Put these three unconnected stories in Sarala Mahabharatatogether and you see a connection. Together these tell us the moving story of the course of the relationship between the forest dwellers and the urban population. The two communities had their own distinct cultures, and the urban population looked down upon the forest dwellers as uncivilized and as the practitioners of a vastly inferior and degrading culture. As for the latter, a few of their kings seemed to have a secret admiration for the ways of the former. These two communities generally avoided each other. But their relationship was uneasy and tense, sometimes even very hostile.
A tribal king dispossessed king Drupad of his kingdom and reduced him to an exile. During his difficult days he met Drona, who was living the life of a virtuous brahmin on the banks of the Ganga in the sacred city of Prayag. That was when they first met, unlike in Vyasa Mahabharata. They became friends and Drona helped him raise an army to fight the usurper in ways that do not concern us here. The tribal king lorded over Drupad’s kingdom for twenty one years and then one day he left it on his own and went back to his forest kingdom. Drupad regained his kingdom. Later Drupad humiliated Drona and Drona thundered revenge, but that episode in their life is inconsequential for our present purpose. Drupad’s misery for twenty one years shows that the forest dwellers were no weaklings and could pose a serious threat to the Aryan kings.
In this context, Ekalavya’s attempt to learn what the Kuru princes were learning from guru Drona can be viewed as a symbol of the tribal aspiration to be integrated into the society of the town dwellers. It can also be viewed as an effort by the tribals to acquire knowledge that would enable them to protect themselves from exploitation by the Aryan rulers. Their apprehension was not unfounded. To give just one example, when the Kauravas saw Ekalavya’s beautiful and graceful wife in the forest, they tried to molest her. She was fit for a prince, not for an uncouth forest dweller, they told Ekalavya when he protested.
Impressed with him, when he approached him to be accepted as his sishya(pupil), Drona wanted to teach him astra vidya (knowledge of weapons and warfare) but the Kauravas would not let him. Forest dwellers must not mingle with princes, they told their guru. Later when Drona met Ekalavya in the forest with the Kaurava and the Pandava princes in the familiar episode of Ekalavya’s guru dakshina (ritual fee to the guru by the sishya), greatly impressed and highly pleased with him, he accepted him as his sishya and advised his pupils to accept him as their fellow sishya. His asking for his dear and highly accomplished sishya’s thumb as guru dakshina was a political act. He had not forgotten Drupada’s fate. Ekalavya knew why he had wanted his thumb. He told him that he knew why he had asked for what he did, namely that he wanted to protect the Kauravas. As Drona left Ekalavya, he blessed him that he would remain invincible. As for Ekalavya, he had no hard feelings against his guru, not in the least. From our point of view, the tribals’ attempt to reach out to the urban population failed because of the attitude of the rulers. Notwithstanding Drupad’s experience, they, at least the Kurus, were not really worried about the emergence of powerful rulers in forest kingdoms; they were a great deal more apprehensive of the degeneration of their culture if they mingled with the tribal people.
Bhima married the asura princess Hidimbaki, as Sarala names her, but she was not admitted to the traditional Kuru household in Hastinapura. The same of course was true of Arjuna’s wives from non-Aryan cultures. Hidimbaki lived in the forest with her son Ghatotkacha. When he went to the rajaswiya jajna (sacrifice named “Rajaswiya”) that Yudhisthira was performing, his mother went there without his knowledge, apprehensive that in that urban world her son might land in some deep trouble. Her apprehension came true; her son was cursed by Draupadi to die a most inglorious death. She then rushed out of her hiding and cursed Draupadi that her sons would die as children. In due course the curses materialized. Thus another encounter between the two worlds resulted in disaster for both.
The Kiratasena episode is Sarala’s creation. King Kiratasena’s offer to Duryodhana to fight for him in the Kurukshetra War is again symbolic of the tribal desire for acceptance by the city dwellers. He told the Kaurava king that he had three infallible arrows with which he could destroy any enemy and pleaded with him to make him the Commander-in-Chief of the Kaurava army. Duryodhana did not accept his offer. He would not allow a forest dweller to fight for him. Even victory was not acceptable to him if it was to come with the forest dweller’s support. Kiratasena then went to the Pandavas. Neither the Kauravas nor the Pandavas were his enemies, so it did not matter to him which side he was fighting against. All he wanted was join the War. War was viewed by the warriors those days as something like the ultimate stage where a warrior could establish one’s credentials as a warrior. It was where one acquired fame and glory. in the pursuit of glory death did not matter. In our view, however, he was keen to be part of the War since his participation would have meant his acceptability as one of them – not just of the Kuru clan, but the Aryan rulers as a whole. Yudhisthira too refused to accept his offer – on the very same grounds. The message was clear: in the war in the urban, civilized world, the forest dwellers had no place.
The forest in some sense encountered the city again, this time by sheer accident, when the forest dweller, Jara, shot, by mistake, the arrow that killed Krishna. On discovering who he had mortally wounded, Jara was devastated, knowing that he had hurt the one revered by Shiva, Indra and Brahma. But that one act bound the avatara and him together forever. Krishna comforted Jara. By being Jara’s victim, he redeemed the word he had given him in his earlier avatara as Rama. Rebirth had wiped his word off from Jara’s memory. But the voice from the sky told him this as Arjuna and he fought, each miserable in the extreme on account of the passing away of Krishna, and it asked them to stop fighting. They together tried to cremate Krishna’s body but which energy had the power to consume it! Fire god cannot consume the body, said the voice from the sky. Directed by the voice from above, they floated it in the sea. As Krishna manifested in the form of Nila Madhava, Jara worshipped him. Nila Madhava would accept worship from none else: man or god. Narayana had chosen the forest for himself.
Then from the forest, one day, he chose to move into the janapada(urban territory), as it were. There appeared a wondrous log of wood in at a certain place in Nilachala (“Puri” of today) and the voice from the sky told King Indradyumna that that was the Log from which the Murtis (Idols) would be made. But the Log would not move, despite all efforts of the king’s priests to transport It to the designated enclosure. The voice from the sky asked the king to take Jara’s help. With his help the Log was moved into the enclosure but who would make the Murtis of Narayana, Shiva and Brahma, what would be Their Form? The voice from the sky said Jara would do it. The poor Jara was nonplussed, having no knowledge or experience for doing such a thing. In the enclosure, unknown to everyone else, Brahma, the Creator god manifested. But the god who had created the entire universe had to have, this time, Jara, the forest dweller with him to create these Murtis. When the Murtis were carved out, he assimilated into Subhadra, leaving Jara alone in the enclosure.
In his abode in the janapada of Nilachala, Jagannath (Balabhadra, Subhadra and Sudarshana) would be worshiped by the priests of king Indradyumna, but Jara and his descendants would have a place in that system. So was His Will. This narrative in Sarala Mahabharata marks the emergence of an inclusive society that included the forest dwellers and the urban population, a society that accommodated and accepted both cultures. The cultures remained distinct but there was no denigration of the forest dwellers’ culture. The process of assimilation could be said to have begun with Drona. But he had not succeeded. The end of this process came when the avatara intervened. He was killed but he blessed, not cursed, the one who had killed him. As he evolved into Jagannath, by insisting all through, that Jara be involved in his worship, he brought into being an inclusive society.