“The Mahabharata (of Vyasa in Sanskrit) is like the infinite ocean …one cannot count the sands along the seashore. Yet I venture to retell the epic (in Oriya). The difference between the two works, however, is vast. I write what the Daughter of the Mountain, Goddess Sarala, dictates to me. Illiterate though, I am capable of composing the epic, thanks to the fact that I am gifted with the vision of a seer.”(Vana Parva: Sarala Mahabharata)
In the 16th century the ancient kalinga empire, the bulk of which later became known as Orissa, saw the end of the Ganga Dynasty and the beginning of the Solar Dynasty.
It was during the Ganga Age, known as the Golden Age in the history of kalinga, that the Oriya language formed out of a thorough churning of Sanskrit, Prakrit, Pali and the Dravidian elements, came of age. But the maturity and plasticity it arrived at in the 16th century speaks of a phenomenal progress.
The poet whose works bear the testimony of this progress, the genius who whipped up a lofty literature out of the language that prevailed over a vast domain, was Sarala Das.
Not much is known about the poet, his education and exploits. He belonged to the Jhankad area of Cuttack district and though a farmer, was enrolled as a soldier in the army of Kapilendra Dev, the founder of the new dynasty, who often went to war, either to defend his territory against the ambitious Bahmani kingdom and the Vijayanagar empire, or add to it. It was customary of the Oriya peasants to take to arms whenever the need arose. Sarala Das, however, seems to have got himself discharged early and settled down in his village.
There are legends galore to explain away the emergence of the poet out of the farmer-soldier; but each one attributes the transformation to the grace of Goddess Sarala, the ancient deity of the area.
Soon he had become known as the Shudramuni – a seer from the farming class. The appellation is significant, for it could not have been easy for the people to acclaim a non-Brahmin a seer. The ancient kalinga’s attitude to caste, however, was basically spiritual. Sri Jagannath of Puri, the presiding deity of the land, owes his origin to a symbol that was hereditarily worshipped by the chiefs of a hill tribe. Chief Visvavasu, from whose custody the symbol was brought to Puri, was accorded the status of a Brahmin. His descendents continue to be among the priests of Sri Jagannath.
Of Sarala Das’s three major works – the Vilanka Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and Sri Chandipurana – it is the Mahabharata which bears the stamp of a rare genius. As the prose-rendering of his statement that preludes this essay gives out, he was illiterate. It is the inspiration which he received from goddess Sarala that made him write the epic. He makes it clear that his is not a translation of the original work but an independent composition. He attributes his creative deviation from the original to the nature of the inspiration he received from the deity.
Deep must have been his own faith in this theory. Otherwise he would have felt it sacrilegious to take liberties with vyasa’s Mahabharata that is looked upon as a sacred scripture.
Indeed, his reconstructions of the characters and situations of the Sanskrit Mahabharata are remarkable for their power and imaginativeness. Here are two examples which are particularly striking.
In Vyasa’s work, Shakuni, the maternal uncle of the kauravas, is of course the evil genius behind the conflict between the Pandavas and the Kauravas add a novel dimension to the character by inventing (envisioning?) a strong raison d’être for his destructive propensities.
Duryodhana, for a wrong reason, had imprisoned all his maternal uncles as well as his maternal grandfather. The prisoners, shut up in a room, were intended to suffer a torturous passage to death with their food-ration reduced day by day.
The unfortunate prisoners, realizing Duryodhana’s sinister motive, took a grim decision. They let one of them live on the meagre food given to them so that he could one day avenge the cruelty done to them, and the rest starved themselves to a quicker death. The one that was to live was shakuni, known to be the cleverest and the most capable of them all.
Years passed. Duryodhana almost forgot his prisoners. One day, while walking in the street, he smiled to himself for a certain funny reason. A maid who was carrying food to the sole surviving prisoner, Shakuni committed the offence of sporting a smile at him.
“Impudence! What do you know about the reason of my smiling that you smiled? You live only if you can explain my smile by tomorrow, not otherwise!” bellowed Duryodhana.
Shakuni asked the maid why she looked sad. She let him know her plight. Through his window, Shakuni had observed the circumstance that caused Duryodhana’s smile. He tutored her what she was to tell her master.
As soon as Duryodhana heard the maid’s explanation, he knew that it could not be a product of her cerebration. Intrigued, he demanded to know the brain behind it. The maid had to give out the name.
The last living uncle caught Duryodhana’s fascination. He freed him at once and appointed him his counsellor.
The cunning Shakuni furrowed his way into Duryodhana’s affection, but never forgot his grim mission – to avenge what the tyrant-prince had done to his father and brothers. He knew that the only way to destroy Duryodhana and the cruel Kauravas was to set them against the Pandavas. He achieved his end, although himself fighting for the Kauravas. Till the end Duryodhana never suspected his motive.
The second example should speak of the poet’s capacity at creating drama. One of the last things Duryodhana did, when he realized in the concluding phase of the battle that his fate was sealed, was to warn his only son, Lakshmanasen, to flee from the battle. The brave son, at first reluctant though, yielded to his father’s wish.
It is a terrible hour when Duryodhana is trying to make good his escape. He comes across a river. It is no ordinary river, but one made of the unfathomable quantity of blood that has been shed in the battle. Numerous dead bodies are floating by, some of them were of his dear brothers and friends.
He tries to cross the river with the help of those floating corpses. But none of them can bear his weight. They go down, obliging Duryodhana to sink several times – in the river of blood!
However, at last he mounts on a corpse that does not fail him. It is that of a handsome, well-built, and slim young man floating with its face down. After dismounting on the other bank, Duryodhana gratefully turns it to see who it was.
Imagine his horror when he recognized in it his dear son Lakshmanasen, who had been killed while trying to escape.
The manner in which this dreadful scene and the tragic revelation have been presented has a unique charm about it. True to an epic poet’s need for a comprehensive understanding of his characters, the poet here brings out the helpless father in Duryodhana and wins for him the reader’s sympathy at least once.
Vyasa’s Mahabharata is the epic of India. Sarala Das’s work is an epic of India in its frame, but is an epic of Orissa in particular. A number of folktales popular in Orissa of his days – which contains in them some significant social or philosophical comment – have been knit into his work. Each character has got some typical local touch and the local places and deities have been brought in whenever possible.
Extraordinarily wide seems to have been the compass of the poet’s knowledge of a variety of lores such as Astrology, Yoga, Law, the Science of Warfare, etc. Equally expansive was his vocabulary which is a splendid synthesis of the speech at its various levels, beginning from highly sophisticated phraseology to the slang. Dandi Vritta the verse form he followed – a pattern grown out of the folk way of chanting verses, might not be his innovation, but the sublime status he could earn for it is an achievement par excellence. Perhaps no folk form has ever been imbued with such epic grandeur.