I developed a serious interest in the Mahabharata about 9 years ago. It is not that I was not familiar with the plot of the epic. A.K. Ramanujan used to say, “In India…no one ever reads the Ramayana or the Mahabharata for the first time. The stories are there, always ready.” I think that is a very accurate remark. I had heard the main story and also the minor ‘stories within stories’ from my grandmother. Like many of us, I had watched the television series produced by B.R. Chopra that aired in the late 1980s.
So, when I say, I developed a serious interest in Mahabharata 9 years ago, I mean that I became interested in the multiple messages that the epic was seemingly trying to convey. I became interested in the historical context in which the Mahabharata unfolds. I became interested in the scepticism and dilemma of its major characters. I became interested in looking at the human beings behind the facade of gods and their avatars. I became aware that what I was familiar with, was the Vulgate Mahabharata, the one that was popular among Hindu families across India. The one which is about Krishna’s divinity, and the lila he performs to achieve a pre-determined objective, the destruction of the kshatriya clans to cleanse the earth of their vanity and misdeeds. I began to see that this was a very narrow view of the epic, and the question of ‘what is the epic trying to convey’, started to gnaw at me.
I had never heard of the Critical Edition of the Mahabharata, put together painstakingly through decades of effort by V.S. Suthankar and his associates. I was introduced to the Critical Edition and the human questions that it posed, through the works of Irawati Karve (1905 – 1970), the renowned anthropologist and an authority on the Mahabharata. Her book ‘Yuganta’, a collection of essays on the various characters in the Mahabharata, is what got me excited about the grand epic. The characters, and their ‘very human’ struggles and dilemmas came alive in Karve’s work. Her piercing insight broke the hard outer shell of the epic and revealed the fruit within. I began to realize that the Mahabharata was not only about the conflict between the sons of two brothers over succession, which resulted in a catastrophic war. I started to slowly become aware of the conflicts within each major character, and the battles that they are fighting within themselves. It is this awareness and its associated reflections that I want to share in this post.
Yudhishthira – Let us start with the main protagonist of the Mahabharata, Yudhishthira. What is Yudhishthira struggling with? What is the conflict that is raging within him? We keep hearing from the beginning of the narrative that Yudhishthira’s temperament is that of a sage. He is calm, reflective, even-tempered, well versed in Dharma, and above all a believer in non-violence. However, as the eldest among the princes at the court of Hastinapura, he is the crown prince, first in line to the throne. Does he really want to be king? Not really. He says multiple times throughout the epic that he’d rather become an ascetic and retire to the forest than sit on the throne. He has to be constantly reminded of his kshatriya-dharma, which is to ‘rule justly’. When he is exiled to the forest, he is constantly badgered by Draupadi and Bhima, creatures of action, to take up arms and fight for what is rightfully his. He has to become a king and live a life of action by ‘ruling justly’, however, what he wants to do is lead a contemplative life and listen to his conscience. So, I concluded that the biggest conflict raging within Yudhishthira is that of ‘Reluctance’. Reluctantly, he asks for his share of the kingdom. Reluctantly, he plays the game of dice. Reluctantly, he emerges from exile to demand his kingdom back. Reluctantly he wages war, in which almost all his kinsmen, teachers, and friends die. Reluctantly, he ascends the throne after the war. It is the reluctance of a hermit caught in the body of a king. Constantly he is reminded of his sva-dharma, the dharma of a kshatriya. Draupadi tells him
Most excellent of kings, friendliness towards all creatures, generous giving, study, asceticism – all this may be the dharma of a brahmin, but it is not for a king. Restraining the wicked and protecting the pious, and not fleeing in a war – this is the highest dharma of kings.
However, he challenges the popular notion of sva-dharma of the times, by upholding the sadharana-dharma of his conscience. What he believes is the right thing to do. This is the torment of Yudhishthira. Bhishma tries to assuage his grief by saying
… the king exists for dharma, not for doing what gives him pleasure. The king is protector of the world… People depend upon dharma and dharma depends upon the king.
Yudhishthira takes the advice and ‘rules justly’ for 36 years. However, no amount of advice, goading, and reminding breaks his inner reluctance. He performs actions, but he does them dispassionately, and that reluctance stays with him till the last day of his reign. The reluctant ascetic who had to be king.
Bhishma – Now, let’s turn our gaze towards the Kuru patriarch, Bhishma. What is Bhishma’s conflict? Bhishma had renounced his right over the kingdom, so that his father could marry Satyavati, the daughter of the chief of a tribe of fishermen, who insisted that kingship descend on the offsprings of his daughter. Bhishma also took a vow to never marry and be celibate to ensure that a potential conflict of succession between his children and that of Satyavati’s could be avoided. This was an act of selflessness for which Bhishma was lauded even during his times. He was made into a model of self-sacrifice by the high and mighty of the time. Kings, sages, bards, learned men and women – all sang praises of Bhishma. This led to the conflict of ‘Self Righteousness’ in Bhishma. He felt his life was always in the public view and he had to make sure that he always ‘did the right thing’; a fair resolve, but only when one always knows what is the ‘right thing to do’. For Bhishma, it was all the more difficult because what mattered was not what he believed was the ‘right thing to do’. What mattered was what other people thought was the ‘right thing to do’ for ‘a great self-sacrificing man like Bhishma’. Let’s pause and reflect over this. You are being judged in society on the parameters defined by others, and to make matters worse, you’ve already been hailed as the model of right behavior within those parameters. Only now, one starts to understand the difficulty of being Bhishma. This conflict of ‘self righteousness’ is what torments Bhishma and makes even a keen-eyed person like him stumble through blunders. The first blunder was when he created a crisis of continuity of the Kuru lineage by refusing to sire children through the widows of his half-brothers. He threatened the very survival of the Kuru clan by trying to protect his vow, which was purportedly taken to keep the kingdom of Hastinapura flourishing. The second blunder was to fight on Duryodhana’s side. Bhishma knew very well that Yudhishthira’s cause was just and that he would make a much better king than Duryodhana. If he really had the interest of Hastinapura in mind, he would have fought on Yudhishthira’;s side. However, he let his image as a ‘self-righteous’ member of the court of Dhritrashtra come in the way of doing what would have been right for Hastinapura. However, in my view the lowest point in Bhishma’s so-called blemish-less career was his silence during the disrobing of Draupadi, who was menstruating, in the assembly of Kuru men. One would have expected Bhishma to stand up and strike Duhshasana down to protect the defenceless Draupadi. However, all he could do at the time was offer platitudes about dharma. All he said was that dharma is sukshma (subtle). His ‘self-righteous’ behavior of figuring out the intricacies of the law to decide whether or not Draupadi was won fairly in the game of dice, came in the way of doing what was the ‘right thing to do’ at that time – protecting the vulnerable Draupadi.
Karna – There is not a character in the Mahabharata who is as conflicted as Karna is. His heart-rending story is sung even today in various parts of India. What is Karna’s internal conflict? Karna was the first-born, albeit illegitimate son of an unmarried Kunti who later became the wife of Pandu and the mother of the Pandavas. The illegitimate son was abandoned and ended up being raised by one of the royal charioteers of the Hastinapura court. Karna was the high-born, who all his life faced the stigma of deprecatingly being called a ‘charioteer’s son’. The conflict raging within Karna is that of ‘Identity’. He is the son of a charioteer who yearns to be a warrior. He is skilled in the martial arts but is not accepted in the kshatriya ‘club of warriors’ because of his low birth. Moreover, he is constantly insulted by the kshatriyas for trying to practice the dharma of others while abandoning his own. “A charioteer’s son should carry a whip, not a bow”, thundered Bhima during the exhibition of skills of the Kuru princes. What Karna is unable to fathom is why he is not content being a charioteer like his father; why he is desperate to be accepted as a warrior. Duryodhana is verbalizing Karna’s feelings when he asks
How could a doe give birth to a tiger?
This identity crisis brings the worst out of Karna. He is boastful and keeps talking about how he is a better warrior than Arjuna. However, every time he has a face-off with Arjuna, he comes the worse off it. Karna is vindictive, and to shame Arjuna and by extension the Pandavas, he is the one who first suggests that Draupadi be disrobed. He calls her a harlot because she has five husbands. Arjuna never forgets the shaming of his wife and exacts revenge on the field of Kurukshetra. However, once this identity crisis is resolved and it is revealed that he is the eldest son of Kunti, the best in Karna shines through. When Krishna asks him to switch sides and come over to the Pandava camp, Karna refuses to abandon Duryodhana. Even after being promised that he would be made king if the Pandavas emerge victorious in the war. Identity is the conflict of Karna and it brings about both the best and worst in him.
Duryodhana – When I started to look at the Mahabharata through the lens of the inner conflicts of the major characters, Duryodhana seemed the least conflicted to me. His character appeared consistent to me and I thought he does what he believes in; even in the moment of his death. It was only after much reflection, that the conflict of Duryodhana hit me. I think it is because Duryodhana’s conflict is more at the sub-conscious level. Duryodhana’s conflict is the fear of being denied what is ‘Rightfully’ his. He believes that as the son of the reigning king, he should ascend the throne. He is threatened by the sudden emergence of Yudhishthira from the forest after the death of Pandu. He believes that his ‘rights’ are being trampled upon and there is no one to help him. Not his blind father who listens to the advice of Bhishma and Vidura; not his mother who refuses to ‘see’ the world around her; not the elders at court who in Duryodhana’s opinion are biased towards Yudhishthira. This notion of injury to his perceived rights gives birth to envy in Duryodhana and it is this envy that consumes everything – the kingdom, the elders, the teachers, the friends, and tragically, Duryodhana himself.
Arjuna – Lastly we come to Arjuna. You would wonder why I didn’t bring up Arjuna earlier. It is only because, the conflict of Arjuna is the most well-known conflict of the epic, and it is this conflict that gave India its more enduring religious text – the Bhagavad Gita. Arjuna’s conflict is that he wants to win the kingdom for his brother Yudhishthira, but not at the cost of slaying his kinsmen, his teachers, and his friends. It is here that the Gita begins. Krishna tries to resolve the conflict through multiple arguments. The first is the plea for Arjuna to observe his kshatriya-dharma, which is to fight. The second is to appeal to Arjuna’s sense of justice by saying that Duryodhana wrongly usurped what was rightfully the Pandavas’. The third is the more metaphysical argument of the indestructability of the soul, so Arjuna should not shy away from slaying the mortal body; the soul would still live on. When these arguments fall on deaf ears, Krishna is forced to show Arjuna his ‘Vishwaroopa’, thus revealing that all matter in the world emanate from Krishna and go back into him. This is what stirs Arjuna from his stupor and he agrees to take up arms. Even after that, Arjuna continues to dither at the most defining moments during the war (the slaying of Bhishma, Drona, Karna), thus potentially putting the cause of the Pandavas in serious jeopardy. This continuing conflict of Arjuna leads me to question the historical veracity of the ‘Vishwaroopa’ episode. One who has seen the whole universe and the God that keeps all of it going, will likely not have any human conflicts left in their mind. The only time Arjuna fights without any internal conflict is when he vows to kill Jayadratha, to avenge the death of his teenaged son Abhimanyu. This conflict continues to gnaw at Arjuna even after the war, till the day he sets off with his family for the Himalayas, at the end of Yudhishthira’s reign.
My reflections on the Mahabharata continue and give me new insights. I wish I could have the opportunity to sit across Irawati Karve and ask her questions that still nag at me. Since that is not possible, I do the next best thing – picking up Yuganta and looking for fresh perspectives; removing the layers, one at a time. Every time, I come across something, I’ll present my naroti (naroti is a dry coconut shell i.e. a worthless thing) to you. I use the word naroti in reverence to Irawati Karve who used it in one of her essays, ‘Draupadi’. For those of you who are interested in the Mahabharata and its musings on the imperfect human condition in this uneven world, I would recommend Yuganta strongly. Gurcharan Das’s ‘The Difficulty of Being Good’ is also a great read and I have quoted from his book in this piece extensively. Happy Reading!