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Bhasa, ancient Indian writer, playwright, author of Sanskrit plays Dr. T.

Ganapati Shastrikal was a scholar and the curator of the Travancore Oriental Manuscripts Library, in Trivandrum, capital of the modern Kerala, India. In 1906 he made a sensational discovery in literary history and then by publishing in 1909, a series of 13 plays, all in Sanskrit. It was a circle of Bhasa's plays, which lay in darkness for more than eight centuries.

Bhasa, the Sanskrit playwright, was one of the greats of all times, believed to have lived two or three centuries ahead of Kalidasa. Reverential references are seen about the greatness of poet Bhasa in the works of Patanjali, Kalidasa (both first century B.C.), Banabhata, Dandi (both seventh century A.D.), Vamanacharya (eighth century A.D.), and a long line of other poets and critics till 12th century. It might be because of the intermittent foreign invasions, which led to the destruction of countless works in the great literary heritage of ancient India that Bhasa remained in the darkness during the later centuries. Manuscripts of some of these were later traced up from the suburbs of Trivandrum, and the plays of Bhasa were among those. Shastrikal's find included the famous Swapnavasavadattam, Madhyamavyayogam, Karnabharam, Oorubhangam, Dutavakyam, Pratimanatakam and Abhishekanatakam. These plays are of the realm of classics and are considered from the internal evidences to belong to pre-natyshastra period. Where he was born and when, or any clear information about his family or circumstances in which he lived is all topics of debates. But in that his works seem to ignore many of the dictums of Panini, the assumption gains approbation that he lived before Panini's period. His mastery in crafting scenes and deftness in visualizing dreams have been regarded supreme artistry, according to eminent critics. They point out the dream sequence in Swapnavasavadattam, his master piece.

The Mahabharata of Bhasa

Jai Arjun Singh / New Delhi February 03, 2008

The celebrated Sanskrit dramatist's plays, written more than 2,000 years ago, make the great epic more intimate and accessible. For some time now, Penguin Books India has been bringing classics of Indian literature to an English readership in recent months, there have been fine translations of Fakir Mohan Senapatis Six Acres and a Third, Parashurams short stories and works by Rabindranath Tagore. The latest in the series travels much further back in time: The Shattered Thigh and Other Plays (translated by A N D Haksar; Rs 200) collects six plays by the great Sanskrit dramatist Bhasa, who lived around 2,000 years ago. There is no consensus on the exact dates, but its known that Bhasa preceded Kalidasa, who praised him in the prologue of one of his own plays. (It was a backhanded compliment, however, with Kalidasa asking the rhetorical question How can the work of the modern poet Kalidasa be more esteemed than that of established worthies than Bhasa? and then cheekily supplying the answer: Everything is not more praiseworthy just because it is old.) The plays included here are all based on episodes in the Mahabharata. From a technical viewpoint, they provide valuable insights into the dramatic tradition that existed in Bhasas age. Theatre was a flourishing art form at the time, having evolved beyond recitals of dialogues by bards. Plays employed various combinations of the eight basic emotions (bhava) and flavours (rasa), they were professionally written and performed, and other aspects of stagecraft were well-developed.

In terms of content, the most notable thing about Bhasas Mahabharata plays is how he uses creative license to extrapolate dialogues and imagine scenes that were not in the original text of the epic, but which are largely consistent with its tone. This is interesting from a modern standpoint because its exactly what interpreters of the Mahabharata continue to do more than 2,000 years later there are contemporary works (like Pratibha Rays Yajnaseni) that tell the story through the eyes of a particular character, as well as more conventional translations (such as the one by Kamala Subramaniam) that flesh out the dialogues, often giving them a melodramatic slant that might not have existed in the original. These are all testaments to the fact that the great epic is a living, vibrant thing, not set in stone. As a long-time admirer of the Mahabharata who has read numerous straightforward translations (written in the distanced third person, and in the past tense), I was struck by how immediate the epic becomes when scenes from it are presented in theatrical form. Duryodhana: Preceptor, I salute you. Drona: My child, may you always enjoy the fatigue of a sacrifice well-performed. Duryodhana: I thank you. Grandfather, I salute you. Bhishma: Grandson, may your mind always be tranquil like this. Duryodhana: I thank you. Uncle, I salute you. Shakuni: Child, may you perform all sacrifices thus, giving away great gifts. Its one thing to know about the protocol the Pandavas and Kauravas employ while addressing their elders, but quite another thing to experience it in this form. It has the effect of taking us into the characters living rooms, so to speak, and humanising figures who might seem remote. Bhasa also recognises how complex the people in the epic are. For instance, Duryodhana is frequently depicted as a noble, generous prince mindful of family honour (he is also the tragic hero of the title play, Urubhanga) while the usually venerated Bhishma sometimes comes across as manipulative. The one notable deviation he makes from the original story is in Pancharatram(Five Nights), where Duryodhana agrees to return the kingdom to the Pandavas after their exile, provided their whereabouts can be discovered within five nights. This play appears to end on a reconciliatory note, but subsequent plays like Duta Vakyam(The Envoy) and Karnabharam (Karnas Burden) have the Mahabharata war taking place after all. Given that much of Bhasas work has been lost, its possible to wonder if he had dealt with the epic more comprehensively and if perhaps there were other plays that bridged the gap between the events recounted in Pancharatramand in the later plays. Of course, well never know.


BY Prof. U. VENKATA KRISHNA RAO, M. A. (Madras Christian College) The Mahabharata plays of Bhasa are sixthe Panckaratra, Madhyama Vyayoga, Dutavakya, Dutaghatotkacha, Karnabhara, and the Urubhanga. The Pancharatra must be treated separately, since it is the only Three-Act play of Bhasa and also since it is unique in dispensing with the fratricidal war. The play ends on a note of harmony which is absent in the Epic or elsewhere. The other five are beautiful One-Act plays, easily staged and comparable to the modern plays of Tagore or Moliere in respect of brevity, wit, and infinite suggestion.

The One-Act plays suggest that Bhasa definitely knows about the devastating KuruPandava War. In the Pancharatra he exhibits his own personal bent of mind, depicting Duryodhana as a peace-loving monarch imposed upon by his evil geniuses Karna, Dussasana, and more particularly his cunning and scheming uncle, Sakuni. Certain basic ideas of Bhasa find their first expression herein, and without a proper realisation of these fundamental ideas we cannot study the One-Act dramas in their proper perspective. The 37th verse in Act I makes it clear that Duryodhana is conceived by Bhasa as the eldest among the hundred and five brothers. In this respect he definitely differs from the Epic, according to which Yudhishthira is the eldest and Bhima and Duryodhana are both born on the same day. The advantage that accrues to Bhasa from this supposition is obvious: from the Dharma-sastra standpoint Duryodhana alone must inherit the entire paternal kingdom, for, according to the laws of inheritance in almost all ancient countries like India, Rome and Greece, the eldest alone succeeds to the entire estate by the law of Primogeniture, referred to as jyaishthyam in Ancient India. According to this viewpoint, Duryodhana, the senior most member of the senior family, could easily be regarded as the pater familias or the head of the family and there was nothing wrong or improper if the younger cousins, the Pandavas of the junior branch of Pandu, were denied their share of the patrimony; of course, the lawgivers like Manu prescribed that the younger members should depend upon him entirely for their maintenance (Manu, IX. 105). It was obviously not Duryodhanas fault if the Pandavas chose to stay away. In the, Dutavakya, verse 21, Bhasas Duryodhana goes a step further and questions even the legitimacy of the birth of these cousins of his. He says: My uncle offended against some sage who denied him sexual enjoyment by a curse: these therefore are not my cousins, but they are paratmajas or 8ons of others (of the respective gods who begot them) and as such they can never claim any share in my ancestral property! Even with such a rough exterior, Bhasas Duryodhana, in the Pancharatra at least, is a loving father whose affection is spontaneous and sincere even towards Abhimanyu in III. 4. His sentiment is praiseworthy: The elders may quarrel, but this is no fault of the youngsters. Abhimanyu is now my son first, and shame on us that we allowed him to be captured by our enemies! As though to suggest that Duryodhana was a virtuous person imposed upon by his evil advisers, we find that in the Urubhanga after the death of all of them, Duryodhana definitely requests Balarama not exhibit his wrath towards the Pandavas who might have wronged his favourite disciple. When Balarama points out to him that he has been defeated in an unfair fight by Bhima who violated the rules of fair warfare by striking him below the belt, Duryodhana replies in verse 35 that his defeat and impending death was due, if at all, to his being disliked by that favourite of the world, Sri Krishna. Even when the evil advisers are living, in his Pancharatra, Bhasa imagines a context after verse 42 in Act I where, when Drona asks for the division of the ancestral property as his dakshina, Duryodhana actually pleads with his uncle, Let me give them their share. According to Bhasas standpoint in the Urubhanga, Duryodhana is not guilty of even conniving at the wholesale murder, when they are asleep, of the innocent children of the Pandavas. Asvathaman enters, as in the Epic, to get Duryodhanas approval for this nefarious action of his but here according to Bhasa, Duryodhana definitely refuses to associate his name in any way with this most unfair wholesale murder. He even pleads (in verse 61) with him to give up this idea and Asvathaman wonders whether Bhima had deprived Duryodhana of his self-respect when he broke his thighs. Following Bhasas lead, Bhatta Narayana makes Dhritarashtra responsible for this wholesale murder. This partiality for Duryodhana (which makes both Balarama and Asvathaman declare that Duryodhana was deceived by Bhima) indicates an early date for Bhasa, before the final redaction of the Mahabharata which, according to all critical investigators like

Hopkins or Winternitz, was long prior to the Christian era and in which the sympathies of the editors were pro-Pandava or pro-Krishna. Now coming to the individual dramas, we can easily see that the basic idea of the Yajna that Duryodhana performs to win over the affections of Drona is altogether absent from the Epic; even the final note of saubhratram or brotherliness on which the drama ends (which also seems to be Bhasas message to a war-ridden world) is a novel one. In between these two pleasing deviations, the entire story obviously proceeds on novel lines, refreshing and enlivening us at every turn. To turn to but a few examples, the gograhana or the cattle-lifting, which is largely purposeless in the Epic, becomes invested with a definite purpose herein, since it has been undertaken by Duryodhana to punish King Virata who had dared to absent himself from the sacrifice performed by the imperial sovereign (where attendance by every tributary king was compulsory). Abhimanyu attends this sacrifice as a representative of Sri Krishna, and so he accompanies the Kauravas and fights against both Bhima and Arjuna, without knowing their identity. In the end he is captured by Bhima; and entertaining is the account by Bhasa of the fight and subsequent capture of Abhimanyu, his strange behaviour before Virata and the crowning episode of the proposal for Abhimanyus marriage with Uttara, Viratas daughter (as Bhasa puts it. Gograhanasulkartham, for Arjunas valour in redeeming national honour and self-respect). Similarly again, the account of the discomfited Kaurava warriors, with their unsuccessful attempt to ignore the identity of the Pandavas, and painfully convinced by noting Arjunas name on the arrow prostrating before Drona,all these events on the Hastinavati front, ending with an invitation for Abhimanyus marriage, follow one another in quick dramatic succession. The Madhyama Vyayoga and the Dutaghactotkacha need not detain us long, since these have no epic background; but the livelinees and the subtle humour of these plays is entirely Bhasas. The deviations in the Urubhanga have been noted to a certain extent already. Bhasa might have received his basic plot from the Epic, but the development is peculiarly Bhasas and we may confidently assert that Bhasa foreshadows Bhavabhuti in his delineation of Karna. It is not unfair to suggest that both Bhatta Narayana. and Bhavabhuti have followed in the footsteps of Bhasa in respect of their delineations of Veera and Karuna rasas. Now, according to the Epic, Balarama is mightily angered against Bhima for his hitting Duryodhana below the navel against rules and kicking him on his crowned head. Sri Krishna tries to convince Balarama, but Bala cries fie upon Bhima and straight-way proceeds to Dwarakn. But Bhasas Balarama stays on right till the end; he remains in the background when Dhritarashtra, Gandhari, Duryodhanas two wives (not one as in the Epic), and Durjaya, Duryodhanaa son (not referred to in the Epic), lament Duryodhanas fate. He overhears Asvathamas vainglorious boast and departs for Dwaraka just at the time when Duryodhanas soul departs to the other world. The Dutavakya and the Karnabhara remain to be noticed. The Dutavakya dramatises the story of Krishnas efforts at reconciliation and the story, though based on the Epic, develops entirely on new lines. To insult the ambassador, Duryodhana is purposely looking at a picture of Draupadi Vastrapaharana after ordering that none should get up to honour Krishna. But Krishnas majestic personality makes every one get up, and, when Duryodhana pretends to be absorbed. Krishna, pointedly asks him why he is seated and Duryodhana is suddenly thrown off his balance. He somehow composes himself and continues to gaze at the picture alone; It attracts Krishnas attention also for a brief second because of artistic beauty, but

Krishna understands the purport of the picture and chides Duryodhana for looking at a picture wherein the insult of ones own kith and kin is delineated. He even orders that the picture be removed at once. Duryodhana dares not even protest, and Krishna dominates the entire scene after this initial triumph. Duryodhana insinuatingly asks whether the various sons of the Gods are keeping good health. Pretending not to understand the insinuation, Krishna rejoices at Duryodhanas affectionate enquiries, and asks the latter to surrender to the Pandavas their patrimony. Duryodhana put the former insinuation more plainly, since he declares that these are not the sons of his uncle Pandu, but are the progeny raised on his aunt Kunti by the various gods, since his uncle was himself denied sexual enjoyment with his wife by a curse. Even otherwise, he seems to suggest that, by the law of primogeniture then prevailing, he as the eldest representative of the elder line (or the eldest among all the brothers as explained already) is entitled to the entire kingdom. Krishna at once retorts that his fathers father Vichitravirya died of consumption and Dhritarashtra was raised by Vyasa on Vichitraviryas wife, and, if Duryodhanas argument were to be conceded, even Dhritarashtra could not inherit the kingdom. This naturally leads to some personal recrimination, and Krishna finally remarks that he should not deny their patrimony to the Pandavas. Duryodhana retorts that kingdoms are not begged for, but conquered, and so the Pandavas must fight and show that they deserve to rule. Duryodhana refuses to give even a piece of straw from his patrimony to the Pandavas. When Krishna wants to frighten him by telling him how Arjuna had fought with Siva and done similar other exploits, Duryodhana refuses to budge an inch from his position and insults Krishna. The latter turns to depart when Duryodhana calls Sakuni, Karna, Dussasana and others to bind him. They all fail, and Duryodhana himself starts to do the same. Krishna exhibits his Visvarupa and so many Krishnas manifest themselves; and the ropes with which Duryodhana wanted to bind Krishna were found on the persons or the other kings gathered in the audience-hall. The scene (in between verses 42 to 54) wherein so many weapons, Sudarsana, Nandaka etc., manifest themselves is obviously spurious, since they come and go without serving any purpose at all. Dhritarashtra enters at this moment and prostrates before Krishna and asks him to accept his hospitality. Krishna does the same and the One-Act play ends. This vigorous Scene is entirely Bhasas own creation. The spirited conversation between Krishna and Duryodhana is kept at an animated level. The Visvarupa which Krishna exhibits is without a purpose in the original Epic, though he might say there, Alone I am a match for all the Kauravas, since it was exhibited there when Dhritarashtra abused his son for his desire to bind up this mighty person. It was not exhibited as a practical retort to the Kauravas actually trying to bind him. In Bhasa, the Visvarupa is the dramatic reply Krishna gives to Duryodhanas wicked action. In the Karnabhara, the whole scene is depicted as a conversation between Karna and Salya. This is entirely fictitious. The storty of Karnas learning the astras from Parasurama is exactly as the Epic. Indra comes in at this moment, disguised as a Brahmin and prays for a mighty gift. Here the Brahmins speaking Prakrit is rather strange and would fit in only on the supposition that Bhasa lived before the time when the rule about a Brahmin speaking Sanskrit alone had not as yet become rigid. In the Epic, Karna has already been warned by the Sun about Indras proposed visit to him to deprive him of the ear-ornaments which made him invincible; but in Bhasas Play, Karna has no clue to the same and is taken by surprise when a Brahmin wants alms from him. Karna himself tells him he will conquer the earth and give it, or a thousand horses or elephants or cows if wanted, but Indra cleverly refuses such gifts; Karna of his own accord promises him whatever is prayed for. Indra, in disguise, asks Karna if he would part

with Kavacha and the Kundalas. Salya protests; in the original, Salya is not there by his side and the occasion also is different. As a matter of fact, Bhasas story leads to a small confusion. If Salya is there when Karna makes the gift to Indra, the context evidently should be when he starts for his last fight with Arjuna. But the incident, as it is recorded in the Epic, occurs in the Aranya Parva in the 311th chapter (Kumbakonam edition) where Indra comes disguised as a Brahmin begging for the Kundalas. In the 301st chapter Surya has already warned Karna in a dream about the wily intentions of Indra on behalf of his son Arjuna, and when Indra actually comes, Karna guesses the identity of the Brahmin when be refuses kingdom or cows, or elephants. In the Epic, Salya rebukes Karna at every step, whereas he does not do so here. He is represented as very helpful by Bhasa. Karna even bargains with Indra, according to the Epic, as to what he could get in exhange for such a strange gift. Indra at once jumps at the idea and gives a Shakti, a powerful missile, by which he could kill one of the Pandava warriors. But Bhasas Karna does not exhibit any such bargaining spirit. He does not recognise Indra at the time and without a second thought, bestows the Kundalas. It is only after he has departed with the Kundalas, that Salya draws Karnas attention to the fact that he has been deceived by Indra; but Karna replied that he is happy since he has made even Indra beg at his door. At this moment, a devaduta or Angel of Indra appears before Karna and requests, on behalf of Indra, who has himself grown penitent for his having done a treacherous deed, that Karna should accept Shakti by which he can kill one of the Pandavaa. Karnas first reaction is one of definite disapproval, since it was not in his nature to accept anything in return for something given by him in charity. But the devaduta cannot be so easily thwartedhe cleverly pleads that a Brahmins request should always be complied with. Karna rather unwillingly according to Bhasas story, accepts the gift and departs for his last fight with Arjuna. As we remarked already there may be a small inconsistency, since the Shakti was already with Karna. For, according to the Epic story, Ghatotkacha was killed with it and Bhasa knows it too. But Bhasa has closed his eye towards this chronological inconsistency and ennobled the character of Karna. The last to be considered is the Balacharita. It must have been one of the earliest dramas, since it does not exhibit the maturity of thought so characteristic of Bhasa. The Bhagavata Purana, or even the earlier Harivamsa or the Vishnupurana does not seem to have been as yet composed, and Bhasas story seems to follow some earlier basic Purana or possibly some Buddhist Jataka. The deviations are not introduced with the desire of ennobling any Character. Krishna is here the seventh child, not the eighth; a Madhuka Rishis curse predicts Kamsas death and not the asareerinee vak or heavenly voice as in the Bhagavata. In a Kannada Jaina Purana, called Neminathana Parana, the story proceeds on similar lines, and though this Purana edited by our Madras University is composed by one Karnaparya, a Jain, in the 11th century A.D., it seems to have had a far earlier source, perhaps in the beginning of the Christian era, if not earlier. Bhasas vindications of the Epic heroes are all in excellent taste and explain the Epic standpoint in a much better light than the Epics themselves.