Karma, Time and Destiny

An ancient tale and its contemporary relevance

Yudhishtra, an embodiment of dharma and truth, is deeply disturbed and restless. There is no inner harmony and tranquility of mind. For Yudhishtra believes that he is responsible for the destruction and deaths of so many relations and great warriors. To find solace, he bows before the great grandfather Bhishma. The saintly warrior narrates an ancient tale of Gautami, Arjunak, a snake, death and time. Gautami is quiet and remorseful but dislikes punishing anyone for the death of her child. An eternal truth is revealed and Yudhishtra learns that it is futile to lament. Every man gets punishment according to his deeds. There is the invisible force of karma and its consequence behind everyone, and that is the reason and the cause of all passiveness and movement.

The ever inquisitive mind of Yudhishtra is restless but is also pervaded by unique tranquility and patience not found anywhere else in any ancient or modern hero among men of substance. He is deeply hurt because he never wanted that the great Bhishma, the Pitamahah, should ever have been the target of Arjuna’s arrows. Then, destiny is powerful and none can escape the assigned lifespan on earth. He has many questions still bubbling within and requiring answers, which only the great grandfather can give. To quench this thirst for knowledge of the worldly and the ethereal, he continues to plead before the great Bhishma, lying on the bed of arrows as the shrill and piercing sounds of war-conches still haunt the ears, enhancing the impact of imminent death looming large on the horizons.

The injured old Bhishma listens when Yudhishtra asks, “You have enumerated many ways to achieve peace but my heart is still disturbed. When I see your wounded body pierced deeply by arrows, I feel impatient and this reminds me of sins committed. The blood is flowing out like a hill stream and you are smeared with red-blood. I cannot bear the sight. I am the cause of ill-timed deaths of many sons of my friends and close relations. What could be the great tragedy? I am responsible for your death and it is I who is the cause of assassination of many nears and dears. I cannot find peace within when I see you on the deathbed. Oh great Grandfather, oblige me with a piece of advice so that I live in peace after I leave this body.”

“You are invariably under the control of time and the invisible God, and so you should never think that you’re the cause of good and bad acts. In fact, the real face of soul is beyond the grasp of senses. It is enigmatic and mysterious. I shall explain to you by narrating an ancient story of a meaningful talk, which took place among the wise five, namely, Gautami, a hunter, a snake, death and time.” It was an attempt to elucidate a great wisdom.


One ought to understand that in ancient times, it was a generally accepted principle of telling tales by giving voice to animals, birds and various objects of nature so that the deeper meanings of life were explicit without making anything evident. Wise men adopted this mechanism so that without hurting feelings, a man was told of perennial truths. Looked at from a worldly viewpoint, man has not changed much. While Yudhishtra was observing intently the old man of history, Bhishma resumes.

There was an old brahmin woman Gautami who was always devoted to a life of peace. One day, a snake bit her only son. The sting was lethal. Immediately, a hunter ensnared the snake with the help of a net. He told Gautami, “Holy woman, he is the killer of your son. Tell me, how am I to finish its life? Should I throw it in the fire? Alternatively, after cutting into pieces the snake… the murderer of your son, the sinner snake will not live for a long time. It should not be allowed to live.”

She told Arjunak, the hunter, “You are dull-witted. Do not kill. It is not worth killing. Destiny cannot be set right and what happens will take place despite efforts to the contrary. By killing the snake, I do not wish to be a part of a grave sin. Even if you kill the snake, my son will not get life, and if the snake is left alive, no harm will occur. So by killing it, why should I go to hell?”

“Holy woman, I know. Old men are distraught when they see someone in agony. Such words of wisdom are for healthy men. I am troubled within and so I will kill. You should also stop mourning.” Arjunak was still relentless and tried to convince Gautami.

“People like us who know the truth…” the old woman began to say.

“People like us who are engaged in noble deeds as dictated by dharma—religion, know that this boy was to die by snakebite. Therefore, I do not agree that you should kill it. Be gentle and forgive it.”

“Great woman, if you kill an enemy it benefits.”

Arjunak, what is the use of imprisoning an enemy, and by not releasing it what objective is achieved? I see no reason for not forgiving the snake for this crime. Do you think I should be deprived of attaining deliverance?”

Gautami, one should save people from the fatal bites of this snake in future, for, if it lives, it is going to hurt or bite many. It is no use to protect a life at the cost of many unguarded lives.

Religious people, one must know, abandon criminals. So, you must kill…” 

Arjunak was emphatic and persistent but Gautami refused to agree to what he said despite many provocative words. When released from the clutches, the snake slowly began to breathe, recouped energies while it had lost confidence, and then said, “Oh simple man, I am not guilty. I am under someone else, a slave. It is Death that encouraged me to bite the child, and not because I had desired or was angry. If I have committed a crime, I am not responsible. It is Death and Death only.”

“Oh Snake, if you have worked under the directions of somebody, even then you are the reason of this death. You are a criminal and so must be killed.”

The snake tried to argue, “Like a person who makes different utensils of mud with the help of a big stick and a rotating wheel, which are under his control and cannot be considered independent. Similarly, I function under the control of Death. Therefore, your allegation is incorrect.”

“Even if you are not the cause of crime or as you say, you are not a doer, even then I say you are a slayer. I, mean, you are a killer, a cruel fellow … you must be slaughtered and then why should you put forward so many excuses?” Arjunak was not convinced it was obvious.


It was not very simple to convince Arjunak. He wanted to kill the snake and this determination was clear to all. However, the snake still offered an argument, “Oh hunter, as a pundit in a yajna offers oblation and various gifts on behalf of the devotee host—yajman, amidst chanting of mantras and religious hymns, but expects no reward of the yajna, in the same way, I should not be penalized for the crime. It is Death that had murdered the child.”

When the snake was trying to offer different cogent explanations, precisely at that moment, Death appeared and said, “O Snake, it is Time, which provoked and incited me. Neither you nor I are the cause of the death of this child. As the strong wind scatters the clouds hither-thither, so I am also at the mercy of Time.” For a while, everyone was silent and was surprised at the abrupt emergence of Death, who also claimed that it was not responsible for the crime.

However, Death offered another reason, “There are three qualities — gunas, namely: sattvic, rajas and tamas, which function or operate within and without. All living beings work under the guidance and inspiration of Time. Everything on earth and heaven, whether stagnant or moving, is under the control of Time, I say. In fact, the whole world obeys and follows Time—a symbol of death, I can say, whatever the multi-cornered propensities of human beings may be, and whichever may be the dharma— religion or its fruit, governed by the dictates of Time. So, know the truth and do not blame. Even then, if you charge me, you are also not guiltless, I say.”

Those who have read the Gita will understand the three qualities — gunas, imbedded in each human being. In fact, these qualities sum up the total behaviour of man.

The snake quietly heard Death and then said, “O Death, I do not consider you guilty. I only say that you inspired me to bite the child. I do not know if Time is culpable or not. I am not to investigate and that I have no right to do so. Nonetheless, I just want to prove my innocence. I do not mean at all that instead of me, Death should be thought as a proved wrongdoer.”

The arguments and serious views offered made the situation complex. After sometime, the snake said, “O hunter, now that you have heard what Death said, you should free me from the hurting shackles. Please do not give me pain.”

Totally unconvinced and adamant, Arjunak told tersely, “O Snake, I have listened to you and Death but it does not prove your innocence. Both are guilty and I do not think anyone is blameless. It is reprehensible that the cruel and evil Death brings miseries to the good and innocent people.”

Unable to keep quiet for a long time, Death said again, “Arjunak, we are under the control of Time and are helpless, so we only obey. If you deliberate deeply and rationally, you will find we are not guilty. Time makes everything happen in this world whatever the reasons may be. All are inspired or rather motivated to do as per the desires of all powerful Time.” A continual conversation was going on for a long time and none was able to reach a conclusion. There was wisdom, there was challenge to it, and again, it was an attempt to reach a viable truth that satisfied all.


It was a game of recrimination in the method of ‘you did it’. At this time, Time arrived suddenly and said, “None is guilty. Not even me. We do not encourage or provoke anyone. In fact, if the child is dead, it is because of his karmas—deeds of the previous birth. A ceramic maker makes out of the lumps of mud pitchers, bowls, flat plates and other things as the horizontal revolving wheel moves on. It is his intention. Similarly, a man meets joys and sufferings in life according to the nature of his past deeds. There is an intimate relationship between the sun and the shade and so this bond is visible between the deed and the doer. Both are inseparable. Therefore, I would say nobody is responsible for the death of this child. All are innocent. Death has come to the child because of his misdeeds.”

After hearing these words from Time, Gautami was convinced that a man is rewarded according to good or bad karmas. She told Arjunak, “True”, while looking at them, and added, “Time, Snake and Death have nothing to do with the death of my child. He is dead because of his deeds. You release this snake and….” Observing Death and Time, she said, “You may also go.” Saying so, she was silent and experienced a unique peace within.

Everyone had gone.

As a wise woman, she knew there was no cause to curse anyone. When a man is reconciled within and leaves it to destiny, he gets inner harmony and peace. Ultimately, it is the invisible force behind the movement of the entire universe, which makes everything work and move according to a designed pattern. One can draw a simple inference from this tale. It is the consequence of the karmas, one confronts. Reward or punishments vary according to the depth and intensity of misdeeds or akarmas. However, then forgiveness is supreme, and if a man learns to forget and forgive, perhaps life on earth will be an experience unsurpassed. This is what a man needs in contemporary life. Alas, forgiveness is just preached, not practiced.

Image (c) Gettyimages.com


More by :  P C K Prem

Top | Hinduism

Views: 3324      Comments: 5

Comment 'Ultimately, it is the invisible force behind the movement of the entire universe, which makes everything work and move according to a designed pattern.'
When that is the ULTIMATE why keep discoursing on it? What purpose it serves?

'However, then forgiveness is supreme, and if a man learns to forget and forgive, perhaps life on earth will be an experience unsurpassed. This is what a man needs in contemporary life.'

Please don't worry. That is what is happening in INDIA now. In another few more years INDIA will enjoy the credit of earning the name of 'THE MOST CRIMINAL COUNTRY' by the entire world.

Let us keep discoursing........

09-Aug-2013 02:31 AM

Comment I thank you learned scholars for the good words.

Yes, it is good to go back. Certain
facts and truths continue to visit and revisit
a man and this is required, if nothing else.

Thanks again

p c katoch
05-Aug-2013 21:07 PM

Comment I remember to have read this from the Mahabharata so many decades back. Reading it again refreshed my thought process. Thank you Mr. Prem. "There is an intimate relationship between the sun and the shade" and "so is the bond between the deed and the doer". Ultimately it is our individual Karma which rewards or penalizes us. Sri Sivan SAR -- the younger brother of Sri Kanchi Mahaswamigal in his poorvashrama has said "whatever good or bad you may do in life, you are only doing it to yourself. It ultimately reaches you". When, where and how it does is divine secret, I believe.

Sri Aiyer Raju Sreenivasan
04-Aug-2013 22:55 PM

Comment this is a very good piece of advise
only man doesn't have time, energy or willingness to think and think without passion
there is so much to learn and unfortunately no time or will to be wise
good work
all the best, premji
go on writing to instill wisdom - if it can be done at all
our sages nd seers could not succeed but they never felt bad
destiny - destiny does all
rama rao

dr vvbramarao
04-Aug-2013 19:51 PM

Comment The doctrine of karma, described in the article as an 'invisible force', is for that reason conjectural, as would be the case for any 'invisible force' including God. While it might resolve dilemmas such as the cause of a boy's death by snake-bite, it remains not proved but plausible. It could be the boy's death is a good thing in itself, saving him from a life of sin that would imperil his soul that an ‘invisible power’ has graciously prevented, taking the boy to heaven, as many people would in similar cases of children’s deaths believe. The mother of the boy would equally forgive the murderer. Karma like any theory based on observation, is not, especially these days, to be endowed with objectivity, something science itself concedes of its own theories that can only be said to have the appearance of validity in being workable at that level of observation.

03-Aug-2013 21:50 PM

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