Monday, June 9, 2008

THE STORY OF THE MANGO OF TRUTH

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.

4 comments:

deeksha arunachalam said...

This is the first time I have been exposed to this particular story in such detail. It made for a very interesting read. I am writing my thesis on The study of Homeopathic constitutions using characters from Hindu mythology and have been liberally referring to your blog for details on the characters' psyche.
Thank you for providing such an insight into the characters of the great epic.

vamsi krishna said...

Nice one.... Thanks for this article

bonny said...

Thank you so much for this post sir. Draupadi's declaration of love for Karna appears in Kashi Das' Bengali Mahabharat as well, though clearly, it was a later added story and has no basis in Vyas' epic( as in KMG, BORI,etc). Could you please tell me sir, if you know the source of this Karna-Draupadi story?

B.N.Patnaik said...

This Karna-Draupadi story, I am told, appears in Marathi Mahabharata. There it wasn't a mango but some other fruit. I will try to find out if it is there in the Assamese Mahabharata. At the level of detail, the stories may not the exactly the same though. It is very difficult to trace the source of such additions to Vyasa's version. Interestingly, in another pothi of Mahabharata, attributed to Sarala, there seems to be this story, but I haven't seen this version. I have followed the edition of Sarala Mahabharata by Artaballav Mohanty, which is published by the department of Culture, Govt. of Odisha.

You might find it interesting that in Sarala Mahabharata, Sakuni is not lame. In Vyasa's version too he is not lame, as far as I know. I am told that his father broke his leg, so that he would not forget to take revenge.

Regional language Mahabharatas have been neglected for hundreds of years. There is some scholarship of these Mahabharatas in their respective languages but not in any link language, because of which this work is unavailable to those who do not know the relevant language. It is extremely important to render, as soon as possible, the stories of the regional language Mahabharatas into English. Translations can appear later.

Dr. Pradip Bhattacharya has come up with a project on regional language Mahabharatas. Let us hope it receives the necessary support from our cultural institutions.

In oral cultures, interpolations are inevitable and for that reason, natural. That is why it is appropriate to say that these great poets retold the Vyasa Mahabharata; they didn't translate it.

Is Kashi Das Mahabharata available in English? May be the important stories, may be in a blog form, etc.? Would you kindly let me know?