Saturday, March 7, 2020

NARAYANA AND HIS GRACE


Deeply offended by Krishna’s plain speaking, Duryodhana lost his temper and started abusing him. To be fair, his feeling humiliated and even being angry at what Krishna had told him is not un-understandable, although one could hardly deny that he had asked for it. But his being abusive was certainly inappropriate, at least in view of the fact that Krishna was a messenger, no matter how badly he might have conducted himself, in his view. Losing his cool, he held his mace and moved menacingly towards Krishna. He shouted to his brothers Dussasana, Durvinda, Durjaya, and in no time they were ready to attack the Avatara with their maces, swords, spears and the like. The sages who were with Krishna withdrew in fear, as did the courtiers.

Krishna did not want to harm them; he was there in Duryodhana’s court as Yudhisthira’s messenger for peace; it was another matter that his own agenda was very different, about which the eldest Pandava had no knowledge. But hurting the Kauravas, he knew, would be unacceptable to both dharma and the son of Dharma. So he decided to frighten them. He knew that they were looking upon him as a low-born and arrogant cowherd and he thought he would let them know who he really was. He presumed that once they knew the truth about him, they would refrain from attacking him.

So he transformed himself into a huge Fish. The Kauravas were surprised. “Look at what the mean cowherd has done – look at how he has changed himself into a fish!”, they shouted. Now, killing snakes, tigers and fish was permitted by the shastras, they told one another; so Dussasana raised his huge mace to hit the fish. Then suddenly the Fish disappeared and, in Its place, appeared a big Tortoise. Dussasana’s mace broke into pieces as it hit its back. The same happened to the swords, maces, spears and all other weapons of his brothers as they struck the tortoise. “Look at this miserable coward”, said the Kauravas, “see, how, for fear of being hurt, he has turned himself into a tortoise!”

Krishna was wondering how very ignorant the Kauravas were - they were not able to make sense of what they had seen: kebana murkha ye kaurabe na jananti kichhi (how unlearned, how ignoramus these Kauravas are; they know nothing.). Hoping to help them, he became a gigantic Boar. “Look at the lowly cowherd”, said the Kauravas,” he has now become a boar, of all creatures!” Then the Boar became a Dwarf. This was extremely hilarious for the Kauravas and they made fun of the dwarf. “Look, how in fear the coward cowherd has changed into a dwarf!”, they said, and promptly rushed to hit him. 

“How very ignorant are these Kauavas!”, thought Krishna, “they see, yet they do not see.” In a flash, the Dwarf vanished and manifest in His place was the Dazzling, Magnificent and Terrifying Man-Lion. The Kauravas fled in fear.  

Later, at night fall, in the assembly of sages, in the august presence of the great Markandya, Kashyapa and their like, sage Vyasa said that the Kauravas were truly great sages, who, by their enmity, had pleased Narayana. They had seen Five Avataras of Him, one after the other - an experience that one, who has done tapas across a thousand births, would not have. None among the mortals and immortals, in any aeon, had ever had that profoundly blissful experience. In the context of navadha bhakti (nine forms of devotion), droha (enmity) can be said to be the tenth bhakti. Or, was the end of the Kauravas near, because of which, the Supreme god Narayana in His boundless grace, had revealed Himself to them in His many incarnations, mulled the celebrated Vyasa.

Thus, in Sarala Mahabharata, no one is excluded from His grace; the virtuous and the sinner, the wise and the fool, the believer and the sceptic, the devotee and the enemy. When Krishna killed with his Sudarshana Chakra, that was an act of grace for the “victim” – he attained moksa. What the severed head of Belalsena saw with the purity of vision, in the battlefields of dharma kshetra, that was Kurukshetra, rendered divinely blessed by the Avatara’s presence, was that it was Sudarshana that killed warriors on both sides – not just one side. Among those who fell thus were the virtuous and the sinners both (see “Divya Chaksu” posted in this blog on 24.2.18). But Sudarshana was only the instrument; the agent was Krishna. This was how Sarala expressed the vision of Srimad Bhagavad Gita: he had already killed all who were to be killed, Krishna told Arjuna, asking him to be only a nimitta

Because of ignorance, the ordinary, unevolved mortals, do not realize that they too are the blessed receivers of His grace. Later that day, Duryodhana told his father Dhritarashtra and mother Gandhari how deeply disappointed he had been with Krishna. His conduct in the court had been disgraceful, he told his parents. He had behaved like an actor in an opera, who changed his appearance many times for the stage. He assumed the illusory forms of fish, tortoise, boar, dwarf and man-lion, one after the other, he told them. Dhritarashtra knew what that meant. He was deeply concerned and pleaded with his son not to go to war against the Pandavas. Disgusted and angry with his advice, Duryodhana left.

The following day, before the court started, Sakuni met him and advised him not to yield to the magic that Krishna had shown the day before. He was like an opera actor, changing appearances, he told him: aho natakara lokankara yesaneka gati / ksane ksane dharanti se anu ana murati (listen, this is how actors behave/ they assume one appearance now, another the next moment). Sarala’s Sakuni knew the truth but misguiding the king was necessary for the accomplishment of his mission.

 In this very short sub-episode of just thirty-five couplets, Sarala deals, in his remarkable story-telling mode, with the classic question of how one acquires the knowledge that makes one see the real nature of things. One thing is certain: from direct, perceptual experience one cannot arrive at the truth. Intervention of pure jnana is needed that would remove the layers of illusion that conceal the truth. But how does one acquire that? The Upanishads and the Puranas would give different answers: the realization of the Brahman is not attainable through grace in the puranic sense. One answer in Sarala Mahabharata is this: one does, when one receives Narayana’s grace. Thus, Belalsena saw things that the Pandavas did not.  Thus, the Kauravas saw Krishna transforming himself into a fish, a tortoise, a boar, a dwarf and a man-lion. Sage Vyasa saw something else.  

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

SARALA'S SAHADEVA AND HIS BOON!


As god Ashwini Kumara shared his life with the dead child, life returned to him. He was born and had died as Pandu’s (and Madri’s) son but now he became the god’s son as well. His divine father gave him a name: “Sahadeva” – literally, a companion(saha) god (deba), but perhaps best understood as a celestial like his father. Ashwini Kumara also gave him a boon: he would only have to look at his palms and the entire universe would be visible to him. Not merely that, he would be the knower of the past, the present and the future, which would make him the wisest advisor. If anyone asked him, he would certainly tell him (or her) what would happen to him or what had happened to him, depending on the question, one should think: je tote pachariba gata agata katha / abasya tu kahibu bhuta bhabishya barata (whoever would ask you about the past or the future / you would certainly tell him about the past and the future).  The word “abasya” (must/certainly) suggests that once asked, he would be obliged to tell the truth but there is nothing about the boon that tells us how it would affect Sahadeva if he chose not to tell. There is nothing in it also that tells us that he had to tell the truth in a direct and straightforward manner - without having recourse to ambiguity or metaphor or circumlocution, maybe in difficult circumstances, leaving it to the asker to apply his mind to get at the intended message. Sahadeva knew about his special powers; so did everyone in the world of Sarala Mahabharata.

   When, in the “Mango of Truth” episode, Krishna asked the Pandavas and Draupadi to tell some truth about themselves, Sahadeva said that he knew the past, the present and the future but he would not tell anyone things on his own. He would tell only when asked and the asker then would never be in difficulty. In Swargarohana Parva, when Sahadeva fell to his death on the icy and windy Himalayas, Yudhisthira told Bhima, who had drawn his attention to his fall, to abandon him and not to grieve for him. He was a sinner and grievous was his sin. His sin, said the son of Dharma, who in this episode the very Voice of Dharma, was that he knew the past, the present and the future but would keep mum. Had he said what would happen, what all happened would not have happened (see, in this blog, “The Death of Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva”, posted on 23.2.14). Unlike in Vyasa Mahabharata where Sahadeva’s sin was his arrogance for his knowledge, here it was his failure to keeping what he knew to himself when saying what he knew would have helped everyone. The Mahabharata world would not have suffered that destruction of colossal proportions.

   But why didn’t Yudhisthira ask? He knew, once asked, Sahadeva would speak the truth. Actually, he had asked him, as they were preparing for the war, in the presence of everyone including the Avatara. Sahadeva had told him that he knew what would happen but wouldn’t tell. He was afraid of bother Bhima, he told the eldest Pandava.  During a war, one side would not win every day; some days the enemy would win. Even Bhagawan Rama did not win everyday during his war with Ravana. The war between the Kauravas and the Pandavas would not be different. Sahadeva was afraid that if he said that on a certain day the Pandavas would lose, brother Bhima would bash him up badly.  Truth cannot be told to everyone; only those who had the composure to receive it, can be told the truth.

   But was Sahadeva’s fear justified? Was Bhima incapable of accepting the truth? He was, as the Belalsen episode shows. Shortly after the war, on one lazy day, the Pandavas, Kunti, Draupadi and Subhadra were sitting with Krishna and they soon started talking about who really had won the war. Each was claiming that the victory was solely due to him or her. It didn’t take long for their exchange to degrade into an unpleasant faceoff. Krishna told them that if they wanted to know the truth, they should ask the severed head of Belasena who had seen the war from the beginning to the end. When they asked him, what he said was entirely unexpected; he said that he hadn’t seen anyone killing anyone else. All he had seen was a resplendent, dazzling chakra (discus), shining brighter than myriad suns, moving to and fro in the war fields, killing warriors on both sides (see “The Story of Belalsena” in this blog, posted on 15.8.17). His father, Bhima, was so upset with his son’s not supporting his assertion that he slapped the head hard. It fell from the top of the post, from where he had witnessed the war and died. The Avatara absorbed his essence and freed him from the cycle of karma. This shows that Sahadeva’s apprehensions about Bhima were not unfounded. Bhima was not the one who was evolved enough to accept truth.

   But why didn’t Yudhisthira ask him about the result when he was going to play the second game of dice, which led to the exile of the Pandavas for long thirteen years, including the year when they had to spend incognito? It didn’t occur to him to ask. He had been obsessed with defeat in the first game of dice and was desperate to play again and win. Winning the game of dice had become a fixation with him. So he went to Hastinapura with his brothers and Draupadi to play another game with Duryodhana, rather Sakuni. No one had asked him to play again (see “The Second Game of Dice”, posted in this blog on 7.5.2010).

   But when the fateful time came, which was the time of reckoning, Yudhisthira condemned Sahadeva as a sinner.

   To close, let us return to the second game of dice, it was Sahadeva, not Sakuni, who rolled the dice cubes that day for both Yudhisthira and Duryodhana. Sahadeva ensured that Yudhisthira lost. That was what the gods wanted.  Sahadeva knew that; he knew more than the past, the present and the future. Carrying god Ashwini Kumara’s life in him, Sahadeva was a deva, as mentioned earlier.

   No one ever knew what Sahadeva had done that day. If anyone did, it was Krishna and he didn’t have to be told. In Sarala Mahabharata, there was nothing that he did not know and there was nothing that took place without his will.  

Thursday, February 6, 2020

WHEREFORE "THE MANGO OF TRUTH"?


I am rephrasing a question a young researcher-participant at a Sarala Mahabharata conference asked me the other day: what purpose – narrative, philosophical, aesthetic, etc. – does the episode of “The Mango of Truth” serve in Sarala’s Mahabharata? It was heartening that he was thinking beyond the familiar enumeration of the differences between Vyasa’s Mahabharata and Sarala’s Mahabharata that broadly describes most of Sarala Mahabharata scholarship so far. The following is a reconstruction of a meandering conversation we had that afternoon.

The episode of “The Mango of Truth” does not occur in Vyasa Mahabharata. It is not unique to Sarala Mahabharata, although sometimes it has been claimed to be so by some Sarala scholars of Odisha; a marginally different version of this episode occurs in the Bengali Kashidasi Mahabharata, for example. The poet Kashiram Das was influenced by Sarala’s retelling of Vyasa Mahabharata and it is possible that the source of his story of the fruit of truth was Sarala’s story of the mango of truth. This story occurs in this blog: saralamahabharat.blogspot.com; it was posted on 9.6.2008. I feel there is no need to summarize it here.

This episode is only loosely connected, in my view, with Sarala’s narrative of the Kurus and it does not contribute to the development of the plot. Nor does it throw any new light on the characters or contribute to their development. For some, the main objective of the episode is to punish Draupadi for her arrogance. From their point of view, she was punished when she belittled herself by declaring, in front of her husbands, sage Vyasa and the Avatara himself, a flaw on her part in her dealing with her husbands. In one version of Sarala Mahabharata, she said that although she had five husbands, she cherished Arjuna the most. In another version of the same text (contained in some palm leaf manuscripts or pothis), she said that despite her having five husbands, she felt inclined towards Karna. In yet another, the reason for her attraction is given: it is in women’s nature, she observed, to be attracted towards handsome males and Karna’s handsomeness was the reason for her attraction towards him.

In Sarala’s retelling, Draupadi could be harsh and unforgiving, but boastful and arrogant? That she certainly was not. There is no clear evidence in the text for this. She said that she was fonder of Arjuna than she was of her other four husbands but that was only in her mind; her action did not show her partiality toward Arjuna at all. None of her husbands ever even mentioned this, let alone complained about it. On her part, she too had not complained against any of her husbands with regard to the way each of them had treated her. It is not in Sarala Mahabharata that she expressed a wish while dying that in their next life, Bhima be born as the eldest brother.  

It is in the Swargarohana Parva of the canonical version in Sanskrit that Yudhisthira said that Draupadi had fallen because she had been partial towards Arjuna in terms of affection. Not in Sarala Mahabharata; here he blamed her for being unforgiving. True, the ignoramus Kauravas had humiliated her, but for the embodiment of Dharma, there was no humiliation that could not be forgiven.

Now, what Draupadi said was her secret. The narrative, till then, had provided not even the slightest hint about her special feelings for Arjuna (or Karna, as in some other versions of Sarala Mahabharata). But then it did not exploit it for the development of the plot or for a deeper exploration of Draupadi’s character. It just left it as it was.  

By the way, this episode is not to be taken as confessional; such a reading is not in tune with the text. The Avatara told the Pandavas and Draupadi that each of them must pronounce something that was true about him or her: nirutanta satya kahiba chhadiba je mithya prakruti (roughly, “you will speak the truth and not tell anything that is untrue”). He did not ask them to reveal some dark secret of theirs - some serious indiscretion or sin, in thought or in action. That was not necessary for the ripe mango of truth to materialize. Yudhisthira said that he was committed to a virtuous life, that he spoke the truth and did not hurt the living, but would fight for his share of the kingdom. That is, his commitment to non-violence was not total. Should this be taken as an admission of his moral weakness, he being the very embodiment of virtue in the world of the mortals? Or merely as the statement of a fact? Given that the Avatara hadn’t asked him to confess but only say some truth about himself, it is entirely appropriate to interpret it as a “statement of fact”.  

Let’s see what Sahadeva said. He said that he knew the past, the present and the future but would not volunteer to tell anyone about what was awaiting him (or her) or what had happened to him in an earlier existence: janikari na kahai muhin… (roughly, “I know but do not tell…”). He would tell only when asked and no one who asked him would suffer, he said. Incidentally, in Sarala Mahabharata, he was not constrained not to tell anyone on his own what would happen or to tell someone what would happen, even when asked, although that was what he almost always did. This is no place for a detailed discussion of this matter so; let us leave it here.

In Swargarohana Parva, Yudhisthira called him a great sinner who knew the future but would not tell. Had he told him what were going to happen, what all happened would not have happened. But when Sahadeva told Krishna about it, was he confessing, did he have a sense of guilt about it? Neither his words nor the tone of his declaration even remotely suggests this.  What he told the Avatara is best interpreted as a statement of fact. The same would hold for what Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula and Draupadi had pronounced about themselves.  

However, the episode, undoubtedly, has great interest value and it would be no exaggeration to say that it has appealed to the imagination of generations of Odias including those not really familiar with Sarala Mahabharata and has almost become part of Odia cultural consciousness, almost like Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda or Salabega’s bhajans (devotional songs). One might suggest that this itself must count as justification enough for its occurrence in the narrative. This apart, aren’t loosely connected episodes a characteristic feature of epics and puranas? So, wherefore the fuss?

Let’s linger a while on this episode and rethink it, taking a clue from Sarala’s repeated assertions throughout his Mahabharata that it is Vishnu Purana. As he used the story of the Kurus to expatiate on the lila of Krishna, it became almost “krishna charita bhagavata (“Bhagavata, the story of Krishna”, to quote the words of Jagannath Das, the author of Srimad Bhagabata in Odia); at least in spirit. As he narrated the lila of Krishna, he created stories of the Avatara’s doings, which were not there in the Sanskrit puranic texts on the subject. The story of the mango of truth is one such. It is not really the Pandavas’ story or Draupadi’s. It is Krishna’s story. With the power of the Pandavas’ and Draupadi’s truth, he had made the impossible possible, and with the power of his own lies, which, he told the fake sage, were all true, he destroyed what truth had created and thereby restored normalcy in Brahma’s creation. There is no point asking whether the mango that truth had created was real or only appeared to be real and what Krishna destroyed by uttering falsehood in the name of truth was unreal or real.

Viewed thus, as the narration of a lila of Krishna in what Sarala called “Vishnu Purana”, the episode is not loosely connected with the narrative but is indeed an integral part of it.

A thought just to close: Sarala’s audience might or might not have been troubled over whether the mango was real or only an appearance but I imagine they must have returned home that day feeling divinely happy, which is the real phla shruti of listening to the lila of Krishna.