ON VARIATIONS IN MAHABHARATA

(Note: This paper was written in July (2018) for a Workshop on “Variation in Mahabharata”. The idea of the Workshop was to propose projects on this theme. To an extent, this essay has that orientation. It couldn’t be presented because I could not attend the Workshop. I thought it wouldn’t be inappropriate to post it here.)   

This paper is about certain matters relating to the hitherto neglected but extremely challenging and promising field – not just a topic, that is – which may be called “Variations in Mahabharata”, using Odia language Mahabharatas here for illustrative purposes. The observations, needless to say, would apply to Mahabharatas across our vernacular / regional languages. It suggests that both the retelling / translation of, and the scholarly work on, the vernacular Mahabharatas into English (and other regional languages) be undertaken together – one of these projects must not wait for the completion or near-completion of the other. The scholarly work project is very necessary for the retelling/ translation project, partly but significantly, because it justifies, these versions to audiences across linguistic boundaries in a different age and in a different intellectual milieu. 

I

There are at least three versions of Mahabharata in Odia: Sarala Mahabharata (fifteenth century), Jagannath Das’s Mahabharata (sixteenth century), which is also referred to as Jagannath Das Mahabharata and Krushna Singh’s Mahabharata (eighteenth century), also referred to as Krushna Singh Mahabharata. In the nineteenth century, Phakir (also spelt “Fakir”) Mohan Senapati attempted to write Mahabharata but he could not complete it. In the twentieth century, Nilakantha Das wrote Pilanka Mahabharata (Mahabharata for Children) in prose. We will say nothing about the last two here. In a more comprehensive study the last named could perhaps be included, it being a complete version of Mahabharata – does not matter that it is intended for a particular audience. Of the three versions of Mahabharata chosen for discussion here, only the first is well-known and has received some scholarly attention. Jagannath Das is best known as the author of Odia Bhagavata, which is a sacred text. Suryanarayan Das, in his widely acclaimed history of Odia literature, takes Jagannath Das to be the author of Jagannath Das Mahabharatabut there are dissenting voices. Some say that it has only gone in the name of Jagannath Das but the one who really composed it was someone else. Barring a couple of paragraphs in Das’s book, there is very little meaningful discussion on this work and nothing at all, to the best of our knowledge, on the authorship issue by even those who disagree with Suryanarayan Das. Krushna Singh’s Mahabharata has also not received much scholarly attention.
   Much of Sarala Mahabharatascholarship is concerned with the differences between Vyasa Mahabharata, the canonical text and Sarala Mahabharata. In all probability, Pandit Gopinath Nanda Sharma was the pioneer in this effort. He did not merely list some of the differences but arranged these in four different categories: (a) episodes or sub-episodes which do not exist in the canonical version (Duryodhana’s crossing of the river of blood, for example) but exist in Sarala’s, (b) episodes that occur in the canonical version but do not occur in Sarala’s (for example, Aswasthama’s punishment, (c) some episodes are conceptualized differently (Draupadi’s disrobing, Pandava’s exile, to choose just two) in Sarala’s version. (d) And some parvas (“the name of a constituent unit” – Mahabharata has eighteen parvas) are shorter than in the canonical version (Shanti Parva), and some longer (Mousala Parva – Musali in Sarala Mahabharata). In Sarala’s version, there is no Bhagavat Gita, although there is Arjuna’s reluctance to fight (more correctly, start the war), Hastinapura is never divided in Sarala’s retelling and Duryodhana dies as the king of Hastinapura, not as its crown prince, and Sakuni is a great devotee of Krishna and works with him for the destruction of the Kauravas. There are differences too at a deeper level, for example in the conceptualization of Krishna and of divine intervention in the affairs of the humans. These apart, in certain ways the poet Sarala localized his narrative – thus after leaving the Kailas mountains for a temporary period, Bhagawan Shiva lives in the Kapilas hills of Odisha and Yudhisthira marries an Odia girl during his vanaprastha, among others.
   However, not all the differences between Vyasa Mahabharata and Sarala Mahabharata have been listed. This is a project that needs urgent attention. The categories suggested by Nanda Sharma to organize these differences seem to be adequate but during the preparation of the complete list, it may be found necessary to have more categories.
   There is also the need to compare the three versions of Mahabharata mentioned above in Odia language. This project has not even begun.  Responding to the many deviations by Sarala from Vyasa’s in his retelling, Krushna Singh is believed to have composed his Mahabharata to give his readers a feel of the canonical text. But his Mahabharatais a much shorter version of Vyasa Mahabharata. It would be interesting to find out and deliberate on the strategies he had used to shorten it. As for Jagannath Das’s Mahabharata, Suryanarayan Das has observed that it is a summary of Sarala Mahabharata, written in the nabaksari brutta (a form of verse in which each line of a couplet has nine “letters’ of the alphabet). This is the verse form he had used in his Srimad Bhagabata.  I have noticed that although it is rightly considered to be a shorter version of Sarala Mahabharata, there are subtle differences between the two at places. These need to be documented and studied.
   Incidentally, Krushna Singh had raised the question of fidelity to the original in the context of the rendering of Vyasa Mahabharata into Odia by Sarala Das. He may or may not have been the first to do so among the Odia Mahabharata scholars but he was certainly the first person who had not only raised that question but also created a narrative – his Mahabharata – that embodied his response to it. Nilakantha Das did the same when he retold the canonical story for children.
   To sum up the discussion so far, we suggest that two projects need to receive priority with respect to Mahabharatas in Odia language by the relevant community of re-tellers, translators and researchers: a complete list of the differences between Vyasa Mahabharataand Sarala Mahabharata and a comparative re-telling and study of the Odia language Mahabharatas with the explicit purpose of foregrounding the differences among them.
II

 As far as the deviations in Sarala Mahabharata from the canonical version in Sanskrit is concerned, the work has begun, although a great deal more must be done, as mentioned above but without waiting for a completion of that project, it is time to take the next step. So what, one may ask rhetorically, if there are episodes in the canonical version which are not there in the vernacular version and the other way round? Once it is accepted that the vernacular language poets were “retelling” the “original” texts (in the present case, the Mahabharata) and not “translating” them and that retelling is a legitimate intellectual engagement with the classical texts, one must expect variations of diverse kinds in these retellings. So, from the mere listing of the differences, the discussion must proceed to trying to find explanations for each such difference.
   It would be incorrect to say that this work has not started at all; there is some discussion on these lines published in English and Odia languages, but it is grossly inadequate. Many Sarala Mahabharata scholars have tried to explain the non-occurrence of the Bhagavad Gita in this work and the conspicuous shortening of the explication of raja dharma (duties of a king) by Bhishma to Yudhisthira from his bed of arrows in terms of the nature of Sarala’s audience, which didn’t have the benefit of education and thus were believed to have lacked the ability to absorb the intellectually sophisticated discourses on philosophical matters. But this view is persuasive only to an extent. His audience might not have been interested in the explication of raja dharma, a subject that was very much remote for them but the same cannot be said about some of the main themes of the Bhagavad Gita discourse, such as death and existence after death, attachment, need for non-attachment in life, the Universal Form of God, among others. Could Sarala not have presented the essence of some of these thoughts in a simple, accessible form to his audience? Not that he didn’t deal with these topics. Consider the way he deals with the issues of attachment, death and life after death, etc. in the episode on Abhimanyu’s death. He embodies deep thoughts on the subject in simple, accessible language. So, the non-occurrence of the Gita discourse would need a different explanation.
   Besides, much existing discussion on the non-occurrence of the Gita in Sarala Mahabharata has not taken account of the fact that Arjuna’s problem, which was the cause of his reluctance in Sarala Mahabharata, is very different from what it is in Vyasa Mahabharata. In Sarala’s version he is reluctant for a different reason. His concern was about being the one to start the war (by shooting the first arrow at the enemy, which was what Krishna wanted him to do); it was not about having to kill one’s kin for kingdom, as is in Vyasa Mahabharata. The belief was that all the sins of the war, which involved the killing of the innocents, who were not directly connected with war but had to fight because their kings had participated in it, would accrue to the one who started the war. When the Kaurava and the Pandava armies stood face-to-face in the Kurukshetra battlefield, neither attacking the other, Krishna asked Arjuna to attack the enemy. That would have started the war. Arjuna flatly refused because he did not want to be the one who started the war. He had no objections to fight and kill his enemies if they attacked him. When Krishna complained to Yudhisthira about Arjuna’s attitude, he told the avatara that his brother was right. The moral issue here is no less grave than the one in Vyasa Mahabharata. We are reminded about the position of some countries today with respect to the use of nuclear weapons: “no first use”.
   Significantly, that was not the only time Arjuna had shown reluctance to start the fight. On the day Abhimanyu was killed, Arjuna was not in the Kurukshetra battlefield but elsewhere, in another battlefield, where had assembled a huge army of the demons. Obviously, none were his kin or acquaintances. He told Krishna that he couldn’t attack those who were not his enemies, who he didn’t even know. Doing so would be sinful, he told the avatara. Soon the demons attacked him and he fought with them. Details do not concern us here.  

   Incidentally, Yudhisthira and Sakuni were both aware of the problem of the killing of the innocents in a war and they articulated it in different situations in different ways. Shortly before the war started, Yudhisthira suggested to Duryodhana that since the issue of the war concerned only the Pandavas and the Kauravas, only they, the one hundred and five of them, should fight, so that the blood of the innocents must not flow. Duryodhana disagreed. In his last fight in the war, Sakuni told Sahadeva, who he was fighting with, that he wanted to punish himself and thereby atone for the sin he had committed by being the cause of a war where great warriors and innumerable innocent soldiers were killed.
   The above shows that Arjuna had a moral problem at a different level and its nature was such that it could not be resolved in terms of a spiritual discourse of the kind of the Gita. To repeat, he was not unwilling to fight, not unwilling to kill. He had no hesitation to kill whosoever faced him as his enemy in the battlefield. For him, there were absolutely no exceptions in this regard. Therefore his problem could not be resolved in terms of deliberations about the nature of death, karma and non-attachment towards one’s action as a way of escaping from the fruits of karma, etc. The only way it could be resolved was to have the war started by someone else or for the war to get started somehow. That was close to what happened in the Kurukshetra battlefield that day; the war started with no contribution from either Arjuna and Krishna. Once that happened, Arjuna participated in the war in Sarala’s retelling.
   There are other aspects to this discussion, which we may skip since our present purpose is to suggest the possible kind of form the explanation of the differences between the Vyasa and the Sarala versions of Mahabharata might take. The discussion above invites attention to yet another thing: saying merely that Bhagavad Gita occurs in one but not the other narrative is quite inadequate.  And non-occurrence of the Gita must not be viewed in the narrative as an isolated phenomenon in the Sarala version. There are episodes related to it and these must be considered together when one tries to construct some plausible and persuasive explanation as to why Vyasa’s and Sarala’s versions differ on this specific matter.
   Consider the episode of the dishonouring of Draupadi in Vyasa’s and Sarala’s versions. The accounts are different. In the canonical text, her dharma – virtue – protected her. Or as the popular narrative goes, it was Krishna who did, but he wasn’t physically present there, which is in harmony with the idea that it was her dharma which had come to her rescue. Of Sarala Mahabharata, the same could indeed be said. Draupadi’s clothes were unending. That was all that everyone saw. What was invisible was that it was god Sun’s spouses, Chhaya and Maya, who had clothed Draupadi. The god was repaying to Draupadi what he had owed her in one of her earlier existences in another aeon. Krishna’s role was indirect; ignoring details, he had strongly reminded Sun god about his obligation and his duty. These details need to be included when the difference between the two versions on Draupadi’s humiliation is considered.
   The above needs explanation. However, the question why the poet chose to give this form to the episode may not lead to any meaningful answer. This amounts to asking about the poet’s intentions.  One would never know what they were. One could only speculate but one guess would be as good as another. A more meaningful question would be about the text and the meaning that the reader gets from it. The shift would be from the author and his intentions to the text and the meaning that the reader derives from it. From this point of view, it would be reasonable to ask what Sarala’s version achieves by presenting the episode in the way it does. It brings in Krishna but assigns to him the role of the causative agent. What poetic or narrative (or any other) purpose is achieved by introducing Sun god into the narrative? Or is it just a matter of increasing the interest value of the story by bringing in the element of the spectacular, just for its own sake? A creative narrator like Sarala could not have done that for just to keep his “drowsy” audience “awake”!  

   Then there is the well-known story of the mango of truth in Sarala Mahabharata. There is nothing corresponding to it in Vyasa’s version. Yudhisthira needed a ripe mango to give it to a sage who had asked for it as dana(ritual gift) from him. The sage was Gauramukha, Duryodhana’s spy in disguise, who he had sent to the forests to trace the Pandavas, who were already into their ninth year of exile after losing the second game of dice. It was autumn and not the mango season. Yudhisthira invoked Krishna and he arrived. He invoked Vyasa and Vyasa came. Vyasa planted a mango seed and at Krishna’s wish a plant appeared. Krishna then asked each of the Pandavas and Draupadi to speak some truth about themselves so that at the end a ripe mango would emerge. He warned them that if anyone told a lie then the tree would burn to ashes. First spoke Yudhisthira, then Bhima, then Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva in that order and finally Draupadi spoke. Seven ripe mangoes appeared. Krishna gave one to the sage. Later the mangoes disappeared. That was of course Krishna’s doing but that story does not concern us here.
   Draupadi is said to have uttered the following: although she had five husbands, she wished for Karna. One could say that this is the narrative purpose of this episode. But the version of Sarala Mahabharata, edited by Artaballav Mohanty and published by the department of Culture of the government of Odisha does not contain this. Here she said something else; she talked about her having the same weakness as other women, namely that when they saw a handsome person, who might even be their blood relative, they would desire him. She also said that she had a special fondness for Arjuna. This is not surprising enough to justify this episode. What the Pandavas had said was not surprising either for a reader of Sarala Mahabharata. It does not contribute to the development of the plot or throw any new light on the characters. If this is correct, then what could be the narrative purpose? My own view is that through the story Sarala was articulating his perspective on the nature of cosmic truth and illusion; notice that it is the mango, its creation and disappearance both, and notthe Pandavas and their truth, not Draupadi and her sexuality, that are at the centre of the episode. (For some details, see my post “The Mango of Truth” in the blog saralamahabharat.blogspot.com) In any case, these are among the question to ask about each of the differences between Vyasa’s and Sarala’s versions: what is the best interpretation of the difference? What is the narrative purpose for this in the retelling? What are its consequences on the retelling in conceptual and aesthetic terms?
   Certain differences might trigger questions of a somewhat different kind. In Sarala Mahabharata, there is the episode of Belalasena, son of Bhima, whose severed but living head had witnessed the Kurukshetra war. At the end of the war, in the presence of his brothers and Krishna, Bhima asked him what he had seen in the war. Krishna had brought them to the severed head when they fought among themselves on the question of on whose account they had won. Kunti, Draupadi and Subhadra each had also claimed that the victory was due to her. The severed head told him what he had seen: no human or demon had killed anyone. Only a chakra, a discuss, dazzling with the glare and the brilliance of a myriad suns unceasingly moved to and fro from one part of the war field to the other and killed the fighters. This can be said to be, in essence, an implementation of the idea in Srimad Bhagavad Gita, expressed in the eleventh chapter – that the Supreme Lord had already killed all those who were to fall in the war. Humans would only act as the killer; such is His leela (play) and such is how the cosmic and the laukika(mundane) levels interact. This is how the Gitahad unobtrusively entered Sarala’s narrative.  Now Belalasena had seen the reality underlying the illusion because Krishna had granted his dying wish to be able to witness the war. He would see who He had chosen to see.  

   Now, in Vyasa Mahabharatathere is no Belalasena or an equivalent episode. There is of course a narrator, Sanjaya, who was witnessing the war and narrating what he was seeing to the Kaurava King, Dhritarashtra, whose army was fighting with the Pandavas’. Sage Vyasa had given him the special vision because of which, sitting with the blind king, he could see the happenings at a distance in the Kurukshetra battlefield. In Sarala Mahabharata, Sanjaya did inform Dhritarashtra, the blind, old father about the happenings in the war and commented on them, but he did not do so because of any special vision. He himself fought in the battlefield and also obtained information about what had happened in other parts of the war field and used his experience, intelligence and insight to comment on the war and even make predictions about what was going to happen in the battlefield. In sum, there is no Belalasena in Vyasa’s version and there is no Sanjaya with special vision in Sarala’s version.  Now, is this asymmetry purely accidental or can one read a purpose behind it, is a matter worth considering.
III


Comparison between the Odia language Mahabharatas are likely to be fascinating in the same way; it’s a project that is waiting for scholarly attention. One would expect clear differences between Krushna Singh’s and Sarala’s versions because the former wanted his version to be faithful to the original. But how faithful it was, is a matter for study, considering that Singh’s is a much-abridged version of the canonical text and that abridgement obviously entails selection and elimination of episodes, among others.
   A close study of Sarala Mahabharata and Jagannath Das Mahabharata, which, as mentioned above, is described as a summary of the former, would show that there are differences at a subtle level. Consider one example in this connection. Before the start of the war, one late night, Krishna, Sakuni and Sahadeva met. In both the texts, Krishna and Sakuni talked about whether the war should take place or not. The net result is the same, but there is a subtle difference. In Sarala’s version, Krishna gave the option to Sakuni to decide; in other words, it would be the humans and not the avatara who would decide the question of war. Sakuni of course persuaded him that it would have to be the avatara’s decision. In Jagannath Das’s version, Krishna gave no such choice to Sakuni – the humans had no choice about it; the avatara settled the issue of whether or not the war would take place. Now, this difference in the narrative, seemingly very minor, but extremely significant, must be explained in terms suggested earlier.
IV

Comparative studies of Mahabharata across vernaculars can perhaps gain if the boundaries of the field can be extended so as to include narratives from outside of Mahabharata. In Sarala Mahabharata, there are numerous references, explicit and implicit, to the Ramayana. For instance, Arjuna would cut off Karna’s head and a new head would appear because there would be the flow of amrit(divine nectar) from three different parts of his body where it remained. With three different unfailing divine arrows shot at him simultaneously, the flow of amrit was stopped and he, killed (see “The Killing of Karna” in the blog mentioned earlier). The echo of the killing of Ravana is so distinct in this.
   Turning to a somewhat different but related matter, consider the case of Sakuni in Sarala Mahabharata. Duryodhana had used treachery of the meanest kind to imprison Sakuni’s father, king Gandharasena and his brothers and relatives and had starved them to death. The doomed victims of Duryodhana had denied themselves of food to keep Sakuni alive. Gandharasena believed that Sakuni was the one who could avenge their brutal killing. He believed that Sakuni would be free one day and had told him what to do to take revenge. It so happened that Duryodhana freed Sakuni and so great was his faith in his intelligence and ability that he made him his chief adviser, even against the warning of his mother that her brother would avenge the death of their father and the others who had perished. Sakuni carefully planned his revenge and succeeded. In Vyasa Mahabharata, Sakuni’s motive for revenge is very different.  Sarala scholarship in Odia has treated Sarala’s conceptualization of Sakuni’s revenge to be Sarala’s own.
   However, Vikas Kumar and B.N.Patnaik (forthcoming) have shown that there are ancient literary works, apart from the Mahabharata, which show the same pattern of revenge as in Sarala Mahabharata. The pattern is this: a powerful person, along with his family and relations, is thrown into prison by the ruler, unexpectedly and treacherously and everyone but one of them dies there, who is either the eldest or the youngest son, and he solves a puzzle or does something comparable and is released from the prison by the ruler himself. He is given an important position in the administration. Later he avenges the killing of his family. Thus, what has been believed to be Sarala’s original is indeed not so. It is the creative implementation of the pattern that already existed.
   Give this, is there any streak of originality in Sarala’s narrative with respect to Sakuni’s revenge? There is, if one carefully studies the last episode concerning this character. In his retelling, Sarala gives Sakuni a second chance and this is Sarala’s masterstroke and his originality. Sakuni, as mentioned earlier, chooses to die on the battlefield, rather than return to his kingdom to rule, having his mission of revenge accomplished, which was what Sahadeva suggested to him as they were fighting. He told Sahadeva that he had to sacrifice himself at the battlefield for harming his nephews and being the cause of a devastating war. It is this act of his that showed him to be a man of dharma and it is this act that spiritually redeemed him.
   To conclude, this paper suggests that variation studies of Mahabharata – an extremely important project that will inform us about our rich and multiple literary traditions, creativity in philosophical explorations and literary innovativeness outside of the Sanskrit-centric tradition and connect us intellectually to our cultural past , enrich our understanding of our communicative resources and strategies for dissemination of our great cultural narratives, among others – can be at three levels: one, listing of variations between each of the vernacular language rendering of Mahabharata and Vyasa Mahabharata, which would not ignore any of the subtleties; two, listing of the variations among the versions of Mahabharata composed in every single vernacular language and three, identifying differences among the versions in various vernacular languages. The next step would be to attempt to find the logic of the variations at these three levels. These apart, it would be extremely worthwhile to study Mahabharata in relation to other ancient Indian narratives so that we can understand our collective literary and philosophical tradition better.

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