Sunday, May 21, 2017


From one point of view, it was not Sakuni who avenged the brutal murder of his father, uncles and relatives by his nephew, Duryodhana; it was indeed his father, King Gandharasena himself who did. He was the Causer Agent: Sakuni was merely “doing agent”, more an instrument than an agent. In fact, in a Sanskrit causative sentence with the explicit causer agent, the “doer” takes the instrumental marker. Gandharasena could not do it himself, so he armed his son with an unfailing revenge tool and told him how to go about destroying the Kauravas with it.

All the captives of Duryodhana were dead; there were just the father and the son alive. Gandharasena knew that his moment would soon come. “Listen, Sakuni,” he told his son, “you are my eldest son, you are capable and very knowledgeable (maha jnani). I have protected you. We all starved so that you do not. You had assured us that you would avenge us. Tell me, how will you do it?” Sakuni told him that he was an ignoramus and appealed to his father to tell him how he should go about it. “You are going, father”, he said, “tell me and rest assured that I will ever forget what you tell me.”  

Some might feel disappointed. Even the parent-child relationship is not without self-interest, not without expectation. Gandharasena’s sacrifice for his son was not unselfish. And what dark expectation! But wasn’t the world of Mahabharata a dark, dark world!

Some consolation that Sarala’s Gandharasena wasn’t that cruel to his son as Gandharasena in some versions of the Mahabharata. He didn’t make him lame, so that he never forgot that he had to take revenge.

Come to think of it, Sarala’s Gandharasena wasn’t a really a bad man. Like any father, he was worried about his daughter’s marriage. She was born in an inauspicious moment, so when she got engaged to a prince, the prince died. He readily accepted sage Vyasa’s advice to get his daughter married to a sahada tree first and then to Dhritarashtra. Vyasa himself conducted the marriages. Vyasa, Dhritarashtra’s father, knew that Gandhari and Dhritarashtra’s marriage was arranged by the stars because when the latter got engaged to a princess, she would die. The arrogant and foolish Duryodhana punished his maternal grandfather entirely unjustly. Like any other grandfather, Gandharasena loved his grandchild. That was why he told Duryodhana what he did not want to hear but what would be good for him, namely that he must never go to war against his cousins, the Pandavas, because being sons of gods, they were stronger than him. He trusted Duryodhana. He acted like the grandfather and not the king, when he sent his army back to the capital when asked to do so by his nephew and came with him Duryodhana along with his brothers and relatives, not even knowing where he was taking them. Till his imprisonment he had done nothing that could have been viewed as unworthy of a loving grandfather or a father.

To return to what Gandharasena told Sakuni. Duryodhana had brutally tortured and killed his family and relatives without any wrong doing by him or them. The dead must be avenged, he told Sakuni. He gave him the revenge plan and with that he bound him up for life. He told him that after his death, he must collect the bones of his hands. In complete secrecy, from the bones of his right palm, he must get two dice sticks made and from the bones of his left palm, thirty dice cubes. Those sticks would obey his demands. One day Duryodhana would surely free him and make him his minister and most trusted adviser. He must take full advantage of that opportunity. Playing dice on behalf of Duryodhana, he must defeat Yudhisthira and make sure that he lost all his possessions, that the Pandava brothers became slaves of Duryodhana and their wife was dragged to the Kaurava court where she would be disrobed. Bhima would not stand that terrible humiliation and would never forget it. That would lead to a war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas and Bhima would wipe out Duryodhana and his brothers and their children. “I am telling you, my son,” said Gandharasena, “that war would end no other way. The Pandavas cannot be killed on the ground or in water or by fire.” Therefore the Pandavas must be used to eliminate the Kauravas. Poisonous sweets and the house of wax were not in Gandharasena’s scheme; for him two dice sticks were enough.

“After getting your nephews killed, do not live, my son,” said Gandharasena, “fight with Sahadeva and get killed in the war.” He had predetermined his life and now his death.

Not for nothing did his father have such complete trust on his eldest son’s competence. That intelligent prince appeared to be justly sceptical. Two dice sticks and a few dice cubes made of the bones of his father’s palms could really be the unfailing tools for taking on the mighty Duryodhana, Sakuni must have wondered. “Tell me, father”, Sakuni said, “when did your hands do so much punya (action that brings religious merit to the doer) that they are bestowed with such super human power?”

“It happened many, many years ago”, said Gandharasena. He was a recognized scholar of more shastras – sahasra shahastre (a thousand shastras), says Sarala - than anyone else then. But he would always lose a game of dice. So for fifteen years he did severe tapas to please goddess Ganga. The primordial goddess appeared and asked him what he wanted. He asked her for the divine dice sticks and cubes with which he would never lose a game of dice. The goddess gave him the sticks and cubes and asked him to return them to her after three years.

He defeated many kings and amassed a lot of wealth in the form of gold, gems, elephants, armies and much else. His treasury was overflowing. His reputation spread and kings were afraid of meeting him, lest he challenged them to a game of dice.  Three years over, he went to a place of pilgrimage called Uttrankura and prayed to the goddess. As he was placing the sticks and the cubes on the palm of the goddess, he made an appeal to her in all prayerful humility. “Grant me, Mother, this: let this grace of yours remain with my family in some form.” The Mother goddess granted his wish. She told him that after his death, his son must make sticks and cubes from the bones of his palms. Those would be bestowed with special powers and no one would defeat him in a game of dice if he played with the same. “Mother Ganga’s words with never be untrue, my son,” he said and those were his last words.  


A manuscript of Sarala Mahabharata has a slightly different story of King Gandharasena but the difference is both quite interesting and significant. This story is about his greed and punishment.

Pleased with Gandharasena, goddess Ganga had given him divine dice sticks and dice cubes and told him to return those to her on the completion of three years. For three years Gandharasena won all games of dice he played and amassed a lot of wealth and great reputation as a dice player. He had been a loser before he received the goddess’s boon and in just three years his fortune had changed so dramatically. Greed possessed him. He did not return those divine objects to the goddess.

Four more years passed. He must have been increasingly troubled by the fear of goddess’s wrath, if not by the voice of his conscience. Seven years over, one day he decided to return them to Ganga. The goddess was much displeased with him. She didn’t have the sticks and cubes when she needed them and had received scolding from her lord, Bhagawan Shiva. She cursed Gandharasena: jaare gandharasena pathara ghare bansa maru tohari (go Gandharasena, may your vansa – family - die in a house of stone).  Her curse was very harsh and very unjust. Why did she curse his brothers and relatives for his karma? If we know Sarala’s Ganga – impulsive, wild and impetuous - this would not surprise us.  

The rest of the story is the same as in the published version, edited by Artaballava Mohanty. In this version, the three couplets telling the story above are mentioned in a foot note. The cursed king got the boon from the goddess that her grace in empowering him in the game of dice would remain in his family in some form – the man’s greed was not confined to the present; it extended to the future. We know the rest of story of Gandharasena – the story of his bones that became sticks and cubes to play dice with.

Those sticks were never used by Sakuni to acquire wealth for himself, either before that fateful game of dice in the Kaurava court or after. That day he was playing on behalf of Duryodhana and for Duryodhana, but he alone knew that he was playing against Duryodhana and for revenge. It may not be accidental that all the wealth that Duryodhana gained that day, he lost on that very day itself! Did the poet want to tell his audience across centuries that the other side of the boon of the goddess was her curse, that the fruits of excessive greed could never be sweet?

Gandharasena did not forget that curse. As we know, he told his son about it. He knew that the curse of the goddess would materialize someday. How it was going to happen he did not of course know; the goddess, if even she herself did, hadn’t told him. That it would materialize through his grandchild and that along with his kin, he would die of starvation, he didn’t know. But even so, why did he think in terms of revenge when he knew that he was carrying the curse of the goddess? It didn’t occur to him that for what had happened to him and his kin, Duryodhana was a mere instrument in the hands of Destiny. It didn’t occur to him that he himself was responsible for their suffering. That realization might have calmed him and he wouldn’t have bound his son to do what he knew was very sinful. Why else did he ask him not to live after getting the Kauravas killed?

All the same. We should not perhaps judge him harshly. The pangs of starvation, the pain of seeing his dear ones die of hunger and the associated indignity and humiliation surely made him forget that all that was the fruit of his karma. He was an ordinary person; was no Bhishma or Drona. In Sarala Mahabharata, Bhishma knew that he had wronged Amba. She wanted to take revenge; unknown to her, he wanted to cooperate with her in that regard. Drona accepted Dhristadyumna as his pupil and taught him well, without discriminating between him and his other pupils, despite knowing that he was born to kill him.

17.5. 2017

Tuesday, May 9, 2017


Here my main purpose is not to retell a story from Sarala Mahabharata but only respond, by way of story-telling, to some important questions that friends have asked, who – in particular, Dr. Pradip Bhattacharya and Dr. Vineet Chaitanya, both eminent Mahabharata scholars - have been kind enough to read the post on why there is no “Sakuni Mamu” in Odia. That post contained a brief account of how Duryodhana had starved his maternal grandfather, his brothers and close relatives to death. The questions are mainly about how he could manage to do it, who all knew about it and by implication, why none prevented him from doing such a terrible, heinous act.

Duryodhana one day told Gandhari that he wanted to pay a visit to his maternal grandfather to see how he was faring and how he was taking care of his subjects. He sought her permission for this. This happened twelve years after Duryodhana’s humiliation in the Kaurava court by Bhima (see the post “I am siting, O Son of Golaka”). Gandhari had forgotten about it all and she happily gave her consent.

Duryodhana started for his maternal grandfather’s kingdom in great style. With him were his brothers Dussasana and Durjaya, his confidants Karna, Shalya, Kripa and Ashwasthama, a few loyal kings and a part of the Kaurava army. King Gandharasena received them in royal style.

Duryodhana told him that he wanted to meet him alone. The grandfather and the grandson met at an isolated place – on a nearby mountain. Duryodhana told him that he detested the Pandavas and was greatly troubled because of them. He had come to consult him in that regard, he told his grandfather. The latter counselled him not to be hostile towards his cousins because they were far stronger than him, born as they were from gods. The self-conceited nephew would not hear of it. He simply could not live with them and would have to get rid of them somehow, he told him. The loving grandfather invited him to stay with him for a few days. Duryodhana declined, saying that he was not in a proper frame of mind to relax then. He had to eliminate the Pandavas first.

He then invited his grandfather to come with him along with his brothers and close relatives and told him not bring his army with him. He agreed – which grandfather would not! Duryodhana didn’t invite them to Hastinapura; there is no mention of it in the narrative. It also does not say where he wanted to take them. From the context one could infer that he wanted the king of Gandhara, who considered the Pandavas invincible, to see for himself what plans he had made to eliminate them. So he brought them to the prison carved out, in great secrecy, by his orders, of the mountain, Lohagiri, in the forest named Saubhadra. He led them inside, asked the venerable guests to assess whether it would indeed be an impregnable prison for the Pandavas. Soon he came out and bolted the only door from outside and left, telling King Gandharasena that he had built that prison for him and not the Pandavas.

After they reached the kingdom of Gandhara, Dussasana, Karna and the rest of them disappear from the narrative. One possible interpretation would be the following: as they were talking about the Pandavas in that lonely place, the nephew told his grandfather to send his army back to the city; at that time he might have told all who had come with him to go back to Hastinapura.  Maybe to assure those who were coming with Gandharasena, if not him himself, that his intentions were absolutely honest. Maybe it was a proactive step. When he closed the prison door on his helpless victims, there was no one there. No one saw; there was none to tell what had happened. So goes the narrative.

Somehow – Sarala doesn’t tell us who told her, surely there was nothing dramatic or spectacular about it – Gandhari got to know about it. The noble mother reproached her sinful son. “You, evil-doer, are killing my father. He would have stood by you, would been an asset for you”, she told him. Her son paid no heed to her. She then pleaded with him to at least provide them food so long as they were alive. “I will do as you wish, Mother”, said the son. But the wicked one had other things in mind. He gave them a certain measure of food and water (bhaareka anna – one big basketful of rice and paani kalashaye – one big container of water). This was obviously grossly inadequate for the one hundred and ninety-seven unfortunate inmates. And after six months he asked the cook to provide them half of what they were getting till then. Then after some time he reduced it to just one plateful of rice.

Time came when Duryodhana freed Sakuni, believing, firmly, that he was the knower of the past, the present and the future. As for why he set him free, would you please turn to the post ‘Sarala Mahabharata as a novel prison-revenge story” (posted on July 18, 2016) in this blog? “I cannot give you back your father, brothers and relatives,” he told him, in a tone of sincere regret and reconciliation. He made him his chief adviser and since then, for him, Sakuni’s words were final.

He took him to Gandhari. “Listen, O daughter of King Gandharasena,” he said, “only one of your brothers is alive”. He must have thought that she would be happy. She was not. She was worried, on the contrary. Right in her brother’s presence, she told him not to trust him, who she was certain, would take revenge and destroy the Kauravas. The daughter had lost her father and now the mother did not want to lose her sons. 

Soon after all this, he wise Vidura met Yudhisthira. Duryodhana hated him and his brothers, he told him and warned him. He said that it was his wild anger and contempt for them that had resulted in the annihilation of Gandharasena and his family and relatives. That was how he saw it. Yudhisthira must always remain alert because Duryodhana and Sakuni would now try to harm him and his brothers. In particular, he should keep an eye on the rash and irresponsible Bhima, said Vidura.

“Is he so angry with me?” asked the embodiment of Dharma. If it would so happen that one day Dhritarashtra would become unloving to him, he, uncle Vidura, must be kind to him, he told him in a pleading tone. He would have none to be worried about in all the lokas, he said, if he enjoyed his blessings and the grace of Vasudeva.

Ever since I read Sarala Mahabharata, I have appreciated it a great deal more than ever before that the grand and profound narratives, especially the Mahabharata, the greatest and the grandest of them all, have not only characters but situations as well, that are in dire need of empathetic authors who would redeem them. 

By the way, it is worth noting that in Sarala Mahabharata, Sakuni has no leg injury or any other deformity.