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HomeOpinionAn oft-asked but never well-answered question: “Did Sarala Das know Sanskrit?”

An oft-asked but never well-answered question: “Did Sarala Das know Sanskrit?”

There is a fascinating Loka katha (folk tale) story about how Sarala Das wrote “Mahabharata”. It occurs in the short, one-paragraph piece entitled “Sarala Das” in “Loka Galpa Sanchayana” by Dr. Kunja  Bihari Dash. One day his father scolded him harshly and called him “murkha (idiot)”. That very night he ran away from home and came to the temple of goddess Sarala and surrendered himself to her. At that time his name was Siddheswara Parida. A flower fell from the goddess’s head. She asked him to write “Mahabharata” in Odia. “After you finish writing”, said the Devi goddess to him,” float the leaves in the river Chitrotpala. The important ones will float. Collect them from the river and tie them up together. Do not worry. I will manifest myself in you (“kanthare basi” – literally, sitting on (your) throat) and tell you the words (pada kahi debi).” Thus did Sarala Das compose “Mahabharata” in Odia. In this story, in essence, the poet is goddess Sarala and the scribe is Sarala Das. It is reminiscent of the writing of Vyasa Mahabharata; there sage Vyasa was the poet and god Ganesh, the scribe.

What Sarala has written in his “Mahabharata” in the above regard is not quite the same. He calls himself an ignoramus, an uneducated person, who had wasted his time among the unlettered and says that only because of goddess Sarala’s grace, he could compose “Mahabharata”. “Tuhi jahakahi deu muhinta lekhai (whatever you tell me, I write)”, says Sarala in his celebrated work, but at the same time, he does not consider himself as the scribe. He does not say that he is not the author. There is thus a contradiction. One way to resolve it is to say that the content is the goddess’s and the language, that is, the expression, is Sarala’s. From this perspective, he is both the scribe and the poet.

In the lack of data, one does not know how Sarala’s words about the composition of “Mahabharata” were taken in his time but modern Sarala scholarship does not accept his assertion. In his“Mahabharata”, it is not difficult to find traces of at least “Srimad Bhagavata”, “Srimad Bhagavad Gita”, “Ramayana” and “Skanda Purana”. Therefore the scholars say that Sarala’s observations must not be taken seriously and that he was a very learned person.

Not many outside Odisha would know about Sarala Das. So a few words about him would be very much in order here. He lived in the fifteenth century and is celebrated as the “aadikabi” – the first poet – of Odia literature. He wasn’t really the first poet but the first major, impactful poet. This is how the expression “aadikavi” is used in this context. With him began the rich tradition of Odia puranic literature and his contribution to it is immense; it is second to none. His highly celebrated work, “Mahabharata”, popularly known as “Sarala Mahabharata”, is a truly creative retelling of Vyasa’s “Mahabharata”, also called,”Vyasa Mahabharata”. 

Bhakta Kavi Madhusudan Rao (1853-1912) observes that Sarala Das had some elementary education in a chatsali (village school, where pre-elementary level education was imparted). His father used to tell him stories from Ramayana and Mahabharata. Sarala was a devotee of goddess Sarala and he used to go to her temple every day. In those days, Puranas were regularly recited in the temple of goddess Sarala. The pundits used to recite the Puranas written in Sanskrit and explain the slokas to the audience in Odia. Sarala would listen to these recitations attentively. He always had with him a bunch of palm leaves and a lekhani (knife pen). Later, he would go to a quiet place and write whatever he remembered. He would add to it things from his imagination freely. That was how the great poet composed “Mahabharata”, according to this eminent and much-respected poet and educationist.

There is nothing in “Sarala Mahabharata” or any of his other compositions that even remotely supports these observations. Madhusudan Rao does not mention his sources. So we can say that all this is his conjecture. It is understandable that living in the nineteenth century and having received a modern education (he had studied at Ravenshaw College), he could not accept the role of the divine in the composition of the great Odia Purana. More recently, Niladri Bhusan Harichandan, an academic and literary critic, for example, maintains that Sarala was very well-read in ancient Puranic literature. What follows from his observation is that Sarala knew Sanskrit because these works were not available in the Odia language. This apart, he must have learned the language on his own, not at some educational institution. However, Dr. Harichandan does not mention his sources. It may be added here that some of those who agree with Harichandanare extremely skeptical about Sarala’s having learnt Sanskrit on his own. The problem then is that one cannot agree with Harichandan and at the same time be skeptical about Sarala acquiring command of Sanskrit by virtue of his own effort, when Sarala did not belong to the privileged section of the village, something which no one seems to dispute.

Incidentally, in 2006, I had an opportunity to go to Kanakapura, Sarala’s village, courtesy of my friend Suresh Chandra Dash, the well-known nephrologist and a former professor at AIIMS, New Delhi, who comes from the same village. A young inhabitant of the village told me about there being a lot of misinformation about the celebrated poet. He was not a sudra, he told me and he said that his earlier name was not Siddheswar Parida. Besides, he was not illiterate; he was very well-read in the Puranic literature in Sanskrit. He spoke in a tone of authority. I just listened to him; I didn’t ask him what evidence he had in support of his assertions. He wasn’t an academic and was under no professional obligation to declare his sources. And I firmly believe that one benefits from listening to every narrative without prejudice.

Knowing about my interest in “Sarala Mahabharata”, a venerable scholar, who is no more, once asked me whether I thought Sarala knew Sanskrit. “Sir, I do not know”, is what I told him. He was generous; he understood my hesitation to commit myself. He left the matter at that. Now, I was not being evasive; my answer was honest. We were both beneficiaries of modern education; we were both students of English literature. We both believed in the idea of divine inspiration. But it seemed to me that like me, he was feeling uncomfortable about at least saying that it works in such a concrete form (the goddess telling the poet the lines, etc.). And he probably thought that the counter-narrative was based on conjectures, which is what I think. I have already said so.

But then what could be the best resolution of this matter? As for me, I do not know. All we know about Sarala are from his own writings. But for obvious reasons, one cannot take what he said about himself to be necessarily correct. There is no independent evidence in support of his identity statements. Unless such evidence is found, the question will remain where it is now. It is extremely unlikely that the needed evidence would be found. No one, as of now, has claimed that there is some credible evidence that some of his contemporaries have written about him. No inscription mentions his name. Entirely expected; these have been about the rulers. If the commoners appear at all, they do in the form of faceless individuals, as collective nouns.

In conclusion, I feel that this issue is best left at where it is now. True, we humans find it extremely uncomfortable to live with ambiguities and unresolved issues. But perhaps, we should learn to live with these, taking them as part of life!

(The views expressed are the writer’s own)

Prof. B.N.Patnaik

Retd. Professor of Linguistics and English, IIT Kanpur

Email: [email protected]

(Images from the net)



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