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.