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?