Wednesday, December 3, 2008


The great abadhuta (“ascetic”) told the celebrated king Yadu that he had twenty-four gurus (“preceptors”). They were not all humans; among them were natural objects such as the ocean, the sky and the tree, non-human animates such as the bees, the python, and a certain dove, and then the humans – ordinary humans, not great leaders of men or scholars or saints. The episode of the abadhuta occurs in Srimad Bhagavata (and in Jagannatha Das's Bhagabata). It is mainly about the knowledge of life that helps one to rise above the feelings of sorrow, anger, pleasure, etc. that day-to-day life brings. One loses one’s sense of balance in the periods of happiness and of sorrow as well. And both happiness and sorrow are temporary; when one is happy, one does not realize that happiness is short-lived, and when one is sad, one does not realize that sorrow is also temporary.

It is not possible to mention here what all the abadhuta learnt from each of his gurus. So we will touch on what he learnt from just a few of them. From the sea he learnt indifference to gain and loss. During the rains rivers bring more water to the sea, and during summer, water dries up, but the sea neither swells nor shrinks in these seasons. From the tree he learnt what it means to give. The tree gives whatever it has – flowers, fruits, shade, etc. – to whoever wants it, without considering whether he is deserving or not. From wind he learnt a certain kind of detachment. Wind is both inside the body and outside, serving it in many ways including removing smell. It is in and around every body, but is not owned by any particular body. From the python he learnt how to be content with whatever comes one’s way. It consumes whatever it gets, and starves if it gets nothing. From the thief of honey, he learnt how it is a way of the world that someone else takes away the fruit of someone’s hard labour. The bees work hard at extracting honey, but do not consume it themselves. They save it, and then the honey thief comes, smokes the bees, and takes away the honey. In this regard the bee is like the miser who works day and night, denies himself and others the simple pleasures of life in order to save money, and then loses it to a thief. From the dove he learnt about the undesirability of excessive attachment to one’s family, and from the daughter of a certain brahmin, the fact that congregation of many people merely leads to unpleasantness and quarrel. Certain events in the lives of the dove and the girl led the abadhuta to these insights. These events are described in the form of little stories in Srimad Bhagavata. We need not go into the details here.

The abadhuta changes our idea of a guru. None of these twenty-four teachers of him taught him directly, including the human teacher, the girl or the honey thief. None of them knew that he was learning from them. Some of them merely existed, some like the python lived out their lives in accordance with their nature, and some like the dove, the honey thief, and the girl chose to do what they did. The abadhuta did not exist, as far as each of his twenty-four gurus were concerned. Therefore they could hardly be called gurus. But for him, they indeed were his gurus, because he learnt from them.

He reminds us of Eklavya of the Mahabharata who called Dronacharya his guru, who indeed had refused to teach him. Eklavya practiced archery in his name, and acquired the skills. When the occasion arrived, he showed Drona that in archery he exceeded the Kaurava and the Pandava princes who he taught every day. Although self-taught, he had the humility and the sense of gratitude to call Drona his teacher because he had received inspiration from him. Drona of course was completely unaware of this.

Unlike Eklavya, the abadhuta had no way of expressing gratitude to his gurus. He never met his human teachers, to whom alone he could have told what they meant to him. He could do that only when he met someone like the great king Yadu, who was willing to listen. There is another difference between Eklavya and the abadhuta; the former learnt a skill, and the latter, the knowledge of life and of the world, with which he transcended the world. Each got what he sought.

Consider now the kind of shishya (“learner”) the abadhuta was. It would be saying the obvious if we say that he was a great learner. He had the motivation to learn and the intelligence too, but what was far more important was that he had an alert and completely receptive mind that richly responded to things around him, especially the unspectacular, unobtrusive, and mundane things that would ordinarily escape attention. He reflected on what he saw, and derived meanings from them. His life shows that the knowledge one acquires from experience and reflection is much more important than what one does from texts, when it comes to the knowledge of life.

We must note that he did not learn the affirmative values from every single guru of his; in fact, from most of them he learnt what not to do and what not to be. This shows that both the good and the bad are sources of true knowledge. This also shows that a learner must not decide in advance what to ignore; he must open oneself to everything – from the python to Pingala.

Now, coming to the content of the abadhuta’s knowledge, one might ask why he derived those specific meanings from his experiences. Were those the only meanings that could be derived? Surely not; the sky and the sea might mean other things to others. In general, almost any experience is interpretable in more ways than one. Srimad Bhagabata does not raise this issue in this particular context, probably because it would have arrested the flow of the narrative. But one can construct an answer drawing from another great work, namely, the Bhagavat Gita – putting it very briefly, what one seeks and what one becomes are due to the way one is programmed. A detailed answer is beyond the scope of this piece.

In a different world today, hundreds of years after Srimad Bhagavata was composed, one might ask how to relate to the abadhuta’s quest. One answer could be along the following lines: one cannot learn about the guiding values of life from texts alone; for this, one has to reflect on life as it is lived. And one must be “prepared” to learn in the sense of the abadhuta episode and then one would derive illuminating meanings from everything and from every experience.

Finally, if one wishes to dismiss the abadhuta’s values are hopelessly dated and irrelevant in today’s context, consider the way of living he symbolizes, which can be summarized as follows: live your life but remain unattached - let nothing tie you down emotionally Is there really a better way for living one’s life in harmony with the world and with oneself?


(Note: This, and the following piece, namely, “The Gurus of the Abadhuta” are not from Sarala's Mahabharata, but the sixteenth century Oriya poet Jagannatha Das’s Bhagabata (better known in a slightly different spelling: Bhagavata).

The story of Pingala in Jagannatha Das’s Bhagabata, written in Oriya in the sixteenth century, is a little different from the original story in Vyasa’s text, but the difference is at the level of detail. This is not surprising: which story in its retold version is the exact copy of the original, even when the story in question is from a sacred text?

Pingala’s story is about the sudden bursting forth of spiritual illumination. Her story is told to king Yadu by abadhuta (roughly, “ascetic”), who regarded as her one of his gurus (“preceptors”). Pingala was a wealthy prostitute who lived in the city of Bidisha. She was surely attractive and accomplished in her profession, although the great abadhuta does not waste words on this aspect of her. Which sacred text would invite attention to the gross for its own sake? Pingala was greedy. One day she met the son of a very rich man, and invited him to visit her that night. She would receive only him that night, she told him.

When the evening came, she dressed herself most attractively and waited for him. Many came to seek her favours, but she turned everyone away. There was just one man in her mind. Night advanced and darkness thickened, but her man hadn’t still arrived. She was getting increasingly impatient, wondering why he wasn’t coming after making the deal with her. With great expectation she would rush to the doorsteps whenever she saw someone passing by, thinking it was her man, and would then return disappointed. This went on till she couldn’t stay inside any longer. She came to her doorstep and waited for him there.

It was past midnight and the pain of waiting was intense and her longing, unbearable.

And then it happened. Suddenly vairagya (roughly, “disinterestedness in worldly desires and pleasures”) arose in her and pervaded her consciousness. Her greed and her longing vanished as though they were swept off by a broom. She looked back on her life and lamented that she had wasted it in ignorance. She regretted all those years she had given in to the enjoyment of her gross body, and that obsessed with greed for wealth, she had sold herself to many, neglecting the dweller, Narayana himself, within.

Then she was filled with a profound sense of divine delight (ananda). She realized how blessed she was, and what a day that was that brought her liberation. She surrendered herself to Krishna and renouncing desires, decided to live the life of an ascetic, and dedicate every moment of her life to him. And as the dawn arrived, she entered the deep forest.

“Pingala is my guru, listen, O King!”, declared the abadhuta, as he concluded his narrative.

Pingala’s story is powerful and inspiring. In fact, all well-told stories dealing with the unconscious development of conscience are. Her story is short, which is appropriate in the specific context in which it occurs: the abadhuta was telling the king who all his twenty-four gurus (among them were not only humans, but also birds and beasts and even the water and the sky) were and what he learnt from each. Besides, the aim of the narrative is not to tell the Pingala’s story in its completeness, but to explicate, in the narrative mould, a powerful spiritual experience within the framework of a sacred text.

In the classical text Pingala did not retire to a forest. Spiritually awakened, she experienced profound composure, and went to sleep. Both the endings – the one in the classical text, and the other in Das’s – reflect different perspectives, and each is satisfying. From the point of the classical text, when one is spiritually awakened, one becomes indifferent to the physical surroundings; one does not relate to the same any more. These lose their earlier meaning and significance, so there is no need to abandon them - the world has no inherent content to it, and it is how one sees it. In contrast, from Das’s perspective, renunciation involves rejection of the existing living environment. The spiritually awakened person needs a supportive ambience in physical terms so that he (or she) continues to remain in that state. The world is not without content, and can be in conflict with or in harmony with one’s inner state, and the goals of life can be best pursued under conditions of such harmony.

Another way of looking at the ending would be to set aside the tatwic (roughly, “philosophical”) aspect and consider the narrative one. Then one might find Das’s ending more appealing. When Pingala entered the dense forest, she moved away from the familiar to the unfamiliar, to a region almost mysterious. This is quite dramatically and romantically executed in Das.

Probably the basic issue in the Pingala episode concerns the nature of her awakening. It was sudden and profoundly regenerative. What caused it? It was her karma, in Das’s version, and also in the original text. She had done something in some past existence of hers (the knowledge of which was obliterated by rebirth), and this was the result – this was how Pingala understood her experience of liberation. There seems to be no hint at all that it was caused by the grace (kripa) of God, and not by her karma, which might appear somewhat remarkable in view of the fact that Srimad Bhagavata is a work that celebrates the glory of Vishnu (Krishna). It would have been entirely in the spirit of it if grace had been brought into Pingala’s story.

Besides, whether or not some pure version of the theory of karma renders a theory of grace irrelevant and entirely dispensable, the fact remains that in the puranic literature, to which category Srimad Bhagavata belongs, the theory of karma and that of grace have both existed, and grace has been conceptualized as interacting with karma. Ahalya, Draupadi, among many others, provide excellent examples.

However, from the perspective of the time of the happening (as distinct from cosmic time), the perspective actually available to both Pingala (whatever she said about her past existence was nothing more than mere assumption) and the narrator, the event does appear to be an emergent – totally unpredictable in its uniqueness from its antecedents. Clearly, this is no resolution, but is the problem itself, needing explanation. Does grace really provide the explanation? It might only appear to be so, but would indeed amount to a mere restatement of the problem in another language, when one considers the logic of receiving grace. From the purans one comes to the conclusion that it is not predictable; there is no course of action that necessarily leads one to receive grace. In terms of Srimad Bhagavata itself, the demoness Putana received grace; did she do a thing for it? Did she ever want it even?


Tuesday, July 22, 2008


In Saaralaa Mahaabhaarata, Madri was the daughter of Bhagavana, who was the king of Jyotisapura. Her mother was really a celestial being, an apsara, who had taken birth as a human after being cursed by god Indra for some misdemeanor that Sarala does not care to mention. Apsaras are known for their exceptional beauty, and if the mother was so beautiful, could her daughter have been any less? Besides, whoever has heard of an ugly princess in our puranas?

By the time Madri entered his life, Pandu had abdicated the throne of Hastinapura in favour of his elder brother, Dhritarastra, and was living with his wife Kunti in the forests surrounding the mountain Satasinga. One day Bhagavana, who had gone to the forest to hunt, ran into Pandu, and decided to give his daughter to him in marriage. Thus Pandu came to have a second wife, and thus Kunti shrank into the first wife. Now, if she had ever demurred on matters related to Madri, Sarala does not say anything about it. Nor does he describe the wedding, rather unusual for a narrative of this kind.

Soon Pandu earned that curse which forced him to live a life of abstinence from sex; he was condemned to die if he had sex – during the sex act itself. He was greatly worried that he would die issueless, which was bad from the point of view of his soul’s progress after death.

The sage Agasti (better known as “Agastya”) arrived one day. He told Pandu that he had no cause for worry on that count, because the great sage Durvasa had given Kunti a garland of beads and a mantra through which she could invoke anyone she liked and have a child from him. And her chosen person would never deny her because if he did, he would perish, be he anyone – Brahma or Indra or Vishnu. Agasti said that she should make use of the mantra and beget a child from a god so that the stigma attached to sex with a human out of wedlock would not get attached to her. Then in the manner of telling her about her future, the illustrious Agasti told Kunti that she would have three sons from god Dharma, Pavana, and Indra, and after that she should give the mantra to Madri who would have two sons from Aswini Kumara. He gave a special ointment to Madri with which she could attract Aswini Kumara. He advised Madri to serve Kunti with great sincerity and reverence and Kunti, to be kind to Madri.

The exciting part of Madri’s story starts from here. In due course, with Durvasa’s mantra, Kunti had three sons. One day, pleased with the devotion with which Madri had served her, she decided to reward her. She wouldn’t be childless, she told her, and gave her Durvasa’s garland of beads. She asked her to invoke any god she liked. At nightfall, she dressed her nicely, and Madri, who was naturally stunningly beautiful, looked absolutely gorgeous.

Madri reckoned that her chance had come. Kunti had already had sons from Indra, Pavana, etc. There weren’t more powerful gods than them, so she must think beyond such gods. She decided to invoke Vishnu himself. His son would be more powerful than Kunti’s and Gandhari’s, and would rule the world. And when she invoked Vishnu, Krishna appeared in no time. Except in one episode, in Saaralaa Mahaabhaarata, Krishna and Vishnu have been viewed as non-distinct, with the distinction between the part and the whole erased. In that one episode, as Krishna met Vishnu, who sharply reprimanded him for overstaying in the world, the avatara (“incarnation”) and the avatari (“the one who incarnates himself”) are most emphatically distinguished.

In any case, in Sarala’s narrative, when Krishna appears, drama appears. When Kunti invoked the gods of her choice, they came, and gave her sons and left, as unobtrusively as they had come. It was somewhat different of course when still unmarried, she had invoked the Sun god, more to test, out of curiosity, the efficacy of Durvasa’s mantra than to have a child. He listened to her pleadings, understood her situation and was considerate, but he expressed his helplessness about not having sex with her; he would perish if he didn’t. Durvasa’s mantra could simply not be ineffective. Under the circumstances he helped her as much as he could, the details of which we skip. In any case, even here, there was no spectacle, no drama. But could Sarala have his Krishna appear and disappear in an episode with so little impact? How could he have his Krishna as merely the controlled, and not the controller?

Krishna told Madri that he was devoted to Yudhisthira, as one would be to one’s god. Yudhisthira was the son of the god Dharma, and was himself the very embodiment of dharma. His mother Kunti was thus like the wife of his guru (“preceptor”), and as such like his mother, and given that, Madri too was like his mother. How could the son and his mother have a union, he asked Madri, why didn’t she think of this when she invoked him? Poor Madri, she was nonplussed.

Now from inside Kunti saw Krishna with Madri, and the first thought that occurred to her was that Madri’s son would be more powerful than hers and would therefore rule. When Krishna saw Kunti, he told her about his situation. On the one hand, he was constrained by Durvasa’s mantra, and on the other, he just couldn’t have a sexual relation with his gurupatni (“wife of the guru”), who was like his mother. Kunti then asked Madri to invoke someone else. But Krishna said he couldn’t disobey Durvasa. He would perish if he did. So she should invoke the great sage who alone would find a solution for his predicament.

The sage arrived, and saw Krishna. He told Madri that she had done wrong by invoking Narayana. He didn’t give a reason. It is not clear whether he agreed with Krishna’s argument against sex with Madri or whether he thought that the supreme lord should not have been dragged into such mundane matters as this. He freed Krishna from the obligations imposed on him by his mantra, and asked Madri to think of someone else. Durvasa thus ensured that the moral fabric of a relationship was not violated. But from another point of view, if Krishna didn’t want something, who could thrust it on him?

The episode, unlike any other, brings out a particular aspect of the relationship between the two wives of Pandu: their jealousy of each other, and their one-upmanship attempts with respect to each other. It also brings out their ambitions which would be realized through their children. Kaikeyi of Ramayana was not an individual; she was the eternal queen mother who wanted to see her own child prosper at the cost of others, if it came to that, and who wanted to have her own ambitions fulfilled through her son. In Mahabharata, she was manifest as Gandhari, Kunti, and Madri. It appears that Madri all along had felt that her situation was progressively weakening each time Kunti had a son. Therefore the first thought that came to her when she got the mantra was how to overcome the disadvantages she had with respect to Kunti at one go. For her Kunti was not a benefactor; she was only a rival. And consider Kunti. She gave her the mantra, even dressed her for the hour, but kept awake, and remained alert to see which god would come to oblige Madri. So naturally her immediate reaction on seeing Krishna with Madri was the apprehension that the latter’s son would be more powerful than hers, and would become king. At that moment Madri was not the one who had served her so sincerely, and so well; she was just her rival.

Madri got reconciled to the fact that Narayana would not be available to her. She didn’t suffer; she was very young, and was a simple person. Later one night when Pandu had gone into the forest, she invoked god Aswini Kumara, the Sun god’s son. When he arrived, Madri saw a strikingly handsome god - as handsome as the god Kamadeva (“god of love”), looking resplendent in the jewelry he wore. Madri was very happy with him, and from him she had a son, who his divine father named Nakula.

Soon the ultimate tragedy struck Madri. Kunti with the four children had gone to Hastinapura, leaving Madri behind. It was night. Madri was probably feeling very lonely; very young and a very simple person, she didn’t have the maturity and the strength of mind of Kunti. She was lying on her bed and was missing her husband. Absentmindedly she had picked up Durvasa’s garland of beads, and she was remembering Pandu. Pandu appeared. She was alarmed and asked him why he came to her at that hour of the night. He said he was forced to come since she remembered him with Durvasa’s garland in her hand. Madri contested: she didn’t invoke him. But for Durvasa’s mantra intention did not matter.

In that fateful moment Pandu was aware of his situation and of his impending death. He realized that he was going to die without being able to see his children at the time of his death. Madri resisted him, but he was no more in control over himself. Even gods were incapable of resisting Durvasa’s mantra, and he was a mere mortal. As fate was choking him, he overpowered Madri and forced her into sex. As they consummated the act, an arrow from the skies pierced through Pandu and entered Madri’s chest. Both were killed; however their child survived. This child came to be known as Sahadeva. In his narrative, Sarala makes use of the concept of saindu birth (“birth immediately after the union”), but it need not disturb us. Puranic discourse allowed such unnatural things. There is more to the story of Sahadeva’s birth. But here we are concerned with Madri’s story, not Sahadeva’s.

This is how Madri lived and died. Simple and uncomprehending, she was more like a child than a woman. Despite all her hidden jealousy towards Kunti, she had a certain kind of endearing naivety about her which distinguished her from the other Pandava women. She was in really lucky that she died along with her husband. Had she lived, she would have died a thousand deaths holding herself responsible for her husband’s fate. She didn’t have the maturity and the sense of discrimination to realize that what had happened was an accident, and that far from being the agent, she was a mere tool in the hands of fate.

She died twice. And she evokes sympathy more for her second death than her first. If that arrow gave her her first death, she died her second death on the funeral pyre. She was completely forgotten once her body was reduced to ashes. Her children were beautifully taken care of by Kunti and later by Yudhisthira. They were integrated into the Kunti family as Pandavas. From Saaralaa Mahaabhaarata one does not know whether they ever missed their mother. Madri had simply vanished from the narrative.

Saturday, June 28, 2008


Unlike in the classical text, in Saaralaa Mahaabhaarata Arjuna did not ask his charioteer Krishna to drive him to the middle of the battle field where he could have a view of all those people who he had to fight and kill. The Pandava army was frightened to see the terrible form of Bhishma, the supreme commander of the Kaurava army, and on seeing this, Krishna asked Arjuna to attack Bhishma with all his skill and energy. Arujna told him that he would not initiate the fight, because it would be an act of adharma (“unrighteous”) for him. He would fight only after he was attacked. Krishna told him that since Duryodhana had committed the basic adharma by not returning the Pandavas’ share of the kingdom to them, there was no adharma in fighting his forces. He wanted Arjuna to shoot his arrows at Bhishma without hesitation and delay. Arjuna told him that Bhishma, Drona, Aswasthma, Salya, and Karna, among others, were people worthy of his veneration. Besides, Karna, being his elder brother, was like his father, and therefore he could not be the target of his arrows. It is worth noting that in Sarala’s narrative, Pandavas’ relationship with Karna was no secret for them, or anyone else for that matter.

Krishna then asked him to kill Sakuni first, since he was the root cause of this fight between the brothers. Arjuna refused; being all knowing, he, Krishna, was very well aware that Sakuni was the benefactor of the Pandavas and was actually trying to eliminate the Kauravas. Besides, Sakuni was no ordinary person; he was greatly knowledgeable; he knew the past and the future. Therefore he could not kill him either. He must then kill Duryodhana, Krishna said, but Arjuna said that he would not kill his elder brother. Whosoever he could see in the battlefield was related to him, he told Krishna; therefore he was not interested in reclaiming their kingdom at the cost of his relatives. They were quite happy living in the forest, and he would prefer going back there to killing his relatives. He implored him not to force a fight on him.

Krishna was stunned, and wondered what to do to persuade him to overcome his hesitation and get engaged in the battle. However he didn’t tell him a word. He surely might have thought that in the ultimate analysis it wasn’t his problem. The Pandavas must decide; they were the kartaa (roughly “agent”); the war would be their karma. He drove the chariot to Yudhisthira, the head of the Pandava family, and informed him about his brother’s unwillingness to fight.

The profoundly humane person and the great romantic that he was, Yudhisthira told him that Arjuna was right, and that he himself had hesitations to fight his brothers. Bhima was impatient with all this, recalled the humiliation, and injustice that Duryodhana had meted out to them on numerous occasions, and asked Krishna’s permission so that he could start the war and kill Bhishma, Drona and the rest, if Yudhisthira and Arjuna were unwilling to do so. Krishna readily asked him to attack Dussasana. And as Bhima readied himself, Yudhisthira stopped him. He would like to make one last effort, he told them; he would go to Duryodhana in the battlefield itself, and ask him once again for just five villages in one last attempt at avoiding the war. Krishna was skeptical about the outcome.

He got off from his chariot and walked barefoot to the Kaurava side, ignoring the warnings of his worried brothers that it could be dangerous. He went to Bhishma, Bhurishrava, Salya, Drona, Aswasthama, and Krupacharya, and received blessings for victory from each of them. To each he asked how his blessing would materialize, when he was unconquerable in war. To this, each except Aswasthama told him how the war would progress and how he would die. For instance, Bhishma told him that on the tenth day of the war, Yudhisthira should keep Sikhandi in the front, seeing whom, he would give up weapons. Aswasthama told Yudhisthira that the Kaurava army would be defeated since Krishna was on their side. He couldn’t tell the secret of his death, as had done the others, because there was no such secret for him to tell – everyone knew he was immortal. So his blessings would not materialize in terms of his death, but of the death of the Kauravas.

Yudhisthira then went to Karna, and implored him to join the Pandavas. Being their elder brother, he was like their father. He told him that he would be the king and that the Pandavas would serve him. If he stayed with the Kauravas, he would face disaster. Karna blessed him for victory over the enemy, for prosperity and long life, but expressed his inability to abandon Duryodhana, as that would be adharma for him. In desperation, Yudhisthira looked up to the sky and declared as though to the celestials above that he would not be responsible for his elder brother who had abandoned both his own brothers and dharma.

Interestingly, Yudhisthira did not ask Karna about the secret of his defeat and death. Why didn’t he do so? Why this asymmetry? If Karna was father-like, so was Bhishma, so was guru Drona. Yudhisthira had persisted with his grandfather for a clue to his defeat. Was it because he didn’t consider Karna as great a barrier to his aspirations as Bhishma? After all, the grandfather had defeated the great Parasuram. Besides, death could not come to him except with his consent; he enjoyed this protection from the boon of ichchaa mrutyu (“death only when wished for”). Or was it because, for Yudhisthira, the relationship caused by the sharing of the same womb was far deeper than any other?

Yudhisthira went to Duryodhana, who was with Dhritarashtra, and his minister Sakuni. Yudhisthira paid due respects to his uncle and received his blessings for the fulfillment of his desires. There he repeatedly implored Duryodhana to give him just five villages, even of the latter’s choice, or to give him just one village, if giving five or three or two villages was unacceptable to him. But he refused, saying that let alone a village, he would not give him even as much land as the sharp end of a needle would measure, without a fight.

Then Yudhisthira called upon the Kaurava warriors and announced that anyone among them who wished to live and not perish in the war, and who wished to support dharma, should change side and come under his protection. One of the Kaurava princes, Durdasa, responded to the call and along with his army, proceeded to join Yudhisthira, who blessed him for a long life.

Now Durdasa’s conduct upset the Kaurava brothers and they attacked him. Duryodhana ordered his army to attack Yudhisthira, and thus the Kurukshetra war started. Unarmed and defenceless in the enemy territory, Yudhisthira regretted his decision to come to the Kaurava side, ignoring the advice of his brothers. As Durdasa fought valiantly, Yudhisthira prayed to goddess Mangala for protection. Directed by Krishna to protect Yudhisthira, Bhima engaged in the fight and when he fought his way to reach his brother, he found Yudhisthira on Durdasa’s chariot, and Durdasa fighting heroically against the Kaurava army.

Krishna had learnt in the meantime from Hanuman, manifest on the top of Arjuna’s chariot, that Yudhisthira had been surrounded by the Kaurava forces, and he promptly told Arjuna about it. Arjuna was very upset. He implored Krishna to drive him to Yudhisthira, as he apprehended that his brother might be taken prisoner by the enemy. Why should he be anxious, Krishna taunted him, weren’t the Kauravas Yudhisthira’s brothers, he said. Now Arjuna, really worried, asked Krishna not to taunt him and take him to his brother. He said he was ready to join the war.

One might consider it a surprise that Arjuna so quickly got over his hesitations. One might think that his hesitations were rather superficial, and merely sentimental. But perhaps one must rethink it. The change in his attitude was caused by the dynamics of the war. Once the fighting started, the very rawness of it drowned all delicate thoughts and feelings in him, and brought to the surface feelings of fear, anxiety and apprehension for his eldest brother. Yudhisthira was in danger, and at that moment, there was no place for anything in his mind except his brother’s safety.

Monday, June 9, 2008


Nine years had passed since the Pandavas had gone to the forest after losing their kingdom in the rigged game of dice. One day Duryodhana conferred with Sakuni, Karna, and Dussasana about what should be done since for seven long years he had had no news of the Pandavas. He was wondering whether they had perished in hunger, or in the hands of some demon in the forest. Sakuni said that without unnecessarily worrying about what might have happened to the Pandavas, he should relax and enjoy life, now that his enemies had disappeared. But Duryodhana didn’t agree; he felt that they should try to find out the truth about the Pandavas. Karna concurred; no such harm could have come to them, said he, since they were under the protection of Krishna.

If one is curious to know why Duryodhana, after seven years of ignorance about the whereabouts of his cousins, suddenly wanted to know about them, Sarala doesn’t say anything explicitly by way of explanation. But which interesting poetic creation thrives in clarity. Possibly Duryodhana had started worrying, now that they were in the last quarter of the stipulated period of their stay in the forest. It was time to find out how they were thinking of spending their thirteenth year incognito. Or he was concerned about them as one would be about one’s relatives, notwithstanding the fact that they had turned into enemies – their death might bring relief, but then appropriate rituals must be performed for them, etc. Relatives are relatives after all. Or perhaps both of these. However, if the tone of the narrative is any guide, then it is more likely the second. From another point of view, strong hatred and enmity forge a powerful bond with the adversary; so how could Duryodhana not think of his cousins!

At Sakuni’s advice, Duryodhana decided to send Gouramukha, the son of the brahmin Puranjana, who had perished in the lac (“wax”) palace fire. But Gouramukha said he wouldn’t recognize the Pandavas, which Duryodhana told him, was actually an advantage, since they wouldn’t recognize him too. They would be found among sages, he told him. He should disguise himself as a sage, and ask them to give him a ripe mango in that autumn season. They wouldn’t of course find one in the forest. However, they, and only they, he stressed, would be able to produce such a mango, a mango of truth - who else would be able to do so but the practitioners of truth? That was the way to recognize them, he said.

Gouramukha dressed himself like a sage. Yudhisthira saw him, and with great humility asked him where he came from, who he was - a maharshi, a rajashri, a devashri or a brahmashri (sages of different levels of spiritual attainments), and what food he would accept. The false sage said he wouldn’t have anything at all, and Yudhisthira should go ahead and eat his meal. But Yudhisthira wouldn’t hear of it; how could he commit the sin of making his guest wait for him, when he would be having his food? When pressured a bit too hard, Gouramukha said if at all, he would have only a ripe mango.

Yudhisthira was completely nonplussed - how would he get a ripe mango in an autumn month, he wondered. The day had passed in great anxiety. His brothers had gone far and deep into the forest and had returned tired and empty-handed. In utter helplessness Yudhisthira did what he had always done in such circumstances: invoke Krishna. Krishna arrived and told him not to worry. Season or no season, a mango of truth could always be produced. For that each of the Pandava brothers and Draupadi must speak only the truth and not a word of lie.

At Krishna’s behest the sage Vyasa bought a mango stone, and with his benign glance, Krishna breathed life into it. Yudhisthira fixed his gaze on it and uttered his truth: he never told a lie, always spoke the truth, always followed the path of dharma, was troubled by the suffering of others, and was free from anger, greed, attachments, and hatred. He however would fight to get back his kingdom. As he finished speaking, to the surprise of all the sages present, emerged a beautiful, tender plant from the mango stone. It was Bhima’s turn now. Krishna sternly warned him that if he uttered a lie, the plant would be burnt to ashes. Bhima said he was never content with food, fight, sleep, and sex, and always craved for more. He would kill every one of Dhritarashtra’s sons. He had great reverence and unflinching loyalty towards Yudhisthira, but would kill anyone who insulted his mace. The plant grew into a tree with four large branches. Arjuna said that he was unafraid of anyone in the battlefield, and let alone gods, humans and demons, even the eleven rudras would not be able to defeat him so long as he held his gaandiva, the divine bow. He never longed for whatever belonged to others, be it wealth, territory, or women. He would never hurt one who was fleeing from the battlefield. His devotion to Krishna was absolute, and he would kill anyone who insulted Krishna, his divine quiver and bow, and the divine arrow paasupata that he had got from Shiva. At this the tree blossomed gloriously. Nakula then uttered his truth: he was unrivalled in wielding the spear. He was a man of conscience, and he would protect one who had sought his protection at all cost, even if it meant fighting his brothers. He had no craving for food, sleep or sex. His reverence for Yudhisthira was great, and loyalty to him, complete. Little fruits appeared in the tree. Sahadeva said that he had the knowledge of the past, the present and the future. One would never come to grief if one sought his advice, but he himself would not volunteer to offer any advice or suggestion to anyone. Full size mangoes appeared in the tree.

This description brings to mind the Vedic ritual of homa. At the altar, the sacred fire must be lit with mantra pronounced by the sage, the gods would be invited to the ritual, and offerings such as clarified butter, etc. must be made to the fire after they are purified by mantra. A successful conduct of the ritual would fulfill the desire of the kartaa (“agent” - “the one for whom the ritual is performed”). Here the sage Vyasa started the process by bringing the mango stone, and Krishna’s grace breathed life into it. The sages were present there. Declarations of truth were the offerings which ultimately yielded Yudhisthira’s desired result.

Now, what the Pandava brothers said would come as no surprise to them themselves or to any reader of Saaralaa Mahaabhaarata. By now one would have known all this about the Pandavas, exactly as they would have, about themselves. And what each said need not be taken in part as assertions of his power and in part admission of his weakness, although the way Yudhisthira said things about himself might suggest such a structure; after saying he did not think of harming anyone, he said he would fight for his lost kingdom. But much may not be made of this; in his own declarations and in those of his brothers there was neither a ring of arrogance nor one of embarrassment, let alone a sense of guilt. They said things about themselves in a matter-of-fact tone. There is little justification in being judgemental about what they said.

Then came Draupadi’s turn. She must tell the truth, Krishna appealed to her – she, who was born of the sacred homa fire and was the eternal goddess herself. She was a great deal more important than the Pandavas. Draupadi said that she was like any woman who feels attraction for a handsome male, be he her brother or her son. She said that although the five Pandavas were her husbands, she had greater affection for Arjuna. Then she went on to say what every one knew by then, things like how she was humiliated in the Kaurava court and how she had left her hair loose since then, promising to tie it up with the blood of Dussasana, etc., and how she would be the cause of the destruction of the Kaurava brothers. The mangoes ripened by her truth.

But the popular knowledge of this episode is somewhat different. Later writers who re-created this story (in one form or the other), added some spice and drama to it mainly in the Draupadi part of the episode. After Draupadi said what she did, the fruit would not ripen. Krishna said that someone had concealed something. The brothers said they hadn’t, and as tension grew, Draupadi said that she was attracted towards Karna. Then the mango ripened. Generations of readers of such a version of the episode have relished Draupadi’s discomfiture, and much else about women.

Of course Sarala’s story is not without its drama, but it does not center around Draupadi, but around Krishna. This devotee of Krishna would not waste thoughts and words on another character. Krishna plucked the ripe fruits. He kept one for himself, gave one to god Indra’s mother, one to the false sage Gouramukha, and four to the Pandavas. Gouramukha praised Yudhisthira and blessed him. Humbly Yudhisthira requested him to eat the mango, but he would not. He said he would finish his rituals at the riverbank and then eat the fruit. The false sage had really no intentions to eat it. He would give it to Duryodhana, and get his reward.

After Gouramukha left, Krishna asked Sahadeva who he was. Once asked, Sahadeva had to answer, and all-knowing as he was, his answer couldn’t be wrong. He told him everything about the man and the purpose of his visit. He said he couldn’t tell anything about him earlier because no one asked him. Krishna went to Yudhisthira and simply asked him to get the mango from the sage. Yudhisthira flatly refused – he couldn’t take back what he had given. Krishna then calmly sought his permission to return home to Dwarika (“Dwaraka”).

He disguised himself as a brahmin, and went to Gouramukha, and introduced himself as a Yadurvedi brahmin. As Gouramukha was changing after bath, the mango fell from the folds of his cloth. Krishna pretended to be surprised. A ripe mango in autumn! Why didn’t he eat such a rare fruit, he asked. Gouramukha told him that he was taking it to Duryodhana, who would give him lots of money.

Krishna told him that it wasn’t a real mango; a ripe mango in autumn would be out of nature. Truth could not produce a mango, and he shouldn’t allow himself to be deceived. When Gouramukha protested that he had seen things himself, Krishna said that he would like to utter some truth to test the mango of truth.

He said he had seen that a stone was floating on water, and a lotus was blooming on a mountaintop. The moon rose in the day and the sun arose at night in the west and set in the east. A man was giving birth to a baby. He went on in this vein, and in no time the mango was burnt to ashes. Truth is too delicate and too frail to withstand the onslaught of lies. That is why it needs protection.

For Gouramukha, the Yadurvedi brahmin had told the truth – could such a person tell lies when he said he was going to utter some truth? Granted that Krishna’s declarations sounded completely false; but then hadn’t he just witnessed similar unnatural things happening? So he readily believed when Krishna told him that the mango was indeed unreal. Krishna said he had saved him from certain embarrassment in the Kaurava court, and the poor man must have felt immensely grateful to him for that. But of course the poet didn’t say so in so many words. This is merely our guess. As for Sarala, Gouramukha had ceased to exist in his imagination – his story was over.

Poor Gouramukha. He had seen the mango, and had touched it too. Yet he was persuaded that it was only an illusion. In fact, as mentioned above, he must have felt reassured that he was spared certain embarrassment in Duryodhana’s court. This is maayaa (“cosmic illusion”), which is sustained by ambiguity. What one takes to be the truth is mere illusion.

There were others, who, like Gouramukha, saw the mango of truth, and touched it. But no one seems to have tasted the mango of truth. There is no mention of it in Saaralaa Mahaabhaarata. Does the poet mean to say that the full experience of truth is beyond humans? What happened to the other mangoes?

Krishna’s lies destroyed Gouramukha’s mango of truth, and by destroying one, he symbolically destroyed all the mangoes of truth. His lies, his declarations about the unnatural events, destroyed another unnatural object, and restored purity to nature, to Brahma’s creation. That was Krishna’s lie, and that was Krishna’s truth.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008


They fought; they spat venom on each other, each trying to wound the other in a manner that would cause the most intense pain. And this, in full view of the assembly of the family elders, great sages, courtiers, and hundreds and hundreds of kings who had assembled at Indraprastha for Yudhisthira’s raajaswiya jajna. The fight of course should come as no wonder; what else could be the outcome when one was burning with jealousy and the arrogant other’s sense of self-importance went far beyond any reasonable limits.

Hidimbaki (Hidimba, in the classical version) was Bhima’s first wife, who was an asuri (“demoness”). She fell in love with Bhima, and wanted to marry him. At that time the Pandavas and Kunti were roaming in the deep forests, having escaped Duryodhana’s murderous design in the form of the wax palace. She knew that her brother who was the king of that forest would never allow her to marry a human; in fact, he wanted to eat up those six humans who had strayed into his territory. She gave Bhima the special weapon to kill her brother, and told him the secret to kill him. Thus it was with her help that Bhima killed the demon. And as Bhima was fighting her brother, she was keeping watch over the sleeping Kunti and her other four sons lest some harm befell them. She pleased Kunti with her grace and manners, and an already grateful Kunti blessed her marriage with Bhima. They had a son, who the grandmother named Ghatotkacha. Soon the Pandavas left and Hidimbika stayed behind with her son.

Then the Pandavas married Draupadi. Surely no one cared to inform Hidimbika. They returned to Hastinapura with their newly married wife. Soon they were given half of the kingdom, and Yudhisthira became the king of Indraprastha. He decided to perform the raajaswiya jajna. Here begins the story of the disgraceful quarrel.

The great sage Vyasa pronounced the mantras to light the homa fire, but the fire didn’t appear, which surprised Durvasa and other sages. The sage Narada said that this happened because Yuhisthira was issueless, and the gods would not bless such a religious effort by such a patron. Then they thought of Ghatotkacha. Vyasa maintained that since the Pandavas were the five manifestations of the same essence – an argument that was used on several occasions in Saaralaa Mahaabhaarata (rather conveniently, in our view), the many details of which must not detain us here – Ghatotkacha was Yudhisthira’s son too. Krishna asked Bhima to invoke his son.

As Ghatotkacha prepared to leave for Indraprastha, he asked his mother what gifts he should take with him. His mother told him what all to take. She then told him that he should first pay obeisance to his father, then to Krishna, then to Vyasa, and then to Yudhisthira, and that he must not bow to any one else. Ghatotkacha told her that out of jealousy and hatred, she was asking him to do something clearly wrong. Draupadi was born of homa fire, was the daughter of a brahmin king, and at the jajna, she would have a special status as Yudhisthira’s wife. Hundreds of kings would be paying their respects to her. She would feel insulted if he did not pay obeisance to her, and her anger would destroy him.

His mother told her that he had been ritualistically anointed king of that forest, and as such was like a god to the humans. Besides with her five husbands, Draupadi was nothing but an immoral woman, and paying respects to such a degraded person would only affect one’s longevity. But she noticed that Ghatotkacha was afraid; so she decided to accompany him.

Ghatotkacha did as his mother had told him. Draupadi felt humiliated, and she got very angry. She shouted at him that she was an exceptional person, she was the queen of Yudhisthira, she was the daughter of a brahmin king, and her status was far higher than that of the Pandavas. And at his wicked asuri mother behest he had dared to insult her in the august assembly of elders, sages and kings! Then she uttered a horrible curse that his life would be short, and that he would be killed without a fight – a terrible eventuality for a kshatriya (“member of the warrior class”) - when a devastating divine weapon would pierce his chest. Poor Ghatotkacha, still a boy, withdrew in fright.

Hidimbika was waiting at the door, since it was improper for a woman to be in an assembly of males, almost all of whom were strangers to her. But she couldn’t control herself when she heard Draupadi’s curse. She rushed to her, and called her a wretched, sinful woman. How could a virtuous woman have five husbands, she asked. She shouted that her son was a king, and as such was not obliged to bow to her. She said she was aware that her curse would certainly materialize, but her son would still die a hero’s death since only a fighter would be hit on the chest. Then she asked her how being his stepmother, nevertheless a mother, she could utter such a terrible curse on her son who was still a boy. She said she couldn’t even curse her because she was a barren woman. But one day she would have children, and she cursed that all her five children would be decapitated at the age of seven. Thus these two women killed much of the future of the Pandava lineage. What the enemy did later was a mere formality.

As the two women quarreled, Krishna asked Vyasa to consult his text and tell him how the curses were going to materialize. As the entire assembly listened, Vyasa told Krishna that there would be a terrible war between the Kauravas and the Pandavas. In the night of the second day of Drona’s commandership, Karna would invoke a divine weapon that could not be countered. Seeing this, Krishna would ask Ghatotkacha to hide behind Arjuna’s chariot, which he would do. As Karna would hurl it at Arjuna, Hanumana, manifest on the top of Arjuna’s chariot, would in a flash push the chariot into the nether world. The weapon would thus hit Ghatotkacha on his chest and kill him.

How would Hidimbaki’s curse materialize, Krishna then asked Vyasa. The sage told him that as mentioned in the text, after the fall of Duryodhana, he, Krishna would go to Dwarika with the victorious Pandavas, leaving behind Draupadi’s children and Dristadyumna in the battlefield to rest there, thinking that with the enemy routed, the place was entirely safe for them. That night Duryodhana would appoint Aswasthama as his commander and Aswasthama would go to the Pandava tents that same night and kill the sleeping Sikhandi, Dristadyumna, and Draupadi’s children, thinking that they were the Pandavas. He would bring the severed heads to Duryodhana. In the morning when Duryodhana would recognize the severed heads, he would be terribly upset. Looking at those faces, the grieving Duryodhana would breathe his last.

Krishna was happy. He then went to the fighting women, and comforted them.

On the surface, the main (in fact, the only) issue of the fight between the women was whether Ghatotkacha transgressed the code of conduct by not bowing to Draupadi. And one must note that the code in question was, in all probability, what one might tentatively call a Brahminical (as against aaasuric) code. When they first met her, Bhima, and his mother Kunti were impressed with Hidimbaki for her “cultured” manners, another name for non-asuric, Brahminical manners, as far as they were concerned. When Hitimbaki remained outside the jajna premises, she was following the Brahminical code. When she advised her son who all he must pay obeisance to she was following surely the same code: Bhima, because he was his father, Krishna, because he was Narayana himself, Vyasa, because being a great sage, he was eminently worthy of the king’s veneration, and finally Yudhisthira, because he was the greatest of the kings assembled there. Ghatotkacha was a king; he was anointed king with the proper ritualistic procedure. As king, he was not supposed to bow to anyone else. That was what his mother’s understanding of the code. In one way however Hidimbaki arguably set aside the code; when she charged Draupadi that she too was a mother to her son and as such should not have pronounce that dreadful curse on him – as a mother, then, was Draupadi not qualified to receive Ghatotkacha’s bow?

Draupadi’s condemnation of Ghatotkacha derived from the same value system. She was born of the sacred homa fire, she was Yudhisthira’s queen, and as such a hundred times more venerable than the Pandavas, and she was the brahmin king Drupad’s daughter. One wonders whether she wasn’t trying to suggest that she was still a brahmin, notwithstanding the fact that she had married kshatriyas. But in terms of the code under reference, “once a brahmin always a brahmin” did not apply to women.

No one in the assembly considered the issue of the alleged violation of the code by Ghatotkacha. Perhaps things happened too fast for such a thing. And after those terrible curses were uttered, a discussion of the code must have appeared meaningless. In any case, in this episode, Sarala seems to have been more interested in portraying the ugly face of jealousy and hatred than in resolving such uninteresting issues

Besides, why blame anyone. Didn’t the script already exist, and all Ghatotkacha, Draupadi and Hidimbaki were doing was playing out their parts? When their turn would come, Krishna, Karna, Aswasthama, etc. would also play out their respective parts. Ephemeral events do not get immortalized when translated into tales. Their tales pre-exist. But where do the tales come from?

Which text did Vyasa consult? Krishna asked him to consult “tohara shaastra (“your text”)”. The phrase is ambiguous, as many possessive phrases are. It could mean “the text you have written” or “the text you have with you”. It is really futile to look for the specifics of the text. It obviously couldn’t be Mahabharata, since it depicted the events already taken place – in any version of the origin of this work. Let us take it here as a metaphor; as a mental text. It was in Vyasa’s mind – Vyasa, who, as Sarala puts it, was the knower of the past, the present and the future.

When Vyasa told him about the future events, Krishna was delighted: parama saananda hoile chakrapaani (roughly, “Krishna was very happy”). Why was he delighted? Was it intellectual delight arising out of having the knowledge he was seeking? Or was he feeling happy that the existing order would be comprehensively destroyed which would lead to the emergence of a new order? Or was it something else?

Sarala doesn’t say anything by way of clarification in this regard. His Krishna is Narayana himself. Krishna’s doings for the poet were an enigma - inscrutable are the ways of God, as the saying goes. The enigma was one manifestation of his maayaa (“(divine) illusion”). In deference to the poet, let us not try to probe into Krishna’s happiness.

Thursday, May 22, 2008


In Saaralaa Mahaabhaarata Satyavati entered the narrative as unobtrusively as she disappeared from it. She was a princess who was destined to ferry people across the river Ganga. For free – how could a princess collect money from ordinary people as payment for a job done?

Later Satyavati told her story to the Kaurava queens Ambika and Ambalika. She was the daughter of the king Dasa, but only formally. She was born of someone else, but her mother never told her who he was. She couldn’t get a child from her husband, and deeply concerned about that, she entered into secret relationships in an effort to have one. At one stage she became so desperate that she went for forbidden union. When Satyavati was twelve years of age, her mother told her that she had got her through immoral relationships, and asked her to ferry people across Ganga. Her father concurred and told her that she should do her work happily and not take any money from anyone. It is not clear why her parents assigned such a job to her; was it because they thought that such selfless service would wash away the impurities associated with her birth?

The sinful ways of Satyavati’s mother remained no secret; as a consequence, no prince came to marry her. She happily kept doing the job assigned to her. One day the sage Pareswara (Parashar, in other versions) came to be ferried. Smitten by the grace and the beauty of the girl, Pareswara insisted that she ferried him alone. Unaware of the sage’s intentions, she asked the other people to get off the boat, and set off with the sage. In the middle of the river he told her his intentions. She objected; she was still a girl, it was daytime when sex was not allowed, etc. With his mantra she attained her womanhood at once, and with his blessings, she acquired a body odour that filled the surroundings with a sweet fragrance, and with his special powers he created a thick mist in the summer month Vaishakh which the sunrays could not penetrate. From their union was born a son, who, right on his birth, gave evidence of his exceptionally high spiritual state. The fond father named this dark complexioned child Vyasa. When Satyavati’s father heard about all this, he gave her in marriage to the sage.

In Saaralaa Mahaabhaarata Satyavati entered the Santanu story when, apprehensive that his wife Ganga would harm his children, he left in her care his sons Chitravirya (Chitrangada of the classical text) and Vichitravirya, not born of a woman’s womb. In Sarala’s narrative, Satyavati was not directly related to Santanu. She got related to the family when she became the foster-mother of his children. When Ganga discovered that Chitravirya and Vichitravirya were Santanu’s children, she cursed them to die issueless.

After Ganga left him, Santanu did not marry. After his elder brothers, Chitravirya and Vichitravirya, got married to princesses Ambika and Ambalika respectively, it was Bhishma’s turn. He chose Amba, the sister of Ambika and Ambalika. On the appointed day, he wore the bridegroom’s dress and was about to start for Amba’s place when he noticed tears in his father’s eyes. As he learnt about his mother Ganga’s curse on Santanu that his son would kill his father, he decided not to marry. Satyavati did not figure anywhere in these happenings.

She came into the picture when Chitravirya and Vichitravirya died issueless, and at Pareswara’s behest she went to Ambika and Ambalika to persuade them to have an issue from Vyasa to continue the family. But she was unsure of the desirability of such an arrangement; after all, Vyasa was the widows’ elder brother-in-law, and union of the elder brother and the wife of the younger brother was prohibited in the code. They also told her clearly that if they had to have a son from outside of the marriage, then it should be from Bhishma, their younger brother-in-law. Satyavati went to Bhishma, but she failed to persuade him to beget a son with the widows. He told her that he was committed to bachelorhood. Then she went to Vyasa, who was reluctant in the beginning, but eventually gave his consent to the arrangement.

Satyavati could finally persuade her unwilling daughters-in-law to agree to her proposal. If this involved sin, it would accrue to her, she told them. She also told them about the circumstances of her birth to impress upon them the extent women went to in order to have an issue.

Ambika died giving birth to a blind child, who was named Dhritarashtra. Satyavati then went to Ambalika and asked her to get a child from Vyasa. She tried to exploit her sense of jealousy towards her sister, natural among siblings, by saying that since Ambika had a son, she should have one too. She also told her that since her sister’s son was blind, it would be her son who would become king. Ambalika agreed, and she had a son, Pandu, from Vyasa. But she felt very sinful on account of her union with the sage, and unable to carry her burden of sin, one day she drowned herself in the Ganga.

Vichitravirya had another wife, Ambuvati, whose father was the sudra king of Harikeshara. Ambuvati had served Satyavati well, and she was highly pleased with her. She realized that Ambuvati was unhappy because she was issueless whereas the other wives of the deceased kings had given birth to sons. So she asked Vyasa to oblige her. Ambuvati had a son from him, who Vyasa named Vidura.

Satyavati’s part in the destiny of the Kaurava family more or less came to an end here. She appeared in the narrative much later. With her husband Pareswara, and the Kaurava royals such as Bhishma and Pandu, she had gone for a holy dip in the Ganga on an auspicious occasion, where she met Kunti and her parents. She was pleased with the girl. At Pareswara’s suggestion, Kuntibhoja, Kunti’s father, gave her in marriage to the Kaurava prince Pandu. Then Satyavati faded away from the narrative. She was not there to comfort the widowed Kunti and her sons when she returned to the palace after the death Pandu and his second wife Madri. She was not there to welcome either Duryodhana’s wife Bhanumati or the Pandavas’ wife Draupadi. She had disappeared from the narrative as unobtrusively as she had entered.

One would hardly disagree with the assertion that her story in Sarala’s version is as convincing as in any other, for example, the classical one of Vyasa. She played more or less the same role in the lives of Chitravirya and Vichitravirya, and their widows in Sarala’s version and in Vyasa’s. She was not the natural mother of Chitravirya and Vichitravirya, but no one indeed was (they were not born out of a human womb, as already mentioned); she was not only the foster mother to them, but also their only human mother. As such, she was the rightful mother-in-law of their wives, and had the usual control over them. Sarala’s story of her differs from Vyasa’s mainly in that she did not enter into the Kaurava family through marriage with Santanu, nor did she have any role whatsoever with Bhishma’s decision to remain unmarried. Satyavati was sage Pareswara’s wife, the sage who had seduced her. And Santanu was not infatuated with Satyavati and the thought of marrying her never entered his mind. Under the circumstances she had no role in Bhishma’s decision to stay unmarried.

In Sarala’s version, Santanu was a great devotee of Bhagawan Shiva, who was very pleased with him. Santanu was called duti iswara (“second Shiva”). In Sarala’s words he was rudra avataara (“incarnation of Rudra”). From a certain point of view, it is perhaps not entirely accidental and surprising that Ganga became his wife for a while. Sarala refers to Santanu throughout as muni (“sage”). Sarala himself was a devotee and a believer in sexual morality. He must have found it unacceptable to reduce a great devotee of Shiva to a rather ordinary human who was madly infatuated with a girl for her looks and pined for her. In Sarala’s narrative Santanu’s moral character and integrity are beyond censure.

As for Satyavati, in Sarala’s narrative she turned out to be a more harmonious character in some sense. The man who seduced her did not walk out on her; he married her. There was no tension in the marriage; she had the blessings of her father. She lived happily with her husband and their illustrious son, the great sage Vyasa, who, she said, protected them from any social disgrace or spiritual degeneration. Unlike in the classical version, here she was not the center of any spectacular events that proved momentous for the destiny of Hastinapur, but at the same time, she was not the cause of the numerous complications and strain that brought so much suffering in so many ways to so many people in the Kaurava family. One could imagine her feeling happy that Sarala created her differently from the way the great Vyasa had created his Satyavati.

Monday, May 19, 2008


Duryodhana’s crossing of the river of blood is arguably the most touching episode in Saaralaa Mahaabhaarata. One of the most powerful poems of the eminent Oriya poet Radhanath Ray, who wrote about four hundred years after Sarala, was inspired by this episode.

Krupacharya had withdrawn from the war, having been disfigured by Arjuna’s divine arrows, and there was no great warrior left in the Kaurava army except Duryodhana himself. It was already night, but the fighting hadn’t stopped. As the opposing armies fought in the dark, they killed blindly. Darkness had obliterated the distinction between the enemy and the ally. So fierce was the fighting and so many fighters fell that a river of blood arose in the battlefield. Duryodhana was unaware of it; he was hiding under a slain elephant’s body. Well past midnight when the victorious Pandava army retired to their camp, he emerged from the hiding, and saw the river of blood. He was desperate; he knew that he had to escape from the battlefield that very night under the cover of darkness in order to have time and energy to plan out some war strategy. But in front of him there was this barrier: the deep river of blood. He would need some support to cross it.

As he stood gazing at the river with desperation, he blamed himself and his destiny for the misery he had brought upon himself and his family and friends. Then he saw a corpse floating towards him, its face upwards. This gave him hope; he could use it as a raft to cross the river. He saw that it was the body of his brother Dussasana. He wept miserably remembering how great a warrior he was and what all he had done for him. He hoped that in his death too his brother would be a support for him, and he would be able to cross the river. But the moment he sat on the body, it sank.

Then he saw the body of Karna, which in the river of blood glowed like the rising sun. He held it tight and wept bitterly as he recounted his friend’s greatness as a warrior, his concern for the poor, and his magnanimity and sacrificing nature. He had pleased Krishna, who was Narayana himself, with his daana (“giving”) - Narayana, who would never be pleased no matter how much one gave him, as Sarala put it. He recalled how, for his sake, he had abandoned his own brothers, and chosen to fight them. He believed that he would come to his rescue even now, as he had always done while alive, and help him cross the river. But when he sat on the body, it sank.

He then saw the body of guru Dronacharya. He recalled with gratitude that it was because of his training that the Kauravas and the Pandavas had become so great warriors. Drona was an archer who even gods were afraid of fighting. And he was not just a great archer; he was a learned person too, well versed in the shastras. Duryodhana recalled how very fond Drona was of Arjuna, how it was the same Arjuna who gave him endless trouble in the battlefield, and how the ungrateful Pandavas killed him, their own guru. He believed that the body of his guru would save him now, but when he sat on it, it sank into the depths of the river of blood.

Then he saw his uncle Sakuni’s body. He was his minister who knew the past and the future. He recalled the many acts of Sakuni to harm the Pandavas for his sake: feeding poisonous sweets to Bhima, constructing a palace of inflammable material to have them burnt alive, defeating Yudhishthira in the game of dice using unfair means and usurping their kingdom, and humiliating Draupadi in the Kaurava court in the full view of the assembly, among others. He thought he could trust this body to ferry him across the river. He sat on the body and at once it sank.

As time passed he grew desperate. Then he saw a body floating by with its face downward. There were ornaments all over it, and in the darkness of the night this body shone like the rising moon. He thought it might be the body of some virtuous person, and might save him. And as he sat on it, it did not sink, and he crossed the river.

He was wondering which mahatma’s (“great soul”) body it was, which had brought him to safety. It had supported him, and his two heavy maces, which the bodies of the mighty warriors such as Dussasana, Karna, Drona, Salya, Bhurishrava, and Sakuni had failed to do. He was full of gratitude towards this unknown person. And as he turned the body to see its face, he found it was the body of his son Lakshmana Kumar. Who else could have come to his rescue? It is said that the son saves the father’s soul from hell but for Duryodhana it turned out to be that his dead son saved him from a veritable hell on earth.

Earlier that night, as Lakshmana Kumar was fighting valiantly, Duryodhana had asked him to leave the battlefield and save himself. The young man was surprised; what his father was asking him to do was totally unacceptable. He pleaded with him not to lose heart, gather his forces, and meet the enemy’s challenge. But his father was insistent; he did not want him to die. He was the only young survivor of the Kaurava family, and he must not die, his father told him. So he left the battlefield, but on the way in that darkness he perished as he got hit by Bhima’s mace accidentally. Unknown to his father, unknown to Bhima, and the other Pandavas.

Duryodhana was inconsolable. He reproached himself bitterly for being the cause of his death. He recalled how he was a virtuous, gentle and kindhearted person, who was admired and liked by the people of Hastinapura. He recalled how every single day he would do something to alleviate the suffering of the needy. He recalled how he and his mother had pleaded with him not to let Krishna go back from the Kaurava court humiliated, and how they had both insisted that he gave at least two villages to the Pandavas. He recalled how he had rejected their plea, how he had vowed not to give an inch of kingdom to the Pandavas without fight, and how terrible the consequences of that decision had been for him. “I will give the Pandavas half of the kingdom now, “ he told the lifeless body, “get up, my son, let’s go home, your mother is waiting”, he implored. It was the love of the father speaking in all its purity; otherwise in his scheme of things, there was no room for sharing the kingdom with the Pandavas.

This said, it must be noted that there was no seeking of revenge in his sorrowful words, and no expression of hatred for the enemy, as though these were inappropriate for that grave and somber occasion. As though the dear dead deserved homage uncontaminated by violence. So different from the way the Pandavas had responded to Abhimanyu’s death. As they mourned the death of the valiant youth, they vowed revenge; they clamoured for the killer’s blood.

It was getting late. The unfortunate father tore off part of his own clothes, and placed his son’s body on it. “In births after births may you never get a father like me, and may I always get a son like you”, saying so, he covered the body with earth, and hurried off.

Forget about the “terrible-silence-between-two-rolls-of-thunders” approach, or the “relief-preceding-the climax” approach. In the war narrative there must be some space for mourning and for reflection, and for paying homage, and expressing gratitude to the dead in the battlefield. One can imagine Sarala executing this idea in a highly dramatic and poignant way in the episode of the river of blood. For the poet a time for all this is between two disastrous phases of the war – an interruption caused by the fall of a great warrior and a noble soul. For Duryodhana this was an occasion not just to mourn over his dear son, but also to pay his tribute to all those great warriors who had died fighting for him. This would be the last time he would remember them all. This was also the time for reflection, for revaluation of what he had done, for remembering the advice that he had not accepted, for realizing how his obstinacy had brought his family and friends their destruction. This was the time for him to own up responsibility.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008


Of the women in Saaralaa Mahaabhaarata Ganga is unquestionably the most vicious and wicked. The way she tortured her husband Santanu has no parallel in puranic literature as a whole, not just in Saaralaa Mahaabhaarata, or in puranic literature in Oriya. And it was not just about killing their newborns. But this could be Ganga from some surface point of view.

She was a woman duped by fate, doubly duped in fact: she couldn’t marry the one she had committed herself to, and was, for long, patiently waiting to marry, and had to marry someone else instead. And that too because of a grave misunderstanding on her own part, although she tended to blame others for it. She was possibly too deeply disappointed for some sober reflection. But perhaps she was incapable of it; wild and tempestuous in nature, she wasn’t the kind who would quietly accept fate.

To Bhagawan Shiva she had dedicated herself. Born as a human, she was waiting for her divine consort, who had disappeared into the nether world. Her father knew who she was, and who she was waiting for.

Now king Santanu of the Kuru clan was a great devotee of Shiva, and pleased with him, the great god blessed him with the title duti iswara (“second Shiva”). Once Santanu, dressed as Shiva, with matted hair, and with ashes smeared all over his body, was wandering in the vicinity of where Ganga lived. He resembled Shiva so completely that even gods were mislead. Ganga saw him while doing tapas, and was distracted. And at a moment of inattention, she mistook him to be her lord. She told her father to marry her to him He was only too happy to agree.

It didn’t take her long to realize her mistake. She realized it during the wedding ceremony itself. She refused to marry Santanu, but relented when her father told her that the sin of betrayal would accrue to him if she did not marry Santanu. He reminded her that it was she who wanted him to marry her to him. She had been a considerate daughter; earlier, when her father expressed his concern that if she (remained unmarried and) attained her womanhood in his house, it would bring his ancestors great misfortune, she assured him that she would arrest her growth and remain a child in his house.

Ganga told Santanu that she was waiting to marry Shiva, and warned him right there that she was rebellious and wild, and couldn’t be controlled by even Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu, and that in exasperation, each of them had deserted her, in a manner of speaking. In view of this, he should decide whether he would marry her. Santanu had nothing to decide. He was surely too enamoured of her to withdraw from the marriage. He said it was only proper that the husband must be supportive, generous, and even be indulgent towards his wife. Then she told him that as her husband, he must continuously serve her, must never get angry with her, or misbehave with her or scold her, and that the moment he would disrespectfully call her gaangi, instead of gangaa, she would leave him. Thus as she was planning her release, Santanu promised her everything.

She tortured her husband in every possible way. She was as inventive in finding ways of hurting and humiliating him as she was ruthless. She would keep him starved, cook for him once in three days, and then cook food that was tasteless, and beat him at will. She would tear off his clothes and destroy his sacred books, deny him when he wanted her, and would force him to have sex with her on auspicious days when it was prohibited. She would not allow him to perform his religious duties.

One day she asked Santanu where Shiva was. She thought he might know, being his great devotee. He in fact did; he told her that he was manifest in Kapilas. She was secretly overjoyed; this was what she had been waiting for, for thousands of years, and she decided to leave Santanu at the earliest. From then on she tortured her husband even more severely. In his presence she killed her first born almost immediately after his birth. In fear of her, Santanu left Chitravirya and Vichitravirya, his children unborn from womb (we skip the details of their birth here in order not to distract from the story of Ganga), in the care of the sage Pareswara (more famously known as Parashar) and Satyavati. One day Ganga happened to see them, and figured out that they were Santanu’s children. She cursed them that they die issueless.

Ganga killed another five of her children from Santanu in the same way she had killed their first. When she was going to kill the seventh, Santanu stopped her. He slapped her, and cursed her and took away the infant from her. As he abused her, he called her gaangi.

She was happy as she rose to leave him. She said she had killed their six sons in order to provoke him. He had now uttered the forbidden word, and with that had violated the condition of their marriage. Santanu held her in his arms and tried to stop her asking her how the infant would live without his mother’s milk. Ganga extricated herself from him and said that she didn’t care whatever happened to the child: let the infant live if he wished to, and die if he so wished. This turned out be a boon for the infant – death would not touch him until he wanted to die.

While leaving she cursed Santanu for having touched her. No longer his wife, she had acquired the status of the consort of his guru, Shiva. He had thus committed the crime of touching his guru’s consort. She cursed him that he be killed by the son of the infant, who his father subsequently named Bhishma.

This is the end of Ganga’s story, in one version of Saarala Mahaabhaarata. The only link she would with her son was an unintended one; in addition to Bhishma, he also came to be known as the son of Ganga. In another version though, she did not forget her son. When he fell in the battlefield of Kurukshetra, she sent some revered sages to him with the message that that was an inauspicious time to die, so he should not wish for death till the auspicious time came. For Bhishma of course this was no news; he didn’t have to be told when to die. When the sages returned and told her that her son was exceptionally wise, she felt happy.

Ganga was a good daughter, but a disgusting wife to Santanu. There are no words to describe how terrible, and revolting a mother she was, and one is shocked when one considers that she did all this deliberately, for a selfish end. Granted that she found herself entangled in a difficult situation, and also that she had warned Santanu that she was going to be wild, but all these do not justify even in the smallest measure what all she . It is even more sickening as one considers the fact that it was she herself who was the root cause of her circumstances.

But consider Sarala’s Ganga from another point of view. For the poet, she was the human manifestation of the mighty river Ganga, as he conceptualized the river. Turbulence, wildness, destruction, etc. constitute her essential nature, which she retained in her human form. It is also part of her nature to flow, and break barriers in order to do so, if she encounters them, and she is not constrained to flow in some given, determined path. However it is not wild energy alone that characterizes the mighty Ganga; serenity too is an aspect of her – there are stretches where she flows with quiet dignity. If her treatment of Santanu demonstrates her wildness, her considerateness for her father shows the other aspect of her nature. Marriage with Santanu was a barrier she was bound to break by the force of her nature; she couldn’t stay arrested. It makes no sense to censor her, a form of pure energy, for her turbulent aspect and commend her for her calm aspect.

Thus there is a surface point of view towards her, and a deep point of view as well. But these are not evaluative terms; these are just names of two levels of understanding. Neither can be dispensed with for a fuller understanding of Sarala’s Ganga; they indeed complement each other, and do not cancel out each other. At one level one judges her in terms of the system of values that applies to the humans, and admires her for certain things, and condemns her for others, and even tries to understand her. At another, one just perceives her majesty in her different aspects, and reflects on the rich and complex symbol with non-traditional associations that she becomes in the hands of Sarala.

She was seeking Shiva, relentlessly, and quite appropriately too. Wildness must join wildness. And Shiva is its ultimate description. He is the version of theVedic Rudra in the puranic age: Rudra, who was duly offered his due in every sacrifice but never invited there.

Monday, April 14, 2008


In Saaralaa Mahaabhaarata it was not Krishna who gave the clothes to Draupadi and saved her from dishonour; it was Surya, the Sun god. Krishna of course did have a distinct role, but it was rather indirect, and also unknown to the humans, including Draupadi. When Dussasana told Duryodhana that Draupadi was menstruating, Duryodhana didn’t want her to be brought to the court because the sight of a woman in her ritually unclean state was supposed to bring misery. Sakuni intervened and said that since with five husbands Draupadi was nothing but a whore, such restrictions did not apply in her case. She should be disrobed, he suggested to Duryodhana. It was then that Duryodhana asked Dussasana to bring her to the Kaurava court. When she was dragged to his presence, he taunted her saying why she wasn’t asking her dear protector Krishna to come to her rescue since her husbands were incapable of doing so.

Draupadi warned him that he should not talk slightingly of Krishna, and told the court a story that showed how no power could harm anyone under the protection of Bhagawan Vishnu. Duryodhana was annoyed and asked Dussasana to disrobe her, and challenged her to save her honour with Krishna’s help - a situation reminiscent of Hiranyakashipu’s challenge to Prahlad. Thus it was to disgrace Krishna rather than the Pandavas that Duryodhana wanted Draupadi to be humiliated. As Dussasana proceeded towards her, Draupadi frantically pleaded with her husbands to protect her. Each of them told her how helpless he was. However, when Dussasana taunted Bhima, he picked up his mace and jumped at him. Yudhisthira rebuked him harshly, and told him that for Draupadi he must not harm his brothers. The Pandavas could get a hundred Draupadis, he said, but not a brother if they harmed their own brothers.

Draupadi prayed to Krishna. He was playing dice with his wife Satyabhama. He got distracted, and told his wife that Draupadi was in trouble, and was seeking his help, and he was going to save her. Satyabhama couldn’t believe that her husband could know about Draupadi’s situation when she was so very far from him. She wanted proof – the ultimate proof of visual experience. Krishna invoked his carrier, the divine eagle Garuda, and immediately proceeded towards Hastinapura with Satyabhama. From the sky Satyabhama could see how the wicked Kauravas were troubling her. When Draupadi saw Krishna on the back of Garuda in the sky, she experienced a profound sense of liberation. She offered him prayers, and said that by seeing him, she attained liberation from her sins of countless existences. It was as though at that particular moment she was so overpowered with the consciousness of Krishna that she became oblivious of her desperate situation in the Kaurava court.

Returning as though to her normal self, she prayed to him to protect her from the clutches of Dussasana. Krishna told her that she should not worry about such trivial matters, and that she should pray to the Sun god. What she had given would return to her in far greater measure at the time of her distress, he said. Surely Draupadi had no idea what connection it could have with her praying to the Sun god. But she didn’t ask, and Krishna didn’t clarify. From one point of view that was not the time for all this; at another, this was act of surrender - since Draupadi, a bhakta (“devotee”), had implicit trust on her Bhagawan, Krishna, there was no need for her to ask.

Anyway, with that Krishna left. Unknown to any human, he met the Sun god on his way back, and reproached him for having forgotten his debt to Draupadi, and not helping her at the time of her need. He reminded him that he had borrowed clothes from Draupadi in an earlier existence of hers, for the wedding of his son, Sani, and told him that the pay back time had come. Dussasana was trying to disrobe Draupadi and he should redeem his debt. Krishna’s attitude and tone in his gentle, but firm upbraiding of the Sun god brings out the status of the latter with respect to him. By the time of the great purans, the Vedic god Sun had lost his status. In one conceptualization he was assimilated into Vishnu (Sun and Moon were conceived of as the eyes of Vishnu, as The Bhagavat Gita put it). In another where he retained his distinctiveness, he was assigned a lower status with respect to Vishnu. Then hundreds of years after the age of the classical puranas, in the hands of Sarala, his fall was complete.

But surely the god’s position could not be compromised in the eyes of the humans. Therefore Krishna had asked Draupadi to pray to the Sun god, which she most devoutly did. The god instructed Chhaya (literally, “Shadow”) and Maya (literally, “illusion”) to dress Draupadi. Unseen by everyone including Draupadi, these two celestials kept dressing her, as Dussasana kept disrobing her.

Thus in a way Krishna and the Sun god together saved Draupadi’s honour in the manner of the Causer and the agent. This relation might be said to parallel one conceptualization of Jagannatha and Sudarshana in the context of the Jagannatha worship in Puri. Most probably, it was Sarala who was the first to postulate that Jagannatha, Balabhadra and Subhadra are the manifestations of Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma respectively. But he said nothing similar about Sudarshana. He probably considered Sudarshana as Vishnu’s divine discuss. Later some seem to have conceptualized Sudarshana as Surya. There may not be many adherents of of this view at present.

To return to the rest of the story. After a while Bhishma tried to tell the Kauravas the significance of what was happening. How many clothes did their women wear, he asked the Kauravas. If they did not understand what was happening, they were just miserable morons, he told them. They should desist from their evil attempt to humiliate Draupadi, and he warned them that Draupadi’s anger could reduce them to ashes. But the Kauravas paid no heed, and as she gazed at the inner quarters of Hastinapur palace, a fire blazed there, and Duryodhana’s wife Bhanumati, and the wives of his brothers, and other royal Kaurava women ran outside. A greatly frightened Bhanumati came running into the court and condemned the Kauravas, and prayed to Draupadi, as she would to a goddess, to save them from her anger. Dhritarashtra and Gandhari also sought her forgiveness, and as she grew calm, the fire got extinguished.

If Sarala’s Krishna didn’t directly intervene in favour of Draupadi, it might not be because – setting aside the question, very reasonable in the context of this predominantly bhakti text, as to who at all understood the meaning of his words and actions if he himself did not clarify, - he thought that it was too insignificant a matter for his direct involvement. His direct intervention would have strongly undermined the functioning of the karmic principle. Both Draupadi and the Sun god were bound to each other by their karma. Thus it was necessary that Draupadi got back what she had given, and that the beneficiary of her action must redeem his debt. It would not matter that between the receiving and the giving there were many aeons, and existences – time does not constrain the domain of the operation of karma.

However, if this were so, then what role could Krishna have at all in this operation of the karmic principle? We know he activated the process. But does the law of karma require such an activator? Pingala’s spiritual awakening, for example, was due to her past karma, and not the intervention by an activator like Krishna, going by the Oriya Bhagavata (Srimad Bhagavata) of the sixteenth century Oriya poet Jagannatha Dasa. On the other hand, Krishna’s intervention in Saaralaa Mahaabhaarata can be viewed as an instance of Bhagawan’s grace. Perhaps this is how His grace interacts with karma. Karmic principle invokes an essentially unfavourable picture of existence. Pain and pleasure both lose their meaning in the condition of bondage. Divine grace brings relief to existence, and in a sense provides support to the idea of a personal god. In Sarala, grace does not negate or even undermine the karmic law, but creates a possibility of transcendental experience outside of the karmic level. Draupadi experienced it for a moment when she saw Krishna on the back of Garuda.

Thursday, April 10, 2008


In Saaralaa Mahaabhaarata, Yudhisthira married the second time. Ordinarily this would have been nothing out of the ordinary. Many kings and princes in his time had married more than once. Krishna had eight wives. As for Yudhisthira’s brothers, Bhima had married twice, and Arjuna had four wives. However, Yudhisthira’s second marriage draws attention for its unusualness.

He had already handed over the kingdom to his grandson, Parikshita, and was on pilgrimage with his brothers and Draupadi. After that they were to go for vanaprastha. They were visiting sacred places, and were in a place called Dharmapuri near Jajpur on the banks of the sacred river Baitarani when he married an Oriya girl called Suhani. It was not because he was overcome with passion for the girl that he married her. On the contrary, he found himself constrained to marry. The wedding was by no means a smooth affair; the god of death, Yama, had to be subdued for the marriage to be held.

One day a trader named Hari Sahu came to pay his respects to the Pandavas with his fifteen-year-old daughter Suhani. Yudhisthira asked him why he hadn’t got his daughter married. Keeping a girl of marriageable age at home was not right; it would bring distress to the ancestors, he told him. Hari Sahu told him that the girl was born in an inauspicious moment and she was destined to die at the time of her wedding, which was why he didn’t get her married. Sahadeva, who had the knowledge of the past, told Yudhisthira that what Sahu was saying was indeed true. Sahu then prayed to Yudhisthira in utmost humility to marry his daughter. It wouldn’t matter to him then whether his daughter lived or died, since he would have the great privilege of having Yudhisthira himself as his son-in-law, he told him. It would be a blessing for not only him but also his entire community.

Yudhisthira explained to him why his proposal was totally unacceptable. He was old and was on pilgrimage prior to vanaprastha. He could not return to live the life of a householder. But Hari Sahu was insistent. Then Sahadeva told Yudhishthira that rejecting a girl being offered for marriage was not in consonance with dharma, and that such an act would bring disgrace to one’s lineage. Therefore he must not reject the proposal. Yudhisthira accepted the advice and gave his consent.

Although it did not worry the girl’s father, Yudhisthira, like any husband-to-be, was quite troubled about the fact that the bride was to die the moment the sacred knot was tied. Arjuna told him not to worry. On an earlier occasion he had obliged Yama, and had developed a very close relation with him. He would now pray to him to spare Suhani, and he was certain that the god of death would grant him his request.

On an auspicious day the wedding ceremony was held. The Pandavas’ family priest, the great Dhaumya, presided over the function. The celebrated sage Vyasa was also present. Arjuna stood behind Suhani. As the ceremony was going on, Kal (literally “time”) and Bikal, the messengers of Yama, appeared. But for Arjuna, they were not even insignificant among the insignificants. He tied them up. Yama’s assistant, Chitragupta, fled and told Yama about the plight of his messengers. Furious at this, the god of death himself appeared on the scene. Yudhisthira was greatly perturbed, as were Dhaumya, Vyasa, Sahadeva and everyone else. There was palpable tension and the ceremony was stopped. But Arjuna told them not to worry and proceed with the ceremony.

Arjuna then humbly prayed to Yama to spare Suhani. The angry Yama ignore him, and proceeded towards the girl. Although he was invisible to everyone else, he couldn’t escape Arjuna’s sight. Now what power did Yama have to be able to frustrate Arjuna? Before he could act, Arjuna tied him up a thousand times over, and dispatched him to the Sumeru mountains.

In our puranas the thwarting of death, in other words, god Yama, is by no means non-existent, neither is return to life from the land of the dead in the same bodily form. In Saaralaa Mahaabhaarata itself there are at least two instances of the dead coming back to life. Sahadeva was brought back to life by the divine physicians, the Ashwini Kumaras, and Parikshita, by Krishna. But the god of death was never so disgraced. What was worse was that no god complained. No one advanced an argument against Yama’s incapacitation on grounds of cosmic imbalance. Sarala probably had no interest in arresting the flow of the narrative for the sake of Yama.

The ceremonies were over, and everyone was happy. Then Hari Sahu asked Yudhisthira how his daughter did not die. Sahadeva told him what all had happened when the ceremonies were going on. Sahu wanted to see Yama, and Arjuna and Sahadeva took him to the Sumeru mountains. Hari Sahu fell at the great god’s feet and requested Arjuna to free him. That he readily did, telling Yama that he was freeing him free at the request of the Pandavas’ father-in-law, and extracted word from him that so long as they were there, the place must not be visited by death. Yama also granted a boon to Sahu.

Soon the Pandavas resumed their southward journey. Yudhisthira directed Suhani to go to the Kapilasa hills (in Orissa) and devote herself to the worship of Bhagawan Shiva there. He told her that on his way back, he take her with him to Varanasi.

Suhani’s story ends here. Yudhisthira never met her again. He never returned to Kapilasa. He did not take her with him as he, along with his brothers and Draupadi, proceeded towards the Himalayas on their final journey – mahaajaatraa (“great journey”), as the nineteenth century Oriya poet Radhanath Ray described it. And none of them ever said a word about her.

Neither did she, about herself or her husband and his brothers. For that matter, she didn’t say anything at anytime about the momentous things that had happened to her. The poet says nothing about what thoughts crossed her mind and how she felt as she waited in the Kapilasa hills for her husband to return. If at some point of time she realized that her waiting was doomed to be in vain, the poet says nothing about it. She is probably the first silent character in Oriya literature, and probably the only such!

Did Yudhisthira change his mind, considering probably that she was too young to embark on a journey to death or did tell her a plain lie? However, would his words amount to a lie? Elders often tell children things they know to be false for a variety of reasons. The same do not amount to lying. Could Yudhisthira’s words be seen from that point of view? Whatever it was, Sarala offers no understanding in this regard. Her story does not interest the poet anymore.

Incidentally, she was not the only wife a Pandava had left behind, setting aside the differences of circumstances and motivations in each instance. Bhima left his wife Hidimba in the forests, and Arjunan too left his wives Chitrangada and Ullupi behind in their respective places. They did not share their lives with their husbands either in Hastinapura or Indraprastha. Neither did they join them when they went to the forest after the game of dice incident. Subhadra was the only one who came to the Pandava palace after her marriage to Arjuna - being the sister of Krishna and Balarama, she was no ordinary woman. However she did not go with Arjuna to the forest, nor did she join them in their vanaprastha.

However, these women, who were left behind, entered the story of Mahabharata later, at some stage or the other. Ghatotkacha, for example, fought for the Pandavas and perished in the Kurukshetra battlefield. To take another example, (Bhima’s son) Belalsen’s (called “Barbarik” in some non-Oriya Mahabharatas) severed head watched the proceedings of the war and gave his account of what had actually happened in the war – how the war was nothing but a lila (“divine play”) of Krishna. But Suhani could not enter the story. She related to the Pandavas too late in their life – too late in their story to have some role in it. After Suhani, it was the other world that was beckoning them. To tell that story Sarala did not need Suhani.