TOWARDS A HUMANISTIC READING OF “MAHABHARATA”

About a month ago, I listened for a while to a television debate in Odia on the decision, presumably by the Government of Madhya Pradesh, to include Ramayana and Mahabharata as elective subjects in the first year Engineering programme in that state. The assumption of both the participants, both young (which was a good thing), was that these are religious works. This piece disagrees but it does not enter into this debate.

Incidentally, at many of our universities, IIT and IIMS, in elective courses in literature (including comparative literature), philosophy, history, culture, leadership and related areas, these great works, in part at least, are already being taught. But to the best of my knowledge, course content had never been a subject for a debate in the electronic media. There could be more reasons than one for this but no need to go into all that here.

Ten years ago, I taught an elective course on Mahabharata to the final year undergraduates at IIIT Hyderabad. The title of the course was “The human condition as depicted in the Mahabharata”. The basic perspective was this: A truly great work, like Mahabharata, allows itself to multiple interpretations. Often different schools of thought assign different meanings to it. And then, as the world changes and new knowledges arise that give people new world views, people see meanings in the great works that the earlier generations did not. In our view, each interpretation is valid if it satisfies the requirements of internal consistency and local (at the level of episodes, for instance) and global (the interpretation as a whole) coherence. It is possible that an interpretation would miss out of something but then would project something that was missed out in earlier studies.

Now, Mahabharata could be read as a humanistic, i.e., non-religious, work. It can be viewed as essentially a narrative of the humans: their aspirations and struggles, their attitudes and values, their compulsions and options, the way they sin and are sinned against, their hopes and frustrations in interpersonal relationships, the problems they face, dilemmas that trouble them, and the way they resolve these and much, much else.

From this perspective, let us consider Sarala Mahabharata, a magnificent retelling of Vyasa’s Mahabharata in Odia, composed by Sarala Das in the fifteenth century.  It deviates from the Sanskrit text in many ways, although, needless to say, the basic story remains the same. So, for our present purpose, it would make no difference which text we consider: Vyasa’s or Sarala’s. In Sarala’s retelling, some episodes are somewhat differently conceptualized and it is reflected in the characterization and plot construction. This is in fact the tradition of retelling in the regional languages of the Sanskrit Ramayana and Mahabharata in our country. Ramcharitmanas is not a translation of Valmiki Ramayana, neither is Kambar’s Ramavataram.

In Sarala Mahabharata, on the Kurukshetra battlefield, the Pandava and the Kaurava armies stood face-to-face, each waiting for the other to attack. Both knew that war was sinful. The Pandavas were the aggrieved party, which might be why Sri Krishna asked Arjuna to attack the enemy, but he said he wouldn’t but would retaliate when attacked. Retaliation would be no sin because the attacked had the right to protect himself. Sri Krishna didn’t say a word and reported the matter to Yudhisthira. The eldest Pandav considered his brother’s attitude eminently reasonable and tried to make one last attempt to avoid war. He pleaded with Duryodhana to give them just one village, if he didn’t want to give them five, as he had asked for earlier. When Duryodhana refused even that, the eldest Pandava realized that war was inevitable.

He then told Duryodhana that since the issue was the succession to the throne of Hastinapura, only the hundred Kaurava brothers and the five Pandava brothers must fight and settle it. It was their war, not the war of all those who had assembled there to fight for them – Bhishma, Drona, Karna, Jayadrath, Sakuni, Drupad, Abhimanyu, Lakshmana Kumar, among others and then the countless soldiers. They were all outsiders. Their blood must not flow in a war that wasn’t theirs. None of them would inherit the throne. The idea was that if war couldn’t be avoided, it must be ensured that its scope remained strictly local so that the damage would be minimal. Duryodhana did not cooperate with Yudhisthira. Considerations of victory required that help of the outsiders was badly needed. If it would bring large scale damage, so be it. But at least a moral option to this attitude was clearly articulated through Yudhisthira; faced with such a situation, humankind must make its choice.

When Ashwatthama demanded from his father Drona that he teach him how to use Brahmashira, one of the most destructive of the divine weapons, the wise guru refused. His son complained that he was being very unfair to him, who was his own, considering that he had taught its use to Arjuna, who was not his own. Drona knew that his son was jealous, excitable and prone to anger. He had no self-control. He feared that Ashwatthama would misuse that astra. Arjuna, in contrast, was calm, composed and self-possessed, which made him worthy of receiving the knowledge of that divine astra.  

Ashwatthama’s mother had died while giving birth and Drona had been his mother and father both. He was, understandably, extremely indulgent towards him. One day he succumbed and gave him the knowledge of Brahmashira. On a certain occasion, after the Kurukshetra war was over, in frustration and anger, Ashwatthama used, rather misused it. Fortunately for Drona; he had died before this happened.

So, power must reside with them who have a highly developed moral sense. A social arrangement based on this principle, would give rise to inequality. In fact, not just his son but his Kaurava shishyas had often charged Drona of partiality towards the Pandavas, in particular, Arjuna. But in the wise guru’ view, in certain domains, inequality must be accepted, not resisted, for the good of the society.

By the way and rather irrelevantly for this piece, today, not many would agree with this view. Noam Chomsky would be one of them. This principle, they would say, would give rise to dictatorship. Dictatorship of the enlightened, they would say, is as unacceptable as that of the thug. In each case, the people would lose their rights and dignity. The ruler would decide what they must do.

Once a war is over and the victory celebrations have taken place, it’s time to fix the responsibility for the war. In the Great War at Kurukshetra, there were two victors: Yudhisthira and Sakuni. Yudhisthira became the king of Hastinapura, with the challengers to the throne having been completely eliminated. Sakuni had achieved his purpose. He had to avenge the brutal killing of his father and uncles by Duryodhana. In Sarala Mahabharata, he used treachery to imprison them in a specially designed palace, which he had built for that purpose and starved the hundred unfortunate men to death. Sakuni was promise-bound to his father to avenge their killing. He virtually achieved his objective on the seventeenth day of the war. By then no Kaurava was alive except Duryodhana. Sahadev and Arjuna knew about Sakuni’s objective and Sahadev suggested to him that since Duryodhana’s fall was imminent, he should go to Gandhar and rule his kingdom.

Sakuni did not and chose to get killed in the war. He held himself responsible for the killing of many great warriors and countless soldiers. He had resorted to manipulation and treachery to bring the Kauravas and the Pandavas to the battlefield, certain that the Kauravas would be completely destroyed in a war with the Pandavas. He had avenged the killing of his father and his relatives but at the same time, he could not forgive himself for the death of the innocents. He atoned his sin by sacrificing himself in the war.

In the end, Yudhisthira held Draupadi and Sahadeva responsible for the war – Draupadi for ceaselessly instigating her husbands to avenge her humiliation in the Kaurava court and Sahadeva for not warning him about what would happen, although he had the knowledge. “Would the game of dice have taken place if the results were known in advance to the eldest Pandava?”, one would wonder.

Ordinarily the victors in a war hold the defeated responsible for it. Here the victors held themselves largely responsible for the war. Victors cannot punish themselves as war criminals. War criminals are punished by others, not themselves. But they can repent. This is what Sakuni did. As for Yudhisthira, he was troubled by a deep sense of guilt and had no peace.

In Sarala’s retelling, the relationship between Gandhari and Kunti was never cordial and Kunti bayed for the Kauravas’ blood after Draupadi’s humiliation. But when Dhritarashtra and Gandhari decided to go to the forest for their vanaprastha, she decided to join them and serve them. She knew they, both old and blind, would need her. When Gandhari asked her why she was rejecting her royal status and the comforts of the palace, she told her that she had been spending sleepless nights, grieving over the loss of her son Karna and her grandchildren. The war had made both Gandhari and Kunti miserable losers and Kunti had made her choice about who she would be with, in the very last part of her life.  

Now, where is religion in all this?

Note: An earlier version of this article was published in Samachar Just Click on 4 November 2021.

2 Replies to “TOWARDS A HUMANISTIC READING OF “MAHABHARATA””

  1. I agree watching or reading such epic has a lot more than religion…
    When my 8 and 5 year old kids watched a remake of Ramayana with their grandparents these young minds really got strong in understanding characters and complexities of real-life situations.

    Like

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