Deeply offended by Krishna’s plain speaking, Duryodhana lost his temper and started abusing him. To be fair, his feeling humiliated and even being angry at what Krishna had told him is not un-understandable, although one could hardly deny that he had asked for it. But his being abusive was certainly inappropriate, at least in view of the fact that Krishna was a messenger, no matter how badly he might have conducted himself, in his view. Losing his cool, he held his mace and moved menacingly towards Krishna. He shouted to his brothers Dussasana, Durvinda, Durjaya, and in no time they were ready to attack the Avatara with their maces, swords, spears and the like. The sages who were with Krishna withdrew in fear, as did the courtiers.
Krishna did not want to harm them; he was there in Duryodhana’s court as Yudhisthira’s messenger for peace; it was another matter that his own agenda was very different, about which the eldest Pandava had no knowledge. But hurting the Kauravas, he knew, would be unacceptable to both dharma and the son of Dharma. So he decided to frighten them. He knew that they were looking upon him as a low-born and arrogant cowherd and he thought he would let them know who he really was. He presumed that once they knew the truth about him, they would refrain from attacking him.
So he transformed himself into a huge Fish. The Kauravas were surprised. “Look at what the mean cowherd has done – look at how he has changed himself into a fish!”, they shouted. Now, killing snakes, tigers and fish was permitted by the shastras, they told one another; so Dussasana raised his huge mace to hit the fish. Then suddenly the Fish disappeared and, in Its place, appeared a big Tortoise. Dussasana’s mace broke into pieces as it hit its back. The same happened to the swords, maces, spears and all other weapons of his brothers as they struck the tortoise. “Look at this miserable coward”, said the Kauravas, “see, how, for fear of being hurt, he has turned himself into a tortoise!”
Krishna was wondering how very ignorant the Kauravas were – they were not able to make sense of what they had seen: kebana murkha ye kaurabe na jananti kichhi (how unlearned, how ignoramus these Kauravas are; they know nothing.). Hoping to help them, he became a gigantic Boar. “Look at the lowly cowherd”, said the Kauravas,” he has now become a boar, of all creatures!” Then the Boar became a Dwarf. This was extremely hilarious for the Kauravas and they made fun of the dwarf. “Look, how in fear the coward cowherd has changed into a dwarf!”, they said, and promptly rushed to hit him.
“How very ignorant are these Kauavas!”, thought Krishna, “they see, yet they do not see.” In a flash, the Dwarf vanished and manifest in His place was the Dazzling, Magnificent and Terrifying Man-Lion. The Kauravas fled in fear.
Later, at night fall, in the assembly of sages, in the august presence of the great Markandya, Kashyapa and their like, sage Vyasa said that the Kauravas were truly great sages, who, by their enmity, had pleased Narayana. They had seen Five Avataras of Him, one after the other – an experience that one, who has done tapas across a thousand births, would not have. None among the mortals and immortals, in any aeon, had ever had that profoundly blissful experience. In the context of navadha bhakti (nine forms of devotion), droha (enmity) can be said to be the tenth bhakti. Or, was the end of the Kauravas near, because of which, the Supreme god Narayana in His boundless grace, had revealed Himself to them in His many incarnations, mulled the celebrated Vyasa.
Thus, in Sarala Mahabharata, no one is excluded from His grace; the virtuous and the sinner, the wise and the fool, the believer and the sceptic, the devotee and the enemy. When Krishna killed with his Sudarshana Chakra, that was an act of grace for the “victim” – he attained moksa. What the severed head of Belalsena saw with the purity of vision, in the battlefields of dharma kshetra, that was Kurukshetra, rendered divinely blessed by the Avatara’s presence, was that it was Sudarshana that killed warriors on both sides – not just one side. Among those who fell thus were the virtuous and the sinners both (see “Divya Chaksu” posted in this blog on 24.2.18). But Sudarshana was only the instrument; the agent was Krishna. This was how Sarala expressed the vision of Srimad Bhagavad Gita: he had already killed all who were to be killed, Krishna told Arjuna, asking him to be only a nimitta.
Because of ignorance, the ordinary, unevolved mortals, do not realize that they too are the blessed receivers of His grace. Later that day, Duryodhana told his father Dhritarashtra and mother Gandhari how deeply disappointed he had been with Krishna. His conduct in the court had been disgraceful, he told his parents. He had behaved like an actor in an opera, who changed his appearance many times for the stage. He assumed the illusory forms of fish, tortoise, boar, dwarf and man-lion, one after the other, he told them. Dhritarashtra knew what that meant. He was deeply concerned and pleaded with his son not to go to war against the Pandavas. Disgusted and angry with his advice, Duryodhana left.
The following day, before the court started, Sakuni met him and advised him not to yield to the magic that Krishna had shown the day before. He was like an opera actor, changing appearances, he told him: aho natakara lokankara yesaneka gati / ksane ksane dharanti se anu ana murati (listen, this is how actors behave/ they assume one appearance now, another the next moment). Sarala’s Sakuni knew the truth but misguiding the king was necessary for the accomplishment of his mission.
In this very short sub-episode of just thirty-five couplets, Sarala deals, in his remarkable story-telling mode, with the classic question of how one acquires the knowledge that makes one see the real nature of things. One thing is certain: from direct, perceptual experience one cannot arrive at the truth. Intervention of pure jnana is needed that would remove the layers of illusion that conceal the truth. But how does one acquire that? The Upanishads and the Puranas would give different answers: the realization of the Brahman is not attainable through grace in the puranic sense. One answer in Sarala Mahabharata is this: one does, when one receives Narayana’s grace. Thus, Belalsena saw things that the Pandavas did not. Thus, the Kauravas saw Krishna transforming himself into a fish, a tortoise, a boar, a dwarf and a man-lion. Sage Vyasa saw something else.