Sunday, December 29, 2013


This story is not from Sarala Mahabharata. It is from a minor puranic work in Odia, entitled Kartika Mahatmya, which was composed by the eighteenth century poet Mahadeva Dasa. The concept of Alakshmi embodied here is creatively different from the same in the classical texts.

Once, on being asked to compare between Lakshmi and Alakshmi, the inimitable sage Narada is credited to have said essentially the following in a fascinating, euphemistic language: it is beautiful when Alakshmi leaves the house and it is beautiful when Lakshmi enters the house. I do not know if there is indeed a puranic story that embodies this observation. In the rich Odia puranic literature spanning almost four centuries, a story of Alakshmi does not appear anywhere except in Kartika Mahatmya and there too rather peripherally. Her story seems to be the great taboo of our puranic literature. Incidentally, isn’t it interesting that she is referred to not in name but in terms of an epithet (“elder sister of Lakshmi”) in “Sri Sukta”, the celebrated hymn in Sanskrit to goddess Lakshmi? Was she referred to by a name other than Alakshmi at that time? Very unlikely!

In his Kartika Mahaatmya, Mahadeva Dasa retells the story of Alakshmi in Padma Purana, the only purana that tells Alakshmi’s story at some length. The prefix “a” in “alakshmi” is one of the negative prefixes of Odia; thus the word means, “anti-Lakshmi” (not just “non-Lakshmi”). Going by Dasa’s story, this goddess is, in ultimate analysis, anti-Lakshmi in that she cannot reside where Lakshmi resides. It might appear from the way they are related through their names that the two are antagonistic towards each other. But it is only language that locks them in that relationship, according to Mahadeva Dasa’s composition.

Which father would give her child such a bad name as “Alakshmi”? Such inauspicious, negative names are usually given to a child when his or her elder siblings had died early.  Such a name is believed to protect the child from early death. But this was not the case with Alakshmi. Besides, there is no reason to believe that her father was unfond of her. Therefore we might presume that this uncomplimentary name was given to her later by the composers of puranas to please Lakshmi, and whatever name her father had given her was forgotten. In fact, no one must have cared.

Alakshmi was born out of the mud which was formed at the time of pralaya (the great deluge) when all existences in the creation in their purest form got assimilated into Narayana and all the impurities remained in the form of mud in the waters of pralaya. Time passed, but can one meaningfully say “time passed”? Isn’t it grossly misleading, didn’t time start with Brahma’s sristi (creation)? But how else can one describe that period between pralaya and the manifestation of Narayana’s leela again? Thus was Brahma was born, and he created the universe and in the world appeared everything again, the non-living and the living. In terms of Kartika Mahatmya, the Creator god created dharma first; it was for this reason that the mud that was the residue of the earlier existence of the universe found no space for itself in the new world. However, eventually it was born as Varuna’s daughter and she came to be known as “Alakshmi”.

Then the churning of the ocean of milk took place and the beautiful Lakshmi emerged. To please Vishnu, her father, god Varuna, got her married to him; thus his younger daughter married first. This was against the custom. It was not that Varuna had made no efforts to get his elder daughter married. But no one was willing to marry her; the goddess of mud was uncouth and ugly. Now, was she a goddess? The poet Mahadeva Dasa does not describe her as such. Neither does he describe her as anything else. But how does one describe her, god Varuna’ daughter and goddess Lakshmi’s sister, except as a goddess? What was she, if not a goddess? However, not to be unfair to the poet, which god or goddess received no worship from anyone at all and was ugly and powerless too? Which goddess could not avenge her humiliation and inspire an osha katha or brata katha (these are minor puranic stories associated with some particular fasts and rituals observed mainly by women, and at home) in her name? And which god or goddess was aware that he or she had all the negatives in his or her nature and would openly say so without any trace of virtuous arrogance that is so comforting? 

Now Lakshmi lived in Vaikuntha, the abode of the Supreme Being. She was worried because her father was worried.  According to the custom, it was the father’s responsibility to find a suitable husband for his daughter in case she turned out to be unattractive. He simply could not keep her at home. If this happened, he would earn papa (religious demerit). One day she told her consort about her father’s problem and pleaded with him to do something about it.

Vishnu knew that he himself would have to find a husband for his sister-in-law. He knew that not just the martya loka, the world of the mortals, no loka is favourably disposed towards an ugly woman. The Supreme god went directly to sage Uddalaka and asked him whether he would like to be related to him by marrying his elder sister-in-law. He would be very pleased to have him, the virtuous sage, as his brother-in-law. The sage readily gave his consent; it was a proposal too attractive to even think of turning down. As for his sister-in-law, Vishnu told him that in his view she was the worthiest of all: sarba tahun shrestha. We do not know whether the good sage was disappointed when he saw his bride at the time of the wedding which was attended by gods and sages; if he was, he overcame it and accepted her as she was. He knew it was Vishnu’s will. 

The wedding over, the sage took his wife to his ashram, but she found the place utterly unsuitable for herself. The chanting of the sacred hymns pained her. The atmosphere of peace, serenity and spirituality in the ashram suffocated her. Alakshmi ran out of the house right on to the street. The sage was distressed to see this. He found her conduct not only disgraceful but also completely incomprehensible. He asked her why she ran out of home, why she was crying and what she had found so terribly wrong in his ashram.

Then she told him what he never knew: she could not live in a satwik (spiritually pure) environment and could live in only a tamasik (spiritually degenerate) one. She could live where people are violent, hate one another, are jealous of one another, quarrel among themselves, praise themselves and engage in malicious talk about one another, steal, practice no sexual discipline, and where there is the smell of cooked meat. Mahadeva Dasa’s list is longer than this. No point in reproducing it here. In essence, she could not live where there is cleanliness, calm, contentment and understanding, and where the sacred fire is lit and sacred mantras chanted.

The sage was aghast. He realized that he simply could not live with that woman. Such a woman would bring home only unhappiness and kula (lineage) only disgrace and eventually become the cause of her husband’s degradation in this world and in the other world too. He knew what the shastras had said; one must never live with a woman who is foul-mouthed, quarrelsome and negative. The virtuous sage did not hate her; nor did he feel cheated by Vishnu. He had no complaints against anyone. But at the same time he realized that there was no possibility at all that his marriage with Alakshmi would work. She was not going to live in the ashram and he was not going to give up life as a sage and neither wanted to impose on the other the life one liked to live. He decided to abandon her. So one day without telling her his mind, he took her to the woods, and there he told her that he was going to bring her food. He never returned. This is one rare example, in puranic literature, of vanavasa (life in the forest) which was unconnected with danda (punishment) or prayascita (atonement). Uddalaka’s act of concealing his real intentions from his wife as he took her to the forest was reprehensible. One does not know why being such a virtuous person, he stooped to that. Perhaps he did not want to hurt her. After three days of waiting, the reality of her situation dawned on her and the helpless, abandoned wife started crying. 

And this was no ordinary crying. It was loud and piteous and painful, and it reverberated in lokas beyond the loka of the mortals. It was the agonized cry of the unwanted and the rejected for some suitable space. Mud cannot cease to exist merely because it is unwanted. Alakshmi’s cry reached her sister’s ears in Vaikuntha and she was sad and worried. She pleaded with her husband to do something for her sister, who, she told him, had been forsaken by her husband and was all alone in the deep forest. He must console her, she told him, and settle her in some good place where she would lead a comfortable life, or else bring her to Vaikauntha. There are many Lakshmi stories in Odia, but in none of these is the goddess of wealth and prosperity as empathetic, considerate and magnanimous as in this.

Vishnu went to Alakshmi at once. She was happy to see her bother-in-law, the Supreme lord of the universe, and became calm. The Supreme Being told her that her sister had sent him to her. He told her to come to Vaikuntha with him, a satwik abode, where lived those who had lived virtuous lives and had received his grace. Her sister was in charge there and she would enjoy all comfort there. 

Alakshmi declined. In the narrative style, so characteristic of the puranas, she told him - the One who needed no telling - how she was born of the impurities that had remained after all that existed became free of the fundamental gunas (attributes – here, satwa, raja and tama) that constituted them, and as pure essence had merged into Narayana at the time of pralaya. She told him that her nature was such that purity and virtue suffocated her. Vaikuntha would make her utterly miserable. That apart, she had always been jealous of Lakshmi’s beauty and in Vaikuntha, she would be jealous of her sister’s prosperity, she told Vishnu; she said she would be in great distress in Vaikuntha. As he knew everything and took care of everyone in the creation, he should find her a place that would suit her nature, she said.

It is then not the case that in Vaikuntha everyone finds solace and lives in peace; one finds it in a place determined by one’s karma, as Mahadeva Dasa seems to be saying. Thus his Lakshmi said that her sister’s suffering was due to her karma dosa (consequence of (one’s) karma). But was it really due to her karma? Whose karma was the mud from which she was born? That cosmic mud was part of the process of pralaya. Alakshmi’s situation brings to mind the words of the great Odia poet Jagannatha Dasa in his Srimad Bhagavata: sarpare jata kalu mote/ swabhaba chadibi kemante (you chose that I be born as a snake/ How can I give up my nature?)This is what the snake Kaliya asked Krishna. In any case, Alakshmi had to be given a place of her liking. Vishnu, the ultimate provider, found such a place for her; he asked her to live in those houses where people quarrel, in those persons who are cheats and liars, who bring suffering to others, and relish the sight of others in pain, who have no respect for others’ women and who are addicted to the game of dice and who are unclean in every respect. 

And from then on, on every Saturday, he told her, she would receive worship along with him under the Aswastha tree, who was none other than a Form of his. In the entire puranic literature, this is perhaps the only episode where a god is worshiped, thereby associated, with his sister-in-law. In a fascinating way, Mahadeva Dasa emphasized the all pervasiveness of Vishnu. The one whose inner eye is open can see him where the bhaktas sing his glory and also in the dens of vice.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013


Some who have read Introducing Saaralaa Mahaabhaarata, have written or spoken to me about a few things concerning the book. I am rephrasing and organizing some of them and am responding to the same here:

One: One misses a concluding essay or section or at least some concluding remarks. On that account one feels a sense of incompleteness about the book.

Response: The book begins with the dedication, although this word is not used there, and ends with the acknowledgement. From my point of view, the narrative starts with the dedication and ends with the acknowledgement (setting aside the Director’s Foreword). The bibliography is also a kind of acknowledgement, not unlike a statement of gratitude in spirit. I think if one looks at the book this way, one would perhaps not have this feeling of incompleteness about the book.

In all humility I have tried to capture in my humble effort the traditional style of telling or composing a puranic text: seeking the blessings of gods before telling the story, then telling the story and finally expressing one’s gratitude to the gods because of whose grace alone the composition could be completed. The dedication in the present book is really a sort of invocation, seeking blessings, and my acknowledgement, expressing gratitude to those whose help and good will I had received while working on this book. As for the core narrative itself, I have not tried to tell Sarala’s story from the beginning to the end. Therefore in a manner of speaking, there is no real beginning, no real ending!

Two: About the structure of the book:  

Response: A purana is recited or a puranic story is told in several sittings. Not everyone finds it possible to attend every sitting. The storyteller responds to this situation by making the contents of the sittings a bit independent of one another. If one misses a sitting or two one does not find oneself excluded from the telling. One major strategy the storyteller uses for this purpose is repetition. He repeats certain key episodes, so that the one who has missed a sitting can still get connected with the main story. However, each time he repeats an episode, he interprets it slightly differently, adding a little to its telling, so that those who have not missed a sitting do not feel bored with the repetitions. 

I have tried to follow this pattern in this book. Each essay, which is the word used for a chapter, is, to an extent, independent of the others; that is, it is not the case that if one hasn’t read the first essay, one cannot follow the second, or if one hasn’t read the first two essays, one cannot follow the third. One could even start reading the book with the last essay. I have used repetition as a strategy to bring unity to the presentation of the great poet’s celebrated work, and also to enable the reader who is not reading the book from the first essay to the last in a serial order to feel comfortable with the narrative.  Incidentally, I wish I had used the word “sitting” and not “essay”. That would have captured what I had in mind a great deal better. In addition, at times I have tried to give the impression that there is a certain looseness in my presentation – with a bit of overstaying with a thought or a theme here and there, introducing an idea at one place but exploring its meaning or significance in some detail elsewhere, etc. In doing this I have tried to capture the traditional village storyteller’s rather meandering style of storytelling.

Three: About whether it is a translation of some episodes from Saaralaa Mahaabhaarata and whether it is intended to be viewed as a piece of literary criticism. 

Response: A friend of mine who teaches English literature at an institution of higher education in India wrote me saying that the book reads neither like a conventional translation nor a piece of conventional literary criticism. He felt that in some sense it is a fusion of both. I was happy he saw it that way; he understood very well what I have tried to do. 

I have attempted here to give the readers a flavour of Sarala’s creativity as a thinker and a storyteller. I have done no translation; I have only retold some of his stories in English. Since a retelling is an interpretation, what I have presented in the book is an interpreted retelling of some episodes from this great work. In my retelling I have taken no freedom with respect to the episodes in Saaralaa Mahaabhaarata I have chosen to retell. I have only explicated them (which is not unlike what a purana pathaka or a traditional storyteller does), keeping in view the readers who are distanced from him (more than five hundred years in this case) in terms of time, culture, language and narrative style. I have tried to stylistically integrate my narration of the episodes and my explications of the same. Throughout the style is conversational – after all, I am telling a story. I have tried to incorporate certain features of an oral narrative into my narrative style - features which one finds is Saaralaa Mahaabhaarata itself: simplicity of diction, a bit of repetition, which is not mechanical, but functional, in the sense outlined above, a bit of rambling here and there in the form of digression, but not out of control. 

Four: About there being no contents page

Response: Entirely unintended. Somehow it has happened. all I can say is; friends, who are reading this book, I'm really sorry for the inconvenience.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013


Jadavpur University (Department of Comparative Literature), Kolkata has just published (2013) the book Retelling As Interpretation: An Essay on Sarala Mahabharata (123 pages), which contains my essay with the same title, responses to it by Professor Pratap Bandyopadhyay (Literature), Professor Vrinda Dalmiya (Philosophy), Professor Syed A. Sayeed (Philosophy), my response to these, and the piece "By Way of Conclusion" by Professor Ipshita Chanda (Literature). Most of the stories from Sarala Mahabharata discussed here have not been part of Introducing Saaralaa Mahaabhaarata and of this blog.

Thursday, May 30, 2013


One day Krishna decided that his elder brother and he himself, both barely out of their childhood, absolutely needed education. It must have occurred to the avatar that no matter how many asuras he punished or how many mountains he lifted on his finger tip, how many serpents he chastised or gods he humbled, none of these or even all of these together would compensate for his lack of literacy and knowledge of the shastras. So with elder brother Balarama he went to a well known preceptor of those days, named Santipani (better known as Sandipani). He told him that they had lived among people who were all unlettered and ignorant of the shastras. They had never heard the Vedas even once where they grew up. All they knew was how to graze cattle, milk cows, churn milk, and some silly things like playing pranks and the like. The language people used there was uncouth, and the talk was mostly about catching someone, beating someone up, etc. With so much quarrelling and fighting all around, they had learnt the language of quarrelling. No one ever arranged for their education, or even felt that they needed education. Now they had left it all behind them, left home and parents as well, and had come to him to learn. In all humility they pleaded with him to accept them as his pupils. Santipani was kind-hearted, and he agreed to teach them. He was impressed with their sincere desire to learn and had not failed to notice that they were very different from children of their age, that they were truly exceptional. They almost looked like devas, he thought. He had lost four sons and only his youngest son alive who was still a child. Santipani and his wife felt that looking after these two extraordinary children would bring them some solace. 

The guru ritually started their education. He first taught them the script (most certainly the Odia script!): the alphabet, the markers, the diacritics and other symbols, compound letters, etc. They mastered these in no time. In fact, as their teacher was writing the letters and the markers, Krishna and Balarama learnt them by just looking at them. They needed no practice and the teacher did not have to teach them anything the second time. Then he taught them spelling, and again they learnt it as Santipani was teaching them. Teach us more, the pupils would say, and the teacher was astonished at the speed of their learning. This must not surprise us for which knowledge needed time for the avatara to internalize whose consort was the goddess of learning herself! 

Then Krishna and Balarama learnt languages: Odia, Telugu, Nagari, Marathi, languages of the South, among others – altogether sixty languages, as the poet tells us, and many scripts. Then they learnt the four Vedas, astronomy and astrology, kama shastra (science of desire), tantra, yoga, archery, military arts, among many others, which according to Sarala, numbered many thousands. We need not be curious about what these were. 

One day Santipani had gone to bathe in the sea and his son, Saudasi, was with him. As he was bathing, a big wave washed away the child from the beach. The unfortunate parents had lost four sons before and now they lost their fifth. The grief-stricken parents decided to go on pilgrimage and at the completion of it, end their life by sacrificing themselves ritually in the sacred waters at the holy Prayag. Krishna asked his preceptor why he was so distraught. Life is an opportunity for those who have done some virtuous act, and the sinners die early, he told him, so he should not think of ending his life, grieving over the death of his sons. He said that Balarama and he, being his pupils, were like his sons, and that he should look upon them as such and enjoy parenthood. They had a good deal more to learn from him, he told him, so his responsibility for them was not over yet. In those words Santipani experienced grace flowing on to him. He had always wondered whether Krishna and Balarama were not manifestations of Narayana and Shiva. Since his pupils were insisting, Santipani told his wife that they should postpone their pilgrimage plans and stay home for some more time. His wife, who was no less fond of those wonderful god-like children, agreed.

So Krishna and Balarama studied again, but Sarala does not tell us what they studied since according to his narrative, the guru had already told them that he had taught them all he knew. Sarala had nothing to tell really, he knew that the pupils were pretending. They had simply wanted to comfort Santipani and his wife. The couple were happy; how could they not be when Krishna and Balarama had taken it on themselves to make them happy?

Now Krishna knew that they could not stay there for long. One day Krishna most humbly sought Santipani and his wife’s permission to leave. The guru told him that once they left, they would go on pilgrimage, have a ritual bath in the Ganges at Manikarnika, and then have a darshan of Madhava at Prayag and having done so, consign themselves to the sacred waters there. That was how they would be able to put an end to their suffering on account of the death of their sons. Krishna decided to do his preceptor a favour and give him just whatever he wanted. If he wanted his sons to return to him from Yama’s loka, he would let it happen. But he did not tell him anything.

He requested Santipani to tell him what he wanted from Balarama and him as guru dakshina. The guru said that he did not want anything from them. Wealth and possessions had become meaningless to him because he had no child to inherit the same. The young pupil insisted that he ask for his guru dakshina, because the knowledge they had obtained from him would be useless if they did not give him dakshina.

Guru dakshina was the teacher’s fee. That was an important source of the teacher’s livelihood and the maintenance of his ashram. At the end of his education, when the pupil would leave, he was duty-bound to request his guru to name his dakshina. The guru might not always demand his dakshina, but once requested by his pupil, he was obliged to mention what he wanted, because it was believed that unpaid for education would not be useful for the pupil. The teacher was obliged to ask the pupil as his dakshina what was reasonable and was within his capacity to give. If offering guru dakshina was the pupil’s dharma, asking for proper dakshina In the above sense was the teacher’s dharma.

When Krishna insisted, Santipani named his dakshina. He and his wife wanted their five sons back. The guru needed nothing else. If Krishna and Balarama were not willing to give that dakshina, then he would happily exempt them from the requirement of dakshina. Krishna asked him whether being the wise person that he was he thought it proper and reasonable to ask even for his elder sons who had died eighty years ago. How could they return alive now after all those years, and wasn’t he thereby asking for the impossible, he asked him. The guru was unfazed and unrepentant. If he thought it improper, he must not worry about guru dakshina and return home with his blessings, he told his shishya. Krishna, who had decided, as we know, unknown to his preceptor of course, to give him his sons, assured him that he would not shy away from guru dakshina, and would try his best. But he wondered how his wise preceptor, after all those days of their being together, remained unaware of who he really was, and how he did not ask for moksha, and how badly he was caught in the snares of moha (attachment) for his sons. He asked Balarama to return home and he proceeded towards the sea where the guru had lost his youngest son.

He entered the waters and the god of the waters, Varuna, hurried to welcome him and pay his obeisance. The avatara, who was completely aware of his Self and of his essence as Narayana, asked him sternly why he had stolen his guru’s children. Varuna prayerfully said that it was not his doing, and that it was Yama’s. Under the spell of the god of life and death of all mortals, they had entered the deep waters and perished. Only Yama would know their whereabouts, he told him.

Krishna invoked the mighty Garuda, his vahana (carrier), and immediately went to Yama loka. On arrival there he blew his conch, Panchayajna, and Yama rushed to welcome him. His presence redeemed the sinners in that loka who were undergoing Yama’s punishment. Yama prostrated at his feet, offered him worship, and in great humility asked him how he had decided to grace him by his visit. In a reprimanding tone Krishna told him that he had heard about his unjust doings, about how he took children’s lives, whereas he should be taking the lives of those who had lived their full time in the mortal world. Children are no sinners, he told him, so why did he punish them with death, he asked.

We need not be puzzled about the avatara’s conflicting words. He had told his guru that sinners would die early and had not exclude childhood as not counting for the computation of “early” and was now telling god Yama that children are no sinners – presumably, as we understand, because they have not lived long enough to commit sins! He said things that would serve his purpose best. From another point of view, Krishna was unaffected by maya, cosmic illusion, and was beyond dualities. As for his words, then, what sense would truth and lie make! Only those caught in maya would interpret things in terms of duality, such as truth and untruth,
To return to Yama, he was reverential in his response. He did no injustice, he told the avatara with folded hands. The death of children was not due to their karma in their present life or even their earlier lives, but to the karma of their parents, in particular, the sexual wrong doings of their parents, he told him. He detailed various transgressions of sexual conduct and said that when the children are born out of such unethical unions, they come to the world with the destiny of short lives. That was the law, he told him, that humans must abide by, so he should not be blamed for the death of children. People in their lack of understanding blamed him, he told Krishna, but he was only going by the law and doing his assigned role as the dispenser of justice. 

Then Yama said something totally unexpected in the context of their dialogue. He confronted him. How can one blame the ordinary people when the fully manifest avatara himself in his unlimited power and arrogance indulged in the wildest, most irresponsible and unethical sexual union with whosoever he liked?, he asked Krishna. He was respectful but firm. Didn’t he set a very disturbing example? When the great leaders of the society engaged themselves in unethical activities, ordinary people would not only follow their example but would also justify their own reprehensible conduct, Yama told Krishna.

Given the law, the logic of the god of justice and of death was impeccable, and his charges just, but Krishna was unembarrassed and unfazed. If that was the logic of the death of children, then Yama must consider untainted all the children born out of union with him. He conceded that he had committed the sin of impermissible sexual union with others’ women, but at the same time he directed Yama not to view all these women as violators of the ethical code and his union with them sinful. Yama could administer justice according to the law elsewhere but must leave his off springs untouched. Yama bowed to his instruction. “Bada lokanku uttara nahi (there is no answer to the great men, i.e., the powerful, are above the law)”, as goes the Odia proverb.

Then he asked him where his five brothers were. They had become his brothers by virtue of being his guru’s sons, Krishna told Yama. He said that they had been reborn in the world and were living their life as thieves and robbers. Sarala Dasa was a great devotee of Bhagavan Krishna. So in his narrative, the cosmic wheel of events and time had to move backwards to materialize Krishna’s wish. We need not go into that story here.
As Santipani and his wife were preparing to sacrifice themselves in the waters at Prayag, Krishna arrived with their five children and offered them to them. The parents were extremely happy and very much surprised as well. A little later, when the euphoria was over and normalcy returned to the guru, he wondered how the impossible had taken place. He now became absolutely certain about what had often occurred to him before - that Krishna was Narayana Himself. He felt a biting sense of regret and sorrow that he had not asked his shishya for release from the karmic cycle - for moksha. It was too late now; having given his guru dakshina, the avatara had gone far away on the back of the mighty Garuda. Santipani must have realized that when the defining moment comes, it is always nara who fails Narayana, never the other way round.     


The forest dweller Ekalavya was a gifted boy in many respects. One of these was that he had an intense desire to excel. He was ambitious too. He wanted to excel in archery and had heard that the great teacher Drona was teaching martial arts to the Kuru boys at an akhada (training centre) nearby. He wanted to join the akhada and learn from him. 

Thus he went to meet the celebrated teacher one day and as a gift he took two boars. Those days brahmins ate meat and there was no prohibition against eating boar meat; in fact, boar meat was served on special occasions, such as marriages, sraddha (annual ritual for forefathers), etc. Those days a prospective pupil took some gift for the teacher, whatever was affordable on his part; one would not go to the guru empty-handed. In fact, all this was part of the ritual for the initiation of education. 

Drona was happy. The poet Sarala hasn’t written anything explicitly about it, but we can guess that he must have been impressed with the boy who was ambitious and highly motivated to learn – which teacher wouldn’t be when the pupil is so promising! He told him right away that he accepted him as his pupil. But Duryodhana objected. Being a low forest-dweller, he could not learn with boys of the royal household, he emphatically told Drona. The forest dwellers were in any case outside the cultured society and must remain so, and not aspire to mingle with the princes and learn what they learn. Yudhisthira did not agree. He did not invoke any high moral principle here. His consideration was materialistic and his logic simple: there would always be an advantage in having a forest-dweller in the akhada, he said. He would bring useful things from the forest: boar, honey, etc. Arjuna echoed his brother’s view. But Duryodhana’s opposition was vehement – a forest-dweller simply had no place in their akhada, he told them all, and in Drona’s presence, he asked Dussasana to take him away and give him a sound beating. An obedient younger brother, he enthusiastically did what he was asked to do.

Drona could do nothing, he did not say a word, and he simply put up with the insult. Neither could the Pandavas do anything. They were only the children of the former king, who was dead, leaving behind his wife Kunti who looked after them. Gandhari, the queen, did not have a comfortable relation with her or even her children. Duryodhana was the king’s son. And the Pandavas, Kauravas, and Karna were not studying in Drona’s ashram; he had none. He was the employee of king Dhritarashtra. He knew the king loved Duryodhan too much for anyone’s good. He couldn’t risk the king’s displeasure and invite trouble for himself and his son Aswasthama, the motherless child (the mother, Krupi, having died of childbirth, in Sarala’s version, when Aswasthama was born) whom he loved very much.

Ekalavya felt humiliated and miserable, but he was not the one to give up. He was not merely highly motivated and focused; he was very intelligent and enterprising too. He made a small tunnel like opening in the forest through which from his end he could watch the body movements of Drona at the other end, as the celebrated guru taught archery to his pupils. He observed them intently and intelligently, and practised them. His wife disliked these activities of her husband and scolded him often for wasting so much time and effort on things entirely unnecessary. A forest dweller didn’t have to achieve such skill and expertise of archery, she would tell him. She didn’t think anything good would come of all this and said it to him in no unclear terms. Besides, a learner needed a guru, she would tell him, and would challenge him asking who his guru was. Ekalavya saw sense in what she said, so he made a murti (an image) of Drona in clay, seated him at an elevated place in his akhada and put a garland round his neck. That was his puja (worship) of his guru. With that he ritually formalized his relationship with Drona and continued learning archery from a distance as before. But in Drona’s training centre he was completely forgotten; no one talked about him after he was thrown out.

Some years passed. One day Drona asked his pupils to get a boar from the forest in connection with the observation of the annual sraddha ritual his deceased wife, Krupi. A boar was not to be found easily. Karna and Bhima had gone to the forest together in one direction, and in a few days did manage to get one, but the Kauravas had gone deeper into the forest in another direction and had not returned. They didn’t find a boar, but came across a lake, the waters of which were clean and pure. Then they saw a beautiful young woman, a forest-dweller, walking towards to the lake. They hid behind the trees and watched her as she undressed, bathed in the lake, put on her clothes, collected water in her pitcher and started walking back homeward with unhurried grace. Dussasana marvelled at her beauty and natural elegance. He rushed out of his hiding and grabbed her. This was one doing, in Sarala Mahabharata, of Dussasana that he had done at his elder brother’s behest. She was fit for a king alone, he told her; she could not live in a forest and be owned by a forest dweller, he barked. This is the familiar way the powerful view the world: the world is there for their pleasure. Princes, pampered by their doting parents, firmly believed that everything in their kingdom, including humans, was their personal property and they could enjoy the same as and when they pleased, and in the manner they liked. The poor, harassed woman was shocked and scared and shouted for her husband to rush to her help. 

Her husband came running with a crude bow and arrows. He charged out against the molester. Dussasana said that the ugly and crude forest dweller that he was, he had no right to have such a beautiful woman. He must be killed and his wife must be taken away for the princes’ pleasure, he said. The forest-dweller was angry and attacked him with his arrows. The ninety nine brothers of Dussasana joined him, but they were no match for him. In no time he killed them all. 

Twelve days passed and the Kauravas did not return. Drona was worried. He started out with Karna, Bhima and Arjuna to look for them. They found them dead. Drona was surprised. Who could have killed them all, he wondered. It occurred to him that only a pupil of his alone had the skill and the knowledge involved in the killing. But there was no such pupil of his. The Kuru boys were his first pupils. Any way, he kept such thoughts to himself.

Meanwhile Arjuna had gone looking for his cousins’ killer. Seeing him, the forest-dweller came out of his hut menacingly, angry and agitated, muttering things that were neither clear nor intelligible, and soon Arjuna and he were engaged in a terrible fight. Arrows in hundreds swished past. None was yielding, they were equals. Hearing the swish of the arrows Drona came and saw his pupil Arjuna and a stranger engaged in a fierce fight. He was amazed at the latter’s archery; he knew that his pupil alone was capable of such feat, but he had never taught the stranger. He never knew him. So how was it possible? 

He shouted for them to stop fighting. The fighting stopped. The guru went to the stranger and asked him who he was and who his teacher of archery was. He said that he was Ekalavya and his teacher was Drona. Drona remembered things now, how he had gone to his akhada to learn archery from him and how he was humiliated, beaten up and thrown out. He told him that he himself was Drona, but how could he be his teacher when he did not teach him, he asked. Ekalavya prostrated at his feet and told him how he had learnt from him. Because of that he considered himself as his pupil. Drona was very pleased with his accomplishment (which guru would not be!) and very affectionately seated him next to him. He then asked him about the Kaurava brothers. Ekalavya recounted how they were trying to molest his wife and how he had to fight them to protect her. They were all dead, he told his guru. Drona said that he now wanted to give him a test: he must give back life to the dead Kauravas. Ekalavya at once invoked the life-giving sanjeevani mantra and empowered an arrow with it and shot it at the hundred dead. In an instant they all came back to life. 

Duryodhana was very upset. He complained to Drona that they learnt archery from him, the one who was Parshurama’s student and was beyond comparison, and yet, they were defeated so easily by a mere forest-dweller.  Drona told him that Ekalavya was his pupil too, and that they all should treat him as their guru bhai (brother by virtue of having the same teacher). These words comforted the eldest Kaurava prince. Had he reconciled himself to that new bond between the forest dweller and him which he knew was completely beyond him to destroy? This must have been the case; Sarala says nothing explicitly and leaves it to his audience’s imagination. 

It was time to take leave. Drona told Ekalavya that he was abandoning the training centre in the forest and going to Hastinapura where he would open a training centre. He blessed him that he would be without an equal in archery and that he would be defeated by none. An immensely happy and grateful Ekalavya fell at his feet, and requested him to ask for his guru dakshina (the teacher’s fee). When the guru said that he was no more going to use the training centre in the forest to teach military arts, Ekalavya knew that his own learning from him had come to an end. And Ekalavya knew that end of one’s education was the time for the shishya (pupil) to offer dakshina to his guru, whether he wanted it or not. 

Drona said he would tell him what he wanted as dakshina only if he took an oath to the effect that whatever he asked from him, he would give. He would willingly give his head, if he wanted it, said Ekalavya. Everyone who knows the story knows what he asked for and how Ekalavya did not fail him. Having offered him his dakshina, Ekalavya told him that he asked him for his right thumb because he was afraid for the Kauravas but in the process had injured him permanently. Ekalavya then told him that he had not forgotten what had happened in the akhada and what humiliation he had undergone. He had not forgotten that Duryodhana was the one who had deprived him of the opportunity to be the celebrated teacher’s pupil, neither had he forgotten that someone called Yudhisthira had tried to intercede on his behalf. He had not forgotten too that he had been beaten up at the behest of Duryodhana. He told the guru that since those days he had nursed a grouse against Duryodhana and would have destroyed his entire clan one day. He, the kind-hearted guru that he was, had now gone to the extent of disabling him, his pupil, in order to protect him.

It was not Ekalavya alone from whom guru Drona had asked for a difficult dakshina. The dakshina he asked from the Kauravas and the Pandavas was to bring king Drupad a prisoner to him. It was obviously no mean task. It meant war not just with an individual named Drupad, in the form of say, a single combat, but with the armed might of the kingdom of Pancala as well. The guru dakshina convention required the shishya to fulfil the guru’s wish on his own effort. So his shishyas were expected to defeat Drupada without the support of the kingdom of Hastinapura. They could meet death while fighting Drupad and his army. The Kauravas failed, but the guru was not displeased. He happily exempted them from guru dakshina. The Pandavas brought Drupad a prisoner to Drona’s presence and gave him their dakshina. What he asked Karna, who was not a Kaurava but neither a Pandava, and later Shikhandi and Dhristadyumna, Drupad’s sons, for guru dakshina, we do not know. Sarala hasn’t told us. 

As the guru took leave, he told Ekalavya that from then on he must learn to shoot his arrows with the remaining four fingers and he must do so without any wrist band or some such support. Having disabled him, he blessed him that he became a great archer and that he remained undefeated. He great shishya did become a superb archer and did remain undefeated, but we need not tell those stories here.