Tuesday, April 19, 2016

ON SOME DISTURBING DEATHS



This post explores Supriya Prashant’s idea that the death of Lakshmana Kumara, Duryodhana’ son, and of Draupadi’s children should be considered together not merely because these deaths hurt us particularly deeply - killing of those who impress us as innocent is always profoundly disturbing, but also because these constitute yet another poignant reminder about how wrong it is to choose war over reconciliation. In all sadness, here I recall these deaths and add to these the death of Ghatotkacha, Bhima’s asura son. 

King Ghatotkacha had come from his forest kingdom to fight his father’s enemies. Although his mother had trained him in the culture of his father, in the eyes of the urban, “cultured” population, he was a forest dweller - not one of them.  King Kiratasena, another forest dweller and an invincible warrior who had three infallible arrows with which he could win a war, had offered to fight on behalf of the Kauravas, but Duryodhana had rejected his offer – in the war of the cultured, the forest dwellers had no place, he had told him. Disappointed, he then went to the Pandavas but Yudhisthira would not accept his offer for the same reason. In the case of Ghatotkacha it was different; after all, he was Bhima’s son. A son could not be denied his right to fight alongside his father in a war. He fought valiantly and completely unnerved the Kaurava army. He was unstoppable on the day he died. No one could defeat him; he defeated all who had faced him. His story ended as he fell on that very day to a divine weapon of which he was not the target.

Arjuna was fighting Karna and Krishna knew that Karna was invoking the divine weapon he had received from Indra. That weapon would not fail to kill. Krishna asked Ghatotkacha to go behind Arjuna’s chariot, which he promptly did. He didn’t tell him why he wanted him to be there. In Sarala Mahabharata Krishna would hardly ever offer to give a reason for his instructions and actions. As Karna’s infallible weapon was almost reaching Arjuna, its target, Krishna, his charioteer, moved the chariot sideways, exposing Ghatotkacha to it. It killed the brave young warrior, not engaged in battle at that time and returned to Indra. This was how Draupadi’s curse materialized; she had cursed him to die in a manner unworthy of a kshatriya. Krishna just made it happen, unless one refuses to accept, not without good reason though, that he could merely be an agent of fate in Sarala's narrative. 

The Pandavas grieved over Ghatotkacha’s death, but no one ever asked Krishna why he did what he did. Did they remember their wife’s curse? Did they realize that Arjuna was safe now and that Ghatotkacha’s death was a huge step to their victory? Was it this that helped them to accept it; after all, isn’t the smell of victory much too heady? The poet tells us nothing. 

As for Draupadi’s sons, they were too young when they were killed. The saddest and the most depressing thing was that they were killed by mistake; they were not the targets of their killer. The Pandavas had thought that with the mortal injury of Duryodhana the War had ended. They had left the battlefield for the night, leaving the children under the protection of Dhristadyumna, their uncle and the commander-in-chief of the Pandava army. Responding to the pleas of Ashwasthama, who on hearing that Duryodhana was dying had come to see him, Duryodhana had made him the commander-in-chief of the Kaurava army. He had promised the dying king that he would bring him the severed heads of the Pandavas before the night ended. That night Ashwasthama needed no army; he was death himself, armed with Bhagawan  Mahadeva’s sword. He entered the Pandava camp in the thick darkness of the night, killed Dristadyumna, his father’s killer, in the most degrading manner, like one would kill a beast, and then chopped off the heads of Draupadi’s sons thinking that they were the five Pandavas who were enjoying the unworried, deep sleep that comes to the victor. 

He rushed to the dying king, now in great agony and showed him the severed heads. Duryodhana was happy, his enemies were dead. In the last phase of the night, it was still dark. As the dawn arrived and they knew whose heads those were, Duryodhana was inconsolable. He rebuked Ashwasthama and blamed himself for trusting the one who he had always regarded as an unworthy warrior and whose pleas to make him the commander-in-chief of the Kaurava army he had summarily rejected earlier. Disappointed, Ashwasthama had left the battlefield. Durdasa placed the heads on Duryodhana’s chest and embracing them, he breathed his last. The poet does not tell us what thoughts were crossing Ashwasthama’s mind as his friend in the throes of death, who he had profoundly disappointed, was reproaching him so bitterly. Those children were not his target; he had committed a grave error, but there was nothing he could do to undo what he had done. 

Although the poet says nothing explicitly, we can say, set aside Krishna; there was nothing he did not know. Set aside Vyasa; he wasn’t there. It occurred to no one that the deaths of the children were long foretold. At the time of Yudhisthira’s rajaswiya jajna. In the presence of all who were there: the Pandavas, the Kauravas, the Kuru elders, sage Vyasa among other celebrated sages and Krishna himself.  After Draupadi had cursed Ghatotkacha, his mother, Hidimbaki, cursed Draupadi – her sons would die very young. Had the Pandavas recalled this, they would have realized that Ashwasthama was only a mere nimitta (agent only in appearance) for what had happened. It is another matter that for hundreds of years, readers have condemned Ashwasthama for killing the sleeping children of Draupadi.  

 As for Lakshmana Kumara, whose story we have just told, he was no one’s target that in that dark night reeking of death. Whoever killed him did not know who he had killed; Lakshmana Kumara did not know whether he was killed by someone in the Pandava army or the Kaurava army. All that the poet told us is that unwillingly and obeying his father, he was trying to escape from the battlefield to safety. He acted against putra dharma (the ethical code for the son) and against kshatriya dharma but that was only at the behest of his father, the guru. Now, wasn’t that what Ghatotkacha had done too? The avatara, the guru of gurus, had asked him to go behind Arjuna’s chariot and he did, without a murmur, in full faith in Krishna. 

As we grieve over the killings of Ghatotkacha, Lakshmana Kumara and Draupadi’s children, we must not forget that the domain of Sarala Mahabharata is not confined to the mortal world and to one life. In Sarala’s retelling, one who obeyed one’s guru never ended up wasted. They may have suffered in physical terms, but that was only in this world, in this existence of theirs. There had been other existences of them, there would also be more. From this perspective, call it the alaukika (non-worldly) perspective, the story of Draupadi’s sons did not begin with Hidimbaka’s curse. It had begun in another aeon. When Ashwasthama killed them, the Vishwadevas, who had taken birth in the mortal world because of sage Vishwamitra’s curse, returned to their divine form and to their own loka. Early death was release for them. From the same alaukika perspective one could say that Ghatotkacha and Lakshmana Kumar attained some higher loka, inhabited by the virtuous because connectedness with the avatara would always be blissful. Isn’t this what the wise Bhishma had told Sakuni in Udyoga Parva in Sarala Mahabharata?    

Friday, April 8, 2016

LAKSHMANA KUMARA



In Sarala Mahabharata there is no character other than Jara, who is anywhere as childlike and endearing and as innocent and pure as Lakshmana Kumara. For the last ten years, ever since I read his story, he has often been in my thought. In my quiet moments I have felt hurt on his account, have grieved for him. 

Lakshmana Kumara was Duryodhana’s son. He had fought with his father in the Great War of Kurukshetra for seventeen days. All of Duryodhana’s brothers had been killed by then, as were all the greatest among the great maharathis or great warriors in the Kaurava’s army. Only Duryodhana was alive. The sun had set long back and it was already very dark but the fight was going on, which was against the war code. The Pandavas had started smelling victory; at that point of time they had no patience to obey the code and wait for another sunrise. They wanted to end the war that night itself. Besides who would implement the code - the virtuous men, Bhishma, Drona and Karna, who could have done so, were no more in the battlefield.

The father Duryodhana wanted his son to flee the battlefield and save his life. At that point of time, in his eyes, his son’s life was important; his son’s kshatra dharma (the duty of the kshatriya) was not. He himself would perform his kshatra dharma. The one who never forgave Ashwasthama for valuing life and fearing death, which he said wasn’t right for one who had chosen to fight on the battlefield like a kshatriya, wanted that night his son to live and not perish in the battlefield. He commanded his reluctant son to flee the battlefield under the cover of darkness. He obeyed his father. As he was trying to escape, he got caught in a fierce engagement where in the deep darkness it was unclear who was the friend and who the enemy and who was killing who, and got killed – by who, neither he nor anyone else knew. 

His father did not know that his son had died. He had no way to know. He had lost control over what was happening in the battlefield. He had hidden himself, looking for an opportunity to escape from the battlefield for some rest and rejuvenation. When the tired soldiers became too weak to fight and the silence of death reigned in the dark battlefield, Duryodhana emerged. He saw a river of blood in front of him, which he knew he had to cross to escape. Many bodies came floating but the one which safely ferried him across the river turned out to be the body of Lakshmana Kumar. “Duryodhana’s Crossing the River of Blood” in this blog tells that heart-rending story. I do not have the courage to tell it again. In life and in death the young warrior served his father as no son in Sarala’s narrative had done for his.

This is the end of Lakshmana Kumara’s story. What is the beginning then? For me, it is when he met Krishna. That is in Udyoga Parva of Sarala Mahabharata. Along with his divine spouse, goddess Lakshmi, who had deserted king Duryodhana at his bidding, Krishna was returning from the Kaurava court where he had gone as Yudhisthira’s emissary. He felt someone was coming, so he turned back and saw Lakshmana Kumara running towards him. He was panting. Krishna stopped. What is it, he asked him.  Listen Janardana, said the young man, in the Mahabharata War brothers will kill brothers. Bhima will kill all. O Chakrapani (The One with Sudarshana chakra), give them place in Vaikuntha (the permanent divine abode of Vishnu (whose avatara is Krishna)). This is what my mother has asked me to seek from you. As tears were streaming down from his pleading eyes, he prostrated at his feet. 

I am very pleased with you. I will grant you a boon, said the avatara. Tell me what you want. Would you really give me what I seek from you?, said the young prince. Trust me, said the giver of moksa, my words will not go in vain. Ask whatever you want. I will grant you anything. If you really want to fulfil my wish, said the young prince, then grant me this, O Narayana: may my head be severed by your Sudarshana chakra! He knew what he was asking for. He knew the way to moksa, to eternal freedom from the karmic cycle. He knew that moksa could come from grace alone – grace of Narayana. 

I wanted to give you a different boon, Babu (an affectionate term for someone very young), said Krishna. I wanted you to live and continue the Kaurava lineage, I wanted to give you your share of the kingdom after the war. His wise and virtuous mother, Bhanumati, had realized the true worth, the true meaning of things, she knew who to ask for the most exalted of all states – moksa.  She had taught her child well. 

I have no desire for those things, Sridhara (another name of Narayana); may your chakra fall on my neck! That’s all I ask of you. So be it, said the lord of all the worlds, and blew his divine conk, Panchayanya. Never forget your word to me, Lakshana Kumara told Krishna and returned home, full of divine contentment.

The prince, who had complete faith in Krishna, did not die the way promised him by the Complete Avatara himself. He, who had assured him that his word would never go in vain, allowed it to go in vain.  As a reader of Sarala’s narrative, I grieve for the young and trusting prince and feel terribly let down by both Krishna and the poet. The great narrative does not return to Lakshmana Kumara after his father, inconsolable in grief, gave him a burial on the other side of the river of blood. Bhagawan Krishna never said why he did not honour his own words given to a bhakta, to an innocent, trusting child. In Sarala Mahabharata, Krishna never explained himself. Fair enough, from one point of view, perhaps: explaining oneself is essentially justifying oneself. Man would never be satisfied with God’s justifications. Cosmic purpose is beyond the understanding of the mortals. Let alone humans, Narayana’s lila is beyond the comprehension of the greatest of the gods and the greatest of the sages.

True, but still I do not feel reconciled. Not at all. Narayana chose to descend to the mortal world. Krishna lived among the mortals, lived like other mortals in many ways. So the mortals would expect him to be intelligible to them, to explain his ways to them. He surely knows that humans cannot feel at ease in a universe they cannot comprehend and would give things meanings from their own limited capacity. If not from the avatara, who lives with them as one of them, from where would the mortals expect clarity from?