There are few instances in the long history of India when the common people have risen up against a ruler and removed him from power. But so notorious was King Khaninetra and so despotic his rule that his subjects revolted against him and snatched away his crown from him. We do not know what happened to him – perhaps the pike, that horrible instrument of torture from ancient India that lead to an agonizing death prolonged over days awaited him or, maybe, his death was quick as was that of the more recent king from another land who was displaced by popular anger – Louis XVI of France who was guillotined in 1793 following the French revolution. In any case, disposing Khaninetra of, the common people installed his son Khaaninetra on the throne. Khaaninetra was good to a fault, one result of which was that enemy kings pounced on his kingdom from all around like hungry wolves, with eyes on his land. It is possible that his despotic father had antagonized all his neighbors. It is also possible that the evil man had emptied the kingdom’s coiffeurs too in his time. The Mahabharata tells us an amazing tale about Khaaninetra. Seeing that he could not wage wars without an army and wealth, seeing that enemies were closing in on him from all around, Khaaninetra joined his palms and blew it, as one blows a conch. And it is said that a mighty army miraculously appeared before him, vanquished all his enemies and saved the sovereignty of his kingdom.
Perhaps this beautiful story is once again speaking of the power of the people – the army that miraculously appeared as the king blew the conch of his palms is perhaps his subjects arising to stand with him against the enemies at his call. No enemy can defeat a land when its people stand united as one against the enemy, however strong he is, as history tells us repeatedly.
There are beautiful lessons for us in both these stories – in the common people revolting against a corrupt administration and replacing it as well as in their standing up united with a just ruler. Valuable as these lessons are, there is a still more valuable lesson that this noble ruler’s grandson teaches us: a lesson in character.
King Marutta was the grandson of this legendary Khaaninetra and son of the celebrated king Avikshit. If his father and grandfather were great, Marutta was greater still. Such was his glory that even Indra, that spiteful lord of the gods, became jealous of him. Indra had in those days made yet another victory over the Asuras and was at the peak of his power, but in spite of this his fame was not as great as that of Marutta. So he called Brihaspati, who was Marutta’s traditional guru and told him no more to conduct sacrifices for Marutta. Indra offered all kinds of temptations to Brihaspati, including an offer of the job of his chief priest, on condition that he would no more conduct sacrifices for Marutta. “How can you conduct a sacrifice for Marutta, a mere mortal, after conducting sacrifices for the immortal gods?” asked Indra, and Brihaspati, after considering his options, agreed to the condition. The scent of the pleasures of power had corrupted him instantly and he readily agreed. Which tells us how easily even those whom we consider great can be tempted by power and prestige, by wealth, and can be purchased by these. Things apparently were not very different in those ancient days from what we see around us every day in our corrupt times.
Well, Marutta was getting ready to conduct a sacrifice at this time and approached his guru Brihaspati and requested him to be the priest. Brihaspati refused and told him he would no more officiate as priest in a sacrifice conducted by a mortal. “I am now the priest of the gods and I cannot officiate for you any more,” is what he told Marutta. The king reminded him that he had gone to him earlier and taken his permission for this sacrifice and he had then promised to do it. In fact, he had made all arrangements as instructed by him and it is after that he had come. He also reminded Brihaspati that he was still officially his priest and kula-guru, he, Marutta, had always been devoted to him and so on and on. But Brihaspati stuck to his stand and said, “I won’t do your sacrifice. Go to whomever you like and make him your priest.” Brihaspati had sold himself to Indra and nothing would change him. Marutta returned, disappointment writ large on his face.
Marutta now wanted to end his life, so great was his disappointment at this rejection by his guru for the only reason, as far as he knew, that he was a mortal. The poor king of course did not know that behind it all this was Indra’s jealousy and intolerance. Such meanness in a god, in the lord of the gods, was perhaps beyond his imagination.
While he was returning home, he met Sage Narada on the way. When Narada enquired why he was so unhappy, the king told him his sad story. Narada asked him not to worry – there is another priest, he said, no less than Brihaspati in greatness, who would do his sacrifice for him. Brihaspati’s younger brother Samvarta.
There was no love lost between the two brothers, Narada told Marutta. Brihaspati has always been abusive of Samvarta, perhaps intolerant of his brightness, for whatever Samvarta attempted to do, Brihaspati always tried to throw obstacles in his path. Eventually, unable to endure it any more, Samvarta left home and became a wanderer. He wandered about, homeless, hiding himself from the world in the guise of a naked wanderer. “If Brihaspati does not want to be your priest, go to him and if he asks, tell him I told you about him,” said Narada, “and he would agree to be your priest”.
Narada asked Marutta to go to Varanasi and place a dead body at the city gate and wait there. When Marutta saw a naked ascetic who saw the dead body and hurried away, he should follow him. Marutta should not allow him to turn him away on any account and he would be successful.
And that is what Marutta did. Seeing the strange naked ascetic turning back and walking away from the dead body and the city, Marutta followed him, his palms joined in supplication. At first Samvarta tried his best to get rid of Marutta, abusing and insulting him. But when all that failed, he asked the king who he was, how he had recognized him and what he wanted. When he learned that Marutta wanted him to officiate at his sacrifice, Samvarta told him he should in that case approach his elder brother Brihaspati. True he was now without a home, without yajamanas, without even the house gods to whom he could offer worship, since his brother snatched everything away from him, but in spite of all that, Brihaspati was still his elder brother and without his permission he would not do the sacrifice.
Marutta explained to Samvarta about the new developments – about how Brihaspati would no more conduct sacrifices for mortals now that he was the priest of the immortal gods. He told how he had gone to Brihaspati first and how he had turned his request down on the specific instruction by Indra not to conduct sacrifices for him, Marutta. The king told him he would not go to Brihaspati again – it was for no fault of his that the priest had turned him down.
“In that case I am willing to do your sacrifice,” said Samvarta when he heard this. “But there is a problem. The moment Brihaspati and Indra come to know of the sacrifice, they are going to be furious. In their fury, they are going to unleash every terror known to them. Times are going to be difficult then. Will you stand by me in those times, or will you desert me, terrified?”
A sacrifice left unfinished would be a sacrilege.
Marutta had no hesitation in promising what Samvarta wanted. He had never been disloyal to anyone, nor had he ever abandoned anything out of fear or turned away from obstacles.
Samvarta wanted the king to take an oath to that effect. “May I be denied my future worlds for so long as the sun shines in the sky and the mountains stand still if I abandon you. May I be denied forever the pursuit of goodness and may I forever remain trapped in the meaningless pleasures of the flesh if I abandon you,” said Marutta, taking the oath. Pleased, Samvarta told the king that he was not interested in wealth or in having a line of yajamanas. “But I will do for you this sacrifice that Indra hates and Brihaspati refuses to do for you. I will tell you how you can get the immense wealth needed for the sacrifice so that will make you will surpass Indra and all the other gods. Let me promise you, you shall be no less than Indra himself once the performance of the sacrifice is over. Take it from me.”
Advised by Indra, Marutta went to the Himalayas and obtained immense wealth from there with the blessings of Shiva. The arrangements for the sacrifice began. Brihaspati heard the news and straight away went into depression. He had always hated his brother. And now, ever since he took over as the priest of Indra and the gods, he had been obsessed with his own importance. In his eyes he was the greatest of priests – and like all megalomaniacs, he was ever uncertain of his being the greatest and wouldn’t tolerate anyone or anything that even slightly challenged his presumed greatness. Suvarta had always been his rival in his eyes, and now he became his enemy – shatru is the word Brihaspati uses here for his brother, ‘me shatru’, meaning my enemy. And he would do everything that was in his power to stop him, to destroy him.
Brihaspati here is a superb example for a person who has been invested with undeserved honor. While the scriptures revere him as the guru of the gods, the tales they tell us about him are not always of his greatness. His wife Tara ran away with Soma, the moon-god and there was nothing he could except to go and repeatedly beg her to return, beg him to give her back. Tara did not respond and the moon god refused to oblige, telling him his wife had come on her own and would go back when she pleased. He reminded Brihaspati she came to him because he, Brihaspati, could not keep her happy. Definitely the tame Brihaspati who appears not only unprincipled in his compliance with Indra’s mean demands without protest but also spineless was no match for the fiery Tara.
The Matsya Purana too has a strange tale to tell us about Brihaspati. According to this story, Brihaspati once met his elder brother Ushija’s wife Mamata in solitude. Tempted by her beauty, Brihaspati sought sex with her. And when she refused, he took her by force, though she was pregnant at that time.
Well, as news of Marutta’s sacrifice reached Brihaspati, he went into depression and melancholy began to take its toll on him. The deva-guru grew emaciated and sickly and losing interest in everything, withdrew into himself. Indra asked him the reason for his agony and he told him he was tortured by the same feelings as would torture him, Indra, if the Asuras were to grow in prosperity and power. His enemy, Samvarta, was prospering and this he couldn’t tolerate. Brihaspati demanded of Indra that Marutta and Samvarta should be stopped and, if necessary, they should be thrown into prison.
Indra sent Agni, the god of fire, to Marutta and asked him not to go ahead with the sacrifice with Samvarta as his priest. Brihaspati would do the sacrifice for him, he assured Marutta. Of course, Marutta was made of very different mettle. Opportunism was not his way, his path was that of unwavering truth, fearless loyalty and total commitment to his words. Marutta received Agni and in great humility made ritual offerings to him as befitting the great guest he was. He told him how much he honored Agni, the other gods, and Indra himself, how much he valued their friendship and goodwill. But as for Indra’s offer, he refused it politely, joining his palms in supplication, telling Agni firmly that his sacrifice would be conducted by Samvarta and that he believed it was below the dignity of Brihaspati to conduct a sacrifice for a mere mortal since he was the priest of the gods. Agni tried to change Marutta, telling him listening to Indra would mean honor in all the three worlds. Marutta did not waver. Samvarta took over from Marutta now and told Agni never to come anywhere near Marutta again with that offer, or he would burn him down to ashes. Agni returned and reported to Indra that Marutta was unwilling to accept a compromise with Indra even for the sake of the three worlds – which news must have disturbed Indra deeply, for rulers like Indra prefer people who have no spines, no principles, people who would do anything to please those in power, for favors from them, people whose greatest virtue is that they are self-erasing before people in authority. People with integrity disturb the balance of the world of opportunism they have carefully built up around them. The Indra of the puranas and the epics is not the inspired, inspiring, awesome leader of his people who leads them to victory after victory that we expect him to be, but a man who survives in his position of power through betrayals, treachery, cunning, opportunism, perfidy and insidiousness. He is typical of those unscrupulous people who cling to power at all costs and would stop at nothing to retain their chair.
Among the offers Indra made that failed to tempt Marutta was a promise of immortality.
Indra asked Agni to go back to Marutta once again and request him to accept Brihaspati as his priest. This time there was an addition to the request – a threat. If Marutta did not comply this time too, he would be struck down by Indra’s thunderbolt.
Agni begged to be excused. He was terrified that Samvarta would burn him to ashes. Indra couldn’t believe what he heard – someone would burn Agni down to ashes? Agni who burnt down everything?! He laughed at Agni, ridiculing him, but such was Agni’s terror that he stuck to his refusal to go. Eventually Indra persuaded a gandharva called Dhritarashtra to go and give his message to Marutta.
Marutta was firm but polite, as always. He reminded Dhritarashtra, and through him Indra, that treachery to a friend was equal to the worst sin, brahmahatya, and there was no atonement for it. He repeated again: Let Brihaspati perform sacrifices for the gods, his own sacrifice would be performed by Samvarta.
Indra’s carrots had failed earlier, now his stick too had failed.
It is interesting that Marutta reminded Indra that treachery to a friend was equal to brahmahatya, the most abhorrent sin. For this is exactly what Indra had done with Vritra. Throughout ancient literature, we find Indra’s defeat of Vritra celebrated as his greatest victory. Yet this was victory achieved through shameless betrayal of trust – exactly the same trust Marutta was now talking about.
Vritra was specially created by his father Tvashta who wanted the murder of his innocent son Trishira Vishwaroopa avenged. Indra had killed him because though Trishira was a Brahmin as he was the son of Prajapati Tvashta, his mother was an asura woman and Trishira sympathized with the asuras. Furious at the killing, Tvashta began a powerful fire sacrifice using Atharva mantras. On the eighth day of the sacrifice, a lustrous male rose up from the fires in the sacrificial pit, filling the whole place with his brilliance. This magnificent being asked the prajapati what his name was and what he wanted him to do. Tvashta gave him the name Vritra and ordered him to kill Indra.
The Padma Purana tells us that fearing Vritra’s brilliance and might, Indra sought a pact of friendship with him through the Seven Sages. In return for his friendship, Indra offered Vritra ardha-simhasana, half his throne. While Vritra trusted Indra completely from then on, Indra kept looking for opportunities to kill Vritra. Eventually he got Rambha to give liquor to him and Vritra, who had in return for her love promised Rambha he would never say no to anything she asked for or did, drank the liquor so lovingly offered by her. While he was in an inebriated state, Indra killed him with his Vajra.
In any case, refusing to be threatened into submission by Indra, Marutta began his sacrifice under the priesthood of Samvarta. Indra attacked him with lightning and thunderbolt. The whole world shook before the fury of Indra in the form of whirlwinds and thunderstorms. The very directions quivered under for fear of Indra. As the people present in the sacrificial hall stood terror struck, Marutta informed Samvarta of his concerns. Assuring him not to fear, Samvarta, promised that using his spiritual power, through sthambhini vidya she would freeze Indra in the sky. He promised that the god of fire would protect Marutta and the sacrifice from all sides; instead of torrents of rain, Indra would soon be showering upon him all the blessings he desired; and the thunderbolt that Indra has lifted up to strike him with would remain frozen in his own hands. When Marutta was not reassured with this, Samvarta further promised him that becoming a stormy wind, he would himself scatter the lightning and thunderbolt. Asking him again not to worry about Indra’s fury, Samvarta then asked his yajamana what else he desired from Indra.
What Marutta wanted was that Indra should happily come to his sacrifice and receive his share of it, as happened in all sacrifices. He also wanted the other gods to come and occupy their respective places in the sacrifice and receive the soma drinks offered to them as part of the sacrifice.
Marutta did not want anything less than what normally happened in a sacrifice like this; he did not want anything more either – there would be no revenge against either Indra or Brihaspati. Just that the gods should come and attend his sacrifice, as they should have been doing if the controversy regarding Brihaspati had not risen at all.
As Samvarta invoked the gods using powerful mantras, Indra and the gods were forced to come down to the earth and join Samvarta’s sacrifice. As they came near, Marutta got up from his seat and, accompanied by his priest, warmly welcomed them formally, giving them appropriate ritual offerings. Addressing Indra, Samvarta said, “Puruhoota, welcome to the sacrifice. Wise and learned lord, slayer of Vritra and Bala, your presence here has multiplied the glory of this sacrifice manifold. Be kind enough to accept from me the soma juice that I have prepared as part of the ritual. Kindly drink it so that this sacrifice is blessed.”
And Marutta said, “Salutations to you, oh lord of the celestials! Please look upon me benignly. Your coming here has sanctified this sacrifice. Blessed is my life because you have honored me.” Then he introduced Samvarta as his priest and the younger brother of Brihaspati.
“I know this guru of yours,” said Indra. “This younger brother of Brihaspati is rich in spiritual powers. Unendurably bright is his lustre. It is drawn by it that I have come here, in spite of myself. I am pleased with you now and all my anger has disappeared.”
Marutta thanked Indra again and requested him to advise him in whatever needs to be done in the sacrifice. He also entreated him to request the other gods to receive their portions of the sacrifice. Pleased, Indra did more than that. He asked the gods to build rich halls and beautiful palaces in their thousands at the sacrificial site to celebrate the sacrifice. He asked them to make halls where the gandharvas and apsaras could perform. He said that the site of the sacrifice should be made as beautiful as heaven itself and every apsara of heaven should dance there. Indra himself ordered for the bulls to be sacrificed and to be given in charity to be brought, insisting that the bulls should be such that they are charged with vitality and sexual energy [chalat shishnam – with restive, tremulous penises]. The gods did not remain mere guests anymore, but became participants in the sacrifice; they even served the meals, rather than just sitting down to eat.
Eventually the splendorous sacrifice came to a glorious end and the gods returned to their world after showering blessings on King Marutta.
Marutta’s is a story of rare beauty. It is a story of rare beauty for several reasons. For one thing, it is a story in which a human being wages a battle of wills with the gods and wins. The Vedic gods of India, as they appear in the Puranas, were not very different from ancient Greek gods – they were willful, vengeful, and all too human. Filled with such emotions as anger, jealousy, greed, lechery, depravity, pride and egotism, they interfered in human affairs causing unspeakable suffering to helpless human beings. The Mahabharata tells us the story of the childless Bhangaswana who performed the agnishtut sacrifice for obtaining children. The nature of the sacrifice was such that Indra rarely allowed it to succeed and for this reason, Bhangaswana did not invite the lord of the gods for the sacrifice. In any case, since it was not a sacrifice offered to Indra, it was not necessary to invite him. A furious Indra turned Bhangaswana into a woman. Not content with it, he caused the death of all Bhangawana’s children, born to him as a man and later as a woman. Practically every other story in Greek mythology is one of the havoc wrecked on a hapless human being by the displeasure of a god or a goddess, quite frequently without any just reason.
Marutta’s is a story in which incorruptible character and indomitable human will triumph over what is beyond human control, the will of the gods in the language of the ancients. It is a tale of hope, of promise, a fragrant tale that comes like the shower of fresh rain at the end of a long summer.
What we find in Marutta’s story throughout is character. His integrity is unshakeable. His battle is forced upon him, is against the lord of the gods, but that does not daunt him. The lord of the gods, as most men of power in our times too, is corrupt and will stop at nothing to achieve his selfish ends. He seduces Brihaspati with an offer of power, position, privileges and corrupts him. Then he prevails upon him not to do Marutta’s sacrifice. In spite of that when Marutta succeeds in getting a priest to do his sacrifice, Indra changes his tactics and offers that Brihaspati would now do the sacrifice – we have no way of knowing if Brihaspati would really have done it or not if Marutta had accepted Indra’s offer. Without principles as Indra and Brihaspati are, it is possible that once they succeeded in alienating Marutta and Samvarta from each other, they would have backed out and gone back to their original position. Marutta does not give any chance to such maneuvers – once he has accepted Samvarta as the priest, he sticks with him. Indra now uses threats, which do not succeed. Eventually Indra attacks – and it is as much Samvarta’s character as his spiritual powers that renders Indra powerless. Eventually the mighty Indra is forced to his knees – by the only thing before which arrogant power bends its knees: incorruptible integrity, which is another name for character.
Interestingly, Marutta does not seek any revenge for all that Indra did against him when he has Indra in his power; he is contented with his original purpose – the successful completion of the sacrifice, which too speaks of his character. A man without character in his place would have taken advantage of his position and extracted the most he can from the humbled Indra. Instead, Marutta is faultless in paying full honors to Indra until the very last. Eventually an explosive situation which could have ended up in eternal enmity between the god and the mortal is solved amicably, the two becoming friends, Indra showering blessings on the king. Marutta’s story is as much a lesson in conflict management as it is in character.
In our days when our leaders believe in amending the constitution itself when it does not suit their selfish purposes, as we have been seeing time and again, and darkness seems to be fast swallowing truth, when treachery, betrayal, egotism, selfishness and other evils seem to be the rules of the day, when our nation’s motto satyameva jayate, the Upanishadic statement that truth alone triumphs, seems to be more a joke than reality, stories of rulers like Marutta brings us rays of hope from our distant past.
Also, if Marutta’s story is an inspiration to us, the story of his great grandfather should function as a warning to those who rule us – that they are there, in the words of Rousseau, by a social contract. They rule us because we have agreed to be ruled by them. If we can make them our rulers, we can also unmake them.
And the story of Marutta’s grandfather is a promise: if you stand by the people, the people will stand by you. Blow the conch of your hands, and you will see them rising up and an army will appear beside you miraculously, ready to march with you and wage your battles that are as much theirs as yours.
As a postscript, I wonder what happened to Brihaspati in the story. The Mahabharata that tells us the story of Marutta does not tell us anything about it. The epic completely ignores him in the later part of the story. Perhaps what it tells us through its silence is all we need to know. Shameless opportunists like Brihaspati who can sell their souls for a few gold coins do not count in the long run. Their stories do not merit telling.