In the name of Krishna, whose devotee he was, guru Drona had promised the suppliant that he would give her whatever she wanted from him. The stranger asked him for Abhimanyu’s head. He was shell shocked. When he recovered, he was furious. He condemned her and threatened to curse her.
The one without equal, Bhishma, had fallen and Drona had assumed command of the Kaurava army. It was during his leadership that Abhimanyu was killed and that too in a manner totally against the code of the war that the Pandavas and the Kauravas themselves had formulated together in Krishna’s presence before the start of that Great War. The virtuous and noble guru had become part of that killing because he had given word to that strange woman who had asked him for a daana (ritual gift) at a time when he would refuse no one. Before she expressed her wish, the woman had insisted that he must commit himself in the name of Krishna that he would give whatever she asked for.
This is the content of a giti natya (dance drama) entitled “Rahasya (mystery)” that was telecast on the National Odia TV channel at 9 PM on September 3, 2011. I could see only parts of it. However, for my present purpose what little I gathered about Abhimanyu’s story is by no means insufficient. I do not know who the author of this story was and what was his source.
To return to the story, Drona controlled himself. He didn’t utter a curse but prayed to Krishna and the avatara arrived. He advised him to honour his word. He told him that he had already taken Abhimanyu’s mother’s consent in that regard; he had told her that her son was a celestial who had taken birth in the mortal world and that time had come for him to return to his natural abode. Obeying Krishna, Drona organized Abhimany’s death. He had become a nimitta (instrument) for the avatara.
After Arjuna killed Jayadratha to avenge his son’s killing, Krishna took him and his widowed daughter-in-law Uttara to swarga loka. Abhimanyu had joined his celestial consort who, in the guise of a mortal, had extracted that promise from Drona. They were very happy together.
He didn’t recognize the people from the mortal world. He insulted them and threatened to kill them if they didn’t leave him alone. Barely a couple of days had passed since he had left the world. The father and the wife realized that he was not the same Abhimanyu that they knew.
Interestingly, the basic ideas embodied in this story are the same in the corresponding story in Sarala Mahabharata but at the level of detail, Sarala’s story is very different. In both, Krishna is the orchestrator of Abhimanyu’s death. However, unlike here, in Sarala’s narrative, Subhadra and Drona have no role in his death. It is Sahadeva, the knower of the past and the future, who plays the determining role. There is no celestial consort of the divine in Sarala’s story, desperate for her husband to join her in swarga. In both the stories, Abhimanyu is destined to die on a specific day. Krishna – another name for “Destiny” – had to make that happen – in different ways in these narratives. He had to make the following happen too: humans had to acquire some understanding of the nature of relationships in the mortal world. The message of both the stories is that but for divine grace, humans can never acquire that knowledge. And the human situation is such that this illuminating, liberating knowledge does not remain with them for long. Such is Narayana’s maya (cosmic illusion).
Why did Abhimanyu have to die the way he died? Why was his all-conquering father not there in the battlefield to protect him? Why did the wise Drona at least, who had the sense of discrimination, disgrace and degrade himself by being party to his killing? The answers to these are too well known to recount here. But these are satisfying only at the laukika (roughly, worldly / experiential / rational) level. In the context of our puranic texts where the phenomenal world interacts with the transcendental world, where happenings have ambiguous meanings in the sense that they are explainable in worldly terms and also in those of cosmic purpose and where the human situation is explicated in respect of contrastive perspectives of illusion and illumination, such answers as indicated above would be unsatisfying to a sensitive reader of the puranas. In these compositions, life in the mortal world is only a single link in a long chain and for that reason must not be seen as either complete or autonomous. In this journey of life across existences, what one perceives as its end, is only a return and this coming and returning goes on, mainly governed by one’s karma. There are other factors as well; for instance, the Supreme god Vishnu’s avataras are not governed by karma.
In Sarala Mahabharata, Abhimanyu was born in the mortal world, not because of karma, but because Narayana had asked him to. Before He descended to the world of the mortals and entered Devaki’s womb, He had asked goddess Ugratara and her son Adi (more correctly spelt as “Aadi”) – his name in satya yuga, the aeon of Truth – to take birth in the world for His sake. The Supreme god had asked the goddess to be born as Yashoda’s daughter moments (“three dandas – danda is a measure of time in ancient Indian texts) after his birth. She returned to her divine abode, in accordance with His will, when, soon after her birth, Kansa smashed the new born against the wall but she slipped from his hand. This story is also very well known.
“You will be born as Subhadra’s son”, Narayana had told Adi, “and for fourteen years you will be with me”. Adi was very reluctant to leave swarga. He told Him that since it was his duty to protect the land of the gods, he could not leave it. “But I cannot refuse you,” he told Him, “now promise me that I will return the day the fourteen years are over. And I am telling you this: if I stay for even one day thereafter, I will kill my father and return. If you, my Lord, stand on my way, then I will kill you too.” Narayana granted his wish. What His purpose was in dislocating Adi for fourteen years, only He knew.
In Sarala Mahabharata, Krishna explains himself only if he wishes to. The characters of course would assign their interpretation of his words or doings going by their own insights, as would the poet’s audience across the centuries, but he alone knows the truth about himself. Trapped in the cosmic illusion, gods, demons and mortals try to penetrate the same illusion to see the truth behind the veil. Such is the situation of all beings as depicted by Sarala Das in his magnificent retelling of the ancient story.
To return to Abhimanyu’s story, it was Sahadeva who told Krishna all this about him. Krishna knew that Arjuna had to be separated from his son if he was to die. Sahadeva told him what to do to make that happen. Not involved in this design in the least was any Kaurava or anyone from their army. When Drona planned chakra vyuha (the name of a certain formation of the army. Only Arjuna from the Pandava side knew how to deal with it. Abhimanyu knew how to enter the formation but did not know how to get out of it. All this is well known too.) for his army on the following day, he did not know that on that day Arjuna would not be there on the Kurukshetra battlefield.
Arjuna was beside himself with grief when he heard details about how his son’s killing. Soon he was overcome by intense rage. Krishna tried to pacify him with words of wisdom but that had no effect on him. “Listen O Hari, unwilling to face Drona and Karna, it is my cowardly brothers who pushed my son to his death. I will behead each one of them.’
“No one is responsible for Abhimnyu’s death”, Krishna told him. Indra needed him in swargato fight the demon named Udaya Kabandha. He had attacked swarga and even the greatest of gods had failed to defeat him. The Creator god Brahma told Indra that the demon was fated to die in the hands of Abhimanyu; so the lord of the gods had taken him to swarga. He told him that at that very moment, in the land of the gods, Abhimanyu was fighting a fierce battle with that demon. “I will believe it when I see it”, said Arjuna, “O Hari, show me my son.”
So Krishna took him to the land of the gods. From under a big banyan tree, they saw Abhimanyu shooting countless arrows at the demon ceaselessly. When he saw the two, he was concerned about their safety. “Move away, you two venerable ones from the mortal world, otherwise my arrows might hit you accidentally and kill you,” he warned them. Arjuna wanted to embrace him. Krishna dissuaded him; “He doesn’t recognize you. You are no more his father.”
Arjuna was very hurt. Right from his birth he had taken such great care of him, he told Krishna, and had given him so much love and it took him just a day to forget him, his father, who had doted on him! He was his son in the mortal world, Krishna told him, but that relation does not carry over when one comes to the land of the gods. “If such is the nature of things here, then let us leave this heartless land,” said Arjuna. He had a glimpse of the truth; it was another matter that he was unable to cope with it.
Back among his utterly distressed family, in the midst of a piteous, wailing mother and a devastated daughter-in-law, and an inconsolable Draupadi, Arjuna returned to the snares of moha (worldly attachment) again. Thus he had to avenge the killing of his son and kill Jayadratha the following day.