M.F. Husain's Mahabharata,1990, oil on canvas, 129.5 × 477.5 cm. Courtesy the Chester and Davida Herwitz Collection, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem.

In India, a poem composed after Babri Masjid tells tales of the country’s path

The nation-state would do well to keep in mind how quickly the line blurs between sacrifice and butchery.
Published March 5, 2019

This article was first published in May 2019.

It is perhaps in the nature of violence to be cyclical, to cast itself as retribution for past grievances.

This may fulfil a human need to legitimise one’s actions, regardless of how sanguinary they are in their ramifications and how likely to provoke retaliation in their turn.

Our poets have understood this, and reflected upon its roots from almost the very beginning. They haven’t ceased in their reflections, in light of the very central place violence continues to occupy in the modern world.

One such poetic meditation on violence, perhaps the oldest among the subcontinent’s common literary heritage, is the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata.

It recounts the tale of two closely related, permanently warring clans, and their descent into a cataclysmic conflict through a reciprocal chain of reprisals and vendettas.

While tentatively casting the five brothers, the Pandavas, as the just side in the war against their cousins, the hundred brothers of the Kauravas, the narrative spares no one, and ultimately leaves behind a landscape strewn with grief and devastation.

Such compelling material as this tale has been returned to countless times by poets working in different languages and traditions. Emperor Akbar had it translated into Persian as the Razmnama or the Book of War, at his court, with official chroniclers working in concert with learned pundits.

In the 20th century, working in an entirely different medium, the painter M.F Hussain executed a series of works, deploying the epic’s imagery to explore the horrors of war.

His work was exhibited in 1971 alongside Picasso’s Guernica, as two modernist works addressing tragic events and crises.

Continuing in this modernist tradition of retelling ancient tales in a contemporary idiom is Arun Kolatkar’s long poetic sequence, Sarpa Satra, or the Snake Sacrifice, published in 2004, months before the poet’s death.

Sarpa Satra is the framing narrative of the Mahabharata and depicts King Janamejaya, a descendant of the Pandavas, in his attempt to purge the world of all snakes, following a crime committed by a snake against his father.

A miniature from the Sisodia dynasty, ca. 1690 depicting the episode of the snake sacrifice. Opaque watercolor on paper, 14.6 x 34.6 cm. Courtesy Henri Vever collection, Freer|Sackler gallery at the Smithsonian Institution.
A miniature from the Sisodia dynasty, ca. 1690 depicting the episode of the snake sacrifice. Opaque watercolor on paper, 14.6 x 34.6 cm. Courtesy Henri Vever collection, Freer|Sackler gallery at the Smithsonian Institution.

Kolatkar’s English language poem is an irreverent, heterodox version that both deploys and subverts the original tale. It begins with the king setting the chronology of crimes as he remembers it —

It was a scheming snake, I’m told,
with a grudge against my great-grandfather
that killed my father.

The serpent’s crime itself thus seems to be an act of deferred, cross-generational vengeance, exacted upon Janamejaya’s father.

Situating the tale in the context of the paranoid security state, the poem speaks of a “secret police”, a “complex shield of defences” and, somewhat comically, of “crocodiles/ equipped with nightvision”, all meant to protect the dead king.

But they fail and the assassin succeeds, reducing the king’s palace “into one grand funeral pyre”, before escaping into the night sky.

Hearing this tale as a child, Janamejaya grows to nurse a desire for revenge that soon escapes all bounds of proportion, like a plan —

to cleanse the earth of all ants
because one bit your mum.

But the appetite for conflict, even murder, extends beyond the sovereign to his close advisors, who instead of counselling restraint, “…applaud and encourage him”, and “feed this fire/ with rivers of molten butter”.

There are also those who profit from such an enterprise, and the question of “who will bag the contract for constructing/ the sacrificial township” assumes “national importance”. Even the great sages, and intellectuals of the land —

seem strangely silent
and worried about just one thing:
how to wangle a job for themselves
as officiating priests.

In the absence of dissent from any of the mainstream characters, Jaratkaru — a snake woman — emerges as the narratorial voice of the long second part of the poetic sequence.

Her presence ensures that the preparations for this war of extermination are seen from the margins, through the eyes of its victims and not its perpetrators.

In contrast to the pompous king, or those seeking to glorify his actions or profit from them, her voice appears as a complex mixture of irony, despair, resignation and compassion.

Moreover, she underlines the difference between Takshaka, the snake assassin, and all the other Nagas or snake people, who cannot be assimilated to any one individual’s madness. She curses him for hiding, while his people are being relentlessly persecuted, adding —

It only shows what cowards
all terrorists are
behind their snarling ferocious masks.

And yet, the poem also acknowledges that Takshaka’s madness is born out of having experienced violence and loss himself.

It points to another mythic episode, the burning of the Khandava Forest, where the epic hero Arjuna and his divine companion Krishna, annihilated “one of the largest/ rainforests in the land” and “reduced it completely/ to ash”.

As Jaratkaru tells her son Astika in graphic detail the devastation wrought by the two out of control deities —

Trumpeting elephants
Rushing towards water
For safety

Trample on half-cooked turtles,
As they crawl out of
The boiling lakes

A gazelle trips over
A dead crab at the water’s edge
And sprains an ankle

The taste of honey
Still on its tongue
A bear bursts into flames

It’s not just the animals, of course, but the aboriginal forest dwellers who bear the brunt of the upper-caste ‘heroes’ exercising their right to eminent domain (“Maybe they just wanted/ a clear title to the land”). They too are wiped out —

They’ve gone without a trace
With their language
That sounded like the burbling of a brook

Their songs that sounded like the twitterings of birds
And the secrets of their shamans
Who could cure any sickness

By casting spells with their special flutes
Made from the hollow
wingbones of red-crested cranes

While the tale of the snake sacrifice both reflects and distorts the war at the heart of the Mahabharata, the burning of the Khandava Forest prefigures the act of indiscriminate killing and provides the original pretext for Takshaka’s revenge.

This circular, reflexive structure, inherent in the original epic and in Kolatkar’s canny adaptation, points to the cyclical, self-destructive nature of all violence — akin to a snake swallowing its own tail.

Meanwhile the mass extermination of all snakes continues unimpeded —

as rivers of snake fat
sputter, sizzle and flow ceaselessly

and the strong sickening smell of burning snakeflesh
— strong enough to make you gag —
continues to spread throughout the land.

The atmosphere is so rife with genocide and hatred that the speaker goes so far as to say, “that we’ll soon start thinking of fresh air/ as something unIndian, alien/ and antinational”.

The shadow of the apocalypse, however, looms large over the genocidal project of the vindictive sovereign.

While sacrifice, which is at the heart of this tale, is an operation of substitution and exchange, the snake sacrifice, as an act of vengeance, is its very opposite.

Don’t you know
That true revenge accepts no substitute?

Sacrifice is also an act of oblation towards the gods and the sacrificial fire its sacred vehicle. Yet here, it has been reduced to “an assassin, butcher or a mass murderer”, that can only stop at the complete and total annihilation of all its perceived enemies.

But that implies the death of all snakes, including Shesha, the great serpent on whose head the earth stands according to Hindu mythology.

This is what truly terrifies the speaker, endangering the giant serpent, is tempting fate itself —

A slight toss of his head…
the merest shrug…
and it will be all over.


Stopping this sacrifice, or rather this act of revenge dissembled as sacrifice, becomes crucial to saving the earth and all of humanity, not just the snakes. This momentous task is handed down to a mere child, Jaratkaru’s son Astika. By appealing to a child, the poet is paying homage to his vision, which is not —

...clouded by rage, power, ego, pride
or any other
common diseases of the eye.

It means your brain is not maggoty yet,
with perceived wrongs,
or pickled in the brine of hatred

And most crucially, “It means you do not view the world/ through the dark prism of a wound/infected/ by the dirty bandage of history”.

The poet realises, and his poem reminds us, that the real danger lies in never ridding oneself of “the dirty bandage of history”, because once the fire of vengeance has been lit, it “can never be put out”, and threatens to embed itself into the landscape of our minds.

This poem was written some time after the Babri Masjid riots that shook India and published two years after the Gujarat riots that set India on the path it follows today. The contemporary resonances of the work are, however, as striking as ever at this present moment.

Reading Kolatkar’s verse one is struck not just by the imagery of violence, but by the trappings of any violent project, its various accessories and accomplices.

Amidst a renewed clamour for war from social media ‘activists’ and news anchors, one sees very little concern for its actual consequences on human lives.

We see a nation turn on its own people because one young Kashmiri blew himself up, killing 40 security men. We see a game of brinksmanship played by politicians who fail to value human life above their own personal ambitions.

The poem also critiques the rhetorical deployment of ‘sacrifice’ at every instance of war or tragedy. While the notion of sacrifice is consistently mobilised to honour the dead, especially those killed fighting for the nation-state, we would do well to keep in mind how quickly the line blurs between sacrifice and butchery.

It is one thing to honour the dead, quite another to embark upon mass violence and use sacrifice to sanitise and legitimise those projects.

Instead of continually driving ourselves for more blood, more vengeance, perhaps it would be wiser to take a step back. The poem urges us to look for meaning not in ancient grievances and tribal identities, but in the concrete present, the here and the now. Something that might even allow us room to —

rediscover simpler pleasures —
fly kites,
collect wild flowers, make love.

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