Saturday, June 11, 2016


Said the celebrated sage Vyasa to Krishna, I need pramanapratyakshya pramana (direct evidence); only then would I accept. That was when Krishna met Arjuna for the first time. That was when in Sarala Mahabharata Krishna entered the story of the Kuru clan. Nakula and Sahadeva were not born yet. The story of Madri posted in this blog on July 22, 2008 would give some idea of the context of this meeting. 

Krishna told Vyasa that there was no time when he and Arjuna were not bound in strongest togetherness. In Satya Yuga (the Aeon of Truth) Arjuna was the brahmin named Shrivatsa and once he hit Narayana hard on his chest. Concerned that he had in the process got hurt, Narayana had tenderly massaged his foot. Since then the mark of his foot has been on his chest, Krishna told Vyasa. “Behold the mark on me, O sage!” said Krishna. In the same aeon, when he manifested himself as Narasingha (Nrusingha), Arjuna was born as Prahalada (Prahlada), “And I,” said Krishna, “had sat him on my lap, O Vyasa!” In another aeon, when he was born as Rama, said Krishna, Arjuna was born as his brother, Bharata, and in the present aeon of Dwapara, “I have taken the avatara of Krishna and the same Bharata is born as Arjuna, O sage!” 

Vyasa knew the svarupa (true form) of Krishna; he knew that he was Narayana Himself. The sage was not unaware that there could be no untruth in the words of Narayana, but he still found it difficult to accept as true that Arjuna, a mere mortal, could have been related to Him so very closely – as his sakha (intimate friend)— across aeons. Most humbly, the great sage told Krishna that he had doubts and that he would believe what he had said about Arjuna if the latter could withstand his Vishvarupa or Cosmic Form. “So manifest yourself in your Vishvarupa!” he told Krishna (tu swami ehaku biswarupa dekha / ye jebe dekhi parai atai tora sakha – you show your Vishvarupa to him / if he can withstand it, he is your intimate friend).  Vyasa knew that even the greatest of gods, Brahma and Shankara, had not been able to do so. If Arjuna now did, then he had to be someone very special. Krishna asked Arjuna what he wanted. The son of Kunti said that he wanted Vyasadeva to be convinced, and he too wanted to witness what this Universal Form was like, he added (kemanta ti biswarupa atai tohara / dekhibaku ichha deba atain mohara – what is your Vishvarupa like / it is my desire to see (it)). The avatar obliged. Only he can see whom He chooses to show.

In an instant, the avatar’s friendly and cheerful form merged in his Source, the Supreme Divinity Narayana, and Narayana’s form grew and grew. It encompassed the sky, the nether lands, all the lokas, all the brahmandas (worlds / universes) and all the existences. There was nothing left. In that all-embracing Form, the sun and the moon were His eyes and the wind was His breath. All the gods rested in the roots of the hair on His body, all the living beings on the palm of His left hand, the mountains on His fingers and the oceans in the palm of His right hand. His Form dazzled brilliantly, illuminated by the primordial fires. 

Arjuna smiled the silly, idiotic smile of a senile old man. Was he going to lose his existence was what might have disoriented him. “O Supreme being,!” said Arjuna, “Will you grow more? I have, at all times been a part of you. I have no existence outside of your Form. Are you going to expand further and absorb me in you?” asked Arjuna. “I am terrified,” he said. 

Narayana had manifested Himself in his Cosmic Form because Arjuna wanted to see Him thus. Now, seeing Arjuna terrified, He assumed His avataric form as the serene, blissful, playful, friendly Krishna. 

All this is like in Shrimad Bhagavad Gita but here the contextualization is different. And we must note that in this art of contextualization lies Sarala’s originality as a creative re-teller of the ancient story.

Almost as in the Vyasa Mahabharata, in Sarala’s version too there were two who witnessed the Vishvarupa: one saw because he wanted to, the other saw, as the witness.  There the witness was Sanjaya; here, Vyasa himself. They were witness to the fact that the one who wanted to see Narayana’s Vishvarupa indeed saw His Cosmic Form. However, in the Bhagavad Gita, the most prominent aspect of the Universal Form was the ultimate destructive energy.  In the Sarala Mahabharata, because of the changed context, this Form would have been inappropriate. Thus, here the most prominent aspect of His Vishvarupa is His all-pervasiveness. It is reminiscent of what mother Yashoda had witnessed in the mouth of Krishna. Both what Arjuna saw in the Bhagavad Gita and what he sees in the Sarala Mahabharata could be utterly terrifying. In the former case, the reasons are obvious and in the latter, the experience could utterly confuse and disorient the experiencer with respect to the nature of his own existence. 

Now, there was yet another blessed one in our mainstream puranic literature who had also seen the all-pervasive Cosmic Form of Narayana. He was the celebrated king, Bali, and he witnessed that Rupa (Form) at the time of giving dana (ritual gift) to the Vamana, the avatara Narayana had taken for him. The wise and the righteous Bali was unafraid; he was calm and composed. There of course was no place in the story for a scared Bali, but at the same time, part of the narrative purpose was surely to foreground the great king’s enlightened self-possession on seeing Narayana in that Form. That attitude showed how highly developed he was in spiritual terms. We might recall what Narayana said in the Sarala Mahabharata - that for dana, He would go to only the most virtuous among the highly virtuous.   
As for Vyasa, he was satisfied, as a true seeker after knowledge is when knowledge comes to him. Arjuna had survived. Vyasa realized that he was no ordinary mortal. He told Krishna that he had always thought that no one was related to Narayana, but now he had realized that he was wrong. He blessed Arjuna for victory and left.

In the Sarala Mahabharata, this was how Arjuna and Vyasa witnessed the Vishvarupa of the Supreme One. The avatar appeared in his source Narayana’s various forms on other occasions, as he demonstrated his Narayanatva (“Narayana-ness”), one of these being in the Kaurava court where he had gone as Yudhisthira’s emissary, but Vishvarupa darshan did not figure in the narrative again.

There is more to reflect on in this episode. For instance, how does Sarala implement the concept in his narrative that Narayana is without relations? What does it really mean? It is indeed necessary to know, so that we can understand the import of Vyasa’s observation in this episode. Again, why did Vyasa want Krishna to prove to him that what he had said about himself and Arjuna was correct? Wasn’t the statement by the avatar who, Vyasa was aware, knew the past, present and future of everything and of everyone including himself, sufficient? Consider it alongside the question as to why in Shrimad Bhagavad Gita Arjuna wanted to see that Form of Krishna which would embody all the assertions Krishna had made about himself in the tenth chapter. Was it for the same reason that Sarala’s Vyasa wanted evidence from Krishna – that is, like him, did Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita want pratyaksha pramana from Krishna, although his words and his extremely reverential attitude to him in that sloka (3 of chapter 11) do not explicitly express a demand for it? But at the same time, can such an interpretation be ruled out? I hope to return to these matters in some other posts.

Just one reflection as we conclude. In the Vyasa Mahabharata Sanjaya could see the Vishvarupa because he had received from sage Vyasa the special power to see all that was happening on the battlefield of Kurukshetra from wherever he was. Arjuna could see the Vishvarupa because Krishna had given him the special power to see: divyam dadami te cakshuh / pasya me yogam aisvaram (“I am giving you divine sight/ Behold my sovereign yoga” as translated by Ramesh Menon, sloka 8, chapter 11). Krishna gave the divine sight, so Arjuna saw what Krishna wanted him to see. Krishna had given Belalsen (his name in Sarala’s version, Barbareek in others) divine sight and he saw what Krishna had wanted him to see. The one who imparts the ability to see controls what is to be seen. 

In the Sarala Mahabharata, Arjuna had not been given divine sight to witness Narayana’s Vishvarupa. Our submission is: did he need it? Who was he in this narrative? When they met, Krishna sat him on his lap and named him “Diti Krishna” (“Second Krishna”). Before he left his mortal form, he withdrew from Arjuna a kala (attribute / aspect) of himself which he had given him, as he had to return complete to his Source (cf. “Krishna’s Last Deceit” posted on July 13, 2007. With that attribute, Arjuna carried Krishnatva (“Krishna-ness”) in him. Now, when did Krishna give that kala? Logic and intuition suggest that he did it when he sat him on his lap. Could this be Sarala’s way of suggesting this: jahun Arjunaku kole dhaile shripati / swarupa baarana nohila duhinkara eka murti (When Shripati – Krishna – sat Arjuna on his lap / They could not be distinguished, they both had the same appearance)? 

Viewed thus, isn’t Arjuna’s beholding of the Vishvarupa like the beholder and the one who is beheld not separate? Had Vyasa known that Krishna had given a bit of himself to Arjuna, would he have asked the avatara for pratyakshya  pramana?

(This post has benefited from observations of Pradip Bhattacharya, Vineet Chaitanya, Vikas Kumar and Christa Scheler. Pradip Bhattacharya’s editing has improved the readability of the text. My gratitude to them all.)

Friday, June 3, 2016


Shantanu was a great devotee of Bhagawan Shiva. Sarala spoke of him as a “rushi (“rishi”, sage)”. He was so emerged in Shiva consciousness that he would dress himself like him and then even the gods were confused. One day the unbelievable of the unbelievable happened – goddess Ganga was confused. She had taken birth in the mortal world as the daughter of Nirghata. Shiva had disappeared from the mountains of Kailash and where he was engaged in meditation, she did not know. She was waiting for him to emerge out of his meditation so that she could marry him. When she saw Shantanu dressed like Shiva, she thought he was Shiva and told her father to marry her to him. During the wedding ritual itself she realized her mistake. She soon thought of a plan to free herself from that marriage. This story entitled “Ganga” occurs in this blog, posted on May 6, 08. 

One of the many vicious things Ganga did to Shantanu in order to exasperate him was force him to abandon the path of dharma. She was very beautiful, sensual and seductive and he fell for her charms. He was completely fulfilled in her. She gave herself to him completely during their union but her heart was not in it; offering him sexual pleasure was her way of controlling him. She knew his weakness and exploited it. She would deny him when he was extremely aroused and force him into sex act on days the shastras did not permit it. Shantanu used to observe twelve bratas and seventy two upavasas (both roughly speaking, “ritual fasts”) steadfastly. Sex, which was believed to be physically and spiritually polluting, was not sanctioned on those sacred days.  Sin accrues to one who indulges in it on those days. Quite a few today do have this belief. 

Shantanu yielded to her and gave up observing ritual fasts on auspicious days. There was just one exception: ekadasi, an upavasa dedicated to the Supreme god, Narayana. On an ekadasi Ganga asked Shantanu why he was so keen on observing ekadasi and why again with such dedication. One attains mukti by observance of the sacred ekadasi brata and Narayana is pleased with someone who observes this brata in the right spirit, said Shantanu. Samsara or worldly life is nothing but an unfathomable river and dharma is the only boat that can ferry one across, he told her. Worldly life is the condition of being firmly bound up without ropes; what bind one up are egotism, desire, attachment, hatred and anger, etc. and only the grace of Narayana could give one mukti. Therefore, my beloved, said the ascetic king Shantanu to Ganga, let us together observe the extremely sacred ekadasi brata and attain Vaikuntha, the abode of Narayana. 

But that was not the way of the householder and the king, replied Ganga. Once he opted for kingship and the life of a householder, he could no longer follow asceticism. That would not be dharma. Upavasa was not his karma (here, right action). Kingship is a great and noble duty: “ati utakarma” (extremely noble) in Sarala’s words. Ksatriya dharma was not in consonance with asceticism. A king could not afford to fast, said Ganga. He must think of the welfare of his kingdom all the while, punish the wicked, protect his virtuous subjects, support the ashramas, secure his kingdom from enemies, remain in constant readiness to face any attack and must also wage war in order to add territory to his kingdom. You are noble, wise and discriminating, said Ganga to Shantanu, why then are you indulging in observing ekadasi (tu mahavijna jebe atu maharishi / raja pade basi kimpa bhaju ekadasi – (roughly) if you are wise, o sage / being the king, why are you observing ekadasi)

Shantanu could say nothing; she sounded entirely reasonable. He gave in to her logic, to her flawless explication of rajadharma (king’s duty). She did not speak to him like a guru would to her sishya; she spoke to him as a friend would to a friend. The sage-king gave up the ekadasi fast and yielded to her logic, her seduction and her ethereal beauty. 

He did not know that her words were untruthful and her motives, dark. She wanted the king to stray from the path of virtue. He had no way to know her intentions; humans are not bestowed with this ability to look into someone’s mind and know whether his words were true or deceptive. They go by faith. Shantanu did not know that his wife’s words were dishonest. We know what he did not know because Sarala tells us.
Why did Ganga stoop so low as to use jnana (roughly, “knowledge”) as a means to make a trusting person stray from a life of dharma? Sarala does not tell us explicitly. But going by the spirit of his narrative we could say that gods and goddesses find it easy to control those who do not follow dharma than those who do. No matter how powerful, gods and goddesses are powerless before the person who is steadfast in dharma. So they would try to make him or her lose perspective and sense of discrimination and abandon dharma. This was what Ganga did to Shatanu. She tempted him with her beauty and misleaded him with her dharma talk. 
Sarala’s Shantanu was basically a moral person. He did not marry after Ganga left him. She was his only wife. He did not crave for any woman after she was gone. And he never pined for Ganga. It was as though he had slipped into a phase of intoxication and when Ganga was gone, with her, that phase was gone. 

Shantanu, the man the poet Sarala referred to repeatedly as rushi, had one flaw – a tragic flaw, which seriously affected the Kuru family. None of Shantanu’s sons could give him a grandchild. The Kuru lineage, strictly speaking, stopped with them. Dhritarashtra and Pandu were born from a person who was outside, in a strict sense, of the Kuru family. Vyasa was Satyavati’s son, but in Sarala Mahabharata she was not part of the core Kuru family. She was sage Pareshwara’s wife, not king Shantanu’s.

Shantanu’s flaw was his fatal attraction for the beautiful Ganga. He seems to have fallen for her when she came into his sight. Right when the wedding rituals were going on, he got to know that Ganga had made a serious mistake in marrying him. He did not try to help her get out of an unfortunate situation; instead he chose to abide by her clearly unreasonable demands for the continuance of their marriage. He knew she was goddess Ganga, who was waiting to marry Shiva. And Shiva was his ista (the most desired one – here, god), he was his devotee. Coveting a woman whose heart was in his ista was like coveting one’s guru’s consort. His passion for Ganga blinded him and he lost his sense of judgment. The price he paid was very heavy indeed.