The other day, I was having an online chat with a friend on the Hindu epic, Mahabharata. What began as a friendly discussion soon transformed into a heated argument, much akin to the tumultuous story of the epic itself. In the end, we decided to agree to disagree, lest our old friendship goes for a toss over a bunch of dead people. But what led to such an end?
Basically, we were chatting about the marital lives of the various characters of the epic. With utmost confidence, my friend had declared, “Karna was a one-woman-man, unlike his ‘womanizer’ counterpart Arjun, who had sooooooooo many wives.”
Now, for a passionate semi-purist, that was quite a provocation! Instantly, I quoted her verses from the Critical Edition as well as non-Critical versions of the epic. Karna, the great warrior was as polygamous as most other men of his era. The idea of him being “Patnivrata” is but an interpretation of modern writers and his ardent admirers. But, my friend refused to budge. At last, I asked her, “What is the source of your information?”
“My grandmother,” came her instant reply. “Dadi knew a lot about Mahabharata.”
Childhood memories spent with grandparents are indeed too precious. How to tap into a mind whose opinion of Karna-Arjun is deeply entrenched with sentiments for her late granny?
To those who might be interested, the great composer of Mahabharata, Veda Vyasa never shed much light into the exact number or names of the women Karna had married or bedded, irrelevant as it is to the bigger picture of the magnum opus. His wives are referred collectively in fleeting moments throughout the 18 Parvas.
Owing to this ambiguity, many later bards and poets over the ages have associated a name of their liking to the wife/wives of Karna, keeping the number singular or plural as per their understanding. They moulded her as they imagined the wife of a man like Karna might have or should have been. Medieval poet Kashiram Das called her Padmavati in his 15th-16th Century Bengali adaptation of the epic, Bharata Panchali. 14th Century writer Villiputtur Alwar named her Kanchana in his Tamil retelling Villi Bharatham. In recent times, Marathi writer Shivaji Sawant in his enthralling mythological fiction Mrityunjaya christened her as Vrushali. Some Tamil folklore identify her as Uruvi, that Kavita Kane used in her fictional take, Karna’s Wife. But that’s beside the point.
This aforementioned heated debate with my friend drove me into retrospection. Even today, Mahabharata remains a surprisingly volatile topic, especially among the youth. There seems to exist an inherent bias and polarization among the masses, where each side hold on to their points (factual or otherwise) with utmost dedication. Karna vs Arjun. Pandavas vs Kauravas. Right Wingers vs Left Wingers. Religious vs Liberals. Brahmins vs Non-Brahmins. The list goes on. Sentiments rule high over logic and facts. For some, religion takes over rationality and vice-versa. But, why such varied ideas and biased opinions about the same story and the same characters? Answer is simple: Heterogenous Source Materials.
The first obstacle in the path is the identification of “canon text”. Since the Indian Epics have now become “open source” with no copyright or definite proof of authorship, any of us can write a blog, story or novel on them. And if such stories do not come with clear disclaimers, it becomes difficult for first-time readers to make out whether it caters to canon, or an adaptation, or for that matter is a simple fan fiction.
To get into a little more details, Mahabharata has been transferred down the ages orally, until it was written down. As a result, different versions came into existence. In India, we have two major branches of the canon text: Northern Recension and Southern Recension. The former comprises all the ancient Sanskrit manuscripts that were found in the Northern part of the Indian subcontinent, and the latter caters to its Southern counterpart. Together, they roughly form the traditional “canon” of the epic, as we know today. There are differences in the two branches (as the SR is more organized and detailed compared to NR), but the basic crux and the character sketches are mostly uniform in both. Apart from this, there are also the Javanese, Indonesian, Persian, Buddhist, Jain traditions/retellings of the epic, along with subaltern/folk variations that vary much from the Indian canon. Most of the folk traditions in India are much later compositions.
Today, Indians know that the oldest version of Ramayana was written by a certain “Valmiki” and Mahabharata by someone named “Veda Vyasa”. But what they don’t know is that the stories they have been exposed to since childood are neither the canon nor the subaltern versions purely, but rather an obnoxious mix or khichdi of the two, courtesy TV serials and novels.
Popular Quoran and Indian mythology enthusiast Ishita Roy in her answer here explains the five demographics of Mahabharata readers, where each category prefers to get its knowledge of the epic primarily from one type of source:
|1.)||Academic Scholars||Critical Edition – BORI (Also Critical of SR by P.P.S. Shastri and non-Critical Editions like Bombay, Calcutta Editions, etc)||Curated manuscripts, commentaries of Pundits and academicians who are well-versed in the oral traditions of multiple denominations and regions.|
|2.)||Religious Clergy(includes priests, gurus, and everything in between||Versions taught in their particular denomination.||Guru-Shishya Parampara (inherited oral and written tradition)|
|3.)||Religious Public||Versions authored by their denomination and folktales.||Katha (storytelling) tradition – primarily of the Bhagavata Purana, folk art and culture|
|4.)||Secular but Interested Public||Popular Culture||Publications of various versions and retellings, adaptations in film and media.|
|5.)||Uninterested public||Pop Cultural Background Radiation (Refer to Cosmic background radiation)||Direct and Indirect references to the stories in other media.|
One question people often ask me is:
“What is the authenticity of these canon texts that you are quoting? Mahabharata is sooo old, how do we know, what is authentic anymore?” That’s a valid point, which I will explain in another post.
However, most others resort to simple denial and choose to cling to their favourite version for more sentimental reasons – “Why should I believe some so-called critical edition, over the stories I grew up reading and hearing? Why should I believe some Sanskrit scholar over my favourite (fiction) writer X?”
The naivety of the questions, and the comparison of Sanskrit academicians (like Vishnu Sukthankar) with popular fiction-writers (like Chitra Banerjee) often leave me speechless. But why such attitude? A. K. Ramanujan has an answer in his iconic essay, Three Hundred Ramayanas,
“In India and in Southeast Asia, no one ever reads the Ramayana or the Mahabharata for the first time. The stories are there, ‘always already’.“
As Roy explains, this phenomenon of knowing the story without actually reading the text “is technically known as Social osmosis, and is an emerging field of study in sociology.”
Many times, people cling to a particular version not deliberately, but simply because they are unaware that what they are reading is not exactly “Vyasa’s Mahabharata”, but a much later, non-Sanskrit adaptation of the Vyasa’s Mahabharata by a medieval/modern writer. And adaptations are never exact translations. They are always filled up with artistic liberties, influenced by the contemporary society. For example, Kashiram Das’ Bengali Mahabharata is full of such beautiful liberties taken by the poet. Having said all this, I see a pertinent question in Roy’s point: Is it right to judge the preferences of people?
As enthusiasts of a certain topic, we can choose to educate but not force-feed. But as an earnest student of Mahabharata, I feel obligated to at least retain the demarcation between “canon”, “later adaptations” and “regional folklores”, and not mix them all up to be served as “Vyasa’s Original Mahabharata” (unless proven with substantial evidence). Ishita Roy too makes a similar point in her answer, as she says –
“I don’t think we should make a value judgement about people who stick to a particular source, whether due to lack of access or simple preference.
But as an amateur folklorist, and someone who provides rigorous citations in my answers on the Indic epics, I urge all people to be at least aware of, if not accept, the critical editions and their sole ability to reveal the original motivations and culture of the people who composed these epics.“
To this, I’d also like to add, excluding non-Vedic ones like Jain, Buddhist, etc, and the ones categorized as “canon” above, most other versions are mostly later compositions by different authors which are to be admired for their immense literary value and at most, be explored for alternate possibilities, fantasies and interpretations. But not to be treated as substitute to canon. If I sound too conservative, let me end this post with a small story I was once told by a friend.
Once, a Sanskrit pundit was being interviewed on TV. After a couple of rounds, the pundit decided to ask a counter question to the anchor: “What do you think about Lakshman Rekha in Valmiki’s Ramayana? Do you think Sita did the right thing by crossing it?”
The anchor thought for a while, and then, replied, “It was wrong on her part.”
“Well, if she had stayed within the rekha, then there would have been no kidnapping, no war, no issues. In fact, she could have avoided a lot of bloodshed. Her one mistake wreaked havoc. No wonder, people blame women for causing disasters.”
The pundit gave a smile. “Sita’s staying inside the rekha would have stopped nothing.” Before the surprised anchor could respond, he continued, “Because, there was no Lakshman Rekha in Valmiki’s Ramayana.” (**Check footnote 3)
1.) Three Hundred Ramayanas by AK Ramanujan
2.)To read the complete text of Critical editions in Sanskrit free of cost online:
Mahabharata – BORI Critical Edition – Sanskrit Documents
To read the non-Critical Editions in translations: Valmiki Ramayana and Internet Sacred Text Archive Home
3.) The story of Sita crossing the Lakshman Rekha came from Adhyatma Ramayana, a much later adaptation of Valmiki’s Ramayan by a different author.