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56: Barbareek

Khatu Shyam aka Barbareek
A forward: Any tradition as old as Hinduism and practiced across multiple regions and continents, and among a billion people, is bound to be various and plentiful. It will have different layers, different viewpoints, and different narratives – often contradictory. 

In many cases there are overlapping stories and convoluted timeline. One character from one story suddenly appears in another (like Parashurama appearing in Ramayan after Rama breaks Shiva’s bow) or the events in stories do not follow a chronological order (Indra gives Durvasa’s garland to his elephant Airavata; which infuriates Durvasa, leading to his curse to Indra and the subsequent Samudra-Manthan or the Churning of the Ocean – from which the white elephant Airavata is said to have emerged; so most likely he cannot be there with Indra earlier). Many stories are hopelessly entangled, and there are back stories of back stories of even the most minor and side-lined characters, usually involving fantastic boons or curses.

This makes study and understanding of the Hindu mythology fascinating, and yet a rather difficult and tedious area; alienating several casual onlookers and marginally interested folks. This includes those who follow these traditions and culture daily and yet are oblivious to the nuances. For example, many Hindus believe that the worship of Indra, Varuna, Agni and other Vedic gods is long forgotten. They do not realise that several matras pronounced even now by them or their purohits during any normal puja and yagna are dedicated to these gods.

This corner of oblivion is especially reserved for several minor characters in the epics and the puranas. It is our endeavor to bring some of these to light through these posts; maybe throw some fresh perspective on their lives and stories; and hopefully remove the webs of confusion that get created over time by not reviewing, reading or ruminating over these narratives.

Let us examine the stories of Barbareek and Iravan – two rather minor characters from Mahabharata, who appear marginally in the canonical forms of the story; but seem to have lived their own lives and version in folklore and traditions of different local cults. One of the reasons to take the two of them together is the obvious overlap in parts of their individual stories. You will notice, however, that apart from that one overlap, there is precious little that is common among the two heroes, and they are indeed two different characters, with their own back stories, personalities and motivations – an excellent ground for our ruminations.



If you travel in the Western Indian state of Rajasthan, especially in and around Sikar district further north-west, you will find the name of Khatu Shyam ji at the back of each truck and tempo, well almost. It is usually in the form of the stanza “haare ka sahara, khatu shyam hamara” (Our Khatu Shyam ji is the support of the defeated). 

Khatu Shyam ji is revered as Baba Shyam in the Khatu village, Sikar district, Rajasthan in India where there is a temple for him - hence the name Khatu Shyam. He is also identified as Baliyadev in Gujarat near Ahmedabad. This Khatu Shyam was originally Barbareek, a marginal character in the epic Mahabharata, and appears towards the end of the war. This is his story.

Location on map of Khatu Shyamji in Sikar, Rajasthan

Barbareek (or Barbarik) was son of Ghatotkacha and Mowrvi. As you would know, Bhima, the second and most powerful Pandava, during their wanderings in the forest, slayed the Rakshasa Hidimb. The demon’s sister Hidimba was smitten by Bhima’s bravery and good looks, and they got married. Bhima fathered Ghatotkacha, a brave and powerful man who ruled the area. He married Mowrvi, who was the daughter of Muru, a Yadava king from Pragjyotishpur (one of the clans related to the Yadavas of Dwaraka, to which Krishna belonged). Hence the name Mowrvi or Muravi. She plays an important part later. *

One of my theories is that this Muru, the so-called yadava chieftain from Pragjyotishpur is the same as the demon Mura in charge of defenses of Narakasur's fort. The similarities are just too many to ignore. So Ghatotkach married Mura's daughter and fathered Barbareek. But later Krishna, along with wife Satyabhama, attacked Pragjyotishpur, and Muru tried to defend it as was his job. In the battle that ensued, Krishna slayed Mura, father of Muravi (Morwi) and grand-father of Barbareek. Isn't it an 'Aha' moment? It's one of the perks of keeping a healthy interest in Hindu mythology. See here for Mura and story of Narakasur.

The marriage of Ghatotkach and Mowrui is also interesting. It seems that Mowrvi was learned in scriptures and had put forward a condition for her marriage that she will only marry the person who defeats her in a battle of wits. Ghatotkacha reached Muru’s palace with his marriage proposal, liked the plan, had several rounds of debates with Mowrvi, which he won, along with her heart. Stories like these tell us how wrong the usual view of Rakshasas being dumb, barbaric, and forest tribes is. It also shows how women in these stories in the ancient society – Mowrvi, Kunti, Hidimba – mostly had an ability to freely think for their own and exercise their own will.

Anyway, coming back to our story, Barbareek was a strong and well-behaved boy while growing up, and was a staunch worshipper of Shiva and Shakti (Kamakhya). Pleased with his devotion and behaviour, the goddess Kamakhya gave him three arrows – one that could identify and seek his enemies (or those he would like to destroy), another to identify and mark his friends (or those he would like to protect); and the final third one to actually do the deed i.e. destroy the enemies and protect the friends. He also receives a mighty golden bow from Agni, the god of fire. **

Now comes the main part. When it is time for the war, the Pandavas call upon Ghatotkacha and he rushes to Kurukshetra to their assistance. Barbareek, although young, wants to help his father and grand-father. So he goes to his mother Morwi for advice. She advises him to fight on the losing side (weaker side). Her consideration must have been that Pandavas with 7 armies (akshauhinis) will be the weaker side compared to the Kauravas with 11 armies, so with her advice Barbareek will fight alongside Pandavas. Barbareek promises he will do so.

Barbareek now goes to the battlefield on his blue horse, but is seen by Krishna first due to his omniscience (or, more likely, a very good network of spies) while the camps are being set up for the battle. He decides to test the boy. He takes the form of a brahmin and meets Barbareek before he reaches the battlefield.

The brahmin befriends Barbareek like a fellow traveler going to the battlefield to see the battle, and then tells him that in the Pandava and Kaurava camps, there is a discussion on how long the war will last. Some say ten days, some twenty, some say twenty-eight. Then he asks Barbareek what he thinks. To which, Barbareek says that if he is allowed to participate, he was finish the war in a nimisha (in a blink of an eye).

How so, asked a genuinely surprised Krishna in the garb of the brahmin. Barbareek says that he will target all Kaurava armies with his first arrow, mark all Pandava armies as safe with his second, and then with the third arrow destroy those marked.

Alarmed at this, but not showing it outwardly, Krishna asks Barbareek how he will identify all Kauravas and Panadavas instantly. Barbareek boasts, rightly, that his arrows can find them all; all he has to do is to think of them (much like Yondu’s whistle arrow from Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” comic, no?).

Barbareek and his three arrows

Krishna asks him to prove it. He tells him to find all the leaves of the peepal tree they were sitting under, and tie them around him (the brahmin) with his first, ‘seeker’ arrow.

Barbareek agrees to do so. While he is preparing his first arrow, Krishna stealthily hides one leaf under his toe. The reason is to check if the arrows can also find things hidden by Krishna himself, who is omnipotent and a form of the Supreme God Vishnu. To his astonishment, the arrow leaves Barbareek’s bow, indeed ties all the leaves around Krishna, and then keeps hovering around the toe.

Krishna, as the brahmin, asks Barbareek what this meant. Barbareek is also a bit surprised, and says that the arrow is not supposed to harm him, only tie the leaves. Krishna lifts his toe a little, at which the last leaf is visible. The arrow immediately slashes through Krishna’s toe, ties the last leaf and returns to the quiver. Barbareek is very sorry that the arrow hurt Krishna, but also says that this demonstrates that nothing can be hidden from his arrows.

Now Krishna is in deep pain, but the problem of his bodily pain is less important to him than the impending challenge. As the little experiment demonstrated, nothing can hide from Barbareek’s arrows, not even when protected by Krishna.

With the bleeding toe, he asks Barbareek who he was. When Barbareek tells him that he is the son of Ghatotkach, Krishna is pleased at first. But when he tells about his decision to fight the weaker side, Krishna gets serious. 

Firstly, he knows that with him and Arjuna on Pandava’s side, the Pandavas are not really the weaker side to begin with. And secondly, even if Barbareek aids Pandavas at the start, soon the Kauravas armies will be diminished and they will become the weaker side. Then, as per his promise to his mother, Barbareek will have to move to the Kaurava side to aid the losing side. This will continue, and Barbareek will keep moving from one side to the other until nothing remains except him. 

And when he is on Karuava side, if he decides that all Pandavas were the enemies, his arrows will hunt and kill them; and even Krishna will not be able to protect them – as the little experiment just demonstrated.

It is now Barbareek’s turn to ask the brahmin who he was. In a quandary, Krishna finally decides to reveal his true form to Barbareek. As Barbareek sees Krishna (in his Vishvaroop Vishnu form), he is overcome with emotions. Barbareek was a just, well-mannered and cultured youth. The act of violating Lord Vishnu himself was beyond him. But Krishna pacifies him, saying this is ordained. He tells him that this injury is going to make the toe weak and be eventually the reason for Krishna’s demise and return to Godhood after his work on the Earth was done.

Barbareek asks for forgiveness. A plan forms in Krishna’s mind. At that time, it was tradition that to attain victory in a battle each party should sacrifice their strongest and bravest champion before the battle begins. Pandavas had yet to choose their sacrificial victim. Krishna asks Barbareek to volunteer. Shocked, Barbareek says he has come to the battlefield to help his father, and not to die like a butchered animal. But he will anyway give his head to Krishna since he has asked for it.

Pleased with Barbareek, Krishna tells him to ask for two boons. After a few moments of thought, Barbareek asks for two – one that he can see the entire battle till the end and Pandava’s victory; and two that at the turn of the age i.e. in Kalyug, Barbareek is deified and revered by the people as Krishna himself (hence the name ‘Shyam’).

It is these two boons - that Barbareek be known by Krishna's own name in Kalyug ('Shyam') and that he could watch the entire forthcoming battle with his severed head - that are the bulwark of Barbareek's legend among the locals. The fact that he always takes the side of the weak and losing party makes him a favorite among the devotees who themselves feel like downtrodden and lost.

Krishna grants him the two boons. Then he uses his Sudarshan Chakra (disc) and cuts Barbareek’s head. By this time the Pandavas reach the place. When they hear the story, the usually stoic Ghatotkatch is beside himself with grief. The Pandavas, especially Yudhishthir, are aghast, and reprimand Krishna for this barbaric act.

Krishna tell them that this sacrifice was required. It seems in his past life, Barbareek was a Yaksha (like Kubera), named Suryavarcha and lived in Amravati near the heavens. He had once boasted in front of all gods that he will defeat all kings and armies across the world single-handedly. After hearing his hollow boasts, Brahma got furious and cursed him to be born on the Earth as a Rakshasa. When he realized his mistake, he came to Vishnu and asked for mercy. Vishnu told him that he will take the form of Krishna and release him of his curse. So beheading of Barbareek at the hands of Krishna was preordained.

After hearing this, Pandavas became resigned to the fact. Barbareek’s head was then mounted at the top of a high hill, and secured with vines that would give Amrita (elixir of life) to the head so it remains alive. With his high position and vantage point, Barbareek’s head became one of the few things that saw the 18-day war as a whole from a distance without taking part.

So that is the long and short of Barbareek.

The head of Barbareeka watching the great war

There is also an important aftermath to the story of Barbareek’s head. After the 18-day bloody war, when the Pandavas counted their losses and victories, there was tension among the Pandava brothers about who was the hero of the war. Bhima said he killed all Kauravas. Arjuna said he killed at Maharathis (great warriors).

The Pandava camp seemed to have headed to a civil war. Krishna, or Vyasa in some stories, intervened and said that they should ask an impartial third party who has seen the battle whole. Suddenly someone remembered about the head of Barbareek, and they agreed that they will ask the head.

When they all reached the hill and brought the head down, they asked him. The head of Barbareek said that he did not recognize the heroes in front of him. Who is this Arjuna? Who is this Bhima? The head said he only saw, for the 18 days, Krishna’s Sudarshan Chakra whizzing past armies, devouring them like a plague; and the tongue of goddess Kali (also Kamakhya, his patron goddess) following the massacre and drinking up all the blood of the arrogant kings and warriors.

This observation by the talking head fills the Pandavas with the realization that they were mere pawns in the grand scheme of things that the gods and goddesses had planned. The realization made the Pandavas humble. This story forms an important part of the narrative of Jaya or Mahabharata, which emphasizes on the humbling of the victors in the aftermath of the war. If the victors of the World War II the Allies had shown such humility we would have probably not seen the dark decades of the Cold War – repercussions of which still lurk in the foreign policies of most nations.

In the next post, we will examine the story of Iravan, who is Arjuna’s son.

10 October 2017


* In some stories, Mowrvi is identified with Ahilawati, daughter of naga Vasuki (Shiva's snake), and the one who saved Bhima when he was poisoned by his cousins the Kauravas and thrown in the river to drown. She persuaded Vasuki to help Bhima get his poison removed, bestow him with super powers and get back to his brothers the Pandavas. But there is a serious loss of narrative timeline with this, so I have considered this to be a later-day attribution and taken out of context, and not included in the story.

** There is a story about how Barbareek protected brahmins performance penance and kills several demons, due to which the goddess became pleased with him. In some traditions (like in Andhra), it is the Ashta-devas (eight gods, most likely the eight guardians of space – dik-pals) who give him the three arrows.