Thursday, November 10, 2016


(This post is not about Sarala Mahabharata. It is about a ritual in Shri Jagannath Temple in Puri and the story associated with it. The ritual continues but the story is all but forgotten. 

The inspiration for this post has come from some observations of Ms. Sewa Bhattarai regarding some fading worships in Karnali and the stories and the festivals connected with them.) 

For a month, from the eleventh day of the waxing phase of the moon of the month of Aswina till the tenth day of the waxing phase of the moon of the month of Kartika, both days inclusive, a special ritual is conducted in Shri Jagannath temple (“Shri Mandira”, as it is also called) in Puri. After the daily ritual of abakasha (washing face, bathing, etc.) the Deities, Jagannath, Balabhadra, Subhadra and Sudarshana wear a special besha (dress) called “Radha Damodara besha”. Then after the ballava dhupa (the first food offering of the day, called ballava) and the sakala (morning) dhupa (the second food offering of the day), which are daily rituals, an additional food offering or dhupa is held. This dhupa is called “baala dhupa”.

While the puja of this dhupa takes place, the devotees, assembled in the presence of the Deities, repeatedly recite a simple couplet, containing a few names of the Supreme god Narayana as Krishna. One of these names is Damodara. The first line of the couplet is of interest here: jaya raadhaa daamodara gobinda (Victory to Radha and to Damodara, and to Govinda, who is also known as Damodara). Noticing that I was not reciting it, a servitor, an old person, came up to me and asked me to repeat it. Say it, Babu (a polite address and reference term in Odia), it’s a mahaamantra, great mantra, he told me. I noticed that though most were saying “raadhaa daamodara”, a few were saying “raai daamodara” instead. Later when I asked one of these devotees, he told me that the right word is really “raai” not “raadhaa” and that Rai was not Radha. He didn’t elaborate; neither did I ask him to do so. I do not remember why I didn’t; I must have thought that he really didn’t know. I knew that in colloquial spoken Odia, Radha sometimes becomes Rai and she is occasionally mentioned as Rai in Odia Vaishnava literature as well. In any case, standing in front of Jagannath, who would care what is the right word!   

Far away from Puri, after many Kartikas, one day I recalled what that devotee had told me and tried to find out if Rai is different from Radha. What I found was that Rai and Radha are not indeed the same and this is Rai’s story, so tender and sweet:

One day the bada panda (one of the chief servitors) invited Jagannath home. He had performed the sraddha ritual for his forefathers and had cooked special food. Jagannath went to His great devotee’s house and the servitor and his wife offered Him food with utmost devotion. He was very pleased. What did he want from Him, He asked him. The servitor said that he wanted Him to marry his daughter, Rai. The Supreme god obliged; she was born with the attribute of goddess Lakshmi, He told him - thus the great tradition of the classical narratives appropriated a local tale. After a while He wanted to return to the Big Temple. The servitor folded his palms and said that he was poor and had nothing to give Him as dowry and implored him to forgive him and accept his surrender to Him.

One day the Supreme god asked the pregnant Rai what she wished to eat. She wanted to sit on His lap and receive worship and eat coconut, banana, moong sprout, khai (fried paddy), kora (a coconut-based sweet), etc., she told Him. For that she had to please goddess Lakshmi, He said. When, He told her, the goddess would grant her a boon, she must tell her that she wanted to sit on His lap and receive worship in the month of Kartika. Rai served the goddess well. Very pleased with her, one day she told her that she wanted to grant her a boon. Rai asked for Damodara. Lakshmi was stunned. She was not angry; she did not feel that the girl had been clever and had trapped her, so she did not want to punish her for her unfair request – she was only deeply perturbed and sad. How could she ask for Him, she asked her. The generous girl told her not to worry, it was for just one month, the month of Kartika, she told her. Lakshmi was relieved. But Kartika is a special month, the most sacred month; give me five days of Kartika, she requested Rai and she readily agreed. If not then, later the goddess realized that it was His wish. Thus Jagannath’s special raadha daamodara besha and the additional baala dhupa come to an end one day before the ekadasi of the waxing month of Kartika. On the day of ekadasi, the Deities wear what is known as thia kia besha, known also as Lakshmi Narayana besha. Jagannath has returned to Lakshmi.

Rai’s is a local girl’s tale. She did not love Him; she was not His devotee and marrying Him was not in her mind. Neither was she in His mind - but who knows about Him. They were married because of her father, who was His devotee. The bhakta offered and Bhagawan accepted. Rai expected nothing from Him, did not ask Him for anything. It was only when He wanted her to ask Him for something that she expressed her desire. What she asked for is so very childlike, innocent and sweet - sitting on His lap, she wanted to enjoy the festive dignity and the serene grandeur of the food offering ritual and share the food with Him. This is what a child could ask of her father. She was not possessive about Him.  She was not jealous of goddess Lakshmi; neither was she afraid of what would happen to her when she would find out. She surely knew what He had told her father about Lakshmi - she was “ati dusta” – very wicked. With the goddess, she did whatever He wanted her to do. Her attitude is outside of navadha bhakti (nine types of devotion); it is perhaps surrender in one form. As Jara’s is, in Sarala Mahabharata.

The above could just not be Radha’ story. She and Krishna longed for each other with great intensity. Virtually each couplet of the immortal love poem, the Gita Govinda, celebrate their longing, as have innumerable shastrik (roughly, scholarly and philosophical) texts and kavyik (literary) creations. Lakshmi or Rukmini, viewed as a form of Lakshmi in dwaapara yuga (aeon of Dwapara) never entered the Radha narrative. Radha was very possessive and jealous with respect to Krishna and could certainly not have accepted a situation in which she would have or would have had to share him with anyone: gopi or goddess. The avatara left her and later married Rukmini but innumerable legends and practices and worships have ignored her and celebrated Radha’s and Krishna’s togetherness. In any case that’s different and is not our concern here. As for Lakshmi, in puranic literature (at least in Odia puranic literature) she may not be openly possessive about Bhagawan Vishnu but there is no episode in which she shared her Spouse with any one, either willingly or forced by circumstances, without feeling anger and hatred towards that other. In the Jagannath Temple in Puri, a floral garland of Jagannath (called “adhara” by the servitors) which He wears in the bada simhara besha (the “big dress”, which is the last dress the Deities wear for the day and which is a flower - and tulsi - -based dress) is ritually offered the following morning to goddess Lakshmi but before it is offered to her, every single tulsi leaf is taken away from it. Because she cannot stand a sautuni – the other female, with whom she shares her husband.

And Jagannath? No one knows His origins. So call Him swayambhu. When He entered the discourse of Sanatana dhama is a matter of interpretation - in the Rig Veda? Or in the puranas? Not resembling any Vedic or puranic god, He came into this rich discourse with no story of His own. As different sects of Sanatana dharma embraced Him, stories got attached to Him - some of these were Vishnu’s, some others were of Vamana’s, Krishna’s or Rama’s, for example.  Those were the stories that celebrated the doings (or the leela) of Krishna, Rama, etc. Jagannath had no doings; there was no leela of His, so no stories of His own. The Odia bhaktas created a few, some of these being of Dasia Bauri (the low-caste Dasia), Manika Gauduni (the milk maid called Manika, whose story is not reminiscent in the least of that of the gopis), Bandhu Mohanty, the hungry devotee to whom He carried food, Salabega, for whom He waited on His ratha till he returned, Karama Bai whose khichri He loved to eat, the nameless girl who sang couplets from the Gita Govinda as she plucked brinjals from the field and of course Rai. As Jagannath was incorporated into the “great tradition” of Sanatana dharma, much that happened to Him includes His acquiring attributes, doings and a family. His Rai became the Vaishnavite Radha - for those who prefer to see Him in terms of Sanatana dharma, Rai was “elevated” into Radha. Radha, who belongs to the “great tradition” has a highly visible presence; Rai, who belongs to the local loka katha (folk tales) is faceless.  No literary work, major or minor, in Odia language has celebrated her. Neither has any painting. (Or the girl who was plucking brinjals. We will tell her story another day.) Today a few might remember Rai’s story but a couple of generations later, she would be entirely forgotten. Radha would have substituted her in the mind of the people. Today, the established paanjikaas (almanacs) that inform about the rituals in the Big Temple use the word raadhaa, nor raai in this context. It wouldn’t of course matter to Rai. Let her name be lost. Because come Aswina sukla ekadasi, for a whole month from that day, Jagannath will dress beautifully for her, have a special dhupa, at which she will sit on His lap and receive worship.


Monday, September 19, 2016


In swarga, where Yudhisthira went without passing through death, he found himself in the company of those he knew in the mortal world. There were his own brothers, there were Duryodhana and his brothers, there were Sanjaya, Vidura, Duryodhana’s son, Lakshmana Kumara, Abhimanyu, Ghatotkacha, Virata, Drupada, Shikhandi, Dhristadyumna, and a few more, who the poet names, whose names we skip, and then there were all those who had fallen in the many battlefields of Kurukshetra -  humans and demons, kings, commanders and soldiers – the unnamed ones. Bhishma, Drona, Karna, Shalya and Sakuni had all become stars. Gods and other divines had welcomed him to swarga but the poet does not name anyone, except Indra, who had himself escorted him from mrityu loka, the land of death, to deva loka, the land of the gods, who are untouched by death. In the last phase of his ascent in the Himalayas, he had seen god Dharma, who in the form of a dog had been his companion in that arduous and lonely journey, but he was not with him when he set his foot on the gods’ land.  Incidentally, Yudhisthira had climbed to the mountain top hoping to see the gods above from there. In Sarala Mahabharata, it was his wish to see the gods from the land of the mortals, but not enter there. Death was never in his mind, neither was the desire to be immortal.

This part of the narrative is easeful and quietly celebrative, nicely capturing the atmosphere in swarga and Yudhisthira’s mood. Then very unexpectedly comes this one line that upsets it all - it is the second line of this couplet: samasta bansha dekhile dharmabachhe / yekamatra dhrutarashtrakain nadekhile pratakse (the son of Dharma saw his entire clan / Only Dhritarashtra he did not see). Dhritarashtra, whose story was long over, surfaces in the narrative all of a sudden and disappears at once. Sarala gives his audience no time to reflect on him. With this couplet Sarala ends his story of the Kuru clan. In the very next couplet, the narrative assumes a serene and then a prayerful tone as the poet proceeds to end his Mahabharata by first describing the spiritual gains that accrue to the listeners and then offering, most devoutly, a prayer to Bhagawan Narayana, whose story he had told and whose lila he had celebrated here. Recall that Sarala repeatedly called his Mahabharata ‘Vishnu Purana”.

As for me, this line about Dhritarashtra has troubled me all these ten years of my being with Sarala Mahabharata. I wouldn’t have thought at all of him if he hadn’t returned to the story and left it the way he did. In Sarala Mahabharata, he is neither a lovable nor a memorable character. This defeated man evokes no strong feelings - positive or negative.  If anything at all, one feels a sense of pity for him. But for the dramatic mention of his name, I would have thought that he was there in swarga too and that Sarala’s word vansha (clan) included him. Not all the names of the greats of the Kuru clan are mentioned in this context; for instance, there is no mention of Bhurishrava. There is no mention of Jayadratha. Sarala surely wouldn’t have liked to tire his audience sick.

But the poet chose to mention Dhritarashtra by referring to his absence. This name assumes significance because with it Sarala chose to end his story of the Kurus. As though Dhritarashtra was the central character! As though it was his story!

Where was Dhritarashtra, if not in swarga? Sarala doesn’t say a word. As though all he deserved was a hasty mention in terms of exclusion.

Was he in narka? Yudhisthira had seen narka. From the top of the mountain, where he stood with no one with him other than a dog, he looked above but did not see the gods and then he looked below and saw a deep well. That was narka. He had to see narka for the papa he had done by telling his guru, Drona, a half-truth in the Kurukshetra battlefield. Narka is a purifier. The sight of narka, which was a sensuous experience of narka, purified Yudhisthira and enabled him to enter swarga without shedding his mortal body.

Yudhisthira had to be purified, but at the same time, he was a great purifier himself, being the embodiment of dharma on earth. As he looked into the deep well, the eyes of ninety-six kings suffering there met his, and in an instance they were freed from narka. The meeting of eyes had cleansed them spiritually. Dhritarashtra was not one of these kings. That much one is sure of from Sarala’s narrative. But that deep well surely wasn’t all of the territory of narka. Was Dhritarashtra somewhere else in that sacred, purifying land of god Yama, the god of justice?

Apart from deva loka and yama loka or narka, there are other lokas as well, as mentioned in various puranas: pitru loka (abode of the ancestors), patala (the nether world), among others. Incidentally, in the context of Dhritarashtra, we need not think of lokas such as Vaikuntha or Shiva loka. In any case, no one in the puranic narratives sneaks into these sublime lokas. No one goes there unheralded, not to Vaikuntha at least, going by Sarala Mahabharata. Think of how, in what joyous celebration, Shishupala went to Vaikuntha!

In puranic literature one goes to a loka depending on his karma. Being in a loka is experiencing the phala (fruit or consequence) of one’s karma. Where can we look for Dhritarashtra? What was his karma? What had he done during his lifetime in Sarala Mahabharata?

He had desperately wanted the kingship of Hastinapura. He was the eldest, but his younger brother, Pandu, became king because the Kuru elders thought that a blind person could not become the ruler. He was very unhappy and one day told his wife, Gandhari, that he wanted to commit suicide. Pandu overheard and readily abdicated in his favour in order to make him happy. But Dhritarashtra was insecure with respect to the kingdom. He was aware that the kingdom was not going to be his until his son became king. So he pressured the Kuru elders in order to make Duryodhana king, but acquiesced when they refused. There was no way Yudhisthira could be denied the kingdom, they said. Then the laksa griha (wax house) incident happened and the Pandavas were supposed to have perished in the fire. In the changed circumstances no one had any issue with Duryodhana becoming king.

Once Duryodhana became king, he was completely side-lined. He didn’t seem to mind. He lived a retired life in the royal palace. He loved Duryodhana very much and was worried that his dependence on Sakuni would lead to disaster. He did not approve of his son’s attitude towards the Pandavas. He had no role in Draupadi’s humiliation. In fact, as a Kuru elder, he returned to the Pandavas everything they had lost in the first game of dice. Maybe he did so more out of fear than of a sense of justice, but he for once went against Duryodhana’s wish. He had no role in the second game of dice and in the Pandavas’ exile. He was not pleased when Krishna was humiliated in the Kaurava court where he had gone as Yudhisthira’s emissary. He did not approve of the war but was in no position to stop it. War was the king’s decision and a Kuru elder could not interfere with it. When his children fell in the battlefield, he held Duryodhana responsible. Later when the victorious Pandavas went to meet him as the Kuru elder, blinded by the loss of all his children, he tried to kill Bhima through treachery, but had failed.

He had lived a miserable life. Although the poet does not tell us about it, it is difficult to imagine that he had not suffered when princesses after princesses had died when they got engaged to him or when he lived with his wife who he knew had blindfolded herself for his sake. It wouldn’t have been easy for him to live under the weight of this great and unasked for sacrifice from his wife. Once Draupadi’s humiliation took place and the Pandavas were sent on exile, he lived in fear for the life of his sons. He was not unaware that the extermination of his line was only a matter of time. War brought him agony. During the War, he was pleased only once – when he heard that Sakuni had been killed.

Fate had condemned him, a ksatriya, a former king, to participate in the War only as a listener. He had lived his days after the death of his dear son, Duryodhana, in intense hatred and vengefulness. Till he came face to face with Bhima. For the only time in his life he used low cunning to take revenge. He was going to crush an unsuspecting Bhima to death but Krishna intervened. He saved Bhima and he saved Dhritarashtra too, who like everyone else, knew that he was Narayana Himself and had a worshipful attitude towards him.  

He calmly accepted things after that and the care that Yudhisthira took of him and the respect he showed him as the eldest Kuru, helped. But he was born to suffer. Bhima tortured him psychologically. He would narrate to the old man the gory details of how he killed each of his sons. The helpless father had no escape – he had to hear the long, painful howling of each of his sons as he was dying. There were also other ways he humiliated the helpless, blind old man. Yudhisthira and Arjuna disapproved of Bhima’s conduct but could not control him.

Maybe his last days in the forest were relatively peaceful?  He had with him in those last days his wife, his brother, the wise Vidura and his trusted minister Sanjaya. And his sister-in-law, Kunti, who had chosen to live with them rather than with her sons who were the rulers.

I feel for him. No other character in Sarala’s narrative lived as miserable a life as his. The forest fire that consumed him released him from the narka, where he spent his entire life. The god of justice is just; so I don’t have to look for Dhritarashtra in his loka. For that reason, I wouldn’t look for him among the existences who live on the periphery of one loka or the other, being denied entry into any.  

Why didn’t Sarala say where he was? By saying nothing, he did not discourage us from thinking that he could be roaming from loka to loka looking for a resting place, where, echoing Sarala, he could wait to start his journey again the land of the mortals? The all-knowing narrator knew all about his characters, their whereabouts. Who would, if he, their creator, didn’t? 

Wednesday, July 27, 2016


Ten years ago I read Durdasa’s story in Sarala Mahabharata and for ten long years he has been in my thoughts. In the battlefield of Kurukshetra, responding to Yudhisthira’s call to join him and fight for dharma, he chose to abandon his Kaurava brothers and join the Pandavas. When the angry Duryodhana ordered his army to attack both the deserter and the eldest Pandava, who was unarmed and was still in the Kaurava side of the battlefield, he sheltered the latter on his chariot and fought valiantly against the Kaurava forces all alone till the arrival of the mighty Bhima. He survived the Great War, where ninety-nine Kaurava brothers had perished but when there was no fear to his life, he was mistakenly killed by his own mother.

The mother of course did not know that she had killed her son until Vidura told her. The revengeful woman had wanted to kill Yudhisthira; so she had asked him to remove her eye-cover so that she could see him. She knew that the yogic fire emanating from her eyes would burn him to ashes. But with Krishna around, Yudhisthira could not be killed; the protector of dharma would not allow the embodiment of dharma to be destroyed. He asked Durdasa to remove the cover, which he readily did and perished. There must be no residue of the enemy, was what he told Sahadeva.

Sahadeva alone did not hear these words; these words reverberated and reached lakhs - those who were listening to Sarala as he was telling his Mahabharata in the remote village Jhankada more than five hundred years ago, and all those who heard or read his immortal narrative thereafter. The poet does not tell us what Sahadeva and the other Pandavas felt but at least some of his audience down the centuries would surely have liked to challenge him with the question: “why this revolting unfairness”? We ask him because he is the avatara, the purna avatara. Whatever be the wisdom of eliminating Durdasa, it is utterly hurtful; it comes as a severe affront to those who, despite all the negativities, have not lost their hopes for a fair and just world. Durdasa’s story is there in this blog, posted on September 7, 2007. Therefore, it is unnecessary to go into further details here.  

Incidentally, Durdasa’s counterpart in Vyasa Mahabharata, namely Yuyutsu, did not have the same fate. When the Pandavas left for vanaprastha, Yudhisthira asked him to look after the kingdom on behalf of king Parikshita, who was too young for that. As Pradip Bhattacharya observes, Durdasa had to die because he was one of the hundred Dhritarashtras. In Vyasa Mahabharata, Vikarna, who had protested against Durodhana's command to disrobe Draupadi, had to die because he was one of the sons of Dhritarashtra. Yuyutsu lived because he was the son of a maid and to that extent was on the periphery of the Kaurava family.  

Returning to Durdasa, was he really an enemy, as Krishna implied? Was it fair to give him a bad label and burn him? To us, readers of Sarala Mahabharata, he was by no stretch of imagination an enemy. If Krishna thought Durdasa was an enemy, despite all that he had done for the sake of dharma and for the Pandavas, the narrator does not tell us why he thought so. There is nothing at all in the yuddha and subsequent parvas (cantos) that he had done anything which could be considered hostile to the Pandavas. As Vineet Chaitanya says, had he known what his mother had in mind, he would have volunteered to remove the cover from her eyes. I agree. He would have protected Yudhisthira from his mother exactly as he had protected him from his elder brother’s army in the battlefield of Kurukshetra.  

As for Krishna, he never gave only one explanation for something he had done, at least in Sarala’s version. If he said one thing to Sahadeva by way of justifying his action, he said another to Gandhari - how can dharma exist on earth if Yudhisthira is killed, he told her. So the protector of dharma had to protect the embodiment of dharma on earth. One would hope that this was the real reason why Krishna pushed Durdasa to his death. This would at least put to rest any skepticism about Durdasa’s integrity!

Many thoughts come to mind. Just as Sarala Mahabharata seriously questions war as the best solution to apparently irresolvable issues facing a kingdom, it rejects hatred and revengefulness in human relationship. These lead to nowhere. Gandhari’s understandable grief on account of the death of her children had made her lose control over herself. So she had decided to kill Yudhishtira by means of treachery when she knew that he had come to Dhritarashtra on a sincere mission of reconciliation, something which he need not have done. What she intended do amounted to reviving a war that was over and bringing it right inside the palace of Hastinapura. She had to pay the price. Vidura’s condemnation was harsh. Cover your eyes and return to your blindness, he told her. She readily obeyed.

And think of Yudhisthira and Bhima. Yudhisthira had assured him of his protection. Bhima had assured him of protection against anyone: man, demon or god. They couldn’t do a thing. Sarala doesn’t tell us so, but we will not violate the spirit of his immortal narrative if we interpret it to mean that humans, no matter how virtuous or powerful, do not control things. In their arrogance, not just humans and demons, gods too in our puranas do not always remember this. When Krishna withdrew his kalaa (attribute) from Arjuna at the time of ending his avatara, the latter no more remained invincible in engagements with mortals or immortals, as he so far had been. He became a mere shadow of the Arjuna who had defeated the god of gods: Mahadeva.

Pandu had abdicated in favour of his elder brother Dhritarashtra in order to make him happy and had voluntarily retired to the forest. The blind king had forgotten his devoted brother’s favour. After the birth of Yudhisthira in the forest, Dhritarastra became insecure and extremely jealous. He badly wanted a son, who would succeed him. He implored the sages to perform yajna for a son - if the gods could be pleased, he would have male children. The sages who knew told him that it was ordained that he would have a daughter and no sons. What would he do with a daughter, the king asked the sages and begged them to perform yajna to please the gods. The sages obliged. Gandhari conceived but did not deliver when the time came. Later what came out of her womb was a lump of flesh. Ignoring details, sage Vyasa cut it into a hundred pieces and those came to life as the hundred Kaurava brothers.

Perhaps Durdasa had to die because he was part of the one that had become a hundred. Ninety-nine could not go out of the world leaving a residue behind. When Krishna left the mortal world, he did not leave a residue of himself behind. He withdrew his kalaa from Arjuna. At the end, completeness must be restored, in a manner of speaking.  

Durdasa and his ninety-nine brothers were the off springs of ambition and jealousy. The way they were born, they did not carry the blessings of the gods who were invoked during the yajna. Destiny was challenged. In due course destiny took away from Dhritarashtra and Gandhari what was not theirs in the first place. Dhritarashtra and Gandhari lived to experience this. The mother lived to see how she had become an instrument in the killing of her only surviving child. The cosmic purpose would not have been served if Durdasa had remained alive. The punishment for his parents would have been less than adequate. The avatara had to make the right happen. The cosmic order had to be restored. Human feelings would not matter. Neither would the ethical code of the humans.

In Sarala Mahabharata, it has been said repeatedly that Narayana does not just take; although it appears that that is what He does. He also gives and He more than amply compensates for what He takes, although mortals may not know. He only knows what he gave Durdasa.    

With this understanding I have come to terms with Durdasa’s end and also Krishna’s role in it. May be discontent would disturb me again, forcing me a rethink of the Durdasa episode. May be not.

Niladri Bije, 2016

Key words: Krishna, Durdasa, Gandhari, Sarala Mahabharata, destiny, cosmic purpose

(I am highly thankful to (Brahmachari) Vineet Chaitanya, Pradip Bhattaharya, Sewa Bhattarai, and Vikas Kumar for their valuable observations and suggestions.)


Monday, July 18, 2016


Note: This piece, published in The Political and Business Daily on July 17, 2016, Sunday, is authored by Dr. Vikas Kumar ( who teaches at Azim Premji University, Bangalore and me. Dr. Kumar is the first author. This piece views an aspect of the Sakuni episode in Sarala Mahabharata from the larger perspective of "prison-revenge" stories and shows in what way Sarala's characterization of Sakuni is original.  

“Translations” of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata into modern Indian languages are among the defining features of our regional cultures. The differences between the Sanskrit and regional versions, which are essentially creative retellings, reflect the specificity of both the regional epic and the regional culture. The use of ‘Duryodhana’ as a naming word in Odia, might, for instance, be explained by the humane treatment of classical villains in the Sarala Mahabharata.

The 15th century Odia epic differs from its Sanskrit counterpart with regard to the narrative frame, among other things. In Sarala’s story, Duryodhana’s annihilation of his mother’s natal family was the root cause of the Kurukshetra war that was plotted by Sakuni. Sarala introduced new stories, e.g., Duryodhana’s crossing of the river of blood, and new characters, e.g., Suhani and Hari Sahu. He also captured the mundane features of the characters, e.g., Duryodhana’s passing urine and Parvati’s removing lice from Shiva’s hair. These differences, and the limited compounding possible in Odia language, partly explain why Sarala’s epic is considerably longer than Vyasa’s.

A number of features of the classical version made possible these differences. The context of regional retellings was far removed from that of the classical period, which necessitated innovations. Also, the Bhakti environment required reorientation of the entire story toward the avatara. So, Sarala’s retelling of the Mahabharata, the story of the Kurus, can be seen as a pretext to dwell upon Krishna lila. Indeed Sarala referred to his Mahabharata as Vishnu Purana. Innovative retelling was also enabled by the abundance of underdeveloped characters and stories as well as inconsistencies in the classical version. Moreover, innovations were not culturally unacceptable as the Mahabharata was not treated as a sacred text.

It is also possible that the regional versions, such as Sarala’s, tapped into lesser known parallel classical traditions, which might explain the deviation from the classical version. The Sarala Mahabharata can indeed be read as a “Prison-revenge” story, a few examples of which are presented below.

In Sarala’s story, Gandhari was married to a sahada tree (and immediately widowed) before being married to Dhritarashtra to shield the couple from inauspicious stars. Duryodhana perceived a widow’s marriage to his father as an affront and starved his maternal grandfather, his ninety six brothers, and his hundred sons in a prison. The prisoners denied themselves food so that Sakuni, the king’s eldest son, lived. (Significantly, ninety nine Kaurava brothers perished in the Kurukshetra War.) Sakuni made dice out of his father’s bones, which would obey his call.

One day Duryodhana was urinating under a banyan tree, when he saw a fruit of that tree flowing away in his urine. A banyan tree is so big and strong that even the strongest wind and the heaviest rain cannot shake it. Its fruit contains the seeds of so many banyan trees, and yet it flowed away in his urine. These thoughts made him smile. A female attendant saw him smile, and she smiled too. Duryodhana asked her why she smiled. She said whatever made him smile made her smile. Duryodhana then asked her why he had smiled, and threatened to put her to death if she failed to answer him. She happened to be the attendant who carried food to Sakuni. Sakuni asked her to tell the king that he had smiled on seeing a fruit of a banyan tree flowing away in the flow of his urine. The reply stunned Duryodhana and he appointed Sakuni his mantri.

Somadeva’s Kathasaritsagara and related texts contain a similar story. Three brahmin students – Vyaadi, Vararuchi, and Indradatta – needed a crore of rupees to pay guru dakshina. They decided to approach King Satyananda. He died just when they reached his camp. Indradatta entered the body of the king, who came back to life and became known as Yogananda. He ordered the payment of a crore of rupees to Vararuchi. Minister Shaktala (also known as Shaktara in some versions) wondered if the revival of the dead king and the subsequent gift to a stranger could be a mere coincidence. He feared that the person who entered the king’s body would leave once his job was done. He ordered the burning of all corpses in the kingdom, including Indradatta’s body. Yogananda made Vararuchi his minister and imprisoned Shaktala and his hundred sons fearing a coup. Shaktala alone survived. He took revenge with Chanakya’s help and retired to a forest.

In Ravinartaka’s Chanakyakatha, King Nanda’s kshatriya wife gave birth to a lump of flesh that was cut into nine pieces that became the nine Nandas. (In Sarala, Gandhari gave birth to a lump of flesh that was cut into hundred pieces, which became the Kauravas.) Maurya, their cousin born to the King’s Sudra wife, was the commander of the army. The Nandas, who reigned in rotation, were jealous of Maurya, who enjoyed his office without interruption. They imprisoned and starved Maurya and his hundred sons. Chandragupta, the youngest son, alone survived. A rival king challenged the Nandas to take a caged waxen lion out without opening the cage. The Nandas released Chandragupta after he solved the riddle by heating the waxen lion. Chandragupta in due course avenged the family.

In Anantasarman’s Mudrarakshasapurvasamkathanaka, when King Nanda Sudhanvan died, an ascetic entered his body and distributed alms to his students. This aroused suspicion in the mind of Minister Rakshasa, who found and destroyed the ascetic’s body. Rakshasa then joined the service of King Parvataka. Prompted by a prophesy Minister Shaktara killed the possessed Nanda and installed the real heir Ugradhanvan as the king. When the latter learnt of his “father’s” murder, he imprisoned and starved Shaktara and his hundred sons. Vikatara, the youngest son, survived and was released somehow. He took revenge with Chanakya’s help.

The originality of Sarala’s epic in the world of Prison-revenge stories lies in its novel conception of the ethical choices facing Sakuni. Sarala’s Sakuni refused to return to his ancestral kingdom and gave up his life in the battlefield. Sakuni’s act of revenge was simultaneously his act of virtuous suicide. Sarala gave Sakuni a second choice where he amply redeemed himself. In Sarala’s eyes, Sakuni was a sufficiently moral person to make that choice. The originality of Sarala is evident only when it is compared with other inter-related tales that define the story space that is India, where shared narrative frames have circulated over a long period of time.

Saturday, June 11, 2016


Said the celebrated sage Vyasa to Krishna, I need pramanapratyakshya pramana (direct evidence); only then would I accept. That was when Krishna met Arjuna for the first time. That was when in Sarala Mahabharata Krishna entered the story of the Kuru clan. Nakula and Sahadeva were not born yet. The story of Madri posted in this blog on July 22, 2008 would give some idea of the context of this meeting. 

Krishna told Vyasa that there was no time when he and Arjuna were not bound in strongest togetherness. In Satya Yuga (the Aeon of Truth) Arjuna was the brahmin named Shrivatsa and once he hit Narayana hard on his chest. Concerned that he had in the process got hurt, Narayana had tenderly massaged his foot. Since then the mark of his foot has been on his chest, Krishna told Vyasa. “Behold the mark on me, O sage!” said Krishna. In the same aeon, when he manifested himself as Narasingha (Nrusingha), Arjuna was born as Prahalada (Prahlada), “And I,” said Krishna, “had sat him on my lap, O Vyasa!” In another aeon, when he was born as Rama, said Krishna, Arjuna was born as his brother, Bharata, and in the present aeon of Dwapara, “I have taken the avatara of Krishna and the same Bharata is born as Arjuna, O sage!” 

Vyasa knew the svarupa (true form) of Krishna; he knew that he was Narayana Himself. The sage was not unaware that there could be no untruth in the words of Narayana, but he still found it difficult to accept as true that Arjuna, a mere mortal, could have been related to Him so very closely – as his sakha (intimate friend)— across aeons. Most humbly, the great sage told Krishna that he had doubts and that he would believe what he had said about Arjuna if the latter could withstand his Vishvarupa or Cosmic Form. “So manifest yourself in your Vishvarupa!” he told Krishna (tu swami ehaku biswarupa dekha / ye jebe dekhi parai atai tora sakha – you show your Vishvarupa to him / if he can withstand it, he is your intimate friend).  Vyasa knew that even the greatest of gods, Brahma and Shankara, had not been able to do so. If Arjuna now did, then he had to be someone very special. Krishna asked Arjuna what he wanted. The son of Kunti said that he wanted Vyasadeva to be convinced, and he too wanted to witness what this Universal Form was like, he added (kemanta ti biswarupa atai tohara / dekhibaku ichha deba atain mohara – what is your Vishvarupa like / it is my desire to see (it)). The avatar obliged. Only he can see whom He chooses to show.

In an instant, the avatar’s friendly and cheerful form merged in his Source, the Supreme Divinity Narayana, and Narayana’s form grew and grew. It encompassed the sky, the nether lands, all the lokas, all the brahmandas (worlds / universes) and all the existences. There was nothing left. In that all-embracing Form, the sun and the moon were His eyes and the wind was His breath. All the gods rested in the roots of the hair on His body, all the living beings on the palm of His left hand, the mountains on His fingers and the oceans in the palm of His right hand. His Form dazzled brilliantly, illuminated by the primordial fires. 

Arjuna smiled the silly, idiotic smile of a senile old man. Was he going to lose his existence was what might have disoriented him. “O Supreme being,!” said Arjuna, “Will you grow more? I have, at all times been a part of you. I have no existence outside of your Form. Are you going to expand further and absorb me in you?” asked Arjuna. “I am terrified,” he said. 

Narayana had manifested Himself in his Cosmic Form because Arjuna wanted to see Him thus. Now, seeing Arjuna terrified, He assumed His avataric form as the serene, blissful, playful, friendly Krishna. 

All this is like in Shrimad Bhagavad Gita but here the contextualization is different. And we must note that in this art of contextualization lies Sarala’s originality as a creative re-teller of the ancient story.

Almost as in the Vyasa Mahabharata, in Sarala’s version too there were two who witnessed the Vishvarupa: one saw because he wanted to, the other saw, as the witness.  There the witness was Sanjaya; here, Vyasa himself. They were witness to the fact that the one who wanted to see Narayana’s Vishvarupa indeed saw His Cosmic Form. However, in the Bhagavad Gita, the most prominent aspect of the Universal Form was the ultimate destructive energy.  In the Sarala Mahabharata, because of the changed context, this Form would have been inappropriate. Thus, here the most prominent aspect of His Vishvarupa is His all-pervasiveness. It is reminiscent of what mother Yashoda had witnessed in the mouth of Krishna. Both what Arjuna saw in the Bhagavad Gita and what he sees in the Sarala Mahabharata could be utterly terrifying. In the former case, the reasons are obvious and in the latter, the experience could utterly confuse and disorient the experiencer with respect to the nature of his own existence. 

Now, there was yet another blessed one in our mainstream puranic literature who had also seen the all-pervasive Cosmic Form of Narayana. He was the celebrated king, Bali, and he witnessed that Rupa (Form) at the time of giving dana (ritual gift) to the Vamana, the avatara Narayana had taken for him. The wise and the righteous Bali was unafraid; he was calm and composed. There of course was no place in the story for a scared Bali, but at the same time, part of the narrative purpose was surely to foreground the great king’s enlightened self-possession on seeing Narayana in that Form. That attitude showed how highly developed he was in spiritual terms. We might recall what Narayana said in the Sarala Mahabharata - that for dana, He would go to only the most virtuous among the highly virtuous.   
As for Vyasa, he was satisfied, as a true seeker after knowledge is when knowledge comes to him. Arjuna had survived. Vyasa realized that he was no ordinary mortal. He told Krishna that he had always thought that no one was related to Narayana, but now he had realized that he was wrong. He blessed Arjuna for victory and left.

In the Sarala Mahabharata, this was how Arjuna and Vyasa witnessed the Vishvarupa of the Supreme One. The avatar appeared in his source Narayana’s various forms on other occasions, as he demonstrated his Narayanatva (“Narayana-ness”), one of these being in the Kaurava court where he had gone as Yudhisthira’s emissary, but Vishvarupa darshan did not figure in the narrative again.

There is more to reflect on in this episode. For instance, how does Sarala implement the concept in his narrative that Narayana is without relations? What does it really mean? It is indeed necessary to know, so that we can understand the import of Vyasa’s observation in this episode. Again, why did Vyasa want Krishna to prove to him that what he had said about himself and Arjuna was correct? Wasn’t the statement by the avatar who, Vyasa was aware, knew the past, present and future of everything and of everyone including himself, sufficient? Consider it alongside the question as to why in Shrimad Bhagavad Gita Arjuna wanted to see that Form of Krishna which would embody all the assertions Krishna had made about himself in the tenth chapter. Was it for the same reason that Sarala’s Vyasa wanted evidence from Krishna – that is, like him, did Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita want pratyaksha pramana from Krishna, although his words and his extremely reverential attitude to him in that sloka (3 of chapter 11) do not explicitly express a demand for it? But at the same time, can such an interpretation be ruled out? I hope to return to these matters in some other posts.

Just one reflection as we conclude. In the Vyasa Mahabharata Sanjaya could see the Vishvarupa because he had received from sage Vyasa the special power to see all that was happening on the battlefield of Kurukshetra from wherever he was. Arjuna could see the Vishvarupa because Krishna had given him the special power to see: divyam dadami te cakshuh / pasya me yogam aisvaram (“I am giving you divine sight/ Behold my sovereign yoga” as translated by Ramesh Menon, sloka 8, chapter 11). Krishna gave the divine sight, so Arjuna saw what Krishna wanted him to see. Krishna had given Belalsen (his name in Sarala’s version, Barbareek in others) divine sight and he saw what Krishna had wanted him to see. The one who imparts the ability to see controls what is to be seen. 

In the Sarala Mahabharata, Arjuna had not been given divine sight to witness Narayana’s Vishvarupa. Our submission is: did he need it? Who was he in this narrative? When they met, Krishna sat him on his lap and named him “Diti Krishna” (“Second Krishna”). Before he left his mortal form, he withdrew from Arjuna a kala (attribute / aspect) of himself which he had given him, as he had to return complete to his Source (cf. “Krishna’s Last Deceit” posted on July 13, 2007. With that attribute, Arjuna carried Krishnatva (“Krishna-ness”) in him. Now, when did Krishna give that kala? Logic and intuition suggest that he did it when he sat him on his lap. Could this be Sarala’s way of suggesting this: jahun Arjunaku kole dhaile shripati / swarupa baarana nohila duhinkara eka murti (When Shripati – Krishna – sat Arjuna on his lap / They could not be distinguished, they both had the same appearance)? 

Viewed thus, isn’t Arjuna’s beholding of the Vishvarupa like the beholder and the one who is beheld not separate? Had Vyasa known that Krishna had given a bit of himself to Arjuna, would he have asked the avatara for pratyakshya  pramana?

(This post has benefited from observations of Pradip Bhattacharya, Vineet Chaitanya, Vikas Kumar and Christa Scheler. Pradip Bhattacharya’s editing has improved the readability of the text. My gratitude to them all.)

Friday, June 3, 2016


Shantanu was a great devotee of Bhagawan Shiva. Sarala spoke of him as a “rushi (“rishi”, sage)”. He was so emerged in Shiva consciousness that he would dress himself like him and then even the gods were confused. One day the unbelievable of the unbelievable happened – goddess Ganga was confused. She had taken birth in the mortal world as the daughter of Nirghata. Shiva had disappeared from the mountains of Kailash and where he was engaged in meditation, she did not know. She was waiting for him to emerge out of his meditation so that she could marry him. When she saw Shantanu dressed like Shiva, she thought he was Shiva and told her father to marry her to him. During the wedding ritual itself she realized her mistake. She soon thought of a plan to free herself from that marriage. This story entitled “Ganga” occurs in this blog, posted on May 6, 08. 

One of the many vicious things Ganga did to Shantanu in order to exasperate him was force him to abandon the path of dharma. She was very beautiful, sensual and seductive and he fell for her charms. He was completely fulfilled in her. She gave herself to him completely during their union but her heart was not in it; offering him sexual pleasure was her way of controlling him. She knew his weakness and exploited it. She would deny him when he was extremely aroused and force him into sex act on days the shastras did not permit it. Shantanu used to observe twelve bratas and seventy two upavasas (both roughly speaking, “ritual fasts”) steadfastly. Sex, which was believed to be physically and spiritually polluting, was not sanctioned on those sacred days.  Sin accrues to one who indulges in it on those days. Quite a few today do have this belief. 

Shantanu yielded to her and gave up observing ritual fasts on auspicious days. There was just one exception: ekadasi, an upavasa dedicated to the Supreme god, Narayana. On an ekadasi Ganga asked Shantanu why he was so keen on observing ekadasi and why again with such dedication. One attains mukti by observance of the sacred ekadasi brata and Narayana is pleased with someone who observes this brata in the right spirit, said Shantanu. Samsara or worldly life is nothing but an unfathomable river and dharma is the only boat that can ferry one across, he told her. Worldly life is the condition of being firmly bound up without ropes; what bind one up are egotism, desire, attachment, hatred and anger, etc. and only the grace of Narayana could give one mukti. Therefore, my beloved, said the ascetic king Shantanu to Ganga, let us together observe the extremely sacred ekadasi brata and attain Vaikuntha, the abode of Narayana. 

But that was not the way of the householder and the king, replied Ganga. Once he opted for kingship and the life of a householder, he could no longer follow asceticism. That would not be dharma. Upavasa was not his karma (here, right action). Kingship is a great and noble duty: “ati utakarma” (extremely noble) in Sarala’s words. Ksatriya dharma was not in consonance with asceticism. A king could not afford to fast, said Ganga. He must think of the welfare of his kingdom all the while, punish the wicked, protect his virtuous subjects, support the ashramas, secure his kingdom from enemies, remain in constant readiness to face any attack and must also wage war in order to add territory to his kingdom. You are noble, wise and discriminating, said Ganga to Shantanu, why then are you indulging in observing ekadasi (tu mahavijna jebe atu maharishi / raja pade basi kimpa bhaju ekadasi – (roughly) if you are wise, o sage / being the king, why are you observing ekadasi)

Shantanu could say nothing; she sounded entirely reasonable. He gave in to her logic, to her flawless explication of rajadharma (king’s duty). She did not speak to him like a guru would to her sishya; she spoke to him as a friend would to a friend. The sage-king gave up the ekadasi fast and yielded to her logic, her seduction and her ethereal beauty. 

He did not know that her words were untruthful and her motives, dark. She wanted the king to stray from the path of virtue. He had no way to know her intentions; humans are not bestowed with this ability to look into someone’s mind and know whether his words were true or deceptive. They go by faith. Shantanu did not know that his wife’s words were dishonest. We know what he did not know because Sarala tells us.
Why did Ganga stoop so low as to use jnana (roughly, “knowledge”) as a means to make a trusting person stray from a life of dharma? Sarala does not tell us explicitly. But going by the spirit of his narrative we could say that gods and goddesses find it easy to control those who do not follow dharma than those who do. No matter how powerful, gods and goddesses are powerless before the person who is steadfast in dharma. So they would try to make him or her lose perspective and sense of discrimination and abandon dharma. This was what Ganga did to Shatanu. She tempted him with her beauty and misleaded him with her dharma talk. 
Sarala’s Shantanu was basically a moral person. He did not marry after Ganga left him. She was his only wife. He did not crave for any woman after she was gone. And he never pined for Ganga. It was as though he had slipped into a phase of intoxication and when Ganga was gone, with her, that phase was gone. 

Shantanu, the man the poet Sarala referred to repeatedly as rushi, had one flaw – a tragic flaw, which seriously affected the Kuru family. None of Shantanu’s sons could give him a grandchild. The Kuru lineage, strictly speaking, stopped with them. Dhritarashtra and Pandu were born from a person who was outside, in a strict sense, of the Kuru family. Vyasa was Satyavati’s son, but in Sarala Mahabharata she was not part of the core Kuru family. She was sage Pareshwara’s wife, not king Shantanu’s.

Shantanu’s flaw was his fatal attraction for the beautiful Ganga. He seems to have fallen for her when she came into his sight. Right when the wedding rituals were going on, he got to know that Ganga had made a serious mistake in marrying him. He did not try to help her get out of an unfortunate situation; instead he chose to abide by her clearly unreasonable demands for the continuance of their marriage. He knew she was goddess Ganga, who was waiting to marry Shiva. And Shiva was his ista (the most desired one – here, god), he was his devotee. Coveting a woman whose heart was in his ista was like coveting one’s guru’s consort. His passion for Ganga blinded him and he lost his sense of judgment. The price he paid was very heavy indeed.