Professor Saroj Thakur has a detailed review of the Panchkanya National Seminar here : https://www.boloji.com/articles/1542/panchkanya-of-indian-epics-a-critique
STORIES, ESSAYS & POSTS
The Doctrine of Karma is a vexed philosophical question and Karmic Law has often been confused with fatalism—that everything is preordained. Therefore, it is made out to be a debilitating and disempowering philosophy that drew India down into abject misery. The author seeks to put forward his understanding of this complex concept. It is a cosmic law of action with its inevitable consequence and reaction. Narration of parables—metaphors pregnant with rich meaning—supplemented with instances from real life show a path out of the labyrinth, even the much debated issue of determinism and free will. The thesis is that the Karmic Law can provide the discerning intelligence, cultivated through chitta-shuddhi, adequate guidance for making the choice that may help one—if one chooses to—in avoiding decisions for short-term gains that breed long-term misery.
In tragic life, God wot, no villain need be;
Passions spin the plot. We are betrayed
By what is false within.
Noble blood is of little help.
Deluded by passions, the best
of men turn wicked, and reap
the evil that they sow.
Karmanye vadhikaraste ma phaleshu kadacana /
Ma karmaphalheturbhurma te sangostavakarmani //
Whether it is Meredith writing in “Modern Love” in England of the 1860s, or Vyasa dictating to Ganesha in India’s mythic past, the finger points unwaveringly not outwards at the other, but inwards at oneself. The moving finger writes and having writ moves on, but it is the individual who is responsible for making that choice, thinking that thought, feeling that emotion, doing that act which sets off the inexorable chakra of karma, and not just blind nemesis that visits unjustified calamity on his head. The Indian insight into this law was voiced memorably by Robert Frost:
“Two roads diverged in a wood
And I took the one less travelled by
And that has made all the difference.”
Whether it is Sri Aurobindo choosing to turn away from comfortable employment with the Maharaja of Baroda to leading the revolutionary movement for India’s freedom and on to the sadhana of the Supramental, or Mahatma Gandhi adopting non-violence to challenge the brutal might of the British, or Lincoln deciding to face the spectre of civil war to wipe out slavery, in each case it is the choice of the road less travelled that has made all the difference, not just for the individual taking that option but for society in general. That difference in the consequences may not necessarily be evident immediately. Christianity overcame the Roman Empire centuries after Jesus was crucified and thousands were martyred. The anguished cry might well ring out:
“The best lack all conviction. While the worst
Are full of a passionate intensity.”
Indeed, that is why we bemoan the good suffering unjustified misery while the evil enjoy the best of times. Sri Aurobindo’s short story, “Svapna” (Dream), slices through this Gordian knot at one fell stroke: the external appearances are deceptive; the mind of the evil-doer—who seems to be floating in a lake of bliss—is full of scorpions; the righteous person mired in poverty enjoys a far higher quality of being—the ineffable wealth of a mind at peace with itself.
In both cases, the condition of being—whether feebly lacking conviction or perversely passionate in intensity—is a function of conscious choice, with inevitable consequences to be borne. Surely, it is critically significant that of all creatures man alone has the option of making choices instead of compulsively following instinct. As Krishna tells Arjuna after all the advice of the Gita: yatha icchasi tatha kuru—“Act as you wish.” Given that undeniable fact, how is one to make sure—as the Pepsi jingle has it—“Yehi hai right choice, baby, aha!”—that the correct choice is being made? As Professor Albus Dumbledore tells the novitiate wizard Harry Potter, “As much money and life as you could want! The two things most human beings would choose above all—the trouble is, humans do have a knack of choosing precisely those things which are the worst for them.” Ravana and Vibhishana, both are sons of the sage Vishravas and the rakshashi Kaikesi. Yet, how different are their ends, each the consequence of individual decisions regarding the way of life chosen. Ravana is the egotist par excellence, world-conqueror but a slave of his passions; Vibhishana’s unclouded vision clearly distinguishes right from wrong. Surya, the deity upholding Rita (truth), and Dharma, the god of righteousness, both sire sons on Kunti—Karna and Yudhishthira—who make choices differing radically in motive and in action. Yudhishthira seeks out truth and grapples it to his heart with hoops of steel; Karna, knowing what is righteous, elects to oppose it. And Mahabharata records what happens to each of them.
The Law of karma can provide us an invaluable guide in choosing the road to take, in being creatively proactive. It is precisely the opposite of fatalism, which encourages an inert, passive state of being. Karmic law is quite plainly stated: every act has a reaction, a result. Arnold Toynbee even spoke of a national karmic effect, citing the examples of England, France and imperial Russia, to which we could add communist Soviet Union, ancient Greece and Rome. Great empires all, fallen to the dust and living today in the shadow of a super power. Closer to home do we not have the mighty Mauryan hegemony collapsing soon after the Asoka’s Kalinga carnage and barbarian hordes crushing the Gupta Empire as they would the Roman and the Mughal? Sri Aurobindo had stated, long before Toynbee, “Nations as well as individuals are subject to the law of karma, and in the present political and industrial revolt British rule in India is paying for the commercial rapacity which impelled it to prefer trade returns to justice and kingly duty and use its political power to turn India from a land of fabulous wealth into a nation of starving millions.”
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
This consequence may not, however, be either immediate or necessarily equivalent in Newtonian manner. As Sri Aurobindo pointed out, “The payment (by British rule) has only just begun—for these karmic debts are usually repaid with compound interest.” Therefore, when on occasion it appears long after the act, or appears to outweigh by far the choice one had made, the chooser is unable to connect and complains like King Lear of unjustified, inexplicable misery being visited upon him:
“As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods,
They kill us for their sport.”
The first lesson is that making the connection is the critical factor in achieving this understanding. The second lesson is: before making the choice to be aware that it is bound to produce not just a result but also a reaction. The law has a corollary too: “good” acts do not wipe out the reactions produced by “bad” karma. The consequences flow along their own individual paths; they do not cancel out one another. The only exception is the path of yoga which, when adopted, is said to wipe the past slate clean.
What is the meaning of karma? Sri Aurobindo has explained its true rationale:
“The true consciousness within is not unaware of the past; it holds it there, not necessarily in memory but in being, still active, living, ready with its fruits, and sends it up from time to time in memory or more concretely in result of past action or past causes to the superficial conscious being.”
The Wish-fulfilling Tree
One way of gaining insight into this cosmic doctrine is through a parable that sets forth the existential predicament of humankind in the universe: the parable of the Kalpataru, the wish-fulfilling tree, narrated by Sri Ramakrishna.
Into a room full of children at play walks the proverbial uncle, back from the city, who, of course, knows better. Laughing at their preoccupation with make-believe games, he asks them to lift up their eyes and go out to the massive banyan tree, which will grant them whatever they wish—the real stuff! The children do not believe him and remain busy with their toys. The uncle shrugs and leaves. And then they rush out, stand under the branches of this huge tree that cover the sky and ask for what all children crave: toys and sweets. In a flash they get what they want, but along with an unexpected bonus: the built-in opposite of what they wished for. With toys they get boredom; with sweets tummy-ache. Sure that something has gone wrong with their wishing, the children ask for bigger toys and sweeter sweets. The tree grants them their wishes and along with them bigger boredom and bigger tummy-ache. Time passes. They are now young men and women and their wishes change, for they know more. They ask for wealth, power, fame, sexual pleasure—and they get these, but also cupidity, insomnia, anxiety, and frustration/disease. Time passes. The wishers are now old and gather in three groups under the all-encompassing branches. The first group exclaims, “All this is an illusion!” Fools, they have learnt nothing. The second group says, “We are wiser and will wish better next time.” Greater fools, they have learnt less than nothing. The third group, disgusted with everything, decides to cop out and asks for death. They are the most foolish of all. The tree grants them their desire and, with it, its opposite: rebirth, under the same tree. For, where can one be born, or reborn, but within this cosmos!
All this while one child has been unable to move out of the room. Being lame, he was pushed down in the scramble and when he dragged himself to the window, he was transfixed watching his friends make their wishes, get them with their built-in opposites and suffer, yet compulsively continue to make more wishes. Riveted by this utterly engrossing lila of desire and its fruits, a profound swell of compassion welled up in the heart of this lame child, reaching out to his companions. In that process, he forgot to wish for anything for himself. In that moment of spontaneous compassion for others, he sliced through the roots of the cosmic tree with the sword of non-attachment, of nishkama karma. He is the liberated one, the mukta purusha.
This wondrous kama-vriksha, tree of desire, is portrayed in a marvellously eidetic image by Vyasa in the Mahabharata (Shanti Parva 254. 1-8):
A wondrous kamavriksha grows in the heart,
a tree of desire, born of attachment.
Anger and arrogance its trunk,
impulse to act its irrigating channel.
Ignorance its root; negligence nourishes it.
fault-finding its leaves, past misdeeds its pith.
Grief, worry and delusion its branches,
fear its seed.
Vines of craving clasp it around
All around this fruit-giving mighty tree of desire
sit greedy men,
shackled in iron chains of desire,
craving its fruit.
He who snaps these bonds of desire
slices this tree
with the sword of non-attachment.
He transcends grief-giving age and death.
But the fool who climbs this tree
greedy for fruit,
it destroys him;
even as poison pills destroy the sick.
The roots of this tree reach far and wide.
Only the wise can hew it down
with the yoga-gifted
sword of equanimity.
Who knows how to rein in desires
and knows study of desire itself binds,
He transcends all sorrow.” (my transcreation)
The cosmic fig tree itself is figured forth by Krishna in the Gita (15.1-3) thus:
“Mention is made of a cosmic fig-tree
whose leaves are said to be the Vedas;
the knower of this fig-tree
is the knower of the Vedas.
Its branches reach out below and above,
its flowers are the objects of the senses;
below the ground flourish more roots
giving birth to action.
You may not see its real shape,
nor its end, birth and existence.
Slice this fig-tree with non-attachment.”
MAYA: the unanswered question
Another way of approaching an understanding of this predicament is through trying to answer the question: what is Maya? This was the question put by Narada, the inveterately wandering sage, to Vishnu. The story that follows was retold—curiously but typically Indian in happenstance—to Andre Malraux in Varanasi by a passer-by. In Anti-Memoirs Malraux writes that suddenly an Indian came up to him and said, “Mr. Malraux Sahib, would you like to listen to a story?” Taken aback, Malraux muttered that he was going to an official meeting. “But this is a very good story,” was the insistent reply. Malraux, perforce, agreed and here is the story he heard:
Narada, the itinerant divine sage roaming the three worlds, sowing seeds of discord and inveterate experimenter, goes up to Vishnu and demands that Maya be explained to him. Vishnu is silent. Narada is not one to be denied. He insists so persistently that the god has to answer him. “Maya cannot be explained, it has to be experienced,” he says. “If you can’t explain what you create, then I won’t believe in you,” retorts the never-say-die sage. Quickly deserting his serpent couch—for the fate of gods in whom humans do not believe is shrouded in uncertainty–Vishnu beckons him to follow. Walking together, they reach a desert where Vishnu sits down under a tree and exclaims, “I am so tired, Narada! Take this lota and get me some water from that oasis. When you return I will explain Maya to you.” Eager to plumb the mystery, Narada speeds off to the oasis and finds a well there beside a hut. He calls out, and a lovely girl opens the door. Looking into her eyes, Narada is reminded of the compelling eyes of Vishnu. She invites him in and disappears indoors. Her parents come out and greet the guest, requesting him to rest and eat after his journey through the burning sands before he returns with the lota of water. Thinking of the lovely girl, Narada agrees. Night falls, and they urge him to leave in the cool morning. Awakening in the morning, Narada looks out and sees the girl bathing beside the well. He forgets about the lota of water. He stays on. The parents offer him their daughter’s hand in marriage. Narada accepts, and settles down here. Children arrive; the parents-in-law die; Narada inherits the property. 12 years go by. Suddenly the floods arrive–floods in the desert! —His house is washed away. His wife is swept away. Reaching out to clutch her, he loses hold of his children who disappear in the waters. Narada is submerged in the floods and loses consciousness. Narada awakens, his head pillowed in someone’s lap. Opening his eyes he gazes into the eyes of Vishnu, seated at the desert’s edge under that same tree, those eyes that remind him of his wife’s. “Narada,” asks Vishnu, “where is the lota of water?” Narada asked, “You mean, all that happened to me did not happen to me?” Vishnu smiled his enigmatic smile. 
Is the karmic law real? Who experiences what happens? Shankaracharya entered the corpse of king Amaruka, experienced a royal life of luxury with queens, courtesans, retainers, war—the lot. And then he returned to answer Mandanamisra’s wife in the debate on erotics. Which of these conditions was real? Do we dream or live? Certain things remain an enigma. It is said that the path of yoga shatters the adamantine shackles of karma. That is why the Buddha exclaimed:
Sandha isman anibhisam
How many births have I known
Without knowing the builder of this body!
How many births have I looked for him.
It is painful to be born again and again.
But now I have seen you, O builder of this body!
All desire is extinct, Nirvana is attained!
The rafters have crumbled the ridge pole is smashed!
You will not build them again.” 
The Drop of Honey
After the Kurukshetra holocaust, when the blind Dhritarashtra bewails the unjustified misery thrust upon him and turns to Vidura for consolation, this son of Vyasa and a maidservant narrates a gripping parable that provides yet another clue to understanding our existential situation:
Take a certain Brahmin who loses himself in a dense jungle filled with wild beasts. Lions and tigers, elephants and bears…Yelling and trumpeting and roaring…a dismal scene to frighten even the god of death, Yama. The Brahmin is terror-stricken. He horripilates. His mind is a bundle of fears. He begins to run, helter-skelter; he looks right and left, hoping to find someone who will save him. But the fierce beasts—they are everywhere—the jungle echoes with their weird roaring—wherever he goes, they are there, ahead of him.
Suddenly he notices that the fearful forest is swathed in a massive net. In front of him, with open arms, is a horrendous-looking female. Also, five-headed snakes hiss at him—tall snakes, their hill-huge bodies slithering up to the sky.
In the middle of the forest is a well covered with grass and intertwining creepers. He falls in that well and dangles there, clutched by a creeper, like a jackfruit ripe for plucking. He hangs there, feet up, head down.
Horror upon horror! In the bottom of the well he sees a monstrous snake. On the edge of the well is a huge black elephant with six heads and twelve feet hovering at the well’s mouth. And, buzzing in and out of the clutch of creepers, are giant, repulsive bees surrounding a honeycomb. They are trying to sip the deliciously sweet honey, the honey all creatures love, the honey whose real taste only children know.
The honey drips out of the comb, and the honey drops fall on the hanging Brahmin’s tongue. Helpless he dangles, relishing the honey drops. The more the drops fall, the greater his pleasure. But his thirst is not quenched. More! Still more! ‘I am alive!’ he says, ‘I am enjoying life!’
Even as he says this, black and white rats are gnawing the roots of the creeper. Fears encircle him. Fear of the carnivores, fear of the fierce female, fear of the monstrous snake, fear of the giant elephant, fear of the rat-devoured creeper about to snap, fear of the large buzzing bees…In that flux and flow of fear he dangles, hanging on to hope, craving the honey, surviving in the jungle of samsara.
The jungle is the universe; the dark area around the well is an individual life span. The wild beasts are diseases. The fierce female is decay. The well is the material world. The huge snake at the bottom of the well is Kala, all-consuming time, the ultimate and unquestioned annihilator. The clutch of the creeper from which the man dangles is the self-preserving life-instinct found in all creatures. The six-headed elephant trampling the tree at the well’s mouth is the Year—six faces, six seasons; twelve feet, twelve months. The rats nibbling at the creeper are day and night gnawing at the life span of all creatures. The bees are desires. The drops of honey are pleasures that come from desires indulged. They are the rasa of Kama, the juice of the senses in which all men drown.
This is the way the wise interpret the wheel of life; this is way they escape the chakra of life.
Dhritarashtra, of course, misses the point Vidura is making: man, literally hanging on to life by a thread and enveloped in multitudinous fears, is yet engrossed in the drops of honey, exclaiming, “More! Still more! I am alive! I am enjoying life!” And, like the blind king, we tend to miss the point too. Ignoring the law of karma, taking that other road, we fall into the pit and rale; but inveterately, compulsively, perversely, strain every sinew to lick the honey. The Buddha figured it forth in a characteristically pungent image:
Craving is like a creeper,
it strangles the fool.
He bounds like a monkey, from one birth to another,
looking for fruit.
If heeded, the doctrine of karma becomes a powerful instrument for building character, maintaining integrity and establishing a society that functions not on matsya nyaya [the big devouring the small] that celebrates individualism, but on dharma that upholds society and the world itself.
The Pure Mind
The question is: how to comprehend the law and make the right choice? Man, by definition, is manav, a mental being. The primacy of the intellect and of intelligence is stressed in the account Vyasa provides to his pupils of how creation occurred:
Having created Brahma, Narayana directed him to create, but Brahma pleaded that he lacked the necessary prajna, wisdom. Thereupon, Narayana thought of buddhi, intelligence, which appeared. Infusing her with yogic power, he commanded her to enter Brahma, who was now able to create. Subsequently, the Vedas, which symbolise wisdom and knowledge, were spirited away by two demons–Madhu created from tamasic ignorance and Kaitava, born of passionate rajas. Bereft of the Vedas, Brahma was now unable to create. Narayana, retrieving the Vedas from the depths in his Hayagriva avatara, slew the two demons, to re-establish the supremacy of Sattva essential for creation.
But, if the mind’s mirror is itself overlaid with dust, how will it reflect the light of pure intelligence, of unsullied discrimination? Hence the need for wiping the mind’s mirror clean through the practice of chitta shuddhi, so that the choice made is based upon perception that is not clouded by the passion of rajas and the ignorance of tamas. It is to such a mind that the law of karma makes sense as a beacon light to choose the right path for lokasamgraha, preserving the peoples, which is the call of dharma. For, at the back of our minds we need to hear, ever, the warning Krishna voiced:
Dharmo rakshati rakshitah; dharmo hanti hatah
“Dharma, protected, protects. Dharma, violated, destroys.”
Determination & Free will
The whole point of comprehending this doctrine lies in perceiving that the much-vexed controversy over determination and free will is resolved if seen in perspective. Let us, once again, take recourse to a story to understand this complicated issue.
Two friends, Shyam and Yadu, lived in a village. Shyam was an ambitious go-getter, and Yadu a happy-go-lucky, ne’er do well. Keen to know the future, they approached a hermit who lived apart in the forest. After much persuasion, he agreed to look into the future and tell them their fates. After a year, he said, Shyam would become a king, while Yadu would die. Returning to the village, the shocked Yadu turned to prayer and began leading an exemplary life. Shyam, immediately on reaching the village, started throwing his weight about, grabbing whatever he fancied from others, threatening anyone who dared to protest, vociferously announcing that soon he would be their king.
A year passed by. Shyam sought out his friend and asked him to help pick the site for his palace. As they walked along the river bank, Shyam stumbled over something and fell. Picking himself up, he found the mouth of a jar protruding from the sand. Digging it up, he found it full of golden coins. Hearing his shouts of celebration at finding such treasure, a robber ran up and tried to snatch the jar. Yadu rushed to Shyam’s help and clutched on desperately to the robber’s leg. Unable to tackle the joint resistance of both friends, the infuriated robber stabbed Yadu on his arm and ran off.
Days passed. Yadu did not die; Shyam found himself still no king. So, they went off to the forest and hunted out the hermit. Confronting him, they demanded an explanation for the failure of his prophecy. The hermit went into meditation and then explained: the conduct of each of them had altered what was fated. Yadu’s austerity and prayers had reduced the mortal blow into a stab injury. Shyam’s tyrannical conduct had reduced the king’s crown to a jar of gold coins.
Fate, therefore, is altered by the individual’s choice of the path. Those that have eyes can see; those that have ears can hear. To develop this intuitive sense one has to dive deep, beyond the superficial sensory perception to the manas and cultivate living in that peace within, that pearl beyond price.
The Purpose: Insights from examples
Why this karmic law, what is its purpose? The history of mankind shows a development from subservience to the group, through the growth of the increasingly conscious mental faculty, towards variety and freedom of the individual. In exercising this freedom, the karmic law is an inestimably valuable reference point. The purpose has been succinctly stated by Sri Aurobindo: “…it is into the Divine in each man and each people that the man and the nation have to grow; it is not an external idea or rule that has to be imposed on them from without. Therefore the law of a growing inner freedom is that which will be most honoured in the spiritual age of mankind.” Self-knowledge is the pre-requisite for this freedom, “since spiritual freedom is not egoistic assertion of our separate mind and life but obedience to the Divine Truth in our self and our members and in all around us…And as soon as man comes to know his spiritual self, he does by that discovery, often even by the very seeking for it, as ancient thought and religion saw, escape from the outer law and enter into the law of freedom.” Until man achieves that to a significant extent, the compulsions of family, caste, clan, religion, society, nation will inevitably constrict his choice. The lower nature has to be subjected to the guidance of the illumined self and be transformed by it into a state where it naturally obeys the Divine Truth within the self. The eternal design is to allow each aspect of our being to grow freely in accordance with its known nature in order to discover the Divine in itself, not to extinguish it in a grand holocaust.
Let us take an example of this grand design. GLB, an officer in the Indian Army, lost his father when 18 years of age, and had to support his mother and 10 brothers and sisters on provident fund proceeds and whatever he could earn from tuitions while studying in college. As a child, he could recite parts of the Bengali Mahabharata by heart. In college, he was profoundly influenced by Christian missionaries and may have turned Christian had it not been for the influence of the lady he chose to wed. She, the youngest of 14 children, supported her mother and elder siblings on her meagre salary as a teacher. Two of her brothers were associated with revolutionaries, and she was herself strongly based in the Hindu ethos. GLB was contemptuous of ritualistic Hinduism and used to say, laughingly, that he would turn to it only in old age. When 43, he was ambushed, shot, and dragged into East Pakistan, where he had to spend many years in solitary confinement in prison, locked in a cell behind the ward for lunatics, a powerful light always burning above his bed that was bolted to the floor. Repeatedly he was urged to divulge intelligence secrets, tempted with high status in Pakistan and sought to be demoralised with accounts of how his own government had let him down (the Prime Minister had announced in Parliament that he was a retired officer!) and denying him medicines for his ailments. Here, in the jail library, he discovered a copy of Sri Aurobindo’s Bengali introduction to the Gita. He was able to procure a copy of the Gita, and practised its sadhana over the years, simultaneously studying the Koran in depth, completely changing his life, ultimately returning sane to his country. While in prison, he refused to ask for mercy as advised by his own government. Instead, single handed, he drafted applications to the High Court and the Supreme Court of Pakistan challenging the false evidence brought against him. This created such nation-wide sensation in both countries that the military government reduced the sentence from 8 to 4 years.
On one level, here is an instance of unjustified, inexplicable calamity. GLB received no recognition from the government for his heroism in the face of all odds. During his imprisonment, his wife had to bring up two sons with great difficulty, suffering much humiliation and many travails. Both sons topped in the university, obtained degrees from foreign universities on scholarships, and he saw them established in life. GLB used to say that he must have been a yogabhrashta (fallen from yoga) in his earlier birth and, therefore, the Divine had purged him of his impurities through this traumatic experience, virtually flinging him onto the path of yoga long before he had planned. GLB chose to join the army because his wife-to-be had pointed out that the one hundred and fifty rupees he earned as pay was too little to support a family. By ‘accident’, at the age of 30, he happened to meet Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, when his wife had gone on a visit to Pondicherry. 13 years later the ‘accident’ occurred in which he was shot and imprisoned.
Thus, the individual makes his choice, but the Divine also intervenes decisively in a person’s life: GLB could have chosen not to practise the sadhana of the Gita and the Koran and lose his reason in solitary confinement. Such are the critical choices man faces in life, which the ancients represented so graphically in the dream of Hercules. Some he elects to make, others are thrust upon him. In either case, the consequences inevitably follow. In making the choice, the heritage of the individual, the training to which he has been subjected by family tradition and socialisation, all play parts. But, in the ultimate analysis, it is when the psychic self chooses that the choice becomes one with the Divine purpose. Then does the soul spring forth to evolve into its glorious plenitude and the earthly life progresses towards the Life Divine. GLB’s greatest satisfaction was hearing from his wife that, when he fell unconscious with a heart attack, he had called the Divine’s name thrice. He felt that in thus invoking God even unawares, caught in the throes of acute physical agony, he had achieved what he had wanted and this more than compensated for all the suffering he had undergone in life.
The lesson of working without craving for the fruits of one’s actions was brought home to Kanak in a telling manner. He was disgruntled with being transferred frequently and arbitrarily. As the years went by, more and more he was chosen for assignments that had never before been handled by an officer of his service. He found himself faced with tasks of veritably Herculean proportions, calling for either cleaning up the Augean stables, or creating a new organisation from scratch. The day he had joined service his boss had told him that he must learn the work of everyone, from that of the office peon to that of the head of the office. He had faithfully done so, rehabilitating thousands of evacuees in the newly created Bangla Desh. Years later, he found himself working as typist, computer operator, message carrier, general handyman, janitor-supervisor and simultaneously as head of the organisation in several assignments in succession. Repeatedly he had to weld into a team officials belonging to different disciplines who were avid backbiters or were at one another’s throats. Invariably, he found that once the organisation had been cleaned up and a new ambience of disciplined work culture created, or it had been established on firm moorings and was ready for take off, he was peremptorily moved out and someone else moved in to enjoy the fruits of his diligent labour. He was asked to take up assignments that no one else was willing to touch, either because of the difficulties they posed or for being unglamorous, but was unceremoniously ignored once he had completed the task. He could not understand why this was recurring, time and again, until one day he listened to the three parables being narrated. It dawned upon him that through this repeated exercise he was being taught two things: (i) to work devotedly just for its own sake, not coveting enjoyment of its fruits; and (ii) the ego needs to be bruised regularly to prevent arrogance building up from success in achieving goals.
After his father’s death, Kanak had been sent out of the city on promotion. He had requested that this be reconsidered as his recently widowed aged mother ought not to be left alone. He was passed over and people much junior to him were promoted. Seething under this injustice, he found that his nature would not permit rebellion by abstaining from doing his best in whatever job he was given. After a couple of years, suddenly his proper status was restored, wiping out all the injustice. He had been shown that having steady faith in the Divine and doing all work as an instrument bears its own fruits.
Once these realisations dawned, Kanak found himself strangely peaceful within and able to smile at his repeated shunting from post to post, free from the anger and hurt he used to suffer from at the lack of recognition of his integrity and of the hard work he put in.
He was also given the insight into how, at times, the law of karma can be seen to operate within one’s lifetime. It is not that unattached diligent labour produces no ‘fruit’. When his mother had fallen very seriously ill with infarctions in the brain, Kanak had nursed her day and night. He found himself blessed with her miraculous recovery from inability to read, write, eat and walk to leading a completely normal life. Once, suddenly, Kanak found himself saddled with an assignment that required his stay in a wonderful building, over 300 years old, with the river flowing by. The peace in which the environs enveloped him healed old wounds. In just a couple of months he found that he had completed a quantum of work that would ordinarily have taken a year. The incessant, tireless flow of energy was astounding. When he left this post, he understood that he had been shown the fruition of his own capabilities. Looking back, he found that this assignment had been given to him exactly when his children had come for holidays from abroad, so that they could be with him in this wonderful place.
But it seems that the Unseen Hand takes care to see that we do not sink into somnolence having had such a realisation. Kanak suddenly found himself separated from his wife after 30 years of marriage by a whimsical transfer order served on her. So, the couple had perforce to reconcile themselves to their lot and undergo considerable expense and harassment, commuting hundreds of miles to be with one another occasionally. Gradually, they came to see the blessing in what had seemed to be yet another instance of the gods amusing themselves with human misery. For, in the new post Kanak’s wife found a vastly better working environment besides being free from the endemic tension of simultaneously having to run a household with aged mother, mother-in-law, husband and children. It was a compulsory “retreat” she was thrown into, whose pleasures Kanak also came to realise whenever he was able to be with her. After a few months, his wife was unexpectedly promoted, having been passed over for long. Well-wishers who appeared out of nowhere reached her the information while she was on leave the very day the orders were out. Having to rush back immediately to join, she was astonished to find no queue at the railway ticket counter which was manned by an unusually polite clerk who gave her a reserved berth for the same day! When she went to collect her promotion order, she was taken aback to find people unusually helpful in ensuring that she faced no impediment.
Kanak had always been puzzled by what he saw as his repeated failure to establish a way of working that, he fervently believed, provided true service to the people while simultaneously making the delivery-agents better human beings. Finding no answer, he had to develop a mechanism to protect the flame of his own enthusiasm from being snuffed out: shrug and go on to tackle the next job with the same bone-headed, obdurate persistence to get the work done properly according to his lights. One of the major experiments he had taken up with considerable courage was to try to disseminate what he had learnt about methods of consolidating healthy values in oneself among new recruits, introducing them at the very inception to ideas and methods that would help them to stay on the straight path and act as bulwarks against straying. The reactions were so encouraging that follow-up meetings with interested trainees were held now and then with long gaps in-between because of their preoccupations. In one such meeting scheduled after a year, news came that about 6-7 would attend. Kanak felt quite put out and wondered if it was worth holding the meeting at all. When he arrived, he was pleasantly surprised to find the room already three-fourths full. Soon everyone turned up and the meeting was extremely satisfying and rewarding. It dawned upon Kanak that the seeds that had been broadcast through his hands years ago had naturally to take time to germinate and grow. Now and then he would get unexpected phone calls complimenting him for work he had initiated years back that had come to fruition now. So, the Divine had not remained an aloof President of the Immortals playing His game with puny mortals. Time is the key that unlocks the sealed door of the crypt. The secret, Kanak realised, is to have faith, to be patient and wait. He remembered that his mother used to say, “All comes to him who knows how to wait.”
Nishkama karma produces its own resultant ‘reward’ even in this life. Perhaps the Celestine Prophecy is not just fiction. The sensitivity to perceive it has to be cultivated and along with it the ability to scotch repeatedly the rearing head of the ego that inveterately seeks to bask in self-praise for a task fulfilled.
The question arises: when I take up a piece of work in return for payment, how can I perform that action without expectation of receiving that return? Doing a job for payment is not an instance of the principle of nishkama karma. This is a contract between two parties, one part of which is carrying out the assigned task and the other is receiving payment as the value of the work done. The principle the Gita enunciates is a spiritual one: you put your best into the effort, without craving that you must get recognised thereby, that it must get published, accepted, praised. In other words, it is work as worship, an offering of your best to the Divine. When one makes an offering truly, one does not entertain the desire for getting a return. That is the businessman’s prayer and is fraught with danger —remember the Kalpataru: it will give what you crave, but with its opposite in double measure. The Grand Secret is: not to crave, but do one’s best as an instrument of divine energy working through oneself. When this succeeds even a little bit, the Divine showers unexpected joy. Proof of this is plentiful. A young teacher, thrown out by a new principal wanting to accommodate someone of his community, found herself bumping into her students throughout the holiday season, one and all of whom were effusive in their expressions of how much they missed her teaching. Quite stunned at this unexpected bounty, she thought back to her teaching experience and recalled the spirit in which she had done it—payment was expected, as a contract; but she had never craved for adulation from students or admiration from colleagues. She had striven to give of her best, even getting books from abroad at her own expense for that purpose. Some months later, quite unexpectedly, she landed a job of the type she had been wanting.
It is strange how the Divine shows us precisely what the principle is all about, but our minds confuse the issue. Hence, the need is to feel with the heart, instead of allowing the mind to be caught up in the gymnastics of logic.
In the midst of unprecedented floods, Kanak was engaged in doing little bits of facilitation like ensuring supplies of rice, kerosene oil, roof and floor covering for the homeless. He made the arrangements and everything went through smoothly, but his superiors never acknowledged his contribution. It pinched him, undoubtedly, because within there was surely expectation of being recognised. Perhaps that is precisely why recognition was not forthcoming. But there was a bonus: heads of the affected districts suddenly called up to express gratitude for the help he had provided. It gladdened his heart, all the more so as it was unexpected. Much later, again unexpectedly, he was communicated the Governor’s appreciation for his work. Then he realised that what he had done had been without any expectation of receiving such returns. He had acted because it needed to be done. And so, the doctrine of karma showed itself in action by sending the ‘results’, the ‘fruit’ of the action.
So the secret is: do the work with all your heart and soul, so that it is a perfect production. That is the result. What one has to be detached from is craving for personal rewards from that work, not to be confused with the objective that the work is supposed to achieve. For instance, Kanak did his best to rehabilitate evacuees in Bangladesh so that the objective of rehabilitation was achieved. That happened. What could he have craved: some recognition for what he did? He did not even dream of this. He had immersed himself in getting the job done to the best of his ability, happy with the pat on the back he received from his boss (this usually took the form of a dish of curd and rice set before him by his boss’ wife when he returned smothered in Bangla Desh dust and grime to report the work done). There was an unexpected bonus. Unknown to him, all the photographs of Bangladesh relief work he had sent to his training institution were put up as an exhibition before the President of India. No one informed Kanak at that time. He got to know much later. Repeatedly he found himself coming into the limelight and, just when he was about to bask in the glory, the Unseen Hand shunted him into obscurity, saving him from a bloated ego and from losing his foothold on the path. And yet, even in this “retreat” he was invariably sent to an assignment where he had to learn something new, thus enrichening his experience both in compass and in depth.
However, life is not all that crystal clear. Perceiving the law of Karma in action becomes extremely difficult, if not impossible, in many cases. Take, for instance, the case of NM. Educated only till class 4, she was a sophisticated beauty gifted with outstanding qualities of hand and heart who was married off at the age of 14 to one whose personality and appearance were at the other extreme of the spectrum. She lived the life of the ideal housewife, devoted to the family despite all the insults and neglect she faced, taught herself English and kept her intellectual life alive. Both her sons committed suicide. Her husband predeceased her. She could find no answer in yoga and meditation to the inexplicable misery she had to undergo throughout her life and died with this unsolved mystery haunting her consciousness.
Or the example of Subala Devi, mother of 14 children, who, as a widow, spearheaded women’s education in Allahabad, got her widowed daughter trained so that she could become a teacher, took up a teacher’s job herself to support the children, wrote poetry and primers, was profoundly respected by the theosophists and had considerable spiritual realisations. Two sons were associated with the revolutionary movement for independence. She sold her jewellery to smuggle out one to the USA to escape the British police. The other was imprisoned in the Kakori bomb case and disappeared. None of her sons earned a living. Everyone depended upon her and the earnings of the youngest daughter. When this daughter asked her why, with all her spiritual attainments, her sons had been so useless, the answer she gave provides a clue to the enigma and indicates the detached insight she had achieved: “Everyone has good and bad within oneself. They are the fruits of what must have been bad in me.” During her lifetime she had to bear the deaths of 3 sons and 4 daughters. Her dearest wishes had been to witness the graduation ceremony of one of her children in the presence of the Viceroy, and that one child should be a postgraduate. Her youngest daughter took Subala Devi to see her graduation ceremony in the Viceregal Lodge in Delhi, and some years later delighted her with the news that she had got her M.A. in Applied Psychology. Subala Devi passed away the next year. Until her last breath, she chose to stay on her own, never dependent on her children, even though she lost use of her legs. Her youngest daughter had once asked her what had been the result of so much ascesis that she had practised all through her life. The answer was: “Now I have become a ‘drashta’, a witness.” What is fascinating is that her children never heard her complain about the extreme privations she suffered throughout her life, thrown virtually on to the streets after having spent her childhood and wedded life without any material want. When her youngest daughter once complained to an acquaintance about her mother’s travails, he responded, “You are complaining that she has suffered so much, but have you ever heard Mata-ji complain? She is at peace. These matters do not affect her.”
Some questions will always remain unanswered.
In the end there is perhaps no finer advice to take to heart than the Buddha’s exhortation:
“So karohi dipam uttano…
Be a lamp to your self,
be like an island.
Struggle hard, be wise.
Cleansed of weakness, you will find freedom from birth and old age.”
by Pradip Bhattacharya 
 Member, Editorial Board, Journal of Human Values, Member Board of Governors, IIM Calcutta (1993-2002), member of the Indian Administrative Service, authored 20 books and several papers on public administration, transactional analysis, values in management, Mahabharata, comparative mythology, the Indus Valley Civilization.
 George Meredith: “Modern Love”, 1862
 Mahabharata, Adi Parva, 119.2
 Gita 2.47: “Your duty is to work, not to reap the fruits of work. Do not seek rewards, but do not love laziness either.” (The P. Lal transcreation, Writers Workshop, Calcutta, 1986).
 Robert Frost: “The road less travelled by”.
 W.B. Yeats: “The Second Coming” (1921)
 J.K. Rowling: Harry Potter & the Philosopher’s Stone (Bloomsbury, London, 1997).
 Pradip Bhattacharya: A Long Critique on Shivaji Sawant’s Mrityunjaya (Writers Workshop, Calcutta, 1993).
 Quoted in Sujata Nahar’s Mother’s Chronicles Book Sixth (The Mother’s Institute of Research, New Delhi, 2001, p. 205.)
 P.B. Shelley: “Ozymandias” (1817)
 Sri Aurobindo ibid.
 Sri Aurobindo: Letters on Yoga, Collected Works Vol.17 pp.289 (Pondicherry, 1973).
 The Life Divine vol. II, p. 354 (2nd edition, Arya Publishing House, Calcutta, December 1944).
 Pradip Bhattacharya: “Desire under the Kalpataru,” Jl. of South Asian Literature, XXVIII, 1 & 2, 1993, pp.315-35 & cf. P. Lal’s Introduction to Barbara Harrison’s Learning About India (1977).
 The P. Lal transcreation (Writers Workshop, Calcutta, 1969).
 P.Lal: Valedictory Address in Mahabharata Revisited (Sahitya Akademi, 1990, p.291-302–papers presented at the international seminar on the Mahabharata organized by the Sahitya Akademi in New Delhi in February 1987).
 Recounted in Madhvacarya’s Sankara Digvijaya.
 P. Lal: The Dhammapada (Farrar Straus & Giroux, New York, 1967, p. 12).
 P. Lal: The Mahabharata (condensed & transcreated, Vikas Publishing House, New Delhi, 1980, p. 286-7)
 P. Lal: The Dhammapada, op.cit. p.157.
 Shanti Parva 349.22-26
 Related by Prof. Manoj Das in an address at Sri Aurobindo Bhavan, Calcutta, in 2000
 Collected Works of Sri Aurobindo, vol. 15, p.273 [Pondicherry, 1973]
 ibid. p. 243.
 Lt. Col. G. L. Bhattacharya: Krishna of the Gita [Writers Workshop, Calcutta]; Shyam Kumari: How they came to Sri Aurobindo & The Mother, vol.3 [Pondicherry]
 Hercules saw two paths before him: one smooth, leading to a pleasant life; the other rocky, beset with brambles and trials. He chose the latter. So, too, Achilles was given the choice between a long, uneventful life and a short, glorious span of war and heroism.
 James Redfield: The Celestine Prophecy (Bantam Books, 1996)
 P. Lal: The Dhammapada, op.cit. p.121.
The birth centenary of the legendary professor of English in Presidency College, Calcutta, T.N.Sen was observed by the alumni on 9th July 2009. Some of us wrote reminiscences that were published in a souvenir. Here are my memories of this remarkable teacher of English literature.
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought…
I am looking at a rare document: a small piece of blue notepaper covered with writing impeccably spaced, each letter perfectly formed. This is the character certificate-cum-recommendation Professor T.N. Sen wrote out for me at his residence at 18/56, Dover Lane when, with much trepidation I approached him as I wished to apply for the post of lecturer in English in St. Xavier’s College in 1969. I have not heard of him providing such a certificate to other students of his—perhaps they dared not ask! I guess my Xaverian brashness led me on to enter where betters dared not tread.
After graduating with Honours in English from St. Xavier’s College, when I wanted to join the Calcutta University’s M.A. course in 1966, I found that it was possible to be enrolled through Presidency College. As a Xaverian, I had been brought up on a staple diet of the impossibility of anyone but a Presidencian attaining the dizzy heights of a first class in English. The cold, hard truth of it had been brought home when that summit eluded me by two marks in Part-I and a single mark in Part-II. I was, therefore, intensely curious to find out what made the English Department of this college so very special.
I found myself the solitary “outsider” in a class consisting of four ladies [Chitrita Banerjee, later a well-known author, Indrani Chaudhuri, Anjushree Ghosh, both became lecturers subsequently, and Sunipa Basu, who joined the Indian Customs & Excise Service] and two men [Arya Gupta and Gautam Basu], all native Presidencians. I grit my teeth and was determined to stick on despite the fulminations of Dr. Amalendu Bose, the Sir Gooroodas Banerjee Professor and Head of the English Department of the Calcutta University, who demanded to know what was so wonderful in “that college” that I enrolled in it. The answer was obvious. What a galaxy of luminaries taught us: Dr. Sailen Sen, Prof. Amal Bhattacharjee, Dr. Kajal Sengupta, AKDG (Prof. Arun Kumar Das Gupta— Tarak Babu’s “onlie true begetter”) and Prof. Ashoke Mukherjee. Above them all was Prof. T.N. Sen himself: lanky, tall, appearing almost spectre-like as the shades fell when his classes began, going on well into the dark, teasing out every little nuance of Shakespeare and Yeats. Amal Babu’s remarkably clear explication of T.S. Eliot’s complicated The Sacred Wood inspired my first book. AKDG took up Timon of Athens, turning a minor play into a major experience. S.K. Sen took us through Shakespearean criticism with classically structured deliberation. Kajal-di handled Chaucer with scintillating brilliance, communicating her delight in “The Nonnes Priestes Tale” unforgettably. Prof. Ashoke Mukherjee taught Browning’s “Dramatic Monologues” in his inimitable “Do you follow?” fashion.
Much to my surprise I found Prof. Sen usually referred to as “Tarak Babu” (in St. Xavier’s College we weren’t used to anything but “Mr.” or “professor” for our teachers). He began our classes with a devastating statement delivered in his characteristic sibilant whisper: “If you have come to get the M.A. degree of Calcutta University, it is of no use as it is not worth the paper it is printed on.” Over the next eight weeks he dictated to us an elaborate bibliography paper by paper, dividing it into three categories marked “M” for ‘must read’, “D” for ‘desirable’ and “O” for ‘optional’. A more comprehensive reading list spanning the entire gamut of English Literature I have yet to come across. I used it later when teaching literature in St. Xavier’s College, distributing it to my students as an invaluable resource to be passed on.
As Tarak Babu took up Yeats’ poems on Byzantium I came to realise the vast gulf separating the University teaching from his. The charismatic Prof. P. Lal completed the Byzantium poems in two lectures, one for each; Tarak Babu took eight. The richness of that experience cannot be communicated in words. During this time I noticed a first year fresher poring over a tome in the library where Tarak Babu’s classes were held in a cubicle. It was Indrani’s younger brother, Sukanta Chaudhuri, subsequently a Shakespearean scholar of international renown. He was looking at Leonardo da Vinci’s “Madonna of the rocks” that Tarak Babu had asked him to examine, possibly in the context of Rossetti’s “The Blessed Damosel” (or was it Renaissance poetry?). That is how literature was taught by him, interlinking it with art, leading the student to explore and develop his own insights.
And then he started on “King Lear”. What a wealth of insight he held out to the eight of us (Kasturi Gupta, our senior, joined these classes too and insists it was “Othello”)! The approach was intensely textual, concentrating on extracting the last drop of meaning from every single verse. Indrani Shome, who had graduated from Presidency, used to regale me with accounts of how Tarak Babu’s teaching of “Macbeth” sent shivers up her spine in the witches’ scenes, with his long lanky arms snaking about and how the ladies were taken home in police vans for their safety when classes went on into the dark hours in those Naxalite terror times. Gautam Basu—ardent left extremist who switched loyalties to join the IAS—was a treasure trove of anecdotes, sending us into peals of helpless hilarity with his account of Tarak Babu’s ghost springing out from behind a Presidency pillar as AKDG performed the funeral obsequies, hissing, “Short line! Short line! Action needed! Ghee dao, ghee!” (Tarak Babu’s paper on “Shakespeare’s Short Lines” is a major contribution to understanding Shakespeare’s art and craft).
I remember his setting me a tutorial assignment on Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock”. True to Xaverian tradition, I put into my essay all the critical insights available from various “eminent critics”, only to be told in a sibilant undertone that I was expected not to reproduce others’ views but my own. I grit my teeth, slogged away and resubmitted my tutorial. My exercise book was returned with just one remark that left me crestfallen and considerably puzzled: “This will do”. When I asked my class-mates, they enlightened me that this meant I had achieved the expected standard. That was truly a crowning success for an outsider! This was followed by a bonus: he appointed me Secretary to the English Seminar, putting me in charge of its excellent library.
At the end of two years I found to my complete surprise that I had been placed first in the first class, with Anjushree following. And, in the paper on Romantic and Victorian poetry I had won a medal. The tradition of only Presidencians topping the Calcutta University had been broken—thanks to the unforgettable tutelage of Professor Tarak Nath Sen and his team of colleagues, the likes of whom we will not see again.
This paper features on pp. 33-67 of IGNCA’s journal of arts, KALAKALPA, Basant Panchami 2019, vol.III, No.2. The Editor-in-Chief, Dr. Sachchidanand Joshi, Member Secretary of the IGNCA, writes in his editorial, “Professor Pradip Bhattacharya is an acclaimed scholar on Mahabharata…Professor Bhattacharya’s contribution is stupendous.” The paper has been published with 3 colour plates of photographs I took of frescos on the walls of the Silver Pagoda in Phnom Penh, 3.65 metres high, illustrating the episodes contained in these 2 manuscripts of Jaimini which retell unknown episodes from the Ramayana in the Ashramavasika Parva of the Mahabharata.
This paper was presented in the Mahabharata Manthan International Conference organised in July 2017 in New Delhi by the Draupadi Dream Trust, and published in volume 1, pages 119-140, of the 2 volume book of proceedings, “Mahabharata Manthan” (B.R. Publishing Corporation, Delhi-110052.
In his detailed review of the volumes, this is what Major General and Indologist Shekhar Kumar Sen writes: “It is a veritable storehouse of information. First he has discussed very thoroughly the need to take a “hard look” at the CE since it had not taken into consideration so many important versions extant at the time of its writing, e.g., the Nepali palm-leaf Mss, the Razmnama, the Arabic translation and so many others. Also, he reiterates, the inconsistencies, contradictions and repetitions that exist in the CE must be removed. He has listed out many of these, underlining the need for revision. One of these is the episode of stripping of Draupadi. And that is his second proposition – he has quoted incident after incident from the entire epic and cited collateral evidence from other works in Sanskrit literature to establish that Draupadi was dragged by the hair, insulted in the assembly in the Sabha Parva but never stripped by Duhshasana. Still the CE includes it. This view has given rise to a lot of controversy but the author’s well-laid arguments can hardly be ignored. Other eminent scholars of the epic too have had serious reservations about the CE. Pradip has reproduced their views in support of his arguments. In short, this is a very comprehensive, informative and readable article. It also has three interesting plates depicting the disrobing of Draupadi.”
“Man is born unto trouble,” says Job, “as the sparks fly upward,” and, he points out, this “affliction cometh not forth of the dust, neither doth trouble spring out of the ground.” An engrossing study of the root cause of this “trouble” was made in the West, in this century, by Eugene O’Neill in Desire Under The Elms. But are we Indians aware of Vyasa’s fascinating portrayal of “Desire Under the Kalpataru” in the Mahabharata? Such a remorseless expose of the frailties that the flesh is heir to, spanning the entire gamut of human existence, is unrivalled in world literature. Leaving aside the sheer narrative brilliance of Vyasa, it is the perception of over-arching symbols, such as the Kalpataru, which gradually dawns on the readers, stirring the innermost depths of their psyche, as they voyage across the one hundred thousand verses of this ocean among epics; that fascinates them, compelling them to return, time and again, to the Mahabharata.
To appreciate the thematic brilliance of this concept, it is first necessary to recount the story of the Kalpataru, the Wish-fulfilling Tree, described in eidetic detail by Krsna in the beginning of chapter 15 of the Gita. Its roots are in the heavens and its branches permeate the cosmos, paralleled in occidental mythology by the Norse Yggdrasill. The parable has been recounted by P. Lal in his introductory essay to Barbara Harrison’s Learning About India, and by Christopher Isherwood in Vedanta for the West.
Into a room full of children at play walks the proverbial “mama” (maternal uncle)” who invariably “knows better.” He tells them to lift up their eyes, look out of the window and see the huge Kalpataru outside. He tells them that they should cast aside their silly indoor games, and go to the tree which will grant them whatever they wish – the real stuff! The children rush out, stand under the all-encompassing branches, and ask. They ask for what all children crave: toys and sweets. The tree grants them their wishes. But with it, they also get a bonus: the built-in opposite of the wish! Along with the toys they get boredom; and with the sweets they get tummy-ache. Sure that something has gone wrong with their wishing, the children ask for bigger toys and sweeter sweets. The Tree obliges, along with greater boredom and more painful stomach-ache. Time passes. The children grow up into young men and women. Their wishes change with their age. Now they “know more”. They ask for wealth, fame, power and sex. Unquestioningly, the tree grants their desire, but also gifts them cupidity, insomnia, anxiety and frustration. Time passes. The askers are now old. They gather in three groups under the tree. The first group exclaims that all this is an illusion. They are fools and have learned nothing. The second group is “wiser” and decides to wish better next time. They are greater fools and have learned less than nothing. The third group, disgusted with everything, asks for death. The tree grants their desire and, with it, its opposite, re-birth, and under the same tree. For, where can one be born, or re-born, but within the cosmos! They are the most foolish of all.
All this while, one child has been unable to move out of the room. Being lame, he was pushed aside in the rush to the door as his playmates ran to get to the tree. He has been riveted to the window, watching the lila (the play) of the Kalpataru unfold itself. He has watched his friends make their wishes, get them along with their built-in opposites and suffer; yet, compulsively, continue to make more wishes. Transfixed by this fascinating play and counterplay of desire and its fruits, a profound swell of compassion wells up in the heart of this lame child, reaching out to his companions. In that process he forgets to wish for anything (not even remembering to forget). In that moment of spontaneous compassion for others, he has sliced through the roots of the cosmic tree with the sword of non-attachment, of nishkama karma. He, alone, is the liberated one, the mukta-purusha.
It is this parable of the Kalpataru, whose roots are upwards and whose branches pervade the cosmos, which is the over-arching symbol encompassing the Mahabharata.
Pururava, monarch of the lunar dynasty, is the first of those driven by desire, who believe “The world will be your wish- fulfilling cow” (Gita 3.10). Infatuated by the heavenly courtesan Urvashi, his desire to possess her is granted. However, it is inevitably accompanied with the penalty of losing the very object of his desire. In the agony of that loss, he even goes mad. This is not the only instance of the fruit desire bore for this king. Pururava once stole the wealth of some Brahmins out of greed, and refused to return it.
As smoke smothers fire,
as dust films glass,
as womb enfolds seed,
So greed destroys judgment.
Greed is a fierce fire.
It destroys judgment.
Greed is a fierce fire.
It destroys judgment.
It fools the wise.
It destroys the atman. (Gita, 3.38-39)
He was cursed by the Brahmins with loss of his prosperity, the precise opposite of his desire.
Pururava’s grandson is Nahusa, who is crowned king of the gods in Indra’s absence, but then falls prey to desire for Saci, Indra’s wife. The result is that he is cursed by the sages, whom he forces to carry his palanquin to meet Saci, and turns into a python, crawling in the dust.
Nahusa’s son is Yayati, the most famous instance in world mythology of lust and its doom. Driven by lust, he possesses Sarmistha in secret, and is struck with senility. Those very sons, “children of his heart, ” whom he has fathered on Devayani and Sarmistha, scornfully turn away from his anguished plea to assume his decrepitude so that he can enjoy the pleasures of the flesh for some time more. Even when that wish is granted, he finds that lust only consumes and does not satisfy. Later, desiring heaven, he achieves it, only to be thrown down from there because of his overweening pride in his merit. Yayati is, indeed, the archetypal figure of desire and its fruits as given by this cosmos, which is the Wish-Fulfilling Tree.
Yayati’s wife, Devayani, is herself a telling example of this parable. Obsessed by the desire to avenge the humiliation suffered at the hands of Sarmistha, she achieves her goal of turning the princess into her hand-maiden. Eager to prove that despite being a Brahmin’s daughter she can best the daughter of the Danava King, she over-rules the objections of the reluctant Yayati to an inter-caste marriage, and compels him to marry her. Soon, thereafter, she loses her chosen husband to her hand-maid! Further, not only has she only she only two sons by him while Sarmistha has three, but also none of her sons inherit the throne, despite being elder. It is Sarmistha’s youngest son, Puru, who is chosen by Yayati as dynast for having willingly parted with his youth for his father’s sake. In a similar way, one of his descendants, Devavrata, will sacrifice his youth to subserve his father’s sexual appetite.
It is in the same dynasty that Samvarana is born, who is so sun-struck by Tapati, daughter of Surya, that he neglects his kingdom. Significantly, as with his descendants Santanu and Pandu and his ancestor Pururava, desire seizes him in its constricting coils while he is engaged in hunting. Lust goes hand-in-hand with anger and cruelty:
Her body shone
Like a straight flame…
She stood, a black-
Eyed beauty on the hill-top,
Like a golden girl.
The hill, its creepers,
Its bushes, all flamed
With the golden beauty
Of the golden girl…
She had trapped his mind
And his eyes. He stood
Transfixed, as if tied
With ropes, as if senseless. (Adi parva, 173.26-28, 31)
This is precisely the point that Krsna makes in the Gita, that lust, hiding in the senses, destroys judgment like an all-consuming flame. Samvarana’s condition, when Tapati suddenly disappears, is like that of Pururava bereft of Urvashi:
Like a man crazed
He wandered in the woods
… the love smitten
king fell on the ground.
The imagery used by Samvarana in his appeals to Tapati revolves around raging fire, senselessness, fury, loss of self-control—all the typical signs associated with the madness desire is seen to inflict on its victims.
Then a fearful-faced messenger came
And shouted loudly, thrice:
Lost! Lost! Lost!
And I fell from Nandana. (Adi parva, 89. 17-20)
The fourth, Samvarana, gets his desire at the cost of his kingdom. Neither he, nor his descendant Shantanu, appear to have drawn any lessons from the tragic lives of their ancestors.
Ironically, Shantanu’s name means “the child of controlled passions,” as he was born to his parents in their old age. He seems to have a special penchant for unknown tribal women encountered by the riverside:
He stood there,
All his body
With both eyes
He drank in her beauty
To drink more. (Adi Parva, 97.28)
Smitten by the sight of Ganga—who had wantonly solicited his father Pratipa and was politely rejected as not belonging to the same caste — he unthinkingly accepts all her conditions so that he can make her his own:
Captivated by her charms,
The king was not conscious of
The months, seasons, years that rolled by.
The lord of men enjoyed her whenever he wished. (Adi parva, 98.11,12)
The Kalpataru grants him that sexual gratification which he so passionately desires like Pururava, Yayati and Samvarana. But, along with it, he has to undergo the repeated experience of watching seven of his sons being consigned to the river, one after another, year after year, by that same object of his violent infatuation, Ganga. Well might we say,
“La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!”
In his old age, this “child of controlled passions” is infatuated with yet another maiden-by-the-river, Matsyagandha, fish-odorous, who has been transformed by the sage Parasara into Yojanagandha, lotus-fragrant-for-a-yojana (a unit of distance), in return for having enjoyed her body. Once again, Santanu has no regard for propriety, status, or the rights of Devavrata, his Crown Prince. He must have her:
She was fragrant,
Santanu saw her,
And desired her…
The fire of desire
Ravaged his body
…desire maddened him.
He kept thinking of
The daughter of the fisherman. (Adi parva, 100.49,56,75)
The symptoms could virtually be describing Samvarana’s state after Tapati vanishes. The same discrimination-destroying, judgment-clouding fire of desire afflicts both Samvarana and Santanu. In both cases, it is the kingdom which suffers. Santanu himself, having learned nothing from his experience with Ganga, dies, leaving behind two children, both weaklings. both die prematurely. The elder, Citrangada, dies unmarried. The younger, Vicitravirya, is another instance of the Kalpataru in action. Under the instructions of Satyavati (Santanu’s second wife), Bhishma (his son by Ganga) obtains not one, but two brides for his foster brother, so that the future of the dynasty is assured:
Both were tall.
black, wavy hair.
Fingernails and toe nails
Painted red, pointed.
Hips round and full.
Swelling and large breasts.
driven by passion, became
A victim of his own lust. (Adi parva, 102.65, 66)
He dies after seven years without any issue. Thus, the dynasty of Pururava comes to an end.
What has Satyavati got out of the Kalpataru? As a nubile maiden, her dearest desire was to rid herself of the powerful fishy odour. This she was granted, at the cost of her virginity. After Santanu met her, the desire of her father (or foster-father, if we accept the story that king Uparicara Vasu of Cedi was her real father) is that through her he should be the dynast of Hastinapura. The Kalpataru grants this wish through what becomes renowned as the most terrifying of all vows: Devavrata becomes Bhishma (one who has taken the vow of celibacy) so that Satyavati’s children alone succeed to Santanu’s throne. Santanu himself does not live long after this marriage, and Satyavati becomes the Queen Mother, with minor children. She sees one killed in a skirmish, and the other die of consumption, both without issue. Now, both the Dasa-king, her father, and she find that the greatest obstacle to perpetuating the dynasty of Santanu is precisely that very vow which they had demanded as the security for ensuring their hegemony over Hastinapura in perpetuity through their children! Bhishma stonily refuses to break his vow and father progeny on the widows of Vicitravirya by following the custom of niyoga (sexual union with another’s wife).
Satyavati, like the people clustered under the Kalpataru in the parable, has not learned anything from her experiences, so far, of desire and its fruits. “Hungry for grandsons,” she summons Vyasa, her illegitimate son by Parasara, and orders him to practice niyoga on Ambika and Ambalika. Vyasa advises a year-long vow on their so that they purify themselves of the lust they have been tainted with through seven years with his foster brother. Satyavati cannot wait. Her judgment is warped by her insensate desire to have grandsons immediately. She leads her daughters-in-law to believe that Bhishma will be coming to them. Hence, being wholly unprepared for the horrendous looks and malodorous body of Vyasa, they give birth to the blind Dhritarastra and the anaemic, jaundiced Pandu. Even now, Satyavati has learned nothing. She had wanted grandsons at any cost. The Tree fulfilled her desire; but, along with it, gave her offspring incapable of being proper monarchs. Yet, she again asks Ambika to like with Vyasa. Ambika deceives her, and sends in her maid instead, who is without fear and aversion, and has only profound respect for the sage. Their child is the virtuous Vidura, possibly the sole true grandson of Satyavati, born of her son and of a Sudra (low caste) maid like herself. He is the only one born whole in mind and in body, and is untouched by the craving to rush to the Kalpataru. He, too, however, dies childless. Her other grandson, Pandu, dies, like his putative father Vicitravirya, without having been able to father progeny.
Thus, in her lifetime, empire-hungry and progeny-hungry Satyavati sees her husband, her two sons and one grandson die; the eldest grandson born blind; the youngest one not qualified to be king, being base-born, despite being the only fully healthy and virtuous issue, (although by that argument her sons, too, should not be kings, as she is a fisherman’s daughter. Hence, probably, the legend of her having been fathered by the king of Cedi on an apsara-turned-fish).
Perhaps, after Pandu’s death, the coming of the Pandavas to the Hastina court and the sibling rivalry which breaks out, Satyavati might have come to realize what it means to ask of the Kalpataru. And, perhaps because of that realization, she meekly obeys her son Vyasa when he advises her to leave the court and retire to the forest with her daughters-in-law:
The green years of the earth
are gone. . . . .
Do not be a witness
to the suicide
of your own race.
Satyavati and her grand daughter-in-law Kunti share various similarities. Uparicara Vasu of Cedi sends off his fish-born daughter Matsyagandha to be brought up by a Dasa-chief among fishermen. Pritha is the daughter of King Sursasena of the Vrishnis who gifts her to his cousin Kuntibhoja, who renames her Kunti, respectively. Both Satyavati and Kunti have pre-marital sons. In both cases the issues are discarded and reappear full grown, as does Devavrata. One appears before us as the sage Krsna-Dvaipayana Vyasa, the Dark Island-born Arranger. The other comes as Vasusena, born with the wealth of skin-armour and ear rings, also called Karna. Both Parasara and Surya gift-armour and ear rings, also called Karna. Both Parasara and Surya gift Matsyagandha and Kunti with unimpaired virginity as the reward for becoming willing partners in their concupiscence. This virginity is not merely a physical attribute, but very much of a psychological quality with they share with Draupadi, who is said to regain her virginity before living in turn with each of her five husbands. In that respect, Draupadi is carrying on a special trait found long back in the ancestry of the family into which she marries.. Yayati’s daughter Madhavi also had this boon of regaining her virginity even after giving birth to a child. On the strength of that, Galava loaned her to Haryasva, Divodasa, Usinara and Visvamitra to fulfil his guri-daksina (graduation fee pad by pupil to teacher).
The precise opposite of this can be seen in the Madri type of woman, who is dependent on what others think, regardless of what her real opinions might be, and always acts as a female counterpart to a male and is not “one in herself.” The psychologically virgin woman is not, however, thus dependent. Dr M. Esther Harding writes in Women’s Mysteries (Rider, 1971), “as virgin, she is not influenced by the considerations that make the nonvirgin woman, whether married or not, trim her sails and adapt herself to expediency…she does what she does not because of any desire to please, not to be liked, or to be approved, even by herself; not because of any desire to gain power over another, to catch his interest or love, but because of any desire to gain power over another, to catch his interest or love, but because what she does is true. Her actions may, indeed, be unconventional. She is what she is because that is what she is.” (pp.125-6) such a personality is wholly integrated and autonomous-in-herself, defining herself in her terms and not dependant on others for finding and acting out her role in life.
Kunti is by no means the conventional wife typified in Madri. She is one found fit by Durvasa to be the custodian of the mighty spell which forces even gods to respond to her desires for progeny. It is she who, single-handed, provides Pandu with five foster-children through herself and through Madri, and guards them amid all the venal politics of the Kuru court till they can hold their own in life.
What did Kunti ask of the Tree? Her first desire was to test the efficacy of Durvasa’s mantra. This desire was granted promptly, swiftly followed by the anguish of having to abandon its fruit and , later by the excruciating agony of being forced to remain a silent spectator to this death at the hands of her fourth son. In abandoning her first born, she is akin not only to her “direct” grandmother-in-law Satyavati, but also to her grandfather-in-law’s first wife, Ganga, who threw into the river seven sons, one after another. Of course, Pritha herself is her father’s discarded offspring.
Kunti’s second desire is for Pandu. Pandu is the only one in the Kuru dynasty to go to a svayamvara (husband-choosing), and this is ere Kunti chooses him above everyone else. Immediately thereafter, she loses him to Madri, who is brought by Bhishma to Hastinapura after payment of heavy bride-price, in accordance with the Kuru tradition. So, the Tree granted her Pandu, but with it , gave her the opposite: the anguish of losing the object of her desire to another and, ultimately, seeing him die in the arms of that another:-
Princes of Vahlika! (she tells Madri)
You are fortunate indeed…
I never had the chance to see
his face radiant in intercourse. (Adi parva, 25.23)
Even in death, Kunti is not allowed by Madri to accompany her chosen beloved. It is Madri who immolates herself with Pandu’s body.
Kunti’s sole desire now is to establish her sons as rulers of a kingdom. This desire, too, is granted. But in its wake she has to undergo a triple agony: first, she has to witness the enslavement of her children and the attempted stripping of her daughter-in-law in the royal court; then, she has to bear their exile to the forests for thirteen years; ultimately, she has to see her first-born slain, when defenceless, by her fourth-born, at the urging of her nephew, Krsna, who alone, besides herself and her first son, knows of the relationship. How tragically ironic it is that, by revealing the secret of this relationship on the eve of the battle to Karna, Kunti should have effectively ensured the death of Karna and the victory of her other sons. For, while they know only that they are fighting to slay the detested charioteer’s son, he knows that he is facing his cognate brothers, whom he has sworn not to harm!
Kunti desires that marriage should not sunder the unity of her five sons. Hence she strives to ensure that Draupadi does not belong only to Arjuna who won her. The Kalpataru grants her this too, with the consequence that Draupadi, though five-husbanded, is actually anathavat, without a husband, to protect her from molestation by Duhsasana, Jayadratha, Kirmira and Kicaka. None of the five husbands turns back to help her, let alone wait at her side, when she falls down, dying on the slopes of the Himalayas during their last journey together.
Like Kunti, Draupadi’s burning desire, born as she is full-grown out of the sacrificial fire, is to rule over the kingdom of Hastinapura and thus avenge the humiliation of her father at the hands of the Kauravas. It is worthwhile, at this point, to note that although it is the Pandavas who imprison Drupada at Drona’s command, his vengeance is directed against the throne of Hastinapura, of which Drona is a servant. This is a legacy of the ancient rivalry between the Pancalas and the Kurus which began when Samvarana left his kingdom defenceless in his infatuated pursuit of Tapati. Drupada arranges the contest for Draupadi’s hand in such a fashion that only an archer of Arjuna’s skill can succeed, and through that alliance he hopes to wreak his revenge.
Draupadi’s interaction with the Kalpataru is indeed an engrossing spectacle. Her desire for a kingdom is granted as Indraprastha comes into being, “a miracle of rare device.” Along with this she is granted her first taste of sweet revenge when she sees Duryodhana flounder into the pool created by illusion. The consequences are terrible: first, the kingdom is gambled away; then, she herself is unspeakably humiliated in public. Like Satyavati, Draupadi does not learn from these experiences. Her consuming passion remains revenge, now an intensely personal raging desire. That, too, is granted her by none other than the Kalpataru itself, incarnated in the person of Krsna (as he describes himself in the Gita.) She gets a field of ashes to rule over, with not a single son left alive to enjoy life with.
What of Draupadi’s desire for Arjuna— that desire which Yudhishthira coldly cites, without so much as a backward glance at her prone, dying form, as he cause of her inability to reach heaven in the physical body? By the time it was Arjuna’s time to live with her, he was away as an exile in the course of which he had no scruples in obliging the amorous Ulupi, wooing Citrangada and abducting Subhadra. This last he did only after obtaining the consent of Yudhishthira. Vyasa does not tell us that the eldest Pandava bothered not to pass on the information to Draupadi. He was, perhaps, pleased that Arjuna should have fallen in love elsewhere and ,particularly, that it should have cemented an alliance with the powerful Krsna clan. So, when her beloved Arjuna returned to Indraprastha, it was with Subhadra, who had his heart. The greatest archer won her, but was never hers. Even in the thirteen-year exile, she was bereft of his company, for he was sent off by Yudhishthira to obtain celestial weapons. When he returned, it was as a eunuch, merely enquiring of her how she had managed to escape the murderous clutches of Kicaka’s henchmen, who had dragged her off to be burnt with his corpse. Never did Brihannala (Arjuna’s name during the period he had turned eunuch) raise a voice in her defence, either in the Kaurava court, or in the court of Virata (where the Pandavas had to live incognito).
Draupadi’s relationship with the Kalpataru goes back to her previous birth, as narrated by Vyasa to Drupada, Apparently, she had carried out severe penance and begged off Siva that he grant her a husband. The moment she wished this, it was granted, but with a five-fold bonus, because, it seems, she had said “husband” five times! Thus, the cosmos grants her intense desire, but also provides its built-in opposite by multiplying it five-fold.
In being five-husbanded, she resembles her mother-in-law Kunti, who has “known” five men or gods: Surya, Pandu, Dharma, Vayu and Indra. She is also like her great-grandmother-in-law Satyavati, in being of unknown parentage and brought up by foster parents. Both are famous for the enchanting odour emanating from their dark bodies. Satyavati is renowned as the dark (“kali”) “Yojanagandha” (whose scent extends for a yojana); while Draupadi-Krishna’s complexion is like that of the blue lotus and the sweet scent of her body wafts for a krosa. Both are left with no children. One (Satyavati) built up the huge Kaurava dynasty, while the other (Draupadi) annihilated it. Neither seems to have learnt anything from the experience of making wish after wish under Kalpataru.
The two handicapped brothers, Dhritarashtra and Pandu, themselves exemplify the Kalpataru syndrome. Pandu is one of the rare few in the epic who, like his ancestor Yayati, realizes how he has victimized himself. Not content with being the chosen of Kunti, he espouses Madri, and his inveterate appetites lead to the incurring of the fatal curse. We recall Shakespeare’s unforgettable lines describing lust as:
… murderous, bloody, full of blame
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel.
Perversely hunting down a deer-sage in the coital act, Pandu himself is cursed to die in the act of intercourse. Thus, his love of the hunt is duly gratified, but with what tragic consequences! Pandu exclaims bitterly:
Noble blood is of little help.
Deluded by passions, the best
Of men turn wicked, and reap
the evil that they sow.
My father was born noble,
his father was noble too.
Lust was his ruin, he died
While still a youth.
And in his lustful field
I was sown by Krsna Dvaipayana…
And I am a victim of the hunt!
My mind is full of killing… (Adi parva, 119.2-5)
Obviously, despite all the ancestral praise-chanting by the sutas and magadhas, Yayati’s descendants have not learnt anything either from the history of their ancestors, or from their own harrowing experiences. It is this fatal attraction of Desire, which people are aware of, yet deliberately give in to, which has been expressed so poignantly by Shakespeare in sonnet 129:
Mad in pursuit and in possession so. . .
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe. . .
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.
Pandu is perhaps the clearest instance of the ultimate end of Desire. Ironically, when Kunti initially refuses to accede to his requests for surrogate children, she cites the legend of Vyusitasva and Bhadra, with the telling words:
So strong was their passion,
So frequent their indulgence,
that he soon fell a victim
To consumption. (Adi parva, 121.17,18)
Despite this, and although Pandu is fully aware of its fruits,
Passion overpowered him
it seemed that he wanted
To commit suicide, as it were.
First he lost his sense,
Then, clouded by lust,
he sought the loss of his life. (Adi parva, 125. 121-3)
The tragedy of these desire-driven kings of the lunar dynasty is their compulsive refusal to heed the agony of generations of
“… pale kings, and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all; ”
“starved lips in the gloam
With horrid warning gaped wide.”
That dire warning,
“La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!”
though voiced with desperate urgency by Yayati, and despite its destructive aftermath being exemplified repeatedly in the lives of Pururuva, Nahusa, Samvarana, Santanu, Vicitravirya and Pandu, goes unheeded by the hungry generations of their descendants.
How closely this exemplifies the warning of Krsna!~
Greed is a fierce fire.
It destroys judgment.
It fools the wise.
It hides in the mind,
The intellect and the senses.
It destroys the atman
By working through them.
Therefore, first control the senses (Gita, 3.39-41)
As for Dhritarashtra, his intense craving for being king—- which he feels to be his birthright as the eldest—is duly obliged, but at the cost of his entire progeny. He is left alive to experience the fruits of desire after the Kurukshetra holocaust. His predicament is expressed in his own lament to Sanjaya:
“My own sons were impulsive, and disliked me for I was old and blind. I endured it, because I loved them, because my state was miserable. I was a fond old father to a son whose folly grew daily.” (Adi parva, 1.143)
Neither of the two brothers learns anything from his experiences of desire and its fruits. The same holds true for the unusual duo of Duryodhana and Karna.
The case of Duryodhana is so obvious as not to require elaboration. However, in Karna’s case it is easy to miss the finer shades of the play and counter-play of light-and-shade as the myriad leaves of the Kalpataru and its counless branches respond to his intense cravings. Karna is the egotistical sublime paralleling Bhishma in his own esteem. His consuming desire for public status is granted almost miraculously in the tournament arena, but did Karna ever perform the duties of a king with respect to Anga? Is not his kingship veritably but in name? Again, the craving to acquire supremacy in weapon-craft is granted; but, along with it, the curse that this precious knowledge will desert him in his greatest need. Perhaps it is Karna who experiences, in the most direct form possible, what it means to desire anything. The fruits come to him almost immediately. His triumphant obtaining of the infallible weapon from Indra in return for the slicing –off of skin-armour also turns out fruitless, as he is unable to use it against Arjuna. Karna’s intense desire for fame is gratified when he finds out that he is not only royal, but also half-god. Yet at what cost? He can never share the joy of kinship with his brothers, and must bear the recurrent whiplash of their contempt for the charioteer’s son. But, most of all, his life-long desire to know who he truly is becomes the root cause of his destruction. That knowledge brings in its wake the pledge not to slay his brothers, with the inevitable implication that he must die at their hands. And so we are presented with the heart-rending spectacle of the eldest Kaunteya being shot down, unarmed, by the fourth son of Kunti, at the behest of her nephew.
Perhaps, it is only Kunti who learns something about this Kalpataru-lila. Each of her three major choices bears soul-searing consequences: Each of her three major choices bears soul-searing consequences: calling Surya; choosing Pandu; insisting on her sons sharing Draupadi. Notice her peculiar predicament each time she is told by Pandu whom she must lie with. She has no choice in the matter. The only time she did choose, she had to abandon the fruit of that union: Karna. Yet, when she is made to pass on her power to Madri, Pandu does not impose on his second wife any similar directive. Madri is free to choose! Possibly, it is a result of the realization of the inexorable nature of desire and its fruits that , after the war, Kunti refuses to stay on with her children as Queen Mother. She insists on following Dhritarashtra and Gandhari into the forest. Unlike Satyavati, these three have witnessed the suicide of their progeny; Kunti has five sons but not a single grandson and no husband, despite the fathers of her three sons being alive. Gandhari and Draupadi have husbands, but nothing else left. It is Kunti who has learned. That is why Iravati Karve in Yuganta imagines Kunti telling Gandhari and Dhritarashtra that, instead of trying to escape from the forest fire, they should walk towards it with open arms as a liberator from this harsh world, where we draw our breath in pain, where, as King Lear said, we are bound
Upon a wheel of fire, that (our) own tears
Do scald like molten lead.
What of Gandhari? Yoked to a blind husband, she would have looked forward to giving birth to the first Kuru scion. Indeed, she conceived first, but carried the embryo for two years. By then Kunti had given birth to Yudhishthira and was pregnant with Bhima. Vyasa fulfilled her desire to be a mother, but this was followed by its opposite: her sons became wicked, arrogant, and disobedient. In open court, Duryodhana defied her commands to accept Krishna’s peace proposals. If Draupadi, though five-husbanded is without a husband, then Gandhari, despite having a hundred sons is sonless, much like her grandmother-in-law Satyavati who, despite having two sons, ended up having none. In both cases, the ambition to become Queen Mother is fulfilled, only to find the sweet fruition of an earthly crown turning into the bitter ashes of disillusionment.
Perhaps the most striking image of desire and attachment in its most intense and complex form, after Yayati, is Gangadatta-Devavrata-Bhisma. Bhishma and Krsna are two colossi bestriding the Mahabharatan universe, one as the mightiest bulwark of an age which does not wish to pass away; and the other as the herald of a new epoch. Bhisma’s dearest desire—and in this he parallels his ancestor Puru vis-à-vis Yayati—is to see his father happy; a father whom he has not known from birth; a father who has mutely witnessed Ganga consigning seven siblings of his to the river; a father to whom his mother hands him over in teenage and disappears. For the sake of fulfilling this desire, Devavrata sacrifices not only his paternal heritage but also his personal marital right and the right to receive the offerings of his progeny in death. But, beyond this, he also sacrifices the paramount, super-ordinate goal, the welfare of the kingdom and its people, which is the reason for the very appellative RAJA, one who looks after the general weal, not the welfare of only one father. The Tree grants his desire. Santanu is beside himself with joy, and grants his son what looks like a boon but is actually a curse: the power to hold death at bay, and to give in to its call only at will. Is it a boon at all to be not only a witness, like Gandhari and Kunti, to the suicide of one’s race, but be an active participant in it, fighting on the side which one knows to be in the wrong and against those whom one loves and knows to be in the right? Is it a boon to be able to hold death at bay and slay millions of innocent soldiers continuously over a period of ten days? The pangs of conscience multiplied over decades of silent witnessing of the poisoning of Bhima, the gutting of the lacquer house, the cheating in the dice-game, the stripping of Draupadi, the exiling of the Pandavas— are all these the scorpion-stings symbolized in the bed-of-arrows on which he like torturing himself, as if expiating his inaction, until the holocaust is over, and the suicide of the dynasty is complete?
Bhishma is also responsible for acting indiscriminately as the instrument of his stepmother for fulfilling her insensate longing for grandchildren. Instead of getting one bride for her son, he abducts all the three daughters of the king of Kasi. In doing so, he fulfils his desire to establish the supremacy of Hastinapura before all the kings. In that process, however, he also sows the seeds of his own destruction by arousing the fury of the woman scorned —-Amba. So strong is his attachment to his vow (the change of his name to Bhishma itself connotes that the two—man and vow—are one, knit together in an indissoluble bond) that it steels him against all human obligations. Caught up in that intense egotism, he destroys the lives of the three princesses of Kasi. His desire to please his father appears t have undergone a metamorphosis into an adamantine will to please himself. We find him turning into the egotistical Sublime of the epic. As for the fruits of his desire, they grow on the field of Kurukshetra, amid the quagmire of blood, sweat and gore, littered with grinning skulls and broken, bones. The Kalpataru granted his desire: his vow remained unbroken, but was it worth the cost of eighteen aksauhinis (a very large unit of counting) and a world bereft of youth, peopled by widows and infants, echoing to the sound of wailing women and lit up by the smoky flames of innumerable funeral pyres?
Between Krsna and Bhishma a strange parallelism exists. Both are the eighth-born and the only surviving sons of their parents. Each is the unquestioned leader of the opposing party in the fratricidal strife. Both are renowned not only as warriors par-excellence, but also as statesman and masters of the scriptures. Vyasa portrays two sublime moments in which these two similar, yet opposing, proponents of two dharmas, two ages, meet. One is in the Rajasuya yajna of Yudhishthira, where Bhishma explains why the arghya ought to be offered to Krsna as pre-eminent among all present. The other is on the battlefield, when Krsna, furious with Arjuna for failing to control Bhishma’s unremitting slaughter of the army, breaks his own vow and rushes to slay him. In words of exquisite beauty, Bhishma welcomes death at Krishna’s hands. But this is not granted him. The fruit of his desire is to be slain by the eunuch Shikhandi, whom he knows to be Amba reborn. But the real point is that Krsna has no hesitation in breaking his vow of remaining a non-combatant where lives need to be saved. This is where he differs totally from Bhishma’s enslavement to his vow, to his twisted dharma of loyalty to Dhritarashtra. Unlike Bhishma, Krsna never hesitates to root out wickedness, be it in the form of his kith and kin (Kamsa, Shishupala, Satadhanva), or otherwise.
Krsna appears to have had two major desires: the bringing together of carious clans such as the Vrsnis, Andhakas, Bhojas, Yadavas, Kukutas, etc. to form a single community at Dvaraka, safe from the depredations of the imperialistic ambitions of Magadha and Hastinapura. This was granted him. As its counterpoint, he witnessed his kith and kin destroy one another in a drunken orgy of senseless violence, with Krsna himself joining in that destructive spree.
His second desire, subsuming the first one, was the establishment of an empire based upon dharma, righteousness, doing away with warring petty kingdoms and bringing them all under a single sovereign of impeccable rectitude. This, too, was granted him. But what subjects were left for Dharmaraja Yudhishthira to rule over? A filed of ashes filled with millions of mourning widows! The Stri Parva is a merciless commentary on the fruit of Krishna’s desire and has found expression in words of unsurpassed poignancy voiced by Gandhari as she stands in Kurukshetra:
“See, Krsna, where Duryodhana, general of eleven aksauhinis, lies bloody-bodied, embracing his mace. His wife and Lakshmana’s mother lies fallen on his breast. My daughters-in-law, bereft of husbands and sons, are running about with hair unbound on this battlefield. Look, look there, the young bride of my Vikarna is desperately trying to drive away the flesh-greedy vultures, but is failing. Jackals have eaten away half of my Durmukha’s face. Kesava, that Abhimanyu, whom people used to describe as more valiant than even you or Arjuna, even he is slain; and mad with grief his bride, the adolescent Uttara, is crying, ” O hero, you were killed just six months after our union.” Alas, Karna’s wife has fallen unconscious on the ground, for the jackals are tearing at the body of Jayadratha, king of Sauvira, and my daughter Duhsala is trying to kill herself while abusing the Pandavas. Oh, oh, look! Duhsala, not finding her husband’s severed head, is running about madly in search of it. Krsna, see, Sakuni is surrounded by vultures, and even that wicked soul will attain heaven because he died in battle.”
What is the end of Krsna? The death of a hero, brought down in a duel of epic dimensions by an opponent of mighty prowess? Hardly, Leaving a Dvaraka filled with wailing widows and children, having seen his elder brother Balarama die, he lies down under a tree and dies of the injury caused by an arrow shot into his foot by a ere tribal hunter, a nisada, not even a warrior out on a hunt. So that is what gets from the Kalpataru along with the granting of his two desires.
This, then, is the picture of “Desire under the Kalpataru”: that desire, if powerful, does get fulfilled, but brings in its wake a price to be paid which, more often than not, outweighs the gratification experienced through fulfilment of the desire. In a way, it is very much like Stevenson’s bottle imp. It is Yayati who sums it up in words of deceptive simplicity that go straight to the mark:
Desire never ends,
Desire grows with feeding,
Like sacrificial flames
Lapping up ghee.
Become the sole lord of
The world’s paddy fields, wheat-fields,
Precious stones, beasts, women…
Still not enough.
This disease kills. The wicked
Cannot give it up, old age
Cannot lessen it. True happiness
Lies in controlling it. (Adi parva, 85.12-14)
The experience of Vyasa’s Yayati is echoes by a great epic poet of the occident, John Milton in Paradise Lost:
…They, fondly thinking to allay
Their appetite with lust, instead of fruit
Chewed bitter ashes.
This is the existential experience with pervades the Mahabharata and which Vyasa, the oriental seer-poet, envisions as an outcome of man’s fascination with the Kalpataru. Vyasa creates a marvellously eidetic picture of this symbol in the words of Krsna in the Gita (15.1-3):
Mention is made of a cosmic fig-tree
whose leaves are said to be the Vedas;
the knower of this fig-tree
is the knower of the Vedas.
Its branches reach out below and above,
its flowers are the objects of the senses;
below the ground flourish more roots,
giving birth to action.
You may not see its real shape,
nor its end, birth and existence.
Slice this fig-tree with non-attachment.
N.B. The extracts from the Mahabharata and the Gita are from the P. Lal transcreation (Writers Workshop, Calcutta, 1969).