Friday, December 13, 2013


“It was like getting a note saying you’ll be executed at dawn.” Quotation of the Day, New York Times, July 12, 13.

Death was to visit king Parikshita, Abhimanyu’s son and the ruler of Hastinapura after Yudhisthira, in a rather strange manner. The virtuous king was cursed to die on the seventh day of the curse, by being bitten by the dreaded snake Takshaka. Fortunately he was informed about the curse. Let us ignore details about how all this came to pass. Now there are two accounts of what the condemned king did when he was informed about the form of his punishment. According to the Mahabharata, he did his best to protect himself from snake bite. He moved into a special mansion, and great care was taken in order to eliminate the possibility of a snake entering it.  For seven days he conducted the affairs of the state from there and for seven days he lived in great fear. On the fateful day Takshaka came to his presence disguised as an insect and immediately assumed his real form and bit him. 

Srimad Bhagavata tells a different story. As the suta, the narrator told the assembly of sages, the great king spent the remaining days of his life listening with complete devotion to the lila of Bhagavan Krishna, as described in this sacred text, from the incomparable Sage Suka. As a result, he underwent a spiritual transformation. In him was there no more any anxiety or fear for death. He had conquered death. On the fateful day, when Takshaka bit him, he bit and killed only the body from which consciousness had already departed. Parikshita had already obtained the ultimate release. 

Commenting on the king’s death, Swami Prabhupada says,” His death is...wonderful because he got previous notice of his death, which is wonderful for any mortal being, and thus he prepared himself for passing away by sitting down on the bank of the Ganges and hearing the transcendental activities of the Lord”. Now in an identical situation, to follow the path that the king did, one has to be a Parikshita, a man of dharma, and also there must the intervention of a Suka, call it karma phala, call it grace – the son of Abhimanyu was no ordinary mortal, Krishna himself had breathed life into him!

The narrator did not tell us the whole story. Thus we do not know whether Parikshita took time off from his yoga and advised his successor about the affairs of his state and other worldly matters. Did he, for instance, tell his son, his queen or kula guru, the preceptor of the royal family, that he was going to die on account of his own karma, and that nothing should be done against anyone by way of avenging his death? A king is not just an ordinary householder; he is a public person, and has a responsibility towards his kingdom. During his last days, did he perform his duty towards the kingdom that had suddenly plunged into a crisis by the thoughtless curse of a callow Brahmin youth? That the succession was smooth and the kingdom of Hastinapura remained trouble free does not necessarily mean that Parikshita had performed his raja dharma. Neither of course does it mean that he hadn’t! The narrator skipped this part of the noble king’s last days on earth, probably because he had decided to tell a transformative story. It appears he believed that when face-to-face with death, the wise must have one overwhelming commitment, one single responsibility, one single duty, namely, the spiritual transformation of self. 

In the Mahabharata there are others too who had received intimations of their death like Parikshita. Jayadratha was one such. He was not the one who had killed Abhimanyu but he was in a way responsible for his killing because it was he who cut off support of the Pandavas to the lone fourteen year old fighter who had been trapped inside Drona’s padma vyuha, a particular formation of the army. Everyone knows this story. Arjuna was away from the Kurukshetra battlefield on that day and none of the Pandava brothers could defeat Jayadratha and come to assist Abhimanyu. Of the many who participated in the killing of Abhimanyu, Arjuna singled out Jayadratha for revenge. He held him responsible for his son’s death, and took the oath that he would kill Jayadratha before sunset on the following day. Jayadratha was informed about it in no time. It was already night and the sunrise and with it the battle of the next day, was only about half a night away.

Jayadratha was no Parikshita and there was no Suka for him. Instead there were Duryodhana, Drona, Karna, Aswasthama, Kripacharya and the like surrounding him. That night Jayadratha did not turn to God or think of his moksha. Mortally scared of death, his thoughts were about his life in the mortal world. To save himself, he thought of leaving the battlefield. He knew Arjuna would then not kill him; he knew he would not kill an enemy who had fled from the battlefield. That act would bring him shame, disgrace and ignominy, but he preferred to live with them forever to getting killed the following day. The great Kaurava warriors assured him of their protection on the battlefield and told him that he should abandon the thought of death. There was no way he could leave the battlefield and fear of death did not leave him. Incidentally, Krishna was in no one’s mind: neither Arjuna’s when he took that oath, nor Jayadratha’s and the fellow Kaurava warriors’, who had assured him protection. 

Incidentally, the following day Arjuna killed him and everyone knows this story. We must not forget that Arjuna killed him when he was not fighting and was unarmed, and that he thereby violated the code, which was not merely his self-imposed code; in terms of Saaralaa Mahaabhaarata at least, it was an agreed code for the Kurukshetra war. But for this act Arjuna was not adequately condemned by the warriors on the battlefield or censored by narrators of the Mahabharata story, who, without exception, have condemned or at least disapproved of Dhristadyumna’s beheading of Drona, who was similarly unarmed and was not fighting, when he was killed. In any case, our present concern is not with Arjuna and his deeds, so we leave him here.

The way Parikshita and Jayadratha responded to the intimations of their death gives us a perspective to view such a predicament – that of being informed about imminent death. This is by no means unknown in the real world context. People are awarded capital punishment and are informed about their execution in advance. People suffer from diseases which they know would kill them and a time comes when the doctor gives up hope and the patient knows it. I mention two such instance here, drawing my essential content from what I have heard from their relatives, who are my friends, in this regard.

After undergoing treatment for heart ailment, which included hospitalization for some time, Professor S was advised to undergo some surgery which was to cost him a considerable amount. He was in bad shape. The professor was 55 years old and there were five more years for him to retire. He had just been elevated to the middle rank in the faculty hierarchy and those days faculty salaries were not comfortable, especially in state universities like his, and he didn’t seem to have a comfortable bank balance.  As for his children, his daughter was unmarried and his son was still an undergraduate at the university. Now Professor S didn’t just teach ethics, he lived an ethical life. He was a scholarly man and I thought, a wonderful person.

And he was a very good astrologer. Studying his own horoscope he had come to the conclusion that he was living the last weeks of his life. The expensive surgery would not really help, he thought; instead, it would impose a financial burden on his family after he was gone. He decided against surgery and explained his decision to his family, hiding nothing. How he managed to convince his family one doesn’t know, but he stuck to his decision. He soon passed away. 

All this happened barely fifteen years ago. One might argue that by not opting for surgery he seriously hurt the interests of his family. The treatment in all likelihood would have given him a few more years to live. And to think that ultimately he, an eminently sensible and knowledgeable person, living on the very edges of the twenty first century, decided on his life and death the basis of astrology! It is so incomprehensible. So unacceptable to us who in times that are normal go by reason. At least we believe we do. One doesn’t know what to say: did he die or did he commit suicide? It is said that one’s sense of judgment is destroyed when his time comes. Is it this that happened to him? Let us not argue about all these. As we talk about his death, let us suspend our judgement and respect the beliefs he lived by. And died by.
He surely thought that clarity came to him when his time came. He must have died thinking that he had protected the interests of his family. His may be an act of love, it may or may not be an act of self-sacrifice, but it was surely his duty to his family, what he owed to his family. To listen to Krishna lila in the spirit of Parikshita is a spiritually transformative act; now doing one’s duty to those who happened to be bound to one as dependents in the mortal world - wouldn’t this count as a spiritual act as well? 

Shri Y was an employee of the Indian Railways. He probably held a middle-level rank when he retired. He too didn’t have a comfortable bank account. He was suffering from kidney failure. His eldest brother had suffered from the same ailment and had undergone successful kidney transplantation but he didn’t live long. His elder brother went for dialysis, but soon succumbed to the disease. Keeping these in mind, Y didn’t opt for dialysis or kidney transplantation. He died and died cheerfully, knowing that he had left some money, some support for his family. Again, one doesn’t know what to call it: death or suicide. But again one asks this question: wasn’t what he did a jajna, in the best sense of the term, a spiritual act?

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