Tuesday, September 16, 2014


Krushna Singh, the king of a small kingdom in what is today’s Southern Odisha, retold Vyasa’s Mahabharata in Odia, which is popularly known as “Krushna Singh Mahabharata”, more than two centuries after Sarala had composed his magnum opus. Noting that the great Sarala had deviated considerably from the classical narrative, he wanted to give the Odias a feel of Vyasa’s composition. He began his Mahabharata with the following observation: one who wants to write Mahabharata, must first pay one’s obeisance to Narayana, then to Nara, after that to goddess Saraswati and then to the poet Vyasa, and then start narrating the story of jaya (victory). This could be viewed as his disapproval of what Sarala had done. Sarala had chosen to commit an act of almost sacrilege; he had set aside a traditional ritual. Singh did not mention Sarala by name, but it is very obvious that it was he who he had in mind. Sarala had made no mention of any of the above-mentioned – Narayana, Nara, etc. - in his invocation (which, incidentally, one would think a bit too long for an invocation); he had substituted them with god Ganesha and goddess Sarala.

By then Ganesha must have come to be accepted in Odisha as vighnaraja (the remover of obstacles), who must be given the first worship; so he offered prayers to him first as part of his invocation and then he prayed to Sarala, his village deity, whose staunch devotee he was and of who he would say more than once in his Mahabharata that she was the real composer of the narrative. He only wrote what she composed. This is reminiscent of Vyasa dictating the slokas (couplets) of his Mahabharata to Ganesha and Ganesha writing them down. But here the scribe was the devotee and the composer, the object of his devotion. By mentioning goddess Sarala in his invocation, as he set aside the tradition, the poet Sarala foregrounded the personal and the local. 

Could his invocation be also seen as his message for his audience that he was going to take liberties with the classical narrative? Thus for Sarala, the celebrated sage, Vyasa, was a character in the story; the one who created the Mahabharata narrative was the seer Agastya (Agasti). The seer told the story to Baibasuta Manu. Many, many hundred years later, Sarala was telling this story to his audience.     

Wednesday, September 10, 2014


when in Sarala’s narrative he knew right from his childhood that he was his brother? Why was he so focused on killing him? In the Kurukshetra War brothers didn’t kill brothers; cousins were the targets. Incidentally in Vyasa Mahabharata too Karna was no less determined to kill Arjuna. It is just that he got to know of his relationship with him in this narrative much later, but still before the War. As is well known, in Vyasa’s version, Arjuna had always been Karna’s target. He hated him. Things had already become far too complicated before he knew that Arjuna was his brother.

In any case, in Sarala Mahabharata Karna’s story is rather different. When they were all small, Kunti herself had introduced her sons to him and told him that they were his younger brothers. She made them prostrate at his feet as younger brothers should do to their eldest brother. Karna was upset that Kunti had given the status of her eldest son to Yudhisthira knowing that he was her second son. The hurt child told his mother that now he would get back his status as her eldest only after killing Yudhisthira. Kunti was distressed and disappointed and left with her three sons (Nakula and Sahadeva were not born yet) but no harsh word was said to Karna by anybody. In any case Arjuna did not figure at all in that exchange between the mother and her eldest son.

Later, Karna, the Pandavas and the Kauravas became guru Drona’s pupils. So was Drona’s son, Aswasthama. King Drupad had sent his sons, Dhristadyumna and Shikhandi (after she became male by the grace of a Yaksa), to Drona for their education. At that time there was no rivalry between Karna and Arjuna. The rivalry, which was really one-sided, was between Aswasthama and Arjuna. Aswasthama was jealous of Arjuna and he resented it strongly that his father imparted knowledge of some very special divine weapons to Arjuna alone. Incidentally Drona had never said that he would make Arjuna the greatest archer, nor had Arjuna ever sought or even expected such a commitment from him.

In Sarala Mahabharata there was no situation – there couldn’t simply be - where Karna was humiliated or discriminated against on account of his caste because everyone knew that he was Kunti’s son. True, he was called “Sutaputra” (roughly, son of a charioteer) but that was because he was brought up by a Suta. He went to Draupadi’s swayambara to win the princess, not for himself, but for Duryodhana and participated in the archery test but failed to hit the target. He was not a party to Draupadi’s humiliation in the Kaurava court. He had no role at all in the first or the second game of dice and the subsequent exile of the Pandavas. He neither encouraged nor discouraged Duryodhana to fight a conclusive war against the Pandavas. He did not play any role in the deliberations when Krishna came to the Kaurava court as Yudhisthira’s emissary. Before the Kurukshetra War, there were battles he had fought against Arjuna and there were battles too when they had fought together against their enemies. But there was never any particular hostility or jealousy, let alone enmity, between them. In fact in the narrative the only example of such lingering enmity fed on intense hatred from time to time was between Bhima and Duryodhana. Karna wished for the Pandavas’ victory in the War and for Yudhisthira to be the king. But he had no intentions of making things easy for him in this respect.

It was another matter that circumstances arose which forced him to do precisely that. On the eve of the War Kunti extracted a promise from him that he would not kill Yudhisthira, Bhima, Nakula and Sahadeva. She said she would accept it if he killed Arjuna or Arjuna killed him. This was not a commitment about which he ever told Duryodhana. He honoured it in the battlefield. Although during the War, when he was the Commander-in-Chief of the Kaurava army, he defeated each of the four and could have easily killed them, he did not. The War might have taken a different turn, or at least the situation could have been notably different, had he killed them or even any of them. In any case, his promise to his mother severely narrowed his option in the War; he had to focus on Arjuna and Arjuna alone. He must have persuaded himself, at least after giving his word to his mother, that Arjuna’s death would decide the War against the Pandavas.

But wasn’t he focussed on Arjuna even before his mother extracted that promise from him? Didn’t he collect divine weapons to kill Arjuna specifically? As far as I can recollect (the text is not with me right now) it was not really so in Sarala Mahabharata. However, granted for the sake of argument that it was indeed so; is there anything surprising? On the Pandava side only Arjuna had divine weapons. Karna being an honourable man, would he have attacked his other four brothers or Drupada and his sons or Virata and his sons with divine weapons? The only one he could have used them against was Arjuna!

He was committed to Duryodhana. They were friends from childhood. As mentioned earlier, Kunti’s visit to him when she told him that he was her eldest born and introduced her sons to him did not end in a pleasant note and in any case it was a bit too late for forging emotional bonds between him and his brothers. He did not grow up with them. His mother did not take him with her but left him in Radha’s house when she went back after that visit. When Duryodhana became king, he became one of his key advisers. When he went to war against the Pandavas, Karna knew that he depended on him. Karna was an honest person, a virtuous person. He fought most sincerely for his friend to win.  

Monday, September 8, 2014


He said more than once in his Mahabharata that he was born to write Vishnu Purana. He repeatedly called his composition “Vishnu Purana”. For him the story of the Kurus was worth telling because it gave him the opportunity to describe the lila of Vishnu in his avatara as Krishna. His Mahabharata incorporates episodes from Srimad Bhagavata, Harivansa and Skanda Purana. Thus in a sense composing Mahabharata was never an option for him, not something he had decided to do; doing it was his destiny! And what did he do? A number of times he said in his narrative that it was goddess Sarala who really composed and told him the couplets and he simply wrote them down. He wasn’t therefore the creator of the narrative, he was merely the scribe. Saying these, he was probably protecting himself from attacks of the Sanskrit-knowing scholars, the brahmins, who constituted the powerful educational authority of his days. A non-brahmin, he had not merely composed (or rather “dared to compose”) Mahabharata in Odia (this was the first time any classical text was composed in Odia), he had the temerity to deviate from Vyasa Mahabharata to such a significant extent.   
It is said about the sixteenth century Odia poet Jagannatha Dasa that he wrote Srimad Bhagavata in Odia language so that his mother who did not know Sanskrit would understand this sacred composition and gain religious merit (punya). Nothing of this sort has been said about Sarala Dasa. Surely those who came to listen to his composition did not know Sanskrit and were excluded from the educationally privileged section of the society. They were in his mind when he retold the story; one’s audience is always in one’s mind when one narrates a story. But he made no mention of it in his narrative. May be we can conclude that Sarala’s narrative purpose was the purpose of every creative artist, namely to express himself, and as a teller of a puranic story, his purpose was the same as the composers of all puranas, namely to delight, edify and spiritually elevate his audience.   
Incidentally in Sarala Mahabharata there is no mention of sarpa jajna (snake sacrifice). There is no mention of the curse on King Parikshita, his death on account of that curse and his son, Janmejaya’s revenge. In Sarala’s retelling, the sages of Naimesharanya were not the listeners of the Mahabharata story from Suta, which he had heard at the sarpa jajna of King Janmejaya. Here sage Agastya (better known in the relevant literature as “Agasti”) was the narrator and the great king Vaibasuta Manu was his listener. After worshiping him, the King prayed to the great seer to tell him how to attain moksa and in response the sage began his narrative, which was about moksa, not jaya (victory). For Agastya, for Sarala by implication, listening with devotion to the lila of Narayana is what would bring moksa to the listener.
If Mahabharata, i.e., Vishnu Purana, is to be the narrative of moksa, could it be most appropriately contextualized in a violent situation, where a grieving and angry king was seeking revenge on the killer of his father through a terrible jajna that would destroy all snakes? Isn’t a shishya seeking the marga (path) to moksa from a guru, who was a seer, a more appropriate context for Visnu Purana?





Some of my friends and well-wishers, quite a few of whom I have not yet had the opportunity to meet, have asked me questions and made comments and observations on Sarala Mahabharata in their correspondence with me over a period of time. I am grateful to them for their interest in Sarala Mahabharata and for the points they have made. I am trying to respond to some of these and am posting my responses in this blog.