Can we inquire of human conditions?

Sulabha and Janaka

After reading the chapter ‘Sulabha’ in Chaturvedi Badrinath’s book: The Women of the Mahabharata: The Question of Truth’ (Hyderabad, Orient Blacswan Pvt. Lte. 2008, pp. 130-147), I wrote this song. It is a long chapter for me to give the summary. But this is a well-known dialouge between King Janaka of Mithila and the Yogini Sulabha.

After hearing about Janaka who ‘was making great claims in most extravagant language, which had become very widely known, about his having achieved in this life itself, even as a householder, ultimate liberation, moksha, and citing his personal example was pronouncing on what moksha truly was, [and] wanting to know if there was any truth in his claims, Sulabha resolved to visit him’. (p.131)

‘Using her yogic powers, she meanwhile transformed herself into a young and radiantly beautiful woman….entered Janaka’s Court, seemingly begging for customary alms….Satisfied with the fullest welcome accorded customarily to a sannyasini, Sulabha….wanting to have more a private conversation than a public debate with him, and again using her yogic powers Sulabha concentrated her eyes upon his, held the light in his eyes still, and then held his mind in a kind of mesmeric hold, yoga-bandha, and entered in a psychic sense, King Janaka’s subtle inner being. He quickly sensed what she was about, and smiled….(111-112)’

Then followed a long dialogue and the King began even to abuse her as he was upset that she came to test him not believing. After listening all his abusive words, finally Sulabha clearly proves that all his claim that he is a jivan-mukta is wrong.

For me the main point is not the way the King paraded his knowledge and claimed to be a jivan-mukta and not even the rhetorical statements that Badrinath often makes in all his books on Mahabharat {Mahabharata: An Inquiry in the Human Condition, 2006}:

enquiring human condition, but why is Sulabha, even as a true sannyasini interested in the first place to know what Janaka claims is true or not. If she is a true sannyasini as she claims in her own words, ‘I am a sannyasini, one who has renounced the world’ complains to the king that he ‘ought not to be saying such things’1 to her (p.143).

If a true sannyasi (or sannyasini) really renounced everything, that too of his/her ego, what is the need for her to know about others’ claims? Why should she, in the first place take interest to know about his claim and then expose that he is a fake? Is it out of jealousy that a house-holder usurp the claim of a sannyasi as the only jivan-mukta?

In his conclusion (or interpretation2, which he denies doing) Badrinath says:

Sulabha was only questioning the pretensions of Janaka, a king, of being a totally liberated man; for pretensions, or wrong perceptions of one’s self, do no good:

…King! I don’t think you are liberated; you have only the wrong impression that you are which should be removed from your mind by those who wish you well….

Hearing Sulabha say this, King Janaka said nothing more. (p. 147).

But I think the wise king Janaka, who is famous for his wisdom has done the right thing by not saying anything more. Because there is no point of educating such a sannyasini, who in the name of doing good to others, has still the curiosity and interest to know whether Janaka was really a jivan-mukta or not. Above all (this I say as a joke) he knows well, maybe out of his experience (having many wives) that there is no point of further arguing with a woman, that too such a sannyasini like Sulabha (changing her real form also) who will never let any man win an argument.

After reading this chapter, as I was thinking about Sulabha’s dialogue with Janaka, I wrote this song having my own reading in this story as Badrinath well said (in the introduction):

…In being a most systematic philosophic inquiry into the human condition, the Mahabharata does not see the meaning of a story in the way it ends. The particular end of a story is not the whole of its meaning. (p.9)

Adding a point about the claim which Badrinath makes that Mahabharat’s inquiry in the human condition, I would like to say that not only Mbh., but most of the other Indian scriptures (in fact any other scriptures in the world) present an idealistic view about life. Of course the main aim of presenting such idealism is to encourage their votaries to aim for the best and try to reach as high as possible in their life. But except few exceptions, by inquiring about the human conditions through the characters we cannot even strive for that idealism. Because not mere teaching but even their birth, the way they led their life, the circumstances in which they faced all those challenges are not human realities but either exaggerated a-manushya (non-humna) events for which they are equipped and prepared well by the author by assigning various supernatural events in their birth and life.

So however we make any inquiry about the human condition, a common person will say “I cannot imitate them or follow their instruction/teaching.” Of course there are several models which help common people explain certain unexpected events or tragedies in their life. For example, when my father lost everything in his business and when my grandfather (my mother’s father) asked my mother to come and stay with him with the children till she recovered, my mother said to him that ‘where Rama was that is Ayodhya for Sita’. But this she said to justify her partnership in life both in joy and sorrow—which most of the Indian woman have done and still continue to do. But this they do not because Sita followed Rama to the forest (in fact she insisted to go with him, though he asked her not to and it predestined to happen to get rid of Ravana and other demons who were troubling the devas), but to justify their act they quote the example of Sita. This I think even attested by the author himself, when he says about Draupadi in a different context:

…Important or not, the question is one of fact as narrated, Draupadi as portrayed in the Mahabharata and not the Draupadi of general impressions about her, thus a question of accuracy and truth, even if they be about a mythic figure. (p.206)3

Another example is to show the way Draupadi called Krishna’s help raising both her hands when Duhshasana was disrobing her. Even I myself used this example of Draupadi to show that only when we totally surrender without any reservation God will step in to help us. But no Indian is going to believe that God will step in the way Krishna saved Draupadi by continue to supply garment as Duhshasana was pulling one by one.

So however Badrinath tries to inquire Mahabharat through its characters about the human condition, in real life it won’t help much. Because then as the author is doing in contradicting way, we have to explain several events to bend to such an artificial theory. For example, when Karkotaka, the snake which bites when Nala tries to rescues it from the fire when requested, his entire complex changes beyond recognition. But when Nala questions the snake, ‘is this your reward to me for saving your life’ (p.101, italics original), Karkotaka said that he has done this only to help him for not others to recognize him. Then the author took all the pain to explain it, which is worth reading as it is:

Again, all this is to be understood metaphorically, Karkotaka was not a snake, a cobra that the word ‘naga’ would ordinarily denote, but an influential personage of the tribe of an ancient people—Naga. They existed in India when the Mahabharata was being composed, as they exist now….The ‘piece of cloth’ that Karkotaka gave to Nala was not an item of aboriginal magic but something metaphorical, which its recipient understood….And ‘the piece of cloth’ the Naga gave, which would enable Nala to regain his former form, had a deep metaphorical image: a means to recovering his former identity.

Interestingly, the same author does not say anything when the miracle happened with Draupadi:

Thereupon, distressed to the limit of her endurance, she desperately thought of Krishna, and a miracle happened. In the place of whatever part of her one-garment Duhshana would remove, a new garment would appear. In fact, Draupadi was now being fully draped by invisible divine hands….(p.216).

In all these supernatural events with these mythic figures, common people never make any inquiry for the human condition, as they cannot make it considering all these things that are beyond rational inquiry of their birth and events.



1. King Janaka to Sulabha:

If you have come here for some purpose of your own, or have been sent by another king (on a spying mission), then it is thoroughly wrong for you to wear a false guise (of a yogini)….You should, therefore, honestly disclose your caste, your education, your calling, the kind of person that you are, and the purpose of your coming here’—p. 139

In response to the King, Sulabha says this:

Just as a fast running horse is one moment here and in the next moment not seen, this world, too, is moving very swiftly from one state into another. Therefore it will be impossible to say: ‘From where does one come, or from where one does not? To whom does one belongs, or to whom one does not?; If you have a sense of unity with the other, seeing your own self in the other, then why do you keep asking me: ‘Who are you? Who do you belong to’? If you have liberated yourself from the conflicting dualities of gaining this and avoiding that, then what is the point in your asking me: ‘Who are you? Who do you belong to? Where have you come from?’ (p.141) Italics original.

2. …I have not interpreted, nor analysed, any of the women of the Mahabharat I have assembled here….—p. 9 (italics original)

3. The context is that according to Badrinath Draupadi was not present when Duryodhana took that disastrous tour of the Mayasabha (The Assembly of Illusions) when he came for the rajIasuya-yajna condected by the Pandavas at Indraprastha (p.206) where he stumbled and others laughed at him.