It is an engrossing read indeed, highly recommended… A review by
Jaya ~ Performance in epic Mahabharata
By KEVIN McGRATH
Harvard University Press,
In Jaya, McGrath, professor of Sanskrit at Harvard, approaches the Mahabharata in a new way, exploring how it expresses itself through Sanjaya. To McGrath, Sanjaya is not just a war-reporter but also a metaphor for the seer poet composing and transmitting orally Jaya, a Kshatriya epic of war. This is the traditional view of the Mahabharata as an oral composition committed later to writing (vide Vyasa&’s dictation to Ganesha). The other view is Alf Hiltebeitel&’s who proposes that it is a written artefact made by Brahmins using the traditional trope of orality.
The transmission runs: VyasaàVaishampayana (at Takshashila) àSauti; and, in parallel, VyasaàLomaharshanaà his son Ugrashravas Sauti. McGrath proposes, in addition, an anonymous reciter at the outermost layer whose is the invocation, tato jayam udirayet. Why should that not be Sauti, who is named in the very next line?
McGrath seeks to establish Sanjaya as the primary poet-cum-witness of the war books (Jaya), composed by not Brahmins but a mixed-caste suta. The irony is doubled. After Parashurama decimated the Kshatriyas, their women approached Brahmins for progeny. So these new Kshatriyas were actually all sutas. Moreover, Vyasa, a mixed caste, begets sons on the Hastinapura queens. Thus, Pandu and Dhritarashtra are doubly sutas!
Sanjaya first appears as audience for Dhritrarashtra&’s lament and then consoles him in Book 1 itself, reported direct by Sauti. He reappears as messenger, duta in the third and fifth books and is the sole omniscient reporter, suta, beginning in Book 6 with Duryodhana and ending in Book 10 with Duryodhana&’s death. Thereafter, he only consoles and criticises the king till the end of Book 11. It is strange that so far the only one to adopt Sanjaya&’s point of view has been the Hindi novelist Gurudutt in his Mahabharata pentalogy.
Vyasa gifts Sanjaya divine vision (a metaphor for inspiration, says McGrath) and physical immunity, making him uniquely superhuman. Even Krishna suffers repeated injury. Sanjaya, whose caste profession is chanting heroic deeds to royalty, is the appropriate prime composer-reciter of the war he witnesses. A millennium later he is emulated by Chand Bardai in Prithviraj Raso. Vyasa incorporates Sanjaya&’s Jaya in his Bharata. The parallels between them are far closer than we realize. Both are actual participants, omniscient, and know not only external events but also people&’s thoughts and emotions, the past and destiny. Sanjaya reports and interprets what he sees. It is a dynamic, immediate, developing scenario. Vaishampayana repeats what he has heard, a static, fixed picture, “…reporting Sanjaya&’s work of art.” McGrath speaks of witnessing many a Mahabharata performance in Gujarat villages, continuing the tradition of Sauti which is dead in West Bengal.
In the Udyoga Parva, it is at Sanjaya&’s request that Vyasa appears to sanction his telling Dhritarashtra about the weakness and strength of his army: “It is as if a Muse appeared within Iliad and spoke encouragingly to the poet, urging him to perform.” Vyasa even appears in the battlefield to stop Dhrishtadyumna from killing Sanjaya (“his substitute,” as McGrath writes). Sanjaya, along with Drona, Bhishma and Vidura, receives temporary occult sight from Krishna to witness his theophany in the Kuru court preceding the theophany of the Gita, which, besides Arjuna, only Sanjaya witnesses (McGrath misses this). In that respect he is more exceptional than Vidura and Bhishma, Krishna devotees.
Vyasa gifts divine vision also to Gandhari, in the Stri Parva. She sees and reports the horrors as Sanjaya did. Both are directly inspired; both use the key word, pashya, “See!”, while Vaishampayana and Sauti recite what they have memorized. Pointing out the similarity to the distinction between Homer, aoidos (oral epic composer), and Hesiod, rhapsoidos (performer of that epic), McGrath analyses all the speeches of Sanjaya.
Sanjaya always begins at the end, reporting deaths that evoke lamentation and a request for details. His narration then becomes a retrojection. McGrath calls this the technique of “ring composition,” looping backwards where a new stage in the narrative occurs before advancing further.
Sanjaya is quite a gadfly, mincing no words in condemning moral weakness. This reveals the intimate relationship between the charioteer-bard and his patron. Sanjaya supplements Vidura&’s exhortations to Dhritrarashtrat who turns repeatedly to them for consolation in extremis. While Duryodhana angrily condemns Vidura, he never criticizes Sanjaya ~ apparently, the suta&’s status was inviolable.
Before the war books Sanjaya only reports the words of others ~ performing their roles, as it were. There is no inspiration. McGrath argues that as Sanjaya is the nearest to Vyasa and is absent in the Virata Parva, that is solely Vaishampayana&’s composition. This presumes that Vyasa approved of it as it was recited in his presence in the snake-sacrifice, just as he approved only the Ashvamedha Parva of Jamini while jettisoning the rest of his work.
Strangely, in his report to Dhritarashtra about this embassy Sanjaya does not repeat anything of what Yudhishthira and Krishna said (not even the demand for five villages)! Instead, he assumes the persona of Arjuna (who was silent) and presents his own views, haranguing Duryodhana with such passion that finally he collapses, exhausted! He is not merely a herald (he violates that mandate completely here), but very much of a creative poet. He is the first to say that victory is where Krishna is; who, as if in play, moves the three worlds and has samohayan, confused, the Pandavas (Udyoga, 66).
McGrath is, however, incorrect in saying that Sanjaya is the first to be aware of Krishna&’s divinity. Bhishma has already sung of this in Book 2. Sanjaya celebrates Krishna in a paean in section 67 of the Udyoga Parva in the presence of Vyasa, who is perhaps the primary inspirer of this vision. It is an appropriate prelude to Sanjaya&’s recital of the Gita with its second theophany. Sanjaya witnesses two more theophanies: of Shiva before Arjuna and Krishna, and of Rudra and Kali before Ashvatthama.
Inexplicably, before being gifted divya-drishti, Sanjaya, reports to Dhritarashtra the private conversation between Krishna and Karna. McGrath suggests this is because of Vyasa&’s invisible intervention. This is a peculiar episode: if Dhritarashtra now knows the secret of Karna&’s birth, why does he not inform his son? Is it a later addition?
Thereafter, Sanjaya uses ESP to report what the Pandava camp is discussing and what Duryodhana spoke in private. It seems to be a preparation for the massive effort of the coming war-books, with Sanjaya&’s presence looming larger and larger. His is an active presence, repeatedly responding to Dhritarashtra&’s questions and hectoring him, unlike the mechanical phrase, “Vaishampayana said,” which is the only indication of that reciter&’s existence.
Sanjaya&’s technique in the Jaya consists of mini-epics (like Abhimanyu&’s death) and formulaic passages of description. McGrath admits that it is impossible to identify Sanjaya distinctly from Vyasa here. As Vyasa is composing more than three decades after the war, he would, presumably, be incorporating Sanjaya&’s reportage? Should we assume that when Vyasa speaks as a character within these books it is his actual words that are being sung by himself, or as he has taught Vaishampayana to recite, or as Sanjaya the witness is performing?
McGrath proposes that, like the Iliad, the war-books represent the heroic age, the Bronze Age world (Treta and Dvapara Yugas?) that ended with the coming of Buddhism and Jainism. Sanjaya is the “fictional device which…provides substantive form to how a new social system reviewed an idealized past.” However, no evidence of this new system found in the Mahabharata is cited.
McGrath notes that the Karna-Arjuna duel is the most detailed of all encounters. This flags Karna&’s status in the narrative, and might indicate the existence of a localized mini-epic on him within the Mahabharata cycle, both Sanjaya and Karna being of the suta clan. But, then, how to explain Sanjaya&’s non-involvement with the Virata Parva where Queen Sudeshna, her brother Kichaka and the 99 Upa-kichakas are all sutas?
Sanjaya&’s speeches convey all the chaotic din of battle, the gore, the blinding dust, lit up with flashes of astoundingly beautiful natural imagery. This, McGrath states, makes up at least 60 per cent of the text and lifts the battle to a cosmic level. He proposes that the symbol of the river of blood running like a refrain through these books “is a metaphor of the oral tradition, being a theme” that beautifies battle and death, which is the core truth for Kshatriyas. It is the evocation of heroism, overwhelming grief, horror and pity that keep the epic a living experience even today. The theme of Sanjaya&’s Jaya is death that leads to a dual victory: the Pandavas win the kingdom; Duryodhana wins heaven first!
McGrath makes a fine point: Duryodhana hides within Dvaipayana lake, a name for Vyasa, thus “literally return(ing) to his source” (he is Vyasa&’s grandson). There is also a moral issue Sanjaya raises, reporting that Bhima won because of Krishna&’s dharmacchalam (fraudulent dharma), agreeing with Balarama here. At the end (Book 15), Narada through his divine sight predicts that Sanjaya will reach heaven. His last speech identifies for the forest ascetics the royal individuals visiting Dhritarashtra. Interestingly, of the 12 verses 8, full of images, are devoted to the Pandava women. As in the war books, each is preceded with pashya, “Look!” the typical phraseology of the suta. We are not told of his death. Like Vyasa&’s son Shuka, he vanishes into the Himalayas.
It is significant that the epic ends with the statement (18.5.39), jayo nametihaso, “Jaya, victory, is the name of this history” which denotes moral success that through right action, dharma, upholds the world. Sanjaya, as poet, invariably upholds what is morally correct, whether it be Duryodhana&’s wickedness he criticises or Krishna&’s fraudulent dharma. He, not Vyasa, claims McGrath, is the true self, the atma of the Mahabharata, manifesting the Kshatriya code of moral conduct. It is an engrossing read indeed, highly recommended.
The reviewer retired as Additional Chief Secretary, West Bengal. He specialises in comparative mythology