Sunday, November 16, 2014


Put these three unconnected stories in Sarala Mahabharata together and you see a connection. Together these tell us the moving story of the course of the relationship between the forest dwellers and the urban population. The two communities had their own distinct cultures, and the urban population looked down upon the forest dwellers as uncivilized and as the practitioners of a vastly inferior and degrading culture. As for the latter, a few of their kings seemed to have a secret admiration for the ways of the former. These two communities generally avoided each other. But their relationship was uneasy and tense, sometimes even very hostile.

A tribal king dispossessed king Drupad of his kingdom and reduced him to an exile. During his difficult days he met Drona, who was living the life of a virtuous brahmin on the banks of the Ganga in the sacred city of Prayag. That was when they first met, unlike in Vyasa Mahabharata. They became friends and Drona helped him raise an army to fight the usurper in ways that do not concern us here. The tribal king lorded over Drupad’s kingdom for twenty one years and then one day he left it on his own and went back to his forest kingdom. Drupad regained his kingdom. Later Drupad humiliated Drona and Drona thundered revenge, but that episode in their life is inconsequential for our present purpose. Drupad’s misery for twenty one years shows that the forest dwellers were no weaklings and could pose a serious threat to the Aryan kings. 

In this context, Ekalavya’s attempt to learn what the Kuru princes were learning from guru Drona can be viewed as a symbol of the tribal aspiration to be integrated into the society of the town dwellers. It can also be viewed as an effort by the tribals to acquire knowledge that would enable them to protect themselves from exploitation by the Aryan rulers. Their apprehension was not unfounded. To give just one example, when the Kauravas saw Ekalavya’s beautiful and graceful wife in the forest, they tried to molest her. She was fit for a prince, not for an uncouth forest dweller, they told Ekalavya when he protested. 

Impressed with him, when he approached him to be accepted as his sishya (pupil), Drona wanted to teach him astra vidya (knowledge of weapons and warfare) but the Kauravas would not let him. Forest dwellers must not mingle with princes, they told their guru. Later when Drona met Ekalavya in the forest with the Kaurava and the Pandava princes in the familiar episode of Ekalavya’s guru dakshina (ritual fee to the guru by the sishya), greatly impressed and highly pleased with him, he accepted him as his sishya and advised his pupils to accept him as their fellow sishya. His asking for his dear and highly accomplished sishya's thumb as guru dakshina was a political act. He had not forgotten Drupada’s fate. Ekalavya knew why he had wanted his thumb. He told him that he knew why he had asked for what he did, namely that he wanted to protect the Kauravas. As Drona left Ekalavya, he blessed him that he would remain invincible. As for Ekalavya, he had no hard feelings against his guru, not in the least. From our point of view, the tribals’ attempt to reach out to the urban population failed because of the attitude of the rulers. Notwithstanding Drupad’s experience, they, at least the Kurus, were not really worried about the emergence of powerful rulers in forest kingdoms; they were a great deal more apprehensive of the degeneration of their culture if they mingled with the tribal people.

Bhima married the asura princess Hidimbaki, as Sarala names her, but she was not admitted to the traditional Kuru household in Hastinapura. The same of course was true of Arjuna’s wives from non-Aryan cultures. Hidimbaki lived in the forest with her son Ghatotkacha. When he went to the rajaswiya jajna (sacrifice named “Rajaswiya”) that Yudhisthira was performing, his mother went there without his knowledge, apprehensive that in that urban world her son might land in some deep trouble. Her apprehension came true; her son was cursed by Draupadi to die a most inglorious death. She then rushed out of her hiding and cursed Draupadi that her sons would die as children. In due course the curses materialized. Thus another encounter between the two worlds resulted in disaster for both.

The Kiratasena episode is Sarala’s creation. King Kiratasena’s offer to Duryodhana to fight for him in the Kurukshetra War is again symbolic of the tribal desire for acceptance by the city dwellers. He told the Kaurava king that he had three infallible arrows with which he could destroy any enemy and pleaded with him to make him the Commander-in-Chief of the Kaurava army. Duryodhana did not accept his offer. He would not allow a forest dweller to fight for him. Even victory was not acceptable to him if it was to come with the forest dweller’s support. Kiratasena then went to the Pandavas. Neither the Kauravas nor the Pandavas were his enemies, so it did not matter to him which side he was fighting against. All he wanted was join the War. War was viewed by the warriors those days as something like the ultimate stage where a warrior could establish one’s credentials as a warrior. It was where one acquired fame and glory. in the pursuit of glory  death did not matter. In our view, however, he was keen to be part of the War since his participation would have meant his acceptability as one of them - not just of the Kuru clan, but the Aryan rulers as a whole. Yudhisthira too refused to accept his offer - on the very same grounds. The message was clear: in the war in the urban, civilized world, the forest dwellers had no place.  

The forest in some sense encountered the city again, this time by sheer accident, when the forest dweller, Jara, shot, by mistake, the arrow that killed Krishna. On discovering who he had mortally wounded, Jara was devastated, knowing that he had hurt the one revered by Shiva, Indra and Brahma. But that one act bound the avatara and him together forever. Krishna comforted Jara. By being Jara’s victim, he redeemed the word he had given him in his earlier avatara as Rama. Rebirth had wiped his word off from Jara’s memory. But the voice from the sky told him this as Arjuna and he fought, each miserable in the extreme on account of the passing away of Krishna, and it asked them to stop fighting. They together tried to cremate Krishna’s body but which energy had the power to consume it! Fire god cannot consume the body, said the voice from the sky. Directed by the voice from above, they floated it in the sea. As Krishna manifested in the form of Nila Madhava, Jara worshipped him. Nila Madhava would accept worship from none else: man or god. Narayana had chosen the forest for himself. 

Then from the forest, one day, he chose to move into the janapada (urban territory), as it were. There appeared a wondrous log of wood in at a certain place in Nilachala ("Puri" of today) and the voice from the sky told King Indradyumna that that was the Log from which the Murtis (Idols) would be made. But the Log would not move, despite all efforts of the king’s priests to transport It to the designated enclosure. The voice from the sky asked the king to take Jara’s help. With his help the Log was moved into the enclosure but who would make the Murtis of Narayana, Shiva and Brahma, what would be Their Form? The voice from the sky said Jara would do it. The poor Jara was nonplussed, having no knowledge or experience for doing such a thing. In the enclosure, unknown to everyone else, Brahma, the Creator god manifested. But the god who had created the entire universe had to have, this time, Jara, the forest dweller with him to create these Murtis. When the Murtis were carved out, he assimilated into Subhadra, leaving Jara alone in the enclosure. 

In his abode in the janapada of Nilachala, Jagannath (Balabhadra, Subhadra and Sudarshana) would be worshiped by the priests of king Indradyumna, but Jara and his descendants would have a place in that system.  So was His Will. This narrative in Sarala Mahabharata marks the emergence of an inclusive society that included the forest dwellers and the urban population, a society that accommodated and accepted both cultures. The cultures remained distinct but there was no denigration of the forest dwellers’ culture. The process of assimilation could be said to have begun with Drona. But he had not succeeded. The end of this process came when the avatara intervened. He was killed but he blessed, not cursed, the one who had killed him. As he evolved into Jagannath, by insisting all through, that Jara be involved in his worship, he brought into being an inclusive society.

Thursday, November 13, 2014


In this post I am not answering any questions about Krishna, although there are questions which I have to answer some day, but am trying to look at him from a certain perspective. He arrived in the world as its protector, but I have sometimes wondered, whereas his being the protector is fine, at the same time, wasn’t the avatara a huge problem for the world he came to protect? 

Many questions have been asked about him: why did he do this, why did he do that, and being omnipotent, couldn’t have done something else in a given situation, etc. Those who have written on Krishna in Sarala Mahabharata have focussed on the personality and the doings of Krishna: what all he did, why did he do what he did, what kind of a human he was, why did he conduct himself in a disgraceful manner in certain situations, even who did Sarala have in mind when he conceptualized his Krishna, and the like. This is fine and is quite expected too. Krishna attracts, as his name suggests, so it is no surprise that the Krishna-discourse gets focused on him exclusively. But isn’t it possible that there might be other aspects to the absolutely absorbing narrative concerning the avatara? Let’s shift the focus from Krishna to the world he came to save and ask the question: how did the world he came to save, take him? 

Think of some earlier avataras of Vishnu: Matsya (Fish), Kurma (Tortoise), Varaha (Boar) and Nrusingha (Man-Lion). They manifested in the world, readily performed their avataric task and returned immediately to their Source. As for Vamana, after he sent king Bali to patala (the name of a loka, a habitat), he disappeared. Parashurama left the sacred precincts of the ashram and his activities as an ashramite and entered the world outside with a weapon to rid it of the wicked. Over a period of time he did that and when he decided that his task was over, he returned to the ashram. Thereafter he stepped out of it only rarely. During the time he was outside of his ashram, his interaction with the world was largely limited to identifying the wicked and killing them. Rama lived in the world, but primarily as a ruler. Being Maryada Purushottama, the very embodiment of dignity and decorum in all spheres of life, he observed maryada (decorum) in all his dealings and the maryada of the king often meant distancing himself from the common people. Neither Parshurama nor Rama had knowledge of his self in that neither was aware of his avatarahood.

Krishna was different. In bhakta (devotee) Sarala’s narrative, he was the embodiment of pure energy, pure knowledge – he knew the past, the present and the future. And he had the knowledge of self – that he was the avatara of Narayana. Such a one lived among ordinary mortals, like ordinary mortals and lived intensely. Like everyone, he enjoyed the pleasures of the body and was afraid of death (or at least seemed to be; in his case what was real and what was pretension, a reader of Sarala Mahabharata would be never sure. Who could understand his lila.). He quarreled with people, used offensive language, humiliated people, cheated them, manipulated things and people and demanded privileges he was not entitled to. In his dealings he showed unmistakable partiality. Everyone knew he was the incarnation of Narayana Himself. Duryodhana – it must be emphasized - called the Kurukshetra War dharma yuddha (war of Dharma) because of Narayana’s presence in the war field. He would be the witness. 

He betrayed the trust of Yudhisthira, who had sent him as his emissary to the court of Duryodhana, by ensuring that war took place, rather than peace prevailed. Bhishma advised Duryodhana not to let Krishna go empty-handed, and give two villages to the Pandavas, if not five, and at one stage Duryodhana was indeed inclined to do so but Sakuni told him that Krishna should be given nothing because he would ask for the impossible. When Krishna named the villages he wanted, everyone knew that they simply could not be given. By asking for those specific five villages, he ensured that there would be no alternative to war. 

His clear partiality towards the Pandavas and hostility against the Kauravas baffled the latter – how could Narayana be partial? He baffled the Pandavas as well by asking them to do things absolutely unethical. In the battlefield he asked a reluctant Yudhisthira to tell a lie to his guru which, Yudhisthira knew, would lead to his killing and he asked a reluctant Arjuna to kill Karna who was unarmed at that point of time. By neutralizing Bhishma’s arrow with his sudarshana cakra (the name of his ayudha or weapon), unknown to anyone, man or god, he saved Arjuna’s life but by doing so, he betrayed his word to his elder brother, Balarama. He had promised to him that he would not participate in that war between brothers, which Balarama had considered unacceptable and unethical. He betrayed dharma when he told his brother that Bhishma was a liar and was levelling a baseless charge against him by claiming that he had saved Arjuna’s life. Incidentally, this episode is Sarala’s creation. 

Recall what Duryodhana had said. He must have felt betrayed when in the dharma yuddha, the witness, in whose witness-hood he had such absolute trust, had participated in the War.

After the War, in order to save Yudhisthira from Gandhari’s yogic fire, Krishna had her only remaining son, Durdasa, burnt to ashes by that fire. The poor mother got to know who she had destroyed only after she had destroyed him. And Durdasa had left the Kaurava army and joined the Pandavas responding to Yudhisthira’s call in the battlefield to join him. The embodiment of dharma had promised protection to whosoever came over to his side. Durdasa was the only one who had came. While each of Krishna’s deeds as mentioned above was morally utterly reprehensible, the most reprehensible was the killing of Durdasa. Yudhisthira was stunned. Although Sarala does not say in so many words, he must have found Krishna’s explanation incomprehensible that there must be no residue of the enemy. Durdasa had done absolutely nothing to give the impression that he was a potential enemy of the Pandavas.  His was a totally unfair, meaningless death. The proposition that as a general principle, in order for dharma to emerge victorious, some adharmic or contextually less adharmic  (violating dharma) means may have to be adopted, could lead to chaos. How low, how mean could an acceptable means be? In any case, such a proposition would sound pathetically hollow in front of the ashes of Durdasa.

And in front of the dead and the dying bodies of the countless fighters on the battlefield too. Dead bodies demand answer for their fate. Gandhari asked Krishna their question too when she asked him why he caused such massive destruction when it was in his powers to stop it. Krishna gave her the most unconvincing of answers. He said he did it to take revenge on the Kauravas who had humiliated him in the court when he came there as emissary. This has to be false. I cannot think it to be otherwise. He couldn’t have meant it. In Sarala Mahabharata he is portrayed as not just the most exalted among the exalted, the mightiest of the mighty, the most knowledgeable among the knowledgeable, be they humans, asuras or gods, but also as the meanest of the mean and the lowest of the low. Still he could not have stooped so low as to cause such a devastating war merely to avenge a personal insult. So Sarala makes him say other things by way of explanation to others; Gandhari was not the only one who had asked him that question. Elsewhere he said that he could not have allowed dharma to perish. His sister Subhadra thought that he avenged the killing of his dear nephew Abhimanyu by getting the Kauravas destroyed. Which one was the truth or all these together constituted the truth one would never know. But one can consider whether any of these would constitute an adequate answer. The answer is an emphatic no. Is it possible that the cosmic objective that he came to achieve, he simply could not articulate to man in a way intelligible to him, whose knowledge is limited to the present alone? Suppose he had told, whoever asked him about the logic of the comprehensive destruction in the War, that he was Death Incarnate and had arrived to kill, would it have made any sense to Gandhari or anyone else, except perhaps the sage Vyasa or the sage Agsti? Even about them one can never be sure. True, they all showered praise on Krishna, but never explained his ways to those who did not have their yogic insight. In Sarala’s narrative, Krishna is as mysterious as his words.  

And he who knew the past, the present and the future mistook an old woman for his beloved Radha, for whom he was waiting with intense longing. He made wild love to the old woman, Radha’s emissary. What message about right and wrong would the world extract from this act of the avatara? 

In the world he chose to take birth in, and in which everyone knew he was an incarnation of Narayana Himself, Krishna was loved and unloved, obeyed and disobeyed, revered and despised, worshiped and cursed. He seemed to dismiss the moral systems that people in his times lived by and he flouted many norms by his conduct, but it is unclear what he recommended in their place. Humans must necessarily use their ethical framework and their knowledge system to make sense of things, including the doings of Narayana. He is difficult to understand for the readers of Sarala’s narrative today, as he must have been to the audience of his time and also to the world thousands of years ago about which the great poet wrote. Krishna, the purna avatara (complete manifestation), as he is called, would remain for ever a profound and a disturbing enigma for mankind. And enigmas, as we know, are always problematic for the humans because they can live comfortably only in a universe that they can make sense of.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014


Commenting on the post “Why did Karna Want to Kill Arjuna?”, Mr. Confusedclarity observes that friendship with Duryodhana alone couldn’t be a strong enough motive for Karna to be so determined to kill his brother Arjuna. What he says is eminently reasonable, but Sarala’s narrative seems to suggest that for Karna, friendship was indeed an overwhelming consideration. In Sarala Mahabharata Karna clearly tells his mother Kunti that he would not betray his friend. Why was she persuading him to abandon Duryodhana, he pleaded with her: karna boila maye go emana kimpe kahu / maitra karjyare thile prana pache jau (Why are you saying such things, mother, said Karna / Let my life end while working for my friend) (Udyoga Parva).

But could there be something more to it, which Sarala might not say so explicitly, but which would be in consonance with the spirit of Sarala’ narrative? Karna had blessed Yudhisthira for victory. Was it merely a formality? But in Sarala Mahabharata a blessing articulated in such specific terms is not a formality; I suppose the same would hold for Vyasa Mahabharata too. When one blesses the enemy for victory, at least one meaning of it is clear, namely, that one thinks that the enemy’s stand is morally correct. If that is the case, then why did a virtuous person like him choose to fight for a side that was morally wrong? Couldn't he have decided not to participate in that War, as had Balarama done.

Consider in this context the case of Aswasthama. Although he was close to Duryodhana and was one of his advisers, he had no role in the exile of the Pandavas. He was in no way a party to Draupadi’s humiliation and did not play any role in Duryodhana’s decision to choose the option of war against the Pandavas. He had no ill feelings towards the Pandavas and he too had blessed Yudhisthira for victory when he sought his blessings, as the son of his guru. True, he was jealous of Arjuna when they were learning weaponry from his father, Drona, but there is no evidence that he continued to be jealous of him in later life. At that time he had not liked that his father had given Arjuna, but not him, the knowledge of brahmashira, the special divine weapon. Subsequently he had forced his reluctant father to impart the same knowledge to him. However for him, it was not merely a matter of Arjuna. Aspiring to be the most powerful in the world, and knowing that the most powerful weapon was Krishna’s sudrshana chakra, he requested Krishna to give it to him in exchange for brahmashira astra. Krishna said that he could take his chakra without any exchange, but Aswasthama could not even lift it and left the matter at that. This said, he didn’t participate in the Kurukshetra War to prove that he was the greatest warrior. He was fighting for Duryodhana because his father was fighting for him. It was not his war until the killing of his father by the Pandavas through mean deceit.

Now could one raise the same kind of question in Aswasthama’s case, as in the case of Karna? That is, could one say that his decision to fight on behalf of the Kauravas was not determined solely by his father’s decision to fight against the Pandavas?

As far as I am concerned, one important reason for them both and for even Bhishma, Drona, Kripacharya and Bhurishrava  was that they were fighting for their king, Duryodhana, and fighting for the king was an act of dharma  for the subjects, even when the king was in the wrong. Responding to Yudhisthira’s call to the warriors on the Kaurava side to join him if they wanted to support the cause of justice, the virtuous Durdasa did abandon his king and brother, Duryodhana, and joined the Pandavas, but he was only an exception, and there is no evidence in Sarala Mahabharata that his act was held up as an example of virtue. In terms of Sarala Mahabharata, the succession issue was quite complex (see my Introducing Saaralaa Mahaabhaarata for some detailed discussion) and the claims of neither Yudhisthira nor Duryodhana could be dismissed as untenable. In any case, Duryodhana had become the king of Hastinapura when people in that kingdom got to know that the Pandavas were alive and had escaped the fire of the lac (wax) palace. 

The tragedy of the unfortunate Karna was that he fought with his hands and feet bound, as it were, by the word he had given to his mother and could not do what he could have done for Duryodhana and for the great Kaurava forces that he commanded. Just imagine what would have happened had he killed Yudhisthira or Bhima or for that matter Nakula or Sahadeva, each of whom he had defeated and could have killed or imprisoned! 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014


Krushna Singh, the king of a small kingdom in what is today’s Southern Odisha, retold Vyasa’s Mahabharata in Odia, which is popularly known as “Krushna Singh Mahabharata”, more than two centuries after Sarala had composed his magnum opus. Noting that the great Sarala had deviated considerably from the classical narrative, he wanted to give the Odias a feel of Vyasa’s composition. He began his Mahabharata with the following observation: one who wants to write Mahabharata, must first pay one’s obeisance to Narayana, then to Nara, after that to goddess Saraswati and then to the poet Vyasa, and then start narrating the story of jaya (victory). This could be viewed as his disapproval of what Sarala had done. Sarala had chosen to commit an act of almost sacrilege; he had set aside a traditional ritual. Singh did not mention Sarala by name, but it is very obvious that it was he who he had in mind. Sarala had made no mention of any of the above-mentioned – Narayana, Nara, etc. - in his invocation (which, incidentally, one would think a bit too long for an invocation); he had substituted them with god Ganesha and goddess Sarala.

By then Ganesha must have come to be accepted in Odisha as vighnaraja (the remover of obstacles), who must be given the first worship; so he offered prayers to him first as part of his invocation and then he prayed to Sarala, his village deity, whose staunch devotee he was and of who he would say more than once in his Mahabharata that she was the real composer of the narrative. He only wrote what she composed. This is reminiscent of Vyasa dictating the slokas (couplets) of his Mahabharata to Ganesha and Ganesha writing them down. But here the scribe was the devotee and the composer, the object of his devotion. By mentioning goddess Sarala in his invocation, as he set aside the tradition, the poet Sarala foregrounded the personal and the local. 

Could his invocation be also seen as his message for his audience that he was going to take liberties with the classical narrative? Thus for Sarala, the celebrated sage, Vyasa, was a character in the story; the one who created the Mahabharata narrative was the seer Agastya (Agasti). The seer told the story to Baibasuta Manu. Many, many hundred years later, Sarala was telling this story to his audience.     

Wednesday, September 10, 2014


when in Sarala’s narrative he knew right from his childhood that he was his brother? Why was he so focused on killing him? In the Kurukshetra War brothers didn’t kill brothers; cousins were the targets. Incidentally in Vyasa Mahabharata too Karna was no less determined to kill Arjuna. It is just that he got to know of his relationship with him in this narrative much later, but still before the War. As is well known, in Vyasa’s version, Arjuna had always been Karna’s target. He hated him. Things had already become far too complicated before he knew that Arjuna was his brother.

In any case, in Sarala Mahabharata Karna’s story is rather different. When they were all small, Kunti herself had introduced her sons to him and told him that they were his younger brothers. She made them prostrate at his feet as younger brothers should do to their eldest brother. Karna was upset that Kunti had given the status of her eldest son to Yudhisthira knowing that he was her second son. The hurt child told his mother that now he would get back his status as her eldest only after killing Yudhisthira. Kunti was distressed and disappointed and left with her three sons (Nakula and Sahadeva were not born yet) but no harsh word was said to Karna by anybody. In any case Arjuna did not figure at all in that exchange between the mother and her eldest son.

Later, Karna, the Pandavas and the Kauravas became guru Drona’s pupils. So was Drona’s son, Aswasthama. King Drupad had sent his sons, Dhristadyumna and Shikhandi (after she became male by the grace of a Yaksa), to Drona for their education. At that time there was no rivalry between Karna and Arjuna. The rivalry, which was really one-sided, was between Aswasthama and Arjuna. Aswasthama was jealous of Arjuna and he resented it strongly that his father imparted knowledge of some very special divine weapons to Arjuna alone. Incidentally Drona had never said that he would make Arjuna the greatest archer, nor had Arjuna ever sought or even expected such a commitment from him.

In Sarala Mahabharata there was no situation – there couldn’t simply be - where Karna was humiliated or discriminated against on account of his caste because everyone knew that he was Kunti’s son. True, he was called “Sutaputra” (roughly, son of a charioteer) but that was because he was brought up by a Suta. He went to Draupadi’s swayambara to win the princess, not for himself, but for Duryodhana and participated in the archery test but failed to hit the target. He was not a party to Draupadi’s humiliation in the Kaurava court. He had no role at all in the first or the second game of dice and the subsequent exile of the Pandavas. He neither encouraged nor discouraged Duryodhana to fight a conclusive war against the Pandavas. He did not play any role in the deliberations when Krishna came to the Kaurava court as Yudhisthira’s emissary. Before the Kurukshetra War, there were battles he had fought against Arjuna and there were battles too when they had fought together against their enemies. But there was never any particular hostility or jealousy, let alone enmity, between them. In fact in the narrative the only example of such lingering enmity fed on intense hatred from time to time was between Bhima and Duryodhana. Karna wished for the Pandavas’ victory in the War and for Yudhisthira to be the king. But he had no intentions of making things easy for him in this respect.

It was another matter that circumstances arose which forced him to do precisely that. On the eve of the War Kunti extracted a promise from him that he would not kill Yudhisthira, Bhima, Nakula and Sahadeva. She said she would accept it if he killed Arjuna or Arjuna killed him. This was not a commitment about which he ever told Duryodhana. He honoured it in the battlefield. Although during the War, when he was the Commander-in-Chief of the Kaurava army, he defeated each of the four and could have easily killed them, he did not. The War might have taken a different turn, or at least the situation could have been notably different, had he killed them or even any of them. In any case, his promise to his mother severely narrowed his option in the War; he had to focus on Arjuna and Arjuna alone. He must have persuaded himself, at least after giving his word to his mother, that Arjuna’s death would decide the War against the Pandavas.

But wasn’t he focussed on Arjuna even before his mother extracted that promise from him? Didn’t he collect divine weapons to kill Arjuna specifically? As far as I can recollect (the text is not with me right now) it was not really so in Sarala Mahabharata. However, granted for the sake of argument that it was indeed so; is there anything surprising? On the Pandava side only Arjuna had divine weapons. Karna being an honourable man, would he have attacked his other four brothers or Drupada and his sons or Virata and his sons with divine weapons? The only one he could have used them against was Arjuna!

He was committed to Duryodhana. They were friends from childhood. As mentioned earlier, Kunti’s visit to him when she told him that he was her eldest born and introduced her sons to him did not end in a pleasant note and in any case it was a bit too late for forging emotional bonds between him and his brothers. He did not grow up with them. His mother did not take him with her but left him in Radha’s house when she went back after that visit. When Duryodhana became king, he became one of his key advisers. When he went to war against the Pandavas, Karna knew that he depended on him. Karna was an honest person, a virtuous person. He fought most sincerely for his friend to win.  

Monday, September 8, 2014


He said more than once in his Mahabharata that he was born to write Vishnu Purana. He repeatedly called his composition “Vishnu Purana”. For him the story of the Kurus was worth telling because it gave him the opportunity to describe the lila of Vishnu in his avatara as Krishna. His Mahabharata incorporates episodes from Srimad Bhagavata, Harivansa and Skanda Purana. Thus in a sense composing Mahabharata was never an option for him, not something he had decided to do; doing it was his destiny! And what did he do? A number of times he said in his narrative that it was goddess Sarala who really composed and told him the couplets and he simply wrote them down. He wasn’t therefore the creator of the narrative, he was merely the scribe. Saying these, he was probably protecting himself from attacks of the Sanskrit-knowing scholars, the brahmins, who constituted the powerful educational authority of his days. A non-brahmin, he had not merely composed (or rather “dared to compose”) Mahabharata in Odia (this was the first time any classical text was composed in Odia), he had the temerity to deviate from Vyasa Mahabharata to such a significant extent.   
It is said about the sixteenth century Odia poet Jagannatha Dasa that he wrote Srimad Bhagavata in Odia language so that his mother who did not know Sanskrit would understand this sacred composition and gain religious merit (punya). Nothing of this sort has been said about Sarala Dasa. Surely those who came to listen to his composition did not know Sanskrit and were excluded from the educationally privileged section of the society. They were in his mind when he retold the story; one’s audience is always in one’s mind when one narrates a story. But he made no mention of it in his narrative. May be we can conclude that Sarala’s narrative purpose was the purpose of every creative artist, namely to express himself, and as a teller of a puranic story, his purpose was the same as the composers of all puranas, namely to delight, edify and spiritually elevate his audience.   
Incidentally in Sarala Mahabharata there is no mention of sarpa jajna (snake sacrifice). There is no mention of the curse on King Parikshita, his death on account of that curse and his son, Janmejaya’s revenge. In Sarala’s retelling, the sages of Naimesharanya were not the listeners of the Mahabharata story from Suta, which he had heard at the sarpa jajna of King Janmejaya. Here sage Agastya (better known in the relevant literature as “Agasti”) was the narrator and the great king Vaibasuta Manu was his listener. After worshiping him, the King prayed to the great seer to tell him how to attain moksa and in response the sage began his narrative, which was about moksa, not jaya (victory). For Agastya, for Sarala by implication, listening with devotion to the lila of Narayana is what would bring moksa to the listener.
If Mahabharata, i.e., Vishnu Purana, is to be the narrative of moksa, could it be most appropriately contextualized in a violent situation, where a grieving and angry king was seeking revenge on the killer of his father through a terrible jajna that would destroy all snakes? Isn’t a shishya seeking the marga (path) to moksa from a guru, who was a seer, a more appropriate context for Visnu Purana?





Some of my friends and well-wishers, quite a few of whom I have not yet had the opportunity to meet, have asked me questions and made comments and observations on Sarala Mahabharata in their correspondence with me over a period of time. I am grateful to them for their interest in Sarala Mahabharata and for the points they have made. I am trying to respond to some of these and am posting my responses in this blog.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014


When Yudhisthira reached the top of Himagiri, he saw around him four distant, tall, snow-clad mountains which, he had heard from the sages, were sacred: one was associated with the Sun god, the other three with Indra, Ananta Narayana and Shiva.  Above him was the sky, and above the sky was swarga. The top of Himagiri was as far as a human could reach. No one knew how to reach swarga from there but that was not something that troubled Yudhisthira’s mind. The poet does not tell us whether – to be unfair to Yudhisthira - the eldest Pandava had ever secretly wished for a life in swarga after his days in the mortal world were over. But in Sarala Mahabharata one thing is certain – Yudhisthira never worked for it. He did not think that one should live a life of dharma in order to attain swarga. To him a virtuous life must be lived because there is no alternative to it. But if one had to mention a reward for choosing to act in accordance with dharma in preference to what one would be inclined to do, then it was this, which is what Yudhisthira said so often to his brothers: katha rahithiba (word will remain). After doer was gone and the deed absorbed into the past, the word will remain - people would talk about the virtuous deed. This is the kind of immortality he seems to have most highly valued. 

The eldest Pandava was not interested in avoiding death. He was never troubled by death. He had no desire to go to swarga in his mortal form; in fact such a thought never even occurred to him. Sarala says that it was Krishna’s wish that he remained untouched by death; no wonder death could not touch him. When Gandhari, the mother of ninety nine dead sons, failed to consume Yudhisthira with the yogic fire of her eyes, Krishna reproached her saying that the man of dharma could not be killed because dharma could not be killed. After the departure of Krishna from the mortal world, living became pointless for Yudhisthira, a deep sense of void assailed him: se jebe prana bisarjana ambhara kisa bratiba (if he gave up his life, what sense is there in our living), is how Sarala expressed the virtuous Pandava’s mood. Besides, after Krishna’s passing away, the aeon of darkness had arrived and Yudhisthira did not want to live in a world under the siege of adharma. So in the coldest part of winter, ignoring Draupadi’s pleas not to go to the Himalayas, he went there with her and his brothers, with the sole intention of submitting themselves to death in those regions hallowed by the footprints of the gods: ye himavanta parvate prana bisarjiba (we will give up our life in these snowy mountains). When they had decided to die, what sense would it make for them to seek relief in some comfortable place, he asked Draupadi. Then there was the prospect of some wondrous gain too: if they reached the top of Himavanta, they would be able to see swarga from there and also the gods, he had told his family. That would be the place to die, he must have thought. But the mountains were inhospitable and the weather hostile, and climbing extremely difficult. Except for Yudhisthira no one was composed and in control. He was the only one who was in control and was full of hope. 

Once on the top of the mountain he felt lonely, utterly lonely. He was all alone, left with only memories. He remembered his brothers who had served him so devoutly and because of whom he had ruled the land as emperor, he remembered his wife Draupadi and he remembered too his Kaurava brothers and also his relatives. Everyone was dead. As always in the past, he considered himself responsible for the Kurukshetra War in which his Kaurava brothers had perished. He had always felt guilty that his desire for the kingdom had caused it all. As for his Pandava brothers, he had failed to stand by them at the time of their need. He had always been harsh on himself and now he rated himself as subhuman: a manusa janmare nohilain lekha ((I will / can) not be counted as human). So far he had pronounced judgement on his wife and his brothers and now, disappointed with himself, he was pronouncing judgement on himself. Alone on the mountain top, it was not swarga that was in his mind, but the losses he had suffered. “I have no one with me”, he was saying to himself, “where shall I go?” He felt lost. Wasn’t it a kind of narka (hell) that he experienced?

From the top he looked down and what he saw could be thought of as a bit of narka; he saw a well in which he saw a large number of kings in agony. But the moment they saw him, they were released from that well, for he was no ordinary mortal. He was the one before whom the avatara himself used to prostrate himself. Sarala Mahabharata embodies the idea that dharma is supreme and the avatara is its protector. Now for the kings to get their release from narka, Yudhisthira had to see narka, thereby experience narka. Isn’t it like Narayana undergoing a mortal existence so that the burden of Mother Earth is reduced? In passing we might observe that there is a difference though. Yudhisthira experienced narka on account of his karma; Narayana does not take avatara because of karma. 

Why did he have to experience narka, asked the yugapati (lord of the aeon) Manu, interrupting the great sage Agasti’s narration?  In the manner of a shishya, the great Manu had sought the marga (way) to moksa from the great sage and the sage responded by narrating Visnu Purana, which is what Sarala said about his own retelling of the Mahabharata story. The sage told him that the one papa the eldest Pandava had committed in his life was telling a lie to his guru, Drona, on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, when the guru had asked him whether his son Aswasthama was dead. 

Agasti resumed his narration. Brahma, the Creator, sent god Indra to bring Yudhisthira to the abode of the gods and offer due worship to him. The lord of the gods arrived with his divine chariot and told Yudhisthira that he had come to take him to the loka (land) of the gods. Yudhisthira offered him prayers. He was on the point of ascending the chariot with the dog on his lap when Indra protested. Swarga is no place for a dog, an inauspicious creature. Did he not know, Indra asked the virtuous man, that even a touch of a dog would pollute?

Yudhisthira had no idea where the dog had come from. As he was mulling over his situation on the top of Himagiri, he saw a dog near him. He wondered where he had come from to that cold, desolate place. But he was in no mood to give much thought to it. He had felt good that he had someone with him now. He had all - brothers, relatives, wives, he told Indra, but at that time there was no one with him, except the dog. And he was not leaving him behind. The one who had left everyone behind, was unwilling to leave the dog behind in that Himalayan solitude. He would rather be with the dog in the mortal land than go to the abode of the gods without him, he told the lord of the gods. This is no common attachment which goes by the name moha. This is compassion. Yudhisthira was a compassionate person throughout life, but it was compassion which deserted him when Draupadi and his brothers fell to their death one after another. Everyone would face death on account of one’s karma from the point of view of Swargarohana Parva but that would surely not have excluded saying a kind, comforting word to the dying. In that episode, dharma and compassion were unallied; in the dog episode their symbiotic relationship was restored.

Unable to persuade Yudhisthira to abandon the dog, Indra told him that the dog was not really a dog, but someone else. Couldn’t he recognize him, he asked. He was god Dharma from whom Kunti had got him, Indra said. Yudhisthira told him that he had the eyes of the mortals and was unable to see the reality behind the appearance. The dog disappeared and God Dharma’s voice could be heard from the sky. He told Yudhisthira that as he was feeling lonely where his dharma had brought him, he had gone to him to give him company. He should tarry no more and go to swarga where his brothers were waiting for him. 

Indra said many words of praise to Yudhisthira. Krishna was born in the mortal world but even the avatara could not return to his own abode in his mortal form. Now he, Yudhisthira was going to swarga in his mortal body, the lord of the gods said. In Indra’s chariot, accompanied by Indra himself and offered worship by gods themselves, Yudhisthira entered swarga. He was ushered to his throne in the assembly of gods and as he sat there, he looked majestic. His brothers readily came and served him. He saw Duryodhana and his brothers too who were serving him. He saw Sanjaya, Abhimanyu, Ghatotkacha, Lakshmana Kumara, Draupadi’s children and Alamusha, and he also saw Drupada, Shikhandi, Dhristadyumna and other relatives, who had fallen in the battlefield. He saw the soldiers who had fallen in the battlefield of Kurukshetra. He noticed that everyone was happy. Soon they were joined by those who were their spouses in the mortal world. Among them was Yudhisthira’s the Odia wife: Suhani. In other aeons, says the poet, there would be other wars between the forces of dharma and of adharma and they would then return to the mortal world to participate in the same. Stories will begin again. Swarga is no place for stories. Martya is where stories are created. 

Yudhisthira noticed that Bhishma, Drona, Salya and Sakuni had become stars. Just one person he did not see in swarga loka and that was Dhritarastra. Sarala gives no clues as to how we might view this. Unlike Vyasa’s Dhritarastra, Sarala’s was more an onlooker, often a helpless one, than an agent, not even the weak agent that he is in the former. With just that about Dhritarastra, the celebrated sage Agasti completed his narration. The grateful listener, Baibasuta Manu, offered him worship and the sage then went to Brahma loka. The narration over, poet Sarala offered prayers, in an uncharacteristically small number of couplets, to Narayana as he folded up his retelling, in which he said he retold the story of the Kuru clan as part of his narration of the leela of Krishna: ye mahabharata ye bishnura purana (this is Mahabharata, this is the celebration of the leela of Vishnu).