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Friday, February 25, 2011

The Mahabharata

                      (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, Delhi? The Egyptian mummies? The drainage system of the Indus-valley cities?...)
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 India 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.
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 India’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!
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 India’s legacy.
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:


Nishant Kamath said...

Dear Sir,

Thanks for the post and the links at the end. I have been meaning to read this book for a long time now. But I haven't been able to find out about a good translation. My grandma has the whole of the Mahabharatha by-heart and I heard many bits and pieces of it as a child. Once in class you'd quoted someone comparing nuclear warhead with the 'Thousand times brighter than the sun' weapon mentioned in the epic. And ever since I have wanted to read a good translation of it, one that is free from religious bias (one that doesn't justify events by saying that the Kauravas deserved what they did etc.). A friend of mine told me that Bhyrappa's written a good translation but I don't know if one exists in English. But I've saved a copy of the pdf from one of the sites you mentioned. I hope I find a good hard-copy.


Debotosh Chatterjee said...

Ten to twelve years ago , every sunday of mine used to begin with the "mahabharata" , aired on DD-National from 9 o'clock to 10 o'clock ! because i did not have access to things like mobile phones and the internet ,the TV editions of these legendary epics used to be my bosom friends ! i thoroughly enjoyed "ramayana" ,which was taught in classes 5 and 6 ; but the situation is completely different now -most kids in their early teenage(my dud brother included) cannot pass a bengali test (that includes mahabharata or ramayana in the syllabi) without a so called "guide" .ironically, some of these idiots turn out to be one-pointers and toppers in ICSE !

Shilpi said...

Dear Suvro da,

By God - this is an alarmingly long, lovely and terribly interesting (to say the least) essay/post and so it won't be possible to write a comment and raise questions or entertain a discussion without a mile long comment. The bits that I know of the Mahabharata has long perplexed me (even a short and fairly well-written book which I read some months ago made me wonder and scratch my head, which is why I asked you about some translations) and so I've loved reading this post and wish to re-visit it.

To take just one point - I never could understand much of why Yudhisthir was chosen to be the one to go straight into heaven (all I remember is that he refused to part with the dog...which I thought was the best thing that he had ever done!).

The "being Brahmin by birth" is yet another obsession which along with some others has always vaguely perplexed me. I remember a bit that you'd written in your chapter where you briefly touched upon it and that had made me wonder all the more.

Not to write miles but I think you say it best when you say that every man must think for himself and then make the best choice.

Krishna's character too had made me wonder but somewhat less somehow...and although 'inscrutable' - his part/role makes sense to me if one sort of suspends one's usual thinking cap....because I remember you said one line which had made my own faffing over Krishna's role in the Mahabharata disappear. And Meera's devotion for Krishna has always haunted me and made sense although I don't know how she. poor girl(!), managed...!

Thank you for this wonderful read but I have too many questions...some other time...

Take care and love and regards.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

I should be glad to hear some reflections from people who have read the great work closely and thought deeply about it.

Nishant, happy reading.

Debotosh, there's a vast India beyond the type you have mentioned, and it is that India I am interested in hearing from. It would be a pity if it turned out that that India didn't have much use for the internet...

Debotosh Chatterjee said...

yes ,there is that india but its size is shrinking at an alarming rate !

Tanmoy said...

Dear Suvroda

I have never read such detailed practical review of Mahabharata. Thanks for writing the review.

I have read a few versions of the Mahabharata too (but not that many as you have) but upon reading your review I do feel the need to re-read Mahabharata. As you have noted, there is such a huge amount of good/bad/normal of the Indian (and possibly global) culture in Mahabharata. Whilst perhaps many have talked of the issues identified in numbers 1 to 4 of your note, few would mention about number 5 and number 10. In fact, in both Ramayana and Mahabharata cruelty forms a major part of the whole narration. Bhim’s killing of Dushyashan and subsequently Draupadi using Dushyashan's blood to tie her hair has always given me shivers. In fact, in some places Mahabharata is terribly gory. Dushyashan’s death, Jayadratha (and his father’s death), Adbhimanyu’s death, killing of Draupadi’s son and Duryadhan’s death to name a few.

In fact, I am not aware if any other epic brings forth the darker side of human being in such great details as Mahabharata does. Surely Iliad and Odyssey does not. Mahabharata showed that in does not matter whether you are elite or the privileged, every human being can reach the depth of inhumanness if something as important as property (money) is at stake. In fact, things have hardly changed even now.

While you have covered a lot in your note but could you please identify some of the most beautiful moments in Mahabharata? I mean who/which incident for example, influences you most. I have tried to find an answer to such a question but could not because I find Mahabharata at a larger scale such a reflection of modern day society. For me it is like a mirror. I find this current relevance of Mahabharata a miracle and sometimes wonder – have we really progressed, in our mind? So the book influences me as a whole.



sayantika said...

Dear Sir,

Though my knowledge of the Mahabharata is limited to the stories I heard from grandmother, dad and mom, the children's version by Upendrakishore Raychaudhuri, BR Chopra's serial that has been telecasted many times and later wikipedia, I agree with the points that you have noted here, especially the last one. Though Krishna has been portrayed as the best of all, he is more of a Machiavellian character who uses all means to ensure the Pandavas' win. And in a war that is said to be fought between good and evil, why do the 'divine' Krishna make the 'good' use such means, like using Shikhandi to defeat Bhisma, prompting Yudhisthir to lie so as to kill Dronacharya, asking Arjuna to slay Karna when he was trying to rescue his chariot wheel or telling Bhima to break the rules of mace duelling in order to kill Duryodhana. If the Pandavas had been so great warriors, they must have been able to win fairly. So why resort to such low means, since they make the 'virtuous' Pandavas at par with the 'cruel' Kauravas?
Thanks for the links. I am re-reading it once again.

With regards,

Debotosh Chatterjee said...

dear sir ,
the answers to all the questions asked by the previous comment writer are present in "The divine message" of THE GITA !

Rajarshi said...

Dear Sir,

It was nice to read your thoughts.
This is not in context of Mahabharata but Hindu mythological narratives in general.

The way our epics (and Hindu mythology, in general) have portrayed the clash between Aryans (Devas) & Non-aryans (Rakshashas & Asuras) has resulted in many deep seated prejudices in our culture & society. Going by what mainstream historians say about Aryan invasion, it may be safe to say that the indigenous people (whom we refer to as 'adivasis') have been portrayed as 'Asuras' from Ramayana to Samudra Manthan.
Don't you think that marginalization of indigenous people (and this includes romanticizing their idyllic lifestyles), our obsession with fair complexion etc., are all manifestations of the way these narratives have been handed down the generations?

Just a thought.

Sayan Datta said...

Sir, I have been reading Deepak Chopra's 'Buddha'. I have read more than a few books of this genre before but now I can see the entire spectacle being played out from a completely new perspective. Your blog post has added one more dimension to my thought process and I can feel it.

The excessive fawning over wealth, luxury and power, the servile compliance of the brahmins to the kshatriya kings to win favours or to simply dodge the guillotine and the regard for women as objects of pure lust only.......and all this, while there still appears to exist less malevolent and more thoughtful and sensitive people with at least some of them exploring the fringes of reality and idealism. There is this scene in the book where Canki, the high preist, shedding all fears of the wrath of Suddhodana for once, tells the disconcerted young Siddhartha - "You are among the few who can understand. I have always sensed that, ever since you were a little child." The ones who can understand have always been few. Isn't that so, Sir?

This is what your posts do, Sir. They open dusty doors which had remained closed for a long time and the fresh gust of wind that is hence allowed in has a cleansing effect on the mind.

Thank you for the post, Sir. I plan to read the Mahabharata sooner rather than later.
Sayan Datta.

Pritam Mukherjee said...

Dear Sir,

I always wanted to read the Mahabharat in full one day but every time I would put it off for some other day , until now. Your post has reignited that desire and I have finally started reading it - or rather an English version of it, and I shall get back to this post when I finish it, though it may be some time before that happens.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Do that, Pritam: you won't regret it.

Incidentally, among the few who have commented here, I happen to know that Nishant, Sayan and you were very good at science and math, going by examination scores. It is on the likes of you that I pin most of what little hope I have for India's future. You are live examples of my contention that in order to be good at science and get into IIT and stuff one doesn't deliberately have to make oneself a moron, morally/culturally speaking: it is a conscious choice (but alas, one that far too many have made in my lifetime, in front of my own eyes)...

Suvro Chatterjee said...

I really do think that this particular post should have been more commented upon!

Bizarre and most disturbing that educated Indians of today are so unconcerned about their socio-cultural roots...

Amit parag said...

In my view-
1: Social hierarchy was prevalent among gods too. There were demigods, the gandharvas, the not so powerful gods, and the three main gods; and they also acted, many times, in perfectly perfidious ways. Is this not a slight aberration on the meaning of the word “GOD”?
The power of the brahma is supreme (sage Vrihaspati’ brother nearly cursed the god of fire to be reduced to ashes). The Brahmin is always right and supreme among all living mortals as Bhishma told Yudhisthira after the Great War and he should always be venerated. Utter trash, once again birth has been given preference to virtue. Hitler and co. did it , white people in America could not think that blacks can have the same range of emotions as they had, Romans did that to Christians, Christians behaved in that manner with others ; power always finds a way to rest on its head.
2: Essentially I consider all the stories to be parables. Sage Vsaya often at the end of some anecdotes made someone speak the moral of the story- as in the story of Asthavakra, Kagola says that the son may be more intelligent than his father and it does good for talented people to be humble before genius- but those stories (Yavakrida’s life story may be more relevant in these decadent times) still teach us a lot even in the contemporary time; echoes one of my beliefs that neither time nor distance greatly changes man’s philosophy.
It may be noted that both Gita and The Sermon on the Mount speak of same cardinal sins and virtues. Every religion has three main components- mythology, rituals and ceremonies and philosophy and ethics. Those who are not spiritually crippled tend to be drawn towards philosophy.
Incidentally M N Roy has examined the contradictions in Gita, quite explicitly, in his book on materialism.
3: As long as one is sufficiently powerful and (therefore!) revered, he has the entire license in the world to do his will- Santanu’s illicit escapades or Devyani’s marriage are ample proofs to substantiate what I said.
People have very odd sense of Dharma, not to add that a few had a rotten sense of right and wrong, and odder are the ways in which they interpret it. Yudhisthira’ choices at the gambling event (actually the poet is very clever to give two reasons as to why the son of Pandu started gambling: one - his own lust for the game and the other being that he could not decline a direct invitation so as to prevent anger and ill will) , Salya being driven against his nephews on the eve of the battle, Draupadi’s humiliation in the court by Kauravas , Kunti throwing her son in the river and the events in the actual battle might throw light on this contentious issue.

4: Lord Krishna is manipulator and the be-all and the end-all, and a great one too, at least that is what he says when he begins to run out of argument. His words are self contradictory- after the fateful gambling event he tells all that he would have prevented the game from occurring and also goes on peace keeping missions, allegedly to stop the war at all costs but also promises Draupadi that she will have her revenge.
I cannot help reflecting that the best way to improve oneself , to evolve one’s spiritual self more lies in becoming sponge, soaking goodness wherever one finds it, the scrutiny of what is “good” being left entirely to the philosopher concerned-there is no particular greatness-guide available-, and “drilling one’s soul in the right principles so that when the time comes the person concerned may not be found to be lacking in them” and certainly not by treating any particular book or religion to be above all.

Navin said...

Dear Sir,

I would rate this post as one of the best I have read on your blogsite. in my opinion, It is easily among the top 5 posts you have written. I just reread this post the second time. This post certainly gives me a sound basis to reason about the mahabharata.

I read one english translation of the geeta and when I did not understand it, my father suggested that I read the interpretation by Acharya Vinobha bhave. It was intended to be for convicts in the jail he was staying in and is intended to be easier than many other versions of the geeta available . I would accept that I have yet not understood the message of the geeta, while books like ashtavakra geeta, ribhu geeta or even the bible make some sense to me, at least intellectually. The last point you mentioned in your blog post certainly gives me a little relief, as even arjuna could not comprehend the message of the geeta intellectually. Also after reading your post, I realize that it is probably not possible to read the geeta as an independent unit, but it is necessary to read it in the context of mahabharata.

Thanks for this post. It comes at a great time for me.


sayantika said...

Dear Sir,
I just finished Mrityunjaya: The Death Conqueror by Marathi author Shivaji Sawant (translated by Professor P. Lal and Nandini Nopany) which portrays the entire epic from the point of view of Karna. I had wanted to read the book ever since I read Tagore's Karna-Kunti Sambad. Though the book deviates from the canon in some places, it was a very good read with beautiful descriptions and in-depth characterisation and it has rekindled my interest in reading the Mahabharata as a whole. And as you said in Point 2, that how many authors have based their works on the epic, and yet much needs to be done, I feel that it is a treasure trove of stories that can capture the imagination and it's high time we realise this.

Thanks and with regards,

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Glad that you told me about this book, Sayantika, many thanks.

One of the more recent spoofs on the Mahabharata is Shashi Tharoor's The Great Indian Novel. I won't comment on it here, but you should try it.

It is heartening that some youngsters like you not only still read books but what I write about books, and then bother to comment on them. The 'educated' class of my own generation, alas, cannot be faulted on any of those scores... I cannot think of a single colleague of mine, teachers included, who can be called a real reader.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

I am happy to see that this post about the Mahabharata has made it to the top-ten list. I should be happier still if some more join the conversation here.

Sayan, I read Chopra's book recently, and I see exactly what you mean.

Rajarshi, I said in the post itself that most of our (even unconscious-) prejudices have been handed down by the epics, passed orally through the generations even among people who could not read.

Nishant said...

Dear Sir,

I finally started reading a version of the epic I'd bought last December, when I was home. And I am glad that I will be done before I am thirty!

I didn't realise it when I bought it, but the author (Krishna Dharma) is a member of ISKCON and I can already see that he's not too objective in his writings. The Kauravas are always envious and jealous and the Pandavas are always virtuous and powerful. But since I know how things will be described throughout the book, I'll be prepared to make my own judgement on everything that happens. It's good to just learn the story though I do hope I find a book that is more objective. Maybe one by P. Lal. I'd also like to read Mrityunjay.


Saikat Chakraborty said...

Dear Sir,

I have read only the abridged version of the Mahabharata by Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury, your post and the ‘The Palace of Illusions’. However, I want to discuss few things in spite of my limited knowledge about the epic.

-Such a wide variety of characters makes me wonder whether there is any trait of human nature that falls outside the purview of those described in this epic.
-Is there any change from the fact that the common man is virtually excluded from all important matters that have direct bearing upon them? Yes, there is democracy in many countries and we have fundamental rights; yet, isn’t it obvious that a handful of politicians and business men controls most of what is essential.
-No gift from the gods comes without a price, all boons must be exercised with caution and what seems benign might prove to be otherwise in the long run. Doesn't it resonate with any new discoveries or innovations in science? Aggressive urbanization has led to ecological imbalance, rampant use of antibiotics has given rise to drug resistant microbes and so on.
-You have mentioned towards the end of your post that Krishna put Arjun’s doubt to rest by showing his universal form and not by logic which shows that he himself was not convinced about the righteousness of his judgment. But is it also not true that faith can motivate people much more than bare logic and that is what Krishna tried to do.
-There is one thing that seems puzzling- Yudhisthir was always so adamant about keeping ‘Dharma’ and had such a rigid outlook and yet Krishna never tried to advise him or talk sense which he did with everyone else. I am curious as to what might be the reason behind it.

I would like to read some other versions of the epic and perhaps the original some day when I can comprehend your post better. Nevertheless, thanks for writing on this in your blog. It is always a delight to read your writings because they are neither old nor new; they are here to stay and stand the test of time.

With regards,

Nishant said...

Dear Sir,

I had to abandon the last version I tried to read (the ISKCON version). The inherent bias made it look too childish. I am, however, reading Iravati Karve's "Yuganta" and it looks very promising (I am halfway through). It is a dissection of each of the characters, the society at the time and even the incidents in the book itself (she claims that several incidents were later additions in order to, for instance, make certain people look better). Just as you mentioned in your post, she brings to light the failings of the characters, even the ones that are considered 'good'. I don't know if you would gain much from the book, since you probably have taken the epic apart by virtue of reading it on multiple occasions and reflecting on it. To readers like me, it provides food for thought.


Suvro Chatterjee said...

Dear Nishant,

I have read Karve's book, and it does indeed provide much food for thought. It is interesting to say the least that the great epic still continues to inspire people to think so much and write so much, even in this day and age!

Which makes me take note of the fact that you - and you alone - keep coming back to the subject, and to my post. Nothing makes me happier. Best wishes, and happy reading and thinking...

Nishant said...

Thank you very much, sir. I think really well-written literature is worth visiting time and again. I like how a lot of the side-stories and long-forgotten incidents come back to haunt the characters. I love the fact that most characters reveal themselves to be various shades of grey, and no one seems to be exempt from what is due to them. Also, I think back on how they (books and TV shows) put a positive spin on a particularly dastardly act, just because it was one of the good guys doing it. And, I am reminded of what you had mentioned in class: read something close to the true version and one'd find stuff that would put Game of Thrones to shame! If it was perfectly fine, at one time, to narrate and listen to such stories publicly, I wonder where we went wrong.