Emily T. Hudson: Disorienting Dharma—Ethics and the Aesthetics of Suffering in the Mahabharata, Oxford University Press, New York, 2013, pp.268
In the religions in translation series of the American Academy of Religion, Hudson puts forward a challenging and radically new view of the Mahabharata (MBH), not as a great paean to Dharma, but as a carefully crafted investigation questioning the very efficacy of Dharma in resolving the existential problem of human suffering. Instead of concentrating on “disembowelling the text,” which was the earlier approach of Germanic scholarship, current Occidental scholarship on MBH treats it with respect, seeking to attend to what it has to say about itself. It is no longer considered a bewildering chaotic mass, but a literary masterpiece carrying a moral and religious message. In David Shulman’s telling words which Hudson quotes, “…it refuses to view itself as a bounded text; it is not a representation of the world; it is the world…wherever its story is told or heard becomes the Mahabharata. Thus the text never really ends nor does it begin; existence is the Mahabharata.”
What distinguishes MBH from the Ramayana is its riddling nature. Repeatedly it poses questions that are never fully resolved. Instead, they lead to new problems, right till the very end which poses the puzzle: whose is heaven and whose is hell? Most of the poseurs concern predestination vis-à-vis human effort, daiva vs. purushkara. Why is Draupadi, the heroine, referred to so often as Panchali, a puppet (of divine design)? Does following dharma lead to happiness? If not, why should it be followed? Who, or what, causes the devastation of the Kurukshetra war, which makes Sheldon Pollock call its story, “the most harrowing in world literature”? How is it a righteous war, dharma-yuddha, at all? No wonder Shulman describes it as “a coherence of doubt and ambiguous riddles.” Hudson asserts that there is an ongoing dialectic between Dharma and Duhkha (suffering), but in claiming that Vyasa brings the audience time and again “to the brink of meaninglessness and then, instead of receding from it, it toys with pushing them over the precipice,” she exaggerates.
Hudson finds that MBH stresses the necessity for passing beyond one’s individual agony to accepting the fact that suffering is a universal phenomenon. An example of this is the repetition of the account of sixteen great rulers of the past who, despite all their magnificence, died. In this, MBH is by no means alone. The same world-view is echoed in the Old English poems, “The Wanderer” and “Deor’s Lament,” with the recurring refrain, “That passed away; so will this.” Suffering stupefies the mind, which then takes wrong decisions, leading to further sorrow. The persuasion is in favour of distancing oneself from personal angst and moving on, if not to serenity, at least to stoicism. However, does this work for, say, the slaughter of Abhimanyu or of Dhritarashtra’s 100 sons? Nowhere, as Hudson asserts, does Sauti declare that having listened to MBH, one will not despair even in the worst circumstances. Actually, he celebrates the salvific nature of the work: one having faith and pursuing dharma will be freed of defects on reading MBH.
The social force behind this obsessive concern with the problem of dharma is the challenge posed to Vedic sacrifices as winning Swarga and bringing welfare in society by the renunciant doctrines emerging around the 5th century BCE (the Ajivikas, Buddhists and Jains). At the core of these were ahimsa and abandoning samsara to attain liberation. Even in these new doctrines there was a conflict between the Buddhist and Jain belief that suffering was the consequence of human acts (karma) and that of the Ajivikas who attributed it to fate (daiva). MBH engages with both issues, but provides no resolution. The central figure in this investigation into the conflict between dharma and duhkha, proposes Hudson, is Dhritarashtra, whose lament occupies the first chapter, beginning with Draupadi’s marriage and ending with Ashvatthama’s killing Parikshit in the womb.
Arguing that MBH deals with the aesthetics of suffering, Hudson necessarily deals at length with Anandavardhana’s assertion in Dhvanyaloka that the text’s predominant rasa is shanta, serenity. Underlying it is the emotion of vairagya, detachment from things of the world. He specifically cites the sad end of the Yadavas and the Pandavas. From the gambling match onwards, there is only suffering and more suffering for the Pandavas. Is Vyasa exposing the futility of human endeavour? It is this goal of attaining serenity by cultivating detachment that lends unity to the massive corpus of the text. Hudson argues that it is not the transience of material objects that is highlighted but, rather, the egotism that renders us vulnerable to grief over losses that are the inevitable result of kala, time. Hudson quotes Irish Murdoch who, in The Sovereignty of Good, ascribes our blindness to the truth of the human condition to “the fat relentless ego,” which daydreams and fantasises. For appreciating this shanta rasa, said the commentator Abhinavagupta, a sensitive audience (sahridaya) is essential that will focus not only on what the text is saying, but how it is being said. Thus, a dynamic ebb-and-flow is created between form and content. The expectations of the audience are aroused about certain characters, only to be brought up short later. This makes the audience stand back and think about the feelings that the text had aroused in them for “meta-reflection.” The model audience follows the text’s dhvani (suggestions) to fill in the gaps that it leaves, for it cannot say everything about the world.
Hudson focuses on two types of situations: where characters face dilemmas and make a bad decision owing to mental confusion; and the resultant calamity because of which they are earither incapacitated by grief from taking positive action, or take further bad decisions leading to more suffering. Dhritarashtra is the prime example of how one knows the right thing to do but repeatedly does not do it. Crises are what typify the MBH scenario, which strips away the mental constructs that prevent us from realising the truth of universal suffering. It does this by providing not positive role models, but noble characters who take bad decisions and suffer terribly. Here failures are the route to learn how to live. For instance, after Duryodhana’s humiliation in Maya’s hall, the description of his intense agony shows the Pandavas in the negative role, arousing sympathy for him as the victim. This also enables us to understand his future conduct, based upon mental confusion caused by envy of the Pandava wealth. That, in turn, leads to the wrong decision regarding the gambling match: victory at any cost becomes an obsession. Dhritarashtra’s speech at the end of the dice game focuses on the mind as the root of misfortune, for it makes the right act appear fruitless and the wrong one fruitful. Suffering breeds confusion worse confounded. Yudhishthira’s behaviour in this episode distances us from the dharma-raja. He cannot be our moral beacon through the confusion. Moreover, both Dhritarashtra and Yudhishthira state that the world is controlled by fate, which is why one sanctioned the gambling and the other accepted the summons to it.
As an instance of extreme suffering, Hudson takes up Draupadi’s predicament in the gambling match, which Nancy Falk has described as, “a sequence of the most intense insults to be found anywhere in the literature of the world.” The presuppositions underlying concepts such as “queen,” “wife,” “husband” and “daughter-in-law” no longer make sense as all the boundaries categorising them are smashed. The situation is exacerbated by the silence of the elders—learned Brahmins as well as eminent Kshatriyas—when Draupadi poses a question. This distances the audience from them as authorities on dharma. Is it the very subtlety of dharma that stands in the way? Does the silence of the elders indicate a state of serenity born of detachment, as Hudson’s thesis would propose? Or, is it the cowardice of courtiers, silent because the king does not censure Duryodhana? This silence is what creates dhvani, suggestion, in the perception of the sensitive audience. What protects a person from sudden oppression and how does one behave in such a world? If dharma does not, then why should one pursue it? Is that why Vyasa closes MBH with a despairing cry, “Why is dharma not practised?” Or, following Hudson’s suggestion, is dharma to be followed “for the sake of nothing,” analogous to the concept of doing karma for its own sake?
Hudson provides a fine analysis of blind Dhritarashtra’s paradoxical “eyesight of insight.” Indeed, as J.P. Sinha has said, Sanskrit literature does not depict the suffering of any other character at such length. Gandhari’s intense anguish is concentrated in the Stri Parva, but her husband’s extends all through the text. Further, the blind monarch is at once the agent and the victim of suffering. It is he who receives the most advice on how to overcome grief. How he responds, again, shapes the audience’s learning. Dhritarashtra states that the bewildered Duryodhana bewildered him, because of which he took wrong decisions. All along, he sees clearly what should be done, but never does. By making most of the advice about right action come to him from Vidura, who is dharma-incarnate, is Vyasa showing the futility of the dharmic way? Hudson does not comment if it climaxes in the manner of Vidura’s death, roaming naked in the forest, insane, starving to death? Or is that a slanted hit at the Jaina path?
On the other hand, Sanjaya, urges the blind king to remain calm and not despair while listening to his war-reports because one is not the agent of one’s good or evil acts, but is manipulated like a puppet by divinity, or by past karma. Here, Hudson replaces Sanjaya’s “according to others, man is free to choose his destiny,” by “some are assigned by chance,” which is tendentious, to say the least, and calls in question her assertion that Sanjaya is suggesting that human effort is “severely if not completely limited.” Sanjaya is merely putting forward the different opinions prevalent regarding human agency, one of which asserts free-will. In his reporting, Sanjaya’s responses to Dhritarashtra have a single aim, viz. to direct him away from wallowing in despair towards fortitude. Hudson commits another error on page 129 in stating that Bhishma’s fall is the source of Dhritarashtra’s grief in the Shalyaparva, whereas it is the death of Duryodhana that is the cause.
By using the narrative technique of flashback—each of Sanjaya’s war-books begins with the death of the general and then goes back to relate how it happened—all events are projected as leading inevitably to the hero’s death. The present, therefore, is rooted in the past as its future. This realisation is reinforced by the technique of switching between the result (war) and the cause (Dhritarashtra’s agency) repeatedly.
Three arguments are advanced against grieving. Sanjaya’s point is that as the king was the agent of the wrong decisions, he ought not to wallow in negative grief, but act. This fails to convince Dhritarashtra about his responsibility for the calamity. Then Vidura presents time’s destructive nature and the cycle of rebirth hinging on sensory desire. The way out is to control the mind and the self. That leads to Dhritarashtra fainting, unable to face the nature of existence. The audience can recognise themselves in these reactions to suffering. Now Vyasa steps in and tells him that since the devas had engineered this war in order to relieve the earth of its burden he should abandon despair and reconcile with the Pandavas. This is accepted by the blind monarch. Gandhari presents the contrast because her lament is not just for her sons, but also for all those who have been slain. That, Hudson suggests, is the proper response to calamity. Sorrow is a universal phenomenon, not an isolated, individual experience.
This realisation is reinforced by the doctrine of time, kalavada, which is a recurring theme in MBH, first enunciated in the very first chapter by Sanjaya. It is time that creates and destroys, sparing none. It is cyclical, implying inevitable rebirth and suffering, and brings about what is fated. It is juxtaposed with fate and the doctrine of karma vis-à-vis human effort and divinity. It causes grief and despair, which cloud discernment leading to wrong decisions. Wisdom that realises and accepts the transience of life ceases to be terrorised by the ravages of time. Hudson presents a very interesting discussion on four kinds of time: the doctrine; the sequential nature; how characters experience it and how the audience experiences it. For instance, stories merge into one another regardless of temporal boundaries. In the very first book, Pramati tells Ruru the story of the snake sacrifice which occurs three generations in the future! The narrative technique both collapses time and stretches it by reducing the tempo. These lead the audience through shock, horror and despair to cultivating distance and stoicism. Giving way to grief and rage at the ravages of time leads to acts that multiply similar situations which climax in destruction. Cultivating what Milton called “calm of mind, all passion spent,” appears to be the only solution. Otherwise, the predicament is that which overtook the serpents:
“They fondly thinking to allay
Their appetite with gust, instead of fruit
Chewed bitter ashes,”
Tasting the “bitter tastelessness of shadow fruit,” (T.S. Eliot). Hudson proposes that it is because of this that in the last book the text evinces no shock or grief at the sudden deaths of Draupadi and four Pandavas.
Where does dharma feature in this? Divinity (Krishna) appears to collaborate with time to restore dharma (the greater good), to relieve earth of its burden, to usher in the next yuga and, finally, being powerless to stop the war because of the intransigence of Duryodhana. Similarly, despite Balarama and Krishna’s joint efforts, they cannot prevent and actually participate in the fratricidal massacre of their clan. Strangely enough, Hudson does not discuss this. The question remains: how much suffering is acceptable for the triumph of dharma? MBH provides no answer. Hudson presents an excellent analysis of the final book showing how Yudhishthira’s experiences in “heaven” shatter all pre-conceptions about why dharma is practised, as he finds his virtuous wife and brothers in hell and the wicked Duryodhana in heaven! Then, the distinction between the two is revealed to be a trick. So, are we confident that, at the end, Yudhishthira is really in Swarga? We are distanced from the narrative as it ends, just as we were at the beginning when Yudhishthira, unmoved by the deaths of his wife and brothers, continued climbing up the mountain with a dog for company.
When Yudhishthira says, “This is not Swarga,” and Karna in despair exclaims, “dharma never protects,” they are referring to a paradigm in which dharma is practised for the sake of a positive result in this life and the next. Manusmriti (8.15) enshrines this succinctly: dharma eva hato hanti dharmo rakshati rakshitah (Indeed, dharma destroyed, destroys; dharma protected, protects). It is this concept that is questioned. According to Hudson, the text is suggesting that such a presumption prevents us from realising the reality that suffering is universal. From the violation of Draupadi onwards, everyone strives to find a world where dharma is meaningful despite the presence of unjustified suffering. Even divinity, in the form of Krishna, cannot stem the tide of suffering that swells to engulf his own clan and finally himself as an agent. Perhaps, Krishna is not a victim, being absorbed in yoga in his last moments?
The aesthetics of suffering reveals not what dharma is but what it is not. After all, the two key virtues that it extols, ahimsa (non-injury) and anrishamsya (non-cruelty) are both negative! Conventional ideas about dharma have to be cast aside for “a wider experience of dharma,” which “entails active participation in the presence of radical unmerited suffering.” One has to practise dharma not for any personal benefit, but for its own sake by cultivating detachment leading to serenity and liberation from the world of suffering.
Hudson’s thesis is that by creating expectations and delivering the opposite, the text creates a rupture that forces us to examine our hopes and fears, our desperation to reach a rationale for suffering so that we can avoid confronting it. Thereby a space for “meta-reflection” is created and the audience is steered towards the text’s goal, which Abhinavagupta stated is “knowledge of reality.” The greatness of MBH as a work of art inheres in it not providing a monolithic solution, but leaving the resolution open-ended in Vyasa’s closing outcry:-
I lift up my hands and I shout,
But no one listens!
From dharma come profit and pleasure;
Why is dharma not practised?
However, Hudson does not succeed in explaining why one should practise dharma for its own sake. If it leads to liberation from samsara, where is the validation for it in the MBH? On the other hand, does the MBH not present an existentialist view of the world where seeking a rationale for suffering is meaningless and the salvific paradigm of dharma absurd?
“Between the idea
And the reality…
Falls the shadow.”—T.S. Eliot
A shorter version was published in the 8th Day literary supplement of The Sunday Statesman dated 1st May 2016