Vyasa’s Jaya; the epic Mahabharata. It has been a truism that there is nothing in this creation that is not in the Mahabharata. And the Mahabharata contains all that is in this creation. One has only to immerse oneself in the epic to know how true this statement is when we find ourselves in the dark now and then. As, for instance when we are unable to reconcile ourselves with the death of a dear one. It is so final, the end. From Vyasa we can indeed receive some illuminations to explore, understand and come to terms with the subject.
It is amazing how Vyasa keeps coming to this subject repeatedly before and during the Kurukshetra battle. Why, there is even a discourse on the birth of death! For this we have to go to the Drona Parva.
When Brahma began creation, he realized that there had also to be a way to end the created beings. He found no solution and his right eye began to spout fire that destroyed everything indiscriminately.
Then the Lord of Night-movers Sthanu Rupa (stanur nisaacharapatir harah) came to Brahma and expressed his sorrow at the end of creation. He requested Brahma to divide creation as the past, the present and the future. Brahma withdrew his anger into himself. Even as he was doing so, there arose from his body a woman whose body was red and black. Her face, tongue and eyes were yellow and red. She wore glowing jewels. She stood to the left of the gods and smiled. Brahman addressed her:
“O Mrityu (Death)! Destroy the living beings of this world. You are born out of my anger, and hence keep destroying all people who are idiots and scholars. You have to do this because of my command. You will receive gains from this act.”
Mrityu ceased to smile and began shedding tears which were received by Brahma in his hands. Growing gentler she said that it was impossible for her as a woman to do the deed of killing. Besides the relations of the dead will heap curses on her. She also asked his permission to go to Denukashrama for performing tapasya. Brahma, however, rejected her request. Once it has been ordained that she be the Death of living beings, she has to follow the course. However, no one shall accuse her of performing a sinful act. On hearing this Mrityu was satisfied. The Creator went back to his work while Mrityu performed deep tapasya for sixteen padma years for the good of living beings. Another sixteen padma years were spent in tapasya, standing on one foot. Her tapasya went on thus almost endlessly. She then went to sacred waters like Ganga to purify herself further so that she would be able to discharge her work as Death in the correct manner. She went on with her austerities in holy places like Pushkar and Gokarna and grew very weak.
Pleased with her one-pointed tapasya, Brahma assured her that the Ancient Way (Sanatana Dharma) will keep her pure despite her terrible work. She will be helped in her work by Yama and all types of sicknesses. The tears he had caught in his hands would become the varied sicknesses of mankind. “You would be the Dharma of living beings and the Goddess of that Dharma.” This is the Death that kills without lust or anger. Mrityu just follows what is right Death is a reality and Vyasa gives a practical solution to the questioning mind by the symbol of Goddess Mrithyu.
Can man do no more than mourn and curse when death occurs. In recent Indian history such an exchange seems to have been successfully executed by the emperor Babur to wrest back his son Prince Humayun from the very jaws of Death. Vyasa has considered this possibility too in his legend of Ruru and Pramadvura which occurs in the opening Book of the Mahabharata.
Sage Bhrigu had a son Chyavana who married Sukanya and was blessed with a son Pramati. Pramati fell in love with an apsaras, Ghritachi. Their son was Ruru. In his time there was a famous scholar-tapasvi, Sthulakesa (tapo-vidyaa-samanvitah) who was engaged in doing good to all living beings (sarva bhuta hite ratah). It so happened that the gandharva Viswavasu and the apsara Menaka were together for a while and a daughter was born of this union. Menaka left the babe on the banks of a river close to Sthulakesa’s asrama. She had no pity or shame (nirdaya nirapatrapa) in doing this. We do know that she had done such a deed earlier also, when she abandoned the new born Sakuntala near the hermitage of Rishi Kanva.
Rishi Sthulakesa found the little babe and brought it up with great love. He performed the rituals of naming and called her Pramadvara (pramadaam varaa, best among beautiful women). Time passed and Pramadvara grew up into a beautiful and well-mannered girl. Ruru met her in the hermitage of her father and fell in love with her. He conveyed his feelings to his father, Pramati. Pramati was happy and went to Sthulakesa and requested Pramdvara’s hand on behalf of his son. Sthulakesa was delighted and the wedding was fixed for the day when the Uttara Phalguni star would be in the ascendant (agre nakshatre bhagadaivate). However, she dies on the eve of the wedding.
All alone by himself, Ruru gave away to his sorrow, bewailing the loss of his dearest love. He cried aloud that if he had been good in every way, Pramadvara should be restored to life. Now came a messenger of the gods (devaduta) who told him that death was final. However, there was a way out to bring the girl back to life. This could be done if Ruru would part with half of his life-span. Ruru agreed with alacrity. Yama gave back Pramadvura in exchange for half of Ruru’s life. Ruru and Pramadvara were married. They became the happy parents of Sunaka.
Such is the brief tale of Ruru and Pramadvara. It has no frills, no descriptions nor any philosophy. It is Vyasa’s statement on the possibility of an exchange with the God of Death. But exchange is not always possible, is it? Vyasa is very realistic and that is how he advances an argument that calls for an acceptance of the inevitable as we find in the legend of Gautami in the Anushasana Parva.
Gautami was a widow whose child dies of snake-bite. A hunter catches the snake and brings it to Gautamai. In what manner should he kill it? She asks him not to kill it and incur sin. The death of the snake would not bring back her child to life! The hunter argues that the snake might harm other people so it needs to be killed. The snake says that it should not be blamed for it was directed by Death. Even as they argue, Death comes on the scene. He is not described as a frightening god, but very much a friendly voice cthat seeks to get at the truth about the child’s death. After all, it is Time that is the destroyer, not he:
“O Serpent, I was directed by Kala (Time) to end this boy’s life and so asked the serpent to do the deed. Neither you nor me has caused the death of this child. Like the wind that scatters the clouds hither and thither, I am controlled by Time. The Sattvic, Rajasic and tamasic gunas are all controlled by Time and move lives accordingly.” [translated by Prema Nandakumar]
It is Time that controls everything! Sarvaa Kaalapracodita! So Time appears. He makes it clear that none of them is the guilty one. It is the past karma of the boy that put an end to his earthly existence. Gautami agrees with this and addresses the friendly hunter: “O hunter! Obviously I have also performed such action that has resulted in my losing my son. Now Time and Death can withdraw to their respective places. And you may release this snake.” As the serpent, Time and Death went their ways, the hunter and Gautami found release from their sorrow.
Acceptance is fine but the mind rebels. Is there no way out? Must we bow to Fate ever? In yet another Book of the epic, the Vana Parva, Vyasa retells the ancient legend of Savitri. Not exchange, nor yet acceptance but a positive move to triumph over death. She strengthens herself by tapasya, makes Yama happy with her wise words and gains from him boons Finally, he says Varam vrunmeeshva apratimam pativrate! She asks for Satyavan’s life. Yama grants it, and blesses the two to live for four hundred years and find fulfillment.
Once again, Vyasa stops short of a total victory over Death. But there is no exchange here, nor helpless acceptance. Savitri has made a positive attempt and won a reprieve. With this lamp of a positive triump in a critical moment, Vyasa leaves us to walk the pathways of life and find answers ourselves. Such is Vyasa whose message is clear: Your victory, Jaya, is in your hands! Your striving will lead to success for a moment comes when Grace leans down and lifts you up to success in your endeavours. As the Upanishad declares: Tapah prabhaavaad deva prasaadaascha!
(Substance of the argument presented for a TEDx talk in Sastra University, Thanjavur.)