Chandi Purana: The Odia Legend of Chandi

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2010

Pleased with me,

That goddess went on narrating

The earliest scriptures:

First, the Ramayana;

Second, the Mahabharata

And third, Sri Bhagavata,

Wishing me to retell them.

I’m illiterate, ignorant and unlearned.

(Sarala Das, Chandi Purana, 1013-14)

The literary works of Sarala Das (15th C.), such as the Bichitra Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Chandi Purana marked the beginning of the era of classical Odia literature. Not much is known about the great poet, except what he said in his works repeatedly: that he had no formal education; he was a farmer ‘from his childhood’, and he had adhered to Vaishnavism. All other information regarding the place of his birth and his family background do not have even a solitary evidence to justify them. The period in which he lived and worked marked a turning point in the history of Odisha with the removal of the Ganga dynasty from power and its replacement by the Sun dynasty, founded by Kapilendra Deva (1435-67). For the first time Odisha came to be ruled by Odia kings and the political and literary domain felt a wind of change. The rise of Odia nationalism was reflected in the literature of the period as the royal favour shifted from Sanskrit to the native language, so far treated as a Vibhasa or a dialect. The dominance of Sanskrit that had sealed the fate of the native language for centuries was gone forever. Second, the right of authorship of the scripture was no more the monopoly of the sages and brahmins; it was now free for all.

The literary practice of this period was the retelling of a master text written in Sanskrit, based on a popular story from Indian mythology. The retelling, however, was not conducted by the author alone, but at various levels. For example, in the Bichitra Ramayana, sage Markanda narrates the whole story to the Pandavas in the last year of the twelve-year term of their self-exile. In the Mahabharata, Agasti retells the story to King Vaivaswata Manu, and, in the Chandi Purana, it is sage Shuka who does the retelling for the benefit of King Parikshit. Sarala does not follow the concept of Chandi as explained in Durga Saptasati, nor does he accept it as the source text, in which sage Medha retells the story of the heroic exploits of Durga to King Suratha and Samadhi Vaishya. In Chandi Purana, Sarala changes the narrator and the listener, making a declaration that the source of his work is Vishnu Purana and Harivamsa, which are the essence of the Bhagavata. Moreover, he furnishes his text with the Odia legend of Chandi which is his own creation.

Calling himself ‘Shudramuni’, Sarala Das considers Sarala Chandi and Goddess Durga to be one and the same, and that she is one among Vishnu’s thousands of incarnations. He traces Sarala Chandi’s ancestry back to the first Brahma who went by the name Krupajal. She was the daughter of Krupajal and her family name was Narmada Saraswati. In an early age, she was well versed in shastras. She was a great Vaishnavi, who, for a minor offence, was banished from home by her father. She lived in exile bearing the name Hingula, in Chandrabhaga of Oda rastra in the Jambu Island called Bharata. Later she shifted herself to Kanaka Parsurama Patra, where she has been worshipped as Sarala Chandi for one lakh thirty-two thousand years of Kaliyuga. Considering her his mother, the poet owes a deep sense of gratitude to her for presenting him with a tulsi garland that he keeps wearing around his neck. She would appear before him during her nightly visitations and narrate the shastras to him, which he records in words as soon as the sun rises. He makes an open admission:

I’m Sarala Das

Son of Sarala Chandi,

Krupajal’s daughter.

(Canto VII, Chandi Purana)

After identifying Sarala Chandi with Durga, the poet advances to unify the Vaishnavite and Shakta Cult by putting forward Shuka-Parikshit conversation as delineated in the Vishnu Purana. Sage Shuka met the king when he was in bitter agony for being bitten by Takshak on the left side of his nose, as the result of the curse that predicted his death inside a week. When the sage suggested to him to listen to the Vishnu Purana, he prayed:

O sage! Narayana incarnated himself

Hundreds and thousands of times

To wipe out the demons. Of these,

His incarnation as Durga, who slew

Mahisasura in war, amazes me most.

Tell me the story of Chandi

And put my anxiety to rest.

(Conto III, Chandi Purana)

This is what sets in motion a train of events that ultimately led to the outbreak of war. The story describes how Mahisasura rose to power, his conquests, the occupation of the heavenly abode of the Gods  –  all these creating the need for Goddess Durga to be born. Out of twenty-three cantos in all, the battle between Mahisasura and other demonic powers spreads over six cantos and between Durga and the demons including Mahisasura occupies nine. Essentially a war story, it has an eerie atmosphere, full of sound and fury, the deafening noise of war cries and jangling of weapons. Yet, it reveals the finest attributes of Durga that represent the ideals of Indian Feminity.

Sarala’s literary excellence does not, however, lie in producing a renewed, vernacular edition of an old story told in Sanskrit; his objective was to communicate the great themes of Indian mythology to the common folk whom myth marginalises and history excludes. He wrote for the lay men, the illiterate, the rustics in their own language and painting characters in a way that is acceptable to them. For that reason, he converts, rather subverts the subject to local religions, customs and beliefs. He tries to bridge the gulf between the gods and men or between heaven and the earth. Take the case of Durga’s birth. She appeared from the radiance of godly powers that came in form of roaring fire, touching heaven. Gods and Sages equipped her with weapons for her one thousand hands and clothes and ornaments for her body. Here Sarala Das adds two more characters, one from the human world, another from among the animals, who contributed the best in them to the goddess. One Arundhati, who taught her the gauri-sauri method of cooking, that is, how to cook without chopping vegetables and without using spices. Second, a pangolin who offered her his thick skin into which no weapon would pierce. When Chanda and Munda first discovered her sitting on Ratnagiri, a veil over her head and her eyes downcast, they suspected her someone forsaken by her husband. When they asked her about her whereabouts, she says:

My mother is Fire and father Anakara

My husband is God, the Almighty.

I’m ill-mannered and intolerant.

I’m not loyal to my husband

As I’m not cut out for a family life.

In the first night, I refused to sleep

With him. In anger, he turned me

Out of his house.

(Conto. XIV. Chandi Purana)

It is an example that shows the gods are no different from men. A quarrelsome, disloyal wife being asked to quit home by an angry husband is a common incident that happens in the families of countryside. Sarala twists the situation to the advantage of the lay men in bringing them closer to the subject of the text. The above quotation turns the speech of a goddess to the voice of a common woman, which contributes largely to the evolution of a regional literary structure, without creating a distorted visibility of the original writing in Sanskrit. Moreover, to transmit the new canon set by him to the rural audience, he introduces legends and folklore into this text and creates story cycles on characters, who, to the eyes of common men, would appear as their own.

The major texts in Sanskrit such as the Vishnu Purana, the Harivamsa and Sri Bhagavata which Sarala Das considers the master texts for the Chandi Purana belong to the shruti tradition and are shastrik in nature. These texts do not allow any space for the regional re-tellers for displaying their imagination freely. Besides, they are brahmanical and religious, imparting spiritual teachings to the readers. But Sarala’s works are just the opposite. They are neither holy nor didactic in nature. They belong to the smruti tradition which allows the author to administer changes, innovations and the revaluation of characters. They are democratic, folk-oriented and indigenous in nature. In the Chandi Purana, Durga appears more as a human being than a goddess. In fact, she appears only for once in the battlefield in person to fight with Mahisasura. The rest of the battles are managed by the yoginis, sronehas, dakinis etc. whom she had produced from her body. She fights less and teaches more which has a direct bearing on man-woman relationship. Explaining herself, she says:

We are not the kind of women you think us to be. As mothers, we bring you to the earth, as wives, we spend nights with you, as Kalika, we kill you and as fire, we burn you. You’ve beginning and end, but we have only the middle. We create; we destroy.

xxx

We’re yoginis, the symbols of purity.

(Chandi Purana)

In spite of having many divergences and departure from the source texts, Chandi Purana stands supreme in giving the story a new identity and creating a new realm of understanding. He substitutes the elite with common men and monarchy with democracy. Chandi, in Sarala’s hands, turns to a motherly figure, imbibed with purity, wisdom and love. The text begins with a vaishnavite philosophy and ends with the union of Shiva and Chandi, a perfect example of the unification among the Vaishnavite, the Shaiba and the Shakta cult.

 

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