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.

Thursday, April 3, 2008


Dussasana died a terrible death - to put it mildly. But then even superlatives wouldn’t adequately capture the horror of it. Bhima literally pulled out his arms from his body, mutilated his chest, and drank his blood. And as he was dismembering his wretched victim, he was jeering and shouting abuses at him, reminding himself more than him of all the humiliation that Draupadi had suffered in his hands, justifying as much to himself as to him why he should be killed like a beast, and challenging all those around to save that miserable wretch from his clutches in so offensive a manner that even his own brother Arjuna had to be restrained by Krishna from attacking him for his despicable exhibition of arrogance. Bhima had Draupadi brought to the battlefield and poured the blood flowing from Dussasana’s severed arms on her hair, and as the warm blood flowed down her face, she had a taste of it. No death in the Kurukshetra battlefield was as terrible and as disgusting as this. A beast was killing its prey in a manner that far exceeded what the beasts indeed do to their prey. No quest for revenge can reduce one to the kind of bestiality that Bhima demonstrated. If anything can, it must be blinding hatred.

Bhima had of course made a pledge to do to Dussasana precisely what he did. Thus he redeemed the pledge, and the moral code of those days arguably validated it. In fact, Krishna, for one, repeatedly justified his action on that ground. But what kind of a pledge was it then? Granted, it was a vow made in intensely trying circumstances. However the day he uttered the terrible vow and the day he redeemed it were separated by more than thirteen years – years of mental and physical suffering for the Pandavas, no doubt, but it was surely a period long enough for reflection too. And Bhima was neither devoid of basic moral sense nor unlearned in the shastras. He relished fighting, as Sarala said of him in his narrative, but he wasn’t a warmonger. Didn’t it ever occur to him that the vow he had made to give his disgraced and humiliated wife justice was fundamentally unjust because it involved reducing himself to the level of a beast? This might not be a meaningless question if one considers his initial disinclination for war to win back their kingdom that Duryodhana had usurped through deceit. Before going to the Kaurava court as Yudhisthira’s emissary, when Krishna met him and told him that his elder brother did not want war and would be content with just one village, Bhima requested him to ask Duryodhana for one more village because one village for the five of them would be insufficient in view of his rather embarrassingly excessive need for food. Krishna had to work on his psyche to get his consent for war.

Poor Dussasana! In Draupadi’s humiliation he was only obeying his elder brother Duryodhana’s orders. In Saaralaa Mahaabhaarata, if he took initiative in this matter at any stage, it was arguably only in the beginning, when after Yudhisthira lost Draupadi in the game of dice and Duryodhana wanted Draupadi, then reduced to a slave, to be brought to the court to join her husbands who had also been reduced to the same position, Dussasana, although not specifically called upon to do so by his elder brother, went to bring her from the inner quarters, and dragged her out, tugging at her hair. If this amounts to taking initiative, then Dussasana is guilty of the same. After that he did only what his brother asked him to do. The decision to humiliate Draupadi in the court was not at all his.

In fact Dussasana did not bring Draupadi to the Kaurava court straightaway when she told him that she was menstruating. He came to court alone and informed his brother about her state. It was only on Duryodhana’s orders that he dragged her to the court. Again Dussasana did not suggest Draupadi’s disrobing. It was his brother’s decision. He only tried to do what he was asked to do.

But this of course does not justify his doings. There was no question of his protesting, since he didn’t think that he was doing anything wrong. In Saaralaa Mahaabhaarata there is no evidence that he thought differently from Duryodhana on this or any other matter. Besides, in all that he did, he was not a reluctant participant, but an enthusiastic agent. He relished it all. Incidentally, in Sarala’s narrative, no one in the Kaurava court raised a voice of protest against Duryodhana’s decision and Dussasana’s action .

But in all fairness, one must not judge any of the three involved harshly, namely, Dussasana and Bhima for what they had done, and the cruel, unforgiving Draupadi, who relentlessly drove her husbands to war because she could be avenged, and who insisted that her hair be washed with Dussasana’s blood. The reason is that in Saaralaa Mahaabhaarata, Bhima could not have done things substantially differently, and poor Dussasana was doomed to die almost the way he did. And Draupadi too had to taste his blood.

The genesis of it all lay in something that had happened aeons and aeons ago – that was the dawn of creation, when from the residue things were to begin again. From the tears of Vishnu, who had opened eyes for a split second, emerged fifteen Brahmas, and then Vishnu closed his eyes and resumed his yoga nidraa (“yogic posture”, literally “yogic sleep”). The Brahmas saw Saraswati at Vishnu’s head, and wanted sex with her. Angry, the mother goddess created Ketuka, and as the Brahmas surrounded her to sexually assault her, Saraswati asked her to devour them. One by one she devoured all but one, Sudraka Brahma, who prayed to Vishnu for protection. Vishnu asked Ketuka to spare him, but Saraswati intervened and told him that Sudraka was really wicked, and had sought sex with her. Vishnu asked her to spare him till the aeon of Dwapara. Ketuka, he told her, would be born as Draupadi then, and would have five Pandavas as her husband, and Sudraka Brahma would be born as Dussasana. He would torment her in public, and her husband Bhima would avenge her by dismembering him in the battlefield. He would pour his blood on his her hair, and it would be then that she would savour his blood. The script was already there. Thus as re-enactment of the past event, Dussasana’s torment of Draupadi had to have sexual overtones, reminiscent of the Brahmas’ attitude towards Ketuka.

The celebrated sage Durvasa reinforced the script, not that any reinforcement was necessary. Durvasa was the one through whose benevolent intervention Gandhari’s children were born. The fond father of Dussasana laid the infant in the sage’s lap, hoping that his son would get a blessing from him. The great sage kissed the infant and blessed that he have the strength of a thousand lions. Then as the infant cried and fidgeted a bit, his fist hit the sage in the chest, and he fainted. When he revived, he cursed him that his brother punish him by dismembering his right arm in the battle: sodara saasti deu tote dakshina bhuja upaadi (“brother punish you by uprooting your right arm”), as Sarala put it. And the sage Vyasa smiled when Durvasa pronounced the curse. As one who knew the past and the future, Vyasa surely knew the script.

Thus Sarala’s narrative can be seen as trying to find a deeper cause to such inhumanity and such degradation as evinced in Dussasana’s dismemberment. It was as though the poet was deeply hurt and offended by not only the bestiality of the act, but also what was presented as its cause and thereby its justification. Looking perhaps for a stronger cause he went beyond the here and the now. He explored the traditional belief that in some gross sense life ends with death, and karma ends once it is performed, but in a more subtle sense, neither life folds up in death nor karma, in its performance. In terms of the present episode, the demands of karma may require a succession of births. One must return to life as long as one has not experienced the results of one’s karma, and the ends of cosmic justice are not met. Intervention of even the Supreme can only delay the process.

The way Bhima was killing Dussasana, he had made it a spectacle. Many had stopped fighting and were watching. Among them were Duryodhana, Karna, Sakuni, the Pandavas, Krishna, and many, many terrified warriors of both sides. One can easily imagine the feelings of the Kauravas and the Pandavas. The former must have felt utterly devastated, and the latter, jubilant. But the ordinary fighters must have found the whole proceedings not only blood curdling, but also utterly sickening. Not just they, none present there deserved to witness an event during which the limits of cruelty were stretched so cynically. What justice was there in it?

None present there knew that the ancient Ketuka – Sudraka Brahma feud was reaching its predetermined, logical conclusion – if there was anyone who did, it could only be Krishna, but he gave no indication of it at any point of time. An event which had taken place aeons ago in some world of gods was folding up on earth in front of humans in a way that shamed humanness. Humans were not even there when the script was worked out. Why should they have been the victims of its senseless enactment?

Neither Dussasana nor Draupadi were aware of the true meaning of what was happening. In their present existence they had no memory of their past. Draupadi did not know that she was punishing her tormentor, and Dussasana did not know that he was being punished, and Bhima did not know that he was nothing but a designated killer acting on behalf of the tormented Ketuka who he never even knew. Without memory there is no knowledge, and what is the sense of retribution without the knowledge of either the crime or the criminal?

Is this the nature of karmic justice that whether or not it is intelligible to anyone including those involved, is immaterial? Perhaps not. For why, then, in Sarala’s narrative, was there the sage Agasti, whose knowledge of things transcended time, explaining the unfolding of karmic justice to a seeker like Baibasuta Manu?

Tuesday, April 1, 2008


The sisters-in-law were no great friends of each other. Gandhari was issueless when Yudhisthira was born. She felt insecure and worried. Being the first born in the Kaurava family, Kunti’s son would inherit the throne. In any case, as an issueless woman, her social and ritual status was much inferior to Kunti’s, who had attained motherhood. She became restless. To cut a really long story short, by the grace of Durvasa and other eminent sages she became the mother of a hundred children.

After her husband Pandu’s death, Kunti came to live in the palace with her three children, and Madri’s two, and the five later came to be known as Pandavas. Gandhari’s husband, Dhritarashtra, was the king; so she enjoyed the privileges of the queen. In contrast, Kunti was just a member of the palace, the mother of fatherless children, and a widow. She was a non-entity. But she seemed to have been reconciled to her situation. As for Gandhari, it hardly mattered to her that her husband had become king because of Pandu’s benevolence and affection for his blind brother. Power and privileges had wiped out that fact from her memory.

Gandhari and Kunti used to go to the river Yamuna for bath every morning, Gandhari in the royal style, with her entourage, and Kunti all alone. After bath, they used to go to a Shiva temple to worship; they went separately, not by design though, and did not meet in the temple.

One morning they did, and Gandhari was furious. How dared Kunti worship the Linga in her temple! She shouted at her, but Kunti was not the kind of woman to take it from her sister-in-law, of all people. She shouted back. Gandhari told her that as a widow she was an unfortunate woman and had no right to perform any religious act. Soon tempers rose, they pushed each other, and started fighting in real earnest.

That was when Shiva manifested himself. He told the quarrelling women that they, gods, belonged to no one, and would be with anyone who pleased them with offerings. He told them that he would be with whoever would be the first to worship him the following morning with a hundred golden champak flowers.

The Kaurava women left and Kunti locked herself in a room. She was very unhappy. She knew that each of her sons would be able to give her one such flower, but that added up to just five. She also knew that Gandhari could similarly get one flower each from her children, and it added up to hundred! She knew thus that she was going to be the loser.

After a while Arjun came looking or her. He was hungry. Kunti came out, gave him food, and told him what was troubling her. Arjun told her not to worry; the following morning he was going to get for her a hundred golden champak flowers each with a hundred petals.

Kunti woke him up in the morning and reminded him of the flowers. He shot an arrow at Kuvera’s treasury and got all the gold he needed. With his arrows he created many, many beautiful champak flowers each having a hundred petals for his mother to worship Shiva with.

Gandhari had told her sons about her quarrel with Kunti and about what Bhagawan Shiva had told them both. She asked her sons to give her a golden champak each. She was already feeling like the winner thinking that if at all, Kunti would be able to get just five flowers of gold. In the morning as she went in style to the temple with a hundred gold champaks and her hundred sons, she saw that there were golden flowers strewn all over the place. Defeated and sad, she returned.

How could their children have been cordial to each other when they knew their mothers were sometimes even explicitly hostile to each other? Of course neither bore ill will for the other’s children, and neither encouraged her children to be unfriendly to their cousins. Gandhari was disturbed by Duryodhana’s hatred towards the Pandavas, and did not approve of his grossly unjust treatment of them. She was also apprehensive about her sons because she knew that the Pandavas were stronger. And soon she came to realize that she was incapable of influencing Duryodhana with regard to his dealings with the Pandavas.

The temple events can be seen as a turning point for Kunti and Gandhari as far as their power relations are concerned. They derived their power from their male associations, as women by and large almost always have had: Gandhari from her husband and children, and Kunti, from her children. In the golden champak incident Gandhari came to realize the superiority of Kunti’s children to her own in terms of intelligence, enterprise and might, and she began to understand that the balance of power had clearly titled in Kunti’s favour.

Draupadi’s humiliation proved to the turning point from a different perspective. From then on Kunti became increasingly bitter and unforgiving. She was the one who had taken an absolutely uncompromising stand in favour of the war. Later Yudhisthira said this to her in so many words. On the penultimate day of the war, when her sons and Krishna returned to their camps without having killed Duryodhana, she greeted Bhima and Krishna with the harshest of words for their failure to kill Duryodhana. In fact so foul was her language and so abusive her tone as she addressed Krishna that Bhima got wild with her and had to be pacified by Krishna. But in all this, Gandhari was not in her mind.

The loss of her ninety-nine sons in the war had hardened Gandhari and she was full of hatred towards the Pandavas. Kuniti was not in her mind when she planned her revenge and resorted to deceit in order to destroy Yudhisthira. But Krishna countered her deceit with equally vicious deceit, and made her destroy her only surviving son, Durdasa, who had changed sides and had fought on behalf of the Pandavas.

Kunti now became the queen mother and Gandhari was a dependent on the Pandavas. The tables had turned, and the balance of power had completely tilted against Gandhari. She was too powerless to feel even a sense of jealousy towards Kunti. Bhima never lost an opportunity to hurt and humiliate Gandhari’s husband, Dhritarashtra. Dhritarashtra suffered as much as did Gandhari. But Kunti was not party to their humiliation. Power and status seemed to be of no interest to her. And power is no power when there is lack of will to exercise it or enjoy it. Gone was Kunti’s hostility to her sister-in-law. She was subdued and dejected. The joy her son’s enthronement must have given her was more than offset by her sense of loss. She suffered for her son Karna who had perished in the battlefield. Memories of this son – her eldest - to whom she had not been a mother in more ways than one, a matter that need not detain us here, and whom she had not brought up oppressed her. It was as though she was trying to make up for her failure, and give her dead son his due that she had deprived him of when he was alive. She wept for him every single day, and she also mourned for her grandchildren, Abhimanyu and Ghatotkacha, and for her relatives. Karna killed Ghatotkacha, and had participated in the killing of Abhimanyu, but she didn’t utter a word of condemnation against him. But she condemned Arjuna, who had killed Karna. She might not have empathized with her sister-in-law: she was too full of her own loss to think of anyone else’s.

She joined Gandhari, blind by choice, and her brother-in-law Dhritarashtra, blind from birth, when they retired to the forest for their vanaprastha. She would look after them in the forest. Gandhari was surprised. Why was she going with them? She had stayed with her sons and suffered with them during their difficult days. Why was she now leaving them in their days of prosperity? Kunti told her how she felt no joy in the palace and how miserable she indeed was.

In the end a bond had grown between the two women.