasena’s story, which is notably different from the first part of Barbarik’s story in its familiar version. This part of Belalasena’s story, to repeat, is not there in Sarala Mahabharata edited by Artaballava Mohanty. It is there in Jagannatha Das Mahabharata, said to be a summary of Sarala Mahabharata.

The second part of Belalasena’s story is not very different from the corresponding part of Barbarik’s story, which is well known. The significant differences, which relate to what the avatara-empowered witness in the form of the severed head saw, are mainly two: in Sarala Mahabharata, the divine chakra killed from both sides without making any distinction – it did not destroy only those who were sinful. In Sarala’s version, alongside the chakra, there was no goddess of destruction who licked the blood of those killed. Thus Sarala’s was a purer rendering of Krishna’ words in the Gita – Arjuna would kill those who were already dead. Generalize this a bit: those who would die in the battlefield had already been killed. The only doer was Krishna, the rest were nimittas.

Incidentally Vyasa Mahabharata does not contain the story of Barbarik.


Janmastami, 2017




Friday, August 4, 2017

SARALA'S SANJAYA

In Sarala Mahabharata, Dhritarashtra did not ask his minister Sanjaya to tell him what was happening right then on the battlefields of Kurukshetra, neither did Sanjaya volunteer to tell him. He got the news of the war every day after the fight stopped. He would then share his feelings with Sanjaya and sometimes would ask him what would happen on the following day, what course the war was going to take from then on, how come something unthinkable happened and the like. Sanjaya did not receive any special power to see things happening at a distance from any one; he did not really need any one to give it to him. He was a bhuta bhavishya jnata - the knower of the past and the future. No surprise because in satya yuga, the aeon of Truth, he was Sudreka Brahma: suna manu rajana ho sanjayera mahima / satya juge sehu se shudreka name brahma (Listen, O King Manu, the glory of Sanjaya / in the aeon of Truth he was the Brahma named Shudreka). Sage Agasti was telling the story of the Mahabharata to king Baibasuta Manu in Sarala’s retelling.

   No wonder, then, that Sanjaya knew who Krishna was and what the purpose of the avatara was. He offered himself to Krishna to make him his instrument in the fulfilment of his avataric purpose. A few days after the fire in the laksa griha (wax palace), Krishna, Vidura, Sakuni and Sanjaya had a secret meeting and the latter three promised Krishna that they would not tell anyone that the Pandavas were alive. Now, believing that the Pandavas were dead, the Kuru elders consented to Dhritarashtra’s proposal to crown Duryodhana as the king of Hastinapura. Vidura and Sanjaya were present when this decision was taken, but they did not tell the Kuru elders that the Pandavas were alive.

   That was the third day of the war. The fights had ended for the day. Dhritarashtra was sitting with Sanjaya and he had heard about the havoc Bhishma had created in the battlefield. The Pandavas had suffered great loss. Joy had filled Dhritarashtra’s heart. If that was how Bhishma was going to fight, he told Sanjaya, Pandavas would perish in ten days. Stupidly the Pandavas had put their trust in Krishna and entered the battlefield, he said in great happiness.

   What he had heard about that day’s war, Sanjaya told him, was not the full account. He hadn’t been told about the huge loss that the Kaurava army had suffered. His son, Durdasa, who was fighting on behalf of the Pandavas, had killed nine thousand soldiers in the Kaurava army, Shikhandi, Drupada’s son and Sweta, Virata’s son, had been equally destructive. Dhristadyumna, Abhimanyu, Ghatotkacha and the Pandavas had killed many. “Listen, O Dhritarashtra”, said Sanjaya, “it appears to me that you are going to suffer much pain”. Dhritarashtra wept aloud.

   He composed himself. “You, my wise minister, who know what has happened and what is going to happen”, said Dhritarashtra, “now tell me what will happen tomorrow and who would win and who would lose.” “Listen, O son of Ambika,” said Sanjaya, “I will tell you bits about what is going to happen.” He then told him that Sweta would be leading the Pandava army that day and that the battles would be fierce. The Kaurava army would suffer considerable loss as great warriors like Virabahu, the king of Maharashtra, Paramananda, the king of Arbinda, Ripubhanga, the king of South Kosala, Vajraketu, the king of Kalinga, kings Vitolaksha, Karunakara, Chandradhwaja, and Virupaksha of the kingdoms of Mangalanaumi, Kanauja, Kanchana and Mandara respectively, would all fall and their armies destroyed.

   Sanjaya was the foreteller again in the morning of the tenth day of the war - this time, on his own. What he told Dhritarashtra, the latter could not have imagined. He told him that Bhishma was going to fall that day. No one could have expected that such a calamity would befall the Kauravas. On the previous day Bhishma had fought so fiercely that Krishna was forced to break his promise and invoke his infallible weapon, sudarshana chakra, to protect Arjuna. With chakra in hand, in the full view of everyone there, he had climbed on to Bhishma’s chariot to attack him. Obeying the avatara, Bhishma had withdrawn his divine arrow and Arjuna was saved. After that, what Krishna told him and he told Krishna on his chariot no one knew.

    From the way the inimitable Bhishma had fought that day, Dhritarashtra – no one indeed - could never have imagined that he would fall on the following day. That was why he didn’t ask Sanjaya about what was going to happen and that was why Sanjaya told him things on his own – that Bhishma that very night had blessed Arjuna for victory, mistaking him for Duryodhana (details of this story need not detain us here) and then told Krishna and him the secret of his death. So that day, Shikhandi would face Bhishma and seeing him, the mighty Kuru would give up his weapons and suffer the arrows of the enemy. Once Bhishma fell, the war would be virtually over and all his sons would perish in no time. By saying all this, Sanjaya perhaps was preparing Dhritarashtra for the impending calamity. How Dhritarashtra responded to what Sanjaya had said, the narrative is quiet about.  

   Five days later, Drona was killed. His own shishya, Dhristadyumna, beheaded him. This story is well known and needs no recounting here. Drona’s death had surprised Dhritarashtra. He asked Sanjaya how was it possible that the mighty Drona could be killed – Drona, a highly learned person, who had studied the Vedas and learnt archery from Parshurama himself and who was wise, sagacious and virtuous. What sin had he committed for which he had to suffer beheading, he asked. Sanjaya said that he had been cursed by his father, the great sage Bharadwadasha (better known as Bharadwaja), to suffer beheading.

   Drona’s mother, Surajita, the daughter of rishi Mandara, was Bharadwadasha’s first wife. Unfortunately, she had an untimely death. Drona’s father married again. He married Ananta, the daughter of king Kalapi. One day, Bharadwadasha went on a long pilgrimage. Ananta was menstruating then. She very young and felt a strong urge for sex when her period was over. Drona was young and she was inviting and they indulged in sex. When Bharadwadasha returned, he found his wife pregnant. It wasn’t long before he found out what had happened. When he confronted Drona, he told him that being young and encouraged by the circumstances, he had committed that grave crime. He pleaded with him to forgive him. But his father said that having union with one’s mother was too heinous a crime to be condoned. He had to be punished. He deserted his wife and cursed his son: his wedded life would be ruined the way his own had been. He then directed him to leave the ashram, give up the ways of an ashramite and adopt those of a ksatriya and take part in the Kurukshetra War and suffer beheading. “Listen, O Dhritarashtra, when Drona’s wife died during childbirth, his wedded life came to an end and with his beheading, he paid for the crime he had committed.”

   King Shalya, who was the chief commander of the Kaurava army after the death of Karna, burnt to his death. He had defeated Yudhisthira and had held him in his grip. He slapped him very hard and viciously twisted his lips. In great pain, Yudhisthira cried out “mamu jalila jaila (Mamu (maternal uncle), burning, burning)” and Shalya burnt. Those words which Yudhistira uttered to express the intense pain that he was suffering, worked like a curse by the son of Dharma for Shalya.

   There was none who was Shalya’s equal, said Dhritarashtra to Sanjaya. Even gods could not face him in battle. How could he die such a miserable death, asked Dhritarashtra. He was cursed, Sanjaya told him. Unknowingly he had been the cause of the suffering of sage Anastaka (better known as Anusthapa). His arrow pierced into the sage when he was meditating on the shores of the river Rushikpila (Rishikulya?) and he cried out in pain. Shalya rushed to his presence, prostrated himself before him and begged his forgiveness. Aanastaka in agony pronounced a curse on him that in the Mahabharata War, on account of Yudhisthira, he would burn. “Listen, O Dhritarashtra,” said Sanjaya, “that curse materialized on the battlefield today.” Dhritarashtra was stunned.

   Sanjaya was one of the thirteen people who survived the war: the five Pandavas, Krishna, Ashwasthama, Kripacharya, Dhritarashtra, Vidura, Sanjaya, Satyaki and Durdasa, Duryodhana’s brother, who had fought on behalf of the Pandavas. There is some indirect evidence in the text that suggests that unlike Vidura, who did not fight, Sanjaya had fought on behalf of the Kauravas. He must have been a nondescript warrior. There seems to be no mention of him in the war narratives.

    When Dhritarashtra and Gandhari decided to go for vanaprastha, like Kunti and Vidura, Sanjaya joined them. When his time came, Vidura left the mortal world. A year passed by. One day Sanjaya saw a blazing fire at a distance in that forest where they were staying. Soon the fire spread and was fast approaching where the vanaprasthis (the ones on vanaprastha) were staying. Sanjaya told them to hurry. “Sit on my back”, he told Dhritarashtra, “I will take you to a safe place”. Dhritarashtra declined his offer. He and the two Kuru women chose to submit themselves to the fire. He asked Sanjaya to leave them there and run away and save himself: jaa ja sanjaya tu ambhanta yethen chhadi (go, go, Sanjaya, leave us here).


    Sanjaya left. The narrative says nothing about what happened to him thereafter. He was the voice of sanity and serenity for Dhritarashtra and once he left Dhritarashtra, what use could the narrative have for him? Let us, then, most respectfully, take leave of this humble man of dharma, the man who was committed to Krishna and who served Dhritarashtra as his confidant, minister, adviser and charioteer. This great man served both man and God and disappointed neither. 

Friday, June 2, 2017

WAR OR NO WAR? THE FINAL ANSWER ACCORDING TO TWO ODIA MAHABHARATAS

The Mahabharatas in question are Sarala’s Mahabharata of the fifteenth century and Mahabharata by the sixteenth century poet, Jagannatha Dasa, known and revered as the author of Odia Bhagabata, which is a sacred text. Incidentally, there are at least three retellings of the Mahabharata in Odia. The third is the Mahabharata which seems to have been written in the early eighteenth century by Krushna Singha.

Not many in Odisha, including those who, because of their profession are expected to know, are aware that Jagannatha Dasa wrote the Mahabharata. Some of the few who do, tend to believe that it was really composed by someone else and came to be known much later as Jagannatha Dasa’s work. By then Dasa had acquired fame and this work was ascribed to him - when, one would probably never know -  so that it did not suffer oblivion. When I asked him over phone whether there is any Odia Mahabharata other than Sarala’s and Krushna Singha’s, Asit Mohanty, journalist, editor and writer, told me that there is one that goes in the name of Jagannatha Dasa. In any case, from our present point of view, who the author of this text is matters little. What does, is that there is yet another retelling of Mahabharata in Odia.

Suryanarayan Das, in his authoritative history of Odia literature, says of this retelling that it is indeed a summary – a “summary” that runs into about nine hundred pages in print! - of Sarala Mahabharata, written in nabakshari brutta, the metre where each line of a couplet contains nine (naba) letters (akshara). Sarala Mahabharata was written in a different metre, known as dandi brutta, details of which are of no concern to us here. What is worth noting is that this (i.e., Jagannatha Dasa’s) retelling is a retelling, not of the canonical text, but of a prior retelling (i.e., Sarala Mahabharata) in the same language composed just a few decades ago. One would wonder why Jagannatha Dasa, a major poet, who knew Sanskrit, chose to do so, instead of retelling Vyasa Mahabharata. Was it to establish nabakhsari brutta as the metre of puranic narrative in Odia? Or were there other considerations as well? In any case, I do not know if, in any other regional language, there are such full-length retellings of a prior retelling of the Mahabharata in the same language.

Turning to the episode in question in Sarala Mahabharata, namely whether or not the Great Kurukshetra War would take place, I have presented Sarala’s version earlier, so here a summary should do. The following morning the rituals for the start of the war were to be performed. The night was deep when Krishna, Sakuni and Sahadeva met. Krishna asked Sakuni whether there must be war and Sakuni said that whatever he wanted would happen. If he didn’t want war and didn’t thereby want to perform his avataric task, then he, Sakuni, his servitor in Vaikuntha and on earth, would ensure that there would be no war. Krishna said that he would relieve the mother earth of her burden.

In Jagannatha Dasa Mahabharata, the story is almost the same as in Sarala Mahabharata. The context of their meeting is the same. They were staying together that night in Indraprastha. Earlier that day, by sheer coincidence, Sakuni had had arrived there to meet Yudhisthira. A while ago, just before his arrival, on hearing from Krishna about his humiliation in the Kaurava court, the eldest Pandava had asked his brothers to get ready for war to avenge the Kauravas’ ill treatment of Hari. Sakuni had come to work out a plan with the Pandavas for dividing the war field of Kurukshetra - who would camp in which half and related matters. But instead, he proposed peace. He suggested to Yudhisthira to give up his claim to the kingdom and retire to forest with his brothers. The ignorant may prosper in this life but suffer in narka (hell), said Sakuni, whereas the virtuous may suffer in this life but are amply compensated in the next. His words had no impact on the eldest Pandava. He had already made up his mind on war.

That night Sakuni spent in Indraprastha and that was how the three met. Sakuni said, O Govinda, now war is inevitable. However, if you order me, I will ensure that the Kauravas and the Pandavas become friends and peace prevails.” Krishna said, “Sakuni, no. …kaurabe thile srushti kahin // pandabe ebe panthu rajya / tu puni kara pitru karjya (Where would the world be if the Kauravas remain alive / Let the Pandavas get the kingdom / You do the work for your father) //” Sakuni told Krishna that the adversaries should then start the work of dividing the war field and that the Pandavas would win if they stayed in the eastern half. And he, Krishna, he told the avatara, must make it happen.

Sahadeva said nothing to all this. In both versions he was only the witness. But why did Sarala Dasa and Jagannatha Dasa choose to have a witness at all? No answer emerges from the texts; there aren’t even hints. One might suggest that what Sanjaya was to the Srimad Bhagavad Gita discourse, Sahadeva was to this conversation. The narratives posited a third person listener, a potential reporter or a drasta (seer) who sees the sense of happening at the alaukika (cosmic) level. In any case, it this conversation indeed that settled the question of war - not Duryodhana’s refusing to give the Pandavas anything at all of the kingdom, not Draupadi’s humiliation or the Pandavas’ suffering during the long years of exile, Draupadi’s untied hair or even Krishna’s humiliation, etc.

Now, the similarities between Sarala’s and Jagannatha Dasa’s versions are many, which is to be expected, going by Suryanarayana Das’s observations on the relation between these two texts. But there are some nuanced differences as well.

The exchange is Sarala Mahabharata can be seen as a little lila of Krishna. When Sakuni asked him whether there would be war or not, Krishna’s answer was what he, Sakuni, thought about it. Humans must decide what concerns them, could be said to be the import of Krishna’s counter question to Sakuni. But Sakuni, who thought of himself as Krishna’s servitor, would not be caught in the maya of Krishna that would make him see the humans as the karta (agent) of events. He knew who the karta was; so he turned the question on to Krishna; he wanted him to make the choice and say it – for him the choices were peace or doing what he had taken avatara for. When Krishna said explicitly that he was for the latter, it was the victory of the bhakta over bhagawan, who had failed to delude the bhakta and make him act as though he was the decider of things.

In Jagannatha Dasa Mahabharata, this lila is missing. Equally or even more significantly, here, war or no war was not going to be the decision of the humans. It would be Krishna’s decision. There was no place for conversation in the narrative, even for the sake of form. The Kauravas had to perish for reasons of restoration of the cosmic balance. Jagannatha Dasa’s perspective is different from Sarala’s in a subtle sense.

Jagannatha Dasa deviated significantly from Sarala Dasa again when his Krishna asked his Sakuni to avenge his father’s killing, explicitly, in so many words. With that, embodied in the second line of the second couplet, quoted above, the poet transformed that act of revenge, rooted in treachery, into an act of maha punya (great virtue) for the victim of Duryodhana’s treachery.



(I am grateful to Mr. Asit Mohanty, who not only told me about Jagannatha Dasa Mahabharata but also went out of his way to lend me his only copy. This is a very generous gesture in view of the fact that this book is no longer available in the market.)