Articles and Reviews

Monday, November 29, 2010

Oral Mahabharatas and Varnashrama Discourse -Part 5

On the basis of the analysis attempted till now of the Bharatha-narratives, both written and oral, the following  conclusions could be hazarded:

(1)     Of the three categories of Bharatha-narratives, those in the second category (the post-Vyasa Bharathas in different Indian languages) can surely be seen as ‘ alternative’ or ‘counter’ or ‘subversive’ narratives.  For, consciously, either owing to the poet’s different religion or regionality, the post-Vyasa Bharathas oppose and reject / qualify the ‘varnashrama ideology’ of the Vyasa Bharatha.  Their opposition to that ideology may take any number of forms: rejection of Draupadi’s polyandry, portrayal of Karna as a noble but ill-fated tragic character, humanization of Duryodhana, rejection of miraculous incidents (divine origin of the birth of Pandavas), etc.

     Could we say the same thing about oral Bharatha-narratives and designate them as ‘counter’ or ‘subversive’ narratives?  Although critics like Hiltebrand would like to consider them as subversive, their position does not seem to be tenable. 19  For, to be ‘subversive’ or to produce ‘counter narratives,’ the authors of such narratives have to have a prior knowledge of the ‘original’ narrative and the ideology that it is based on.  All the singers / performers of oral Bharatha-narratives are ‘illiterate’ in the general sense of the term and they will not have heard of, let alone read, either the Vyasa Bharatha or other Bharathas.  Their Bharatha- narratives are different only because their values, social system and world-view are different.  Hence, we have to accept the fact that oral narratives like Bhil Bharath and Janapada Mahabharatha are only different versions,  and not subversions. 

( 2 )  The oral mode of communication by itself  gives birth to  certain differences between the oral and literary versions (inclusion of ‘seemingly irrelevant’ inset-stories, praise of the secondary singers, etc.).

(3) Most of the oral narratives have a ritualistic function also in the communities in which they are born; hence they contain elaborate descriptions of certain community-specific rites and rituals.

(4)  Even when the tribes and communities receive a pan-Indian story, they make it their own; and through it they  record their beliefs and  fears, their customs and their history.   Hence, we find references, even at the cost of anachronism,  to local legends and  practices,  local customs, and local history in the oral narratives. 

( 5 )   Most importantly,  the major divergences between the oral and written Bharatha-traditions are the result of different ideologies and social structures.  Hence, we find in oral Bharatha-narratives a Draupadi of unknown parentage, Karna shorn of his tragic grandeur (to be found in the ‘counter Bharathas), Krishna-Abhimanyu antagonism, and  motifs of incest.

Also, certain exclusions in the oral tradition are meaningful.  There is no incident of ‘disrobing of Draupadi publicly’ since it is too embarrassing for a tribal mind and  no burning of Khandavavana since forest-dwellers do not believe in a man-centered world-view.  There is no Kurukshetra war (excepting Abhimanyu’s war and death)  since the rural-tribal mind cannot conceive of a large-scale war in which thousands of soldiers are killed and  no philosophical sermons like the Gitopadesha, since the philosophy of life to which the tribal people subscribe is entirely different from that of the Varnashrama system.

( 6 )    Since oral narratives, unlike the written ones,  change from generation to generation and singer to singer, they are more prone to the influence of new cults  and cult-practices.  The influence of the Shakta cult is visible in the portrayal of Draupadi as demon / goddess of destruction (as in the portrayal of Sita in certain oral Ramayanas) because the Shakta / Tantric cults, being non-Vaidic, were more popular among the rural people and forest dwellers.

     The ingenious ways in which different cultures and communities in India have found the Bharatha / Ramayana narratives  a suitable site  to register their own identity, anxieties and aspirations, and beliefs and values can best be illustrated with a reference to a curious oral narrative called Pandu ka Kara, the only ‘Muslim’ Bharatha in India.  According to Shail Mayaram, who brought this narrative to light, there is a community called ‘Meo’ in Hariyana and north-eastern Rajasthan, which has cultivated a double identity of its own – the Muslim and Rajput identity.  20  Pandu ka Kara,  it seems, is the most popular narrative of the community; and both its legitimate performers and audience are Muslims.  But they acknowledge  Rama and Krishna as their ancestors.   In this Bharath-narrative, Gorakhnath, called ‘Fakir,’ plays a major role; he gives childless Kunti and Gandhari barley-grains sanctified by his blessings,  and, as a result,  Pandavas and Kauravas are born.  The  point to be noticed  is that Gorakhnath here combines in him the roles of   both ‘Jogi’ and ‘Fakir.’    In other words, this Bharatha-narrative is a telling illustration of how both the Hindu and Muslim cultures have found the Bharata-story a suitable canvas to register  their mutual relationships and multiple identity. 

     The peregrinations of cultural-literary forms in India and the local textures they acquire are so varied and continuous that, arguably, they best  represent the Spirit of India if one can formulate such a huge abstraction.


1             This is the refrain from Bhil Bharath.  This was sung by Nathubhayi Bhurabhayi and collected by Bhagavandas Patel.  Tr. into Hindi by Mrudula Pareek, Bhilon ka Bharath ( New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 2000).  I have followed the Hindi translation.  The refrain means ‘ Ages pass, but the story continues.’

2            A. K. Ramanujan, “ Three hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation,” in Vinay Dharwadkar, ed. The Collected Essays of A. K. Ramanujan ( New Delhi: Oxford Univ. Press, 1999), p. 157.        
3             Aruna Joshi, “ Aesthetics of Oral Narratives,” unpublished essay, pp. 2-3.

4             Introduction, Bhilon Ka Bharath, pp. viii-ix.

5             Coll. L. R. Hegade, Janapada Mahabharathada Kathegalu (Kumta: Jnyanasadhana Granthamale, 1980).

6             Janapada Mahabharatha, sung by Bettadabidu and collected by   P. K. Rajashekhara  (Mysore: Honnaru Janapada Gayakaru, 2004).

7             Gondara Ramayana, sung by Thimmappa Gonda and collected by Hi. Chi. Boralingaiah (Kannada University, Hampi: Prasaranga, 1999).

8             Romila Thapar, “ The Historian and the Epic,” Annals of BORI , Lx, Poona, 1979, p. 201.

9             Hampa Nagarajayya, “ Jaina Bharathagala Vaishishtya,”  Saptahika Vijaya, dt. 11/12/05, p. 4.
10         ‘Karaga’ is an annual festival popular in Tamilnadu and Southern Karnataka.  Those who observe this ritual-festival are called ‘Thigala’ and they claim they belong to  Vanhi kula.  The ritual consists of fire-walking, sword fight, and a long procession in which the priest dressed as a woman carries a Kalasha ( symbolic of a virgin woman) on his head.  Alf Hiltebeitel relates this Karaga festival with the cult of Draupadi on the one hand and on the other Draupadi of Mahabharatha.

11          Junjappa, is a long oral epic of the ‘forest cowherds,’ sung by Dasappa and collected by Chaluvaraju (Kannada Univ., Hampi: Prasaranga, 1997).

12         In a medieval Mahabharatha in Kannada by Kumaravyasa, this incident is changed to just overhearing of a conversation between Bhishma and his step-mother, by his two step-brothers.

13         L. R. Hegade, introduction, p. iii (Sumner, p. 286).

14         Gaurish Kaikini, Samagra Sahitya, Vol. 10 (Ankola: Shree Raghavendra Prakashana, 2002), pp. 160-161.

15         Alf Hiltebeitel, Rethinking India’s Oral and Classical Epics: Draupadi Among Rajputs, Muslims & Dalits   (Chicago & London: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1999), p. 500.  The full quotation runs thus: “ Evidently Draupadi, or the supreme Sakti ( also known as Mahadevi) in becoming draupadi, did not have enough human flesh and blood to satiate her.”

16         Shail Mayaram, “ Meos of Mewat,” in India Together, 4/1/2006, pp. 2-3.

17         Pampa is the first epic poet in Kannada and he lived in the 10th century.  For further details, see: ed. TRS Sharma, Ancient Indian Literature, Vol. Three (New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 2000), pp. 430-489.

18         Kumaravyasa Bharatha,   1: 20: 67.

19         Alf Hiltebeitel, pp. 7-9.

20         Shail Mayaram, p. 3.

Dr. C. N. Ramachandran                             

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