Sunday, July 19, 2015


This is a humble response to a comment I had received sometime back. The commentator who was kind enough to read the post on Kunti and Gandhari had expressed her strong displeasure on the way Kunti was depicted there. In that story Kunti and Gandhari quarreled and the commentator observed that Kunti was not one who would degrade herself by quarreling with anyone. As such, the narrative was unfair to a virtuous and dignified woman.

As we know very well, Sarala Mahabharata is not a translation of Vyasa’s Mahabharata, but a creative retelling of the ancient narrative. Retelling has been one of the two main traditional ways of engaging with a classical text: be it kavya or shastra, literary or knowledge-based text. And any retelling of such ancient texts involves interpretation and re-conceptualization of a text. Kamban Ramayana is a creative retelling of the Ramayana narrative, as are the retellings of Mahabharata by Nannaya and Pampa and Kumara Vyasa, who preceded Sarala. Sarala followed that tradition, but whether he himself was aware that he was doing so, it is impossible to tell, given the available information on the poet. However, at least one thing is very clear: Sarala Mahabharata contains nothing at all on the basis of which one could argue that he was indeed aware of the retellings that existed before his own.

Sarala Mahabharata being a retelling, we would expect variations in it from the canonical version of the narrative: Vyasa Mahabharata. The essential spirit is the same. Let us read each such narrative composed in other languages with an open mind and with generosity. We will then appreciate the extremely rich potential of the Mahabharata story and its creative explorations in different times by different narrators as they engage with it. 

Some characters in Sarala Mahabharata are cursed divinities, born as humans, in order to undergo the fruits of their karma and some were born to become part of the lila (divine play) of the avatara in different ways. To the first category belong, for instance, Pannaga Narayana, who was born as Duryodhana, one of the Sudraka Brahmas (the fourteenth one), who was born as Dussasana and Dharma, who was born as Vidura. To the second belong Sahadeva and Sakuni, for example, who were servitors of Bhagawan Vishnu in Vaikuntha. They came into the mortal world to assist Krishna in the fulfillment of his cosmic objective. As for the avatara himself, he was there to redeem his word to his servitors and devotees in different yugas or aeons and they include Jaya, Vijaya and Angada, all born as humans. 

In Sarala’s retelling, each of the gods and other divinities born in the mortal world, as the avatara himself, had the familiar, in fact, defining, human weaknesses. There was a distinct streak of ordinariness to their personalities. So Yudhisthira, who found unpleasant atmosphere around him suffocating and tended to withdraw, often kept quiet when he should have spoken up. Bhima used to deliberately insult and mentally torture Dhritarastra who was living with the Pandavas after the Kurukshetra war honouring Yudhisthira’s very genuine request. King Yudhisthira strongly disliked Bhima’s treatment of the helpless, old Kuru elder, his very own, but he didn’t say a word to him in this respect. Despite all the care and love that Nakula received from his foster mother Kunti and from her sons, this Pandava could not get over the feeling that after all, he and his brother Sahadeva were not sons of Kunti. As he confided in Krishna once, he was unsure as to how her sons would treat them once the war was over and the Kauravas were all killed. Draupadi felt insulted when Ghatotkacha did not pay her due respect during rajaswiya jajna, so she cursed the young man to die in the battlefield in a manner disgraceful for the warriors. This punishment was very unjust, being entirely disproportionate to Ghatotkacha’s misbehavior. What she did was totally unbecoming of a queen of the illustrious Kuru family and was totally unacceptable considering she was like a mother to him, who was Bhima’s son. Gandhari, the queen of King Dhritarastra at that time, was annoyed when she discovered that Kunti, an ordinary subject of the kingdom - she had by then lost her husband, Pandu - had the temerity to worship Bhagawan Siva in the same temple, that too even before she did. It hurt her pride and she scolded her. Kunti scolded Krishna once in such foul language that even Bhima got mighty upset. Yudhisthira had once done the same to Krishna, making Arjuna upset. The young and virtuous Bhishma one day ordered that the helpless Amba, who served him like a dasi, a maid, in his house at her father’s behest, be thrown out of his house for no fault of hers. The problem was that he was finding it increasingly difficult to control his passion towards that beautiful princess. The venerable guru Drona was so blindly fond of his son, Aswasthama, that instead of asking him to control his anger and develop a sense of discrimination, he asked him to please Brahma through tapas and get the boon of immortality from the Creator god, fearing that being a friend of Duryodhana, he might get killed in a Kaurava-Pandava war. The great goddesses, Parvati and Lakshmi, once fought, each claiming that her husband was greater. The venerable sages such as Vyasa and Durvasa would curse for no reason at all. Durvasa wanted to hold the baby Dussasana in his arms and the restless baby’s foot hit his chest. So powerful was the impact that the sage fell down. Out came the curse from his mouth targeting the innocent baby: may his chest be torn apart in a war! In sum, the ordinariness of Sarala’s characters is very conspicuous. Such ordinariness, which leads to moral failings, is part of his vision of humanness: it is about the co-existence of satvik, rajasik and tamasik tendencies in human nature and none of these is entirely absent in a human being. In the context of Sarala Mahabharata, Kunti’s abusing Krishna in harsh language out of frustration or her quarreling with Gandhari on the issue of whether she must wait for Gandhari to worship Siva first irrespective of when she arrived for offering worship (before her or after her) only point to the ordinariness of her character and not at all a censor of her. 

Setting aside Sarala’s poetic vision for a while, let us reflect for a moment whether quarrel is really all that bad. Quarrel can be a mode of demonstrating moral power and confidence through protesting against injustice, as was his mother Hidimbaki’s ’s angry, hateful and revengeful response to Draupadi when she cursed Ghatotkacha; she cursed in return that her yet unborn children would meet early death. Quarrel can be used to convey an argument, when the situation does not make it possible to engage in a polite dialogue. Hidimbaki gave Draupadi reasons why she had advised her son against paying her respect: her son was a king and as such could not pay his respects in public to her. Besides having five husbands she was unchaste and deserved no respect from him. Quarrel can be a means of drawing attention and pleading for understanding. It can clarify things and resolve misunderstanding and save a relationship from disintegration, and very importantly, it often works as a substitute for physical violence. Doesn’t then quarrel have a legitimate place in a society? Besides, given human nature, isn’t quarrel in some sense rather natural? Can one really say that a society free of quarrel is a utopia? If I have to look for some kind of an answer in Sarala Mahabharata, such a society, I suspect, will most probably look like a “Babarapuri”.

Ratha Yatra, Nabakalebara 2015


Saturday, July 11, 2015


Jagannath Dasa wrote Bhagavata in Odia in the sixteenth century, about eighty years after Sarala Mahabharata was composed. Jagannath Dasa had to suffer for writing the most, or one of the two most, sacred Sanskrit texts in Odia language. I do not know when it got general acceptance in Odisha, but for a long time it has been regarded as arguably the most sacred text in Odia. During the three main dhupas (food offerings), it is ritually recited in the Jagannath Temple in Puri. Often it is recited at the bedside of a dying person in Odisha which is reminiscent of Suka – Pariksita sambada (episode of the sage Suka and the king Parikshita as the king was awaiting death). As for Sarala Dasa, he needs no introduction in this blog.
In both Sarala Mahabharata and Bhagavata, Krishna can be said to have emerged as the purna avatara or the complete manifestation, in terms of attributes, of the Supreme god Narayana. Born as a human, he had a human aspect to his exalted divinity. He was supposed to have relationship with many women to whom he was not ritually married. In times when extra-marital relationships were socially unacceptable, both Sarala and Jagannath were uncomfortable with this and this piece is about how these celebrated poets responded to it.  

To start with Sarala Mahabharata. Krishna had just departed from the mortal world and Jara, the forest dweller, whose arrow had wounded him fatally, and Arjuna had made a huge fire to cremate him. They sat quietly nearby, deeply distressed, lost and forlorn, waiting for the body to burn. But it wouldn’t. They put more and more wood in the fire and the flames leapt higher and higher but the body would still not burn. Arjuna was wondering why. He recalled the doings of Krishna as a child. He had sucked a woman to death, he had killed a bull, they were demons, true, but they had assumed such forms: Putana was a woman and Arishta, a bull.  Then he had sinful relations with so many women. He thought that the body was not burning because it was a sinful body. Many people of older generations still believe in Odisha at least, that the body of a virtuous man burns very fast and that of a sinner takes long to burn. When he was alive, the fruit of his sinful karma could not touch him, and now since he has departed, it had taken control of his body. But he immediately regretted thinking like that. May be the real reason was something else, he thought. Did the body become impure because of his touch, he being a mere mortal and a sinner? Sarala does not tell us what was going through Jara’s mind. Going by his portrayal of him, one could guess that he could be thinking of Krishna, who he knew was worshipped Indra, Brahma,Siva, and all the other gods. Anyway, Arjuna had begun to feel guilty about his first impious thought of Krishna. At that time the Voice from the Sky asked them to float the body in the ocean because fire was incapable of consuming it.

The Voice from the Sky was the poet’s voice as was Yudhisthira’s in Swargarohana Parva with respect to his brothers and as was god Dharma’s with respect to Yudhisthira. It was a declaration of the poet’s final judgement on his Krishna: out of the karmic cycle, when he lived among the mortals, he was the purest of the pure, so was his body after he had left it. Now, Arjuna’s thoughts and in the order in which they came to him, the latter cancelling out the former, can be said to express the attempt of the troubled poet to try to explain an aspect of the avatara to the humans, which they understandably find un-understandable.  With the Voice from the Sky speaking, the poet sweeps away all doubts and uncertainties.

Jagannath Dasa confronted the same question but he came up with a different resolution, which sounds so modern. Extramarital relationship is socially unacceptable, but it is there. Those who indulge in it are those who are the bada loka (big men) of the society. But what choice is there except to look the other way when they are involved? What can one say when the leaders of the society violate societal norms! There is no questioning the powerful – bada lokaku uttara nahi (there is no answer to the big people), as goes the popular Odia proverb. The import is clear: if the avatara in the human form chooses to remain in the society, he cannot be exempt from societal norms. The society can only grumble if he does, but cannot utter even a word of disapproval. 

During Jagannath Dasa’s time came Sri Chaitanya to Puri. He gave the title ati badi (very great) to Dasa, who thus came to be known as ati badi jagannath dasa. With Sri Chaitanya’s coming, a sect of Vaishnavism came into being in Odisha, which subsequently came to be known as Gaudiya Vaishnavism (Vaishnavism from Gauda – the modern Bengal), distinct from Utkaliya Vaishnavism (Vaishnavism of Utkal – native Vaishnavism). There are significant differences between these two forms of Vaishnavism, but one thing was common to both: Krishna’s relationship with the gopis was spiritual; paramatma’s (the Supreme, Universal Soul) relationship with atma (the individual soul / self); the physical expression was only a mode of articulation, a mere metaphor, an illusion.