Jagannath Dasa wrote Bhagavatain Odia in the sixteenth century, about eighty years after Sarala Mahabharata was composed. Jagannath Dasa had to suffer for writing the most, or one of the two most, sacred Sanskrit texts in Odia language. I do not know when it got general acceptance in Odisha, but for a long time it has been regarded as arguably the most sacred text in Odia. During the three main dhupas(food offerings), it is ritually recited in the Jagannath Temple in Puri. Often it is recited at the bedside of a dying person in Odisha which is reminiscent of Suka – Pariksita sambada (episode of the sage Suka and the king Parikshita as the king was awaiting death). As for Sarala Dasa, he needs no introduction in this blog.
In both Sarala Mahabharataand Bhagavata, Krishna can be said to have emerged as the purna avatara or the complete manifestation, in terms of attributes, of the Supreme god Narayana. Born as a human, he had a human aspect to his exalted divinity. He was supposed to have relationship with many women to whom he was not ritually married. In times when extra-marital relationships were socially unacceptable, both Sarala and Jagannath were uncomfortable with this and this piece is about how these celebrated poets responded to it.
To start with Sarala Mahabharata. Krishna had just departed from the mortal world and Jara, the forest dweller, whose arrow had wounded him fatally, and Arjuna had made a huge fire to cremate him. They sat quietly nearby, deeply distressed, lost and forlorn, waiting for the body to burn. But it wouldn’t. They put more and more wood in the fire and the flames leapt higher and higher but the body would still not burn. Arjuna was wondering why. He recalled the doings of Krishna as a child. He had sucked a woman to death, he had killed a bull, they were demons, true, but they had assumed such forms: Putana was a woman and Arishta, a bull. Then he had sinful relations with so many women. He thought that the body was not burning because it was a sinful body. Many people of older generations still believe in Odisha at least, that the body of a virtuous man burns very fast and that of a sinner takes long to burn. When he was alive, the fruit of his sinful karma could not touch him, and now since he has departed, it had taken control of his body. But he immediately regretted thinking like that. May be the real reason was something else, he thought. Did the body become impure because of his touch, he being a mere mortal and a sinner? Sarala does not tell us what was going through Jara’s mind. Going by his portrayal of him, one could guess that he could be thinking of Krishna, who he knew was worshipped Indra, Brahma,Siva, and all the other gods. Anyway, Arjuna had begun to feel guilty about his first impious thought of Krishna. At that time the Voice from the Sky asked them to float the body in the ocean because fire was incapable of consuming it.
The Voice from the Sky was the poet’s voice as was Yudhisthira’s in Swargarohana Parva with respect to his brothers and as was god Dharma’s with respect to Yudhisthira. It was a declaration of the poet’s final judgement on his Krishna: out of the karmic cycle, when he lived among the mortals, he was the purest of the pure, so was his body after he had left it. Now, Arjuna’s thoughts and in the order in which they came to him, the latter cancelling out the former, can be said to express the attempt of the troubled poet to try to explain an aspect of the avatara to the humans, which they understandably find un-understandable. With the Voice from the Sky speaking, the poet sweeps away all doubts and uncertainties.
Jagannath Dasa confronted the same question but he came up with a different resolution, which sounds so modern. Extramarital relationship is socially unacceptable, but it is there. Those who indulge in it are those who are the bada loka (big men) of the society. But what choice is there except to look the other way when they are involved? What can one say when the leaders of the society violate societal norms! There is no questioning the powerful – bada lokaku uttara nahi (there is no answer to the big people), as goes the popular Odia proverb. The import is clear: if the avatara in the human form chooses to remain in the society, he cannot be exempt from societal norms. The society can only grumble if he does, but cannot utter even a word of disapproval.
During Jagannath Dasa’s time came Sri Chaitanya to Puri. He gave the title ati badi (very great) to Dasa, who thus came to be known as ati badi jagannath dasa. With Sri Chaitanya’s coming, a sect of Vaishnavism came into being in Odisha, which subsequently came to be known as Gaudiya Vaishnavism (Vaishnavism from Gauda – the modern Bengal), distinct from Utkaliya Vaishnavism (Vaishnavism of Utkal – native Vaishnavism). There are significant differences between these two forms of Vaishnavism, but one thing was common to both: Krishna’s relationship with the gopis was spiritual; paramatma’s (the Supreme, Universal Soul) relationship with atma (the individual soul / self); the physical expression was only a mode of articulation, a mere metaphor, an illusion.