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.