Plays of Girish Karnad: A Plea for Religious and Communal Co-existence
Dr. R.T. Bedre
Assistant Professor at ACS College, Gangakhed. Dist. Parbhani (Maharashtra)
Ph. 9765404305email :
M.M. Giram
Ph. D. Researcher, SJJT University, Jhunjhunu (Rajsthan)
Ph. 94212-78406

Religion has been a guiding and controlling force -cum- agency of behaviour of human community of all the times. It has been the belief system for the believers and a source of solace for people. It not only constructs a structure of code of ethics but also punishment awarding institution. In the course of time, as it got established as an institution, it became a bastion of evils also. It started exercising upper hand in its allied institutions like society, politics, family and other. Occasionally, it sidelined morality and goods of humanity too. Philosophers and artists started attacking the evils in religion from times immemorial. Socrates, Charwak, Martin Luther King, Sant Dnyaneshwara, Mahatma Basweshwara, Sant Tukaram, Mahatma Kabir, Carl Marx are some major examples. Some Indian dramatists with a sense of humanitarian commitment have tried in their own way to expose and protest these evils. Adya Rangacharya observes the everlasting relation between drama and religion, "Time and again, clerical wrath has been brought down upon its unpredictable cousin, yet pulpit and stage have remained inextricably intertwined in function and appeal" (1).

Girish Karnad is one of such committed Indian performing artists of the present times. As he is a socio-politically most sensitive and mature citizen, apart from being an artist, though he does not adhere to any political ideology, he has fearlessly expressed his views on different occasions at different platforms. As a responsible artist, he has given vent to the concerns over the contemporary religious and communal tensions, the gift of the British in colonial times and of the politicians in the post-colonial times.

A noteworthy observation is that in six of these plays religion occupies an important place. It not only governs movements and activities of the individuals but also shapes the course of their lives. The present paper aims at how Karnad focuses on the disastrous role played by religion and makes a plea for religious and in his three famous plays namely Tughlaq (1971), Bali: the Sacrifice (2004) and Tale Danda (1993).

Tughlaq, Karnad's pan classic in Indian drama, deals with the great dreams of the most intelligent but termed as foolish emperor of Delhi- Muhammad bin Tughlaq, and grand failure of his dreams. When he plans shifting his capital from Delhi to Daulatabad, one of his ambitious dreams, the cordial co-existence of the Hindus and Muslims is at the back of his mind. He explains to his subject:

MUH: […]. But for me the most important factor is that Daulatabad is a city of the Hindus and as the capital, it will symbolize the bond between Muslims and Hindus, which I wish to develop and strengthen in my kingdom. […]. With their help I shall build an empire, which will be the envy of the world (Tughlaq 8).

But the fact that the ruler and subject belong to different religions paves distrust among the Hindus. His secular policies benefiting Hindus displease his Muslim subject and, Muslim religious and political establishment insist on Islamic upper hand in the State. The Ulemas and Moulwis want him to work at their dictates. Sheikh Imam ud din, one of the characters in the play, advises Tughlaq, "But if one fails to understands what the Koran says, one must ask the Sayyids and the Ulemas. Instead you have put the best of them behind bars in the name of justice" (26) The Imam wants that State should shoulder the responsibility of spreading religion on behalf of the Ulemas. He says:

IMAM: […]. The Arabs spread Islam round the world and they struggled and fought for it for seven hundred years. They are tired now, limp and exhausted. But their work must continue and we need someone to take the lead. You could do it. You are one of the most powerful kings on earth today and you could spread the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. God has given you everything- power, learning, intelligence, talent. Now you must repay His debt (27).

Tughlaq refuses to be under their control and arrests those Ulemas who interfered in the State affairs. Imam warns Muhammad against his distancing religion from State:

And you will do it without the Koran to guide you? Beware, Sultan, you are trying to become another God. It's a sin worse than parricide. […]. Religion! Politics! Take heed, Sultan, one day these verbal distinctions will rip you into two (27).

The angry Ulemas and displeased Sayyids attempt his murder that makes him turn an insane and cruel bloodthirsty dictator. The more Muhammad imposes cruelties on his subject, the more strongly they oppose him and his policies. In nutshell, the conflict between religion and State power for supremacy brings fall to his State and his cherished long ideals. Through this play, Karnad gives message of the Hindu Muslim unity attempted long back in history.

Bali: the Sacrifice, one of the two latest full-length plays of Karnad, enacts most intense tension between two religious ideologies. The play has the most serious concern of all his plays. It records a tussle of three individuals representing different religious principles.

The play has only four characters throughout the performance. They are the King, the Queen, the Mother Queen and the Mahout. The King, who is born to a Hindu mother, marries to a Jain queen and embraces her faith. In a cold night, infatuated by melodious song, the queen finds herself in the arms of an ugly mouth. The king and the mother queen reach there and find the queen with the mahout in a ruined temple. For the atonement of the sin of the queen, the mother queen orders the royal couple to sacrifice a hundred fowl. Naturally, the queen strongly opposes the idea. As a solution, the mother queen suggests offering a cock of dough, but the queen, who is a staunch follower of Janise principle of non-violence, refuses to participate in the act. The king sees folly in the act but does not find anything wrong, as it does not involve any bloodshed in it. But the Queen objects the very intention behind the act and terms it as much violent as an actual killing. She objects, "But…but… this sword. This plunging in of the blade. The act…it's violence" (226-27).

Both the Mother and the Queen are adamant over their stance. After a long hot verbal debate, the Queen agrees to participate in the act. To her, the cock of dough appears to have come to life. In fit of madness, she kills herself with the same knife brought for sacrifice and offers her own life as sacrifice. In the play, the Queen stands for non-violence advocated by the Jainism, the Mother represents Hinduism that deems violence involved in sacrifice divine and sacred. Extreme obstinacy of the Queen and the Mother bring tragedy in the lives of all. The King is for peaceful tolerant co-existence in life. Karnad wishes to tell that intolerance and fundamentalism in all religions have to give in before the tolerance and liberal co-existence based on compromise and that would ensure peaceful living in the country and in the world.

Tale Danda, drawn from the 12th historical event of Karnataka, enacts the last few weeks from the life of Mahatma Basweshwara and fall of his reformative movement called Virshaivate or Sharana movement. During an interview with Tutun Mukherjee, Karnad explains the atmosphere the play was written in and the relevance of the play. He says:

When I returned from the USA, India was in turmoil over the Mandal-Mandir issues. The society was being polarized and the country was moving in dangerous directions. Tale Danda is a solid issue-oriented 'literary' text that tries to address issues of religious belief that create social and political crises. Whereas Tughlaq was obliquely political, this was straightforwardly so. I wanted to present the consequences of religious fanaticism and highlight the futility of such attitudes in the face of people's aspiration for happiness, peace and prosperity (45).

Tale Danda presents a brilliant analysis of the ills that plague the Indian society today. The play also depicts the clash between the zealous reformative forces and the prevailing traditional bastion of power in society endorsing the caste system. In the Preface to the play, Karnad has explained its relevance to the Indian situation. He writes:

I wrote Tale Danda in 1989, when the Mandir and the Mandal movements were beginning to show, again, how relevant the questions posed by these thinkers were for our age. The horror subsequent and the religious fanaticism that has gripped our national life today have only proved how dangerous it is to ignore the solution they offered (i).

In this play too, Karnad describes a conflict between the religious reformative movement and the orthodox defenders of the establishment. Basavanna and his followers advocate and practice a casteless society based on equality. The King Bijjala describes the nature of the movement:

BIJJALA: […]. Basavanna wants to eradicate the caste structure, wipe it off the face of the earth. Annihilate the Varna system. What a vision! What a prodigious courage! And he has the ability. Look at those he has gathered around him: poets, mystics, and visionaries. And nothing airy-fairy about them, mind you. All hard working people from the common stock. They sit together, eat together, argue about God together, indifferent to caste, birth or station (Tale Danda, 21).

The growing support to the Sharana movement increase worries of the Hindu priestly class. They see the Varna based social structure in danger. The royal priest Damodara who is a strong defender of the traditional system terms it plague to society. He praises the existing system:

DAMODARA: Indrani, the Rig Veda tells us that the four varnas flowed out of the Primordial Man: the Brahmin from the head, the Shudra from the feet. […].
Nature is iniquitous. […]. But civilization has been made possible because out Vedic heritage controls and directs that self-destructive energy. How large hearted is our dharma! To each person it says you don't have to be any one but yourself. One's caste is like one's home-meant for one's self and one's family. It is shaped to one's needs, one's comforts, and one's tradition. And that is why the Vedic tradition can absorb and accommodate all differences, from Kashmir to Kanya Kumari. And even those said to be its victims have embraced its logic of inequality (63).

A hypergamous marriage between a girl of a Brahmin Sharana and a boy of a Cobbler turned Sharana provides an excuse to unrest spread among the priests. They see it a threat to the caste-based foundation of society. For them it is an impudent scum, a perversity, a sacrilege a profanity. The marriage brings these two forces to a flashpoint. King Bijjala tries to deescalate the tensions by giving security to the marriage ceremony. The priests Damodara Bhatta and Manchanna Kramita air the ambitious prince Sovideva against King and dethrone him. The Sharanas are chased and forced to flee for survival and orthodoxy is restored in the state. Sovideva orders:

SOVI: Pursue them. Don't let them escape. Men, women, children- cut them all down.
Set the hounds after them. Search each wood, each bush. Burn the houses that give them shelter. Burn their books. Yes, the books! Tear them into shads and consign them to the wells. Their voices shall be stilled forever... The villains! The traitors! It proves they had a hand in killing my dear father, my revered father, King Bijjala, founder of the glorious Kaluchari dynasty. Destroy them.
From this moment all Sharanas, foreigners and free thinkers are expelled from this land on pain of death. Women and the lower orders shall live within the norms prescribed by our ancient tradition or else they'll suffer like dogs. Each citizen shall consider himself a soldier ready to lay down his life for the King, for the King in god incarnate. (90).

The reformation fails and orthodoxy gets upper hand. In this play too, the religious forces defeat the reformative zeal and defend evils in it. At one place, Basavanna protests any kind of violence in the name of religion or caste. He says to his followers, "Violence is wrong, whatever the provocation. To resort to it because someone else started it first is even worse. And to do so in the name of a structure of brick and mortar is a monument to stupidity" (29). Karnad expresses his disapproval against all kinds of violence and tensions in the name of religion and castes.

In all these three plays, religion (religious establishments) emerges as a destructive force and brings panic and suffering to the believers. The playwright focuses on the drastic results of the orthodoxy of the religious behaviour in the multi-cultured and heterogeneous country like India and elsewhere in the world. In a country like India, with competing religions and cultures, religious and cultural tensions leading to unsatisfactory compromises are inevitable. His plays dramatize such religious tensions and the resulting consequences. The message given in his plays is that the policy of compromise and tolerance of co-existence at the individual and the community level can avert the communal clashes that modern world has been facing in the bygone centuries. Karnad disapproves unwanted and baneful interference of religion in individual, social and political affairs. Tutun Mukherjee observes Karnad's intention and relevance of use of religion in his plays:

In addition to urging a re-view of history (and myths and folktales) these (Karnad's) plays are written against the backdrop of growing fundamentalism and communal frenzy in the country present individual endeavor towards communal integration during epochs of violence (20).

To sum up, the dramatist has proved in the historical and mythical context the non-tenability of the practice of extreme philosophy of violence and non-violence, which brings only destructions of beings. At the same, the play interrogates the survival of the time-honored practices prevalent in all religious rites. Here Karnad has used the myth of Jainism to unveil the psychological obsessions of the men and women with the concept of violence involved in sacrifice. In this conflict, all three characters are losers no one wins.

Works Cited

Dharwadkar, Aparna. Introduction. Collected Plays. By Girish Karnad. Volume One. New Delhi:
OUP, 2005. vii-xxxvi).
Karnad, Girish. Collected Plays. Vol. One. New Delhi: OUP, 2005.
… Collected Plays. Vol. Two. New Delhi:
OUP, 2005.
Mukherjee, Tutun. 'Of Text and Performance: Girish Karnad's Plays' Introduction.
Girish Karnad's Plays: Performance and Critical Perspectives. By Mukherjee (Ed.) New Delhi: Pencraft International, 2006. (11-26).
Rangacharya. Adya. The Indian Theatre. New Delhi: National Book Trust, 1980.


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(Published in Kafla Intercontinental - Jan-April 2013)