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The Sahadeva condition

On the matter of the responsibility of the intellectual in the society, Edward W. Said has famously said that he (she/they) must speak “truth to power”. Noam Chomsky thinks it is unnecessary because power already knows the truth. Therefore, he must speak “truth to people”. These observations constitute the context for this piece. Our story is about Sahadeva, more specifically on what we have called here the “Sahadeva condition”.

Sahadeva, the youngest Pandava, had a special gift from his father, god Ashwini Kumara: he would only have to look at his palms and the entire universe would be visible to him. Not merely that, he would be the knower of the past, the present and the future, which would make him the wisest advisor.

If anyone asked him, he would certainly tell him what would happen to him or what had happened to him, depending on whether the question was about the past or the future.  Says Sarala Das in his Mahabharata: je tote pachariba gata agata katha / abasya tu kahibu bhuta bhabishya barata (whoever would ask you about the past or the future / you would certainly tell him about the past and the future). 

The word “abasya” (must/certainly) suggests that once asked, he would be obliged to tell the truth but Ashwini Kumara said nothing about how it would affect him if he chose not to tell. There was no obligation on his part to the effectthat he had to tell what he knew in a direct and straightforward manner – without having recourse to ambiguity or metaphor or circumlocution, leaving it to the asker to apply his mind to get at the intended message. Sahadeva knew about his special powers; so did everyone in the world of Sarala Mahabharata.

When, in the “Mango of Truth” episode in Sarala’s version, Krishna asked the Pandavas and Draupadi to tell some truth about themselves, Sahadeva said that he knew the past, the present and the future but he would not tell anyone things on his own. He would tell only when asked and the asker then would never be in difficulty.

In Swargarohana Parva, when Sahadeva fell to his death on the icy and windy Himalayas, Yudhisthira told the anguished Bhima, who had drawn his attention to his fall, to abandon him. He was a sinner and grievous was his sin, he told him. His sin, said the son of Dharma, was that he knew the past, the present, and the future but would keep mum. Had he said what would happen, things would have been very different. Unlike in Vyasa Mahabharata where Sahadeva’s sin was his arrogance for his knowledge, here it was his inclination – for Yudhisthira, it was his conscious decision – not to share what he knew with the relevant others when doing so would have helped.

The Mahabharata world would not have suffered that terrible destruction of colossal proportions. The final verdict of Sarala Mahabharataon this matter is that knowledge must be shared and sharing is the responsibility of the one who has the knowledge.

But why didn’t Yudhisthira ask? He knew it very well that once asked, Sahadeva would say what he knew. Actually, he had asked him, as they were preparing for the war, in the presence of everyone including Lord Krishna. Sahadeva had told him that he knew what would happen but wouldn’t tell because he felt unsafe – he was afraid of bother Bhima.

During a war, one side never won every day; some days the enemy would win. Even Lord Rama did not win every day during his war with Ravana. The war between the Kauravas and the Pandavas would not be different in this respect. Sahadeva was afraid that if he said that on a certain day the Pandavas would lose, brother Bhima would bash him up badly. Truth must not be told to everyone; only those who had the composure to receive it, deserved to be told the truth.

But was Sahadeva’s fear about Bhima justified?It was, as the Belalsena episode shows. Soon after the war, with the dead and the dying bodies still on the Kurukshera battlefield, the Pandavas, Kunti, Draupadi and Subhadra started arguing about who must be given the credit for victory. Each of them claimed that the victory was solely due to him or her.

Soon the exchange degraded into an unpleasant faceoff. Krishna told them that if they wanted to know the truth, they should ask the severed head of Belasena who had seen the war from the beginning to the end. When they asked him, he said that he hadn’t seen anyone killing anyone else. All he had seen was a resplendent, dazzling chakra (discus), shining brighter than myriad suns, moving to and fro in the war fields, killing warriors on both sides. His father, Bhima, was so upset with his son’s not supporting him that he slapped the head hard.

It fell from the top of the post, from where he had witnessed the war and died. Truth did not protect him from violence. It was another matter that Krishna absorbed his essence and freed him from the cycle of karma. Clearly, Sahadeva’s apprehension about Bhima was not unfounded. Bhima wasn’t evolved enough spiritually to accept the truth.

But why didn’t Yudhisthira ask him about the result when he was going to play the second game of dice, which led to the exile of the Pandavas for long thirteen years, including the year when they had to spend incognito? It didn’t occur to him to ask.

He had been obsessed with defeat in the first game of dice and was desperate to play again and win. Winning the game of dice had become a fixation with him. So he went to Hastinapura with his brothers and Draupadi to play another game with Duryodhana, in effect, Sakuni. No one in Sarala Mahabharatahad asked him to return to Hastinapura toplay the game of dice again.

 But when the fateful time came, Yudhisthira condemned Sahadeva as a sinner for keeping knowledge to himself. He forgot the Bhima factor and also his not asking him about what would happen in the game of dice.

There is a Sahadeva in every intellectual. He has the knowledge but being unsure about his own protection, he would always be hesitant with regard to whether or not he would share it with any one, be it power or people. He also knows that he will be harshly judged, if out of concern for his safety, he had chosen not to share his knowledge. This is the “Sahadeva condition”. While defining the responsibility of the intellectual, neither Said nor Chomsky seems to have thought about the individual intellectual’s extremely unenviable situation. 

(The views expressed are the writer’s own)

Prof. B.N.Patnaik

Retd. Professor of Linguistics and English, IIT Kanpur

Email: [email protected]

(Images from the net)

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