Book Reviews

My Life and The Message of Mahabharata

Today the review table has two significant publications on hand. Both of them are sumptuous. One quickens our interest by the author's name, Bill Clinton; the other, by the never-flagging subject of the Pandava-Kaurava conflict, theMahabharata. Since Clinton's autobiography has much to say about the Republican-Democrat feud being as virulent as the Kaurava-Pandava confrontation, and the Mahabharata itself has plenty of Clinton-like characters, I guess I am right in taking them together.

American Presidency has always been in the news but then Bill Clinton as President was a sizzler. Towards the end of his garrulous memoirs titled My Life, Clinton says that he had enjoyed every part of his life and was always 'absorbed, interested, and found something useful to do.' He continues to do so and has certainly done a useful job of letting us know how the American President goes on amid a million pressures of governance. The talented Clinton added to the problems by his own lack of discipline. But then, he admitted his idiocy though it was no easy job to face the baying opposition, the headline-hunting Press and the Congressional hearings. Clinton escaped impeachment and his wife Hillary saved their marriage. Not yet sixty, we can safely assert that Clinton is no spent force in American life.

Born a posthumous child, Clinton was brought up with love by his mother and her family. When she married again, the stepfather also loved him. Indeed, we will not find anyone hating Clinton in this narrative, except his political foes. They had reason to, for Clinton had a way of zooming beyond them even through disasters. He confesses that 'I was both a political animal and a policy wonk, always eager to meet new people and explore new ideas.' An eager student, he wished to enter politics, and consciously prepared himself for it by competing for a Rhodes Scholarship. He wrote to the committee that he wished 'to prepare for the life of a practicing politician' and that with the help of the two year-study in the Oxford University he could 'mould an intellect that can stand the pressures of political life.'

Clinton's political career began as a worker in Senator Fullbright's reelection campaign in Arkansas. He even acted as the Senator's driver for a few days. After Yale Law School, the irrepressible Clinton began his political innings by becoming the Governor of Arkansas. There was no looking back for him as he fought election after election to remain in the saddle for five terms, and finally became the President of America for two terms that ended in 2000.

The record of these eventful years has few dull moments. With his mother marrying four times and father thrice, and a large extended family, Clinton has no dearth of material that can help him indulge in verbalizing a whirl of events, bring to order a lot of criss-cross relationships and life-long friendships. And there is the presence of wife Hillary and daughter Chelsea to act as icing to the cake. For Clinton is capable of making even a botched-up television appearance interesting by quoting the Washington Post which dubbed his speech as Windy Clinty's Classic Clinker. One could almost exclaim: Unsinkable Clinton! His reserves of self-assurance can be almost disconcerting. As when his first Presidential speech was brushed aside by commentators. But he couldn't care less and records:

'I felt good about it. It had flashes of eloquence, it was clear, it said we were going to reduce the deficit while increasing critical investments in our future, and it challenged the American people to do more to help those in need and to heal our divisions. Mind it was short, the third-shortest inaugural address in history, after Lincoln/s second inaugural, the greatest of them all, and Washington's second speech, which lasted less than two minutes.'

So characteristic of Clinton, getting himself in focus with Washington and Lincoln. As he had brushed through his way as a student to be photographed with President Kennedy by putting his hand out at the right time. As we see him again and again through the autobiography. 

The power of the media in the democratic process is almost frightening when we read the book. Investigative reporting has its importance for getting at truth but it can succumb to the weakness of blowing up the trivial. One has to be alert all the time as for instance when Clinton's last minute return shot at Sheffield Nelson gave him a fifth term as the Governor of Arkansas. There is then the enormous money-power that is needed for a Presidential campaign. An election-bird who knows about all the slithery movements within the body politic, still Clinton finds the democratic process an inexplicable mystery:

'For me, election days have always embodied the great mystery of democracy. No matter how hard pollsters and pundits try to demystify it, the mystery remains. It is the one day when the ordinary citizen has as much power as the millionaire and the President. Some people use it and some don't. Those who do, choose candidates for all kinds of reasons, some rational, some intuitive, some with certainty, others skeptically. Somehow, they usually pick the right leader for the times; that's why America is still around and doing well after more than 228 years.'

American Presidency today means world news for it is involved in almost every part of the globe. All of it is here, and in this sense, Clinton's autobiography is strikingly educative: The Middle-East, the Bosnian Conflict, the global monetary crisis of 1997, Haiti, Afghanistan, Mexico, Korea, Iraq, to name but a few. Al Quaida and Osama Bin Laden are also present. There is then the domestic front with serious charges and court cases like the Whitewater scandal. And a whole band of issues, serious and trivial. Can the Army admit gays? Did the President get an expensive haircut while travelling? How to curb gun-toting violence in schools? Should America train Pakistani troops as commandos to get bin Laden in Afghanistan? All this to be managed while contending against Whitehouse leakages to the press. And, of course Clinton had the additional problem of facing sexual exploitation charges. Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones and the high-visibility Monica Lewinsky. Perhaps it was an orchestrated right-wing conspiracy, perhaps not. Clinton's conclusion is characteristic: 'I almost wound up being grateful to my tormentors: they were probably the only people who could have made me look good to Hillary again.' Oh yes, nothing succeeds like success and nothing fails like excess either! Clinton's self-searchings and absorption in Christian literature during this period make compulsive reading. 

Can there be a richer tapestry than an American President's life in the closing years of the twentieth century? For that we go back by several millennia with the help of Justice Kodandaramayya to The Message of Mahabharata. What have we done of our great heritage in the so called secular state of India? Justice Kodandaramayya says: 'We know in the United States of America the President takes oath on Bible and benediction follows 'Now, having given fundamental rights to the minority community, we have reached a state that we cannot make a prayer in Parliament.' This kind of turning away from the strengthening spiritual sources of India's past and the wisdom of religious scriptures gifted by the Vedic stream, Jainism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam has brought pain to the Justice who is certain that a reading of the epic Mahabharata will actually promote mutual understanding and national harmony.

The volume has been planned as a series of critical essays on various aspects of the epic. The first part deals with the accumulated knowledge of the race regarding cosmology, geography, science, mythology and philosophy. The second part describes the concepts that regulate civilized life (Pravritti Dharma) like rules of good conduct, statecraft, varnasrama dharma, pilgrimages, punya and paapa. The third and last part teaches us about the spiritual values fostered in this land from ancient times. These include Nivritti Dharma like Viveka and Vairagya, concepts such as Atma and Moksha, the highly evolved image worship in religion, and the final message of Veda Vyasa, known as Bharata Savitri: 'With uplifted arms I am crying aloud, but nobody hears me. From Dharma originate profit and pleasure. Why should not Dharma, therefore, be sought?' All these subjects are brought to us in easily assimilable quantities by Justice Kodandaramayya.

Time-tested wisdom stares at us all the time. The verse satyam bhruyat, priyam bhruyat, for instance:

'Not to speak at all is better than speaking. Secondly, if you have to speak, tell the truth. Thirdly, if you have to speak the truth, speak what is agreeable; and, fourthly, if you have to speak what is agreeable, speak what is conducive to morality.'

Then there is the Vyasan way of giving a lesson to the King directing his Finance Minister: 'The king should be careful in collecting taxes. A person who wants milk should not cut the udder of the cow. As the bee gathers honey from flowers gradually, the king should follow the rule of a flower vendor and not that of a charcoal maker.'

A gist of the eighteen Parvas is given as also essays on the main characters. Justice Kodandaramayya does not fail to note the shortcomings of the saintly Yudhistira well known as Punya Sloka, who had a weakness for gambling and was prone to anger. Almost at every turn we are confronted with the problem of right and wrong in the Mahabharata; and hence, as Sri Aurobindo said, Veda Vyasa's subject is one of practical ethics. Not merely an imagined legend, but a lesson to the common man in leading a life of dharma. The stress is on action, the bold confrontation of moral problems, the avoidance of moral turpitude, the need for a generosity of understanding. Speaking of the essence of the epic, the author says:

Maryadayam sthito dharmah: Keeping oneself within bounds is DharmaSamaschaivasya Lakshanam ' self-control is its essence. Secondly, he (Veda Vyasa) summed up the theory of dharma in practice thus: That which is antagonistic to one's own self should never be done in respect of another. Briefly this is dharma.' 

Such is the universal lesson of Veda Vyasa's Itihasa.


More by :  Dr. Prema Nandakumar

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