Monday, September 13, 2010


In Vyasa Mahabharata, Aswasthama, guru Drona’s son, was cursed by Krishna to undergo a terrible fate: for three thousand years, with a gaping wound on his head, from which would continuously ooze blood and pus, he was to roam around alone in the forests, shunned by humans and shunning human company. Unable, on the advice of sage Vyasa, to withdraw (unlike his adversary Arjuna, who withdrew his narayana astra, another divine weapon as destructive as brahmastra), his brahmastra, that unfailingly hits the target and also causes great devastation in its trail, Aswasthama could only change its target. His original targets were the Pandava brothers and Krishna himself, and now the substitute target was the unborn son of Abhimanyu in the womb of his widow, Uttara. With the destruction of this yet to be born, the lineage of the Kurus would have come to an end, but Krishna intervened, and the child born dead was brought back to life, but that is another story.

Aswasthama had to surrender his “crown", which was not something ordinary; it was a part of his head, and it protected him from disease, hunger and thirst. When it was torn off his head, it not merely left a gaping, festering wound, but also destroyed a very powerful protective shield. He was reduced to an ordinary mortal. He had to undergo Krishna’s curse in this condition. This is in brief the last part of Aswathama’s story.

Aswasthama was granted the boon of immortality. He was condemned to undergo three thousand years of disgrace, humiliation, and pain, and the boon turned into a curse. Although, we, ordinary mortals would never know what three thousand years would mean to one whose existence spans eternity, we can well imagine what three thousand years of agony does to the sufferer. How much relief would one in pain get from the knowledge that one day the pain would come to an end, even though that day would take three thousand years to come?

In the eighteenth century Odia poet Krushna Singha’s version of Vyasa Mahabharata, all was not lost for Aswasthama. Krishna had put a limit to his terrible curse. This was what gave the condemned man hope. The curse had calmed him. Before he left on his three thousand year journey in wilderness, he prayed to sage Vyasa to allow him to return to his ashram on the completion of those years.

Sarala’s story is different. Aswasthama was a great warrior, and was one of the greatest archers of his times and like Bhishma, Drona, Arjuna and Karna he had divine weapons in his armoury too. But Duryodhana did not think highly of him, and made no secret of his opinion of him either. For Duryodhana, one who sought immortality was afraid of death, and one who was afraid of death was a disgrace to the community of warriors. In his army was Bhishma, who would die only when he chose to die. He could not be killed. But Bhishma’s case was different from Aswasthama’s. Bhishma never sought this privilege. In Sarala Mahabharata, what his mother, Ganga, said when she left him moments after his birth turned out to have this effect, unintended by Ganga herself. Details are out of place here.

After his father’s decapitulation in the battlefield, Aswasthama tried to destroy the Pandavas but did not succeed, on account of Krishna. Duryodhana refused to make him the commander-in-chief of the Kaurava army. But he had no motivation to fight in the war any more. He performed the last rites of his father, and resolved to go on pilgrimage. Lest he felt tempted to rejoin the war, he decided to give away his weapons to someone worthy. Informed of this by Sahadeva, Krishna in the guise of a wise brahmin received his weapons from him. When Sakuni told Aswasthama that Krishna had cheated him, he was not upset at all. By making a ritual gift to Krishna himself, he told Sakuni, he would acquire great religious merit. Besides, Krishna, in his Parashuram avatar had given him all those weapons and now took them away in a different incarnation - what was his, went back to him. Therefore, he told Sakuni, he had nothing to regret about.

Aswasthama entered the batlefield after he heard that Duryodhana was lying mortally wounded. He was terribly upset, and he requested Duryodhana again to make him his commander-in-chief to enable him to avenge his father’s killing. Duryodhana agreed. In the darkness of the night he went to the Pandava camp and killed Dhristadyumna, who had committed the mean act of killing his grief-stricken, unarmed father. He also killed the five sons of Draupadi during their sleep, mistaking them to be the Pandavas. Duryodhana rebuked him when he saw those heads the following morning, regretted having made him commander-in-chief, and dismissed him from his presence. Rejected for ever by his friend and his king, Aswasthama left in disgrace.

The Pandavas were in Dwarika when this happened. Draupadi was inconsolable. She wanted revenge. She asked Krishna to kill Aswasthama. Krishna did not kill Aswasthama but dispossessed him of his weapons. Ignoring details, he cheated Aswasthama again in the guise of a brahmin. He advised him to leave his weapons under water, and at night he stole them and brought them to Draupadi’s presence to pacify her. The following morning Aswasthama heard what had happened from his maternal uncle, Kripacharya, the family preceptor of the Kurus, who, like Aswasthama had survived the Kurukshetra war. This time Aswasthama’s reaction was very different. He lost his cool, and did what he should never have done.

It did not matter to him that he did not have any weapon. He uprooted a kainsika grass (a kind of grass that grows in water), made a bow and an arrow from it, and sanctified them with the enabling mantra, thereby transforming them into a proper bow and arrow. He invoked the mantra for brahmastra and shot the arrow instructing it to destroy the Pandavas, and Krishna, along with his seven generations too, in case he intervened on their behalf. Which is of course what Krishna did. In Dwaraka, the Pandavas, his guests, were under his protection. When all his efforts to counter brahmastra failed, he used narayana astra against it. The destructive power of these two weapons was so great that Brahma himself, who was the god of creation and also the creator of brahmastra, had to intervene without the knowledge of Aswasthama. Krishna must have known, because in Sarala Mahabharata there was nothing that he did not know. Brahma pacified the weapon of Vishnu, but his own weapon wanted a sacrifice – someone like a Pandava. So Brahma directed it to the womb of Uttara.

And with this, the narrative changed its direction. Aswasthama was simply pushed out of the centre stage to some quiet edge. He would not emerge from there for a long time. Now the focus was on the dead child, and Krishna was the supreme actor on the stage. He gave life to the child, and a touch of grandeur to the story of a kind that only he could. After the birth of her son Uttara died. The mother had done her job. She had given a son to continue the line of the Kurus and a successor to the throne of Hastinapura. The story did not need her anymore.

Then came the time when Krishna and his brother Balarama left the mortal world. Dhritarastra, Gandhari, and Kunti had retired to the forest, and had perished in a forest fire. Bidura had died. Yudhisthira experienced a deep sense of emptiness after the departure of Krishna, and he and his brothers soon decided it was time for them to go for vanaprastha. Yudhisthira handed over the kingdom to his grandson Parikshita and with Draupadi, the brothers left for the forest never to return.

In the last phase of their pilgrimage they went to the ashram of Parashuram in Prag tirtha (Prayag), where they met Aswasthama and Kripacharya. In just thirteen couplets of meditative grace the poet Sarala describes their meeting in that serene and sublime environment. These few verses provide one of the very few eloquent articulations of peace, calm and hope in this long narrative of intolerance, hatred, revenge, and destruction. The meeting of the Pandavas with Aswasthama was as elevating as blissful. This was no reconciliation; there was no place for it since all enmity and hostility of a lifetime had disappeared. They met as friends and well-wishers. Yudhisthira paid due respects to Aswasthama and Kripacharya, and in an expression of spiritual surrender, he prostrated before Parashuram – duti brahma (“second Brahma”) as Aswasthama described him to Yudhisthira. As Parashuram told them about the events of satya yuga (“the aeon of Truth”), Aswasthama spoke about the Mahabharata war and the glory and the greatness of the Pandavas. They all took their ritual bath in the sacred waters of the rivers, and had darshan of Bhagavan Madhava. Aswasthama most affectionately invited Yudhisthira to stay with them. They were on their way to the seat of goddess Hingula, he told Aswasthama, as the Pandavas resumed his journey. They would return to the ashram on their way back, and would join him, he told Aswasthama. They never came back; their path led them to the Himalayas.

This is how the immortal Aswasthama’s story ended in Sarala Mahabharata. It is through some kind of ending that the immortals can leave a story, and that, not merely because a story must have an end. Perhaps Aswasthama continued to stay in that ashram; perhaps he went elsewhere. In that deathless existence of his, what did he seek and what did he get? One does not know. Nobody ever told that story. There are no stories of immortals; only the mortals have stories.

In his retelling, Sarala saved Aswasthama from an utterly humiliating and miserable existence for three thousand years and his audience from yet another degrading experience: of confronting the endless howls of a man in terrible agony, not only disturbing the profound calm of the forests but also paralysing their sensibilities from fear. One such event was enough, both for those who were present in the battlefield of Kurukshetra, when it happened, and for those who centuries later listened to it as the poet retold the story: Dussasana’s screams and screeches, and Bhima’s bays as he severed his hands and dug a hole in his chest. But more than Aswasthama and his audience, Sarala saved Krishna. Some punishments, no matter in whose name, that of justice or whatever else, are a crime against humanity. And no punishment could be harsher and crueller than the one that was meted out to Aswasthama in the canonical text. Krishna was The Supreme Being’s avatara on earth, and Sarala was his devotee, and he saved him from the indignity and the disgrace of pronouncing that demeaning curse.

Friday, May 7, 2010


After this the Pandavas went into exile – for thirteen long years. And it all happened like this:

The defeat in the game of dice had hurt Yudhisthira badly, and the pain had seeped into his being. In fact in terms of Sarala’s narrative, it was the defeat, more than even Draupadi’s humiliation,that seemed to have upset the eldest Pandava more deeply. From one point of view, it may not be surprising; those who always win cannot accommodate even an occasional defeat. His kshatriya ego responded to humiliation in the same way, whether it came from a game of dice, or from a battle. He told Krishna that he would play dice with Duryodhana again, and would go into the forest if he lost. The link between defeat in the game of dice and withdrawing into the forest had been forged in his mind before he rolled the dice for the second time in the Kaurava court. Dying would be far better, he told Krishna, than living with the burden of defeat. Krishna, the knower of the past, the present and the future, said nothing. In any case, Yudhisthira was not seeking his advice; he was only informing him about his feelings and decision.

Soon after this, one day Yudhisthira went to Hastinapura to pay his respects to his uncle Dhritarastra. He had no intention of using this occasion to play dice with Duryodhana. It was a routine visit. This time his brothers were with him. Yudhisthira must have been at ease; he would not have to answer a semi-accusing question like why his brothers had not come with him.

They were warmly welcomed in the Kaurava court. Duryodhana and Yudhisthira sat together - on the same seat. The atmosphere was relaxed, and there was geniality all around.
Sakuni then brought his dice. One does not know what his intentions were, and whether through the game of dice he was pursuing his hidden agenda, namely, the total destruction of the Kauravas. It is also possible that he genuinely thought that a game of dice would be in tune with the pleasant mood prevailing in the court. The brilliant story teller does not provide a clue to the hearer to resolve an ambiguity such as this; he leaves it to his imagination to work out his own conclusion. In any case, whatever Sakuni’s intentions, the very sight of dice whetted Yudhisthira’s desire to play. He asked his brother Sahadeva, another excellent player of dice, to draw the patterns for the game on the floor. As for the dice, the earlier experience had made him wise; he smiled at his uncle Sakuni, and told him that this time he was not going to play with his dice. Bring another set, he told him.

Suddenly, from nowhere, fell in their presence a wonderful pair of dice. Both Yudhisthira and Duryodhana were happy at this mysterious happening; this was the dice of dharma (the eternal sustaining principle, also righteousness at a more worldly level) , said Duryodhana, and asked cousin Sahadeva – not Sakuni, who had won the game for him last time - to throw it on both Yudhisthira’s and his behalf. When dharma was the instrument, why worry about who would throw the dice.

Only Sahadeva in that august assembly of distinguished people knew the secret of the mysterious dice. He knew it was the work of the gods, who wanted to relieve the goddess Earth of some burden of wickedness and sin epitomized by Kichaka and his brothers. For this to happen, the Pandavas had to undergo exile. And for that to happen, Yudhisthira had to lose the game of dice. Now when gods wish to use humans as instrument for their objectives, they control their thoughts and perceptions, and their sense of judgement. They sent Khala (Mischief) and Durbala (Weakness of Will), who controlled the mind of Duryodhana and Yudhisthira respectively, and entered the pieces of dice as well.

Duryodhana proposed the wager: the loser would be a non-entity in the kingdom; that is, he would disqualify himself from putting forward any claim to a share in the kingdom. Yudhisthira proposed that the loser would live the life of an exile in the forest for twelve years. Sakuni added that he must live incognito for a year after those twelve years in the forest, and if his identity was discovered during that thirteenth year, he would repeat the exile and the incognito living, and the same would happen again if his identity was revealed in the thirteenth year. This harsh condition surprised Yudhisthira and Duryodhana both; they did not utter a word – quite understandable considering the fact that the players had no idea that the game was going to be manipulated.

Sakuni was probably gambling in imposing the stricter condition. The chances of the loser being found out in the thirteenth year would be quite high, he must have reckoned. A whole army of spies would be after him. If Duryodhana lost, then the Kauravas’ endless years in exile would, in effect, amount to their destruction. However if Yudhisthira lost, then he would be the loser. On the other hand, if the loser- no matter who - did succeed in staying incognito in the thirteenth year, then inevitably there would be war. That would serve his purpose; he had no doubt about the outcome - the Kauravas would be wiped out.

Sahadeva readily supported Sakuni’s proposal, needless to say, for very different reasons. He knew that the thirteenth year of their incognito living would make Kichaka’s killing in the hands of Bhima possible. He was willing to be the instrument of gods. Now since the principal advisers to Duryodhana and Yudhisthira were in agreement, they had no hesitation in giving their consent to the wager. The game started. Duryodhana gave the dice to Sahadeva. Each player declared the number he wanted, and they asked Sahadeva to roll the dice. Roll it in the name of dharma, the Kauravas said, and everyone would soon know who was with dharma. When Sahadeva rolled the dice, he did it, obviously unknown to everyone, not in the name of dharma, but in the name of the will of the gods. And Yudhisthira lost. This time defeat did not give him any sense of disgrace. The winner and the loser both looked upon the result as their karma, their destiny.

Bhima repeated his oaths to slaughter the Kauravas, dismember Dussasana, break Duryodhana’s thigh, etc., but that wild behaviour was in response to the crude and offensive demeanour of the Kauravas when Yudhisthira lost. They were gloating over the misery awaiting the Pandavas. The venerable elders in the Kaurava court like Bhishma, Drona and Kripacharya feared for the life of the Kauravas, although the Kauravas themselves did not take Bhima’s words seriously. They were certain that the exile of the Pandavas would never end. Yudhisthira of course totally disapproved of Bhima’s conduct, and made his resentment known to him. He knew that he had lost, and as far as he was concerned, there was absolutely nothing wrong in the way the game was played.

The first game of dice was rigged by Sakuni; the second was manipulated by the gods above and Sahadeva on earth. Sahadeva never told anyone about the mystery of the dice. Everyone had taken them as the dice of dharma, and unlike in the previous case, no one at any time later ever suspected anything foul, so no one ever asked him. And Sahadeva was constrained to share his special knowledge about things only if he was asked. This was destiny’s way to ensure that the one who had secret knowledge could not share it with others at will. The design of the gods remained buried forever in Sahadeva’s heart.

In Sarala’s narrative there was no Kaurava conspiracy to exile the Pandavas. No one from the Kaurava side invited Yudhisthira for a second game of dice. No Kaurava had in fact invited him to pay them a visit. It is of course another matter that Yudhisthira needed no invitation to visit his elders and cousins. The Pandavas belonged to the same family. More than once in Sarala’s story, the Kauravas and the Pandavas had fought together when a Pandava or a Kaurava happened to fight an enemy. In fact, they had almost just returned from such a fight when the dice rolled for the second time. That indeed was a strange fight; it began with Arjuna fighting his son Nagarjuna, with neither aware of their relationship. Further details of that terrible fight in which Krishna and Shiva had also got involved are unnecessary here. As for Sakuni, he was almost irrelevant in the second game of dice: his dice were summarily discarded; besides, he did not throw the dice then. True, the stricter requirement on the loser was his, but it might not have been accepted if Sahadeva had not consented to it, just as his dice were not accepted for this game. Sarala completely absolves Duryodhana and Sakuni of any role in the exile of the Pandavas.
In terms of Sarala’s narrative, everything that happens has a cause, whether it is evident to all or none, and whether it is humanly knowable or not. Some events have a deeper, cosmic purpose. Yudhisthira’s defeat in the second game of dice was one. When the fundamental, foundational and sustaining balance between the diverse and even contradictory forces on earth gets disturbed, it has to be restored. Therefore Kichaka and his brothers had to be killed, and for whatever reason, they could not be killed by a god. They were destined to be killed by a particular human. Under the circumstances, then, the gods’ intervention had to take the form of the emergence of enabling circumstances for that event to take place.

Monday, March 22, 2010


His brothers had gone with Krishna to Dwarika, and Yudhisthira was in Varunavanta with mother Kunti and wife, Draupadi. All of a sudden, as it were, he felt a strong desire to go to Hastinapura and meet Dhritarastra, his father’s elder brother, bada baapaa (“elder father”), as one would say in Odia ( the new spelling of "Oriya"). It is not incorrect to say “all of a sudden” for two reasons: one, Sarala’s narrative does not seem to support any other interpretation; for example, a fairly realistic one such as the following: Yudhisthira always wanted, almost longed, to go there and meet the family elders and brothers (Duryodhana and his brothers were “brothers”, not “cousins”, to him), but he knew that his own brothers would neither like to visit Hastinapura, nor let him to go there alone. In any case, his elders would never consider it normal if he went there leaving his brothers behind, and he would have to explain their absence. Now his brothers’ fortuitous absence in Varunavanta offered him a great opportunity, and he wanted to seize it. The second reason for “all of a sudden” is that it is in tune with the philosophy of Saaralaa Mahaabhaarata: things happen because they are destined to happen; an appropriate environment gets formed in order that the pre-ordained takes place.

In all humility Yudhisthira paid his respects to Dhritarastra, and told him that he had come alone because his brothers had gone with Krishna. The elder father welcomed him most warmly. He told him that he himself was a sinful person, and so were his sons: quarrelsome, and wicked, and such offspring as them were threat to the family line. He wished he had one virtuous son like him, he told Yudhisthira, and not those hundred wicked ones that he had. He implored his nephew to forgive Duryodhana, always, no matter how vile he was, and how often he wronged him. Yudhisthira chided him for being so unfair to Duryodhana, and told him that he valued him as a brother more than he did Bhima. The blind, old, former king of Hastinapura felt reassured, and said as much to Yudhisthira.

The poor old father had understood that his sons had no chance at all against the Pandavas, in the event of a conclusive fight between them. He was particularly scared of Bhima, who, he knew, hated his sons as intensely as they hated him, and who, he believed, could finish off all of them. He was also aware that it was Yudhisthira alone who could control the tempestuous Bhima. That was the main reason why he was so generous in his words of welcome to the eldest Pandava. One must not, however, be unfair to him; he was not unkind to his nephew, and his words of welcome were not totally insincere. In any case, he knew that Yudhisthira was his sons’ most effective shield against their destruction.

After the greetings were over, Dhritarastra asked Yudhisthira to go to the Kaurava court. He went there and paid his obeisance to Bhishma, Drona, Karna, Shalya, Sakuni, Bhurishrva, and other venerable elders. Apart from king Duryodhana everyone received him warmly.

The court was not engaged in any particularly serious business. There must have been a lazy atmosphere in the court. Sakuni looked disinterested and aloof, like one who had nothing to do. He was sitting alone at a corner, and was rolling dice, playing against himself as it were, something a compulsive player of dice would tend do when without a playmate, or when fighting a sense of boredom. He seemed to be neither hoping nor expecting any one to join him to play a game or two. No one in the court was paying him any attention.

Now Yudhisthira had paid his due respects and courtesies to all, and the main purpose of his coming had been served. He must have felt relaxed and happy - the feeling one has when with people one is fond of. He had a strong liking for dice, and the sight of dice cubes rolling must have been irresistible for him. He knew, as did everyone else, that Sakuni was an excellent dice player, who really enjoyed playing it – on the whole the kind of person a connoisseur would like to play with.

Yudhisthira directly went to him, and most warmly asked him if he would like to play a game or two with him. “Shall we have a game of dice, Uncle”, he said. And without waiting for a response, he took out a piece of chalk from his waist wear, and started drawing out the patterns for the game on the floor. He surprised everyone in the court with his enthusiasm.

Now quite unexpectedly and uninvited, Duryodhana came and asked his uncle, Sakuni, to move, so that he could play. Yudhisthira had no objection, not that Duryodhana sought his permission. Yudhisthira and Duryodhana sat facing each other, and Sakuni sat between them. “What shall we wager”, Yudhisthira asked him. In response, Duryodhana took off the ornaments on his body, and staked them as the wager. Yudhisthira thought it was reasonable wager, and took off the ornaments from his body. Then Duryodhana told Sakuni, sitting in the middle, that he would be the witness in the game, and also that he should cast the dice for them both – they would each mention a number and he would roll the dice, an arrangement that Yudhisthira had no objection to. Unlike in the canonical version of the narrative, here in Sarala’s, Sakuni was not rolling the dice on behalf of Duryodhana alone. When the game was about to begin, the idea of exploiting the situation to take revenge on Duryodhana occurred to Sakuni. He had realized long back that he would succeed in his secret mission of destroying Duryodhana comprehensively only by setting him against the Pandavas. He realized that the game of dice would be the chance of a lifetime for him. He invoked special powers to come to his help. Unknown to both the players, their witness, who they believed would be fair to them, had decided to betray their trust. When Duryodhana called a number and won, and Yudhisthira called a number and lost, neither suspected foul play. The former thought he was lucky, the latter thought he was not.

Thus in Sarala’s story, robbing Yudhisthira of his property, kingdom, etc. through the game of dice was not pre-planned. Leave alone any carefully hatched conspiracy by Sakuni and Duryodhana, there never was even any talk between them in this regard. Just as the brothers of Yudhisthira were not keen to visit Hastinapura, Duryodhana was not keen to meet them either. No one had invited Yudhisthira to come to Hastinapura and play a game of dice. Then if Duryodhana came to play with him, it was not because of any prior arrangement between Sakuni and him. It was a spontaneous decision on his part. It is possible that he decided to play in order to make it a game between kings, and thereby turn it into a more exciting event. It is also possible that since the atmosphere in the court was dull, and he felt bored, he might have wanted some relaxation. As for the wager, the idea was not his; it was Yudhisthira’s. It is unclear why he brought in the wager idea; it is possible he did so in order to make the game much more exciting. It was this wager that transformed the game into gambling, and it became the cause of all the terrible things that happened that day. Without it they would have played a few games, Duryodhana would have got tired of it all, sooner or later, since he was not a connoisseur, and at the end of the day Yudhisthira would have happily returned home.

This said, one probably should not blame Yudhisthira for all the outrageous things that happened that day, which eventually led the Kauravas and the Pandavas to the battlefields of Kurukshetra. What he did was natural to him: visiting his elders, inviting his maternal uncle to play with him, looking forward to an exciting game of dice, etc. None of these can count as impeachable conduct. He indeed did surprise the court, as the poet put it, when he happily started drawing out the patterns for the game on the floor. What the court might have found somewhat odd could be his enthusiasm, or over-enthusiasm, considering the quiet and composed person that he was, but it is understandable. He was happy after meeting his elders, and others, and might have wanted to play a game or two to amuse himself. In any case, his enthusiasm for the game would hardly constitute a good reason to censure him. He did introduce the gambling element into the play, but that would again hardly constitute justification for censure. His intentions were not mean; he did not covet things that Duryodhana had, and did not want to acquire the same through some devious means. Incidentally, there is nothing in the narrative to suggest that Duryodhana’s intentions with respect to Yudhisthira’s possessions were any different. As for gambling itself, it does not appear to have been stigmatized as unethical or undignified then. Yudhisthira was also not the kind of person who would have done something that would have lowered the prestige and the dignity of the great Kaurava court. In any case, if gambling were considered unethical or improper practice, then it would not have been allowed in the august royal court itself in the first place; there would have been voices of protest from the elders. It would be entirely wrong to think that the court was silent because of fear for Duryodhana; Bhishma, Drona, Bhurishrava were not the ones to keep quiet for fear of the king. But more than that, it must not be forgotten that wager was not Duryodhana’s idea at all. At one stage during the game, when Yudhisthira had lost all his jewelry, Bhishma did intervene to caution Yudhisthira; he advised him to stop playing because he had lost so much. His grounds were practical, not ethical.

The beginning of the game of dice brings out an important aspect of Sarala’s belief system, namely that things happen because they are destined to happen. There is a proverb in Odia, which is as follows: daiba daudi manisa gaai, jeniki otaari teniki jaai (“Destiny is the rope and the human is a cow, wherever it pulls him, he goes (there)”). The gambling episode is certainly one of the most emphatic pieces in Odia literature that illustrates it.