10 January, 2012

The Epic and I

(Oh what a long post! you say. Happy New Year, say I) 

I firmly believe in the importance of timing. Travel teaches you that I guess. The train you take (or miss) decides whether you are surrounded by a cackle of unruly children or an old lady who will feed you matthri achaar from large steel boxes you wouldn’t expect anyone to be carrying on any kind of trip. The when you meet a person is often most crucial, it determines the conversations you have, the relationships you forge. And so, without emphasising the importance of timing through tangential metaphors that don’t really make any sense, I am glad the Mahabharata happened to me when it did. Though looking back, I do realise it has always been around, waiting in the shadows for me to seek it out. Man 1, an eternal believer in the Mahabharata’s ultimate supremacy when it comes to philosophical stimulation, entertaining storytelling or spiritual direction, has always been my favourite person to look to for book recommendations, so I guess it was only a matter of Time that I dug into his eclectic collection on the epic.

My tryst with what is often applauded as ‘the greatest story ever told’, began, like so many Indian kids of my generation with Sunday mornings on Doordarshan. Right after our head baths, we’d be plopped on the carpet in front of the TV, our hair drying as B.R. Chopra’s rendition of the tale entertained. Of course there were tacky special effects, a lot of jewellery, flashy aakaash vani, and sensational hyperbole, but to a child, uncluttered by the burden of opinion, it was the ultimate entertainment. The chariots and the demons, pretty bejewelled women and ambiguous gods, they all made Sunday mornings all the more interesting. But in the fervent process of ‘growing up’ the Mahabharata was nearly forgotten. Of course, there were the odd Amar Chitra Kathas, cherished and much-tattered. And sometimes, in those days of pigtails and ironed uniforms, the epic would make an appearance. While sorting the books in Rasmai, Ammaji’s well-worn volumes in the original Sanskrit were dusted with reverence. Her wooden book stand, beautifully carved, had once proudly borne the weight of the mighty Mahabharata. As I collected quotes (something I do fervently, like an old lady with her yarn) I often encountered quotes from the Bhagvada Gita on the relationships between Purusha and Prakriti; man and nature and the urge to explore would make its presence felt.

Fumbling towards adulthood, and an upheaval in my taste for books, Man 1’s patient devotion for the book (and the much-maligned, charasmatic character of Karna) made its subtle presence felt. One day I picked up R.K. Narayan’s “The Mahabharata”, a mere 190 pages long. In his characteristic simple style, R.K. Narayan, managed to make the Mahabharata seem within my grasp. Retracing my steps, I see it was the first time I read the story and felt I needed to be ready for it. The next time I encountered the book was through a rather long (and at that time amusing) telephonic conversation, which was a breathless recounting of some of the stories and subplots that make up the epic. The caller had been reading C. Rajagopalchari’s version that I later went on to buy, read and enjoy immensely. For any beginner, perhaps getting the story and its numerous characters right is a challenge in itself. Thanks to the book, I found myself on a path towards that. 

The past few years have seen within me an upheaval of the strangest kinds, from the books I read, the words I write, to the company I keep, the things I choose to indulge in. And so, when I was ready to truly explore it, I was glad to find the Mahabhrata waiting for me, peeking from various corners of our bookshelves, hidden in conversations I was to have and of course, in the pages of Chaturvedi Badrinath’s highly recommended Mahabharata – An Inquiry in the Human Condition. There are some books in whose company you feel uplifted, you know it is changing your life in subtle and not so subtle ways as you go through it. Badrinath’s careful analysis of the Mahabharata makes it gripping and accessible, without compromising on the depth of the subject. He picks up questions that have (hopefully) bothered everyone at some point in their life (am I really in control of my decisions or does ‘fate’ determine them for me? What is truth and when is it ok to lie? If we all are to die some day, what is the point of all this?) and goes on explore them, quoting pertinent lines from the Mahabharata, narrating stories to shed more light, cushioned between his own analyses and careful years of reading. Personally, what I found most uplifting was to finally internalise the clear practicality of the Mahabharata. There is no preaching and sermonising, no lofty ideals that one must adhere to. It does not answer how you should live your life, but explores the answers various people have given, shreds them to bits through debates and dialogue, and then leaves you to reach your conclusions, find your answers. It is, as Badrinath so poignantly portrays, the most systematic enquiry into the human condition.

“...beyond all theories, all interpretations, all arguments, the essence of the Mahabharata is this, which is also the essence of the human life. Each person has a relationship with his or her self; with the particularities of one’s body and one’s mind and with the specific workings together, in the form of desires, motives, acts and emotions. Each person has a relationship also with the other, with his, or her, particularities. This other, is a collective entity too: group, society, nation. The other is not necessarily the human other. The other is also nature: earth, sky, fire, wind, water, trees, plants, rivers, lakes, hills, mountains. The Mahabharata makes us aware of the plain truth that is not until one’s relationship with one’s self is right that one’s relationship with the other can be right. At the same time, it is by achieving a right relationship with the other that one achieves a right relationship with one’s self. The two are inseparably linked. Life is relational.”
Excerpt from: What is Death? The Origin of Mrityu, Chapter 6, Page 170
Recovering from that consuming literary gem, I turned to Yuganta by Irawati Karve, a collection of essays about characters in the Mahabharata. Though widely applauded in reviews, was, to me initially, a disturbing read. Her demanding dissection of the epic's characters was slightly startling at first but slowly I realised that only a person with immense love for the poem she fondly calls 'Jaya', could delve so deeply into its complexities. With the fine comb of her anthropology background, she deconstructs characters, placing them in the unforgiving light of history and questioning their motives and actions ruthlessly. I found her unrelenting interrogation of Bhishma 'selfless' Pitama's sacrifices most interesting. As an opinion, Karve makes a bold statement and though it often sounds narrow, I found myself admiring her passionate essays.

Now, at the end of my current conversation with the epic, I find myself in the company of The Difficulty of Being Good by Gurcharan Das. I had bought the book in the climax of my affair with Gurcharan Das’s clear writing, and a year later, it was still sitting on my bookshelf, miffed at being left behind when I set off for the Next Big Step. But coming back to the importance of timing, I am glad it is now that I have finally found the leisure and inclination to read this book. With a title so well thought of, I am glad the book is turning out to be a stimulating read. It is after all, the very readable Gurcharan Das (who, has off late, taken to Mahabharatising everything he writes or says, which I must admit, is a tad irritating).

As he undertakes his quest to understand the dharma, the one thing Das repeatedly encounters in the Mahabharata is that "it is not easy to be good". He teases out parallel narratives in Greek epics, cushions his findings with his academic background on Western philosophy and finally 'spices' things up with his observations from Indian public life. Chapter 7 titled Krishna's Guile is most captivating in its queries, God or human? Trickster or harbinger of Kali Yuga? As I'm reaching the end of the book, the only thing I can claim to have learnt is that I have so much more to learn. What a fascinating find! : )


  1. Since we discussed about this, I've been waiting for this post for a long time! Mahabharata is definitely intriguing, although, as of now, I would still rather read Bill Bryson instead of Vyasa or Valmiki. Maybe, I am not ready for it yet :)

    However, would love to discuss more on this next time we talk..

    Btw, I am sure you must have read it before (we had it in our Class 8th syllabus), read 'Kurukshetra' by Ramdhari Singh Dinkar - it's a poem on Mahabharata which puts Kauravas in a different light - as non-bad guys. It definitely fascinated me when I read it as a kid.

  2. Anonymous9:11 pm

    There was a text too. Something like Mahabharata ki ek Saanjh. You might want to read it.


  3. Abhijit and P: Yes I remember reading both of those. Will look for them. Thanks!



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