Thursday, August 6, 2015


Sarala’ Nakula almost always remained in shadow, hardly ever came into lime light. He was noble and tried to live a life of virtue, was an accomplished warrior, although in the Kurukshetra War he didn’t do anything that was remarkable and memorable. He once held the earth on the tip of his spear so that the great naga, Vasuki, on whose head it rested, could participate in Yudhisthira’s rajaswiya jajna, but war is war; the battlefield is the place where reputation is made and war heroes are born. With Krishna of course it is different. How often in our puranic literature has withdrawal from the battlefield has been celebrated? And spoken of so endearingly? Nakula had a special gift, like his brother Sahadeva. He knew how to relate to animals, especially horses. But he suffers in comparison; how impressive is this knowledge in comparison with the knowledge of the past and the future! With Govinda it is different though. He related to the cows in our puranic literature as none else, mortal or immortal and this has been the theme of numerous beautiful and touching songs and stories in all our languages over centuries. Nakula was very handsome and was very proud of his looks. But his handsomeness didn’t make him special in Draupadi’s eyes. If he won other hearts, Sarala says nothing about it. He took particular care to look handsome and often indulged in eloquent self-praise about his handsomeness. For Yudhisthira, the man of dharma, all this constituted his single greatest moral flaw. Self-praise was sin in terms of the moral code of those days, but for Yudhisthira, self-praise in even thought was no less sinful.

There is no evidence in Sarala’s narrative to suggest that Kunti distinguished between her children and Madri’s children. She never forgot that they had lost their mother and she became mother to them. Of the five brothers she was particularly fond of Sahadeva, probably because he was the youngest. When she joined her brother-in-law Dhritarashtra and sister-in-law Gandhari for vanaprastha, she told Draupadi to take care of him, concerned that he was the one son of hers who needed to be taken care of when she was gone. Ironically, the distinction was made by Yudhisthira, who was affectionate and generous to all and had no favourites. 

It was a very difficult situation. All his brothers were lying dead in front of him and Dharma in disguise offered to restore one of them to life. Who would he choose, he asked the eldest Pandava, whose wisdom and sense of discrimination had pleased him. Nakula, said the son of Dharma. But why Nakula? Since the eldest son of Kunti was alive, the eldest son of Madri should be alive too, was Yudhisthira’s answer. So pleased with his commitment to dharma was the god that he restored all his brothers to life. If Kunti- Madri or mother-younger mother distinction was made here in explicit terms for the first time in Sarala Mahabharata, it was only for reasons of dharma.

It was made again in the narrative, this time, ironically, by Nakula and there was no consideration of dharma here. And to my mind this is where this character’s individuality found its best expression. What he did was unpredictable. Krishna was going to king Duryodhana as Yudhisthira’s emissary to persuade him to choose peace over a fratricidal war; all he wanted from him was just one village for the Pandavas. Without telling him, Krishna decided to ask every Pandava brother and Draupadi and Kunti as well, about Yudhisthira’s peace initiative. One village would not be sufficient, said Bhima. He requested Krishna to ask for one village for himself. Arjuna did the same. Nakula said he wanted two, one for himself and one for Sahadeva. As his elder brother he was trying to take care of his younger brother’s interests; he wasn’t sure whether his brother would have the sense to ask a village for himself. His attitude to Sahadeva is reminiscent of Kunti’s towards him.

He told Krishna that so far everything had been fine, but who knew whether Kunti’s sons’ attitude would not change after the war was over and the Kauravas eliminated. Victory and prosperity changes people, the togetherness at the time of suffering is forgotten. After all, they were Madri’s sons, so he was worried that they might not share their prosperity with them. No one ever knew what he told Krishna.

Have no doubt about Nakula’s commitment to Yudhisthira. It was as strong as Bhima’s and Arjuna’s. As for Sahadeva, his story can wait for some other day. Only this much for now: he too was deeply committed to Yudhisthira, but if this commitment of his clashed with the cosmic design, about which he was aware, he would choose to work for the latter. Returning to Nakula, the poet does not blame him for his suspicion. He only shows that there was a distinct ordinariness to this character as well.

Sarala also shows how deeply ingrained in the children is the mother-younger mother distinction. Even in the most blessed of situations, it does not disappear. Only Rama, the noblest among gods, humans, and all the rest, was the exception. Nakula knew about what choice Yudhisthira had made when he had to decide which of his brothers he wanted restored to life. But that couldn’t reassure him. Or was he was apprehensive about how much control over his own brothers would Yudhisthira have after becoming king?  

Monday, August 3, 2015


The Great War fought on the battlefields of Kurukshetra had ended. But the victory was only partial because there were hearts to be won, tears to be wiped, back in Hastinapura. Reconciliation with the distraught Dhritarashtra and Gandhari, the old parents who had lost all their sons, was uppermost in the mind of Yudhisthira. Well, they hadn’t lost all their sons really; one was still alive – Durdasa, who had abandoned the Kaurava army and joined the Pandavas, believing that dharma was on their side. But he was certainly not in Dhritarashtra’s mind at that time of his dark and oppressive loneliness. As for Gandhari, there is nothing in the narrative that tells us whether she knew that Durdasa was alive or if she did, whether she cared. May be, for his parents, he had died the day he joined the Pandavas. May be, the loss of their ninety nine sons had numbed them and they were unable to realize that one of their sons was still alive. The poet is silent in this regard and we can go on speculating, knowing that silence can be more ambiguous than words.

This was in some sense a rather strange war. Neither Duryodhana and his brothers nor the Pandavas wanted war. When the time to decide arrived, Yudhisthira, Arjuna and Nakula were not keen on war. Not even Bhima, who had taken oaths, which could be more acceptably redeemed in a battlefield alone. All they wanted were five villages in all; Nakula wanted two, one for himself and one for Sahadeva. The Pandavas were neither mentally nor physically exhausted, nor were they afraid of defeat. Being virtuous by nature, they must have been deeply concerned about the justification and the ethicality of a fratricidal war, whatever the circumstances.  Now, what about Sahadeva? He didn’t trouble himself about issues concerning war or peace, because he knew what was going to happen. He was known as the one who was bhuta bhavishya jnata (the one who knew the past and the future).

Draupadi felt let down by her husbands’ attitude. She wanted war; she wanted revenge for her humiliation in the Kaurava court. Now Kunti, who didn’t have anything so directly personal as had Draupadi, to avenge, desired war even more fervently. The aggressiveness of her attitude and the vehemence of her tone in Sarala’s narrative as she urged Krishna in a language that was coarse and degrading, to make sure that war took place, might strike one as surprising. She condemned her sons’ attitude by saying that she had not given birth to lions but only jackals. Later, towards the end of the War, she once harshly abused Krishna in a foul language for the delay in the killing of Duryodhana, holding him almost personally responsible for that calamity! 

Now as the Pandavas were preparing to meet Dhritarashtra and Gandhari, Kunti started recounting to Krishna in a complaining and accusing tone how the Kauravas had always thought ill of her sons and how they had tried to harm them time and again. Her words expressed anguish rather than bitterness. Sarala uses just one terse line of a couplet to tell us how the avatara silenced her: What did you not do to the Kauravas, mother? A note of irony, bordering on sarcasm, was discernible in what he said.
I have often wondered why Kunti said what she did at that time, which, she knew, was the time for reconciliation. Her words were incongruous, very inappropriate and almost cynical. Was she feeling uneasy and even a bit guilty about the fact that her elder brother-in-law and sister-in-law had lost all their children? Was she worried that they would accuse her sons of causing a fratricidal war, when they would meet them? Would the grieving couple curse her children? Was she expressing her anxieties and fears by suggesting that the war was not caused by her sons but by those who had repeatedly tried to harm her children? Was this then what she was trying to impress upon Krishna?

The avatara’s straightforward and merciless answer was almost a reprimand, an accusation. In Kunti’s projection of the Great War as an evil imposed on her noble and unwilling sons by the wicked others, there was a distinct note of self-righteousness and of virtuous victimhood. Krishna rejected that attitude and condemned it. The winners of that terrible, bloody war simply could not put the blame on the vanquished for the countless dead and dying bodies still lying on the battlefields of Kurukshetra and get away. They had no justification at all in presenting themselves as innocent victims of others’ doings. They were not. That was what Krishna said. And his words to Kunti were the poet Sarala’s words to his audience across centuries.