In almost all myths, the low-born non-Aryan characters, from Bali to Barbareek to Eklavya to Karna, are presented as generous to the extent that none of them cry foul at being robbed of their life. In fact they willingly give it away. What does their lack of protest say? What kind of consciousness does it reflect? The essence of Indian civilization was not tolerance but violence. The profound religious conservatism of the people kept their consciousness enslaved. In the 1980s the tele-serialization of the stories of the Ramayana and Mahabharata, the flooding of the market with posters of Lord Ram wearing a crown and with his bow and quiver of arrows, and images of Bharat Mata holding a saffron flag were creating a new aesthetic [aggressive Hindu] sensibility. Communications technology would undergo other revolutions with the coming of the internet in the 1990s and social media, smartphones and hand handheld devices in the 2000s. Technology and communitarian propaganda were merry bedfellows [successfully operating in the creation of an environment of communal fear, hatred, and violence] (Vaidik 99-100).
In Barbareek’s name and physiognomy lie the socio-political secret that the myth harbours. The Puranas along with Jain texts and the Mahabharata list Barbaras (Barbareek’s namesake) as belonging to the Mleccha tribe. The word Mleccha or barbarian is a pejorative term used for ‘foreigners’ beyond the pale of varna system and people living on the extremities of civilization (especially tribes living in forest, coastal, mountain or frontier habitats). The language, physiognomy, customs and food habits of the Mlecchas were markers of difference. Barbareek was named for his bushy hair. In the Skanda Purana, his father Ghatotkacha says: ‘Beta! Tumhaare kesh barbarakaar (ghungrale) hain, isliye tumhara naam Barbareek hoga.’ Son! Your hair is Berber-like (curly), your name therefore will be Barbareek. In other folk tales Barbareek’s hair is likened to snakes (Barbareek ke kesh naag samaan thay). Although he was a son of the Pandavas, Barbareek was not an Aryan. Born of a demoness, he had the status of a Rakshas, or demon or a forest-dweller. His hair was a reference to his non-Aryan ‘Rakshasa’ origins.
The necessary precondition for Barbareek’s apotheosis in all the varied versions, however, was his sacrifice. In one version, the willing suicide of Barbareek at Krishna’s behest makes him the ritual/sacrificial victim (the sacrificed) but also the one making the offering (the sacrificer). Thus he is both the ritual sacrifice and the sacrificed. As the sacrifice he is actually substituting for the priest or the god because they are the ones entrusted with the ritual status to be the sacrificers. Thus the act of cutting his head confers on him the status enjoyed by the priests and gods. Interestingly, although Barbareek sacrificed his head, it is his body that gets sacrificed. He was allowed to live with only his head. In other words, he was allowed to live without his body. It is with his body that he would have defeated others in battle. So through the act of cutting off his head Barbareek is disembodied but embodied with divine status.
Barbareek’s sacrifice ensured that Arjuna’s status as the mighty warrior remained unchallenged because had he fought the battle, Barbareek would have upstaged Arjuna. As a ritual victim, Barbareek also served as the surrogate on behalf of his community and prevented the flood of violence that could have engulfed the entire community had Arjuna been eclipsed. So Barbareek’s individual sacrifice saved the forest people from the wrath of the Aryans. It deflected the violence away from his community. Barbareek’s disembodiment also guaranteed that no children would be born from his loins. The biological perpetuation of the vansha or lineage was a major concern in the story of the Mahabharata . Barbareek’s loss of body not oly wiped out Bhima’s lineage but secured that of Arjuna and Krishna. At the end of the great battle entre generations of sons and grandsons of the Pandavas were wiped out except the little infant Parikshit who was the grandson of Arjuna and Krishna’s great-nephew.
The Barbareek myth thus played a dual role: it maintained social cohesion and did so by normalizing or invisibilizing violence. The fact that he was not ‘really’ killed but continued to exist obviated Krishna’s guilt (of beheading him in one version and tricking him into cutting off his head in the other). The victim ultimately is not the victim because he does not get annihilated. As the Rig Veda says: ‘You do not really die through this, nor are you harmed. You go paths pleasant to go on.’ for the Lord is divine therefore sinless, he does not suffer the sins of killing; and the act of killing becomes one of sacrifice. The myth thus redeemed Krishna’s actions from criminality. Barbareek’s sacrifice created a morally pure universe where the Lord is simply the nimitt, the source of liberation. The end goal of acquiring divine status normalized the violence of the beheading. Apotheosis wrote out of violence. Can the myth of barbareek’s apotheosis instead be read as ‘Barbareekmedh’, the sacrifice of Barbareek.
Barbareek’s story is also one of miscegenation—racial intermixing through a sexual relationship. Such unions were socially accepted but never accorded ritual sanctity as they diluted the purity of the Aryan race. A person born out of an Aryan and non-Aryan union was in violation of the order of things. Barbareek’s body had to pay the price of this misalliance. Even the etymology of Barbareek’s name shows how everyday language, casual words used to describe an individual while appearing not to do so can disposses the person, erase their identity, their community, and their labour. Community names doubling up as words of abuse (Churha, Chamar, Bhangi) perpetuate depp-seated inequalities. The person of Barbareek, the snake-haired one, thus labelled and marked, was allowed to exist in the Aryan world. He was worshipped not as Barbareek but as Shyam. The mythological appropriation and co-option within the larger Hindu pantheon erased Barbareek’s identity. While his identity is erased his existence is not, it is simply invisibilized. He cannot be annihilated because he and his people were an important resource. If Barbareek was exterminated would cultivate the land, who would guard the forests, who would fight the battles, who would cremate and bury the dead, and who would remove the carcasses of dead cows? (Vaidik 71-76).
Eklavya and Karna
The story of Barbareek is akin to that of Eklavya and Karna, two characters from India’s great epic the Mahabharata. Eklavya is a Nishad (a community of forest hunters considered Mleccha) who is asked for his thub as gurudakshina by Dronacharya to diable him from wielding the bow; Karna is a sutaputra , the son of a chariot-driver (and the illegitimate child of Kunti, mother of the Pandavas) whose armour, the kavach-kundal, is asked for by Lord Indra rendering him defenseless in the battle. Barbareek, Eklavya, and Karna, all had ritually unacceptable birth status or societal location. All three were robbed of what was most precious to them in order to ensure Arjuna remained the mightiest of warriors. But how were their stories written? In the various stories, the historical victims were thePandavas who had their patrimony taken away by treachery, Krishna whose uncle tried to eliminate him at birth, and Draupadi who was violated by her own. Arjuna was decorated as the meritorious warrior who earned his status through hard work and personal merit; Krishna was anointed as the messenger of peace and the dharmaraj, the protector of dharma; Darupadi’s anger annihilated the Kaurava dynasty restoring her honour. However, it was Barbareek, Eklavya, and Karna who paid the blood price to make Arjuna the mightiest warrior and to avenge Draupadi. In return each was lauded as daanveer, generous and brave givers. It was their good fortune to have had their opportunity to serve the Lord and redeem the stain of low birth. They attained atonement in assisting Arjuna achieve his destiny (Vaidik 76-77).
There was another way the low-born Other could attain redemption. This was by acquiring the gaze of the dvijas, singing their praises, and by spinning myths of their divinity. Valmiki , the author of the Ramayana, was one such man who found deliverance in imbibing the oppressors’ ways of seeing the world, in telling the dvija’s story through the dvija’s gaze. Valmiki’s protagonists freely shame and kill the low-born characters in the epic. Be it Shambhuka, the Shudra ascetic, who is killed by Lord Ram for permorming tapaschharya, or penance, the Shudras were forbidden to perform; or Surpankha, whose nose is cut off for confessing love to an Aryan prince.
The unbearable irony of Valmiki’s storytelling is captured in a poem by the famous poet Sachchidanand Hiranand Agyeya, ‘Jo Pul Banayenge’:
Senaye ho jayengee par
Maare jayenge Ravan
jayee honge Ram
jo nirmata rahe
The armies shall cross
Ravan will be killed
Ram will be victorious
The builders/ labourers
Will be known as monkeys.
The poem is about the builders of the setu, the bridge that took Ram and his army across the ocean to Lanka. The setu builders assisted in Ram’s dharmayuddha against the immoral Ravana. They did all the labour but Valmiki wrote them into the story as monkeys. What mattered in the story was Ram’s victory not who or what made it possible. The merit lay in the victory not in building the bridge. The people who made possible Ram’s victory were anointed as primates and non-humans. Valmiki depicted the monkeys as beholden because they had got a chance to serve the Lord (Vaidik 76-78).
The story goes that King Bali, despite beingan Asura, was virtuous, restrained, and charitable. He once defeated Indra, the Lord of the Devtas, in a battle and subjugated Trailokya, the three worlds. His reign over the three worlds was known as Satya Yuga, the Golden Age.He was describe as a great ruler, a world guardian, a sacrifice, and giver of great gifts. The celestial nymphsincluding Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth came to serve Bali. Indra was unhappy with having lost his kingdom. He along with the other gods approached Brahma, the creator, and beseeched him to avenge his debacle.
King Bali in the meantime organized a sacrifice, the completion of which would have made him equal to Indra. At the start of the sacrifice, Bali declared that no one who attended the ceremony would be refused a boon. As the day progressed, a Vaman (a person of short stature) with matted hair, a stick, an umbrella, and a kamadala (a water pot) arrived at the spotand began reciting the Vedas. King Bali was extremely pleased and offered him a boon. Bali’s guru, Shukracharya, felt there was something fishy and asked Bali to restrain himself. Bali, however, demurred. He firmly stated that he had offered the Vaman a boon and he would not take back his word. He once again asked the Vaman what he desired. The Vaman asked for a simple boon. Give me as much land as I can cover in three steps. The moment Bali agreed, the Vaman transformed himself into a giant. Just like Krishna he acquired the virat roop. With one enormous step he covered the entire Bhuloka, this world; with the second, the Bhuvarloka, the world of the departed; and with the third, Svarloka, the heavens. With three steps he covered the cosmos and took Bali’s entire kingdom. Bali had now no place to go but to retreat to Pataal, the underworld. The Vaman was actually an incarnation of Vishnu (and the son of sage Kashyap and his wife Aditi) and had come to avenge Indra.
Why did the Vaman condemn and exile King Bali to Pataal? Why did he trick Bali into giving up his land? Bali’s crime was that he had transgressed the order of things. He had violated Asura’s dharma. First, an Asura was supposed to remain in the netherworld. To kno his place and not venture out from it. Bali’s first transgression was that he ventured beyond the nether world and captured the three realms and then tried to upstage Indra by performing the sacrifice. Secondly, an Asura was expected to be ‘adharmic’, that is, he was supposed to be disruptive, wily, and perform misdeeds of all kinds. His swadharma was not to follow dharma.
Bali transgressed his swadharma by being a righteous king. The Vamana Purana describes his reign thus: ‘The entire world stood still in nature and began compliance of religion. As evils ceased, the spiritual conscience took root undeviated.’ This was Bali’s splendor but also his transgression. He had not only gone beyond his swadharma but also made ‘time’ come to a standstill. He had interrupted the unceasing dynamic of othe world and thus disrupted the order of things. His punishment was that he was sent back to the netherworld restoring the order of things. And here is the twist of the story. While Indra was pleased to get his lands back, he was also impressed with Bali’s large-hearted generosity and granted the lord of the Asuras a boon. Bali would wear the title of Indra in the future to come as a reward for his benevolence. The way Barbareek bore the title of Krishna (Vaidik 84-87). Why would a man’s generosity be used against him? Why was Bali’s lands taken away by trickery?
Barbareek’s myth was startling as it raised more questions than it answered. If myths nurtured and affirmed a society’s sense of being, how was one to reconcile the apparent violence of myths and the notion that India was a land of spirituality, tolerance, and non-violence? If myths legitimate social institutions and practices then why would there be such savagery in the myths especially if Hinduism was a way of life that believed in vasudhaiva kutumbakam, the world is one family? If myths assist in the creation of and in the maintenance of social cohesion,why would India’s diversity which is a testament to Hinduism’s tolerance be decimated in the myth? If myths anchor our present in the past, in which past was the notion that India was a land of non-violence anchored? Clearly the world of myths and what one knew of India’s wasn’t adding up.
Myths’s Role in Invisibilizing Violence
Myths have played a very important role in normalizing and invisibilizing violence in its various forms—pejorative naming, erasure of personhood, disembodying Barbareek, robbing Eklavya’s thumb, asking Karna for his kavach-kundal, all done in the name of maintaining the order of things. This was blood justice. Our gods kill only to raise the Others to the divine status. Violence inflicted by gods doesn’t remain violence but becomes a narrative of redemption and liberation. Even violent battles and lynchings become dharmayuddha. Shrouded and concealed in religious myths, this was India’s secret history of blood justice (Vaidik 81-82).
Vaidik, Aparna. My Son’s Inheritance: A Secret History of Lynching and Blood Justice in India. New Delhi: Aleph Book Company, 2020. Print.
Abu Siddik teaches at Plassey College, West Bengal, India. He is a bilingual author and has been published in India and abroad. He has three critical books— Representation of the Marginalized in Indian Writings in English (Falakata College Cell, 2015), Misfit Parents in Faulkner’s Select Texts (Authorspress, 2015), Banglar Musolman (Sopan, 2018); two poetry books and a short story, published by Authorspress in 2020 —Rugged Terrain, Whispering Echoes, A Birdwatcher and Other Stories. Website: www.abusiddik.com