The problem

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urdhvabahur viraumy esa na ca kas cic chrnoti me

dharmad arthas ca kamas ca sa kimartham na sevyate

(Svargarohanparvan, 5:49)

I cry with my arms raised, but nobody listens to me. From (dharma) righteousness is wealth (artha) and pleasure (kama), then why cannot that alone be adopted!

AS the great narrative of the Bharata’s is coming to an end, the author Vyasa, in the well-known Bharata Savitri verses of the Mahabharata, so lamented the loss of dharma. This is followed by the famous verses, supposedly the gist of the epic of the Mahabharata, according to which dharma should not be shunned due to desire, fear, or lust, or even for the sake of preserving one’s life; dharma is eternal, the pleasure and miseries of life transient, similarly the soul is imperishable and its bearer, the body, ephemeral.The two protagonists of the epic, Yuddhishthir and Duryodhana, embody the dilemma of seeking the ideal of dharma. While Yuddhishthir has an abiding desire to understand and act according to it, Duryodhana famously declares that it is not as if he doesn’t know the merits of dharma and the pitfalls of adharma; it is just that some divine force from within his heart drives him to do what he does. The epic Mahabharata is an incessant inquiry into this question.

What is it that allows the Mahabharata to resonate through different ages in the larger social and moral imagination of the people? Is it the very nature of questioning and the spirit of self-criticism, as some have argued, or is it, as V.S. Sukthankar, the pioneer of modern Mahabharata studies noted, the sheer ‘intensity of imagination’ which makes it popular? Perhaps this is what compelled our ancient rhetoricians to treat the central meaning of the text as the greatest of poetic achievements by the end of the first millennium as they turned an account of the past into a cornerstone of poetry. The rich gallery of commentators in the second millennium with their glosses on the epic continued with this tradition. In modern times, however, beginning with the European encounter, the Mahabharata, though initially seen as chaotic in its verbal imagination, was finally projected as the soul of the nation. But beyond the many scholastic feuds on the interpretations of the Mahabharata, the epic enjoys an enduring charm in the popular imagination with its myriad tales of trust and treachery, bravery and virtue, and violence and compassion.

Reaching out to such an epic and its traditions is like entering into a two-way dialogue between the world of the text and the world and the times through which it has travelled down to us. The Mahabharata erupts in the radical simultaneity of ages, carrying subtle overtones of human desire, ambition and loss on the one hand, and a craving for fulfillment and transcendence on the other. Even as the epic’s narrative demonstrates a unique quality to speak to the present, it also brings in its wake a sense of estrangement. The modern moment of the epic and its tradition is an interplay between this act of recognition and distance. Over time, the epic has become a metaphor for the scale of human imagination. With all their courage and force, the modern art forms, particularly the novel, still vie for the depth and expanse of an epic, as do the various struggles against tyranny and demands for justice in our everyday lives. An epic like the Mahabharata allows us to plumb the depths of the human condition by probing into the life of an ancient tradition, its recurrence and contemporary relevance.

But how does the continuing reception of an epic become a critique of the present and signal a new form of social reflexivity? The place of an epic in historical and cultural memory is a reminder that the social life with its various political, moral and aesthetic demands is a simultaneous engagement at all these levels. The apparent incompatibility between these levels is less about their separation than a denial of their exchange. So how can one look at the Mahabharata – as a heritage of tradition, a literary artifact, a didactic tale, or simply as an ideological battle and desire to assimilate diverse social voices!

The fate of tradition in modern times varies from mundane valorization to providing a deep historical linkage to the sources of civilization. With new ideas of empire, internecine social and religious strife, the gaping chasm between different parts of the globe, with calming of dissent, and with the promise of a flow of succour from the rich amidst this, it is hard in our times to not be struck by the Mahabharata’s rather boastful claim that it encompasses all that is there in this world. Perhaps it excites our imagination with all its possibilities and limitations in exploring truth and righteousness. Equally it may teach us that despite the spirit of critiquing, and questioning, finally accepting the world as it is over the heavens is the highest achievement of humanity.

But such an engagement with the Mahabharata would require gleaning through the ways in which the epic narrative has been interpreted and informed different social visions, the way it has been part of the folk wisdom and shows the challenge of finding a moral utopia. As the worldly meaning of the epic jostles with the religious, philosophical and the symbolic, the question remains as to whose Mahabharata and with what shades of meaning is one going to open it up.

The epic’s origin has been much debated as a narrative recounted and preserved by the bards, which turned out to be a composite text in a sacrificial ritual setting with a clear intent of countering and assimilating the anti-ritualistic non-orthodox traditions to give a new shape to the current orthodoxy. The search for a pristine and elemental narrative of the epic, as has been persuasively argued, remains ever elusive. One notices, however, that in the recent scholarship, very much in tune with the traditional wisdom on the Mahabharata, it has been increasingly seen as having a coherent structure.

Accretions to the text are very much part of a textual tradition through which Mahabharata has been handed down through the ages. But those who see Indian textual traditions as a complex dialogue between the folk and the high realms, have argued for recognizing the peculiarities of textual composition and its transmission. In our life as a modern nation, we see both the preparation of a grand critical edition of the text as a feat in nationalist scholarship and in the creation of a cultural heritage, as also its proliferation in the public space and imagination through literature, theatre, cinema, calendar art, and even through the lush televised rendition of the epic as a modern kitsch.

Does the Mahabharata provide a universal template of the nature of human experience, even if it is not the same for all people in all times? Denuded of its mythical garb, the epic may well be reduced to a local war for hegemony, a crude retort to the ascetic life, and the remaking of a social vision of hierarchy. Yet, even though a historical approach to the epic foregrounds the political intent of the narrative, it is more its self-aware narrative form that remains a key to its survival and transmission.

The Mahabharata has an intriguing relation with time and destiny. Vyasa, the author, consoles a shattered and desolate Arjuna after the war that the great destruction which Pandavas would have to live with, despite their good intent and striving for a just order, was ultimately merely time’s play. But there are other, equally profound dilemmas woven around certain concepts in the epic, such as the ideas of righteousness (dharma), truth (satya/rita), non-violence (ahimsa), non-cruelty (anrishamsya), destiny (daiva), time (kala), and the human values and goals (purushartha).

But why the incessant drive to hand down a fateful story of war to posterity imbued with a strong belief in the play of destiny? Did Vyasa want to pass on the message that in the face of preordained destiny, it is the power to tell, share and remember which will eventually save humanity? Was it the triumph of moral and creative imagination which Vyasa still wanted preserved? Remember, Vyasa is a unique author, someone who is both telling the story of his own progeny’s doom and also appearing as a wise counsel to help the needy and the just. But despite the author’s seeming fatalism, the story frees itself from its narrator, thereby retaining its open-ended character.

The Mahabharata needs to be recognized as the opening up of creative imagination, be it of the bards who located the story among people’s everyday life and conflicts, or of the great Vyasa, who despite a tragic and apocalyptic vision, understood that the human condition requires the subtlety of reflection and a deep exploration into the path of truth and righteousness. Equally, one may ask what the Mahabharata speaks to those who resist the dominant ideologies. That which goes unseen from the vision of one age may pose harder questions in the coming ones. It is likely that the Mahabharata of the preaching butcher, the ascetic bird, the mourning women, and of numerous such stories may shape our understanding of the epic and our own imaginations in radically different ways! An enduring epic like the Mahabharata does not shy away from difficult answers; it will perhaps live up to its claim that it has everything in its encyclopedic riches.