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.

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