Mahaabhaarat | General


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Sameer Gupta's comments - his comments are in blue: Thank you Sameer
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As far as literature goes, the Mahabharata is an extraordinary work of art. It is commonly quoted that the Mahabharata is seven times longer than both the Iliad and the Odyssey combined. It is unfortunate that the Western world has not really moved beyond the two Greek classics in terms of introducing literature to high school and college students. I had to study the Odyssey as part of my university literature course, but an easy case can also be made for familiarizing students with the Mahabharata. Drama, doubt and discourse are all very central to the development of the Mahabharata. The recognition of doubt is very important to me because I am going to argue that the popular interpretation of the Mahabharata is flawed. Well at the very least, I do not agree with it.

What is the popular, and indeed the televised, perception of the epic? The story was weaved around the struggle between cousins from the same family - the righteous Pandavas and the treacherous Kurus. Right prevailed over wrong and other such generic conclusions. Probably the most important aspect of Mahabharata is the expounding of the Geetaa. Arjun had doubts about the war that he was about to wage because he realized that he would only be slaying his own blood relatives and loved ones. He was rebuked by Krishna for worrying about the consequences of his actions and was called to fulfill his destiny and duty as a warrior. I know that people hypothesize that the Gita was added to the story of the Mahaabhaarat at a later time, but I am going to ignore that possibility for now. The epic ends with utter dramatics – the obliteration of an entire generation of warriors, kings and noblemen and countless common soldiers. Krishna’s role is declared as perfidious by the mother of the Kurus, and his whole clan is forced to bear the brunt of her wrath. I do not really want to dwell on the physical end of the poem, but I want to concentrate on the conclusions that were reached.

The first issue I have with the Mahaabhaarat is that right prevailed over wrong. As a matter of personal beliefs, I do not accept that there is a general set of rights and wrongs, or that someone’s rights and wrongs can be judged by someone else.

Right and wrong is basically what is agreed upon by both parties and war was about one party not honoring their word.

Beside my personal beliefs though, the whole war was about who should control the Bharat dynasty. The eldest son of the ruling king or the eldest son of the clan? Ignore the merits of the characters of the Duryodhan and Yudhishtir for now. They suffer from the popular perception too. As a matter of logic, if not a matter of law, I do not agree that Yudhishtir had a rightful claim to the throne. Yudhishtir’s claim to the throne was based on false lineage. He was not the son of Pandu. He was the son of Kunti. According to ancient Indian lineage laws, if the king was impotent, and failed to produce a son, a child to the queen by someone else could also be considered as an heir. That was Yudhishtir’s path to royalty. Compare that to the lineage of Duryodhan, who was the eldest son of the ruling king Dhritrashtra, who was also elder than Pandu. Given that all of Indian history has been about the passing of the crown from the king to his eldest son, there really should not have been a fight about this issue.

I agree that the throne should have automatically gone to the eldest son of the eldest king.

However, as I alluded to above, much is also said about the characters of the two princes. Yudhishtir was considered to be the Dharamraj, cast as the upholder of law and justice. Duryodhan was cast as the egoistic megalomaniac, who could think of nothing but power. That is the basic contrast between the two. Much is also made of the fact that Duryodhan molested his sister-in-law, Yudhishtir’s shared wife. But how do you say that Yudhistir was an upholder of the law and justice? What kind of a man would rather bet on the liberty of his wife and brothers than accept defeat in a game of dice?

It was not a matter of defeat. It is a bad habit about gambling. If you have ever gambled, you always think you can win back all that you lost through your last bet. On top of that, Kaurav were cheating.

What kind of a righteous king would condone deceit to win a war? Bhishma, Drona, Karna, and even Duryodhan were all murdered, because they were not killed according to the rules of engagement of war that were agreed upon. How is that righteous? Didn’t Yudhishtir have a lust for power too? Wasn’t the claim of Duryodhan more genuine? I say yes.

I am not very familiar with the details of each one of the deaths, but Kauravas also employed similar tactics to win. They challenged Pandavas to a war when Arjun was not there and Abhimanyu had to go in and fight for Pandavas. That was not fair either.

I am going to bypass the role of Karn in this discourse. Three people knew that he was also Kunti’s son – Bhishma, Kunti herself and ofcourse, Krishna. All of them allowed the war to be waged because they all favored the Pandavas. What they did was nothing short of genocide. For all his faults, even Yudhishtir would have given up the throne if he knew that Karna was his elder brother, and had as much a claim to the Kuru throne as he did.

That is probably true that Yudhishtir would have given up the throne had he known he had an older brother. However, the war was because one party was not willing to keep their word.

That is obvious. I am more interested in the Gita. Not many question the knowledge of the Geetaa. It is blindly accepted as a source of inspiration, guidance and divinity. That may all be well and good, but it was the Gita through which Krishna made Arjun fight the war. Why was he so interested in the destruction of so many people?

If you understand the principle of Reincarnation and Karma, you will realize that those people had to do what they had been destined for and move on.

Krishn managed to convince Arjun that it was his duty to fight. ‘Do your duty, and do not worry about the results of your actions’. That was the summary of Krishna’s discourse. But wasn’t Arjun’s original doubt valid? He was worried that his entire family will be destroyed. And by following the advice of Krishna, indeed, his entire family was destroyed. What did Arjun gain from the war? How can you say that do not worry about the consequences? Wasn’t that just a way of lulling Arjun’s mind and compelling him to kill? I do not accept that Krishna was right, just because he was supposed to be an incarnation of God. As I said earlier, rights and wrongs are a very personal matter, but I want to challenge the notion that what Krishna coerced Arjun to do was righteous. In light of the fact that Krishna knew about Karn, he should be treated as an inciter of violence. Why isn’t he? In modern times, a person who incites violence is certainly not judged in a very generous light. Krishna’s arguments fall into the line of ‘kill and you will obtain paradise’. Gandhari rightly cursed Krishna for allowing this war to happen, because he knew everything. Krishna has to be labeled as a fiend. This was obviously recognized even within the story, and his entire clan was punished for it.

Well, I guess Arjuna was not strong enough to defend his stance. I am kidding. However, can you defend all those “righteous” clan when they were not able to honor the agreement made to the Pandavas that after they came back from ‘vanvaas’ they would get their kingdom back? What kind of a clan was this that did not honor their word and supported Duryodhana?

The conclusion I reach from the popular perception of the Mahabharata is that history is always biased on the side of the winner. Even in something as philosophical as the Gita, the crimes of the winners are not questioned.

What crime? Paandavas were only demanding what was promised to them.

The motives of the winners are not questioned. This is what we have been doing throughout history. Look at Alexander. Look at Prophet Mohammed. The problem I have is that this tendency continues on even today. I am absolutely certain, had Hitler won the War, he would have been depicted as one of histories greatest generals. His blitzkriegs would have been recognized as the brilliant tactics. His ruthlessness would have been pardoned. As it is, we do not question the policies of America. Was the carpet bombing of Germany necessary? Did Japan need to be subjected to a nuclear attack?

Let us not mix current policies and politics with Mahabharata. Also, assumptions about what would have happened are really not productive. This is just an illustration of what the Mahabharata has to offer. As a study of ancient literature and its importance in contemporary society, it is a text without equal. That is for sure.



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Created by Sushma Gupta on 05/27/04
Modified on 06/09/11