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.