The literature of theology

[ This article is the original version of the article ‘Censured then, Celebrated now’ published in Deccan Herald on 21st February 2020. The editorial board of DH has trimmed the article (as posted below). Following is the article as I had written it. ]

‘Religion’ in India has always been a subject of rather diversified perspectives and interests. Amidst the unending plethora of interpretations, discussions and debates prevailing on the subject of religion, what we can boldly claim is that religion in India is an area that can be studied unendingly. In other words, religious theology, scripts and concepts are a researcher’s paradise.

A speck within the paradise of religious research material is a manuscript that has been widely debated in the past, but has currently made its way into the hearts of a number of religious experts in Jainism. Back in its time when this manuscript was first written, it resulted in its author being outcast from his society. However, once its essence was comprehended, acceptance followed and the author is today one of the untouched giants in the complete legacy of Jain literature.

Of the many literary masterpieces in Jain literature, the documentation of Bharata and Bahubali by Mahakavi Pampa, ‘Aadipurana’ is considered to be an immaculate magnum opus. The same is almost theology.  Bharata and Bahubali were the two sons of Lord Adinatha, the first Teerthankara of Jainism. The infamous war between the brothers who duelled for a kingdom is the turning point in Jain history, which gave the world the ‘Prathama Mokshagaami’ Bahubali – the one who attained Moksha for the very first time. Bahubali is hence an extremely prominent deity in Jainism, who symbolizes peace, sacrifice and non-violence.

The documentation of the complete story of Bharata and Bahubali made by Mahakavi Pampa was an unparalleled epic for a long time. Even today, every child learns the story of Bharata and Bahubali as told by Mahakavi Pampa himself. Even today, his story is unaltered and unquestioned.

However, there exists a parallel that was created during the 16th century by a poet who hailed from a small village of Moodubidre in Coastal Karnataka. His name was Rathnakara Varni, and he was a poet at the royal durbar of Bhairava Arasa of Karkala. This man made an attempt to retell the story of Bharata and Bahubali, but from a perspective that went radically unaccepted during his time.

In every story told about Bharata and Bahubali, Bahubali is naturally the hero because he was the strong younger brother who defeated his older brother at war, but respectfully laid down his crown in realization that the material world is just an intricately skilled trickster. Bahubali then left for penance, through which he attained Moksha. This path is the definition of righteousness in Jainism, and Bahubali, the man who followed it and reached the destination, is a clear and rightful hero.

Rathnakara Varni, however, gave the story a new perspective by assigning the lead role to the older brother Bharata. He named his manuscript ‘Bharatesha Vaibhava’, which translates to ‘the glory of Bharata’. He retold the story of the brother using 10,000 songs of 4 lines each, constituting ‘Amshagana’ – a complex factor in Kannada poetry and known as ‘Sangatya’. He was so good at it that he was popularly known as ‘Sangatya Chakravarthy’ or the ‘Emperor of Sangatya’, indicating that no one mastered the art of 4-lined poetry as well as him.

Rathnakara Varni’s manuscript told the story with Bharata as the protagonist. Bharata, the eldest son of Lord Adinatha, was an illustrative ruler – true to his duties, exceptionally talented in the arts (Bharatanatyam originated from Bharata), a loving husband of 60,000 wives (!), and a just ruler loved by every subject. More so, the ‘Chakra Ratna’ that yearned the conquest of the entire world, chose to appear in Bharata’s weaponry. Bharata hence became ‘Bharata Chakravarthy’ or the emperor of the world, after which he had to fight his brother because the Chakra wouldn’t rest unless every other ruler had either surrendered or was defeated. When Bharata had to fight his brother Bahubali, according to Pampa’s version in Aadipurana, he was defeated. Devastated by the humiliation, he orders the Chakra Ratna to chop off the head of his younger brother – which results in Bahubali’s regret and renunciation.

Rathnakara Varni re-interprets the story to say that the duel between the brothers never happened. According to this manuscript, the sons of Lord Adinatha would never be naive enough to fight each other in front of the world and forgo the ideals of Jainism. Instead, Rathnakara replaces the entire sequence of war with an extremely strategic conversation between Bharata and Bahubali. He narrates that Bharata offered to surrender, and gently pushed the Chakra towards Bahubali, which returned to the elder brother as it chose him in the first place. Embarrassed by his arrogance, Bahubali chooses renunciation at this point. This interpretation by Rathnakara Varni sure went highly criticised, as the duel between the brothers was considered to be the most important part of Bharata and Bahubali’s story.

Other than this, an important reason for this manuscript to be rejected by the Jain community of the time was the fact that Bharata, the ‘samsaari’ or a man of homely connections was made the hero. Jainism is a religion that believes in minimalism – validated by the lives of the ascetics. The religion says that a human being must forgo all worldly pleasures and connections in order to attain Moksha. People who chose that path – such as Teerthankaras and Bahubali are the deities, and heroes of Jainism. Bharata, on the other hand, was the exact opposite.

He was a ruler connected to all things good and bad in his kingdom. He thrived in the arts, and pleased himself in the company of his wives. Though he was an ardent believer in Jainism, he chose to follow the Chakra to conquer the world through war. The pious followers of Jainism could admire Bharata for everything he was, but could not accept him as the religious hero. Rathnakara Varni’s descriptions of Bharata and his life of enjoyments was something the Jains of the time could not resonate to as scripture. Rathnakara Varni was in fact banished from the kingdom for having authored Bharatesha Vaibhava.

As time passed, people and literary experts began seeing the intensity in expression and the purpose of Rathnaka Varni reflected in Bharatesha Vaibhava. The manuscript soon became a popular one, and is studied, recreated and digitized by experts even today. One of the experts of Bharatesha Vaibhava, Muniraja Renjala says “A possibility for Rathnakara Varni choosing Bharata as the hero could be the influence of the ‘Dasa parampare’ that was beginning to thrive during his time. The Vaishnava community sang stories about Lord Krishna and his illustrious endeavours, and Rathnakara Varni spotted Bharata Chakravarthy to be a heroic personality in Jainism. No one had described the legend of Bharata before, and he must have decided that Bharata Chakravarthy deserved to be portrayed as the hero he was. What it resulted in is a brilliant manuscript that a scholar can spend an entire lifetime studying. Rathnakara Varni is not much of a specialist in description, but he is a master of elaborate story telling.”

The poet from the small town of Karnataka is today considered to be a parallel to Mahakavi Pampa himself. The manuscript of Bharatesha Vaibhava is amongst the most studied and discussed topics in Jainism. Regardless of agreement or disagreement of the interpretation, every scholar commends the purpose and quality of the manuscript unconditionally.

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