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Mahabharata XV (po polsku)
|Desire Came upon that One in the Beginning||
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First posted: 07 December 2003.
Last revised: 24 May 2006.
“Good” violence versus “Bad”:
A Girardian analysis of
King Janamejaya’s Snake Sacrifice
and Allied Events
Abstract. If we try to understand the significance of the vindictive curse cast upon the Sacrificial Fire by the vengeful sage Bhrgu, and of its consequences – if we seek to grasp the meaning of the circumstances surrounding the birth of the great bird Garuda, his struggle against his snake siblings, his successful quest for the divine Soma, and his conflict and ultimate accommodation with Indra – and if we examine the vicious Snake Sacrifice of King Janamejaya, how these prior events led up to it, and how it is surprisingly aborted – we find ourselves in the presence of metaphors and imagery whose content is not easy to grasp.
We shall argue, following the well-developed complex of insights that René Girard has developed in his extensive studies on violence and the sacred, that everywhere their focus is on the differentiation of “bad” violence from “good,” and on the necessity to block the “bad” violence of uncontrolled reprisal (which Girard’s mimetic theory describes as part of a mimetic cycle of desire, rivalry, revenge, and retribution) by means of the controlled “good” violence of appropriate sacred ritual – which, alas, despite religion’s meticulous care to distinguish the good from the bad, can all too easily degenerate, thanks to the mimetic mechanism Girard has uncovered, into “bad” violence all over again.
2. The Sacrificial Fire
4. The Snake Sacrifice
5. Concluding Remarks
Certain manifestations of mimesis or mimetic rivalry will already be familiar, such as ducklings following their mother, children imitating their parents’ behavior, apprentices learning from their masters, or again neighbors outdoing each other in the care of their lawns, the size of their TV’s, or the luxury of their automobiles. The fabled blood-feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys is another example, one rather more to our point, in that the violence involved, each act of retribution mimetically triggering a fresh reprisal, cannot end until the two families succeed in completely annihilating one another.
René Girard, a French-American scholar now Professor Emeritus at Stanford University in California, has developed a rich mimetic theory that finds such mimetic mechanisms at work in the Bible, in the works of Shakespeare, and elsewhere. In his mimetic analyses of violence and the sacred, Girard sees the principal aim of religion as being putting an end to violence, stopping all “bad” violence by means of suitable “good” violence, incorporated into religious rituals in a form often so highly sublimated or purely symbolic that the generative violence it is based on becomes virtually imperceptible. He reveals an endless cycle of mimetic desire, rivalry, revenge, and retribution, leading in a self-catalyzing cascade to wave upon escalating wave of mimetically inspired reciprocal violence, ever broadening in scope, that does not end until one ultimate victim succumbs to all the rest. Only then does a new order come to pass, again mimetically sustained, in which the same mimetic imperative now compels religiously approved ethical behavior.
The death of this victim is what Girard therefore calls the “founding murder” of the new order – it is somehow the “last word” of violence, so climactic that by its example all further violence is stopped dead in its tracks. Indeed it is the death of this solitary victim, who, though demonized before being slain, becomes deified thereafter, that serves as model for subsequent rituals of sacrifice, being the archetype of the “good” violence that will serve as curative against the “bad” symmetric violence that the mimetic mechanism of Girard’s theory would otherwise repeatedly engender, as it will should ever the distinction between “good” and “bad” violence become ambiguous.
Indeed, an implicit preoccupation with the distinction between “good” violence and “bad” and, for that matter, an innate awareness of the whole Girardian mechanism, underlie much of the Mahabharata, rising most conspicuously to the surface in the telling of the following three interconnected episodes: the curse of the sage Bhrgu upon the sacrificial fire, the birth and early adventures of Garuda, and the Great Snake Sacrifice of King Janamejaya.
The first of our three episodes is an attempt to describe the etiology of the phenomenon, presumably a familiar one, that sacrificial rituals can fail, and to prescribe how to avert such failure. It focuses on the sacrificial fire burning amiably in its hearth in the abode where dwell the sage Bhrgu and his wife Pulomā. Bhrgu himself is introduced as “foremost of those who carry on the Law,” and his wife characterized as “impeccable” – even the sacrificial fire, “striving for the Law” and speaking only truth, is dedicated solely to consuming with his many tongues of flame the oblations offered unto the Gods (and ancestors), whose mouth he is. This fire is the epitome of “good” violence. And yet the fire’s very dedication to virtue alone contains within it the seed of cancerous disorder that is about to engulf this well-ordered universe, contaminating it with “bad” violence, and so corrupting the sacrificial rituals that they will fail. Here is how the Mahabharata tells it.
While Pulomā was heavy with Bhrgu’s unborn child, but on a day that the sage himself was away, a certain wandering Rakshasa, or demon, coincidentally named Puloman, happens upon Bhrgu’s abode, enters, and seeing Pulomā, instantly becomes “possessed by love.” Desire having come upon this “love-struck Rakshasa,” he means to abduct Pulomā. Puloman implores the pure, bright sacrificial fire to confirm whether Pulomā is not in fact the Rakshasa’s own “chosen” and once-promised bride, whose father later broke that troth when he “married her off to Bhrgu.” Thus is this desire revealed as a mimetic desire, perhaps even the mirror of an earlier mimetic desire that had come upon Bhrgu. For if so, he goes on, he will ([M], p. 57)
‘carry her off … . For a fury has been burning my heart that Bhrgu should have got the slim-waisted wife that was mine first!’
And thus does the triangle of desire engender the first violent stage of a cycle of revenge: Puloman would do unto Bhrgu as Bhrgu had done unto Puloman, abscond with Pulomā.
The fire, of course, though speaking only truth, is somewhat stayed by discretion, and therefore hesitates long before answering, cryptically, and in a whisper ([M], p. 57), “I am no less fearful of speaking untruth than of Bhrgu’s curse.” Hereupon the Rakshasa seizes Pulomā, but, before he can carry her off, Pulomā is delivered of Bhrgu’s son: “wrathfully,” he “falls from his mother’s womb to set her free.” And indeed, at the mere sight of this babe, shining bright as the blazing sun, the demon Rakshasa is turned into ashes. The cycle of revenge has passed unto the second generation.
But the reciprocal violence does not end here. When Bhrgu learns of this encounter, and hears from Pulomā how the fire had betrayed her to the Rakshasa by not concealing that she was Bhrgu’s wife, he becomes so enraged at its indiscriminate telling of truth that he lays a curse upon the sacrificial fire, condemning it, henceforth, likewise to consume not only the specially prepared sacrificial offerings that had hitherto been its diet, but also absolutely anything at all. In this way the ambit of retribution has gotten displaced from its proper target, the Rakshasa, to the truthful fire, contaminating its “good” violence with “bad.”
The fire is aghast. How can it remain pure and bright, how can it serve as the undefiled mouth of the Gods, if it will be compelled to consume absolutely anything? It will indiscriminately be dispensing both “good” and “bad” violence, without any distinction between them. Utterly dismayed by the fate Bhrgu has cursed it with, but too respectful of the Law to wish to continue the cycle of revenge, say, by pronouncing a retaliatory curse upon the sage, and perhaps aware that a simple abstinence from speech would have served better in response to the Rakshasa than speaking truth, the fire now resolves to abstain entirely from consuming anything, to consume nothing at all, to refrain utterly from accepting the oblations offered it. This decision, too, however, has bad consequences: it so impoverishes the sacrosanct rituals that they can no longer function effectively. The rituals fail, and all creatures suffer. The root cause of this failure, of course, is plainly the escalating reciprocal violence, erupting from the triangle of desire centered around Pulomā, in complete conformity with Girard’s mimetic theory.
Out of their concern that “the innocent three worlds have lost their rites and lost the way” ([M], p. 59), the seers and the Gods approach the Lord Brahma to appeal to him to lift Bhrgu’s curse so that the holy sacrificial fire might once again fuel the rituals. But a curse may never be lifted, not even by a God. It may only be revised, modified, amended, as it were, by a footnote, or a clarification; Brahma’s clarification was this: that while one of the fire’s many tongues of flame might be condemned to consume absolutely anything, the others would not be, but would continue to be fed only sacrificial offerings, as before; and that even the tongue that would consume anything would not cause defilement of the sacrificial fire, because that tongue would actually purify everything it came in contact with, no matter how impure that matter might previously have been. In this way the benefits of the “good” violence of the sacrificial rituals are restored again, but not in an entirely satisfactory way, as the distinction between “good” violence and “bad” has become blurred: it becomes impossible to be sure which is the “good” violence and which the “bad.” Nonetheless, thus reassured, the fire consents once again to take up its role as devourer of sacrificial offerings, as perpetrator of “good” violence, and to accept without further complaint the “bad” violence it must also perpetrate because of Bhrgu’s curse.
Gods and seers alike rejoice at this diplomatic compromise, as do all the creatures of the earth; even the fire, “his guilt wiped out,” is content. Still, things are no longer as they were. For the fire is no longer the purveyor of “good” violence unalloyed, but of unpredictable, uncontrollable “bad” violence as well. In fact by the time Garuda is born, the fire will be more feared for his unpredictable violent appetite than revered for his role in sacrificial ritual, as we are about to see, and still later a sacrificial ritual will be undertaken – King Janamejaya’s Sacrifice – that will be revealed to be so full of “bad” violence and so devoid of “good” – not sacrificial offering but extirpatory massacre – that it must be stopped before it can fully run its course.
Let us turn now to Garuda, the magnificent bird deity acclaimed early on ([M], p. 78) as “the finisher of all that is, … firelike, destroying and ending the revolution of the Eon.” Garuda is a complex, multi-faceted figure, in whose story are manifested all the phenomena of “bad” violence that go into the Girardian mimetic theory, not the least of which will be the ultimate sacrificial (generative) violence that finally stops the “bad” violence and provides a model for the “good.”
On the one hand, he is the deity fulfilling the prophecy, uttered in curse against Indra by certain ascetic Valakhilyas retaliating for a perceived humiliation in the course of preparing a sacrificial session Garuda’s father Kaķyapa had commissioned, long before Garuda’s birth, in order to assure the birth of a worthy son ([M], p. 86):
‘There shall be another Indra to all the Gods with every power at his call, and with every rage at his will, who shall be the terror of Indra.’
More exactly, according to this prophecy whose gradual fulfillment proceeds from the moment Garuda is born until he has become even more than the equal of Indra himself, he is to be “an Indra of birds.” Indeed, Garuda hatches from an egg, emerging fully grown, a great bird, utterly splendid in mass and coloration, and immediately takes wing into the heavens where, “ablaze like a kindled mass of fire,” he so dazzles and transfixes the Gods that, cowering before him, fearing him as they have come to fear the sacrificial fire, they plead with him not to burn them. It is finally the Fire, not Garuda, who laughingly explains ([M], p. 78), “The case is not as you deem it, Gods and Dānavas. This is the powerful Garuda, who is my equal in fieriness.” At this the assembled Gods hail Garuda with the acclamation already cited above.
Back at home, on the other hand, Garuda begins as little more than slave to his thousand contemptuous siblings, or more accurately, cousins, or perhaps still more accurately, step-brothers, born earlier, as snakes, to his mother’s sister. Or again, at one particularly critical juncture, he must momentarily contract his body into a very diminutive form so as to pass unscathed through a particularly fiendish celestial obstacle, a whirling razor-studded wheel that would have sliced him to ribbons had he not been able so to diminish his size and to synchronize his flight with its motion as to merge into a space between its blades and emerge unharmed in the space beyond.
As tiny creature before this death-dealing obstacle, and as slave to his snake-siblings, Garuda is an insignificant nothing. As great brilliant bird, terror to the Gods in his fieriness, and challenger to Indra, he is powerful deity. At other moments we will see him feeding upon “bad” violence, engaging ferociously in “bad” violence, inciting others to “bad” violence amongst themselves, and finally, with one gesture, stopping all the violence at once.
These conflicting images begin to suggest that behind the figure of Garuda there lies hidden an oblique reference to a now-forgotten scapegoating victim, first belittled, then demonized, later “sacrificed,” and finally deified; certainly, they quite explicitly reveal the first and last stages, and they at least hint provocatively at the intermediate ones, hints reinforced by the nature of the further events he is involved in, which we view as a classic illustration of the Girardian mechanism by which “bad” violence progress from the rudimentary violence of ill will, through the violence of all against one, beyond even the cataclysmic paroxysm of violence in which all battle all, to the ultimate “good” violence, the symbolic violence of restrained self-mortification or self-sacrifice, that finally puts an end to all “bad” violence.
How can this be? Consider to begin with the world into which Garuda was born. In social relations of all sort, ethical standards of behavior have been displaced by “bad” violence – by a readiness to take offence, by vengeful retaliations, by rivalry, by duplicitous manipulation of the truth. The Valakhilyas, though ascetic sages, take such deep affront at Indra’s jesting ridicule of their paltry contribution (a single dry leaf) to the stock of fuel for the ritual Kaķyapa has organized that, despite their piety, they avenge their honor by cursing Indra, prophesying his loss of ascendancy. The two sisters Kadru and Vinata, daughters of Prajapati, vie, as wives of Kaķyapa, over which will have more or better sons, Kadru wishing for a thousand sons, Vinata for just two, but each superior to her sister’s. Impatient to see how her sons (who have not hatched yet) will compare with her sister’s (who have, all thousand of them snakes), Vinata helps crack her first egg’s shell, causing her first son, Aruna, to hatch only half-formed, before his time. This son, so piqued at his mother for interfering with his full development, abandons her to become the rosy dawn, but not before laying a curse upon her, condemning her to become her sister’s slave. And the rival sisters Kadru and Vinata themselves, each eager to dominate the other, enter into a wager whose outcome will determine which of them is to become the slave of the other.
The wager, incidentally, is whether, once they go to see him in his distant land across the ocean the next day, a certain fabled horse, famous among other things for his pure-white coat, will prove in fact to be the color one of them is now to predict. Vinata, naive, and eager to dispel Aruna’s curse, predicts he is white. Kadru, equally bent on winning, but more duplicitous, and ready to stand truth on its head, instructs her snake sons to swim overnight to land of this horse and so intricately to braid themselves into its tail as to blacken it with their intertwined bodies. In anger at her sons’ initial reluctance to obey, Kadru lays a curse upon them all, condemning them and their eventual progeny to total annihilation in a future Great Snake Sacrifice. And even Brahma finds these snakes so “harsh,” so excessively numerous, so given to violent bickering amongst themselves, so unconcerned with their own spiritual development, and so frequently killing innocent creatures with their venom, that apart from contemplating a possible exception for such snakes, if any, as might be striving for greater spirituality, he takes no real action, as he sometimes does, to have Kadru somehow temper this curse, but simply thinks, with a certain relief, the Mahabharatan equivalent of “Good riddance.” Now accursed, they accede to their mother’s wish, and on the morrow, when both sisters witness this white horse with its unexpectedly black tail, Vinata must concede she has lost the wager and is now her sister’s slave. This, then, is the rivalry-ridden, violence-torn world into which Garuda is born.
For Garuda is born just while his mother is away learning the sad outcome of her wager. Returning to his mother after his first fledgling flight into the heavens, he learns he has inherited his mother’s status of slave to Kadru and to her snake-sons. So now we have all the snakes, and their mother, aligned against Garuda, and his mother, to keep them both in bondage. And yet, in time, the snakes’ hopes for a remedy against their own mother’s curse become aligned with Garuda’s hopes for liberation from his condition of slavery, as follows: the snakes will release Garuda and Vinata from their bondage if Garuda will foray forth into the heavens to find, purloin, and bring back to the snakes the Gods’ Soma, their divine elixir of immortality, with which the snakes hope to ensure their survival. Is this the snakes’ perfidious way of condemning Garuda, slave who wants his freedom, to certain death, by sending him on a fool’s errand that he would surely never come back from alive? In any event, with all his snake-siblings arrayed against him, it is a mission Garuda readily undertakes.
So Garuda, born to be Indra’s undefeated perfect rival, and indeed an Indra himself, takes off into the heavens, or rather, begins to do so, but is suddenly overcome by pangs of hunger. At the advice of his father Kaķyapa, he betakes himself to a certain lake where are to be found an enormous elephant and equally outsize turtle, once two brothers, so joined in a circle of “bad” symmetric violence, so hostile one toward the other, that each has changed the other into his current animal form, the better to destroy him. Sure enough, Garuda finds these violent monstrous doubles, “mad with battle fury, each out to vanquish the other” ([M], pp. 82-83), gathers them up, devours them, and continues on his mission.
Garuda, in feeding on their violence, both destroys the “bad” symmetric violence of these monstrous doubles and fortifies himself for the violence to come, once he reaches the heavens, where he will now find all the Gods, headed by Indra, arrayed against him ([M], p. 88):
the celestials, armored and led by Indra, all rained blows on him with their three-bladed spears, clubs, pikes, bludgeons, and all manners of swords, and with sharp-edged disks that resembled the sun. On all sides assailed by the onslaught of these weapons, the Kings of Birds remained unshaken and waged a tumultuous battle.
Where once all the snakes had been arrayed in opposition to Garuda, now it is all the Gods. But Garuda’s gigantic and indomitable presence so confuses the Gods that they cannot quite find him; consequently, aware only that they must do battle, they wind up doing battle amongst themselves, wounding and maiming and slaughtering each other, a community in mimetic crisis, undergoing Girardian paroxysms of reciprocal violence, until none among them remains to oppose Garuda as he negotiates the last physical obstacles, whirling razor-studded wheel among them, separating him from the Soma.
Once in possession of that magical elixir, Garuda is beset by none other than Indra himself, two Indras now in battle over the elixir: the original divinity Indra, and Garuda, his double, the Indra of birds. The battle is a stand-off – it finally ends when Indra smites Garuda forcefully with his most fearsome weapon, his thunderbolt, “greater than all that flies,” and, to his astonishment, succeeds only in loosening of one of Garuda’s feathers – which Garuda, in an uncharacteristic act of self-sacrifice, unpredictably plucks free and lets go, thereby magically ushering in a new peace. Here is how the Mahabharata describes it, beginning with the polished and diplomatic words of Garuda ([M], pp. 89-90):
‘I pay honor to the seer from whose bone the thunderbolt has sprung, and to the thunderbolt, and to you yourself, God of the Hundred Sacrifices. Here I let go of one feather, and you will never explore its ends. For the blow of your thunderbolt did not hurt me at all.’
And, seeing the beauty of the feather, all creatures exclaimed, astounded: ‘He must be the Fair-Winged Bird!’ And upon witnessing this marvel, (Indra) the Sacker of Cities of the thousand eyes reflected that the Bird was a great being, and he said: ‘I wish to learn the farthest limit of your incomparable strength; and I want eternal friendship with you, greatest of birds!’
Twice the target of the hostility of all, once on earth from all his snake-brothers, once in the heavens from all the Gods, but now master of the divine elixir of immortality, Garuda has become the highest deity of all: with the Soma under his control, it is his good will on which depend the lives of both Gods and snakes. Indra himself, seeing in that elixir his only hope for the restoration of the slain Gods, is reduced to begging for the Soma’s return. Now Garuda has no need of it himself, Vishnu having granted him the boon of immortality in recognition of his heroism in dealing with Indra and the Gods under him. So, mindful of his bargain with the snakes, calling for him to bring the Soma back to them, and yet quite content to see it ultimately in Indra’s hands, so that the slain Gods may be revived, he proposes the following ([M], p. 90):
‘It was with some purpose in mind that I stole this Soma. I shall not give it to anyone to partake of. But, God of the thousand eyes, when I myself shall put it down anywhere, you can take it at once and carry it off.’
Accordingly, and true to his word to the snakes, Garuda then bears the Soma back to the snakes, who now therefore revere him as a god, and, before allowing them to partake of it, urges them all to cleanse themselves appropriately in a nearby river. Next, true to his word to Indra, and while the snakes are still engaged in their ablutions, Garuda sets the Soma down upon the ground, so that Indra can come reclaim it for the good of the Gods. When the snakes return, of course, they must set Garuda and Vinata free, even though the Soma is no longer theirs, while Indra, out of gratitude for the Soma, with which he can restore to life all the slain Gods, rewards Garuda with the right to feed upon snakes; and Garuda, free now, and Indra’s best friend, occupies a position higher not only than Indra, but higher even than Vishnu himself, to preside, as in his battle against the Gods, over the tumultuous processes of destruction at the end of an Eon and creation in the beginning of a new.
And only perhaps the feather Garuda yielded to Indra’s thunderbolt, the feather whose ends he predicted Indra would never fully explore, that feather whose incomparable beauty caused all the creatures seeing it to exclaim, “He must be the Fair-winged Bird,” only this feather, this scapegoat-like offering, chosen quite haphazardly for sacrifice, remains as a palpable indication, within the Mahabharata, of an actual death of a real scapegoat, a real victim of collective violence, victim the other ingredients of this tale all hint, circumstantially, might be personified by Garuda, while the bickering snakes may well represent the violence-riddled culture that claimed this victim.
4. The Snake Sacrifice
But let us move on to the Great Snake Sacrifice authorized by the King Janamejaya. This will be the event fulfilling the prophecy Kadru incorporated into the curse she laid upon her thousand snake children when they initially refused her order to go turn the white horse’s tail black. But that refusal, and that curse, will not be primary among King Janamejaya’s motivations. Nor will he be motivated, even nominally, by all the snake traits Brahma himself found so repulsive at the time of Kadru’s curse – their numerousness, their quarrelsomeness, their random killing of too many innocent victims, their general character as public nuisance. In point of fact, the snakes, or at least some of them, have become less repugnant. For these, emulation of it is Garuda, their former slave now deified upon his triumphant return with the miraculous Soma – of his mastery over self, of his readiness to remain unprovoked to vengeful retaliation – that holds out the only remaining viable hope, now that the Soma is back in Indra’s possession, for freeing themselves of their mother Kadru’s curse. They therefore turn to religion, renouncing their former harshness and quarrelsomeness, and choosing instead a path of meditation, spirituality, study of the sacred writings, austerity, self-improvement, and self-mortification as the way to their salvation. The most advanced of these even aspire to Brahmin status. Yet others, however, remain wholly unregenerate, Takšaka, the King of the Snakes, most notable among them.
It is Takšaka, for example, who steals from the sage Utanka, much to that sage’s everlasting annoyance, the earrings that he had gone to great lengths to procure so as to present them to his guru as a token of his gratitude for all his guru’s teachings. And it is Takšaka who takes it upon himself, with the approval of Indra, to kill Parikšit, father of King Janamejaya, in fulfillment of the curse laid upon Parikšit by the outraged son of an ascetic seer whom Parikšit had once humiliated by draping as a necklace around his neck and shoulders the corpse of a dead snake, in repayment for the seer’s having been so engrossed in his meditations as to have failed utterly to respond to Parikšit’s attempt at conversation. Clearly, envy, hostility, retaliation, and retribution have not yet vanished from the scene.
And it is vengeance against this Takšaka that constitutes the primary motivation for King Janamejaya’s great sacrifice. For the very sage Utanka from whom Takšaka stole those earrings, still nursing his old grudge against Takšaka despite having ultimately recovered those precious earrings and presented them to his guru, seeks revenge by informing King Janamejaya of Takšaka’s role in the murder of Parikšit, the King’s father, and urging the King to avenge his father’s death by dealing death in turn to Takšaka. The King’s cabinet of priests and sages, however, find such a primitive revenge far too unworthy: the far more sanctified course of action they advise is that it be the King who bring to fruition the original curse of Kadru, that King Janamejaya organize the Great Sacrificial Session that will extirpate all snakes, Takšaka just one more among them all. They do not see that, far from purifying the violence of the King’s desire for revenge, they are instead amplifying it into a bad violence of absolutely stupefying scope and magnitude. It will be another instance of sacrifice, defiled by bad violence, gone horribly wrong.
And so everything is dutifully prepared. The bright flames of the great sacrificial fire, who now can consume anything, lick out in eager anticipation, the priests and sages casts their spells, and, gradually, caught up in these spells, weakened and confused by them, snakes from all around begin falling to their deaths in the sacrificial flames, much as the Gods under Indra, disoriented by the flailing wings and snatching talons of a seemingly omnipresent and indestructible Garuda, had began slaughtering each other.
Meanwhile, as has been mentioned, some of the snakes have been seeking to transcend their reptilian nature, to attain higher spiritual values through study, self-mortification, and following the path of the Law. One of the most advanced of these, Vāsuki by name, had the good fortune to raise up the hybrid sage-snake child of his own sister Jaratkaru and a certain celibate ascetic, the solitary sage likewise named Jaratkaru, who accepted Vāsuki’s sister as bride only because Vāsuki had offered her in the manner one offers any other alms, and because his own ancestors had implored him to beget a son, lest they wither away in the absence of any living progeny at Jaratkaru’s own death.
This child Āstika, raised by his uncle Vāsuki and his sister (the celibate father having abandoned both mother and child over some trespass by the mother), has advanced to Brahmin status, with spiritual powers so great that he is fully protected against the magical spells sweeping other snakes to their fiery deaths. His will be the miraculous gift to put an end to the bad violence of this ritual slaughter. Arriving at the place of the sacrifice, he so skillfully praises the sacrifice and so flatteringly lauds the King and his sacrificial priests that the King is moved to grant him as boon whatever wish he will make known just as the King’s prime target Takšaka is about to drop into the flames.
But Takšaka has not yet been seen. Indeed, Takšaka had sought and obtained the protection of Indra, confessing and repenting of all his evil deeds and ways. And Indra, meaning to visit the great sacrifice, yet not willing to leave Takšaka behind and unprotected, bid Takšaka hide himself within Indra’s robes. Only then did he make his appearance at the great ritual. King Janamejaya, aware that Indra is protecting Takšaka, extends his lust for vengeance so far as to include even Indra in its scope, shouting ([M], p. 119), “Priests! If Takšaka the Snake is in Indra’s keeping, then hurl him into the fire with Indra himself!” So once again we have two Indras in opposition against each other, with who knows what disastrous calamity in the offing, two monstrous doubles, not this time Garuda, the Indra of birds, but King Janamejaya, the Indra of his earthly subjects, facing off against the celestial Indra, who had, after all, looked approvingly upon Takšaka’s killing of Parikšit – for the sake not this time of the Soma, but of Takšaka.
Poor Takšaka, meanwhile, though hidden in Indra’s robe, and ostensibly under Indra’s protection, becomes so confused and weakened by the magical incantations that he falls out of his hiding place within Indra’s garments, raises his head to the skies, and, in his weakness and confusion, is nearly about to fall into the sacrificial fire. This, then – so decree the priests – is the moment for Āstika to make known the boon he wishes, and for the King to grant it. Alas for the King, but not a moment too soon for Takšaka, Āstika utters his wish ([M], p. 120): “I choose that your Session be stopped and no more Snakes come down.” Thus would this “bad” violence be brought to an end, the unthinkable calamity averted, and the King’s will to have Takšaka and the remaining snakes all reduced to mere ashes, thwarted.
Furious at such a request, the King tries by all possible means to coax Āstika into changing his wish, for he would sooner even break his royal promise than grant such a boon. But the priests, “knowing their Veda” ([M], p. 120), compel the King to relent, to follow the Law, to grant the boon he has promised, to let go, as Garuda let go his feather, his desire for revenge, to call a halt to the sacrifice, and thus both to spare Takšaka, with all his remaining kin, and to desist from further enmity with Indra. Again we have the parallel: just as Garuda, in contention with Indra over the Soma, ultimately relinquishes the Soma to Indra again, so King Janamejaya is to relinquish Takšaka to the protection, however imperfect, of Indra, and to renounce all further desire of revenge.
This premature termination of the Sacrificial Session, like the release of Garuda’s feather, becomes the source of great satisfaction to all the participants: all are relieved that an improper and unworthy revenge, sanctimoniously garbed as a Great Ritual Sacrifice, but in fact the very worst of a devastatingly bad violence, corrupt and impure at its very core, was being nipped in the bud. Only perhaps the ravenous sacrificial fire, cheated of yet further serpentine morsels, may have been disconsolate, but the Mahabharata does not say. What is clear is that this Sacrificial Session truly was the epitome of “bad” violence, a senseless mass extermination motivated only by a base desire for retribution and not by any religious principles at all. Equally clear is that the selfless boon sought by the Brahminic snake-sage Āstika, whose highly advanced spirituality stemmed from his lifelong dedication to the discipline of “good” violence in the form of devoted study, deep meditation, and determined self-sacrifice and abstemiousness – that the King simply end the Ritual – issued from the conviction that even the King must take inspiration from the example Garuda provided in ending his symmetric violence with Indra, when, in a single grand gesture, he let go both his injured feather and with it any lingering desire for further retaliation: the King, too, must put aside his evil desire for revenge. And put it aside he does.
Takšaka, of course, was spared, as was Āstika’s uncle Vāsuki, whose nephew’s spiritual powers were able to protect him in any event from all harm. And King Janamejaya was able to continue his rule without further displays of vengeance. The “bad” violence, which admittedly did result in the tragic death of a multitude of snakes in the all-consuming flames of the sacrificial fire, was once again contained, thanks to the timely arrival of Indra, the helplessness of Takšaka, whom Indra proved unable to protect, and the Brahminic wisdom of Āstika. The sacrificed snakes were, somehow, the price to be paid for learning, once again, how to purge the sacrificial ritual of its “bad” violence.
The rituals of sacrifice, first threatened with becoming ineffective through the contamination of the once pure sacrificial fire as a result of Bhrgu’s curse, and now shown to be doubly capable of “bad” violence as a result of the priests’ readiness to turn the letter of the Law against the spirit of the Law in furtherance of one powerful ruler’s personal vendetta, are so out of control that only “letting go” of them, as Garuda let go his injured feather, can forestall the devastating harm they are apt to cause. This, then, may be the Mahabharata’s current lesson regarding the twin problems of how “good” violence can turn to “bad,” and how to make it “good” again.
We began this metaphoric analysis of King Janamejaya’s Great Snake Sacrifice with a study of the curse cast upon the Sacrificial Fire by the vengeful sage Bhrgu. The point the Mahabharata makes in this episode is that “good” violence can somehow be contaminated by “bad” – the Mahabharata even reveals portions of the classic Girardian mechanism of mimetic desire, consequent mimetic rivalry, and subsequent unrestrained revenge and retaliation as the source of such contamination. And Brahma’s “solution” to the resulting failure of the sacred rituals, the advice, in effect, to accept the bad with the good, as a necessary price for the good, only further obscures the distinction between “good” violence and “bad,” no matter how joyfully it is first welcomed as a resolution of the problem of failed sacrifice.
The Snake Sacrifice itself, in particular, is an extreme example of the consequences of such confusion between “good” violence and “bad.” For it is in reality the worst kind of “bad” violence – the final almost apocalyptic, retaliatory response in yet another chain of mimetic rivalry and revenge – but cloaked in the apparent respectability of a sacred sacrificial ritual. The solution here, however, as Āstika offers it, is not to accept the bad, but to stop it: in this instance, to force the vengeance-bent King to renounce his desire for revenge. And the basis for this solution seems to live in the example Garuda provides.
The Garuda episode, in addition, seems to illustrate a full cycle of the Girardian mimetic mechanism. Even before Garuda’s birth, mimetic desire, mimetic rivalry, mimetic revenge are rampant. Garuda himself is depicted in mimetic roles that are various and almost contradictory: he starts as victim in relation to his snake-siblings; he becomes destroyer of “bad” violence when he devour the monstrous doubles of elephant and turtle; he is the sacrificial one against whom all the Gods under Indra are arrayed; he is the former victim deified by his snake-siblings upon his return with the Soma; but primarily, for us, his is the example how to end “bad” violence, in his choice to let go his damaged feather and to forgo vengeance against Indra for causing that damage.
It is this lesson of renunciation of vengeance that Āstika succeeds in peaceably forcing upon King Janamejaya, bringing the King’s “bad” violence to an end before it could fully attain the apocalyptic proportions it intended. Here, at last, truly “bad” violence masquerading as “good” has been unmasked and successfully thwarted.
[M] The Mahābhārata, 1. The Book of the Beginning, Translated and Edited by J.A.B. van Buitenen, The University of Chicago Press, 1983.