Tuesday, August 15, 2017


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


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


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.)

Sunday, May 21, 2017


From one point of view, it was not Sakuni who avenged the brutal murder of his father, uncles and relatives by his nephew, Duryodhana; it was indeed his father, King Gandharasena himself who did. He was the Causer Agent: Sakuni was merely “doing agent”, more an instrument than an agent. In fact, in a Sanskrit causative sentence with the explicit causer agent, the “doer” takes the instrumental marker. Gandharasena could not do it himself, so he armed his son with an unfailing revenge tool and told him how to go about destroying the Kauravas with it.

All the captives of Duryodhana were dead; there were just the father and the son alive. Gandharasena knew that his moment would soon come. “Listen, Sakuni,” he told his son, “you are my eldest son, you are capable and very knowledgeable (maha jnani). I have protected you. We all starved so that you do not. You had assured us that you would avenge us. Tell me, how will you do it?” Sakuni told him that he was an ignoramus and appealed to his father to tell him how he should go about it. “You are going, father”, he said, “tell me and rest assured that I will ever forget what you tell me.”  

Some might feel disappointed. Even the parent-child relationship is not without self-interest, not without expectation. Gandharasena’s sacrifice for his son was not unselfish. And what dark expectation! But wasn’t the world of Mahabharata a dark, dark world!

Some consolation that Sarala’s Gandharasena wasn’t that cruel to his son as Gandharasena in some versions of the Mahabharata. He didn’t make him lame, so that he never forgot that he had to take revenge.

Come to think of it, Sarala’s Gandharasena wasn’t a really a bad man. Like any father, he was worried about his daughter’s marriage. She was born in an inauspicious moment, so when she got engaged to a prince, the prince died. He readily accepted sage Vyasa’s advice to get his daughter married to a sahada tree first and then to Dhritarashtra. Vyasa himself conducted the marriages. Vyasa, Dhritarashtra’s father, knew that Gandhari and Dhritarashtra’s marriage was arranged by the stars because when the latter got engaged to a princess, she would die. The arrogant and foolish Duryodhana punished his maternal grandfather entirely unjustly. Like any other grandfather, Gandharasena loved his grandchild. That was why he told Duryodhana what he did not want to hear but what would be good for him, namely that he must never go to war against his cousins, the Pandavas, because being sons of gods, they were stronger than him. He trusted Duryodhana. He acted like the grandfather and not the king, when he sent his army back to the capital when asked to do so by his nephew and came with him Duryodhana along with his brothers and relatives, not even knowing where he was taking them. Till his imprisonment he had done nothing that could have been viewed as unworthy of a loving grandfather or a father.

To return to what Gandharasena told Sakuni. Duryodhana had brutally tortured and killed his family and relatives without any wrong doing by him or them. The dead must be avenged, he told Sakuni. He gave him the revenge plan and with that he bound him up for life. He told him that after his death, he must collect the bones of his hands. In complete secrecy, from the bones of his right palm, he must get two dice sticks made and from the bones of his left palm, thirty dice cubes. Those sticks would obey his demands. One day Duryodhana would surely free him and make him his minister and most trusted adviser. He must take full advantage of that opportunity. Playing dice on behalf of Duryodhana, he must defeat Yudhisthira and make sure that he lost all his possessions, that the Pandava brothers became slaves of Duryodhana and their wife was dragged to the Kaurava court where she would be disrobed. Bhima would not stand that terrible humiliation and would never forget it. That would lead to a war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas and Bhima would wipe out Duryodhana and his brothers and their children. “I am telling you, my son,” said Gandharasena, “that war would end no other way. The Pandavas cannot be killed on the ground or in water or by fire.” Therefore the Pandavas must be used to eliminate the Kauravas. Poisonous sweets and the house of wax were not in Gandharasena’s scheme; for him two dice sticks were enough.

“After getting your nephews killed, do not live, my son,” said Gandharasena, “fight with Sahadeva and get killed in the war.” He had predetermined his life and now his death.

Not for nothing did his father have such complete trust on his eldest son’s competence. That intelligent prince appeared to be justly sceptical. Two dice sticks and a few dice cubes made of the bones of his father’s palms could really be the unfailing tools for taking on the mighty Duryodhana, Sakuni must have wondered. “Tell me, father”, Sakuni said, “when did your hands do so much punya (action that brings religious merit to the doer) that they are bestowed with such super human power?”

“It happened many, many years ago”, said Gandharasena. He was a recognized scholar of more shastras – sahasra shahastre (a thousand shastras), says Sarala - than anyone else then. But he would always lose a game of dice. So for fifteen years he did severe tapas to please goddess Ganga. The primordial goddess appeared and asked him what he wanted. He asked her for the divine dice sticks and cubes with which he would never lose a game of dice. The goddess gave him the sticks and cubes and asked him to return them to her after three years.

He defeated many kings and amassed a lot of wealth in the form of gold, gems, elephants, armies and much else. His treasury was overflowing. His reputation spread and kings were afraid of meeting him, lest he challenged them to a game of dice.  Three years over, he went to a place of pilgrimage called Uttrankura and prayed to the goddess. As he was placing the sticks and the cubes on the palm of the goddess, he made an appeal to her in all prayerful humility. “Grant me, Mother, this: let this grace of yours remain with my family in some form.” The Mother goddess granted his wish. She told him that after his death, his son must make sticks and cubes from the bones of his palms. Those would be bestowed with special powers and no one would defeat him in a game of dice if he played with the same. “Mother Ganga’s words with never be untrue, my son,” he said and those were his last words.  


A manuscript of Sarala Mahabharata has a slightly different story of King Gandharasena but the difference is both quite interesting and significant. This story is about his greed and punishment.

Pleased with Gandharasena, goddess Ganga had given him divine dice sticks and dice cubes and told him to return those to her on the completion of three years. For three years Gandharasena won all games of dice he played and amassed a lot of wealth and great reputation as a dice player. He had been a loser before he received the goddess’s boon and in just three years his fortune had changed so dramatically. Greed possessed him. He did not return those divine objects to the goddess.

Four more years passed. He must have been increasingly troubled by the fear of goddess’s wrath, if not by the voice of his conscience. Seven years over, one day he decided to return them to Ganga. The goddess was much displeased with him. She didn’t have the sticks and cubes when she needed them and had received scolding from her lord, Bhagawan Shiva. She cursed Gandharasena: jaare gandharasena pathara ghare bansa maru tohari (go Gandharasena, may your vansa – family - die in a house of stone).  Her curse was very harsh and very unjust. Why did she curse his brothers and relatives for his karma? If we know Sarala’s Ganga – impulsive, wild and impetuous - this would not surprise us.  

The rest of the story is the same as in the published version, edited by Artaballava Mohanty. In this version, the three couplets telling the story above are mentioned in a foot note. The cursed king got the boon from the goddess that her grace in empowering him in the game of dice would remain in his family in some form – the man’s greed was not confined to the present; it extended to the future. We know the rest of story of Gandharasena – the story of his bones that became sticks and cubes to play dice with.

Those sticks were never used by Sakuni to acquire wealth for himself, either before that fateful game of dice in the Kaurava court or after. That day he was playing on behalf of Duryodhana and for Duryodhana, but he alone knew that he was playing against Duryodhana and for revenge. It may not be accidental that all the wealth that Duryodhana gained that day, he lost on that very day itself! Did the poet want to tell his audience across centuries that the other side of the boon of the goddess was her curse, that the fruits of excessive greed could never be sweet?

Gandharasena did not forget that curse. As we know, he told his son about it. He knew that the curse of the goddess would materialize someday. How it was going to happen he did not of course know; the goddess, if even she herself did, hadn’t told him. That it would materialize through his grandchild and that along with his kin, he would die of starvation, he didn’t know. But even so, why did he think in terms of revenge when he knew that he was carrying the curse of the goddess? It didn’t occur to him that for what had happened to him and his kin, Duryodhana was a mere instrument in the hands of Destiny. It didn’t occur to him that he himself was responsible for their suffering. That realization might have calmed him and he wouldn’t have bound his son to do what he knew was very sinful. Why else did he ask him not to live after getting the Kauravas killed?

All the same. We should not perhaps judge him harshly. The pangs of starvation, the pain of seeing his dear ones die of hunger and the associated indignity and humiliation surely made him forget that all that was the fruit of his karma. He was an ordinary person; was no Bhishma or Drona. In Sarala Mahabharata, Bhishma knew that he had wronged Amba. She wanted to take revenge; unknown to her, he wanted to cooperate with her in that regard. Drona accepted Dhristadyumna as his pupil and taught him well, without discriminating between him and his other pupils, despite knowing that he was born to kill him.

17.5. 2017

Tuesday, May 9, 2017


Here my main purpose is not to retell a story from Sarala Mahabharata but only respond, by way of story-telling, to some important questions that friends have asked, who – in particular, Dr. Pradip Bhattacharya and Dr. Vineet Chaitanya, both eminent Mahabharata scholars - have been kind enough to read the post on why there is no “Sakuni Mamu” in Odia. That post contained a brief account of how Duryodhana had starved his maternal grandfather, his brothers and close relatives to death. The questions are mainly about how he could manage to do it, who all knew about it and by implication, why none prevented him from doing such a terrible, heinous act.

Duryodhana one day told Gandhari that he wanted to pay a visit to his maternal grandfather to see how he was faring and how he was taking care of his subjects. He sought her permission for this. This happened twelve years after Duryodhana’s humiliation in the Kaurava court by Bhima (see the post “I am siting, O Son of Golaka”). Gandhari had forgotten about it all and she happily gave her consent.

Duryodhana started for his maternal grandfather’s kingdom in great style. With him were his brothers Dussasana and Durjaya, his confidants Karna, Shalya, Kripa and Ashwasthama, a few loyal kings and a part of the Kaurava army. King Gandharasena received them in royal style.

Duryodhana told him that he wanted to meet him alone. The grandfather and the grandson met at an isolated place – on a nearby mountain. Duryodhana told him that he detested the Pandavas and was greatly troubled because of them. He had come to consult him in that regard, he told his grandfather. The latter counselled him not to be hostile towards his cousins because they were far stronger than him, born as they were from gods. The self-conceited nephew would not hear of it. He simply could not live with them and would have to get rid of them somehow, he told him. The loving grandfather invited him to stay with him for a few days. Duryodhana declined, saying that he was not in a proper frame of mind to relax then. He had to eliminate the Pandavas first.

He then invited his grandfather to come with him along with his brothers and close relatives and told him not bring his army with him. He agreed – which grandfather would not! Duryodhana didn’t invite them to Hastinapura; there is no mention of it in the narrative. It also does not say where he wanted to take them. From the context one could infer that he wanted the king of Gandhara, who considered the Pandavas invincible, to see for himself what plans he had made to eliminate them. So he brought them to the prison carved out, in great secrecy, by his orders, of the mountain, Lohagiri, in the forest named Saubhadra. He led them inside, asked the venerable guests to assess whether it would indeed be an impregnable prison for the Pandavas. Soon he came out and bolted the only door from outside and left, telling King Gandharasena that he had built that prison for him and not the Pandavas.

After they reached the kingdom of Gandhara, Dussasana, Karna and the rest of them disappear from the narrative. One possible interpretation would be the following: as they were talking about the Pandavas in that lonely place, the nephew told his grandfather to send his army back to the city; at that time he might have told all who had come with him to go back to Hastinapura.  Maybe to assure those who were coming with Gandharasena, if not him himself, that his intentions were absolutely honest. Maybe it was a proactive step. When he closed the prison door on his helpless victims, there was no one there. No one saw; there was none to tell what had happened. So goes the narrative.

Somehow – Sarala doesn’t tell us who told her, surely there was nothing dramatic or spectacular about it – Gandhari got to know about it. The noble mother reproached her sinful son. “You, evil-doer, are killing my father. He would have stood by you, would been an asset for you”, she told him. Her son paid no heed to her. She then pleaded with him to at least provide them food so long as they were alive. “I will do as you wish, Mother”, said the son. But the wicked one had other things in mind. He gave them a certain measure of food and water (bhaareka anna – one big basketful of rice and paani kalashaye – one big container of water). This was obviously grossly inadequate for the one hundred and ninety-seven unfortunate inmates. And after six months he asked the cook to provide them half of what they were getting till then. Then after some time he reduced it to just one plateful of rice.

Time came when Duryodhana freed Sakuni, believing, firmly, that he was the knower of the past, the present and the future. As for why he set him free, would you please turn to the post ‘Sarala Mahabharata as a novel prison-revenge story” (posted on July 18, 2016) in this blog? “I cannot give you back your father, brothers and relatives,” he told him, in a tone of sincere regret and reconciliation. He made him his chief adviser and since then, for him, Sakuni’s words were final.

He took him to Gandhari. “Listen, O daughter of King Gandharasena,” he said, “only one of your brothers is alive”. He must have thought that she would be happy. She was not. She was worried, on the contrary. Right in her brother’s presence, she told him not to trust him, who she was certain, would take revenge and destroy the Kauravas. The daughter had lost her father and now the mother did not want to lose her sons. 

Soon after all this, he wise Vidura met Yudhisthira. Duryodhana hated him and his brothers, he told him and warned him. He said that it was his wild anger and contempt for them that had resulted in the annihilation of Gandharasena and his family and relatives. That was how he saw it. Yudhisthira must always remain alert because Duryodhana and Sakuni would now try to harm him and his brothers. In particular, he should keep an eye on the rash and irresponsible Bhima, said Vidura.

“Is he so angry with me?” asked the embodiment of Dharma. If it would so happen that one day Dhritarashtra would become unloving to him, he, uncle Vidura, must be kind to him, he told him in a pleading tone. He would have none to be worried about in all the lokas, he said, if he enjoyed his blessings and the grace of Vasudeva.

Ever since I read Sarala Mahabharata, I have appreciated it a great deal more than ever before that the grand and profound narratives, especially the Mahabharata, the greatest and the grandest of them all, have not only characters but situations as well, that are in dire need of empathetic authors who would redeem them. 

By the way, it is worth noting that in Sarala Mahabharata, Sakuni has no leg injury or any other deformity. 

Friday, April 14, 2017


One day the Kauravas and the Pandavas were playing a game which, today, we would most likely call “kabaddi”. When there is jealousy, malice and hatred in the mind, a game like this could turn into a mini battlefield. This was precisely what happened that day. Misusing the rules of the game, Dussasana hit Yudhisthira so hard that he vomited blood. In response, Bhima mercilessly thrashed each of the hundred Kaurava brothers and they all passed out. Bhishma and Sanjaya arrived and revived the Kaurava princes.

Dhritarashtra was extremely worried. Most fervently he prayed to Bhagawan Balarama and he arrived. Dhritarashtra told him about what Bhima had done. He was very fearful about his children, he told him. Balarama smiled and said that things like that would happen in a game and that he should not be unduly worried. Dhritarashtra did not feel reassured by these words. So Balarama touched the head of each of his sons and said that from then on, they were his children too and that he himself would protect them. Saying that he left. Dhritarashtra was relieved.

Reaching home in Dwaraka, he told everything to his younger brother. No brother, not just in Sarala Mahabharata, in the entire puranic literature in Odia, was as indulgent to his younger brother as Balarama was to Krishna. He told Krishna that he had assured Dhritarashtra that he would protect his children. He would teach the use of mace to the Kauravas, so that in case the Pandavas fought them, Duryodhana would kill them all and become king.

Now Balarama didn’t know that Arjuna was very dear to Krishna. Krishna was worried. Without telling his brother, that very night he went to Indraprastha and met Arjuna. Since they met outside the palace, no one knew about their meeting - neither Kunti nor Arjuna’s brothers.  Arjuna prostrated himself at his feet again and again. Krishna asked him what had happened during the game. Arjuna told him everything: how Dussasana had hit Yudhisthira maliciously, how Bhima had got angry and beaten up the Kaurava brothers, how Balarama had arrived and assured Dritarashtra that he would henceforth protect his sons.

Krishna told him that Dhritarashtra was trying to exploit Balarama’s naivety, natural kindness and generosity and set him against them. From then on, he warned Arjuna, the Pandavas must never trust not only Dhritarashtra, but also Duryodhana, Karna, Ashwasthama and Shalya. Arjuna was overwhelmed with Krishna’s concern for them. “If you are so concerned for us, O Lord,” said Arjuna, “we will not be defeated even if we are pitted against not just one, but one lakh Balaramas.” Krishna liked his friend’s self-confidence but warmed him again. “Remember, Arjuna”, he told him,” you all must be extremely careful on matters of food and sleep. Often one falls into the enemy’s trap because of one’s lack of attention and other minor lapses. You must convey my message to your brothers and you must find a way of moving away from those who you must not trust.” Saying this, he left.

We might pause a while and reflect on these words of Destiny. Often one’s vulnerability relates to food and sleep. Bhima was given poisonous ladoos (sweets) after this meeting of Krishna and Ajuna and later, attempt was made to burn the Pandavas and their mother to death in a house of lak (wax) during their sleep. Destiny is not unkind; it forewarns, but ordinary mortals do not often understand its language.

To return to Arjuna. He went to Yudhisthira and told him what all Krishna had said. The son of Dharma was unruffled. “He is the Lord of the Universe and is the Soul of the Universe”, Yudhisthira told his brother, “he knows what is in whose mind, who thinks in terms of adharma and who, dharma.” However, there was no reason, he told Arjuna, for them to be worried on account of Dhritarashtra. They had always treated him with utmost respect. They were devoted to him. Why then would he want to harm them, he asked. One who wished ill of others would be consumed by one’s own adharma, he said. Therefore, the one who was ever untouched by anger and who could never look upon any one as his enemy, told Arjuna that the Pandavas must live in accordance with dharma and not worry about Dhritashtra.

One day, soon after his meeting with Balarama, Dhritarashtra told Sanjaya, his trusted advisor, that he was very worried about Bhima. His sons were not safe, he told him. He feared that being extremely wicked and powerful, Bhima might harm them. Sanjaya did not like Dhritarashtra’s attitude. If he was distinguishing between Pandu’s sons and his, then how would he look after the former, he asked him. With suspicion in his heart, how would he trust Pandu’s children and live with them? That very night Dhritarashtra sent for Vidura. 

“You are learned and wise,” said Dhritarashtra, “what do you think of Bhima?” Vidura told him that he must not worry about him. He was a mere child. Children in their innocence would always be like that – sometimes they would be friends, sometimes they would fight among themselves. Besides, he was their father’s elder brother. Their father having died, who, but he, was there to look after them, he counselled Dhritarashtra. The blind king was unimpressed. His sons would be unsafe so long as Bhima was alive, he told Vidura.

If that was in his mind, he must stop living with those five, said Vidura. Dhritarashtra was happy. He had given sensible advice, he told cousin Vidura. On the outskirts of Hastinapura, there was a hilly terrain called Indraprastha and he got a modest palace built there for his brother’s sons. Incidentally, Indraprastha became very prosperous only later – mainly at the time of Yudhisthira’s rajaswiya (alternatively, “rajaswa”) yajna. All that for a different post!

In the meantime, one day the wise elder Bhishma visited Dhritarashtra. He had just witnessed Bhima’s energy and power, he told him. Near Indraprastha there was the hill named Karabira. Bhima flattened that hill with just one hit with his mace and Bhima was a mere child! Knowing the wicked nature of the Kaurava princes, he advised Dhritarashtra to keep his children under control. The king was very nervous and disturbed. At what unfortunate moment had Kunti given birth to that son of hers, he wondered.

Sanjaya was there with him when the Pandavas paid their respects to him the following morning. Dhritarashtra ritually blessed them, sat with them and told Yudhisthira that along with his brothers he should live in Indraprastha. Duryodhana and Bhima could not stand each other. “Your brother, Bhima, is very wicked”, he told Yudhisthira”, “if he stayed in Hastinapura, there would be continuous tension and conflict.” “That was proper”, said the sinless Yudhisthira. He told him that they would happily leave for Indraprastha, in obedience to his wish.  

Kunti was very upset. She blamed Bhishma for having persuaded her to come to Hastinapura. She had settled down at the mountains of Satasringha. That was not very long ago. Now she again had to leave for a new place with her children. All this was unsettling for her.

One day, after they had moved to Indraprastha, Kunti chided Bhima. It was all because of his wickedness, she told him, that such problems arose for them from time to time. King Dhritarashtra was so kind and considerate towards them, and he spoiled everything.

Bhima behaved as though he was completely deaf.