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. Continue reading