Naaraayanam Namaskrtya Naram Caiva Narottamam
Deviim Sarasvatiim Vyaasam Tato Jayam Udiirayet
A verse in the first chapter of the Adi Parva of the Mahabharata speaks of three ancient traditions of reading the epic: one beginning at the beginning of the text as it exists today with the prayer narayanam namaskritya, another beginning with the Astika Parva and a third one, beginning with the story of King Uparichara Vasu, Vyasa’s grandfather.
When we begin at the beginning of the text as it exists today, we begin with how Ugrashrava Sauti, son of Lomaharshana, narrated the epic to the ascetics present at Shaunaka’s twelve-year long sacrifice at Naimisharanya. And when we begin with Astika Parva, we begin twelve chapters later, with the story of the ascetic Jaratkaru and the birth of Astika who stops the snake sacrifice of King Janamejaya at Hastinapura.
But when we begin with the story of Uparichara Vasu, we begin at the sixtieth chapter of the Adi Parva of the epic text as it exists today and the epic then starts with the family saga of its author, Sage Vyasa.
And what a story we get to begin with then! A story of lust that man fails to control, and the actions that uncontrolled lust leads man to and their consequences.
Which is actually the theme of the epic.
The Mahabharata is a tale of uncontrolled lusts – lust for land, lust for wealth, lust for power, lust for honour, lust for fame, lust for acceptance, lust for vengeance, lust for pleasure, and, above all, plain sexual lust. It is the story of lust in every imaginable form and the terrible consequences that uncontrolled lust leads to.
The Sanskrit word for lust is kama.
The Mahabharata does not criticize kama per se., nor does Indian culture do so. What is criticized is uncontrolled kama, kama that controls us, kama that becomes our master, that makes us its slaves. The Vedic culture sees kama as the beginning of the universe. The brilliant Nasadiya Sukta of the Rig Veda, the Hymn of Creation, speaks of Kama as the first being to emerge, or the first essence to come into being and then becomes the cause of everything else coming into existence. The Taittiriya Upanishad speaks of the spark of desire entering the heart of the Unmanifest Being, which then creates out of itself everything else, abstract and concrete, real and illusory, moving and unmoving, all.
The Mahabharata itself speaks of Kama as the son of Dharma.
Accordingly Kama, the son, should follow Dharma, should be guided by it. So long as Kama follows Dharma, life is beautiful. And when Kama ignores Dharma, goes contrary to Dharma, violates Dharma, tragedy results. What is born of Dharma and hence noble, becomes dark and evil and destroys life.
It is for this reason that Krishna both praises Kama in the Gita and warns us against it. In one place he says Kama is himself – is God – so long as it does not violate Dharma. When it violates dharma, what is divine becomes demoniac: dharmaaviruddhe bhooteshu kamo’smi bharatarshabha – “I am kama that is not against dharma in beings.” In another place he takes its name as man’s worst enemy.
Here is the story of king Uparichara Vasu, Sage Vyasa’s maternal grandfather, the first story told by Vyasa if we read the epic following the third tradition.
Vasu was a great king renowned for his competencies as a leader and for his royal virtues – generosity, charity, empathy, understanding, people skills, self-mastery, commitment to values, integrity, all. After ruling his kingdom for years, he decided to tread the path his ancestors had followed by going to the jungle and devoting the rest of his life to spirituality. He began performing tapas, powerful austerities. Such was his tapas that Indra, the lord of the heavens, became shaky. For anyone who climbed certain heights in ascetic practices became qualified to take over Indra’s throne.
The word Indra means the lord of the senses – indriyaaNaam raajaa. That is, the mind. Asceticism is a way of conquering the mind, mastering it, making it one’s slave, rather than living as its slave. And the mind resists this, sometimes directly, at other times through devious means. It does not want to be conquered, but loves to remain as the master. As hundreds of stories in Indian literature tell us, as innumerable stories from the life of ascetics from across the world and from all cultures tell us, the mind throws temptations on the path of the ascetic to waylay him, to distract him and to destroy him. Indian literature abounds in such stories: the Buddha is tempted by Mara, Sage Vishwamitra by Menaka, Sage Kandu by Pramlocha and so on.
In the case of Uparichara Vasu, it is not a woman, the most common temptation for a male ascetic, that Indra uses. This former king had in all probability had women aplenty in his inner apartments. Nor does he use power as a temptation – the bait thrown to Jesus by the Devil, another name for the mind. He takes a much more refined approach with Uparichara Vasu, sage Vyasa’s grandfather-to-be.
Indra comes down to meet him in the ashram where he is living a life of asceticism. He speaks to the rajarshi, the royal sage, of the nobility of his duty to the world.
Let there be no doubts. The Mahabharata is very specific about this: What Indra was concerned with is not the good of the world. What he wanted was for the royal sage to stop his austerities and go back to the world to live his life there. For, if he continued his austerities, the king would be a threat to his position as the lord of the gods.
Temptations could be of different kinds and at different levels. A man may be tempted from his higher goals by something as simple as sexuality. But some people require more than sex to distract them from their path. For some, it is power that tempts them; in the case of some others, it could be fame; it could even be something as refined and beautiful as kindness and compassion.
The Bhagavad Gita tells us that it is not only tamas and rajas that bind us, but even sattva binds us.
Indian tradition holds that even concern for the good of the world could be binding when it makes you forget the ultimate human goal, the parama-purushartha, which is spiritual freedom. It tells us through the story of Jada Bharata who devoted his life to look after a baby deer that even kindness and compassion could be bondages.
The Prashna Upanishad tells us there are two dimensions to spirituality – the higher and the lower, called Dakshinayana and Uttarayana, the southern and the northern paths.
Dakshinayana, or the lower dimension, consists of acts that are classified as ishta and poorta. Ishta consists of acts for the common good – like founding schools, hospitals, orphanages, charity homes and so on. In ancient India, it included planting trees on the wayside, digging wells for drinking water, digging ponds and lakes, establishing wayside inns where travelers could rest and spend the night free of charge, and so on. Poorta consists of acts of service to the individual – like giving a meal to the hungry, water to the thirsty, taking care of a sick or old man, adopting an orphaned child and so on. These are great in themselves, but should lead man to higher spirituality, to Uttarayana.
Uttarayana, the higher spirituality, consists of tapas, dhyana, samadhi etc – austerities, the practice of meditation, experiencing self-transcendence and so on. It is through these that man reaches spiritual awakening, bodhi.
What Indra did was to appeal to the innate nobility of Vasu to tempt him away from his spiritual path. As a king, Vasu was a great lover of dharma, the common good. He was totally committed to it. Now Indra uses this very commitment to dharma, one of the noblest qualities in any leader, to tempt Vasu from his spiritual goals.
Indra appears before Vasu accompanied by several other gods. He convinces Vasu that his highest duty is to the good of the world. The absence of someone like him as king is causing corruption in the world and he should go back to his life as king to uphold dharma and stop all corruptions. It is dharma that upholds the world and it is kings like him that uphold dharma.
Indra assures Vasu that there are no eternal worlds that he cannot attain by protecting dharma in the world. He also declares Vasu as his eternal friend, his sakha.
The lord of the gods calling you a sakha is indeed a great honour.
Indra has called others his friends too in the past. And usually this has lead to tragedy to the men whose friend Indra pretended to be. Indra declared himself a friend of his greatest enemy ever, Vritra, and it is with the help of that friendship that Indra betrayed and killed Vritra.
As we saw, Indra is the symbol of the mind. Several spiritual traditions hold that there is no good mind and bad mind – mind itself is bad. That in fact, there is nothing bad, other than the mind. What is good is the state of no-mind, the state in which you go beyond the mind. Zen is one such spiritual tradition that expressly speaks of the need to transcend the mind and reach the state of no-mind. Mind is ignorance, says Zen. Mind is bondage, says Zen. And no-mind is freedom, wisdom.
Indra has by now offered two temptations to the king: eternal worlds of pleasure in the future as a result of upholding dharma in the world as king and friendship with the lord of the gods. Now he offers Vasu more. He tells him to take the best part of the earth as his kingdom.
What is recommended is the land of Chedi. Indra describes Chedi as delightful, sacred, rich, abounding in animal wealth and crops, filled with precious stones and mineral wealth. He tells Vasu that the land of Chedi has an agreeable climate; is very fertile; the cities and towns devoted to virtue; the people are honest, contented, law abiding, truthful, kind even to animals so that if a bullock becomes weak they do not anymore yoke it to the plough or to the cart but is instead looked after until it becomes fat again; sons are devoted to their parents, all people follow their dharma.
Indra hasn’t finished his offerings. He promises him the power to know all that happens everywhere in the world. He gives him a garland of unfading lotuses which would make him invincible in battle, an airplane that can take him through the skies to anywhere he wants to go, or even help him remain in one place if he wished so.
Besides all this, Indra also gives Vasu a sacred bamboo pole, a yashti that could be used for religious rituals.
Vasu falls for the temptations. He accepts these gifts from Indra and chooses to go to Chedi to become its king. He looks after Chedi as a virtuous king, protecting dharma in the hope of attaining glory as a leader of men on earth and eternal worlds of pleasure after his death. In gratitude to Indra for the kindness showered on him, Vasu begins a celebration known as Indrotsava, the festival of Indra, in which planting the bamboo pole given by Indra marks the beginning of the festival.
Indra is worshipped in this festival as a divine swan, a hamsa. Which reminds us of the Greek Indra, Zeus, who is tempted by Leda and assumes the form of a swan to seduce her, an image repeatedly painted by European painters and sculpted by leading western sculptures.
It is this Indrotsava that celebrates on earth the glory of Indra that Krishna later stops and asks the men and women of Vrindavan instead to worship Mt Govardhan that protects them and offers food to their cattle.
Vasu now becomes attached to his airplane and spends much time in it, thus acquiring the name by which he will be known to all subsequent generations: Uparichara Vasu, Vasu-who-moves-in-the-skies.
That is the past history of Vasu. Let’s now move on to the day that most concerns us, the day on which he begets Sage Vyasa’s mother in an act that the Mahabharata describes as dhoomra – a word the dictionary explains as vice, wickedness, sin.
Everything about the remaining part of Uparichara Vasu’s story is strange and mysterious. Perhaps because the things mentioned are so unacceptable, it is possible that the original story has altogether disappeared and we have to infer it from the hazy and puzzling details that are now available to us in the Sanskrit epic.
The first thing we are told is that a mountain once raped a river and two human children are born to the river. The name of the mountain is Kolahala and the name of the river is Shuktimati. We are also told that the mountain blocked the river and Uparichara Vasu kicked it with his foot, splitting the mountain and releasing the river.
Vasu’s act of releasing the river from the power of the mountain reminds us of Indra’s act of releasing the waters from the captivity of Vritra in still more ancient times.
Of the two children born to the river Shuktimati, one is male and the other female. The river offers the two children to Vasu and Vasu makes the male child, when the children grow up, his commander-in-chief and the female child his wife. Her name is Girikaa, meaning the child of a mountain.
It is possible that the king went to the mountain to release waters that were blocked by it, found there two abandoned children, twins, a male and a female and brought them home and when the children grew up, he made the girl his wife, and the male his commander-in chief. It is also possible that the children were born of a rape committed on a woman by someone on the mountain or the river bank.
Sexuality in ancient India was different in its gender implications than in the contemporary world. Within marriage, sex was considered a woman’s right, her privilege, something that she was entitled to from her man and not something the man ‘took’ from the woman. It was a man’s duty to go to his wife when she was in her ritu – the first sixteen days after her ritual bath following her monthly period – on prescribed days, avoiding proscribed days.
Girikaa had entered her ritu and sent a message to her husband, informing him she was ready and waiting, and asking him to go to her. Precisely at that time, says the epic, he received an order from his dead ancestors, his manes, that he should go on a hunting trip to the jungle.
Now, this is very strange indeed! Because generally speaking the main interest of the dead ancestors is in continuing the family line – frequently their only interest. They should thus have prevented him from going on the hunting trip precisely at such a time. Instead, they order him to forget his wife who is ready and waiting, who has just sent him a message that she is ready and waiting, and go to the jungle to kill wild animals.
One way of looking at it is that the king faced an inner conflict. It is possible that the temptation to hunt and kill overpowered the king’s desire to go to his wife – at least for the time being. In the clash between the thrill of killing and the thrill of sex, the king chose the thrill of killing and ignored, suppressed, his desire for his wife.
He had taken a very wrong decision if we go by what follows!
It was spring, the season when the whole nature celebrates life. What Vasu found was a jungle in the festivity of spring. Trees and plants – ashokas, champas, mango trees, bakulas, punnagas, madhavis, sandalwoods, arjunas, all – were at their best, filled with flowers whose intoxicating fragrance filled the jungle. The mating calls of the cuckoo bird and honey-inebriated hums of the bumble bee added to the intoxication of the environment.
What the whole world was celebrating was what he had rejected to come to the jungle, and that too in spite of being requested by his wife. Apart from being tempted by nature, it is possible that he also felt guilty about what he had done.
Ancient India said that a woman’s request for sex should never be ignored: arthinii strii anupekshaniiyaa.
The king’s mind went back to the beautiful mountain girl Girikaa who was pining for him at home in the palace.
His head was already light with nature’s intoxication. The visions of Girikaa whom he had rejected in spite of her express desire complicated matters further for the king. Losing mastery over himself, he sat down under an ashoka tree, the scent of fresh honey and the flowers going straight to his head.
According to the Mahabharata, it was now that he was tempted by vice and felt compelled to do a wicked deed, to commit a sin - dhoomra. Sex per se is not a sin in Indian culture. So it is some kind of ‘wrong’ sex that happened, which could be called wicked or sinful.
I would skip some details of what the Mahabharata tells us here and proceed to the end of this episode. In any case, what the Mahabharata tells us is so preposterous, so fantastic, that our minds will not accept it. It is possible that storytellers over thousands of years have given the present form to whatever was the original story.
The end of the episode is that a female fish in the Yamuna swallows the king’s seeds and becomes pregnant.
The fish, the story tells us, is a fallen apsara, a celestial dancer of incredible beauty, called Adrikaa. Due to a curse she received from Brahma, she had turned into a fish and was living in the river. Her curse was to last until she gave birth to two human children.
It is interesting that the apsara who has turned into a fish is called Adrikaa. Because Adrikaa means precisely what Girikaa means – a daughter of the hills.
The fish becomes pregnant. The pregnancy grows to maturity and reaches the tenth month. The fish is then caught by fishermen and cut open. Inside the fish, the fishermen find two children, a male and a female.
When the fish is cut open, it dies and the aprasa is released from her curse. She rises up into the skies and travelling on the path of the siddhas and charanas, reaches back her home, the land of the gods.
What exactly are we to make of this story?
One way to understand it is that the king, unable to keep in check his passion, had sex with a fisher girl called Adrikaa on the banks of the Yamuna and the children were the result of that brief encounter.
We have no clue as to whether Vasu took her by force or she voluntarily surrendered to his desire. From the way Vyasa’s mother, Adrikaa’s daughter growing up as the daughter of a fisherman, surrenders herself to the desire of Sage Parashara later, it is possible to assume that in those ancient days it was perhaps fairly common for men of the upper strata of society to have their way with women of the lower strata of society.
The chief of the fishermen takes the two children thus mysteriously found inside the fish to the king – to Uparichara Vasu himself. Customs in those days said that anything precious or unusual found or grown inside the kingdom should be offered to the king. The king keeps the male child and returns the female child to the chief of the fishermen, Dasharaja.
This is the second time that almost identical incidents are happening to Vasu. The first time he had found two children on the banks of the Shuktimati, a male and a female. He had made the male child the chief of his armies and the female child his wife, when they grew up. Now once again fishermen bring two children to him, who are, unknown to him, his own children. This time he keeps the male child and returns the female child to the fishermen.
The first set of children, we are clearly told, were born of a rape. From the circumstances the epic mentions, combined with the use of the word dhoomra, it is possible that these children too were born of a rape.
The male child, whom the king keeps, grows up to become the king of the Matsya country, also known as the land of the Viratas. It is here that the Pandavas would eventually spend their one year in hiding as per the conditions of the second dice game they lose. Following which, the Virata princess Uttara would marry Arjuna’s son Abhimanyu. King Janamejaya who listens to the Mahabharata story from Vaishampayana is the grandson of Uttara. The kingdom of the Bharatas thus ends up in the hands of an heir of Uparichara Vasu. Of course, Dhritarashtra, Pandu and Vidura are all have his blood in them – they are Vyasa’s sons and Vasu’s great grandsons.
But all that is later.
The female child returned by Vasu to Dasharaja with the instruction to bring her up as his daughter is named Kaali and Krishnaa for her complexion. Both Kaali and Krishnaa mean a dark girl. She gets the nick name Matsyagandhaa for the strong foul smell that emanated from her. Matsyagandhaa means a fish-smelling girl.
Krishnaa turns out to be a ravishing beauty. The epic tells us that she was so beautiful that she tempted even great siddhas. She begins to help her father in his work by taking people across the Yamuna in their ferry.
Children mature early among the poor and begin to work before they are out of their childhood.
One day her passenger in the ferry is the legendary sage Parashara. He sees her and is allured by her. He confesses to her his desire for her. She objects by saying other people are watching them on both sides of the river. The sage with his powers creates thick mist all around them and then, unable to keep his lust for her in check, takes her with her permission.
The child born was given the name Krishna Dwaipayana at birth. Krishna means dark or black. He was dark like his mother. Dwaipayana means born on an island. He was born on a small island in the Yamuna.
This Krishna Dwaipayana, later to be known as Vyasa, is the author of the Mahabharata.
What we have here thus is a tale of lust. Sage Vyasa’s great grandmother Girikaa is the result of a rape, whose story is presented to us in the impossible form of the rape of a river by a mountain. Vyasa’s mother Satyavati is born when his grandfather, Uparichara Vasu fails to control his sexual lust and commits a heinous act. And Vyasa himself is born because a seer fails to hold in check his passion for a beautiful fisher girl.
That is three successive generations. As we go into the story of the Mahabharata, we shall see that this theme of naked lust and the failure to control it runs through the generations to follow. Satyavati’s son, Vyasa’s half brother Vichitraveerya, would die because of his overindulgence in sex. Vyasa’s own son Pandu would die of his inability to master his sexual drive. And in the next generation several powerful men would lust for Draupadi, the most hauntingly beautiful woman in Indian lore, leading to disastrous consequences. Her own past life stories tell us of a lifetime as Nalayani in which she receives a curse from her husband because of her insatiable sexuality.
Did Indra foresee these things when he turned Uparichara Vasu away from tapas into the world? Did he foresee the Mahabharata war and the destruction of India that followed as a consequence?
The Mahabharata says the four ages are born as a consequence of man’s actions, particularly because of the actions of men in positions of power. It also says that towards the end of the Mahabharata story, the Age of Kali, the Dark Age, began.
Was Indra’s fear of Vasu’s asceticism the cause of the beginning of the Age of Kali?
Indian Wisdom considers personal leadership expressed in terms of self mastery as the foundation of all leadership – in fact, of all that is good. When Bhishma begins to teach Yudhishthira from his bed of arrows in the Shanti Parva, one of the first lessons he teaches is in self-mastery. What we find here is leaders of men failing in self mastery generation after generation, right up to the days of the Mahabharata war. Is it any more than a natural consequence then that the Age of Kali begins immediately after the Mahabharata war?
Next: Shakuntala: Flaming Indian Womanhood