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Monday, November 22, 2010

Oral Mahabharatas and Varnashrama Discourse -Part 3

(3)  Janapada Mahabharatha: 6

     This narrative, as long as 36,000 lines, is  popular among the agricultural communities of Karnataka and chosen parts of it are performed during festivals and on special occasions.      Since the singer has been exposed to the traditional  Mahabharatha- story through films, plays, and Television, his narrative, consisting of both prose and poetry,  closely follows  the literary Bharatha-versions.  However, there are many significant variations and I give below only the variations.

(1)  Inset stories:  The independent stories of ‘Brahma Kapaal,’ ‘Bhimesh linga,’ ‘Gaya,’ ‘ Markandeya,’ and such are added to the main narrative.

(2)Regional / local details:  Festivals, rituals and practices such as ‘the Karaga ritual,’ ‘Konti worship,’ ‘ black-magic of Keralites, ‘the geneology of the Jogi community,’ and such, prevalent mostly in the southern part of Karnataka, find their place in the narrative.

(3)Characters: At the level of  characters, those of Draupadi, Krishna’s nephews, and Vichitravira stand out as totally different from those found in the literary versions of the Bharatha-story. 

     In this narrative, Draupadi is the incarnation of the goddess ‘Adi Shakti’; after Dharmaraya loses everything, she takes his place in the game of dice and wins back everything;     Even the final victory in the Kurukshetra war becomes possible only due to her powers.
    Krishna has three nephews: the sons of Subhadra, Hidimbaa, and Urisingi; and Krishna considers all of them  his enemies and conspires to get them killed in the Kurukshetra war.
     Vichitravira suspects his own mother’s behaviour with Bhishma; later repents, and commits suicide jumping into fire.

(4)  Incidents:  The test in ‘Draupadi swayamvar’ is not shooting the fish (‘matsya bhedan’) but shooting down an iron crow that used to trouble Draupadi’s father.  (The same incident occurs in ‘Gonda Ramayana’ also.) 7   At the end of the narrative, the Pandavas attempt to cross a huge and swollen river called ‘Seela’ and do not climb the Himalayas to reach Heaven.

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     According to the consensus among scholars,  during the third and fourth centuries before the Christian era, a popular narrative called “Jaya,”  consisting of 20,000 couplets in Sanskrit and  based on the oral tales prevalent then, was composed by a great sage-poet called Vyasa; and this narrative grew in course of time through additions and elaborations to become “Bharatha” and still later, probably in the ‘Puranik period, to become The Mahabharatha that we have today, consisting of one hundred thousand lines.    Broadly, we can consider all the Bharatha-narratives in three categories: Vyasa Bharatha in Sanskrit; adaptations and retellings of the Bharatha-story in different Indian languages; and oral or folk Bharatha-narratives in different Indian languages.  Let us first consider Vyasa’s work.

(1)  Vyasa Bharatha:
     What is called the ‘original’ or ‘Vyasa Bharatha’ today is at once history, philosophy and literature.  It is a compendium of different stories and incidents, philosophical treatises,  and descriptions of varied rituals and practices. 

     In her essay, “ The Historian and the Epic,” Romila Thapar argues that there are at least two different traditions incorporated into what is called ‘Vyas Bharatha’ and explains the two traditions thus:

      One was the earlier, narrative layer reciting a series of stories based on bardic material.  The other consisted of a number of didactic sections relating to the raja-dharma, moksha dharma, and the practices of different sections of society, which drew ostensibly on the dharmashastra literature and which were interpolated into the epic at later periods.  The rationale for these interpretations would be that with the conversion of the epic into sacred literature, it was necessary that it also incorporates discussions on ethical norms and the definitions of authority both temporal and sacred. 8    

(1) Adaptations and Retellings:
     From time to time, owing to the socio-political changes in the Indian society and consequent changes in the  literary-religious discourses, the Vyasa Bharatha was re-told in various Indian languages.  These include such literary works like Vikramarjuna Vijaya and Karnata Bharatha Kathamanjari (in Kannada), Villi Bharatha (in Tamil), and Andhra Bharatha (in Telugu).

     Among such retellings of the Bharatha after Vyasa, one can discern two broad traditions: the Bhagawata tradition and the Jaina tradition.  The Bharatha-narratives of the Bhagawata-tradition follow Vyasa closely though they are Krishna-centered and propagate devotion to Krishna.  The Bharatha-narratives of the Jaina-tradition differ from those in the Bhagawata tradition, primarily, in the following aspects:

     (1)  Draupadi is the wife of only Arjuna, not of all the five  brothers; (2)  including Karna, all the Pandavas are born to Kunti in the natural manner, not due to  divine intervention; (3) Kunti comes to know that Karna is her son from a sage; (4)  Karna does not die on the battlefield; he retires to a forest called ‘Sudarshana’ and becomes    a Jaina monk; (5)  Shri Krishna is Vasudeva (Narayana) and Jarasandha is ‘prati-Vasudeva’;  hence he is killed by Vasudeva; (6)  There is neither ‘disrobing of Draupadi’ episode nor does her husband stake her in the dice game;  (7)  and there is no ‘death of Kichaka in the hands of Bhima.’  9    

(2) The Bharatha-narratives in the Oral Tradition:
      Admittedly,  there has always been mutual influence between the oral and the written traditions; each has borrowed from the other.  Still, there are significant divergences between the oral and written Bharatha-narratives due to their value-systems and world-views.

(a )  Performance Features:      First, owing to their mode of communication itself, there are many inbuilt differences between the two traditions.   Since oral narratives are  performance-oriented, the composition of the audience, the duration of performance and the mood of the audience determine the nature of the ‘performance-text.’  Often, either to relieve the boredom of the audience or to bring in variety, singers are forced to introduce certain ‘inset stories’ not directly related to the main story.  Instances of such ‘inset stories’ in the oral Bharatha-narratives (introduced earlier) are the ‘Dharamabayi’ and Radha-Krishna’ episodes in Bhil Bharathah; the incidents involving adventures to get rare flowers from Heaven like ‘Kamandalu flower’ and ‘Janna chattari flower’ in Janapada Mahaabhaarata Kathegalu; and the independent stories of Chinmatha, Markandeya, Gaya, etc. in Janapada Mahaabhaaratha.  Most of these stories are either fairy tales or humorous or instances of Bhakti.  However, what is clear is that the audience-orientation of oral narratives demands a critical  approach different from that of the written narratives.

     This point is borne out by the fact that an entire section in Bhil Bharath  is devoted to the praise of raagiyas  or secondary singers (section 7).  It is obvious that unless the secondary singers also share the same enthusiasm of the primary singer (Bhopo), no performance can be a success.

(b)  Ritualistic Aspect: Secondly, most of the oral narratives are a part of major rituals of the communities which give birth to them.  Hence, certain incidents and details that may appear irrelevant to the outsiders may have a religious /ritualistic significance for the concerned communities.

     For instance, there is a long episode in Bhl Bharathah called “ Pandavonka Senetara Yagnya.”  The major motif of this episode  is ‘the importance of the Guru’ in any ceremony.   At the time of Pandu’s death,  the Guru of Draupadi, Haragura, was not invited for the ceremonies; and hence they failed.  Now, when the sons of Pandu are performing again the post-death ceremonies of Pandu,  Haragura and others have to be invited; and some precious things like ‘virgin gold,’ ‘new soil,’ ‘ virgin water,’ and ‘one sold by one’s wife’ have to be got by the Pandavas.

     If we notice that this episode is sung during the post-death rituals of the Bhil tribe, we realize why certain incidents and ceremonies unrelated to the Bharatha-story enter oral Bharatha-narratives.

( c )  Texture of local culture and practices:  In the oral tradition, be it The Ramayana or The MahaBharatha, it inhabits the world known  to the community which gives birth to it, and it includes their beliefs and practices and the legends surrounding the places familiar to the community.   Such localization is an important aspect of the oral narratives, distinguishing them from literary narratives.

     The Janapada MahaBharatha in Kannada contains many incidents and details related to agriculture.  For instance, whereas Kunti is the daughter of a king called Kuntibhoja in literary works, in this narrative she is the daughter of the Earth.  The narrative designates her as ‘dhaanyalakshmi’ (‘the goddess of food-grains’) and relates her to an annual ritual, prevalent in Southern Karnataka, called ‘Konti Pooje’ (‘worship of Konti’).  Similarly, when Kunti performs a ritual called ‘Gajagauri Vrata,’ Kubera, the god of wealth, carefully gathers all the food-grains from the cattle-waste, because ‘food-grains are more precious than pearls’;  one Muddegowda invites Bhima to work in his fields when the Pandavas are in the city of Bakasura;
Draupadi, working as a maid in the palace of king Virata, creates onions on the earth so that, while peeling its layers, Bhima, working as a cook there, may remember everyday the tears shed by her; etc.  All such details pertaining to agriculture and farming find a place in the narrative  because both the singer and his legitimate audience are rural farmers.

     In the same vein, the Kannada narrative  incorporates in its body a local festival called ‘Karaga,’ which is practiced by the ‘followers of the Draupadi cult.’ 10 Not only many recent towns in Karnataka and legends surrounding them find a place in that  narrative, but also even modern people like Sir M. Vishweshwaraiah find a place there.   Arjuna in his wanderings enters once a ‘Muslim lane’ and many Bharatha-characters use English words.  What all these instances prove is that ‘the oral narratives follow their own logic, anachronism or not.’

     However,  even within the inner core, there are significant divergences between the oral and literary Bharatha-narratives; and these appear to be defined by the different ideologies of the communities which give birth to the narratives in both the traditions.

     The three oral narratives I have chosen for study in this paper are born in  communities which are so distanced from one another both linguistically and geographically that communication among them is almost unimaginable.  Still, there are striking similarities among all the three oral Bharatha-narratives, different from the literary ones of the same region and same language.   

For instance:
(i) Maternal uncle-nephew confrontation: 
      All the three oral narratives considered here reflect Krishna’s enemity toward his  nephew/s.  In Bhil Bharath, we are told that a demon called Eko enters the womb of Subhadra and later is born to her as Abhimanyu.  Even before he is born, Krishna wishes to destroy him.  When Abhimanyu gets ready to go to the battlefield, Krishna sees to it that his wife Uttara does not meet him to consummate her marriage with Abhimanyu.  Also, even in the actual war, Krishna arranges things in such a way that Abhimanyu has to die.  Similarly, in both the Kannada narratives, Krishna begins to dislike Abhimanyu (and other nephews) as soon as he is / they are born, since he knows that it is his enemy-demon that is in the womb of his / their mothers’ womb/s.  In fact in one, Krishna specifically declares that “ as soon as the baby is born, its neck should be broken.”

     But, in none of the literary Bharathas including the one by Vyasa, do we find Krishna antagonistic toward his nephew/s.

     The reason for this difference seems to be that before the Hindu society shifted to the Patriarchal social system which, incidentally, has shaped all the literary narratives, there existed the Matriarchal system throughout India.  (Even today, at least in theory, the Nayar-Tuluva-Gonda societies are matriarchal.)  Since in a matriarchal society the right of ancestral property passes on from mother to daughter and since the mother’s brother, generally, looks after and maintains the property, it is but natural that either direct or suppressed animosity exists between the maternal uncle and his nephew.  Of course, the archetypal depiction of such animosity is in the Bhagawata itself which records Krishna’s eventual destruction of his uncle Kamsa.  The entire folk epic Junjappa, which belongs to the community of ‘forest cowherds,’ (and Krishna is a cowherd) narrates the constant and continued struggle of Junajappa against his seven uncles. 11  Arguably, the folk Bharathas reflect a matriarchal society which pits the maternal uncle against his nephew.

(ii) Fear of Incest:  All the three oral narratives show the sons’ suspicion of their mother’s behaviour with one of them. 

      In Bhil Bharath , after Shantanu dies leaving behind his young wife, Gangeya (son of Shantanu and Ganga) looks after her; and this situation causes suspicion in the minds of Chitravirya and Vichitravirya.  But when they realize that their suspicions are groundless, they plunge themselves into fire and commit suicide.  In the Kannada narrative (J. B. K.),  Aadashi (Vyasa)  is seen talking to his step-mother at midnight by his brothers.  They suspect their step-mother; but later they are full of remorse for their sin (of suspecting their own ‘mother’), jump into fire and commit suicide.

     But this incident is completely absent from both Vyasa Bharatha and other literary Bharathas. 12
     Probably, prior to the written Bharatha-narratives, there could have been stories about some incestuous relationship in some royal family.  Vyasa Bharatha and other later Bharatha-narratives could have suppressed this incident since they found it against Vaidic or Varnashrama values.  But, the oral Bharatha-narratives, outside the Varnashrama-system, could have retained, however indirectly, the incest-motif.

(3) Eating  the Corpse:
     Both the Kannada oral Bharathas depict a curious incident: while JBK shows all the Pandavas eating the corpse of Pandu, their dead father,  JM shows only Sahadeva eating the small finger of the corpse and thereby acquiring knowledge of past and future.
     According to Dr. L. R. Hegade, this incident is a fossil of a primitive custom; and he quotes a sociological work, Folkways by Sumner in support of his idea. 13  I am not sure whether this incident in the oral narratives should be taken literally, or symbolically of the sons’ inheriting the knowledge of their forefathers.

Dr. C.N. Ramachandran

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