Indian Epic Narrative: Alive and Vibrant

The Epic Age in India came later than the times of the Vedas and Upanishads. However, if we speak of a Vedic culture today, and if our Acharyas raised the flag of Vedanta by their intuitive scholarship of the Upanishads, it was all due to the epics - the Ramayana and the Mahabharata that gave a focal point for the nation. India's Sanatana Dharma was brought to the poorest and most illiterate worker and peasant through living images like Rama, Bharata, Sita, Krishna, Bhima, Ekalavya, Guha, Sabari, Draupadi. What is even more interesting is that these two epics have been the cause of much of the literature in India down the centuries. They provide not only the storylines but also phrases and symbols in Indian literature. And for life too. Which politician can avoid referring to Sakuni and Karna and the Padmavyuha sometime or other in his election rallies?

At this moment, standing in this sacred grove, I pay my homage to the great men who have made possible the mighty efflorescence of modern Indian literature by guarding the epics written in earlier times. I meditate upon that hero as a publisher, Pratap Chandra Rai who published Kishori Mohan Ganguly's English translation of the Mahabharata in eleven volumes more than a hundred years ago. Just when the last volume was to be made ready, Pratap Chandra fell seriously ill. He told his wife, Sundari Bala:

"The book must be finished. Don't spend money on my funeral rites if it is needed for printing. Live as simply as you can so as to save money for the Mahabharata.

Sundari Bala Rai faithfully completed the task and a year later the eighteen Parvas of the epic were available for the world of scholars abroad. Patience, perseverance, idealism, hard work, selflessness and sheer love for the Motherland had made this achievement possible. Such is the inspiration of the epic narrative in India, for it is never a mere story told to pass time or instill a moral. Our epic narratives, ancient and modern, are truly itihasas, the cultural history of our great nation. The Mahabharata, especially, has continued to reinterpret our history and culture for us by inspiring writers down the centuries. The reason is not far to seek. As Sri Aurobindo says:

"The Mahabharata is the creation and expression not of a single individual mind, but of the mind of a nation; it is the poem of itself written by a whole people. It would be vain to apply to it the canons of a poetical art applicable to an epic poem with a smaller and more restricted purpose, but still a great and quite conscious art has been expended both on its detail and its total structure. The whole poem has been built like a vast national temple unrolling slowly its immense and complex idea from chamber to chamber, crowded with significant groups and sculptures and inscriptions, the grouped figures carved in divine or semi-divine proportions, a humanity aggrandized and half uplifted to super-humanity and yet always true to the human motive and idea and feeling, the strain of the real constantly raised by the tones of the ideal, the life of this world amply portrayed but subjected to the conscious influence and presence of the powers of the worlds behind it, and the whole unified by the long embodied procession of a consistent idea worked out in the wide steps of the poetic story."

As for the Ramayana, it is quite obvious that we owe the glory and good of our civilization to the ideals that the epic brought to our constant attention. Sri Aurobindo's English glows with sweetness and pride and gratitude as he writes about the epic:

"The work of Valmiki has been an agent of almost incalculable power in the molding of the cultural mind of India: it has presented to it to be loved and imitated in figures like Rama and Sita, made so divinely and with such a revelation of reality as to become objects of enduring cult and worship, or like Hanuman, Lakshmana, Bharata the living human image of its ethical ideals; it has fashioned much of what is best and sweetest in the national character, and it has evoked and fixed in it those finer and exquisite yet firm soul tones and that more delicate humanity of temperament which are a more valuable thing than the formal outsides of virtue and conduct."

The attempt to move towards a national culture without giving up regional variations reached a certain concretization about a thousand years ago. All over India attempts were made to render these great epics into local languages. By drawing closer to the Sanskrit originals for the purpose of translation or transcreation, the Ramayana and Mahabharata poets enriched the regional languages with sublime tones. It is true the Tamil language was already very rich in its vocabulary and usage. But Kamban's version of the Ramayana was to open the casements of a window to look out into other, gracious and undulating epic worlds in a very big way. This has been true of all the other poets of his kind too: Krittivasa of Bengal retelling Rama's tale, Kumara Vyasa of Karnataka inditing Gadugina Bharata, Sarala Dasa of Orissa transforming the Mahabharata tale to make it quite contemporaneous for his times.

This is how we have been blessed with several great narratives based on Vyasa and Valmiki. Even if we watch only the land south of the Vindhyas, there is God's plenty in epics. Marathi is proud of its Sisupala Vadh of Bhaskarabhatta Borikar and Murti Prakasa of Keshavraj Suri. Telugu literature opens in the 11th century with Nannayya's translation of the Mahabharata. He could do only the Adi and Sabha Parvas, though. Tikkanna and Yerrapragada came later and completed the work. As for the Ramayana, there are nearly two hundred and fifty versions starting with Gona Budha Reddy's Ranganatha Ramayana. The transcreation of the epic by the poetess Molla (16th century) is justly famous. She was the daughter of a potter of Gopavaram, a village near Nellore. Hearsay tradition has made her a ladylove of Krishnadeva Raya, the Emperor of Vijayanagar. That was a golden spot in medieval literature when some of the finest works in Telugu were composed. It is not surprising a village lass received the glow and with some help from an established writer of the day like the Emperor, blossomed forth as an epic writer. Navneeta Dev Sen admires Molla very much.

It is an unfortunate fact of our societal politics that women do not get their voice heard easily. Molla was doubly tainted, being a Sudra, says Dr. Navneeta:

"Although Molla is very popular today, she was silenced in her time, her Ramayana barred from the King's court. The potter's daughter, turned classical poet, was rejected because of her caste and gender. Literary excellence was not enough to win recognition in the court."

However, caste and gender have never been too oppressive for people who joined the stream of Bhakti Movement. Among the Alwars of Tamil Nadu (3 A.D. to 9 A.D.) we have a Harijan, and Andal is a woman. Indeed, the prime Alwar is Satakopa; and Nammalwar who was by birth a Vellala, is now hailed as the Prapanna Jana Goodastha (First among the aspirant community). The hymns of the Alwars used plentiful matter from the twin epics. In particular, the incarnations of Vamana, Narasimha, Rama and Krishna became important subjects. This created a desire for fuller accounts of the incarnations; so regional poets began to turn the twin epics and the Bhagavata Purana into kavyas.

There was now a new infusion of strength for the local languages with an increased vocabulary and a new, democratic approach to usage. All the Indian poets who came after Valmiki and Vyasa wrote epics based on the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, but each epic was different in cast and choice of incidents. The individual talent was at work even as it drank deep in the springs of tradition. Consider Ezhuthachchan himself, Ezhuthachchan whose prolificacy is remarkable. He wrote an Adhyatma Ramayanam and a Mahabharatam. Also other narratives on legends drawn from the latter. He has endured so well. Last time I was in Tirur for a couple of days, I spent some unforgettable, sublime time in the mornings from eight to nine, when someone sat on the stage near a lighted lamp and read from Ezhuthchchan's works. The musical rhythms seem to percolate into the inmost depths of my being. I was simply self-lost, in the vast of God-consciousness, my diary tells me on 1st and 2nd January, 1997. Though I do not know Malayalam, I did not feel an alien. For, the power of Ezhuththachchan's writing creates a divine ambience that has a way of leaping across the hurdles of time and translation. Here is Prof. Ayyappa Paniker rendering Ezhuthachchan's Krishna in Karnaparva into faultless English:

"The colourful peacock feathers fixed in a row
And brought together and tied up on the top
With the heavy tresses so like dark clouds
In the diadem with its glitter and glow
The tiny particles of dust on them
The tilak too moist with sweat
The beauty of the brows that keep moving
To create, protect and destroy the world
The eyes that reflect the changing sentiments
With pity and compassion for the lowly
Anger towards the cruel and the wily,
Love for the lovely, wonder at the squabble
Garlands, swaying on the breast,
Made of tulsi, and lotus and tender leaves
Strings of rubies and kausthubha jewel
Around the neck, the whip in hand
The breast smeared with kumkum
The bright yellow clothes, the anklets
The twin lotus feet, as in my heart
So I clearly saw in the chariot to my joy."

The Bhakti Movement in Tamil Nadu thus spread down the centuries all over India and the devotional hymnology of the Alwars now flowed on as devotional epic structures. These kavyas that rose between the 15th and 19th centuries are yet to be studied in depth by academics; but the works have remained very much in popular attention thanks to Kathakalakshepams that have been the educating agents for Indians till the dawn of the twentieth century.

Macaulay's Minute had begun its miching mallecho in the 19th century, and the Indian succumbed to the temptation of English education. The epics and Puranas were marginalized, and the tradition that they represented was set aside. Speaking of those decades in the 19th century, Sri Aurobindo writes that the British policy, English education and Western civilization created a bourgeois class in India that alienated it from the aristocratic spirit of ancient India:

"The very best in thought, the very best in action, the very best in character, the very best in literature and art, the very best in religion and all the world well lost if only this very best might be attained, such was the spirit of ancient India He (the Indian) saw Harischandra give up all that life held precious and dear rather than that his lips should utter a lie or his plighted word be broken. He saw Prahlada buried under mountains, whelmed in the seas, tortured by the poison of a thousand venomous serpents, yet calmly true to his faith. He saw Buddha give up his royal state, wealth, luxury, wife, child and parents so that mankind might be saved. He saw Shivi hew the flesh from his own limbs to save one small dove from the pursuing falcon, Karna tear his own body with a smile for the joy of making a gift, Duryodhan refuse to yield one inch of earth without noble resistance and warlike struggle. He saw Sita face exile, hardship, privation and danger in the eagerness of wifely love and duty, Savitri rescue by her devotion her husband back from the visible grip of death. These were the classical Indian types."

The Anglicized Indian rejected India's myths and legends as 'puerile puranic stuff', repeated like a parrot the questionable wisdom of Indologists from abroad and felt increasingly comfortable with his servile service under foreign rulers. It was not even as if there was any external compulsion. We went after foreign gods on our own initiative. The Mahabharata and Ramayana were forgotten and replaced by Smiles' Self Help. Sri Aurobindo caustically refers to this Oblomovian situation at the dawn of the twentieth century as a superb victory of the British:

"British Rule, Britain's civilizing mission in India has been the record success in history in the hypnosis of a nation. It persuaded us to live in a death of the will and its activities, taking a series of hallucinations for real things and creating in ourselves the condition of morbid weakness the hypnotist desired. Until the Master of a mightier hypnosis laid His finger on India's eyes and cried, "Awake". Then only was the spell broken, the slumbering mind realized itself and the dead soul lived again."

While Swami Vivekananda illumed India's spaces with the message of Sri Ramakrishna, Indians became aware of their great past with a thrill. So we are not just a nation of snake charmers and rope-walkers, are we? Indians who had received English education now went back to their traditional literature with lightning speed. A renaissance was abroad. Having received the best the English education had to offer, they used this education to retrieve their racial past in many realms: art, architecture, painting, literature. The long narrative, the epic cast, returned to its favored place. All languages of India have produced thought-provoking, emotionally charged, brilliant epics and epyllions in the twentieth century. The long poem is not dead. The epic narrative has taken its position in novel form too. There is God's Plenty here, poetry that is alive and that is vibrant.

To choose from this rich spread is not possible because of the language-barrier. But even if one does not know the language, one remains aware of some names that have reminded us of our great heritage. Unlike earlier re-tellings, the twentieth century poet had received a healthy glow from his knowledge of English literature, so we have telling re-interpretations of familiar themes. There is Hindi, for instance. For renascent Hindi literature, Maithili Sharan Gupta led the victory march with his Bharata Bharati (1912). The Bande Mataram Movement had just then created an all-India interest in India's traditional lore, and Maithili Sharan Gupta's epic narratives were received with joy and gratitude. Valmiki and Vyasa inspired him to write long poems like Jayadratha Vadha (1910), Panchavati (1925) and Saketa (1931).

Another great Hindi epic poet of these times was Jai Shankar Prasad. If Maithili Sharan Gupta reinterpreted ancient legends in the light of patriotic pride sweeping the land, Jai Shankar Prasad boldly indited a symbolic epic on the evolutionary struggle of man by going to times earlier than the epics. His epic, Kamayani (1936). has personalities like Manu, Ida and Shraddha who are found in the Vedas. The Great Deluge described in the poem has its origin in Satapatha Brahmana. Explaining his symbolic presentation of Vedic characters, the poet said:

"Ida was the sister of the gods, giving consciousness to entire mankind. For this reason there is an Ida Karma in the Yagnas. This erudition of Ida created a rift between Shraddha and Manu. Then with the progressive intelligence searching for unbridled pleasures, the impasse was inevitable. This story is so very ancient that metaphor has wonderfully mingled with history. Therefore, Manu, Shraddha and Ida while maintaining their historical importance may also express the symbolic import. Manu represents the mind with its faculties of the head and heart and these are again symbolized as Faith (Shraddha) and Intelligence (Ida) respectively. On this data is based the story of Kamayani."

A testament of Faith that definitely wins in the end, Kamayani has passages that defy the problems of a translator and allow its power of poetic expression to seep through. Manu the forerunner of mankind has given earthlings all they need and yet what has been the result?. Prasad leaps to the age of technology when the dissatisfied people retort:

"Instead of working for welfare
You have so wantonly taught us
Selfishness and greed of hoarding,
Bringing in natural catastrophes.
We all became so sentimental,
By the comforts we obtained;
By suffering unnatural sorrow
We all became so miserable!
Your machines deprived us all
Of natural strength and vigor.
By exploiting our life to the full,
You made it weak and worthless."

This passage signifies the twentieth century approach to the epics of a bygone age. The myths and legends are still relevant for they can be brought to a contemporaneous idiom and used to interpret the problems faced by the modern man. But why epics? Why long poems? This is because a poet needs plentiful elbow-space to state his problem and suggest some ways to solve the problem which imprisons man today in several ways. Only a sumptuous narrative can project all our yesterdays to tell us where we are today; and then proceed to limn all our tomorrows. Though it is often said that we have moved to an age of lyricism and in fact are in an age of limericks, haikus, tankas and limericks, it is a publishing illusion. In case a person wants to make a vital statement and is not able to do it in a long poem, he looks around for writing an epic novel. The vast, high and pressurizing waves of epic narration still rule our literary consciousness.

Zeroing in on a manageable area, we find that the four languages of South India (generally considered to be of predominantly Dravidian origin) have produced a very high volume of published epic poetry, or epyllions (khanda kavyas) which again hark back to our traditional lore. We might begin with the southernmost area of South India, this land of Kerala. Twentieth century Malayalam literature is the proud possessor of the 'Kavitrayam'. Kumaran Asan, Vallathol Narayana Menon and Ulloor Parameswara Iyer reveled in the longish narrative and drew plentifully from our traditional Vedic and Sramanic streams. I was myself brought to these great poets by my father, K. R. Srinivasa Iyengar, a great lover of epic poetry and sustained narrative during the centenaries of Asan and Ulloor. Though I have read the three great poets only in English translations, I have felt very close to them because the story content is familiar. Then the rest comes through.

The reason that made twentieth century writers take up themes from India's great epics was not simply a resurgent interest in India's priceless heritage. There was another reason too when the new poet wanted to make a statement to his twentieth century audience. Sri Aurobindo in his unfinished play, The Maid in the Mill writes:

"the plot known,
It (the mind) is at leisure and may cull in running
Those delicate, scarcely heeded strokes, which lost
Perfection's disappointed. There art comes in
To justify genius. Being old besides
The subject occupies creative Labour
To make old new. The other's but invention,
A frail thing, though a gracious. He's creator
Who greatly handles great material "

"He's creator / Who greatly handles great material." India's classical myths and legends provided great material. Sita is one such great material. We have such a great creator in Kumaran Asan who wrote Chintavishtayaya Sita in 1919. In Chintavishtayaya Sita the critic is abroad, though without wounding the thrust of Valmiki's portrayal of Rama as an image of Dharma. According to Sukumar Azhicode:

"She was betrayed by her own husband, the illustrious Rama of divine antecedents, who coolly threw her to the wolves at a time when he should have firmly stood by her. If Ravana surrendered himself to the temptation of feminine charms, Rama yielded to the stronger allurement of royal power, which is worse is everybody's guess. Even the bonafides of Rama's celebrated loyalty to the dictates of statecraft are questioned here vehemently. The gentle, mournful, soft-spoken Sita of our schooldays dreams vanishes, and in her place appears a critical, sharp-tongued, passionate woman speaking out for the legitimate rights of the women of all times."

One never tires of reading the soliloquy of Kumaran Asan's Sita which is full of sorrow and the glow of the Eternal Feminine. How is it that Sita does not sound shrill as the Harpies? Asan himself gives a hint regarding the emergence of this mature thinker who rises from the fires of innocence and passion:

Come, my daughter, to my
Hermitage close at hand. Come lean on me:
Now to your new home!  It warmed me to hear
The ascetic, my father's friend, speaking
From a full and blameless heart.
With loving kindness, he
Laid bare the hollow nature of earthly
Life insubstantial bubble of the mind
Of man and discovered the end of all
Endeavor: deathless peace.
This calm retreat of saints
Was to me like a cool lake to one who
Flees from immense forests roaring in flames
Or the welcome shore to one lashed by the wild
Wave of a raging sea.
Saintly women! The glow
Of whose faces is not diminished by
Thoughts of prickling envy, forever burn
Bright as the quenchless lights of the tranquil
Homes of these anchorites!
My thoughts are carried back
To the selfsame love you so tenderly
Bore in your hearts for all creation,
Tree or bird or beast, the same affection you
Had for men and gods alike.

The conclusion is so natural, not quite unexpected but has a terrible beauty about it all the same. After the entire narrative based in the sylvan surroundings of Valmiki?s hermitage where Sita had sat in reverie comes to a conclusion, we enter the Court of Ayodhya for those few, last lines:

Her comely head bent and eyes fastened on
The feet of the Sage conducting his precious
Charge to her husband's court, Sita followed
Him where the great nobles waited upon
The king. She spoke no word. She gave one look
At her husband's anguished face. A glance
At the assembled court. The next moment ment
She had released herself and stepped across
The great divide.

Whereas in the Uttara Kanda we have a long description of Vasundhara coming in a throne from the depths of earth, Asan gets to the core of the idea, and this is how myths are transformed to gain entry into contemporary hearts. Chintavishtayaya Sita was a great favorite of my father, Prof. K.R. Srinivasa Iyengar. He knew no Malayalam, but he enjoyed reading Bhaskaran's translation, and the poem inspired him to insert an extended, powerful soliloquy of Sita in his English epic Sitayana making her cogitate on issues like the Nuclear Horror concerning our times.

There have been other great poets too who have handled the great material in our epics. Ulloor Parameswara Iyer's Karna Bhushanam is an insightful poem on the makings of a true hero. How can we understand spiritual heroism in the times of political non-heroism? Karna's spirit was very much alive in 1929 when Karna Bhushanam was published. That was the time when all over India brilliant lawyers and professors gave up everything for the sake of honor, the honor of retrieving one's country from foreign rule. Ulloor's Karna is no doubt a homage to those martyrs of India's independence struggle and the Sun's pride and blessing reflects the pride of future generations:

The Sun embraced his dear boy who said
These words, he stood there with sword in hand.
A picture of manly strength and fame,
Brilliant son of this great Bharata.
He said, No, my son, don't give me this gift.
You are indeed a vairochana for sure.
And your words befit a hero of gifts.
With you, my son, I am a real father now.
And my brilliance has indeed grown through you.
Maybe your feet are rooted in the earth's dust,
But your head is bedecked by the moon-gem.
The keen-eyed see a lot of black even
In me. What about other beings then?
May your fame spread and your name ever shine

The Malayalam language gained much in epyllions like Magadala Mariam and Kochu Seeta that flowed from Vallathol Narayana Menon. The impulsion for writing narratives continues still. A recent example is O.N.V. Kurup's Ujjayini which takes the received tradition regarding Kalidasa's life but modifies it with new insights drawn from his writings. Familiar scenes and phrases flit by, and when touching upon Raghuvamsa there is almost an echo of the passage from Ulloor quoted above, for the heroic ideal in India has remained alive all the time. Concluding his saga, Kalidasa wonders at this phenomenon with pardonable pride:

Where are the ones who wore
the scepter and the crown, yet
diligently placed immortal reputation
above the stirrings of their mortal bodies
and knew what they gave as price for
preserving it unsullied and bright,
was the only real investment?
And where do the ones stand
Who sucked only the nectar of power?
As he finished writing that tragic saga,
From Dileep to Agnivarna,
The words of his guru long ago
Echoed in his soul, 'Your words
Would one day reach Ujjayini!'

Twentieth century Kannada literature has given K.V. Puttappa's (Kuvempu) Ramayana Darsana (1949). A famous novelist and dramatist, Kuvempu has won lasting fame with his enthralling and bold recreation of the tale of Rama as a long epic running to more than twenty thousand lines. K. Narasimha Murty has found in the narrative a creative interaction with the epics of the West. It is certainly an epic for our times. 

According to Narasimha Murty,

Kuvempu" portrays the ideal human being and what is more, the ideal human being in the process of becoming one. As the conception of the ideal undergoes inevitable variations with time, the poet amends, as earlier observed, the conduct of his hero at times as, for example, when he depicts Rama as unhesitatingly apologizing to Vali for shooting at him from cover as also when he envisages Rama's joining Sita in the ordeal by fire which, at his rejection of her, she opts for. As he realizes his own divinity, Rama recognizes too that Ravana represents the a-sat forces within himself so that the victory won at the end is not only a redemption of Rawanatva, but, at the same time, means a reintegration in the nature of Rama, who stands for the One.

Of the South Indian languages, Telugu, perhaps, revels most in full-scape epic narratives in twentieth century. Saundaranandam by Pingali Lakshmikantham and Katuri Venkateswara Rao, Karunasri by Jandhyala Papayya Sastri and Andhra Puranam by M. Suryanarayana Sastri may be mentioned in this context. There have also been epic versions of Valmiki in Viswanatha Satyanarayana's Ramayana Kalpavrukshamu and Ramaneeya Ramayanam by Duggisetti Venkata Ramanayya. While the former wields a very classical style, Ramanayya's language is simple and musical, and he uses some original similes that remain with us for a long time:

Like the lightning that gleams
From the water-borne clouds
The lady Ahalya was born
From the dust of Rama's feet
Announcing the glory of the Lord.Lord.

A poet, kavi, is compared to a sculptor, sthapati, by him:

I bow to the poet sculptors
Who carefully acquired Telugu stones
Smooth and soft in colors
From the mountain of speech,
Created pleasing, brilliant garlands
Of gold in immortal works easily,
And made the hearts of rasikas
Greedy for emotions, blossom forth.

Thus, 20th century had kept the flow of the long narrative alive, and even given it new hues. As it has been with Malayalam, Kannada and Telugu, Tamil also has remained loyal to the ancient tradition including the Sramanic, and not at all averse to the long poem. Twentieth century opened with Subramania Bharati's Panchali Sapatham (1921). An epyllion which renovates the critical moment in Mahabharata, here we see not only Panchali come out of Bharati's creative fire as a noble and tragic Princess, but also as Mother India herself in shackles issuing forth to awaken a land which had gone to sleep lulled by the Western breeze; she also stands for Womanhood desecrated in India for centuries, now awake, alive, defiant, daring to question if not yet willing to act on her own.

Looking back on our classical myths and legends, it is wonderful to note how writers have been re-formatting these works to help woman fight back. Draupadi is brought to the Pandava court and held out as the property of the Kauravas. Is woman no more than a chattel that can be bought and sold, that can be won or lost in a game of dice? When appealed to by Draupadi, Bhishma is helpless and talks of the sanctions of Dharma:

In days of yore
The sexes were equal.
But times have changed;
Woman is inferior.
A wife can be sold,
Or given away like cattle.
Dharma sanctions
Your sale as a slave.
I know what they do here
Is repugnant beyond measure.
But Sastras and customs
Are alike against you.
Impotent am I to halt this evil.

Draupadi answers:

Finely, bravely spoken Sir!
When treacherous Ravana, having carried away
And lodged Sita in his garden,
Called his ministers and law-givers
And told them the deed he had done,
These same wise old advisers declared:
Thou hast done the proper thing:
Twill square with dharma's claims!
When the demon king rules the land
Needs must the sastras feed on filth!
Was it well done to trick my guileless king
To play at dice? Wasn't it deceit,
A predetermined act of fraud
Meant to deprive us of our land?
O ye that have sisters and wives.
Isn't this a crime on Woman?
Would you be damned for ever?

Among other long poems in Tamil written in the last century, two titles clamor for special attention. There is S.K. Ramarajan's Meghanadam (1956). Like Michael Madhusudhan Dutt of Bengal who wrote the classic, Meghnadh Badh in the 19th century, Ramarajan also has immense admiration for Indrajit, though he is himself a practicing Vaishnava for whom Rama is everything and Kamba Ramayanam is non peril. His Indrajit is a heroic prince who hails Sita's chastity and who argues in vain with his Ravana to give up this unseemly, unrighteous act and seek due pardon. He goes to war fully knowing that Sita's chastity is the amour that is going to ensure the victory of Rama and Lakshmana. Like Hamlet disillusioned with his mother, Indrajit is equally disillusioned with Ravana. At the same time, time-tested customs bar him from becoming a rebel and leave Ravana to his own resources and thence to his doom. 

What makes Meghanadam a poem standing on its own special pedestal is the soft tones of the happy domestic life Indrajit is blessed with thanks to his loving wife Sulochanai. He has no answer to Sulochanai's accusations regarding the imprisonment of blameless Sita in the ashoka grove. Like Bharati's Draupadi who wonders whether the land has no man to come forward to stand up for Dharma when an innocent woman is dragged and disrobed in a royal court, like Kannaki who cries out whether Madurai city has not a single man to speak out against the wrong done to her by executing her innocent husband, like Sita herself who exclaims whether Lanka has no man to give wholesome advice to Ravana, Sulochanai tells Indrajit:

My handsome Lord! When your father
Imprisoned the beautiful Sita,
Were there no wise men here
To warn him: The eyes of chaste women?
They are balls of fire; their cloud-like
Tresses? They are Yama's noose
Terrible. Their body is a tender creeper?
No, they are powerful lightning!

The other epic narrative in twentieth century Tamil literature that has been my favorite is A. Palani's Sali Maindan (1985) inspired by the ancient Buddhist epic, Manimekalai. There have also been other poets like Jagannatha Raja, Shanmugha Sundaranar and Meenavan who have essayed long narratives on Buddhist themes. Sali Maindan is an epic recordation of the branch-story of Aaputtiran in Manimekalai. Scholars have opined that the original of Aaputtiran is Samantabhadra in the Gandavyuha Sutra. Sali Maindan speaks for humanism. While the author criticizes the brahmana community for its excessive regard for rituals, he readily gives praise to the high-minded brahmanas who rise beyond caste prejudices to give succor to an abandoned child. The author, Palani, does not favor any religion. There is no need, for humanism becomes the sacred subject. Blind faith in gods, demons, heaven and hell are frowned upon.

Son of a brahmin housewife and a vaisya merchant, Aputtiran is abandoned by the mother and brought up by a brahmin couple. When grown up, he leaves them as he objects to animal sacrifice by the brahmins. He resides in a Saraswati temple in Madurai. Sali who comes there by chance and learns of his identity, leaves a vessel filled with food near the deity for him without revealing herself. He begs for food and feeds the hungry. The Establishment represented by the brahmins is against him and he leaves Madurai. After some turns in the narrative, Aaputtiran is reunited with his parents but it is too late. Aaputtiran flings the vessel Amuda Surabhi into the Gomuki lake and passes away after bemoaning the inexorability of fate. 

Palani ends the epic rather abruptly but not before insinuating Trusteeship as the only way out of the present chasm that divides the haves and have-nots. Violent conflict with the Establishment (as revolutions) can only end in all round destruction. By transforming the magic vessel into an ordinary one but investing it with profound faith, Palani conveys the need for the dignity of Labour, humanism and self-confidence all of which lead to self-perfection. In addition Palani's narrative introduces the necessity of alterations to the act of charity lest it become its own caricature leading to laziness and stunted growth in a society. One wonders whether the author is not stating a valid criticism of the subsidies-culture that has been fawned by India since independence.

Receiving alms is not the way
For all the living.
If everyone seeks to beg
Who will be there to give?
Only those who need the alms
Must live by begging.
The rest of you should realize
That begging is a pitiable act.
The blind, the lame,
The aged and the abandoned
Need not be ashamed to beg.
Impelled by selfish desires,
This sea-girt globe
Will deride them.
Such is Valluvar's law.
When I said, come,
I saw at once
A few healthy men
Push themselves to the front
Throwing down the weak.
Such selfishness
And wounding the pitiable poor
Is not right. Do not forget.
Learn of sterling Duty.

It is significant that in a literary context where 'new poetry' and 'mini poetry' seem to rule the day, Indian writing in English also has not lagged behind in keeping the flag of the long poem flying. Even more important is the thought that these poets have drawn generously from our epic sources. In the last decade of the 19th century, Sri Aurobindo hoped his compatriots would engage themselves exactly in this task. Dedicating his narrative poem, Love and Death to his brother Manmohan Ghose, Sri Aurobindo defended his choice of the legend of Ruru and Pramadvara in the Adi Parva of the Mahabharata to write a poem in English. It was not an easy task but a worthy one, he wrote:

"To take with a reverent hand the old myths and cleanse them of soiling accretions, till they shine with some of the antique strength, simplicity and solemn depth of beautiful meaning, is an ambition which Hindu poets of today may and do worthily cherish. To accomplish a similar duty in a foreign tongue is a more perilous endeavor.

I have attempted in the following narrative to bring one of our old legends before the English public in a more attractive garb than could be cast over them by mere translation or by the too obvious handling of writers like Sir Edwin Arnold; -- perceiving its inner spirit and Hindu features, yet rejecting no device that might smooth away the sense of roughness and the bizarre which always haunts what is unfamiliar, and win for it the suffrage of a culture to which our mythological conventions are unknown and our canons of taste unacceptable."

Sri Aurobindo gave us a spiritual dynamo in the epic Savitri which had been growing for half a century and was published in its complete form only in 1952. The tale is based on the Pativratopakhyana in the Vana Parva of Vyasa's epic. Drawing out the significances contained in certain terms used by Vyasa in his Upakhyana, Sri Aurobindo transformed the original short narrative into a long poem of 24,000 lines without changing the essentials. This was because as he wrote to his brother, he saw more than what the surface of Vyasa?s tales showed up for us. What he said about Love and Death was a kind of manifesto that was realized in full in his later work, Savitri.:

"Ideal love is a triune energy, neither a mere sensual impulse, nor mere emotional nor mere spiritual - My conception being an ideal struggle between love and death, two things are needed to give it poetical form, an adequate picture of love and adequate image of death. The love pictured must be on the ideal plane, and touch therefore the farthest limit of strength in each of its three directions. The sensual must be emphasized to give it firm root and basis, the emotional to impart to it life, the spiritual to prolong it into infinite permanence. And if at their limits of extension the three meet and harmonies, if they are not triple but triune, then is that love a perfect love and the picture of it a perfect picture."

So we have Savitri, probably the one long epic of twentieth century that is studied throughout the world today, memorized, recited and taught in innumerable academic and non-academic institutions. Drawing in terms like taponvita and dhyana yoga paraayana used by Vyasa, Sri Aurobindo presents Savitri as a great tapaswini engaged in yoga. At the same time, he presents the same Vyasan Savitri the ideal wife and daughter-in-law, the Princess of Madra remaining perfectly at home in the bare forest hermitage:

"No change was in her beautiful motions seen;
A worshipped empress all once vied to serve,
She made herself the diligent serf of all,
Nor spared the Labour of broom and jar and well,
Or close gentle tending or to heap the fire
Of altar and kitchen, no slight task allowed
To others that her woman's strength might do.
In all her acts a strange divinity shone:
Into a simplest movement she could bring
A oneness with earth's glowing robe of light,
A lifting up of common acts by love.

(parichaaraigunaischaiva prasrayena damena cha
sarvakamakriyaabhischa sarveshaam thushtimaadhadhe)

The Savitri tale has been a great inspiration for poets all over India. Toru Dutt and Kumaran Asan may be mentioned in this connection. Sri Aurobindo uses the Savitri-Satyavan myth as not a mere allegory. He has brought his own yogic experiences and the experiences in spiritual living communicated by the Mother of the Ashram and so according to him the characters who are inspired from the mythic cycle in the Vedas and the Upakhyana of Vyasa are actually incarnations or emanations of living and conscious Forces with whom we can enter into concrete touch and they take human bodies in order to help man and show him the way from his mortal state to a divine consciousness and immortal life.

From the Eighties, there has been a surprising spurt in the epic narrative in English. Maha Nand Sharma has made use of the Shiva cycle of myths for his Rudraksha Rosary and Vyasa for his Bhishma; Laxmi Narayan Mahapatra has drawn upon the Vedic images for Bhuma; S.M. Angadi's Basava Darsana (1986) is a grand edifice on the manifestation and ministry of Basaveswara who is the founder of Virasaivism; excellent transcreations of ancient myths have been attempted by Amreeta Shyam in the well conceived Kaikeyi and Kurukshetra; Purushottama Lal's wonderful sloka-by-sloka transcreation of the Mahabharata is right now online; and my father has drawn upon our great heritage to write Sitayana (1987), Sati Sapthakam (1991) and Krishna-Geetam: Delight of Existence (1994). It is not easy for me to bring a critic's eye when dealing with father's works, for he was more than a father to me, he was my Acharya who guided my material and spiritual existence with his gracious presence. But then, I have never cared to be an academic critic of the poetry gifted by the serious practitioners of verse who bring out the best in our glorious heritage. Father's Sitayana has now become a serious topic in the Feminist discourse and I am very happy about it, for Indian women have magnificent role-models to achieve an ideal life of harmony and strength of purpose. Father not only received much from his wide reading, but wrote from first hand experience, and his Sita, Devahuti, Sukanya, Devayani, Damayanti, Renuka, Draupadi and Kannaki reflect the sorrows of the innumerable women in my family and outside who suffered grievously and triumphed for the sake of others by veiling their own individual selves, armed with nothing but matri-tattva. His personal experience gave him the clue to the portrayal of women by our ancients. In the prologue to Sati Sapthakam the Master (an imaginative vision of Sri Aurobindo) advises the disciple-author:

"Other countries, my son, see her branded
with the birthmark of frailty,
pity her for her weakness, or succumb
to her sheer beauty of form.
But sufferance in most situations
is frozen shakti, unlike
the spendthrift and vagabond dispersal
in which the male oft excels
Thus with their uncanny inner vision
our Seer-poets and Rishis
saw Woman as embodiment of strength
and as Mother of the Race."

Interestingly enough his last years were completely given over to Krishna-dhyana and cogitating over the presence of Radha in Krishna's life as well as in Indian tradition. Indeed, the poem was written when my parents were going through the most excruciating period in their lives and father was already well past eighty. For him, the writing became a yoga of absorption, a prayerful act of Mahavishwasa, unswerving faith. And the Divine Mother's answering Grace became a reality for him. So he wrote the dedication:

"Hark! 'tis Venu Ganam, Krishna-Geetam,
but cascading from, O where?
Adya Shakti's willed descent as Radha
spell-binding the earth-atmosphere
And the melodies of the Magic Flute,
even when unstruck, unheard,
the airs of paradisal Brindavan
are greatened by Radha's Grace."

One century, centuries, not out! The Indian epic narrative is very much alive and vibrant as we stand watching the dawn-years of the new century. More than a hundred years ago Swami Vivekananda said that the West is in need of our myths and legends, our constant turn towards the spiritual. Sister Nivedita referred to the two epics as the most outstanding educational agencies of Indian life in the Preface to her Cradle Tales of Hinduism, published a hundred years ago:

"All over the country, in every province, especially during the winter season, audiences of Hindu and Mohammedans gather round the Brahmin story-teller at nightfall, and listen to his rendering of the ancient tales. The Mohammedans of Bengal have their own version of the Mahabharata. And in the life of every child amongst the Hindu higher castes, there comes a time when, evening after evening, hour after hour, his grandmother pours into his ears these memories of old. There are simple forms of village-drama, also, by whose means, in some provinces, every man grows up with a full and authoritative knowledge of the Mahabharata."

Kerala is a land of Kathakali and Nangiar Koothu, Karnataka of Yakshagana, Tamil Nadu of Therukkoothu, Andhra of Tholu Bommalata. I had myself heard the epic tales as a child from my grandmother night after night in the Kodakanallur village on the banks of the Tambraparni. So why should we export and import frustrations which are a-plenty in the west imprisoned in its air-conditioned nightmare and be alienated from the open spaces of our great culture?

The Indian poets of this century would do well to extend the firm buildings on hand and begin the task of putting together a shelf of neo-classical literature with a contemporaneous thrust, taking a cue from Amreeta Syam's Kaikeyi speaking to her grandchildren:

"Ask questions, my grandchildren.
Rule with your
But keep a little
Of yourselves
For life
And laughter."

(Samvatsar Lecture delivered on 28.1.2004 at the Thunchan Festival organised jointly by Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi and Thunchan Memorial Trust, Tirur)


More by :  Dr. Prema Nandakumar

Top | Culture

Views: 3727      Comments: 0

Name *

Email ID

Comment *
Verification Code*

Can't read? Reload

Please fill the above code for verification.