Book Reviews

Mahabharata Traditions & Variations

Text and Variations of the Mahabharata: Contextual, Regional and Performative Traditions, Samikshika Series No. 2, (ed.) K.K. Chakravarty, National Mission for Manuscripts, IGNCA & Munshiram Manoharlal, New Delhi, 335 pages, Rs.500 hardbound.

Reflections and Variations on the Mahabharata, (ed.) T.R.S.Sharma, Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi, 389 pages, Rs. 150, paperback

Two books containing essays on various aspects and variations of the Mahabharata text have been published in 2009. The first, edited by Dr. K.K. Chakravarty, Member-Secretary of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts, contains an introduction by him and twenty articles divided into four sections (textual complex, regional traditions, performance and purushartha). These were presented in a seminar in February 2007 as part of the fourth anniversary celebrations of the National Manuscript Mission. The second volume is a collection of 23 essays with an excellent introduction by the Dr. TRS Sharma of which eight were presented in an international Mahabharata seminar in March 2004 as part of the Sahitya Akademi’s Golden Jubilee celebrations. The first six essays of this book are reproduced from The Mahabharata Revisited edited by Professor R.N. Dandekar, being proceedings of a 1997 seminar. The rest are newly commissioned papers that fall into two broad sections: those that deal with various facets of the epic and those dealing with its regional variations.

What catches the eye at the outset is the striking cover designs of both books. The cover of the first book is the pediment from the National Museum of Phnom Penh portraying Bhima leaping into the air to strike Duryodhana as the other Pandavas watch and Krishna tries to hold back a furious plough-wielding Balarama. The back cover is a miniature from the Kashmiri school depicting Arjuna piercing the earth to provide water for Bhishma lying on the bed of arrows, as Krishna, in his cosmic form, watches. The cover of the second book portrays the Navagunjara, a composite figure comprising parts of nine animals that Krishna assumes before Arjuna as visualised by Sarala Dasa in his Oriya Mahabharata. For the Mahabharata-enthusiast eager to know the variations that exist in the vernacular, oral and tribal versions both books hold great appeal as they provide glimpses of such variations within India and without.

In the first book the articles by Lokesh Chandra, Manjushree Gupta, Anita Khanna, Vijaya Ramaswamy, A.Purushothaman and A.Harindranath, Shail Mayaram and Satya Chaitanya describe the traditions extant in Indonesia, Japan and other Asian countries and in Malayali, Tamil, Mewati and Bheel. Though these articles are well-written they are restricted in their coverage, limiting the discussion to only a few variant episodes. Thus, Ramaswamy deals only with the imaging of women in Tamil traditions with specific reference to the legend of Alli, a non-Vyasan character. The striking similarity between Alli and Chitrangada of the mainstream epic inspires one to conclude that this local tradition must have travelled northwards against the flow to provide a model for the Manipura princess. Read with Rabindranath Tagore’s dance-drama, Chitrangada, this conclusion is further strengthened. Chitrangada is warlike and is raised as a son as is the princess of Manilura, a Pandyan domain (changed to Manipura in the Ashvamedhaparva). Arjuna meets Chitrangada/Alli as a wandering ascetic. Because of this relationship we find the Pandyan king fighting in the Pandava army. Alli probably inspired the character of Pramila in Jaimini’s Ashvamedhaparva, who ruled her amazon kingdom and, after a battle, married Arjuna. It is a delightful study dealing with only one departure from Vyasa.

Similarly, another significant article on continuities/discontinuities in a folk oral tradition, is Shail Mayaram’s on the Mewati Pandun Ka Kara, a folk epic of the war-like Meo Muslims which has both a Muslim and a shakta frame and establishes how the oral epic rethinks the classical epic. In this non-Sanskrit Mahabharata variation, Gorakhnath plays a significant role and Draupadi is worshipped as a goddess. No other variations are mentioned. In a remarkable essay on the endlessly fascinating Bheel Bharath, Satya Chaitanya focuses on attitude towards sexuality in general and female sexuality in particular. He shows how all the female characters play a dominant role and are comfortable with their environment, unlike the Vyasan characters. He describes some non-Mahabharata episodes, not all (that is done by C.N.Ramachandran in the Sahitya Akademi book) bringing out the proactive characteristics of Ganga, Indrani, Radha, Kunti, Draupadi (especially in the Draupadi-Vasuki episode), Uttara, Subhadra and two non-Mahabharata characters, Hirapath and Jala-jogini. This article is the most satisfying. Purushottaman and Harindranath deal very competently with Nilalkuttu and some other Mahabharata-related episodes which do not appear in the mainstream Mahabharata in the oral, ritual, theatrical and performance traditions of Kerala. The authors make an interesting observation that the female roles– Kantakari, Kuncu Tevi, Karna’s wife, Pumala, Nagakanni and Kuratti– are very dominant. But again we get only a partial glimpse of the departures in the Malayali traditions. A translation of the song quoted would have raised the interest level of this highly informative essay. Lokesh Chandra’s article only provides information about the Mahabharata in the art and literature of Kampuchea, Japan, China, Mongolia, Thailand and Indonesia. Manjushree Gupta’s excellent paper discusses the historical ambience that spawned the Indonesian Mahabharata. In great detail she brings out the differences and lists the salient features of the Indonesian version. Anita Khanna similarly focuses on how the epic arrived in Japan via China through Buddhist literature. The accepted stories were highly stylised and “Japanized”. The article, however, does not even mention the Japanese translation of the first seven parvans completed recently. Khanna states that Bhima killed Bakasura to “save the daughter of a Brahmin who was to be sacrificed” though the Mahabharata does not say so. Further, it is difficult to identify the Hagoromo story with the stories of Shakuntala and Urvashi.  

The second book contains thirteen articles dealing with vernacular, tribal and oral traditions. The most enlightening essay, which must be read with Satya Chaitanya’s, is by C.N.Ramachandran on the Bheel Bharata and two oral versions, the Janapada Bharathaa Kathegalu and the 36000-line Janapada Mahabharatha, current among the tribals of North Karnataka and the agricultural communities of South Karnataka respectively. He lists, chapter-wise, all the variations systematically, making passing references to the Gond Ramayana, Jaina traditions, Turanga Bharata, Junjappa, etc. Krishnamurthy Hanur writes about the most popular version in Kannada, Kumaravyasa’s Bharatha Kathamanjari, in fair detail, narrating many departures contained therein. Interestingly, the village folk in most of Karnataka are particularly fond of the Virataparva and believe that reading it would bring rain. Sarala Dasa’s Mahabharata in Oriya, writes G.K.Das, follows the core story but amalgamates various elements of indigenous cultures, popular myths, legends and folklore. Das calls Sarala Dasa’s composition a “super-myth” and goes on to discuss two original myths Sarala created, both departures from Vyasa: the Navagunjara and the true mango. Only two instances of myth-making from a “super-myth” hardly satisfy our Mahabharata-enthusiast. Das could have discussed briefly some of the other myths, e.g. Yudhishthira’s abduction by the demon Hiranyakavacha, Bhima-Hanumana, Jara-Angada and Krishna, Kiratasena, the tirtha stories and the Sarala Ramakatha. Prafulla Kumar Mohanty also deals with Sarala Dasa attempting to establish that the epic should be read as document of political structuring leading to the establishment of federal polity masterminded by Krishna, with Shakuni, the revenge hero, as his intellectual, political and strategic counterpoint. Rocky V. Miranda traces the history of the Konkani Bharata, underlining the influence of Christianity and brings out about a dozen significant differences from Vyasa like Yama magically shape-shifting the Pandavas, the Bhima-Padmavati affair, Drona’s death, the Arjuna-Hanumana episode, Krishna’s machinations in getting Abhimanyu and Babhruvahana (who is Bhima’s son here!) killed, etc. One wishes he had listed some more variations. It is not understood why he strains to find the meaning of the word ‘daru’. It just means ‘wood’, neither alcohol nor gunpowder. Paula Richman discusses how the concept of “alterity” operated strictly in epic society rejecting the Hidimba-Bhima or Surpanakha-Rama (Rakshasi-human) marriage and how it was diluted in two South Indian vernacular retellings (Bhyrappa’s Kannada novel Parva and Kumudini’s Tamil short story), greatly reducing the chasm between the Rakshasas and the humans. 

From these discussions it becomes quite clear how the vernacular, folk and oral versions get influenced by local socio-religious, anthropological and economic customs and myths. All the vernacular Mahabharatas discussed depict the female protagonists as independent, dominant and empowered. The so-called anti-heroes and comparatively minor characters of the epic become heroes in these versions. Also, social relationships which are considered taboo in epic society become very acceptable. The characteristics of the motifs change. The snake motif, which plays such an important role in the epic, also plays a major role in the vernaculars with curious variations: Arjuna defeats Vasuki in the Mewati version while in the Bheel Bharata, he is miserably overpowered by Vasuki.

Besides these six, there are seven essays analysing critically trends in modern Indian literature which try to step out of the classical mould, re-interpreting characters and re-inventing incidents, often utilising the “silences” of the epic to look at it from the modern viewpoint. Alok Bhalla looks at Dharamvir Bharati’s Andha Yug (Hindi), and Harishchandra Thorat at the textual strategies of the Marathi novel (but Sutaputta Lomaharshana is not the narrator of the epic; it is Ugrashravas, son of Lomaharshana). Amiya Dev examines Buddhadeva Bose’s interpretation of some of the incidents in Bengali. However, he is wrong in stating that there are no translations of Bose’s verse plays. Writers Workshop published Krishna Kanti De’s translations in 1992. Malini Goswami shows how Draupadi has been portrayed in modern Assamese literature; P.P.Ravindran discusses three Malayali novels; Sreedevi K. Nair narrates how the Kalyana Saugandhikam episode has been recycled and retold by three different Malayali authors; and Vrinda Nabar discusses the epic’s relevance from the point of view of contemporary writers like Shashi Tharoor (The Great Indian Novel– English), Mahashweta Devi (Draupadi–Bengali) and actor-director Shaoli Mitra (Bengali).

Of the other articles in the first volume, two by Pradip Bhattacharya, who also chaired the session on visual media and the epic, are arresting. In one he strikes at the very root of the most talked-about episode of the epic: the attempted disrobing of Draupadi, establishing that it is an interpolation. Why Mehendale in his essay refers to the “upper” and “lower” garment of ekambara/ekavastra Draupadi is not understood. Why should vasana be understood as upper garment when she is wearing only one garment? In another remarkable essay on the Mahabharata on TV and cinema, Bhattacharya discusses in depth B.R.Chopra’s notable television production bringing out the salient features of Rahi Masoom Reza’s sensitive and ingeniously conceived script, underlining the departures, omissions and inventions and quoting copiously from literature to bolster his discussion. He lambasts Peter Brook’s shallow and insensitive handling of the epic and its glowing review by John D. Smith. In passing he refers to Shaoli Mitra’s exceptional stage productions in Bengali, Nathavati Anathavat and Katha Amrita Saman that deserve more space along with Teejan Bai’s Pandavani even though the essay is on the Mahabharata on screen. M.A. Mehendale describes the technique adopted in collating the Critical Edition of the Mahabharata, the degree of its success and its limitations with expected competence. V.K. Bhatt’s Hindi article finds the CE inadequate and suggests measures to compile a CE taking into consideration all oral and folk traditions, referring to K.K.Shastri’s salutary work and the work done by the National Mission for Manuscripts. Saroja Bhate offers a glimpse into the vast literature on the Mahabharata by scholars outside the Indian sub-continent, including e-studies being undertaken in Japan and England. P.Ramanujan discusses in great detail the use of computer technology for preparing a concordance of texts on the epic using the comprehensive Manuscript Processing software, Pandu-lipi Samsodhaka, developed by C-DAC. Leela Omcherry attempts to bring together the ideals in music set up by Vyasa describing the qualification, duties and role of the teacher, the student, the artist/performer, the audience and the critic. Hanne M De Bruin writes on the background and interpretation of Mahabharata characters in contemporary Kataikuttu performances of South India with specific reference to one of the most popular plays, Karna Moksham and the concept of possession ingrained in it. K.G.Paulose writes on the Mahabharata as represented in Kerala’s Kuttiyattam, the only living specimen of ancient Sanskrit theatre, declared by UNESCO as the intangible heritage of humanity, which prefers enactment of Bhasa’s Mahabharata-based plays where Vyasa’s anti-heroes are portrayed as heroes. The four didactic essays on Purushartha by D.Prahladachar (all four), Satkari Mukhopadhyaya (dharma), Nrisinha Prasad Bhaduri (artha) and Shalini Shah (kama) are erudite. The essay on artha by Bhaduri is truly engrossing, establishing the upanishadic roots and comparing the Mahabharatan concept with Kautilya’s Arthashastra. English translations of the shlokas quoted would have been profitable. Such comprehensiveness is missing in Shah’s study on kama which is mis-named as it deals principally with female sexuality in the epic. Kama is a very wide concept and cannot be limited only to female sexuality. The essential contradiction in the epic that though kama is lionised on a didactic level, yet in fact the unbridled lust of the protagonists rules the course of events, is completely missing from the study. Prahladachar limits his analysis to the Shantiparva episode where the Pandavas and Vidura discuss the Purusharthas ignoring the Vanaparva where Bhima excellently summarises the need for coordination in the pursuit of the Purusharthas, Drona’s statement in Dronaparva, Bhishma’s most effective instructions, the Tuladhara episode, etc. Mukhopadhyaya points out that dharma has been upheld as the principal purushartha– others will follow if dharma is practised. The essay is in Sanskrit. An English translation would have spared most readers a sense of deprivation.

The first six articles of the Sahitya Akademi book by R.N.Dandekar, G.C.Pande, K.Kunjunni Raja, J.L.Mehta, Mukund Lath and S.G.Kantawala are reprints of unquestioned excellence. They delve into the nature of the text consisting of legendary and didactic material; how its encyclopaedic character grew over the centuries reflecting socio-political changes and registering such transition in every field of life; value-based concepts like anrshamsya (not to be confused with ahimsa) and pratismriti, ethics; the complimentary and contradictory elements contained in the text; the basic orality and the consequent flexibility of the text. So much diversity, at such length, yet a bonding unity holding the entire epic together! There are controversies: do all the rasas merge into the Shanta rasa leading to moksha? Is it history or merely a poem?

The seventh essay by Arjun Mahey, while posting a spirited defence of the CE, states perceptively that in the final analysis it is just one more version of the epic and a precursor of many more future ones. Venkoba Rao’s highly pedantic and jargon-filled paper argues that Yudhishthira and Arjuna failed to learn the epistomic import of the lessons imparted by Bhishma and Krishna due to the characteristic of double bind– a structural inadequacy and a textual irony of the text. Ashok Chausalkar explains the pre-Kautilyan concept of apaddharma, amoral politics, as explained by Bhishma with stories. Janaki Sreedharan chooses Draupadi and Amba, two revenge characters from the epic, who represent feminine autonomy in a masculine framework, describes their plight in a male-dominated society and the difference in the nature of revenge they perpetrate.

Both books are well-conceived and impressive with a star-studded panel of writers. The reproductions of Indonesian murals and paintings with two of the articles have enriched the essays. But why did the Sahitya Akademi reprint six articles from an earlier conference? The reason proffered by the editor that “Since the latter collection (The Mahabharata Revisited) is out of print, it was felt that some of the essays…deserve to be better known” is not reasonable. The earlier book could have been reprinted instead. It gives an impression that the Akademi is suffering from intellectual inadequacy. The volumes would have been richer if Razmnama, the Persian translation of the Mahabharata, and other Mahabharata-based works in Persian and Arabic were discussed. The Jaiminiya Ashvamedhaparva is not only a variant but a work that has left its indelible mark on the vernacular versions of almost all the regions of the country, especially the eastern and southern. An essay on this would have been a welcome addition. The Jaina Mahabharata, with its extraordinary departures, deserves a place too. The editing and proofing of the National Mission for Manuscripts’ handsome volume are surprisingly poor. The Sahitya Akademi seminar was held in March 2004 and the National Manuscript Mission seminar in February 2007. Should it take so long to publish the proceedings? 

Shekhar Kumar Sen retired as Major General & Additional Director General of the Army Postal Service and was awarded the VSM. He served as Senior Deputy Director in the L.B.S. National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie. He has translated into English for the first time the Jaiminiya Ashvamedhaparva.


More by :  Maj. Gen. Shekhar Sen

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