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Mahabharata: Rational Reading
in the light of Kautilya’s Arthasastra
|by Indrajit Bandyopadhyay|
Alf Hiltebeitel observes:
What Hiltebeitel calls ‘the shadow of an alternative present’, I submit, can not be ‘shadow’, because ‘shadow’ implies the unreal silhouette of the presence of a ‘lighted’ real and concrete entity, i.e. implying, there is a central holistic presence creating shadow presences. In Mahabharata, where is that real and concrete central entity except the presence of Mahabharata itself? And even that presence – i.e. Mahabharata – is a supposition that requires overlooking multiple Mahabharatas. Thus, the presence of a narrative supposed to create a shadow is itself a shadow to a different presence. Every such presence is at best an approximation, and any preferred presence at a particular time yields tentative experience which is like a wave in the vast sea of narrative possibilities provided by the Text and conditional, but not subservient, to different reading of the Text. In other words, multiple narrative possibilities are the possible products of multiple reading possibilities.
In Mahabharata, the name of a character is the ‘only’ certain presence, the real and concrete presence, because such name alone is the only constant throughout the narrative possibilities. All ideas formed about that character, and surrounding that character, i.e. all ideas formed to characterize that character, are actually the products of narratives that are alternative presences, none of which is central. In other words, all narrative possibilities are alternative in relation to each other. To borrow from Derrida, all presences of narrative possibilities are in ‘Free-Play’:
It is also analogous to the nature of a particle in Quantum physics; every quantum particle is both wave and particle, every particle simultaneously exists in the realm of multiple possibilities.
Alf Hiltebeitel notes:
Given the rich textuality and inter-textuality of Mahabharata Text, it is thus possible to derive different narratives from the M-Text, which ‘narrative possibilities’ I will broadly call ‘Alternative Narratives’ and the ‘Reading’ act/s of a person approaching Mahabharata that make/s the Alternative Narratives palpable, I will broadly call Alternative Reading/s.
It is the Language of the Text that makes Alternative Narrative possible, and this possibility in turn is indeed one aspect of the Language of the Text.
Alternative Narratives do need for existence and subsistence Alternative Reading of the Text or some particular way of reading the text other than the ‘usual’ one that produces Dominant Narrative.
‘Alternative Reading’ is by implication to be constantly aware of ‘Dominant Narrative/s’ without being influenced by them. It is to be remembered that ‘Dominant Narrative/s’ is not always the product of reading the Text or conditional to the Text though its root is always in the Text, but it has its own way of emerging into existence and surviving with triumph over multiple possible narratives. The power of ‘Dominant Narrative/s’ is akin to femme fatale or enfant terrible – or a mystery like the human mind, perhaps because its sperm and womb and nurse are the same human mind.
One such Alternative Reading is Rational Reading ‘Rational’ reading of the Text with non-belief in supernatural matters. Such reading prefers ‘rational’ events to ‘supernatural’ events, questions ‘supernatural’ and tries to find rational explanations of ‘supernatural’ events depending on rational clues in the Text itself, or taking into account traditional rational explanations of them as found in ancient Indian texts like Kautilya’s Arthasastra, which rather cynically suggests political use of ‘supernatural’ propaganda for acquiring, retaining and sustaining ‘Power.’
Tradition of Rational Reading of Life in the Text
The Text itself suggests rational approach to life, which I would call ‘Rational Reading’ of Life.
In Mahabharata, the rational philosophy based on the importance of sense perception is stated repeatedly and sometimes emphatically in the voice of none other than K???a.
Once K???a's tells Yudhi??hira:
In Bhi?ma’s discourse to Yudhi??hira Kapila says,
In Ramayana Jabali tells almost the same thing to Rama –
K???a's emphasis on Sense-perception is re-stated in the Dharmasastras. For example, Bauddhayana Dharmasastra states –
Vedas must be interpreted with concern to this worldly result – pratyak?aetavas. The same idea of ‘pratyak?a.hetava?’ is found in Vasi??a Dharmasastra (6.43) and Manu (12. 109). Manu Samhita stresses the importance of vijñana? (4.20) . 
Needless to say, ‘pratyak?aetavas’ and the importance of bodily existence preclude the ‘reality’ of supernatural and mythical.
The idea of rational approach to life giving primary importance to actual experience is indeed one of the central messages of Mahabharata.
‘Rational Reading’ of Life, and Rational Reading of the Text are same.
In Mahabharata, the mythical and rational are not two separate paradigms or separate channels of tradition. Often they overlap, even assume one another’s nature, and often they thrive on each other. It is impossible to determine whether the mythical emerged through the symbols and metaphors of representing the rational/real, or the rational/real transformed into mythical by the natural myth-making logic inherent in human nature.
Mahabharata is itihasa in narrative form and also kavya, thus use of metaphor and symbol is imperative. The association, intermingling and blending of myth and historic event in Mahabharata is both an ‘instant’ process – as when composed by a poet – and also a prolonged process – as when one subsequent poet ‘improves’ upon his predecessor; and this process might be owing to several causes and in several modes, which – though not exhaustive – may be as follows:
In the literary culture too, the tradition of interpreting Mahabharata rationally is well founded in ancient India.
Bhasa  is one of the earliest and most celebrated Indian playwrights in Sanskrit. He does not follow all the dictates of the Natyasastra, which shows either he was pre-BharataMuni, or his genius was like the much latter Renaissance dramatists of England who ‘violated’ Aristotle’s poetics.
Bhasa’s Uru-Bhanga and Kar?a-bhara are the only known tragic Sanskrit plays in ancient India. Duryodhana is the actual hero in Uru-Bhanga shown repenting his past as he lies awaiting death with his thighs crushed. His relations with his family are shown with great pathos. Bhasa’s Kar?a-bhara ends with the premonitions of the sad end of Kar?a. Though Natyasastra strictly considers sad endings inappropriate, Bhasa is the pioneer of interpreting Mahabharata as tragedy of Duryodhana and Kar?a. 
Coming to Bengal, Bankimchandra is the pioneer of reading Mahabharata rationally, he says: ‘We will not believe in whatever is mythical or supernatural (yähä atiprakõt vä anaisargika tähäte ämrä biçväs korbo nä).’ 
He considers that the Text has three layers; the first is the ‘primary skeleton (adim kankala),’ which he supposes to be of 24, 000 slokas; the second layer has high poetry, but it is mythical, supernatural and consists of philosophic elements, and it preaches K???a as God or Vi??u; and the third layer has been interpolated for centuries, and it consists mostly of the didactic matters and description of pilgrimages. Bankim Chandra rejects the second and third layers from the rational discussion of Mahabharata because ‘whatever is not in the first layer, if seen in the second and third layer, we must reject them as non-historical narratives of poetic imagination (kavikalpita anaitihäsika võttänta).’  (Translation from Bengali – Author).
Kautilya and Rational Reading
In my opinion, the most important and precious traditiona of Rational Reading of Mahabharata is to be found in Kautilya’s Arthasastra. Kautilya mentions Yudhi??hira and Duryodhana and the dice game, other than regarding ‘itihasa Veda’ at par with the three Vedas –
Kautilya defines ‘itihasa’ as – ‘Pura?a, Itivritta (history), Akhyayika (tales), Udahara?a (illustrative stories), Dharmasastra, and Arthasastra are (known by the name) Itihasa -
Undoubtedly, Kautilya’s Arthasastra shows heavy influence of Mahabharata in formulation of policies.
One ‘Alternative Reading’ would be, then, to read the Text following Kautilya’s tradition – which for the convenience of understanding and reference, I will call ‘rational and cynical’ tradition. However, this ‘rational and cynical’ tradition is only contextual to the ‘ruling class’ of ancient India, and how the ‘ruling class’ exercised, grasped, retained and sustained power by using and manipulating general belief in God and supernatural powers.
Kautilya takes a very rational and even cynical approach to the rulers’ belief of God and supernatural power of God, and the ruler’s attitude to Love. To him, the ruling class believes in only one God – ‘Power’, so that general belief in God and supernatural, and even Love and sexual attraction can be used and manipulated to suit political ends as part of ‘diplomatic art’ of the ‘ruling class.’
For example, he suggests –
Kicaka-vadha may be interpreted in the light of this dictum.
Draupadi was certainly not a harlot, but to Kicaka she should have appeared so, as despite being a married woman (which Kicaka knew) she agreed to have sexual intercourse with him at the dancing hall of Virata at night.
Draupadi lures Kicaka with the hope of love and sex to the dancing hall and gets him killed by Bhima who acts as the ‘fiery spy’ in this respect.
It is only the absolute belief in the Godness and goodness of the Pa??ava and Draupadi that resists such interpretation. But Vyasa, the ??i and poet has never intended to show the absolute Godness and goodness of any of his characters.
It is to be remembered that the ‘rational’ and ‘cynical’ tradition has its root in the Mahabharata.
The freedom of ‘ruling class’ to do whatever it likes, which includes the ‘power to interpret’ has been pronounced by none other than Bhi?ma, Vyasa and most interestingly by Draupadi.
Bhi?ma once reveals the true nature of ‘bala’ (power) and Dharma and their mutual relationship in a Kuru Sabha witnessing Draupadi’s humiliation thus –
Almost in similar vein, Vyasa once tells Kunti –
In Vana Parva, Draupadi says to Yudhi??hira –
Draupadi does not see any benign aspect in God’s ‘maya’; the purpose seems to her to be slaughter. Death seems to be her to be God’s only game. If this is her cynicism to the power of God and belief in God’s absolute benignly, she goes yet further on to show the power of ‘Power’- that presages Foucault -
In the light of these utterances, it is thus possible to see Kicaka’s death as a ‘political murder’ devised by Draupadi by using her sexuality. To the believer in absolute goodness of Draupadi, this reading would naturally seem outrageous.
Then again it is to be remembered that Draupadi is called Saci-incarnate in the Text, and one important action of Saci as narrated in Mahabharata is the destruction of Nahu?a through use of her sexuality. If Draupadi is Saci then she must be everything that Saci represents. Indeed, Draupadi bears much resemblance with Saci of ?g Veda. 
The Rig Vedic hymn 10.86 is a unique ‘dramatic monologue’ in Saci’s persona. With reference to this Sukta, E. Washburn Hopkins observes – ‘(Indra’s) wife is the most lascivious of women.’ The myth of Draupadi being Saci is therefore a rational and logical indicator that she indeed could use her sexuality for political ends. (For further on the Saci-Draupadi link, see my "Fall of Draupadi and the Pandavas: Upanishadic Significance" )
This again prompts the reading that establishing the Pa??ava and Draupadi in Godhood and absolute goodness might be one ploy (though we cannot be sure whose ploy it is – Vyasa’s, Vaisa?payana’s, Ugrasrava’s or some later pro-Pa??ava poets’) to create the necessary ‘resistance’ to thwart ‘rational’ and ‘cynical’ interpretation of Draupadi’s conduct.
Another example from Kautilya’s dictum will make things even clearer:
Men posing as Gods, spies coming through tunnels to stand in the midst of fire altar, use of magicians to proclaim association with gods, in other words, using an expert propaganda machinery by the ‘ruling class’ all for creating the illusion of superior power, retaining and sustaining power – in the light of these, several ‘events’ in Mahabharata may be explained, for example, the birth of Pandava from Gods, Draupadi and Dh???adyumna’s birth from sacrificial altar, the miracle involved in Duryodhana’s birth, Jayadratha’s getting boon from Siva, and even K???a’s visvarupa in Kuru court.
The fascination with Mythical and supernatural and prioritizing them over rational and humane is perhaps a social construct of the ‘big fishes’ to manipulate mass psyche and compel inculcation of ideologies and belief-systems with the aim to perpetuate Matsyanyayam as a one-directional system through a process of naturalization by agencies from all domains of society. It is sustained by Ideological and Repressive State Apparatus – as pointed out by Althuser - where ‘small fishes’ would never be able to turn Matsyanyayam in their favour.
Kautilya in Arthasastra has shown this process, the agencies, and acts of transfer in vivid details.
In the light of Kautilya, it is understandable, how many Brahma?as and ??is acted as the agencies of political propaganda.
If we have a giant like Kautilya in our ancient tradition, it is really amazing, surprising and shocking, why even in the 21st century – the so-called ‘post-modern age’- readers, performers and interpreters of Mahabharata continue to view Mahabharata as mythical and supernatural narrative.
Instead of being a believer of Hinduism of the Dh?tara??ra-brand, I think it is time we remember and follow our glorious rational tradition in understanding ancient literature like Mahabharata.
Undoubtedly, Rational Reading needs courage, and it is indeed a road – to use Robert Frost’s famous words – ‘less traveled by.’
I think, in the glorious forest called Mahabharata, choosing the ‘less traveled by’ do make all the difference -
I firmly believe that way would be the appropriate way to pay tribute and homage to ‘real’ Hinduism.
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