Interpreting Mahabharata- Dilemma of an Indian

An Indian mind finds itself in a unique dilemma in interpreting its cultural past. With the birth of Indian nationhood in 20th century, the search of `Indian identity in the context of the reshaping modern world, this became an urgent pursuit. Around 1947, after the Second World War, all nations were at the starting line. Then we saw many of our peers, USA, Japan, Europe, even Singapore, Malaysia, China, zipping past us in the race of development and human indices. We find ourselves searching for a non-existent United National Vision for the future (something that china has and we don’t). To shape that we first have to seek a united identity in the past. And there lies a huge problem.

Indian culture may be 5000 years old, but Indian nation is only sixty years old. Moreover Indian culture is that proverbial multidimensional giant elephant which five blind men are trying to grasp. To understand our past, our culture, our identity we need to remove our blind spots first and look at ourselves fearlessly, with confidence and with completely open mind. Indian culture and philosophy is truly great, but I think many times we attribute this greatness to wrong reasons and often with very narrow interpretations. If we have to project ourselves confidently into the future, we have to first deal confidently and rationally with our pas.t

Case in point is the great epic Mahabharata. Is it history, is it mythology, is it a work of fiction, is it religion, is it philosophy, is it a social chronicle of that time? I think the issue is complicated by presence of Bhagwad Gita in the story, especially since Gita is nowadays (in 20th century) considered as equivalent to Koran and Bible. This embedding of Gita within the epic makes a critical appraisal of Mahabharata complicated. The truth is that the Mahabharata is a worthy of interpretations from all perspective- historical, literary, sociological, mythological, philosophical, religious angle. It has great lessons for management, psychology even for ancient technology. But we need to choose our looking glass and then stick to it.

The problem is we start it as mythology and then midway we switch to history as our premise. If we are looking it as mythology, then we should have complete suspension of disbelief. Then we can enjoy it like Greek mythology. It is extremely entertaining. But then we start proving its historical relevance and there the fun is lost. Unlike mythology, history is subjected to rigorous, ruthless evaluation. When faced with gaping holes and contradictions in historical analysis, we get sensitive, offended. If our heroes are mythological, we can attribute all great things to them, they can be as flawless as a beautiful sculpture. But when we insist it as a history, all heroes, including our `Gods’ become mere mortal, susceptible to mistakes, misjudgments, vulnerabilities of human mind and constrained by contemporary social and religious norms, however absurd they seem. The insistence of considering Gita as sacred text and Krishna as God, creates confusion in deciding the premises for interpretation of Mahabharata. Many times we react and conclude contrary to what actually Gita tries to point out.

I feel it is convenient to consider Mahabharata as a work of great fiction. It gives a lot of liberty in evaluating it from many angles. I would say it is like `Dr. Zivago’ or `War and Peace’, or a historical novel. Vyaasa- like Lev Tolstoy-close but a silent and unbiased spectator of history as it happened, and who then sewed together bits and pieces and added his own creative plots and characters, creating this timeless entertaining masterpiece- a greatest critique of human mind and human life ever written.

Mahabharat War- the circular firing squad!

When we are children, the war stories and mythology seem very exciting, especially if it is assured that the good always wins. Only when one gets older, one realizes the real cost of war and the toll of human sufferings. Since, we often consult and refer to history and religion when confronted with difficult choices in these complex times, and when faced with complicated state of affairs of today, it becomes very important that we understand our `history’ correctly and draw careful conclusions. Mahabharata is one such history.

As Vyaasa asserts in his writings about Mahabharata- the story is all about gray areas, the good and bad in every person and the susceptibility of every human being to be blind to the truth and knowledge which is as bright as sunlight.

(Let us say we keep aside the historical interpretation of Mahabharata (it is disputed). But just let us consider it as the great literary work- like say, one in modern literature- `war and peace’ by Lev Tolstoy. The story, the plot, the backdrop and characters are almost like history because they are drawn from bits of pieces of reality and seamlessly sewn again.)

After highlighting all the less than perfect characters, it is unlikely that  Vyaasa draws the battle line of Kurukshetra as the line between the perfectly bad and the perfectly good. That is very incongruent to the essential premises of the story. Many good people are actually highlighted on the Kaurava’s side- like Bheeshma, Drona, Krupa, Karna. But he has left out highlighting bad people on Pandava’s side to our understanding. In the final analysis-everybody on both sides, except a handful of people, die. So how can one say that the good side won? The war seemed more like a circular firing squad, in which everybody is killed, while killing each other.

For everyone who like the idea of Mahabharata war as the war between Dharma and Adharma- the good and bad, in which the good party won as God was on their side, some questions are inevitable and indeed very uncomfortable.

1) If Krishna was God himself, why such heavy and almost equal causality on his side?

2) As war progressed and Pandava’s lost their good people, including their young sons one by one, and even Krishna’s own army led by Balaram getting killed, why did not Krishna take up arms? why was not that even suggested from Pandava’s party. It was a waste of their invaluable asset. Will this not be at least discussed in any real war, when the strongest general refuses to take up arms?

3) Krishna steering Arjuna’s chariot and advising him is more like, Krishna decides whom to kill and points the formidable weapon (Arjuna) to that direction. Krishna thus choosing strategic targets to kill, which, one may argue that, if left to himself, Arjuna would not have chosen.

The way the war chapter of Mahabharata unfolds, one notice that Krishna acts with foreknowledge and ensures his strategic position besides Arjuna guiding him strategically and also in real time on the battlefield and directing him. It is almost like as if he anticipates, Arjuna going weak in his knees, ready to give up war before it starts and also later resisting killing of the big-wigs on Kaurava side- their fall being crucial to Pandava’s victory.

So it is quite clear that Krishna wanted this war fully knowing its inevitable and tragic end. He takes great efforts to convince Arjuna – the key player- without whom the war was impossible. As wise and kind hearted Arjuna, does not get convinced even till 15th chapter of bhagvad gita, finally Krishna, God himself,  breaks the convention. In desperation to convince him, he reveals his own identity to the mortal warrior and tells him the ultimate knowledge of cosmos, which is never revealed to even the enlightened yogis. God even temporarily grants him the special faculty of perception and understanding to grasp the reality as he takes him beyond space-time warp, where he gets the perspective of entire cosmos and sees time as landscape where all the people on the battlefield are already dead, including good and bad. And then Krishna candidly tells Arjuna- ` I am the one who kills and you are just a weapon, and that they are already dead, in the dimension you have just visited.’

It is only after `vishvarup darshan; Arjuna gives up resistance, as he realizes his own extreme insignificance in the grand scheme of things and sheer pointlessness of his choosing or not choosing to fight. He realizes Time as the ultimate master of every mortal life and death and realizes that it is not upto him to save or take anybody’s life.

So we conclude that War was predetermined and annihilation of both the parties was inevitable, and God went out of his way to ensure that, that what had already happened, indeed happened. God ensured the circular firing squad! The real question is why and what did he achieve. How did he save Dharma with this war?

Was Mahabharat War Justified?

All of us, educated Indians find ourselves often visiting and dwelling on the epic story of Mahabharata. At different points in our lives, different parts of the story appeal us. One discovers different interpretations at different times of our lives. There is one thing though that I could never get around, and that is the purpose of Mahabharat War. It is projected as the fight between dharma vs adharma. But really , Vyaasa has not spent much time in painting Kauravas as in general bad kings to their people ( like atrocities, looting, coercing of people etc) The highlight is mostly on their animosity towards their cousins, Pandavas. The good and bad contrast is not as crisp as it is in Ramayana.

So in short the bone of contention was a property dispute that could not be resolved in court room, because there was no legal precedence in favor of Pandavas. (so it is like when you lose a case in supreme court, the loser party says..बाहर आजा. तुमको देख लूंगा.) and so it was dragged to the battle field. Then, like every chronic property dispute, the fuel is added with personal vendetta between the brothers and Draupadi. Was killing millions of people indeed justified?

Arjuna was right in every aspect in doubting this whole purpose of war and violence against his own people. I have great respect for that warrior, who knew he will win for sure, and still was willing to walk away to save millions of lives. If we calculate the loss of lives according to the description- it is like 2 million people and equivalent animals killed in 18 days! (the causality more than two atom bombs!)- over a property dispute of one dynasty!

Krishna, was indeed the shrewdest and most charming guy in the whole story. It is difficult to believe that, he tried his best to avoid war. If he wanted, he would have stopped the war. He was highly influential on both sides. He would have made Pandava’s accept any compromise, such was his hold on them. But he wanted war, which becomes quite obvious from Gita. But what was the point? With due respect to great philosophy of Gita, ( which is indeed most profound), it does not explain the direct question that Arjuna asks- why kill Kauravas? Krishna never mentions name of any of Kauravas in his discourse. I am not surprised it required 18 chapters of persuation, and philosophization to make Arjuna ready to fight again.

There is interesting story, which some of you might have read. A Rishi started his तपश्चर्या just when the pre-war negotiations were going on. He came out of his तपश्चर्या unaware of the war , and he saw Krishna passing by. He said to Krishna – ` I am so glad that you were the negotiator, because I knew that only you could stop the war. It would have been a colossal loss of lives. I am sure you must have settled this’. When Krishna informed him about the war, he was extremely disappointed and angry, and cursed Krishna, about the lonely slow death he would have to face in the forest, which indeed he did. I don’t know what was Krishna’s response. It was something like- ` What did I do? i just handed over the Karma that they themselves have accumulated.’, He accepted the responsibility graciously and said that it was indeed the death he had planned for himself.’

Interestingly, though GOD himself was on Pandava’s side, they did not fare well either. Almost all the sons of Pandavas were killed. Even Arjuna was defeated by common looters soon afterwards. Krishna’s kins fought among themselves to death. I still do not see what good outcome that this war achieved which Lord Krishna encouraged Arjuna to wage!


G.A Kulkarni and Salvador Dali

I have always liked G.A. Kulkarni’s work, since the time I read his stories in high school. They had an aura of mysticism and rich visual imagery. I hope the late author wont mind, as I write and discuss his work in English here. For one thing, his stories were timeless and used the language( Marathi) merely as a tool of expression without any cultural baggage. Of all Marathi literature, his work is the most translatable work, that will in fact may come out more vividly if translated.

I realized this when I read `Pangira’ recently, a realistic novel by Vishwas Patil, that chronicles the progression of a small village in western Maharashtra. Now this incredible book is the most untranslatable book. It will be completely disseminated in translation, and will probably will not attract many readers after 30 years, just like how Batatyachi Chal ( also untranslatable), after 25 years will fail to delight children born today. I think these books are so beautiful because they are truly time-sculptures.They capture and immortalize that time, that age, those people and that culture.

But Kulkarni’s work is timeless. For most of the stories, the backdrop could be any place and any time. The characters could be of any race, any nationality. In fact some time it feels as if it is happening in some twilight zone in author’s mind, where he alone is present as the lead character or observer, and everything else, including other characters are the props.

Recently I opened Sanjshakun- a collection of G.A.Kulkarni’s short stories. I think these are one of his earlier works. The first story was written before I was born. It is hardly a story, it is narration of a scene from a vantage point. It is poignant. An uninhabited stretch of sea-shore under scorching sun, a carcass of large animal baking on the shore and stripped off its flesh. The large skull provides a brief respite and shelter for an ancient man. The heat cracks the skull, takes the old man. His skull has the same fate as that of the large animal and serves the same purpose for a smaller animal and so on..

As as I read the story, I felt like staring at Salvador Dali’s painting. The whole story can be really one picture. Just as (some of Dali’s paintings) tell the past of that scene and are pregnant with future. So I could almost visualize Dali’sk painting of Kulkarni’s story. I wonder if any one of my friends who are a fan of both the masters, will take up challenge of painting the story or storying the picture!
On the other hand, both are equally incomprehensible. So some of my worldly-wise friends can turn to me after reading/seeing the work of either men and will say ` So.. whats the point?’ I would be lying if i have not asked this to myself sometimes. But i think art is more like a secret code between the artist and the beholder. If you `get it’, the feeling is like getting the glimpse of the artists mind- his private chamber. If you don’t get it, probably it was not for you!