Kevin McGrath: JAYA — Performance in Epic Mahabharata,
Harvard University Press, 2011, pp.112, Rs.1036 (paperback)
The narrative structure of the Mahabharata (MB) resembles a Russian doll or a Chinese box, featuring a series of narrators emboxed within one another. The outermost is the wandering minstrel, Ugrashravas Sauti, who chants the epic to the Bhargava sage Shaunaka and his companions who are sacrificing for twelve years in the Naimisha forest. Sauti tells us that after his sons and grandsons were dead (note that his blood does not flow through the Pandavas), Vyasa completed MB in three years, composing daily from dawn. Sauti chants what he has heard Vaishampayana recite, as instructed by his guru Vyasa in response to King Janamejaya’s request during the intervals of the snake-sacrifice he was performing at Takshashila (Taxila). However, Sauti also states that he has heard his father Lomaharshana recite it and learnt from him. Within this recital are a large number of other narrators of whom the most voluminous are Bhishma, the rishis Markandeya and Lomasha and Dhritarashtra’s charioteer-cum-bard (suta) Sanjaya.
In Jaya, McGrath, professor of Sanskrit at Harvard, approaches MB in a new way, exploring how it expresses itself through what the suta (bard-cum-charioteer) Sanjaya, son of Gavalgana, speaks, the first and the only reporter from the front who also fights throughout the eighteen days. To him Sanjaya is not just a reporter but also a metaphor for the seer poet composing and transmitting orally Jaya, a kshatriya epic of war. This is the traditional view of the epic as an oral composition committed later to writing (symbolized in Vyasa’s dictation to Ganesha). The other view is Alf Hiltebeitel’s who proposes that it is a written artefact made by Brahmins using the traditional trope of orality. MB transmission runs thus: Vyasa –> Vaishampayana –> Sauti and parallely Vyasa –> Lomaharshana –> Sauti. Thus, the Brahmin redaction, Bharata, becomes Mahabharata in the hands of the professional mixed-caste suta chanters. McGrath proposes that there is, in addition, an anonymous reciter at the outermost layer whose is the invocation, tato jayam udirayet. But why should that not be Sauti, who is named in the very next line?
McGrath seeks to establish Sanjaya as the primary poet-cum-witness of the war books who composed the core epic called Jaya.composed by not Brahmins but a mixed-caste suta (Kshatriya father and Brahmin mother, or Brahmin father and Kshatriya mother). There a two-fold irony here that McGrath misses. After the decimation of Kshatriyas by Parashurama, their women had to turn to Brahmins to obtain progeny. So these new Kshatriyas were all sutas! Secondly, Vyasa himself is born of a low-caste fisherwoman by the sage Parashara, and fathers sons on the Kashi princesses. Thus, Pandu and Dhritarashtra are both doubly sutas! The horror of miscegenation that so overwhelms Arjuna in the Gita shows how the truth about the ancestry of the so-called Kshatriyas got buried fathoms deep.
Sanjaya’s first appearance is in the first book itself as audience for Dhritrarashtra’s lament and then as his consoler. Sauti reports this direct without the usual “Vaishampayana (or Lomaharshana?) said,” although how else would he know of this? Vaishampayana enters only in chapter 54 in Takshashila at Janamejaya’s snake-sacrifice where Vyasa bids him to recite MB. Sanjaya reappears as messenger, duta, in the third and fifth books (Vana, Udyoga) and is the sole omniscient reporter, suta, till the death of Duryodhana (Book 6 to section 9 of Book 10). Thereafter he only consoles and criticises the king till the end of Book 11 (Stri). It is strange that so far no one studied him. The only one to adopt Sanjaya’s point of view has been the Hindi novelist Gurudutt in his MB pentalogy (Avtaran, Paritranaya Sadhunam, Sambhavami Yuge Yuge). It is significant that Sanjaya’s recital begins in Book 6 (Bhishma) with Duryodhana and ends in Book 9 (Shalya) with Duryodhana crushed. Further, he is bard-cum-king’s charioteer, whose caste profession is chanting heroic deeds to royalty, whereas Ugrashravas Sauti is a wandering minstrel singing to sages.
Vyasa gifts divine vision (a metaphor for inspiration, says McGrath) to Sanjaya whose counterpart is his patron, blind Dhritarashtra, ironically said to possess “the eye-of-wisdom”. Besides this, he grants him physical immunity (“Weapons will not cut him, fatigue will not trouble him”) making him superhuman. No one approaches anywhere near his status. Even Krishna is repeatedly injured. Thus, Sanjaya, professionally a bard, appropriately becomes the prime composer-reciter (interposed before the Brahmin Vaishampayana) of what he witnesses in the war. Vyasa incorporates this into his own composition and teaches it to his son and disciples. Further, like Vyasa, Sanjaya is an actual participant in the events. The parallels between them are far closer than we realize. Both are omniscient, knowing not just external events but aware of people’s thoughts and emotions, of the past and of destiny. Sanjaya’s reports of the inner musings of characters are unique in epic poetry and revelatory like Shakespearean soliloquies. He even performs the laments of women, like Subhadra’s over Abhimanyu and the words of Vyasa when he appears on the battlefield. The nature of Sanjaya’s Jaya, McGrath writes, is more “synchronic whilst the language of Vaishampayana is closer to the naturally diachronic.” Sanjaya always reports what he sees, even interpreting while doing so. It is a dynamic, immediate, developing scenario. Vaishampayana repeats what he has heard, a static, fixed picture, “…reporting Sanjaya’s work of art.” McGrath writes of attending many hours of MB performances in Gujarat villages, continuing the tradition of Sauti. Unfortunately, in West Bengal that has died out over the last three decades.
In the Udyoga Parva it is at Sanjaya’s request that Vyasa appears instantly to sanction his telling Dhritarashtra about the weakness and strength of his army: “It is as if a Muse appeared within Iliad and spoke encouragingly to the poet, urging him to perform.” Vyasa even appears on the battlefield to stop Dhrishtadyumna from killing Sanjaya [“his substitute,” as McGrath writes]. Finally, Sanjaya, along with Drona, Bhishma and Vidura, receives temporary occult sight from Krishna to witness his theophany in the Kuru court. McGrath does not mention that the theophany is repeated in the Gita on the battlefield, which, besides Arjuna, only Sanjaya witnesses. In that respect he is more exceptional than even Vidura who is a Krishna devotee.
Vyasa gifts divine vision to another person, Gandhari, in the Stri Parva. She sees and reports the horrors as Sanjaya did. Both of them are directly inspired; both use the key word, pashya, “See!” On the other hand, Vaishampayana and Sauti recite what they have heard and memorized. Pointing out that it is similar to the distinction between Homer and Hesiod, between aoidos (oral epic composer) and rhapsoidos (performer of that epic), McGrath proceeds to analyse all the speeches of Sanjaya.
Right from his first appearance at the lament of Dhritarashtra in the first book, Sanjaya always begins at the end. Here it is with the death of the Dhartarashtras. The war books begin with Dhritarashtra asking Sanjaya what happened. He reports the death of Bhishma, Drona, Karna, Shalya and Duryodhana, which evokes lamentation and a request for details. Sanjaya’s narration then becomes a retrojection. McGrath calls this the technique of “ring composition,” looping backwards where a new stage in the narrative occurs before advancing further.
Sanjaya is invariably critical of the king’s failure to control his wicked sons, quite like a gadfly, mincing no words in condemning moral weakness. This throws very interesting light on the intimate relationship between the charioteer-bard and his patron. In this he supplements Vidura’s exhortations to Dhritrarashtra. It is to these two that the blind king turns repeatedly for consolation in extremis. Interestingly, where Duryodhana angrily condemns Vidura, he never criticizes Sanjaya — apparently, the suta’s status was inviolable.
Before the war books Sanjaya is only reporting the words of others — performing their roles, as it were. There is no inspiration at this stage. McGrath argues that as Sanjaya is the nearest to Vyasa and as both (and Krishna!) are absent from the Virata Parva, this is solely Vaishampayana’s composition. That presumes that though Vyasa had nothing to do with it, he approved of it as it was recited in his presence in the snake-sacrifice, just as he approved only the Ashvamedha Parva of Jamini while jettisoning the rest of his work, Jaimini Bharata.
As envoy, duta, when Sanjaya urges Yudhishthira to desist from war on moral grounds, Krishna reminds him that he was silent concerning dharma in the dicing hall when the prohibited words were voiced. It is peculiar that in his report to Dhritarashtra Sanjaya does not repeat anything of what Yudhishthira and Krishna said (not even the demand for five villages)! Instead, he assumes the persona of Arjuna (who was silent) to present his own views, haranguing Duryodhana with such passion that finally he himself collapses! He is not merely a herald (he violates that mandate completely here), but very much of a creative poet. It is he who first says that victory is where Krishna is; that he, as if in play, moves the three worlds and has samohayan, confused, the Pandavas (Udyoga, 66). McGrath is, however, incorrect in saying that Sanjaya is the first to be aware of Krishna’s divinity, as Bhishma has already sung of this in the Sabha Parva. Sanjaya celebrates Krishna in a paean in section 67 of the Udyoga Parva in the presence of Vyasa, who might be the primary inspirer of this vision. It is an appropriate prelude to Sanjaya’s recital of the song of Krishna, the Gita which includes the second theophany. McGrath overlooks that Sanjaya is witness to yet another awesome theophany: that of Rudra and Kali before Ashvatthama in the Sauptika Parva. Again, before the killing of Jayadratha, Sanjaya has witnessed the dream-visit of Krishna and Arjuna to Shiva.
There is a strange episode in the Udyoga Parva: Sanjaya — who has not yet been gifted the divya-drishti — reports to Dhritarashtra the private conversation between Krishna and Karna. Is Sanjaya able to do this because of some invisible intervention by Vyasa? If Dhritarashtra now knows the secret of Karna’s birth, why does he not inform his son? Is this episode a later addition?
Thereafter, Sanjaya uses ESP to report what the Pandava camp is discussing and what Duryodhana spoke in private. It seems to be a preparation for the massive effort of the coming war books, with Sanjaya’s presence looming larger and larger. His is an active presence, repeatedly responding to Dhritarashtra’s questions and hectoring him, unlike the mechanical phrase, “Vaishampayana said,” which is the only indication we get of that reciter’s existence.
Sanjaya’s technique in the war books (which might constitute the Jaya) consists of mini-epics (like Abhimanyu’s death) and formulaic passages of description. McGrath admits that it is impossible to identify Sanjaya distinctly from Vyasa here. As Vyasa is composing more than three decades after the war, he would, presumably, be incorporating Sanjaya’s reportage? Then should we assume that when Vyasa speaks as a character within the epic it is his actual words that are being sung by himself, or as he has taught Vaishampayana to recite, or as performed by Sanjaya the witness?
McGrath proposes that these war books represent the heroic age, the Bronze Age world (Treta and Dvapara Yugas?), that ended with the coming of Buddhism and Jainism. In this it is akin to the Iliad. Sanjaya is the “fictional device which…provides substantive form to how a new social system reviewed an idealized past.” But what evidence of this new system is found in MB? McGrath is silent about that.
McGrath points out that the Karna-Arjuna duel is described at much greater length than any other encounter in the war books. This flags Karna’s status in the narrative, and might indicate the existence of a localized mini-epic on him within the MB cycle, both Sanjaya and Karna being of the suta clan. But, then, McGrath needs to explain the non-involvement of Sanjaya with the Virata Parva where Queen Sudeshna, her brother Kichaka and the 99 Upakichakas are all sutas. Are we to propose a band of suta editors interpolating this along the lines of Sukthankar’s proposition of Bhargava Brahmin redactors?
Sanjaya’s speeches convey all the din and confusion of battle, the blood and gore, the blinding dust, and in the final stages, his own engagement and capture. All this is lit up with flashes of astoundingly beautiful natural imagery which, McGrath states, make up at least 60% of the text and take the battle up to a cosmic level. He proposes that the symbol of the river of blood that frequently occurs as a refrain “is a metaphor of the oral tradition, being a theme” beautifying battle and death which is the core truth for Kshatriyas. The fact that the Dhritarashtra-Sanjaya exchanges never give any sense of time passing heightens the immediacy of the experience for us. It is the evocation of heroism, overwhelming grief and horror and pity that keep the epic a living experience even today. The theme of Sanjaya’s Jaya is death, which leads to a dual victory: the Pandavas win the kingdom, but it is Duryodhana who precedes them to heaven.
McGrath makes a fine point: Duryodhana hides within lake Dvaipayana, a name for Vyasa, thus “literally return(ing) to his source” (he is Vyasa’s grandson). There is also a moral issue Sanjaya raises, reporting that Bhima won because of Krishna’s dharmacchalam (fraudulent dharma) clearly, being of Balarama’s opinion here. Just as he never sides with Dhritarashtra, despite being his intimate companion, and always condemns his immoral conduct, similarly his clear vision impartially records the non-dharmic stratagems of the Pandavas. After the war, he is a mahamatra, a chief minister, at Dhritarashtra’s side as before. At the end (Book 15), Narada through his divine sight (which Sanjaya too had once) predicts for him that he will reach heaven. His last speech identifies for the forest ascetics the royal individuals visiting Dhritarashtra, Gandhari and Kunti. Interestingly, of the 12 verses, 8 are devoted to the Pandava women, and are full of images. As in the war books, each is preceded with pashya, “Look!” the typical phraseology of the suta. We are not told of his death. Like Vyasa’s son Shuka, he sets off towards the Himalayas. That is the last we hear of him.
McGrath makes a very interesting point on page 98: at times Sanjaya compares a situation to a painted picture, pate citram. By shifting from the natural world to that of art, Sanjaya performs here, very summarily, the initial act of criticism: describing a work of art. It is significant that the epic ends with the statement (18.5.39), jayo nametihaso, “Jaya, victory, is the name of this history” denoting dharma: moral success that through right action upholds the world. Sanjaya, as poet, invariably upholds what is morally correct, whether it be Duryodhana’s wickedness he criticises or Krishna’s fraudulent dharma. As with Shuka, he is perhaps the only major figure who has no kinship relations besides the name of his father. He has a twinning relationship with Vyasa—omniscient, appearing in the battlefield and leaving at will—and with the blind king. He is the parallel of Sauti who performs the epic for the Naimisha forest sages as he had done for Dhritarashtra. He, not Vyasa, claims McGrath, is the true self, the atma of the MB, manifesting the Kshatriya code of moral conduct.
An engrossing read indeed, highly recommended.