Who’s afraid of the Mahabharata?

Sria Chatterjee


My first introduction to the Indian epics began with two library shelves in school that housed some very ancient and disintegrating volumes of Amar Chitra Katha (literally, the Immortal Picture Tales). They were the only comic books in the library and so, predictably, the very first books to be grabbed during compulsory reading periods.

I enjoyed the stories and was strangely enamoured with the art. The illustrations were crude and strictly ‘Indian’ in shape, form and detail. The stories were told in basic and often not grammatically perfect English, yet the mortal kingdoms and magical realms of the Gods came alive in dull colours and cheap print. I was fascinated.

The volumes in the library did not tell me where the epics began. I didn’t even know where they ended, if they did at all. I did manage, however, to stow away quite a few colourful incidents of warring brothers and mythical mysteries in a far but well frequented corner of my head.

My high school years brought further knowledge, which only whetted my appetite for further illumination. It came in the form of staid Bengali Literature textbooks, fragments translated from the Sanskrit original.

A friend and I often had marathon quizzing sessions that covered various subjects. I lost points when we got to the epics. He would stop to tell me the answers and often launch into slightly patronising but inordinately absorbing stories from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. The chronology was confusing and I sometimes had to stop him with a worried chain of whos, whats and whys. He had the upper hand, because he’d read more comics.

When I visited Edinburgh I went to see a ‘dance drama’ production of Stuart Wood and Nitin Sawhney’s Mahabharata, written by Stephen Clark. When Natasha Jayatileke stepped onstage as the beautiful Draupadi, these sessions came to mind. Some years later, when my friend and I had graduated from mindless quizzing to more social conversation, he mentioned that his image of the ideal woman would always feature the kohl lined eyes, flowing jet black hair and delicate skin, harking back to the poorly printed comics we had both enjoyed. This description struck a raw nerve in my short-haired, sixteen-year-old tomboy soul. At times during Stuart Wood’s production, I tried for a second time to see his point.

Wood’s production cannot claim to have even lightly scratched the surface of the cornerstone of the ancient Indian scriptures, the oldest and the longest epic poem in world literature. But what the dance drama did was to tell us Draupadi’s story in an almost single-minded and blinkered fashion.

For me, the Mahabharata has always been an overwhelmingly big and grand concept. I am passionate about but by no means an authority on the subject. I have always thought of the original Mahabharata as an ancient and all inclusive banyan tree that spreads its roots over the fertile soil of our imagination. It unfolds story after story in a mesh of unified anecdotes, romances and little tales that flesh out key protagonists and constellations. The branches are house gods, demons, sages, virtuous kings, envious rivals, revengeful queens, worlds within and worlds without, each episode and description shedding light on another. There is nothing linear about the structure. It is a multilayered lattice, which, centuries later, is still growing. Now with the interest in and fascination for India and its exotic past mounting, among the branches of rich complexity of gods and kings, are scholars, artists and producers, as the Mahabharata entraps within itself yet another translation here and a dance drama there.

‘What is found here, may be found elsewhere. What is not found here will not be found elsewhere’ says Vyasa, a manifestation of the God Vishnu, while talking of his own handiwork, the Mahabharata. The woman sitting next to me in the Festival Theatre spent five years in the very heart of the Indian arts scene and she very sensibly reasoned that there was little left for her to learn about Indian literature and culture. All Indians, she said, had read the Mahabharata and most of them (with a flourish of her well-jewelled hand) could recite it from memory. I tried soft interruptions that brought to light the fact that the original Mahabharata was (and still is!) written in Sanskrit. Unfortunately, we do not learn it in schools and the average Indian knows nothing of Sanskrit save perhaps a few mantras, religious chants, memorized at a ritual or religious ceremony. Being Indian, therefore does not come with a guaranteed knowledge of the epics. Most people read translations in Bengali, Hindi, Telegu, any other Indian language, or English. She also explained to us all in very academic terms that the Mahabharata, very simply was the Hindu Bible. It could very well be, but a niggling argument in the back of my mind said that it could also very well not be. Fortunately, there have been scholars who have had similar niggles.

Richard Blumberg, in his article ‘Aum Ganesha’, says about the Mahabharata: ‘Epic and bible together imply an absolute division between the sacred and the profane – one pure fable and the other Holy Truth – that simply doesnât exist in the Hindu vision. Our Eurocentric minds, trained in a Jahwist tradition of good and evil, true and false, demand that the story go into one slot or the other, and if it is too big, then we will reduce it to fit. The Hindu mind, I think, rather than force the story into any single category, conceives a story big enough to encompass all categories.’

I have just begun to read Mark Tully’s, India’s Unending Journey. In the very first chapter, Tully mentioned the former Professor of Eastern Religion and Ethics at Oxford University, R.C. Zaehner, who warns,’ with the spread of Western education right down to the lowest strata of society and the progressive industrialisation of the country, the whole religious structure of Hinduism will be subjected to severe strain; but such has been its sheer genius for absorption and adaptation that it would be foolhardy to prophesy how it will confront this new and unprecedented crisis.’ It is about this genius for absorption and adaptation, and in particular the shocked incomprehension in the face of dogmatic certainty that Tully takes as a central theme.

This genius for absorption, adaptation, and that religious truth cannot be understood in dogmatic terms, can be traced back in the structure of the Mahabharata and the relationship that the Hindus have with the text. It is an almost personal association with the gods and perhaps the acceptance that our planet is a tiny but essential fraction in a multilayered universe. The protagonists of the Mahabharata are constantly questioning the righteousness of their deeds. Dharma – the just order of being – is a problematic thought for the western world. However, it seems almost natural for the modern Indian to reconcile to the Kali Yuga – according to the Mahabharata, it is the age in which we now live. Everything in this age is bathed in a very realistic twilight. Called a dark age, Kali Yuga is nevertheless considered the brightest of times, as it favours spiritual progress like never before. Taking place on the threshold of this new age, over 5,100 years ago, the Mahabharata depicts the shape of things to come. It is perhaps human nature that urges individuals to search for self-identification and familiarity with the characters and situations in a literary work. In the Mahabharata, scholars over the years have achieved this process of identification at multiple levels and it is this identification that translations, retellings and reenactments of the epic today try to elevate. According to Tibor de Viragh, who writes an article on the epic, Gandhari’s husband, King Dhristarashtra’s inability to see foreshadows the metaphorical blindness of today’s leaders. Overpopulation, the hidden reason for war, disregards the careful balance of Nature’s laws. The fate of Karna, raised in a caste lower than his birth entitles him to, mirrors the aspirations of innumerable men to rise in the social hierarchy. Also in the situation of the Pandavas, deprived of their land, we can find strong echoes in the trauma of refugees and of people living in exile without rights.

There is very little about the Mahabharata that makes it an exclusively Hindu text. One of the main aims of Stuart Wood’s production seemed to be to convey the universality of the age-old epic and its relevance to the modern world. Draupadi surprises by the modernity of her appearance, epitomising feminism as much as femininity. Not only does she question the laws and values of a male dominated society but she also defies destiny. By challenging her father’s will at the very first opportunity, Draupadi denies the reason for her coming into existence. She does not accept that she is merely an instrument for a morally doubtful purpose. Dramatically, she then rejects traditional role models by being married at the same time to five men for whom she is a proud and self-confident companion rather than a submissive and servile wife.

It is also Draupadi who embodies the fragmented modern individual. In every possible way, the fire-born princess loses the support traditionally granted by personal, moral, emotional and social codes of conduct. Not even her most valiant husbands can prevent her from being humiliated in the most shameful way. Yet this very episode becomes the perfect example of Kali Yuga’s ambiguity. The moment Draupadi accepts the limits of human capacity and seeks refuge in Krishna, a manifestation of the god Vishnu, she becomes the living proof of his presence and power. Draupadi implores Krishna to take revenge for her degraded femininity. He fulfils the wish of the woman who he affectionately calls his sakhi, most intimate friend.

This relationship that we see between the gods and the mortals in the Mahabharata seems to live on in the average Indian household in the most natural way. My mother is the director of a company that manufactures and exports precision tools. When she is not exchanging engineering jargon with my father, she gives French lessons. Amidst this apparently modern and pro western lifestyle, she finds the time to do her daily puja. On special occasions like the Poila Baisakh, the beginning of the Bengali New Year and the Durga Puja, it is a part of Hindu custom to wear new clothes. It is a celebration, a new beginning. In Kolkata, the shopping complexes and multistoreyed malls customise their Sales according to these times of the year. My mother does not have a separate room for her idols. Instead, she has a little alcove. Often thanks to our hectic lifestyles, we miss out on the Puja Bonanza or the Big Sale and wait till later to replenish our wardrobes but the idols on the shelf in my mother’s alcove gets hand=embroidered new pieces of clothing for every special occasion. This time Lord Krishna got a fancy orange and gold robe and even a little jewelled crown.