Thursday, March 19, 2009


In Saaralaa Mahaabhaarata it came from Sakuni. On the eve of the Kurukshetra war. Duryodhana had sent him to the Pandavas with the message that they must come to the battlefield and together with Sakuni, work out which side of the battlefield which army would take for camping. Sakuni was not supposed to offer any proposal to the Pandavas to avoid the war. But that was what he did. First he gave them Duryodhana’s message. Then he said that there was indeed an alternative to war: Yudhisthira must return to the forest with his brothers.

To make his point he then told Yudhisthira a story. Once upon a time there was a woodcutter in a small town named Kamapura near the river Krishnaveni. His name was Melaka. He was lazy and ignorant. All he did was bring home some dry wood, and his wife would go out and sell it. They had no children. He had acquired no other skill. Forty years passed in this way.

Once it rained heavily for a couple of days. It wouldn’t stop. Melaka couldn’t go out to collect wood, and the husband and the wife starved. When the weather improved, she shouted at him and asked him to go out and do something. The fellow went out with his axe, stretched himself on a temple platform and went off to sleep. He woke up in the evening when the conch was blown at the temple.

He was very worried. He had gathered nothing, and it was already evening. The very thought of facing his wife frightened him. It was getting dark, there was no one around, and it was very quiet. He went inside the temple. There were three idols: Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. He threw the wooden idol of Vishnu on the floor and raised his axe to cut it to pieces. The wood would support him for some three or four days, he figured out.

Vishnu materialized. How could you think of cutting me to pieces, you ignoramus, he asked. Unafraid, Melaka told him that he had nothing to eat, and that if he was really Vishnu, could he provide him some food till that spell of heavy rains was over, he begged of him. Vishnu readily granted his prayer. When the rains were over, there was no more free food. So the lazy man used the same strategy on Vishnu, and this time when he appeared, he wanted him to provide him food as long as he lived. Vishnu agreed out of fear. Soon Melaka became prosperous and his status in the town improved.

Now he had a neighbour called Ananta. He was a man of virtue, but was poor. His wife, Lilavati, and Melaka’s wife were friends. Lilavati grew jealous of her friend. She would shout at her husband, insult him, hold him responsible for their miserable existence, and would occasionally threaten to leave him. If that lazy man, her friend’s husband, could manage his affairs so well, why couldn’t he, she would ask him. He asked her to find out from her friend how her husband had come to do so well.

Having found out the secret of his prosperity, one day Ananta went to the same temple. He picked up the stone idol of Shiva, and raised his axe. Now Shiva materialized in a terrible form. How dared he attempt to attack him, he asked, and told him that he would tear him to pieces. Ananta was greatly unnerved, but could still manage to ask him why he was so angry with him when Narayana was so generous to Melaka in an identical situation.

Then Shiva told him that Melaka was an ignoramus, a lazy person; he lacked understanding and a sense of the right and the wrong. But he, Ananta, was not like that. He was honest and knowledgeable; he had a sense of discrimination. So they both could not be dealt with in the same way. Gods fear those who have an undeveloped conscience, who have no inner growth, but they are not afraid of the knowledgeable, who have a well-developed moral sense. Shiva told him that Melaka would suffer in hell, but he, who had looked after the needy, and had lived a pious life, would be reborn as a saadhu, a pious person. Ananta put the idol in the proper place and returned home. He told his wife that he just couldn’t break the idol; he got terribly scared. He was not going to make another attempt, he told her, even if they were to die of starvation.

After death, Melaka and Ananta met the same fate as Shiva had said - Melaka suffered in hell, and in his next birth, Ananta was the pious king of Kashi.

Now, Duryodhana was like Melaka, and he was like Ananta, Sakuni told Yudhisthira. How could he do something so sinful? He was renowned to be a man of virtue; how would he fight a war to kill his brothers, he asked him. He might suffer in this life, but would have a life of bliss in the next. He should not give in to anger, desire for power, hatred and violence. He should reject war, and return to forest.

Yudhisthira’s reply was sharp. During his vanavasa (period of forest dwelling) he had traveled from arka tirtha (Konarka) to himagiri (the Himalayas), and there was probably no tirtha (place of pilgrimage) that he did not visit, he told Sakuni. He said he knew him well, and knew that he never wanted the Pandava and the Kaurava brothers to have good relations. Now, instead of asking him to go back to the forest, he should persuade Duryodhana to go for vanavasa for a while, and let the Pandava brothers rule the kingdom during his vanavasa. The poet doesn’t say anything about how Sakuni felt and what all he thought.

He of course did not fail to see that Yudhishthira was uncharacteristically harsh. Speaking ironically to one’s elder and kin is showing disrespect to him. This is probably the only example in Saaralaa Mahaabhaarata when Yudhisthira spoke ironically to anyone. He thought Sakuni was trying to exploit him – what else does the devil have in mind when he quotes scriptures?

It didn’t even occur to him that his uncle Sakuni could be honest. During this episode Sakuni told him that he did not really know him; Sahadeva did – he hinted that the youngest Pandava was aware of his compulsions, and his real goals. Yudhishthira didn’t ask him to elaborate, or to clarify himself a bit. He ignored his words; they surely made no sense to him. One’s perspective is limited by the stereotypes of knowledge one has constructed from one’s past experiences. Even Yudhishthira, the living embodiment of dharma on earth, was no exception.

Sarala’s – the poet who is sometimes believed to be deeply inspired by the Buddhist thought - Sakuni provides the ultimate argument for peace: there is no road to real peace through violence, and total commitment to rejection of violence would mean choosing to sacrifice the self at the decisive moment. The wise, loving, and non-violent Yudhishthira (whose non-violent and considerate nature had once upset his mother because in her view these were not the qualities that a king should have) did not opt for peace. He didn’t even care to give it a thought because it came from the one who in his eyes was an unworthy person. Like any ordinary person he believed that it is the source that matters, not the thing.

Besides, there probably were other things in his mind at that time. They had almost just returned from twelve years’ stay in the forest, and one year’s stay incognito. It had been a hard life. He was in no mood to return to the forest. He didn’t want a kingdom, didn’t want even his own kingdom back, if the war could be averted that way. He just wanted two, if not two, only one, village. But it was never nothing. He never talked of returning to the forest. Besides he knew he wouldn’t have his brothers’ and Draupadi’s support - for many reasons, including avenging Draupadi’s humiliation. His brothers knew that the time for this had come.

Except Yudhishthira, no one really wanted to avert the war, although it must be said in all fairness that only a few were looking forward to it. But even he was not committed to total and unqualified rejection of violence. And he didn’t ever think in terms of renunciation. His concept of a virtuous life did not include it. He had never renounced anything.

This apart, he was not the one who worked for reward in afterlife, whether in heaven or in the subsequent birth. He was the only one in the narrative who left the world of the mortals without undergoing death. But he never worked for it. It was neither his aspiration nor his goal. In fact, afterlife, rebirth, etc. were not part of his language. All this was characteristically Krishna’s language, also the sages’ language – Agasti’s or Vyasa’s, for instance, and occasionally, Sakuni’s, and a few others’ too. But never Yudhisthira’s, or for that matter, Bhishma’s, Drona’s or Karna’s. Whatever their beliefs about rebirth, these great men lived their days as though there was only one life to live. They did not allow thoughts and concerns about afterlife to govern their present. A generous, deeply conscientious, and scrupulously honest person, Yudhishthira did his best to live a life of righteousness. There was no compensation he sought in the form of reward, if not here, elsewhere. A “gain-hereafter” argument was unlikely to impress him.

Peace sometimes demands self-denial, renunciation. That was the essence of Sakuni’s proposal; that was also his challenge to Yudhisthira, the one believed to be the very embodiment of dharma. He chose to brush it aside.


Avi said...

I just wanted to say I enjoyed your ruminations on the Mahabharata immensely. Especially the Sarala version of the Mahabharata and its interpretation of the Kurushetra war. I hope you continue this series.

In the story that you narrated in this post, I appreciate the contention of what the definition of Dharma should be. Does following dharma means one have to fight with one's family? What is adharma? In the Valmiki version, Vyasa points out that Bhisma does not understand dharma during Draupadi's disrobing incident in the Kaurava court. When challenged by Draupadi on whether dragging a woman, especially a noble woman such as herself, to court is in any way moral, Bhishma mutters "Dharma is way too subtle". In the end, Bhishma says that being in the employ of the Kauravas has blunted his sense of dharma and forgives Arjuna. It is interesting on how different the Sarala story deals with the same characters.

Do you know if there is any translation at all of the Saaraala mahabharata in the United States, especially somewhere near DC? Or has it still not been translated?

दीपम चटर्जी said...
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Ashwini Damani said...

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