Wednesday, July 27, 2016


Ten years ago I read Durdasa’s story in Sarala Mahabharata and for ten long years he has been in my thoughts. In the battlefield of Kurukshetra, responding to Yudhisthira’s call to join him and fight for dharma, he chose to abandon his Kaurava brothers and join the Pandavas. When the angry Duryodhana ordered his army to attack both the deserter and the eldest Pandava, who was unarmed and was still in the Kaurava side of the battlefield, he sheltered the latter on his chariot and fought valiantly against the Kaurava forces all alone till the arrival of the mighty Bhima. He survived the Great War, where ninety-nine Kaurava brothers had perished but when there was no fear to his life, he was mistakenly killed by his own mother.

The mother of course did not know that she had killed her son until Vidura told her. The revengeful woman had wanted to kill Yudhisthira; so she had asked him to remove her eye-cover so that she could see him. She knew that the yogic fire emanating from her eyes would burn him to ashes. But with Krishna around, Yudhisthira could not be killed; the protector of dharma would not allow the embodiment of dharma to be destroyed. He asked Durdasa to remove the cover, which he readily did and perished. There must be no residue of the enemy, was what he told Sahadeva.

Sahadeva alone did not hear these words; these words reverberated and reached lakhs - those who were listening to Sarala as he was telling his Mahabharata in the remote village Jhankada more than five hundred years ago, and all those who heard or read his immortal narrative thereafter. The poet does not tell us what Sahadeva and the other Pandavas felt but at least some of his audience down the centuries would surely have liked to challenge him with the question: “why this revolting unfairness”? We ask him because he is the avatara, the purna avatara. Whatever be the wisdom of eliminating Durdasa, it is utterly hurtful; it comes as a severe affront to those who, despite all the negativities, have not lost their hopes for a fair and just world. Durdasa’s story is there in this blog, posted on September 7, 2007. Therefore, it is unnecessary to go into further details here.  

Incidentally, Durdasa’s counterpart in Vyasa Mahabharata, namely Yuyutsu, did not have the same fate. When the Pandavas left for vanaprastha, Yudhisthira asked him to look after the kingdom on behalf of king Parikshita, who was too young for that. As Pradip Bhattacharya observes, Durdasa had to die because he was one of the hundred Dhritarashtras. In Vyasa Mahabharata, Vikarna, who had protested against Durodhana's command to disrobe Draupadi, had to die because he was one of the sons of Dhritarashtra. Yuyutsu lived because he was the son of a maid and to that extent was on the periphery of the Kaurava family.  

Returning to Durdasa, was he really an enemy, as Krishna implied? Was it fair to give him a bad label and burn him? To us, readers of Sarala Mahabharata, he was by no stretch of imagination an enemy. If Krishna thought Durdasa was an enemy, despite all that he had done for the sake of dharma and for the Pandavas, the narrator does not tell us why he thought so. There is nothing at all in the yuddha and subsequent parvas (cantos) that he had done anything which could be considered hostile to the Pandavas. As Vineet Chaitanya says, had he known what his mother had in mind, he would have volunteered to remove the cover from her eyes. I agree. He would have protected Yudhisthira from his mother exactly as he had protected him from his elder brother’s army in the battlefield of Kurukshetra.  

As for Krishna, he never gave only one explanation for something he had done, at least in Sarala’s version. If he said one thing to Sahadeva by way of justifying his action, he said another to Gandhari - how can dharma exist on earth if Yudhisthira is killed, he told her. So the protector of dharma had to protect the embodiment of dharma on earth. One would hope that this was the real reason why Krishna pushed Durdasa to his death. This would at least put to rest any skepticism about Durdasa’s integrity!

Many thoughts come to mind. Just as Sarala Mahabharata seriously questions war as the best solution to apparently irresolvable issues facing a kingdom, it rejects hatred and revengefulness in human relationship. These lead to nowhere. Gandhari’s understandable grief on account of the death of her children had made her lose control over herself. So she had decided to kill Yudhishtira by means of treachery when she knew that he had come to Dhritarashtra on a sincere mission of reconciliation, something which he need not have done. What she intended do amounted to reviving a war that was over and bringing it right inside the palace of Hastinapura. She had to pay the price. Vidura’s condemnation was harsh. Cover your eyes and return to your blindness, he told her. She readily obeyed.

And think of Yudhisthira and Bhima. Yudhisthira had assured him of his protection. Bhima had assured him of protection against anyone: man, demon or god. They couldn’t do a thing. Sarala doesn’t tell us so, but we will not violate the spirit of his immortal narrative if we interpret it to mean that humans, no matter how virtuous or powerful, do not control things. In their arrogance, not just humans and demons, gods too in our puranas do not always remember this. When Krishna withdrew his kalaa (attribute) from Arjuna at the time of ending his avatara, the latter no more remained invincible in engagements with mortals or immortals, as he so far had been. He became a mere shadow of the Arjuna who had defeated the god of gods: Mahadeva.

Pandu had abdicated in favour of his elder brother Dhritarashtra in order to make him happy and had voluntarily retired to the forest. The blind king had forgotten his devoted brother’s favour. After the birth of Yudhisthira in the forest, Dhritarastra became insecure and extremely jealous. He badly wanted a son, who would succeed him. He implored the sages to perform yajna for a son - if the gods could be pleased, he would have male children. The sages who knew told him that it was ordained that he would have a daughter and no sons. What would he do with a daughter, the king asked the sages and begged them to perform yajna to please the gods. The sages obliged. Gandhari conceived but did not deliver when the time came. Later what came out of her womb was a lump of flesh. Ignoring details, sage Vyasa cut it into a hundred pieces and those came to life as the hundred Kaurava brothers.

Perhaps Durdasa had to die because he was part of the one that had become a hundred. Ninety-nine could not go out of the world leaving a residue behind. When Krishna left the mortal world, he did not leave a residue of himself behind. He withdrew his kalaa from Arjuna. At the end, completeness must be restored, in a manner of speaking.  

Durdasa and his ninety-nine brothers were the off springs of ambition and jealousy. The way they were born, they did not carry the blessings of the gods who were invoked during the yajna. Destiny was challenged. In due course destiny took away from Dhritarashtra and Gandhari what was not theirs in the first place. Dhritarashtra and Gandhari lived to experience this. The mother lived to see how she had become an instrument in the killing of her only surviving child. The cosmic purpose would not have been served if Durdasa had remained alive. The punishment for his parents would have been less than adequate. The avatara had to make the right happen. The cosmic order had to be restored. Human feelings would not matter. Neither would the ethical code of the humans.

In Sarala Mahabharata, it has been said repeatedly that Narayana does not just take; although it appears that that is what He does. He also gives and He more than amply compensates for what He takes, although mortals may not know. He only knows what he gave Durdasa.    

With this understanding I have come to terms with Durdasa’s end and also Krishna’s role in it. May be discontent would disturb me again, forcing me a rethink of the Durdasa episode. May be not.

Niladri Bije, 2016

Key words: Krishna, Durdasa, Gandhari, Sarala Mahabharata, destiny, cosmic purpose

(I am highly thankful to (Brahmachari) Vineet Chaitanya, Pradip Bhattaharya, Sewa Bhattarai, and Vikas Kumar for their valuable observations and suggestions.)


Monday, July 18, 2016


Note: This piece, published in The Political and Business Daily on July 17, 2016, Sunday, is authored by Dr. Vikas Kumar ( who teaches at Azim Premji University, Bangalore and me. Dr. Kumar is the first author. This piece views an aspect of the Sakuni episode in Sarala Mahabharata from the larger perspective of "prison-revenge" stories and shows in what way Sarala's characterization of Sakuni is original.  

“Translations” of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata into modern Indian languages are among the defining features of our regional cultures. The differences between the Sanskrit and regional versions, which are essentially creative retellings, reflect the specificity of both the regional epic and the regional culture. The use of ‘Duryodhana’ as a naming word in Odia, might, for instance, be explained by the humane treatment of classical villains in the Sarala Mahabharata.

The 15th century Odia epic differs from its Sanskrit counterpart with regard to the narrative frame, among other things. In Sarala’s story, Duryodhana’s annihilation of his mother’s natal family was the root cause of the Kurukshetra war that was plotted by Sakuni. Sarala introduced new stories, e.g., Duryodhana’s crossing of the river of blood, and new characters, e.g., Suhani and Hari Sahu. He also captured the mundane features of the characters, e.g., Duryodhana’s passing urine and Parvati’s removing lice from Shiva’s hair. These differences, and the limited compounding possible in Odia language, partly explain why Sarala’s epic is considerably longer than Vyasa’s.

A number of features of the classical version made possible these differences. The context of regional retellings was far removed from that of the classical period, which necessitated innovations. Also, the Bhakti environment required reorientation of the entire story toward the avatara. So, Sarala’s retelling of the Mahabharata, the story of the Kurus, can be seen as a pretext to dwell upon Krishna lila. Indeed Sarala referred to his Mahabharata as Vishnu Purana. Innovative retelling was also enabled by the abundance of underdeveloped characters and stories as well as inconsistencies in the classical version. Moreover, innovations were not culturally unacceptable as the Mahabharata was not treated as a sacred text.

It is also possible that the regional versions, such as Sarala’s, tapped into lesser known parallel classical traditions, which might explain the deviation from the classical version. The Sarala Mahabharata can indeed be read as a “Prison-revenge” story, a few examples of which are presented below.

In Sarala’s story, Gandhari was married to a sahada tree (and immediately widowed) before being married to Dhritarashtra to shield the couple from inauspicious stars. Duryodhana perceived a widow’s marriage to his father as an affront and starved his maternal grandfather, his ninety six brothers, and his hundred sons in a prison. The prisoners denied themselves food so that Sakuni, the king’s eldest son, lived. (Significantly, ninety nine Kaurava brothers perished in the Kurukshetra War.) Sakuni made dice out of his father’s bones, which would obey his call.

One day Duryodhana was urinating under a banyan tree, when he saw a fruit of that tree flowing away in his urine. A banyan tree is so big and strong that even the strongest wind and the heaviest rain cannot shake it. Its fruit contains the seeds of so many banyan trees, and yet it flowed away in his urine. These thoughts made him smile. A female attendant saw him smile, and she smiled too. Duryodhana asked her why she smiled. She said whatever made him smile made her smile. Duryodhana then asked her why he had smiled, and threatened to put her to death if she failed to answer him. She happened to be the attendant who carried food to Sakuni. Sakuni asked her to tell the king that he had smiled on seeing a fruit of a banyan tree flowing away in the flow of his urine. The reply stunned Duryodhana and he appointed Sakuni his mantri.

Somadeva’s Kathasaritsagara and related texts contain a similar story. Three brahmin students – Vyaadi, Vararuchi, and Indradatta – needed a crore of rupees to pay guru dakshina. They decided to approach King Satyananda. He died just when they reached his camp. Indradatta entered the body of the king, who came back to life and became known as Yogananda. He ordered the payment of a crore of rupees to Vararuchi. Minister Shaktala (also known as Shaktara in some versions) wondered if the revival of the dead king and the subsequent gift to a stranger could be a mere coincidence. He feared that the person who entered the king’s body would leave once his job was done. He ordered the burning of all corpses in the kingdom, including Indradatta’s body. Yogananda made Vararuchi his minister and imprisoned Shaktala and his hundred sons fearing a coup. Shaktala alone survived. He took revenge with Chanakya’s help and retired to a forest.

In Ravinartaka’s Chanakyakatha, King Nanda’s kshatriya wife gave birth to a lump of flesh that was cut into nine pieces that became the nine Nandas. (In Sarala, Gandhari gave birth to a lump of flesh that was cut into hundred pieces, which became the Kauravas.) Maurya, their cousin born to the King’s Sudra wife, was the commander of the army. The Nandas, who reigned in rotation, were jealous of Maurya, who enjoyed his office without interruption. They imprisoned and starved Maurya and his hundred sons. Chandragupta, the youngest son, alone survived. A rival king challenged the Nandas to take a caged waxen lion out without opening the cage. The Nandas released Chandragupta after he solved the riddle by heating the waxen lion. Chandragupta in due course avenged the family.

In Anantasarman’s Mudrarakshasapurvasamkathanaka, when King Nanda Sudhanvan died, an ascetic entered his body and distributed alms to his students. This aroused suspicion in the mind of Minister Rakshasa, who found and destroyed the ascetic’s body. Rakshasa then joined the service of King Parvataka. Prompted by a prophesy Minister Shaktara killed the possessed Nanda and installed the real heir Ugradhanvan as the king. When the latter learnt of his “father’s” murder, he imprisoned and starved Shaktara and his hundred sons. Vikatara, the youngest son, survived and was released somehow. He took revenge with Chanakya’s help.

The originality of Sarala’s epic in the world of Prison-revenge stories lies in its novel conception of the ethical choices facing Sakuni. Sarala’s Sakuni refused to return to his ancestral kingdom and gave up his life in the battlefield. Sakuni’s act of revenge was simultaneously his act of virtuous suicide. Sarala gave Sakuni a second choice where he amply redeemed himself. In Sarala’s eyes, Sakuni was a sufficiently moral person to make that choice. The originality of Sarala is evident only when it is compared with other inter-related tales that define the story space that is India, where shared narrative frames have circulated over a long period of time.