(manuscript illustration of the battle of Kurukshetra)
“It strengthens the soul and drives home, as nothing else does, the vanity of ambition and the evil and futility … learnt at the mother’s knee with reverence and love, it has inspired great men to heroic deeds as well as enabled the humble to face their trials with fortitude and faith … the Mahabharata discloses a rich civilization and a highly evolved society, which though of an older world, strangely resembles the India of our own time, with the same values and ideals… the advent of the kali age is marked by many breaches of these conventions in the Kurukshetra battle, on account of the bitterness of conflict, frustration and bereavements. Some of the most impressive passages in the epic centre around these breaches of dharma.” (Chakravarti Rajagopalachari)
I had promised myself to re-read our greatest epic thoroughly sometime in middle age, and I have just done it.
I was told the core story (the civil war among the Kuru-Pandava cousins of Hastinapur) very ably by my elders in childhood, and had thereafter read it avidly first in comic book form (Amar Chitra Katha), then in a school Bengali textbook, then went on to read Rajshekhar Basu’s very erudite and competent summary before I went to college. Later I also read Kashiram Das’ famed Bengali version, Kaliprasanna Sinha’s magnum opus, as well as more than one English translation, including parts of the multi-volume ‘transcreation’ by Professor P. Lal. Besides, I have sampled several versions of the Bhagavad Gita in Bangla, Hindi, and English (picking up a bit of Sanskrit, too, along the way). I watched B.R. Chopra’s highly successful serialization on TV in 1988-90, too. So the book has been with me all through. But it is more than 20 years since I went through the whole epic at one go. Meanwhile I have lived out the larger part of my life, and I think I should make my own judgment of its worth in the light of whatever little experience of life I have personally gained so far.
1. It is certainly, by virtue of its age, length and complexity (Amartya Sen has noted that it is many times the length of the Iliad and Odyssey combined), one of the most important and interesting books ever written.
2. It has influenced – and continues to influence – Indians both great and small through the ages, from the names we give to our children to the festivals we celebrate to the customs (even the crude and silly ones) or lokachaar we (at least all of us who are nominally Hindu) follow to this day, in more ways than we are conscious of.
3. It deserves to be familiar to a far wider audience than it currently is (so Prince Dara Shukoh thought, and therefore had it translated into Persian), and it is a very great pity that most ‘educated’ Indians currently below 30 probably cannot tell the story coherently even in outline. That is indeed a very major and sinister break in our cultural continuity. I am convinced no one can be truly ‘Indian’ without knowing about it, and even to criticize many things that it says one must know it with some degree of thoroughness.
4. Its historical origins are lost in antique myth. Though ascribed wholly to Vyasa, it was certainly composed in many parts by many different writers over a period of many centuries, taking a more or less ‘final’ form only in the early Gupta era (4th century CE), although it refers to many historical (if grossly exaggerated-) incidents that probably took place 1000-1500 years ago, at least.
5. I have read it essentially as a great work of literature (in the grandest sense of the word, of course) rather than as a ‘holy’ book whose every word is sacred and unchallengeable. All my comments must be understood to have been made from that standpoint – without assuming that I am being glibly and ignorantly cynical in an effort to be fashionably modern.
6. If historically the Ramayana is about the great clash of the Aryans (bearers of sanatan dharma) with the indigenous non-Aryans (‘rakshashas/dasyus’) and the total defeat of the latter, the Mahabharata is about how, after they had spread all over India, these Aryans (by now having reluctantly but deeply intermingled with the non-Aryans), fought fiercely among themselves to establish the right to empire – long before the first historically-confirmed empire (the Mauryan) came into being.
Now these are the things that I found truly remarkable about the Mahabharata in the course of my latest reading:
1. It is rife with miracles. People got back their lost youth, lived for thousands of years, could change their material forms at will, a woman could get back her virginity after delivering a baby, children could be produced in all sorts of containers, even earthen pitchers, so you didn’t really need a human uterus, the divinely-graced could travel at will between different worlds, many people changed their sex as it suited their convenience (or when they were cursed), even gods could be defeated and humiliated by sufficiently powerful men, and the greatest warriors wielded weapons which have never been remotely equalled in historical time before the 20th century CE (hydrogen bombs, neutron bombs, poison gas, machine guns, bomber aircraft, long-distance missiles). Which indicates that the people of ancient times were possessed of the most vaulting imaginations or very, very advanced technology (remember Arthur Clarke declaring that any sufficiently advanced technology seems at first like magic)! Being familiar with both the science and the science fiction of the 20th century, I incline to think that the truth was an admixture of both: at least, the ancients had much more sophisticated technology at their disposal than most of us moderns, enslaved by a linear view of history, are willing to give them credit for (remember Stonehenge? The
Easter Island statues? The Ashokan stainless steel pillar now in Mehrauli, ? The Egyptian mummies? The drainage system of the Indus-valley cities?...) Delhi
2. It is an inexhaustible treasure trove of fantastic stories, often only very tenuously connected to the main plot, but adding immeasurably to the richness of the text. Great authors/actors/playwrights down the ages have mined it for material on which to base their own creative works, from Kalidasa (Abhighnyan Shakuntalam) to Tagore (Gandharir aabedon, Karna-Kunti Shambad) to Samaresh Basu (Shamba) and Shaoli Mitra and Peter Brooke. It is good to see that the tradition continues, in the form of currently popular formats like animated cartoons on TV, but I think much more needs to be done, so that, even if children want to watch only fantasy, they do not have to grow up on a diet of Superman and Spiderman alone. Even something like the Harry Potter series will be far more deeply enjoyed and appreciated by someone who has read this book. Indians don’t know how much
has to offer! And there’s no need for our producers and directors to be hesitant because the Mahabharata is likely to appeal only to Hindus: that is like imagining that Aesop’s fables are interesting only to Europeans, and the Arabian Nights only to Muslims. India
3. There are certain things that it is absolutely obsessed with – worship and aggrandizement of brahmins, sexuality (even the gods and holy men are sex-crazed, and cannot think of any other kind of intercourse with the females of the species), preservation of what they called ‘dharma’, terror of mixed marriages (varnasankara), the ‘need’ for a son which could even justify getting your wife impregnated by another man, the glory of the cow – these motifs occur again and again all through the vast work. Obviously the ‘rules’ were observed mostly in the breach: otherwise the wise men of the era would not have insisted upon them so frantically! I am a male and technically a brahmin myself, and certainly not a celibate, yet at times these obsessions made me faintly sick… much that is warped or weird about Indian society even today can certainly be explained by the way these obsessions have been driven deeply into all our minds (all ‘good’ women simply must ‘belong’ to some man or other like chattel, for example. Even a ‘smart, educated’ girl who imagines herself to be ‘free’ to make her own choices must ultimately only marry and raise children and dress up and gossip and brag about her children’s achievements. If I am a ‘bad’ man among a lot of women because I dared to suggest that they might learn to think differently, I can blame the Mahabharata for it. Attitudes have changed little: witness the double standards vividly portrayed as recently as in Dev D!)
4. Ordinary folks – always the vast majority of the populace – have no place in the story: it is all about gods, brahmins, sages and kings. Commoners are mentioned only as drudges and slaves or poor artisans, pastoralists and farmers, to be praised or punished according to how well they serve their masters. Female servants, if young and pretty, are merely given away as gifts by the hundreds or thousands to whoever earns their masters’ pleasure.The king regards them patronizingly in good times, and as mere cannon fodder and sources of tax revenue in practice. To think that free
’s founding fathers dared to establish democracy with universal adult franchise in a country like this takes my breath away; that the gigantic ongoing experiment is fraught with flaws does not make me wonder at all! India
5. The ‘good’, defined as those who are supposed follow the dharma meticulously, are frequently shown to be weak, corruptible, devious, dishonest and downright cruel. Yayati cursing his sons for refusing to exchange their youth with his old age, Dushmanta’s wanton abuse of Shakuntala in public long after he had used her to satisfy his lust and got her in the family way, Shantanu’s exploitation of his son’s devotion in order to get the woman he wanted, Drona’s horrible ill-treatment of Ekalavya (essentially because the latter was a beyond-the-pale tribal and had moreover not paid due fees to his ‘guru’), Kunti disowning her eldest son Karna and keeping it a secret right till after his death, which caused him to be undeservingly humiliated lifelong, the Pandavas luring an innocent nishaad (tribal) family to their death in the fire at Varanavat so that people might think they themselves had been killed, the way Indra cheated Karna out of his invulnerable armour, the way the newly-married Draupadi was ‘shared’ among the Pandavas without so much as a by your leave (and later briefly sent to hell for the ‘sin’ of having loved Arjuna – who had actually won her at the swayamvar – a little more than the rest!), Yudhishtir’s utter stupidity in playing the dice and the unspeakable vulgarity of betting away everything, even his wife (only Bhima really protested against the madness of the ‘Dharmaraja’), the inhuman abuse of Draupadi which all the wise old great men including Bhishma and Drona mutely witnessed (because they were in the king’s pay – is it any wonder that in India naukri has always justified any amount of self-abasement and turning a blind eye to every kind of wrong?), and the way Abhimanyu was killed (not the worst horrors of the 20th century world wars can top that one): anyone can make out a longer list, but I think I have made my point. The best of our ancestors were not really good, leave alone great human beings, no matter what awesome technical/military/scholarly/polemical skills they might have posssessed! That is
’s legacy. India
6. Although the brahmin is extolled ad nauseam as the best of men, and although it is true that there are a few examples of brahmins who lived simple, self-controlled lives devoted to learning and prayer, it is also said over and over again that such ideals were never held in wide esteem; on the other hand, there are also examples galore of brahmins who were insatiably greedy and given to sensual vices/weaknesses of every sort, and no less a sage than Vyasa himself says (right after the Ashvamedha yagna) that brahmins desire nothing more than wealth, and the king cannot acquire greater merit than by giving away wealth to brahmins! That’s our vaunted other-worldliness for you.
7. The book is full of other self-contradictions. Who is the greater god: Vishnu or Shiva? Is woman on the whole deserving of worship or the vilest contempt? Which is the greater sin: killing your mother or disobeying your father? What is the ‘right’ age for marriage? Does the author sincerely believe that ahimsa is the highest religion? Does one become a brahmin by birth or by virtue of his work and character? Is it good or bad to eat meat and drink liquor? What is stronger, fate (daiva) or character (purushakar)? If the gods and brahmins commit all kinds of heinous and base crimes, why are they said to be better than the rest? – My guess is that the contradictions have crept in because a) different things were written by authors with very different views at different times, b) the authors found the world itself so confusing that they couldn’t feel confident about laying down definitive laws and standards, and c) many different social interest groups fought in the minds of the authors to have their say recorded in the great history of the people. The end result, therefore, is bound to be fraught with contradictions, and only the narrow-minded fanatic will choose to quote bits and pieces from here and there (in favour or in opposition to child marriage, for instance) and try to impose them rigidly upon society as a whole because ‘the immortal gods have said so’. Every man must make up his own mind after giving these issues serious thought, and be willing to tolerate wide differences of opinion, and thereby allow an open, liberal, secular society to flourish. At the same time, society as a whole must allow for some degree of confusion and contradiction to exist along with strong and definite views on many subjects, because that is much healthier than putting all of us in a stifling moral/cultural straitjacket: that is the essential teaching of the Mahabharata. As long as the weakest are not bulldozed by mainstream opinion – that too, has been said every now and then, and when giving us all his famous ‘talisman’, Gandhi, I think, understood the message of the great epic particularly well, even though it is pitched at a rather low key.
8. Shanti-parva and Anushasan-parva – where the very old and very wise Bhishma gives his parting advice to Yudhisthir on just about every subject under the sun, can, despite much thought-provoking matter, in the end only be called hilarious (and my advance apologies to anyone who might be scandalized by my choice of words). The warning against astrologers and necromancers has, of course, never been heeded in this country. Some of the rules you must follow in order to live a long and healthy life are, of course, sane and sensible enough (don’t stare at the rising and setting sun – we know now why that is very bad for the eyes), but what can you say when you are warned ‘never bathe in the nude’? And why on earth ‘must’ you obey parents and elder brother even when you know them to be evil, and patently wrong? And why mustn’t you give alms to someone who has contracted tuberculosis, or has been bitten by a dog, for heaven’s sake?!
9. The end is rather sad. ‘Not with a bang but with a whimper’ – that’s the way it happens. The Pandavas grow weary and gradually lose their powers (so does the ‘divine’
Krishna, by the way, and dies in a rather pathetic fashion); world-weariness ultimately persuades them to set off heavenwards (was this the pleasure and glory for whose sake they had fought the greatest war known to mankind?). All but Yudhisthir drop off along the way for one sin or the other, he alone reaches heaven’s gate. Then he has to pass two more ‘tests’ of moral strength and integrity, following which he is joyously reunited with all his loved ones in heaven. It is strange that he alone emerges as the ‘perfect’ character; the same man who had been reviled as weak and vacillating and even a liar by those who loved him most in his lifetime, while far stronger characters are vanquished by their weaknesses! In any case, I think the final moral of the story is a) it is not good to live too long, even with all sorts of miraculous attributes, and b) all things pall, and all things eventually pass, so it is unwise to aspire to live too grandly, especially if that involves hurting the environment and one’s fellow men too much – let all dictators and tycoons take heed!
10. As for Krishna, all I shall say here (too much has been said by too many already!) is that, despite the almost maniacal emphasis on his divinity throughout (some scholars are of the opinion that the whole work is meant to gradually convince the reader about the divinity of
Krishna) is that he does not impress me too highly. In the Mahabharata itself some people accuse him of not really having tried hard enough to prevent the war, because he had already made up his own mind. Besides, he comes across as much less godly than a very shrewd politician using everybody to further his own (often inscrutable-) ends. It is undeniable that he often took recourse to cruel subterfuge and deception to get rid of those he disliked and help his favourites, explaining it all away whenever questioned with the catch-all ‘it was so ordained by fate’. And I simply cannot overlook the fact that he never could convince Arjuna about his duty and the ‘right’ course of action by worldly example and reason alone: he silenced all doubt by miraculous revelation (the vishwarupa). It was largely because of this unresolved doubt in everybody’s mind (except perhaps Bhima’s) that, even after the carnage, no one could be quite sure that the right thing had been done, and so no one could be really happy… if I adore Krishna, it is not the Krishna of the Mahabharata who gets my heart’s devotion, but the loving, naughty, caring, childlike God of the puranas, of Meera and Sri Chaitanya.
[Here are some links that the interested reader can explore: