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.