WHO WAS RESPONSIBLE FOR THE KURUKSHETRA WAR, ACCORDING TO SARALA MAHABHARATA

When a war comes to an end and life limps painfully to normalcy, comes the time for questions: about its cause, about who must be held responsible for it, among others. The voice may be agonizingly loud or fearfully subdued. It was no different in the case of the Great War at Kurukshetra. Two facts of relevance in Sarala’s retelling are these: Duryodhana had started it, when he had ordered his army to attack his brother Durdasa who, responding to Yudhisthira’s call, had just declared that he was joining the Pandavas. Shortly before that, as the Kaurava and the Pandava armies, facing each other, were waiting for permission to attack, Duryodhana had turned down Yudhisthira’s desperate plea for peace – he wasn’t willing to give the eldest Pandava even a single village. Given these facts, who else, but he could be held responsible for the war, one would think! But that is at one level –the “formal level”: it is the king who decides on the war and on when to start the attack. However, at the informal – indeed the more important – level in the narrative, the same question was raised and responded to by quite a few characters. And only a few named Duryodhana as the one directly responsible for that calamitous war. One was Arjuna, not unexpectedly. And then Krishna, somewhat indirectly though.
   In SwargarohanaParva, when Draupadi fell, Yudhisthira, the very embodiment of dharma in the mortal world, squarely blamed Draupadi for the war; for thirteen long years she had left her hair untied, had used her untied hair to remind her husbands about her humiliation in the Kaurava court and had provoked them relentlessly to take revenge. She had tied her hair after consuming ninety-nine Kaurava brothers, the son of god Dharma told Bhima. He condemned Sahadeva too for the war. He had the knowledge of the past and the future; instead of keeping his mouth shut, had he told him what was going to happen, the war would not have taken place. Incidentally, here, unlike in some versions of the great narrative, Sahadeva was not constrained to tell what was to happen, unless asked. Only that he would have to tell when one specifically asked him – je tote pacaria gata agata katha / abashya tu kahibu bhuta bhavishya barata (Whoever would ask you about the past and the future / You will have to tell him about the past and the future). Surely Sahadeva had his reasons for his silence, but a proper articulation of the same would need detailed discussion, which is out of place here.
   For Gandhari, Krishna was responsible since he did not stop the war when it was within his power to do so. She was certain that had he pressured the Pandavas and the Kauravas enough and sincerely to opt for peace, sooner or later, they would have listened to him. They all held him in great reverence, which was true. Considering the matter at the laukika or the worldly level, rather than at the supra-human, cosmic level, one could say that it was not really in Krishna’s hands to stop the war; all he could have done was postpone it. Even that was by no means certain. In any case, the postponement wouldn’t have helped anyone; it would only have made things even more stressful for the Kauravas and the Pandavas and the relation between them would have worsened further. Krishna of course said or suggested none of this. What he told Gandhari was that had she listened to the wise Vidura, things would not have come to such a pass. He had always asked her to control her children. Incidentally, possibly a little out of the context here, he had often reminded Dhritarashtra that had he listened to him and given up Duryodhana soon after his birth, his other sons would have been safe.  Duryodhana would be the cause of the destruction of his line, he had warned him then.
   Both before and during the war, Yudhisthira and Arjuna blamed the Kauravas for it; it was thrust on them, they said. Bhishma did not agree. He told Arjuna that the Pandavas’ commitment to peace was not strong enough. If it was, then they would have retired to the forest, leaving the kingdom to Duryodhana. He did not of course blame the Pandavas for the war; he merely said that they could not hold Duryodhana solely responsible for the war and absolve themselves of the responsibility. In his last meeting with Duryodhana, Dhritarashtra told him that he had been the cause of his brothers’ killing, but it is clearly not the same thing as blaming him for the war. That he never said, never believed to be the case. He did not explicitly say it but he must have been disappointed with Yudhisthira. Once he became aware of the Pandavas’ might and started worrying about Duryodhana, he drew solace from his belief that the embodiment of virtue would never allow a fratricidal war, how strong the provocations. He knew that Duryodhana was safe because Yudhisthira was committed to dharma.
   Dhritarashtra and Gandhari had often warned Duryodhana against trusting Sakuni. Gandhari had told him clearly that Sakuni would work for the destruction of the Kauravas and thereby avenge his father’s and uncles’ killing by him. Kunti often blamed Bhima for the hostility between the Pandavas and the Kauravas. He was dusta (wicked), he would tell him. Yudhisthira had the same opinion bout Bhima. He too often called him dusta. Krishna knew he was dusta by nature and could be easily provoked to do things wicked. Now, if Kunti and Gandhari were less insecure, more cordial and less jealous of each other, when the Pandavas and the Kauravas were growing up in Hastinapura, the princes would not perhaps been so confrontational towards each other, right from their childhood. But that was not possible. Gandhari wanted Duryodhana to succeed Dhritarashtra, and Kunti wanted Yudhisthira to become the king. As children, neither prince was probably aware of their respective mother’s ambition, but the Kaurava and the Pandava princes had not failed to sense the hostility their mothers had towards each other. At the same time, Gandhari and Kunti did not encourage their children to be antagonistic towards one another. As Kunti often chided Bhima for his bellicosity towards the Kauravas, Gandhari did not fail to scold Duryodhana for his hostility towards the Pandavas. The fire in the lac palace or Duryodhana’s feeding Bhima poisonous sweet had not changed Kunti. She changed only after the humiliation of Draupadi in the Kaurava court. Before he went to Duryodhana as Yudhisthira’s emissary for peace, Krishna, unknown to the eldest Pandava, had met each of his four brothers and Draupadi and Kunti separately to know whether they shared Yudhisthira’s disinclination towards war. He found that the last two alone wanted war. And desperately. But no one ever blamed Kunti for the war. Much later, Yudhisthira did make a mention of her instigating them to go to war against the Kauravas, but his tone said that he was not really holding her responsible for the war.
   No one blamed Yudhisthira directly either. Bhishma’s observation about the Pandavas’ weak commitment to peace, as mentioned above, can be construed as the closest criticism of Yudhisthira in the relevant regard. Now, suppose the second game of dice had not taken place. Would there have been a war? The Pandavas got back whatever they had lost in the first game of dice. When they left, there was considerable bonhomie between the Kaurava and the Pandava brothers. No one from the Kaurava side invited Yudhisthira to return for another game of dice. Yudhisthira went to play because he wanted to win. The defeat in the first game had upset him. The defeat in the second game led to the Pandavas’ twelve year- long exile in the forest and a year’s incognito living. Suppose all this had not happened. Just as, suppose, Sahadeva had spoken!
   For many listeners / readers of Vyasa Mahabharata or Sarala Mahabharata, Sakuni would be the one primarily responsible for the war. In Sarala’s version, Duryodhana was willing to give two villages to Krishna for the Pandavas but it was Sakuni who persuaded him not to do so. That was the immediate cause of the war. Yet none in the world of Sarala Mahabharata, except one, considered Sakuni responsible for the war.
   And that was Sakuni himself. Only Krishna, Arjuna, Sahadeva, Sanjaya and Vidura knew that he was committed to avenge the treacherous Duryodhana’s gruesome killing of his innocent father and his relatives. He masterminded the complete destruction of the Kaurava brothers through a terrible war. As he was fighting Sahadeva in the battlefield, he told him that he was responsible for the war. There is no evidence in the text that Sahadeva agreed with him.
   When Gandhari held Krishna responsible for the war, Krishna told her something else too, apart from what has been mentioned above. He told her that he had been insulted in the Kaurava court and that he had had his revenge through the war. This amounted to his putting the blame for the war on Duryodhana. However, there is no persuasive evidence in the narrative that directly or indirectly support Krishna’s assertion. As for Krishna’s being revengeful, one might cite three examples from the narrative, but none is really convincing. After the war, in a certain context, his sister Subhadra claimed that he had destroyed the Kauravas to punish them for their killing of her son, Abhimanyu. But the narrative says something very different: it says that Krishna had actually orchestrated his nephew’s killing; he had given the divine, which Abhimanyu really was, word that he would return to his natural abode, the Swarga loka, once he completed fourteen years in the mortal world. Krishna had not got Jarasandha eliminated because he had inflicted many defeats on him, thereby insulted him. Jarasandha’s killing had to do with Yudhisthira’s rajaswiya jajna. Details do not concern us here. Although the matter is really complex, involving aeons and rebirths and redemption, one might isolate the incident and argue that he killed Sishupala for insulting him. Now, if Duryodhana had insulted him and he wanted to punish him, did he have to have such a destructive war? What he told Gandhari is best understood as a retort to her almost like this: “Your son insulted me, so I gave him well-deserved punishment. Why are you blaming me?” And this goes well with what he also told her, namely that she should have heeded Vidura’s advice.
   Now, you, my friend, who has obliged me by reading this piece so far, what do you think who was responsible for the war? Forget for a moment who blamed who in the world of Sarala Mahabharata, extremely important though it is. Or putting it differently, what the poet thought about the question of responsibility; after all, he was the creator of that world. Maybe, you are inclined to think that not a single individual, but all those mentioned above, and probably more, were. You might think that an event of such dimensions cannot just have a single cause and a single causer or doer. I would agree, enthusiastically! But think of this:  
   When there was one throne to inherit and two parties staking claims to it, and no party willing to make the sacrifice needed, namely, giving up his claim, the issue had to be settled in the battlefield. Those like Sakuni, Karna and Ashwasthama complicated matters and made the narrative very much dramatic and enjoyable. As for Krishna, as Sarala, the devotee, transformed a simple narrative of succession to Vishnu Purana, he transformed his doings into the purna avatara’s (complete manifestation of Narayana) lila. Now, one does not sit on judgement over lila, one only witnesses it and celebrates it.


   Now, you, my friend, who has obliged me by reading this piece so far, what do you think who was responsible for the war? Forget for a moment who blamed who in the world of Sarala Mahabharata, extremely important though it is. Or putting it differently, what the poet thought about the question of responsibility; after all, he was the creator of that world. Maybe, you are inclined to think that not a single individual, but all those mentioned above, and probably more, were. You might think that an event of such dimensions cannot just have a single cause and a single causer or doer. I would agree, enthusiastically! But think of this:  
   When there was one throne to inherit and two parties staking claims to it, and no party willing to make the sacrifice needed, namely, giving up his claim, the issue had to be settled in the battlefield. Those like Sakuni, Karna and Ashwasthama complicated matters and made the narrative very much dramatic and enjoyable. As for Krishna, as Sarala, the devotee, transformed a simple narrative of succession to Vishnu Purana, he transformed his doings into the purna avatara’s (complete manifestation of Narayana) lila. Now, one does not sit on judgement over lila, one only witnesses it and celebrates it.

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