Friday, March 20, 2015


At a recent seminar on unwritten languages and oral myths, in a certain context, I referred to a bhuta (roughly, ghost) in Sarala Mahabharata, called Babana bhuta. Some were curious and wanted me to tell them some more about it. For them a bhuta, a character in grandmother tales, was an odd presence in a Mahabharata narrative, although they did not say it in so many words. 

The story of Babana bhuta occurs in Udyoga Parva. This is a story Duryodhana’s wife, the virtuous Bhanumati, told him in private.  Krishna had gone to the Kaurava court as Yudhisthira’s emissary to ask him for five villages for the Pandavas.  Respecting the advice of Bhishma and reluctant to displease Krishna because he was uncertain about victory in a war in which Krishna would be on the enemy’s side, King Duryodhana was inclined to give two villages to the Pandavas. At that time he did not know which villages Krishna had in mind. He must have thought that two, instead of five, was not a bad deal. But Sakuni would not hear of it. He was pressuring Duryodhana not to give anything at all to the Pandavas. When Bhanumati heard of this, she told her husband the story of Babana bhuta, which in brief is the following:

In a certain village, named Gyanapura, near the river Tungabhadra, for some unknown reason, people became pretas (a category of ghosts) after death. A gunia (tantric, roughly “sorcerer”, because unlike a sorcerer, there are no evil associations with him) named Sudraka, came to live in that village with his family and soon gained the respect of the inhabitants because of his good nature. He once noticed a nice piece of land near the hill and sought the permission of the villagers to cultivate it, but they warned him against doing so because that land belonged to the notorious ghosts. He told them that he wasn’t afraid, and that he could imprison the ghosts. He sent his ploughmen and labourers to cultivate the land. When the ghosts harassed them, he caught them in a net using his tantric powers. Then the ghosts made peace with him and obtained their release by giving him a considerable measure of til. After sometime the king of the ghosts, Babana bhuta, very dangerous and wicked in nature, arrived and was greatly annoyed to see that their play field had been usurped and was being used for cultivation. Despite warnings of the ghosts, he possesses Sudraka’s only son, but got terribly scared when Sudraka tried to imprison him with iron nails. He got his release by giving him a very huge amount of paddy, which the ghosts collected by attacking people of neighbouring villages.

One would end up like Babana bhuta, said Queen Bhanumati to her husband, if one enjoyed the property all alone that belonged to all.  It was her suggestion and her warning too:  Hastnapura belonged to the Kurus; i.e., the Pandavas and the Kauravas both. Depriving the Pandavas of their share of the kingdom was unjust and would certainly lead to great trouble for the Kauravas. Duryodhana did not follow her sage counsel; he chose to follow Sakuni instead. 

What is noteworthy here is the fusion of the classical and the popular. Babana bhuta story couldn’t have been part of the classical tradition. It has a distinct loka katha (folktale) flavour. By linking the two traditions, Sarala, in a manner of speaking, restored a bit of a great classical narrative to the oral, where, one could assume, all narratives have their beginnings. Which oral tales the celebrated Vyasa assimilated into his telling as he composed the story of the Kuru clan, one would never know. Once a part of the grand narrative, these tales lost their original loka katha flavour. Now Sarala was retelling the immortal Mahabharata story to the poor, uneducated and marginalized villagers, and he was doing so in their own language, Odia, not the in the language of scholarly discourse in Odisha at that time, namely, Sanskrit. Thus in a way a loka katha returned to where it belonged. It does not matter that the loka kathas could not have been the same in Vyasa’s narrative and Sarala’s. To the best of my knowledge, there is no story in Vyasa Mahbharata that corresponds to the story of Babana bhuta. No one knows whether it was Sarala’s creation or his adaptation of an existing tale. 

In loka sahitya (oral or folk literature) in all cultures ghost is a popular character. This fact reflects a strong and very popular belief in the ghost in the past. In turn, that belief was strengthened when the ghost entered loka katha. However, ghosts have never been of interest in themselves; loka kathas in which ghosts figure do not describe the world of the ghosts for its own sake. The ghost is of interest only when it interacts with the humans, in whatever manner. The story of Babana bhuta is used by Sarala as an illuminating metaphor for the dreadful consequences of greed.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015


Is what a friend wanted to know.

As the Pandavas were climbing up the cold Himalayas to submit themselves to death, they had no weapons with them. They had discarded them. Except Arjuna, who had his divine bow, Gandiva, with him. It is not that he wanted it for his or his brother’s protection in the mountains. It is just that he was deeply attached to it. It is not clear from the narrative whether for keeping the bow he had the permission of Yudhisthira or the approval of his brothers. 

But whatever is given is taken away, sometimes early, sometimes late. Krishna had given him a fraction of his kala (attribute) and he withdrew it when he was giving up his mortal form. Told by Sahadeva not to do so, Arjuna would not touch him, despite Krishna’s pleading. So he requested Arjuna to extend Gandiva towards him so that he could have a feel of his dearest sakha (friend) at least indirectly; isn’t a touch of someone dearest soothing when one is in pain? That’s the way Arjuna thought and as he held out the bow, the avatara touched it and with that he withdrew his attribute. At once Arjuna became like any other mortal. The youngest Pandava, who knew everything, knew that the avatara would not return from the world incomplete, leaving a bit of him behind. So he had asked his brother not to touch him, no matter how heart-rending his pleading. But there are limits to human intelligence; the purna avatara (complete manifestation of all attributes) was not bound by any.

It was fire god Agni’s turn now. At the time of the burning of the forest of Khandava, he had given this divine bow to Arjuna. Now he manifested and told Arjuna that he had come to take back Gandiva. Arjuna refused right away. It was not merely a weapon for him; he loved and respected it so profoundly that he had taken an oath that he would not forgive any disrespect to either Krishna or Gandiva – just them; no Kunti, no Yudhisthira, no Draupadi - and would kill the offender. Everyone knew of his oath. Thus once he was going to kill Yudhisthira when he insulted Gandiva. Krishna intervened and saved the sanctity of Arjuna’s oath and Yudhisthira’s life both. That story that does not concern us here.

Agni pleaded with him but Arjuna was reluctant. This was when Yudhisthira intervened. He sharply told Arjuna that if he was so attached to his bow he should return to Hastinapura and assist King Parikshita in the protection of the kingdom. Arjuna got the message and gave his bow to the god. It must have dawned on him that clinging to worldly things, including the divine ones given by gods, was actually clinging to life. Attachment to life negated the last jajna that he was performing along with his brothers and Draupadi in the sacred Himalayas.

Then Agni said something that was intended as much for him as for the listeners of the great narrative, sitting in front of Sarala more than five centuries ago, and also his listeners and readers since then: Arjuna should not feel disappointed. In future times Mahabharata would be re-enacted again and again and Arjuna would return again and again, and at that time he would give back Gandiva to him. The poet does not tell us what these words meant to Arjuna - if at all he registered them - but he informs and warns those who were listening to him and those who would in future about the human conditions, about the inevitabilities.

Sarala does not tell us whether there would be Krishna in the future enactments of Mahabharata. He knew that there was no point trying to figure out what Narayana would do. He knew that He is beyond the comprehension of anyone – man or god. He knew that Agni knew it too.