June 27, 2014


What is here is found elsewhere,
What is not here is nowhere.
- Mahabharata I.56. 34-35
In 2013, I got an opportunity to read the following four books on Mahabharata along with countless online posts and articles.

  • Jaya : An illustrated Retelling of the Mahabharata by Devdutt Pattnaik
  • The Difficulty of Being Good - On the Subtle Art of Dharma by Gurcharan Das
  • Yuganta - The End of an Epoch by Iravati Karve
  • Ajaya by Anand Neelakantan 

Mahabharata is an extremely complex treatise on humans and relationships. Rules when reinforced in one chapter are broken in the very next one. Tolerance being espoused in one context is totally frowned upon in the other. By the end of it, you are pretty much confused, for the subject does not clearly lay down rules for the common man to follow. Unlike in Ramayana, where Ram clearly follows the 'rules'(dharma), Mahabharata is scattered with characters who are imperfect in their own and also in the larger moral ecosystem. A quick jab on Ramayana here is that Ram who is supposed to be 'mariyada-purushottam' is frowned upon when he leaves Sita in the forest. The context has to be understood. That, Ram leaves Sita in the forest for he does not want his wife to live with a tainted tag with him. Though he can live with Sita as-is, his love for Sita is visible when he states that he cannot see his 'praja' question him on this subject. 

Lord Krishna in one context wherein he advises Arjuna on the righteous path of dharma and truthfullness, also directs Bhima to attack Duryodhana under the belt. Many of these sacrosanct beliefs have been hushed under the carpet of Dharma. The common man does not understand the concept of Dharma with so much vagary as in the context of Mahabharata. The confusion is only built up more when you read different perspectives by different authors. But this confusion with different perspectives should be actually understood and appreciated and reflected upon more.

Dharma in its simplest definition is :
"One should never do to another what one regards as injurious to oneself. This, in brief is the law of Dharma" - Mahabharata XVIII.113.8

As Gurcharan Das states,
The political ideology of Mahabharata rejects both the amorality of Duryodhana as well as the idealistic position of the earlier Yudhisthira in exile.  
The epics tentative world of moral haziness is closer to our experience as ordinary human beings in contrast to the certainty of the fundamentalist. Its dizzyingly plural perspectives are a nice antidote to the narrow and rigid positions that surround us amidst the hypertrophied rhetoric of the early 21st century.
It is not dharma or right conduct that the Mahabharata seems to teach, but the 'subtle' nature of dharma - its infinite subtlety, its incalculable calculus of consequences , its endless delicacy
In the present world, wherein there is a fad to label themselves as a 'rebel' and give up everything and go to the Himalayas, Mahabharata defines "Nishkama Karma" and states that life is not about going to the Himalayas, but about living self-effacingly in the world like Bhishma.

Ajaya by Anand Neelakantan is an extremely potent book for I have not heard of many other books who treat the subject from Kaurava's view point. The author lays a very strong foundation and the questions asked by Suyodhana and his moral rigmarole make a very interesting talking point. Highlighting Suyodhana as a lover of romance is something that no other author has tried so far. Ajaya is not a book if you are new to Mahabharata for it can lead to a very wrong impression of the treatise - DO NOT read it if you do not know the story of Mahabharata.

Claiming that I have become wiser by reading these books would be a joke as I have just started my path towards 'Understanding' the values implied in each of these treatises. One needs experience coupled with theoretical knowledge to gain higher echelons. And I am happy that I just started scratching the surface with these readings. The question is not if I am going to reach my destination , but the path itself is challenging to me.

To quote GD again, Mahabharata is a continuing repository of crisis in the public discourse of classical India.

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