The Javanization of the Mahābhārata

It was some ninety years after the aforementioned macarita that the rendering of the Mahābhārata into Javanese was undertaken under the patronage of King Dharmawangśa Tĕguh (AD 990-1016) —about sixty years after the centre of power had moved from the central to the eastern part of the island. A most important event in relation to the rendering of the epic was a macarita at Dharmawangśa’s court where people gathered to listen to a recital of the Wirāṭaparwa for “one month minus one evening” —commencing on 14 October and ending on 12 November 996. The importance of the occasion is evident from the fact that the king himself attended all the sessions, except for one, “when the king was prevented by other affairs” (Juynboll 1912:97-98; Zoetmulder 1974:95). It is very likely, therefore, that this was the first recital — some kind of a première, as Zoetmulder suggests — of the first completed rendering of one of the eighteen books of the Mahābhārata. It is true that the Wirāṭaparwa is not the first book of the Mahābhārata but, as Raghu Vira points out, “the Mahābhārata reciters commenced their sessions with the Virāṭa and not with Ādi [the first parvan]”, because “the Virāṭa is one of the shortest of the major parvans, full of action and excitement” (Raghu Vira 1936:xvii). Of the eighteen books that constitute the Mahābhārata, only nine parwa, including the Wirāṭaparwa, have come down to us. Whether these nine were the only completed parwa, or other parwa had been written but later lost, is a question that is difficult to answer satisfactorily. In any case, in Old Javanese usage the term parwa includes not only the eighteen parwa of the Mahābhārata, but also the Old Javanese Uttarakaṇḍa, the final part of Valmiki’s epic which is not found in the Old Javanese Rāmāyaṇa.

In the introductory section of the Wirāṭaparwa we find an expression used by the anonymous writer to indicate the aim of his undertaking, namely mangjawākĕn Byāsamata — literally “to ‘Javanize’ Byāsa’s thought”. Another expression occurring in the epilogue is pinrakṛta, a passive form of mrakṛta, “to render (the story) into the vernacular”. It is clear from comparing the Wirāṭaparwa and the other parwa with their Sanskrit originals that they are not translations, but rather adaptations of the latter. It is true that many passages in the parwa are in fact literal translations from the Sanskrit texts, but in general the Javanese writers merely present an abbreviated form of the metrical epic in Old Javanese prose which faithfully follows the epics in essence. Except for a few lines in the prologues and epilogues, the parwa writers did not insert any additions, nor make significant changes which would point to an independent attitude in their handling of the sources.

The writing of the parwa was not, however, the end of the “Javanization” of the Indian epics. It was soon followed by another process of “Javanization”, which became apparent in the East Javanese kakawin and other literary products from the same period. Writing kakawin around themes taken from the parwa was undoubtedly a most popular exercise for East Javanese poets and, after the fall of Majapahit, for Balinese poets as well. The list of kakawin in Pigeaud’s catalogue shows that more than half of them have heroes and heroines from the Indian epics as their main characters (Pigeaud 1967:157-197). There is, however, a big difference in the way the epic materials are handled in the kakawin and in the parwa. In the kakawin the “Javanization” was more than just substitution of a vernacular for Sanskrit as in the parwa and, to a lesser degree, the Old Javanese Rāmāyaṇa. It involved a more fundamental change: the transposition of what were basically still Indian narratives into a Javanese setting. All the names of the kingdoms and places where the stories take place, and those of the heroes and the heroines of the stories are, to be sure, Indian, and are known from the Indian epics. Thus we find, for instance, that in the twelfth century Bhāratayuddha kakawin the Pāṇḍawas and the Korawas are fighting their final fraternal war for the kingdom of Hāstina in the field of battle at Kurukṣetra, and that in the fourteenth century Arjunawijaya kakawin, Arjuna Kartawīrya is fighting a fierce battle against Rāwaṇa on the banks of the Narmada river. Yet, as Zoetmulder remarks:

In spite of this, one cannot but be struck by the fact that these stories are placed in a setting that is definitely Javanese when reading the kakawins. Under the guise of Sanskrit personal and place names the poet is presenting a picture of his own country and his own society. These men and women with their Indian names are essentially Javanese, acting like Javanese, thinking like Javanese and living in a Javanese environment (1974:187-188).

It is thus possible for a poet to compose a poem woven around a theme taken from a parwa, but in fact telling the story of a Javanese king. For instance, the Arjunawiwaha (Arjuna’s wedding), a kakawin written by mpu Kaṇwa around AD 1030, is generally accepted as being an allusion to the life story of King Erlangga, a ruler of the kingdom of Kahuripan, who was the poet’s patron (Berg 1938). Likewise, other poets may have written kakawin, with certain princes, most likely their patrons, in mind (Robson 1983:302-309). Their contemporaries would no doubt have been able to identify the heroes and heroines of the kakawin with their princes and princesses, but without the benefit of knowing the life story of those princes and princesses it would have been impossible for later generations (and certainly for us) to know to whom the poets alluded. Not that that really mattered to them. In fact, it is very unlikely that readers of the Arjunawiwaha from, say, Kaḍiri of AD 1150, would have identified Arjuna with Erlangga, who by then had been dead for about a century. It seems most likely that those readers would have identified Arjuna with King Jayabhaya, the contemporary ruler of Kaḍiri. Likewise, readers of two centuries later would have identified him with King Rājasanāgara, the great ruler of fourteenth century Majapahit. In short, Arjuna and all the great heroes and villains of the Great Bhāratas and other Indian literary works continued to be related to contemporary Javanese life throughout the centuries. In this way Old Javanese literary works remained part of daily rituals for many centuries after the first “temple of language” was erected more than a thousand years ago — and in fact continue to be so in present-day Bali.

Creating “temples of languages” was a wiser decision of the Javanese rulers than building “temples of stone”, and even more so than erecting “temples of gold”. Long after the fabulous wealth accumulated by the Śrīwijayan rulers had vanished, both stone and language temples continued to function as refuges where devotees came to seek protection and blessings from the Lord. And long after all those hundreds of stone temples that covered the island of Java were in ruins — destroyed by earthquakes, volcanic eruptions or sheer neglect — and then fell into disuse and were abandoned when Islam came, quite a number of Old Javanese literary works continued to be in demand as a source of ethical and spiritual guidance in the Moslem Javanese kraton and for the Javanese population in general. Their Modern Javanese versions were, and are, even more popular than those derived from Islamic sources. It is certainly instructive to note that while Chandi Borobudur, undoubtedly the largest and the most majestic of all the “temples of stone”, was buried under thick mud and tropical growth by the early nineteenth century (Soekmono 1976:5), Raffles was able to testify that at that time the Bhāratayuddha, one of the best known Old Javanese literary works, was “the most popular and celebrated poem in the [Javanese] language” (1965:410). It is still so in Bali today, where people still “meditate” inside all those “temples of language”.