Friday, June 22, 2018


Sahadeva was not the one who volunteered to tell anyone what would happen, in Sarala Mahabharata as well. He knew the past and the future but would tell only when asked. And he was constrained to tell, be it pleasant or unpleasant. It was his fate. He would die if he didn’t. But was he also constrained such that he would not say things on his own about the future when not asked? It seems at least his brothers didn’t think so. At different times, Bhima, Arjuna and Yudhisthira had each condemned him for having kept quiet in critical moments and not warning them about what was going to happen. When he fell to his death in the snowy Himalayas, Yudhisthira told Bhima that he was a sinner, who had kept quiet when his speaking would have helped. And at that point in the narrative Yudhisthira’s voice was the voice of Dharma.

It was the last phase of the night. The Pandavas had just heard that Drona was going to use the formation named chakra vyuha for his army on the following day. How to penetrate it and how to emerge from it was not known to even gods and demons, as the poet says and as for humans, apart from Drona and Arjuna, no one knew. Abhimanyu knew but only partially; he knew only how to enter the formation. Knew, of course, the source of all knowledge, Krishna, but there was no telling what form his leela would take.

As the Pandavas were worrying, Krishna took Sahadeva aside and told him what was troubling him in the extreme. He had had a frightful dream that night - he had seen a young warrior rushing towards him and attacking him with Vaishnava chakra. He told the Pandava that he had made up his mind to leave the battlefield that day and hide himself in the sea.

“You are the lord of all the worlds”, said Sahadeva, “what can harm you and what is beyond your control, O the Wielder of Sudarshana Chakra. Listen to what the dream means. Listen to what you yourself had designed. You had wished to take avatara in the mortal world and you wanted the Aadi Devi (the primordial mother goddess) to be born immediately after your birth. Then you asked Draupadi and Aadi also to be born in the world of the humans. Aadi Devi was born as Yashoda’s daughter and she played the role you had asked her to play. She gave you protection and soon after her birth she left for her heavenly abode. Aadi and Draupadi stayed on with you. You gave word to Aadi that he would return to the land of the gods on the completion of his fourteenth year. Today he completes his fourteenth year. If you don’t send him to swarga today itself, he would create havoc – he will spare none; neither Arjuna nor Hari, as he had told you.”

Krishna told Sahadeva that so long as Arjuna was there in the battlefield, no one would be able to kill Abhimanyu. “There is a way, my Lord”, said Sahadeva, “to separate Arjuna from Abhimanyu today”. He told him how the mlechas (asura-like people) had organized their army in a configuration known as jalandhara vyuha but he didn’t say why they had done so. Those demon-like people were known as great and ruthless fighters and also as those who used much deceit and sorcery while fighting. Krishna should take Arjuna away from the Kurukshetra battlefields to fight them. He would be engaged there for the whole day. Sahadeva told the avatara that they, the remaining four Pandava brothers, would have Abhimanyu lead them that day. He would enter the chakra vyuha and they would follow him. But Jayadratha, blessed by Bhagawan Shiva to defeat them four Pandavas, would stop them from following Abhimanyu into the formation. Abhimanyu would be trapped inside and the Kauravas would kill him. Immensely relieved, Krishna blew his conch.

Soon after, Krishna and Arjuna went to Yudhisthira. They told him details about Drona’s formation of the Kaurava army that day and told him who all would be at the seven entrances of the chakravyuha: Drona himself would be at the first entrance, then Jayadratha, then in the third, Karna, then Shalya, then Kripacharya, then Bhurishrava and the kauravas would be there at the seventh and the last entrance. The chief of the Pandava army, Dhristadyumna, told them about his strategy; Arjuna would penetrate into the chakravyuha, and the four Pandavas would follow him. He himself would engage Drona, Shikhani would Jayadratha, Abhimanyu, Karna, Uttara, Shalya, Drupada, Kripacharya, and Satyaki would fight Bhurishrava. The Kauravas would suffer immeasurable loss, said Dhristadyumna.

Krishna told Yudhisthira that Mayasura, the king of Melaksa, who Duryodhana had done a great deal to please, had assembled a huge army near the river Saraswati. He had arranged them in a very intricate formation called ‘Jalandhara” and he would probably attack Varunavanta, where the Pandavas lived, once the Pandavas went to the war that day. Those cruel, ruthless mlechas could do anything: destroy villages and kill ruthlessly. They would rob the people and rape their women. No heinous act was beyond them.

Incidentally, there is nothing that the poet says that suggests that Duryodhana was involved in all this. He even had no idea that Mayasura had organized his massive army for a war. There was no talk about it in the Kaurava army. At the same time, poet Sarala says nothing to indicate that Mayasura was planning to attack Varunavanta, taking advantage of the Pandavas’ being engaged in the Kurukshetra War. But then why at all he had formed jalandhara vyuha, the poet does not say anything about that. In any case, it suits the narrative purpose – Krishna had to separate Abhimanyu from Arjuna that day.

Returning to the Pandavas’ camp, everyone was extremely worried. No one had heard of that formation. Arjuna fell at the avatara’s feet and beseeched him to take him to Mayasura’s vyuha. Krishna told Yudhisthira that he must not worry. Along with Arjuna, he himself would fight the asuras and destroy them. They wouldn’t take long and would return to destroy Drona’s chakra vyuha. Till their return, they must not try to enter the vyuha because it was beyond them to do so and engage the Kaurava army in small battles outside the vyuha. They must also not worry if Arjuna and he got late in joining them; they would enter the vyuha even after sunset. He again expressly warned all the great warriors of the Pandava side not to try to enter Drona’s vyuha.

Krishna drove Arjuna to the banks of the river Saraswati. There Arjuna saw the huge army of the asura king spread across a very vast area (fifteen jojanas, about three hundred kilo meters and more). The army chiefs were terrible looking and aggression was their mood and they were heavily armed with various kinds of weapons. 

Arjuna was unfazed. He could easily destroy them, he told Krishna. But he had a moral problem: the asuras had done him no harm, they were not his enemies and they had no issues with him. Therefore, if he killed them, he would commit grievous sin, he told Hari. He was however curious to see the jalandhara vyuha, he told Krishna. He hadn’t seen it before, neither had he heard of it. His guru had never mentioned it. Krishna told him that he would drive him to the formation. As he would drive his chariot into it, Arjuna should keep shooting arrows at the asuras ceaselessly. When they reached the vyuha, the asuras attacked them. Arjuna showered arrows on them in retaliation. Starting a battle without due justification would be a great sin but countering an attack would not be – it was an act of self-protection.  

The episode describes a terrible fight in which asuras used asuric (associated with demons) magical powers and Arjuna had to use divine arrows to counter them. Krishna asked Arjuna not to feel inhibited about using unethical means in fighting because the asuras were using it. In a war, one side could not afford to stick to the established, time-honoured code of war when the adversary was violating it relentlessly. Then it so happened that Krishna, Arjuna and Hanuman got separated. This story need not detain us. Taking advantage of that, the asuras tied up Arjuna, who stayed trapped in the vyuha. When Krishna did not see Arjuna, he attacked the asuras. When he was about to kill an asura chief named Jatasura, he beseeched him to spare him. He would take him to where Arjuna was in the formation. He then led him to a deserted, deep well and told him that Arjuna was there in that well. Krishna jumped into the well and thus he was trapped.

Such details as how they were freed from their respective traps and how they then destroyed the vyuha and routed the asuras is of no concern to us for the present. Only this much is what we need to know now: the fierce engagement ended the moment Krishna knew that Abhimanyu had been killed. The asuras, who the divine weapons of Arjuna had killed and yet failed to kill since they had lived again to fight, were not seen again. The vyuha, which had proved immensely difficult to penetrate, almost melted away.

The sun had set and by the time they reached the battlefield of Kurukshetra, it was dark. There lay the mutilated body of Abhimanyu, waiting for them, in a manner of speaking. As he had promised him, the avatara had freed Aadi from his mortal bondage of fourteen years. He had returned to his divine abode, assumed his divine form and at god Indra’s bidding, was already fighting the demon named Udekabandha.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018


In the name of Krishna, whose devotee he was, guru Drona had promised the suppliant that he would give her whatever she wanted from him. The stranger asked him for Abhimanyu’s head. He was shell shocked. When he recovered, he was furious. He condemned her and threatened to curse her.

The one without equal, Bhishma, had fallen and Drona had assumed command of the Kaurava army. It was during his leadership that Abhimanyu was killed and that too in a manner totally against the code of the war that the Pandavas and the Kauravas themselves had formulated together in Krishna’s presence before the start of that Great War. The virtuous and noble guru had become part of that killing because he had given word to that strange woman who had asked him for a daana (ritual gift) at a time when he would refuse no one. Before she expressed her wish, the woman had insisted that he must commit himself in the name of Krishna that he would give whatever she asked for.

This is the content of a giti natya (dance drama) entitled “Rahasya (mystery)” that was telecast on the National Odia TV channel at 9 PM on September 3, 2011. I could see only parts of it. However, for my present purpose what little I gathered about Abhimanyu’s story is by no means insufficient. I do not know who the author of this story was and what was his source.

To return to the story, Drona controlled himself. He didn’t utter a curse but prayed to Krishna and the avatara arrived. He advised him to honour his word. He told him that he had already taken Abhimanyu’s mother’s consent in that regard; he had told her that her son was a celestial who had taken birth in the mortal world and that time had come for him to return to his natural abode. Obeying Krishna, Drona organized Abhimany’s death. He had become a nimitta (instrument) for the avatara.

After Arjuna killed Jayadratha to avenge his son’s killing, Krishna took him and his widowed daughter-in-law Uttara to swarga loka. Abhimanyu had joined his celestial consort who, in the guise of a mortal, had extracted that promise from Drona. They were very happy together.

He didn’t recognize the people from the mortal world. He insulted them and threatened to kill them if they didn’t leave him alone. Barely a couple of days had passed since he had left the world. The father and the wife realized that he was not the same Abhimanyu that they knew.

Interestingly, the basic ideas embodied in this story are the same in the corresponding story in Sarala Mahabharata but at the level of detail, Sarala’s story is very different. In both, Krishna is the orchestrator of Abhimanyu’s death. However, unlike here, in Sarala’s narrative, Subhadra and Drona have no role in his death. It is Sahadeva, the knower of the past and the future, who plays the determining role. There is no celestial consort of the divine in Sarala’s story, desperate for her husband to join her in swarga. In both the stories, Abhimanyu is destined to die on a specific day. Krishna – another name for “Destiny” - had to make that happen – in different ways in these narratives. He had to make the following happen too: humans had to acquire some understanding of the nature of relationships in the mortal world. The message of both the stories is that but for divine grace, humans can never acquire that knowledge. And the human situation is such that this illuminating, liberating knowledge does not remain with them for long. Such is Narayana’s maya (cosmic illusion).

Why did Abhimanyu have to die the way he died? Why was his all-conquering father not there in the battlefield to protect him? Why did the wise Drona at least, who had the sense of discrimination, disgrace and degrade himself by being party to his killing?  The answers to these are too well known to recount here. But these are satisfying only at the laukika (roughly, worldly / experiential / rational) level. In the context of our puranic texts where the phenomenal world interacts with the transcendental world, where happenings have ambiguous meanings in the sense that they are explainable in worldly terms and also in those of cosmic purpose and where the human situation is explicated in respect of contrastive perspectives of illusion and illumination, such answers as indicated above would be unsatisfying to a sensitive reader of the puranas. In these compositions, life in the mortal world is only a single link in a long chain and for that reason must not be seen as either complete or autonomous. In this journey of life across existences, what one perceives as its end, is only a return and this coming and returning goes on, mainly governed by one’s karma. There are other factors as well; for instance, the Supreme god Vishnu’s avataras are not governed by karma.

In Sarala Mahabharata, Abhimanyu was born in the mortal world, not because of karma, but because Narayana had asked him to. Before He descended to the world of the mortals and entered Devaki’s womb, He had asked goddess Ugratara and her son Adi (more correctly spelt as “Aadi”) – his name in satya yuga, the aeon of Truth - to take birth in the world for His sake. The Supreme god had asked the goddess to be born as Yashoda’s daughter moments (“three dandasdanda is a measure of time in ancient Indian texts) after his birth. She returned to her divine abode, in accordance with His will, when, soon after her birth, Kansa smashed the new born against the wall but she slipped from his hand. This story is also very well known.

“You will be born as Subhadra’s son”, Narayana had told Adi, “and for fourteen years you will be with me”. Adi was very reluctant to leave swarga. He told Him that since it was his duty to protect the land of the gods, he could not leave it. “But I cannot refuse you,” he told Him, “now promise me that I will return the day the fourteen years are over. And I am telling you this: if I stay for even one day thereafter, I will kill my father and return. If you, my Lord, stand on my way, then I will kill you too.” Narayana granted his wish. What His purpose was in dislocating Adi for fourteen years, only He knew.

In Sarala Mahabharata, Krishna explains himself only if he wishes to. The characters of course would assign their interpretation of his words or doings going by their own insights, as would the poet’s audience across the centuries, but he alone knows the truth about himself. Trapped in the cosmic illusion, gods, demons and mortals try to penetrate the same illusion to see the truth behind the veil. Such is the situation of all beings as depicted by Sarala Das in his magnificent retelling of the ancient story.

To return to Abhimanyu’s story, it was Sahadeva who told Krishna all this about him. Krishna knew that Arjuna had to be separated from his son if he was to die. Sahadeva told him what to do to make that happen. Not involved in this design in the least was any Kaurava or anyone from their army. When Drona planned chakra vyuha (the name of a certain formation of the army. Only Arjuna from the Pandava side knew how to deal with it. Abhimanyu knew how to enter the formation but did not know how to get out of it. All this is well known too.) for his army on the following day, he did not know that on that day Arjuna would not be there on the Kurukshetra battlefield.

Arjuna was beside himself with grief when he heard details about how his son’s killing. Soon he was overcome by intense rage. Krishna tried to pacify him with words of wisdom but that had no effect on him. “Listen O Hari, unwilling to face Drona and Karna, it is my cowardly brothers who pushed my son to his death. I will behead each one of them.’

“No one is responsible for Abhimnyu’s death”, Krishna told him. Indra needed him in swarga to fight the demon named Udaya Kabandha. He had attacked swarga and even the greatest of gods had failed to defeat him. The Creator god Brahma told Indra that the demon was fated to die in the hands of Abhimanyu; so the lord of the gods had taken him to swarga. He told him that at that very moment, in the land of the gods, Abhimanyu was fighting a fierce battle with that demon. “I will believe it when I see it”, said Arjuna, “O Hari, show me my son.”

So Krishna took him to the land of the gods. From under a big banyan tree, they saw Abhimanyu shooting countless arrows at the demon ceaselessly. When he saw the two, he was concerned about their safety. “Move away, you two venerable ones from the mortal world, otherwise my arrows might hit you accidentally and kill you,” he warned them. Arjuna wanted to embrace him. Krishna dissuaded him; “He doesn’t recognize you. You are no more his father.”

Arjuna was very hurt. Right from his birth he had taken such great care of him, he told Krishna, and had given him so much love and it took him just a day to forget him, his father, who had doted on him! He was his son in the mortal world, Krishna told him, but that relation does not carry over when one comes to the land of the gods. “If such is the nature of things here, then let us leave this heartless land,” said Arjuna. He had a glimpse of the truth; it was another matter that he was unable to cope with it.

Back among his utterly distressed family, in the midst of a piteous, wailing mother and a devastated daughter-in-law, and an inconsolable Draupadi, Arjuna returned to the snares of moha (worldly attachment) again. Thus he had to avenge the killing of his son and kill Jayadratha the following day.