Durdasa of Sarala’s Mahabharata, the first retelling of the classical story in Oriya in the fifteenth century, strongly reminds one of Yuyutsu of Vyasa’s Mahabharata. Since Gandhari’s children were born at the compassionate intervention of Durvasa, all her children were given names beginning with the syllable du, as an expression of gratitude to the illustrious sage. However, whereas Yuyutsu prospered under the protection of the Pandavas, Durdasa perished. In Saaralaa Mahaabhaarata, by which name the text is popularly known, no one’s story is more poignant than Durdasa’s. Durdasa was the one who at Yudhisthira’s call on the Kurukshetra battlefield left Duryodhana’s army and joined the Pandavas. Yudhisthira blessed him for a long life; “you will live as long as I am alive”, he told him. It was not just a wish; it was an assurance too.
Yudhisthira had gone to the Kaurava’s side to seek the elders’ blessings for victory in the war. Ignoring counsel of his brothers, he had gone there alone and weaponless. Stung by Durdasa’s decision and Krishna’s celebration of the same, Duryodhana ordered his army to attack both Durdasa and Yudhisthira, who was still in the enemy’s part of the battlefield. And with his army going into the attack, the Mahabharata war started.
To a bewildered and frightened Yudhisthira, Durdasa said that he had no cause for worry as long as he was alive. And the brave son of Gandhari fought valiantly against the Kaurava warriors until Bhima arrived on the scene. And so overwhelmed was Bhima by Durdasa’s act of protecting Yudhisthira that he too told him that as long as he remained alive, let alone humans, gods and demons would not dare to even think of causing him any harm.
This was how Durdasa’s story began. He surfaced later when Yudhisthira asked him to stay on in the battlefield and protect the vanquished and mortally wounded Duryodhana from the attack of the wild animals during the night. And that was a catastrophic night. As Duryodhana appointed Ashwasthama as his commander-in-chief, Durdasa was a mere uninvolved witness, and at the day break as the former was seen coming with a carrier containing the severed heads, Durdasa in a disinterested tone informed Duryodhana about Aswasthama’s coming with the severed heads of the Pandavas. Soon he would again inform him in the same tone that those were actually the heads of Draupadi’s sons, and would be a witness to his great agony over this incident. Soon after, Durdasa, anguished over the calamity that had befallen the Pandavas, would tell Krishna about all that had happened, and about how Duryodhana had harshly rebuked Aswasthama for what he had done, and had forsaken him, and how he had died with the heads of Draupadi’s sons in his lap, bitterly grieving over their death.
Later Durdasa went with the victorious Pandavas and Krishna to meet Dhritarashtra and Gandhari. The grief-stricken couple was persuaded by Bidura to meet them. As the Pandavas paid their obeisance to them, Gandhari could not control herself and charged them of killing innumerable people for the sake of kingdom. Then she said that she had not seen her husband and her children, and now she wanted to see the Pandavas which would be some consolation for her. She wanted them to take the cover off her eyes. A suspicious Krishna quietly asked Sahadeva what her intentions were, and Sahadeva said that she wanted to destroy the Pandavas with her fiery glance.
“There must be no residue of enemies”, said Krishna to Sahadeva, and he went to Durdasa and asked him to take off the cover from his mother’s eyes. As he did so, Gandhari’s fiery look reduced him to ashes instantly. First Bidura and then Krishna reprimanded her for destroying her only surviving son who Yudhisthira had protected, and told her that if Yudhisthira perished, dharma would perish. He asked her to cover her eyes again. A chastened Gandhari obeyed without a word.
So that was the end of Durdasa. He just went out of Saaralaa Mahaabhaarata and was not heard of any more. Those who had assured him long life until they themselves were alive were still alive. Granted that neither Yudhisthira nor Bhima had any knowledge of what was to come, but neither even uttered a word of protest after the meanest and the crudest of betrayals took place, and trust was most cynically murdered. As Durdasa was burning, the Pandavas moved away under Krishna’s protection from the sight of Gandhari. The conduct of Bhima does not merit even a mention, let alone a censor. He was one who could drink his cousin’s blood without a second thought because he had taken such an oath, but had surely no hesitation in shying away from the assurance he had given a benefactor of the Pandavas. He epitomized just sheer energy and power; where is the place of sensitivity, and moral sense and discrimination in all that?
But what could one say of Yudhisthira? Durdasa had taken shelter under him, and he had granted him his protection. It was his sacred duty to ensure that he came to no harm. When the event took place, he probably was too surprised and too shocked to react, and things had happened too fast. He surely had not thought of the destructive power of Gandhari’s glance. But nothing really absolves him of his silence. His silence was his acquiescence in the act, and thus he had necessarily become part of it - the very embodiment of dharma had abandoned dharma.
No tears need be shed for Gandhari since she got only what she deserved. Eighteen days of such comprehensive destruction had not hardened her against killing, and had also not made her realize that anger and hatred yielded no solution and that an act of revenge of the most destructive nature did not put the lid on anything. She paid a very heavy price indeed to learn that one could not eliminate the other without eliminating a vital part of oneself.
On the ground that deception, and similar others, could be accepted as the weapon of the weak and the helpless against the mighty, one might feel hesitant to judge her too harshly for the low cunning she was employing to destroy the Pandavas. But she really deservers no sympathy because she was by no means weak, with the kind of weapon she knew she had, namely her fiery glance, from which there was no protection.
Poor Durdasa. Despite protecting Yudhisthira when he was most vulnerable and most unprotected, and despite his not having said or done anything that would invite even a shade of suspicion that he was hostile to the interests of the Pandavas, he ultimately remained the outsider, the other in their midst. It was his birth as a Kaurava that determined his identity, not his action. Thus he remained the enemy, the shatru, as Krishna put it with such ruthless clarity. His instant destruction was the only blessing he had – he had no time to look back and reflect on things, on the utter unfairness of it all.
Finally turning to Krishna, he orchestrated, and was the high priest at, what one can call the last sacrifice at the altar of the Mahabharata war. The mention of war after the Kurukshetra battlefields had become quiet need not surprise one; didn’t Krishna characterize Durdasa as the last residue of the enemy? Krishna’s action leaves one thoroughly bewildered and morally defeated. Why did Durdasa have to die? It would be morally revolting to swallow Krishna’s description of him. If, as the knower of the past, the present and the future, Krishna knew something about him that damned him as the enemy of the Pandavas, he did not share it with others. If there was a cosmic design behind his destruction, Krishna did not explicate it to make the unfortunate event intelligible to the ordinary mortals.
Saaralaa Mahaabhaarata does not condemn Krishna; Sarala was a devotee. As for us, we do not know with what yardsticks to judge an avatar, who is constrained by the form he takes, and at the same time exceeds it in dimensions beyond the fullest realizations of the possibilities of that form. Thus Krishna is and yet is not subject to the human moral system But such a juxtaposition of opposites lacks intelligibility and coherence. But what hopefully does not is the following: as an avatar who, unlike say, Nrusingha, lived among humans, shared his life with them, and participated in their affairs, he was obligated to give the humans a meaningful explanation of his action that strongly offended moral sense. We charge him of failure to do this.