Essay: The Mahabharata – beyond the harrowing angst - Hindustan Times

Essay: The Mahabharata – beyond the harrowing angst

Feb 09, 2023 09:59 AM IST

First published in 1965, Kamala Subramaniam’s excellent 870-page translation attained a fresh awareness of the life code laid out in Vyasa’s epic

Everyone has presumably read the Mahabharata by Vyasa in some form or the other. As it is one of India’s two major epics, the other being the Ramayana, it is virtually a karmic duty to have read it. In my view though, if we are Anglophone, we have not really read it until we have gone through Kamala Subramaniam’s excellent translation. It was published in 1965 by the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, amounts to 800 pages, and is flourishing in print all these decades later.

A performance in Shimla, Himachal Pradesh, of the play ‘Doot Ghatotkacham’ Ghatotakacha, son of Hidimba and Bheema, who wreaks havoc on the Kauravas. Episodes from the Mahabharata continue to inspire creative expression. (Deepak Sansta/Hindustan Times) PREMIUM
A performance in Shimla, Himachal Pradesh, of the play ‘Doot Ghatotkacham’ Ghatotakacha, son of Hidimba and Bheema, who wreaks havoc on the Kauravas. Episodes from the Mahabharata continue to inspire creative expression. (Deepak Sansta/Hindustan Times)

Subramaniam’s simple, eloquent language makes it a relatively easy read. Vyasa’s craft as a master storyteller keeps it racy, pacy, and unputdownable through the Mahabharata’s 18 parvas or sections. He delights in setting up people for a big fall and the tension never abates. In fact, you need nerves of steel to stay with the story; it is so very intense and disturbing when read in close detail as we do in Subramaniam’s translation.

Having said a few things to frighten you off the book, let me share why it is so relevant, moving and necessary to read it.

870pp, ₹1300, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan
870pp, ₹1300, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan

To set the stage, let us look at a few key points about the epics.

Across Indian epics the notion of karmic repercussion is the explanation for why bad things happen. Anger is seen as the most powerful agent of chaos in the moral and social universe. It is presented in Indian epics as a devastating force with unhappy consequences, both in the present life and in new cycles of birth until karmic dues are made nil by consistently correct behaviour.

Working back from “Past-life karma is why we suffer” and “Anger is the root cause of perpetuating bad karma” we hit bedrock with the deepest question, “Why do we exist?” There is no answer except that creation is a lila or divine play.

But some plan must be arrived at by the human mind, which may otherwise go to pieces in a terrifyingly random universe.

Outside variables are too many to control. So what can one actually control in this out-of-control existence except one’s own response to situations and relationships?

Of these responses, anger is identified through story after story as the worst destabilizer. Therefore, by removing oneself from anger, our karmic consequences may be reduced and may even be nullified, to break free of the endless cycle of birth.

In contrast to Duryodhana, Yudhishthira is a prime example of this approach, always seeking to tone things down to a state of anger-free calmness. But it does not come easy. Draupadi and Bhima constantly reproach and fight with him about his “peacenik” attitude. It churns the stomach to read what they spew.

In literary terms, if everything was already in order and everybody behaved exactly as they ought, there would be no story to tell. So it is anger that vivifies the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Manthara’s anger leading to Kaikeyi’s anger leading to Dasaratha’s death by anger and grief set the Ramayana rolling.

We realize, reading Subramaniam’s translation, that the foundation of the anger in the Mahabharata is not just personal but also political. It is the anger of mighty Jarasandha of Magadha when foiled by the young stripling Krishna in his plans to take over Aryavarta. He invades Mathura 18 times, finally causing Krishna to move his people to safety in Dwaraka on the coast. Besides this, other monumental layers of anger create further dynamics – the anger of Amba, the anger of Drona, the anger of Duryodhana, the anger of Draupadi, the anger of Ashwatthama and in shattering finale, the brawling doom of the Vrishnis that signals the passing of the Krishnavatara and the end of the epoch. Subramaniam takes us through all these angers in terrifying detail. The advantage of reading her as opposed to watching the tele serials is that we can pause and reflect after a particularly harrowing passage, and even re-read paragraphs that are particularly intense.

Further, we come to know Vyasa better, especially his high literary confidence. He does not hesitate to show even his most virtuous characters in an ambivalent light, thereby creating extraordinary narrative texture. Karna, Yudhishtira and Arjuna are striking examples of this. Even Duryodhana has his moments, especially when he impulsively upgrades the outsider Karna as the king of Anga, uncaring of his social status.

A handmade wooden carving depicting Krishna and Arjun in the Mahabharata. The piece is from Bali, Indonesia. (Shutterstock)
A handmade wooden carving depicting Krishna and Arjun in the Mahabharata. The piece is from Bali, Indonesia. (Shutterstock)

The longest and one of the most popular parvas in the Mahabharata is the Vana Parva or Forest Section, in which the Pandavas spend 12 years exiled in the forest. It contains many gems that have been picked up by the performing and visual arts of India, for instance, the story of Nala and Damayanti. The episode of the Yaksha Prashna is given in full, unlike in the short versions I have read elsewhere. This is a gripping passage on the nature of life, between Yudhishthira and his heavenly father Yama disguised as a Yaksha or spirit. In the middle of a war story we read the question, “What is the highest duty in the world?” and Yudhishthira’s telling answer, “To abstain from injury is the highest of all duties.”

We discover that Rishi Markandeya visits the Pandavas twice in exile, in the Kamyaka forest (to the west of the Kurukshetra plain), and in the Dvaitayana forest (on the border of the Thar Desert). Once, his visit coincides with Krishna’s. Subramaniam writes, “He (the rishi) was a great favourite of them all since he was a good storyteller. They sat around him and Krishna said, “Please tell us a story, tell us lots of stories.” It conjures up a vivid picture of Krishna, the Pandavas and their followers seated around Sage Markandeya in a verdant grove, all listening to stories – a contrast to the typical battlefield images or chocolate-box Krishna pictures that we are used to seeing in calendar art.

In fact, it is this emphasis on the power of stories within the already gripping Kaurava-Pandava story frame that keeps the Mahabharata going. If Subramaniam’s translation has a fault, and it feels quite presumptuous to say so, it is that not every last story is included. It was possibly in the interests of length that the epic tale of Utanka’s error was left out. He was an ascetic who was actually granted a vision of Krishna’s Vishvarupa or universal form, the only such person besides Arjuna, and Yashoda when she looked in Krishna’s mouth. Despite this vision, Utanka, though very thirsty, refused to accept a drink from a Chandala or so-called outcast; and thereby failed to obtain a drink of the nectar of immortality.

The stories told in the Mahabharata thus constantly shore up the notion of karma. There are also frequent utterances by the Pandavas that “It is all fate” and “Who can escape fate?” Kunti laments, “Bhagyavantam parasuyeta ma shooram ma cha panditam” meaning “Only the lucky can prevail, not the brave nor the learned.”

Is there a way out of this depressing, fatalistic view? Yes, there is, avers the epic. We have to wait for it though until that electrifying moment on the battlefield of Kurukshetra when disheartened Arjuna lays down arms before the fight begins, refusing to attack his kin; and Krishna imparts the Bhagavad Gita.

“When read within the epic, we are able to grasp its whys and wherefores of the Bhagavad Gita.” (Shutterstock)
“When read within the epic, we are able to grasp its whys and wherefores of the Bhagavad Gita.” (Shutterstock)

I find that when you read the Gita in the flow of the epic, it makes more sense than it might otherwise in its seemingly dispassionate loftiness. My bank manager recently said that he tried reading the Gita but felt that it was a big ego trip on Krishna’s part, full of “Vitamin I”. I take his point. But when read within the epic, we are able to grasp its whys and wherefores, its essential nature as a strong pep talk, and how Krishna offers emotional support to miserable Arjuna. Centrally, he tries to give Arjuna the long perspective on the nature of life and its sometimes unpleasant duties. My personal favourites are Canto 10, which is like a movie montage on the nature of God (“Of seasons I am Spring…”) and Canto 16 on “divine and demonic natures”, which can help us choose between things we must do and things we must never do. Interestingly, many positive qualities are grammatically feminine.

By way of contemporary context, Gita Jayanti or Revelation Day is still observed with eclat on the Ekadashi of the Shukla Paksha of the month of Mrgashirsha, often falling on December 13 or 14. Subramaniam does a very readable job of rendering the Gita in one chapter. It is a great challenge that she has met with admirable results. But to understand the significance of the Gita in the flow of Indian thought, we need to take a look at “Gita perspective”, at where it’s coming from.

Firstly, we find the Vedas saying a curious thing, “ekam sat, viprah bahuda vadanti,” which is usually translated as “Truth is One, which the wise understand in many ways”. In practical terms, however, it could be understood as, “The facts are the facts and smart people get it”. In real life this means “If everybody has to share the same space, they’ll have to work it out”.

A monument in Jakarta, Indonesia, depicting Krishna and Arjuna in the Mahabharata. (Shutterstock)
A monument in Jakarta, Indonesia, depicting Krishna and Arjuna in the Mahabharata. (Shutterstock)

This is a first in conflict resolution, upholding life as a community project with maximum damage control. This survival issue drives the Indian world view that strife absolutely has to be managed because nobody is going anywhere. Here they are, and here they stay. So the ancients published this official statement saying “Live and let live for the greater good”. The Mahabharata is a therefore a treatise on what happens when anger derails the project, which has strong resonances today.

We hear this point again in the 16 “principal” Upanishads that come after the Vedas, expanding “ekam sat”.

Sat” means “What is” or what exists. Sat, they decide, is a Superself, the intangible spirit. They think it contains and is contained in every physical form. It is so subtle that words can’t describe it.

But the Upanishads don’t mean to give up without trying, for the concept is too mind-blowing. So they settle for analogies that everyone can understand. “Pushpa madhye yatha gandham, payo madhye yatha ghrtam, tila madhye yatha tailam,” or “as scent in a flower, as ghee in milk, as oil in a sesame seed,” say the Upanishads about the Superself . Wonderfully, this definition was repeated word for word in the mother tongues across time and space, even by reformers and iconoclasts. A profound example is Kabir, who says of God, “Jaise til mein tel hai, jyon chakmak mein aag…” meaning “like oil in sesame seeds and fire in flint”.

That begs the question that if it all belongs to the Superself, how may fights be avoided? “Don’t be greedy,” says the opening verse of the Isha Upanishad; “Ishavaasyam idam sarvam yat kincha jagatyam jagat, tena tyaktena bhunjitha ma gridhah, kasya svid dhanam,” or “Everything in the universe is owned by the One. So we should accept only what we need and not covet anything else, knowing to Whom they belong.” But having got that sorted, the ancients want to know more.

Whoosh! We hit the Bhagavad Gita.

See, the Vedas and Upanishads are reportage. Their authors “intuited” or “heard” things and said, “These are the thoughts that came to us; and these are the questions we asked and the answers that were revealed to us.”

But in the Bhagavad Gita, they make the big creative leap. They want to hear the Supersoul speak directly to them, “Talk to us, tell us all about it.”

And so our ancients retell the story of a warring clan and they set up a spectacular epic scene.

They put Arjuna in the middle of two huge armies on the brink of war. And they make him stick his neck out and say, “katham vidyaam aham yogim” (How may I know Thee, Lord?).

Draupadi’s magic sari - Mallika Sarabhai as Draupadi with Georges Corraface as Dushasan in Peter Brook's Mahabharata (1985). (HT Photo)
Draupadi’s magic sari - Mallika Sarabhai as Draupadi with Georges Corraface as Dushasan in Peter Brook's Mahabharata (1985). (HT Photo)

Despite divine incidents like Draupadi’s magic sari, the Akshaya Patra and the Vishvarupa, we have to wait to read the Srimad Bhagavatam to properly understand why Krishna is identified as the Supersoul. Vyasa wrote it after he completed the Mahabharata, to make up for not telling Krishna’s story in detail although Krishna was central to the Mahabharata.

Meanwhile, the Bhagavad Gita details the all-encompassing quality of the Supersoul in much beautiful poetry like

pashya me partha rupani

shatasho ’tha sahasrashah

nana-vidhani divyani

nana-varnakritini cha

meaning, “Behold now, Arjuna, my countless forms in countless colours” and more grimly, when Arjuna observes,

yatha pradiptam jvalanam patanga

vishanti nashaya samriddha-vegah

tathaiva nashaya vishanti lokas

tavapi vaktrani samriddha-vegah

meaning “As moths rush to perish in flames, so do great armies rush to die in your blazing mouth”.

Given this progression from speculation to analogy to definition, the Gita is a quantum leap in the process of Indian thought, a deep wish-fulfilment, where God talks at length about life directly to man. Read in Subramaniam’s simple, conversational version without big words and a forest of capital letters, it segues seamlessly into the epic. What is really remarkable is that Subramaniam did not succumb to the florid devotional style of English that prevailed in mid-20th century India but kept it so natural and easy, in keeping with her mission to bring modern Indians to the epic.

Story wise, we are thus able to move on effortlessly to the remaining half of the Mahabharata, which details the 18 days of battle and what happens afterwards. Things that we never knew are revealed to us by Subramaniam, like how much the formidable Trigarta clan, allies of the Kauravas, harassed and delayed the Pandavas in battle. Arjuna is forever rushing around trying to quell them. (Even today, a former ruling clan called the Katoch, in the Kangra Valley, claims descent from the Trigartas). Important heroes like Satyaki and Salya are fleshed out with their loyalty and valour. The death of young Abhimanyu when read of in detail is unlikely to permit a dry eye.

The encounter between Kunti and Karna, the soldier of misfortune, is heart-rendingly told, and how he holds back from killing Nakula, Sahadeva, Bhima and Yudhishthira is poignantly described. His death scene is hair-raising as is Kunti’s revelation of his true identity. We may think we know these events well. Yet Subramaniam writes so simply but with such pathos that we are deeply moved as though we were reading the epic for the first time, especially the reactions of the Pandavas when they learn the shattering truth about Karna.

A scene from the television serial Mahabharata (1988) produced and directed by BR Chopra. (HT Photo)
A scene from the television serial Mahabharata (1988) produced and directed by BR Chopra. (HT Photo)

I cannot say that I relate to Bhishma. He took a narrow view of duty, sacrificing the happiness of others despite his own sacrifice, and most shocking of all, he did nothing to stop the disrobing of Draupadi. But close to death, from his bed of arrows, he gives beautiful advice to Yudhishthira, among other things, on what makes for detachment, the best practices of kingship, and especially the Vishnu Sahasranamam. This event is described well by Subramaniam. If we wish to hear Bhishma’s full paean of praise for Krishna “in his words” we can look on YouTube for the Vishnu Sahasranamam as chanted by the late Bharat Ratna MS Subbulakshmi. It is played in homes even today as wake-up music to energize the day.

The most haunting passage, for me is the death of Krishna at the end, after he completes 125 years on earth. It is unbearably sad to read but I read it nevertheless to complete the story of “the world’s longest epic”. My foremost takeaway from it is marvel for Vyasa and for Subramaniam and the drained but also elated feeling of having completed an important journey into the heart of the human condition.

If, at the end of reading Subramaniam’s translation we find that we were moved by pity and terror, and attained a fresh awareness of the life code laid out in Vyasa’s epic, we can be said to have joined a very old club of millions.

Renuka Narayanan is a journalist and author. Her latest book is ‘Learning from Loss’. She lives in New Delhi

The views expressed are personal

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