By Swami Harshananda
Kutaślokas literally means ‘verses with enigmatic meaning’.
The Mahābhārata, one of the great epics, has a large number of verses whose meaning is quite enigmatic. Their actual etymological meaning and the sense which they try to convey are not only different but may even appear opposite to each other. Such verses or ślokas are called ‘kuṭaślokas’.
Beginning of Kutaślokas
According to the Ādiparva, the sage Vyāsa requested Gaṇapati, the god of learning, to take down the text of the Mahābhārata as he went on reciting. Gaṇapati laid down the condition that Vyāsa should never stop reciting so that he could write it continuously. Vyāsa put a counter-condition that Gaṇapati should understand the full meaning of the śloka first, before writing it down.
Whenever Vyāsa needed some time to think of the next śloka, he would compose a ‘kuṭaśloka,’ a śloka with a difficult or double meaning. He did this to keep Gaṇapati guessing and thinking about it before writing it down with his stylus. The interval which he got like this, he would compose the next śloka of the text.
Kutaślokas in Mahābhārata
Mahābhārata itself has 8,800 kuṭaślokas in it. An example below can make this more clear:
Duryodhana, the wily genius, has planned to destroy his cousins Pāṇḍavas whom he considers as his arch enemies. He did this by setting fire to a palace at the city of Vāraṇāvata which he got built with highly combustible substances like lac and straw. He has cleverly managed to make them agree to the proposal of retiring to that city and live in that palace. The proposal was put forward by Dhṛtarāṣṭra. The Pāṇḍavas readily agreed. Just before their departure, Vidura, the wise minister of the Kauravas and a great well-wisher of the Pāṇḍavas warns Yudhiṣṭhira, the eldest and the shrewdest of the Pāṇḍavas, of the impending danger and also suggests the solutions. Out of these, only one verse may be cited.
The direct translation of that verse is:
‘One who knows about that weapon of the enemy which is sharp and capable of killing, though not made out of metal, will not be killed (or harmed) by it’.
The hidden meaning, however, is: ‘One who knows that the house or the palace though made up of combustible materials has camouflaged itself (nicely). It will destroy him in the night, will not be killed by the enemies.’ Yudhiṣṭhira gets the hint and takes remedial measures and successfully escapes the arson attempt along with his mother and brothers.
- Ādiparva 1.79-83
- Ādiparva 1.81
- Ādiparva, 145.20 to 26
- Ādiparva 145.22
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore