Mahabharat part 2
The Mahabharata is a tale for our times. The plot of the ancient Indian epic centres around corrupt politics, ill-behaved men and warfare. In this dark tale, things get worse and worse, until an era of unprecedented depravity, the Kali Yuga, dawns. According to the Mahabharata, we’re still living in the horrific Kali era, which will unleash new horrors on us until the world ends.
The Mahabharata was first written down in Sanskrit, ancient India’s premier literary language, and ascribed to a poet named Vyasa about 2,000 years ago, give or take a few hundred years. The epic sought to catalogue and thereby criticise a new type of vicious politics enabled by the transition from a clan-based to a state-based society in northern India.
The work concerns two sets of cousins – the Pandavas and the Kauravas – who each claim the throne of Hastinapura as their own. In the first third of the epic, the splintered family dynasty tries to resolve their succession conflict in various ways, including gambling, trickery, murder and negotiation. But they fail. So, war breaks out, and the middle part of the Mahabharata tells of a near-total world conflict in which all the rules of battle are broken as each new atrocity exceeds the last. Among a battlefield of corpses, the Pandavas are the last ones left standing. In the final third of the epic, the Pandavas rule in a post-apocalyptic world until, years later, they too die.
From the moment that the Mahabharata was first written two millennia ago, people began to rework the epic to add new ideas that spoke to new circumstances. No two manuscripts are identical (there are thousands of handwritten Sanskrit copies), and the tale was recited as much or more often than it was read. Some of the most beloved parts of the Mahabharata today – such as that the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesha wrote the epic with his broken tusk as he heard Vyasa’s narration – were added centuries after the story was first compiled.
The Mahabharata is long. It is roughly seven times the length of the Iliad and Odyssey combined, and 15 times the length of the Christian Bible. The plot covers multiple generations, and the text sometimes follows side stories for the length of a modern novel. But for all its narrative breadth and manifold asides, the Mahabharata can be accurately characterised as a set of narratives about vice.
Inequality and human suffering are facts of life in the Mahabharata. The work offers valuable perspectives and vantage points for reflecting on how various injustices play out in today’s world too.
The Mahabharata claims to show dharma or righteous conduct – a guiding ideal of human life in Hindu thought – within the morass of the characters’ immoral behaviours. But the line between virtue and vice, dharma and adharma, is often muddled. The bad guys sometimes act more ethically than the good guys, who are themselves deeply flawed. In the epic’s polychromatic morality, the constraints of society and politics shackle all.
Bhishma, a common ancestor and grandfather-like figure to both sets of cousins, is a quintessential Mahabharata figure. Loyal to his family to a fault, he takes a vow of celibacy so that his father can marry a younger woman who wanted her children to inherit the throne. Bhishma’s motivation, namely love of his father, was good, but the result of denying himself children was to divert the line of succession to his younger brothers and, ultimately, their warring children. Appropriately, Bhishma’s name, adopted when he took his vow of celibacy, means ‘the terrible’ (before the vow, he was known as Devavrata, ‘devoted to the gods’). Bhishma remains devoted to his family even when they support the Kauravas, the bad guys, in the great war.
Sometimes even the gods act objectionably in the Mahabharata. Krishna, an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, endorses dishonesty on more than one occasion. Even when Krishna advocates what the epic dubs dharma, the results can be hard to stomach. For example, when Arjuna, the third Pandava brother and their best warrior, hesitates to fight against his family and kill so many people, Krishna gives an eloquent speech that convinces him to plunge into battle.
Krishna’s discourse to Arjuna, known as the Bhagavadgita (‘Song of the Lord’), or Gita for short, is often read as a standalone work today, and revered by many across the world for its insights on morality and even nonviolence. In the 20th century, Mahatma Gandhi understood the Gita to support nonviolent resistance to colonial oppression. In the Mahabharata’s plot, however, the Bhagavadgita rationalises mass slaughter.