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Sarala Das’s Odia Mahabharata is one of its kind

By February 5, 2019No Comments

Source : The Hindu – LITERARYREVIEW   –    Sailen Routray

Sarala Das’s 15th-century Odia Mahabharata provides an alternative reading of Vyasa’s canonical text with many surprise elements


In Sarala Das’s Odia version of the Mahabharata, which is the first complete rendition of the epic by a single author in any language other than Sanskrit, Ganga is a wild and tempestuous woman. Born in the world of mortals, she is a dutiful daughter who pines for Shiva. She ends up marrying Shantanu, king of the Kurus, who is a devotee of the lord. Because Shantanu is not her husband by choice, she finds inventive ways of hurting and humiliating him.

Ganga keeps him starved by cooking tasteless food once in three days, beats him violently at will, tears off his clothes, and destroys his scriptures. Further, she denies him physical pleasure when he seeks it, and forces him to make love on auspicious days when it is forbidden. Later, she kills seven of their children; the eighth one, Bhishma, is saved by the father, and thus Ganga is freed from her marriage. Half-woman, half-river, her wildness as wife is as inexplicable as her gentleness as a daughter before her marriage.

Argumentative women

Like Ganga, many other women in Sarala’s text are open about their desires and have no scruples about expressing these freely. In Vyasa’s Mahabharata, Arjuna becomes attracted to Krishna’s sister Shubhadra and, with the brother’s help, first abducts and then marries her. But in Sarala’s version, it is Shubhadra herself who becomes enamoured of Arjuna; she learns the art of seduction from Padmana’s wife, Mayavati. Thus armed, she seduces Arjuna.

On discovering this premarital affair, Balarama challenges Arjuna to a fight. The latter wins the battle and goes on to marry Shubhadra. As the Sarala scholar B.N. Patnaik says, “The Pandava women were generally manipulative, assertive, argumentative, sometimes noisily so.”

Sarala’s women characters are often much stronger than Vyasa’s, and act independently. This is illustrated in the delightful story about Parvati. Once, early in the morning, Shiva left Kailash astride the bull Nandi and along with his followers. He was supposed to return for lunch. Aparna or Parvati cooked a large, varied spread

for everyone and waited and waited. When it became really late, she sat down to eat, defying the taboo among upper-caste Hindu women that dictated a wife should eat only after the husband has had his fill. When Aparna hears the sound of Shiva’s damru quite late in the day, she is enraged: she throws everything she has cooked into Nandi’s trough. Shiva has to go hungry, but the bull has a feast.



Peasant by birth

In narrating stories like this, the Sarala Mahabharata can be seen as the archetypal non-Brahminical Purana. The poet describes himself as janme krusiakaari, na jaane saastra bidhi — ‘I am a peasant by birth, and do not know the ways of the scriptures’. He also often refers to himself as ‘Shudra muni’ or Shudra sage.

Although bhakti poets took the poetic licence of representing the self as marginal, such self-ascription still points to his subaltern status. Even today, Sarala is often referred to as the Shudra muni in Odisha; the angularities of his poetry are often ascribed to his social position. Marginal characters from non-elite communities, such as Hidimba and her son Ghatotkacha, get more attention in Sarala than they do in Vyasa.

The hardheaded ways in which Sarala deals with sexuality is also in character. Descriptions of sexual acts in his Mahabharata are neither eroticised nor ritualised, as it is in much of medieval Odia literature inspired by the Sanskritic canon.

For example, Sarala does not judge Drona’s step-mother when she is shown seducing him in Karna Parva. The unabashed detailing of female sexuality is often critiqued by later commentators such as Artaballabh Mohanty as a sign of unbridled poetic licence and bad taste. Historians of Odia literature such as Surendra Mohanty see this as reflective of the then social milieu of Odisha where declining Tantric Buddhism had left its mark.

‘Just war’?

There is also gruesome physicality in the descriptions of war in Sarala, especially in episodes not found in Vyasa. In a much anthologised section, Duryodhana, the last surviving Kaurava warrior at the end of the 18-day war, crosses a river of blood to escape from the battlefield. He tries to swim atop one dead body after the other; all of these sink on being touched.

Finally, he is able to float on one corpse. After having thus crossed the river, he realises that it’s the body of his son, Lakshmana Kumara. These and other descriptions of fighting evoke revulsion against warfare: is this a subaltern critique of Brahminical notions of a ‘just war’?

In this connection, one recalls the story of King Janughanta, ruler of Sindhumandara, who is posited as an ideal ruler in Sarala. He is a Kshatriya and a great warrior; yet he never kills nor does he wage wars against other kingdoms. He roams around naked, begging to earn a living, using taxes for public welfare. If the Sarala Mahabharata remains popular to this day, it is perhaps because of such valorisation of subaltern notions of sociality and politics.

Foregrounding the quotidian

Sarala’s text is longer than Vyasa’s by 55,000 dyads or so. This is due to a narrative style motored by storytelling rather than by the objective of establishing ‘Dharma’ as defined by the Brahminical canon. In Vyasa, the Bhagavat Gita, a philosophical exposition, is credited with making the war possible by inducing Arjuna to fight; in Sarala, this transition is effected through a story.

When Arjuna loses his nerve on seeing his relatives arrayed in front of him, Krishna goes to Yudhisthira to ask him to initiate the battle. But even Yudhisthira is bought over to Arjuna’s logic and goes to the Kauravas unarmed, to plead a last chance for peace. When that fails, he tries to convince leaders of the opposition, such as Bhishma and Karna, to switch sides; only the Kaurava prince Durdasa joins Yudhisthira.

Then, Durdasa is attacked by the Kauravas and the Mahabharata war starts. Thus, in Sarala, the Pandavas pursue peace till the very end. The matter is not left to ‘divine’ hands like Krishna’s or on the philsophising of the Gita (an argument for war that Gandhi refused to take literally). Continuing with this foregrounding of the quotidian by de-valorising the theoretical and the Brahminical, Sarala does not even mention popular dharmic dialogues from Vyasa, such as ‘Sanat Sujatiya’, ‘Parasara Gita’, or ‘Hamsa Gita’.

Colloquial rhythm

Sarala also adds stories that find resonance in Prakrit texts or folktales. He uses a large number of words with Prakrit roots and keeps the original Prakrit-origin linguistic forms of Odia intact. Whenever possible, his Mahabharata uses local, non-Sanskrit Odia words. The text is written in a somewhat loose, versatile poetic form, the daandi metre, that very closely mimics the flow of colloquial, spoken Odia. This is in stark contrast to the strict Sanskrit-inspired meters that began governing Odia poetry from the late 17th century onwards.

This awareness is crucial in tracing the historical lineage of the Odia language since, in most accounts, Odia is seen as the ‘daughter’ of Sanskrit. It might be far more accurate to assert that Odia is the younger sister of Prakrit. When modern Odia was standardised across the 19th century through print, words with Prakrit, Arabic and Persian origins were often excised and Sanskrit equivalents brought in. A relook at the Sarala Mahabharata can open up an window through which we can become aware of the non-Brahminical heritage of the Odia language and culture.

Unfortunately, this important text does not yet have a proper critical edition on the basis of which further scholarship can take place. An attempt was made after Independence under the noted scholar Artaballabha Mohanty; this edition was published by the Odisha government almost 50 years ago. But Mohanty died before he could oversee the printing process.

This edition has been criticised for valid reasons by researchers like Krushna Charana Sahoo and K.C. Panigrahi, and littérateurs like Gopinath Mohanty. Sarala still awaits an editor; but in an era of virulent Brahminism, it is perhaps unlikely that a project for editing his Shudra Mahabharata will muster support.

The writer is an author and researcher based in Bhubaneswar.

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