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.