Friday, June 29, 2012


There are many Mahabharatas, and "Sarala Mahabharata", composed by Sarala Dasa in Odia in the fifteenth century, is one of them. Mahabharatas, composed in local languages, have received neglect from Mahabharata scholars in general. Just as the so-called “dialects”, whether regional or social, are often viewed negatively by the speakers of the so-called “standard dialect”, the local language retellings of the Mahabharata have been viewed similarly negatively. Many of these deviate from the canonical text and for that reason tend to be regarded as rather adulterated. But the same is not exactly true of at least some of the many Ramayanas. Tulsi Dasa’s "Ram Charit Manas", for instance, is held in great reverence.  Ram’s – the most exceptional human’s - story (charita) became a sacred text when Ram came to be viewed as an avatara of Vishnu; no version of Mahabharata in contrast ever became a sacred text in popular perception. It has not been viewed as Krishna’ story; when Vyasa decided to compose Krishna’s story, he composed "Srimad Bhagavata". “Krishna charita bhagabata” (Bhagavata is Krishna’s story), as the saying goes in Odia. Despite his emphatic presence in the narrative, Krishna remains a secondary character in the story of Mahabharata, which is primarily the story of the Kuru clan. In Odisha, as elsewhere in the country, it is believed that one must not keep a copy of the Mahabharata at home because it leads to quarrel in the family. There is no Mahabharata parayana (ritual recitation of Mahabharata) in at least Odisha. Jaha nahi bharate, taha nahi bharate (Whatever is not there in the Mahabharata is not there in Bharata) is a popular saying in Odia, yet, there are very few temples and bhagabata gharas (one-roomed houses in many villages in Odisha) where any version of Mahabharata is worshipped or regularly recited. Sarala Dasa retold the story of Mahabharata so as to make it Krishna’s story as much as possible, and even called his version “Vishnu Purana”, but there never were some mentionable number of takers of his purana claims for his retelling.

Sarala Dasa was a devotee of goddess Sarala, which is how he came to be known as Sarala, as the legend goes. He is celebrated as the adi kavi (the first poet) of Odia literature, although he was not really the first poet; many trace the origin of Odia literature to the carya poems of the tenth century. He is indisputably the first major Odia poet. With him started the rich tradition of Odia puranic literature. Of the three puranas that he composed, Mahabharata is unquestionably his most creative, most profound and most popular work, and is generally known as Sarala Mahabharata. He remains the greatest storyteller in the rich history of Odia literature.

Sarala Mahabharata is not a translation of the canonical text in Sanskrit, namely Vyasa’s Mahabharata. Sarala retold the story in Odia, as had done many others before him in other Indian languages, and many did after him. The root form of the verb for what he did is lekh (write); we say “he wrote Mahabharata in Odia”. One with a highly creative, myth-making imagination, he reconceptualised the story and composed a really wonderful narrative. His version contains some episodes which do not occur in the canonical version and we do not find in his retelling some episodes that do in the classical narrative. Some episodes are conceptualized differently in his version. Some parvas (cantos) are shorter than in the canonical version (Shanti Parva), and some longer (Mousala Parva - Musali in Sarala Mahabharata). These apart, in certain ways he has localized the narrative; the Pandavas came to Odisha on pilgrimage and went right up to what is now known as Bhubaneswar, and Yudhisthira married an Odia girl. The canonical version is said to contain about one lakh couplets, and Sarala’s, one lakh and forty thousand. To the best of my knowledge Sarala Mahabharata has not yet been translated into any language.

Although Sarala Dasa is revered as the adi kavi of Odia literature, not many today are familiar with his work. It is as though reverence for the poet has brought neglect for his work. An important reason could be that his work has not been properly disseminated. There is, for example, no short version of Sarala Mahabharata or a collection of stories from it or a modern rendering of it; if there is any of these, it is not available in the market.  No one in Odisha, unless it is part of his profession, knows his Mahabharata from Sarala.  Ask someone in Odisha about the disrobing of Draupadi, the chances are that he will describe it as it occurs in Vyasa Mahabharata. It is extremely unlikely that he will tell the story as it is occurs in Sarala Mahabharata. He will say how Krishna provided clothes to Draupadi, but this is not Sarala’s version, in which god Surya’s consorts draped Draupadi with those unending pieces of divine saris. Ask him about Sakuni. He is far more likely to say that because of his love for Duryodhana he had the Pandavas exiled for long twelve years, etc. than that he really wanted to take revenge on Duryodhana, who had used deception to eliminate his parents and relatives in a cruel manner. There is a popular saying in Odia: ganga boile thibi, gangi boile jibi (as long as you call me Ganga, I will stay (with you), when you call me Gangi (a term of disrespect for Ganga), I will go.). Everybody knows this saying, but not many people know that it had its origin in Sarala Mahabharata.

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