(examples from Sarala Mahabharata)
With language one does a thousand things. Including provoking one’s adversary so that under tension he (she / they) makes mistakes and suffers the consequences. With the adversary busy, one goes about doing things unhindered to attain one’s goal. Quite cynical, but that’s the way of the world. Generally speaking, for the purpose of provocation, language is much less risky and no less effective than physical action; for instance, one can provoke another by pushing him rudely or kicking him hard but giving him a tongue lashing would be no less effective. It has the added advantage of being socially more acceptable than physical lashing. As for tongue lashing, the lash of ridicule and mockery can be more hurtful than telling one’s victim in unambiguous language what one thinks of him.The more artistic it is, the more hurtful it is. But nothing like taunting. Now not all taunts are qualitatively the same: some benign, some mildly irritating, some malicious and most belonging to in-between categories.
My examples are from Sarala Mahabharata. It is always safer to give example of unflattering things from literature than from life.
Dussasana was trying to disrobe Draupadi but her clothes were unending. Exhausted and defeated, he gave up. It was then that Bhishma spoke to Duryodhana. “How many clothes do women in your palace wear?” he asked him, accusing him of failing to see the significance of what was happening. The tone was unmistakably taunting. But this rebuke was intended to make him see sense. This was the grandfather’s taunt for his erring grandchild. It was not intended to humiliate him in the court or lower his self-image or self-esteem
With Krishna it was different.
He had gone to King Duryodhana’s court (in Sarala Mahabharata, Duryodhana became the king of Hastinapura shortly after the wax palace fire in which the Pandavas and their mother Kunti were believed to have perished) as Yudhisthira’s emissary to negotiate the avoidance of war between the Kauravas and the Pandavas. When he arrived, the court was in session. There was king Duryodhana and there were his brothers, the incomparable Bhishma, the preceptor Drona, the Kuruelder Bhurishrava, sage Durvasa and sage Vyasa, among other venerable sages. Then there weresuch distinguished persons as Somadatta, Karna, Aswasthama, Vikarna, Sakuni, Vidura and Sanjaya.Sakuni told Duryodhana that Krishna must not be invited to the court because he was not worthy of it, because of his low upbringing and his sins committed during his childhood. Bhishma’s and Drona’s pleadings to invite Krishna had no effect on the King.
Thus Krishna was kept standing outside. Finally Vidurapersuaded Duryodhana to welcome him to his court and he agreed. But the king did not greet him; neither did he offer him a seat until Vidura intervened again and persuaded him to extend the courtesy normally extended to a guest. That apart, he was an emissary. The king then welcomed the Avatara most warmly. His words were prayerful and in those words, there was no Sakuni effect.
Krishna responded warmly but soon he changed his tone of speaking. He was there as Yudhisthira’s emissary only in appearance; he had his own agenda, which was the exact opposite of what Yudhisthira wanted and of which the eldest Pandava was totally unaware. He had gone there to ensure that war took place. He told Duryodhana that although his Pandava cousins had suffered a lot during their years in the forest, they did not want a fratricidal war. Besides, the Pandavas had done him many good turns in the past; so it was his duty to take care of them. Then quite unexpectedly, completely out of context, he told the king that his dispensation was like Babarapuri.
No one in the court had ever heard of this place. Bhishma requested him to tell them about it. Then Krishna told the story. In western Aryavarta, said Krishna, there was a prosperous kingdom called Kurala, in which there was the city of Babara. Bhandeswara (literally, “the king of cheats”) was the king there, who was a master cheat, as his name suggests, and Baibhanda (roughly, “crazy cheat”) was his minister. The presiding deity of the place was the naked Andia with unkempt hair. People studied texts on cheating. Cheats and liars were rewarded, and the honest people were eliminated. Men and women moved in the open naked in that city, and when they had something on their body, it was only on the head, and not on the waist. They observed no sexual norms, and indulged in sex whenever they liked and with whosoever they liked, unconcerned about whether they had blood or social relations with the object of their lust. They paid no taxes to the king and the subjects observed no distance between themselves and the king. The city was prosperous and had no enemy.
Then all of a sudden something sinister happened. People talked agitatedly about the arrival there of a creature they called kokua, and soon the kokua fear paralyzed the city. People preferred to stay indoor even during daytime, and went out only under some compulsion. Rumours about kokua floated all around; some said it had seven eyes, others said it had a huge body that touched the sky, etc. No one had really seen this creature. Each had created his own kokua. One day a fight broke out – no wonder, because the city was under the grip of tremendous tension and intense fear for days – and people started killing one another. Soon the city was reduced to piles of corpses.
“This is the story of Babarapuri”, Krishna told Bhishma. He said that Duryodhana’s kingdom was like Babarapuri, which did not perish because of any enemy from outside. The insinuation was clear: the powerful and prosperous kingdom of Hastinapurawould be destroyed the way Babarapuri was, Krishna’s taunt about Duryodhana’s dispensation had no constructive purpose. He wanted to humiliate him in his court. He wanted him to get provoked and say something that would effectively close the door to peace. If Duryodhana was strongly provoked, he did not show it, either in word or in deed. He didn’t say a word in response to Krishna’s ridicule. He simply asked him to tell the court why he had come.
Now, Krishna had exaggerated wildly in order to insult and provoke Duryodhana. The members of the Kaurava court were no debauches; the elders lived in accordance with the highest moral standards. In fact, not just them. Karna was virtuous. Despite their failings, Aswasthama or Duryodhana himself did not live sinful lives. Hastinapura was not a place where values were topsy-turvy. Krishna’s Babarapuri metaphor applied to the Kaurava kingdom only to the extent that although the Kauravas were under no threat from any external enemy, they would be destroyed because of their arrogance and refusal to be generous.
But taunting, as a linguistic weapon to provoke and destabilize the target, does not demand commitment of the tormentor to truthfulness or fairness. On the contrary, it thrives in half-truth, exaggeration, unfairness and irresponsible insinuation. Krishna had used it creatively.
A word for closure: there are descriptions of dystopia and apocalypses in our puranic literature but I don’t think any of these has been better contextualized than this one.
(The views expressed are the writer’s own)
Retd. Professor of Linguistics and English, IIT Kanpur
Email: [email protected]
(Images from the net)