Bhima had of course made a pledge to do to Dussasana precisely what he did. Thus he redeemed the pledge, and the moral code of those days arguably validated it. In fact, Krishna, for one, repeatedly justified his action on that ground. But what kind of a pledge was it then? Granted, it was a vow made in intensely trying circumstances. However the day he uttered the terrible vow and the day he redeemed it were separated by more than thirteen years – years of mental and physical suffering for the Pandavas, no doubt, but it was surely a period long enough for reflection too. And Bhima was neither devoid of basic moral sense nor unlearned in the shastras. He relished fighting, as Sarala said of him in his narrative, but he wasn’t a warmonger. Didn’t it ever occur to him that the vow he had made to give his disgraced and humiliated wife justice was fundamentally unjust because it involved reducing himself to the level of a beast? This might not be a meaningless question if one considers his initial disinclination for war to win back their kingdom that Duryodhana had usurped through deceit. Before going to the Kaurava court as Yudhisthira’s emissary, when Krishna met him and told him that his elder brother did not want war and would be content with just one village, Bhima requested him to ask Duryodhana for one more village because one village for the five of them would be insufficient in view of his rather embarrassingly excessive need for food. Krishna had to work on his psyche to get his consent for war.
Poor Dussasana! In Draupadi’s humiliation he was only obeying his elder brother Duryodhana’s orders. In Saaralaa Mahaabhaarata, if he took initiative in this matter at any stage, it was arguably only in the beginning, when after Yudhisthira lost Draupadi in the game of dice and Duryodhana wanted Draupadi, then reduced to a slave, to be brought to the court to join her husbands who had also been reduced to the same position, Dussasana, although not specifically called upon to do so by his elder brother, went to bring her from the inner quarters, and dragged her out, tugging at her hair. If this amounts to taking initiative, then Dussasana is guilty of the same. After that he did only what his brother asked him to do. The decision to humiliate Draupadi in the court was not at all his.
In fact Dussasana did not bring Draupadi to the Kaurava court straightaway when she told him that she was menstruating. He came to court alone and informed his brother about her state. It was only on Duryodhana’s orders that he dragged her to the court. Again Dussasana did not suggest Draupadi’s disrobing. It was his brother’s decision. He only tried to do what he was asked to do.
But this of course does not justify his doings. There was no question of his protesting, since he didn’t think that he was doing anything wrong. In Saaralaa Mahaabhaarata there is no evidence that he thought differently from Duryodhana on this or any other matter. Besides, in all that he did, he was not a reluctant participant, but an enthusiastic agent. He relished it all. Incidentally, in Sarala’s narrative, no one in the Kaurava court raised a voice of protest against Duryodhana’s decision and Dussasana’s action .
But in all fairness, one must not judge any of the three involved harshly, namely, Dussasana and Bhima for what they had done, and the cruel, unforgiving Draupadi, who relentlessly drove her husbands to war because she could be avenged, and who insisted that her hair be washed with Dussasana’s blood. The reason is that in Saaralaa Mahaabhaarata, Bhima could not have done things substantially differently, and poor Dussasana was doomed to die almost the way he did. And Draupadi too had to taste his blood.
The genesis of it all lay in something that had happened aeons and aeons ago – that was the dawn of creation, when from the residue things were to begin again. From the tears of Vishnu, who had opened eyes for a split second, emerged fifteen Brahmas, and then Vishnu closed his eyes and resumed his yoga nidraa (“yogic posture”, literally “yogic sleep”). The Brahmas saw Saraswati at Vishnu’s head, and wanted sex with her. Angry, the mother goddess created Ketuka, and as the Brahmas surrounded her to sexually assault her, Saraswati asked her to devour them. One by one she devoured all but one, Sudraka Brahma, who prayed to Vishnu for protection. Vishnu asked Ketuka to spare him, but Saraswati intervened and told him that Sudraka was really wicked, and had sought sex with her. Vishnu asked her to spare him till the aeon of Dwapara. Ketuka, he told her, would be born as Draupadi then, and would have five Pandavas as her husband, and Sudraka Brahma would be born as Dussasana. He would torment her in public, and her husband Bhima would avenge her by dismembering him in the battlefield. He would pour his blood on his her hair, and it would be then that she would savour his blood. The script was already there. Thus as re-enactment of the past event, Dussasana’s torment of Draupadi had to have sexual overtones, reminiscent of the Brahmas’ attitude towards Ketuka.
The celebrated sage Durvasa reinforced the script, not that any reinforcement was necessary. Durvasa was the one through whose benevolent intervention Gandhari’s children were born. The fond father of Dussasana laid the infant in the sage’s lap, hoping that his son would get a blessing from him. The great sage kissed the infant and blessed that he have the strength of a thousand lions. Then as the infant cried and fidgeted a bit, his fist hit the sage in the chest, and he fainted. When he revived, he cursed him that his brother punish him by dismembering his right arm in the battle: sodara saasti deu tote dakshina bhuja upaadi (“brother punish you by uprooting your right arm”), as Sarala put it. And the sage Vyasa smiled when Durvasa pronounced the curse. As one who knew the past and the future, Vyasa surely knew the script.
Thus Sarala’s narrative can be seen as trying to find a deeper cause to such inhumanity and such degradation as evinced in Dussasana’s dismemberment. It was as though the poet was deeply hurt and offended by not only the bestiality of the act, but also what was presented as its cause and thereby its justification. Looking perhaps for a stronger cause he went beyond the here and the now. He explored the traditional belief that in some gross sense life ends with death, and karma ends once it is performed, but in a more subtle sense, neither life folds up in death nor karma, in its performance. In terms of the present episode, the demands of karma may require a succession of births. One must return to life as long as one has not experienced the results of one’s karma, and the ends of cosmic justice are not met. Intervention of even the Supreme can only delay the process.
The way Bhima was killing Dussasana, he had made it a spectacle. Many had stopped fighting and were watching. Among them were Duryodhana, Karna, Sakuni, the Pandavas, Krishna, and many, many terrified warriors of both sides. One can easily imagine the feelings of the Kauravas and the Pandavas. The former must have felt utterly devastated, and the latter, jubilant. But the ordinary fighters must have found the whole proceedings not only blood curdling, but also utterly sickening. Not just they, none present there deserved to witness an event during which the limits of cruelty were stretched so cynically. What justice was there in it?
None present there knew that the ancient Ketuka – Sudraka Brahma feud was reaching its predetermined, logical conclusion – if there was anyone who did, it could only be Krishna, but he gave no indication of it at any point of time. An event which had taken place aeons ago in some world of gods was folding up on earth in front of humans in a way that shamed humanness. Humans were not even there when the script was worked out. Why should they have been the victims of its senseless enactment?
Neither Dussasana nor Draupadi were aware of the true meaning of what was happening. In their present existence they had no memory of their past. Draupadi did not know that she was punishing her tormentor, and Dussasana did not know that he was being punished, and Bhima did not know that he was nothing but a designated killer acting on behalf of the tormented Ketuka who he never even knew. Without memory there is no knowledge, and what is the sense of retribution without the knowledge of either the crime or the criminal?
Is this the nature of karmic justice that whether or not it is intelligible to anyone including those involved, is immaterial? Perhaps not. For why, then, in Sarala’s narrative, was there the sage Agasti, whose knowledge of things transcended time, explaining the unfolding of karmic justice to a seeker like Baibasuta Manu?