How many shades of bhakti are there, according to Sarala Mahabharata? “As many bhaktas are there!” may not be indeed be a poor answer!


That was a period of profound darkness. Intense jealousy, bitterness, hatred and revengefulness ruled the hearts of those who controlled the lives of people in a laukika (worldly) sense. They ruled kingdoms and to achieve their own dark ends, they would drive their subjects to the battlefields. They could stoop to any extent; they would not hesitate to resort to cunning and treachery to achieve their purpose. The powerful often subdued their adversaries with weapons and the powerless punished their powerful torturers with curses. The mighty pronounced oaths which made the annihilation of their enemy their sacred duty. In the family of the Kurus, Kunti bayed for the blood of Duryodhana and Draupadi, of Dussasana. Karna and Arjuna, born from the same womb, would be at each other’s throats and their mother would be part of a sinister design to render one of her children vulnerable in war with respect to the other. A nephew used the meanest treachery to have his maternal grandfather and every one of his family killed. It was his misfortune that of his uncles, the one named Sakuni, survived. Gandhari was jealous of Kunti and Kunti of Madri, and Draupadi and Hidimbaki hurled curses at each other’s children, the very first time they met. Princess Amba’s determination to take revenge was so fierce that she carried it to her next birth.

Bhima’s hatred and anger against the Kauravas had not diminished even after had killed Duryodhana, Dussasana and ninety-seven of their brothers on the Kurukshetra battlefields. He killed each of them again, when he viciously recreated the scenes of their deaths to torture their helpless, lonely and grieving father, Dhritarashtra. Day after day, at the old man’s meal time, he would meticulously narrate to him how he had killed each of his sons. And this was not the only instance of Bhima tormenting the Kuru elder. No need to dwell on such sickening deeds of unforgiving and unforgetting persons. In Sarala’s retelling, the one remaining Kaurava brother, Durdasa, did not die on the battlefield. When in all virtuous sincerity, the victorious Yudhisthira came with his brothers to Dhritarashtra and Gandhari for reconciliation, the losers were so full of revenge that resorting to treachery, they tried to destroy Yudhisthira and Bhima. Just as Kunti’s sons had killed her own, Gandhari tried to kill Kunti’s son, Yudhisthira. In the process, she succeeded in killing her only surviving son. She got to know what she had done only after Durdasa’s death.

Outside of the Kuru clan, things were no less dark and sinister. For his ingratitude, Drona punished king Drupada by having him imprisoned by Arjuna. This was the guru dakshina he had asked from the Pandavas. The humbled and humiliated Drupada performed tapas to kill Drona. Likewise, Jayadratha did the same to be able to kill the Pandavas. There was the mighty emperor Jarasandha who had imprisoned many kings whom he intended to kill as part of a ritual sacrifice for a selfish goal. Then there was king Sishupala whose hatred for his cousin Krishna was nothing short of savage. Aswasthama, who was intemperate, was full of destructive ambition – a dangerous combination that could lead one to commit irresponsible and heinous acts. This was indeed what happened in his case. The social order was disturbed when Drona, the brahmin, abandoned the ashram and brahminical duties and chose employment with the king of Hastinapur as the teacher of weaponry to the Kuru princes. One might sympathize with him, considering that he had his compulsions. But there was no justification for Aswasthama’s opting to choose the profession of a kshatriya (member of the warrior community). In sum, Sarala’s Mahabharata presents a depressing picture of the moral decay in aryavarta (Aryavarta) as the aeon of Dwapara was coming to a close and the aeon of Kali or adharma was lying in wait to rule the world.

But then that was a period of sublime light as well. Because into this world descended the Supreme god Narayana as Krishna to relieve Mother Earth of her burden and as the poet Sarala celebrated the avatara’s doings, his narrative of the Kuru clan was transformed into a spiritually uplifting composition, which he repeatedly called “Vishnu Purana”. When Vaibasuta Manu prayed to sage Agasti (better known as Agastya) to tell him how to attain moksha, the great sage made him listen to the Mahabharata story because listening to the story of Krishna’s lila (divine play) would bring moksha. Contextualizing the recounting of the Mahabharata story this way, the poet Sarala made moksha a central concern of his retelling of the classical narrative.

The gods, the beings in the other lokas (roughly, realms), the seers, the sages and the wise and spiritually elevated among the asuras (demons) and the humans in the mortal world knew that Krishna was the Purna Avatara or the perfect incarnation of Narayana, though some of them at times were assailed by doubt. They would eventually realize the truth. As he waited for Krishna, who he had heard was coming to the Kaurava court, Bhishma said that they were very fortunate that they were shortly going to see Narayana, who was living in their midst as a human. When king Duryodhana was hesitant to welcome Krishna to his court because Sakuni persuaded him that he was unworthy of sitting with the illustrious kshatriyas, the preceptor Drona said that the assembly that had no place for Narayana was an assembly of the pretas, of the dead. When the Kauravas and the Pandavas together prepared a war-code to be followed during the very special Kurukshetra War – “very special” because brothers and relatives would fight to kill one another –  Duryodhana called upon everyone to honour the code because in that war Narayana Himself (in his incarnation as Krishna) would be there as sakshi (witness). Sahadeva, who had the knowledge of the past, the present and the future, knew who Krishna was. So, when before going to the Kaurava court as Yudhistira’s emissary, the avatara asked him what he would want for himself from Duryodhana so that the fratricidal war could be avoided, he said nothing because he knew what Krishna had in mind. Therefore, he merely told Krishna which particular villages he must ask from Duryodhana, knowing that those could simply not be given. In that way he served Krishna in the fulfilment of his cosmic purpose. When Duryodhana showed his willingness to give Krishna two villages instead of five, Sakuni advised him to give him nothing at all. In an earlier incarnation, he told the Kaurava king, he had assumed the form of a dwarf and had asked king Bali to gift him merely that much land that only three steps of his could cover, and when Bali agreed, the great king found that he had no space on earth to stand on. Duryodhana must learn from the avatara’s past, he warned the Kuru king. Narayana must be given nothing at all, he told him. Not just the educated and the wise, the forest-dwellers too knew that Krishna was the incarnation of Narayana. Jara, the forest-dweller savara, whose arrow mortally wounded Krishna, wept inconsolably, finding that he had hurt the One worshipped by Brahma, Indra and Rudra. In short, in the world of Sarala Mahabharata, all knew that Krishna was Narayana in the human form.

In Sarala’s narrative, he entered the story of the Kurus before Nakula was born. Madri with Durvasa’s mantra had invoked Narayana to give her a child; that was how Krishna came to her. But he did not oblige her, the details of which are out of place here. By the time he met Pandu’s family, his doings were well known – that he had spent his childhood among the cowherds, gazing cows, that he had performed many miraculous feats, which included his killing of the demoness Putana and Sandhasura, the demon in the form of a bull and that he had intensely passionate relationship with too many gopis (cowherd women). Once he had wild sex with an old woman, who was Radha’s emissary to him, under the impression that she was Radha. Out of that union was born a child who he taught how to steal and how to make tunnel like passages. Profligacy was considered papa (sin) then. Once god Yama, the god of death, complained to him, with due reverence of course, in this regard, saying that he had set a bad example for the humans. Sakuni always told Duryodhana that Krishna as a great sinner who had killed a woman and what was worse, a bull. And yet, he never did anything by way of penance. Even the great god Shiva had to undergo penance for having killed a bull accidentally. Was that brat of a cowherd greater than Shiva? he asked Duryodhana rhetorically.

Duryodhana was very disappointed with him. He disliked his interference on the issue of the inheritance of the throne of Hastinapura because he looked upon him as an outsider. It was a matter of the Kuru family. He was not unwilling to share the kingdom with those who belonged to the Kuru clan. At one stage, he was willing to give half the kingdom to Sahadeva, who was Pandu’s son – his only son. The rest were the children of the outsiders. Later he hardened his stand about Sahadeva too, whom he then considered to be a god’s son, like the rest of them. In Sarala’s narrative, Sahadeva could be viewed either way or both ways. Duryodhana was arguably not wrong about who belonged to the family and who did not. In the thinking of those days, it was the father who mattered in this regard, not the mother. Duryodhana was inclined to give two villages to the Pandavas, when Krishna went to him as Yudhisthira’s emissary, but when he named the five villages he wanted, he realized that by asking for the un-givable, Krishna was merely making sure that the war took place. It was not he alone who considered Krishna’s demand of the specific villages unjust; everyone in the court seemed to think so. This apart, Krishna thought nothing of betraying Yudhisthira who had sent him to work for peace, not war.

Once the war took place, the Kauravas did not fail to notice that Krishna could go to any extent to ensure victory for the Pandavas. This apart, he repeatedly condemned the Kauravas for the killing of Abhimanyu but forced the reluctant Pandavas to resort to adharma on the battlefield more than once. He had given word to his elder brother, Balarama, that he would only be a witness in the war but on the sixth day of the war he destroyed the infallible divine arrow of Bhishma which would have certainly killed Arjuna. No one, including Bhishma himself, had seen what Krishna had done because he had done it in a way no one could, neither gods nor mortals. When Balarama asked him why he had betrayed him, he told him a lie; he hadn’t destroyed Bhishma’s arrow, he told him. There was no eye witness to tell Balarama what his younger brother, on whom he doted much, had done.

Incorporating creatively the relevant episode from Srimad Bhagavata in his version of the Mahabharata story, Sarala describes how, like an ordinary human, Krishna was extremely miserable when he learnt that he would soon have to leave the world. He was directed by Narayana, his Source, to return to Him. The Supreme god was displeased with him for having stayed in the world longer than necessary. Dejected, Krishna wept. He had many children and grandchildren from many spouses and he found that he was deeply attached to them. He couldn’t bear even the thought of parting from them. He was caught in the snares of moha (attachment) like any mortal. In an earlier episode, the avatara appeared to be worried that he would have to die one day, like any ordinary human.  

In sum, Krishna’s ways were unintelligible in the context of the prevalent conception of avatara. References to the story of the Bhagawan Rama are many in Sarala Mahabharata and Rama is mentioned in utmost reverence. People of the aeon of Dwapara knew about Rama and his doings and for them, he was the supreme embodiment of virtuous living. When he learnt about the anguish of Bali’s son Angada, who had served him with complete devotion, the avatara assured him that he would avenge his father’s killing by killing him in his next avatara. The narrative of Mahabharata is not illumined by such deeply touching episodes of the avatara’s empathy, indulgence and magnanimity. In Sarala’s retelling, at Krishna’s time, Rama alone, of Narayana’s human avataras, was seen as being without blemish. Thus, in the context of Sarala Mahabharata, it could be said with some confidence that Rama defined an avatara of Narayana. Krishna was very different; yet everyone knew that he was the avatara and many found it difficult to cope with that truth. In his supreme and transcendental magnificence and extreme ordinariness, he embodied a huge contradiction; he was an enigma.

And to make matters worse, he would not generally explain his action for the benefit of others; no one of course pressed him for an explanation if he didn’t provide one. When at all he did, it was hardly adequate and convincing. For instance, when Gandhari asked him why he got her sons killed when he could have avoided the war, he told her that he punished the Kauravas in the hands of the Pandavas because they had humiliated him in their court when he went there as Yudhisthira’s emissary. Any reader of Udyoga Parva would know that this was only a half-truth at the very best. He had gone there to ensure that war took place. Similarly, he had Durdasa killed through deceit and explained his action saying that he had ensured that there was no residue of the enemy left in Yudhisthira’s Hastinapura. If Durdasa could be considered an enemy, it could just not be on the basis of his action but of his birth as a Kaurava. Krishna’s logic was shocking and his action, entirely unethical and depressing. One could be dazzled by his manifestation of his narayanatwa (Narayana-ness) and of his awesome power, when he chose to reveal that aspect of his and feel terribly letdown by his acts of degrading cunning, when he chose to show this face of his, but the spiritually elevated apart, one found it bewildering that both these were aspects of the same person.


That was Duryodhana’s problem, but he was not the only one in Sarala Mahabharata to be bewildered by the avatara. For once the creator god Brahma too was confused about Krishna’s reality, so mundane were some of his doings. The same had happened to sage Durvasa once. Let’s forget about them and focus on Duryodhana. He did not trust Krishna but he did not look upon him as his enemy. Knowing that he was the avatara of Narayana, he revered him. It was he who had said that the Kurukshetra War would be dharma yuddha because of Narayana’s presence in the battlefield. But when he found him unfair and humiliating towards him, he treated him with disdain. In the Kaurava court Krishna provoked him by comparing his kingdom with Babarapuri, where adharma was seen as dharma and dharma as adharma and telling him that his kingdom would perish the same way as did Babarapuri. There does not seem to be any sound justification for Yudhisthira’s emissary for peace to humiliate the Kaurava king in his court. In such moments, it was the human aspect of Krishna that pervaded Duryodhana’s consciousness. He knew the power of the avatara, yet he chose to attack him, not once, but twice in his court. The first time he did, Krishna showed the assembly five of his avataras: Matsya, Kurma, Varaha, Vamana and then Nrusingha. The Kauravas had run away in fear when he assumed the last-named form. The second attack was inspired by Sakuni’s advice. He told Duryodhana that when alone, Krishna was vulnerable and that they must tie him up and throw him into the prison. Krishna assumed his Narayana Form and the terrified attackers withdrew. After the first attack, sage Vyasa wondered what karma the Kauravas had done in the past so as to be able to see five avataras of Narayana. What one could not see after thousands of years of tapas, thought the celebrated sage, the Kauravas did because of their vaira or enmity.

Sarala Mahabharata celebrates enmity as a form of bhakti. Enmity is often engendered by hatred. When one’s hatred is overwhelming, the object of his hatred fills one’s consciousness. The consciousness of those who hated Krishna with great intensity became “Krishnamaya” (full of the consciousness of Krishna). This has been traditionally recognized as a form of bhakti – known as “virodha bhakti”, which we tentatively call here “negative devotion”. Devotion to God and hatred of Him are two sides of the same coin – the end result of both bhakti and virodha bhakti is the same. Viewed thus, there is nothing really negative about it. The expression “negative devotion” draws attention to the manner of working for moksa,

It could be argued that in Sarala Mahabharata, Duryodhana’s attitude towards Krishna in his moments of madness, often triggered by the latter’s perceived unfairness towards him, is an instance of negative devotion. Two other characters in Sarala’s narrative who embody this form of bhakti much more manifestly are Sishupala and Jarasandha. Krishna’s cousin Sishupala hated him intensely. Krishna had eloped with Rukmini who was his betrothed and he could do nothing to punish him and redeem his honour. He had gone to participate in Yudhisthira’s rajaswiya jajna. Krishna was accorded the highest honour there by Yudhishthira on the advice of the preceptor Drona. Sishupala condemned this and went on abusing Krishna, saying how very undeserving he was to be given that great honour. Bhishma was enraged at Sishupala’s insulting Krishna and threatened to attack him, but was restrained by Krishna. Krishna had assured Sishupala’s mother that he would forgive him for a hundred acts of misdemeanor sins and would kill him once he transgressed that limit. As Sishupala went on abusing Krishna, the number increased. Soon he exceeded the limit and Krishna severed his head with his Sudarshana chakra. Whereas for those who witnessed it, was the killing of Sishupala, it was indeed his uddhara (salvation) because he attained the ultimate bliss as Krishna absorbed his soul. That was one, and the most celebrated, form of moksha in Sarala Mahabharata. Once one merges in Narayana, one is out of the karmic cycle.

The mighty Jarasandha became Krishna’s arch enemy when the latter killed Kansa, his brother-in-law. He attacked Krishna’s Mathura many times and forced the avatara to move to Dwaraka. He had a powerful protection system which was virtually impossible to penetrate; on that account, he could not be caught unprepared for a fight by the enemy. But no protection system could be strong enough for the avatara and he, accompanied by Arjuna and Bhima, all disguised as brahmins, reached the king, who was unprepared to meet an enemy. Krishna identified himself and the two Pandavas and challenged him for a single combat. He could choose any of them, he told him. Jarasandha chose Bhima. The fight was fierce and it lasted many days. When he realized that his end was near, he thought of Krishna and complained to him silently that he was being very unkind to him, getting him killed by someone else instead of he himself, for which grace he had tried so hard all his life. He had tried his best to provoke him in many ways, hoping that one day, he would kill him with Sudarshana chakra and give him moksha. He was deeply hurt that Krishna was being unmerciful to him. In his last moments Jarasandha had become Krishnamaya. What Krishna gave his devotee, we do not know.

In Sarala Mahabharata, Sishupala and Jarasandha were the ones who were extremely hostile to Krishna personally. But could they both be regarded as the practitioners of virodha bhakti? In the case of Jarasandha, there can be no room for skepticism. His hatred and his virodha for Krishna were not genuine; what were genuine were his bhakti for the avatara and his desire for moksha. As for Sishupala, his great contempt for and enmity with Krishna was not intentional; that came naturally to him. As hatred for Krishna pervaded his consciousness, Krishna pervaded his consciousness. When he died, an illumination from his body entered the avatara’s – he merged into him. Later in the narrative, Belalasena attained moksha when Krishna absorbed his essence into himself. Nothing comparable happened in the case of Jarasandha, but dying with thoughts of Krishna could not have been futile in the spirit of Sarala Mahabharata.

In Sarala’s retelling, as mentioned earlier, it was not unknown to people that Krishna was Narayana’s avatara and some knew that he was His purna avatara and hence could give moksha. As he was returning from the Kaurava court, Duryodhana’s son, Lakshmana Kumara, met him on the way and Krishna told him that he would grant him whatever he wanted. The young prince prayed to him to severe his head in the Kurukshetra battlefield with his divine chakra. Krishna granted him his wish. However, Lakshmana Kumara did not die in Krishna’s hands. Krishna was not fighting in that war. He killed none – in the laukika sense that is, because Belalasena had a different understanding of things because of the divya dristi (divine perception) that Krishna had given him. In any case, who killed the prince is untold. Did Krishna’s promise go in vain? The text says nothing in this regard, but in the spirit of the text, this just cannot be the case. Shortly before the start of the Kurukshetra War, Bhurishrava, the Kaurava elder and a great warrior, told Duryodhana bluntly that he and many others had joined the war on his behalf, not because they believed that they would bring him victory but because they would die on the battlefield, looking at Krishna on Arjuna’s chariot and obtain moksha. Before the start of the war, the savara (forest dweller) Kiratasen happily had his head severed by Krishna with his Sudarshana chakra as his dana (ritual offering) to the avatara because he knew that that would give him moksha. He had been waiting for that since the times of Rama, he told the avatara. He was Bali then, and Rama had killed him, but the avatara did not kill him with Sudarshana chakra. So he did not attain moksha and his karma brought him back to the moral world. Only Narayana or His incarnation who used His chakra, (i.e., his purna avatara) could give moksha. The divine chakra was the instrument that severed the mortal frame of the target and together with that, the karmic bondage.

When Duryodhana tried to imprison Krishna in his court, Krishna invoked his narayanatwa and assumed the dazzling Form that was supremely magnificent and majestic, and awe-inspiring and terrifying, manifesting the wild, destructive energy of Bhagawana Parshurama. The Kuru attackers fled in fear. Then the noble and virtuous Bhishma came forward and in great reverence and humility, offered himself to the avatara and begged him to severe his head. Many virtuous warriors did the same. They knew that by dying in his hands they would attain Vaikuntha, the divine abode of the Supreme god. As Krishna returned to his familiar form, he told them that he could not harm them as they were not his enemies and as they had done no wrong.

The wise Vidura, the righteous Sanjaya, the Kuru elders, the Pandavas and the Kauravas, the Kuru women, Dhritarashtra, the preceptor Drona, his son Aswasthama and the family priest Kripacharya – they all were profoundly reverential towards him. However, in day-to-day life, barring Vidura, Sanjaya and Sahadeva, they would often forget this truth about him and treated him as a human, as just one of them. They belittled him, abused him and Gandhari even cursed him. However, Sahadeva who knew the present, the past and the future, was aware of the cosmic purpose of the avatara and always served him most devoutly in the fulfilment of that purpose.

   So did Sakuni, in Sarala’s version. Except for Vidura, Sanjaya and Sahadeva, no one knew about his absolute commitment to Krishna. His systematic denigration of Krishna was only a pretence to persuade Duryodhana to fight a conclusive war against the Pandavas. He knew what would happen. He had to do to the Kauravas what he did. He was not free; his dear dead had imprisoned him by their wish. He had to avenge the brutal killing of his father and uncles and relatives, who had determined his life’s purpose for him. Dhristadyumna was born to kill Drona, Dussasana was born to be killed, ignoring details, the way he was, in Sarala’s retelling, but Sakuni was not born but was made to be a destroyer of the Kauravas.

One late night before the Great War at Kurukshetra, Krishna, Sakuni and Sahadeva met secretly. Should there be the war or should there not be the war, Krishna asked Sakuni. Sakuni told him that whatever he wanted would happen. He, Sakuni, was his very own.  He, his servitor in his earlier existence, born now to serve him in the fulfilment of his avataric objective, would do whatever he wanted him to do. If he did not want war, he would ensure that there would be no war. But then, in making his choice for war or peace, he told Krishna, he must not forget the purpose of his avatara. In Sarala Mahabharata, Sakuni is one character, who lived in complete knowledge of his relationship with Krishna. Narayana’s eternal servitor, he did not seek moksha.     

Incidentally, not many in the world of Sarala Mahabharata sought moksha from Krishna. Some wanted worldly things from them, like the Pandavas and the Kauravas wanting him to be on their side in the Kurukshetra War, like Draupadi wanting him to punish Aswasthama for having killed her children or the Pandava women who wanted the child of Uttara, born dead, alive. In any case, the sages did not seek moksha. The wise Drona did not, neither did Vidura, Sanjaya, Yudhisthira or Karna. Belalasena (Barbarik, in some versions) did not; it is another matter that Krishna gave it to him. Although Sarala says nothing about it, one could hazard a guess that these illustrious men who tried to live a life of dharma believed that dharma would lead them to their moksha. Some of them might have been content with having the avatara around them, such as the sages, and some who were related to him as his sakha (friend), kin, etc., like Draupadi or Arjuna, and still some, offering their service to him, like Sakuni, Vidura and Sahadeva, whenever needed. Then there was Krishna’s guru, Santipani (better known in the puranic literature as Sandipani), who asked Krishna for his dead sons to be brought alive to him as his guru dakshina and after his dead ons returned alive to him, he wondered why he had not asked for moksha instead from his shishya!

In sum, on the theme of moksha, not all who sought moksha from Krishna, got moksha, whereas some who did not seek moksha, he gave it to them. He who Krishna wanted to give moksha, received it. What Krishna’s logic was, one would never know. Sakuni said of Narayana that He could not be pleased by bhakti or jnana or dana (devotion, knowledge, ritual gift, respectively). And we know from Sarala Mahabharata that one could not displease him with vaira or hostility.

The old and helpless mother, who bereaved over the loss of her hundred sons, ultimately blamed, not Yudhisthira, whom she had tried to destroy with her yogic fire, or Bhima but Krishna for her profound loss. The war took place because he wanted, she told him. And in a moment of overwhelming grief and madness, she cursed him, cursed Narayana, who she had always revered: his own would perish and so would he, in not too distant a future. Krishna accepted the curse – one could not please Narayana with prayer, and one could not displease Him with a curse. Krishna told her that she had done deba karjya, what the gods wanted. They wanted him back in his divine abode.

In Sarala Mahabharata, the main characters related to Krishna, as did the nameless and numberless warriors about whom the wise Bhurishrava had said that they all wanted to fall in the battlefield where Krishna was present. They did not all relate to him in the same way. Some were his devotees, who loved him intensely, sang his glory, would not stand his denunciation by anyone, however mighty and however revered, and experienced the sublime joy of being with him and serving him in whatever manner he wanted. Then there were others who were his enemies, who hated him fiercely and condemned him in venomous language. There were still others who would belong to one or the other of the in-between categories. Between navadha bhakti and virodha bhakti there could be many composites of them. Aware or unaware, whoever related to him in whatever way it might be, was his bhakta. Bhakti in Sarala Mahabharata has many forms and various characters in it embody one form of it or the other.

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