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Mahabharata Metaphors: Adishesha and Vasuki – Two Ways of Correction

Adishesha Vasuki

The story of Garuda and the Sarpas, children of Vinata and Kadru, are well known. A significant part of Adi Parva is dedicated to the conflict between Vinata and Kadru flowing into the next generation. Urged by Lord Brahma, Sage Kashyapa, their husband, remains neutral in their conflict. He leaves them and his children to be guided by their own elements. Garuda, both by his own penance and the grace of ancestors, elevates himself from the pitfall of jealousy, to become the vehicle of Vishnu and a friend of Devas. The Sarpas, on the contrary, continue the jealousy of their ancestors and use their own venom to make it worse for themselves and others. They go a step further. They simply begin to use their powers to indiscriminately kill anybody vulnerable on their way, apart from defining themselves in a constant hatred for Garuda. Despite their common ancestry, their personal elements drive them in a different direction. Lord Brahma is aware that the purpose of Srishti has not fulfilled itself yet with the creation of the Sarpas. But creation has an inbuilt concern for sustenance in its outpour. It strives for a correction to realize harmony with Sthiti. Sometimes naturally divine elements within the created forms make this correction. At other times, it is through the human effort reaching out to divinity that realize this correction. Shesha and Vasuki, the illustrious among the Sarpas, represent the two ways of realizing this correction. Together, they lead and take their brethren into a harmonious state of living with the rest of the world, fulfilling the purpose of Srishti of Lord Brahma.

The Sarpas were born of a jealous Kadru seeking a large army of support for her ambition. But early in their life, they end up creating a crisis for themselves. Kadru, their mother, once asks her children to lie in order to win a bet against Vinata. In a conversation with Vinata, in her blind urge to seek a competition, Kadru wrongly describes the tail of the celestial horse Uchchaishravas as black. Realizing her folly, she calls upon her children to prove that a reality, even if temporarily, by biting its tail into black colour, through their venom. The Sarpas are stunned. Even though they are themselves full of jealousy and causing great harm through their indiscriminate biting, they are aghast that their mother should encourage them to be unrighteous. At the very least, they are not void of the ability to recognize dharma, and the sensitivity to make them cringe at the thought of their mother being unrighteous. They question their mother’s act. An enraged Kadru, blind in jealousy, curses them to be burnt by Agni in a future Yagna. In the end they choose to bail out their mother, but the curse remains. The Sarpas constantly remained in search of a way to be relieved of the curse. However, they were yet to elevate themselves from their constant hatred of Garuda and their ready use of the fangs without a concern for the consequence.

As it happens with the Srishti, it always evolves towards Sthiti even in its most erroneous states. One of Sarpas simply outgrew the rest of the brothers. Shesha – the eldest – could not tolerate the behavior and tendencies of his brothers. Filled with disgust, he refused to stay with them anymore and decided to vacate himself from their company. He wandered around the teerthakshetras of Bharatavarsha such as Gandhamaadhana, Badari, Gokarna, Pushkara and proceeded towards the Himavat Parvata. He engaged himself in rigorous penance without food and with mere breathing for many years. Eventually, there was hardly anything left of his body. But the effect of his penance was felt by the rest of the world in the form of immense heat. In the end, Lord Brahma, had to step in and sought from Shesha the reason for his unbearable Tapas. “Oh Shesha, your tapas is burning the world and making it impossible for others to live. What is it that is burning in your mind as a desire, please tell me?”. Shesha expressed his unwillingness to remain with his fraternity anymore and sought a way out. He was keen to cast away his body and assume a new form.

Lord Brahma smiled and acknowledged his concern. He assured him that he has a relief for the Sarpas from the curse of their mother in future and that he must not be overly concerned of them. He promised him of a way out for his own self and desired that Shesha set himself on the path of dharma forever. He sought that Shesha perform of a great act that would relieve him from his fraternity as well as aid Lord Brahma for setting right different aspect of Srishti. The essence of a sacrifice to offer something in self-correction that sets something else in the right path elsewhere. Shesha was delighted and readily agreed. Lord Brahma directed him to bear the entire load of the Mother Earth and help her balance herself. The load of the rivers, Mountains, cities, towns and villages, oceans and various forms of life had become unbearable for the mother earth to balance it all by herself.

Shesha, also called Anantha – the endless, did not find this an impossible responsibility. Even if that were, it was worth withering away oneself in a responsibility entrusted by none other than Lord Brahma. If Brahma were to grace, even the impossible was within reach. He sought from Lord Brahma that the earth be placed on his head. Brahma smiled. “No Anantha, you have to reach to the bottom of the earth. Mother earth herself will help you reach. If you can wear her on your head that will please me immensely”. Every correction requires the performance of an appropriate penance. Anantha earnestly reached out to Bhoodevi, who showed him the way through a tunnel to reach the bottom. Having performed the right penance, Shesha effortlessly lifted Mother earth and placed her on his head. Lord Brahma was pleased. “Oh Shesha, you are alone beholding the entire earth on your head. This is not an ordinary feat. You are now an exemplary righteous being. You are now the Adi Shesha – the first. Just as I am the sole Srishti-karta, Indra the sole King of devas, you are the sole being beholding the entire earth on your infinite hood. Hence, you are equal to us”. Thus, Shesha eternally stands holding the mother earth. A little later, Lord Brahma sent Garuda, his cousin, for his help in this great endeavor. Thus the mighty Anantha fulfilled the purpose of Srishti by altogether overcoming the negative element within his brethren and realizing a complete harmony with everything else including their greatest bete-noire, Garuda. Shesha achieved this through the intrinsic elements of divinity within his self and appropriate penance.

On the other side, there was Vasuki – the responsible and sensitive brother of Shesha. After Shesha walked away creating his own destination, Vasuki took it upon himself to steer his community on a better path. Foremost, he was keen to find a relief for the curse from the mother Kadru. After many a day and night’s burning of the midnight oil, Vasuki decided to call a grand congregation of all Sarpas and explore a realistic solution to the problem. At the congregation he urged upon his brothers to think of a solution and reminded them of the immensity of the situation. It was easy to find a relief from anybody else’s curse but that of a mother was never going to be easy. Vasuki was especially concerned that the curse was delivered in Lord Brahma’s presence and he endorsed it, rather than providing a relief. “We now have to decide a course of action. Should we explore a way with Agni so that the yagna is not lit at all? Should we stop the yagna by any other means? Should we ensure that it is stopped midway and hence its purpose not materialized? I need your suggestion” said Vasuki.

The Sarpas discussed a bit among themselves and poured out their suggestions. Some of them wondered if they should send a brahmin to King Janamejaya and seek that the yagna never start – for a brahmin’s request is never to be set aside. Some wanted to influence Janamajeya by becoming his advisors in a different guise. Some thought of more ulterior ways such as killing the very priests who could perform such a yagna. The more righteous among them were aghast with such gory suggestions. They dismissed such and other unrighteous ones outright. They urged upon their brothers to only seek dharmic ways and means of achieving a relief, for only such a relief to pave a better future for them and their children. Some wondered if they could incessantly pour water onto the yagna kunda so that the essential fire could never be lit. Suggestions turned more comic. Some wanted to steal the very sacred vessel from which oblations were to be offered to the fire. Others laughed at their naivete. Some others wondered if they could launch a savage attack and drive away everybody from the yagna by indiscriminate biting. Slowly ideas turned unspeakable and absurd. A few suggested making everything at the yagna impure. Some suggested a sabotage of the yagna by adorning the guise of false Ritvijas. Some thought of abducting the very king himself. Soon the brothers tired themselves out through their impractical suggestions and left the decision to Vasuki himself. Vasuki left a sigh of sadness. It was clear to him that none of these had any likelihood of realizing the relief. He expressed his disappointment to his brothers and told them that he will continue to explore the right solution to the catastrophe that awaited them.

There, however, was a Sarpa that was full of wisdom. He was Elapatra. He rose and sought to address all of them. He urged upon the brothers that the crisis was the result of divine reality. Hence, they had to reach out to the divinity itself for a resolution. This was beyond mere efforts of the worldly. The worldly efforts had to meet divine design at an appropriate place. He then narrated a divine secret that only he was aware. When Kadru cursed her children, Elapatra was on the ground beneath her. When Lord Brahma endorsed the curse, the entire Devas were stunned and wondered why he endorsed such a devastating curse, especially from a mother to her children. Lord Brahma had consoled them that this curse was necessary. The Sarpas were indiscriminately killing other life forms created by Brahma. Firstly they were excessive in number. Secondly, they were letting their special fangs filled with poison loose and without purpose. Hence, it was necessary for their numbers to come down for other forms to sustain themselves. But Brahma assured that in the yagna all the Sarpas would not be sacrificed. Only those that are on the path of adharma would perish and rest survive. Astika, the sage born to Vasuki’s sister Jaratkaru and Jaratkaru, the sage belonging to Yayavara parampara, was destined to stop this Yagna from an overreach and protect the righteous Sarpas. The Devas were satisfied and retired. Narrating this, Elapatra urged his brothers to ready their sister Jaratkaru for the marriage. Elapatra expressed great happiness and satisfaction that he could bring to light a secret that he held for long and bring relief to his brothers. The entire Sarpa brothers hailed this as the perfect solution blessed by divnity. Vasuki took special care of Jaratkaru since then.

In the meanwhile, Vasuki found an opportunity to serve a divine cause. In the great Samudramanthana, Devas reached out to Vasuki to be the rope to churn the Samudra with the Mandara mountain – such was his immense strength. Devas were immensely pleased with his service. They spoke on his behalf to Brahma and requested him to relieve Vasuki of his concern of the impending catastrophic Sarpa yagna. Lord Brahma too recounted what Elapatra had narrated and assured him that the righteous Sarpas will survive the yagna urged upon by Astika. He emphasized that Vasuki’s sister should wait for Jaratkaru, the sage, and marry him at the right time. Nothing could stop the annihilation of the unrighteous Sarpas, but the righteous ones had nothing to worry. Vasuki now was totally relieved. The last ounce of his doubt and concern were eliminated. He urged upon his brothers to update him about the whereabouts of Sage Jaratkaru from time to time and immediately intimate him the moment Jaratkaru sought a wife.

This is one more story that depicts how the principles of change and correction are part of the evolutionary process of Srishti – much like Sage Jaratkaru. The latter story demonstrates how tradition is designed for self-correction. That story is the next step of the story of Shesha and Vasuki. The latter depicts three key principles of change:

  • Srishti does go awry and does not fulfill itself to begin with at times
  • However, Srishti always embeds the seeds of self-correction in two ways
  • Individual elevating the self through intrinsic elements of divinity– as in Adishesha
    Individuals directing their worldly efforts towards divinity and realizing divine corrections of the entire path itself, thus liberating entire fraternities

Both require intense tapas. Divinity always leaves the seed for right change in all its Srishti. They are strenuous, tedious but fulfilling paths but that is the only way a meaningful change can occur. Vasuki’s rejection of all suggestions and his confidence that divinity will show him the right direction is immense. Brahma’s suggestion that Shesha undertake an arduous journey to the bottom of the earth is suggestive of the reality that the intent is not enough, one most earn it. Kadru’s jealousy has shaped her children in a certain direction. Shesha and Vasuki through their efforts and divinity nullify much of it. Shesha achieves it by realizing a common cause between him and Garuda – both are responsible for balancing the earth, though Garuda is sent at times by Brahma. Vasuki achieves it by directing his powers and poison for a very divine cause. Both are directed by Brahma – because Srishti seeks Sthiti.

Thus are the principles of change and correction. This is exactly what happens at Hastinapura between Kauravas and Pandavas but the scale is different and it requires Krishna to take an Avatara and such are the Dwapara times.

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