Parikshit: grandson of Arjuna, ruler of the Kuru empire. Doesn’t take snakes seriously.

Janamejaya: son of Parikshit. Takes snakes too seriously. Siva: One of the trinity, presides over the end of times.

Surendra Sharma: Comic poet.

George Bush: American President.

George W. Bush: Another American President.


As we enter this itihasa, we see a sign saying “beware of men wearing snakes,” reminding us that Siva, the destroyer of worlds, wears one around his neck. What is the Mahabharata if it isn’t the chronicle of destruction in eighteen days, the bookend to genesis which only took seven? I know that the bible treats the end of days a little differently, for once the world ends there’s no new beginning, but we Hindus are never that absolute in our judgments. Seven warriors and one god survived the great war. Their world limped along until the god was shot through his toe.

The Jaya opens to a bucolic scene of sages sitting in tranquility, waiting for the suta to recount the great story. Peace reigns over the earth, although, as is usual with the Mahabharata, violence isn’t far away. The itihasa is recounted by a famous suta, a bard who heard it during another gristly event, a sacrifice of a world within a world. A sacrifice caused by the folly of a king who didn’t read the sign at the door. What was Parikshit thinking, hanging a snake on a meditating sage? Then as now, a man in deep meditation covered with termites and surrounded by snakes would have been a strangely serene sight. Why disturb that stillness? Why would a king break the peace and awaken the earth’s fury?

Kings have always thought themselves invincible. Even in an alien forest a king expects his due from beast and man. A king, as I see him, is a prototype, an icon of humanity’s victory over the earth. Before kings, there were tribal chieftains and warlords but they didn’t command the material resources and the firepower to subdue the forests. It was kings and their empires who created civilization by clearing forests and building palaces and playgrounds.

The era of kings has ended, being replaced by a diffuse form of power that we call democracy. Presidents and prime ministers rule in the name of the people. Contrast Asoka’s stupas that proclaim his majesty in first person singular, “I, Piyadassi…,” with the Indian constitution, which equally majestically says in first person plural, “We the people of India…” The prototype has done its duty, to be replaced by the assembly line. The sovereignty of the king has been supplanted by the sovereignty of the people. Who are these “people”? We don’t really know, but we are mostly content referring to them as society. “Society” is one of the viral terms of the modern era, with all its charms of elections and newspapers, but in our social state we have forgotten the original assertion of power over the earth, of the king who isn’t afraid of men wearing snakes.

The king may have more individual power but the factory has far greater collective force. Free markets exert control at a scale that Alexander couldn’t even imagine. Having forgotten the prototype from which it was stamped, society takes its dominance for granted, building roads and skyscrapers, lumping tree and snake and toad and deer into the catch all phrase natural resources. In our amnesia, we live blindly between two abstractions: society and nature, one the guarantor of rights and responsibilities and the other the energy source for all our exploits. Jaya talks about this dominion again and again.

Back to Parikshit; we can forgive him, for he was thirsty and hungry. Hungry men are liable to commit hasty acts. The suta tells us that Parikshit paid for his irritation with his life. The sage’s son cursed the king, consigning him to death by snakebite. If that was all, the story would have ended even before it started, as it would be if you or I had been bitten by a snake and died on the way to the hospital. The Jaya is wiser in the ways of power; it knows that one bite leads to another. Janamejaya desired revenge, not just on the snake that bit his father but on all snakes.

The Mahabharata is replete with sons taking revenge for their father’s tribulations. At the very end of the great war, another sage’s son almost ends the world outright by unleashing the greatest weapon of all. It took a wily god to keep the world spinning. That sage’s son was known as a second Siva, having one fourth of Rudra in him. Beware of men wearing snakes!

We will deal with his anger later.

I was in college when the first president Bush started the first gulf war. While my memory of that war garbles scenes of burnt out Iraqi tanks, refugees streaming out of Baghdad and Mosul and Colin Powell talking to reporters, I vividly remember an event a few months later. It was the October of 1991. The cold war was over. India was changing. On campus, the usual anglocentric crowd wasn’t as influential as before. For the first time, the cultural secretary was someone who spoke Hindi rather than English. Under his influence, the annual college festival removed one of the Wodehousian public school rituals from the festival roster and replaced it with a hasya kavi sammelan, a gathering of comic poets.

We attracted some of the best Hindi comic poets to the meeting. I was told that getting them from the train station was quite the ordeal. With a few hours to kill on the train ride to Kanpur, some of them had started drinking and were tipsy by the time they disembarked. An impromptu poetry competition started on the platform as they egged each other into delivering the best railway poem. The students in attendance had to extricate the traveling bards from their fans and spirit them to campus in time to entertain the paying customers. The mood on campus was boorish that cool October evening as we sat down to listen to comic poetry. The first few poets were unmemorable but when Surendra Sharma came to the stage, I took notice. As a child, I used to hear him on TV, poking gentle fun at politicians on the single Doordarshan channel, well before soap operas and news shows and a channel for every fetish.

Sharmaji started slowly in his sing-song voice, but then picked up steam.

Let me tell you something:

It’s come to my notice that

There’s been a war

Between America and Iraq

I heard on the radio

The Americans

Fought fought and fought

All the way from the border

To Baghdad

I heard on the radio

When the fighting ended

And the guns were down

Three hundred Americans

lay Dead

I asked myself:

What war is this?

In my country

Three hundred people die

When there’s a fight

At the cigarette shop

Indeed, a year after he said those words riots broke out at paanwala shops across North India as vandals tore down a medieval mosque with the intent of replacing it with a temple. Many more than three hundred people died in that battle.

Bush won the war but didn’t take out Saddam. He should have learned from Hollywood; Rocky wins only when he delivers a knockout punch. Without the knockout under his belt, Bush lost the presidency in 1992. It was left to his son to take revenge, starting the second war under the flimsiest of pretexts. Dubya rejected his father’s patrician veneer but he captured Saddam and won a second term.

I think Surendra Sharma would have created even more comic relief out of the son’s war. He would have written three poems between the train station and the campus. What Sharmaji left out in his poem, though he must have known quite well, is that at least half a million Iraqis died in the first gulf war and the sanctions that followed. As for the second war, the full accounting is yet to be done but the ratio of American to Iraqi deaths is at least 1:100. Janamejaya would have appreciated the ratio. The Jaya is first recounted at the sacrifice Janamejaya organized to kill all the snakes in the world. He too wanted to avenge his father.

Originally published at