I am rephrasing a question a young researcher-participant at a Sarala Mahabharata conference asked me the other day: what purpose – narrative, philosophical, aesthetic, etc. – does the episode of “The Mango of Truth” serve in Sarala’s Mahabharata? It was heartening that he was thinking beyond the familiar enumeration of the differences between Vyasa’s Mahabharata and Sarala’s Mahabharata that broadly describes most of Sarala Mahabharata scholarship so far. The following is a reconstruction of a meandering conversation we had that afternoon.
The episode of “The Mango of Truth” does not occur in Vyasa Mahabharata. It is not unique to Sarala Mahabharata, although sometimes it has been claimed to be so by some Sarala scholars of Odisha; a marginally different version of this episode occurs in the Bengali Kashidasi Mahabharata, for example. The poet Kashiram Das was influenced by Sarala’s retelling of Vyasa Mahabharata and it is possible that the source of his story of the fruit of truth was Sarala’s story of the mango of truth. This story occurs in this blog: saralamahabharat.blogspot.com; it was posted on 9.6.2008. I feel there is no need to summarise it here.
This episode is only loosely connected, in my view, with Sarala’s narrative of the Kurus and it does not contribute to the development of the plot. Nor does it throw any new light on the characters or contribute to their development. For some, the main objective of the episode is to punish Draupadi for her arrogance. From their point of view, she was punished when she belittled herself by declaring, in front of her husbands, sage Vyasa and the Avatara himself, a flaw on her part in her dealing with her husbands. In one version of Sarala Mahabharata, she said that although she had five husbands, she cherished Arjuna the most. In another version of the same text (contained in some palm leaf manuscripts or pothis), she said that despite her having five husbands, she felt inclined towards Karna. In yet another, the reason for her attraction is given: it is in women’s nature, she observed, to be attracted towards handsome males and Karna’s handsomeness was the reason for her attraction towards him.
In Sarala’s retelling, Draupadi could be harsh and unforgiving, but boastful and arrogant? That she certainly was not. There is no clear evidence in the text for this. She said that she was fonder of Arjuna than she was of her other four husbands but that was only in her mind; her action did not show her partiality toward Arjuna at all. None of her husbands ever even mentioned this, let alone complained about it. On her part, she too had not complained against any of her husbands with regard to the way each of them had treated her. It is not in Sarala Mahabharata that she expressed a wish while dying that in their next life, Bhima be born as the eldest brother.
It is in the Swargarohana Parva of the canonical version in Sanskrit that Yudhisthira said that Draupadi had fallen because she had been partial towards Arjuna in terms of affection. Not in Sarala Mahabharata; here he blamed her for being unforgiving. True, the ignoramus Kauravas had humiliated her, but for the embodiment of Dharma, there was no humiliation that could not be forgiven.
Now, what Draupadi said was her secret. The narrative, till then, had provided not even the slightest hint about her special feelings for Arjuna (or Karna, as in some other versions of Sarala Mahabharata). But then it did not exploit it for the development of the plot or for a deeper exploration of Draupadi’s character. It just left it as it was.
By the way, this episode is not to be taken as confessional; such a reading is not in tune with the text. The Avatara told the Pandavas and Draupadi that each of them must pronounce something that was true about him or her: nirutanta satya kahiba chhadiba je mithya prakruti (roughly, “you will speak the truth and not tell anything that is untrue”). He did not ask them to reveal some dark secret of theirs – some serious indiscretion or sin, in thought or in action. That was not necessary for the ripe mango of truth to materialize. Yudhisthira said that he was committed to a virtuous life, that he spoke the truth and did not hurt the living, but would fight for his share of the kingdom. That is, his commitment to non-violence was not total. Should this be taken as an admission of his moral weakness, he being the very embodiment of virtue in the world of the mortals? Or merely as the statement of a fact? Given that the Avatara hadn’t asked him to confess but only say some truth about himself, it is entirely appropriate to interpret it as a “statement of fact”.
Let’s see what Sahadeva said. He said that he knew the past, the present and the future but would not volunteer to tell anyone about what was awaiting him (or her) or what had happened to him in an earlier existence: janikari na kahai muhin… (roughly, “I know but do not tell…”). He would tell only when asked and no one who asked him would suffer, he said. Incidentally, in Sarala Mahabharata, he was not constrained not to tell anyone on his own what would happen or to tell someone what would happen, even when asked, although that was what he almost always did. This is no place for a detailed discussion of this matter so; let us leave it here.
In Swargarohana Parva, Yudhisthira called him a great sinner who knew the future but would not tell. Had he told him what were going to happen, what all happened would not have happened. But when Sahadeva told Krishna about it, was he confessing, did he have a sense of guilt about it? Neither his words nor the tone of his declaration even remotely suggests this. What he told the Avatara is best interpreted as a statement of fact. The same would hold for what Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula and Draupadi had pronounced about themselves.
However, the episode, undoubtedly, has great interest value and it would be no exaggeration to say that it has appealed to the imagination of generations of Odias including those not really familiar with Sarala Mahabharata and has almost become part of Odia cultural consciousness, almost like Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda or Salabega’s bhajans (devotional songs). One might suggest that this itself must count as justification enough for its occurrence in the narrative. This apart, aren’t loosely connected episodes a characteristic feature of epics and puranas? So, wherefore the fuss?
Let’s linger a while on this episode and rethink it, taking a clue from Sarala’s repeated assertions throughout his Mahabharata that it is Vishnu Purana. As he used the story of the Kurus to expatiate on the lila of Krishna, it became almost “krishna charita bhagavata (“Bhagavata, the story of Krishna”, to quote the words of Jagannath Das, the author of Srimad Bhagabata in Odia); at least in spirit. As he narrated the lila of Krishna, he created stories of the Avatara’s doings, which were not there in the Sanskrit puranic texts on the subject. The story of the mango of truth is one such. It is not really the Pandavas’ story or Draupadi’s. It is Krishna’s story. With the power of the Pandavas’ and Draupadi’s truth, he had made the impossible possible, and with the power of his own lies, which, he told the fake sage, were all true, he destroyed what truth had created and thereby restored normalcy in Brahma’s creation. There is no point asking whether the mango that truth had created was real or only appeared to be real and what Krishna destroyed by uttering falsehood in the name of truth was unreal or real.
Viewed thus, as the narration of a lila of Krishna in what Sarala called “Vishnu Purana”, the episode is not loosely connected with the narrative but is indeed an integral part of it.
A thought just to close: Sarala’s audience might or might not have been troubled over whether the mango was real or only an appearance but I imagine they must have returned home that day feeling divinely happy, which is the real phla shruti of listening to the lila of Krishna.