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by Dr. S. L. Bhairappa
1998, Published by Sahitya Bhandara, Pages 315

Saartha: “A company of merchants, caravan of traders”  (Sanskrit)

Until now, Dr. Bhairappa’s interest through his many novels has mostly been contemporary social and political issues. Saartha, however, is a historical novel set in 8th century India. It is a rich and detailed novel bringing a turbulent and transitional period of history to life through its characters.

The central character and narrator, Naga Bhatta, is sent by his king, Amaruka of Taravati, in a Saartha headed to the northern provinces, to learn the intricacies of trade and commerce.  After Naga Bhatta’s return, Amaruka intends to start his own saartha to improve the finances of the kingdom. The saartha operations were very clandestine; only the head merchants knew what goods were carried and bartered.  Naga Bhatta was sent with the pretext that he was going to Kashi, for higher studies in the Vedas. Naga Bhatta, who had already studied vedanta in Mahishmati, thought this was a great opportunity to visit further north.

As it was unsafe to travel long distances alone people usually traveled in a saartha, with bullock carts, elephants and horses carrying the merchandise.  Bhatta’s saartha is described in great detail.  It represents a cross section of 8th century Indian society, with carpenters, black smiths, cooks, warriors, and many other professions marching in the retinue.

The novel recounts Naga Bhatta’s adventures with the saartha and his insights into the life of the times. As this saartha was not travelling towards Kashi, they take leave of him at Mathura and tell him that another passing saartha will take him to Kashi. As he wanders around Mathura, waiting to be picked up, he  describes the bustling life of a big city, with traders milling around the central square, and people dancing in the streets on lord Krishna’s birthday. The descriptions conjure up beautiful images of the city in the mind of the reader.

As a background to the various dynasties of the time, the Rashtrakutas were ruling the south, the Gurjara-Pratiharas were ruling the north and northwest, and the Palas were ruling the northeast. The rulers were constantly trying to invade each other and expand their kingdom. The Arabs were invading Sind at the time, and the Saartha that was to take Naga Bhatta to Kashi does not arrive in Mathura because the Muslims loot their goods and forcibly convert them. This was also a time when Mahayana Buddhism was on the rise in the northeastern provinces.  The Palas supported Buddhism, building several viharas and stupas; and Nalanda, a city in their kingdom, was a great center for Buddhist learning.

The merchants who had brought Naga Bhatta to Mathura introduce him to a Buddhist monk who is supervising the construction of a Stupa. Living in the Buddhist vihara, Naga Bhatta begins to question basic doctrines of Hinduism, like the caste system.  As a Brahmana, he initially cooks for himself, but then begins eating with the Buddhist monks. His thinking reflects the tremendous changes that were about to take place in that era of multiple religions, beliefs and rulers. Buddhism did not have a place for Brahmins and had replaced them with monks. But Mathura was ruled by the Gurjara-Pratiharas, who did not support Buddhism. There was also a Hindu revivalist movement in the making, and Naga Bhatta stays on in Mathura to play the lead role in a drama depicting the life of Krishna. Here he meets Chandrika, an accomplished actress and musician, in the role of Rukmini.  She is a strong-willed character holding her own even as they fall in love with each other. As they perform the play in several towns, Naga Bhatta becomes known as Krishnananda.

The story takes an interesting twist here. One day on the streets of Mathura, he meets an old man from his hometown Taravati.  The man tells him that Naga Bhatta’s wife, Shalini, is living with King Amaruka and has had a child by him; and that Naga Bhatta’s aged mother died in great sorrow. Naga Bhatta had left his young wife in Taravati three years ago and this news shatters him. As he is trying to analyze the motives of the king in sending him on the saartha, he is also in search of a Guru to teach him methods of dhyana (meditation). As he doesn’t achieve what he intended through dhyana, he resorts to tantric yoga, gives that up and wanders around. He wants to marry Chandrika and settle down, but she has her own story to tell and, despite her love for him, she is not interested in married life. In frustration, he meets the Buddhist monk who suggests that he should go to Nalanda and study Buddhism.

As a student in Nalanda, Naga Bhatta meets Kumarila Bhatta, who was a great scholar and a believer of the karma theory of Hinduism. He disguises himself as a monk in Nalanda to learn the principles of Buddhism thoroughly, so he could eventually debate with the Buddhist scholars. In those days, debates between Hindu and Buddhist scholars, regarding the validity of their respective religions, were common. Kumarila Bhatta is in his eighties when he comes to study all the Buddhist texts that were available only in Nalanda. Naga Bhatta observes how well organized Buddhist viharas were in propagating their religion compared to the hindus. One day, when a debate was taking place, Kumarila Bhatta’s guru ridicules some Hindu beliefs and Kumarila Bhatta gets very perturbed and tears start flowing from his eyes. Then the guru demands to know who he really is, and when he comes to know the man was Kumarila Bhatta, the guru does not want to continue the debate. The guru orders him to get out of Nalanda.

Kumarila Bhatta returns to his Ashram in remorse that he has done injustice to his buddhist guru and to his own faith. He decides to punish himself by entering ‘tushanala’ (death by immolation in the middle of a pit of burning rice husks). Naga Bhatta follows him to his ashram and finds out about his decision to kill himself. At the same time, Shankara, who was the proponent of the Advaita philosophy of hinduism, comes to debate with Kumarila Bhatta.  Kumarila Bhatta informs him about his decision to commit suicide, and asks Shankara to go to Mahishmati to debate with Mandana Mishra, who was a renowned scholar in the karma marga. Naga Bhatta witnesses the tushanala and travels to Mahishmati bearing the sad news of Kumarila Bhatta’s death to his old guru, Mandana Mishra. Kumarila Bhatta’s sister Bharati Devi was married to Mandana Mishra and was a great scholar in her own right. While Naga Bhatta was there, Shankara comes to invite Mandana Mishra for a debate on the karma theory and his advaita philosophy. It was customary to accept a serious debate, and Shankara suggests Bharati Devi to be the judge, and he agrees to accept whatever judgement she will deliver. The debate goes on for several days, and Shankara gains an upper hand in proving that the practice of advaita is superior to the path of karma in achieving self- realization. Bharati Devi declares Shankara as the winner in the debate.  Mandana Mishra has to leave his family, and follow Shankara as his disciple. Bharati Devi shows extraordinary strength when her husband is about to take leave of her and the family. She asks Shankara a question about the physical relationship of a husband and wife, and how that is related to Nirvana. Shankara does not know the answer to this being a sanyasi, and he requests for some time to find the appropriate answer, and takes off from Mahishmati.

Naga Bhatta follows Shankara to Taravati, and witnesses some super natural powers of Shankara by which he enters the dead body of king Amaruka to experience the life of a married man. Shankara finally comes back with a satisfactory answer, and  Mandana Mishra follows him.

This is an amazing period in Indian history.  The various forces that were shaping the times have been very skillfully depicted in this novel. It also gives an inkling of the future of Buddhism in India. The Hindu kings were trying to halt the insurgence of Buddhism by various means, like performing mythological plays, and even considering Ashwamedha Yaga. Shankara offered Advaita as an answer. Towards the end, the Muslim rulers invade, and start breaking Hindu temples. In all this chaos, confusion, and uncertainty, the characters of Chandrika, Bharati Devi, Mandana Mishra, the Buddhist monk in Mathura, and the narrator Naga Bhatta shine through.  There is also the love tale of Chandrika and Naga Bhatta woven in to this canvas.

I really wish that I had a better understanding of the various philosophies on which the debate was taking place. But it is evident that those were extraordinary times when the existing values, beliefs and customs were being questioned and a wave of new ideas were in the making. This book has whetted my appetite to read more about that period and to find out what documentation exists on the various debates that were taking place among the Hindus and Buddhists.

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