Mahabharata, the greatest verse which was written thousands of years ago, is a mix of myth, legend, history and pure imagination. It has caught the imagination of the nation like no other epic. But, what is it about this text that contains 880,000 verses (standardised version), 18 Parvas, that we as a nation follow?
Writer, critic, educator and linguist, Prof Ganesh Devy has tried to give insights on this topic in his new book, Mahabharata: The Epic and the Nation (published by Aleph, 2022).
In an interview with GT, prior to his lecture in Goa on the same topic that will be held on October 21, 2022, Prof Devy delved on the various aspects of the Mahabharata and what makes it a timeless classic.
Excerpts from the interview:
What was the inspiration behind writing this book, Mahabharata: The Epic and the Nation? I believe it was written during the lockdown phase?
This topic of writing about this great epic had been in my mind for the last 40 years. But, I didn’t find the time to sit down and write because of my hectic schedule. During the lockdown, when everything had come to a standstill, I thought that I should use my time to bring all my thoughts together and write this. That’s the genesis of the book. Besides, during Corona times, it looked like it was the end of an era and the beginning of another one, just how the Mahabharata is termed, and the famous title of Iravati Karve’s book, Yuganta: The End of an Epochs (the book is a critical analysis of the Mahabharata) describes.
We have always seen the Mahabharata as the text of the dharma. But, it is not just a religious text as it also has aspects which are philosophical, psychological, mythical, cosmic and also historic. So, do you think that we, as a society, have viewed it in a narrow context by only looking through the prism of religion?
Actually, over the centuries, we haven’t looked at it solely as a religious text; it was seen as everybody’s text and everybody could access it, add stories to it. Also, we need to remember that in ancient India, when the Mahabharata was being written, other shashtras were also being composed (Dharmashastras). And, the Mahabharata deliberately chose not to be like a Dharmashashtra, because it didn’t belong to that category of shashtra, it became accessible to everyone.
About Dharma, it appears in the Mahabharata as some sections were added to it subsequently. The term ‘Mahabharata’ implied continuity of life, it speaks of dharma chakra, non-stop movement of life. So, it is not a prescription book, but which describes the great complexity of human life. It is not a dharmic book, but because it gives great wisdom to us, people tend to think of it as very important and, therefore, a sacred text.
How do you look at this whole argument about the Mahabharata — whether it is a myth or history?
My book discusses this at length. The facts are like this—the first version of this poem was composed around the 7th or 8th century BC. It was an attempt to reconstruct the memory of the preceding seven centuries from the 14th to the 7th century BC. But, several centuries later, around the 2nd century BC, when it was re-structured, it did not have access to very ancient memories of around 1,000 years ago.
Therefore, it brought in ancient memory in a transformed way as myths. It does not claim that it is entirely history or entirely myth. It is a very skilful combination of both. It combines four different levels of time—historical time (sequential); mythical time non-sequential; psychological time (like Krishna talking about the Virat Swaroop, it all happens in a single moment); and cosmic time. These times are so skilfully mixed by the author that it is difficult to say which is which time.
As we know that along with Vyasa’s Mahabharata, there are the tribal, Buddhist, Jain, Bhill Mahabharata and also oral traditions. In today’s times, why do we need to study these versions of the Mahabharata, too? What perspective do they give?
It is necessary to study these versions if we think that the Mahabharata is the epic of our nation. It helps us remember that our nation holds multitudes of social segments and every social segment has added something to the Mahabharata like the Bhill Mahabharata by the Bhill tribals of Rajasthan.
Similarly people who did sculpture and paintings, and composed music/songs based on the Mahabharata, come from all types of communities, and not just Hindus. Therefore, it is necessary to think of the Mahabharata as a larger national epic of a nation which is a mix of populations.
One aspect of the Mahabharata which is quite dominant is violence. It is not only the violence of war between cousins, but even other forms of it. How do you look at?
Yes, as there is demeaning of people, inflicting misery, etc. But, the Mahabharata also focuses on peace, one of the most important books in it is the Shanti Parva. It has also foregrounded the virtue of being equanimous.
It has violence as well as peace, volatile situation as well as deep reflections on the meaning of life. It is not one-sided at any time. It has magnitude as well as plenitude.
How do you look at the mention of caste system? Does the epic normalise it?
Mahabharata does deal with the varna (class) and not the caste system. The society of the Mahabharata is divided into varnas. The poem is about the emergence of the Varnas. The earliest generation in the poem describes marriages across varnas—like a fisherman’s daughter marrying a warrior. It is a social transformation from mixed/unstructured to varna-based society. The Mahabharata does not defend the varna, which it factors in. It actually shows how conflict emerges because of varna and how conflict can dissolve when people forget their varna.
It also speaks about kula or family lineage. It shows that pride attached to the kula is inferior. But, pride attached to guna, or virtue, is a superior type of pride. That is the beauty of the Mahabharata.
What about the role of women in the Mahabharata?
The story of the Mahabharata begins with Ganga (mother of Bhishma), who is unfettered, one who cannot be tamed or dominated. The next generation is about Amba, Ambika and Ambalika, all these three women, despite placed in oppressive situations, are capable of expressing themselves freely.
In the third generation, we have women like Draupadi, and in the fourth generation, we have Abhimanyu’s wife (Uttara) who was a fiercely courageous woman. These women are not dominable the way women were in medieval India or in the 19th -20th century. They are fiercely independent women, who make their own minds and made their own destinies.
The Mahabharata is filled with variety of characters, and each is more interesting than the other. Do you have any favourites?
The Mahabharata has all kinds of extremely tempting, heroic, great, attractive characters, but Vyasa’s choice is Yama. He is the symbol of time; death is just one aspect of Yama. Vyasa is obsessively impressed in describing time, Kal chakra, or the wheel of time. He has this wonderful artistic ability to use this character of Yama very sparingly. He appears only three times in the story—beginning, middle and end.
He (Yama) is the father of Yudhishthir (the oldest of the Pandavas). He is also known as Dharma and that’s why his son is also known as Dharmaraj. However, Vyasa isn’t talking about dharma as religion, but as the law of nature.
Time is the most alluring of all the characters. And, Vyasa gives this character, both, human and mythological form. That’s what keeps us glued to the story. Not just the sensational war, etc. That would have made it a very common poem.
Also, there’s this idea of dharma chakra that Vyasa has borrowed from Buddhist philosophy. Ashoka’s dharma chakra and Vyasa’s dharma chakra are representative of the spirit of the time.
The Centre for Study of Mythology and Culture (CSMC) in collaboration with the Directorate of Art and Culture is organising its 6th Annual lecture by Prof Ganesh Devy on the topic, ‘Mahabharata: The Epic and the Nation’ on October 21, 2022 at 5.30 pm at Multipurpose Hall, Sanskruti Bhavan, Patto, Panaji.
The lecture will be chaired by writer, Damodar Mauzo. The event is open to all