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Saturday, October 28, 2017

Balarama’s Pilgrimages (Book 9) - Maha Bharatha Series 50

Just when the famous duel between Duryodhana and Bhima is set to begin, Balarama shows up.

At the end of the Kurukshetra battle, Balarama, the elder brother of Krishna, shows up after a 42 pilgrimage to sacred waters (tirta yatra). In Balarama’s own words, he went away on a Pushya day and returned back on a Shravana day. He went away because he was initially against taking sides in the Kaurava- Pandava battle. Later, he sided with the Kauravas. Krishna opposed that idea and joined with the Pandavas. I did not find any good reasons mentioned in the book for Balarama’s position. Nor, did I find any good reason why Balarama went away during the war.

It is clear that the younger brother, Krishna, was more influential. After all, He is Lord Vishnu in person. It is also interesting that, during my visit to Kurukshetra, I saw two coins from around 100 BCE belonging to a Greek king in that part of the world with the images of Krishna and Balarama. May be, Maha Bharatha was already popular among the people by that time. May be, there was a major battle in that part of the world, and all the characters in this epic are mythologized counterparts of real-time kings and warriors.

Sage Vyasa is a great story-teller. He breaks the flow just at the right moment to keep us guessing and make us read further! I remember our younger days when we used to wait eagerly for the weekly editions of our Tamizh magazine (Kalki), when Ponniyin Selvan was being serialized!

Janamejaya wants to know about the places Balarama visited during those 42 days. And, Vyasa decides to take us on a pilgrimage with Balarama. Some of the points that impressed me are: 1. The importance given to pilgrimage as a way to please the “gods” and acquire merit (punya). 2. The importance given to bathing at sacred places (tirta yatra).  3. This is probably the beginning of bathing in 100 wells at the Rameswaram temple. Some of the names of those wells are the same as the ones in the Maha Bharatha. 3. In an earlier section, Vyasa describes various places visited by the Pandavas during their pilgrimage at the beginning of their exile. 4. As stated in several places in the Hindu literature, pilgrimage is as effective as the yagnas for folks, who are not entitled to perform them because of their caste, sex, wealth and position in the hierarchy of the society, to acquire merit (punya) and attain moksha. 5. I cannot escape noticing the excess and undue emphasis given to the importance of the Brahmins in the society and their relationship to the Kshatriyas.

In this section, there is a list of several sacrifices (Yagna) performed in those days. We have heard of Ashvamedha yagna and Rajasuya yagna. Here are the names of several others: agnihotra, darsa, paurnamasa, chaturmasya, agnishtoma, agnishutta, vajapeya,pundarika, sautramani, and dadasaha. Mentions are made of sacrificing the flesh of animals and of humans! Roberto Calasso mentions all these yagnas and also mentions one Purushamedha yagna, similar to Ashvamedha yagna in his book on Satapata Brahmana (Ka – Stories of the mind and Gods of India. Vintage. 1999). As the names suggests a horse is sacrificed in Ashvamedha yagna. But, in Purushamedha yagna, a human is tied to the sacrificial post and sanctified. At the end, he is untied and not sacrificed. But he must go into the forest.

Kanchi Periyaval talks about all these and more, summarized in Volume 2 of Deivathin kural.

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