Meeting with Dr. Paula Richman (Mahabharata Variations)

Mahabharata enthusiasts in the city of Kolkata got an opportunity to interact with Dr. Paula Richman (Prof. of Religions, Oberlin College, USA) for about an hour on 20 January, 2005 thanks to the efforts of Pradip Bhattacharya (PB) and Padma Shri Prof. P. Lal.
Time: 11 AM, Place: The Library of Dharma and Culture, G.D. Birla Sabhagar, Kolkata.

PB Introduced Prof. Richman, one of the great scholars of Ramayana. She has edited two volumes which are invaluable to Ramayana Scholarship:

1) Many Ramayanas: The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition in Southwest Asia
University of California Press, ISBN 0-520-07589-7, 1991
(More info available at
Indian edition available from Oxford University Press, 1992.

2) Questioning Ramayanas: A South Asian Tradition
University of California Press, Published February 2001
(More info available at
Indian edition available from Oxford University Press, 1995.

PB informed the audience that Prof. Richman has recently turned her attention to what she terms the "other epic", Mahabharata, though it is "the epic" because it includes Ramayana! Remarkably, her entry point to the Epic is the relation between Pandava Bhima and Rakshasi Hidimbaa. (Prof. Richman's presentation on this theme at the seminar organised by Sahitya Akademi recently (2004) was the subject of discussion recently in the MBh study group)

Prof. Richman started off by saying that it is interesting to compare the Rakshasas in Mahabharata and Ramayana. In Ramayana, they are a powerful race. They are rich, capable of producing illusion and knowledgable in Vedas. They appear as violators of the Dharma code of humans. In Mahabharata they appear in much lower status. They are almost peripheral except of course Ghatotkaca who has to serve a crucial purpose in the scheme of things. Surpanakha's main role in Ramayana is that of a sister and the cause of Sita's abduction, whereas Hidimbaa's is that of a mother who gives birth and sustenance to the saviour of Arjuna from Karna's infallible missile. What is remarkable about Mahabharata is the room left between the lines in the epic that has continously produced many inspired works of oral and written literature in Indian languages.

Prof. Richman went on to consider two specific works:
1) The Kannada novel Parva by S.L. Bhyrappa, English translation published by Sahitya Akademi.
2) Grandmother's Desires by Kumudini (Real Name: Ranganayaki Thatam)
(The original Tamil version was included in a volume titled "Sillarai Sangathigal Limited" (Trifling Matters Limited) under the section "Antahpura Tapal" (Zenana Mail) and published in 1948.) English translation by Dr. Ahana Lakshmi available on the Mahabharata Resources page under Epics - Creative Insights on-line section:
Also see
for Ahana's translation of some of these stories.

In Bhyrappa's version Bhima is a fighter who relies on the strength of his arms. According Bhima, marrying Hidimbaa is like "marrying the best of the wrestlers". She is a perfect companion to Bhima in everything: hunting, playing, swimming, ...Bhyrappa also contrasts the trouble Bhima faces in handling his human wife Draupadi (hard to understand, unpredictable, ..) compared to his ease in sharing a life with Hidimbaa who doesn't present any complexities. The attitude is continued towards his two sons. His son by Hidimbaa, Ghatotkaca is his favourite. Bhima himself took care of his parenting. His son by Draupadi, on the other hand, was looked after by Draupadi's parents while Pandavas spent their time in the forest and consequently became a "spoiled brat". In Kumudini's short story (in the form of four letters Hidimbaa's grandmother supposedly wrote), human attributes are freely given to the Hidimbaa and her grandmother.

During the exchange of ideas that followed Prof. Richman's presentation, Prof. Lal brought our attention to the etymology of the words Vanara and Rakshasa. Vanara is Vana nara (Forest man) and Rakshasa is Protector.

PB commented that the female vanaras in Ramayana have no tail. For males, it (langula) is more of a decoration which they can remove at convenience. Hence the implication is of a totem. PB suggested that it is good project to look at the forests in the two epics and the Rakshasas in Mahabharata and associated inspired literature in the vernacular. In this connection he informed the audience about A. Harindranath's research into the Ravi Varma painting of Simhika and Draupadi. Simhika appears in the Malayalam text (attakatha) for the Kathakali play "Kirmiravadham" by Kottayam Tampuran (17th century). More info is available at

PB also mentioned the temple of Khatu Shyam dedicated to Barabareek, son of Ghatotkacha and Mura Asura's daughter. For more info and the temple's location see
Another link gives a different parentage:

PB also mentioned the B.R. Chopra TV serial "Mahabharat Katha" (which was abruptly taken off the air) which depicted the scenes associated with this legend/myth.

Prof. Richman at this point mentioned a temple dedicated to Vibhisana in Sri Lanka. It is useful also to recall the temple for Hidimbaa:

In answer to the question,
"who was responsible for winning the war?",
Barabareek, (who witnessed the whole Mahabharata war as a severed head after he was sacrificed before the beginning of the war due to a trick played by Krishna), replies that all he saw was the Sudarshan Chakra whizzing through the armies and Draupadi following it, drinking the blood of the Kshatriyas.
PB noted that this ties in with the worship of Draupadi as Virashakti in the villages of Tamil Nadu[1], as a Goddess among the Bhils[2] (a group of aboriginals) and in Rajasthan oral tradition, also as the heroine Bela (Draupadi reborn) in the Rajasthani oral epic "Alha"[3]. PB also mentioned the books on Ramayana and Mahabharata and tribals connection[4]. PB referred to the need to have a project like Dr. Richman's "Many Ramayanas" on the Mahabharata and requested her to consider this. It could begin with the as yet untranslated manuscript of "Abhimanyu Vadha" in Grantha script lying in the library of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute. He also referred to the Jaimini Bharat tradition which is extant in south India with many variations on the Mahabharata and Ramayana, some of which is found in the vernacular versions of the epics. He requested Dr. Richman to consider looking into this during her future visits.

[1] A. Hiltebeitel,
The Cult of Draupadi Vol. 1, Mythologies, from Gingee to Kuruksetra (1988)
The Cult of Draupadi: Vol. 2, On Hindu Ritual and the Goddess (1991)
(University of Chicago Press).
[2] See Bharata of the Bhils (Dr Bhagwandas Patel) (Summary (in English by Pradip Bhattacharya) of the paper presented in the Sahitya Akademi's seminar on Mahabharata in 2004) available at
and an article that refers to Mahabharata variations in Rajasthan by Shail Mayaram available at
[3] A. Hiltebeitel
Rethinking India's oral and classical epics: Draupadi among Rajputs, Muslims and Dalits
(University of Chicago Press, 1999).
[4] K.S. Singh, The Mahabharata in the Tribal and Folk Traditions of India. The Ramayana in the Tribal and Folk Traditions of India. Both published by Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, 1993.

(Among the audience were Prof. Lal, Smt. Shyamasree Lal, Dr. Dipak Chandra, Shri Sekhar Sen, Shri Krishnamoorthy, AH, etc.)
Report prepared by Harindranath with the help of Pradip Bhttacharya, Paula Richman. (January 2005)