Sudra muni” Sarala Das, who belongs to the fifteenth century, is celebrated as the first major poet, the aadi kavi, of Odia literature. To him can be traced the origin of the puranic literature in Odia and no one’s contribution to this genre is richer and more impactful than his. He composed three puranas and decidedly the best and the most renowned of these is “Mahabharata”, popularly known as “Sarala Mahabharata”. A truly remarkable work, it is a re-conceptualization of the ancient story of “Mahabharata” and a creative re-telling of it in Odia language. It is the first complete rendering (i.e., of all the eighteen Parvas) of Vyasa Mahabharata in any language.  And this is the first retelling of Vyasa Mahabharata by a person who did not belong to a privileged caste.

In his magnum opus, Sarala asserted that he was born to expatiate on the lila (divine play) of the Supreme god, Narayana. Thus, he used the story of the Kuru clan to celebrate the doings of Krishna, the purna avatara (complete incarnation) of Narayana, and he called his MahabharataVishnu Purana”. He said that he was uneducated and dull and had no knowledge of the shastras; he merely wrote what goddess Sarala, his divine mother, inspired him to write. The words were hers; he was merely the scribe.

In Sarala’s retelling, both Duryodhana and Sakuni, died, not in disgrace but in glory. Duryodhana died, not as the Crown Prince of Hastinapura but as its king; before he died, he had condemned Ashwasthama for killing Draupadi’s children and he breathed his last embracing the severed heads of the children. Sakuni was doomed to avenge his father’s and relatives’ murder by Duryodhana through treachery. His father had asked him to do so. Sahadeva knew this, as did Krishna. Knowing that only Duryodhana was alive and that he could fall anytime, he could have returned to his kingdom to rule. But he chose to die in the battlefield as he considered himself responsible for the war and the killing of his nephews and of the innocent soldiers from both sides, whose war it was not.

Everyone knew that Karna was Kunti’s eldest-born and on the Kurukshetra battlefield itself, before the war started, Yudhisthira had pleaded with him to join them and become the king after the war was won. He had never said or done anything to humiliate Draupadi. He maintained the dignity of his relationship with her as the wife of his younger brothers. Neither had Draupadi done anything that had humiliated Karna, even before her wedding. She hadn’t forbidden Karna to participate in the archery test; Karna had tried and failed. He wanted to win the test because he wanted Draupadi for Duryodhana.

No one invited Yudhisthira to play a game of dice. Yudhisthira wanted to play and he expressed his desire to Sakuni, who obliged. It was then that Sakuni thought that he could use that opportunity to create hostility between the Pandavas and the Kauravas. It was the Sun god’s divine spouses, who clothed Draupadi, not Krishna; the god paid her for what he had taken from her in an earlier existence of her. Thus it was her karma that protected her. The Avatara was only the facilitator; he had reminded Draupadi and the Sun god about their karma.

In Sarala’s narrative, Drona and Drupada were never in any ashram, studying together and Drupada wanted to avenge his humiliation in the hands of the Kaurava princes. He wanted a girl child and conducted a yajna for that. Draupadi emerged from the sacred fire. For her father, she was merely an instrument for revenge. He taught her the use of weapons and wanted to have her married to Arjuna, thinking that someday, the Kauravas and the Pandavas would go to war for the throne. He was certain that the former would be destroyed in that war.

After her wedding, Draupadi lived the life of a good daughter-in-law of the Kuru family. She gave no reason to anyone to be unhappy with her, neither the Kauravas nor the Pandavas. There is no hint in Sarala’s narrative that anyone was upset with her in the least. The vastraharana event changed her. She never forgave Dussasana and Duryodhana; she bayed for their blood. Now, Duryodhana wanted to humiliate her in his court that day, not because he had any grouse against her; he wanted to humiliate the Pandavas by humiliating her.  

No one invited Yudhisthira to return to Hastinapura for a second game of dice. Unable to bear the agony of failure, he sought an opportunity to redeem his honour. In the second game of dice, it was not with the magic sticks of Sakuni that they played the game. It was not Sakuni who rolled the dice that day. It was Sahadeva. Sakuni was only an onlooker. Sahadeva ensured that the Pandavas lost. Divinely bestowed with special insight, he knew that that was what the gods wanted – the Pandavas’ exile was needed so that the wicked Kichaka could be killed. That was the cosmic design.

In the battlefield of Kurukshetra, Arjuna was reluctant to start the war because he would not attack anyone unless he was attacked. He would not strike first. War was papa (sinful) and the one who started it would be bear the burden of papa. He joined the war only after it had started. There is no Bhagavad Gita in Sarala Mahabharata. Krishna did not persuade Arjuna to fight; he did not say that it was his duty to do so. He left Arjuna to live by his own moral beliefs.

Bhishma did not enter the battlefield, deciding that he would not kill a Pandava; he had indeed tried to kill Arjuna, but unknown to everyone, gods and mortals, Krishna’s intervention saved Arjuna. For the war, Bhishma held the Pandavas responsible as well. It was not the case that there was no alternative to war; there was, certainly, the option of non-violent action. But that demanded great sacrifice; the Pandavas were not prepared for that. He said this to Arjuna in the battlefield when the latter told him how Duryodhana had thrust a war on them. Yudhisthira called the Kurukshetra war “dharma yuddha” because of the cause (from his point of view); Duryodhana also called it “dharma yuddha” but not because of the cause. He certainly did not believe that he had entered the battlefield with the banner of adharma. For him, it was dharma yuddha because the entire war field had become sacred on account of the Avatara’s presence there. He would be the witness to who was following dharma in the battlefield and who was not. This is what Duryodhana had told the Pandavas when the two sides had met to work out a war code to ensure that the fight between brothers did not sink to the level of barbarism.

Draupadi had Dussasana’s blood all over her and a little of it touched her mouth as it flowed down from her head. It had to happen to her. Dussasana perished for his karma. Neither of them remembered their past. In the aeon of Truth (Satya Yuga), Dussasana, as Sudraka Brahma, had committed papa against goddess Ketuka, now born as Draupadi, in the aeon of Dwapara. Bhishma most willingly paid for the wrong he had done to Amba, then born as Shikhandi. During the war, one day, he pleaded with Krishna to allow Shikhandi to become the cause of his fall. Bhima fell to his death because Yudhisthira did not want him to go to Swarga, the abode of the gods, in his mortal form. He was prone to violence and was wicked; Yudhisthira ensured that he perished in the mountains. Granting his wish, goddess Hingula tore Bhima to pieces. And Yudhisthira went to Swarga, not because he wanted to, but because Krishna wanted him to go to there without passing through death.

Arjuna won the archery test because Krishna wanted him to win, Abhimanyu was killed because Krishna had assured the divine, which Abhimanyu really was, that he would return to Swarga the day he turned fourteen. So he had to engineer his death. Only Sahadeva knew about it. Gandhari wanted to destroy Yudhisthira but ended up destroying her son, Durdasa, who had survived the war and these happened on account of Krishna’s intervention. Duryodhana became king because of Krishna; only Vidura, Sakuni and Sanjaya knew that the Pandavas had not perished in the fire in the lac palace. Krishna had made Vidura, Sakuni and Sanjaya promise to him not to divulge the truth about the Pandavas. They betrayed King Dhritarashtra and the kingdom of Hastinapura but kept their word to the Avatara. Under the impression that the Pandavas were dead, Bhishma and other Kuru elders agreed to King Dhritarashtra’s proposal for Duryodhana’s coronation. Bhima dealt mortal blows to Duryodhana, not with his mace, but Vishnu’s, whose complete manifestation, Purna Avatara, Krishna was. No one knew. All in all, whatever happened in the world of Sarala Mahabharata, happened because of Krishna’s will. All who died in the battlefield of Kurukshetra were killed by Krishna’s divine chakra; humans in their illusion thought that they were the agents.  They were not even instruments. That was the lila of Krishna.

In Sarala Mahabharata, no one was entirely vicious and completely dedicated to adharma; no one was entirely without moral blemish and totally committed to dharma. In this retelling, the issue of the succession to the throne of Hastinapura was complex; the claims of both the Kauravas and the Pandavas for the throne were not without substance. Outsiders’ interventions complicated the issue further. The kingdom of Hastinapura was never divided formally, although the Pandavas and the Kauravas were living separately; the former in Varunavanta and the latter, in Hastinapura. Thus, Yudhisthira lost much wealth, which he had got as gift at the time of his wedding from Drupada and later from the kings who participated in the rajaswiya jajna he had performed, but he lost no kingdom as such in the first game of dice. Dhritarashtra returned whatever he had lost, not as the king of Hastinapura, which he was not then, as mentioned above, but as the Kuru elder.  

These are only a few of the numerous differences between Vyasa Mahabharata and Sarala Mahabharata. Keeping the basic story intact, Sarala introduced innovations into the narrative. He re-imagined the characters and their interactions and the situations in which they were involved and produced the masterpiece of a narrative that was as convincing and coherent as the original. The innovations reflected the poet’s understanding of the human condition, the possibility of agency in a pre-determined world, karma and the inevitability of experiencing the fruits of it, the role of grace in the karmic framework, the nature of dharma, inner and external obstacles for living a life of dharma, divine intervention in the affairs of the mortals and the nature of Purna Avatara, among much else. The poet reflected on the place of war in a society, its inherent sinfulness as blood of the innocents flowed in the battlefield inevitably and the possibilities of there being alternatives to it.

A very innovative idea in Sarala Mahabharata concerns the question of why one must practice dharma. For Yudhisthira, the embodiment of dharma on earth and as such, the mouthpiece of “dharma” in the narrative, it is not for a life in Swarga after death, it is not to attain Swarga without passing through death, it is not even to escape the cycle of life and death and attain immortality; one must live a virtuous life because when he is gone, the future generations will talk about him as a follower of dharma – katha rahithiba (Word / The story will remain) as Sarala puts it. This is nothing short of a revolutionary point of view on the matter in the context of our puranic literature.

Perhaps the most creative concept in Sarala Mahabharata is that of Purna Avatara. Sarala explores the idea of the fullest manifestation of God in a human form, defined in terms of inclinations such as satwa, raja(s) and tama(s). Sarala conceptualized Purna Avatara as the one who has Self-Knowledge – knowledge that none has, neither gods nor mortals; as the one who embodies the ultimate expression of each of these gunas, which makes him, at the same time, the most spectacular among the created beings in satwic terms and the meanest of the humans in the tamasic terms. In him are manifest the most glaring contradictions. In none in the Creator god Brahma’s creation do these contradictions exist in non-conflicting togetherness.

This truly remarkable work has not yet been translated fully into any language. It seems that more than a hundred years ago, parts of it were translated into Bengali but this translation is unavailable now. In the recent years, the first two Parvas have been translated into Hindi and parts of two other Parvas, into English.

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