On Two Acts of Revenge

There are two major acts or revenge in Sarala’s Mahabharata (also called Saaralaa Mahaabhaarata here, following popular usage, in which the creator’s name becomes part of that of his creation): Duryodhana’s and Sakuni’s. Duryodhana avenged a perceived wrong done to his father by destroying his maternal grandfather, all his sons, his close relatives and friends, except Sakuni. We do not wish to go here into what low cunning he resorted to in order to lure his victims to their own destruction, what inhuman cruelty he had subjected them to, and how just one man survived his destructive design. However we would like to clarify that making that exception for Sakuni was not intentional on Duryodhana’s part. It was an accidental event that led the crown prince to think that the sole survivor would prove to be very useful in his fight with the Pandavas; so he made him a minister, ignoring his mother’s warning that her brother Sakuni was a dangerous person, and would surely take revenge.

This was precisely what Sakuni did. He was in no position to avenge the killing of his father and his brothers on his own strength. The Kauravas were just far too powerful. What Sakuni did for revenge was what the weak can do to annihilate the mighty. He abandoned the straight path, and followed the devious route. He soon became the crown prince’s confidant, and his principal adviser. It was he who pushed Duryodhana to the disastrous war, when all his elders had advised the crown prince against it. Thus these two acts of revenge converged on the battlefields of Kurukshetra where Duryodhana and his brothers were wiped out.

In those violent days revenge was elevated, for the elite at least, to the status of a duty, even a sacred duty, when it came to one’s family. The two acts of revenge under reference here differed in certain ways, and most of them could be located in the two agents – what they thought was adequate justification for their action, and what they thought of the action itself. Duryodhana’s revenge was a sickly arrogant response to what he felt was an affront to his self-esteem. His feeling that his father had been wronged by his maternal grandfather was nothing but an exercise in either self-deception or rationalization. Before his mother Gandhari married his father Dhritarashtra, she had been married to a saahadaa tree which died the moment the marriage took place. On account of some unfortunate constellation of stars at the time of her birth, her husband was doomed to die. So following the great sage Vyasa’s advice, her father first married her to the tree in order to neutralize the malignant effect, and then married her to Dhritarashtra. From Duryodhana’s point of view his maternal grandfather had done a grievous wrong to his father by giving him a widow in marriage. This he thought called for revenge. It is another matter that others, including his mother, did not think that Dhritarashtra had been wronged. But revenge is not merely intensely personal, it is intensely blind too.

In Sakuni’s case, he, the eldest son of the king of Gandhar, was the chosen avenger by the members of his family who were dying a slow death. They made sacrifice in order for him to live. And before his father died, he told him what course of action to follow in order to avenge their deaths. He also told him that after taking revenge, he must not live – one could not destroy one’s nephews and continue living thereafter. Thus Sakuni had to perform a double duty, which he did.

Karna had just fallen, as had Bhishma, Drona, and other great Kaurava warriors, and all the Kaurava princes with the exception of Duryodhana. As Sakuni and Sahadev faced each other on the battlefield, the latter told the former that since his purpose had been served, he had no reason to take part in the war and should go back to his kingdom instead and rule there. Sakuni told him that he had sinned grievously by being the cause of the death of his nephews, other relations, dynasties, and also of innumerable soldiers. He had thus forfeited his right to live and had to atone for it by sacrificing his life in the battlefield. He challenged Sahadev on the last day of the war, and was killed by him.

In those days when successful revenge was a matter of honour and glory and even of otherworldly merit, Sakuni’s put an emphatic question mark on this attitude to revenge. He knew, as did his father, that one could not destroy others without committing oneself to destroy oneself in the process. Thus his act of revenge was simultaneously his act of suicide. Sakuni’s revenge dharma detached him from his act of revenge because one cannot choose to commit suicide without detachment from self. He acted when he systematically executed his revenge on Duryodhana, and was true to self when he fought Sahadev on the eighteenth day of the war with full knowledge of the result of that engagement.

In contrast to his maternal uncle, Duryodhana was a man of his time. He had internalized its values, and did not critique them. As such, revenge for him was a demand of justice; that was why it was a noble act. In his consuming arrogance and his intense hatred of the Pandavas, he never realized that he could himself be a victim of that hatred – after all, it resided in him, and pervaded his whole being. It is easy to condemn him, as his elders often did, but they didn’t help him grow up. He remains an object of pity.

Duryodhana died with the same illusion with which he had lived ever since he made Sakuni his minister; his faith in Sakuni was intact. Almost every elder and every well-wisher in his family had warned him that Sakuni was untrustworthy and would avenge his family’s killing, and drive him to his destruction, but he had complete trust in him. Sakuni’s death plunged him into abject despair – perhaps the ultimate disaster that one could suffer. One feels sorry for him, he was a man betrayed by the one his faith on whom had never wavered. If there was one good that Sakuni had done him, intentionally or unintentionally, we can never be certain, it was this: even at the very end he didn’t tell him the truth about himself.

At the same time this was the ultimate deception of uncle Sakuni. He withheld the truth from the victim. Perhaps the victim had a right to know. He could have breathed his last with knowledge which would have been redeeming. Perhaps justice demanded that the condemned knew why he had been punished.

But let us not be harsh on Sakuni. Here was a man who had condemned himself the day he had decided that he would take revenge. He had signed a bond with his relatives in their blood that he would avenge their miserable death. He lived a life acting, to redeem that pledge. He succeeded, but the success gave him no satisfaction, no sense of fulfillment. Instead it had filled him with a profound sense of sin. At this point of time, the only image of Duryodhana he had was that of his nephew. He wanted to pay the price with all earnestness, and walked on to his death. At that moment he was lonely, utterly lonely, emptied inside of every feeling and thought except the reassuring thought of his own death through which he knew would come his redemption. His language was already dead within him, what could he have told anybody anyway?

One Reply to “On Two Acts of Revenge”

  1. Congratulations on bringing this work to the light of Mahabharata readership. It is indeed a fascinating account which many may not be aware of. I am wondering if there are different versions of other ineteresting episodes like the marriage of Draupadi to five Pandavas, and other innumerable episodes from the vana-parvan. This blog should be linked to other versions of Mahabharata in Indian and other cultures. For example, there was a theatre and film version of Mahabharata by Peter Brook with its own interpretation of the main story.I am sure this work of yours will add a newer dimension to the whole story of Mahabharata.


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