by Astha Agrawal
Our reading of the past, understanding of the present are interdependent, while we cannot live without our past, we need not live within it either…
—Amartya Sen (200x)
The land called as India has a rich tradition of historical/mythological texts, which are not only the reflection of the rich civilization that it was but also treatises on the art of governance and statecraft, politics, economics and philosophy, spirituality, morality, and at times a guide to life. The Mahabharata, the longest-oldest poem known to the world, is one such fascinating journey.
There is little dissent over the relevance of Mahabharata in our modern day-to-day lives. The text is venerated for its meta-philosophy, comprehensibly compiled in The Bhagvad Gita, the ‘holy book’ of the Hindus. Yet, it is perhaps “most wrongly understood, thoroughly misunderstood, most of all in India where it originated” (Badrinath, 200x).
To put it in the simplest possible way, Mahabharata is the centuries’ long story of ‘the descendants of Bharata’ who lived on the land south to Himalayas (which is our present day India). The most common understanding of this rich, diverse and deep text is that it is a gigantic war between two sets of first cousins—Pandavs and Kauravs—a family feud over a piece of land. A morally superior interpretation of the war is a conflict between the good and the evil, a fight for dharma—an interpretation worthy of meticulous scrutiny. The understanding that interests me most, amidst many underlying meanings that it endorses, the most important of all, is peace.
Peace dominates the central theme of the Mahabharata even when conflict/war appears to be prominent. The war may appear inevitable but also futile. Another important theme is its approach towards human relationships. It delves deeper into the roots of hatred and war, and brings out ahimsa, non-violence, as a mandate for happy life that we all aspire for (Badrinath, 200x). The theme of dharma that runs through the text brings out the multi-faceted notion of truth. Can the war of Kurukshetra be compared to the wars of our times? Can it be read as a metaphor of life? Is violence the last resort, or should it be condemned in all situations, no matter what? Do ends justify means? How are ends defined? Or is it all about the process?
The omnipresence of peace
“It is worth repeating that according to the great aesthetician Anandvardhana, the dominating mood of the Mahabharata is peace, not chivalry. In the social psyche, death, however imposing or violent it is, prospective well-being of the agent is peace and harmony in future lives.” The twelfth chapter of Mahabharata, Shanti-parva, is the longest one which begins where the 18 days brutal war ends. It involves mourning at the loss of lives in the war, realization of the futility of so called “war for dharma”, the lecture on the art of state-craft by the grand sire Bhishma (on his death-bed) to Yudhishthra (newly coroneted king) and most importantly, the tactics to restore peace in the kingdom.
After winning the battle, Yudhishthra grieves when he looks at the dead warriors, his own brothers laid slain on the battle field. There’s no rejoicing of the victory. Instead a mournful tune sets in to indicate that the war hasn’t won anything. (“I see no joy or good”; “This victory appears to me but a great defeat”). Rabindranath Tagore suggested that if it was a European epic like the Iliad, it would have ended with Pandavas winning the war, however, in Mahabharata the end didn’t come with assuming the monarchy but instead, renouncing it. Nevertheless, it will be fruitful to throw some light on the understanding of “peace”. If peace is just an absence of conflict, it was attained with the end of the war. If it is a state where one regains what was rightfully their (kingdom), peace was achieved. But, if it means “peace of the mind”, if it means a state of harmony where you rise above your differences to co-exist without a sense of deprivation foregrounding your understanding of the world system, peace wasn’t achieved, a war can unleash anything but ‘just peace’.
An interesting allegory in this regard is the USA’s “war on terror” or what former Sri Lankan president Chandrika Kumaratunge called her operations against LTTE, “War for Peace”. “War for dharma” poses an important question—Can war restore peace? Peace shouldn’t be confused with tranquillity or state of equilibrium because, if peace is just to restore what was disrupted then, it becomes more liable to relapse into tensions, this time only to get worse. Another meaning of peace, transcendental in nature, entails a freedom from all worldly desires. It comes only when one detaches with worldly pursuits.
War has neither victory nor defeat—it is a devilish dance of death. This gets revealed as the text progresses. The Mahabharata neither establishes a truth nor tries to suppress any conflict. It brings them out very beautifully, to establish that conflicts are as much a reality as life is. But to try to end those with a violent confrontation will only aggravate pain and suffering. The novelty of Mahabharata lies in its cyclical appeal. There isn’t any goal towards which it proceeds. It develops as a response to individual situations and, the belief, that every end is a new beginning, gets grounded. The Great War appears inevitable but it immediately conjoins with the futility of this inevitability.
It is notable that the cousins do not prepare for the war right away. There are numbers of efforts to bring the parties to a mutually enforcing agreement. For example, division of the kingdom or even the game of dice could be read as an alternative strategy to come out with solutions. This is by far the first attempt to peace diplomacy, whereby Krishna could be looked at as a peace envoy or a shantidoot. In fact, the two sides send their messengers to each other with proposals. However, when the non-violent tactics fail to yield results, Krishna himself calls for war. Mahabharata also delineates the reason for the failure of attempts to strike peace. This has close connections with fear, envy, jealously, shame, honour, pride, identity and power.
The humiliation that Duruyodhan (the eldest of the Kaurav sons was humiliated by being called as the “son of the blind”) undergoes since his childhood breeds hatred and a desire to avenge. The kingdom not only becomes a possession but a way to win back his pride. Similarly Karna, the eldest son of Kunti, was abandoned when he was born and was brought up by a charioteer. He desires accomplishments to be known but his lower caste status haunts him throughout. The humiliation that he faces at the hands of the Pandavas and Draupadi for belonging to a lower caste hits his pride. Another important incident of humiliation-revenge takes place between Drupada and Dronacharya. The Pandavas too vow to avenge the humiliation that they underwent in the game of dice. It was especially Draupadi was humiliated in the game of dice by stripping her in an assembly hall filled with so-called virtuous men (although I also feel that having lost their own selves in the game of dice the Pandavs had no right to bid Draupadi as she was not their property but nevertheless Draupadi was wronged). James Giligan (Giligan, 200x)’s shame theory discusses shame as the reason for conflict. The theory is quite applicable in this case. Duruyodhana not only seeks to win his pride back but wants to do so by humiliating the Pandavas. The incidents of shaming during the game of dice, and the subsequent exile would explain it easily. Shame and humiliation are very central to the reason for the Great War.
The Mahabharata also warns about misuse of power. In the Udyogparva Vidura says:
The intoxication with power is worse than drunkenness with liquor and such, for who is drunk with power does not come to his senses before he falls.
Power, thus, is not inherently good or bad. It is just a force, a weapon that can be used to save and foster or harm and extort. The text is also a tale of how the misuse of power leads to the path of destruction. It involves discussions on the legitimate sources and use of power, limits on its exercise, and moral rightness to revolt against it when it turns tyrannical. This has great relevance to our times when absolute power is challenged worldwide not only in autocracies and dictatorships as in the case of the Arab Spring but also in the so-called liberal democracies as in the case of the revolutions in India such as the struggle against draconian laws of AFSPA in Kashmir and many north-eastern states of the country). Shanti-parva also has a detailed discussion on the “state of nature” and dangers of anarchy, which led to the establishment of “danda” or governance as the authority of the king (which heuristically could be read as an allegory to modern day state). The powers were vested in the king and so was the duty to protect his(or her?) subjects, his people from “their fear of him; from their fear of each other; and from their fear of things that are not human”. This is (and should be) the fundamental principle behind every public policy of our modern-day state.
The Mahabharata also warns of the dangers when the king (state) appropriates all power and that the class of the weak and exploited exists at the mercy of the state. It guides king to take special care of the weak and oppressed unless, their plight would perish the king. Apart from creating conditions to dispel any kind of fear, the epic also advices the king (state) to create positive atmosphere, a sense of fulfilment and human flourishing.
The question of Identity
The Mahabharata also depicts how an individual is torn between “multiple identities and competing duties” defined by an individual’s birth, age, situation, marital status, financial status, geographic location, gender and so on. For example, while his identity as a warrior asks Arjun to fight the battle, as a brother and son he feels guilty of involving himself in the heinous act of killing his own kith and kin. Yudhishtra is torn between his duties as a king and a Kshatriya, and as a mournful brother (of Karna). Bheeshma, too, is thrown into dilemma by this stature as the grandsire and the guardian of the dynasty, and by his loyalty to the throne, even if it means to side with “adharma”. Even though there is a re-iteration of supreme faculty of dharma, yet, it becomes apparent that there is no single dharma but, multiple of them, each according to its own perception, duty and identity. This entails multiple notions of truth. That is a special contribution to post-modernist thought which refutes the existence of a single supreme truth.
The identity of women needs special mention. The two most influential women characters in the story are Kunti (the mother of the Pandava brothers) and Draupadi (the wife of five Pandava brothers). The exploration of these women as an individual and as a role model (of womanhood, daughter, wife, mother, queen, devotee, and a member of her family, clan, community, and caste) yields a fresh perspective on the constructions of traditional identity of women during the past era and its implications for women today. Just as in most conflicts of our age, the women in the Mahabharata do not fight at the war front. Yet, they seem to influence (Draupadi’s vow to wash her hair with the blood of Dushasana urges the Pandava brothers to the war), and are influenced, by it in numerous ways. However, since the text is a compilation of numerous oral tales and has passed many centuries before it acquired its present form (needless to mention that the Mahabharata exists in many forms even today), the construction of gender and roles of men and women seem to be brahmanised and sanskritised. Here too, women become the repository of nationalism and bodies of women appear to be battlefields. They are often used to make friends or to take revenge on the foes. Right from Sakuntala and Satyavati to the abduction of Amba, Ambika and Ambalika, from the boon of Kunti and chosen blindness of Gandhari to the polyandry (chosen or otherwise) of Draupadi and the fight for her “honour”, women are used to build or shatter the pride of one’s community.
Varna system has been considered as the backbone of Hindu society since ancient time. This is not to suggest that it is something to be celebrated but its lingering influence on the historical text is worth being heede. Intermittently in the one lakh verses, the adherence to varna system is propagated as very important. However, as against the dominant understanding “Varna is karma” meaning Varna is determined by birth”, the epic establishes “Karma is Varna” as the basis of varna system. There is a clear hierarchy of deeds and one’s adherence to those actions determines his/her varna. The point is open to debate but it contributes (to an extent) to moving away from staunch caste system which has supposedly found basis in old scriptures and texts. The Gita is the most equivocal defence of varna system but it has been argued that it was a later addition to the text. In the Bhagavada Gita, 4.13, Krishna says: “The fourfold varna has been created by Me according to the differentiation of guna (qualities).”Also, in 18.41, he states: “The devotees of the Lord are not sudras; sudras are they who have no faith in the Lord whichever be their varna.”Mahabharata says that a wise man should not slight even an outcaste if he is devoted to the Lord; he who looks down on him will fall into hell. It is also said in Shanti-parva that there is no superior varna. The universe is the work of the Immense Being. The beings created by him were only divided into varnas according to their aptitude. Nevertheless, it does not call for the abolition of the caste system.
Another related question is freedom of choice. Krishna gives supreme importance to the faculty of choice which entails a person responsible for his/her actions; the choice is also circumscribed in the larger rubric of identities and duties.
Amartya Sen, in his book “The Idea of Justice”, argues that often “niti” triumphs over “nyaya” or the deontological perspective dominates consequentiality. In Mahabharata, duty is accorded prime importance and it is believed that if each one of us does their duties there would not be any injustices in our societies. What/Who determines our duty?
“Dharma” as the foundation of peace
The term is by far the most contested claim of the text. What it means requires an in-depth analysis; however, what it does not mean is “religion”.
Shanti-parva (109.10-12) says about dharma:
1. All the sayings of dharma are with a view to nurturing, cherishing, providing more amply, endowing more richly, prospering, increasing, enhancing and all living beings: securing their prabhava. Therefore, whatever has the characteristic of bringing that about is dharma. This is certain.
2. All the sayings of dharma are with a view to supporting, sustaining, bringing together, upholding, all living beings—in one word, their dharma. Therefore, whatever has the characteristic of doing that is dharma. This is certain.
3. All the sayings of dharma are with a view to securing for all living beings freedom from violence. Therefore, whatever has the characteristic of not doing violence is dharma. This is certain.
The comprehensive definition of dharma encompasses mitigation of or protection from three kinds of violence—direct, structural, and cultural. In contrast to this adharma or negation of dharma, succinctly put by Badrinath Chaturvedi (200x), is ‘the characteristic of depriving, starving, degrading, diminishing, debasing, separating, uprooting, hurting, and doing violence.’
Locating Mahabharata Today
Following is the excerpt from the epilogue of the dramatic adaptation of Mahabharata.
“Man is daily waging his own Mahabharat
As he is in perpetual conflict with himself.
His mind and his heart are locked in constant combat.
Man’s ego is bringing him to his downfall.
Man is ever building his own Kurukshetra
Where he is devising his own weapons
Of stress and tension and self-destruction.
Man is engulfed in a sea of confusion.
He is exploring the unknown, and reaching
Further and further into the infinite
Through his flights around the earth and in outer space,
As also by plumbing the depths of the seas.
He’s developing his mind and making
Remarkable progress and inventions.
But, in the process, he’s also indulging
In mass murder, violence and destruction.
Man, however, has a different mission,
He has a divine destiny to fulfil.
Only a few know the goal of their existence,
The average life is spent in caring
For the needs and pleasures of the body,
In fulfilling responsibilities
Set by the exigencies of the moment.
The average man takes birth, lives and dies
Knowing not whence he came, why he is here,
Ignorant of whither he is heading.
Religious history has left a legacy
Of intolerance, prejudice and bloodshed.
But this is the work of misguided men
Who have deviated and left the true path.
The so-called men of religion are themselves
Responsible for this mess and confusion
In which the great universe has been plunged.
Teachers, political, social, religious
And other leaders have miserably failed
In providing the right sort of leadership.” (Seebaluck, 200x)
Mahabharata is believed to be the end of dwapar yug, which preceded kaliyug (the age of darkness). The text as old as Mahabharata, the origin of which is not traceable, in a prophetic tone warns about kaliyug and the doomed future of human beings. It warns that the age would witness loss of humanity which is very similar to the nuclear age that we are living in. It talks about how human beings would try to fathom the depth of oceans and reach out to higher skies; how they would master nature using science; how the world would be imperilled by “weapons of mass destruction”; how the earth would bathe in mass murders and genocides; how religion would be used to divide people; and how materialism would become the foundation of human desires and actions. It is needless to prove that we do live in that age, realistically (and not religiously) speaking, when the threat of nuclear weapons coupled with the divisive forces of communalism and fundamentalism have not only rendered humanity insecure but have reinforced societal divisions. In the age of globalization, our interests are highly localized. Even when the territorial borders are becoming increasingly porous, the demand for statehood on the basis of one’s own communitarian identity gains strength. In the specific south Asian context, Mahabharata has a special relevance of sharing the same context.
The text is political in every sense of the term and represents deep paradoxes of life and the age that we are living in. If it is a story about power, chivalry, betrayal, trickery, revenge, it also interweaves the ideas of righteousness, truth, non-violence, non-cruelty, destiny, time and human values and goals. While at one place, the Bhagvada Gita makes huge claims of immortality of atman and the fact that the body has to perish, alone; at another it also establishes that an individual is responsible for his/her actions. Even if destiny is pre-ordained, your own actions lead you to your death. It is not a heroic tale but a truth about juxtapositions of life. At one point Krishna says, “karm kare ja phal ki chinta chod”, at the other he says, “ends justify means”. The juxtapositions of “individual responsibility” and pre-ordained nature of actions, of “niti” and “nyaya”, of “dharma” and “karma”, of “identity” and “duty”, “individual” and “collective”, “peace” and “conflict”, of “human” and “divine”,; of “power” and “protection”, of “violence” and “non-violence” and many more are indeed the realities of our lives. The text has passed through generations and undoubtedly each one of them has contributed to its current flavor. The epic is as vast and diverse as the land of India itself. It is as conflicting and self-contradictory as the human mind. These are huge claims, but keeping in mind the inclusiveness of the narrative with respect to uncountable characters, situations and stories, it does seem that it travelled all over the country and is in fact a compilation of distinct yet complementary stories of India. Its interpretations vary drastically, from patriarchal to empowering, from treachery to loyalty, from a religious text to politico-realist, and from war to peace.
“Whatever is here, is found elsewhere. But what is not here is nowhere else.”
 The word has no exact English equivalent; here the closest meaning is duty.