In Vyasa Mahabharata, Sanjaya had divya chaksu – divine (“special, extraordinary” in this context) vision – bestowed on him by the great sage, Vyasa. Sitting with King Dhritarashtra, away from the battlefield, he could see the many battles being fought on the different battlefields of Kurukshetra and narrate them to the King. The blind Kuru elder and the fond father had decided that listening about the systematic destruction of his very own as it was taking place on the battlefield would be much less agonizing than seeing it. He did not want divya chaksu for himself; thus his minister Sanjaya became his eyes. And not just Dhritarashtra, Vyasa’s listeners and readers across centuries saw the war through Sanjaya’s eyes. In Sarala Mahabharata, the story is not the same. Sanjaya received no divya chaksu but he performed a similar role as his counterpart in the canonical narrative. He was informing the old father about the war, but not the way Vyasa’s Sanjaya had done. Incidentally, Dhritarashtra was not the king then; he had long ceased to be the king, having handed over the kingdom to his eldest born. Besides, on being asked, Sanjaya was also telling him about why unexpected things were happening, like the decapitation of the great preceptor Drona. He was occasionally telling him too about what was likely to happen; he had told him about Bhishma’s fall hours before the incomparable Kuru elder fell. Was he preparing Dhritarashtra for it? May be! The wise Sanjaya was the knower of the past and the future; so he did not need special power to see what was going to happen. This apart, often Sanjaya went to the battlefield to fight for the Kauravas. He wasn’t there with Dhritarashtra all through the day to tell him about what was happening.
In Sarala Mahabharata, the one who had divya chaksu was Belalasena, Bhima’s son from his asuri (demon) wife, Hidimbaki. Krishna himself had given him this power. His living severed head, placed on a tall pillar in the battlefield, could see what was happening. And who did he tell what he had seen? Asked by Krishna, he told Krishna what he had seen. The Pandavas were with Krishna then, but his words were not directed towards them. In Vyasa Mahabharata, there is no Belalasena or any character that performed the same narrative function at the end of the war. From the point of view of the narrative, Belalasena had just one function, namely to tell us about what had happened in the war. Once that was over, he disappeared from the narrative.
The narrative needed one narrator to inform about the war in all its details to those who were not witnessing it. Sanjaya did that. With Sanjaya in the narrative, who was the knower of the past, the present and the future, what was the need for Sarala to have in it another witness of the events? The answer is obvious: there must be something that Belalasena saw and would tell us which would be different from what Sanjaya did, and that would make us see things from another and a deeper perspective.
The Great War had ended. It was time to claim credit for the victory. This has been the way of the victors. The Pandavas, mother Kunti, Draupadi and Subhadra were together with Krishna. Bhima said he had won the war for the Pandavas, having killed each of the Kaurava brothers. But it wasn’t a matter of how many one killed but who one killed. Could the war have been won if Bhishma, Drona, Karna, Aswasthama and other great archers on the Kaurava side had remained undefeated? Was it in Bhima’s powers to defeat them? Therefore Arjuna told them that he indeed was the architect of the victory. Nakula highlighted his role in the war to argue that he was indeed the one who deserved credit for victory. Sahadeva said that had he not told his brothers the secrets about the weaknesses of the Kaurava warriors at the appropriate time, victory would surely have eluded them. Yudhisthira said that it was his steadfast commitment to dharma that indeed had brought them victory. Kunti said that it was her fervent prayers to the gods that made the Pandavas victorious. Draupadi asserted that none but her really deserved to be credited for the victory. Subhadra said that her brother had avenged the killing of her son, so she indeed was the root cause of the destruction of the Kauravas. Apart from her, no one had mentioned Krishna even in passing while talking about the victory in the Great War. Not Arjuna, not even Yudhisthira, who had always said that he was the savior of the Pandavas, which tells us how heady success can be and how it can go to one’s head, even of the alert and the virtuous.
Krishna told them to calm themselves and suggested that they ask the severed head what he had seen. No one would have seen things more clearly and with complete purity; so no one would know better. He took them to Belalasena. Krishna told him the context of their coming to him. Since he had seen everything, who did he think could be credited for victory in the war, the avatara asked him. The head uttered the words of truth. He, who had seen the truth behind the appearances, had not seen anyone killing anyone, he told Krishna. All he had seen was that a resplendent chakra (discuss), shining with the brightness of ten million suns, emerged from one battlefield, killing fighters there and would move to other battlefields where it killed other fighters and went on moving back and forth in the war zone killing and killing. “Why are the Pandavas fighting with one another?”, he asked.
Belalasena’s words greatly enraged Bhima. He slapped the head with all his might, condemning him for not supporting his father. Of what worth is a son, if he cannot stand by his father! The head fell from the top of the pillar and as it died, Krishna absorbed his essence in him and freed him from the karmic cycle. Sarala was a bhakta; he had explicitly stated that his aim in retelling the Mahabharata was to celebrate the lila of Narayana. Therefore his narrative required that the transcendental truth inaccessible to the humans in the bondage of maya (illusion), be told; once that happened, he freed Belalasena from the narrative.
Why was Belalasena so divinely privileged? Vaibasuta Manu did not interrupt the sage Agasti and ask him this question. As Belalasena’s just severed head was proceeding to the vantage point from where he would witness the war, he was saying “Hari… Hari”. Vaibasuta Manu had wanted to know who he was. Belalasena was to witness the war, but none had expected that he would see through the illusion that was believed by the mortals to be the reality, the all-knowing Sanjaya and Sahadeva being no exception. Sarala does not tell us why this time a similar question did not arise in the great king’s mind. Perhaps the wise Vaibasuta Manu had figured it out by himself: he alone sees the truth who He chooses to see the truth.
Incidentally, in Vyasa Mahabharata, a very similar vision is articulated, although in a rather subdued manner. One day while fighting, Arjuna felt that before his arrow would hit its target, a shadowy figure had hit him and killed him. He asked Krishna about this and Krishna told him that that shadowy figure was Mahadeva. In the eleventh chapter of Srimad Bhagavad Gita, Krishna in His Universal Form told Arjuna he had already killed all those who would fall in the battlefield. He was Kaala (Time) and had determined their time. Which would suggest that they would have died anyway, even if there was no war – maybe an earthquake would have swallowed them or the waves of the sea drowned them or they would have been the victim of some other natural calamity – and that it was merely accidental that they would be dying on of the battlefields of Kurukshetra in stead. The creative storyteller that he was, Sarala executed this insight in the form of a beautiful story. The narrative of lila unfolded the transcendental truth in a spectacular manner; explicit pronouncements were not needed. This is what great literature is, to a significant extent, essentially about.
Now, how does this perspective about the true agency of killing – of all actions and all happenings indeed – relate to dharma yuddha (righteous war)? Poets have traditionally conceptualized the Great War at Kurukshetra as dharma yuddha where the Pandavas were fighting the forces of adharma, represented by their cousins. They were fighting for a just cause that related to their claims to the throne of Hastinapura. How elegantly does it cohere with the vision that people die when their time comes? From this alaukika (roughly, cosmic or transcendental) perspective, how they die need not matter: whether they die of natural causes or are killed, whether they die an eye-catching death or an uneventful one, whether they die in glory or in shame – all this is illusion, maya.
This question does not arise in Sarala’s narrative. The Great War is dharma yuddha here too. But it has nothing to do with the cause of the war or with whose claims on the throne of Hastinapura were just and whose were not. After the Kauravas and the Pandavas had arrived at a code for the conduct of the war in the presence of the Kuru elders and other venerable warriors and Krishna himself, Duryodhana called upon everyone not to transgress the code. They were participating in a dharma yuddha, he told them, because Narayana Himself would be there in the battlefield and He would be the observer, the witness. The battlefields would be sanctified because of His presence.