The Spell of the Mahabharata

The Spell of the Mahabharata



Many of those born after 1947 wonder how their parents and forefathers were reconciled to a handful of Englishmen governing their vast subcontinent. Indeed, it is not easy to enter the spirit of a bygone era. Yet, consciously or unconsciously, most of us indulge in measuring the strength or weakness of characters belonging to as remote a past as the time of the epics, applying the yardstick of values by which we are accustomed to judge our contemporaries.

However, there are works, very few though, which can withstand such casual treatments. Even if in our eagerness to adjust them to the Bed of Procreates of our ideas we stretch a part of them or cut out another, they survive the operation, such is their vitality and such is the strength of their essential truth.

As it has been repeatedly said, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata highlight the ultimate triumph of the good over the evil. Such simplistic observations imply that the moral emerging from these great works is qualitatively not different from that of the fairy tale or the didactic story. Particularly in regard to the Mahabharata, in which the central conflict is not between clear-cut camps of men and demons but between men and demoniac men, the moral lies imbedded in far too complex psychological situations. The “good” the poem stresses is not any puny moralistic virtue; it is the growth of consciousness which takes in its stride all the experiences good and bad; it is the progress the human soul makes through the darkness of ignorance so fondly natured by the ego. Hence the victory in the battle or the success in a prolonged endeavor does not throw the victor and the successful into a state where he rests happily ever thereafter, but continues his quest for light as symbolized in the great journey, the Mahaprasthana, of the Pandavas with which the epic concludes.

Lessons at Two Levels

The lessons, which the Mahabharata imparts to its reader (or listener) in the light of this ideal of our soul’s progress, become helpful even as practical lessons in life for the relatively less enlightened. Take the example of the story of Sharmistha, the princess, and Devyani, the daughter of Shukra, the king’s guru. The two friends, along with a number of maids, go out into the forest and bathe in a lake. Upon their emerging from the water, Devyani, by mistake, puts on her friend’s clothes. Unpredictable is the way of human moods. The princess falls into a tantrum. The two friends quarrel, Sharmistha claiming superiority over Devyani because of her status as a princess and Devyani claiming superiority because she was the daughter of her father’s guru.

But the princess has the last word – at least that is what she believes at the moment – when she orders her maids to throw Devyani into a dry pit – and returns home with her entourage. Apparently, hers is the victory. But situations too can be as unpredictable as human moods. Soon the young king, Yayati, is in the forest. He rescues Devyani and sends her to her father. When the injustice done to Devyani is known, Sharmistha’s father, King Vrisaparva, apologises to her, but nothing less than Sharmistha being reduced to the position of her maid would satisfy the aggrieved lady. Her demand had to be conceded.

Little could Princess Sharmistha have imagined that in her apparent victory in the forest the other day lay the seed of her future defeat. Now Devyani emerges victorious.

Soon Devyani marries her gallant rescuer, King Yayati. Among the maids accompanying her to her husband’s house is Sharmistha. It so happens that the king is enamoured of the latter. They are secretly married. Now Sharmistha is victorious. In other words, in Devyani’s apparent victory had lain in ambush her own future defeat. The lesson is, there is no unmixed victory.

Although the version of the Mahabharata we read is the third-hand narration by Santa Ugrasena Lomaharsini who heard it from Vaisampayan and who in his turn had heard it from Vyasa, it is credited to the last-named who is also the traditional compiler of the Vedas. In fact, the Mahabharata is referred to as the fifth Veda. Hence, some traits of the Vedas are bound to be found in this epic. One of them is leaving a lot unsaid. With the passage of time and the loss of the necessary perspective, the unsaid has become a gap, making certain situations vulnerable to moral challenges thrown by a different milieu such as ours.

Ignored Aspect of the Episode of Ekalavya

A glaring example of this is the episode of Ekalavya, often projected today as an instance of discriminatory conduct of the privileged towards the uprivileged. Ekalavya had mastered certain secrets of archery stealthily, through his imitation of and devotion to the illustrious teacher, Dronacharya. When Dronacharya discovered this, he asked the young man, as the teacher’s due, for his thumb, thereby reducing Ekalavya’s effectiveness as an archer.

No doubt the society of the time believed in the principles of Varna, the division of duty according to the nature and heredity of people, in view of the experience the soul needed during a specific incarnation in its long journey (through many incarnations in different Varnas) towards the ultimate realisation of life’s ultimate goal. Needless to say, this concept of Varna has very little to do with the wretched caste system formalized in a later time. The question involved in Ekalavya’s case is not Varna as much as the welfare of Ekalavya himself. In his enthusiasm he has got hold of the physical and occult science of archery all right, but he is unaware of the code of conduct that must temper this knowledge.

We generally forget or ignore the bizarre situation in which Drona met him in the forest. Ekalavya had applied his archery on a dog which had the audacity to bark at him. He shut the creature’s mouth with seven arrows. Reduced to dumbness, the dog ran to Drona and drew his attention to its plight. We have to remember the role of the guru of yore. His first concern was the consciousness of the disciple; the wrong application of a power one had come to possess could not but demean one’s consciousness. Even some of the Kshatriya princes like the Kauravas, well-versed in the laws of Dharma, went crazy with their power. Where would the knowledge of intricate archery have landed the brilliant Ekalavya – if we were to make a guess from his maiden experiment with his power?

The Enigma that is Draupadi

(How much does the mind of today understand even the character of Draupadi is a question. An Indian scholar living in France was required to give an introductory talk on the Mahabharata during the Festival of India in France. The moment she described Draupadi as an ideal wife, her audience burst into laughter, thanks to a much acclaimed production of the Mahabharata story in that country.

But that, after all, was a French audience. What is amazing is, the transcreator of a currently best-selling (by Indian standards) edition of the Mahabharata detects three reasons that obliged Krishna to intervene when Duhshasana tried to disrobe her in the Kaurava court and they are: Draupadi is related to Krishna; she had once “bandaged” Krishna’s wound tearing a part of her “expensive dress” and thirdly both Krishna and Draupadi were self-born, the latter being an emanation of Shakti. It would appear as if Krishna owned a godown of cloth and he just needed some arguments to come to the help of a relative in distress. Perhaps in a way it is symptomatic of the so-called intellectual state of India that the transcreator does not go anywhere near the essence of the incident—that it was the Divine’s response to a devotee when everything else, all the expected human help, had failed her!)

If the character of Draupadi has been a great source of strength to some, to most it has been merely intriguing, though fascinating. She is the lady with five husbands. This is the aspect of her life that readily comes to the minds of those who have known about her either through one of the numerous versions of the Mahabharata retold, or through a ballad or a folk or a stage play, or through references to her in different works. It is, however, impossible to appreciate the character of Draupadi without trying to dwell in the milieu the epic portrays, without continuously remembering the raison d’etre of her incarnation.

Draupadi is teja eva tu kevalam, the flaming puissance incarnate, as the old king Dhritarashtra describes her. There cannot be a Mahabharata without Draupadi. The epic grandeur of the work, the élan vital of its dramatic development, would collapse without Draupadi’s humiliation and her determination for vengeance; its spiritual significance would be much reduced if it is deprived of the message that emerges from Draupadi’s traumatic experience – that the only true protection lies in the Divine’s Grace; the human supports are unpredictable; everyone can fail a person in a moment of crisis – and none will lack in some respectable pretext for his failure. But only the Divine does not fail one if one turns to him entirely.

Most of the episodes in the epics can be viewed at least from two planes, popular and subtle. At the popular plane of looking at matters, Draupadi is won by Arjuna, but she marries all the five brothers because their mother, Kunti, has unwittingly said that whatever prize Arjuna has won must belong to all the five. Evidently, in the age of the Mahabharata, the position of the mother was unique. The character of Gandhari, the unfortunate mother of the Kauravas, and those of Kunti and Satyavati convincingly demonstrate that the institution of motherhood merited the respect it was given. And there were auspicious moments when instructions and words uttered by a father or a mother or a master had to be literally followed. For, however illogical they might sound on the surface, the utterances were believed to have originated from some higher inspiration.

But this is only the surface justification for the unusual marital status imposed on Darupadi. What must be remembered is the genesis of Draupadi. She is no human being, though she dwells in a human form. She is even different from the other two great female characters in our epic lore, Savitri and Sita. Though godly emanations, Savitri and Sita both grew up following the process chalked out for mortals. But Draupadi emerged from a Yajna, already Samadhyama – a maiden – in response to a specific prayer by King Drupad of Panchala. She was born with a certain power and a certain mission, ostensibly to destroy Drona, but really to destroy the Kauravas who were under Drona’s protection.

Thus she was no woman to be judged by human standards, nor were the Pandava brothers, her husbands, human beings in any ordinary sense. They were emanations of gods, invoked by their mothers, all different aspects of the king of gods, Indra, one in essence.

In their human incarnation they had assumed different characteristics, though complementary to one another. But in order to constitute a force greater than the evil confronting them and humanity, they must be kept united, continuously reminded of their mission. This crucial task fell to Draupadi’s lot. The Pandavas were conscious of the extraordinary nature of Draupadi and they owed an unbroken allegiance to her, born out of a spontaneous faith. She used this allegiance to fulfill her mission. At the end of their exile when the Pandavas decide to send Krishna as their emissary to the Kauravas, Yudhisthira, Bhima and Arjuna are all prepared for a compromise. But when Krishna meets Draupadi, her decisive words are: “Damn Arjuna’s archery and Bhima’s strength, O Krishna, how do they forget that Duryodhana is still alive?”

Duryodhana had been vulgar enough to offer his thigh to Draupadi and Bhima had taken a vow to smash the scandalous offender’s thigh. Draupadi was to dip her hair in Duhshasana’s blood, for he had tried to disrobe her. While time seemed to have softened the Pandava brothers, it had only strengthened Draupadi’s anguish. Her humiliation had not ended with her surviving the barbaric conduct of the Kauravas. She had to meet with Jayadratha’s impudence while in the forest; worse still, she had to deal with Kichaka, the bully in Virata’s palace. It is as if Providence saw to it that she did not defeat the very purpose of her emergence by developing any mercy for the evil. Her continued anguish was the element that moulded the wills of the five heroes into a single determination. With that alone they could fulfill their mandate.

What would have happened if the Pandavas had reconciled themselves to their fate? That would have meant their compromising with falsehood, their own fall from their Swadharma – the innermost law of their being—and depriving humanity of any hope for the triumph of the just, a hope that has, through the ages, helped sustain men’s enthusiasm for taking to the path of truth as they know it.

The Mahabharata war gathered all the Indian kings on one single field, as friends and foes. It put on record the territories that constituted India, after the travels of the Pandavas through many a land had already built an idea of the concept of the nation. The war also destroyed most of the potentates who had turned greedy tyrants, ushering in a new climate of freedom.

In her role as an uncommon wife, Draupadi followed an uncommon discipline. Did the discipline require her to be equally passionate and indulgent towards all the five husbands? Not so, for she was above passion and indulgence. In her answer to a question from Satyabhama whether it was through certain rituals or hymns or magic potions that she pleased her husbands, her reply was: such methods were adopted by ordinary women with dubious motives. Her secret was her conquest of lust and egotism. This is the clue to her character.

There are Dharmas and Dharmas – different codes of conduct for beings of different levels of consciousness. As long as one is a creature of physical lust or of passionate love at the best, it is imperative that one follows a certain moral rule. This helps one to exercise control over one’s ordinarily unruly impulses, a control indispensable for one’s inner growth. But this is not the highest Dharma for all. There are beings too evolved for this or beings who do not belong to the evolutionary process at all. Draupadi falls in the rare latter category. Draupadi was a divine instrument for accomplishing a formidable task. That is why she had a special relationship with Krishna. She was his Sakhi, his intimate friend.

Draupadi is exemplary for her wit, her sense of courtesy and her dignity. When she is summoned to the court by Duryodhana after Yudhisthira has forfeited her in a game of dice, she demands to know if Yudhisthira pledged her before losing himself or after. If after, he had no right to pledge her. Her question remained unanswered. She is so courteous that at a moment’s respite during Dushasana’s outrageous behaviour, she apologises to the elders for not having greeted them as soon as she entered the court. Her sense of dignity becomes evident when a nervous Dhritarastra, warned of the doom hanging over his dynasty because of Duryodhana’s sins, offers her boon after boon, but she politely refuses them after obtaining the release of Yudhisthira and the other Pandavas.

It is an insult to Draupadi and the monarch of poets, Vyasa, to believe that she burst into a peal of laughter and commented that the son of a blind man was blind, when Duryodhana, while surveying the magical castle of the Pandavas at Indraprastha, mistook a pool to be decorated floor and fell into it. Vyasa’s Draupadi cannot and does not do anything like that. The part of the epic recounting this incident may not even be an interpolation – one of many that got into the work in the course of centuries, but a careful reading would show that the poet does not show Draupadi as doing any such thing when the scene is narrated. It is Duryodhana who invents the insult while trying to poison Dhritarashtra’s mind and he invents it not even during his first report to his father, but during the second report. Had Draupadi done any such thing, we would have been informed of it by the poet when did so.

Draupadi’s is perhaps the most daring portrayal of a female character in the literature of the world. It is a tribute to the women of India that they adore her more through their intuitive perception of the character than through a rational or social evaluation of it.

Bhishma’s Action and Inaction

Vyasa’s Bhishma is not the excited, restless character we see in different plays. He is a Vasu, a demigod, who is only temporarily on earth and who is much less attached to his earthly obligations than generally imagined. Bhishma is one of the few (the others were Rishis) who knew clearly who Krishna was. That is why he proposed Krishna to be given the prime seat of honour at Yudhisthira’s Rajasuya Yajna. Why then did he side with the Kauravas?

Contrast Bhishma’s conduct with that of his predecessor, Bibhisana of the Ramayana. He was one of the few who knew the true identity of Rama. He advised his brother Ravana to make peace with the aggrieved prince, but when Ravana, instead of paying heed to his advice insulted him, he quietly came over to Rama’s camp. It has been pointed out that while Bhishma was a Jnanayogi, Bibhisana was a Bhaktiyogi. As a Bhakta, Bibhisana felt impelled to be with his Lord, not caring two hoots for any other obligation, moral or otherwise. As a Jnani, Bhishma knew that with Krishna on the side of the Pandavas, it mattered little even if a hundred Bhishmas were in the opposite camp! In other words, if Bibhisana changed camp because he knew who Rama was, bhishma did not change camp also precisely because he knew who Krishna was!

The same does not apply to the other elders. Their silence over Draupadi’s humiliation can be best explained by the observation: “It is impossible that a gold deer should ever be possible. Yet Rama runs after it. The fact is, at the approach of a moment of crisis, the genius of people gets dim!”

The characters of the Mahabharata or the Ramayana must be seen as Vyasa or Valmiki portrays them – in the context of the total epic, not in isolation, in the perspective of a very different time. We should not focus on any one aspect or one particular action of an epic character and presume to interpret him or her, but assess the character in the light of the role he or she was designed to play in the whole.

The Mahabharata, as we find it, eight times greater than Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey put together, is a much enlarged version of the original text. But the enlargement, being brought about by the addition of significant stories—epitomes of the spiritual and mundane experiences of the early twilight of an awakened civilization, dialogues of philosophical import, etc.—has been absorbed by the powerful central plot. Over the centuries such stories—for example those of Dushyanta and Shakuntala, Nala and Damayanti, Savitri and Satyavan – have inspired great works of poetry and drama. The dynamism inherent in such stories is demonstrated in our own time by Sri Aurobindo handling the theme of Savitri and Satyavan and transforming the legend into a most profound symbol in his epic, Savitri.

Some of the dialogues in the Mahabharata are as psychologically sound today as they were at any time in the past. Take for example the series of questions put by Yaksha to Yudhisthira. “What is it by giving up which one endears oneself to all?” The answer is “Pride”. “What is it by shedding which one remains rich?” The answer is “Desire”. “What is the most surprising thing in the world? The answer is, “Every moment people around us are dying. Yet those alive behave as if they were immortals.”

The greatest single contribution of the Mahabharata, of course, is the Gita, the dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna. But that is a subject apart.


About Manoj Das

For thousands of men, women and children of the past two or three generations, Manoj Das has been the very synonym of light and delight, whose writings in Odia and English inspire in his countless readers faith in the purpose of life and also open up concealed horizons of confidence and compassion in humanity a dire need today.