Sunday, December 1, 2019



The only father, who had entered the battlefields of Kurukshetra, making a promise onto himself that he would give up weapons on knowing that his son had been killed, was Drona, the venerable guru of the Pandavas and the Kauravas. It would not matter to him at all if someone took advantage of his situation and killed him. He not merely made that decision; he made it known to his enemies on the battlefield. It was a strange condition to give up weapons, to say the least, for a warrior of his stature, who was a wise person with a keen sense of discrimination. And then, by letting his enemy know, didn’t he increase the threats on his life manifold? Not really, because he knew his son.

In any case, for the present, let us content ourselves with this: the story of Drona’s killing begins in the Kurukshetra battlefield - with guru Drona’s blessing of Yudhisthira, when he sought his blessings before the start of the Great War. “May you live long! May my years of life be added on to yours! May your enemies be destroyed and may you rule the kingdom!” was what the guru had said. “We are what we are because of your teaching, O venerable guru,” said the eldest Pandava,” how can we ever hope to win, when you are fighting for the Kauravas?” Yudhisthira was right; the guru knew what they knew, since what they knew was what the guru had taught them. In Sarala Mahabharata, the Kuru princes, Karna, Aswasthama, Dhristadyumna, Shikhandi- all were Drona’s shishyas. None but Duryodhana had been the shishya of another teacher – he had learnt gada vidya (wielding of the mace) from the incomparable Balarama as well. Arjuna and Karna had received weapons from others, as Karna had from god Indra and Arjuna, from Bhagawan Shiva, but they were not their teachers.

 The preceptor told Yudhisthira that he could not be defeated by anyone – mortal or immortal, including Bhagawan Shiva or Brahma, so long as he had weapon in hand. He was without weapon only during sex act, bath and eating. And he would give up weapons on hearing that his son Aswasthama was dead: se putra hata boli sunile shastra mu chhadai. It was during any of those four occasions that he could be killed. But of what use, all that! he told Yudhisthira, “The code of Dharma does not allow killing someone, engaged in sex act, bathing and eating; the gravest of sins would accrue to the one violated the injunction”. As for Aswasthama’s death, he was immortal, the guru told the shishya, which was no news, of course, to Yudhisthira because everyone in the world of Sarala Mahabharata knew that at his father’s instance, Aswasthama had performed tapas and had received the boon of immortality from the Creator god, Brahma. And if his son was immortal, so was he, as a consequence; this was what Drona wanted Yudhisthira to understand.

But the virtuous Pandava was happy; the guru had told him how to eliminate him – once Aswasthama was killed, the guru would be in trouble: yudhisthra harasa paina mrutyubheda / asasthama hate dronanku padiba pramada (Yudhisthira was happy, knowing the (guru’s) secret of death / Drona would be in trouble when Aswasthama is killed). But why did he think that his guru had told him the secret of his death – didn’t he tell him also that his son was immortal? The great preceptor had blessed him for victory and that would not go in vain, Yudhisthira knew. So, despite what he had said explicitly, the guru must have implied that Ashwasthama was vulnerable. That was sufficient for the eldest Pandava. He wasn’t thinking of details then.

Incidentally, at this point of time, the following is not out of place: the guru had said that he would give up weapons if he heard that Aswasthma was dead – the poet’s word is “sunile”.  Did he want Yudhisthira to take his word literally – that the word was enough for him, whatever be the fact about his son’s death? If the answer is “yes”, then there is no explanation for why he talked, then, about his son’s immortality at all! Now, did Yudhisthira take his word – sunile - literally? The answer is “no”, because had he done so, he wouldn’t have thought in terms of Aswasthama’s death - “aswasthama hate”, as quoted above.

 The guru had blessed Yudhisthira for victory but he could not be killed, protected by the ethical code and his son’s immortality. What, then, made Drona bestow that particular blessing on his virtuous shishya and what made the shishya feel reassured?

Did any of them had Krishna in mind? The text says nothing about this.


When Ghatotkacha was killed, it was almost mid night. Ordinarily, the code of war prepared by the Pandavas and the Kauravas before the war, in the presence of the Avatara did not allow fight after sunset. But that had not been an ordinary day. Jayadratha had been killed close to sunset. The safety ring around him was so infallible that no one in the Kaurava camp would have thought that Arjuna would reach him. But what happened was completely out of the ordinary. Apart from Sakuni and maybe Duryodhana, no one in the battlefield could make sense of how after the darkness of the evening, the sun appeared. This story, let us keep for another day.

Jayadratha’s killing and the way it happened greatly frustrated and enraged the Kauravas. They didn’t listen to their commander-in-chief, Drona, when he suggested that fighting must stop since it was night already. They abused him. The armies lit torches and they fought. Many perished. Among them was Drupada, who Drona killed. Ghatotkacha was unstoppable. He killed Alambusha and caused havoc in the Kaurava army. Karna used the infallible divine weapon he had received from Indra, targeting Arjuna and Krishna but it hit Ghatotkacha instead. No matter what one wanted to happen, in the world of Sarala Mahabharata, it was Krishna’s will that happened. Let us keep the details for another day.

Bhima became wild when his son died. He attacked the Kaurava army and devastated it. Whoever tried to stop him, was crushed. Aswasthama, who was with Karna, left him and faced Bhima. He destroyed his chariot and his arrows pierced Bhima’s body all over and drew blood. Bhima lifted Aswasthama’s chariot, with Aswasthama on it and flung it away with great force and it fell miles away. The chariot broke into fragments and an unconscious Aswasthama was bleeding all over.

Kritavarma, the king of Malava, challenged Bhima. He was raining arrows on Bhima, sitting on the back of his huge and powerful elephant named Aswasthama. It was no ordinary elephant; its lineage could be traced to the elephant Airavata, who had emerged from the ocean during its churning in the aeon of Truth. The fierce Aswasthama attacked Bhima but Bhima broke his neck and the elephant fell on the ground and crushed to death those on whom it fell. The divines who were watching the fight from above, called in one voice “aswasthama hata (Aswasthama is dead)”. Soon fighters in the battlefield also started yelling “aswasthama hata”.

Drona was unaware of all this; he was fighting at a distance, at another battlefield. Many kings, princes, celebrated warriors and far too many ordinary soldiers lost their lives that night. Nakul was in the grips of Karna when Durdasa hit Karna from behind with his mace and saved the Pandava. Soon Dhristadyumna challenged Karna. “You are challenging me; where is your father?” asked Karna. “My father would be with Yudhisthira”, said Dhristadyumna. “He is dead”, Karna told him,” He died quite some time back, killed by the great Drona, the son of Varadwadasha”. A furious Dhristadyumna attacked Karna and destroyed his chariot in no time.

At that time, a thick fog arrived and soon enveloped the entire battlefield. The dim light of the torches was of no use. In that last hour of the night, it became extremely cold. The fighters started shivering. To bring them relief, Arjuna shot arrows of fire at Shalya and it became warm on the battlefield. Much relieved, said the fighters from both sides, “Glory be to you, O Falguni (one of Arjuna’s names)! May you live long. May you vanquish your enemies”.

The battle resumed. Dristadyumna and Shikhandi sought Drona and found him. They told him what Karna had told them. How could he kill his friend, they asked him. He surely was not unaware that killing a friend was a grievous sin, they told him. Knowing that he was his father’s friend, Dhritadyumna told him, he had not harmed him till then, but now, he was not going to spare him. He would not return to his kingdom without killing him, thundered the grief-stricken son of Drupada. The engagement between them was fierce but Dhristadyumna couldn’t harm his great adversary.

Everybody was exhausted in the extreme – those who fought on foot, those who fought on horseback, on the back of the elephants and on chariots - everyone. They fell asleep wherever they were – on horseback, elephant, chariots and the ground. Those who were awake, killed their enemies who were half-asleep or asleep. Those who were half asleep tried to kill those who were asleep. Arjuna told Krishna that the fight should stop. The morning stars had appeared and birds had already started chirping and the auspicious sound of the conchs could be heard from a distance. Dawn would not take long to arrive.

It was then that Drona heard that Aswasthama was dead. No one told him; those who were still awake were telling each other that Aswasthama was dead. In great anxiety and grief, he went from here to there in the battlefields, hoping to find his son. He was nowhere to be seen. He recalled that he hadn’t seen him since midnight. The words aswasthama hata reverberated in his ears. But he was in disbelief – he was certain that killing his son was absolutely impossible for anyone fighting in the Kurukshetra War. Then it occurred to him: did Krishna do something: se putra baddha karibaku ke bharata juddhe sama / charakute nasa kaleka aba sri purusottama (Of all those fighting in the War, none was capable of killing that (i.e., my) son / Did Shri Purusottama (i.e., Krishna) play some trick to kill him)? He knew the Avatara; he was his devotee. He knew that nothing was beyond him. He could make things happen which would demand redefining truth and illusion and mortality and immortality.

Then he started looking for his son’s body from among the heaps of bodies lying everywhere. He couldn’t find his body and then he heard the voice from the sky – aswasthma hata. He went to Karna. He remembered that the last he had seen Aswasthama was when he was fighting the enemy together with Karna. Karna said, “O venerable guru, Aswasthama was killed soon after midnight, but I didn’t tell you because the fight was going on”.  Unconvinced, the guru asked Salya. He told him that he had nothing good to tell him about his son. The guru kept asking about his son whoever he met. When he asked Sakuni, he said his son was dead, leaving him a miserable, forlorn man. “With a son like Aswasthama dead, how have you survived? said Sakuni.

The Pandavas had returned to their camp. Sahadeva told Yudhisthira that Aswasthama had fallen that night. “Who could do the impossible?” asked the eldest Pandava. The knower of the past and the future said that it was Bhima. And he did not have the great elephant in mind. When Bhima flung Aswasthama in his chariot, it fell miles away from the battlefield and the chariot broke to pieces and Aswasthama perished: ratha gheni udi padila aswasthama / yete dure padina se nasa galaka mahatma (Aswasthama fell from on the ground along with his chariot /  that noble soul perished in that distant place from that fall), he told Yudhisthira.  

This was the only time in Sarala Mahabharata when the all-knower said something that was not a fact. How does one understand this? The text offers no clue. Now, did he tell a lie? He knew that Yudhisthira, who knew that he was the knower of the past and the future, would believe him. So, if it would so happen, which was very likely, that Drona would ask him about his son, he would tell him that he was no more. There is, however, no support for this view in the text.

Krishna told the virtuous man that the guru would come to him and ask him about his son. “O son of Dharma”, said Krishna, “you must tell him that Aswasthama is dead. The guru would die on hearing that from you”.  The son of Dharma flatly refused. He was not going to tell his guru that his son was dead. Seeing, chakshusa  pramana, constituted the best proof and he hadn’t seen Aswasthama dead. So to tell the guru that his son was dead would amount to telling him a lie. “O Keshava (a name of Krishna)”, said Yudhisthira, “one who tells his guru a lie suffers in this world and in the other world”. Whatever be the consequences, whether he won or lost the war, he was not going to tell his guru a lie. “You must have heard that the elephant named Aswasthama is dead”, said Krishna, “just say the man or the elephant Aswasthama is dead and when you utter, ‘elephant’, keep your voice low: nara ki gunjara aswasthamara marana / karibe dhire gunjara sabda uchharana (The man or the elephant Aswasthama is dead / When you say ‘elephant’, say it in a low voice)”.

The Kauravas too had returned to their camp. Drona went to Duryodhana and asked him about Aswasthama. “I was in the battlefield then. Aswasthama perished in the hands of Bhima”, said the Kaurava king. The guru threw away his bow and arrows and with just his sword, he went to the Pandavas. The five Pandavas prostrated themselves at the guru’s feet. “May you be victorious. May you live long”, blessed the guru.

He then asked Yudhisthira about his son. He did not ask Bhima, who, he was told, had killed him and he did not ask his favourite shishya, Arjuna; neither did he ask the all-knowing Sahadeva. He asked the son of Dharma. The son of Dharma told him what he had been instructed to tell. Drona collapsed and the sword fell from his hand. Obeying Krishna’s indication, Dhristadyumna cut off his head. From his severed body, a bright, shining light rose into the sky.

There was no place in the war fields of Kurukshetra than the Pandavas’ camp, where Drona was more revered. The fight had stopped for the day and the Pandavas and the Kauravas had made it part of their war code to be cordial to each other from the time the fight stopped for the day till the following day when it would resume. During that time everyone was safe. It was during that period and of all places, in the Pandavas’ camp that the guru was killed. And that too when he was unconscious. His killing removed a huge obstacle from the Pandavas’ path to victory but it brought them no glory.

The only saving grace was that Drona’s killing did not go without a protest. With his sword raised and revenge in his eyes, a deeply hurt and angry Arjuna charged at Dhristadyumna. Intervention by the Avatara himself saved the commander-in-chief of the Pandava army from the wrath of Drona’s favourite shishya.


Aswasthama was on his way back to the battlefield when Kripacharya told him about his father’s death.    

Thursday, November 14, 2019



He was a wise and compassionate man, a man of peace, who thought of no one as his enemy, and had no desire for kingship. Yet that very embodiment of virtue chose to go to a conclusive war against his cousins. Why, asked a young Odia writer and scholar, who does not want to be named? What does Sarala Mahabharata say in this regard? she asked. Let me begin by telling the relevant stories.

Life during their exile had been extremely difficult for the Pandavas. They had suffered much deprivation and humiliation. Yudhisthira had become bitter, but still had no ill-will towards Duryodhana. One day, soon after they had returned from the kingdom of Virata, where they had spent a year incognito, Dhaumya, arrived in Varunavanta. The Pandavas paid due respect to their kula guru (family priest). Dhaumya asked Yudhisthira when he was going to Hastinapura with his brothers to meet his Kaurava brothers, the same question Bhima had asked him before. The person who, before his exile, was going to Hastinapura whenever he felt like paying respects to Dhritarastra and Gandhari (which was quite often, in fact) as a devoted member of the family would do, now felt that he would not go there unless Duryodhana invited him and his brothers. Incidentally, this was what he had told Bhima. If Duryodhana did that, continued Yudhithira, that would be a true test of his brotherly feelings towards him. His brotherly feelings for the Kauravas had never been reciprocated by them but that had made no difference to his attitude to them before the exile. Now things had changed.  

Earlier, all that he and his brothers had suffered on account of Duryodhana, he had attributed to his own karma. He had never blamed Duryodhana for anything: be it his feeding Bhima poisonous food, be it his attempt to get them killed in the wax palace, be it Draupadi’s humiliation in the Kaurava court - whatever. But the long years of exile in the forest seemed to have had its impact on him. He recounted all that Duryodhana had done to him and is brothers. He was a prince, he told the kula guru, and still he had to undergo so much hardship and suffer so much ignominy. The Pandavas and the Kauravas would never become friendly again, he told him. As he spoke, he got excited. There would be war, he told the priest. This was the first time Yudhisthira spoke of war. Soon the man of virtue calmed himself and told the priest to convey his request to Duryodhana that he should give him just one pada (village): Indraprastha. He had a vast kingdom, he told him to tell Duryodhana; so he should not hesitate to give him just one pada.

When Dhaumya conveyed his message to Duryodhana and tried to persuade him to honour it in the name of dharma, the Kaurava king humiliated him in his court. Dhaumya returned to Yudisthira. He told him that the future of the Kuru family was in his hands. If he would choose to swallow the injustice that Duryodhana had meted out to him and his brothers, the family would survive, if he did not, the Kauravas would be destroyed. Yudhisthira recounted to him again all the wrongs he had suffered in the hands of Duryodhana. He was not going to condone them and was not going to put up with more deprivations and humiliations. “You are my witness,” said the son of Dharma to Dhaumya, “it is my resolve now to go to war against Duryodhana” (tumbhe mote saksi hoithibaka deba dhaumye / nichaya brata mora hoila sangrame : O venerable Dhaumya, you are my witness/ War is my firm resolve), in the poet’s words.

When Dritarashtra heard of the Pandavas’ return to Varunavanta, he was extremely worried for his sons. He knew that Duryodhana had been very wicked towards the Pandavas. He also knew that if a war took place between his sons and the Pandavas, his sons would be wiped out. His only hope was in the virtuous nature of Yudhisthira. So he decided to send the wise Vidura to Yudhisthira to plead with him on his behalf to save the Kuru family. Vidura told Yudhisthira that suffering had always been the lot of the virtuous but they bore it with fortitude. Since he was wise, considerate and virtuous, he should put up with unfairness, misery and humiliation with equanimity. That would be in accordance with dharma, Vidura told him. Yudhisthira said that he was not prepared to undergo deprivation again. “Do not talk like this”, he told his venerable uncle, “you are wise; work for a fair settlement between the Pandavas and the Kauravas”. All he wanted was five villages, he said. This time, making a big concession, he did not specify which villages; any five would do. But if Duryodhana would not give him even that, then there would be war, he told Vidura. In fact, he uttered an oath: mu jebe tahara tule samara nakarain / bho pita bidura tumbhara mu pada padme harai (If I do not go to war against him / O father Vidura, I commit a grave offence against you) Thirteen years of suffering had hardened the son of Dharma.  But in his heart of hearts he still did not wish Duryodhana ill.

“How would you fight the mighty Kauravas? asked a concerned Vidura. Bhishma, Drona, Ashwasthama, Kripacharya, Bhurishrava, Jayadratha, Somadatta and then his own brother Karna would fight for the Kauravas. Bhishma, Drona, Ashwasthama and Karna were invincible. Besides, they were protected in one way or the other: death would not come to Bhishma unless he sought it, if he had weapons in hand, no one could defeat Drona, Ashwasthama was immortal and Karna could not be killed because of his divine armour and his ear rings containing nectar. And Kripacharya, Bhurishrava and jayadratha, among others, were great warriors. What hopes he could have against the Kauravas if a war took place, asked Vidura. Yudhisthira was unfazed: he was aware of the might of the Kauravas but if he was not hopeful of defeating them, he would not have thought of fighting a war against them, he told Vidura. Besides, Dharma would always protect the defenceless, he told him. If, despite being strong, one gave up the hope to win, then that person was a living dead, he said.

One day, Yudhisthira poured his heart out before Krishna. He told him about his suffering in the forest. He was a prince; yet he had undergone such utter deprivation. Every moment, for years, he had felt miserable seeing his brothers suffer. Bhima’s suffering, in particular, had pained him the most. They had returned to Varunavanta but Duryodhana had ignored them. He was enjoying the vast kingdom of Hastinapura but was unwilling to give the Pandavas even five villages for their upkeep. Dhaumya and Vidura had carried his message to him but nothing had changed. So he had turned to him; no wonder, one might think, isn’t Narayana the ultimate recourse of nara?

He requested Krishna to go to Duryodhana on his behalf and plead with him for five villages for them. He would be content with that, he told Krishna to convey it to him. But what if Duryodhana was unwilling, Krishna asked. He would be content with four, he told Vasudeva. If not four, then three would do, if not three, two would be fine and if not that, then he would be content with just one village. But if he would not give him even that, then there would certainly be war, he told Krishna.

“O Hari, you are the creator of the universe and you are its lord and things happen in accordance with your wish”, Yudhisthira told the Avatara. With an attitude very different from what he had adopted in the cases of Dhaumya and Vidura, he begged him to ask Duryodhana, on his behalf, for a village for the Pandavas in an entreating manner. For him, the Avatara must plead, not ask, he implored. If a war took place, said the virtuous Pandava, it would be disastrous for both them and the Kauravas, and the world ridicule them. “Save both families, O Narayana”, Yudhisthira prayed to Krishna. Krishna told him that he was the servant of his servant and would do whatever he asked him to do. One who lives a life of dharma, says Sarala, Govinda is his servant: gobinda tara bhrutya.

After his return from Hastinapura, when they met, Krishna told Yudhisthira that he had not succeeded in persuading Duryodhana to give even a single village to the Pandavas. He also said that he had been insulted in Duryodhana’s court. Yudhisthira’s reaction was spontaneous and sharp:  he drew out his sword. “Rise O Bhima, O Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva”, thundered the one who was never known to have lost his cool, “of what use is our life if Krishna is insulted?” The brothers responded at once. Bhima held aloft his mace and his war cry shook the world. Arjuna was ready with his divine bow and divine arrows, Nakula, with his spear and Sahadeva, with his sword.  “This is my ritual start for the war, O Hari”, said Yudhisthira.

Priest Dhaumya asked him to control himself. The one who starts a war carries the enormous burden of all killings that take place on the battlefield, he told him. It was not for him, the embodiment of dharma to start the war. He must leave that to Managovinda (i.e., Duryodhana), advised the kula guru.

Soon, at Duryodhana’s behest, Sakuni arrived in Varunavanta. Duryodhana has sent him to ask the Pandavas and their friends to come to Kurukshetra so that the battlefield could be divided into two parts and the Pandavas and Kauravas could decide which part of the battle field they would each take. In his meeting with Yudhisthira, Sakuni went beyond his brief. He told Yudhisthira that unlike Duryodhana, who was an ignoramus, he was wise and virtuous. It was not for the man of dharma to fight a war. He must abjure war and let Duryodhana rule. He should return to the forest with his brothers and spend his time there in the august company of the sages and visit holy places, he told Yudhisthira. Following the path of virtue was never a waste, he said. The virtuous might suffer in their present life but they would be amply rewarded in their next birth. The wrong-doers might prosper in life but their next life would be one of suffering. The fruit of karma would have to be experienced, even beyond births, he told the man of dharma.

Yudhisthira was irritated. In a dismissive tone, very uncharacteristic of him, he told Sakuni that he had spent enough time with the sages and had gone to many holy places on pilgrimage; now it should be Duryodhana’s turn. He should leave the kingdom to him and spend time in the forest with the sages, he told Sakuni. And he, Sakuni, must make that arrangement.

Was Sakuni serious? Did he really want what he had told Yudhisthira to happen? Or was he merely testing him? Or by irritating him, was he trying to push him to the point of no return with respect to war? Sakuni had worked relentlessly ever since he emerged out of the prison for the destruction of the Kauravas, which he had been chosen to do by his father and other relatives. That was a task he had to perform for the dead of his family. Why should he then try and persuade Yudhithira to do something that would nullify all his efforts?

If one knows him, one may not think it odd. In Sarala Mahabharata, Sakuni is a virtuous character. He was condemned to ensure the elimination of his nephews. He knew that on his own he could not accomplish that task; so he worked for a war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas. Krishna, Sahadeva, Vidura and Sanjaya alone were aware of Sakuni’s situation. And Sakuni knew, as the Kuru kula guru did, that war is wrong.  He knew that no matter what the others might think, he was the causer of the war that was going to destroy not only the Kauravas but also indefinitely many more, and among them would be many, many innocents. On the one hand, he knew he had to do what the dead of his family had entrusted him to do. If he failed to do that, he would incur their anger. On the other hand, he was intensely aware that the huge burden of papa (sin) would accrue to him for doing that very thing. Given these two choices, what would a man of conscience do? It will not violate the spirit of Sarala Mahabharata if we suggest this: Sakuni thought that if Yudhisthira decided against war, it would save him from the far worse alternative, namely, be burdened with the extremely grave papa of the slaughter of the innocents.

Incidentally, what Sakuni told Yudhisthira was essentially no different from what Dhaumya and Vidura had told the eldest Pandava. But Yudhisthira found Sakuni offensive because he believed that his advice was utterly insincere. Now, messages of wisdom can come from any source and unexpectedly too, but controlled by bias, even the best of the humans read in them only what they want to read in them.

In the battlefield of Kurukshetra, having failed to persuade Arjuna to start the war, Krishna got off from his chariot and went to Yudhisthira. He told him that his brother was unwilling to start the war for reasons of dharma. Yudhisthira told Krishna that he agreed with Arjuna and he then went to Duryodhana to make one last attempt to avoid the war. When his pleadings for at least one village, if not five, and any village of his choice at that, were to no avail, he gave up and returned to the battlefield.

Vidura’s suggestion returned to the Pandavas in an unexpected way when Arjuna met Bhishma for the first time in the battlefield of Kurukshetra. When Arjuna blamed Duryodhana for the war that reduced the loving grandfather and the adoring grandson to enemies, the grandfather told him that the Pandavas were responsible too. Had they made the sacrifice that the situation demanded, namely, left the throne to Duryodhana and retired to the forest, the fratricidal war would not have taken place. Total commitment to virtuous living sometimes demanded great sacrifice. For Sarala, there is no war that had no alternatives, however difficult, however painful. But when a war is given the status of dharma yuddha on account of the cause, there remains no room for alternatives. In Sarala Mahabharata, the Kurukshetra war was dharma yuddha, not because of the cause, but because of Krishna’s presence in the war field.


The above is the background against which we must find an answer to our question. What options to war did Yudhisthira have? He could have followed Vidura’s suggestion. That was one option. But was that the only one? Sarala Mahabharata does not articulate any other but one might wonder if there wasn’t really another alternative. There does seem to be one more but for some reason, Sarala does not project this alternative – is it a case of the story going out of the control of the story-teller?

Why did Yudhisthira insist on a village for the Pandavas? They could have continued to stay in Varunavanta. No one was insisting that he left. Ever since Dhritarashtra had asked him to live in Varunavanta, he had been living there. He had left it after the wax palace incident. He returned to it from Panchala, the kingdom of Drupada, after their wedding. They performed the rajaswiya jajna there. They left that place after losing the second game of dice. They returned there from Virata’s kingdom after completing their exile and incognito living. True, Duryodhana did not invite them to Hastinapura, but in Sarala Mahabharata, it was nothing new; they had hardly been invited there before. Yudhisthira went there regularly to pay his respects to Dhritarastra, sometimes with his brothers, sometimes alone. At some places in the text, Indraprastha is mentioned where one would expect Varunavanta, but for our present discussion it does not matter at all, because Yudhisthira was not the king anywhere. He had performed the rajaswiya jajna, as his father, Pandu’s son, for the well-being of his father in the world above. He was treated as king during the jajna for the performance of the rituals and the conventions associated with this jajna. After all, kings alone performed rajaswiya jajna, not princes, even crown princes.   

Incidentally, Hastinapura was never divided. Yudhisthira was staying in Varunavanta but not as the king of Varunavanta. He did not lose his kingdom in the game of dice. In the first game of dice, Yudhisthira lost wealth in terms of the gifts he had received from Drupada at the time of wedding and from the royal guests who had attended the rajaswiya jajna. He had lost no kingdom of which he was the ruler when he went on exile. Thus there was no kingdom he was to get back from Duryodhana on his return.  

Duryodhana was the king when he returned to Varunavanta from Panchala. He had been crowned king after the wax fire happened and the Pandavas were believed to have perished in it. But Yudhisthira had never grumbled about Duryodhana’s prosperity. He was a changed person in this regard only after he returned from exile. He told Dhaumya, Vidura and Krishna in an accusing tone that Duryodhana enjoying a vast kingdom and immense wealth and he must not deny him the little that he was asking for.

What Yudhithira wanted was a share of the kingdom of Hastinapura. He believed that it was his right. He had never claimed his right before. He complained against Dritarashtra to Krishna that he had not shown him consideration. He had never said anything before which could have been interpreted as remotely disrespectful or even ungracious about his father’s elder brother. Now, he was disinclined to live in Varunavanta as a subject of Hastinapura. He told Dhaumya and Vidura that he was a prince - an identity he had never asserted before - and the way he and his brothers were living did not behove them.  

But Yudhisthira was no ordinary mortal; in the battlefield of Kurukshetra, until he told that half-truth to his guru, the wheels of his chariot had not touched the ground. It was nature’s respect for the man of dharma. So, when he asked for his share of the kingdom, he did not ask in the manner of a typical claimant to a throne; he asked like a supplicant, so that his brother, Duryodhana, would not feel offended. And he asked like a sage - for just the minimum for his and his brothers’ dignified survival.

Monday, October 28, 2019


Once there was a famine in Emperor Yudisthira’s kingdom because of a drought.

He asked brother Bhima to go to god Kuvera and request him on his behalf to lend him ten thousand cart loads of paddy to feed his hungry subjects.

When Bhima reached the god’s abode, he saw a rustic-looking person, bending low to collect paddy grains from the ground in the courtyard with great concentration. So lost was he in his work that he did not notice the Pandava’s arrival. He had on his body barely a loin cloth and a short upper cloth. Bhima had never met the Lord of Wealth, but he had an idea of what he would look like. He thought that the man was the god’s servant. He went to him and asked him how to meet Kuvera. The grain gatherer said he was Kuvera himself.

Bhima could not come to terms with what he had seen, that the god of Wealth looked like a pauper and lived like a pauper. He must be miserliness incarnate, he thought and wondered if he would really part with so much paddy, even as loan.

But Kuvera happily agreed to give Yudhisthira all the paddy he wanted and that too, not as loan. He was glad to be of help to the very embodiment of dharma in the mortal world. Soon Bhima left with the cartloads of paddy.

In the meantime, the road had become extremely slushy because of the rains and the carts could just not proceed. Not knowing what to do, Bhima returned to Kuvera. He told Bhima to empty on the road as much paddy from the carts on the front as necessary for the road to become hard enough for the carts to move. To compensate for the paddy lost, he gave him more paddy.

Bhima folded his hands and apologized to him for what he had thought of him. He told him that when he first saw him, he was doing what the poorest of the poor would do and he thought that he was a great miser. He was unsure whether such a miser would part with so much paddy without a thought. And now, the same one who was picking paddy from the ground, was asking him to pour cart loads of paddy on the mud so that the carts could pass. That he found very confusing.

The god of Wealth smiled and told him that while working for wealth, one must be very particular about every single pie but when there arises the need to spend, one must not hesitate to spend as much as is necessary. 

Note: Ask anyone in Odisha, who has some interest in Sarala Mahabharata, he is most likely to say that this story occurs in Sarala’s magnum opus. Ask a Sarala Mahabharata scholar, he would not disagree but would say that he isn’t sure in which edition this story occurs. My search is on; if I succeed, I will let you know.  

Thursday, October 24, 2019


How many shades of bhakti are there, according to Sarala Mahabharata? “As many bhaktas are there!” may not be indeed be a poor answer!


That was a period of profound darkness. Intense jealousy, bitterness, hatred and revengefulness ruled the hearts of those who controlled the lives of people in a laukika (worldly) sense. They ruled kingdoms and to achieve their own dark ends, they would drive their subjects to the battlefields. They could stoop to any extent; they would not hesitate to resort to cunning and treachery to achieve their purpose. The powerful often subdued their adversaries with weapons and the powerless punished their powerful torturers with curses. The mighty pronounced oaths which made the annihilation of their enemy their sacred duty. In the family of the Kurus, Kunti bayed for the blood of Duryodhana and Draupadi, of Dussasana. Karna and Arjuna, born from the same womb, would be at each other’s throats and their mother would be part of a sinister design to render one of her children vulnerable in war with respect to the other. A nephew used the meanest treachery to have his maternal grandfather and every one of his family killed. It was his misfortune that of his uncles, the one named Sakuni, survived. Gandhari was jealous of Kunti and Kunti of Madri, and Draupadi and Hidimbaki hurled curses at each other’s children, the very first time they met. Princess Amba’s determination to take revenge was so fierce that she carried it to her next birth.

Bhima’s hatred and anger against the Kauravas had not diminished even after had killed Duryodhana, Dussasana and ninety-seven of their brothers on the Kurukshetra battlefields. He killed each of them again, when he viciously recreated the scenes of their deaths to torture their helpless, lonely and grieving father, Dhritarashtra. Day after day, at the old man’s meal time, he would meticulously narrate to him how he had killed each of his sons. And this was not the only instance of Bhima tormenting the Kuru elder. No need to dwell on such sickening deeds of unforgiving and unforgetting persons. In Sarala’s retelling, the one remaining Kaurava brother, Durdasa, did not die on the battlefield. When in all virtuous sincerity, the victorious Yudhisthira came with his brothers to Dhritarashtra and Gandhari for reconciliation, the losers were so full of revenge that resorting to treachery, they tried to destroy Yudhisthira and Bhima. Just as Kunti’s sons had killed her own, Gandhari tried to kill Kunti’s son, Yudhisthira. In the process, she succeeded in killing her only surviving son. She got to know what she had done only after Durdasa’s death.

Outside of the Kuru clan, things were no less dark and sinister. For his ingratitude, Drona punished king Drupada by having him imprisoned by Arjuna. This was the guru dakshina he had asked from the Pandavas. The humbled and humiliated Drupada performed tapas to kill Drona. Likewise, Jayadratha did the same to be able to kill the Pandavas. There was the mighty emperor Jarasandha who had imprisoned many kings whom he intended to kill as part of a ritual sacrifice for a selfish goal. Then there was king Sishupala whose hatred for his cousin Krishna was nothing short of savage. Aswasthama, who was intemperate, was full of destructive ambition – a dangerous combination that could lead one to commit irresponsible and heinous acts. This was indeed what happened in his case. The social order was disturbed when Drona, the brahmin, abandoned the ashram and brahminical duties and chose employment with the king of Hastinapur as the teacher of weaponry to the Kuru princes. One might sympathize with him, considering that he had his compulsions. But there was no justification for Aswasthama’s opting to choose the profession of a kshatriya (member of the warrior community). In sum, Sarala’s Mahabharata presents a depressing picture of the moral decay in aryavarta (Aryavarta) as the aeon of Dwapara was coming to a close and the aeon of Kali or adharma was lying in wait to rule the world.

But then that was a period of sublime light as well. Because into this world descended the Supreme god Narayana as Krishna to relieve Mother Earth of her burden and as the poet Sarala celebrated the avatara’s doings, his narrative of the Kuru clan was transformed into a spiritually uplifting composition, which he repeatedly called “Vishnu Purana”. When Vaibasuta Manu prayed to sage Agasti (better known as Agastya) to tell him how to attain moksha, the great sage made him listen to the Mahabharata story because listening to the story of Krishna’s lila (divine play) would bring moksha. Contextualizing the recounting of the Mahabharata story this way, the poet Sarala made moksha a central concern of his retelling of the classical narrative.

The gods, the beings in the other lokas (roughly, realms), the seers, the sages and the wise and spiritually elevated among the asuras (demons) and the humans in the mortal world knew that Krishna was the Purna Avatara or the perfect incarnation of Narayana, though some of them at times were assailed by doubt. They would eventually realize the truth. As he waited for Krishna, who he had heard was coming to the Kaurava court, Bhishma said that they were very fortunate that they were shortly going to see Narayana, who was living in their midst as a human. When king Duryodhana was hesitant to welcome Krishna to his court because Sakuni persuaded him that he was unworthy of sitting with the illustrious kshatriyas, the preceptor Drona said that the assembly that had no place for Narayana was an assembly of the pretas, of the dead. When the Kauravas and the Pandavas together prepared a war-code to be followed during the very special Kurukshetra War – “very special” because brothers and relatives would fight to kill one another -  Duryodhana called upon everyone to honour the code because in that war Narayana Himself (in his incarnation as Krishna) would be there as sakshi (witness). Sahadeva, who had the knowledge of the past, the present and the future, knew who Krishna was. So, when before going to the Kaurava court as Yudhistira’s emissary, the avatara asked him what he would want for himself from Duryodhana so that the fratricidal war could be avoided, he said nothing because he knew what Krishna had in mind. Therefore, he merely told Krishna which particular villages he must ask from Duryodhana, knowing that those could simply not be given. In that way he served Krishna in the fulfilment of his cosmic purpose. When Duryodhana showed his willingness to give Krishna two villages instead of five, Sakuni advised him to give him nothing at all. In an earlier incarnation, he told the Kaurava king, he had assumed the form of a dwarf and had asked king Bali to gift him merely that much land that only three steps of his could cover, and when Bali agreed, the great king found that he had no space on earth to stand on. Duryodhana must learn from the avatara’s past, he warned the Kuru king. Narayana must be given nothing at all, he told him. Not just the educated and the wise, the forest-dwellers too knew that Krishna was the incarnation of Narayana. Jara, the forest-dweller savara, whose arrow mortally wounded Krishna, wept inconsolably, finding that he had hurt the One worshipped by Brahma, Indra and Rudra. In short, in the world of Sarala Mahabharata, all knew that Krishna was Narayana in the human form.

In Sarala’s narrative, he entered the story of the Kurus before Nakula was born. Madri with Durvasa’s mantra had invoked Narayana to give her a child; that was how Krishna came to her. But he did not oblige her, the details of which are out of place here. By the time he met Pandu’s family, his doings were well known – that he had spent his childhood among the cowherds, gazing cows, that he had performed many miraculous feats, which included his killing of the demoness Putana and Sandhasura, the demon in the form of a bull and that he had intensely passionate relationship with too many gopis (cowherd women). Once he had wild sex with an old woman, who was Radha’s emissary to him, under the impression that she was Radha. Out of that union was born a child who he taught how to steal and how to make tunnel like passages. Profligacy was considered papa (sin) then. Once god Yama, the god of death, complained to him, with due reverence of course, in this regard, saying that he had set a bad example for the humans. Sakuni always told Duryodhana that Krishna as a great sinner who had killed a woman and what was worse, a bull. And yet, he never did anything by way of penance. Even the great god Shiva had to undergo penance for having killed a bull accidentally. Was that brat of a cowherd greater than Shiva? he asked Duryodhana rhetorically.

Duryodhana was very disappointed with him. He disliked his interference on the issue of the inheritance of the throne of Hastinapura because he looked upon him as an outsider. It was a matter of the Kuru family. He was not unwilling to share the kingdom with those who belonged to the Kuru clan. At one stage, he was willing to give half the kingdom to Sahadeva, who was Pandu’s son – his only son. The rest were the children of the outsiders. Later he hardened his stand about Sahadeva too, whom he then considered to be a god’s son, like the rest of them. In Sarala’s narrative, Sahadeva could be viewed either way or both ways. Duryodhana was arguably not wrong about who belonged to the family and who did not. In the thinking of those days, it was the father who mattered in this regard, not the mother. Duryodhana was inclined to give two villages to the Pandavas, when Krishna went to him as Yudhisthira’s emissary, but when he named the five villages he wanted, he realized that by asking for the un-givable, Krishna was merely making sure that the war took place. It was not he alone who considered Krishna’s demand of the specific villages unjust; everyone in the court seemed to think so. This apart, Krishna thought nothing of betraying Yudhisthira who had sent him to work for peace, not war.

Once the war took place, the Kauravas did not fail to notice that Krishna could go to any extent to ensure victory for the Pandavas. This apart, he repeatedly condemned the Kauravas for the killing of Abhimanyu but forced the reluctant Pandavas to resort to adharma on the battlefield more than once. He had given word to his elder brother, Balarama, that he would only be a witness in the war but on the sixth day of the war he destroyed the infallible divine arrow of Bhishma which would have certainly killed Arjuna. No one, including Bhishma himself, had seen what Krishna had done because he had done it in a way no one could, neither gods nor mortals. When Balarama asked him why he had betrayed him, he told him a lie; he hadn’t destroyed Bhishma’s arrow, he told him. There was no eye witness to tell Balarama what his younger brother, on whom he doted much, had done.

Incorporating creatively the relevant episode from Srimad Bhagavata in his version of the Mahabharata story, Sarala describes how, like an ordinary human, Krishna was extremely miserable when he learnt that he would soon have to leave the world. He was directed by Narayana, his Source, to return to Him. The Supreme god was displeased with him for having stayed in the world longer than necessary. Dejected, Krishna wept. He had many children and grandchildren from many spouses and he found that he was deeply attached to them. He couldn’t bear even the thought of parting from them. He was caught in the snares of moha (attachment) like any mortal. In an earlier episode, the avatara appeared to be worried that he would have to die one day, like any ordinary human.  

In sum, Krishna’s ways were unintelligible in the context of the prevalent conception of avatara. References to the story of the Bhagawan Rama are many in Sarala Mahabharata and Rama is mentioned in utmost reverence. People of the aeon of Dwapara knew about Rama and his doings and for them, he was the supreme embodiment of virtuous living. When he learnt about the anguish of Bali’s son Angada, who had served him with complete devotion, the avatara assured him that he would avenge his father’s killing by killing him in his next avatara. The narrative of Mahabharata is not illumined by such deeply touching episodes of the avatara’s empathy, indulgence and magnanimity. In Sarala’s retelling, at Krishna’s time, Rama alone, of Narayana’s human avataras, was seen as being without blemish. Thus, in the context of Sarala Mahabharata, it could be said with some confidence that Rama defined an avatara of Narayana. Krishna was very different; yet everyone knew that he was the avatara and many found it difficult to cope with that truth. In his supreme and transcendental magnificence and extreme ordinariness, he embodied a huge contradiction; he was an enigma.

And to make matters worse, he would not generally explain his action for the benefit of others; no one of course pressed him for an explanation if he didn’t provide one. When at all he did, it was hardly adequate and convincing. For instance, when Gandhari asked him why he got her sons killed when he could have avoided the war, he told her that he punished the Kauravas in the hands of the Pandavas because they had humiliated him in their court when he went there as Yudhisthira’s emissary. Any reader of Udyoga Parva would know that this was only a half-truth at the very best. He had gone there to ensure that war took place. Similarly, he had Durdasa killed through deceit and explained his action saying that he had ensured that there was no residue of the enemy left in Yudhisthira’s Hastinapura. If Durdasa could be considered an enemy, it could just not be on the basis of his action but of his birth as a Kaurava. Krishna’s logic was shocking and his action, entirely unethical and depressing. One could be dazzled by his manifestation of his narayanatwa (Narayana-ness) and of his awesome power, when he chose to reveal that aspect of his and feel terribly letdown by his acts of degrading cunning, when he chose to show this face of his, but the spiritually elevated apart, one found it bewildering that both these were aspects of the same person.


That was Duryodhana’s problem, but he was not the only one in Sarala Mahabharata to be bewildered by the avatara. For once the creator god Brahma too was confused about Krishna’s reality, so mundane were some of his doings. The same had happened to sage Durvasa once. Let’s forget about them and focus on Duryodhana. He did not trust Krishna but he did not look upon him as his enemy. Knowing that he was the avatara of Narayana, he revered him. It was he who had said that the Kurukshetra War would be dharma yuddha because of Narayana’s presence in the battlefield. But when he found him unfair and humiliating towards him, he treated him with disdain. In the Kaurava court Krishna provoked him by comparing his kingdom with Babarapuri, where adharma was seen as dharma and dharma as adharma and telling him that his kingdom would perish the same way as did Babarapuri. There does not seem to be any sound justification for Yudhisthira’s emissary for peace to humiliate the Kaurava king in his court. In such moments, it was the human aspect of Krishna that pervaded Duryodhana’s consciousness. He knew the power of the avatara, yet he chose to attack him, not once, but twice in his court. The first time he did, Krishna showed the assembly five of his avataras: Matsya, Kurma, Varaha, Vamana and then Nrusingha. The Kauravas had run away in fear when he assumed the last-named form. The second attack was inspired by Sakuni’s advice. He told Duryodhana that when alone, Krishna was vulnerable and that they must tie him up and throw him into the prison. Krishna assumed his Narayana Form and the terrified attackers withdrew. After the first attack, sage Vyasa wondered what karma the Kauravas had done in the past so as to be able to see five avataras of Narayana. What one could not see after thousands of years of tapas, thought the celebrated sage, the Kauravas did because of their vaira or enmity.

Sarala Mahabharata celebrates enmity as a form of bhakti. Enmity is often engendered by hatred. When one’s hatred is overwhelming, the object of his hatred fills one’s consciousness. The consciousness of those who hated Krishna with great intensity became “Krishnamaya” (full of the consciousness of Krishna). This has been traditionally recognized as a form of bhakti – known as “virodha bhakti”, which we tentatively call here “negative devotion”. Devotion to God and hatred of Him are two sides of the same coin - the end result of both bhakti and virodha bhakti is the same. Viewed thus, there is nothing really negative about it. The expression “negative devotion” draws attention to the manner of working for moksa,

It could be argued that in Sarala Mahabharata, Duryodhana’s attitude towards Krishna in his moments of madness, often triggered by the latter’s perceived unfairness towards him, is an instance of negative devotion. Two other characters in Sarala’s narrative who embody this form of bhakti much more manifestly are Sishupala and Jarasandha. Krishna’s cousin Sishupala hated him intensely. Krishna had eloped with Rukmini who was his betrothed and he could do nothing to punish him and redeem his honour. He had gone to participate in Yudhisthira’s rajaswiya jajna. Krishna was accorded the highest honour there by Yudhishthira on the advice of the preceptor Drona. Sishupala condemned this and went on abusing Krishna, saying how very undeserving he was to be given that great honour. Bhishma was enraged at Sishupala’s insulting Krishna and threatened to attack him, but was restrained by Krishna. Krishna had assured Sishupala’s mother that he would forgive him for a hundred acts of misdemeanor sins and would kill him once he transgressed that limit. As Sishupala went on abusing Krishna, the number increased. Soon he exceeded the limit and Krishna severed his head with his Sudarshana chakra. Whereas for those who witnessed it, was the killing of Sishupala, it was indeed his uddhara (salvation) because he attained the ultimate bliss as Krishna absorbed his soul. That was one, and the most celebrated, form of moksha in Sarala Mahabharata. Once one merges in Narayana, one is out of the karmic cycle.

The mighty Jarasandha became Krishna’s arch enemy when the latter killed Kansa, his brother-in-law. He attacked Krishna’s Mathura many times and forced the avatara to move to Dwaraka. He had a powerful protection system which was virtually impossible to penetrate; on that account, he could not be caught unprepared for a fight by the enemy. But no protection system could be strong enough for the avatara and he, accompanied by Arjuna and Bhima, all disguised as brahmins, reached the king, who was unprepared to meet an enemy. Krishna identified himself and the two Pandavas and challenged him for a single combat. He could choose any of them, he told him. Jarasandha chose Bhima. The fight was fierce and it lasted many days. When he realized that his end was near, he thought of Krishna and complained to him silently that he was being very unkind to him, getting him killed by someone else instead of he himself, for which grace he had tried so hard all his life. He had tried his best to provoke him in many ways, hoping that one day, he would kill him with Sudarshana chakra and give him moksha. He was deeply hurt that Krishna was being unmerciful to him. In his last moments Jarasandha had become Krishnamaya. What Krishna gave his devotee, we do not know.

In Sarala Mahabharata, Sishupala and Jarasandha were the ones who were extremely hostile to Krishna personally. But could they both be regarded as the practitioners of virodha bhakti? In the case of Jarasandha, there can be no room for skepticism. His hatred and his virodha for Krishna were not genuine; what were genuine were his bhakti for the avatara and his desire for moksha. As for Sishupala, his great contempt for and enmity with Krishna was not intentional; that came naturally to him. As hatred for Krishna pervaded his consciousness, Krishna pervaded his consciousness. When he died, an illumination from his body entered the avatara’s - he merged into him. Later in the narrative, Belalasena attained moksha when Krishna absorbed his essence into himself. Nothing comparable happened in the case of Jarasandha, but dying with thoughts of Krishna could not have been futile in the spirit of Sarala Mahabharata.

In Sarala’s retelling, as mentioned earlier, it was not unknown to people that Krishna was Narayana’s avatara and some knew that he was His purna avatara and hence could give moksha. As he was returning from the Kaurava court, Duryodhana’s son, Lakshmana Kumara, met him on the way and Krishna told him that he would grant him whatever he wanted. The young prince prayed to him to severe his head in the Kurukshetra battlefield with his divine chakra. Krishna granted him his wish. However, Lakshmana Kumara did not die in Krishna’s hands. Krishna was not fighting in that war. He killed none – in the laukika sense that is, because Belalasena had a different understanding of things because of the divya dristi (divine perception) that Krishna had given him. In any case, who killed the prince is untold. Did Krishna’s promise go in vain? The text says nothing in this regard, but in the spirit of the text, this just cannot be the case. Shortly before the start of the Kurukshetra War, Bhurishrava, the Kaurava elder and a great warrior, told Duryodhana bluntly that he and many others had joined the war on his behalf, not because they believed that they would bring him victory but because they would die on the battlefield, looking at Krishna on Arjuna’s chariot and obtain moksha. Before the start of the war, the savara (forest dweller) Kiratasen happily had his head severed by Krishna with his Sudarshana chakra as his dana (ritual offering) to the avatara because he knew that that would give him moksha. He had been waiting for that since the times of Rama, he told the avatara. He was Bali then, and Rama had killed him, but the avatara did not kill him with Sudarshana chakra. So he did not attain moksha and his karma brought him back to the moral world. Only Narayana or His incarnation who used His chakra, (i.e., his purna avatara) could give moksha. The divine chakra was the instrument that severed the mortal frame of the target and together with that, the karmic bondage.

When Duryodhana tried to imprison Krishna in his court, Krishna invoked his narayanatwa and assumed the dazzling Form that was supremely magnificent and majestic, and awe-inspiring and terrifying, manifesting the wild, destructive energy of Bhagawana Parshurama. The Kuru attackers fled in fear. Then the noble and virtuous Bhishma came forward and in great reverence and humility, offered himself to the avatara and begged him to severe his head. Many virtuous warriors did the same. They knew that by dying in his hands they would attain Vaikuntha, the divine abode of the Supreme god. As Krishna returned to his familiar form, he told them that he could not harm them as they were not his enemies and as they had done no wrong.

The wise Vidura, the righteous Sanjaya, the Kuru elders, the Pandavas and the Kauravas, the Kuru women, Dhritarashtra, the preceptor Drona, his son Aswasthama and the family priest Kripacharya – they all were profoundly reverential towards him. However, in day-to-day life, barring Vidura, Sanjaya and Sahadeva, they would often forget this truth about him and treated him as a human, as just one of them. They belittled him, abused him and Gandhari even cursed him. However, Sahadeva who knew the present, the past and the future, was aware of the cosmic purpose of the avatara and always served him most devoutly in the fulfilment of that purpose.

So did Sakuni, in Sarala’s version. Except for Vidura, Sanjaya and Sahadeva, no one knew about his absolute commitment to Krishna. His systematic denigration of Krishna was only a pretence to persuade Duryodhana to fight a conclusive war against the Pandavas. He knew what would happen. He had to do to the Kauravas what he did. He was not free; his dear dead had imprisoned him by their wish. He had to avenge the brutal killing of his father and uncles and relatives, who had determined his life’s purpose for him. Dhristadyumna was born to kill Drona, Dussasana was born to be killed, ignoring details, the way he was, in Sarala’s retelling, but Sakuni was not born but was made to be a destroyer of the Kauravas.

One late night before the Great War at Kurukshetra, Krishna, Sakuni and Sahadeva met secretly. Should there be the war or should there not be the war, Krishna asked Sakuni. Sakuni told him that whatever he wanted would happen. He, Sakuni, was his very own.  He, his servitor in his earlier existence, born now to serve him in the fulfilment of his avataric objective, would do whatever he wanted him to do. If he did not want war, he would ensure that there would be no war. But then, in making his choice for war or peace, he told Krishna, he must not forget the purpose of his avatara. In Sarala Mahabharata, Sakuni is one character, who lived in complete knowledge of his relationship with Krishna. Narayana’s eternal servitor, he did not seek moksha.     

Incidentally, not many in the world of Sarala Mahabharata sought moksha from Krishna. Some wanted worldly things from them, like the Pandavas and the Kauravas wanting him to be on their side in the Kurukshetra War, like Draupadi wanting him to punish Aswasthama for having killed her children or the Pandava women who wanted the child of Uttara, born dead, alive. In any case, the sages did not seek moksha. The wise Drona did not, neither did Vidura, Sanjaya, Yudhisthira or Karna. Belalasena (Barbarik, in some versions) did not; it is another matter that Krishna gave it to him. Although Sarala says nothing about it, one could hazard a guess that these illustrious men who tried to live a life of dharma believed that dharma would lead them to their moksha. Some of them might have been content with having the avatara around them, such as the sages, and some who were related to him as his sakha (friend), kin, etc., like Draupadi or Arjuna, and still some, offering their service to him, like Sakuni, Vidura and Sahadeva, whenever needed. Then there was Krishna’s guru, Santipani (better known in the puranic literature as Sandipani), who asked Krishna for his dead sons to be brought alive to him as his guru dakshina and after his dead ons returned alive to him, he wondered why he had not asked for moksha instead from his shishya!

In sum, on the theme of moksha, not all who sought moksha from Krishna, got moksha, whereas some who did not seek moksha, he gave it to them. He who Krishna wanted to give moksha, received it. What Krishna’s logic was, one would never know. Sakuni said of Narayana that He could not be pleased by bhakti or jnana or dana (devotion, knowledge, ritual gift, respectively). And we know from Sarala Mahabharata that one could not displease him with vaira or hostility.

The old and helpless mother, who bereaved over the loss of her hundred sons, ultimately blamed, not Yudhisthira, whom she had tried to destroy with her yogic fire, or Bhima but Krishna for her profound loss. The war took place because he wanted, she told him. And in a moment of overwhelming grief and madness, she cursed him, cursed Narayana, who she had always revered: his own would perish and so would he, in not too distant a future. Krishna accepted the curse – one could not please Narayana with prayer, and one could not displease Him with a curse. Krishna told her that she had done deba karjya, what the gods wanted. They wanted him back in his divine abode.

In Sarala Mahabharata, the main characters related to Krishna, as did the nameless and numberless warriors about whom the wise Bhurishrava had said that they all wanted to fall in the battlefield where Krishna was present. They did not all relate to him in the same way. Some were his devotees, who loved him intensely, sang his glory, would not stand his denunciation by anyone, however mighty and however revered, and experienced the sublime joy of being with him and serving him in whatever manner he wanted. Then there were others who were his enemies, who hated him fiercely and condemned him in venomous language. There were still others who would belong to one or the other of the in-between categories. Between navadha bhakti and virodha bhakti there could be many composites of them. Aware or unaware, whoever related to him in whatever way it might be, was his bhakta. Bhakti in Sarala Mahabharata has many forms and various characters in it embody one form of it or the other.

Thursday, October 17, 2019


Sudra muni” Sarala Das, who belongs to the fifteenth century, is celebrated as the first major poet, the aadi kavi, of Odia literature. To him can be traced the origin of the puranic literature in Odia and no one’s contribution to this genre is richer and more impactful than his. He composed three puranas and decidedly the best and the most renowned of these is “Mahabharata”, popularly known as “Sarala Mahabharata”. A truly remarkable work, it is a re-conceptualization of the ancient story of “Mahabharata” and a creative re-telling of it in Odia language. It is the first complete rendering (i.e., of all the eighteen Parvas) of Vyasa Mahabharata in any language.  And this is the first retelling of Vyasa Mahabharata by a person who did not belong to a privileged caste.

In his magnum opus, Sarala asserted that he was born to expatiate on the lila (divine play) of the Supreme god, Narayana. Thus, he used the story of the Kuru clan to celebrate the doings of Krishna, the purna avatara (complete incarnation) of Narayana, and he called his MahabharataVishnu Purana”. He said that he was uneducated and dull and had no knowledge of the shastras; he merely wrote what goddess Sarala, his divine mother, inspired him to write. The words were hers; he was merely the scribe.

In Sarala’s retelling, both Duryodhana and Sakuni, died, not in disgrace but in glory. Duryodhana died, not as the Crown Prince of Hastinapura but as its king; before he died, he had condemned Ashwasthama for killing Draupadi’s children and he breathed his last embracing the severed heads of the children. Sakuni was doomed to avenge his father’s and relatives’ murder by Duryodhana through treachery. His father had asked him to do so. Sahadeva knew this, as did Krishna. Knowing that only Duryodhana was alive and that he could fall anytime, he could have returned to his kingdom to rule. But he chose to die in the battlefield as he considered himself responsible for the war and the killing of his nephews and of the innocent soldiers from both sides, whose war it was not.

Everyone knew that Karna was Kunti’s eldest-born and on the Kurukshetra battlefield itself, before the war started, Yudhisthira had pleaded with him to join them and become the king after the war was won. He had never said or done anything to humiliate Draupadi. He maintained the dignity of his relationship with her as the wife of his younger brothers. Neither had Draupadi done anything that had humiliated Karna, even before her wedding. She hadn’t forbidden Karna to participate in the archery test; Karna had tried and failed. He wanted to win the test because he wanted Draupadi for Duryodhana.

No one invited Yudhisthira to play a game of dice. Yudhisthira wanted to play and he expressed his desire to Sakuni, who obliged. It was then that Sakuni thought that he could use that opportunity to create hostility between the Pandavas and the Kauravas. It was the Sun god’s divine spouses, who clothed Draupadi, not Krishna; the god paid her for what he had taken from her in an earlier existence of her. Thus it was her karma that protected her. The Avatara was only the facilitator; he had reminded Draupadi and the Sun god about their karma.

In Sarala’s narrative, Drona and Drupada were never in any ashram, studying together and Drupada wanted to avenge his humiliation in the hands of the Kaurava princes. He wanted a girl child and conducted a yajna for that. Draupadi emerged from the sacred fire. For her father, she was merely an instrument for revenge. He taught her the use of weapons and wanted to have her married to Arjuna, thinking that someday, the Kauravas and the Pandavas would go to war for the throne. He was certain that the former would be destroyed in that war.

After her wedding, Draupadi lived the life of a good daughter-in-law of the Kuru family. She gave no reason to anyone to be unhappy with her, neither the Kauravas nor the Pandavas. There is no hint in Sarala’s narrative that anyone was upset with her in the least. The vastraharana event changed her. She never forgave Dussasana and Duryodhana; she bayed for their blood. Now, Duryodhana wanted to humiliate her in his court that day, not because he had any grouse against her; he wanted to humiliate the Pandavas by humiliating her. 

No one invited Yudhisthira to return to Hastinapura for a second game of dice. Unable to bear the agony of failure, he sought an opportunity to redeem his honour. In the second game of dice, it was not with the magic sticks of Sakuni that they played the game. It was not Sakuni who rolled the dice that day. It was Sahadeva. Sakuni was only an onlooker. Sahadeva ensured that the Pandavas lost. Divinely bestowed with special insight, he knew that that was what the gods wanted - the Pandavas’ exile was needed so that the wicked Kichaka could be killed. That was the cosmic design.

In the battlefield of Kurukshetra, Arjuna was reluctant to start the war because he would not attack anyone unless he was attacked. He would not strike first. War was papa (sinful) and the one who started it would be bear the burden of papa. He joined the war only after it had started. There is no Bhagavad Gita in Sarala Mahabharata. Krishna did not persuade Arjuna to fight; he did not say that it was his duty to do so. He left Arjuna to live by his own moral beliefs.

Bhishma did not enter the battlefield, deciding that he would not kill a Pandava; he had indeed tried to kill Arjuna, but unknown to everyone, gods and mortals, Krishna’s intervention saved Arjuna. For the war, Bhishma held the Pandavas responsible as well. It was not the case that there was no alternative to war; there was, certainly, the option of non-violent action. But that demanded great sacrifice; the Pandavas were not prepared for that. He said this to Arjuna in the battlefield when the latter told him how Duryodhana had thrust a war on them. Yudhisthira called the Kurukshetra war “dharma yuddha” because of the cause (from his point of view); Duryodhana also called it “dharma yuddha” but not because of the cause. He certainly did not believe that he had entered the battlefield with the banner of adharma. For him, it was dharma yuddha because the entire war field had become sacred on account of the Avatara’s presence there. He would be the witness to who was following dharma in the battlefield and who was not. This is what Duryodhana had told the Pandavas when the two sides had met to work out a war code to ensure that the fight between brothers did not sink to the level of barbarism. 

Draupadi had Dussasana’s blood all over her and a little of it touched her mouth as it flowed down from her head. It had to happen to her. Dussasana perished for his karma. Neither of them remembered their past. In the aeon of Truth (Satya Yuga), Dussasana, as Sudraka Brahma, had committed papa against goddess Ketuka, now born as Draupadi, in the aeon of Dwapara. Bhishma most willingly paid for the wrong he had done to Amba, then born as Shikhandi. During the war, one day, he pleaded with Krishna to allow Shikhandi to become the cause of his fall. Bhima fell to his death because Yudhisthira did not want him to go to Swarga, the abode of the gods, in his mortal form. He was prone to violence and was wicked; Yudhisthira ensured that he perished in the mountains. Granting his wish, goddess Hingula tore Bhima to pieces. And Yudhisthira went to Swarga, not because he wanted to, but because Krishna wanted him to go to there without passing through death.

Arjuna won the archery test because Krishna wanted him to win, Abhimanyu was killed because Krishna had assured the divine, which Abhimanyu really was, that he would return to Swarga the day he turned fourteen. So he had to engineer his death. Only Sahadeva knew about it. Gandhari wanted to destroy Yudhisthira but ended up destroying her son, Durdasa, who had survived the war and these happened on account of Krishna’s intervention. Duryodhana became king because of Krishna; only Vidura, Sakuni and Sanjaya knew that the Pandavas had not perished in the fire in the lac palace. Krishna had made Vidura, Sakuni and Sanjaya promise to him not to divulge the truth about the Pandavas. They betrayed King Dhritarashtra and the kingdom of Hastinapura but kept their word to the Avatara. Under the impression that the Pandavas were dead, Bhishma and other Kuru elders agreed to King Dhritarashtra’s proposal for Duryodhana’s coronation. Bhima dealt mortal blows to Duryodhana, not with his mace, but Vishnu’s, whose complete manifestation, Purna Avatara, Krishna was. No one knew. All in all, whatever happened in the world of Sarala Mahabharata, happened because of Krishna’s will. All who died in the battlefield of Kurukshetra were killed by Krishna’s divine chakra; humans in their illusion thought that they were the agents.  They were not even instruments. That was the lila of Krishna.

In Sarala Mahabharata, no one was entirely vicious and completely dedicated to adharma; no one was entirely without moral blemish and totally committed to dharma. In this retelling, the issue of the succession to the throne of Hastinapura was complex; the claims of both the Kauravas and the Pandavas for the throne were not without substance. Outsiders’ interventions complicated the issue further. The kingdom of Hastinapura was never divided formally, although the Pandavas and the Kauravas were living separately; the former in Varunavanta and the latter, in Hastinapura. Thus, Yudhisthira lost much wealth, which he had got as gift at the time of his wedding from Drupada and later from the kings who participated in the rajaswiya jajna he had performed, but he lost no kingdom as such in the first game of dice. Dhritarashtra returned whatever he had lost, not as the king of Hastinapura, which he was not then, as mentioned above, but as the Kuru elder.

These are only a few of the numerous differences between Vyasa Mahabharata and Sarala Mahabharata. Keeping the basic story intact, Sarala introduced innovations into the narrative. He re-imagined the characters and their interactions and the situations in which they were involved and produced the masterpiece of a narrative that was as convincing and coherent as the original. The innovations reflected the poet’s understanding of the human condition, the possibility of agency in a pre-determined world, karma and the inevitability of experiencing the fruits of it, the role of grace in the karmic framework, the nature of dharma, inner and external obstacles for living a life of dharma, divine intervention in the affairs of the mortals and the nature of Purna Avatara, among much else. The poet reflected on the place of war in a society, its inherent sinfulness as blood of the innocents flowed in the battlefield inevitably and the possibilities of there being alternatives to it.

A very innovative idea in Sarala Mahabharata concerns the question of why one must practice dharma. For Yudhisthira, the embodiment of dharma on earth and as such, the mouthpiece of “dharma” in the narrative, it is not for a life in Swarga after death, it is not to attain Swarga without passing through death, it is not even to escape the cycle of life and death and attain immortality; one must live a virtuous life because when he is gone, the future generations will talk about him as a follower of dharma – katha rahithiba (Word / The story will remain) as Sarala puts it. This is nothing short of a revolutionary point of view on the matter in the context of our puranic literature.

Perhaps the most creative concept in Sarala Mahabharata is that of Purna Avatara. Sarala explores the idea of the fullest manifestation of God in a human form, defined in terms of inclinations such as satwa, raja(s) and tama(s). Sarala conceptualized Purna Avatara as the one who has Self-Knowledge – knowledge that none has, neither gods nor mortals; as the one who embodies the ultimate expression of each of these gunas, which makes him, at the same time, the most spectacular among the created beings in satwic terms and the meanest of the humans in the tamasic terms. In him are manifest the most glaring contradictions. In none in the Creator god Brahma’s creation do these contradictions exist in non-conflicting togetherness.

This truly remarkable work has not yet been translated fully into any language. It seems that more than a hundred years ago, parts of it were translated into Bengali but this translation is unavailable now. In the recent years, the first two Parvas have been translated into Hindi and parts of two other Parvas, into English.

Sunday, October 6, 2019


I thought I should write a note to say why I posted a piece on Jaganath worship in this blog on Sarala Mahabharata.

Was Sarala the first to connect Krishna with Jagannath through a narrative? That might be the case, this post suggests.

The Musali Parva of Sarala Mahabharata connects Shri Krishna with Mahaprabhu Jagannath. Neither Srimad Bhagavata nor Harivansha nor Vyasa Mahabharata made this connection. Neither did Shreepurushottama-kshetra-mahatmyam of Skanda Purana, which deals with the origins of Jagannath and His worship in considerable detail. Neither did the twelfth-century poet Jayadeva. In his dasavatara (ten avataras) slokas, Keshava or Krishna is conceived as the Source and Matsya, Nrusingha, Vamana, Rama, etc. are his incarnations. Jagannath, who, some, but not Jayadeva, believe to be non-distinct from Buddha, is considered by them as the ninth avatara of Keshava. But Buddha was an avatara of Bhagawan Vishnu and that avatara shared with the Buddha of Buddhism only the name. To the best of my knowledge, the Gita Govinda says nothing that connects Krishna with Jagannath persuasively.

The celebrated Jagannathastakam, each stanza of which ends with “Jagannathah swami nayana pathagami bhabatu me”, relates Krishna with Jagannath. Aadi Shankaracharya is popularly believed to have composed this hymn but many argue, persuasively, that it was composed by Sri Chaitanya. In the sixth stanza, for instance, there is the mention of Radha but the special gopi (milkmaid) of Srimad Bhagavata came to be known as “Radha” in Brahmavaivarta Purana, composed centuries after Aadi Shankaracharya. If Sri Chaitanya composed this hymn, then it was after Sarala’s time.

So, was Sarala the first in the Jagannath narratives who created this connection between Krishna and Jaganath? I guess he was but am not sure; many puranas (Skanda Purana, Padma Purana, Narada Purana, Bhavishya Purana, among others) and at least one upapurana, namely Kalika Purana have mentioned Jagannath. There are other important texts dealing with Jagannath and His worship, such as Niladri Mahodaya and others composed in Odia, but these are post-Sarala, as far as I know. I haven’t read most of the puranas and the upapurana mentioned above. I will be grateful for help in this regard from friends who would care to read this post.

The barest essentials of the theme of the Krishna-Jagannath connection in Sarala Mahabharata is this: After Krishna departed from the mortal world, keeping his word to Angada, born as Jara, in the preceding yuga, Treta (in Musali Parva, the Divine Voice told Arjuna that Jara was Angada), Arjuna and Jara tried their best to cremate his body but did not succeed. Fire would not be able to consume the body, said the Divine Voice from the sky and directed them to float it in the sea, which they did. As Arjuna left for Dwaraka, he asked Jara to keep watch over the body.  Jara followed it. As far as I understand the narrative, this story effectively ends here; its continuation till the emergence of Jagannath is mediated by the Divine Voice from the sky, instructions from Krishna to king Indradyumna during dreams, etc. But this Krishna can only be a name of the Supreme god, Narayana, the avatara Krishna’s Source, because the avatara Krishna had merged into Him after he left the mortal world. In this part of the narrative, both “Narayana” and “Krishna” are used, but they have the same reference, to my mind, namely, the Avatari (the Source). Now, why did the poet use the word “Krishna” then? I surmise that he did so in order to suggest that Musali Parva was a continuation of his Mahabharata, although the Kurus had no presence in the narrative of the emergence of Jagannath. But there was Jara in Musali Parva, who figures both in the Mahabharata narrative and the one of the origins of Jagannath.

But is the Jara of the Mahabharata and the Jara of the Jagannath narrative in Musali Parva, the same person? As far as I m concerned, the answer is “no”. In Sarala Mahabharata, Jara is a name borne by different savaras in different times. Jara was another name of Ekalavya, Jara was the son of Kiratasena, the ruler of a forest kingdom, Jara was the one whose arrow had mortally wounded Krishna, Jara was the name of the savara who worshipped Neela Madhava and Jara was the one who was chosen by Krishna (Narayana, because Krishna had merged in Him) to play a crucial role in the making of Jagannath and later, His worship.

To me, Sarala uses “Krishna” and “Jara” as terms that connect the narrative of the Kurus and the narrative of the origins of Jagannath – these terms occur in both. This is a lexical strategy that the poet used. Had he used “Narayana” instead of “Krishna”, who, to repeat, had lost his identity after returning to his Source, and some other name for the particular savara to distinguish him from the other Jaras, the two narratives would not have been as unobtrusively blended as they are in Sarala Mahabharata.    

The savara’s involvement in Jagannath worship makes this worship unique. A savara is outside of the caste system and when he enters it in Jagannath worship as a daita or daitapati (name of a group of servitors in Jagannath worship), he does so as a non-brahmin. The daitas perform intimate seva (ritual service) of Jagannath (a cover term for Jagannath, Balabhadra, Subhadra and Sudarshana) during anasara (during which period, He is accessible only to two categories of servitors: daitapati and pati mahapatra, a brahmin but not a shotriya brahmin); they take care of the Murtis. Anasara ritual requires the seva of both daitapatis and pati mahapatras. Sarala is certainly not the first who articulated this inclusive form of worship, but I feel confident to assert that no one had assigned a more crucial role to the savara in the relevant narrative than him.

Mahastami, 2019