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.


  1. Dear Sir, Reading about Krishna and his not being a sinner in spite of having extra-marital relationships is interesting but leaves me dissatisfied like it is a mere justification of a sin. What I want to look for is it being a more spiritual experience for an immortal in the form of a human who does not follow social norms…


  2. Yours is a very interesting perspective. This way of looking at Krishna had not occurred to me. Thank you very much. Purna avatara is a wonderful concept that permits any number of interpretations, including mutually contradictory ones.


  3. Yours is an excellent perspective. It had not occurred to me. Purna avatara is a very rich, complex and entirely fascinating concept and permits any number of interpretations, including mutually contradictory ones. Thank you very much.


  4. Just my two cents on the multiple relations that Sri Krishna had.Isn't it possible that by accepting relations with numerous women in whatever way they wanted to please him, the Purna Avatar just wanted to convey that pure love is acceptable to Him in whichever form its offered to Him? The love offered to him was just a way of their bhakti towards him. Then again, never heard of a true bhakt being turned down by God.The rules of society though form the basis of a peaceful and prospering life are ultimately just rules laid down for the betterment of the ordinary mortal people. But being the God that Krishna knew he was and time and again showed it to others, he wasn't necessarily bounded by those rules.Wouldn't it be obvious to the people that he had his reasons to love someone more (e.g. Arjuna) than the others? I think its the same with the gopis and all the women he established relations with.


  5. I entirely agree with your first observation: He relates to one the way one wants to relate to Him. About your second observation, I am somewhat unsure. The question is, what the society into which He was born was expecting from Him, knowing (some did, probably not everyone. Let's think of only those who did)that He was an avatara. As you rightly say, He showed that He was not bound by the societal norms, but His action that violated societal norms often left people confused. They didn't know how to view Him. This was Duryodhana's problem. In Sarala Mahabharata he knew He was Narayana incarnate, but he found some of His doings adharmik. We cannot blame those like him. One knows Him only if He allows one to know Him. Arjuna could see His Viswaroopa only when He gave him the power to see. I have discussed this question in probably an article of mine. I can't recall now exactly which one. If you feel interested I will look for it.Thanks a lot!


  6. Again an excellent article. Krishna is one of the most confusing characters in Mahabharata. For those who accept him as God, his actions are beyond human judgement and for those who do not believe him to be God, his actions are quite incomprehensible. But he himself was not bothered either way. If he flouted societal norms, he was not bothered by that. He had been insulted as womanizer and coward and cowherd but he never bothered to justify or refute. One can imagine he must have smiled. He was himself. And he never cared about how others viewed him or might view him.


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