The Telegraph, Oct 2, 2009, by Rajat Kanta Ray


- This cauldron of the great illusion


What is it to be good? How can one be good? These are the questions that Gurcharan Das ponders in this reconsideration of the Mahabharata. He thus raises the central question, which the Mahabharata’s hero, Yudhishthira, pondered in life and during his final journey: What is dharma?

From this arises a certain resemblance between the old epic and this book, its current offshoot. Veda Vyasa, the putative author of the epic, and Das, the present author, pose moral questions to explore the complex dimensions of the issue, they proceed to relate stories, real or imagined. In short, both teach by examples. In old India, this form of writing was called itihasa. The listeners took the storyteller’s tale to be true. The belief might have been unfounded. Nevertheless, historians concede that elements of historical fact lie embedded in the epic. The business and political stories Das relates from his own contemporary experience, juxtaposing them with the Mahabharata stories (which he re-tells movingly), are, by contrast, based on fact.

What exactly is itihasa? It is not what we historians nowadays understand by ‘history’. The old understanding of the term is captured in a Sanskrit definition in translation: “Itihasa is a tale of old, with advice about dharma (righteousness), artha (power and wealth), Kama (pleasure), and moksha (liberation from the cycle of births and deaths).” It will be seen that this is not professional history as understood in modern times. Nor is the Mahabharata history. It is itihasa. The stories may or may not be true. That does not matter. The truth, as understood here, is greater than fact. Das subjects this work to both historical and moral examination.

The Ramayana and the Mahabharata are both called epics now. There was no term for epic then (mahakavya is a modern term). Although invariably bracketed together, the two epics were then defined by different terms. The Ramayana was a kavya. Kavya means literature (not just poetry). Das’s historical analysis of the Mahabharata will arouse the interest of the historians. He keeps the main part of his work for the general reader. But he provides a historical framework, and provides interesting historical details in the chronology after the preface and in an appendix entitled ‘Dharma — The story of a word’. These are the keys to the book. Not all historians will agree with his conclusions. But then history is, after all, an enquiry and therefore a debate.

Before we go on to Yudhishthira’s question regarding righteousness, we need to consider the chronology provided by Das, and to ask ourselves what the Mahabharata is. Technically, the Mahabharata is an old tale (puravritta-katha), which is taken to be true. What old tale? And how true is it? Historians think that the Mahabharata is based on the memory of a war between the Aryan tribes, the Kurus and the Panchalas, that might have taken place around 950 BC. A junior branch of the Kauravas, perhaps, joined the Panchalas. The tale was reinvented later as a war between the two Kuru branches, the Kauravas and the Pandavas. The reinvented tale was retold by poet-singers over the generations. In its present written form, the tale reached its final version perhaps around 300 AD. The spiritual work, the Bhagavad-Gita, is said to have been finalized and attached to the Mahabharata. When did the tale reach its present form substantively? Perhaps around 150 BC-0 AD, says Das following some historians. This is quite likely, but other historians, to be safe, say 400 BC-300 AD.

In the course of these critical centuries, Gurcharan Das reminds us that something relevant and extremely important happened. Emperor Ashoka, the Buddhist ruler of the Maurya dynasty, preached the ethical and universalistic dhamma to his subjects and neighbours in a memorable reign dated circa 265-232 BC. A Brahmanical counter-ideology then took hard shape in the Manusamhita, around 100 BC-100 AD. He suggests that the bulk of the present Mahabharata was posterior to Buddhism and to the preaching of the dhamma by Ashoka. The epic is the Brahmanical version of the dharma, and the work in its bulk precedes Manu’s Brahmanical reaction against Buddhism. This is the consensus of the present scholarship on the Mahabharata abroad (there has not been much remarkable Indian scholarship on this recently). On the whole, this reconstruction seems to be reasonable. Alf Hiltebeitel has suggested, in a recent study dated 2001, that the epic was composed in the relatively shorter period from 150 BC to 0 AD. This makes Yudhishthira (a short-hand for the dharma in the Mahabharata) one century later than Ashoka and an elder to Manu. Like Ashoka, he is deeply concerned with righteousness, and is not so anxious about a social code as the rigidly Brahmanical Manu. Nevertheless, the dharma in the Mahabharata and Bhagavad-Gita is undeniably Brahmanical.

At this stage, we have to ask ourselves again: What is the Mahabharata? If we consider the story in its bare outline, it is an account of the Kurukshetra war — a fratricidal strife between the senior Kauravas and the junior Pandavas (assisted by Draupadi’s kinsmen, the Panchalas). The storyline concentrates on the combat between Karna and Arjuna. That, at first sight, is the Mahabharata.

But not quite. To this older bardic song of a combat between a Suta and a Kshatriya, in which the latter puts an end to the former by unfair means, has been added a more recent reconsideration of the dharma in the figure of the righteous man, Yudhishthira. The Mahabharata is about him too — a non-violent hero like Njal in the violent Icelandic Njal’s Saga. Children will prefer the fighter Arjuna to the namby-pamby Yudhishthira, mature men pondering ethics may wonder about this. And let us not forget that the Mahabharata contains the Gita too. Krishna’s address to the despondent Arjuna on the eve of the battle hovers between abstract metaphysics and the warrior’s duty, which is in effect the varnashrama-dharma or caste code. It is not so much about ethics — for that we look to Yudhishthira’s life and thought.

The Mahabharata is much bigger than the Iliad: it contains three whole works — the combat (Iliad), the righteous man’s quest for truth amidst violence (Njal’s Saga) and the metaphysics of transcental reality (Plato). Das concentrates on dharma and its central figure. Yudhishthira is both the son of righteousness (dharma-putra) and the truthful man (satyavadin). His life story is the search for the path through the seemingly irresoluble dilemmas of dharma.

Das shows that the Yudhishthira of the tale attains the same universality of ethics as the Ashoka of the inscriptions. Dharma had originally a narrower meaning in the Rig-Veda. The word derives from the verb dhri, to uphold — that which holds together the cosmic, the social and the ritual orders. It meant, in the Vedas, the sacrificial rites in the fire (yajna). In the Manusamhita, it means the caste order (varnashrama-dharma). In between the two, dharma attained a universalist ethical dimension. Ashoka was its historical and Yudhishthira its mythical embodiment. The Mahabharata undeniably upholds the varnashrama-dharma, but it goes beyond, and has ethics for everybody in its riotous assemblage of stories. As Das shows, the stories never simplify the answers: they pose the dilemmas for the men of those times and of ours. Like Ashoka, Yudhishthira never ceases to probe and ponder in the midst of all-encompassing violence.

We may end with Yudhishthira’s answer to the questions posed by the heron. The heron asks, “What is the news?” Yudhishthira answers: “With the sun as fire and days and nights as fuel, time cooks all beings by stirring the ladle of the months and seasons in this cauldron of the great illusion.” This is not the translation cited by Das, but I believe it is exact.



Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
This is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Enter the characters shown in the image.