The Sanskrit Kavyas and the Sarala Mahabharata


Mar 16, 2011 — CANADA (SUN) — A study of contrasts between the sastric Mahabharata of Srila Vedavyasa, and the imaginative Oriyan version produced by the poet Sarala, by Dr. Satyabrata Das.

The 15th century was indeed the age of renaissance in the history of Oriya literature. On all fronts Orissa witnessed phenomenal advancement. This period which coincided with the reign and tenure of King Kapilendradeva politically saw the high water mark of progress, power and stability. Culturally and aesthetically this period of Orissan history stands out distinctly for one spectacular achievement which probably no other regional nor national event could match with: it was the composition of the great Indian epic, the Mahabharata in Oriya by Sri Sarala Dasa. Interestingly, the complete Mahabharata was not composed in any other regional Indian language before.

More significantly, this great Indian epic (which was originally written by the great Sanskrit poet Vyasadeva) that Sarala Dasa wrote in Oriya is not a translation of Vyasa's Sanskrit one, nor written in its shadow either. It is exclusively an original work that comes out of Sarala's rich imagination and deep insight and marvelous narrative skill. In the entire length of this massive creative work Sarala has nowhere showed off nor pretended any scholarship or pedantry. On the other hand, this modest scribe from the common peasantry of an anonymous remote hamlet of Orissa (with no visible access to scholarship nor any royal patronage) makes the best use of the numerous folk elements of his mother tongue and his mother-land.

Curiously enough, till the period of Sarala, Oriya literature had nothing much to boast of its own. But all the same, historians have no dearth of evidence about the blossoming of a rich foliage of literary creation just around this time. For instance, the composition of the great Sanskrit fables called the Panchatantram, started during this period. The distinguished Sanskrit poet Jayadeva composed his masterpiece Gita Govinda at this point of history. Both the Panchatantram and the Gita Govinda contributed significantly to the immortal treasure of Indian classics. As a matter of fact, Orissa won a place of distinction in the entire Indian sub-continent for its contribution to Sanskrit tales, plays and poetry.

Though Sarala (as the literary historians and critics observe) had no visible access to the ocean of Sanskrit literature and classics, he was fortunate enough for being born into an unusually creative phase of Orissan literary history.

Though not directly, in all likelihood, Sarala came under the influence of many Sanskrit classics by such great masters as Jayadeva and Kalidasa. Especially poet Kalidasa seemed to be the dream-angel of Sarala, and his greatest favorite. In the Oriya Mahabharata he writes with an autobiographical tinge:

    "Kalidasa was me in the first birth, verily a part of Mahakalika… In my third birth was I poet Sarala by name…" (Swargarohana Parva p.22).

In the Mahabharata we see clear marks of some Kavyas of Kalidasa (such as, Raghuvamsam and Kumara Sambhavam) and, of course, that of Jayadeva's Gita Govinda.

As we notice, Sarala Dasa was profoundly influenced by Raghuvamsam. As a noted Sarala scholar and critic rightly observes, Sarala Dasa learns from this great classic that a simple idea or concept can be blown into a massive work of art with one's imagination, insight and genius (Dr. K. C. Panigrahi).

As Raghuvamsam has it, King Dilip at the instruction of sage Vasistha undertook the responsibility of the holy cow Nandini with the hope of being blessed with a son. Thereafter the king was fully committed to the nurture and care of Nandini, the holy cow. One day while the cow was grazing in the jungle a lion pounced upon it. The king (Dilip), who was guarding the cow, got instantly ready to defend Nandini. But unfortunately he couldn't shoot the lion as his Quiver failed to release the arrow. At this turn of event the king was utterly helpless and undone. So he pitifully appealed to the lion to spare the cow Nandini and to eat him (king Dilip himself) instead. At this moment there was the shower of flowers from the Heaven and King Dilip got indication that he would soon be blessed with a son for his supreme act of dutifulness and sacrifice. (Raghuvamsam, Canto II).

Sarala Dasa has borrowed this idea from Kalidasa while tracing the birth of King Raghu in the Mahabharata (Vana Parva, p.340). Though the story-line remains largely the same, Sarala puts a tiger in the place of a lion. The territorial exploits of the Pandavas and the Swayamvara of Draupadi (in the Oriya Mahabharata of Sarala Dasa) are patterned on Kalidasa's model (Raghuvamsam). In the classic Raghuvamsam, poet Kalidasa gives an elaborate account of the extensive journey, adventure and the territorial exploits of King Raghu. Exactly in an identical manner, Sarala Dasa conducts the Pandavas along a long journey systematically punctuated by adventure and exploits from time to time.

In the process of the grand Swayamvara of princess Draupadi we notice a clear and visible impact of Kalidasa on Sarala. The manner in which the maid Sunanda conducts princess Indumati in the Swayamvara (in Kalidasa's Raghuvamsam) Sarala's heroine Draupadi (in the Oriya Mahabharata) is being conducted by her maid Kesini. The maids play a significant role in carrying on the rituals of the Swayamvara ceremony, both in Kalidasa's Raghuvamsam and Sarala's Mahabharata. In the former, the maid conducts princess Indumati in the grand reception Hall and moves from one aspirant prince to another giving due introduction on each prospective groom. Whereas, in Sarala Mahabharata, the maid Kesini is not fortunate enough to get such opportunity, as Draupadi had an altogether different condition to choose her groom. Hence the great privilege and attention that Sunanda, the maid of princess Indumati, gets in Kalidasa's Raghuvamsam is not available to Kesini, the maid of princess Draupadi in Sarala Mahabharata.

The grand ritual of introduction, as we find in Raghuvamsam, is absent in Sarala's great epic. Secondly, poet Kalidasa (in Raghuvamsam) introduces king Sushena as having many queens. Sarala Dasa seems to have taken this clue from Kalidasa and introduces the King of Mathura in a similar manner (as having many queens). He further adds a bit of spice to this by explaining that the king of Mathura knew a tantric retention technique and thus could satisfy so many queens in one night. Sarala Dasa in fact displays his native talent in adding such elements to almost every episode that he takes from Vyasa or Kalidasa. That is his specialty and originality. And invariably every such addition or interpolation has a base of logic or reason.

Further, as we find in Raghuvamsam Kauscha, the disciple of Maharishi Varatantu, approached King Raghu for help to pay Guru Dakshina to his Guru (Maharsihi Varatantu). In the course of that meeting, the kind and hospitable King Raghu asks several philosophical questions to the budding scholar Kauscha. The king says that, "the Ashramites take their bath in the holy pond of the Asharam and offer palmful of water to the departed souls of the ancestors. They keep one sixth of that on the sandy bank of the pond." Then the king asks this scholar whether the water of the holy pond of the Ashram gives them peace and happiness. ( Raghuvamsam, Canto V, Sloka 8)

In the Mahabharata, Sarala Dasa creates a similar situation in the course of the meeting and inter-action between Vyasa and Gandharasena. Vyasa wants to know from Gandharasena the solution to such a philosophical puzzle. (Adi Parva, p.36). There are very strong evidences that Sarala Dasa was influenced by poet Kalidasa, especially by his Kavyas like Raghuvamsam and Kumara Sambhavam.

Kumara Sambhavam of Kalidasa and the Mahabharata of Sarala Dasa

Among the greatest creations of poet Kalidasa, Kumara Sambahavam is one. The supreme Lord Shiva and mother Parvati (the illustrious daughter of the lord of the mountains, Himalayas) figure as the main characters of this classic. The plot of Kumara Sambhavam is mostly drawn from the Shiva Purana though various episodes of this classic are also taken from the Mahabharata, the Ramayana and other major Puranas.

The influence of Kumara Sambhavam is often clearly visible in the Oriya Mahabharata of Sarala Dasa. In Kumara Sambhavam, poet Kalidasa portrays the physical and the [conjugal] aspect of the union of both Lord Shiva and Parvati (in the manner in which ordinary mortals do) though both occupy such lofty positions in the spiritual domain. Sarala, as it seems, picks up this thread and gives a fascinating account of his previous birth (in the cycle of birth and death) how he was serving Lord Shiva as the guard at His door. It so happened, to his utter misfortune, he by chance witnessed Lord Shiva and Parvati in their moment of physical union. As a result he was cursed to be born as a mortal on earth.

As we find in this great Sanskrit classic, Parvati obtained the approval of her father (the lord of the Mountains, the Himalayas) and went to the summit of the mountain to practise penance. She passed through the hardest and the toughest austerity by exposing herself to fire in summer, rain in monsoon and cold in winter. And at last, Lord Shiva was pleased by her penance and single-minded devotion. He appeared in the guise of a Brahmachary to take the ultimate test of Parvati's unwavering devotion to Him. In the course of their conversation, Lord Shiva (in disguise) spoke profusely against Shiva before Parvati and tried to motivate her to give up her penance by portraying Shiva as somebody not worth aspiring for. But Parvati exhibited her firm determination, singularity of purpose and clarity of reason that finally moved Lord Shiva who revealed Himself at the end.

In a similar approach, in the Oriya Mahabharata, poet Sarala Dasa presents a very interesting episode in which Lord Narada goes on vilifying and censuring Shiva before Parvati to test her commitment to the former. Thus we find that Sarala Dasa was influenced by the Sanskrit poet Kalidasa and his great Kavyas. [ ]

All said and done, in the quality of style, range of imagination, variety and philosophic insight, Sarala Dasa maintains his position in the creative world. No doubt he was inspired and influenced by the Sanskrit Kavyas, but in turn he used them in the most original and creative manner which a thorough-bred genius is only capable of.


1. Dasa, Sarala Mahabharata
2. Jayadeva Gita Govinda
3. Kalidasa Kumara Sambhavam
4. Panigrahi K.C. Sarala Sahityara Aitihasika Chitra

Dr. Satyabrata Das, Head of Department, Ekamra College, Bhubaneswar, originally published in Orissa Review.


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