The Mahabharata

2014 Number 2 - The Constellation

Such vows, and curses, give language an absolute value. The accidental is converted into fate without, somehow, the value of human action dwindling to nothing.

R.K. Narayan, The Mahabharata: A Shortened Modern Prose Version of the Indian Epic, University of Chicago Press, 2013

What I remember most clearly are the arrows. How the camera followed each of them through the air with a whizzing sound effect as in a cartoon – till it hit home, or missed.

I could verify this impression today, since B.R. Chopra’s ninety- four episode television adaptation of the Mahabharata is predictably available on Youtube. But I prefer not to: some things should remain in the past. Which means: in the imagination. The BBC picked up the series when I was not yet ten, and I watched it with my mother in our house in Leeds. My parents, who moved to England from Sri Lanka forty years ago, established a basically secular household and did not pass on their language, Tamil, not the Hindi spoken (declaimed, rather) in Chopra’s adaptation. Yet here was something of their culture – a masterpiece of ancient Sanskrit, the longest poem in the world – my mother and I might enjoy together. It did excite me but I also wanted to please her. The other cultural experience we shared was when I read her Agatha Christie novels over her shoulder – but then I always reached the bottom of the page and wanted her to turn it before she was ready.

The Mahabharata, R.K. Narayan informs us, complicates a story told as early as 1500 B.C. At its core is the battle for the throne between two branches of a royal family, the heroic Pandava and their villainous cousins, the Kaurava. The Pandava lose their wealth and lands to the other side when the eldest of the five brothers, Yudhistira, is persuaded to gamble them; as a kshatriya, or member of the warrior caste, he cannot refuse a challenge to play dice. As a result they are cast into exile, but are aided in their eventual return to power by Krishna, a divine avatar of Vishnu, who appears here as a wily Machiavellian statesman. His advice to the heroes is also for us: rules must sometimes be broken, honour disregarded, to achieve good ends.

The Chopra series preserved this educational quality, curiously reminiscent of our more sententious relatives. But it also had a ramshackle, improvised quality which recalled – though of course I say this in retrospect – our life in England. That is, it seemed thrown together on the hoof by someone who didn’t quite know what he was doing but who nonetheless was utterly and continuously convinced of the seriousness of his enterprise. My sister was at Oxford and I knew my parents wanted the same for me: I warmed to these mythic personages of a tremendous potential either activated by the boons of the gods or squandered in irrevocable mistakes.

Take the scene, in Narayan’s succinct and lucid prose (the opposite, really, of Chopra’s expansive blood-drenched glamour) where Arjuna, the most perfect warrior of the Pandava brothers, wins in martial competition the hand of Draupadi, a ‘dark and beautiful’ princess. The brothers return home and the boorish strongman, Bhima, jokingly calls to their mother to come out and see what alms they have brought today. She replies, unseeing, that they should share their bhiksha among themselves. To Arjuna, this becomes the scandalous proposition that Draupadi marry all five of them:

The mother said, ‘Don’t make too much of an inadvertent bit of advice. You make me feel very unhappy and guilty, my son. Don’t even suggest such an outrage.’

Arjuna pleaded, ‘Please don’t make me a sinner; it is not fair to condemn me to suffer the sin of disobedience to a mother’s word.’

Such vows, and curses, give language an absolute value. The accidental is converted into fate without, somehow, the value of human action dwindling to nothing. No matter how hard my parents tried to draw a line under the historical language of their bruised homeland, by not teaching it to me or my sister, the Mahabharata told me that nothing can truly remain hidden in the past; the smallest decision or lapse of conduct may have epic consequences. And this is both an unanswerable condition of reality, and a choice which individuals make over and over again, because the value of their existence depends upon it. Indeed, the very battle of thetwo families over who should rule only comes about because their ancestor Bhishma refuses to break his celibacy: ‘Once a vow is made, it’s eternal.’ An ineradicable stubbornness becomes a way of exerting one’s will in a fatalistic universe. The sage Vyasa – also the author – is forced to enter into his own story in an almost postmodern fashion and father the children whose offspring will one day fight to the death.

‘Those to whom evil is done,’ wrote W.H. Auden, ‘do evil in return.’ Yudhistira, the oldest brother, laments the cycles of violence which mean his family will apparently never stop fighting with the Kaurava, even after their kingdom is regained. Can it really be necessary to kill every woman and child so no ‘small smouldering ember of hate’ will remain? Contemporary resonances are obvious – like a Shakespeare play, the Mahabharata asks to be taken up and interpreted according to the needs of different communities. The hatred between the two families develops in an infinitely complicated way which, despite my earlier phrasing, prevents us from identifying the Pandava as wholly good or the Kaurava as totally evil. The Pandava are like a favourite child; they get all the best breaks.

So Duryodhana, the leader of the Kaurava, rants about his cousins’ new hall of assembly:

‘What a grand, marvellous building, none to equal it anywhere,’ said Sakuni. ‘Again, it is a gift from that divine architect Maya, who was saved from the fire of Khandava Forest...’
‘Everything for them seems to have come out of that fire!’ said Duryodhana.

The daily beauty of the Pandava makes him ugly: ‘unless they are degraded in some way, I shall know no peace. My soul burns at the thought of those worthless cousins sitting up and preening themselves!’ Yet this internal conflagration is subtly juxtaposed, in Narayan’s text, with the fire of Khandava Forest – burned up by Arjuna and his divine ally Krishna, along with all the ‘birds and cubs and their parents’, to please the fire god Agni and receive from him an invincible bow. The modern poet Arun Kolatkar, who wrote in both English and Marathi, beautifully captures the loss not only of animal but human lives:

children of the forest
who had lived there happily for generations,
since time began.

They’ve gone without a trace.
With their language
that sounded like the burbling of a brook,

their songs that sounded like the twitterings of birds,
and the secrets of their shamans
who could cure any sickness

by casting spells with their special flutes
made from the hollow
wingbones of red-crested cranes.

‘Jaratkaru Speaks to Her Son Aastika’

In the section of the Mahabharata known as the Bhagavad-Gita, Arjuna surveys the enemy ranks, finds them dotted with relatives, mentors and old friends, and finds he can’t fight. Krishna, his chariot-driver, advises him at length in what has become a significant spiritual text in its own right, admired by – among countless others – Gandhi, Oppenheimer and Heinrich Himmler. One of the things Krishna says is that events are predestined and that all the men Arjuna must kill are in some sense already dead.

Near the end of Narayan’s shortened prose version – ‘I have not attempted any translation,’ he writes, ‘as it is impossible to convey in English the rhythm and depth of the original language’ – Yudhistira says he wants to relinquish the throne he has just regained and become a hermit. This is not simply out of shame at the countless dead, but expresses the perspective that to prosper materially in this world is inevitably at someone else’s expense. In this way, an ancient text about a feudal society eerily describes the distortions of modern capitalism, and hubris fixated on visions of economic ‘growth’ and the technological conquest of nature. Yet Arjuna explains that harm is a condition of being in the world; that to refuse to be a king and become a hermit is to put aside any power one has to make it a better place. Does a text which gives so much time and eloquence over to the articulation of positions it then dispels do so because these are fixed errors which require prolonged correction? Or is it to allow Yudhistira’s absolute pacifism a genuine hearing?

Yudhistira is also shaken by the revelation that Karna, Arjuna’s killed rival and one of the Kaurava’s greatest warriors, was actually his brother, the son of Kunthi and the god of the sun, yet given up to be raised by a chariot-driver. When he challenged Arjuna to a contest with the bow, the Pandava rejected him as too low-born to compete; Duryodhana took him in. For this reason, even on learning of his true heritage from his mother and Krishna, he refused to cross over to the Pandava side. Yet ‘I remember,’ remarks Yudhistira sadly – Narayan’s poise and delicacy is marvellous – ‘when I looked at his feet they resembled Kunthi’s so much that I could not continue to feel angry.’ Intensely gifted, ill-at-ease and not at home – through a combination of bad luck and his own intransigence, one of the epic’s most compelling characters speeds toward ruin.

I also want to mention Abhimanyu, Arjuna’s son who, when the enemy form an invincible ‘lotus formation’ in his father’s absence, is urged to unlock it. For he overheard the secret of how to do so when still inside his mother’s body – a detail excluded from Narayan’s version. The circle of shields and spears is the bad opposite of the womb in which he caught his father’s description only of how to get in, not how to get out. Once inside he is mauled to death by several of the Kaurava warriors in a scene of extreme dishonour later cited by Krishna to defend his own rule-breaking. My mother tells me how upset I was when Abhimanyu died in the Chopra television series, though I can’t remember a thing. She also tells me, when I telephone to discuss this article, that a new series based on the Mahabharata has been produced by Cinevista – in Tamil, no less. If you find a version with subtitles, she says, you should make sure to watch it on Youtube! Then you will know how the story truly began...

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