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.     

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