The tribal Bheels have a Mahabharata version of their own, episodes of which are narrated or sung during their festivals, usually accompanied by music and sometimes with dance – a captivating version that never fails to thrill. This article tries to understand an episode from it, on its own and in relation to Vyasa’s epic.

When we first see Ganga in the Mahabharata of the Bheels, she is taking a bath in the Ganga, herself flowing as a river. A jackal watches her, hiding behind tall grass. She has a gold bangle on her wrist and is resplendent like the flames of the Holi fire. The jackal recognizes her, is enamored by her and proposes to her: “Will you set up home with me?” Ganga, hearing the words asks who it is and he answers he is a jackal. At this Ganga continues her bath, contemptuous of the preposterous proposal, but the jackal persists. An irritated Ganga picks up a stone and throws it at him, hitting him in the eye and rupturing it. Now the jackal decides not to leave Ganga – for, he thinks, if she did not want to marry him she should have just said that, she had no right to ruin his eye.

The furious jackal begins chasing Ganga, who bolts and reaches Mt. Mer-Simer where her guru Sarsankhar is sitting at his dhooni. Ganga hides behind him and tells him what has happened. By that time the jackal reaches there following her footsteps and the guru turns him to ashes. He asks Ganga to float the ashes in the Ganga.

This jackal who is obsessed with Ganga and wants to make her his wife has a fascinating history. At the beginning of our story, he is a frog on a pilgrimage to the Ganga. A city comes on his way and there a herd of cows crush him under their feet. The dead frog’s soul enters a barren baniyayin, a woman of the merchant caste. A son is born to her after nine months and nine days and when he grows up and becomes smart, it occurs to him that he should take up a job. He decides to work for the biggest man, and reaching Indra’s city, asks him for a job. Indra asks, “What is your caste?” “I am the son of a bania,” he says. He is accepted and begins working for Indra.

One morning the man comes across a bhangin, a woman of the sweeper caste, sweeping the market. He decides to make her his sister and puts a cloth of gold over her shoulders. Indra sees her and asks her from where she got the gold cloth and she tells him about the bania. A furious Indra, who thinks only Indrani should wear such clothes, removes the youth from the job. When he asks for his wages for all the years he has worked for Indra, he is given a bullock cart filled with money.

The bania does not know what to do with so much money, so he decides to spend half of it on a pilgrimage to the Ganga and then go home. But while crossing a jungle, one of his bulls dies. He appeals to the sun god for help and Soorya brings the dead bull back to life on condition that half the wealth in the bullock cart will be his. The young man reaches the Ganga, and after his bath, casts the whole money into the river. Soorya catches him on his way back and asks for his share of the money. When the bania tells him what he has done with the money, an angry sun god changes him into a jackal. It is this jackal who begins living in the jungle that sees the radiant Ganga bathing and falls in love with her.

As she floats the Jackal’s ashes following her guru’s orders, the ashes speak and tell her that she is his wife and that is why she has come to float his ashes in the river.

Ganga goes back to the thirteenth Patala after floating the ashes. A sal tree is born from the ashes and the sal grows big, with its branches bending into the Ganga.

The sal tells the flowing Ganga that she is his wife, that is why she is washing his hands and feet. The Ganga gets into a fury at this and starts flowing in a torrent, pulling out the tree with its roots. As the tree floats down the river, it speaks: “You are my wife, that’s why you are so happily letting me lie over you.” This time the Ganga casts him out and there the tree lies.

Twelve years pass and then Guru Sarsankhar come for a bath in the Ganga. He touches the tree with his chimta, the large pincers that yogis carry, and says, “Awaken, fire, awaken!” Soon fire appears from the tree. And along with that Prince Shantanu also comes out of the tree trunk. Guru Sarsankhar takes him to his dhooni. There Shantanu makes a bow and arrows and with them kills birds and throws them into the guru’s dhooni. When the guru tells him this is sin, he says he will continue sinning until the guru gave him Ganga as his wife. The guru goes to the Ganga and calls Ganga out from the thirteenth Patala and asks her to marry Shantanu. She agrees after taking an oath from Shantanu that when children are born to them, he will take them and caste them in the Ganga.

The Bheels share the view of rebirth with the rest of India and Shantanu has a very low birth to begin with – he is just a frog. But something has inspired the frog – maybe this is what we call grace, ishwara-anugraha, which turns us into the spiritual path. The frog desires to do an act of punya, of merit – to go on a pilgrimage to the Ganga, one of the most meritorious acts possible. To be killed during a pilgrimage fetches one a higher birth – and here the killing is under the feet of cows, the most sacred of all animals. The frog is reborn as a human being now – as a bania, a member of the merchant caste, the second varna from below in the system of the four varnas.

His higher birth is also a blessing on his mother – for the woman was so far considered barren, the greatest possible curse on a woman in India, and his birth wipes out that curse.

During his job with Indra too, he shows his nobility, for, while engaged thus, he sees a bhangin, a woman of the bhangi caste, one of the lowest castes in the caste hierarchy, whose traditional job it is to broom and clean, and desires to make her his sister. Stories abound in the rural lore about upper caste men lusting for lower caste women as they see them standing bent and sweeping the ground in the morning. But what the bania does is very different – he does not lust for her, but instead decides to make her his sister.

Perhaps it is this action that now sends him on a pilgrimage again, or maybe, whatever caused the first urge to go on the pilgrimage is still with him. However on his second pilgrimage, misfortune falls on him, he is cursed by the sun god and turned into a jackal. The fall, however, is not exactly a fall when we look at the larger picture, for, eventually he is reborn as Shantanu and marries Ganga, after being turned to ashes at the sacred Mt Mer-Simer at the hands of a guru and being born as a tree very close to his goal, right on the banks of the Ganga.

We must not forget that when Shantanu marries Ganga, though now he is related to her in a fresh way, his relation with her is not exactly new, though different. As the frog she was his goal – she the sacred river, and he the pilgrim. As the bania, again the same relation remains, that of the pilgrim and his goal. As the jackal, he desires her sexually and wants to marry her and set up home with her, but she rejects him. As the ashes of the jackal, and later as the tree, at least in his fantasy she is his wife – she is performing his obsequies, she is washing his hands and feet, she has pulled him over her and is letting him lie on her and taking him on a journey. It is after all this that she truly becomes his wife. Through this series of lives, the frog has risen to be an equal to Ganga, or at least to a position in which he can be her husband.

The Ganga of the Bheels has come from the thirteenth Patala. Mainstream Indian epic-pauranic culture accepts the Ganga as tripathaga, flowing through the upper world, the earth and the lower world. And the lower world, though it is often called just Patala, is usually described as consisting of seven worlds, which according to the Devi Bhagavata are: Atala, the pleasure world ruled by Bala, son of the Asura Maya, where splendid women offer visitors the strength-giving aphrodisiacal drink Hataka and revel with them; Vitala, where Shiva lives under the name of Hatakeshwara, along with Bhavani and surrounded by his ganas, constantly worshipped by the gods; Sutala, where the emperor Bali lives, in a world richer than heaven and filled with every imaginable form of wealth and comforts, with Vishnu, in atonement for his sin of betraying Bali, working as his gatekeeper; Talatala, the world of Maya himself, where he is worshipped by the Danavas; Mahatala, a world of the Nagas, the sons of Kadru; Rasatala, the world of Nivata-kavacha-kalakeyas; and Patala, another world occupied by mighty serpents like Vasuki.

The Bheels have more than these seven Patalas – they have at least thirteen of them. In the Mahabharata, Ganga’s birth on the earth is the result of a curse. The gods were once with Brahma and Ganga too was with them. At that time a strong wind lifted up her clothes. The gods cast their eyes down not looking at Ganga. The Ikshwaku king Mahabhisha, who had attained heaven through his ashwamedhas and rajasooyas, was with them at that time. Instead of casting his eyes down like the gods, the king stared at Ganga’s nudity and was cursed for this by Brahma to be born as a human being on the earth. After that Brahma cursed Ganga that she too would be born as a human being. It is according to this curse that Ganga is born on the earth as a woman. Shantanu is Mahabhisha born to undergo his curse.

In the Mahabharata, therefore, it is from the heavens that Ganga comes down to the earth. In the Bheel Bharata she comes up from the thirteenth Patala, and while her coming up to the earth is not the result of a curse but an action of her own choice, her wedding to Shantanu is a punishment for her rupturing the eye of the jackal with a stone. It is this that makes the jackal decide he would not leave her and make him pursue her until she marries him two births later.

Similarly, in the Vyasa Bharata, it is Ganga who comes and tells Shantanu that she would marry him. She also tells him she would do so on one condition: that whatever she does, good or bad – shubham vaa yadi vaa ashubham -, she should not be stopped from that; also, the king should never tell her anything displeasing. There is no specific mention that the king should kill the children that would be born to them.

Besides, unlike in the Bheel Bharata, since birth as Shantanu is a curse and a coming down from his status rather than an elevation, he also has a release from the curse. His release, Brahma tells him, would come when he gets angry with Ganga. In the Bheel Bharata, Shantanu’s life ends under very different circumstances.

Continuing with Gangas’s story in the Bheel Bharata, Ganga is now the queen of Shantanu. She has just finished her periods. Early one morning she is perturbed by thoughts. In the predawn hours, she shouts for her maids and wakes them up. She wants to go for a bath in the sea, and she tells the maids to hurry so that they are not late. Ganga takes her bath in the sea and sports for a while in the water with her maids. The sun is about to come up in the east. She dresses in pretty clothes and returns to the palace with her maids. She completes all the sixteen items of shringara and thus prepared, goes to Shantanu and tells him, “Come, Raja, let’s go to the orchard.” Shantanu dresses up fully, wears his crown, and the two of them go to the garden and spend time there, now sitting under the champa, now sharing intimate talk, until the sun sets. When she sees the parrots have roosted, the queen tells the king, “Come, Raja, let’s go back,” and they slowly walk back to the cloud palace.

She warms water in a copper pot and tells the king, “Raja, it’s time for your bath.” Shantanu sits on the floor with his legs folded under him and bathes in the fragrant water. Then he makes up, dresses up in lovely yellow clothes, puts on his fineries and combs his hair. Ganga cooks and gives the king a delicious meal. She then combs her hair, applies sindoor at the parting of her hair, does all the sixteen shringaras, and makes the bed. She sprinkles fragrances on the bed, spreads tender flowers on it. Then they sit and play a game of chaupad. Following this, they make love, until it is dawn and the lord of the day comes up in the east and the cocks leave their roosting places.

Time passes. Ganga is with child and the baby has started kicking in her womb. Then the pain starts. The queen calls Shantanu and tells him to quickly send for the midwife. The maids run for the old dai and bring her. The child is born and begins crying.

“Do your job now,” the queen tells the king. Shantanu picks up the baby. The baby has put his big toe in his mouth. It is a perfectly beautiful baby – face like the full moon, nose like the flame on a wick, eyes as sharp as the edge of a sword. The king pauses and thinks – if I kill the baby, I will be struck by the sin of infanticide. But I have no choice, for I have taken the binding oath. The king dashes the baby against a rock in the Ganga and comes back.

Gangeya was the first to be born, then Chitra was born and then Vichitra. The king dashes all the three against rocks in the Ganga.

Then a girl was born. The queen tells the king not to show the child to her, but to do his job. As he comes down from his seven-storied palace and proceeds towards the river, people ask him, “Raja, if you kill all the babies, who will look after you in your old age?” Shantanu feels the people are right, how can one kill one’s own children? Besides, the queen is in the cloud palace – how will she see what he does?

The king reaches the place of Gargar the Truthful. They talk of their joys and sorrows. Shantanu tells him of his state of mind after he was bound by the oath to Ganga and gives the baby to the guru and returns.

On the way he meets Ganga. Ganga tells Shantanu that she is going for a bath in the sea and shall be back soon. There she bows down before the sea and standing on one leg, asks God to reveal the truth to her and the truth is revealed.

She then comes back to the cloud palace and asks the maids to warm water in a golden pot and bathe the king. She asks other maids to bring fragrant oil. They bring the oil, apply it on Ganga’s head and comb her hair. The queen does all the sixteen shringaras.

Ganga cooks a five-course meal and serves it to the king in gold thalis. While serving him the meal she asks him, “Truthful one, tell me the truth. How many children have you killed?” Shantanu says four. A shiver passes through the heart of the queen at this lie of the king. “Raja, did you float the little princess in the Ganga?” she asks. “Yes, I have floated her,” says the king. “Raja, the relation between you and me ends now,” she says. “Now, come on, tell me the truth.” Shantanu again says he has.

Ganga claps her hands three times. And as she claps, one by one all the three princes appear before her. Turning to Shantanu, Ganga now asks, “Where is the little princess? If you had floated her, she would have stood here before me. You are a liar. And all relations between us have come to an end now.” She asks the princes to rule the kingdom and enjoy their life and announces she is now free from her oath. When Shantanu protests and begs her to stay, apologizing for his mistake, Ganga tells him that she cannot be his anymore in her present body. She gives him her gold bangle and tells him she would incarnate again and he can go to the city of Rangraja with the bangle and she would accept him then. As Ganga begins to leave, Shantanu tries to hold her back by her hair – and he gets five hairs in his hand and Ganga disappears.

During the childbirth, the woman is again in full control. She tells Shantanu to hurry and get the dai, the village woman who attends to childbirth. And when the child is born, she is in command again, and asks Shantanu in crisp words to do his job. The beauty of the baby mesmerizes the king and he is worried about the sin of infanticide, but he dashes the child against a rock in the Ganga all the same. The first child was Gageevar [Gangeya] and the second child is Setar [Chitrangada – Chitra – Chitar – Setar] and the next child, Vihag [Vichitraveerya] and the same thing is done with these two children too. It is only when the fourth child, a girl this time, is born and Shantanu takes them to the Ganga that people question him and he decides not to kill the child but give it to the guru Gargar Satvadi. He is caught breaking his oath and telling a lie about it, and Ganga breaks her relation with him and goes away.

There are significant differences from the Mahabharata here. In Vyasa’s Bharata, eight children are born to Ganga and Shantanu and she floats seven of them in the Ganga. It is she who floats them, not Shantanu. And Gangeya is the eighth child, whom when Ganga takes to float in the river, the king objects and that is how Ganga breaks her relations with him and leaves, for the king had given an oath that he would not object to whatever she did. Gangeya is born on the earth because of a curse he received as one of the eight Vasus. In the Bheel Bharata, Gangeya is the first child and there is no such curse. Also, missing in the Bheel Bharata is the incident that gives him the name that he would carry all his life – Bheeshma.

Perhaps still more important is the fact that Chitra and Vichitra are the sons of Ganga in the Bheel Bharata and not of Satyavati. Satyavati’s role is rather confusing in the Bheel version.

The character of Ganga is far more impressive in the Bheel Bharata than in the Mahabharata. Every word she speaks, every gesture, every deed of hers has the stamp of a very impressive woman, an authentic woman, fiercely independent. To use a contemporary expression, she is a woman of substance, and has the quality of ‘virginity’, that “inner state of the psyche which remains untrammeled by any slavish dependence on another.” She is a woman who is kin to the earth and the night and embodies within herself all the qualities of a woman, in its most inclusive sense. She is mystery, she is wonder, she is frightening, she is irresistible, she is the unattainable to attain which all men eternally long. She cannot be possessed, owned, enslaved. Her senses are awake, her intuitions are awake, nature reveals her secrets easily to her, she has her own uniquely women’s ways of knowing and understanding, she has great endurance and strength, has immense vitality and vibrancy and is at her heart wild, in the sense that it is her own nature that controls her rather than social pressures.

Ganga in the Mahabharata is a rather pale character, but in the Bheel Bharata she is awesome. When you encounter Ganga here, you feel this is what we mean by woman, this is what a woman could become if she is true to her innermost being, her instincts and impulses, the blood that runs through her veins. This Ganga is a storm, awe-inspiring. It is appropriate that she has come from deep within the earth, and not from the sky, as the Mahabharata’s Ganga does.

To proceed with the Bheel Bharata, the epic of the tribal Bheels now becomes grippingly poignant. Every word of it now burns into our mind, the lines send thrills down our spine, and each image it creates will haunt us for the rest of our lives. As Shantanu returns after giving the girl child to the guru, he comes across Ganga going in the opposite direction. She tells him she is going for a bath in the sea and shall be back soon. Standing in front of the sea, Ganga, who is now called a sati by the text, bows to the sea in reverence and, to test the truth, as the text says, she plants rows of barley and standing on one leg, prays to God and asks him to come to the aid those who walk the path of truth and reveal the truth. Then she looks at the barley – some of them have turned dry. Ganga returns to her cloud palace.

The sati now asks her maids to heat water in a golden pot and bathe the king in it. The last time she had warmed water for him in a copper pot – that was after they had spent a whole day together in the garden and had returned at sunset to the cloud palace, preparatory to the night during which they would make love and she would conceive her first child. This time it is a golden pot. That time the king had bathed by himself – this time the sati’s maids bathe him.

While serving the rich meal she has cooked to the king in golden dishes, she asks him to eat first and does not herself eat. She is certain her last meal with Shantanu has already been taken and she will no more eat with him. But still she wants to give him a chance. Before asking her question, she addresses him as Satvadi, one who is committed to the truth. But Shantanu fails. And he fails repeatedly, as he keeps repeating his lie even when Ganga gives him a last chance by asking him if he has floated the little princess, and tells him to speak the truth.

Ganga now claps her hands three times and at each clap, a prince appears in front of her, standing straight. And Ganga asks Shantanu, “Raja, where is the baby girl? If you had floated her, she would have appeared here.”

“You are a liar,” Ganga tells Shantanu and announces that their relation has come to an end. He can eat, drink and be merry from now on as he pleases, but as for her, she is free from her oath and she is leaving.

Before leaving, Ganga gives the begging king a bangle and assures him that she shall reincarnate again and then he can come to her with that bangle and she would be hers – but in this body he cannot be hers any more. The king’s desperate attempt to catch her by her hair leaves only five hairs from her head in his hands.

This last scene where Ganga suspects the king’s disobedience and lie, tests him, gives him a chance to own up the truth perhaps knowing fully well he will not do so, makes the dead children appear before her by clapping her hands, with the saved baby girl failing to appear, followed by Ganga’s words of pain-filled accusation of the king and her departure leaving five hairs from her head in the now desperate king’s hands can compare with any literature anywhere in the world in poignancy and woe. The astonishing thing is that these scenes are completely absent in the Mahabharata and are original creations of the tribal mind that retold the Mahabharata story. Or perhaps it is not astonishing at all – for the folk mind has always been immensely creative, it is civilization that kills the natural imagination and creativity of the human mind.

The story of the Mahabharata that we read in the Bheel version of it is not a conscious creation or recreation of Vyasa’s epic, but the epic as the Bheel experiences it. It is a reflection of the psychic life of the tribe, and this is how they experience women in their psyches – as the book shows repeatedly later too.

Following Ganga’s disappearance, the Bheel Bharata speaks of the birth of a maiden mentioned only as Kunvari Kanya, the virgin girl or the young maiden. She has no name in the story – but she is clearly Satyavati of the Mahabharata.

Ganga becomes a fish. In the meantime, Indra has been away for twelve years, busy at his job of watching over the seven sees and Indrani misses him. She sends a letter to him through her parrot. Indra reads the letter and sexually excited, ejaculates. He packs the semen in the letter, ties it round the neck of the parrot and sends it to Indrani. On the way the parrot is thirsty and goes to the ocean for a drink. The letter with its content falls off his neck, into the ocean. Ganga who is living in the ocean as a fish swallows the semen.

The fish is caught by a fisherman. And the fish tells him not to fix a price on her, she’d do so herself. In the market when people ask for the price of the fish, the fisherman tells the fish will tell its own price. People laugh at him. The fisherman goes from one market to another and eventually comes across Rangraja, who buys it paying the fisherman the price she fixes. The fish tells Rangraja not to eat her on that day, but to cut her stomach open after nine months and nine days. And when he does so after nine months and nine days, a baby girl comes out of the fish. She starts growing up in his house.

Shantanu is sick – “he neither lives nor dies”. He keeps saying, “the young maiden, the young maiden.” When Gangeya asks him the reason, he says he would die but only “if you get me married to the young maiden.” He tells Gangeya that he has a golden bangle and asks him to go to Rangraja’s place with it. When the maiden sees the bangle she tells her father she will marry Shantanu who is sick because of her. When Rangraja protests saying that Shantanu is at the doors of death, she tells him to leave her to her fate.

Gangeya and his two brothers take Shantanu to Rangraja’s place and the marriage takes place. Immediately after the ritual steps around the sacred fire are taken and the marriage rituals completed, Shantanu dies, feeling free and instructing that he should be cremated on virgin land – land that has never been ploughed. After great difficulties Gangeya and his brothers are able to find such land. It is occupied by a female swan who vacates it on condition that it will be given back to her after the cremation. Subsequently Hastinapur is built on that land.

After the rituals Gangeya tells Rangraja that since Shantanu is now dead he will leave the maiden behind because if he takes her with him she would be sad. Rangraja says no, the marriage rituals were completed, she is their mother now, they should take her with them. The brothers take the miden with them.

Back home, they start thinking who will now look after their new mother. The two brothers ask Gangeya to do so since he is the eldest. Gangeya starts serving his stepmother. To serve her, he starts spending all his time with her. Chitra and Vichitra suspect that the two are having an affair and when the night comes, they watch Gangeya and their mother. They see the maiden sleeping on the bed and Gangeya sitting on the floor beside her. When the maiden’s leg slips out of the bed, Gangeya gently lifts it and places it back on the bed, using a cloth rolled into ring and placed on his head, making sure he does not touch her. The maiden wakes up and apologizes for causing inconvenience to him and says he is truly a son to her.

Chitra and Vichitra watch all this and realize they have committed a mental sin. They ask the elders what to do about it and the elders tell them to ask Gangeya, he is saintly. They ask Gangeya how mental sin can be washed off, telling him people are asking them this question. Gangeya tells them: the sinner should find a place where twelve rivers meet. There should be a paras peepal tree there and under the tree there should be a white cow and a shrine for Shiva. After performing austerities there, he should enter the trunk of tree, burn himself and merge with the tree – if this is done, he will be free from the sin. Chitra and Vichitra leave the palace in search of such a place and after a lot of difficulties, eventually find a place like this. They perform austerities there after carving out a hole in the tree. Later they are burned to death in that hole and merge with the tree.

This part of the story is substantially different from that of Vyasa Bharata again in many central details. There, Ganga’s curse ends with giving birth to the eight Vasus as her children. When Shantanu objects to her killing the eighth child, she leaves him, taking the baby with her. She brings him up on her own and gives Gangeya back to Shantanu after completing his education at the age of sixteen. Her story ends there.

In the Bheel Bharata, as we have seen, she is reborn as a fish in the Ganga. There is a fish in the Mahabharata, too, that swallows semen and becomes pregnant. But she is an Apsara called Adrika, cursed to be born as a fish.