Thursday, September 13, 2007


Sarala's Duryodhana was doomed virtually from birth. He and his ninety-nine brothers were born outside of their mother's womb through the blessings of the great sage Vyasa. Deeply worried over Bidura's prediction that his eldest child Duryodhana would be the cause of the destruction of the Kaurava clan, and should therefore be eliminated, a distressed Dhritarashtra invoked Vyasa. As he appeared, the father put the infant Duryodhana him on his lap, praying to the illustrious sage to bless him. Vyasa obliged. He blessed him that he be invincible in battle and lord over the kingdom. He moved his fingers on the infant's body, thereby infusing enormous power into it through his blessing. However, the only parts of the body, which accidentally escaped the sage's blissful touch, were his thighs and these thus remained vulnerable.

In Vyasa's lap as the infant cried and shook his limbs, his right foot hit the sage's chest, and the impact was so hard that he fell down unconscious. When he regained consciousness, he cursed the infant that that same foot be crushed in the battle. It was a terrible curse; as a consequence Duryodhana had to die a slow and painful death, which again was only part his suffering. Apart from the great Bhisma, perhaps no major warrior who fought in the Mahabharata war had to wait for death. But Bhisma's case was different; he chose the time of his death. Given the sage's curse, Bhima was the instrument of destiny when he roared in the Kaurava court before they departed to the forests for their twelve-year vanavaasa and one-year agnyaata vaasa that he would smash Duryodhana's thighs. When he did it in the decisive battle with Duryodhana, Vyasa's curse materialized; he was merely the means.

And incidentally, when Bhima dealt the fatal blow to Duryodhana, he did it not with his mace, but with Krishna's (Vishnu's), kaumodaki, in Sarala's language. He was completely unaware of this fact, as was everyone else, apart from Krishna of course, at whose wish the mace had come to Bhima's hands. No one was privileged to know of it even later. However, this fact is not directly related to Duryodhana's destiny. Its significance lies elsewhere, and we do not wish to dwell on it here.

It was Vyasa's curse that linked Duryodhana with Bhima; nothing in their past existences connected them - very unlike Dussasana and Draupadi, who were linked from an earlier existence. That link ended with the propitiation of the latter in the form of Dussasana's blood on her lips.

Duryodhana of course was born because of a curse, and Vyasa knew it. Duryodhana was no other than Pannanga Narayana himself, who was cursed by Sudraka Brahma to be born in the world of the mortals. The latter had performed most rigorous tapas to please the former, who not only did not respond to his tapas, but also destroyed it with the help of feminine attraction. When Sudraka Brahma realized what had happened, he cursed him. Pannanga Narayana appeared before the great god and pacified him. Sudraka Brahma assured him that he would enjoy a great life in the mortal world, that his divine spouse would join him as his wife, and that his status would be so high that he would not bow down to anyone, human or god. Anyone who dared to receive his bowing would be reduced to ashes. Saaralaa Mahaabhaarata constructs a belief system where an inferior could not receive reverence from a superior in the form of bowing or prostrating at the feet, etc. without being burnt to ashes.

This last assurance was obviously intended to be a boon, but it turned out to be nothing less than a curse. Duryodhana did not bow to anyone, but it would be unsatisfactory to say that it was entirely due to his arrogance, since it could not be due to it that he did not bow to his parents. However, it is not clear whether he had the memory of the boon, that is, whether his not bowing was actually an act of concern and considerateness, or whether that lost memory had taken the form of an almost instinctive action. However if the constraint on him with respect to showing respect was widely known, his own teacher and benefactor Balaram did certainly not know of it. As he was engaged in that decisive fight with Bhima, an angry Balaram appeared, with the intention of intervening in his favour, but withdrew, when on his arrival on the battlefield the Krishna and Pandavas repeatedly prostrated before him, but Duryodhana did not bow down to him. He blessed the Pandavas, chided Duryodhana and left. Human or god, it is impossible indeed to live in the world and not pay for transgressing the moral code of the world. The only one who was unaffected by all this was Krishna.

We need to note that whereas Sudraka Brahma's curse caused the birth of Duryodhana in the mortal world, it was certainly not the cause of his agonizing death in the Mahabharata war. Now a reasonable question to ask is whether Vyasa himself was destiny's instrument. He was not; there is no evidence in Sarala's text to support this.
Apart from Vyasa's curse, there is yet another thread that connected Vyasa and Bhima in Saaralaa Mahabhaarata. The sage went to Pandu and advised him and his wife Kunti that the latter should get a child from god Pavana. The god's son would be immensely powerful, and would be able to deal with Gandhari's hundred sons who would turn out to be both powerful and wicked, and would deny Pandu's sons the kingdom. And this led to the birth of Bhima. One could connect this action of the sage to his curse by suggesting that he was arrogant and mean enough to work towards bringing into the world someone enormously powerful through whom his curse would materialize. Whereas we do not deny that there may be some merit to this view, we should also like to observe that Sarala's work does not make this connection explicitly, because of which such an interpretation might be far-fetched.

In any case, destiny worked very differently for Bhima. Soon after his birth, a finger of his left foot hit a peak of the Mountain Satasringa, and it crumbled to pieces. An angry and wounded Satasringa cursed Bhima that he would lose the first time in a battle. Kunti was very upset, and told the mountain that he was grossly unfair in cursing her innocent infant, and cursed him that he would suffer the agony of people cutting away parts of it. The chastised mountain prayed for her forgiveness, and assured her that after his first defeat, Bhima should invoke him, upon which he would acquire such immense energy that he would be invincible in battle.

Sarala's Kunti was a remarkably self confident person. She immediately protested against a very unjust curse, and as a victim of the abuse of power, even went to the extent of cursing the mountain in response, which readily brought about corrective action. In contrast, Dhritarashtra did not utter a word. In so much in awe he was of the celebrated sage, who was also the revered family elder, that it did not seem to have even occurred to him that his eldest child had been unjustly treated. He might also have been too stunned to react to what had happened. Bidura had already suggested that the infant be put to death for the survival of the clan, and a deeply troubled father was seeking Vyasa's blessings in order to negate the impact of the malignant forces that possessed his son. And here was the redeemer who uttered such a horrible curse. Then all said, Dhritarashtra of Sarala was not the man who was capable of protesting, but more about him elsewhere.

Consider Vyasa's conduct. Consider the way he was situated with respect to the children of Gandhari. He was a great sage, learned in the shastras, and he was the knower of the past, the present and the future. He was reverentially called, in Sarala's words, duti krushna ("Second Krishna"). That apart, he was the family's venerable eldest, and as such the protector of the family, which must have primarily been why Dhritarashtra sought his blessings for Duryodhana. Then it was because of his intervention that Gandhari's children were born; thus there was a special bond between them and him, on account of which it would not be unreasonable for Dhritarashtra if he expected that the great sage would protect them.

Surely it did not occur to Vyasa that if the impact of an infant's foot was so powerful, it was not natural, and he did not pause to think that it was because of his caress that his body had acquired such enormous power, so angry he was. It also did not occur to him that the infant did not act out of choice and as such was not responsible for what had happened. His anger might have been due both to the pain he had suffered, and the humiliation he might have felt on having fallen unconscious by being hit. Here was a small, arrogant man who misused his power in a most deplorable manner. Apart from this, Vyasa's conduct was well above reproach in Sarala's text. But this one grievously unjust act far outweighs a lifetime's good deeds done; it led to a totally meaningless engagement between Duryodhana and Bhima.

The man never repented even once for his despicable act, an act for which there are hardly any parallel in Saaralaa Mahaabhaarata. He never suffered disgrace in the unjust world; he did not suffer disgrace in his own eyes. Moral order is never more strongly violated than when men of learning and spiritual attainments and stature abuse their power against totally helpless victims. And often there is no redress. Krishna did not put duti krushna in place!

Friday, September 7, 2007

The Story of Durdasa

Durdasa of Sarala’s Mahabharata, the first retelling of the classical story in Oriya in the fifteenth century, strongly reminds one of Yuyutsu of Vyasa’s Mahabharata. Since Gandhari’s children were born at the compassionate intervention of Durvasa, all her children were given names beginning with the syllable du, as an expression of gratitude to the illustrious sage. However, whereas Yuyutsu prospered under the protection of the Pandavas, Durdasa perished. In Saaralaa Mahaabhaarata, by which name the text is popularly known, no one’s story is more poignant than Durdasa’s. Durdasa was the one who at Yudhisthira’s call on the Kurukshetra battlefield left Duryodhana’s army and joined the Pandavas. Yudhisthira blessed him for a long life; “you will live as long as I am alive”, he told him. It was not just a wish; it was an assurance too.

Yudhisthira had gone to the Kaurava’s side to seek the elders’ blessings for victory in the war. Ignoring counsel of his brothers, he had gone there alone and weaponless. Stung by Durdasa’s decision and Krishna’s celebration of the same, Duryodhana ordered his army to attack both Durdasa and Yudhisthira, who was still in the enemy’s part of the battlefield. And with his army going into the attack, the Mahabharata war started.

To a bewildered and frightened Yudhisthira, Durdasa said that he had no cause for worry as long as he was alive. And the brave son of Gandhari fought valiantly against the Kaurava warriors until Bhima arrived on the scene. And so overwhelmed was Bhima by Durdasa’s act of protecting Yudhisthira that he too told him that as long as he remained alive, let alone humans, gods and demons would not dare to even think of causing him any harm.

This was how Durdasa’s story began. He surfaced later when Yudhisthira asked him to stay on in the battlefield and protect the vanquished and mortally wounded Duryodhana from the attack of the wild animals during the night. And that was a catastrophic night. As Duryodhana appointed Ashwasthama as his commander-in-chief, Durdasa was a mere uninvolved witness, and at the day break as the former was seen coming with a carrier containing the severed heads, Durdasa in a disinterested tone informed Duryodhana about Aswasthama’s coming with the severed heads of the Pandavas. Soon he would again inform him in the same tone that those were actually the heads of Draupadi’s sons, and would be a witness to his great agony over this incident. Soon after, Durdasa, anguished over the calamity that had befallen the Pandavas, would tell Krishna about all that had happened, and about how Duryodhana had harshly rebuked Aswasthama for what he had done, and had forsaken him, and how he had died with the heads of Draupadi’s sons in his lap, bitterly grieving over their death.

Later Durdasa went with the victorious Pandavas and Krishna to meet Dhritarashtra and Gandhari. The grief-stricken couple was persuaded by Bidura to meet them. As the Pandavas paid their obeisance to them, Gandhari could not control herself and charged them of killing innumerable people for the sake of kingdom. Then she said that she had not seen her husband and her children, and now she wanted to see the Pandavas which would be some consolation for her. She wanted them to take the cover off her eyes. A suspicious Krishna quietly asked Sahadeva what her intentions were, and Sahadeva said that she wanted to destroy the Pandavas with her fiery glance.

“There must be no residue of enemies”, said Krishna to Sahadeva, and he went to Durdasa and asked him to take off the cover from his mother’s eyes. As he did so, Gandhari’s fiery look reduced him to ashes instantly. First Bidura and then Krishna reprimanded her for destroying her only surviving son who Yudhisthira had protected, and told her that if Yudhisthira perished, dharma would perish. He asked her to cover her eyes again. A chastened Gandhari obeyed without a word.

So that was the end of Durdasa. He just went out of Saaralaa Mahaabhaarata and was not heard of any more. Those who had assured him long life until they themselves were alive were still alive. Granted that neither Yudhisthira nor Bhima had any knowledge of what was to come, but neither even uttered a word of protest after the meanest and the crudest of betrayals took place, and trust was most cynically murdered. As Durdasa was burning, the Pandavas moved away under Krishna’s protection from the sight of Gandhari. The conduct of Bhima does not merit even a mention, let alone a censor. He was one who could drink his cousin’s blood without a second thought because he had taken such an oath, but had surely no hesitation in shying away from the assurance he had given a benefactor of the Pandavas. He epitomized just sheer energy and power; where is the place of sensitivity, and moral sense and discrimination in all that?

But what could one say of Yudhisthira? Durdasa had taken shelter under him, and he had granted him his protection. It was his sacred duty to ensure that he came to no harm. When the event took place, he probably was too surprised and too shocked to react, and things had happened too fast. He surely had not thought of the destructive power of Gandhari’s glance. But nothing really absolves him of his silence. His silence was his acquiescence in the act, and thus he had necessarily become part of it - the very embodiment of dharma had abandoned dharma.

No tears need be shed for Gandhari since she got only what she deserved. Eighteen days of such comprehensive destruction had not hardened her against killing, and had also not made her realize that anger and hatred yielded no solution and that an act of revenge of the most destructive nature did not put the lid on anything. She paid a very heavy price indeed to learn that one could not eliminate the other without eliminating a vital part of oneself.

On the ground that deception, and similar others, could be accepted as the weapon of the weak and the helpless against the mighty, one might feel hesitant to judge her too harshly for the low cunning she was employing to destroy the Pandavas. But she really deserves no sympathy because she was by no means weak, with the kind of weapon she knew she had, namely her fiery glance, from which there was no protection.

Poor Durdasa. Despite protecting Yudhisthira when he was most vulnerable and most unprotected, and despite his not having said or done anything that would invite even a shade of suspicion that he was hostile to the interests of the Pandavas, he ultimately remained the outsider, the other in their midst. It was his birth as a Kaurava that determined his identity, not his action. Thus he remained the enemy, the shatru, as Krishna put it with such ruthless clarity. His instant destruction was the only blessing he had – he had no time to look back and reflect on things, on the utter unfairness of it all.

Finally turning to Krishna, he orchestrated, and was the high priest at, what one can call the last sacrifice at the altar of the Mahabharata war. The mention of war after the Kurukshetra battlefields had become quiet need not surprise one; didn’t Krishna characterize Durdasa as the last residue of the enemy? Krishna’s action leaves one thoroughly bewildered and morally defeated. Why did Durdasa have to die? It would be morally revolting to swallow Krishna’s description of him. If, as the knower of the past, the present and the future, Krishna knew something about him that damned him as the enemy of the Pandavas, he did not share it with others. If there was a cosmic design behind his destruction, Krishna did not explicate it to make the unfortunate event intelligible to the ordinary mortals.

Saaralaa Mahaabhaarata does not condemn Krishna; Sarala was a devotee. As for us, we do not know with what yardsticks to judge an avatar, who is constrained by the form he takes, and at the same time exceeds it in dimensions beyond the fullest realizations of the possibilities of that form. Thus Krishna is and yet is not subject to the human moral system But such a juxtaposition of opposites lacks intelligibility and coherence. But what hopefully does not is the following: as an avatar who, unlike say, Nrusingha, lived among humans, shared his life with them, and participated in their affairs, he was obligated to give the humans a meaningful explanation of his action that strongly offended moral sense. We charge him of failure to do this.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

On Two Acts of Revenge

There are two major acts or revenge in Sarala’s Mahabharata (also called Saaralaa Mahaabhaarata here, following popular usage, in which the creator’s name becomes part of that of his creation): Duryodhana’s and Sakuni’s. Duryodhana avenged a perceived wrong done to his father by destroying his maternal grandfather, all his sons, his close relatives and friends, except Sakuni. We do not wish to go here into what low cunning he resorted to in order to lure his victims to their own destruction, what inhuman cruelty he had subjected them to, and how just one man survived his destructive design. However we would like to clarify that making that exception for Sakuni was not intentional on Duryodhana’s part. It was an accidental event that led the crown prince to think that the sole survivor would prove to be very useful in his fight with the Pandavas; so he made him a minister, ignoring his mother’s warning that her brother Sakuni was a dangerous person, and would surely take revenge.

This was precisely what Sakuni did. He was in no position to avenge the killing of his father and his brothers on his own strength. The Kauravas were just far too powerful. What Sakuni did for revenge was what the weak can do to annihilate the mighty. He abandoned the straight path, and followed the devious route. He soon became the crown prince’s confidant, and his principal adviser. It was he who pushed Duryodhana to the disastrous war, when all his elders had advised the crown prince against it. Thus these two acts of revenge converged on the battlefields of Kurukshetra where Duryodhana and his brothers were wiped out.

In those violent days revenge was elevated, for the elite at least, to the status of a duty, even a sacred duty, when it came to one’s family. The two acts of revenge under reference here differed in certain ways, and most of them could be located in the two agents - what they thought was adequate justification for their action, and what they thought of the action itself. Duryodhana’s revenge was a sickly arrogant response to what he felt was an affront to his self-esteem. His feeling that his father had been wronged by his maternal grandfather was nothing but an exercise in either self-deception or rationalization. Before his mother Gandhari married his father Dhritarashtra, she had been married to a saahadaa tree which died the moment the marriage took place. On account of some unfortunate constellation of stars at the time of her birth, her husband was doomed to die. So following the great sage Vyasa’s advice, her father first married her to the tree in order to neutralize the malignant effect, and then married her to Dhritarashtra. From Duryodhana’s point of view his maternal grandfather had done a grievous wrong to his father by giving him a widow in marriage. This he thought called for revenge. It is another matter that others, including his mother, did not think that Dhritarashtra had been wronged. But revenge is not merely intensely personal, it is intensely blind too.

In Sakuni’s case, he, the eldest son of the king of Gandhar, was the chosen avenger by the members of his family who were dying a slow death. They made sacrifice in order for him to live. And before his father died, he told him what course of action to follow in order to avenge their deaths. He also told him that after taking revenge, he must not live - one could not destroy one’s nephews and continue living thereafter. Thus Sakuni had to perform a double duty, which he did.

Karna had just fallen, as had Bhishma, Drona, and other great Kaurava warriors, and all the Kaurava princes with the exception of Duryodhana. As Sakuni and Sahadev faced each other on the battlefield, the latter told the former that since his purpose had been served, he had no reason to take part in the war and should go back to his kingdom instead and rule there. Sakuni told him that he had sinned grievously by being the cause of the death of his nephews, other relations, dynasties, and also of innumerable soldiers. He had thus forfeited his right to live and had to atone for it by sacrificing his life in the battlefield. He challenged Sahadev on the last day of the war, and was killed by him.

In those days when successful revenge was a matter of honour and glory and even of otherworldly merit, Sakuni’s put an emphatic question mark on this attitude to revenge. He knew, as did his father, that one could not destroy others without committing oneself to destroy oneself in the process. Thus his act of revenge was simultaneously his act of suicide. Sakuni’s revenge dharma detached him from his act of revenge because one cannot choose to commit suicide without detachment from self. He acted when he systematically executed his revenge on Duryodhana, and was true to self when he fought Sahadev on the eighteenth day of the war with full knowledge of the result of that engagement.

In contrast to his maternal uncle, Duryodhana was a man of his time. He had internalized its values, and did not critique them. As such, revenge for him was a demand of justice; that was why it was a noble act. In his consuming arrogance and his intense hatred of the Pandavas, he never realized that he could himself be a victim of that hatred – after all, it resided in him, and pervaded his whole being. It is easy to condemn him, as his elders often did, but they didn’t help him grow up. He remains an object of pity.

Duryodhana died with the same illusion with which he had lived ever since he made Sakuni his minister; his faith in Sakuni was intact. Almost every elder and every well-wisher in his family had warned him that Sakuni was untrustworthy and would avenge his family’s killing, and drive him to his destruction, but he had complete trust in him. Sakuni’s death plunged him into abject despair – perhaps the ultimate disaster that one could suffer. One feels sorry for him, he was a man betrayed by the one his faith on whom had never wavered. If there was one good that Sakuni had done him, intentionally or unintentionally, we can never be certain, it was this: even at the very end he didn’t tell him the truth about himself.

At the same time this was the ultimate deception of uncle Sakuni. He withheld the truth from the victim. Perhaps the victim had a right to know. He could have breathed his last with knowledge which would have been redeeming. Perhaps justice demanded that the condemned knew why he had been punished.

But let us not be harsh on Sakuni. Here was a man who had condemned himself the day he had decided that he would take revenge. He had signed a bond with his relatives in their blood that he would avenge their miserable death. He lived a life acting, to redeem that pledge. He succeeded, but the success gave him no satisfaction, no sense of fulfillment. Instead it had filled him with a profound sense of sin. At this point of time, the only image of Duryodhana he had was that of his nephew. He wanted to pay the price with all earnestness, and walked on to his death. At that moment he was lonely, utterly lonely, emptied inside of every feeling and thought except the reassuring thought of his own death through which he knew would come his redemption. His language was already dead within him, what could he have told anybody anyway?

Friday, July 13, 2007


There is an interesting episode in Karna Parva of Saaralaa Mahaabhaarata which is as follows: On the sixteenth day of the Mahabharata war, Bhima killed Dussasana, and poured his blood on Draupadi’s head, and as the blood trickled down her face, she licked it with relish. That night she sent for Bhima. Krishna was with Bhima, who was forever discontented with sex and war, and hungered for more, when Draupadi’s messenger gave her invitation to him. Bhima was delighted. Krishna called him aside and told him that he should give full satisfaction to her, and when satiated, she would want to grant him a boon. He should get out of her bed, and pray to her not to put the Pandavas and Krishna to her sword. This surprised Bhima, but he did not say a word, and went to Draupadi’s chamber.

Things happened exactly as Krishna had said. As Draupadi offered him a boon, Bhima did exactly as he was advised by Krishna. Draupadi told him that he must have been tutored by Krishna, and then announced that she would devour not only him but also his three brothers, and Krishna’s clan as well, and spare only Yudhisthira. It was not clear whether she included Krishna himself when she said “Krishna’s clan”, but when Bhima reported all these to Krishna the following morning as they were all getting ready to go to the battlefield, he mentioned him and not his clan – quite the reverse indeed. It is not clear whether it was a lapse of memory on Bhima’s part, or whether it was his interpretation of what he had heard from Draupadi. It is possible that Draupadi did not explicitly mention Krishna as a mark of respect for the avataara. In any case, when Krishna heard all this, he started sweating. Draupadi was not an ordinary mortal that day; as Krishna knew; she was the goddess of destruction and death.

She did not explain why she would spare Yudhisthira – gods and goddesses did not often care to give humans reasons for their actions. And on his part, Bhima did not ask her for her reasons either; he must surely have been too shocked and too scared for that, despite Krishna’s preparing him for that situation.

In the end, barring Yudhisthira, the Pandava brothers and Krishna along with his clan succumbed to death. In fact all of them died violent deaths, barring Balarama, who sat in meditation, and gave up his mortal form. The Pandava brothers, worn out by fatigue and age, could not withstand the hostile nature as they were climbing up the Himalayas. Krishna was hit by an arrow and succumbed to the wound.

Who was Yudhisthira? He was the son of the god Dharma, who was blessed by his father to be the ruler who would rule in accordance with dharma, and who would receive reverence from even the avataara (“incarnation”) of the Supreme god, Narayana. But the one who Krishna paid obeisance to, lived a lonely life, by all accounts. As a child he displeased his mother on account of his compassionate nature, which she thought was grossly inappropriate for the future ruler. His brothers and his wife Draupadi did not share his values and perspectives, which they thought were unbecoming of the kshyatriyas (“members of the warrior class”). They were impatient and even scornful of his generosity towards the Kauravas. Duryodhana sometimes mistook his generosity as his weakness. In the Kurukshetra battlefield, before the start of the war, Yudhisthira walked alone and weaponless to the Kaurava side of the battlefield, and Duryodhana thought that Yudhisthira was frightened at the sight of the Kaurava army, and was coming to seek peace. He, however, was going to meet the Kaurava elders and seek their blessings for victory in the war. He received blessings of Bhishma, Drona, Bhurishrava, Krupacharya, Karna, etc., and it occurred to him even at that stage he could still make an effort to avoid the war. He went to Duryodhana and pleaded with him for just one village for the Pandavas. The fate of his pleading needs no mention. 

Yudhisthira was deeply distressed when Bhima abused and kicked Duryodhana after mortally wounding him in the battle. He went to him, spoke to him as indulgently as an elder brother would to an erring younger brother, and declared that he would give the kingdom to him and retire to the forest. Bhima laughed at him. Soon when the time came, he was completely unwilling to become the king. He considered himself responsible for the death of the great Kaurava elders, his cousins and other relatives, among many others. He grieved deeply, and he felt utterly miserable. When he said that he wanted to leave the kingdom in the hands of his brothers and retire to the forest, he knew that his brothers were not with him. That indeed was the first time he said that he would go to the forest alone. His brothers responded by saying unkind words to him. He probably had never been as lonely as then, as though time comes when one committed to dharma finds himself utterly lonely. 

Whenever they met, Krishna paid his obeisance to him, and never said a single word about him that would even remotely suggest lack of reverence. At the same time he didn’t hesitate to betray Yudhisthira’s implicit trust on him, when what the latter wanted was at cross-purposes with what he wanted. With great hope Yudhisthira sent him as his emissary to Duryodhana’s court in order to avoid the war. But Krishna wanted war, and through his unreasonable, in fact impossible, demands of which Yudhisthira knew nothing, he ensured that war took place. It would appear to be a cynical act of betrayal, looking at it from the worldly perspective. It was, however, quite different from point of view of divine purpose, but we need not dwell on it here. As for Draupadi, she performed her traditional role as his wife, but worked against his wishes at his back on the issue that mattered to him most. When Krishna told her that he was going to Hastinapura as Yudhisthira’s emissary for peace, she most emphatically expressed her desire for war, and pleaded with Krishna to work for war.

This was the man whom death would not touch. Draupadi as the goddess of death had declared it to Bhima on that fateful night. Yudhisthira was not just the biological son of the god Dharma, he was a practitioner of dharma in life - in his word, thought and deed, he served the cause of dharma. How could the embodiment of dharma on earth become a victim of death? How could dharma die? 

True, dharma needs the support of power. Without power, dharma is ineffective. Yudhisthira needed the support of Krishna, and then of his brothers. He told Krishna so very often that everything the Pandavas had was because of his grace. And Krishna was obliged to support Yudhisthira; that was in some sense his avataara dharma. But unlike dharma, protectors of dharma need not be beyond death. In the changed times either dharma would remain ineffective or new protectors of it would emerge. As Saaralaa Mahaabhaarata repeatedly declares, incarnations of Bhagawana Vishnu appear from time to time to rid the world of its burden. 

Now, what was dharma as represented by Yudhisthira in Saaralaa Mahaabhaarata? He was knowledgeable and wise. The questions which god Dharma, in the guise of a crane, asked him tested his knowledge, ethical sense, and sense of discrimination. The god was satisfied with his answers. He was greatly pleased at Yudhisthira’s moral commitment. His four brothers were lying dead, and when Dharma offered him the lives of two of his four brothers, he ignored Draupadi’s suggestion and request for Bhima and Arjuna, and chose instead his stepmother’s sons Nakula and Sahadeva, whom their mother had left in his care as she entered the fire to sacrifice herself. He would not betray her trust. Yudhisthira was truthful, and would suppress the truth only when he thought such an action would contribute to easing of tension. For instance, he did not want any one to know that Duryodhana had given Bhima poisonous food with an intention to kill him. 

What however stands out in Sarala’s portrayal of him is his considerate, empathetic, and compassionate nature. Personal relationship mattered a great lot to him. After all the misery that Duryodhana had brought on him and his brothers, he would still ask the strongly reluctant Bhima and Arjuna to get Duryodhana out of trouble on certain occasions when he was in utter distress. He would rather end his life than live to see the blind father Dhritarashtra suffer the agony of the loss of his sons, he would say. It was an irony that fate had stored for him that he came to be an important part of the process that ended in enormous violence and colossal destruction.

In death’s reluctance to bring the mortal Yudhisthira under its clutches, one finds the victory of dharma over death, and the celebration of empathy and compassion as the very foundation of dharma. This is at least how Sarala would like us to see it. 


In Sarala’s Mahaabhaarata (also called Saaralaa Mahaabhaarata), Krishna acted deceitfully many times. By asking for the impossible he ensured that the Kurukshetra war took place. True, he asked for just two villages for the Pandavas, but he characterized those villages in such a way that Duryodhana could never have given them. As Sakuni told Duryodhana, if he gave him even a single village, he would be left with no place to put even his foot on. During the war, Krishna advised the Pandavas to resort to unfair means to kill some of the great Kaurava warriors including Drona, Karna and Duryodhana. He himself manipulated the killing of Jayadratha. After the war, he got the last surviving son of Dhritarashtra destroyed through an act of deceit of the vilest and the most cynical kind. At the call of Yudhishtira in the name of dharma on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, Jujutsu had left his Kaurava brothers and had come over to the Pandavas’ side and had fought for them. It was the sacred duty of the Pandavas to protect him, but their mentor tricked the only surviving Kaurava to his destruction. The list of Krishna’s deceit would indeed be long. Deceit, as it were, was his second nature.

So what is so special about his last deceit? Indeed there is. First, one’s last act is always special, as is perhaps the first. Secondly, this was an act that had a direct and a desirable consequence on himself - Krishna passed away as a result of this deceitful act. Thirdly, the victim of his deceit in this instance was no other than Arjuna, with whom he had the closest relationship. Incidentally, this was a situation where both Arjuna and Krishna were agents and victims of mutual deceit; however, there was this asymmetry that the former did not know that the latter was deceiving him. Finally, this time Krishna acted deceitfully with solely his own interest in mind, unlike at others, when he had at least the interests of others, at least apparently.

Under the thick siaali bushes as he lay fatally wounded by an arrow shot unknowingly by the sawara (a certain tribe) Jara and in great pain, Krishna asked Jara, who was inconsolable on discovering what he had done, to go to Hastinapur and bring Arjuna alone (not any of the other Pandavas) to his presence. Overwhelmed with grief, Yudhisthira permitted Arjuna to go to Krishna’s presence. Sahadeva, his youngest brother and the knower of the past the present and the future, told Arjuna that he should not touch Krishna, although he did not say why he should not. This was how Sahadeva always spoke; he often did not give a reason or an explanation for such things, unless specifically asked. And Arjuna must have been too upset to do so.

Krishna wept as he saw Arjuna. “Come, brave Partha, and take me in your arms, which will give me comfort”, he told him. Standing a little away from him, Arjuna refused: “I’m a mere mortal, and you are Narayana Himself. How can I touch you?” Krishna then went on to tell him what all he had given up for his sake, how he had displeased even his elder brother Balaram by supporting him, etc., and in the name of all that he had done for him, he begged him to hold him in his arms as he was dying. All Arjuna did was repeat that being a sinful person, he could never think of touching his divine body. The clever person he was, Krishna could figure out why Arjuna was being so reluctant; he understood that Sahadeva must have told Arjuna not to touch him. He again pleaded with him to hold him in embrace, but again Arjuna said that being a mere mortal, he was afraid of touching him who was an avataar of Vishnu Himself. Krishna told him that he could at least come close and extend his hand to him, but Arjuna flatly refused even that, saying that he did not have Yudhisthira’s permission for this. In that case he could extend his bow so that he could touch one end of it and feel comforted, Krishna told him, and Arjuna was willing. As he touched the end of the bow, Krishna passed away, looking at Arjuna.

Thus did Krishna pass away. From one point of view, it was only appropriate that he, who had caused so much wanton violence, met with a violent end - it was as though justice was meted out to him by some organizing principle of the universe, never mind that whereas he had deliberately caused violence, he was the unintended victim of violence. “O Prajapati, so this is what you had ordained for me”, Krishna thought as he was suffering the blinding pain of the wound on his foot. He seemed surprised; it surely had never occurred to him that he could not be immune to violence while causing violence to others.

There is again something strangely appropriate that he who had practiced cheating so often in life had to resort to it as he lay dying. It is indeed ironical that he had to deceive Arjuna who was the dearest to him and for whose sake he had used deceit more than once on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. Jayadratha could be killed through Krishna’s deceit and thereby Arjuna’s life was saved.

As mentioned earlier, Arjuna could not see that Krishna was cheating him. He was of course no fool, and he was not unaware that Krishna was quite capable of cheating – he had seen him doing it so many times, but it would have never occurred to him that it could be he, his best friend, who Krishna, his mentor, would be deceiving. After all, there are no explicit signals that distinguish deceitful words or action from the sincere ones. It was entirely natural for the one in agony and dying to request his best friend to comfort him with his touch. It was also equally natural that when denied this request, he would mildly charge him of ingratitude, reminding him of all that he had done for him. There was no ring of falsehood in the entire sequence of Krishna’s requests ending with the one to stretch his bow to him.

As today’s “audience” of Sarala, presumably five hundred years after his first listeners listened to his Mahaabhaarata, we might ask why Krishna deceived his best friend and protégé at all and that too as he lay dying. After Krishna passed away, Arjuna found that he had become powerless. Had Krishna then chosen deceit as the means of communication in order to impress upon Arjuna that without him he was utterly powerless? But did Arjuna really need to be made aware of this? If he hadn’t learnt already, despite his numerous experiences to this effect, was there any point in creating one more learning context for him? Krishna’s conduct appears to lack sufficient justification. People say that one’s true nature reveals itself at the time of one’s death. Then did Krishna cheat merely because cheating came almost naturally to him?

Sarala would want us to see Krishna’s action from a different perspective. Krishna knew who he was; he knew that he would not and could not leave his mortal form without contact with Arjuna, as though there was a part of him in Arjuna, which he had to withdraw from him through physical contact and absorb in himself in order to become complete. He couldn’t depart incomplete. Surely Sahadeva knew this or had some sense of this. An uncooperative Arjuna had to be tricked into the act. Not knowing how to refuse Krishna, Arjuna resorted to lies, but what lie could deceive the ultimate deceiver, the ultimate actor, who was also the ultimate knower?

An avataar in his Mahaabhaarata, Krishna behaved as man and as god himself. Seeing him as one and not the other is not knowing him. By seeing him only as man, one misses the glory and the illumination of the truth of the Ultimate Being, and by seeing him only as god, one misses the lilaa of god in his human form. This is perhaps how Sarala would want us to see his Krishna.