Sep 29, 2023
Sep 29, 2023
This story takes place in Ayodhya. Not in the Ayodhya of today, though ï¿½not in the little town in modern India that has been holding a nation at ransom for decades now, but in an Ayodhya that was the glorious capital of a mighty empire. And not of the days of Rama or Dasharatha either, but at a time much before that. But it is a tale of the Ikshwakus all the same, into whose line Rama would be born later. When this story takes place, several of the Ikshwakus who would later be celebrated in our epics are yet to be born. But many legendary ones have already ruled the land and so have a few whose names the Ikshwakus would rather like to forget.
This is the tale of King Kalmashapada, whose real name was Mitrasaha Saudasa ï¿½ Saudasa because he was the son of Sudasa. But it is also the story of a woman ï¿½ a woman called Madayanti, who was Kalmashapadaï¿½s queen. This is the story of how and why she tore open her womb with a stone, though she still gave birth to Ashmaka, the next king of the Ikshwakus. This is also the story of how a king tried to atone for his sins by offering his queenï¿½s body to the man he had wronged. The Mahabharata tells us this story in detail, as do Valmikiï¿½s Ramayana and the puranas briefly, though the versions, as always, differ from each other in some respects and the passage of time ï¿½ several millennia ï¿½ has altered the story itself, as each narrator told it the way he felt it should be told.
Kalmashapada, the Mahabharata tells us, was a happy king and a glorious one. He had a prosperous kingdom, a beautiful wife whom he loved dearly and who loved him equally and he enjoyed the kingdom and the wife thoroughly. Then one day he met Shakti, son of the sage Vasishtha, on a mountain path.
Both a kingdom and a beautiful wife could be intoxicating. The old sages say youth, wealth, power and impetuousness, each of these could cause a disaster ï¿½ then what to speak of when all the four join together? Probably Kalmashapada had all four of them ï¿½ and that could truly be disastrous.
Kalmashapadaï¿½s encounter with Shakti was disastrous. Coming across the sageï¿½s young son on that narrow mountain path, the arrogant king asked Shakti to move out of his way. Shakti refused. He was the eldest son of Vasishtha, the greatest sage of the age. He was a brahmana. And perhaps in his mind he too was proud of his recent achievement ï¿½ he too had a young, pretty wife who was on the way to becoming a mother. Shakti pointed out that he was a brahmana and a brahmana always had the right of way before a king. He was nice to begin with ï¿½ though his tone was perhaps that of a brahmana educating an ignorant king.
Kalmashapada would have none of it, though. He was the master of the land and as such everyone within its boundaries was his subject, which included the brahmanas, sages, all. Perhaps he had in his mind that it was he who fed the brahmanas ï¿½ they lived on what the king gave them and what his subjects gave them.
Eventually the words became rough, the Mahabharata tells us, each shouting at the other ï¿½You get out my wayï¿½ and ï¿½You do thatï¿½. And then, in a moment of extreme rage and supreme arrogance, Kalmashapada lifted a whip and lashed the sageï¿½s young son with it. Again and again and again. Shakti, now wild with pain and anger, did what angry sages and brahmanas always did. He cursed Kalmashapada. ï¿½A brute you are, behaving like a rakshasa. And for this, I curse you. May you become a rakshasa.ï¿½
The curse turned Kalmashapada into a rakshasa ï¿½ a cannibal. ï¿½Now that you have cursed me and made me a cannibal, Iï¿½ll begin with you,ï¿½ said the king and with that he killed Shakti and ate him. From then on, his life is that of a cannibal.
The Mahabharata tells us of another power struggle going on at this time ï¿½ that between Vishwamitra, until recently a king, and Vasishtha, the sage. In their first encounter, Vishwamitraï¿½s royal power had been defeated by the sagely power of Vasishtha. Ever since Vishwamitra had been trying to break Vasishtha ï¿½ break his spiritual power by wrecking his life and forcing him to react violently. Vishwamitra reaches the spot where the altercation between Shakti and Kalmashapada was going on. He hears them fighting. And when he hears the curse, he senses his opportunity. He invokes the spirit of a rakshasa and asks him to enter the cursed king. His actions from then on are as much a result of the curse as because of the presence of the spirit of the rakshasa in him, who is guided by Vishwamitra and does all that could be done to reduce Vasishthaï¿½s power.
Soon after eating up Shakti, the Mahabharata tells us, Kalmashapada also ate up all his ninety-nine brothers. A story that suggests that the clash between Shakti and Kalmashapada perhaps has a past history. For, it is not likely that Kalmashapada eats up all the brothers of Shakti for a crime committed by Shakti. He canï¿½t hope to spite Shakti with that action since Shakti is already dead. But this becomes possible if his enmity was with the father ï¿½ with Vasishtha.
Perhaps Kalmashapadaï¿½s enmity was really with Vasishtha. The clash with Shakti perhaps was only an outcrop of that enmity. Perhaps it was because Shakti was the hated Vasishthaï¿½s son that Kalmashapada refused to give him way and later whipped him. He was perhaps taking out his anger with the father on the son. Otherwise in the days which we are discussing, it is unthinkable that a king would whip a brahmana, that too a sageï¿½s son.
The ancient texts also tell us that Vasishtha was Kalmashapadaï¿½s purohita, his priest and spiritual guide. And also that Vishwamitra had for some while been coveting that position. Perhaps the king and his purohita had parted ways in those days and Kalmashapada was furious with Vasishtha for some reason.
In fact, in one of the versions of the story, it is not Shakti who curses Kalmashapada and turns him into a rakshasa, but Vasishtha himself. Which should explain why Kalmashapada took his vengeance by eating up Shakti and all the other sons of Vasishtha.
According to this version, given in the Uttara Kanda of the Valmiki Ramayana, Kalmashapadaï¿½s name was Veerasaha Saudasa. Once, out hunting, he comes across two rakshasas in a forest. The rakshasas have eaten up all the animals of the forest, assuming the form of tigers. Saudasa kills one of the rakshasas and the other vows revenge.
Years later Saudasa becomes the king of Ayodhya and he, under the protection of Vasishtha, conducts an ashwamedha that lasts several years. On the last day of the sacrifice, the rakshasa finds his opportunity. He assumes the form of Vasishtha and coming to Saudasa tells him that since it is the concluding day of the sacrifice he would like meat to be served to him in his meal. The king instructs his cooks to cook meat, but they are confused. Meat for Vasishtha ï¿½ they are not able to understand that. The rakshasa takes advantage of the confusion of the cooks and entering the kitchen in the guise of one of them, prepares not just meat, but human flesh itself, and brings this along with the rest of the meal to the king. Saudasa with great devotion offers the meal to Vasishtha and the sage, recognising the flesh, curses the king and changes him into a rakshasa for the sin of offering him a meal fit only for rakshasas.
The king, in a fury at the injustice of it, also takes up water in his palm and empowering it with mantras, gets ready to curse Vasishtha too in turn. But queen Madayanti stops him from this sin, telling him that he shouldnï¿½t curse a brahmana. Since the empowered water cannot be wasted, she requests him to sprinkle it on his own feet. He does it ï¿½ and his feet turn spotted. It is then Saudasa gets the name Kalmashapada, says the Uttarakanda. Kalmashapada means spotted-feet.
Vasishtha does offer release to the king from the curse ï¿½ at the end of twelve years. But there is no reason why this should have satisfied him. For no fault of his a rash Vasishtha had taken away twelve years of his life and turned the mighty Ikshwaku into such a wretched creature. It is possible that as rakshasa nature took over, as he sank into spiritual darkness, he began seeking revenge and ate up all the sons of Vasishtha.
Vasishtha endures the pain of the death of all his sons ï¿½ the Mahabharata text tells us. But not for long. Soon he is so pained by it that he decides to commit suicide. His first attempt is to kill himself by throwing himself down from the top of Mount Sumeru. The rocks at the bottom turn soft like cotton, the text tells us, and receive him gently. Next he walks into a roaring fire, again the text tells us, and the fire turns cool and leaves him unscathed. These failures do not ignite the desire to live in the heart of the sage. He next throws himself into the violent sea, with a boulder tied to his neck. The waves pick him up and gently deposit him on the shore and retreat. Admitting his failure, he goes back to his ashram. Death has refused to oblige him.
The rainy season revives his agony again. And when he sees a swollen river in spate, cutting away its banks and carrying mighty trees down with it, the sage decides to make another attempt at suicide. And to make sure he dies, the sad old man ties up his limbs with ropes before he casts himself into the torrent. But once again he is defeated. The river breaks the ropes and frees him, and then carries him back to the shores. The river that did this will from then on be known as the one who freed the sage from his ropes ï¿½ Vipasha.
His torment does not allow the sage to stay in one place any more. He becomes a wanderer, spending his time in the wild, on the mountains and in the plains, on the banks of lakes and rivers, in jungles and other areas away from human habitation. Once again he sees a river that tempts him ï¿½ a mighty Himalayan torrent filled with monstrous crocodiles. The river refuses to accept the sin of killing the sage and instead, splits herself into a hundred streams ï¿½ and becomes the Shatadru. Shata, meaning hundred.
The sage now returns once again to his ashram. He has no desire to live, but he knows his attempts to kill himself are in vain.
On the way something beautiful happens. He meets Shaktiï¿½s widow Adrishyanti close to the ashram and learns from her that she is expecting a child ï¿½ his grandson, someone to continue the family line. But before he has time to relish the news fully, he sees Kalmashapada the rakshasa standing in front of him, with a staff raised in his hand. Adrishyanti screams seeing death before her, and seeks refuge behind a calm Vasishtha.
Vasishtha does not reduce Kalmashapada to ashes with a curse ï¿½ perhaps he feels this has all gone on far enough. He decides to release the king from his curse. And does so by sprinkling water empowered with mantras on him. Kalmashapada comes out of the curse.
This again suggests the possibility that it was he who had cursed Kalmashapada originally. Though a sage of the stature of Vasishtha can perhaps release a man from anotherï¿½s curse, it is usually only the one who gave the curse who has the power to withdraw it. Perhaps it was he who had cursed Kalmashapada initially, not Shakti. Perhaps it was him that Kalmashapada had slighted earlier, not Shakti. After all, Vasishtha was his guru, and a clash between an arrogant king and his kulaguru is not an impossibility, especially with someone like Vishwamitra very keen about it.
Kalmashapada too has had enough of all this. He has learnt his lesson. He makes the conciliatory gesture. He wants to atone. He tells the sage ï¿½ ï¿½I want the next man on the throne of Ayodhya to be born of you.ï¿½ This will be atonement both for his arrogance and for killing all the sageï¿½s sons. Atonement for his arrogance because there is nothing more humiliating for a man ï¿½ and much more so for a king ï¿½ than to have to offer his wifeï¿½s body to another man. Atonement for killing the sageï¿½s sons, for this is the greatest gift the king can make by way of amendment ï¿½ the sageï¿½s son shall inherit the throne of Ayodhya.
Incidentally, with this there will no more be any Ikshwaku blood in the Ikshwakus. The future Ikshwakus will be the descendants of this queen, whose relation with the Ikshwakus is not natal, but through marriage, and that of the sage, who is not an Ikshwaku. The future Ikshwakus will not be Ikshwakus really, just as in the Mahabharata neither of the parties fighting for the throne of the Bharatas will be a Bharata by blood, since neither Dhritarashtra nor Gandhari, nor Kunti nor the parents of the Pandava children, had any Bharata blood in them. Rama, known as the greatest of the Ikshwakus, will not be an Ikshwaku by blood descent, not by aurasa descent, as they used to say in those days, but only by what is known as kshetraja descent. He is linked to the Ikshwakus by the fact that he is a descendent of theirs through the child born in the kshetra, ï¿½fieldï¿½, of Kalmashapada, though not fathered by him. He will inherit his gene pool not from an Ikshwaku ï¿½ it will have to be traced back to Vasishtha across generations.
Kalmashapada requests Vasishtha to do niyoga in his queen and takes him with him to his palace. There he asks his wife Madayanti to receive the sage in her bed. This is how the next Ikshwaku is born.
More by : Satya Chaitanya