There is a standard format for all tales and epics. There would be the protagonist(s), supporting characters and the antagonist(s) and at the end, good wins over evil, and the protagonist emerges victorious. Generally, the protagonist would be an embodiment of all virtues, and the villains get characterized as the opposite poles to the leads and so naturally, scheming and wily. An exception to this format is the Mahabharata, where every character has multiple attributes, and cannot fit under a single framework of ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Everyone depicted in the epic has their own positives and negatives which determine the path of their lives and that of the mahakavya. Couple years back in the U.S., a classmate of mine asked me after she saw the idol of Krishna in my room,
“it amazes me that you Hindus worship this person. He is for sure a noble character in the epic, but he is very cunning too, exploiting others’ weaknesses, even if that is for strategic reasons and to protect the World. Say, the slaying of Jayadratha for example. In our faith, we simply can’t have contradicting personal qualities in a single person. It sounds beautiful though.”
Well, that is the beauty of the Hindu Dharma. You can have belief in anyone, any path, follow a certain philosophy or deny it, and even pick out the best or worst from several people and apply those qualities in your lives. The Mahabharata follows the same tenets- every character has two sides, and you are free to choose the one you like. Every virtuous person has an inherent weakness or negative attribute in him/her; and every sinner has a drop or two of saintliness left deep within. It is left to the reader or follower to accept what he/she likes the most and shape the nature of that character through his/her point of view. Therefore Arjuna can be taken as a villain and Dushasana as a hero.
According to the popular narrative, Duryodhana might be the main antagonist of the Mahabharata, but at the same time, Vyasa also lauds his devotion towards friendship. The relationship between Duryodhana and Karna has been eulogized through generations as an example of great friendship, and sometimes pointed out as a bad example to how friendship between “not-too-right” minds can end up in disaster. Although Karna was on the Kaurava side, the readers feel genuine sympathy for him being wronged at birth and also admire several of his noble qualities like his charitableness and valor. Similarly, Duryodhana too, though despised for his vile nature, is commended for his reign- as a Good King to his subjects. The act of Bhima kicking him after his death was condemned by Yudhishtira for this very reason.
Now, let me take you to this village named Poruvazhy in Kollam district of Kerala. Here, we have a temple where Duryodhana is the principal deity. The villain of the Mahabharata has been deified here, is adored by the people and they flock in during the festival season to worship and offer their prayers to him. The Malanada Temple at Poruvazhy, much different from a structural temple without a garbhagriha and idol, lets the devotee imagine the deity -which is placed on a raised platform- according to their understanding of divinity.
Like every temple, this one too has a legend behind how it came into existence. It is said, years after the Pandavas were exiled after losing the game of dice, spies and wandering mendicants would bring in their news to Hastinapura. While Duryodhana rejoiced at the suffering of his cousins, he also was envious learning about their achievements like that of Arjuna acquiring celestial weapons, following which he went into depression. Karna who could not stand his dear friend being restless came forward to comfort him saying that he had all the Pandavas’ wealth and was the ruler while his foes lived like beggars, foraging for fruits and berries in forests. When Duryodhana could not be comforted by his words, Karna suggested that they go to the forests in search of the Pandavas, find them out and mock at their plight.
Incited by Karna, Duryodhana marched off to the southern forests and eventually reached the location where the Malanada Temple is located now. He was exhausted after the long journey and went to a nearby house and asked for water. He did not realize that it was the house of a Kurava (a Shudra Tribe) chieftain who was the ruler of that region. The elderly woman present there gave him toddy to drink, which is customary as a mark of respect to the Supreme King and gave him a herbal concoction to get rid of his fatigue. Refreshed, Duryodhana rose to thank the lady and then he noticed her mangalsutra, which indicated she was from the Kurava tribe. As per customs, it was not proper for a Kshatriya to have food or drinks offered by the lower classes, and Duryodhana decided to console himself and perform penance for this deed.
He was touched by the helping mentality and divinity of the lady, and appreciated the knowledge of the community in medicine, and thereby, he sat on the nearby hill and worshiped Lord Shiva for the welfare of the tribe as they were his subjects and that no divine wrath must be cast on them for offering food to the Kshatriya King. Duryodhana formally granted the title of “Siddha” to the tribesmen and prayed that they be never robbed of their wealth of knowledge. He also donated 101 yojanas of land around the hill to the tribesmen, which the tribals surrendered back to the King nominally and promised to build a temple in his honor on the place where he sat and prayed. Duryodhana then requested them to build shrines for Karna, Gandhari, Dussala, Bheeshma, Dronacharya & Shakuni and rode off.
Accordingly, the Kurava tribesmen built a raised platform and a temple around it, and began to worship Duryodhana as an avatar of Shiva. Within the complex, sub-shrines, devoted to Karna and others as named by Duryodhana came up. The concept of “Sankalpa” takes prominence here, as the devotees bow down to Duryodhana the avatar of Shiva, thus mentally submitting themselves to Lord Shiva through their beloved King. The story of 100 yojanas of land around the temple which was nominally given back to the King still holds importance, as the present temple and land belonging to it have been registered in the name of “Mr. Duryodhana” as per Kerala State Revenue records and Temple Endowment Board records!
Initially a tribal shrine, the temple is now thronged by people from all paths of Hinduism although it still follows the tribal customs like the main offering being toddy and chicken curry. The idea of a temple to a vilified character in the epics and the traditions which stand against some of the established tenets of temple worship may seem weird to some, but that is the all-adaptable character of Hinduism, isn’t it? The Hindu way of life teaches us nobody can be innately evil or bad, that the circumstances are what transform them into despicable ones, and even the smallest dropof virtue in them must be respected.
A spin-off to the legend again adds more insights into the embracing nature of our culture which can find the best in the supposed-to-be-worst . There is a temple nearby, dedicated to Abhimanyu, Arjuna’s son who was brutally slayed in the Chakravyuha. It is said that after the death of Abhimanyu, Duryodhana was repentant about the act, although he did not express it. That night he appeared in the dream of the Kurava chieftain and asked him to build a shrine for Abhimanyu and worship him, but build it in such a way that it faces away from his own shrine, as his conscience makes him ashamed of facing Abhimanyu. The temple was built. Now, once a year, during the annual festival, the idol of Abhimanyu is taken to the Malanada temple, symbolizing the nephew visiting his uncle to pay obeisance and Duryodhana apologizing for his deed !
Indeed, Hinduism is interesting, and amazes us to the hilt with such examples out of the stereotype …