Friday, June 2, 2017


The Mahabharatas in question are Sarala’s Mahabharata of the fifteenth century and Mahabharata by the sixteenth century poet, Jagannatha Dasa, known and revered as the author of Odia Bhagabata, which is a sacred text. Incidentally, there are at least three retellings of the Mahabharata in Odia. The third is the Mahabharata which seems to have been written in the early eighteenth century by Krushna Singha.

Not many in Odisha, including those who, because of their profession are expected to know, are aware that Jagannatha Dasa wrote the Mahabharata. Some of the few who do, tend to believe that it was really composed by someone else and came to be known much later as Jagannatha Dasa’s work. By then Dasa had acquired fame and this work was ascribed to him - when, one would probably never know -  so that it did not suffer oblivion. When I asked him over phone whether there is any Odia Mahabharata other than Sarala’s and Krushna Singha’s, Asit Mohanty, journalist, editor and writer, told me that there is one that goes in the name of Jagannatha Dasa. In any case, from our present point of view, who the author of this text is matters little. What does, is that there is yet another retelling of Mahabharata in Odia.

Suryanarayan Das, in his authoritative history of Odia literature, says of this retelling that it is indeed a summary – a “summary” that runs into about nine hundred pages in print! - of Sarala Mahabharata, written in nabakshari brutta, the metre where each line of a couplet contains nine (naba) letters (akshara). Sarala Mahabharata was written in a different metre, known as dandi brutta, details of which are of no concern to us here. What is worth noting is that this (i.e., Jagannatha Dasa’s) retelling is a retelling, not of the canonical text, but of a prior retelling (i.e., Sarala Mahabharata) in the same language composed just a few decades ago. One would wonder why Jagannatha Dasa, a major poet, who knew Sanskrit, chose to do so, instead of retelling Vyasa Mahabharata. Was it to establish nabakhsari brutta as the metre of puranic narrative in Odia? Or were there other considerations as well? In any case, I do not know if, in any other regional language, there are such full-length retellings of a prior retelling of the Mahabharata in the same language.

Turning to the episode in question in Sarala Mahabharata, namely whether or not the Great Kurukshetra War would take place, I have presented Sarala’s version earlier, so here a summary should do. The following morning the rituals for the start of the war were to be performed. The night was deep when Krishna, Sakuni and Sahadeva met. Krishna asked Sakuni whether there must be war and Sakuni said that whatever he wanted would happen. If he didn’t want war and didn’t thereby want to perform his avataric task, then he, Sakuni, his servitor in Vaikuntha and on earth, would ensure that there would be no war. Krishna said that he would relieve the mother earth of her burden.

In Jagannatha Dasa Mahabharata, the story is almost the same as in Sarala Mahabharata. The context of their meeting is the same. They were staying together that night in Indraprastha. Earlier that day, by sheer coincidence, Sakuni had had arrived there to meet Yudhisthira. A while ago, just before his arrival, on hearing from Krishna about his humiliation in the Kaurava court, the eldest Pandava had asked his brothers to get ready for war to avenge the Kauravas’ ill treatment of Hari. Sakuni had come to work out a plan with the Pandavas for dividing the war field of Kurukshetra - who would camp in which half and related matters. But instead, he proposed peace. He suggested to Yudhisthira to give up his claim to the kingdom and retire to forest with his brothers. The ignorant may prosper in this life but suffer in narka (hell), said Sakuni, whereas the virtuous may suffer in this life but are amply compensated in the next. His words had no impact on the eldest Pandava. He had already made up his mind on war.

That night Sakuni spent in Indraprastha and that was how the three met. Sakuni said, O Govinda, now war is inevitable. However, if you order me, I will ensure that the Kauravas and the Pandavas become friends and peace prevails.” Krishna said, “Sakuni, no. …kaurabe thile srushti kahin // pandabe ebe panthu rajya / tu puni kara pitru karjya (Where would the world be if the Kauravas remain alive / Let the Pandavas get the kingdom / You do the work for your father) //” Sakuni told Krishna that the adversaries should then start the work of dividing the war field and that the Pandavas would win if they stayed in the eastern half. And he, Krishna, he told the avatara, must make it happen.

Sahadeva said nothing to all this. In both versions he was only the witness. But why did Sarala Dasa and Jagannatha Dasa choose to have a witness at all? No answer emerges from the texts; there aren’t even hints. One might suggest that what Sanjaya was to the Srimad Bhagavad Gita discourse, Sahadeva was to this conversation. The narratives posited a third person listener, a potential reporter or a drasta (seer) who sees the sense of happening at the alaukika (cosmic) level. In any case, it this conversation indeed that settled the question of war - not Duryodhana’s refusing to give the Pandavas anything at all of the kingdom, not Draupadi’s humiliation or the Pandavas’ suffering during the long years of exile, Draupadi’s untied hair or even Krishna’s humiliation, etc.

Now, the similarities between Sarala’s and Jagannatha Dasa’s versions are many, which is to be expected, going by Suryanarayana Das’s observations on the relation between these two texts. But there are some nuanced differences as well.

The exchange is Sarala Mahabharata can be seen as a little lila of Krishna. When Sakuni asked him whether there would be war or not, Krishna’s answer was what he, Sakuni, thought about it. Humans must decide what concerns them, could be said to be the import of Krishna’s counter question to Sakuni. But Sakuni, who thought of himself as Krishna’s servitor, would not be caught in the maya of Krishna that would make him see the humans as the karta (agent) of events. He knew who the karta was; so he turned the question on to Krishna; he wanted him to make the choice and say it – for him the choices were peace or doing what he had taken avatara for. When Krishna said explicitly that he was for the latter, it was the victory of the bhakta over bhagawan, who had failed to delude the bhakta and make him act as though he was the decider of things.

In Jagannatha Dasa Mahabharata, this lila is missing. Equally or even more significantly, here, war or no war was not going to be the decision of the humans. It would be Krishna’s decision. There was no place for conversation in the narrative, even for the sake of form. The Kauravas had to perish for reasons of restoration of the cosmic balance. Jagannatha Dasa’s perspective is different from Sarala’s in a subtle sense.

Jagannatha Dasa deviated significantly from Sarala Dasa again when his Krishna asked his Sakuni to avenge his father’s killing, explicitly, in so many words. With that, embodied in the second line of the second couplet, quoted above, the poet transformed that act of revenge, rooted in treachery, into an act of maha punya (great virtue) for the victim of Duryodhana’s treachery.

(I am grateful to Mr. Asit Mohanty, who not only told me about Jagannatha Dasa Mahabharata but also went out of his way to lend me his only copy. This is a very generous gesture in view of the fact that this book is no longer available in the market.)

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