Is the karmic law real? Who experiences what happens? Shankaracharya entered a dead king's body, experienced a royal life of luxury with queens, courtesans, retainers, war--everything. And he returned to answer the riddle put to him by a wise woman. Which of these was real? Do we dream or live? Certain things remain an enigma. It is said that the path of yoga breaks away from the adamantine shackles of karma. That is why the Buddha exclaimed that he had seen through the labyrinth of creation, hence the rafters are shattered, the edifice has crumbled, and never again will he be in the clutches of birth and rebirth.

Lions and Tigers and Bears--Oh Maya!

After the Kurukshetra holocaust, when the blind Dhritarashtra bewails the unjustified misery thrust upon him and turns to Vidura for consolation, this child of a maidservant narrates a gripping parable that provides yet another clue to understanding our existential situation:

A certain Brahmin loses himself in a dense jungle filled with wild beasts. Lions and tigers, elephants and bears, yell and trumpet and roar. It's a scene dismal enough to frighten even the god of death, Yama. The Brahmin is terror-stricken. His mind is a bundle of fears. He begins to run, helter-skelter; he looks right and left, hoping to find someone who will save him. But the fierce beasts are everywhere-the jungle echoes with their weird roaring-wherever he goes, they are there, ahead of him.

Suddenly he notices that the fearful forest is swathed in a massive net. In front of him, with open arms, is a horrendous-looking female. Also, five-headed snakes hiss at him--tall snakes, their huge bodies slithering up to the sky.

In the middle of the forest is a well covered with grass and intertwining creepers. He falls in that well and dangles there, clutched by a creeper, like a jackfruit ripe for plucking. He hangs there, feet up, head down.

Horror upon horror! In the bottom of the well he sees a monstrous snake. On the edge of the well is a huge black elephant with six heads and twelve feet hovering at the well's mouth. And, buzzing in and out of the clutch of creepers, are giant, repulsive bees surrounding a honeycomb. They are trying to sip the deliciously sweet honey, the honey all creatures love, the honey whose real taste only children know.

The honey drips out of the comb, and the honey drops fall on the hanging Brahmin's tongue. Helpless he dangles, relishing the honey drops. The more the drops fall, the greater his pleasure. But his thirst is not quenched. More! Still more! `I am alive!' he says, `I am enjoying life!'

Even as he says this, black and white rats are gnawing the roots of the creeper. Fears encircle him. Fear of the carnivores, fear of the fierce female, fear of the monstrous snake, fear of the giant elephant, fear of the rat-devoured creeper about to snap, fear of the large buzzing bees... In that flux and flow of fear he dangles, hanging on to hope, craving the honey, surviving in the jungle of samsara.

The jungle is the universe; the dark area around the well is an individual life span. The wild beasts are diseases. The fierce female is decay. The well is the material world. The huge snake at the bottom of the well is Kala, all-consuming time, the ultimate and unquestioned annihilator. The clutch of the creeper from which the man dangles is the self-preserving life-instinct found in all creatures. The six-headed elephant trampling the tree at the well's mouth is the Year-six faces, six seasons; twelve feet, twelve months. The rats nibbling at the creeper are day and night gnawing at the life span of all creatures. The bees are desires. The drops of honey are pleasures that come from desires indulged. They are the rasa of kama, the juice of the senses in which all men drown.

This is the way the wise interpret the wheel of life; this is way they escape the chakra of life.

Dhritarashtra, of course, misses the point Vidura is making: man, literally hanging on to life by a thread and enveloped in multitudinous fears, is yet engrossed in the drops of honey, exclaiming, "More! Still more! I am alive! I am enjoying life!" And, like the blind king, we tend to miss the point too. Ignoring the law of karma, taking that other road, we fall into the pit and rale; but inveterately, compulsively strain to lick the honey. If heeded, this doctrine becomes a powerful instrument for building character, maintaining integrity and creating a society that functions not on matsya nyaya [the big devouring the small] that celebrates invidualism, but on dharma that upholds society and the world itself.


Pradip Bhattacharya: "Desire under the Kalpataru," Jl. of South Asian Literature, XXVIII, 1 & 2, 1993, pp.315-35. cf. P. Lal's Introduction to Barbara Harrison's Learning About India.

P.Lal: Valedictory Address in Mahabharata Revisited (papers presented at the international seminar on the Mahabharata organized by the Sahitya Akademi in New Delhi in February 1987), Sahitya Akademi, 1990, p.291-302.

P. Lal: The Mahabharata (condensed & transcreated, Vikas Publishing House, New Delhi, 1980, p. 286-7)

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