Book Reviews

Innovations in the Oriya Mahabharata

B.N. Patnaik: Introducing Saaralaa Mahaabhaarata, CIIL, Mysore, pp.227, Rs.370/-
B.N. Patnaik: Retelling as Interpretation, Jadavpur University, Kolkata, pp.123, 2013, Rs. 100/-

A.K. Ramanujam’s famous statement about “300 Ramayanas” applies to the Mahabharata (MB) as well. Following the Muslim invasion, in every region in the country both maha-kavyas came to be retold in the local language. In some cases, as in Bengal, the new Muslim ruler patronised their production. Language has remained a barrier in the dissemination of the local variations and innovations introduced into the epic narrative. Thanks to Dr B.N. Patnaik, we can now access the innovations of Orissa’s first poet, Sarala Das (pronounced “Saaralaa”) of the 15th century. Patnaik introduces the signal features of Sarala in five chapters, analysing his characterisation, themes and the turns and twists in the plot. The second book contains proceedings of a colloquium held by the Department of Comparative Literature of Jadavpur University consisting of Patnaik’s overview of Sarala, comments on it by three scholars and his response.

Sarala Das states that he was Vyasa in an earlier birth and the goddess Saaralaa inspired him to tell the MB tale that, anachronistically, the sage Agasti (Agastya) had narrated to Vaivasvat Manu. Sarala asserted that this was the Vishnu Purana, listening to which ensures moksha. This choice of Agastya as the creator of the tale indicates a connection with southern India. Several of Sarala’s tales occur in Telegu and other southern language MBs. A shared tradition appears to have existed running along the eastern coast from Tamil Nadu through Andhra, Orissa and Bengal up to Assam. Sarala claims that he was Nandikeswara, the watchman at Shiva’s residence at Kapilash (in Orissa), cursed by Ganesha to take human birth and celebrate Vishnu. He was Kalidasa earlier, then Mahakali and this was his third birth after which he would return to Kapilash. Aimed at the illiterate Oriya audience, Sarala’s version is devoid of philosophical discourses. His way to salvation is through the grace of Narayana.

Sarala’s narrative is about the play of Krishna, who is behind every signal event beginning from the winning of Draupadi till the death of Duryodhana and beyond that to save Yudhishthir from Gandhari and Bheem from Dhritarashtra. Sarala’s Krishna makes frenzied love to an old attendant of Radha who is wearing her dress. Their son becomes a thief trained by Krishna to dig a tunnel by which he can reach underneath Radha’s bed. He also digs the tunnel for the Pandavas’ escape from the lac house. Sarala’s Krishna is devoid of scruples. Thus, he asks Ghatotkacha to remain behind Arjun’s chariot and when Karna shoots the infallible missile, he merely moves the chariot so that it kills the unarmed Ghatotkacha. This also fulfils Draupadi’s curse on Hidimbika that her son would die an inglorious death. Krishna even holds a donkey’s feet while entering Jarasandha’s fortress so that it does not betray his arrival! Instead of reciting the Gita, Krishna asks Yudhishthira to act when Arjun is unwilling to fight.

Ganga marries Shantanu (whom Sarala turns into a great Shaiva yogi) believing him to be Shiva. Discovering her mistake, she strives to provoke him into insulting her so that she can desert him. Denying him coitus when he is desperate for it on two occasions leads to his ejaculating on a woman’s portrait whence Chitravirya and Vichitravirya are born. Ganga curses him with death at the hands of her new-born son Bhishma. She also curses his two earlier sons to die issueless, whom Shantanu had hidden away with Parashara’s wife Satyavati because Ganga had cut their first son into two! Shantanu crowns Pandu king and vanishes after he abdicates in favour of Dhritarashtra. This is a telling instance of how Vyasa’s classical image of a river goddess drowning her children by a mortal (as Thetis did too in Greek myth) is turned into a horror story by a later poet.

Sarala creates a love-story around Amba and Bhishma who demands that Amba’s father should marry her to him since her elder sisters had married his elder brothers Chitravirya and Vichitravirya. They are all born of Ganga. Then Shantanu tells him of Ganga’s curse that he would be killed by Bhishma’s son. Therefore, he vows not to marry. When Amba’s father leaves her with him, Pareswara (sage Parashara, Satyavati’s husband) suggests he have intercourse with her but control himself so as not to impregnate her. Bhishma refuses. Then drives her away, afraid of her beauty. She drowns herself.

Duryodhan starves to death his maternal grandfather with his sons to take revenge. They had married Gandhari to a tree first, which died as foretold. Thus, Dhritarashtra married to a widow, which humiliated Duryodhan severely. Shakuni survived and made dice from his father’s bones to destroy the Kauravs by provoking the Pandavs excessively. How Shakuni was spared is explained through a unique tale, typically folk in flavour, about Duryodhan’s smile while urinating. This story of Shakuni’s revenge travelled from the south to Orissa and Bengal. Sarala regards Shakuni as more sinned against than sinning, giving him considerable space to voice his remorse while facing Sahadev and places him after death among the stars along with Bhishma, Drona and Shalya.

Sarala’s Hidimbaki considers Draupadi’s polyandry impure and tells her son Ghatotkacha not to bow to her. Thereupon Draupadi curses him with an inglorious death and, in turn, Hidimbaki curses her to lose her sons. Duryodhan is Pannaga (snake) Narayana reborn and anyone to whom he does namaskar will be burnt to ashes. Hence, he does not salute Balarama who, insulted, blesses the Pandavas instead. Balarama is an avatar of Shiva with snake-hoods, and Brahma becomes Subhadra. After Krishna’s death, Arjun fights Jara till a skyey voice tells him that he was Sugriv earlier and Jara was Angad, his son (not Vali’s). Arjun is the Shrivatsa sign on Vishnu’s breast and was also Prahlada and Bharata. How he could simultaneously be Bharata and Sugriva remains a puzzle.

Sarala has Kunti make her sons touch Karna’s feet as their elder. Before the war Yudhishthir pranams him and Karna blesses him with victory. So the Pandavas know all along that Karna is their eldest brother. Kunti condemns Arjun as a sinner for killing his eldest brother. Kunti’s sons are called Pandava having slain the demon Pandavasura, not because they were sons of Pandu. Krishna warns the Kauravs with the story of Babarapuri kingdom whose people destroyed themselves. Patnaik does not perceive Sarala’s use of irony here, because the description of these people tallies with those of Dvaraka, whose end will be similar. When Arjun is unwilling to start the battle, instead of the Gita, Sarala has Yudhishthir beg Duryodhan for just a single village in vain. When one of the Dhartarashtras, Durdasa, goes over to Yudhishthir’s side, the others attack them. Informed of this by Krishna, Arjun finally decides to join the fray. Yudhishthir proposes a duel between the hundred Dhartarashtras and the five Kaunteyas, to avoid slaughter of armies, but Duryodhan refuses.

Sarala creates a horrendous scene in which Duryodhan tries to cross a river of blood by floating on the corpses of Duhshasan, Karna, Drona, Shakuni and his other brothers, each of which sinks under him. Finally, one body ferries him across. He finds that it is that of his son Lakshman. Before the war, Krishna wished to give him part of the kingdom after the war, but Lakshman only prayed for moksha, as his mother Bhanumati had taught him. When Ashvatthama brings Duryodhan the severed heads of the Pandava sons, Duryodhan severely rebukes him for destroying the lineage and dies clutching the heads to his breast. The same scene occurs in the 16th century Bengali MB of Kashiram Das.

The Oriya and the Bengali retellings also have in common the story of the miraculous mango of truth and Draupadi’s confession of her innermost desire. In Kashiram Das her secret desire is for Karna, while in Sarala the secret is that Arjun is her favourite. However, in Surendra Mohanty’s translation of this episode her secret desire is for Karna. In the 14th century Tamil MB by Villi, the fruit is a myrobalan and in the Kannada by Kumara Vyasa (15th century, the same time as Sarala) it is a rose-apple.

It is interesting to see how Sarala localises the epic tale. The mother of Puru is a nameless “Oriaani” (Oriya lady). Arjun meets Shiva at Kapilasa (near Dhenkanal) with Parvati de-lousing his hair! Parvati cooks a variety of Oriya sweets for Shiva. Duryodhan’s wife Bhanumati warns him not to heed Shakuni and as an example narrates an Oriya folk tale about the ghost Babanaa. She urges him to share the kingdom with the Pandavas. Shakuni tells Yudhishthira the folk tale of woodcutters Melaka and Ananta. Yudhishthir marries Suhani, daughter of Hari Sahu, a trader, in village Dharmapur near Jajpur and lives there for 35 years. Arjun defeats Yama and his attendants when they come to take Suhani at the wedding. Hari Sahu is the first to hear the MB from one of its participants, Sahadev. The Pandavas visit Emkambar tirtha (Bhubaneshwar) and Nilachala (Puri) to see the wooden divinity, as also Konark.

Draupadi and Kunti launch into laments and blistering tirades against the Pandavas and Krishna for not killing Duhshasan and Duryodhan, threatening to commit suicide unless they are killed. When Draupadi has dressed her hair with Duhshasan’s blood, she asks Bheem to spend the night with her. Krishna advises him to pray to her humbly, after satisfying her, to spare the Pandavas and Krishna. Draupadi responds that she would spare Yudhishthir alone. Patnaik finds a possible explanation for this in Krishna telling Gandhari that Yudhishthir cannot die because dharma must be preserved. Draupadi is Ketuka, born of Adi Saraswati’s rage, to kill the fifteenth Sudraka Brahma (Duhshasan) and drink his blood. This destructive aspect of hers is worshipped in the Tamil cult of Draupadi as the Veera Shakti. After the war, Sarala invents a very interesting debate between Kunti, Draupadi, Subhadra, Yudhishthir, Bheem and Arjun each claiming to be the agent of the Kaurav destruction. Bheem’s son Belalasena (his grandson Barbareek in the Puranas), whom Krishna beheaded before the war with the boon that his head would witness it, tells them that it was the discus that slew all. Enraged, Bheem slaps the head, which falls lifeless and its life is absorbed by Krishna. Another invincible warrior Krishna beheaded in advance (lest he join Duryodhan) was Jara’s father Kiratasen, ruler of Kishkindha, granting his head the boon to watch the war from atop his chariot Nandighosh. Sarala makes a great event out of the killing of Karna. As Arjuna cuts off his head, another emerges! It is Sahadev who advises how to Karna can be killed.

Sarala has Agastya sanction that Kunti beget sons by gods, so that their inheritance is beyond question. Durvasa neutralises his mantra when Madri invokes Narayana to have a son by him to outdo Kunti’s sons. Sahadev is born when Pandu has coition with Madri and both die from a skyey arrow. At Surya’s behest, Ashvinikumar revives the baby, who is the only true son of Pandu. Hence, after the dice-game, Duhshasan says that while the four other Pandavas would be servants, Sahadev would rule half the kingdom.

Patnaik admits that his retelling of Sarala is not linear. There is a significant amount of repetition because of his decision to arrange his presentation thematically. He notes how all the characters of Sarala carry distinct folk tale features. He analyses Sarala’s style to reveal its typical characteristics as well as the verisimilitude of his persona. He even tries to find justification for some of the peculiar twists in the plot and in the conduct of the characters. He explains at length Sarala’s concept of moksha as stemming from inimical bhakti for Krishna and the concept of dharma. All opponents crave decapitation by his discus because it leads to salvation. Hence Patnaik calls Sarala’s work a “bhakti purana.” We find the same attitude pervading Jaimini’s Ashvamedha Parva, which is absent from the Vaishampayana version that we are familiar with. Sarala’s Krishna informs Jara that he would manifest as a stone image called Nilamadhava, and later as a tree and would be worshipped by Jara. It is from Jara that king Indradyumna gets to know about the deity. Jara carves the triple icons of Jagannatha, Balabhadra and Subhadra from that tree. When Krishna is asked by Vishnu to return, he bemoans the huge family he had created and is anguished at having to leave them. When he returns, Arjun is with him. Vishnu rebukes him and asks that he bring Balarama along, as he was also an avatar, and ignores Arjun.

In Sarala’s version of the gambling match, it is not Karna but Shakuni who urges that Draupadi be stripped. Draupadi’s furious glance sets fire to the Kaurav female apartments. Duryodhan’s wife Bhanumati, her clothes in disarray, rushes and falls at Draupadi’s feet begging protection. At Draupadi’s glare, Duhshasan collapses, Duryodhan and his brothers fall unconscious, Karna, Bhishma, Drona faint. Curiously, Sarala has Yudhishthir see everyone in Swarga—even his Oriya wife Suhani—but leaves out Dhritarashtra.

In a chapter on Sarala’s women, Patnaik reveals the male chauvinism prevalent in Orissa. Drupad exclaims that however great one might be, one becomes a servant to the family one’s daughter marries into. Better, he says, to abandon one’s wife along with the daughter she gives produces. Drupad points out that Uma’s father perished because of her. Vidur begs Krishna to ensure that he is not reborn as a woman. Out of fear of Draupadi, Yudhishthir does namaskar to her brother Dhrishtadyumna, giving rise to a famous Oriya saying “bhaarijaa darare salaaku namaskaara” (namaskaring the brother-in-law out of fear of the wife). Even during Draupadi’s humiliation, when Bheem thunders at Duhshasan, Yudhishthir rebukes him for one could get a hundred such wives but not brothers; for a mere wife brothers must not be killed. Amba, Ambika and Draupadi bewail their birth as women. Draupadi even tells Krishna that if a man is well-dressed and handsome, a woman will make love to him regardless of his being a brother or a son! This sentiment is also voiced by her in Kumara Vyasa’s Kannada retelling in the episode of the magical Nerali (rose-apple) fruit, which is of the same time as Sarala’s. In Sarala, Kunti, Draupadi and Subhadra accompany the Pandavas on their exile. After a couple of months when Krishna visits, they ask him to take the women with him. He takes Kunti and Subhadra but leaves Draupadi with them, as it is so fated. It is not Draupadi’s decision. She is not consulted when Yudhishthir in old age weds Suhani, though he asks his brothers. Sarala does not have Ashvatthama cursed or injured in any way. Although Draupadi had demanded his head from Krishna, he only takes away his weapons. He even has a cordial meeting with the Pandavas and Draupadi on their last journey. Sarala’s spin on the death of Draupadi and her four husbands is very interesting. Yudhishthir tells Bheem that Draupadi falls because she was unscrupulous, wicked, “duraachaari,” left her hair open, was fanatically vengeful and responsible for the destruction of the dynasty.

Patnaik is wrong in wondering at Kunti pressurising Krishna, “an outsider,” that if he did not ensure war she would commit suicide. Kunti was the elder sister of Krishna’s father, thus a close relative. Sarala’s Satyavati is born when her mother has sex with relatives to get a child. Satyavati does not force levirate on her widowed daughters-in-law. Her husband Pareswara (Parashara) commands her to do this. She persuades them by assuring that all sin, if any, would attach to her and not to them. Sarala gives Vichitravirya a third wife, Ambumati, daughter of the shudra king Kesava of Harikeshara, who has Vidur from Vyasa. Seven years after Yudhishthir’s birth, finding him too mild to be a king, Kunti on her own summons the wind god. Seven years after Bheem’s birth, finding him to be wicked and crude (later, Bheem almost hits her for condemning Krishna), again on her own, she summons Indra to beget Arjun. After these experiences, she is emotionally disturbed, humiliated that the nature of woman is to enjoy intense coitus. She bids her sons share Draupadi because she knows the inner nature of the Pandavas.

Gandhari has a violent slanging match in a Shiva temple with Kunti who, thanks to Arjuna, beats her to being the first to offer a hundred golden champaka flowers to the deity. When Gandhari tries to kill Yudhishthir with her flaming gaze, Krishna ensures that it is her last surviving son Durdasa who is consumed, so that not a single one of the enemy family is left alive. This ruthless aspect of Krishna is Sarala’s own vision, departing from Vyasa who had Yuyutsu, the last Dhartarashtra, become regent on the Pandavas’departure.

Sarala’s Bheem is different from Vyasa’s, in whose version he was fanatically devoted to his brothers. In Sarala, after the house-of-lac episode, when the others go on a pilgrimage to Gautama tirtha, Bheem, not liking the hard life, becomes king of Shivapura, while Kunti continues living in a hut! He even threatens to hit his mother when she criticises Krishna. In the Varanavata exile, when crossing a river infested by the demon Jalaprabha, Bhima proposes to offer up any of his brothers or even mother Kunti (to save her hardship!), but refuses to sacrifice himself. It is Kunti who offers him up instead, because she considers him a liability!

Patnaik devotes unnecessary space trying to explain Balarama’s motivations or lack thereof. He has detailed discussions on the characterisation of Dhritarashtra, Duryodhan, Duhshasan, Shantanu, Bhishma and fine insights into Bheem. The problem is that Patnaik occasionally makes cryptic references and one has to hunt for the explanations which turn up much later in a different context, e.g. the Sudraka Brahma story, or never, as with Durvasa cursing Duhshasan. He ought to have included Sarala’s unique creation, the image of Krishna assuming a chimerical form (Nabagunjara) combining nine animals, man and bird, to meet Arjun during his exile. The four legs are of elephant, tiger, horse or deer, and a human hand. The body is of a lion with a bull’s hump, a snake as tail, the neck of a peacock and the head of a rooster. Patnaik also leaves out the story of Krishna testing Karna’s steadfastness regarding his vow by demanding, as a hungry Brahmin, that Karna and his wife cook their son Bishwakasena for feeding him. The son himself begs his father to oblige the guest. Then the Brahmin demands that the head be pounded and cooked too and that the couple eat with him so that he was sure the food was not poisoned. Karna’s wife Suktatamaschala makes him agree and does all that is demanded. As they sit down to eat, he asks them to call to their son to join them. When they do, he comes running. Duryodhana recalls this supreme gift while shedding tears over Karna’s corpse. Krishna calls Karna the greatest of donors. This story was the centre-piece of Kshirodeprasad Bidyabinode’s hit Bengali play, “Nara Narayan” (1926). It does not occur in Kashiram Das, so the playwright possibly found his material in Sarala.

Patnaik provides a substantial bibliography in the light of which some comparison with the old Konkani Bharata would have enriched the study. It is strange that the CIIL has been so callous as not to provide even a list of contents, which is an essential pre-requisite. In that light, looking for an index is perhaps asking for too much. If the chapters had descriptive headings instead of mere numbers, it would help the reader.

The other book contains no information about when this colloquium took place and nothing about the three respondents. Standard diacriticals for transliterating Sanskrit are not used. For a University publication, this is quite unprofessional. The comments by the three scholars are not particularly valuable. Pratap Bandopadhyay has really nothing to say of consequence that is not well-known about the Mahabharata. Vrinda Dalmiya’s response is worth reading. Her discussion of the “impure agency” of Yudhishthira would have benefited considerably from studying the new insights proffered by Alf Hiltebeitel, James Hegarty, Emily Hudson and James Fitzgerald. Her short paragraph on Draupadi is disappointing, as it does not probe the depths of the character as drawn by Sarala vis-à-vis Vyasa. Syed Sayeed critiques Patnaik’s “simplistic” view of Sarala as a puranic reteller, while admitting his unfamiliarity with Sarala and other versions of the epic. These responses neither reveal a thorough grounding in the Mahabharata, nor familiarity with the variations in regional language retellings. They do not even discuss Sarala’s innovations and his variations on Vyasa’s plot and characters in any depth. Mostly, they are re-workings of second-hand opinions drawn from what others have written about the epic.


More by :  Dr. Pradip Bhattacharya

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