The enduring meaning and mystique of the Mahabharata
An 18th or 19th century painting depicting Krishna and Arjuna at Kurukshetra (Photo: Getty Images)
IN 1909-10, A SANSKRIT scholar called T Ganapati Sastri was scouring the erstwhile Travancore state for ancient manuscripts when he came into possession of 13 plays from Manalikkara Mathom in present-day Kanyakumari district. Sastri attributed the authorship of those plays to Bhasa (300 BCE-300 CE)—a claim that is sometimes contested but the old actors of the authorship debate have themselves bid adieu to the worldly stage. Out of that collection of 13 plays which Sastri discovered, six are inspired by the Mahabharata (Madhyama Vyaayogah, Dutavakyam, Dutaghatotkacham, Karnabharam, Urubhangam, Pancharatram)—even if a great many plot lines figure nowhere in the Critical Edition of the Mahabharata. This tradition of reimagining epics is widespread—from folk arts (Therukoothu in Tamil Nadu, Bhavaai in Gujarat, Chhauu in Bengal, Chakyaar Koothu in Kerala, Jangam Katha in the Andhras and others) to carefully crafted modernist novels that shoehorn the epic’s polyphonic voice to something more manageable (MT Vasudevan Nair’s Randamoozham, Shivaji Sawant’s Mritunjaya, Pratibha Ray’s Yajnaseni, SL Bhyrappa’s Parva, and others) to innumerable cinematic versions (Shivaji Ganesan’s Karnan to Peter Brook’s Mahabharata to Mani Ratnam’s Thalapathi to NT Rama Rao’s Mayabazar to Satyajit Ray’s unmade film with Toshiro Mifune!). The presence of this diversity of re-imaginings has often led aficionados to either valorise the capaciousness of the Mahabharata, and implicitly Indian thought—that subtle line about the epic containing the sum totality of the human condition (“yadihaasti tadanyatra yannehaasti na tat kvacith”) is duly parroted—or, at the other end of this hermeneutical exercise are efforts to deconstruct the robust, long-lived, many-valenced but sustained understanding that the Mahabharata is the spindle out of which emerges a thread of Indic consciousness that runs across its various cultures. The former kind of adulation sits adjacent to a complex of feelings we could term a longing for history: thus we get elaborate theories and inferences about the dates, astral events, and chronologies of names and dynasties, and so on—all of which prepare grounds for literalist readings and extraordinary claims that live deep inside fantasy land. The latter type is more subtle and comes in the garb of academic respectability. By demonstrating that Mahabharata is polyphonic, with some versions at odds with the Critical Edition—Bhasa’s Pancharaatram ends with Duryodhana sharing the Kuru empire with the Pandava brothers or that Tulsidas Ramayan has many ideas at odds with Valmiki’s Ramayana—this interpretation seeks to unsettle the self-consciously claimed coherence of the modern Indian nation that sees the epics as one of its foundational cultural documents. More insidiously, this view insinuates that any unity of consciousness, if observed, is a construct—either bolstered or as a reaction to—of Indian encounters with European colonisation.
Untameable, prodigious, consuming all that comes in its way—stories, morals, conceits—like a horse let loose to wander before an Ashwamedha sacrifice, the Mahabharata is beholden to none but its own magisterial instincts. The only way generations have claimed triumph over it is by metaphorically killing it
Ganesh N Devy’s slender but wide-ranging reflections on the Mahabharata endow the epic with a cultural primacy in India’s self-understanding that will gladden many of its admirers (Mahabharata: The Epic and the Nation, Aleph, 152 pages, `499). In a more just world, Devy’s book would have prompted academic seminars and a raft of critical studies—not necessarily in appreciation always but on account of his meditation precipitating a wider discussion on the epic and its role in the Indian nation. Structurally, the book is split into two chapters titled ‘The Epic Quest’ and ‘The Wheel’, which can be understood as markers of the two eternal archetypes that colour all epics: man’s perpetual quest to return home (think the Ramayana and the Odyssey) and man’s participation in the unceasing tumult of life (think the Mahabharata and the Iliad). But a more fruitful way is to unpack the book as being composed of eight distinct argumentative strands—making it an ashtangabhashya on the Mahabharata, if you will—that intertwine, sometimes explicitly rise on their own, and on other occasions recede before we apprehend their meaning and the meaningfulness pregnant within. Devy doesn’t present it thus, but I have found it useful to think of it in this manner.
One, on the unique moral force that the Mahabharata exerts on the Indian imagination; two, on the diversity of Mahabharata versions; three, on the anthropological and genetic context of the Late Bronze Age out of which the Mahabharata most likely emerged; four, on Vyasa’s use of mythology married to history which imbued the epic with a democratic flavour; five, on the elaborate and complex use of ‘Dharma’ as an organising principle, a narrative prod, as well as an intellectual heirloom that no subsequent Indian generation could entirely jettison from their minds; six, on the role and reification of social hierarchies that trickle from the Mahabharata and into Indic life itself; seven, on the interplay between imagination, continuity and language in historical memory; and eight, a most original but thinly explored contribution, on the four-fold conception of time that flows in parallel through the Mahabharata.
In a more just world, Ganesh N Devy’s book would have prompted academic seminars and a raft of critical studies—not necessarily in appreciation always but on account of his meditation precipitating a wider discussion on the epic and its role
This brief summary should reveal that this book, even if written during the pandemic lockdowns, represents a life’s reflections on the Mahabharata, the conjectures and theories that have accreted during a lifetime of readings and interpretations coloured by other political fellow-travellers. Irrespective of whether one agrees in entirety, or even in parts, with Devy’s interpretations on this amalgam of wide-ranging subjects— which range from paleogenetics to linguistics to mythology— what we behold on these pages is a critical intelligence that is eager to classify, correlate, and contextualise in order to construct silos of ideas that occasionally talk to each other. There is a nobility to this exercise—his mind wanders with an autodidact’s wonder through vast historical and textual terrains and his tone eschews extremes. The result is an epistemic humility that is rare among Indian intellectuals, especially those opining on history, with a self-awareness of how contingent many of our knowledge claims about the past are. But we come here not to praise Devy—as praiseworthy a life as he has had in service of India and its people, as a teacher, professor, linguist-thinker—but to try to think critically about this book.
IT IS PERHAPS not surprising that of the eight-fold distinctions that Devy has drawn out, there are some which he explicates more convincingly and better than others, and therefore is able to shine light on an obscure insight or reveal an unexpected truth. Perhaps understandably, he is at his surest with topics closer to his bailiwick as a professor of literature, which are three strands of this eight-fold presentation—those that involve the presence of diverse Mahabharatas, the stratifications in Indian society and the Mahabharata text, and lastly, aspects of linguistic evolution.
That there are numerous interpretative versions of the Mahabharata (or the Ramayana) is no longer a surprise or a revelation. But what are we to do with this knowledge? What does it tell us about the Indian mind? To Devy, the existence of some these—such as the Bhil Mahabharata in Gujarat’s Sabarkantha-Banaskantha regions—instructs him about an oral culture through which an epic consisting of stories and ideas lived side-by-side or metamorphosed into the more recognisable version today. He writes, “[I]t is more likely to be an earlier version of the epic, in existence prior to the compendious and inclusive corpus prepared by Vyasa…” It is hard not to think that behind such assertions that Devy makes is a subconscious model of how Yugoslavian bards carried versions of Homer’s epics in their songs—while the genius of Milman Parry who brought these facts to light are inspiring, there doesn’t exist such a figure in the Indian context who may aid in Devy’s claim.
Out of the collection of 13 plays which T Ganapati Sastri discovered, six are inspired by the Mahabharata—even if a great many plot lines figure nowhere in the critical edition. This tradition of reimagining epics is widespread
More fundamental, and unfortunately under-explored, is that old elusive question: Why? Why does the Mahabharata still retain its moral and imaginative primacy even after modernity has rolled in (compared to say, Virgil’s Aeneid or the Finnish Kalevala)? Devy’s answer to this question commences from the world of 19th and 20th century Indians. At first glance this makes sense, because their worldviews are most critical to the contests that animate the Indian nation of today. Thus, we read relatively anodyne excerpts from or a gloss of writings by Swami Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Irawati Karve—the who’s who of 19th and 20th century thought on the Mahabharata, even if a reader of Tamil or Malayalam or Kannada or Bengali and other languages may suggest that this is a list of Indian writers who have found primacy on account of their abilities to write in English. Be that as it may, these are minds that have engaged at some level and asserted the epic’s greatness, but this is a form of proof-by-citation: great men and women have insisted on its greatness and therefore its greatness is ipso facto manifest. This is an academic’s way of framing how texts and textuality operate in a culture—as opinions replicated, as footnotes cross-referenced. This is a method of locating greatness that equates the Mahabharata’s genius for survival and its ascendance on the very same stratagems— sociological, anthropological, and materialist reasons—that one may rely on to understand any epic, be it as Lars Lönnroth did with Njals’s Saga or Mahmoud Omidsalar did with the Shahnameh. But unlike those epics which memorialise history and are testaments to language itself, and which were composed over a relatively small span of time by an individual, or were products of editorial talents, and most of which have well-recorded reception histories—rezeptionsgeschichte as the Germans would call it—that corresponded with the rise of literacy, printing, and ultimately modernity itself, the Mahabharata is a different kind of beast. Untameable, prodigious, consuming all that comes in its way— stories, morals, conceits—like a horse let loose to wander before an Ashwamedha sacrifice, the Mahabharata is beholden to none but its own magisterial instincts. The only way generations have claimed triumph over it is by metaphorically killing it—by sticking a knife of our pet theories into its body and lying down beside the wounded animal to infer from its dying breath some secret of its originary genius. But another generation arrives, performs yet another act of interpretative Ashwamedha, and the horse of the Bharatas wanders yet again, eating this philosophy, trotting over that metaphysic. Over time, what is at play is a multiplicity of emotional logics, each born to its own historical context, and yet operates concurrently, as if different temporalities are braided together within the same text. Devy provocatively notes this, all too briefly at the end of his book, after having paid lip service to all the usual holy cows of conventional academic understanding on how texts must be contextualised and understood. This is the most fascinating part of his writing—one that attempts to ‘read’ the Mahabharata creatively rather than elaborate on subjects such as paleogenetics and archaeology that refer to popular books that are already passé in those disciplines.
Where Devy ends his book is, in some sense, where he could have begun. But this is emblematic of many such works. In an attempt to locate the mesmeric hold of the Mahabharata on the Indian mind—be it through social, genetic and caste histories—it forgets to read the actual epic itself, ideally in the Sanskrit, if one were to stick to the Critical Edition. What do we gain by doing so, by trudging through the weeds of declensions and stumbling over occasional archaisms? Shouldn’t a simple translation suffice? To see this vividly, a simple example suffices. On page 41, Devy writes, “Krishna chastises Arjuna, asking him to not be plunged into gloom—klaibyam ma sma gama Partha—he also assures him that even when the body is lost, the soul remains unaffected…” That Sanskritic excerpt which he quotes is indeed a chastising but it has little to do with gloom or the soul or transmigration. It is a rare occasion when Krishna abuses Arjuna as a ‘klaibhya’, a half-man, a eunuch (perhaps in reference to Arjuna’s life as Brihannala in King Virata’s court), or in popular parlance, grow some balls! However, as tritely profane as this phrase might be, a reader of the Mahabharata who enters the epic through Sanskrit will discover that the word ‘klaibhya’ appears five times—including being uttered by grey eminences such as Bhishma in the most sophisticated of segments, the Anushasanaparva (the Book on How to Govern). There, Bhishma instructs that the earnings of a klaibhya are forbidden to be offered to the ancestors (adeyam pitrdevebhyo yac ca klaibhyad updarjitam). Was this proscription out of compassion towards them who are often ostracised in society and thus find it difficult to make a living? Or, was it a form of male-revanchism manifesting an underlying ideology of masculinity (mard ko kabhi dard nahi hota, declared Amitabh Bachchan in one of his roles)? To understand this slur from Krishna as a standalone event that hopes to rouse Arjuna from a yoga of melancholy (arjunavishadayoga) in the Gita is to miss the proverbial aranya (forest) for its vriksha-s (trees). If one thinks of violence in a Righteous War (a dharmayuddha) as a form of sacrifice unto the ways of one’s ancestors, then perhaps Krishna was suggesting that Arjuna’s half-hearted efforts as a warrior on the battlefield were unacceptable since he was acting, or conducting himself, like a half-man? Or, more psychologically, Bhishma’s admonition was more of an unwitting display of anxiety by a patriarch who had seen his grandchildren experiment with their sexuality? From a textual perspective, Krishna’s rhetoric comports with how the Bhagavad Gita is narratively constructed—leading Arjuna and the listener of the Gita from a reality wedded to vocabularies and ideologies of the day to more abstract conceptualisations of Being, of religion, of a theophanic God itself? If we interpret it thus, what follows is the inevitable question of what are we to make of the narrative structure of other Gitas in the Mahabharata—the Vyadhagita, Kamagita, Parasharagita, Hamsagita, Brahmanagita, Anugita—and so on.
What this trivial excursus of one word—klaibhya—shows is that there is another way to read the Mahabharata: not as a social document about caste or genetics or origins, all of which provide us with an illusory conviction of understanding, but as text marinated in layers awaiting interpretations. And language is our way to enter into that labyrinth where not just one but many Minotaurs await us—philosophical, textual, cultural, sexual, epistemological, ontological. This is a way to arrive into the locus inside of which lives what the gurus of India call the paramarthika satya (esoteric truths) of this “Fifth Veda”. It is here that we can possibly find the source of the Mahabharata’s influence on the Indic mind and how the nation that still relies on it for its understanding of men and morality operates. But how do we ‘operationalise’ this idea onto the pages of a book? One way is to sketch the master-concepts that animate, change shape over time, and appear in the mouths of different protagonists. In Devy’s narrative, there is no any mention of ‘Bhakti’ (devoutedness) or ‘Anrishamsya’ (compassion) or ‘Nikriti’ (deception) or ‘Maya’ (illusion) or ‘Kama’ (sexual desire) or ‘Guru’ (teacher) or ‘Paapa’ (sins) and other such eigenvectors which uniquely span the vector-space of Indic self-understanding. These are not esoteric ideas but the very carapace of values and ideas inside of which live Arjuna and Bhishma, Duryodhana and Shakuni, Draupadi and Amba, Karna and Kunti, and others. It is inside of these constructs that Indian thought emerges, takes shape, reifies, and rebels against. To think about these shape-shifting concepts then is to try to locate the very nature of the Mahabharata’s abundance.
It is hard not to think that behind Devy’s assertions is a subconscious model of how Yugoslavian bards carried versions of Homer’s epics in their songs—while the genius of Milman Parry who brought these facts to light are inspiring, there is no such figure in the Indian context
THERE IS AN added advantage. The epic self-consciously presents paradoxes and dilemmas: Should Arjuna kill Yudhishtira because the latter mocked his bow as useless and thus fulfil a promise to himself or should Arjuna break his vow but save his brother’s life and himself from the sin of fratricide? None of such morally ambiguous readings which have engaged Indians for generations figure in Devy’s text. The Mahabharata, unlike most epics and modern texts, offers us various instances to undermine moral claims made by the epic’s protagonists. It is this capaciousness wherein Vyasa argues against himself, not as a tedious didact but with lightness—a story here, a precept there—not in order to perform purvapaksha as later Indian logicians did, but to represent the eternal play, the Lila, the dance of thesis and antithesis. And it is out of this contestation and freewheeling clash of destinies that, Vyasa reminds us again and again, as Hegel would do centuries later in The Phenomenology of Spirit, that God emerges and manifests.
For Devy, God in the Mahabharata is at best an anthropological entity to be explored, to be referred, and to be subjected to some textual analysis but little else and, at worst, a deux ex machina itself. All the while in the epic itself, especially when read in its Sanskrit, the theophanic vision of God is everywhere, from private beliefs to the very grounds out of which the Mahabharata emerges from a labyrinth of narrators. The very first word of the Mahabharata is “Narayanam”—a theopanic God out of which begins everything, including the epic—and yet by the last line, the Mahabharata asserts that if one listens to this epic, it is tantamount to cleansing oneself with the waters of Lake Pushkara. From the infinity of God, the epic traverses the human condition only to self-consciously elevate itself as a means to accrue punya and to rid oneself of sins (paapaharam). This should prompt us to ask: What is the nature of this God of the Bharatas? Is the Battle of Kurukshetra a literary form of theodicy? And other such questions. To write about the Mahabharata without taking God seriously, and therefore the theophanic visions of God in the modern Indic mind, is no different than to write about Das Kapital without taking Capital seriously.
All these are not shortcomings of Devy’s book but a recognition occasioned by this book that another kind of meditation is possible. We owe Devy a debt for having written this, in parts because the next writer who steps into this forest of meanings needn’t work to set the stage all over again. More importantly, Devy’s book reminds us that to mine the Mahabharata in new ways means to engage with its oldest constituent: the text in Sanskrit. It is here that words pregnant with valences and contradictions birth new interpretive possibilities upon repeated readings. More pragmatically, this also means engaging with the Mahabharata on our own terms—without being beholden to fashions of academia or exigencies of politics—and instead recognising our greatest friend and rival in this exercise is Vyasa himself, that formidable editor who skilfully hides transcendent truths as everyday homilies on the surface. Devy has described the path to this forest of Dharma into which generations of Indians have entered but to learn of why it still matters and what lies within—its wonders and wisdoms, its elaborate metaphysics and moral plays—we must continue to wait.