Monday, October 28, 2019


Once there was a famine in Emperor Yudisthira’s kingdom because of a drought.

He asked brother Bhima to go to god Kuvera and request him on his behalf to lend him ten thousand cart loads of paddy to feed his hungry subjects.

When Bhima reached the god’s abode, he saw a rustic-looking person, bending low to collect paddy grains from the ground in the courtyard with great concentration. So lost was he in his work that he did not notice the Pandava’s arrival. He had on his body barely a loin cloth and a short upper cloth. Bhima had never met the Lord of Wealth, but he had an idea of what he would look like. He thought that the man was the god’s servant. He went to him and asked him how to meet Kuvera. The grain gatherer said he was Kuvera himself.

Bhima could not come to terms with what he had seen, that the god of Wealth looked like a pauper and lived like a pauper. He must be miserliness incarnate, he thought and wondered if he would really part with so much paddy, even as loan.

But Kuvera happily agreed to give Yudhisthira all the paddy he wanted and that too, not as loan. He was glad to be of help to the very embodiment of dharma in the mortal world. Soon Bhima left with the cartloads of paddy.

In the meantime, the road had become extremely slushy because of the rains and the carts could just not proceed. Not knowing what to do, Bhima returned to Kuvera. He told Bhima to empty on the road as much paddy from the carts on the front as necessary for the road to become hard enough for the carts to move. To compensate for the paddy lost, he gave him more paddy.

Bhima folded his hands and apologized to him for what he had thought of him. He told him that when he first saw him, he was doing what the poorest of the poor would do and he thought that he was a great miser. He was unsure whether such a miser would part with so much paddy without a thought. And now, the same one who was picking paddy from the ground, was asking him to pour cart loads of paddy on the mud so that the carts could pass. That he found very confusing.

The god of Wealth smiled and told him that while working for wealth, one must be very particular about every single pie but when there arises the need to spend, one must not hesitate to spend as much as is necessary. 

Note: Ask anyone in Odisha, who has some interest in Sarala Mahabharata, he is most likely to say that this story occurs in Sarala’s magnum opus. Ask a Sarala Mahabharata scholar, he would not disagree but would say that he isn’t sure in which edition this story occurs. My search is on; if I succeed, I will let you know.  

Thursday, October 24, 2019


How many shades of bhakti are there, according to Sarala Mahabharata? “As many bhaktas are there!” may not be indeed be a poor answer!


That was a period of profound darkness. Intense jealousy, bitterness, hatred and revengefulness ruled the hearts of those who controlled the lives of people in a laukika (worldly) sense. They ruled kingdoms and to achieve their own dark ends, they would drive their subjects to the battlefields. They could stoop to any extent; they would not hesitate to resort to cunning and treachery to achieve their purpose. The powerful often subdued their adversaries with weapons and the powerless punished their powerful torturers with curses. The mighty pronounced oaths which made the annihilation of their enemy their sacred duty. In the family of the Kurus, Kunti bayed for the blood of Duryodhana and Draupadi, of Dussasana. Karna and Arjuna, born from the same womb, would be at each other’s throats and their mother would be part of a sinister design to render one of her children vulnerable in war with respect to the other. A nephew used the meanest treachery to have his maternal grandfather and every one of his family killed. It was his misfortune that of his uncles, the one named Sakuni, survived. Gandhari was jealous of Kunti and Kunti of Madri, and Draupadi and Hidimbaki hurled curses at each other’s children, the very first time they met. Princess Amba’s determination to take revenge was so fierce that she carried it to her next birth.

Bhima’s hatred and anger against the Kauravas had not diminished even after had killed Duryodhana, Dussasana and ninety-seven of their brothers on the Kurukshetra battlefields. He killed each of them again, when he viciously recreated the scenes of their deaths to torture their helpless, lonely and grieving father, Dhritarashtra. Day after day, at the old man’s meal time, he would meticulously narrate to him how he had killed each of his sons. And this was not the only instance of Bhima tormenting the Kuru elder. No need to dwell on such sickening deeds of unforgiving and unforgetting persons. In Sarala’s retelling, the one remaining Kaurava brother, Durdasa, did not die on the battlefield. When in all virtuous sincerity, the victorious Yudhisthira came with his brothers to Dhritarashtra and Gandhari for reconciliation, the losers were so full of revenge that resorting to treachery, they tried to destroy Yudhisthira and Bhima. Just as Kunti’s sons had killed her own, Gandhari tried to kill Kunti’s son, Yudhisthira. In the process, she succeeded in killing her only surviving son. She got to know what she had done only after Durdasa’s death.

Outside of the Kuru clan, things were no less dark and sinister. For his ingratitude, Drona punished king Drupada by having him imprisoned by Arjuna. This was the guru dakshina he had asked from the Pandavas. The humbled and humiliated Drupada performed tapas to kill Drona. Likewise, Jayadratha did the same to be able to kill the Pandavas. There was the mighty emperor Jarasandha who had imprisoned many kings whom he intended to kill as part of a ritual sacrifice for a selfish goal. Then there was king Sishupala whose hatred for his cousin Krishna was nothing short of savage. Aswasthama, who was intemperate, was full of destructive ambition – a dangerous combination that could lead one to commit irresponsible and heinous acts. This was indeed what happened in his case. The social order was disturbed when Drona, the brahmin, abandoned the ashram and brahminical duties and chose employment with the king of Hastinapur as the teacher of weaponry to the Kuru princes. One might sympathize with him, considering that he had his compulsions. But there was no justification for Aswasthama’s opting to choose the profession of a kshatriya (member of the warrior community). In sum, Sarala’s Mahabharata presents a depressing picture of the moral decay in aryavarta (Aryavarta) as the aeon of Dwapara was coming to a close and the aeon of Kali or adharma was lying in wait to rule the world.

But then that was a period of sublime light as well. Because into this world descended the Supreme god Narayana as Krishna to relieve Mother Earth of her burden and as the poet Sarala celebrated the avatara’s doings, his narrative of the Kuru clan was transformed into a spiritually uplifting composition, which he repeatedly called “Vishnu Purana”. When Vaibasuta Manu prayed to sage Agasti (better known as Agastya) to tell him how to attain moksha, the great sage made him listen to the Mahabharata story because listening to the story of Krishna’s lila (divine play) would bring moksha. Contextualizing the recounting of the Mahabharata story this way, the poet Sarala made moksha a central concern of his retelling of the classical narrative.

The gods, the beings in the other lokas (roughly, realms), the seers, the sages and the wise and spiritually elevated among the asuras (demons) and the humans in the mortal world knew that Krishna was the Purna Avatara or the perfect incarnation of Narayana, though some of them at times were assailed by doubt. They would eventually realize the truth. As he waited for Krishna, who he had heard was coming to the Kaurava court, Bhishma said that they were very fortunate that they were shortly going to see Narayana, who was living in their midst as a human. When king Duryodhana was hesitant to welcome Krishna to his court because Sakuni persuaded him that he was unworthy of sitting with the illustrious kshatriyas, the preceptor Drona said that the assembly that had no place for Narayana was an assembly of the pretas, of the dead. When the Kauravas and the Pandavas together prepared a war-code to be followed during the very special Kurukshetra War – “very special” because brothers and relatives would fight to kill one another -  Duryodhana called upon everyone to honour the code because in that war Narayana Himself (in his incarnation as Krishna) would be there as sakshi (witness). Sahadeva, who had the knowledge of the past, the present and the future, knew who Krishna was. So, when before going to the Kaurava court as Yudhistira’s emissary, the avatara asked him what he would want for himself from Duryodhana so that the fratricidal war could be avoided, he said nothing because he knew what Krishna had in mind. Therefore, he merely told Krishna which particular villages he must ask from Duryodhana, knowing that those could simply not be given. In that way he served Krishna in the fulfilment of his cosmic purpose. When Duryodhana showed his willingness to give Krishna two villages instead of five, Sakuni advised him to give him nothing at all. In an earlier incarnation, he told the Kaurava king, he had assumed the form of a dwarf and had asked king Bali to gift him merely that much land that only three steps of his could cover, and when Bali agreed, the great king found that he had no space on earth to stand on. Duryodhana must learn from the avatara’s past, he warned the Kuru king. Narayana must be given nothing at all, he told him. Not just the educated and the wise, the forest-dwellers too knew that Krishna was the incarnation of Narayana. Jara, the forest-dweller savara, whose arrow mortally wounded Krishna, wept inconsolably, finding that he had hurt the One worshipped by Brahma, Indra and Rudra. In short, in the world of Sarala Mahabharata, all knew that Krishna was Narayana in the human form.

In Sarala’s narrative, he entered the story of the Kurus before Nakula was born. Madri with Durvasa’s mantra had invoked Narayana to give her a child; that was how Krishna came to her. But he did not oblige her, the details of which are out of place here. By the time he met Pandu’s family, his doings were well known – that he had spent his childhood among the cowherds, gazing cows, that he had performed many miraculous feats, which included his killing of the demoness Putana and Sandhasura, the demon in the form of a bull and that he had intensely passionate relationship with too many gopis (cowherd women). Once he had wild sex with an old woman, who was Radha’s emissary to him, under the impression that she was Radha. Out of that union was born a child who he taught how to steal and how to make tunnel like passages. Profligacy was considered papa (sin) then. Once god Yama, the god of death, complained to him, with due reverence of course, in this regard, saying that he had set a bad example for the humans. Sakuni always told Duryodhana that Krishna as a great sinner who had killed a woman and what was worse, a bull. And yet, he never did anything by way of penance. Even the great god Shiva had to undergo penance for having killed a bull accidentally. Was that brat of a cowherd greater than Shiva? he asked Duryodhana rhetorically.

Duryodhana was very disappointed with him. He disliked his interference on the issue of the inheritance of the throne of Hastinapura because he looked upon him as an outsider. It was a matter of the Kuru family. He was not unwilling to share the kingdom with those who belonged to the Kuru clan. At one stage, he was willing to give half the kingdom to Sahadeva, who was Pandu’s son – his only son. The rest were the children of the outsiders. Later he hardened his stand about Sahadeva too, whom he then considered to be a god’s son, like the rest of them. In Sarala’s narrative, Sahadeva could be viewed either way or both ways. Duryodhana was arguably not wrong about who belonged to the family and who did not. In the thinking of those days, it was the father who mattered in this regard, not the mother. Duryodhana was inclined to give two villages to the Pandavas, when Krishna went to him as Yudhisthira’s emissary, but when he named the five villages he wanted, he realized that by asking for the un-givable, Krishna was merely making sure that the war took place. It was not he alone who considered Krishna’s demand of the specific villages unjust; everyone in the court seemed to think so. This apart, Krishna thought nothing of betraying Yudhisthira who had sent him to work for peace, not war.

Once the war took place, the Kauravas did not fail to notice that Krishna could go to any extent to ensure victory for the Pandavas. This apart, he repeatedly condemned the Kauravas for the killing of Abhimanyu but forced the reluctant Pandavas to resort to adharma on the battlefield more than once. He had given word to his elder brother, Balarama, that he would only be a witness in the war but on the sixth day of the war he destroyed the infallible divine arrow of Bhishma which would have certainly killed Arjuna. No one, including Bhishma himself, had seen what Krishna had done because he had done it in a way no one could, neither gods nor mortals. When Balarama asked him why he had betrayed him, he told him a lie; he hadn’t destroyed Bhishma’s arrow, he told him. There was no eye witness to tell Balarama what his younger brother, on whom he doted much, had done.

Incorporating creatively the relevant episode from Srimad Bhagavata in his version of the Mahabharata story, Sarala describes how, like an ordinary human, Krishna was extremely miserable when he learnt that he would soon have to leave the world. He was directed by Narayana, his Source, to return to Him. The Supreme god was displeased with him for having stayed in the world longer than necessary. Dejected, Krishna wept. He had many children and grandchildren from many spouses and he found that he was deeply attached to them. He couldn’t bear even the thought of parting from them. He was caught in the snares of moha (attachment) like any mortal. In an earlier episode, the avatara appeared to be worried that he would have to die one day, like any ordinary human.  

In sum, Krishna’s ways were unintelligible in the context of the prevalent conception of avatara. References to the story of the Bhagawan Rama are many in Sarala Mahabharata and Rama is mentioned in utmost reverence. People of the aeon of Dwapara knew about Rama and his doings and for them, he was the supreme embodiment of virtuous living. When he learnt about the anguish of Bali’s son Angada, who had served him with complete devotion, the avatara assured him that he would avenge his father’s killing by killing him in his next avatara. The narrative of Mahabharata is not illumined by such deeply touching episodes of the avatara’s empathy, indulgence and magnanimity. In Sarala’s retelling, at Krishna’s time, Rama alone, of Narayana’s human avataras, was seen as being without blemish. Thus, in the context of Sarala Mahabharata, it could be said with some confidence that Rama defined an avatara of Narayana. Krishna was very different; yet everyone knew that he was the avatara and many found it difficult to cope with that truth. In his supreme and transcendental magnificence and extreme ordinariness, he embodied a huge contradiction; he was an enigma.

And to make matters worse, he would not generally explain his action for the benefit of others; no one of course pressed him for an explanation if he didn’t provide one. When at all he did, it was hardly adequate and convincing. For instance, when Gandhari asked him why he got her sons killed when he could have avoided the war, he told her that he punished the Kauravas in the hands of the Pandavas because they had humiliated him in their court when he went there as Yudhisthira’s emissary. Any reader of Udyoga Parva would know that this was only a half-truth at the very best. He had gone there to ensure that war took place. Similarly, he had Durdasa killed through deceit and explained his action saying that he had ensured that there was no residue of the enemy left in Yudhisthira’s Hastinapura. If Durdasa could be considered an enemy, it could just not be on the basis of his action but of his birth as a Kaurava. Krishna’s logic was shocking and his action, entirely unethical and depressing. One could be dazzled by his manifestation of his narayanatwa (Narayana-ness) and of his awesome power, when he chose to reveal that aspect of his and feel terribly letdown by his acts of degrading cunning, when he chose to show this face of his, but the spiritually elevated apart, one found it bewildering that both these were aspects of the same person.


That was Duryodhana’s problem, but he was not the only one in Sarala Mahabharata to be bewildered by the avatara. For once the creator god Brahma too was confused about Krishna’s reality, so mundane were some of his doings. The same had happened to sage Durvasa once. Let’s forget about them and focus on Duryodhana. He did not trust Krishna but he did not look upon him as his enemy. Knowing that he was the avatara of Narayana, he revered him. It was he who had said that the Kurukshetra War would be dharma yuddha because of Narayana’s presence in the battlefield. But when he found him unfair and humiliating towards him, he treated him with disdain. In the Kaurava court Krishna provoked him by comparing his kingdom with Babarapuri, where adharma was seen as dharma and dharma as adharma and telling him that his kingdom would perish the same way as did Babarapuri. There does not seem to be any sound justification for Yudhisthira’s emissary for peace to humiliate the Kaurava king in his court. In such moments, it was the human aspect of Krishna that pervaded Duryodhana’s consciousness. He knew the power of the avatara, yet he chose to attack him, not once, but twice in his court. The first time he did, Krishna showed the assembly five of his avataras: Matsya, Kurma, Varaha, Vamana and then Nrusingha. The Kauravas had run away in fear when he assumed the last-named form. The second attack was inspired by Sakuni’s advice. He told Duryodhana that when alone, Krishna was vulnerable and that they must tie him up and throw him into the prison. Krishna assumed his Narayana Form and the terrified attackers withdrew. After the first attack, sage Vyasa wondered what karma the Kauravas had done in the past so as to be able to see five avataras of Narayana. What one could not see after thousands of years of tapas, thought the celebrated sage, the Kauravas did because of their vaira or enmity.

Sarala Mahabharata celebrates enmity as a form of bhakti. Enmity is often engendered by hatred. When one’s hatred is overwhelming, the object of his hatred fills one’s consciousness. The consciousness of those who hated Krishna with great intensity became “Krishnamaya” (full of the consciousness of Krishna). This has been traditionally recognized as a form of bhakti – known as “virodha bhakti”, which we tentatively call here “negative devotion”. Devotion to God and hatred of Him are two sides of the same coin - the end result of both bhakti and virodha bhakti is the same. Viewed thus, there is nothing really negative about it. The expression “negative devotion” draws attention to the manner of working for moksa,

It could be argued that in Sarala Mahabharata, Duryodhana’s attitude towards Krishna in his moments of madness, often triggered by the latter’s perceived unfairness towards him, is an instance of negative devotion. Two other characters in Sarala’s narrative who embody this form of bhakti much more manifestly are Sishupala and Jarasandha. Krishna’s cousin Sishupala hated him intensely. Krishna had eloped with Rukmini who was his betrothed and he could do nothing to punish him and redeem his honour. He had gone to participate in Yudhisthira’s rajaswiya jajna. Krishna was accorded the highest honour there by Yudhishthira on the advice of the preceptor Drona. Sishupala condemned this and went on abusing Krishna, saying how very undeserving he was to be given that great honour. Bhishma was enraged at Sishupala’s insulting Krishna and threatened to attack him, but was restrained by Krishna. Krishna had assured Sishupala’s mother that he would forgive him for a hundred acts of misdemeanor sins and would kill him once he transgressed that limit. As Sishupala went on abusing Krishna, the number increased. Soon he exceeded the limit and Krishna severed his head with his Sudarshana chakra. Whereas for those who witnessed it, was the killing of Sishupala, it was indeed his uddhara (salvation) because he attained the ultimate bliss as Krishna absorbed his soul. That was one, and the most celebrated, form of moksha in Sarala Mahabharata. Once one merges in Narayana, one is out of the karmic cycle.

The mighty Jarasandha became Krishna’s arch enemy when the latter killed Kansa, his brother-in-law. He attacked Krishna’s Mathura many times and forced the avatara to move to Dwaraka. He had a powerful protection system which was virtually impossible to penetrate; on that account, he could not be caught unprepared for a fight by the enemy. But no protection system could be strong enough for the avatara and he, accompanied by Arjuna and Bhima, all disguised as brahmins, reached the king, who was unprepared to meet an enemy. Krishna identified himself and the two Pandavas and challenged him for a single combat. He could choose any of them, he told him. Jarasandha chose Bhima. The fight was fierce and it lasted many days. When he realized that his end was near, he thought of Krishna and complained to him silently that he was being very unkind to him, getting him killed by someone else instead of he himself, for which grace he had tried so hard all his life. He had tried his best to provoke him in many ways, hoping that one day, he would kill him with Sudarshana chakra and give him moksha. He was deeply hurt that Krishna was being unmerciful to him. In his last moments Jarasandha had become Krishnamaya. What Krishna gave his devotee, we do not know.

In Sarala Mahabharata, Sishupala and Jarasandha were the ones who were extremely hostile to Krishna personally. But could they both be regarded as the practitioners of virodha bhakti? In the case of Jarasandha, there can be no room for skepticism. His hatred and his virodha for Krishna were not genuine; what were genuine were his bhakti for the avatara and his desire for moksha. As for Sishupala, his great contempt for and enmity with Krishna was not intentional; that came naturally to him. As hatred for Krishna pervaded his consciousness, Krishna pervaded his consciousness. When he died, an illumination from his body entered the avatara’s - he merged into him. Later in the narrative, Belalasena attained moksha when Krishna absorbed his essence into himself. Nothing comparable happened in the case of Jarasandha, but dying with thoughts of Krishna could not have been futile in the spirit of Sarala Mahabharata.

In Sarala’s retelling, as mentioned earlier, it was not unknown to people that Krishna was Narayana’s avatara and some knew that he was His purna avatara and hence could give moksha. As he was returning from the Kaurava court, Duryodhana’s son, Lakshmana Kumara, met him on the way and Krishna told him that he would grant him whatever he wanted. The young prince prayed to him to severe his head in the Kurukshetra battlefield with his divine chakra. Krishna granted him his wish. However, Lakshmana Kumara did not die in Krishna’s hands. Krishna was not fighting in that war. He killed none – in the laukika sense that is, because Belalasena had a different understanding of things because of the divya dristi (divine perception) that Krishna had given him. In any case, who killed the prince is untold. Did Krishna’s promise go in vain? The text says nothing in this regard, but in the spirit of the text, this just cannot be the case. Shortly before the start of the Kurukshetra War, Bhurishrava, the Kaurava elder and a great warrior, told Duryodhana bluntly that he and many others had joined the war on his behalf, not because they believed that they would bring him victory but because they would die on the battlefield, looking at Krishna on Arjuna’s chariot and obtain moksha. Before the start of the war, the savara (forest dweller) Kiratasen happily had his head severed by Krishna with his Sudarshana chakra as his dana (ritual offering) to the avatara because he knew that that would give him moksha. He had been waiting for that since the times of Rama, he told the avatara. He was Bali then, and Rama had killed him, but the avatara did not kill him with Sudarshana chakra. So he did not attain moksha and his karma brought him back to the moral world. Only Narayana or His incarnation who used His chakra, (i.e., his purna avatara) could give moksha. The divine chakra was the instrument that severed the mortal frame of the target and together with that, the karmic bondage.

When Duryodhana tried to imprison Krishna in his court, Krishna invoked his narayanatwa and assumed the dazzling Form that was supremely magnificent and majestic, and awe-inspiring and terrifying, manifesting the wild, destructive energy of Bhagawana Parshurama. The Kuru attackers fled in fear. Then the noble and virtuous Bhishma came forward and in great reverence and humility, offered himself to the avatara and begged him to severe his head. Many virtuous warriors did the same. They knew that by dying in his hands they would attain Vaikuntha, the divine abode of the Supreme god. As Krishna returned to his familiar form, he told them that he could not harm them as they were not his enemies and as they had done no wrong.

The wise Vidura, the righteous Sanjaya, the Kuru elders, the Pandavas and the Kauravas, the Kuru women, Dhritarashtra, the preceptor Drona, his son Aswasthama and the family priest Kripacharya – they all were profoundly reverential towards him. However, in day-to-day life, barring Vidura, Sanjaya and Sahadeva, they would often forget this truth about him and treated him as a human, as just one of them. They belittled him, abused him and Gandhari even cursed him. However, Sahadeva who knew the present, the past and the future, was aware of the cosmic purpose of the avatara and always served him most devoutly in the fulfilment of that purpose.

So did Sakuni, in Sarala’s version. Except for Vidura, Sanjaya and Sahadeva, no one knew about his absolute commitment to Krishna. His systematic denigration of Krishna was only a pretence to persuade Duryodhana to fight a conclusive war against the Pandavas. He knew what would happen. He had to do to the Kauravas what he did. He was not free; his dear dead had imprisoned him by their wish. He had to avenge the brutal killing of his father and uncles and relatives, who had determined his life’s purpose for him. Dhristadyumna was born to kill Drona, Dussasana was born to be killed, ignoring details, the way he was, in Sarala’s retelling, but Sakuni was not born but was made to be a destroyer of the Kauravas.

One late night before the Great War at Kurukshetra, Krishna, Sakuni and Sahadeva met secretly. Should there be the war or should there not be the war, Krishna asked Sakuni. Sakuni told him that whatever he wanted would happen. He, Sakuni, was his very own.  He, his servitor in his earlier existence, born now to serve him in the fulfilment of his avataric objective, would do whatever he wanted him to do. If he did not want war, he would ensure that there would be no war. But then, in making his choice for war or peace, he told Krishna, he must not forget the purpose of his avatara. In Sarala Mahabharata, Sakuni is one character, who lived in complete knowledge of his relationship with Krishna. Narayana’s eternal servitor, he did not seek moksha.     

Incidentally, not many in the world of Sarala Mahabharata sought moksha from Krishna. Some wanted worldly things from them, like the Pandavas and the Kauravas wanting him to be on their side in the Kurukshetra War, like Draupadi wanting him to punish Aswasthama for having killed her children or the Pandava women who wanted the child of Uttara, born dead, alive. In any case, the sages did not seek moksha. The wise Drona did not, neither did Vidura, Sanjaya, Yudhisthira or Karna. Belalasena (Barbarik, in some versions) did not; it is another matter that Krishna gave it to him. Although Sarala says nothing about it, one could hazard a guess that these illustrious men who tried to live a life of dharma believed that dharma would lead them to their moksha. Some of them might have been content with having the avatara around them, such as the sages, and some who were related to him as his sakha (friend), kin, etc., like Draupadi or Arjuna, and still some, offering their service to him, like Sakuni, Vidura and Sahadeva, whenever needed. Then there was Krishna’s guru, Santipani (better known in the puranic literature as Sandipani), who asked Krishna for his dead sons to be brought alive to him as his guru dakshina and after his dead ons returned alive to him, he wondered why he had not asked for moksha instead from his shishya!

In sum, on the theme of moksha, not all who sought moksha from Krishna, got moksha, whereas some who did not seek moksha, he gave it to them. He who Krishna wanted to give moksha, received it. What Krishna’s logic was, one would never know. Sakuni said of Narayana that He could not be pleased by bhakti or jnana or dana (devotion, knowledge, ritual gift, respectively). And we know from Sarala Mahabharata that one could not displease him with vaira or hostility.

The old and helpless mother, who bereaved over the loss of her hundred sons, ultimately blamed, not Yudhisthira, whom she had tried to destroy with her yogic fire, or Bhima but Krishna for her profound loss. The war took place because he wanted, she told him. And in a moment of overwhelming grief and madness, she cursed him, cursed Narayana, who she had always revered: his own would perish and so would he, in not too distant a future. Krishna accepted the curse – one could not please Narayana with prayer, and one could not displease Him with a curse. Krishna told her that she had done deba karjya, what the gods wanted. They wanted him back in his divine abode.

In Sarala Mahabharata, the main characters related to Krishna, as did the nameless and numberless warriors about whom the wise Bhurishrava had said that they all wanted to fall in the battlefield where Krishna was present. They did not all relate to him in the same way. Some were his devotees, who loved him intensely, sang his glory, would not stand his denunciation by anyone, however mighty and however revered, and experienced the sublime joy of being with him and serving him in whatever manner he wanted. Then there were others who were his enemies, who hated him fiercely and condemned him in venomous language. There were still others who would belong to one or the other of the in-between categories. Between navadha bhakti and virodha bhakti there could be many composites of them. Aware or unaware, whoever related to him in whatever way it might be, was his bhakta. Bhakti in Sarala Mahabharata has many forms and various characters in it embody one form of it or the other.

Thursday, October 17, 2019


Sudra muni” Sarala Das, who belongs to the fifteenth century, is celebrated as the first major poet, the aadi kavi, of Odia literature. To him can be traced the origin of the puranic literature in Odia and no one’s contribution to this genre is richer and more impactful than his. He composed three puranas and decidedly the best and the most renowned of these is “Mahabharata”, popularly known as “Sarala Mahabharata”. A truly remarkable work, it is a re-conceptualization of the ancient story of “Mahabharata” and a creative re-telling of it in Odia language. It is the first complete rendering (i.e., of all the eighteen Parvas) of Vyasa Mahabharata in any language.  And this is the first retelling of Vyasa Mahabharata by a person who did not belong to a privileged caste.

In his magnum opus, Sarala asserted that he was born to expatiate on the lila (divine play) of the Supreme god, Narayana. Thus, he used the story of the Kuru clan to celebrate the doings of Krishna, the purna avatara (complete incarnation) of Narayana, and he called his MahabharataVishnu Purana”. He said that he was uneducated and dull and had no knowledge of the shastras; he merely wrote what goddess Sarala, his divine mother, inspired him to write. The words were hers; he was merely the scribe.

In Sarala’s retelling, both Duryodhana and Sakuni, died, not in disgrace but in glory. Duryodhana died, not as the Crown Prince of Hastinapura but as its king; before he died, he had condemned Ashwasthama for killing Draupadi’s children and he breathed his last embracing the severed heads of the children. Sakuni was doomed to avenge his father’s and relatives’ murder by Duryodhana through treachery. His father had asked him to do so. Sahadeva knew this, as did Krishna. Knowing that only Duryodhana was alive and that he could fall anytime, he could have returned to his kingdom to rule. But he chose to die in the battlefield as he considered himself responsible for the war and the killing of his nephews and of the innocent soldiers from both sides, whose war it was not.

Everyone knew that Karna was Kunti’s eldest-born and on the Kurukshetra battlefield itself, before the war started, Yudhisthira had pleaded with him to join them and become the king after the war was won. He had never said or done anything to humiliate Draupadi. He maintained the dignity of his relationship with her as the wife of his younger brothers. Neither had Draupadi done anything that had humiliated Karna, even before her wedding. She hadn’t forbidden Karna to participate in the archery test; Karna had tried and failed. He wanted to win the test because he wanted Draupadi for Duryodhana.

No one invited Yudhisthira to play a game of dice. Yudhisthira wanted to play and he expressed his desire to Sakuni, who obliged. It was then that Sakuni thought that he could use that opportunity to create hostility between the Pandavas and the Kauravas. It was the Sun god’s divine spouses, who clothed Draupadi, not Krishna; the god paid her for what he had taken from her in an earlier existence of her. Thus it was her karma that protected her. The Avatara was only the facilitator; he had reminded Draupadi and the Sun god about their karma.

In Sarala’s narrative, Drona and Drupada were never in any ashram, studying together and Drupada wanted to avenge his humiliation in the hands of the Kaurava princes. He wanted a girl child and conducted a yajna for that. Draupadi emerged from the sacred fire. For her father, she was merely an instrument for revenge. He taught her the use of weapons and wanted to have her married to Arjuna, thinking that someday, the Kauravas and the Pandavas would go to war for the throne. He was certain that the former would be destroyed in that war.

After her wedding, Draupadi lived the life of a good daughter-in-law of the Kuru family. She gave no reason to anyone to be unhappy with her, neither the Kauravas nor the Pandavas. There is no hint in Sarala’s narrative that anyone was upset with her in the least. The vastraharana event changed her. She never forgave Dussasana and Duryodhana; she bayed for their blood. Now, Duryodhana wanted to humiliate her in his court that day, not because he had any grouse against her; he wanted to humiliate the Pandavas by humiliating her. 

No one invited Yudhisthira to return to Hastinapura for a second game of dice. Unable to bear the agony of failure, he sought an opportunity to redeem his honour. In the second game of dice, it was not with the magic sticks of Sakuni that they played the game. It was not Sakuni who rolled the dice that day. It was Sahadeva. Sakuni was only an onlooker. Sahadeva ensured that the Pandavas lost. Divinely bestowed with special insight, he knew that that was what the gods wanted - the Pandavas’ exile was needed so that the wicked Kichaka could be killed. That was the cosmic design.

In the battlefield of Kurukshetra, Arjuna was reluctant to start the war because he would not attack anyone unless he was attacked. He would not strike first. War was papa (sinful) and the one who started it would be bear the burden of papa. He joined the war only after it had started. There is no Bhagavad Gita in Sarala Mahabharata. Krishna did not persuade Arjuna to fight; he did not say that it was his duty to do so. He left Arjuna to live by his own moral beliefs.

Bhishma did not enter the battlefield, deciding that he would not kill a Pandava; he had indeed tried to kill Arjuna, but unknown to everyone, gods and mortals, Krishna’s intervention saved Arjuna. For the war, Bhishma held the Pandavas responsible as well. It was not the case that there was no alternative to war; there was, certainly, the option of non-violent action. But that demanded great sacrifice; the Pandavas were not prepared for that. He said this to Arjuna in the battlefield when the latter told him how Duryodhana had thrust a war on them. Yudhisthira called the Kurukshetra war “dharma yuddha” because of the cause (from his point of view); Duryodhana also called it “dharma yuddha” but not because of the cause. He certainly did not believe that he had entered the battlefield with the banner of adharma. For him, it was dharma yuddha because the entire war field had become sacred on account of the Avatara’s presence there. He would be the witness to who was following dharma in the battlefield and who was not. This is what Duryodhana had told the Pandavas when the two sides had met to work out a war code to ensure that the fight between brothers did not sink to the level of barbarism. 

Draupadi had Dussasana’s blood all over her and a little of it touched her mouth as it flowed down from her head. It had to happen to her. Dussasana perished for his karma. Neither of them remembered their past. In the aeon of Truth (Satya Yuga), Dussasana, as Sudraka Brahma, had committed papa against goddess Ketuka, now born as Draupadi, in the aeon of Dwapara. Bhishma most willingly paid for the wrong he had done to Amba, then born as Shikhandi. During the war, one day, he pleaded with Krishna to allow Shikhandi to become the cause of his fall. Bhima fell to his death because Yudhisthira did not want him to go to Swarga, the abode of the gods, in his mortal form. He was prone to violence and was wicked; Yudhisthira ensured that he perished in the mountains. Granting his wish, goddess Hingula tore Bhima to pieces. And Yudhisthira went to Swarga, not because he wanted to, but because Krishna wanted him to go to there without passing through death.

Arjuna won the archery test because Krishna wanted him to win, Abhimanyu was killed because Krishna had assured the divine, which Abhimanyu really was, that he would return to Swarga the day he turned fourteen. So he had to engineer his death. Only Sahadeva knew about it. Gandhari wanted to destroy Yudhisthira but ended up destroying her son, Durdasa, who had survived the war and these happened on account of Krishna’s intervention. Duryodhana became king because of Krishna; only Vidura, Sakuni and Sanjaya knew that the Pandavas had not perished in the fire in the lac palace. Krishna had made Vidura, Sakuni and Sanjaya promise to him not to divulge the truth about the Pandavas. They betrayed King Dhritarashtra and the kingdom of Hastinapura but kept their word to the Avatara. Under the impression that the Pandavas were dead, Bhishma and other Kuru elders agreed to King Dhritarashtra’s proposal for Duryodhana’s coronation. Bhima dealt mortal blows to Duryodhana, not with his mace, but Vishnu’s, whose complete manifestation, Purna Avatara, Krishna was. No one knew. All in all, whatever happened in the world of Sarala Mahabharata, happened because of Krishna’s will. All who died in the battlefield of Kurukshetra were killed by Krishna’s divine chakra; humans in their illusion thought that they were the agents.  They were not even instruments. That was the lila of Krishna.

In Sarala Mahabharata, no one was entirely vicious and completely dedicated to adharma; no one was entirely without moral blemish and totally committed to dharma. In this retelling, the issue of the succession to the throne of Hastinapura was complex; the claims of both the Kauravas and the Pandavas for the throne were not without substance. Outsiders’ interventions complicated the issue further. The kingdom of Hastinapura was never divided formally, although the Pandavas and the Kauravas were living separately; the former in Varunavanta and the latter, in Hastinapura. Thus, Yudhisthira lost much wealth, which he had got as gift at the time of his wedding from Drupada and later from the kings who participated in the rajaswiya jajna he had performed, but he lost no kingdom as such in the first game of dice. Dhritarashtra returned whatever he had lost, not as the king of Hastinapura, which he was not then, as mentioned above, but as the Kuru elder.

These are only a few of the numerous differences between Vyasa Mahabharata and Sarala Mahabharata. Keeping the basic story intact, Sarala introduced innovations into the narrative. He re-imagined the characters and their interactions and the situations in which they were involved and produced the masterpiece of a narrative that was as convincing and coherent as the original. The innovations reflected the poet’s understanding of the human condition, the possibility of agency in a pre-determined world, karma and the inevitability of experiencing the fruits of it, the role of grace in the karmic framework, the nature of dharma, inner and external obstacles for living a life of dharma, divine intervention in the affairs of the mortals and the nature of Purna Avatara, among much else. The poet reflected on the place of war in a society, its inherent sinfulness as blood of the innocents flowed in the battlefield inevitably and the possibilities of there being alternatives to it.

A very innovative idea in Sarala Mahabharata concerns the question of why one must practice dharma. For Yudhisthira, the embodiment of dharma on earth and as such, the mouthpiece of “dharma” in the narrative, it is not for a life in Swarga after death, it is not to attain Swarga without passing through death, it is not even to escape the cycle of life and death and attain immortality; one must live a virtuous life because when he is gone, the future generations will talk about him as a follower of dharma – katha rahithiba (Word / The story will remain) as Sarala puts it. This is nothing short of a revolutionary point of view on the matter in the context of our puranic literature.

Perhaps the most creative concept in Sarala Mahabharata is that of Purna Avatara. Sarala explores the idea of the fullest manifestation of God in a human form, defined in terms of inclinations such as satwa, raja(s) and tama(s). Sarala conceptualized Purna Avatara as the one who has Self-Knowledge – knowledge that none has, neither gods nor mortals; as the one who embodies the ultimate expression of each of these gunas, which makes him, at the same time, the most spectacular among the created beings in satwic terms and the meanest of the humans in the tamasic terms. In him are manifest the most glaring contradictions. In none in the Creator god Brahma’s creation do these contradictions exist in non-conflicting togetherness.

This truly remarkable work has not yet been translated fully into any language. It seems that more than a hundred years ago, parts of it were translated into Bengali but this translation is unavailable now. In the recent years, the first two Parvas have been translated into Hindi and parts of two other Parvas, into English.

Sunday, October 6, 2019


I thought I should write a note to say why I posted a piece on Jaganath worship in this blog on Sarala Mahabharata.

Was Sarala the first to connect Krishna with Jagannath through a narrative? That might be the case, this post suggests.

The Musali Parva of Sarala Mahabharata connects Shri Krishna with Mahaprabhu Jagannath. Neither Srimad Bhagavata nor Harivansha nor Vyasa Mahabharata made this connection. Neither did Shreepurushottama-kshetra-mahatmyam of Skanda Purana, which deals with the origins of Jagannath and His worship in considerable detail. Neither did the twelfth-century poet Jayadeva. In his dasavatara (ten avataras) slokas, Keshava or Krishna is conceived as the Source and Matsya, Nrusingha, Vamana, Rama, etc. are his incarnations. Jagannath, who, some, but not Jayadeva, believe to be non-distinct from Buddha, is considered by them as the ninth avatara of Keshava. But Buddha was an avatara of Bhagawan Vishnu and that avatara shared with the Buddha of Buddhism only the name. To the best of my knowledge, the Gita Govinda says nothing that connects Krishna with Jagannath persuasively.

The celebrated Jagannathastakam, each stanza of which ends with “Jagannathah swami nayana pathagami bhabatu me”, relates Krishna with Jagannath. Aadi Shankaracharya is popularly believed to have composed this hymn but many argue, persuasively, that it was composed by Sri Chaitanya. In the sixth stanza, for instance, there is the mention of Radha but the special gopi (milkmaid) of Srimad Bhagavata came to be known as “Radha” in Brahmavaivarta Purana, composed centuries after Aadi Shankaracharya. If Sri Chaitanya composed this hymn, then it was after Sarala’s time.

So, was Sarala the first in the Jagannath narratives who created this connection between Krishna and Jaganath? I guess he was but am not sure; many puranas (Skanda Purana, Padma Purana, Narada Purana, Bhavishya Purana, among others) and at least one upapurana, namely Kalika Purana have mentioned Jagannath. There are other important texts dealing with Jagannath and His worship, such as Niladri Mahodaya and others composed in Odia, but these are post-Sarala, as far as I know. I haven’t read most of the puranas and the upapurana mentioned above. I will be grateful for help in this regard from friends who would care to read this post.

The barest essentials of the theme of the Krishna-Jagannath connection in Sarala Mahabharata is this: After Krishna departed from the mortal world, keeping his word to Angada, born as Jara, in the preceding yuga, Treta (in Musali Parva, the Divine Voice told Arjuna that Jara was Angada), Arjuna and Jara tried their best to cremate his body but did not succeed. Fire would not be able to consume the body, said the Divine Voice from the sky and directed them to float it in the sea, which they did. As Arjuna left for Dwaraka, he asked Jara to keep watch over the body.  Jara followed it. As far as I understand the narrative, this story effectively ends here; its continuation till the emergence of Jagannath is mediated by the Divine Voice from the sky, instructions from Krishna to king Indradyumna during dreams, etc. But this Krishna can only be a name of the Supreme god, Narayana, the avatara Krishna’s Source, because the avatara Krishna had merged into Him after he left the mortal world. In this part of the narrative, both “Narayana” and “Krishna” are used, but they have the same reference, to my mind, namely, the Avatari (the Source). Now, why did the poet use the word “Krishna” then? I surmise that he did so in order to suggest that Musali Parva was a continuation of his Mahabharata, although the Kurus had no presence in the narrative of the emergence of Jagannath. But there was Jara in Musali Parva, who figures both in the Mahabharata narrative and the one of the origins of Jagannath.

But is the Jara of the Mahabharata and the Jara of the Jagannath narrative in Musali Parva, the same person? As far as I m concerned, the answer is “no”. In Sarala Mahabharata, Jara is a name borne by different savaras in different times. Jara was another name of Ekalavya, Jara was the son of Kiratasena, the ruler of a forest kingdom, Jara was the one whose arrow had mortally wounded Krishna, Jara was the name of the savara who worshipped Neela Madhava and Jara was the one who was chosen by Krishna (Narayana, because Krishna had merged in Him) to play a crucial role in the making of Jagannath and later, His worship.

To me, Sarala uses “Krishna” and “Jara” as terms that connect the narrative of the Kurus and the narrative of the origins of Jagannath – these terms occur in both. This is a lexical strategy that the poet used. Had he used “Narayana” instead of “Krishna”, who, to repeat, had lost his identity after returning to his Source, and some other name for the particular savara to distinguish him from the other Jaras, the two narratives would not have been as unobtrusively blended as they are in Sarala Mahabharata.    

The savara’s involvement in Jagannath worship makes this worship unique. A savara is outside of the caste system and when he enters it in Jagannath worship as a daita or daitapati (name of a group of servitors in Jagannath worship), he does so as a non-brahmin. The daitas perform intimate seva (ritual service) of Jagannath (a cover term for Jagannath, Balabhadra, Subhadra and Sudarshana) during anasara (during which period, He is accessible only to two categories of servitors: daitapati and pati mahapatra, a brahmin but not a shotriya brahmin); they take care of the Murtis. Anasara ritual requires the seva of both daitapatis and pati mahapatras. Sarala is certainly not the first who articulated this inclusive form of worship, but I feel confident to assert that no one had assigned a more crucial role to the savara in the relevant narrative than him.

Mahastami, 2019

Friday, October 4, 2019



An attempt is made here to study the conceptualization of Lord Jagannath and the ritual system associated with his worship over centuries in terms of brahminization, localization and the resolution of the conflict between these two. Analysing Skanda Purana and Sarala Mahabharata and a particular ritual, anasara, in some detail, it brings out the inclusiveness of Jagannath worship.

Key words: Jagannath, Jagannath worship, Neela Madhava, brahminization, localization, inclusiveness, Jara 

In 2014, touching the Deities on the rathas (chariots) was not allowed to the devotees by the Jagannath Temple administration of Puri, on the advice of the Shankaracharya of Govardhana Peetha, Puri, whom they had approached for advice on this matter, setting aside the circumstances under which they had done so, because that will take us far afield. The Gajapati King of Puri, who is the first among the servitors of Mahaprabhu Jagannath (henceforth, “Jagannath”, as he is popularly and fondly called, without any honorific suffix or prefix) had strongly supported the Shankaracharya. Touching the Deities is papa (sin), the Shankaracharya had declared. The devotees were not allowed to climb on to the rathas to reach the Deities. The only ones who opposed this were some daita (also called daitapati) sevakas (servitors of a non-brahmin category), who said that the disallowance was against the tradition but their opposition was to no avail. The following year, this proscription was even more strictly followed, with the Odisha High Court’s ruling in favour of it and criminalizing the touching the Deities. Incidentally, in 2006, the Temple administration had arranged for ladders so that the devotees could climb on to the rathas and everyone knew that they would touch the Deities. Sin was in nobody’s mind; I presume that at least for most of the devotees, it still is not. In any case, this aspect has not figured in public discourse on the subject. It must be mentioned that the disallowance has turned out to be hugely popular but its popularity is entirely unrelated to the matter of sin. It has been popular because the devotees have since been having a clear darshan of the Deities, untroubled by someone or the other asking or bullying them for a fee for darshan.  Earlier, often those who were on the rathas, both servitors and the devotees, would surround the Deities, making it difficult for those on the ground to see them clearly. It was often alleged that many of the devotees on the rathas had paid money to the servitors to be there.

   Still on the matter of touching the Deities, sparsa darshana (literally, touching the Deities, while having darshan of them), as it is called, was allowed by convention, even when the Deities were in the garva griha (sanctum sanctorum), seated on the platform called “Ratna Sinhasana”. During paramanika darshana (paid darshan) or sahanamela (public darshan), devotees could touch the Deities on certain days: Dola Purnima when the Deities were in their suna besha, (dressed with gold ornaments) or in their Padma (lotus) besha, among similar occasions. Some believed that the Deities could be touched when they were not on their platform in garva griha, where they received worship in terms of the mantra-centric brahminical tradition. In 2014, Puri Shankaracharya pronounced that the Deities must not be touched irrespective of where they were: on the platform in the garva griha, or rathas or anasara pindi (inside the temple, but outside the garva griha, where the Deities remain for fifteen days) or on the ground during their pahandi (moving step by step) while going to their rathas or snana bedi (the designated platform inside the compound of the temple, where the Deities are given a special “big” bath once a year). Shankaracharya’s view could be viewed as discouraging the non-brahminical, vyabaharic tradition and providing support to the brahminization of Jagannath and the ritual system in the Jagannath temple, a process that started centuries ago.

   This is the context for the present paper. Trying to understand Jagannath and his worship, it constructs a narrative of the brahminization (preferring this term to “Aryanization”) of Jagannath worship, its contestation by concepts and practices that are contrary to it, which is called here “localization”, rather tentatively and of the resolution of the contradiction between brahminization and localization in this worship. Evolution of Jagannath and his worship is too rich and complex a topic to be dealt within the familiar limitations of a paper; this paper is rather of an indicative nature with respect to its subject and hasn’t gone beyond merely scratching the surface of it. The terms “brahminization” and “localization” are merely descriptive labels and have no connotations at all, either favourable or negative. And “brahminization” subsumes the concepts underlying the terms “Vishnuization”, “Krishnization”, etc. used in this paper. As far as the origins of Jagannath and his worship are concerned, the paper has drawn its data from some puranic narratives, in particular, Skanda Purana in Sanskrit and Sarala Mahabharata in Odia. As far as the rituals performed in the temple dealt with here, are concerned, some informative texts on this topic, my own experience as an observer of some of these rituals and my discussion on this subject with scholars on Jagannath culture and a few locals, including the servitors of the temple, constitute the data.  
   Jagannath appears to be unique in many respects, considered against the background of the religious narratives and the relevant tattwik (philosophical) deliberations of ancient and medieval India on murti worship. Many questions arise with respect to him, especially his origins, some of which are as follows: what explains the incompleteness of his murti (form) and the nature of that incompleteness? What explains his colour and the colours of Balabhadra, Subhadra and Sudarshana, along with whom he receives worship and when and why the above three came to be worshipped with him, assuming, not without reason, which we just cannot go into here, that in the beginning he was worshiped alone? There is a body of literature on these and one might find answers to the above satisfactory or inadequate and unsatisfactory. There is at least one question that has hardly been addressed by scholars, which is about the colours of the Deities (Jagannath is black, Balabhadra, white and Subhadra, yellow.) Although in the recent centuries, he has come to have been generally viewed as the manifestation of Vishnu, some have connected him to Buddhism, Jainism, Krishna-centric Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Shaktism, Ganapatya sect, among others. For some, he is the Purushottama of the Rig Veda, for others, Brahman of the Upanishads, the Buddha of Buddhis; for some Shaivites, he is Shiva, the Shaktas, Mahavairava (the Great Vairava), the Vaishnavas Krishna, for the Ganapatya followers, Ganesha and the like. Now, no god in the pantheon of Sanatana dharma (henceforth “Hindu”) has been as acceptable to the followers of such diverse faiths and beliefs as him. For fifteen days a year, except for two categories of servitors, the Chaturdhamurti (The Four-fold-Form), are inaccessible to the devotees and these two categories of servitors, who are engaged in this secret and intimate worship of Jagannath, are patimahapatras, one sub-category of “Jagannath-temple brahmins” (to distinguish them from shotriya brahmins), and daitas (also called daitapatis, non-brahmins, whose ancestors are said to be savaras, who, being forest-dwellers and non-Aryas (Aryans), were outside of the caste-system, and did not enter the caste-system later as high caste. Incidentally, the term “daita” is entirely unconnected with the term “daitya (asura or demon)”. Now, no other Hindu god is worshipped by the brahmins and the savaras, who belong to two significantly different cultures. There are many more such aspects to the worship of Jagannath, which are unique to it. So the question has often been asked about Jagannath, namely, “Who is Jagannath really?” by those, as Surendra Mohanty suggests in his celebrated novel “Neela Saila” (1979, p. 299), who are inclined towards philosophy, religion and history of culture. This question shows that those who ask it would like to find Jagannath related to a single, specific religious tradition.  They find the inclusiveness of Jagannath uncomfortable. As far as the common man is concerned, as Mohanty observes (1979, p.299), he has no interest in this question. In the spirit of Neela Saila, we would like to articulate his perspective as follows: Jagannath is Jagannath, not restricted to any single religious tradition. However, if one wishes to see in him Krishna or Vishnu or Shiva or Ganesha or whosoever else, including goddess Kali, one could do so. Every view is legitimate; no view is privileged; so, no room for the question, who he really is. In the idiom of the tattwiks, this perspective of the common man can, roughly, have the following form: “Being Nothing, the Void, he absorbs everything”.  

   In sum, there are two contrastive perspectives on Jagannath: the brahminical, considered educated and “sophisticated” by those who believe in the authority of the shashtras and the puranas, composed in Sanskrit, and the other, the people’s perspective, the “localized” one, in the sense it is used here.  The former dismisses the people’s view as na├»ve and simplistic; as for the latter, the former is uninteresting and meaningless.  But neither has cancelled out the other in course of centuries, each finding its own space in both the narratives about Jagannath and the rituals performed in the temple.  This inclusiveness constitutes the resolution of the conflicting perspectives of brahminization and localization, with respect to Jagannath and his worship.
   Probably the first detailed account of Jagannath’s origin in the brahminical tradition occurs in “Utkala Khanda”, which is a part of the twelfth century composition, Skanda Purana, cited here as Das (2016). A sketchy but entirely adequate summary for our present purpose is the following: The first worshipper of Neela Madhava, taken to be the ancestral form of Jagannath, was a savara named Viswabasu. King Indradyumna, a great devotee of Vishnu, was advised that Vishnu was manifest in his fullest divine glory in the forests of Utkala and was being worshipped by a savara. At the king’s behest, the brahmin Vidyapati, the younger brother of the minister of the king came in search of the Deity. Afraid of the brahimn’s curse, Viswabasu showed him the Deity, an idol who had the familiar human form of the Hindu deities. When on the following day he came to worship Neela Madhava, he had disappeared. The king was inconsolable. The Divine Voice told him not to worry. He would manifest himself in the form of a log of wood. The following day, the king’s men found a splendid log of wood on the shores of the sea nearby. No one knew where it had come floating from. The brahmins took the sacred wood and placed it on the chosen platform. No one knew how to make the murti (idol) of Vishnu. The Divine Voice told the king that an old carpenter would come to him and he would make the murti in fifteen days. The carpenter worked all alone and in complete secrecy and in the appointed time, he made the murtis of Jagannath, Balabhadra, Subhadra and Sudarshana. The job done, he disappeared; he had actually absorbed into the murti of Jagannath, which no one knew. Only Vishnu could make his own murti; no human could. The Deities had hands and feet, etc. unlike their incomplete counterparts today, who have been receiving worship for centuries now.  Indradyumna was advised by the Divine Voice to designate the savara Viswabasu’s descendants and the brahmin Vidypati’s descendants as the servitors of Jagannath. This system of worship, not initiated by a human agent but by the divine decree, made Jagannath worship un-brahminical, or at least, only weakly brahminical, right from the beginning.  By including the savara in the worship, the divine voice had set limits on the brahminization of Jagannath worship.

   There are variations of this narrative in several puranas and puranic texts, some of which have dealt with how the incomplete Deities came to be worshipped, in contravention of the brahminical system. One extremely popular account, which can be said to have become part of the Odia consciousness, is the following: The Creator god himself, assuming the form of a very old and frail carpenter, told king Indradyumna that he needed twenty-one days to make the murtis and that he would be alone inside the temple, making the murtis and that no one must have access to him under any circumstances. Every day, for fourteen days, the king and his queen, Gundicha, would hear, from outside, the sounds of the making of the murtis but on the fifteenth day, they could hear nothing. Persuaded by his queen, who was extremely worried that the carpenter had died inside, Indradyumna opened the door of the temple and found the incomplete Forms. The carpenter had disappeared. The Divine Voice said that Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma would receive worship in their incomplete Forms. The rest of the story is of no concern to us. This account is similar to Sarala’s, as we shall see.

   The following are of interest to us in the Skanda Purana narrative: (a) the names Neela Madhava and Viswabasu, (b) The murti of Neela Madhava having the form a supra-human, of Vishnu, as in the puranic depictions of him, with four hands, etc. (c) the shifting of the divine wood from the sea shore to the platform by the brahmins and (d) the making of the murtis by the carpenter.  Now, the names above are not tribal names and tribal communities are not known to have worshipped murtis having a graceful, human form.  This shows that the brahminization of the object of Viswabasu’s worship had already taken place and inevitably, the narrative of the origin of Jagannath as well. The god of “no-tradition” (what else would describe him better, when he had just one human worshipper - of course, the great gods worshipped him, but they are not part of any articulation of the Little and the Great traditions - who had hidden him from everyone’s view till Vidyapati’s arrival) had been assimilated into the Great tradition.

   We now turn to Sarala’s narrative of the making of the murtis. Sarala Das, the aadi kavi of Odia literature, who belonged to the fifteenth century and who is the first non-brahmin to retell the great classical narrative in a regional language, composed the story of the origins of Jagannath in his Mahabharata in “Musali Parva”. Despite similarities, his narrative shows some fundamental differences from Skanda Purana. In brief, in Sarala Mahabharata, the equivalent of Viswabasu is Jara, and of Vidyapati is Vasu and between the personal names, Jara and Viswabasu, the former sounds less brahminical than the latter. The Divine wood manifested itself at the Rohini Kunda (pond), and not on the shores of the sea.  That wood was the form of Krishna himself, the complete manifestation of Vishnu. In Sarala’s account, Shiva wanted to be with Vishnu and so did Brahma, when they knew that Vishnu had decided to receive worship in Neelachala (Puri of today). The brahmins, the royals and the ministers of Indradyumna tried their best to move the Divine wood into the majestic temple King Indradyumna had built for Vishnu but it would not move. Krishna told the king in a dream that night that only the savara Jara and the brahmin Vasu together would be able to move the Wood. The following morning, Jara and Vasu moved the wood into the temple. Now the murti had to be made and Indradyumna did not know who to engage for that. He meditated on Krishna and he told him in a dream that Jara would be the one to make the murtis. The king told Jara that Krishna himself had chosen him as the one to make the murti; how he would do it, was up to him, he told him: kemanta kaributi tuhi janasi bhale / pratima nirmana kara tote sri Krishna agyan dele (How to make the murti you know / Krishna has ordered you to make the murti ( Musali Parva, p. 2643).

   With Jara inside the temple, the king closed the door. Jara was wondering what to do; he had never made a murti and had never even seen portraits. As he was mulling over these things, the Creator Brahma arrived in the form of a brahmin, made the murtis and entered the one of Subhadra. Now, with no sound of murti-making coming from inside, king Indradumna was worried, thinking that Jara must have fled. On the tenth day, he opened the door of the temple and found the incomplete murtis. They were without legs and in addition, Jagannath’s and Balabhadra’s murtis had no palms and Subhadra’s no hands. Indradyumna was not upset; he asked the brahmin, Basu (Viswabasu) who the Deities were and he told him that they were Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhadra, Forms of Narayana, Shiva and Brahma. After Brahma entered Subhadra’s murti, at Krishna’s behest, Jara had covered the wooden murtis with the thick paste made of the bark of the saal trees.  Jagannath (the cover term for the three Deities) had chosen to hide his feet; that would be his Form in Kali yuga (the age of darkness), says Sarala. About two centuries later, the poet Vipra Nilambara, in “Deula Tola”, which tells the story of the origin of Jagannath, offered a different explanation for the incompleteness of the Deities but it must be stressed that essentially, it is a variation of Sarala’s story, as Mansingh remarked ( 1981, p. 100 ), a view, with which we concur.

   In the episode of the making of the murtis in Sarala Mahabharata, Krishna is Narayana, the Source of the avarata Krishna, into whom the avatara had absorbed, after his passing away.  Thus, it was Narayana’s wish to remain incomplete and receive worship in that form. This is interesting for our present purpose. Unless in a symbolic form, such as salagrama or linga, the Hindu gods are worshipped in the form similar, essentially, to the human form, complete with hands and feet. Some, like Vishnu, has four hands and Brahma, four heads, etc., but the basic similarity with the human form remains. Now, in Sarala’s creation, the murtis of Vishnu (Jagannath), Balarama (Shiva) and Brahma (Subhadra) are in complete dissonance with the way the Trinity are represented as forms in the shashtras and the puranas.  In their incomplete form, in which they look less human and more abstract, they are symbolically closer to the objects of tribal worship, where the same are not forms which resemble a human. It would not be unreasonable to suggest that Sarala had tried to restore, although partially, Jara’s god for him from Skanda Purana’s brahminized Neela Madhava – “partially”, because the Deities that Jara was involved with in their making had non-tribal names. Jagannath, Balabhadra, Subhadra are not tribal names. This said, still remaining within the framework of the brahminical narrative of the origin of Jagannath and his worship in Skanda Purana, Sarala introduced innovations that are unmistakably non-brahminical - local, in our terminology.

   Now, we find that in Sarala’s narrative, the cooperation of the savaras and the brahmins has been highlighted far more strongly than in Skanda Purana. Unlike in the latter, in Sarala’s, the Divine Wood could move only when Jara was involved in it; the earlier attempts to do so with the brahmins and the royals alone had failed. More importantly, Jara, was involved in the making of the murtis. He was the chosen one. Thus, Sarala’s narrative of the origin of Jagannath counterposes the puranic or shashtric (scriptural) account with a distinct non-brahminical or local flavour. His narrative can be viewed as an effort to reclaim Jagannath for the savaras.

   Incidentally, at the conceptual level as well, Sarala can be said to have brought about a paradigm change in the thinking on man’s relationship with God. According to tradition, it is through bhakti (devotion) that man connects best with God. Now, in the puranic literature, be it Savari  or Hanuman of  the Ramayana, the gopis of Srimad Bhagavata, Radha of Vaishnava literature or Prahlad of Vishnu Purana, it is the bhakta (devotee) who seeks Bhagawana (God) and needs his companionship, longs to be his servitor, etc. but in the Jara-Krishna relationship, it is the opposite: it is Bhagawana who needs man and his chosen one may not be his bhakta, in the accepted sense of the term, based on the idea of navadha bhakti (nine forms of bhakti) of Srimad Bhagavata and of the Ramayana.

   Vaishnavization transformed Anantadeva of the first part of Skanda Purana (2016, p. 307) and Balarama of Sarala Mahabharata into Krishna’ elder brother, Balarama. In Skanda Purana, Subhadra was described at once as goddess Lakshmi, Vishnu’s (manifest as Jagannath) consort and as Rohini’s daughter and Balarama and Krishna’s sister, Subhadra, when Vishnu took the avatara of Krishna. In the episode under discussion in Sarala Mahabharata, Subhadra is not sister to Balarama and Jagannath, neither is she the manifestation of Lakshmi. She is the creator god, Brahma. Vaishnavization had frozen Subhadra to being the sister of Jagannath and Balabhadra, by which name Sarala’s Balarama is known today as part of Chaturdha Murti or the Four-fold-Form.

   The savara’s (be it Vishwabasu of Skanda Purana or Jara of Sarala Mahabharata) object of worship, Neela Madhava (be it a shining gem or a murti) had no story of his own. It was only after his Vishnuization that the stories of the origins of Jagannath emerged (in the brahminical Skanda Purana and some other puranas, and the partially non-brahminical Sarala Mahabharata). However, in our view, the more accurate statement would be the following: Neela Madhva story may be disconnected from the Jagannath story. The former ended with his disappearance. With the Divine Wood began another story: Jagannath’s story in both the brahminical and the non-brahminical frameworks. The Divine Voice, Krishna’s directives, etc. connect these two different stories to tell how Jagannath originated.

   Neither in Skanda Purana nor in the Musali Parva of Sarala Mahabharata, is Jagannath viewed as an avatara of Vishnu. He is conceptualized as Vishnu himself. The savara’s god had been Vishnuized into Jagannath in Skanda Purana and Sarala accepted it, although, as mentioned above, his narrative is different from it in crucial respects. In due course, the stories of the avataras of Vishnu got attached to Jagannath. As this happened, the ritual system was augmented to reflect this; thus, Krishna janma (birth), Rama janma, Vamana janma, etc., Kaliya dalana (taming), Rukmini vivaha (wedding) and some other rituals connected with Krishna and Balarama as children in Gopapura, Rama avisheka (coronation) and many rituals connected with the avataras entered the ritual system of Jagannath worship. Barring one or two rituals, related to Krishna, these find no mention in Skanda Purana. Pushyavisheka is there but it is unrelated to Rama’s avisheka of today. Attribution of the stories associated with Vishnu and his avataras to Jagannath and the augmentation of the ritual system by avatara-centric rituals indicate the increasing Vishnuization of Jagannath over centuries. The Ganapatya (a sect that worships Ganesha as the Supreme god), connection of Jagannath is evident in the Hati vesha (Elephant dress) of Jagannath and Balabhadra on Snana vedi (the platform for the Great Bathing).

   Now, stories, unconnected with the puranas and the shashtras, thus, local, were composed, in which Jagannath is seen as Jagannath, not Vishnu, as in the brahminical literature on Jagannath. These stories counterpose the brahminical perspective. One such story describes how, granting his wish, Jagannath waited for his devotee, Sala Bega, who was not in Puri then, to come and see him on the ratha. Another is how, once, listening to the pleadings of Balarama Das, Jagannath manifested himself in his sand ratha during Rath Yatra. He returned to his ratha when Balarama Das allowed him to. There are quite a few such stories. At least two of these, the Rai-Damodara story and the Talichha Mahapatra story have impacted the ritual system. The former has led to a besha, called Rai-Damodara besha and the latter, a dhupa (food-offering) called Bala dhupa. This dhupa is held when the Deities are in their Rai-Damodara besha. Incidentally, Rai-Damodara is now being brahminized as Radha-Damodara.  Rai in the relevant narrative is Jagannath’s spouse and is unconnected with Krishna.
   Snana (Bathing) and Ratha Yatra are unique rituals because the mula vigrahas, that is, the murtis themselves, not their representatives (chalanti pratima, as they are called, who are taken out during festivals) leave the platform in the sanctum sanctorum and come out, which is un-brahminical. Both the brahmin and the non-brahmin (daita) servitors participate in the rituals, although the sevas (what they do) are different. In Skanda Purana, the savaras were excluded from these rituals (Part I, p.399). Their subsequent inclusion in the same can certainly be viewed as an assertion of the non-brahminical tradition in Jagannath worship.

   Two rituals that find no mention in Skanda Purana concern the renewal or the repair of the murtis; there is no description of the navakalevara and the anasara rituals. The former takes place once in a few years, the details of which we skip. It is a forty-five-day ritual. The old murtis are given a ritual burial and in their place, new murtis are made and worshipped. It is an elaborate and complex ritual, but details are out of place here. What is of present relevance is the following: in the gupta (secret) seva in these two rituals, the daita servitors of the savara origin, have an extremely important role. This is more in tune with the Sarala Mahabharata narrative of the making of the murtis than the Skanda Purana narrative of the same.  Recall that it is in the former that the savara, Jara, has a crucial role; his equivalent, the savara, Vishwabasu has no comparable in the latter. Jara does not make the murtis; the divine carpenter, the Creator god himself, does. But Jara covers the wooden murtis with the paste made of the barks of the saal tree.

   Anasara is observed every year. It is a fifteen-day ritual, essentially the same as navakalevara, except that there is no replacement of the existing murtis. The existing murtis are attended to. The role of the daitas during the anasara ritual and the navakalevara ritual, as far as the murtis are concerned, is essentially the same. Like Jara, the daita servitors today put pastes on the murtis, the difference being that the materials used today are not just the paste of the bark of the saal trees; herbs, oils, etc. are used as well. The nature of involvement of the daitas in this intimate ritual highlights the fact that Jagannath worship is not entirely brahmincal; it is basically inclusive. Skanda Purana had mentioned that both the brahmins and the savaras (descendants of Vidyapati and Vishwabasu respectively) would be involved in the worship but what role the savara servitors would have, it did not mention or even suggest. Going by the spirit of Skanda Purana, it couldn’t be as central as it was in Sarala Mahabharata.

   The significance of the anasara (and the navakalevara) ritual is this: it is virtually totally un-shashtric or un-brahminical. It ensures that Jagannath worship cannot be totally brahminized; the seva of the daitas, which, to repeat, is central to it, cannot be done away with. If it ever happens, then it would be the origination of a different Jagannath worship. Just as with the disappearance of Neela Madhava, his story ended, as we have suggested above, similarly, with the elimination of the non-brahminical seva during anasara and navakalevara, the present story of Jagannath and his worship would end, as far as we are concerned. And just as the Divine Voice connected the story of Neela Madhava with the story of Jagannath, similarly, the culture historians will connect the two narratives of Jagannath, the present one, characterized by inclusiveness and the future one, if at all there will be one, to be characterized by exclusiveness. With this remark, we conclude the paper.


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Note: It has just been published in Journal of Exclusion Studies, 9 (2), pp. 164-174.