Belalasena’s story is in two parts: the first part is about his decapitation; the second, about his saying what he had seen happening in the battlefields of Kurukshetra. The avatara had asked for his head and he had prayed to him to behead him. He wanted to see the Mahabharata war, so by Krishna’s grace, his severed head remained alive. That is essentially the substance of the first part of his story. The severed head saw the war and when Krishna asked him to tell him and the Pandavas, who had accompanied him to the severed head, what he had seen, he said that he had seen a chakra, dazzling with the brightness of a thousand suns, moving to and fro in the battlefields, now killing some from one side and then killing some from the other side, and repeating it ceaselessly. He said that he had seen nothing else. He hadn’t seen anyone killing anyone else. This story is reminiscent of Barbarik’s story but the two stories are not identical.
Interestingly, in Sarala Mahabharata, edited by Artaballava Mohanty and published by the department of Culture of the government of Odisha in 1966 (“Orissa”, the spelling of “Odisha” at that time) and since then, has been generally regarded as the standard version, the first part does not occur. The second part does but with a note by the editor, which says that although in the concerned pothi(palm leaf manuscript), it is not there, Mohanty had chosen to include it because it was there in a different pothi(what that story was he did not say) and also because the story was there in the Sanskrit text. Which text, Mohanty did not mention. One is inclined to think that the text in question was Vyasa Mahabharata.
There is a version of the Mahabharata that goes in the name of Jagannatha Das, who is known as the author of Odia Bhagavata. His Bhagavata is revered and worshipped as a sacred book in Odisha. Jagannatha Das’s Mahabharata is said to be a kind of “summary” of Sarala Mahabharata, although the poet himself does not say so. His narrative occasionally deviates from Sarala Mahabharata. For instance, whereas the first part of the Belalasena story occurs here, the second part, which occurs in Sarala Mahabharata, as mentioned above, does not.
The first part of the story is this:
The Pandavas and the Kauravas had assembled on the battlefield of Kurukshetra for the division of the battlefield. In Krishna’s presence, it was divided into two parts and Krishna himself drew the dividing line. The eastern part was occupied by the Pandavas and the western part, by the Kauravas. “O Ananta, the One without End,” said Sakuni to Krishna, “now place a witness.” Krishna asked Bhima to bring the agara tree from the mountains of Kundali. At that time it was indeed more a trunk than a tree, having lost its top – the result of having been used for years as the target by the learners of archery. It looked like a pillar. It was huge and a thousand wrestlers of great strength could not even shake it. But for Bhima it was no task. He uprooted it effortlessly and brought it to Krishna. Then he dug a big hole and tried to put the tree in it but that he couldn’t do; he tried many times but the tree was unsteady. Krishna asked Sahadeva about it but for once the youngest Pandava was clueless. “O Lord Padmanabha, ask the tree yourself”, he said. “Why aren’t you stable?”, asked Krishna of the tree. The tree manifested itself in its divine form and told him that he wanted a sacrifice.
Krishna told Sahadeva that the tree wanted sacrifice of a Pandava. Unknown to everyone else, Sahadeva told Krishna that there was one who lived in the nether world: Bhima’s son, Belalasena. When Bhima was in the naga loka (the land of the snakes), after being fed poisonous sweets by Duryodhana, he had married a naga princess and they had a son. Bhima should go, said Sahadeva, and bring him to Kurukshetra. Krishna went to Bhima and asked him to invoke his son, Belalasena. “let everyone see him”, said Krishna. He did and there in the nether world, his son was restless.
“My eyes are twitching continuously, mother,” said Belalasena to his mother,” why is it so?” “Your father is remembering you, son. There is soon going to be a war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas.”, his mother told him. At once the young man left for Kurukshetra, taking with him his bow and just one arrow. Reaching there, he bowed to the avatara first, then to Yudhisthira, his father, his uncles, Bhishma, Drona and the other elders. Everyone was happy seeing this young naga prince, whose head was marked with seven hoods.
Evening had set in and Krishna suggested that all assembled should retire for the night. He then left for Dwarika. That night his father asked Belalasena what to do to win the war. He must not worry on that account, he assured his father; he would be able to defeat the Kauravas in just a day.
In the morning, Belalasena was busy sharpening his arrow on a slab of stone by the river when Krishna arrived. He bowed to the avatara. Krishna asked him why he was sharpening his arrow. Belalasena told him that with that one arrow he would be able to kill everyone in the battlefield and the war would be over in a day. Would he really be able to do that, asked Krishna. Belalasena dipped the tip of his arrow into vermilion and instructed his arrow to put a mark on the heads of all those it could kill. Unknown to all except Belalasena and Krishna, it left a mark on the head of everyone: Pandavas, Kauravas, their soldiers. Only one was excluded – that was Krishna.
“Will you give me something, child?”, Krishna said. “Anything you want, Lord. Tell me what you want. I will give you the dana. I promise!”, said a happy Belalasena. Krishna told him that he would tell him what he wanted some other time. As he left, Belalasena resumed sharpening his arrow.
Krishna met the Pandavas. He was sad. Yudhisthira was deeply worried. What was troubling him, he asked Krishna. Krishna looked at Bhima. “Only if you promise to give me what I want, I will tell you why the tree is not staying steady”. Bhima told him that he would give him anything he wanted from him. Then Krishna told the Pandavas that the divine tree wanted a strange thing: it wanted a Pandava as sacrifice. The Pandavas were utterly confused, completely nonplussed.
Nakula started crying. He was sure that he would be chosen for sacrifice. After all, he and Sahadeva were only the step brothers of Yudhisthira. Besides, Krishna would never choose Yudhisthira, Bhima and Arjuna. Yudhisthira told him that he had no reason to feel insecure. “Why are you crying, my brother”, said Yudhisthira. “For your sake, I will go to the forest again.” Krishna told him not to worry. There was someone but only if Bhima willed to give him. Bhima promised the avatara that he would give him the one he wanted. “Tell me where is he, O the One without End,” said Bhima. “Give me your son, Bhima”, said Krishna.
Bhima flatly refused. He told Krishna that he was willing to suffer the consequences of committing the gravest of the grave sins of dishonouring his promise, but he would not let his son be used for sacrifice. Krishna said nothing, moved a little away from the Pandavas and sat there alone looking glum. Bhima was unmoved.
But what was beyond the avatara! He concentrated on the goddess of words and asked her to make Bhima say what he wanted. Soon Bhima came to Krishna and told him that he would give him his son. But he must persuade Belalasena to submit himself for the sacrifice. It was goddess Saraswati who had uttered those words.
Without saying a word, Krishna went to Belalasena and told him that he wanted his head as dana. “I will give it to you, O Lord,” said the young prince, “please grant me a wish. Severe my head with your chakra with which you had severed Shishupala’s head and given him mukti. Then place my head on the shubha khamba (auspicious pillar) and allow me to witness the Mahabharata war.” “So be it!”, said Krishna.
Krishna took him to the shubha khamba and with prayer in his heart, Belalasena sat in the posture of meditation at Krishna’s feet. The chakra descended from the sky and severed his head. As Krishna put the body in the hole where the tree stood unsteady, it steadied at once. And as the head was going up on to the top of the auspicious pillar, it was uttering “Hari”, “Hari”.
Full of divine delight, Vaibasuta Manu asked of sage Agasti, “Who was he in his previous birth?” The venerable sage, who was telling him the story of the Mahabharata, told him about that but let us leave that story out.
This is the first part of Belalasena’s story, which is notably different from the first part of Barbarik’s story in its familiar version. This part of Belalasena’s story, to repeat, is not there in Sarala Mahabharata edited by Artaballava Mohanty. It is there in Jagannatha Das Mahabharata, said to be a summary of Sarala Mahabharata.
The second part of Belalasena’s story is not very different from the corresponding part of Barbarik’s story, which is well known. The significant differences, which relate to what the avatara-empowered witness in the form of the severed head saw, are mainly two: in Sarala Mahabharata, the divine chakra killed from both sides without making any distinction – it did not destroy only those who were sinful. In Sarala’s version, alongside the chakra, there was no goddess of destruction who licked the blood of those killed. Thus Sarala’s was a purer rendering of Krishna’ words in the Gita – Arjuna would kill those who were already dead. Generalize this a bit: those who would die in the battlefield had already been killed. The only doer was Krishna, the rest were nimittas.
Incidentally Vyasa Mahabharata does not contain the story of Barbarik.