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.