Thursday, June 30, 2022

POET SARALA DAS AND HIS MAHABHARATA

 

Sudramuni 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 (some say he composed only “Mahabharata”) 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 is 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 this great work in any language 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 manifestation) of Narayana, and he called his Mahabharata “Vishnu Purana”. Quite appropriately, his narrative does not start with the sarpa yajna (snake sacrifice) of King Janmejaya. The yajna was the Kuru King’s act of revenge for the killing of his father, King Parikshita, by the snake Takshaka. He was performing the sacrifice to get, not just Takshaka, but all the snakes destroyed in the sacrificial fire.

But Sarala’s retelling is situated in a different context.   Vaibasuta Manu, the lord of the aeon, pleads with the venerable sage Agastya (better known as Agasti) to tell him the way to attain moksha. And the sage tells him the story of Mahabharata. The story of the Kuru clan cannot be a moksha kavya– the lila of Krishna is. And shravana (listening with complete devotion) is a form of bhakti and it constitutes a way to attain the Ultimate State. Agastya’s response to Vaibasuta Manu’s pleading reminds us of the great sage Suka in Srimad Bhagavatav recounting the lila of Krishna to King Parikshita in his last days. Parikshita had attained the Ultimate State before Takshaka bit him. The snake bit the body. By making his sage Agatya tell Vaibastuta Manu the story of Mahabharata, Sarala was telling his audience – immediate and the future – that Mahabharata is a moksha-giving story because it is the story of the doings of the Purna Avatara Krishna. In his retelling, Sarala used episodes from Srimad Bhagavad, Skanda Purana, among others. And although Sarala Mahabharata does not contain the Bhagavad Gita, insights from it are there in many places in this remarkable composition.

So, did Sarala know Sanskrit?  It’s a question that has always been asked. Now, all one knows about him is from his own compositions. And he said in his Mahabharata that he was uneducated and dull and had no knowledge of the shastras, and that he had spent his time among the unlettered and the untutored. One could dismiss the poet’s declarations about himself by saying that during those days, such lowering of the self was the riti (style) of poetic compositions. But then where did he learn Sanskrit? How did he acquire the knowledge of at least some puranas and maybe even some shastras? One can assume that being a non- brahmin, he surely did not have the opportunity to learn Sanskrit at some place of learning - whatever formal system of education existed in his time. Did he have the opportunity of listening regularly to the learned brahmins’ explications of the puranas? What was the forum for such explications? How often were these given? Now such exposure to works in Sanskrit can just not account for the range and the depth of his knowledge of the relevant literature that his Mahabharata demonstrates. So, what can one say by way of answering the question above? One could only speculate and one speculative answer is as good as any other.

This is what Sarala said: he merely wrote what goddess Sarala, his divine mother, inspired him to write. The words were hers; he was merely the scribe. One is reminded of the composition of Vyasa Mahabharata. Sage Vyasa composed the verses and god Ganesha was the scribe. In both cases, the poet was different from the scribe. In one, the human was the poet, the divine, the scribe. In the other, the divine was the poet, the human was the scribe – isn’t that bhakti?

There is a view that Sarala’s crediting the goddess for his Mahabharata was only a strategy to escape censor and possible persecution by the brahminical elite. After all, he was a non-brahmin, who had dared to retell Vyasa Mahabharata. But I am not persuaded. By saying what he did, wasn’t he saying that he enjoyed the special blessings of goddess Sarala? By saying that he was her child, wasn’t he asserting a very close relationship with the goddess? Were these claims more acceptable for the brahminical elite?

His retelling expressed his perspective on the ancient story. As is the case of the other celebrated re-tellers of the great classics in Sanskrit language. Deviations from the original wasn’t frowned upon in the retelling tradition in our country. The basic story remains unchanged but much is added and much is set aside in the retelling. Ramayanam does not tell exactly the same story as in Valmiki Ramayana, neither does Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas. Sarala’s Mahabharata deviates from Vyasa Mahabharata in many ways. In Sarala’s retelling, both Duryodhana and Sakuni, died, not in disgrace but with dignity. 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 avenge their brutal killing. 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. In the battlefield, Sahadeva told him this in so many words. But he chose to die as he held 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 in Sarala Mahabharata 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. Karna 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, not for himself.

No one invited Yudhisthira to play a game of dice. Yudhisthira wanted to play the game he loved and heexpressed 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 respective karma. These are just a few of the numerous differences between Sarala Mahabharata and Vyasa 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 nature 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, given its inherent sinfulness as blood of the innocents flowed in the battlefield and he explored the possibility of alternatives to it.

As I close, I wish to say that despite the poet’s designating his work as “Vishnu Purana”, it has never got the status of a sacred text in the belief system of the Odias. People have the same attitude to this work as they have to Vyasa Mahabharata. It is banished from home. There is no Mahabharata parayana – be it Vyasa’s Mahabharata or Sarala Mahabharata. It is not recited to the dying. But there is one difference: in the temple of goddess Sarala in Jhankad, the goddess who Sarala called his mother, is Sarala Mahabharata ritually recited – ever day, as far as I know. One would love to think that the fond Mother happily listens to what her son had written. Did he write what she had told him to write? Or did he forget things here and there and fill the gaps with whatever occurred to him? Quite understandable is her interest. After all, she had told him the words in his dream, not sitting in front of him, as sage Vyasa had done. His divine scribe was sitting with him, as he was composing the slokas.

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.

And the people of Odisha have grown up with Vyasa Mahabharata, not Sarala Mahabharata.

(An earlier version of it is published in Samachar Just Click on 23.6.22)

 

Monday, November 22, 2021

KUNTI'S VANAPRASTHA

 

Kunti and Gandhari never had an easy relationship. It was bound to be so. Kunti wanted her eldest son, Yudhisthira, inherit the throne of Hastinapura whereas her sister-in-law, Gandhari, wanted her eldest son, Duryodhana, to do so. But neither encouraged their children to be hostile to their cousins; in fact, on occasions, Gandhari harshly scolded Duryodhana for his hostility towards the Pandavas, as Kunti did Bhima, equally harshly. After the wax palace fire happened, in which the Pandavas and Kunti were believed to have perished, Duryodhana was enthroned as the king of Hastinapura. Kunti seemed to have more or less resigned to this situation. But after her daughter-in-law Draupadi’s humiliation in the Kaurava court and the Pandavas’s exile in the forest for twelve years and their one year and thirteen days’ humiliating stay, incognito, in the state of Matsya in the service of king Virata, Kunti bayed for revenge. She wanted the complete annihilation of the Kauravas. Before Krishna went to Duryodhana as Yudhisthira’s emissary of peace, he met her and she asked him to give her his solemn word that he would work for war, instead of peace, in the Kaurava court and ensure that war took place between the Pandavas and the Kauravas. When the Great War was going on, she often reproached her sons for not being able to kill the Kauravas, even after so many days of the fight. Once she went to the extent of abusing even Krishna on this account! Her language was so venomous and insulting that Bhima got infuriated and wanted to punish her but Krishna saved the situation for both. When the War was over, like the Pandavas, Draupadi and Subhadra, she too claimed that the victory was solely due to her.

After the Belalasena episode, she virtually disappeared from the narrative. Much that was terrible happened after that:  Gandhari tried to destroy Yudhisthira with her yogic energy and Dhritarashtra tried to kill Bhima with his physical energy. Both failed because of Krishna’s interventions. Draupadi’s sons were killed and Abhimanyu’s son was killed in his mother, Uttara’s womb. On account of Krishna’s intervention, the dead son was restored to life but Uttara died. The narrative does not say anything about Kunti’s reactions to these. 

Despite the uneasy relationship that she had with Gandhari, when Dhritarashtra and Gandhari left for their vanaprastha, Kunti surprised everyone by saying that she too would go on vanaprastha with them. Yudhisthira asked her why she was leaving them. She said that she would not be happy in the palace when Gandhari would live in hardship and sorrow in the forest. Yudhisthira asked her whether Gandhari was living in sorrow when she was living in misery in the forest. Kunti told her son that it would not be right to think in such terms about her, the miserable mother, who had given birth to a hundred sons and had lost them all. Yudhisthira told her that throughout her life she had undergone great suffering in order to bring the five of them up all alone and now by leaving for the forest, she was not giving them the opportunity to serve her and was thereby leaving them with a huge burden of debt towards her. Kunti took him aside and told him that she had to go to the forest; it was absolutely imperative on her part. Both blind, they would, in the forest, face all kinds of difficulties and each time they would, they would curse him. She told Yudhisthira that she would serve them well and thereby protect him from their curses.

When Gandhari came to know that Kunti was joining them, she asked her with concern and affection, why she was leaving her sons in the time of prosperity and opting for a life of deprivation. What she told her sister-in-law shocked Yudhisthira. She said that she had been living in great sorrow in the palace. She had sleepless nights thinking of her son Karna, who she had suffered humiliation on her account throughout his life. He was a celebrated warrior and a very virtuous person. She condemned Arjuna as a sinner – “papistha ”– for taking advantage of his unfortunate situation in the battlefield and killing him (Ashramika Parva: 2544). She told Gandhari that she had lost Ghatotkacha, Abhimanyu and many others who were her own and she had no peace.  None in the family knew about her suffering; she obviously hadn’t shared her grief with anyone – she had alienated herself from her own. Deeply upset, Yudhisthira told her how she had been responsible for the war: how she had desperately wanted war and how she had made Krishna promise her that the war took place. Kunti cut him short and told him that it was pointless to think of those things at that moment. She also told him that parents could not live with their children all the time.

What Kunti did can be viewed as an exemplary moral act. She voluntarily chose a life of privation and suffering over a life of comfort and that too at her old age.  And she chose to do so to serve her elder brother-in-law and sister-in-law, who did not ask for her help and did not expect her to help them. Kunti knew that she could be extremely useful to them. It is true that Dhritarashtra and Gandhari were not going to be alone in the forest and that Vidura and Sanjaya would be with them, who had served him well for years. One might surmise that she might have thought that despite that, she would be of service to them, in other ways than Vidura’s and Sanjaya’s. The text does not say anything explicitly in this regard but isn’t suggestiveness a basic feature of poetic expression?

There is no reason to suspect that she was not sincere about what she told Gandhari by way of explaining why she had opted for being with them. The devastating war had levelled both the victors and the vanquished – they had all become losers. The War had ended their life-long uneasy relationship.

As Kunti had told Yudhisthira, there were three of them: Gandhari, Madri and she herself. With Madri gone in the service of her husband (se swami karjya kala se punyamani – literally, she did her husband’s work; she was a virtuous person. “Her husband’s work” can be understood as “she did what pleased her husband”) (Ashramika Parva: 2544), only they two were left, suggesting that she did not want to be separated from her from then on. Besides, with Dhritarashtra, Gandhari, Vidura and Sanjaya leaving Hastinapura, there would be no one from her generation in Hastinapura. For years, she had looked after her children (she had never treated Madri’s children differently from her on) but had not shared her hurts and feelings with any of them. If she did with anyone, it was Krishna. In view of this, it is not implausible to think that she wanted to spend her last days with those of her generation.

These suggest that her decision to serve Dhritarashtra and Gandhari was not entirely altruistic, not entirely out of her sense of duty. What Kunti had told Yudhisthira in confidence reinforces this perspective, namely that the real reason she was going to be with Dhritarashtra and Gandhari in their vanaprastha was to protect him from their curses. The quintessential mother, she had felt that she had still to take care of her children, who needed that care from her and she could do so by not staying with them. In sum, the intention behind her clearly noble act was not as noble.

Think again. Hers was a self-centered selfless act in the sense that she did not do it for glory or fame or anything to do with the promotion of her ego. When the mother acts to protect her children, then questions of ego become irrelevant. Hers was a moral act and a truly impeccable one at that.

Monday, November 8, 2021

TOWARDS A HUMANISTIC READING OF MAHABHARATA

 

About a month ago, I listened for a while to a television debate in Odia on the decision, presumably by the Government of Madhya Pradesh, to include Ramayana and Mahabharata as elective subjects in the first year Engineering programme in that state. The assumption of both the participants, both young (which was a good thing), was that these are religious works. This piece disagrees but it does not enter into this debate.

Incidentally, at many of our universities, IIT and IIMS, in elective courses in literature (including comparative literature), philosophy, history, culture, leadership and related areas, these great works, in part at least, are already being taught. But to the best of my knowledge, course content had never been a subject for a debate in the electronic media. There could be more reasons than one for this but no need to go into all that here.

Ten years ago, I taught an elective course on Mahabharata to the final year undergraduates at IIIT Hyderabad. The title of the course was “The human condition as depicted in the Mahabharata”. The basic perspective was this: A truly great work, like Mahabharata, allows itself to multiple interpretations. Often different schools of thought assign different meanings to it. And then, as the world changes and new knowledges arise that give people new world views, people see meanings in the great works that the earlier generations did not. In our view, each interpretation is valid if it satisfies the requirements of internal consistency and local (at the level of episodes, for instance) and global (the interpretation as a whole) coherence. It is possible that an interpretation would miss out of something but then would project something that was missed out in earlier studies.

Now, Mahabharata could be read as a humanistic, i.e., non-religious, work. It can be viewed as essentially a narrative of the humans: their aspirations and struggles, their attitudes and values, their compulsions and options, the way they sin and are sinned against, their hopes and frustrations in interpersonal relationships, the problems they face, dilemmas that trouble them, and the way they resolve these and much, much else.

From this perspective, let us consider Sarala Mahabharata, a magnificent retelling of Vyasa’s Mahabharata in Odia, composed by Sarala Das in the fifteenth century.  It deviates from the Sanskrit text in many ways, although, needless to say, the basic story remains the same. So, for our present purpose, it would make no difference which text we consider: Vyasa’s or Sarala’s. In Sarala’s retelling, some episodes are somewhat differently conceptualized and it is reflected in the characterization and plot construction. This is in fact the tradition of retelling in the regional languages of the Sanskrit Ramayana and Mahabharata in our country. Ramcharitmanas is not a translation of Valmiki Ramayana, neither is Kambar’s Ramavataram.

In Sarala Mahabharata, on the Kurukshetra battlefield, the Pandava and the Kaurava armies stood face-to-face, each waiting for the other to attack. Both knew that war was sinful. The Pandavas were the aggrieved party, which might be why Sri Krishna asked Arjuna to attack the enemy, but he said he wouldn’t but would retaliate when attacked. Retaliation would be no sin because the attacked had the right to protect himself. Sri Krishna didn’t say a word and reported the matter to Yudhisthira. The eldest Pandav considered his brother’s attitude eminently reasonable and tried to make one last attempt to avoid war. He pleaded with Duryodhana to give them just one village, if he didn’t want to give them five, as he had asked for earlier. When Duryodhana refused even that, the eldest Pandava realized that war was inevitable.

He then told Duryodhana that since the issue was the succession to the throne of Hastinapura, only the hundred Kaurava brothers and the five Pandava brothers must fight and settle it. It was their war, not the war of all those who had assembled there to fight for them – Bhishma, Drona, Karna, Jayadrath, Sakuni, Drupad, Abhimanyu, Lakshmana Kumar, among others and then the countless soldiers. They were all outsiders. Their blood must not flow in a war that wasn’t theirs. None of them would inherit the throne. The idea was that if war couldn’t be avoided, it must be ensured that its scope remained strictly local so that the damage would be minimal. Duryodhana did not cooperate with Yudhisthira. Considerations of victory required that help of the outsiders was badly needed. If it would bring large scale damage, so be it. But at least a moral option to this attitude was clearly articulated through Yudhisthira; faced with such a situation, humankind must make its choice.

When Ashwatthama demanded from his father Drona that he teach him how to use Brahmashira, one of the most destructive of the divine weapons, the wise guru refused. His son complained that he was being very unfair to him, who was his own, considering that he had taught its use to Arjuna, who was not his own. Drona knew that his son was jealous, excitable and prone to anger. He had no self-control. He feared that Ashwatthama would misuse that astra. Arjuna, in contrast, was calm, composed and self-possessed, which made him worthy of receiving the knowledge of that divine astra.  

Ashwatthama’s mother had died while giving birth and Drona had been his mother and father both. He was, understandably, extremely indulgent towards him. One day he succumbed and gave him the knowledge of Brahmashira. On a certain occasion, after the Kurukshetra war was over, in frustration and anger, Ashwatthama used, rather misused it. Fortunately for Drona; he had died before this happened.

So, power must reside with them who have a highly developed moral sense. A social arrangement based on this principle, would give rise to inequality. In fact, not just his son but his Kaurava shishyas had often charged Drona of partiality towards the Pandavas, in particular, Arjuna. But in the wise guru’ view, in certain domains, inequality must be accepted, not resisted, for the good of the society.

By the way and rather irrelevantly for this piece, today, not many would agree with this view. Noam Chomsky would be one of them. This principle, they would say, would give rise to dictatorship. Dictatorship of the enlightened, they would say, is as unacceptable as that of the thug. In each case, the people would lose their rights and dignity. The ruler would decide what they must do.

Once a war is over and the victory celebrations have taken place, it’s time to fix the responsibility for the war. In the Great War at Kurukshetra, there were two victors: Yudhisthira and Sakuni. Yudhisthira became the king of Hastinapura, with the challengers to the throne having been completely eliminated. Sakuni had achieved his purpose. He had to avenge the brutal killing of his father and uncles by Duryodhana. In Sarala Mahabharata, he used treachery to imprison them in a specially designed palace, which he had built for that purpose and starved the hundred unfortunate men to death. Sakuni was promise-bound to his father to avenge their killing. He virtually achieved his objective on the seventeenth day of the war. By then no Kaurava was alive except Duryodhana. Sahadev and Arjuna knew about Sakuni’s objective and Sahadev suggested to him that since Duryodhana’s fall was imminent, he should go to Gandhar and rule his kingdom.

Sakuni did not and chose to get killed in the war. He held himself responsible for the killing of many great warriors and countless soldiers. He had resorted to manipulation and treachery to bring the Kauravas and the Pandavas to the battlefield, certain that the Kauravas would be completely destroyed in a war with the Pandavas. He had avenged the killing of his father and his relatives but at the same time, he could not forgive himself for the death of the innocents. He atoned his sin by sacrificing himself in the war.

In the end, Yudhisthira held Draupadi and Sahadeva responsible for the war – Draupadi for ceaselessly instigating her husbands to avenge her humiliation in the Kaurava court and Sahadeva for not warning him about what would happen, although he had the knowledge. “Would the game of dice have taken place if the results were known in advance to the eldest Pandava?”, one would wonder.

Ordinarily the victors in a war hold the defeated responsible for it. Here the victors held themselves largely responsible for the war. Victors cannot punish themselves as war criminals. War criminals are punished by others, not themselves. But they can repent. This is what Sakuni did. As for Yudhisthira, he was troubled by a deep sense of guilt and had no peace.

In Sarala’s retelling, the relationship between Gandhari and Kunti was never cordial and Kunti bayed for the Kauravas’ blood after Draupadi’s humiliation. But when Dhritarashtra and Gandhari decided to go to the forest for their vanaprastha, she decided to join them and serve them. She knew they, both old and blind, would need her. When Gandhari asked her why she was rejecting her royal status and the comforts of the palace, she told her that she had been spending sleepless nights, grieving over the loss of her son Karna and her grandchildren. The war had made both Gandhari and Kunti miserable losers and Kunti had made her choice about who she would be with, in the very last part of her life.  

Now, where is religion in all this?

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

THE REDEMPTION OF THE VASUS

The Pandavas were already there in the lakshya griha (wax palace) in Varunavanta. Uncle Vidura had met them and advised them to live in the forest for some years. Life would be very hard there, he said, by way of preparing them for their time in the forest. They would even have to beg for food, but suffering must not break them, he said. Someday the kingdom of Hastinapura would be theirs, he told them. The Pandavas knew that Vidura had got a tunnel made for them to escape. Now Vidura told them that there would be a boatman to ferry them across the river, Suranadi. At the other end of the river, they would be safe.

Then Vidura went to Dwaraka. It was a Monday. The full moon day of the month of Shravana was just two days away. It was twilight. Vidura met Krishna. Whatever he could do for the Pandavas’ safety, he had done, he told the Avatara. Now it would be he alone who could save them, he said. The virtuous Vidura did not need to worry, Krishna told him. There was a way.

Thus, all of a sudden thick, dark clouds appeared in the sky at Varunavanta. There was blinding lightening and deafening thunder. Then it poured and poured. In the nearby forest called Anubhava, there lived a savara (a tribe of forest dwellers) named Ajaraja in a hut with his wife Jayanta and her five children. A thunder burnt his hut and killed him. With her sons the helpless Jayanta ran for shelter and came to the wax palace. Bhima would not let her in.

“Who was there?” asked Kunti from inside. Then she asked her who she was and what was her caste. She told her all about how her husband had died and her hut had got burnt. She and her children had no shelter in that dreadful night, she told her and pleaded with her for shelter that night. Her children were like her children, she told Kunti and begged her to be merciful to them.

“Let them in”, Kunti said to Bhima and Bhima let them enter. Kunti told Jayanta that her name was Koenta and that their names rhymed. They were of the same age. So they were friends and she told her that her children were like her own. She gave them a bed and in no time the tired forest dwellers dropped off to sleep. 

The rains had stopped for quite a while now but the sky was overcast. Night had set in long ago and it was very dark outside. Silence reigned. This was the time to get away, said Yudhisthira. No one said a thing. Kunti and the Pandavas quietly entered the tunnel and after some time emerged out of it. They were on the bank of Suranadi and were safe.

Bhima turned back and entered the tunnel. On reaching the wax palace at the other end, Bhima confronted Puranjana Panda there and told him that soon he would be burnt to death in the same palace which he had built to burn the Pandavas to death. Bhima set fire to the palace. In no time the entire palace was engulfed with flames and Puranjaya Panda perished. Praying most humbly to god Agni to spare him, Bhima escaped. Soon he joined his mother and brothers at the river bank. They all knew what had happened to the poor savari and her children. But none of them shed a tear for them; let alone shedding tears, they didn’t even mention them in their exchanges ever. Could it be because they, especially Kunti and Yudhisthira, had a sense of guilt about what had happened to them? Perhaps they had, perhaps they didn’t have. The text is silent about it. In any case, the sensitive person knows he has to suffer his feeling of guilt and remorse alone for fear that sharing it with others would mean demeaning himself in front of others. His conscience would trouble him, but for how long? In any case, given their ambitions and apprehensions, kings and princes could hardly afford to live by their conscience.  

They, savaras, had come to the laksha griha, driven by their destiny. One can debate in one’s mind whether they had died or were killed. In any case, in their death, they served the Pandavas. Their badly burnt bodies concealed their identity. People thought those were the bodies of Kunti and the Pandava brothers. The Kuru elders grieved for them. And King Dhritarashtra performed their last rites. 

Sage Agasti was telling the Mahabharata story to Vaibasuta Manu. The lord of the yuga found the death of the six savaras entirely unfair and unacceptable. He interrupted the sage’s narration. “O venerable sage”, asked Vaibasuta Manu in all humility, “why did the innocents perish? What sins had they committed to deserve such a grisly end?”

The great sage and seer, who knew what had happened and what was going to happen, told him that the five children were the five vasus, the divines, who had been cursed by sage Vashishtha. The vasus sought the great seer’s forgiveness. He told them that they would be born in the mortal world twice and would die twice as their just punishment. After that they would assume their original form, he had told them. They would first be born as Ganga’s babies, who she would kill immediately after their birth. Then they would be born again as Jayanta savari’s children. They would perish in the wax palace fire and would then be free from his curse. Thus, they died because their own karma, said Agasti. Yudhisthira could not be blamed, he told Vaibasuta Manu. At the same time although from the human perspective they died a miserable death, the truth, beyond human understanding, was that they got their mukti. Incidentally one must not forget Krishna’s role in this. He created the condition for mukti of the cursed vasus.

The careful and discriminating listener Vaibasuta Manu must have been satisfied with the sage’s response. He didn’t ask any more questions and Agasti resumed his story.

Centuries after, we wonder why the lord of the yuga didn’t ask about the fate of Jayanta. Agasti said nothing about her. For which karma of hers in which birth of her did she have to suffer such a painful death? We know the narrator’s answer. It was not karma; the narrative needed that death. Jayanta had to be a helpless widow; so her husband Ajaraja had to die (so no questions about his karma, either) – in one way or the other, be it by thunder or by lightening, but not along with his wife and children. Thereafter, the narrative needed six deaths – one woman and her five children. All this is entirely understandable. It is only the asymmetry in the narrative that leaves us very unhappy – some deaths are connected with the dead man’s karma, whereas some others not and for that reason, they look arbitrary and unfair.

We perhaps have to reconcile to these sad ends (because a life of unclarity, doubt and scepticism can be unliveable) thinking that Narayana does not play dice with nara. So Jayanta and her husband Ajaraja did not die in vain; for they were the nimitta, chosen by Him, for the vasus’ mukti.

 

 

 


Tuesday, April 20, 2021

A MORAL QUESTION FOR DURYODHANA (WHICH HE NEVER ANSWERED)

Was it morally justified for Duryodhana to go to war against the Pandavas? Did he really hope to win? Had he carefully weighed his chances of victory? Had he under-estimated the strength of the enemy? Forget about the cause, forget about the principles, if he had felt unsure about winning, it was certainly very unethical on his part to go to war, going by the logic of Yudhisthira, the embodiment of virtue.

Preparations for the conclusive war were going on. One day, as he was conferring with Krishna and his brothers, the eldest Pandava asked Sahadeva, who had the knowledge of the past and the future, whether they would win the war. Sahadeva had just told him that there were eleven akshauhinis in the army of the Kauravas. That army was much larger than their own of seven askhauhinis. Yudhisthira said that that If they were not going to win, he would choose not to go to war with his cousins: …tahanku jebe jini nuariba / abara sahodre kimpa bipaksha hoiba (if we cannot win / why should we fight our brothers). War was utterly sinful, the virtuous man knew; however, if it was unavoidable, then one had no choice. He could compromise on war only to that extent. Even then, one had to be careful. If one believed, on reasonable basis, that one was going to win, only then going to war would be morally justified. Sahadeva said he knew the outcome but would not tell; he suggested that Yudhisthira asked the one called Bharada about it. To cut a long story short, Bharada was brought to the presence of Yudhisthira and he told him that haribe durjyodhana jinime jujesthi (Duryodhana will lose, Yudhisthira will win). 

When Krishna was going to Duryodhana as Duryodhana’s emissary for peace, he had asked Bhima, Arjuna and Nakula separately who he would be able to kill if Duryodhana rejected their request for villages and war became inevitable. Said Krishna to Bhima: …tu ho sangrama je kale / kaha kaha kain jini paributi tohara bale (if you go to war / who all will you be able to kill). Bhima said that he would kill all the Kaurava brothers. Responding to the same question, Arjuna said that he would kill Bhurishrava, guru Drona, Bhishma, Karna and Salya. Nakula said that he would kill their uncle Salya, Karna, Sakuni and Lakshmana Kumara, among others. It appears that by asking them that question, Krishna was trying to ascertain their self-confidence and motivation for war. As for Sahadeva, he had neither asked for any village or anything else nor had Krishna asked him about who he would be able to kill in the event of a war. Theirs was the conversation between the One who is the Cause of everything and his devotee who knew His ways. Details are unnecessary for our present purpose. 

As for the Kauravas, shortly before the war, Duryodhana had held an assembly of the warriors who had come to fight for him and implored them to win him victory in the war. The Pandavas were powerful and then there was Krishna with them, and he had never been a winner against them till then. He told the celebrated warriors that he depended on them for victory and that he would honour whosoever among them would assure him that he would be able to vanquish Arjuna and Krishna. He would be anointed as the commander-in-chief of the mighty Kaurava army. Like Krishna with respect to the Pandavas, he was trying to ascertain the self-confidence and the motivation of his warriors. In that assembly were Bhishma, Drona, Karna, Bhurishrava, Salya, Kripacharya. Aswasthama, Somadutta, Bahlika, Dussasana, Sakuni and Jayadratha, among others. 

Kritavarma responded to Duryodhana’s words and he didn’t mince his words. Of all those assembled there, no one was capable of defeating the Pandavas, he told the Kaurava king. Together, they wouldn’t be able to defeat even Sahadeva: jeteka nrupati tu nimantrilu ani / samaste na paranti yeka sahadebanta jini (All those kings you have invited / They all wouldn’t be able to defeat Sahadeva). King Duryodhana could ask them why, in that case, they had come, if they believed they were so impotent, he told Duryodhana. He said they had come to see Krishna on Arjuna’s chariot: srikrushna sarathi parthara nandighosha rathe / samaste ailu ambhe krushnanta dekhiba nimante (Sri Krishna would be the charioteer on Arjuna’s chariot / We have all come to see Krishna). Seeing Krishna, they would fall in the battlefield and would attain moksa, he told Duryodhana. All the kings assembled there said that they concurred with Kritavarma. 

Duryodhana did not say anything but Bhishma knew that he was deeply disappointed. He rose from his seat, with his sword raised and vowed that he would kill Krishna and Arjuna. A greatly relieved Duryodhana worshipped him with words of praise and declared him as the commander-in-chief of the great Kaurava army. Aswasthama could not control himself and he told Duryodhana in the presence of all that what he had done was very inauspicious. Bhishma’s hidden objective was to get killed in the war, he told the Kaurava king. Duryodhana denounced him as evil-minded right from his childhood, and Drona expressed his disappointment at his son’s conduct. Bhurishrava told the Kauravas that Bhishma was a highly honourable person and that none must think that he was one who would make empty promises. 

But what he said then, amounted to a stern warning. He reminded Duryodhana of how on several occasions he had been saved from disaster by the Pandavas, not the celebrated Kaurava warriors, including Bhishma, Drona and Karna. The demon, Pandavasura, had swallowed him and Arjuna had split his body and saved him. The demon Saintika, said Bhurishrava, had killed him along with his ninety-nine brothers and was abducting his wife Bhanumati with him, when the virtuous princess called out Arjuna for help. Arjuna killed the demon, saved Bhanumati and with his divine arrow of nectar, he revived him and his brothers. He had also saved him from the gandharva Chitrasena, who had tied him to his chariot and was taking him to the abode of the gods, where, in Lord Indra’s presence he planned to behead him. Only a few days ago, in the Virata war, Arjuna had defeated Bhishma, Drona, Karna, Aswasthama, the Kaurava brothers, him himself, and everyone in the entire army became unconscious when Arjuna targeted them with his moha arrow. If he had asked prince Uttara to cut off their heads, they would have all been dead. But he didn’t. They thus owed their life to Arjuna. And those who try to harm the ones who had done them good, would always be counted as the lowest of the low, the meanest of the mean and the vilest of the vile creatures, he said. 

Besides, the Pandavas, were no enemies, he said. The proper thing to do would be to find a way to peace between the Kauravas and the Pandavas. 

Duryodhana couldn’t stand Bhurishrava’s painful harangue any longer. “In front of the Avatara I took a vow not to give the Pandavas a share of the kingdom”, said Duryodhana. It was, therefore, a sacred vow. On no account would he dishonour it. “Bhishma, Drona, Karna, Salya, Bhurishrava and whoever else on his side feared for life, must leave him forthwith and seek shelter from the Pandavas”, he said. He would fight the Pandavas. There would be with him his ninety-nine brothers, his son, Lakshmana Kumara and his brother-in-law, Jayadratha, he said, but if they too were afraid of death, then they too could seek protection from the Pandavas. He had taken the vow to fight and fight he would, all alone, if it came to that. 

It was Bhishma again who provided him succour. He must not worry in the least, the one, who death could not claim without his willingness, assured him. He would fight for him with full vigour and his wish will be fulfilled, he told Duryodhana. The Kaurava warriors cheered him. Hope returned to the army. 

But nothing changed the facts in Bhurishrava’s assertion that the mighty warriors on whom Duryodhana depended for victory in the impending war, had not been able to protect him till then, when his life was under threat. And then, the fact remained that the elder Kurus and guru Dronacharya did not see the Pandavas as enemy. Not even Karna, despite his hostility towards Arjuna. But these facts did not weaken Duryodhana’s resolve to fight. He was unworried about defeat. He had taken a vow. 

So, Yudhisthira would not go to war if there was no certainty of his victory. Duryodhana would go to war irrespective of the outcome. However, it was not the case that he was stepping on the Kurukshetra war field, knowing that he would lose. That being the case, if it was right for Yudhisthira to go to war, then so was it for Duryodhana. Neither believed that he was going to lose. At the end, placing Duryodhana’s head on his lap, who was lying fatally wounded, a disconsolate Yudhithira was crying for his fallen cousin. He asked him why he went to war and how he did not understand that he could never win against Arjuna, Bhima and Sahadeva. He was well-acquainted with their prowess and attainments. He knew that Arjuna had defeated the great god Mahadeva himself. He had defeated the incomparable Hanuman of the aeon of Treta (by the way, although he had greatly impressed him with his archery, he hadn’t really defeated him; perhaps Yudhisthira did not know the whole story). Perhaps he did, but that was no occasion for him to be punctilious. Whatever he had said best served his purpose. Didn’t he know, Yudhisthira told the one of whom he had said, time and again, that he was dearer to him than Bhima, that Arjuna had killed the demon Nirvata Kachapa, who had driven the gods away from Swarga. And didn’t he remember that only a few days ago, he had single-handedly defeated the entire Kaurava army in the Virata war. As for Bhima, let alone the mortals, even the immortals were afraid of him, said Yudhisthira. Sahadeva knew the past and the future, and the death-secrets of everyone. And then there was Krishna himself who was protecting the Pandavas. He should have known that given these resources that the Pandavas had, he could never win against them. He did not learn from his experience and went by wrong advice and brought only destruction to himself, said Yudhisthira. 

Duryodhana listened to the reprimand of his deeply anguished elder cousin but did not say anything. Maybe, he knew things that had gone far too wrong for him to say anything by way of protest. Or more likely, he knew that Yudhisthira’s agony was genuine and his tears honest and that concealed in his reprimand, was his unmistakable affection for him. 

Now, although he does not say it in so many words, Yudhisthira’s thinking is clear on the matter of going to war: one must not choose to go to war if one felt that one was not going to win. By doing so, one would bring disaster not just to oneself but to an entire army in which there would be far too many who would be fighting, although it was not their war even remotely. 

But did Duryodhana go to war knowing that he was or was most likely to lose? Certainly, not. The Virata war was one thing, a conclusive war against the Pandavas would be another. Besides, if there was Arjuna on the Pandavas’ side, there were, on his side, Bhishma, Drona, Karna and Aswasthama - all exceptional archers like Arjuna and all of whom had divine weapons, like Arjuna. And Bhishma wouldn’t die unless he so wished, Aswasthama was immortal and Karna had the infallible divine weapon given to him by Indra. In his huge army were great warriors like Jayadratha, Salya, Kripacharya, Kritavarma, Bhurishrava, Sakuni and many others. And then there was with him Krishna’s brave and dreadful Narayani sena. Their commitment was beyond doubt. They had come to die in the Kurukshetra war fields and attain moksa, as Kritavarma had said, but they were not going to betray Duryodhana by looking for opportunities to get themselves killed at the earliest, putting up just the semblance of a fight. There was of course Krishna with the Pandavas but he had told him that he would not take part in the war and would remain unarmed in the battlefield. In short, Duryodhana had no good reason to believe that he was not going to win. 

But he was let down by his commanders-in-chief. It was not a matter of their ability or their commitment; there were other things. Bhishma would not face Shikhandi because of the way their lives were connected in the latter’s earlier existence as Amba. One day or the other he would have come face-to-face with Shikhandi. But he made things easier by telling Arjuna that “secret’ of his, when he met him in his camp before day break on the tenth day of the war. However, it was not that he had volunteered to tell Arjuna; ignoring details, he was duped into doing so by Sahadeva and Krishna. Drona knew, as did everyone else, that Aswasthama was immortal, by virtue of the boon he had received from Creator god Brahma. Yet when he heard that Aswasthama was dead, he went asking warriors whether it was true. His strong sense of insecurity for his son was a consequence of his excessive attachment to him. It had so befuddled his mind that he could not think that Brahma’s boon was infallible. It was on this account, rather than Yudhisthira’s lie, that he lost his life. As for Karna, his conflicting commitments robbed the Kauravas of victory. He could have killed Yudhisthira but had let him go. He had let Bhima, Nakula and Sahadeva go too; he could have killed each of them. He kept his word to his mother. He was a virtuous man; for him, his commitment to his mother was more important than his commitment to the Kaurava army and to king Duryodhana. But make no mistake, his commitment to Duryodhana was beyond question. He had tried to kill Arjuna, but had failed. And that, on account of Krishna. Now, what weapon was there in the three worlds which could kill the one who Krishna was shielding! 

In fact, what really led to Duryodhana’s defeat was the Avatara’s interventions in favour of the Pandavas. Bhishma used an infallible divine arrow to kill Arjuna and Arjuna could not counter it. Unknown to everyone in the battlefield, Krishna destroyed it with his Sudarshana chakra. He created the illusion of sunset and saved Arjuna from self-immolation. Krishna knew that Arjuna would not be able to reach Jayadratha before sunset that day and would submit himself to fire. Karna had directed, unlike in the canonical version, the divine weapon he had got from Indra, at Arjuna, not Ghatotkacha but Krishna manipulated to protect Arjuna and get Ghatotkacha killed. The details need not detain us here. Arjuna had no answer to Karna’s sosaka astra (snake- Sosaka arrow) and Krishna saved him again, this time directing Hanuman on the top of Arjuna’s chariot to remove it from the battlefield. The killer arrow missed the target. Krishna saved the Pandavas and their army from Aswasthama’s Narayana astra by telling them how to pacify it. The son of Dharma would not have lied to his guru but for Krishna’s pressure; it was his lie that killed Drona. The hits that felled Duryodhana were not from his own mace but Narayana’s koumodaki (better known as “koumudi”). No one knew. Now, did Bhima normally wield the Supreme god’s mace? 

Clearly, Duryodhana had not taken into consideration Krishna, when, before the war, he was assessing his strength vis-à-vis the Pandavas’. He knew it very well that the he had all along been protecting the Pandavas. But Krishna had told him (to elder brother Balarama too) that he would not take part in the war and would only witness the happenings. He did not honour his words. That he was wily was not unknown to anyone in Sarala Mahabharata. But Duryodhana trusted the Avatara. 

Now, don’t blame Duryodhana. One cannot plan anything taking destiny into account in one’s planning. Don’t ask whether one has a choice when it comes to destiny and whether distrust of destiny would lead to any positive outcome. In any case, despite his support for the Pandavas on multiple occasions, he was never hostile to him. He was Narayana; His many acts of what he thought was unfairness towards him, did not disconnect him from Him. Many are the shades of bhakti. 

What does one say of Krishna? He had betrayed Duryodhana’s trust. True, but only from the laukika perspective. But Sarala does not hold it against him; as he narrates the lila of Krishna in his Mahabharata, he operates at the levels of the worldly and the cosmic both and occasionally relates them, so as to enable his listeners to see the happenings at both levels and understand the nature and the relationship between the two levels of reality. Sarala wanted his present and future audience to understand that the Avatara had come to the mortal world with a cosmic purpose. So who he was unfair to or partial towards from the laukika perspective was inconsequential.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

RAI'S STORY

Note: Like yesterday's post on "Bala Dhupa", this post is not about Sarala Mahabharata. Like "Bala Dhupa", it is a presentation of an understanding of a ritual in the Temple of Mahaprabhu Jagannath in Puri. I thought this is not an inappropriate place for this essay. So I am posting it here.) 


For a month, from the eleventh day of the waxing phase of the moon of the month of Aswina till the tenth day of the waxing phase of the moon of the month of Kartika, both days inclusive, two special rituals are held in Shri Jagannath temple (“Shri Mandira”, as it is also called) in Puri: Radha Damodara besha and Bala dhupa. The besha celebrates mother Yashoda tying up the little Lord Krishna with a rope. After the daily ritual of abakasha (washing face, bathing, etc.) the Deities, Jagannath, Balabhadra, Subhadra and Sudarshana wear this beautiful special besha (dress). Then after the ballava dhupa (name of the first food offering of the day) and the sakala (morning) dhupa (the second food offering of the day), which are daily rituals, an additional food offering or dhupa is held. This dhupa is called “baala dhupa”. The Deities are still in Radha Damodara besha when this dhupa takes place. This piece is about the besha. As for the dhupa, maybe some other time?

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

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

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

 The caring Husband asked the pregnant Rai one day what she wished to eat. She said she wanted to sit on His lap and receive worship and eat coconut, banana, moong sprout, khai (fried paddy), kora (a coconut-based sweet), etc., she told Him. For that, she had to please goddess Lakshmi, He said. She would grant her a boon. At that time, she must tell her that she wanted to sit on His lap and receive worship in the month of Kartika. Rai served goddess Lakshmi well. Very pleased with her, one day she told her that she wanted to grant her a boon. Rai asked for Damodara. Lakshmi was stunned. She was not angry; she did not feel that the girl had been clever and had trapped her; so she did not want to punish her for her unfair request – she was only deeply perturbed and sad that she would lose Him. How could she ask for Him, she asked the girl. The generous girl told her not to worry, it was for just one month, the month of Kartika, she told her. Lakshmi was relieved. But Kartika is special, being the holiest of the holy month; “give me five days of Kartika”, the goddess requested her and Rai readily agreed. If not then, later, the goddess realized that it was His wish. Thus, Jagannath’s special Radha Damodara besha comes to an end one day before the ekadasi of the waxing month of Kartika. On the day of ekadasi, the Deities are adorned with gold ornaments as part of a dress known as “Lakshmi -Narayana besha”, symbolizing the return of Jagannath to Lakshmi.

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

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

 And Jagannath? From the forests where the savaras worshipped Him in some Form, when exactly He entered the discourse of Sanatana dhama is a matter of interpretation - in the Rig Veda? Or in the puranas? Not resembling any Vedic or puranic god, He came into the Great pan-Indian tradition with no story of His own. Down the centuries, as different sects of Sanatana dharma embraced Him, their stories got attached to Him - some of these were Vishnu’s, some others were His avataras’. Independ of these, Jagannath had no doings; there was no leela of His, so no stories of His own. To confront the Great Tradition, narratives with a distinctly local flavour came into existence. Rai’s story is one such. So strong is the attraction of the Great Tradition that Sri Jagannath’s Rai became the Vaishnavite Radha. After all, Radha, who belongs to the “great tradition” has a great visibility; Rai, who belongs to the local loka katha (folk tales) is faceless.  No literary work, major or minor, in Odia language has celebrated her. Neither has any painting or dance. Today a few might remember Rai’s story but a few generations later, she would be entirely forgotten. Radha would have substituted her in the mind of the people. Today, the established panjikaas (almanacs) that inform about the rituals in the Big Temple use the word Raadhaa, nor Raai in this context.

 

It wouldn’t of course matter to Rai. Let her name be lost. Because, come Aswina sukla ekadasi, for a whole month from that day, Mahaprabhu Jagannath will dress beautifully for her - those who celebrate Rai would love to think; let the Vaishnavites not worry, Jagannath, who assimilates all stories, can accommodate their story as well! – and she will sit on His lap at the time of ballabha dhupa and eat coconut, banana, khai, kora, etc. to her heart’s content.

 

 

(published in Samachar Just Click on November 20, 20)


Tuesday, February 23, 2021

CONFRONTING BRAHMINIZATION: THE STORY OF BALA DHUPA

 

From the Ashwina shukla ekadasi (eleventh day of the waxing moon of the month of Ashwina) till the end of the month of Kartika, a special ritual is held in the Jagannath Temple in Puri. It is an additional food offering to Mahaprabhu Jagannath. Incidentally, “Jagannath” is a popular cover term for the Chaturdha Murti (Four -Form Images) of Jagannath, Balabhadra, Subhadra and Sudarshana. The food offering in question is “bala (pronounced as ‘baala’) dhupa”. Now, the name of the first food offering, dhupa, to Jagannath is “gopala ballabha” or just “ballabha”, which is sometimes called “bala dhupa”. But the word “bala” in the special food offering under reference doesn’t have the meaning “first or the earliest”- this dhupa, incidentally, is the third dhupa of the day. The word has the meaning “hair”, in which sense it is most frequently used in Odia. This would appear quite odd, considering that in the relevant culture, hair is considered impure. The non-shastrik rituals generally have tales associated with them and there is one associated with bala dhupa. It occurs in Madala Panji, which is a chronicle of the Jagannath Temple, dealing with the doings of the kings of Puri belonging to different dynasties, some important events connected with the rituals and the like in the Bada Deula (the Big Temple), as the Jagannath Temple in Puri is famously called.

 

Long ago, in the first part of the fifteenth century, Nishanka Bhanumana Deba of the Ganga dynasty was the king of Puri. One day, he came for the darshana of Jagannath (The Lord is generally and fondly addressed and referred to by the people of Odisha as simply “Jagannath” without any honorific prefix or suffix). At that time there were no flowers on the head of the Deity. Extremely nervous, the pushpalaka servitor (these servitors dress the Deities) engaged in the seva (service of the Lord) on that day, placed the garland he was wearing on Jagannath’s head. When the king arrived, he took that garland from the Deity’s head and offered it to the king as prasad.

 

Later, the king found that there was a strand of hair in that garland. He was furious. He ordered his men to bring the servitor to his presence. He thundered at him, urging him to tell him how there was hair in the garland. The nervous, confused and terrified servitor told him that there was hair on Jagannath’s head. The king told him that he wanted to see it for himself the following morning. The servitor was utterly miserable. That night the king heard a voice in his dream asking him not to trouble His servitors. The voice asked him to come to the temple the following morning and see His hair. Early in the morning, at the time of Jagannath’s abakasha (bathing), when He wears nothing on His head, including flowers, the king went for His darshan.  And he saw long, thick hair flowing down from His head. The king prostrated himself in front of Jagannath. He then comforted the servitor and instituted an additional food offering called bala dhupa. Over the centuries, this special ritual has commemorated that narrative and celebrated the Lord’s mercifulness.

 

Dadhyata Bhakti (Steadfast Devotion), which is a collection of stories of some great devotees, composed in verse by the poet Rama Dasa in the eighteenth century, contains the story “Talichcha Mahpatra”. It can be viewed as a variation of the story in Madalapanji, mentioned above. In this story, however, the servitor had a name: Jagabandhu Mahapatra. He had the tilachcha seva, which included dressing the Deities. Now, he was not just a servitor but a great devote of Jagannath as well. The king then was Prataparudra Deva (sixteenth century), who was known to have a quick temper and who gave harsh punishment to the guilty. When he came for darshan one day, there were no flowers on Jagannath’ head. Jagabandhu put the garland he was wearing on the Deity’s head and when the king came to the Lord’s presence, he took that garland from the Deity’s head and gave it to the king as prasad. When the king found hair in the garland, he told Jagabandhu that if he did not see hair on the Deity’s head the following morning, he would punish him. Terribly frightened, that night Jagabandhu prayed to Jagannath to save him. He kept some water mixed with poison with him, having decided to drink it in the morning in case he did not receive any divine indication during the night to the effect that he would be saved. Jagannath appeared in his dream and told him that he had no reason to worry, for the following morning, he would see hair on His head. When the king came, Jagabandhu told him that he could see Jagannath’s hair for himself. Suspecting that the servitor had played a trick and that the hair was false, the king pulled out some hair and he found blood in them. The penitent king threw himself at Jagabandhu’ feet and begged for forgiveness.  Why the expected reference to bala dhupa is missing here is open to conjecture. Our tentative and rather weak surmise is that the episode, like the others in the collection, is about devotion and the devotee, as its title suggests; for the poet, things about the object of the devotee’s devotion were dispensable.

 

There is yet another construction of the Madalapanji story. In Surendra Mohanty’s classic, Neela Saila (Blue Mountain), published in 1968, a character, Kantha Mekapa, narrates the story of bala  dhupa for the benefit of his captive audience of Jagannath devotees in a village. Here the servitor was a suara. The suaras prepare food for offering to Jagannath. One day hair was found in the food (in poda pitha, roughly speaking, a kind of baked / roasted Indian cake) which had been offered to the Lord. The king, who, like the suara, is un-named here, put the servitor in prison. Jagannath appeared in the king’s dream and told him that He would not accept any food if His servitor was not released. Post- haste, the king went to the servitor, apologized to him profusely and set him free himself. On that day, the king instituted bala dhupa. Mohanty has attempted to make his version more credible and persuasive than the source narrative. If a food offering is instituted, not a dress (like Gajanana besha (Elephant dress), for example), then from the point of authenticity, the story is better contextualized in food than in dress (flower on Jagannath’s head). 

 

This is Jagannath’s story, not Lord Vishnu’s or any avatara’s. When Jagannath was brahminized (using the term without any caste implications), that is, assimilated into the Great Tradition of Sanatana Dharma, the narratives of the leela of Vishnu or His avataras became His stories. Prior to this assimilation, there was no leela of Jagannath (or whatever name the forest dwellers had given him); therefore, no stories of His own. In the Ramayana, there is the story of the savari who fed Lord Rama with berries which she had already tasted for sweetness and the hair story of Jagannath is similar to it to the extent that the Lord in each had accepted polluted food. But there the similarity ends. Ignoring details, there are no rituals in any Rama temple, to the best of our knowledge, where the savari episode is commemorated through a ritual. 

 

The hair story, like Rai’s story, the milkmaid Manika’s or the little girl in the brinjal field’s, are purely local stories, with a distinctly folk flavour. Who created these, for what purpose and in what context, we may never get to know for certain. But we tend to look upon these stories as attempts to confront the brahminization of Jagannath and construct His identity in consonance with the Little Tradition.

 

 (Published in margAsia. Summer 2020. pp. 9-11.)