Sunday, December 13, 2009

Reflections: Yuganta

The Mahabharata is one of the classic Indian epics that most of us grew up with. Bonding with grandparents meant being regaled with the countless little stories that branch off as distributaries from the main storyline, only to culminate in the end as tiny pieces fitting a gigantic jigsaw puzzle. Before being introduced to Sesame Street and Walt Disney, most of us first started with Amar Chitra Katha's graphic books on Ramayana and Mahabharata. Despite the sheer volume and intricacy of these epics, and the depth of complicated implications they held on morality, right and wrong, I followed the stories with surprisingly little difficulty or confusion. The morals that were stated were accepted and imbibed unquestioningly; so much so that most of my fundamental grounding on morals and ethics have been born out of the stories and characters in these epics. Unfortunately, now that I've "grown up", the once placid clarity of these stories has been muddied with my nagging questions with certain incongruous morals that come across from these stories. Understanding the Mahabharata is by no means a simple feat. It is a never-ending journey for most scholars, and for people like me, it's an arduous life-long process. Books such as these are stepping stones in the journey.

Irawati Karwe's book is a thesis that explores many different facets of the Mahabharata; its history, its social and cultural structures, its sociological relevance in today's era, the possible amendments and misinterpretations of some of the verses over the years, and an in-depth character analysis of some of the prime heroes. For many, some of the book's discussions may be unpalatable to their beliefs and strong sentiments, for Karwe plunges into an impartial dissection of the characters, analyzing their decisions and actions in various segments of the epic, thus provoking interesting lines of inquiry and interpretations. By thus delving into the psyches of the characters, she brings out the human elements of worshiped heroes. But it's commendable that Karwe takes a very balanced view and doesn't swing to any extreme. Nor does she impose her analysis and insights on the reader. By kindling thought-provoking questions and substantiating them with logical, anthropological and historical evidences, she lets the reader assimilate their views. With the extent to which Mahabharata is convoluted and dense, it's inevitable that it opens itself up to multitudes of conflicting interpretations, and by exploring these issues one is merely strengthening their understanding of the epic and the values it echoes, and Karwe accomplishes this deftly without ever disrespecting it.

Since I always love character analysis of any sort, Karwe's discussions on the heroes (Bhishma, Gandhari, Kunti, Draupadi, Yudhishtra, Vidura, Arjuna, Krishna, and Karna) erected entirely new personality dimensions of these characters, helping me understand some of their actions. She presents evidences of certain events and occurrences being glossed over by later additions to the verses, because with the onset of the Bhakti cult, literary scholars were weighed down with the necessity to glorify characters in epics with a Godly aura of hero worship, and thus made amendments to the verses with excuses and reasons justifying certain lapses in idealistic behaviors of the heroes. But Karwe only praises the Mahabharata for its realistic characters and conveys her disappointment in it being altered to project a misleading picture. She holds the view that the Mahabharata is a record of actual historical events surrounding characters who were very human, fallible and grounded in reality. She compares this against Valmiki's Ramayana, wherein it's a popularly held notion that Valmiki used his poetic license to shape extremely idealistic characters to inculcate morals and bhakti. The Ramayana portrays an idealistic son, the first monogamous husband, a pious and ideal wife, ideal brothers, ideal friends, and even an ideal villain, Ravana, who, despite lusting for and kidnapping another man's wife, never coerced her, and followed all the rules of Dharma in fighting a fair war. Karwe contrasts this with the Mahabharata, wherein Yudhishtra, despite being hailed as the Lord of Dharma, had his own weaknesses such as being addicted to gambling, that led to disastrous consequences. I could never understand how Yudhishtra being such a strict follower of Dharma could stake his own wife, Draupadi in a game of dice. This is just a speck of my resultant confusion with understanding Mahabharata's discussions on Dharma. The other main instance is when Karna's chariot gets stuck in a rut and he is forced to get down without his arms, he requests Arjuna to not fight till he gets on the chariot quoting that it is against the Dharma of war to strike a man when he is disarmed and on the ground. When Arjuna chivalrously waits, Krishna interjects saying that Karna doesn't deserve to be treated with Dharma, since he acted against Dharma by inciting Draupadi's humiliation and mercilessly killing Arjuna's son Abhimanyu when he was disarmed and on the ground. This fuels Arjuna and he kills Karna. While reading this, I couldn't shake off playing the scene in Ramayana, when Ravana being similarly disarmed, was graciously told by Rama that he will not fight him since it's against the rule of war and was asked to return the next morning with his arms. Rama still held onto Dharma, despite Ravana committing an unpardonable crime of kidnapping Sita. Both Krishna and Rama are worshiped as avatars of Vishnu, so whose action of Dharma is the strongest and most righteous? Is it right to avenge a person with adharma, or is it much virtuous to be merciful and benevolent, whilst playing a fair game of all the rules of Dharma? Similarly I have never understood why Draupadi was married to all the five Pandava brothers. One explanation is that Kunti inadvertently asked Arjuna to share whatever he had won with his brothers. But isn't it against Dharma to take this literally and share one's wife? The other explanation is that Kunti wanted all her five sons to be united with a common ground, so that they will fight a fierce battle without any reason to fall prey to disunion, and since she noticed all her sons to be attracted to Draupadi, she deemed it best that the brothers not have a disagreement or causes of internal jealousy because of a lady. To me, this is feeding into base instincts, at the cost of objectifying a woman. But then again, as Karwe reminds us, every character has their own entanglement of good and bad, virtues and vices, strengths and weaknesses and the web of Dharma weaved by the epic is probably more relevant to the specific circumstances of this era and should not be taken literally.

I completely agree with this view that every Dharma has it's own relevant time and place. Another example that Karwe highlights is that, in the days of monarchy, propagating one's clan or dynasty was of utmost importance and every ruler was obliged with this Dharma. So in the event that a King is unable to bear any children or sons, it is written in the Shashtras that the younger brother should step up to help his elder brother by offering to beget children with the sister-in-law. In the Mahabharata there are many instances wherein princes were born out of such unisions with brothers-in-law or other wise Brahmans (such as Vyasa). Another reason for this rule could be that, since every family was threatened with constant war, this measure that brothers could "share" wives was meant in the spirit that every brother should protect and take care of his sisters-in-law as they would their own wife, if their brothers were killed in war. In today's era, Hindu Dharma has evolved and professes against such a rule and polygamy in general. A woman's sanctity has taken on a whole new definition and starting from Ramayana, a younger brother looks upon the elder brother and sister-in-law as his father and mother. Similarly, the Mahabharata talks of the practice of Sati, and has a constant undercurrent of class and caste distinctions dictating its stories. While these practices were relevant in that era, they outgrew our current era, and in the previous century we strove hard to abolish Sati and the caste system. Therefore trying to blindly apply the rules of the Shashtra and Dharma become irrelevant and it is very disheartening and dangerous when people selectively apply rules that suit them by qouting "Hindu Shastra", and conveniently forget the rest. However, Karwe brings about the balanced notion that all our Dharmas have not stemmed as entirely new stalks, but are mere branches whose roots are in the Shashtras. Understanding the Shashtras and their underpinnings are therefore vital in figuring out Dharma. And it's unrealistic for Dharma to be a static and staid definition.

Also, despite all this analysis I do hold the view that the Mahabharata is largely a mythological tale probably based on a real historical event, but has only been exaggerated and embellished with metaphors to signify and give some grandeur to the tale. For example, it is unlikely that the Kauravas actually had 100 siblings. Similarly, the other tales are probably metaphoric too to a large extent and reading too much into their realism and analyzing their multiple layers of complexity is a futile illusory attempt, for nobody really knows where fact and fiction separate. My concern and curiosity have only been in the discussion of Dharma as voiced by the characters.

I have to put an end to my rambling here, despite wanting to pour all my thoughts on the other characters. This was a very stimulating book that has helped me rearrange some of my thoughts and questions on the great epic, its immortal characters and the elusive meaning of Dharma. But I still have a long way to go before I can gain a coherent understanding of all the concepts.


Perception said...

Every book that you share is so interesting and unique. This post reminded me of a book I read on Karna. It was written in Marathi and told the story from Karna's side. The argument put Karna in such a different light that I couldnt help but support him for some of his actions. That said, wonderful post again.

SecondSight said...

The statement "for nobody really knows where fact and fiction separate" reminds me of one of the best parts of Harry Potter, where Dumbledore tells him-
"Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?" :)

With most stories, either fact or fiction, the component that always interests me is the insights the characters gain into their duties/responsibilities, and their potential :)

Perception- what's the book about Karna, and is there a translation available somewhere? It might be written by Karve (or her dad?) too.. :)

Perception said...

SS: The book is Mrutunjay and is written by Shivaji Sawant. I believe the book was translated in English but is no more in print.

Neeraja said...

Perception - Credit goes to SecondSight again for lending this book :). Thanks for sharing the name of the book, disappointing that it's out of print though...

SecondSight - I agree, the revelations on duties and potentials are the most meaningful and interesting parts of a tale :). Ans Dumbledore's statement is what I use to pacify myself many times ;)

SecondSight said...

Ah, its limited-ly available on Amazon, and this site seems to have t as well-