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?

The pursuit of happiness!


`Don’t worry. Be Happy’.

God said to Adam and Eve. And He meant it. He looked lovingly at both, His creation in His own Image.He looked into their eyes, which were filled with innocence and joy. He looked around in the Garden of Eden. What was there not to be happy about? They had everything they want for all their needs and beyond, and they have each other!  God was pleased and he left the garden to run some errands. On his way out he told the Happiness to hang around. The naughty boy he was, he indeed hung around but never let himself in their sight. But really there was no need and his mere presence was all that mattered.

As God left Adam told Eve, ` He is so Nice. He said don’t worry. Be happy. We are happy aren’t we? But I don’t know what worry is. But do we have to KNOW?’. `Not at all’. Eve said giggling. Let’s play hide and seek. How that Happiness plays with us. Let’s catch him’.  And indeed three of them played and laughed and time passed.

One day, it was Happiness’s turn to hide and Adam & Eve were to seek him. As they turned around a densely shaded tree, they bumped into a stranger.

`Hi there’. He said, in the sweetest voice they have ever heard.

`Hi’  Eve was first to respond. `Who are you? Do you want to play with us?’

`Oh No. I don’t play. I am a serious guy.’ Stranger said.

This was all new to Adam. `Why don’t you play? God told us to Play’.  He said.

`Really?’ The stranger said with a weird tone. `And what else did Mr. God tell you?’

`Well, he told us to be Happy!’ Adam replied.

`I see.’ The stranger said. `And.. are you?’

`Yes we are. Aren’t we?’ Adam looked at Eve questioningly.

Eve considered.`I guess .’  She said with a hint of uncertainty.

`There there, let us all sit down.’ The stranger made both sit down under that fabulous tree.

Happiness was watching all this from behind the tree. He didn’t like what was happening. But he still decided to hang on, as  God had told him to.

`So God has told you to BE HAPPY. He didn’t say you ARE HAPPY. Did he? So do you have any plan how to be happy?

This was new. And first time in the history of humanity, Adam’s brow furrowed. Indeed he didn’t have any plan.

`I guessed so.’  Stranger said reading Adam’s face. ` Well. You are lucky that you have ME now.’

`And Who are you?’ Eve finally asked.

`I am Mr. Serpent. I am Happiness Management Consultant. I offer my services for free. Absolutely FREE! ‘  He stressed and looked at Adam.

Adam didn’t know if he was suppose to understand something. But FREE was the only word he knew.

`Well, the only thing I ask you in return is that you follow my advice, because, believe me, it is only for your good that I will be your consultant for ever in your pursuit of happiness.’

Eve didn’t understand anything. But she liked the way serpent talked with authority and control, which Adam never showed before.

Just then a fruit fell down right in front of them from the tree. They have never seen this before. It was ruby-red and had such a sweet smell.

`Let me explain to you, why you need me.’ Serpent took the apple in his hand. `Look at this fruit. Adam, what do you think of this.?’

Adam shrugged `It is nice.’

`And Eve?  What do you think?’

`Well, it is red and it must be soft and sweet.’ Eve said

`And you think it will make you happy?’ Serpent asked, expecting the obvious.

` I think so.’  Eve said.

`But what if it is not red inside?  There are many fruits that are not sweet at all and some fruits have a bitter hard-core. You will not be happy if you eat the wrong fruit.’

That got Adam worried.  God has explicitly told him to be happy. Adam has to make sure that he is happy. He really needed help.

God had also told him to not to worry (As He had provided the best for him all around. There were no rotten apples in the Garden of Eden.) But now there was a doubt and with doubt came the worry. Since Adam never knew what worry was, he did not know what was happening.

`You see, you will KNOW only when you eat the fruit. And don’t you think that you have to KNOW?’  Serpent continued, ` You think you are happy. But are you happy enough? Perhaps there is more happiness to be found, there may be different kinds of happiness that needs to be explored. You may have to trade a bit of happiness to get more happiness. You may have to invest happiness, and do without for a while, so that you get lot more of it in future.’

All this was beyond Adam and Eve. It started dawning on Adam that he needed help to be happy and he definitely should have a good plan to do so.

Eve was consumed with a feeling that she is not happy at all and happiness is something more and something different that should to be explored.

So both of them decided to hire the serpent as their Happiness Management Consultant forever and took bite of the apple.

Happiness was watching all this from behind the tree of Knowledge. When he realized he is going to be managed, he ran away as far as he can. That is how the pursuit of Happiness began!

Great video- collective subconscious