Translated from the Bengali by Priyadarshi Basu
There is a delightful episode in the Mahabharata about the birth of Death. Brahma, Father Almighty, Creator and Protector of the Universe while happily creating all living beings, could not remain satisfied for long. The living multiplied so rapidly that Mother Earth became distressed and pleaded with him to destroy them, lest she fell sick. Father Almighty was in a huge dilemma now. He didn’t know how he should go about the business of destruction. This made him angry and wrathful. Through his wrath, fire was born. Agni, the fire, started consuming the Earth. Distressed at witnessing so much destruction, Mahadev, who Himself was created from the force of Brahma’s will, came rushing to him. He pleaded for mercy on behalf of the animals but didn’t forget to mention the self-contradictions of his father, Brahma.
“Lord, your subjects were created by you, and now they are being incinerated by your wrath. Please be merciful,” Mahadev said.
So, the creator, even if it is Brahma, does not automatically have the right to destroy. The hint was clear in his pleading.
There is always a reason, some kind of justification required for destruction. Even Brahma didn’t reject that. Rather, accepting his own helplessness, he said, “My wrath was born out of my helplessness at Earth’s distress.”
This quest for fair play and reason, like a beating heart, animates the narratives of the Mahabharata.
We arrive at a climax in the next scene.
Brahma reigned in his anger, hearing Mahadev’s plea. He absorbed Agni, the fire, in his body. Now from the gateways to his senses appeared a woman of fiery complexion bedecked in gold, her eyes and face were red like blood.
She was Death incarnate.
Now this is an unexpected imagery. Women are mothers, givers of life. Yet, here she is imagined as Death. The self-contradiction pointed out by Mahadev a little while back, now in the feminine form of Death, finds a totality which is beyond gender.
Here onwards the story becomes more interesting.
Brahma now addressed the woman, “I am appointing you, go ahead and annihilate all living beings.”
But Death, the woman, refused to carry out this order. Joining her hands in supplication and with tears in her eyes she said, how can she being a woman carry out such a cruel task?
“I cannot do this. The families of those I kill will wish me ill. That’s too scary. I will take lives and people will lament; no I cannot do this. You relieve me from committing such unrighteous acts.”
So Death didn’t hesitate to point out that this order of her creator and father was unrighteous.
But Brahma didn’t disagree. He was not even angry. He simply said, “You don’t have to question my judgement. You will just be following my orders. No one will blame you for this.”
Still Death didn’t agree. She took his leave and went to the sage Dhenuk’s hermitage to meditate and perform penance.
Pleased by her penance Brahma offered her a boon. What boon did Death seek? “Father, I do not want to kill any healthy living being. Grant me this indulgence. I am distressed, fearful and blameless,” she said.
How interesting! Death had earlier expressed her distress and fear. Now she was saying she is blameless. That is, the duty to take lives is being interpreted as punishment, stiff punishment, by this woman. This again underlines the layers and depths of the narrative.
Let’s return to the story. Brahma now addressed her as Kalyani, the caring. This appellation gave shape to a moral justification for taking lives. “You won’t be committing an unrighteous act,” Brahma declared. “The eternal duties of Sanatan dharma, the god of death Yama and the diseases will assist you. A boon from me and the gods will keep you blameless.”
This is how Disease comes into the picture.
Disease would provide direct legitimacy to the perpetration of death. And when death becomes regular, Disease will gain acceptance as a legitimate means. Besides this, it will also become apparent as a ground for consolation of the subjects.
But Death, the woman, had not immediately accepted Disease as a means. She had declared, “I will accept your verdict. But …”
The use of “but” in conditional statements in the stories of the Mahabharata, make these tales engaging and multi-layered. Realms of this epic, from the extraordinary to the supernatural, are twined to a scaffolding of morality that is grounded in the Dharma, just as braids of hair are held together with strings of gold.
But what was Death’s condition? She had said, “I will kill only if the body is afflicted by any of the ills of greed, wrath, spitefulness, betrayal, lust, chauvinism and absence of shame.”
Such conditional statements animate many of the tales. Death, who had a little while back declared she won’t take the life of any healthy being now considered those above-mentioned ills as disease and afflictions. To this woman, it’s not the body, not the afflictions caused by imbalances of the three humors–vayu, pitta, kapha–that count. What matters to her in arriving at a decision are the inherent immoralities or immoralities of action of a person, which affect society at large.
There is a little more to this story. We have perhaps forgotten the tears that Death had shed when she first heard of her destiny. But Brahma, Father Almighty and Protector of the Universe, how could he forget? The poet of our epic has Brahma utter words that gather up the sentiments of love, pity and helplessness. Brahma says, “When you were crying, your tears fell on my hands. These tears will turn into diseases that will annihilate living beings, not you. You won’t be responsible for any unrighteousness.”
So when Death, the woman, was crying her divine Father had been holding her face in his hands. Knowing that, having no other recourse, he was placing a cruel and heartless burden of duty on her, without any good argument to support it. By challenging this indiscriminate act, Death had built up an argument for herself.
There is an Indian-ness in this line of thinking which can be demonstrated through a contrasting story. In one of the Marvel movies of the Avengers series, we find the Greek God of Death, Thanos, to counter overpopulation, annihilating half the population of the universe using the Infinity stones. This half disperses like ash in the air.
But Thanos doesn’t exercise any choice. Randomness drives the selection of those who will be annihilated. Who will remain and who has to go, is not predicated upon any kind of reason, morality or choice between good and evil. In the end though, Thanos was defeated, and the dead lived once again.
However, Indian systems of thought rarely report such indiscriminate acts. Not even in the idea of destiny. Karma, from previous births, plays a role there. A sense of episodic threads, a longing to get a grip on causality bears along the tales of the Mahabharata, a deep sense of responsibility animating its journey.
But the Indian epic does engage with the problem of indiscriminateness at least once, which will bring Thanos to mind. In Vanaparva (Book of the Forest), Draupadi is telling Yudhisthira that one has to make efforts to win the kingdom back. The person who depends on fate that is divine intervention and the one who believes in windfalls are always unsuccessful. Thanos’ methods can be easily critiqued by this line of thought. The one who is indiscriminate will never plan because planning entails causality. This is an underlying strand of realism which connects the tales of the Mahabharata with lived life.
Like we said earlier, the Mahabharata is a collection of such wonderful stories. These are repeated and retold time and again, for some reason or the other. For the characters too, these tales are like refuge and maps.
Who narrated this particular story of the birth of Death? On what occasion was it told? This in fact is a story within another memorable tale from the Mahabharata. Which one? We will explore that some other time.