Last Republic Day while talking to a gathering of my colleagues after the flag hoisting I was serendipitously reminded of a story from the Mahabharat in the context of survival instinct. The story was about Bhima who killed the demon called Baka. Of course the obvious intention of the writer of the epic was to show how powerful was Bhima, the second of the Pandava brothers. But a close reading of the story reveals how we indulge in funny things just to ensure our survival even to this day. This is probably is the remnant of our ancient mindset, say the spontaneous technique adopted to survive the primordial ordeals.
The story goes something like this. The Pandavas were lucky to escape the burning house into which they were deceitfully led. It was Vidura who knew the conspiracy even before the mishap actually befell the pitiable characters. The Pandavas were tipped off by Vidura, their uncle who had a scent of this secret information. However, escaping the danger of being burnt to ashes, the Pandavas and their mother were running from place to place, trying not to be found out by the Kauravas.
It was during their aimless wanderings that they came to a village called Ekachakra and became the guests of a Brahmin family. During their sojourn they came to know that their host was really tense. The master of the house could not decide what to do except offering himself along with a cartload of food to the demon Baka to be devoured. It was the agreement. The villagers, in order to escape the anger and the lurking possibility of extermination in one go, had decided to placate the demon by offering a fortnightly quota of food which included a human. It was a funny agreement, but had worked so far, nevertheless. The Brahmin family consisted of the Brahmin himself, his wife and a daughter. Now if the Brahmin offered himself to be eaten by the demon, who would take care of the family? There would be a widow and a fatherless girl left to face the vagaries of a pitiable existence. Pathetic, wasn't it so?
Then the story goes on and succeeds making its point how powerful Bhima was. For a gluttonous fellow like him, famished for days on end, it was an opportunity he was waiting to grab. For his mother, it was a relief to find so much food coming as a godsend for her ravenous son. Which mother doesn't like to see her son finishing every morsel of food served to him? That's where the pleasure of breastfeeding comes from, isn't it? Anyway, Kunti was happy to offer her son Bhima to be eaten by the demon Baka, or rather to eat himself the share of the demon and finally to kill him. A funny sequence in the epic, after all.
Finally, as all the readers of the epic would expect the course of the event should lead to, Bhima kills Baka and makes everybody happy. The beginners and the children like the story. I had once liked it too. There is a hero living up to the expectation of the readers--the story is not only told but also unfolded with much to be seen. Don't they say a story is not to be told only; it is to be shown?
My quibble is that if the villagers could come together to decide on offering themselves to be eaten by the demon, why did they not agree to challenge him? Why did they not kick up a row? Agreeing to a difficult and decimating plan like this should be a more difficult an exercise than offering themselves to be killed one by one. Is it not our tendency to cooperate with our oppressors to spare us for this time with no guarantee that he would not revisit us with his diabolical plan of oppressing us? Think of the psychology of the person offering to be eaten in this story. Is he willingly going to be eaten in return for his chance to live so far? Or is he imbued with a sense of altruism that 'let my death secure respite to my fellow beings, even if it is for a fortnight'?
This is a funny little story--one can read it again and again, and more than that can read between its lines.
A N Nanda