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Mahabharata Metaphors: Markandeya, The Sage Who Saw The Deluge

Markandeya - Sri Krishna

Sage Markandeya is an important person in the Vana Parva of Mahabharata. He narrates important stories to the Pandavas. In particular, he plays a crucial role in ensuring that Yudhishthira is thinking right. Traumatized by what transpired at Sabha Parva, Yudhishthira is full of questions, concerns, and confusion. Markandeya’s calm presence ensures that Yudhishtira looks in the right direction. There is a reason why it is sage Markandeya who performs this role, for he is that exceptional sage who saw the Great Deluge after which the world was formed afresh. Hence, he is the chosen man to provide Yudhishthira with a larger perspective of life that is timeless. Yudhishthira learns to view his own problem in the Present against the larger canvas of life and act with a better perspective.

Vana Parva of Mahabharata

Vana Parva of Mahabharata

After hearing stories of many great men and women of the past, Yudhishthira got curious and requested Markandeya to narrate that very experience of being in the Deluge. He praised the greatness of Markandeya and sought to know that Paramatatva of the Great Deluge from which the world was created all over again. It is one thing to hear about it from others, it is another to learn about it from the very man himself. Sage Markandeya first described the Paramatatva, Shrimannarayana, as the actor, cause, and effect of the world. He greatly praised the supreme lord in devotion. He then narrated the time periods of Kalpa, Manvantara, Yuga, and Samvatasara and their relative measures. Subsequently, Markandeya narrated the degeneration that a Kaliyuga goes through that results in the Great Deluge, which is nothing but Maya of the supreme lord. The deterioration resulted in a deadly drought without rain with all living beings suffering without food for years together. The Sun and stars all around grew so fierce that they dried out water from all rivers and oceans. Their heat began to burn the universe. Markandeya explained the unimaginable horrors occurring all over leading to the Great Deluge. There were rains for a full 12 years with earth having nothing in the form of a living being.

 sage Markandeya

sage Markandeya

Markendeya was wandering alone. The entire world seemed nothing but a Samudra. He was sad to not see a single living being. For a very long time, Markandeya moved all over without knowing what his destination was. Suddenly, he saw a Banyan Tree with a small cot in the middle of the tree. The tree had many different branches. The cot was decorated with distinction. On the cot was a small boy – with divine grace and an immense smile. Markandeya’s heart was filled with happiness that he had not experienced before. He was perplexed too “When the entire world is in destruction, why is this small child here and how at all is he here?”. He went a step further and wondered how he who knows all the past, present and future does not know how this boy was seated here, in the midst of all-round destruction. The boy spoke “Oh Sage, I know you are a great one belonging to the Bhrigu clan. I am also aware that you are very tired. You need to rest. Why don’t you relax here with me for a while? I will take place for you inside my body. Enter my body and take rest. You should know that I am pleased with you”.

For a while, Markendeya wondered. “I am a sage of such a distinction but look at my situation, needing a young boy to take pity on me and grace me. What good is a lifetime’s Tapas and a long life? What good is such a human life?”. Even as Markandeya was indulging in self-pity, the boy opened his mouth. Markandeya was stunned. A divine force was pulling him inside the boy’s mouth and Markandeya had no control over his movement. The boy was pulling Markandeya within through his sheer will. What he saw inside the stomach of the boy left Markandeya stunned. He saw the entire earth – the rivers, the cities, the kingdoms, the mountains, all forms of life. Whatever he saw in his lifetime on earth, Markendeya saw all of that in the stomach of the boy. He forgot himself, where he came from and where he had to return to. He wandered from place to place, did what he thought, ate what he wanted – thus he spent hundreds of years inside the stomach without a sense of time. Once he tried to measure the length of the stomach but failed to. Finally, Markandeya wondered if this was a divine Leela of Shrimannarayana himself and left everything to the will of the Lord. He thought the boy himself could be the great Lord and prayed within his mind. Alas – in no time, he came out of the mouth of the boy, as though the boy burped. He once again saw that lovely boy child at the same place on the same tree sleeping on the very same cot, with the same smile, unconcerned about the destruction or the forming of the new world. Markandeya realized that the boy child had all the worlds within his stomach.

Markandeya - Sri Krishna

After a while, the boy child said “Oh Markandeya! You must be very tired having been in my stomach for that long. I wish to tell you a few things.” That very moment Markandeya felt a light glowing within his heart. He has filled confidence in enlightenment. The whole world seemed like a Maya. His ego completely dissolved and Markandeya felt ashamed that he compared himself with the prowess of the boy. He was immersed in divine happiness for a long time. Finally, he sought to know the true nature of the boy child. What was his true form? Why were all the worlds and beings in his stomach? What was the Maya behind all this? The boy-child smiled “Oh Markandeya, my true nature is not known to even the Devas. But you are sage of great Pitrubhakti, Tapas, and Brahmacharya. You have completely surrendered to me. Hence, listen – I will reveal this secret to you. I am the one residing in the great waters ‘Nara’. Hence, I am Narayana”. The boy-child then went onto narrate his true form in complete detail and in its entire divine secrecy. He revealed that he resided in everything and everything resided within him. If Markandeya suffered any pain when inside the stomach of the boy, it was for his own good. Everything dissolved into the stomach of the boy-child and everything emerged out of his stomach. While the four-headed Brahma was asleep before the new world was formed, Narayana assumed the form of the boy-child waiting for him to re-emerge and create the universe. Markandeya was compelled into the stomach so that he could overcome the grief of the destruction of the universe – those very worlds continue to exist within the stomach of the boy-child, in their seed, waiting to re-emerge. He assured him that the entire universe would be recreated by him. Markandeya had now recovered. His mind was calm with a realization. In a short while, the boy-child vanished. There was complete silence for a while.

After some time, Markandeya opened his eyes and at once declared. “Oh, Yudhishthira! Know that the boy-child I saw in the Great Deluge is none other than Sri Krishna who is now seated next to you”. Sri Krishna was all the while listening to the story with a stoic smile. Hearing this the Pandavas were overcome by emotion. The five of them along with Draupadi got up and prostrated to Sri Krishna in great reverence. Pandavas were now filled with a calm that they carried within them for a very long time through their time in the Forests.

This positioning of this story in Mahabharata is noteworthy. It is towards the end of Vanaparva. The Pandavas have gone through a variety of experiences. It is an understatement to say that they were extraordinary experiences. The turmoil has anything but ended and they are to enter the next phase of the aftermath, which is the Agnaatavaasa. They need an appropriate perspective to appreciate all that they have gone through. They are seeing their experiences from too close a distance. They need to appreciate the complexities of life from a far greater height. Nothing more appropriate than the story of the Great Deluge. Nobody better to narrate than the very Sage who alone witnessed it in the entire mankind. The Great Deluge is also a metaphor for what was to come. It is a precursor to the Bhagavadgeeta. Markandeya’s pointing to Sri Krishna as that Bala Mukunda is a nudge to the Pandavas to be guided by the Lord himself. He is Narayana – He is in Everything and Everything is within Him.

The story of the Deluge is full of Pearls. When it seems like everything is imploding and disintegrating – somewhere there is that Indestructible, quietly preparing to create everything afresh. It is a metaphor for what nature and divinity are. Destruction is followed by Creation. Who gets to see that? It is Markandeya. Why does he get to see that? It is because of his absolute devotion, absolute Brahmacharya, and enormous Tapas. In the midst of great upheaval, it is Devotion, Brahmacharya, and Tapas that will hold us in good stead. Brahmacharya here means the right appreciation of the Sthiti and being always in the path of Ruta – the cosmic order of the Universe. Rishi Markandeya is a metaphor for that reality. It’s interesting that even Markandeya gives into to the ego for a moment. That must give solace to Pandavas who are going through their own upheavals. At the same time, they must keep their ability to recognize the Supreme – Sri Krishna.

It was necessary to prepare the Pandavas and, in particular, Yudhishthira with this perspective. For that alone would hold Yudhishthira and Pandavas in good stead through the enormous destruction that would follow through. They had to perform their Dharmic duties with force and not be affected by it. They must become the vehicle for the arrival of a new dawn. They must appreciate that the great River is seeing a bend in the flow. They must negotiate the bend well for Divinity. They must see that stomach that creates everything new and burps out a new world, in the midst of the enormous destruction that was to come.

Every era needs a Markandeya – that quiet, calm sage full of Devotion, Tapas and Brahmacharya to enable to us see our Deluge and the Supreme in the midst of that Great Deluge.


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