4. Hearkening to Kuśa and Lava and to Nala: Poetic Monarchs on the Ideal of Dharma in the Hindu Epics

The Hindu epics differ further from their Homeric counterparts by featuring rulers who are not merely similar to poets, but actually are poets. Yet these figures are not the heroes of the Hindu epics, despite resembling these leading men in their displacement from their sovereignties. In fact, this resemblance between the royal poets and the epic heroes who hear them reflects the parallel approaches to dharma taken by the royal poems and the epics that embed these poems. More precisely, the hero of each epic attends to the performance of a ruler who—in his poetry, as well as in his very person—captures the experience that the hero will have as he strives to realize righteousness in his own realm.
I define dharma, both descriptively and prescriptively, as righteousness as it exists and will exist in the cosmos, and righteousness as it is maintained and should be maintained through practices associated with class (varṇa), stage of life (āśrama), gender, and society as a whole. As this definition indicates, I see dharma as an umbrella term, “a collective noun referring to the loose aggregation of all the particular dharmas.” [1] In order to overspread these various moral imperatives, my definition of dharma is broad by necessity. I blur distinctions among the duties subsumed by this rubric [2] in favor of focusing on the relationship of dharma as a whole to the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata and to the royal poems that these texts encapsulate.
These royal poems—in their correspondences to the contents of the epics containing them, contents comprising events likely to be well known to epic audiences even before they hear epic recitals conclude—are, like their Archaic Greek analogues, proleptic. Yet the Sanskrit poetic prolepses are explicit where the Greek ones are implicit, and vice versa. While Achilles’ rhapsodic performance merely hints at the ease with which he will achieve kléos in his conquest of Troy, Odysseus’ bardic compositions announce in their incorporated prophecies how hard won will be the kléos to accrue to him upon restoring Ithaca. But the exuberant rhapsody of Kuśa and Lava in the Rāmāyaṇa announces how Rāma will attain dharma triumphantly, whereas the tortured bardery of Nala in the Mahābhārata merely hints at how Yudhiṣṭhira will fulfill dharma with difficulty.
Before I explore the implications of these intercultural epic differences, let me compare the poetic Indian sovereigns who are nevertheless reminiscent of the eloquent kings of Phthia and Ithaca. [3]

Kuśa and Lava as a Rhapsode Away from Ayodhyā

When Kuśa and Lava tell Rāma a triumphal tale about his own life—a tale that takes up nearly the entire Rāmāyaṇa—the twin princes do so in their capacity as a kuśīlava, or roaming rhapsode (Rāmāyaṇa 1.5.1–7.100.25, 1.4.4, 7.85.14). Yet the Rāmāyaṇa’s identification of the kuśīlava with Rāma’s own sons is startling, given the way in which the approximately contemporaneous Arthaśāstra—a statecraft manual dating from the first or second century CE—depicts this poetic practitioner.
In the Arthaśāstra, “kuśīlava” is a classification that sometimes covers such other performers as singers and actors (Arthaśāstra [4] 1.2.13, 1.18.12, 1.21.16). But this treatise also specifies that kuśīlavas can be “itinerant mendicants and narrators” (cāraṇā bhikṣukāś ca vyākhyātāḥ) (Arthaśāstra 4.1.62). And, in other contexts, it suggests that kuśīlavas stray, rather than simply wander, for these roving rhapsodists somehow seem to set bad moral examples for their audiences. For instance, the injunction in Arthaśāstra 2.1.34 that actors, dancers, singers, musicians, jesters, and kuśīlavas should not interrupt other people’s work implies that these entertainers encourage shirking. In fact, according to the Śrīmūla, pandit T. Ganapati Sastri’s modern Sanskrit commentary on the Arthaśāstra, it requires kuśīlavas to remain in one place during the rainy season (Arthaśāstra 4.1.58), so that these rhapsodists do not disrupt the agricultural processes that have to happen then. [5] Therefore, an ideal kingdom would have neither outdoor nor indoor entertainment venues and would have nowhere in its villages to house kuśīlavas and other entertainers. Without their distractions, farmers would devote all their attention to their fields, and the kingdom’s wealth, manpower, goods, and foods would increase (Arthaśāstra 2.1.33, 35).
Apparently, kuśīlavas do not just constrain the produce of a country, but also exert a bad influence on its king. The Arthaśāstra—instead of conceding that diversion for the king has the positive effect of providing employment for kuśīlavas and such others as craftsmen, artists, jesters, and traders—argues that the king, after seeking such diversion, starts to crave other things. As a result, he harasses his subjects—both by seizing for himself what they produce and the commodities that they give as gifts, and by allowing his favorites, too, to take these things (Arthaśāstra 8.4.21–23).
Given that kuśīlavas, in preventing people from carrying out their occupational obligations (and thus from fulfilling dharma), can do no right in the Arthaśāstra, why does this kind of performer appear in the Rāmāyaṇa—as its hero’s heirs, no less? In my view, there are two reasons why the Rāmāyaṇa represents itself as being related by a kuśīlava.
First, this poetic performer’s moral dubiousness lends itself to the epic’s emphasis on Rāma’s righteousness. The Rāmāyaṇa’s assertion of its hero’s integrity is more difficult to dispute, if even the kuśīlava recounting Rāma’s story cannot help but be special. Indeed, this narrative is recited by Rāma’s own twin sons, who have been named—of course—Kuśa and Lava. As the Rāmāyaṇa divides the kuśīlava’s function between these characters, the epic creates the impression that these poetic performers are prototypical—that they are the ones for whom the kuśīlavas of ancient Indian society have been named, rather than the reverse. As a result, Kuśa and Lava’s story’s stock rises. The social status of the twins also indicates that they are no ordinary kuśīlava. Their position as kṣatriyas (reigning warriors), members of society’s second-highest class, is much higher than that which kuśīlavas customarily occupy—the station of śūdras, or servants belonging to the bottom class of society (Arthaśāstra 1.3.8).
A second reason why Rāma’s sons play the role of rhapsode is that the princes’ capacity as a kuśīlava conveniently keeps them waiting in the wings as their father stays on center stage. The benefits to a kingdom of limiting kuśīlava activity justify some remove between a king who rules as well as Rāma does and the reciters of his tale, who—in spite of their royal ancestry—have been reared apart from their father, in the forest.
But why is this poetic role reserved for princes of such promise? On the strength of their paternity alone, Kuśa and Lava would seem to be capable of doing more than what the Rāmāyaṇa assigns them—to wit, telling their father’s story and taking their respective seats on the thrones of Kosala and Uttarakosala (the southern and northern regions of Rāma’s ancestral land) at a time of Rāma’s choosing (Rāmāyaṇa 7.97.7, 17–19). Kuśa and Lava’s relative obscurity results from the Rāmāyaṇa’s double balancing act. In the first place, the epic strikes a balance between elevating the kuśīlava and keeping him at a safe distance from the kingdom’s administration. In the second place, the epic likens the princes to their father just enough to underscore his achievements without shifting focus to the twins’ own.
Caught in both of these balances, Kuśa and Lava cannot move enough to be memorable in their own right. But they are in the perfect position to foreground their father’s righteousness, on which these princes center their story. Kuśa and Lava relate that Rāma is relentlessly “righteous by nature” (dharmātmā) (Rāmāyaṇa 2.15.11, 2.18.25), as at least two of his acts exemplify. First, on the eve of his consecration as Ayodhyā’s prince regent, Rāma agrees to relinquish this title to Bharata and to be exiled to the forest for fourteen years (Rāmāyaṇa 2.16.28). Second, Rāma, after ascending Ayodhyā’s throne, banishes Sītā to Vālmīki’s sylvan hermitage. By this banishment, Rāma counters the criticism that he—in taking Sītā back after she has been kidnapped, and thus touched, by Rāvaṇa—has set a bad example for his subjects. Although Rāma may appear to overstep the bounds of acceptable behavior, he—by virtue of being a human manifestation of Viṣṇu, the deity deemed the “best among the groups of gods” (devagaṇaśreṣṭham) (Rāmāyaṇa 6.105.5)—is beyond reproach. And, as Pollock has shown, Rāma’s divinity is not simply tacked on to the text of the Rāmāyaṇa, but is interwoven throughout. [6]
Although Rāma’s acts overshadow their telling by Kuśa and Lava—an event depicted only toward the epic’s beginning and end (Rāmāyaṇa 1.4.27, 7.85.1)—the princes’ striking likeness to Rāma and the princes’ forest upbringing accentuate his righteousness. Kuśa and Lava, like their father, “know right from wrong” (dharmajñau) (Rāmāyaṇa 1.4.4, 2.18.19). This moral similarity is stressed by the identical twins’ physical resemblance to Rāma, of whom they are the image (Rāmāyaṇa 1.4.10, 7.85.7). In addition, the twins were born to and brought up by Sītā in the ashram of Vālmīki, who taught these youths how to recite the Rāmāyaṇa, which he had composed (Rāmāyaṇa 7.58.1; 1.4.6, 1; 7.85.19). Consequently, the princes’ very existence as forest-dwellers recalls Rāma’s own forest exile as well as his banishment of his sons’ mother, two events that evince his devotion to dharma above all else. Moreover, his morality—by motivating him to reject her and thus to displace their twins from Ayodhyā to Vālmīki’s abode—permits the princes’ performance of the Rāmāyaṇa for their father, for Kuśa and Lava probably would not have become the sage’s students had they resided in the king’s palace. Thus, dharma accomplishes its own articulation in epic.
Kuśa and Lava, then, reinforce Rāma’s righteousness in four ways. First, the duo, by highlighting his divinity while telling his story, renders irreproachable his refusal to make moral compromises. Second, the princes’ poem performance itself is predicated on their father’s unflinching integrity, which lets the twins learn the epic from its mythological author. Kuśa and Lava also maintain Rāma’s dharma by recounting the Rāmāyaṇa on a particular occasion, and by relating his future as well as his past.
Kuśa and Lava’s recital is occasioned by Rāma’s first horse sacrifice. By completing this rite known as “the king of sacrifices” (kraturāṭ) in verse 11.261 of the Mānavadharmaśāstra (a law book whose composition, roughly between 100 BCE and 100 CE, probably overlapped chronologically with those of the Sanskrit epics and the Arthaśāstra), Rāma ushers his realm into a prosperous period (Rāmāyaṇa 7.89.1–10). Kuśa and Lava, by performing the Rāmāyaṇa in this sacrifice’s interstices (Rāmāyaṇa 7.85.4–5), create a continuum between the righteous conduct that Rāma already has exhibited and the similarly moral activity in which he is in the process of engaging. The twins extend this continuum even further by foretelling the righteous acts of Rāma’s future. Given that these events begin right after the horse sacrifice ends (Rāmāyaṇa 7.App. I.13.36–51), the rhapsodists actually foresee their father’s success as a sovereign and a celestial guide. So, by the end of the epic, he has heard that he will be righteous in the future, as he has been in the past, and that he will reap the attendant rewards. Therefore his fulfillment of dharma is a foregone conclusion: even before his death, his story has entered the poetic tradition.
As recited by Kuśa and Lava, Vālmīki’s Rāmāyaṇa relates and anticipates Rāma’s sustained moral attainment. Yet the princes’ performance is not without precedent. In fact, the twins elaborate—in epic poetry—on the prophecy of which only their instructor, Vālmīki, was the initial human recipient. The mortal ascetic’s ability to make this divine announcement into an epic that, by virtue of being passed down by him to its protagonist’s progeny, already is certain to persist also foreruns and represents the enduring extent of Rāma’s dharma.

Kuśa and Lava’s Rhapsodic Recitation: A Prolepsis of Rāma’s Unhindered Dharma

In the first chapter of the Rāmāyaṇa, Nārada reveals to Vālmīki the events of the epic. Toward the end of this disclosure, the celestial ascetic lists Rāma’s present and future achievements as Ayodhyā’s king:
prahṛṣṭamudito lokas tuṣṭaḥ puṣṭaḥ sudhārmikaḥ |
nirāmayo arogaś ca durbhikṣabhayavarjitaḥ ||
na putramaraṇaṃ kecid drakṣyanti puruṣāḥ kvacit |
nāryaś cāvidhavā nityaṃ bhaviṣyanti pativratāḥ ||
na vātajaṃ bhayaṃ kiṃcin nāpsu mañjanti jantavaḥ |
na cāgnijaṃ bhayaṃ kiṃcid yathā kṛtayuge tathā ||
aśvamedhaśatair iṣṭvā tathā bahusuvarṇakaiḥ |
gavāṃ koṭyayutaṃ dattvā vidvadbhyo vidhipūrvakam ||
rājavaṃśāñ śataguṇān sthāpayiṣyati rāghavaḥ |
cāturvarṇyaṃ ca loke ’smin sve sve dharme niyokṣyati ||
daśavarṣasahasrāṇi daśavarṣaśatāni ca |
rāmo rājyam upāsitvā brahmalokaṃ gamiṣyati ||
His subjects are happy and delighted, satisfied, well nourished, and really righteous.
They have no diseases nor disabilities, and have no famine to fear.
Men never are faced with the deaths of their sons,
and women, who never are widowed, remain true to their husbands.
As in the Winning Age, neither wind nor fire poses any danger,
nor are drowned creatures found floating on floodwaters.
Once he also has sponsored hundreds of horse sacrifices at which gold keeps heaping up,
and has given crores upon crores of cows to the knowledgeable (as custom requires),
Raghu’s scion will start hundreds of royal lineages
and will turn each of the four classes toward its respective duties in this world.
After he has reigned for eleven thousand years, [7]
Rāma will go to Brahmā’s world.
Rāmāyaṇa 1.1.71–76
Rāma ascends his throne after he has defeated Rāvaṇa and has returned to Ayodhyā (Rāmāyaṇa 6.116.54–58). Rāma’s royal accomplishments are enumerated again—this time by Kuśa and Lava, at the end of the epic’s sixth part:
rājyaṃ daśa sahasrāṇi prāpya varṣāṇi rāghavaḥ |
śatāśvamedhān ājahre sadaśvān bhūridakṣiṇān ||
ājānulambibāhuś ca mahāskandhaḥ pratāpavān |
lakṣmaṇānucaro rāmaḥ pṛthivīm anvapālayat ||
na paryadevan vidhavā na ca vyālakṛtaṃ bhayam |
na vyādhijaṃ bhayaṃ vāpi rāme rājyaṃ praśāsati ||
nirdasyur abhaval loko nānarthaḥ kaṃcid aspṛśat |
na ca sma vṛddhā bālānāṃ pretakāryāṇi kurvate ||
sarvaṃ muditam evāsīt sarvo dharmaparo ’bhavat |
rāmam evānupaśyanto nābhyahiṃsan parasparam ||
āsan varṣasahasrāṇi tathā putrasahasriṇaḥ |
nirāmayā viśokāś ca rāme rājyaṃ praśāsati ||
nityapuṣpā nityaphalās taravaḥ skandhavistṛtāḥ |
kālavarṣī ca parjanyaḥ sukhasparśaś ca mārutaḥ ||
svakarmasu pravartante tuṣṭāḥ svair eva karmabhiḥ |
āsan prajā dharmaparā rāme śāsati nānṛtāḥ ||
sarve lakṣaṇasampannāḥ sarve dharmaparāyaṇāḥ |
daśa varṣasahasrāṇi rāmo rājyam akārayat ||
Over the ten thousand years of his reign, Raghu’s scion
sponsored hundreds of horse sacrifices featuring the best horses and abundances of gifts.
With the aid of [his half-brother] Lakṣmaṇa, powerful Rāma—whose arms extended all the way to his knees and whose shoulders were strong—
protected the earth.
No widows wailed, and neither predators
nor diseases posed a danger, while Rāma ruled his realm.
There were no robbers in the world, adversity did not impinge on anyone,
and old men never performed the funeral rites of youths.
There was all manner of happiness, and everyone was focused on doing right.
They, training their sights right on Rāma, did not hurt one another.
They each lived for a thousand years and had a thousand children,
but had neither diseases nor distress, while Rāma ruled his realm.
The trees always were flowering and fruitful as they extended their branches,
the rain god sent down showers at the right times, and the touch of the wind god was pleasant.
The people, who were satisfied with the very occupations in which they respectively engaged,
were focused on doing right and told the truth while Rāma ruled.
They all showed signs of success and were devoted to right-doing.
And, for ten thousand years, Rāma ruled.
Rāmāyaṇa 6.116.82–90
This passage, which is from Vālmīki’s version of the Rāmāyaṇa, seems to revise Nārada’s prophecy by suggesting that the period of Rāma’s reign does not equal, but actually excels, the kṛtayuga (the Winning Age). The fact that his subjects live to be a thousand years old suggests that these people fare better than people who are alive during the kṛtayuga, who live to the age of four hundred (Mānavadharmaśāstra 1.83).
Indeed, the Vālmīki epic that Kuśa and Lava recite emphasizes Rāma’s dharma further by specifying that the ten-millennium period of his reign that is associated with the acme of his people’s prosperity actually will begin after his uncompromisingly right action drives his wife to her death. Even after his request that she prove her fidelity to him pushes her, as a measure of her steadfastness, to enter—and thus to be interred by—the earth (Rāmāyaṇa 7.88), [8] Rāma’s land does not languish. Instead, his twin children sing that, on the heels of his initial aśvamedha, Rāma (rather than remarry) installs a golden Sītā to serve as his wife at all of his myriad succeeding sacrifices (Rāmāyaṇa 7.App. I.13.52–56; 7.89.1, 4–6); and the Ayodhyā of his highly ritualized reign’s decamillennial duration elicits from its poetic immortalizers this by-now familiar description:
kāle varṣati parjanyaḥ subhikṣaṃ vimalā diśaḥ |
hṛṣṭapuṣṭajanākīrṇaṃ puraṃ janapadas tathā ||
nākāle mriyate kaścin na vyādhiḥ prāṇināṃ tadā |
nādharmaś cābhavat kaścid rāme rājyaṃ praśāsati ||
The rain god sent down showers at the right times, food abounded, and there was purity all around.
Happy, well-nourished people crowded the city and the country.
No one died before his time, no being was diseased,
nor was there any unrighteousness, while Rāma ruled his realm.
Rāmāyaṇa 7.89.9–10
In fact, the dharma of his realm can be considered the fruit of Sītā’s earthing. In the Rāmāyaṇa, she is associated with Śrī, the divinity who personifies prosperity [9] —an association that aids in explaining the aforementioned persistence of Sītā’s iconic presence at Rāma’s munificent royal rituals. Given that the goddess Śrī is cast in the Mahābhārata (Mahābhārata 12.8.3–5, 12.94.12) as “a kind of consort of a good king,” [10] the Rāmāyaṇa sequence of Sītā’s Rāma-incited sepulture and Ayodhyā’s ensuing enrichment likely symbolizes the infusion of resources into a land that is ruled righteously. Moreover, Śrī favors Rāma even at the end of his reign, when she takes his side on his way to heaven.
In Kuśa and Lava’s telling, Rāma eventually garners an even greater reward for his subjects than prosperity, after his “rigid” [11] righteousness claims yet another casualty. This time, Time/Death itself assumes the form of an ascetic who requires Rāma to execute anyone who overhears their secret conversation (Rāmāyaṇa 7.93.1, 13). When circumstances force Lakṣmaṇa to listen to part of this exchange, Rāma relinquishes Lakṣmaṇa’s life (Rāmāyaṇa 7.95.9, 7.96.13). Rāma then acts on the recommendation that Time/Death has relayed to him from Brahmā, who has bidden Rāma to return to heaven and to rejoin him (Rāmāyaṇa 7.94.13). Rāma leads his people away from Ayodhyā into Sāntānikas, celestial spheres that resemble and adjoin Brahmā’s world, which is Rāma’s final destination (Rāmāyaṇa 7.100.14–17).
Kuśa and Lava, in developing Nārada’s theme of Rāma’s dharma, set forth in the Rāmāyaṇa an extended encomium that is a far cry from the anguished autobiographical accounts that Nala, as the sūta Bāhuka, articulates in the Mahābhārata after losing his throne. These elliptical utterances, in which Bāhuka blames himself for failing to do right by his wife and society, encapsulate the Mahābhārata’s qualms about actualizing dharma in an age of increasing immorality.

Nala as a Bard in Ayodhyā and Vidarbha

Bāhuka’s poetic performances are occasioned by Duryodhana’s overthrow of Yudhiṣṭhira through a crooked dice match (Mahābhārata 2.67.19–21). At an especially desperate moment during his ensuing forest exile, Yudhiṣṭhira asks the sage Bṛhadaśva whether he knows of any monarch more unfortunate than the one in front of him (Mahābhārata 3.49.34). In response, Bṛhadaśva tells Yudhiṣṭhira the story of Nala, another king who—when cosmic dharma declines—loses his land, by dicing. [12] In this account the demon Kali [13] possesses Nala, who consequently gambles away his kingdom, Niṣadha, to his younger brother Puṣkara (Mahābhārata 3.56.1–3, 9–10, 18; 3.58.1; 3.61.45–47; 3.49.39–41), and can regain it only with the aid of another supernatural being. As Nala roams through the forest, he saves the life of the snake king Karkoṭaka, who rewards him by biting him and thereby transforming him into a stunted figure by the name of Bāhuka (Mahābhārata 3.63.11–14). No longer afflicted by Kali, who has been quelled by Karkoṭaka’s venom, the now-disguised Nala can serve Ayodhyā’s king, Ṛtuparṇa, who teaches him how to dice well and thus how to win back Niṣadha (Mahābhārata 3.64, 69–70).
To access the Ayodhyan sovereign, Nala—at Karkoṭaka’s urging—works as Ṛtuparṇa’s sūta (Mahābhārata 3.63.19, 3.68.6). In this role, Nala acts as both charioteer and bard, and hence resembles the Mahābhārata’s most famous sūta, Saṃjaya, who narrates the epic’s battle books and drives Dhṛtarāṣṭra.
The double deftness of these sūtas seems to be an amalgam of two different textual traditions. In four late Vedic texts, the Taittirīya and Maitrāyaṇī Saṃhitās (which date roughly from 1000 to 800 BCE) and the Taittirīya and Śatapatha Brāhmaṇas (composed, respectively, during the ninth and eighth centuries BCE), the sūta is seen as a charioteer who is a part of his king’s inner circle (Taittirīya Saṃhitā–2; Maitrāyaṇī Saṃhitā 4.3.8; Taittirīya Brāhmaṇa–6; Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa–12). Like others in this select group (whose members are known as the ratnins [jewel-bearers]), the sūta hosts a component of the king’s rājasūya and accepts some of his sacrificial offerings. But, in the Arthaśāstra, the sūta serves as a bard instead of as a charioteer and is menial rather than ministerial. In the manual’s list of king’s servants salaried at 1,000 paṇas per year, [14] an enumeration that includes the king’s charioteer (sārathi) (Arthaśāstra 5.3.21), the sūta is grouped with the paurāṇika (legend reciter) and the māgadha (panegyrist). These three poetic practitioners preoccupied with the past are opposed to the kārtāntika (fortuneteller), naimittika (diviner), and mauhūrtika (astrologer)—three specialists who foretell the future (Arthaśāstra 5.3.13). Earning just 1,000 paṇas each year, the sūta is far poorer than a member of the ministers’ council (who makes 12,000 paṇas a year), let alone the king’s chief minister (whose annual salary is 48,000 paṇas) (Arthaśāstra 5.3.7, 3).
By further contrast, the bard—because of his lowly birth—is barred from the ruler’s war room. The sūta, as the son of a kṣatriya (a male member of the kingly class) and a brāhmaṇī (a female member of the priestly class), is the product of a pratiloma (against-the-grain) marriage resulting from his ruler’s inattentiveness to his own religious obligations (Arthaśāstra 3.7.28, 30). These obligations are specified primarily in chapters 7, 8, and 9 of the Mānavadharmaśāstra. [15] In addition to requirements of regality, the legal treatise spells out the social implications of the sūta’s humble origin. Because he is seen as one of society’s apasadas (outcasts), and is thus excluded from all four classes of ancient Indian society, he earns his keep by doing things that are despised by dvijas (the “twice-born” members of the top three classes) (Mānavadharmaśāstra 10.17, 46). According to Mānavadharmaśāstra 10.47, his occupation entails horse training and chariot driving. Although the law tome does not associate him explicitly with any poetic activity, I think that there are two reasons why poesy can be considered a part of his repertoire. First, he appears in the same four verses of the law book (Mānavadharmaśāstra 10.11, 17, 26, 47) as does the māgadha (another figure seen as a poet in the Arthaśāstra)—as though the Mānavadharmaśāstra pairs these practitioners by their poesy, in spite of overtly assigning the māgadha only trade (Mānavadharmaśāstra 10.47). Second, this legal text is roughly coeval with the Sanskrit epics, where sūta and māgadha alike are poets. [16]
As an outcast as well as an artist, the sūta cannot qualify for a minister’s post, of which a key criterion—as the Arthaśāstra indicates—is “noble birth” (abhijana) (Arthaśāstra 1.8.26, 1.9.3). Yet the statecraft manual does ascribe high status to one sort of sūta: “The sūta and the māgadha featured in legends, however, are something else, a special kind separate from priests and rulers” (paurāṇikas tv anyaḥ sūto māgadhaś ca, brahmakṣatrād viśeṣaḥ) (Arthaśāstra 3.7.29). Following two of the Arthaśāstra’s modern commentators, Sastri and Kangle, [17] I render paurāṇikas as “featured in legends” rather than as “versed in legends,” because the Arthaśāstra here is elevating a certain type of sūta and māgadha above all other sūtas and māgadhas. The basis for this elevation is not poetic ability, which the work regards all the outcast practitioners belonging to these two occupational groups as possessing, but their exemplary members’ appearances as characters in the kinds of narratives that sūtas and māgadhas normally only perform. But the Arthaśāstra’s text itself is problematic here, as Kangle comments in the note to his translation of it: “[T]he s. [i.e. the sūtra] is suspicious. viśeṣaḥ or viśeṣataḥ [the alternative preserved in the Bhāṣāvyākhyāna, an anonymous twelfth-century Malayalam commentary] cannot be properly construed in the sentence. The s. appears to be a late marginal comment that has got into the text.” [18] Even so, the sūtra invites inquiry into what warranted the sūtra’s composition. In my opinion, the Arthaśāstra here treats a specific sūta: Saṃjaya.
Although initially only the charioteer of King Dhṛtarāṣṭra of Hāstinapura, Saṃjaya becomes the Mahābhārata’s most prominent epic poet as well. Just as war is about to break out between the factions fighting for the Kuru family’s fatherland, Saṃjaya obtains omniscience through divine intervention. The immortal sage Vyāsa—who, later in the text, is identified with the deity Nārāyaṇa—offers to enable blind Dhṛtarāṣṭra to see the events of the war (Mahābhārata 13.18.31, 12.334.9, 6.2.6). But, after Dhṛtarāṣṭra decides that he would rather hear about than see the fighting, Vyāsa—the Mahābhārata’s mythological author—bestows his boon on Saṃjaya (Mahābhārata 6.2.7–8), telling Dhṛtarāṣṭra that “this man, Saṃjaya, … has been endowed with divine vision / [and] will narrate the war to [him] …” (cakṣuṣā saṃjayo … divyenaiṣa samanvitaḥ | kathayiṣyati te yuddhaṃ …) and that, by means of this vision, “Saṃjaya will know everything” (sarvaṃ vetsyati saṃjayaḥ) (Mahābhārata 6.2.10, 11d). As a result, both Vyāsa—who has the same “eye of knowledge” (jñānacakṣuṣā) that he has given to Saṃjaya—and this charioteer are characterized as “knowing what [was], what [i]s, and what w[i]l[l] be” (bhūtabhavyabhaviṣyavit) and as “seeing [things] as though they [a]re right in front of [them]” (pratyakṣadarśī) (Mahābhārata 12.327.23, 6.5.8, 6.2.2d, 6.14.1). With these capabilities, Saṃjaya can see and detail for Dhṛtarāṣṭra the fighting that already has occurred, [19] current geography and astronomy, and events to come during the Losing Age (Mahābhārata 6.14–9.33; 9.54–61, 63–64; 10.1–9; 6.5.3–6.10.74; 6.12–13; 6.11.7, 12–13).
Just as Saṃjaya is no mere bard but a poet par excellence, he reaches unprecedented heights in the sūta’s even older role as one of his king’s companions. Whereas the Arthaśāstra—by marginalizing almost every such bard—distances him from his ruler, the Mahābhārata potentially brings each sūta even closer to his king than were the late Vedic ratnins to theirs, by recommending that every king appoint as one of his ministers a sūta “versed in legends” (paurāṇikaṃ) (Mahābhārata 12.86.8). Acting in this capacity, Saṃjaya speaks to Dhṛtarāṣṭra incredibly freely, unstinting in criticism and comfort. Saṃjaya holds Dhṛtarāṣṭra responsible for the epic’s central internecine conflict and the ensuing carnage (Mahābhārata 2.72.5; 6.58.7; 6.72.1–2; 6.79.8; 7.90.1, 4; 7.110.24; 7.122.37, 86, 88; 7.127.26; 8.1.29; 8.4.57; 8.22.27; 9.15.37; 9.22.41), because the king turned a deaf ear to his advisors’ entreaties to stop Duryodhana from making war with the Pāṇḍavas, his cousins (Mahābhārata 6.61.21–22, 6.85.9–13, 6.99.45, 7.110.25, 8.1.30–31, 8.4.56, 8.22.26). Moreover, Dhṛtarāṣṭra seems to accept Saṃjaya’s critique, for the ruler assumes responsibility for his family’s destruction (Mahābhārata 7.10.47, 7.113.1). Yet Saṃjaya, despite his disappointment in Dhṛtarāṣṭra, offers solace to the king as he laments his soldiers’ slaughter. For example, Saṃjaya calms and comforts Dhṛtarāṣṭra as the monarch bemoans his slain sons, the sūta himself having wept when he saw how sad his employer was when he first learned that his sons were dead (Mahābhārata 11.11.20, 9.1.46).
When Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s line is cut off, Saṃjaya’s poetry becomes superfluous: as soon as the sovereign’s eldest and sole surviving son—Duryodhana—dies in battle, the sūta loses his divine vision (Mahābhārata 10.9.58), because his ability to see into the past, present, and future no longer is required now that the near extinction of his aging patron’s dynasty ensures an absence of demand for the poet’s epic accounts. The lines of epic transmission and dynastic descent that are parallel through most of the Mahābhārata stem from the same source: the epic’s mythological author, Vyāsa, who fathers the fathers of the Kauravas and the Pāṇḍavas and passes down the poem to his disciple Vaiśaṃpāyana, who—at Vyāsa’s request—tells the epic in its main frame story (Mahābhārata 1.100.13, 21; 1.54.21–24). Without the celestial sight conferred by this spry progenitor, Saṃjaya continues and ends his career as a charioteer. Ultimately leaving Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s vehicle to accompany him when—some sixteen years after the intrafamilial fighting has ceased and the fallen’s final rites have been completed—he retires from courtly life and goes into the forest for good, Saṃjaya there serves, on foot, as the king’s guide (Mahābhārata 14.3.9–12; 14.14.1–8; 14.71.1–7; 14.85.23; 15.1.4–7; 15.5.9–23; 15.8.9–18; 15.22.4; 15.45.10–11, 17).
Yet Dhṛtarāṣṭra precedes Saṃjaya in decease: when the king, Gāndhārī (his queen), and Kuntī (his sister-in-law) are trapped in a forest fire, he urges his charioteer to save himself (Mahābhārata 15.45.22–23). This sūta’s survival, which precludes the problem of an outcast being cremated with members of the warrior class, signifies the persistence of poetic memory long after heroes have died. Indeed, Saṃjaya does spend some time surrounded by a group of ascetics on a bank of the Ganges River, and thus prefigures the bard featured in the Mahābhārata’s outermost frame story, namely, Ugraśravas (who recites the epic to a group of ascetics in the Naimiṣa Forest, located on a bank of the Gomatī River, which runs east of and roughly parallel to the Ganges before becoming tributary to it) (Mahābhārata 15.45.32, 12.343.2).
Although Saṃjaya is not constrained by the social strictures binding sūtas in the śāstric texts, his seems to be an exceptional case in the epic. For the most part, the Mahābhārata reinforces its measured recapitulation of the śāstric restrictions by shunning the sūta in the manner of ancient Indian society. Certainly the epic resonates with its contemporaries as it ordains: “On a woman of the priestly class, a warrior fathers a sūta, an outcast by whom sacrifices must not be offered and whose occupation is the performance of praise poetry” (ayājyaṃ kṣatriyo vrātyaṃ sūtaṃ stomakriyāparam) (Mahābhārata 13.48.10ab).
Moreover, the Mahābhārata keeps the sūta on society’s fringes in three more specific ways. First, the text treats as an aberration any intellectual talent that the sūta has. For instance, the epic explains away the ability of the sūta Bandin to best brāhmaṇas in knowledge contests as the consequence of his being the son of the water god Varuṇa (Mahābhārata 3.134.24). Furthermore, once Bandin himself has been outwitted by the brāhmaṇa Aṣṭāvakra, the ocean drowning of the sūta’s earlier opponents—including Aṣṭāvakra’s father, Kahoḍa—is reversed. Just before these former competitors, who have witnessed a sacrifice for Varuṇa, return, Aṣṭāvakra orders Bandin to be drowned, and thus to be sent back to his divine father (Mahābhārata 3.134.23, 25, 30–32).
Second, the epic allows the apparent and actual sūtas who dare to assume power—i.e. Karṇa and Kīcaka—to be put in their place. Although Karṇa, a commander of the Kaurava army, actually is a kṣatriya and the Pāṇḍavas’ elder half-brother, they know him only as a sūta—until after his death at the hands of Arjuna (Mahābhārata 8.1.11; 11.27.6–13; 8.67.24, 31–32). Before then, the Pāṇḍavas call Karṇa a “son of a sūta” (sūtaputra). Because the Pāṇḍavas assume that Kaṛṇa shares the lowliness of his adoptive father, the sūta Adhiratha (Mahābhārata 1.104.14), their appellation becomes a slur, much like today’s “son of a bitch.” Yet the rubric sūtaputra—which, by far, is Karṇa’s most common qualifier in the Mahābhārata—also is a means by which the epic signals his kṣatriya status, for only by virtue of having been adopted by a sūta can Karṇa be claimed as such. Indeed, in the Karṇaparvan, the Mahābhārata book where Karṇa is most prominent, he is said to be a sūta only on those two occasions when he wrongs brāhmaṇas. To his arms instructor, Rāma Jāmadagnya, Karṇa himself admits that he is a sūta who has posed as a brāhmaṇa so as to obtain a divine weapon; and, in response, this aggrieved instructor identifies Karṇa as a sūta while angrily imprecating upon him the failure of his newly found familiarity with the celestial missile at the hour of his mortality (Mahābhārata 8.29.3–4, 5–7). Additionally, a brāhmaṇa calls Karṇa a sūta in the course of cursing him to suffer fearfully the intractable sinking of his chariot wheel in battle, because Karṇa accidentally has killed the calf of the brāhmaṇa’s ceremonial cow amid practicing at archery (Mahābhārata 8.373*; 8.29.33; 8.376*; 8.29.31, 37).
In both of these interactions with brāhmaṇas, the priests’ ire appears to be aggravated by their disgust at Karṇa’s ostensible social dissembling. He actually hazards such fateful encounters by choosing, out of love for his adoptive parents, to retain his sūta status while alive, and thereby to refuse the opportunity to assume his rightful station as a warrior (Mahābhārata 5.139.5–10). Because Karṇa appears to be an outcast, Yudhiṣṭhira’s brother Bhīma does not deign to become angry with him when he taunts Draupadī after she has been staked and lost at a dice game (Mahābhārata 2.63.1–5). Instead, Bhīma avows: “I am not getting mad at the son of a sūta, … for this really is the morality of slaves that has come into play” (nāhaṃ kupye sūtaputrasya … eṣa satyaṃ dāsadharmaḥ praviṣṭaḥ |) (Mahābhārata 2.63.7). Here, Bhīma implies that the elders presiding over the dicing have empty ethical stores, if a mere sūta can scorn a warrior’s wife. This behavior of Karṇa’s outrages Draupadī in particular, who—while venting her anger to Kṛṣṇa—attributes her resentment to her humiliation by one of the “lowly” (kṣudrair) members of her society (Mahābhārata 3.13.113).
Yet, once Karṇa’s kṣatriya status is revealed after his death, he is regarded very differently. For example, Yudhiṣṭhira, before knowing of Karṇa’s true birth, praises him in terms of only his military prowess (Mahābhārata 3.37.18, 8.46.25–26), which hampers the Pāṇḍavas’ ability to defeat their Kaurava cousins. But, after learning that Karṇa was a born warrior, Yudhiṣṭhira becomes more generous in his assessment of his elder half-brother, praising not only Karṇa’s fighting skills but also his intelligence, compassion, generosity, and observance of vows (Mahābhārata 12.1.19).
In addition to Karṇa, the Pāṇḍavas put down an actual sūta. The five brothers and their wife are required to go unrecognized for a year, in order to fulfill the terms of the dice game that Yudhiṣṭhira has lost to Duryodhana, and thus to return to Indraprastha. To this end, the Pāṇḍavas and Draupadī complete an incognito stay at the court of King Virāṭa of Matsya. While the Indraprasthan exiles are living at this court, the sūta Kīcaka (Virāṭa’s brother-in-law and army commander) propositions the disguised Draupadī, even though he knows that she is married (Mahābhārata 4.13.3–21, 4.15.1–6). When she tries to flee his second sexual advance, he chases her into Virāṭa’s assembly hall, grabs her by the hair, throws her on the floor, and kicks her (Mahābhārata 4.15.6–7). Kīcaka’s degradation of Draupadī evokes her humiliation at Karṇa’s hands. This time, Draupadī, in her outcry to Virāṭa, utters the angry refrain “Me, the highly esteemed wife of those men, a sūta’s son has struck with his foot!” (teṣāṃ māṃ māninīṃ bhāryāṃ sūtaputraḥ padāvadhīt ||) five times—once for each of her five husbands—so as to stress her ignominy at having to endure again such disrespect from someone of such low social status (Mahābhārata 4.15.15cd, 16cd, 17cd, 18cd, 19cd).
Karṇa’s and Kīcaka’s mistreatments of Draupadī represent the indifference of bards toward people who are no longer praiseworthy, including rulers who fall from power. By the time Karṇa vilifies Draupadī in Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s assembly hall, a dice throw has already demoted her from queen (devī) to slave (dāsī) (Mahābhārata 2.58.31, 2.60.37). Similarly, when she is subject to Kīcaka’s advances, she is merely a maidservant (sairandhrī) to another queen (Mahābhārata 4.13.13). However, despite Draupadī’s demotion, Kīcaka’s harassment of her is not condoned, as her subsequent complaints spur Bhīma to kill him (Mahābhārata 4.16.8–10, 4.17.1–4.19.28, 4.21.59–60). Nevertheless, Kīcaka has much in common with Karṇa. Like Karṇa, and in spite of being an accomplished fighter (as Karṇa is), Kīcaka dies at a Pāṇḍava’s hands. Like Karṇa, and in spite of being a sūta (as Karṇa appears to be), Kīcaka is prized for his fighting skills by a ruler (as Karṇa is, by Duryodhana) and therefore is named an army commander (Mahābhārata 4.24.2, 4.13.5, 1.126.12–14, 8.1.11). But—because military might can save neither soldier—the message that the Mahābhārata sends apropos of Kīcaka and Karṇa alike is that no sūta can succeed for long, since he is sure to be forced out of the spotlight that ill suits someone of his humble origins.
The epic itself obscures the sūta in a third way: by excluding him from contexts that could have called for his appearance. Although three characters, besides Saṃjaya and Nala, serve as charioteers and as storytellers—namely, King Śalya of Madra (who narrates to Yudhiṣṭhira before driving Karṇa), and the warriors Kṛṣṇa (who narrates to Arjuna while driving him) and Uttara (who narrates to his father, Virāṭa, after driving Arjuna) (Mahābhārata 5.8.29–5.18.24; 7.121.6, 16–29; 4.41.1; 4.64.19–29; 4.66.11–14)—none of these three is termed a sūta. Rather, the generic word sārathi (a “charioteer,” or—more literally—a “man having to do with a man with a chariot”)—which, unlike sūta, does not denote an outcast position—is applied to Śalya, Kṛṣṇa, and Uttara, as well as to Mātali, Indra’s immortal charioteer (Mahābhārata 5.8.29, 7.121.6, 4.41.1, 3.164.36). There are two reasons why the three men are not transformed into sūtas. First, none of these kṣatriyas experiences a reversal of fortune that would necessitate his degradation. Simply in the course of fulfilling their military obligations do these soldiers tell stories and drive chariots. Second, all three of these characters are related—at least by marriage—to Yudhiṣṭhira, the epic’s hero: Śalya is the maternal uncle of Yudhiṣṭhira’s half-brothers Nakula and Sahadeva (who too were reared by Kuntī); Kṛṣṇa is Yudhiṣṭhira’s first cousin; and Uttara is the brother of the soon-to-be daughter-in-law of Yudhiṣṭhira’s brother Arjuna.
Even Nala, whose fortune has fallen and who is unrelated to Yudhiṣṭhira, spends only a short time as a stunted sūta—certainly no more than about three years, the duration of Nala’s separation from his wife, Damayantī, if he was transformed soon after abandoning her (Mahābhārata 3.59.24–25; 3.63.1–12; 3.75.11–12, 25). Moreover, Nala’s metamorphosis, from its onset, is marked as reversible. Karkoṭaka—the snake king by whose bite Nala has become Bāhuka—tells him immediately afterward how to regain his kingdom and normal form. According to Karkoṭaka, Nala will not be affected by the snake venom, which will disable and torture Kali (the demon dwelling in Nala’s body), Nala will be able to reclaim Niṣadha by serving as sūta to Ṛtuparṇa (who will teach him how to win at dice), and Nala will return to normal when he wears the celestial set of clothes that the snake gives him (Mahābhārata 3.63.18, 16, 14–15, 19–23).
In the Mahābhārata, then, a sūta’s lot is a mixed bag, a combination both of proximity to royal power and of distance from social superiors. The complexity of the sūta’s social situation, as well as the reversibility of Nala’s transformation into such a charioteer-bard, raises the question of why the epic takes the trouble to double Nala’s role in this regard. In response, I offer three reasons why he must change into a sūta.
The first is that, by serving as a sūta, Nala is able to obtain the information that he needs to retake his throne. Nala learns from Ṛtuparṇa how to excel at dicing, because the Ayodhyan ruler has the ability to count instantaneously what he sees, and knows how to apply this talent to dicing (Mahābhārata 3.70.7–10, 23). Ṛtuparṇa agrees to share his knowledge with Nala, but only if Nala shows him how to handle horses so well—a skill that he knows Nala has, because Nala has driven him at the speed of flight (Mahābhārata 3.70.26, 3.69.21–22, 3.70.1). Thus, as Ṛtuparṇa’s sūta (and sārathi [Mahābhārata 3.72.9]), Nala is close enough to the king to barter for what only this ruler can provide. And—as Ṛtuparṇa’s confidant—Nala is privy not simply to the secret of the dice, but also to the fact that the Ayodhyan is on his way to the kingdom of Vidarbha so that he can woo Nala’s wife, Damayantī, at the sham ceremony that she has set up supposedly to select another husband for herself (Mahābhārata 3.69.1–2).
While Nala is disguised as Bāhuka, he seems to become the sūta to his own successor. Ṛtuparṇa does not actually usurp his servant’s former kingdom, but figuratively replaces Nala as Niṣadha’s king. Shortly before the displaced Nala—as Bāhuka—approaches Ṛtuparṇa for employment, the Ayodhyan hires Nala’s former sūta (and sārathi), Vārṣṇeya (Mahābhārata 3.57.9, 19, 23). By giving Vārṣṇeya cause to reside in Ayodhyā instead of Niṣadha, Ṛtuparṇa symbolically supersedes this sūta’s erstwhile employer, who—rather than being the ruler of Niṣadha—now is only an outcast in the Ayodhyan monarch’s employ. This symbolic supersession accounts for the king’s having both charioteer-bards at his beck and call. Furthermore, Ṛtuparṇa—the only, and hence most eligible, invited king present at Damayantī’s second svayaṃvara (bridegroom-choice ceremony)—plays the front-runner role assigned first to Nala when Damayantī decided to choose him as her husband before even seeing any of the other kings who wanted to marry her (Mahābhārata 3.71.22, 3.53.11). Even though Bāhuka accompanies Ṛtuparṇa to Vidarbha for the repeat svayaṃvara, Nala—in the physical form familiar to his wife—is nowhere in sight.
Moreover, even as Bāhuka, Nala chooses not to stay too close to Ṛtuparṇa in Vidarbha, but to lie low enough there to test Damayantī in the ways that Doniger has discussed. [20] Thus, Bāhuka finds useful his temporary identity as an outcast, for he is subordinate to Ṛtuparṇa’s other servants as well as to the ruler himself. After Ṛtuparṇa arrives in Vidarbha, he and his retinue—including Vārṣṇeya—are accommodated in the royal guest house (Mahābhārata 3.71.27), a place that positions them to interact readily with their hosts. But Bāhuka, though seated—in Ṛtuparṇa’s place—in the pit of Ṛtuparṇa’s chariot, stays in the stable (Mahābhārata 3.71.29, 19, 28). Because Bāhuka has been hired by Ṛtuparṇa as his “horse supervisor” (aśvādhyakṣo) and has been charged with tasks including the chariot driving that the Mānavadharmaśāstra specifies for sūtas, Bāhuka is to earn for his work “one hundred hundreds” (śataṃ śatāḥ)—100 śatamānas (32,000 rattis), which is the weight of 1000 paṇas, the annual salary stipulated for aśvādhyakṣa and sūta alike in the Arthaśāstra, which contains an entire chapter about the aśvādhyakṣa’s duties (Mahābhārata 3.64.6; Arthaśāstra 5.3.13, 2.30). While the Arthaśāstra does not include chariot driving among these duties, the Mahābhārata—in Bāhuka’s case—blurs the boundary between sūta and aśvādhyakṣa, so that Bāhuka can be a charioteer-bard, yet also serve a somewhat different function from that of his fellow sūta, Vārṣṇeya. Even though Ṛtuparṇa decrees that Vārṣṇeya will assist Bāhuka, the Mahābhārata takes pains to stress that Bāhuka somehow is socially inferior to Vārṣṇeya—who rides on Ṛtuparṇa’s chariot driven by Bāhuka (Mahābhārata 3.64.7; 3.69.18, 20) and who resides with Ṛtuparṇa, apart from Bāhuka, in the Vidarbha guest house—because the Niṣadhan king and the Niṣadhan sūta’s temporary inversion evinces the effectiveness of Nala’s exilic disguise. [21]
In this disguise, Nala can remain remote from Vidarbha’s royal-family members, who—in order to reach him—either have to send servants to speak with him where he is, or have to summon him to the palace (Mahābhārata 3.71.34, 3.74.6). At this distance from his wife and in-laws, a divide that symbolizes the social breach between the subservient sūta and his royal superiors, Nala is at less risk of being recognized before he wants to be. Indeed, he maintains his masquerade until he is convinced of Damayantī’s fidelity. At this point, Nala doffs his disguise by donning the heavenly garments supplied by the snake king (Mahābhārata 3.75.16–17).
Nala’s lowly sūta status, despite helping the Niṣadhan to return to his queen and kingdom, does not stem solely from strategic advantage. Nala also needs this disguise, precisely because it contrasts with his peerless prowess as a ruler (Mahābhārata 3.50.2), yet symbolizes the types of kingly instruction that have enabled him to make the most of his personal talents in such areas as horse managing and chariot driving. When Nala is masked as Bāhuka, someone who lacks stature and power but who is seeking a king’s knowledge, Nala evokes his own childhood experience of learning how to rule.
The Arthaśāstra elucidates such a boy’s royal education: “During the earlier part of the day, [the prince] should be trained in the arts of riding elephants and horses, driving chariots, and wielding weapons. During the later part of the day, he should be instructed in itihāsas [22] ” (purvam aharbhāgaṃ hastyaśvarathapraharaṇavidyāsu vinayaṃ gacchet | paścimam itihāsaśravaṇe |) (Arthaśāstra 1.5.12–13). Accordingly, every prince learned from two kinds of teachers. His military trainers were other kṣatriyas. But the instructors who introduced him to heroic accounts were brāhmaṇas. Even though the Mahābhārata portrays the sūtas Saṃjaya and Ugraśravas as epic authors (Mahābhārata 6.2.10, 1.2.29), and even though sūtas may have had a hand in the Mahābhārata’s making, the epic’s main authors were brāhmaṇas, [23] who—by virtue of their familiarity with Vedic and non-Vedic texts and ability to convey their lessons—had become fixtures at the courts of kṣatriyas. Thus, every king-in-the-making was steeped in the traditions of both the bookish, stereotypically effete brāhmaṇa and the aggressive, stereotypically virile kṣatriya. Who better, then, than a sūta—son of a brāhmaṇī and a kṣatriya—to symbolize this dual educational heritage?
This twofold royal training not only is represented by Bāhuka’s sūta identity, but also accounts for Nala’s knowledge of his horse lore before he becomes Bāhuka. Such equine expertise would have helped an ancient Indian ruler—whether he had been on tour or the warpath. Indeed, such a king was already connected so closely to his horse and his chariot, both of which enabled him physically to protect his domain, that he swore by these vehicles—as well as by his weapons—whenever he made an oath (Mānavadharmaśāstra 8.113). So, Nala, at the beginning of his story, is said to be “skilled with horses” (aśvakovidaḥ), and the telltale sound that his chariot makes while he drives nearly gives him away a couple of times during his concealment (Mahābhārata 3.50.1, 3.69.23–32, 3.71.4–8). Yet he still has a lot to learn, and his physical transformation allows him to progress to the point where he can rule his own realm successfully again. When Nala (as Bāhuka) acquires Ṛtuparṇa’s dicing expertise, Kali is cast out of Nala’s disguised body; and, later (after resuming his normal form), the Niṣadhan can win back his kingdom from Puṣkara (Mahābhārata 3.70.27, 3.77.18–19). Then King Nala, Queen Damayantī, and their twins, Princess Indrasenā and Prince Indrasena, live happily ever after (Mahābhārata 3.57.20, 21; 3.78.3).
However, in order to arrive at this deceptively happy literary resolution—the third motivation behind Nala’s transformation into a sūta—Nala himself has to behave like a bard. Disguised as the dwarf Bāhuka, Nala voices in curtailed verse his dislocation and isolation on three occasions, in response to the inquiries of other people. His first story unfolds in Ayodhyā as he mourns Damayantī’s absence:
sa tatra nivasan rājā vaidarbhīm anucintayan |
sāyaṃ sāyaṃ sadā cemaṃ ślokam ekaṃ jagāda ha ||
kva nu sā kṣutpipāsārtā śrāntā śete tapasvinī |
smarantī tasya mandasya kaṃ vā sādyopatiṣṭhati ||
evaṃ bruvantaṃ rājānaṃ niśāyāṃ jīvalo ’bravīt |
kām enāṃ śocase nityaṃ śrotum icchāmi bāhuka ||
tam uvāca nalo rājā mandaprajñasya kasyacit |
āsīd bahumatā nārī tasyā dṛḍhataraṃ ca saḥ ||
sa vai kenacid arthena tayā mando vyayujyata |
viprayuktaś ca mandātmā bhramaty asukhapīḍitaḥ ||
dahyamānaḥ sa śokena divārātram atandritaḥ |
niśākāle smaraṃs tasyāḥ ślokam ekaṃ sma gāyati ||
sa vai bhraman mahīṃ sarvāṃ kvacid āsādya kiṃcana |
vasaty anarhas tadduḥkhaṃ bhūya evānusaṃsmaran ||
sā tu taṃ puruṣaṃ nārī kṛcchre ’py anugatā vane |
tyaktā tenālpapuṇyena duṣkaraṃ yadi jīvati ||
ekā bālānabhijñā ca mārgāṇām atathocitā |
kṣutpipāsāparītā ca duṣkaraṃ yadi jīvati ||
śvāpadācarite nityaṃ vane mahati dāruṇe |
tyaktā tenālpapuṇyena mandaprajñena māriṣa ||
ity evaṃ naiṣadho rājā damayantīm anusmaran |
ajñātavāsam avasad rājñas tasya niveśane ||
While the [Niṣadhan] king was living there, his thoughts kept returning to the lady from Vidarbha;
and, every evening, he always recited this one verse:
“Where, in the world, is that wretched, weary woman going to bed, hungry and thirsty,
with that dolt on her mind? And whom is she serving now?”
One night, as the king was saying this, Jīvala [Bāhuka’s other assistant] said:
“Who is that woman whom you always are lamenting? I want to hear about her, Bāhuka.”
King Nala replied: “Some half-wit
had a woman of whom he thought highly, and she had an even higher opinion of him.
Something separated that dunce from her,
and, in his deprivation, that dullard is wandering around, gripped by grief,
being burned by sorrow day and night, without respite.
At night, he remembers her and sings his single verse.
That man wandered the world over, found something somewhere,
and is living there unworthily, remembering his anguish over her more and more.
That woman went after that man—even into the frightful forest—
but, having been abandoned by that man of little merit, she hardly can be alive.
Alone, young, not knowing her way around, unaccustomed to and undeserving of all of this,
and seized by hunger and thirst—she hardly can be alive.
That man of little merit, that half-wit, abandoned her
in the huge, horrid forest, where predators always are on the prowl, my friend.”
This is how the king of Niṣadha remembered Damayantī
as he hid in that [other] king’s home.
Mahābhārata 3.64.9–19
There are two ways in which to interpret this tale that Nala tells while he is in Ayodhyā. This city is the central site of the power struggle portrayed in the Rāmāyaṇa, and the story of its hero, Rāma, is retold in a shorter form in the Mahābhārata, when Yudhiṣṭhira asks whether any man has been more unfortunate than he (Mahābhārata 3.258–275, 3.257.10). This eliciting question echoes the one that Yudhiṣṭhira has used to induce the narration of Nala’s story, but allows for the sharing of a tale of even greater pathos—for Yudhiṣṭhira here asks to hear not of any king in straits direr than his own, but of any man so afflicted. This very man, Rāma, suffers two great losses. First, although he is older than his three half-brothers, and thus is his father’s heir, Rāma is displaced from Ayodhyā’s throne before he has even a chance to ascend it, because his stepmother Kaikeyī schemes successfully to have her son, Bharata, supersede him (Mahābhārata 3.261.24–27). She has Rāma exiled to the forest, where he sustains his second loss, when Rāvaṇa kidnaps Sītā (Mahābhārata 3.262.40).
Like Rāma, Nala has lost both his kingdom (to his younger brother) and his wife (as the result of a demon’s act). These broad thematic correspondences suggest that the Rāmāyaṇa’s authors and the authors of Nala’s story (the Nalopākhyāna) were aware of one another’s works, a possibility also evidenced when Sanskritist V. S. Sukthankar evinced syntactic connections between these texts. [24] Although the Rāmāyaṇa’s Rāvaṇa is a rākṣasa rather than an asura (such as the Nalopākhyāna’s Kali), and thus belongs to a baser class of demons (namely, shape-shifters most famous for being monstrous man-eaters), this rākṣasa king, by force of his own austerities, becomes for a time the most powerful being in the universe and is dreaded by gods as well as humans. [25]
Nala, for his own part, is possessed by the asura Kali. As a result, the Niṣadhan is driven both to gamble away his throne to Puṣkara and to discard Damayantī (Mahābhārata 3.59.24–25), who has followed her husband to the forest. But, once Nala is bitten by Karkoṭaka and becomes Bāhuka, Kali can no longer delude him. Consequently, Nala can tell his story, with a clear head, if not conscience. This tale is twofold: in addition to bemoaning his wife, he bewails his kingdom. Although he is a bard as he relates the narrative, while doing so, he is called a “king” (rājan) four times (Mahābhārata 3.64.9a, 11a, 12a, 19a). When thus recast in his earlier role, his very person underscores the supplementary significance of his story of lament. He takes himself to task explicitly for failing his wife and implicitly for failing his people, narratively comparing his kingdom to his wife, because he is supposed to be the foremost protector of both. But he has been deprived of both, by the intervening Kali, who engineered the dicing downfall that left the king realmless, and condemned him to the forest exile during which he forsook his queen (Mahābhārata 3.55.12–13). Under Kali’s influence, Nala failed to fulfill his dual royal obligations. He left his faultless queen, Damayantī, to fend for herself in a disorienting, predator-ridden forest (Mahābhārata 3.60.5, 12–14, 18, 17; 3.64.12, 16, 17, 18). When forsaken similarly, yet even earlier, by her righteous prime provider, Nala’s kingdom, Niṣadha, herself seems to experience hunger and thirst—as represented tropaically by the only half-grown grain on the desiccated land about to be irrigated to which Damayantī is compared just before she receives Nala’s seed, after his three-year absence (Mahābhārata 3.58.6; 3.61.46–48, 88; 3.54.38; 3.75.26–27; 3.64.10, 17). These states of deprivation, considered together with Niṣadha’s vulnerability to usurpers such as Puṣkara, compose a negative for the positive print of a kingdom kept safe—Yudhiṣṭhira’s realm of Indraprastha early in the epic (Mahābhārata 3.58.1; 3.64.18; 2.30.1–3).
Nala’s twin losses inform his subsequent bardic efforts as well. In response to two nearly identical inquiries, he—as the sūta Bāhuka—relates two almost identical stories. On the first occasion, a brāhmaṇa named Parṇāda—whom Damayantī’s father, King Bhīma (not to be confused with Yudhiṣṭhira’s brother), has dispatched from Vidarbha to find Nala—repeats to Bāhuka, in Ayodhyā, this behest of Damayantī’s (Mahābhārata 3.67.6–8, 3.68.1–6):
kva nu tvaṃ kitava chittvā vastrārdhaṃ prasthito mama |
utsṛjya vipine suptām anuraktāṃ priyāṃ priya ||
sā vai yathā samādiṣṭā tatrāste tvatpratīkṣiṇī |
dahyamānā bhṛśaṃ bālā vastrārdhenābhisaṃvṛtā ||
tasyā rudantyāḥ satataṃ tena śokena pārthiva |
prasādaṃ kuru vai vīra prativākyaṃ dadasva ca ||
Where in the world are you, gambler, now that you have cut off half of my garment and have gone away,
now that you have left your beloved wife asleep in the forest, my love?
That young woman covered with half of a garment—she sits waiting for you there as she was ordered to,
being tormented too much.
To that woman constantly crying with that sorrow, king,
be gracious and give your reply, hero.
Mahābhārata 3.67.9–11
On the second occasion, in Vidarbha, Damayantī sends a woman named Keśinī to make a similar request of Bāhuka, with almost the same words that Damayantī asked Parṇāda to utter (Mahābhārata 3.72.1–4):
kva nu tvaṃ kitava chittvā vastrārdhaṃ prasthito mama |
utsṛjya vipine suptām anuraktāṃ priyāṃ priya ||
sā vai yathā samādiṣṭā tatrāste tvatpratīkṣiṇī |
dahyamānā divārātraṃ vastrārdhenābhisaṃvṛtā ||
tasyā rudantyāḥ satataṃ tena duḥkhena pārthiva |
prasādaṃ kuru vai vīra prativākyaṃ prayaccha ca ||
Where in the world are you, gambler, now that you have cut off half of my garment and have gone away,
now that you have left your beloved wife asleep in the forest, my love?
Covered with half of a garment, she sits waiting for you there as she was ordered to,
being tormented day and night.
To that woman constantly crying with that sorrow, king,
be gracious and give your reply, hero.
Mahābhārata 3.72.18–20
Yet Keśinī changes Parṇāda’s message in three places, replacing the phrase bhṛśaṃ bālā (too much, the young woman) in Mahābhārata 3.67.10 with divārātraṃ (day and night) in Mahābhārata 3.72.19, and substituting for śokena (with sorrow) and dadasva (give) in Mahābhārata 3.67.11 their respective synonyms, duḥkhena and prayaccha, in Mahābhārata 3.72.20.
Keśinī’s first modification indicates the different imports of these approximately duplicate missives. The first message has been sent by Vidarbha’s king, Bhīma, who forged an alliance with Niṣadha’s throne when its prior occupant, Nala, married Bhīma’s daughter, Damayantī. Accordingly, this communiqué sponsored by Bhīma, the senior sovereign, implicitly compares Niṣadha to a “young woman” (bālā) because Nala ruled Niṣadha for no more than twelve years before Kali’s overcoming of him caused him to desert his kingdom (Mahābhārata 3.67.10, 3.56.2). [26] (Just as Nala left Niṣadha not long [i.e. a number of days rather than of months] prior to leaving Damayantī [Mahābhārata 3.58.6–7, 10; 3.244*; 3.58.11; 3.59.6–8, 24–25], so too had he ascended Niṣadha’s throne presumably only recently when he wedded Damayantī, given that the Mānavadharmaśāstra urges rulers to marry as soon as they have moved into their palaces [Mānavadharmaśāstra 7.77].) The second message, by contrast, is more personal than political, and therefore is delivered by a lady in waiting, rather than by an agent of state. Fittingly, this dispatch accentuates the extent of Damayantī’s round-the-clock grieving for Nala, rather than Damayantī’s age (Mahābhārata 3.72.19, 3.67.10). Although she was a “young woman” (bālā) when he abandoned her three years earlier—a separation that came some twelve years after this couple’s wedding, which had occurred soon after Damayantī had matured into a bālā—she probably is too old to be termed a bālā when Keśini delivers her message (Mahābhārata 3.60.1, 13; 3.50.11, 13; 3.51.7; 3.72.17–22). (Indeed, assuming that Damayantī, in accordance with Mānavadharmaśāstra 9.90, got married three years after her menarche, eighteen years now have elapsed since she started to menstruate.) Hence, Keśini calls Damayantī a nārī (woman), and not a bālā, just before relaying her request to Bāhuka (Mahābhārata 3.72.17).
The two tales that Parṇāda’s and Keśini’s requests elicit from Bāhuka begin as one account that then bifurcates. It opens with the following lines:
vaiṣamyam api saṃprāptā gopāyanti kulastriyaḥ |
ātmānam ātmanā satyo jitasvargā na saṃśayaḥ | / ||
rahitā bhartṛbhiś caiva na krudhyanti kadācana || / |
Noble families’ women protect themselves by themselves, even if they have fallen into distress.
These virtuous women win heaven, no doubt about it.
They never get angry, even though they have been forsaken by their lords.
Mahābhārata 3.68.8, 3.72.25–26ab
From this point, however, Bāhuka tailors his poems to their contexts. To Parṇāda, Bhīma’s envoy, Bāhuka declares:
viṣamasthena mūḍhena paribhraṣṭasukhena ca |
yat sā tena parityaktā tatra na kroddhum arhati ||
prāṇayātrāṃ pariprepsoḥ śakunair hṛtavāsasaḥ |
ādhibhir dahyamānasya śyāmā na kroddhum arhati ||
satkṛtāsatkṛtā vāpi patiṃ dṛṣṭvā tathāgatam |
bhraṣṭarājyaṃ śriyā hīnaṃ śyāmā na kroddhum arhati ||
If she has been abandoned by a dejected fool fallen on hard times,
then she ought not to get angry.
A beautiful woman ought not to get angry with a sustenance seeker whose garment has been snatched by birds
and who is being tormented by his thoughts.
Well treated or not, a beautiful woman ought not to get angry after seeing her lord in such a state—
deprived of his kingdom and wanting for wealth.
Mahābhārata 3.68.9–11
But Bāhuka implores Keśinī, Damayantī’s confidante:
prāṇāṃś cāritrakavacā dhārayantīha satstriyaḥ ||
prāṇayātrāṃ pariprepsoḥ śakunair hṛtavāsasaḥ |
ādhibhir dahyamānasya śyāmā na kroddhum arhati ||
satkṛtāsatkṛtā vāpi patiṃ dṛṣṭvā tathāgatam |
bhraṣṭarājyaṃ śriyā hīnaṃ kṣudhitaṃ vyasanāplutam ||
Encased in their commendable conduct, these good women now keep themselves alive.
A beautiful woman ought not to get angry with a sustenance seeker whose garment has been snatched by birds
and who is being tormented by his thoughts,
once she, well treated or not, has seen her lord in such a state—
deprived of his kingdom, wanting for wealth, hungry, and overwhelmed by vice.
Mahābhārata 3.72.26cd–28
Though three lines are common to Bāhuka’s doublet of compositions (Mahābhārata 3.68.10ab, 3.72.27ab; 3.68.10cd, 3.72.27cd; 3.68.11ab, 3.72.28ab), his works differ in tone. The first work attempts to appease Nala’s angry ex-subjects in Niṣadha by thrice sounding the refrain “she ought not to get angry” (na kroddhum arhati), and thereby evoking the Niṣadhans’ impatience with their king’s vice of reckless dicing (Mahābhārata 3.68.9d, 10d, 11d; 3.56.13), a sensitive topic that Bāhuka does not mention explicitly herein. By contrast, his second work seeks to soothe Damayantī (by complimenting her conduct) and to appeal to her sympathy (by citing her husband’s hunger and his lack of control over his gambling vice) (Mahābhārata 3.72.26cd, 28d).
Thus, these episodes of request and response—which have been regarded recently as riddles about the alien self, [27] about shared memories, [28] and about self-recovery [29] —occasion Bāhuka’s truncated accounts of Nala’s misfortune. These poetic narratives express the frustration that Nala feels as he fails to fulfill the demands of dharma, and thereby implicitly interrogate the attainment of this ideal. Accordingly, his stories—poems as short as the dwarf who composes them—vary, in form, from the epic of the Rāmāyaṇa’s poetic rulers. Unlike the affirmative account offered by Kuśa and Lava, Nala’s poems appear effaced of four features of the Sanskrit epics. Hence, the Niṣadhan’s compositions
  1. are not attributed to a divine source;
  2. each consist of a mere fragment instead of an expansive, embedding whole;
  3. are anonymous, naming neither hero nor heroine; and
  4. take on a plaintive, rather than celebratory, tone.

Nala’s Bardic Compositions:Prolepses of Yudhiṣṭhira’s Hindered Dharma

Nala’s works are so morose because they express the despair that Yudhiṣṭhira feels even after he hears about Nala. Like Nala, Yudhiṣṭhira learns Ṛtuparṇa’s reckoning technique (Mahābhārata 3.78.17), but it does not cast Kali out of the Pāṇḍava’s life. Even though Yudhiṣṭhira uses his dicing skill to support his brothers and wife during the year that he spends with them in disguise, and even though he reminds his opponents that the terms of the agreement he and Duryodhana made at their last dicing match have been satisfied, Duryodhana reneges and refuses to relinquish Indraprastha (Mahābhārata 4.12.4–5; 5.5.18; 5.20.1, 9–11; 5.125.22–26). While Yudhiṣṭhira eventually takes over the earth—in the aftermath of the war that ushers in the Kali Age—the king does so at a human cost that is all too easy for a man of his counting expertise to quantify (Mahābhārata 11.26.9–10).
Ultimately, when the losses of the Kali Age become too hard for Yudhiṣṭhira to bear, he leaves his land and ascends into heaven (Mahābhārata 17.1.2–3). He does not heed the scoldings of his sorrowful subjects, who—without swaying him—have to return to their homes, and thus are akin to their counterparts in Nala’s stronghold of Niṣadha, who are ignored by their Kali-possessed king as he lets go of his land (Mahābhārata 17.1.15–17, 23–24; 3.56.15–18). When Vārṣṇeya tells Damayantī that Nala should be informed that all his subjects are waiting to see him on business and are not putting up with his dice vice (Mahābhārata 3.56.12–13), she sugarcoats the sūta’s message for his king. She veils Vārṣṇeya’s plain words with deference, telling her husband that his subjects are demonstrating their devotion to him, rather than that they are not tolerating his behavior (Mahābhārata 3.56.15, 13). After he fails to respond, the queen—preparing for Nala’s dethronement—sends Vārṣṇeya away from Niṣadha, so that the sūta can seek employment elsewhere; and he sorrowfully finds it at Ṛtuparṇa’s court, in Ayodhyā (Mahābhārata 3.57.17–18, 23).
Although Vārṣṇeya does not recite poetry during the Nalopākhyāna, the story seems to symbolize his involvement in such activity, by portraying him as the protector of Nala’s legacy. As Damayantī dismisses Vārṣṇeya, she asks him to harness Nala’s favorite horses to his chariot, to drive her twin children to her family’s home in Vidarbha, and to leave the princess and prince, the horses, and the chariot there (Mahābhārata 3.57.17–18). Thus, Damayantī—acting on the knowledge that Nala “could be ruined” (vinaśed) by losing his kingdom (Mahābhārata 3.57.16)—assures the continuity of his line. But, because Nala’s dynasty has been displaced from its ancestral realm, there is no need to retain a sūta so as to reinforce this lineage’s reputation there. Consequently, Vārṣṇeya decides to leave the Niṣadhan royal family’s employ, even though Damayantī has given him the option to remain in Vidarbha with her relatives (Mahābhārata 3.57.18).
Some of the words that Nala himself puts together to appease his people and queen after abandoning them would be appropriate for Yudhiṣṭhira to use, if he were to try to soothe his own subjects. Recognizing that, in his day, righteousness has been dimmed and diminished by the passage of time (Mahābhārata 17.1.16), Yudhiṣṭhira—by virtue of his paternity—cannot help but be affected by this turn of events. In this degenerate age, this man who is the deity Dharma’s son, and who also is known as King Dharma, is himself someone who, like Nala, has “fallen on hard times” (viṣamasthena) and has been “overwhelmed by vice” (vyasanāplutam) (Mahābhārata 1.114.1–3, 3.68.9, 3.72.28).
Yudhiṣṭhira is burdened as well by a distress parallel to that which Nala expresses in his first poem as he laments the loss of his beloved. Like Nala, Yudhiṣṭhira, who circumambulated the earth on his way heavenward, has “ ‘wandered the world over’ ” (bhraman mahīṃ sarvāṃ) (Mahābhārata 17.1.44, 3.64.15a). In fact, heaven is what Yudhiṣṭhira has “ ‘found’ ” (āsādya), so the other “king” (rājñas) to whose “home” (niveśane) the Pāṇḍava has resorted is Indra, the gods’ ruler (Mahābhārata 18.1.4; 3.64.15, 19; 17.3.30–33). Yudhiṣṭhira, in the absence here of his wife and brothers, feels guilt and “ ‘anguish’ ” (duḥkhaṃ) akin to Nala’s (Mahābhārata 18.2.1–12, 3.64.15). Just as Nala was followed by Damayantī but left her “ ‘abandoned’ ” (tyaktā), Yudhiṣṭhira was trailed by his loved ones on his trek to heaven, but, without looking back, left his near and dear by the wayside when they were felled by their moral flaws (Mahābhārata 3.64.16, 17.2). Now that Yudhiṣṭhira’s loved ones no longer are “ ‘alive’ ” (jīvati), they are “ ‘seized by hunger and thirst’ ” (kṣutpipāsāparītā) while dwelling “ ‘in the huge, horrid forest’ ” (vane mahati dāruṇe) of hell, and thus experience an extreme version of the dire fate that Nala fears has befallen his wife in his absence (Mahābhārata 3.64.16, 17, 18b). In the inferno, some trees have swords for leaves, while other trees have sharp thorns (Mahābhārata 18.2.23, 25). Nothing can grow there for Yudhiṣṭhira’s relatives to eat, because the ground is covered with corpses, and the mud is made of flesh and blood (Mahābhārata 18.2.18, 17). Moreover, hell’s river has hot water that is hard to drink (Mahābhārata 18.2.23). The “ ‘predators always … on the prowl’ ” (śvāpadācarite nityaṃ) in hell actually are scavengers: iron-beaked crows and vultures, and needle-mouthed ghosts (Mahābhārata 3.64.18a, 18.2.20). When Yudhiṣṭhira himself has to go there to find his family members, he feels that they—like the blameless Damayantī of Nala’s memory—are “ ‘undeserving of all of this’ ” (atathocitā) (Mahābhārata 18.2.44, 3.64.17), even though King Dharma was the one who enumerated their failings on his way to heaven.
Despite these dire scenes, the epic does have a happy ending. Soon after Yudhiṣṭhira arrives in the inferno, it disappears and a cool, gentle, fragrant wind wafts in with the gods—hell breezes over (Mahābhārata 18.3.1–8). It turns out to have been an illusion designed to deceive him because he had allowed Droṇa, his former military instructor, to be deceived before his death (Mahābhārata 18.3.14). Now, this and the other improper acts that led Yudhiṣṭhira and those dear to him to hell have been redressed (Mahābhārata 18.3.16). After he finally gives up his human body, he and his relatives all reenter the deities from whom they have issued (Mahābhārata 18.3.39, 18.4.2–7, 18.5.9–22). Moreover, the account of his life, the Mahābhārata, comes to be classified as an itihāsa, as had the tale told about Nala (Mahābhārata 18.5.31, 3.78.10).
But all is not well that ends well. The vague glimpses of heaven that the Mahābhārata offers to its audience do not displace the epic’s vivid depictions of hell, no matter how unreal these infernal scenes may be. By the same token, the poem’s main military victory does not mitigate the unfathomable bloodshed that such success has exacted. In my mind, the best bearer of the Mahābhārata’s moral standard is the Yudhiṣṭhira who stands in what seems to him to be hell, questioning the fate that has befallen his family, “with his senses confounded by concern” (cintāvyākulitendriyaḥ) (Mahābhārata 18.2.49d), and who goes on to censure the gods and dharma itself (Mahābhārata 18.2.15–16, 42–44, 46–50). King Dharma’s doubts, which are encapsulated in Nala’s interrogative narratives, [30] reveal the Mahābhārata to be an epic that has misgivings about the righteousness upon which the Rāmāyaṇa resolves.
The distinct tacks that these works take toward dharma lead their heroes’ efforts to achieve this ideal to appear to be different, despite the fact that these men must fulfill several of the same obligations. As rulers (kṣatriyas), they must protect their peoples and realms; as householders (gṛhasthas), they must marry and have children; and, as husbands (patis), they must guard their wives. In addition to meeting these requirements, Rāma and Yudhiṣṭhira are expected to uphold comprehensive, or sāmāsika, dharma, which comprises five duties incumbent on all four of ancient Indian society’s classes: nonviolence (ahiṃsā); truth (satya); curbing anger (akrodha); purification (śauca); and suppression of the senses (indriyanigraha) (Mānavadharmaśāstra 7.35, 110; 3.4, 45; 9.3; 10.63).
As kings, Rāma and Yudhiṣṭhira cannot help but confront dharma’s conflicting demands, for the monarchs cannot defend their kingdoms while refraining from violence and its attendant impurities. And, in certain situations, the kings can commit to warfare only at the cost of their honesty. But their compromises are portrayed very differently.
In the Rāmāyaṇa, Rāma fights unfairly when he ambushes and kills Vālin, the monkey king, even though Vālin already is dueling with his brother, Sugrīva. Yet Rāma comes off very well, both before and after his deceitful deed, which he has done primarily to obtain Sugrīva’s support in the search for abducted Sītā. Prior to Rāma’s sneak attack, Vālin’s wife Tāra warns him of Rāma’s inexorability and integrity, likening Rāma not only to “the fire at the end of an age” (yugāntāgnir), but also to “a tree that is a refuge for moral people” (nivāsavṛkṣaḥ sādhūnām) (Rāmāyaṇa 4.15.15, 16a). In addition, once the attack has occurred, only Vālin himself voices outrage in response. Moreover, as soon as Rāma justifies his subterfuge as a means of punishing Vālin for taking Sugrīva’s wife Rumā, Vālin asks Rāma to forgive his outburst (Rāmāyaṇa 4.17.12–45; 4.18.2–39, 42). In fact, Vālin goes so far as to say that Rāma “knows right from wrong” (dharmajña) (Rāmāyaṇa 4.18.44)—a remarkable reversal! Rāma is not even reproached by soon-to-be-widowed Tāra, who simply goes on to recognize that Rāma, in slaying her husband, has performed “a great act” (mahat karma) (Rāmāyaṇa 4.20.18).
Like Rāma, Yudhiṣṭhira deploys deception to kill a powerful enemy. Yet, even though Yudhiṣṭhira does so much less directly in the Mahābhārata than does Rāma in the Rāmāyaṇa, the Indraprasthan incurs much more of a reprisal than does the Ayodhyan. At the urging of Kṛṣṇa, Yudhiṣṭhira deliberately misleads Droṇa into thinking that Droṇa’s son, Aśvatthāman, has died. Yudhiṣṭhira does so, because Droṇa, even at the age of eighty-five, has enough prowess to imperil Yudhiṣṭhira’s army. Yudhiṣṭhira’s half-truth, however, ultimately disheartens Droṇa so much that he sets aside his arms and gives up his life, just before being beheaded by Yudhiṣṭhira’s brother-in-law Dhṛṣṭadyumna (Mahābhārata 7.164.62–69, 105–106; 7.165.98–107, 32–47).
Yet, unlike Rāma, Yudhiṣṭhira is not praised for his improbity. Yudhiṣṭhira himself is ambivalent about duping Droṇa, having decided to do so “with much difficulty” (kṛcchreṇa) (Mahābhārata 7.164.70). Moreover, as soon as Yudhiṣṭhira equivocates, his chariot drops to the earth, from an elevation of four fingerbreadths (Mahābhārata 7.164.107).
Yudhiṣṭhira’s deceit, unlike Rāma’s deceit, has disastrous effects. Aśvatthāman, upon learning how Droṇa died, denounces Yudhiṣṭhira’s “ignoble and extremely wicked act” (anāryaṃ sunṛśaṃsaṃ ca) and pledges not only to destroy Dhṛṣṭadyumna and his family, the Pāñcālas, but also to shed Yudhiṣṭhira’s blood (Mahābhārata 7.166.19e [in one Kaśmīrī (K4), six Devanāgarī (D2. 3. 5–8), and both Telugu manuscripts], 27–29). Rather than achieve these aims on the battlefield by day, Aśvatthāman bides his time and ambushes his marks in their camp at night (Mahābhārata 10.8.9–139). Although he cannot target the absent Yudhiṣṭhira, Aśvatthāman does slay many of this monarch’s blood relatives when they should be asleep (Mahābhārata 10.11.1–2). And, as Aśvatthāman exits from the camp, he is the one who is compared to “the fire at the end of an age” (yugānte … pāvakaḥ) (Mahābhārata 10.8.137). Yudhiṣṭhira, though unscathed by Aśvatthāman’s fury, eventually has to face hell’s flames and other horrors for a few moments, as punishment for his prevarication (Mahābhārata 18.2.15–18.3.19).
To say that Yudhiṣṭhira has a much harder time than Rāma is to make a literal, as well as a colloquial, statement. Yudhiṣṭhira has more difficulty fulfilling his dharmic obligations, because he lives at a time when the cosmos’ dharma has devolved from its condition in Rāma’s day. According to the Mahābhārata, Rāma and Yudhiṣṭhira live at different points of a cycle comprising four ages whose names, which refer to progressively unluckier throws of dice, reflect dharma’s decline over the ages’ course. While Nārāyaṇa, a form of the deity Viṣṇu, declares that he is born as Rāma between the Trey Age (tretāyuga) and the Deuce Age (dvāparayuga), the Mahābhārata war—and therefore the lives of its participants, including Yudhiṣṭhira—is said to take place during the transition from the Deuce Age to the Losing Age (kaliyuga) (Mahābhārata 12.326.78, 1.2.9).
Yet the Rāmāyaṇa does not locate Rāma’s lifetime so precisely. If the Losing Age overshadows the Mahābhārata, no period casts such a pall over the Rāmāyaṇa. While Yudhiṣṭhira’s expanded kingdom is checked quite quickly by the creep of the kaliyuga, Rāma’s realm flourishes for about ten millennia. Furthermore, the Rāmāyaṇa creates the impression that this thriving is inevitable—by presenting its prediction by Nārada, and its repeated realization in the epic that Kuśa and Lava recite.
The fate of Rāma’s followers—that is, their unimpeded prosperity on earth and in heaven alike—reinforces the Rāmāyaṇa’s main idea, namely, that Rāma is impeccable despite doing apparently dubious deeds. The Mahābhārata, however, is not so single-minded in assessing its hero. Yudhiṣṭhira’s achievements, while bearing some resemblance to Rāma’s, are both questioned and championed in one breath.
Like Rāma, Yudhiṣṭhira defeats his primary enemy, but—even so—Yudhiṣṭhira does not deem this victory worthy of praise. After the death of Duryodhana—who was the reincarnation of a part of Kali (Mahābhārata 10.9.55, 1.61.80), the demon embodying the kaliyuga (who had possessed Nala)—there is no serious opponent to Yudhiṣṭhira’s universal sovereignty. Yet, a major means by which kings expanded their land holdings, the horse sacrifice (aśvamedha), has a different character in Yudhiṣṭhira’s story than in Rāma’s. In the Rāmāyaṇa, the horse sacrifice carries positive connotations: Rāma is renowned for having horse sacrifices performed regularly, and these rites index his riches and authority. In the Mahābhārata, however, the horse sacrifice takes on a negative tenor: the ritual’s overriding emphasis is not power augmentation but purification. By the time Yudhiṣṭhira sponsors such a sacrifice, at the dawn of the kaliyuga, this king already has conquered the earth (Mahābhārata 14.90.17–14.91.41, 14.1.7). But he needs the expiation provided by this rite—which is known, both in the Mahābhārata and in the Mānavadharmaśāstra, for expunging the effects of all evildoing (Mahābhārata 14.70.16; Mānavadharmaśāstra 11.261)—so that he can make up for bringing about the deaths of so many of his mentors and relatives. Yet, despite discharging the aśvamedha, Yudhiṣṭhira rules the world for a total of only thirty-six years (Mahābhārata 16.1.1).
Unlike Rāma, whose realm thrives throughout his lengthy reign, Yudhiṣṭhira actually seems worse off for winning the war against his Kaurava cousins. Before this conflict, Yudhiṣṭhira has success in his sovereignty, Indraprastha:
rakṣaṇād dharmarājasya satyasya paripālanāt |
śatrūṇāṃ kṣapaṇāc caiva svakarmaniratāḥ prajāḥ ||
balīnāṃ samyag ādānād dharmataś cānuśāsanāt |
nikāmavarṣī parjanyaḥ sphīto janapado ’bhavat ||
sarvārambhāḥ supravṛttā gorakṣaṃ karṣaṇaṃ vaṇik |
viśeṣāt sarvam evaitat saṃjajñe rājakarmaṇaḥ ||
As a result of King Dharma’s protection, his defense of the truth,
and his destruction of his enemies, his subjects were devoted to their own occupations.
As a consequence of accurate tax collection and lawful rule,
it rained as much as everyone wanted and the country throve.
All undertakings went smoothly—especially cow-tending, agriculture, and commerce.
All this arose from the king’s activity, in particular.
Mahābhārata 2.30.1–3
At the end of the war, Yudhiṣṭhira rules the whole world, but it is in a sorry state of near depopulation. By Yudhiṣṭhira’s own reckoning, 1,660,020,000 men have died in the fighting, while only 24,165 men have survived (Mahābhārata 11.26.9–10). If a man is judged by the kingdom he keeps, then—by the end of the epic—Yudhiṣṭhira’s reputation is diminished rather than enhanced.
Two other Mahābhārata events also highlight the limits of Yudhiṣṭhira’s righteousness. First, even though his father is the deified form of dharma itself, Yudhiṣṭhira is taught how to reign righteously—by his great-uncle Bhīṣma in the war’s wake and by his uncle Dhṛtarāṣṭra still afterward. Second, Yudhiṣṭhira ascends into heaven alone (Mahābhārata 12.56–159, 15.9.7–15.12.23, 17.3.24). While Rāma leads all of his righteous subjects right to their celestial reward, Yudhiṣṭhira cannot keep the few humans who accompany him—i.e. his wife and his four brothers—from falling first to hell, as recompense for their moral failings (Mahābhārata 17.2.3–25, 18.2.40–41, 18.3.15).
Thus, Rāma and Yudhiṣṭhira experience dharma differently. Rāma readily spreads dharma through his realm because he is a human manifestation of Viṣṇu. This deity has descended to earth expressly to restore dharma to the universe, by ridding it of Rāvaṇa, the demon whose austerities have made him invulnerable to all other supernatural beings (Rāmāyaṇa 6.105.25–26, 1.1.13, 7.10.17). Rāma’s righteousness, then, continues from his kingdom to the cosmos. In contrast to Rāma, Yudhiṣṭhira is merely a man descended from divine Dharma and has to struggle simply to lay down the law in his domain as unrighteousness ravages the universe. In Yudhiṣṭhira’s trying time, the destabilizing decline of dharma in the cosmos hinders his efforts to keep his kingdom intact, both physically and morally.
The Sanskrit epics offer in Rāma and Yudhiṣṭhira alternative exemplars of uprightness. In addition to embodying the different perspectives that these poems have on dharma, the monarchs, by heeding royal poets either directly or indirectly, demonstrate the distinct ways in which the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata instill this ideal in their audiences.
The different, yet complementary, approaches that the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata take to dharma will come into even clearer focus as I consider the ways in which these works resemble and contrast with their Greek counterparts. As I complete this comparative study, by applying modern theories of self and social psychology, I will refine the epic category into which all four poems have been placed, and thus I will illuminate their enduring appeal as religious resources.


[ back ] 1. Fitzgerald 2004a:679.
[ back ] 2. For genealogies of the notions of dharma in the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata, see, respectively, Brockington 2004:658–669 and Fitzgerald 2004b, introduction to bk. 12:103–127.
[ back ] 3. Earlier versions of the following four sections have appeared in Pathak 2006:128–141, 142–145.
[ back ] 4. All translations of passages from this work are my own.
[ back ] 5. Kangle 1969–1972, critical and explanatory notes to pt. 2:4.1.58n.
[ back ] 6. Pollock 1984:516.
[ back ] 7. Later in the Rāmāyaṇa, Rāma’s reign is said to last for ten thousand years (see, in this regard, Rāmāyaṇa 7.89.5). Yet no manuscript used to construct the first volume of the epic’s critical edition offers a variant of verse 1.1.76 to this effect. Hence the eleven-thousand-year figure in my reading here.
[ back ] 8. While Sītā here clearly leaves life on the surface of the earth forever, disappearing into the earth’s depths on a descending throne (Rāmāyaṇa 7.88.11–16), the question of whether or not she thus has died is a vexed one in the Rāmāyaṇa textual tradition. Her fate is addressed by Brahmā in a brief passage (7.App. I.13.11*) that the southern recension (including four Devanāgarī manuscripts [D6.7.10.11]) interpolates into the important extract that all the manuscripts on which the critical edition’s seventh volume is based include just after Rāmāyaṇa 7.88: “For pure, virtuous Sītā, who earlier was devoted only to you, / has gone happily to the netherworld of the serpents—by dint of her devotion to you. / She undoubtedly will reunite with you in heaven” (sītā hi vimalā sādhvī tava pūrvaparāyaṇā | nāgalokaṃ sukhaṃ prāyāt tvadāśrayatapobalāt | svarge te saṃgamo bhūyo bhaviṣyati na saṃśayaḥ |). [ back ] I think that the eight southern manuscripts (T1 G3 M2–5.8.10) that substitute nākalokaṃ (the world of heaven) for nāgalokaṃ (the netherworld of the serpents) in line 2 of this passage are right for two reasons. First, heaven makes more sense than the snakes’ realm does as the object of the austerities that Sītā devotes to Rāma, a human manifestation of celestial dweller Viṣṇu. Second, when Rāma sets out for heaven himself, he already is accompanied by Śrī, the goddess who had been reborn as Sītā (Rāmāyaṇa 7.99.6). Śrī’s appearance here implies that Sītā long before gave up her human body and returned to her celestial source. This post-death process is treated more explicitly at the end of the Rāmāyaṇa, where Rāma and his half-brothers enter Viṣṇu’s body, and at the end of the Mahābhārata, where Yudhiṣṭhira and his wife and brothers enter the bodies of their originary divinities in heaven (Rāmāyaṇa 7.100.10; Mahābhārata 18.4.3, 5–7; 18.5.19).
[ back ] 9. Sutherland 1989:73; Brockington 1998:445.
[ back ] 10. Fitzgerald 2004b, introduction to bk. 11:4.
[ back ] 11. As philosopher Bimal Krishna Matilal (1989:18) has observed, “The nature of dharma idealized by Rāma … seems to have been very rigid.”
[ back ] 12. Bṛhadaśva, however, is not labeled as a poet. Rather he is one of several sage raconteurs from whom Yudhiṣṭhira hears during his forest exile. These storytellers have been studied by Sanskritist Annette Mangels (1994:91–93) and Hiltebeitel (2001).
[ back ] 13. On Kali’s inclusion in the class of demons known as asuras (antigods), see Hiltebeitel 2001:223–224.
[ back ] 14. The Arthaśāstra’s critical editor, R. P. Kangle (1969–1972, critical and explanatory notes to pt. 2:5.3.3n), identifies the unit of currency implicit in sūtra (sentence) 5.3.3 (where salary amounts are mentioned for the first time), in his note to his translation of this text. Here Kangle hints that the paṇas are silver, rather than copper, coins. On the alloy used, see Arthaśāstra 2.12.24.
[ back ] 15. The Arthaśāstra’s attribution of the sūta’s existence to his king’s unrighteousness conflicts with a more general principle presented in Mānavadharmaśāstra 8.304, viz. the king’s shouldering of one-sixth of his subjects’ unrighteousness (and its karmic consequences) if he fails to protect them. Thus, in the Mānavadharmaśāstra the ruler is punished if he misbehaves, whereas in the Arthaśāstra only the subject suffers social stigma for his ruler’s misdeeds (particularly this king’s condoning of contraindicated interclass commingling). The Arthaśāstra example may make more sense if the word rājan (which I, like Kangle, have construed as “king”) actually is synonymous here with the word kṣatriya, and thus denotes a member of the warrior class, perhaps the warrior who—by entering an irregular, hypogamous marriage—failed to fulfill his class duty and fathered the sūta. Yet the sūta’s father is designated in sūtra 3.7.28 by the term kṣatriya, so if he were involved in sūtra 3.7.30 I would think that he would be labeled in the same way. Hence I keep the king here—a reading rendered all the more intelligible by the fact that the productiveness of other pratiloma unions (i.e. those involving husbands who are śūdras or vaiśyas [the latter being members of the merchant and farmer class that occupies the second-lowest tier of ancient Indian society’s hierarchy]) is blamed on this ruler as well (Arthaśāstra 3.7.26–27, 30).
[ back ] 16. For epic references to these performers, see Brockington 1998:19–20.
[ back ] 17. Kangle 1969–1972, critical and explanatory notes to pt. 2:3.7.29n.
[ back ] 18. Kangle 1969–1972, critical and explanatory notes to pt. 2:3.7.29n.
[ back ] 19. The Mahābhārata, in its first chapter, revisits, yet reverses, the poet/patron relationship of Saṃjaya and Dhṛtarāṣṭra, seeing that one of the devices that the epic employs here to outline its contents—as Mangels (1994:141) has remarked—is the king’s summary of the epic events of which he, lacking vision, could only hear from the divinely sighted charioteer (Mahābhārata 1.1.95–159).
[ back ] 20. Doniger 1999:152–153.
[ back ] 21. For a different interpretation of the unusually asymmetrical relationship between Nala and Vārṣṇeya—an interpretation that likens them to the Bhagavadgītā’s Arjuna and Kṛṣṇa, respectively—see Hiltebeitel 2001:218–219, 225–226, 232–236, 238.
[ back ] 22. At the time of the Arthaśāstra, itihāsas included some form of the Mahābhārata as well as older stories of the same type. Although Arthaśāstra 1.5.14 contains a different definition (“The term itihāsa refers to the Purāṇas, Itivṛtta [the two epics, etc., according to Śaṅkarārya’s Jayamaṅgalā, a fourteenth-century Sanskrit commentary], Ākhyāyikā [a kind of prose narrative], Udāharaṇa [a type of panegyric], Dharmaśāstra, and Arthaśāstra” [purāṇam itivṛttam ākhyāyikodāharaṇaṃ dharmaśāstram arthaśāstraṃ cetītihāsaḥ |]), this more inclusive notion appears to have been retrojected into the Arthaśāstra, as Kangle (1969–1972, critical and explanatory notes to pt. 2:1.5.14n) speculates in the note to his own translation of this sūtra: “It is not unlikely that [sūtra 1.5.]14 is a marginal gloss (in explanation of Itihāsa occurring in [sūtra 1.5.]13) which later got into the text.”
[ back ] 23. Like Hiltebeitel (2001:19, 21–22, 27–28), I believe—pace Brockington (1998:19–21)—that the Mahābhārata was composed not by sūtas first and by brāhmaṇas only later, but by brāhmaṇas from the start.
[ back ] 24. Sukthankar 1939:295–300.
[ back ] 25. For further discussion of the distinction between asuras and rākṣasas, see O’Flaherty 1976:84.
[ back ] 26. Likewise, the ongoing connection to his kingdom that a king has is represented as a marital bond in the Rāmāyaṇa, where “royal proprietorship of the land is so often … expressed through sexual metaphors (the king is ‘husband’ of the earth, 2.1.28, for instance, and his death leaves the earth a widow, 2.45.12, [2.]97.11)” (Pollock 1986:15n15). The reasons why “[t]he king was considered to be the symbolic husband of the Earth, who was his wife,” have been enumerated by historian John W. Spellman (1964:209), who also explains why the king’s relinquishing of his kingdom would have been regarded as a problem in ancient India: “The king protected the Earth as a husband does his wife. The king was held responsible for the fertility of the earth. Depending upon his dharma, rain or drought would afflict the Earth. By his paying for sacrifices, the king ensured the well-being of the Earth. The king was required as ‘Lord of the Earth’ to fulfill these functions to his symbolic bride. It is significant to note that however many other rights ancient Indians had over their wives, they could not legally or morally give them away, at least in the days of developed Hinduism. It may be that the objections in the legends in which the king attempts to give away the Earth stem from this reasoning.”
[ back ] 27. Shulman 2001:142.
[ back ] 28. Doniger 1999:152–153.
[ back ] 29. Hiltebeitel 2001:230–236.
[ back ] 30. In spite of the disparate sets of circumstances in which Nala and Yudhiṣṭhira find themselves, the similar sorrows that the sovereigns experience vitiate John D. Smith’s (1992:13) assertion that the Nalopākhyāna “is essentially light reading, a happy-ever-after tale standing in sharp contrast to the grimness of the epic narrative which surrounds it.”