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The epic tale of Utanka's error

The Supreme Court's tough stand this week against insults to and atrocities against Dalits is ironically upheld in the Mahabharata.

india Updated: Apr 23, 2011 23:14 IST
Renuka Narayanan

The Supreme Court's tough stand this week against insults to and atrocities against Dalits is ironically upheld in the Mahabharata. 'Ironic' because some Indians mistakenly follow this complex epic into its dark realms instead of choosing its path of light.

Take the terrifying episode in the Aashwamedhika Parva (MB 14:53-55). As Sri Krishna returns to Dwaraka in his chariot, he passes through "a desert ill-supplied with water", where he chances on a wandering ascetic, Utanka, described caustically by Vyasa as "the foremost of the learned". You shiver instantly in anticipatory fear because master-narrator Vyasa, with his killer instinct for 'chiaroscuro' has to be setting up this seemingly incidental person for a big fall. Sri Krishna and Utanka exchange fond greetings. Utanka asks for news. He is devastated to hear about Kurukshetra and wants to curse Krishna for letting it happen. Krishna patiently explains his avatar's purpose of restoring dharmic balance and Utanka is pacified. He then begs to see the Visvarupa. And Krishna lets him! So besides mighty Arjuna at Kurukshetra and partly Yashoda, when she looked into Krishna's open mouth, it's Utanka who beholds "Vasudeva's universal form, endowed with mighty arms, blazing with the fire of a thousand suns, filling all space, with faces on every side." And Utanka says, "O You whose handiwork is the universe, I bow to You. O parent of all things, You fill the firmament."

Fine words, so now the suspense is knife-edge. Krishna grants Utanka a parting boon that he will always find water when thirsty, if he but thinks of Him. Desperately thirsty soon after, Utanka calls to Krishna, but no sparkling fountain manifests. Instead, a 'Chandala' ('outcaste') appears, urinating copiously, who invites Utanka to quench his thirst…from that. Outraged, Utanka refuses. Despite many pleas and protestations by the 'Chandala', Utanka furiously says no, so finally the apparition shrugs and vanishes. Alas, it is none but Indra, lord of the celestials, who, when asked by Krishna to give Utanka a drink of amrita, nectar of immortality, insisted that Utanka be first put to appropriate test. "Your fault has been great," says Krishna to the weeping Utanka, who understanding nothing, not even the significance of Visvarupa-darshan, has totally let Krishna down. "However," says Krishna, "I will keep my word. Sudden clouds will shower water in the desert; they shall be called 'Utanka-clouds' always". And they are: a stark epic reminder to transcend false divisions.

Renuka Narayanan writes on religion.