Sahadeva faced his uncle Sakuni on the battlefield. In Krishna’s presence they had together planned the destruction of the Kauravas. Sahadeva knew Sakuni’s motive in driving Duryodhana to war against the Pandavas; he knew that Sakuni was seeking revenge. As they faced each other in the battlefield, Sahadeva asked Sakuni why he was still fighting. He had achieved his objectives, he told him; therefore he should return to his kingdom and rule instead of participating in a meaningless war, he said.
Sakuni’s reply is remarkable for the deep sadness of its tone. There is a distinct note of repentance of a kind, something to which we will return. Hadn’t he shared his problem with him, and hadn’t he told him about his determination to take revenge, he would tell Sahadeva as cordially as an elder would to a younger member of the family. As though to justify himself, he recounted again how Duryodhana had ruthlessly destroyed his innocent father and his relatives and friends. Then he went on to recount in a faint tone of remorse how he had systematically worked out his revenge; he was the one behind every thing that the Kauravas had done to harm the Pandavas – from giving poisonous sweets to Bhima to getting Abhimanyu mercilessly killed. Innumerable soldiers had perished in the Kurukshetra battlefield; among them were brahmins, kshyatriyas, vaishyas and sudras, and also daityas, daanavas, raakshyasas (roughly “demons”). After all this, he simply couldn’t go on living. He was carrying an enormous load of sin, and had to make amends in a way commensurate with the gravity and the measure of the sin he had committed. The only thing left for him was to make the ultimate sacrifice in the battlefield. And then dying in the battlefield of Kurukshetra was no ordinary dying!
What better way was there for a warrior to die than in the battlefield looking at Krishna – Narayana himself! – on Arjuna’s chariot, Sakuni told Sahadeva. Even he who had committed grievous sins would ascend to vaikuntha, the very abode of Narayana. He had rejected life for such a death, he told Sahadeva.
The next time Sakuni faced Sahadeva, he attacked him, and shot thousands of arrows at him. Sahadeva told him again to withdraw from the war. He had given the wealth and prosperity of Duryodhana who was his own to the Pandavas, who were the other – he was the one who had harmed his own and done good to the other. Why should a wise person like him participate in a fruitless war and seek to destroy himself, he asked him. This time Sakuni did not say anything of the kind he had in their previous meeting. He merely challenged Sahadeva and continued to shoot arrows at him. The poet Sarala does not spend many couplets on this engagement – after a brief fight Sahadeva cut off Sakuni’s head, and closed his story.
In Saaralaa Mahaabhaarata Sakuni’s awareness of his guilt attracts attention both for its moral essence and for the sharp contrast it presents with respect to almost all other characters, more specifically the Pandavas. Like the vanquished, the victors were no saints; in fact, as far as the war was concerned, it was the Kauravas who violated the war ethics on far fewer occasions than did the Pandavas. The victory of the Pandavas was founded on various acts of adharma on the battlefield. For every unethical act of theirs they had found justification in earlier events such as Draupadi’s dishonour in the Kaurava court, or the killing of Abhimanyu. Bhima never had any feeling of guilt for his beastly conduct as he killed Dussasana, and for his felling Duryodhana and thereby mortally wounding him in an impermissible manner. Arjuna too had never felt guilty in the least for his killing of Karna when he was clearly in a position of great disadvantage. That he did it at Krishna’s behest does not absolve him of the crime in any way, since he after all was not unaware of the rules of the war, and did not lack a cultivated mind. He had a sound education not merely in the science of warfare, but also in the ethics of it. Yudhisthira did not repent the part he played in the killing of his preceptor. He did not regret the destruction of Durdasa who had abandoned his Kaurava brothers and had fought on his side. The less said about the Pandava women in this connection, the better. Draupadi and Kunti had relentlessly incited the Pandava brothers and Krishna to destroy the Kauravas, and they never had the slightest sense of remorse for their role in the massive destruction that the war caused. When Kunti somewhat accusingly asked Krishna who had killed Draupadi’s children, Krishna silenced her saying tumhe go kaurabanta kete abasta na kala (“what all did you not do to the Kauravas”). Responding to Gandhari’s question as to why she was joining them as they were retiring to the forest, leaving her sons at the time of their prosperity, Kunti said that she was really a very unhappy woman having lost her son Karna, grandchildren Ghatotkacha and Abhimanyu, and her relatives in the war. Flabbergasted, when Yudhisthira asked her why she had in the first place pushed them to war, she put an end to this talk saying that one must not think of things past because it would affect one’s health (gata kathaa socanaa kale sarira hoye khinna — “pondering over the past causes ill health”) – she uttered not a word of remorse.
Sakuni’s agony was both for what he had done, and for the circumstances that made him do what he did, and on which he had absolutely no control. He saw himself as the victim of circumstances, but did not justify his actions on that account. He had absolutely no hesitation about owning up his responsibility for what he had done. Avenging the killing of his innocent father and relatives was his duty in accordance with the social code of those days, but again he did not absolve himself of what he had done on that account. He no doubt resorted to various devious means, including hypocrisy, conspiring with the enemy, and blatant treachery, but before one judges him harshly for this, one might consider that his were the means of the weak – he was in no position to challenge the mighty Kauravas and achieve his objective. In some ways he was the original Kautilya.
In Saaralaa Mahaabhaarata Sakuni alone had a thought for the ordinary soldiers who perished in the war. Surely like other rulers Sakuni also believed that the soldier’s duty was to fight for his king, and that a soldier could never be a loser, because if he lost his life while fighting in the battlefield, he went to heaven. But he was too much of a humanist to remain content with this belief, and too much of a realist to know the value of remaining alive.
Sarala created the character of Sakuni with abundant sympathy. Some say that he was not the first to provide Sakuni with a legitimate motive (may not be the one that Sarala did) for his contemptible action. But very probably Sarala was the first to give him a second choice (and a second chance) where he amply redeemed himself. The first choice was in the manner he chose to take revenge. He could choose to fight Duryodhana and perish, or gain his confidence and push him to his destruction. He chose the second alternative. The second came when he knew that he had succeeded in his mission. He could go home and rule, or renounce all that and sacrifice his life as an act of atonement. In the battlefield Sahadeva only externalized what he was fully aware of; in saying what he did, Sahadeva was functioning only as his other self. He chose the latter option, and certainly not just because his father had told him so. In the eyes of Sarala, he was a sufficiently moral person to make that choice.