Tuesday, August 15, 2017

THE STORY OF BELALASENA

Belalasena’s story is in two parts: the first part is about his decapitation; the second, about his saying what he had seen happening in the battlefields of Kurukshetra. The avatara had asked for his head and he had prayed to him to behead him. He wanted to see the Mahabharata war, so by Krishna’s grace, his severed head remained alive. That is essentially the substance of the first part of his story. The severed head saw the war and when Krishna asked him to tell him and the Pandavas, who had accompanied him to the severed head, what he had seen, he said that he had seen a chakra, dazzling with the brightness of a thousand suns, moving to and fro in the battlefields, now killing some from one side and then killing some from the other side, and repeating it ceaselessly. He said that he had seen nothing else. He hadn’t seen anyone killing anyone else. This story is reminiscent of Barbarik’s story but the two stories are not identical.

Interestingly, in Sarala Mahabharata, edited by Artaballava Mohanty and published by the department of Culture of the government of Odisha in 1966 (“Orissa”, the spelling of "Odisha" at that time) and since then, has been generally regarded as the standard version, the first part does not occur. The second part does but with a note by the editor, which says that although in the concerned pothi (palm leaf manuscript), it is not there, Mohanty had chosen to include it because it was there in a different pothi (what that story was he did not say) and also because the story was there in the Sanskrit text. Which text, Mohanty did not mention. One is inclined to think that the text in question was Vyasa Mahabharata.

There is a version of the Mahabharata that goes in the name of Jagannatha Das, who is known as the author of Odia Bhagavata. His Bhagavata is revered and worshipped as a sacred book in Odisha. Jagannatha Das’s Mahabharata is said to be a kind of “summary” of Sarala Mahabharata, although the poet himself  does not say so. His narrative occasionally deviates from Sarala Mahabharata. For instance, whereas the first part of the Belalasena story occurs here, the second part, which occurs in Sarala Mahabharata, as mentioned above, does not.

The first part of the story is this:

The Pandavas and the Kauravas had assembled on the battlefield of Kurukshetra for the division of the battlefield. In Krishna’s presence, it was divided into two parts and Krishna himself drew the dividing line. The eastern part was occupied by the Pandavas and the western part, by the Kauravas.  “O Ananta, the One without End,” said Sakuni to Krishna, “now place a witness.” Krishna asked Bhima to bring the agara tree from the mountains of Kundali. At that time it was indeed more a trunk than a tree, having lost its top – the result of having been used for years as the target by the learners of archery. It looked like a pillar. It was huge and a thousand wrestlers of great strength could not even shake it. But for Bhima it was no task. He uprooted it effortlessly and brought it to Krishna. Then he dug a big hole and tried to put the tree in it but that he couldn’t do; he tried many times but the tree was unsteady. Krishna asked Sahadeva about it but for once the youngest Pandava was clueless. “O Lord Padmanabha, ask the tree yourself”, he said. “Why aren’t you stable?”, asked Krishna of the tree. The tree manifested itself in its divine form and told him that he wanted a sacrifice.

Krishna told Sahadeva that the tree wanted sacrifice of a Pandava. Unknown to everyone else, Sahadeva told Krishna that there was one who lived in the nether world: Bhima’s son, Belalasena. When Bhima was in the naga loka (the land of the snakes), after being fed poisonous sweets by Duryodhana, he had married a naga princess and they had a son. Bhima should go, said Sahadeva, and bring him to Kurukshetra. Krishna went to Bhima and asked him to invoke his son, Belalasena. “let everyone see him”, said Krishna. He did and there in the nether world, his son was restless.

“My eyes are twitching continuously, mother,” said Belalasena to his mother,” why is it so?” “Your father is remembering you, son. There is soon going to be a war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas.”, his mother told him. At once the young man left for Kurukshetra, taking with him his bow and just one arrow. Reaching there, he bowed to the avatara first, then to Yudhisthira, his father, his uncles, Bhishma, Drona and the other elders. Everyone was happy seeing this young naga prince, whose head was marked with seven hoods.

Evening had set in and Krishna suggested that all assembled should retire for the night. He then left for Dwarika. That night his father asked Belalasena what to do to win the war. He must not worry on that account, he assured his father; he would be able to defeat the Kauravas in just a day.

In the morning, Belalasena was busy sharpening his arrow on a slab of stone by the river when Krishna arrived. He bowed to the avatara. Krishna asked him why he was sharpening his arrow. Belalasena told him that with that one arrow he would be able to kill everyone in the battlefield and the war would be over in a day. Would he really be able to do that, asked Krishna. Belalasena dipped the tip of his arrow into vermilion and instructed his arrow to put a mark on the heads of all those it could kill. Unknown to all except Belalasena and Krishna, it left a mark on the head of everyone: Pandavas, Kauravas, their soldiers. Only one was excluded – that was Krishna. 

“Will you give me something, child?”, Krishna said. “Anything you want, Lord. Tell me what you want. I will give you the dana. I promise!”, said a happy Belalasena. Krishna told him that he would tell him what he wanted some other time. As he left, Belalasena resumed sharpening his arrow.

Krishna met the Pandavas. He was sad. Yudhisthira was deeply worried. What was troubling him, he asked Krishna. Krishna looked at Bhima. “Only if you promise to give me what I want, I will tell you why the tree is not staying steady”. Bhima told him that he would give him anything he wanted from him. Then Krishna told the Pandavas that the divine tree wanted a strange thing: it wanted a Pandava as sacrifice. The Pandavas were utterly confused, completely nonplussed.

Nakula started crying. He was sure that he would be chosen for sacrifice. After all, he and Sahadeva were only the step brothers of Yudhisthira. Besides, Krishna would never choose Yudhisthira, Bhima and Arjuna. Yudhisthira told him that he had no reason to feel insecure. “Why are you crying, my brother”, said Yudhisthira. “For your sake, I will go to the forest again.” Krishna told him not to worry. There was someone but only if Bhima willed to give him. Bhima promised the avatara that he would give him the one he wanted. “Tell me where is he, O the One without End,” said Bhima. “Give me your son, Bhima”, said Krishna.

Bhima flatly refused. He told Krishna that he was willing to suffer the consequences of committing the gravest of the grave sins of dishonouring his promise, but he would not let his son be used for sacrifice. Krishna said nothing, moved a little away from the Pandavas and sat there alone looking glum. Bhima was unmoved.

But what was beyond the avatara! He concentrated on the goddess of words and asked her to make Bhima say what he wanted. Soon Bhima came to Krishna and told him that he would give him his son. But he must persuade Belalasena to submit himself for the sacrifice. It was goddess Saraswati who had uttered those words.

Without saying a word, Krishna went to Belalasena and told him that he wanted his head as dana. “I will give it to you, O Lord,” said the young prince, “please grant me a wish. Severe my head with your chakra with which you had severed Shishupala’s head and given him mukti. Then place my head on the shubha khamba (auspicious pillar) and allow me to witness the Mahabharata war.” “So be it!”, said Krishna.

Krishna took him to the shubha khamba and with prayer in his heart, Belalasena sat in the posture of meditation at Krishna’s feet. The chakra descended from the sky and severed his head. As Krishna put the body in the hole where the tree stood unsteady, it steadied at once. And as the head was going up on to the top of the auspicious pillar, it was uttering “Hari”, “Hari”.

Full of divine delight, Vaibasuta Manu asked of sage Agasti, “Who was he in his previous birth?” The venerable sage, who was telling him the story of the Mahabharata, told him about that but let us leave that story out.

This is the first part of Belalasena’s story, which is notably different from the first part of Barbarik’s story in its familiar version. This part of Belalasena’s story, to repeat, is not there in Sarala Mahabharata edited by Artaballava Mohanty. It is there in Jagannatha Das Mahabharata, said to be a summary of Sarala Mahabharata.

The second part of Belalasena’s story is not very different from the corresponding part of Barbarik’s story, which is well known. The significant differences, which relate to what the avatara-empowered witness in the form of the severed head saw, are mainly two: in Sarala Mahabharata, the divine chakra killed from both sides without making any distinction – it did not destroy only those who were sinful. In Sarala’s version, alongside the chakra, there was no goddess of destruction who licked the blood of those killed. Thus Sarala’s was a purer rendering of Krishna’ words in the Gita – Arjuna would kill those who were already dead. Generalize this a bit: those who would die in the battlefield had already been killed. The only doer was Krishna, the rest were nimittas.

Incidentally Vyasa Mahabharata does not contain the story of Barbarik.


Janmastami, 2017




Friday, August 4, 2017

SARALA'S SANJAYA

In Sarala Mahabharata, Dhritarashtra did not ask his minister Sanjaya to tell him what was happening right then on the battlefields of Kurukshetra, neither did Sanjaya volunteer to tell him. He got the news of the war every day after the fight stopped. He would then share his feelings with Sanjaya and sometimes would ask him what would happen on the following day, what course the war was going to take from then on, how come something unthinkable happened and the like. Sanjaya did not receive any special power to see things happening at a distance from any one; he did not really need any one to give it to him. He was a bhuta bhavishya jnata - the knower of the past and the future. No surprise because in satya yuga, the aeon of Truth, he was Sudreka Brahma: suna manu rajana ho sanjayera mahima / satya juge sehu se shudreka name brahma (Listen, O King Manu, the glory of Sanjaya / in the aeon of Truth he was the Brahma named Shudreka). Sage Agasti was telling the story of the Mahabharata to king Baibasuta Manu in Sarala’s retelling.

   No wonder, then, that Sanjaya knew who Krishna was and what the purpose of the avatara was. He offered himself to Krishna to make him his instrument in the fulfilment of his avataric purpose. A few days after the fire in the laksa griha (wax palace), Krishna, Vidura, Sakuni and Sanjaya had a secret meeting and the latter three promised Krishna that they would not tell anyone that the Pandavas were alive. Now, believing that the Pandavas were dead, the Kuru elders consented to Dhritarashtra’s proposal to crown Duryodhana as the king of Hastinapura. Vidura and Sanjaya were present when this decision was taken, but they did not tell the Kuru elders that the Pandavas were alive.

   That was the third day of the war. The fights had ended for the day. Dhritarashtra was sitting with Sanjaya and he had heard about the havoc Bhishma had created in the battlefield. The Pandavas had suffered great loss. Joy had filled Dhritarashtra’s heart. If that was how Bhishma was going to fight, he told Sanjaya, Pandavas would perish in ten days. Stupidly the Pandavas had put their trust in Krishna and entered the battlefield, he said in great happiness.

   What he had heard about that day’s war, Sanjaya told him, was not the full account. He hadn’t been told about the huge loss that the Kaurava army had suffered. His son, Durdasa, who was fighting on behalf of the Pandavas, had killed nine thousand soldiers in the Kaurava army, Shikhandi, Drupada’s son and Sweta, Virata’s son, had been equally destructive. Dhristadyumna, Abhimanyu, Ghatotkacha and the Pandavas had killed many. “Listen, O Dhritarashtra”, said Sanjaya, “it appears to me that you are going to suffer much pain”. Dhritarashtra wept aloud.

   He composed himself. “You, my wise minister, who know what has happened and what is going to happen”, said Dhritarashtra, “now tell me what will happen tomorrow and who would win and who would lose.” “Listen, O son of Ambika,” said Sanjaya, “I will tell you bits about what is going to happen.” He then told him that Sweta would be leading the Pandava army that day and that the battles would be fierce. The Kaurava army would suffer considerable loss as great warriors like Virabahu, the king of Maharashtra, Paramananda, the king of Arbinda, Ripubhanga, the king of South Kosala, Vajraketu, the king of Kalinga, kings Vitolaksha, Karunakara, Chandradhwaja, and Virupaksha of the kingdoms of Mangalanaumi, Kanauja, Kanchana and Mandara respectively, would all fall and their armies destroyed.

   Sanjaya was the foreteller again in the morning of the tenth day of the war - this time, on his own. What he told Dhritarashtra, the latter could not have imagined. He told him that Bhishma was going to fall that day. No one could have expected that such a calamity would befall the Kauravas. On the previous day Bhishma had fought so fiercely that Krishna was forced to break his promise and invoke his infallible weapon, sudarshana chakra, to protect Arjuna. With chakra in hand, in the full view of everyone there, he had climbed on to Bhishma’s chariot to attack him. Obeying the avatara, Bhishma had withdrawn his divine arrow and Arjuna was saved. After that, what Krishna told him and he told Krishna on his chariot no one knew.

    From the way the inimitable Bhishma had fought that day, Dhritarashtra – no one indeed - could never have imagined that he would fall on the following day. That was why he didn’t ask Sanjaya about what was going to happen and that was why Sanjaya told him things on his own – that Bhishma that very night had blessed Arjuna for victory, mistaking him for Duryodhana (details of this story need not detain us here) and then told Krishna and him the secret of his death. So that day, Shikhandi would face Bhishma and seeing him, the mighty Kuru would give up his weapons and suffer the arrows of the enemy. Once Bhishma fell, the war would be virtually over and all his sons would perish in no time. By saying all this, Sanjaya perhaps was preparing Dhritarashtra for the impending calamity. How Dhritarashtra responded to what Sanjaya had said, the narrative is quiet about.  

   Five days later, Drona was killed. His own shishya, Dhristadyumna, beheaded him. This story is well known and needs no recounting here. Drona’s death had surprised Dhritarashtra. He asked Sanjaya how was it possible that the mighty Drona could be killed – Drona, a highly learned person, who had studied the Vedas and learnt archery from Parshurama himself and who was wise, sagacious and virtuous. What sin had he committed for which he had to suffer beheading, he asked. Sanjaya said that he had been cursed by his father, the great sage Bharadwadasha (better known as Bharadwaja), to suffer beheading.

   Drona’s mother, Surajita, the daughter of rishi Mandara, was Bharadwadasha’s first wife. Unfortunately, she had an untimely death. Drona’s father married again. He married Ananta, the daughter of king Kalapi. One day, Bharadwadasha went on a long pilgrimage. Ananta was menstruating then. She very young and felt a strong urge for sex when her period was over. Drona was young and she was inviting and they indulged in sex. When Bharadwadasha returned, he found his wife pregnant. It wasn’t long before he found out what had happened. When he confronted Drona, he told him that being young and encouraged by the circumstances, he had committed that grave crime. He pleaded with him to forgive him. But his father said that having union with one’s mother was too heinous a crime to be condoned. He had to be punished. He deserted his wife and cursed his son: his wedded life would be ruined the way his own had been. He then directed him to leave the ashram, give up the ways of an ashramite and adopt those of a ksatriya and take part in the Kurukshetra War and suffer beheading. “Listen, O Dhritarashtra, when Drona’s wife died during childbirth, his wedded life came to an end and with his beheading, he paid for the crime he had committed.”

   King Shalya, who was the chief commander of the Kaurava army after the death of Karna, burnt to his death. He had defeated Yudhisthira and had held him in his grip. He slapped him very hard and viciously twisted his lips. In great pain, Yudhisthira cried out “mamu jalila jaila (Mamu (maternal uncle), burning, burning)” and Shalya burnt. Those words which Yudhistira uttered to express the intense pain that he was suffering, worked like a curse by the son of Dharma for Shalya.

   There was none who was Shalya’s equal, said Dhritarashtra to Sanjaya. Even gods could not face him in battle. How could he die such a miserable death, asked Dhritarashtra. He was cursed, Sanjaya told him. Unknowingly he had been the cause of the suffering of sage Anastaka (better known as Anusthapa). His arrow pierced into the sage when he was meditating on the shores of the river Rushikpila (Rishikulya?) and he cried out in pain. Shalya rushed to his presence, prostrated himself before him and begged his forgiveness. Aanastaka in agony pronounced a curse on him that in the Mahabharata War, on account of Yudhisthira, he would burn. “Listen, O Dhritarashtra,” said Sanjaya, “that curse materialized on the battlefield today.” Dhritarashtra was stunned.

   Sanjaya was one of the thirteen people who survived the war: the five Pandavas, Krishna, Ashwasthama, Kripacharya, Dhritarashtra, Vidura, Sanjaya, Satyaki and Durdasa, Duryodhana’s brother, who had fought on behalf of the Pandavas. There is some indirect evidence in the text that suggests that unlike Vidura, who did not fight, Sanjaya had fought on behalf of the Kauravas. He must have been a nondescript warrior. There seems to be no mention of him in the war narratives.

    When Dhritarashtra and Gandhari decided to go for vanaprastha, like Kunti and Vidura, Sanjaya joined them. When his time came, Vidura left the mortal world. A year passed by. One day Sanjaya saw a blazing fire at a distance in that forest where they were staying. Soon the fire spread and was fast approaching where the vanaprasthis (the ones on vanaprastha) were staying. Sanjaya told them to hurry. “Sit on my back”, he told Dhritarashtra, “I will take you to a safe place”. Dhritarashtra declined his offer. He and the two Kuru women chose to submit themselves to the fire. He asked Sanjaya to leave them there and run away and save himself: jaa ja sanjaya tu ambhanta yethen chhadi (go, go, Sanjaya, leave us here).


    Sanjaya left. The narrative says nothing about what happened to him thereafter. He was the voice of sanity and serenity for Dhritarashtra and once he left Dhritarashtra, what use could the narrative have for him? Let us, then, most respectfully, take leave of this humble man of dharma, the man who was committed to Krishna and who served Dhritarashtra as his confidant, minister, adviser and charioteer. This great man served both man and God and disappointed neither.