Literary Shelf

Presence of The Mahabharata

in Contemporary Political Narration and Literature

On 10th February, 2015, an interesting article came on the website of Reuters, The Mahabharata to be Retold on Twitter from Bhima’s Viewpoint. The Mahabharata has amazing scope for adaptation, change and twist. Scholars, intellectuals, politicians and common men have made full use of the epic. The epic, its characters, themes, situations, illustrations, lessons, parallels and implications have been fully relished, accepted and enjoyed in India. People love giving an example from The Mahabharata and people also immediately grasp the flavor of the message with these examples.

Since Indians love politics and political discourse so much, this field cannot remain untouched by The Mahabharata narrative. Our Indian society is highly politicized. People understand their democratic rights very well. The political process has percolated down to the bottom. Elections are a constant feature of India’s life. National elections, state elections, and elections to the local bodies- all elections are fought with utmost fervor and fever. The war analogy can never be too far in such a scenario. Passions run high. Everybody is interested in proceedings of the parliament and uttering of our politicians. References to Mahabharata are inevitable. A study of political discourse reveals how deep the idea of this epic goes into the Indian psyche. It will also be interesting to see how novels, plays and poems have been shaped around this epic, narrating the political tale of our times.

As we have said, The Mahabharata is the bedrock of Indian consciousness. It is an important building block of the collective social psyche of India. Since it has become a part of the social mind, Indians forever try to interpret contemporary political and social scenes in terms of The Mahabharata. The above mentioned article is about Chindu Sreedharan who started retelling The Mahabharata on Twitter in 2009. It took him more than four years and nearly 2700 tweets to complete his series, Epic Retold. The book was later published in book form. It is India’s first twitter fiction. The most interesting thing about this venture is that it is written from the perspective of Bhima. The writer says that it is an effort to pass a camel through the eye of a needle. The longest epic of the world is being retold in 140 characters at a time on twitter. It is challenging and interesting. The bitter, poignant and devastating story of war, The Mahabharata is fiercely told to spread the message of futility of war. A fine reinterpretation by the current generation, Epic Retold makes a strong statement against contemporary wars. (1)

Sreedharan says, ‘War narratives were of academic interest to me. And in a rather reductionist way, I had begun to see The Mahabharata as a war story. From that vantage point, I could see the story line offered plenty of ‘conflict’, plenty of opportunity for dramatic tension… There was also the irony and challenge - of fitting the world’s longest epic into a micro-blogging site…Bhimsen would be my main inspiration. Its episodic format lends itself to Twitter nicely. It is closest to what I have in mind.
‘I kept questions of fidelity - what liberties I would take with the original storyline of The Mahabharata - at bay with a simple thought: This was not reimagining The Mahabharata, but reimagining The Mahabharata for Twitter.

‘And as with any adaptation, the changes required to the original - and I was certain there would be some - would be medium-specific. In other words, Twitter would be the lord of my revisionism! I liked that very much.’ (2)

Here, the medium is contemporary and the final message is also contemporary. There is a post-modern tendency to shift the centre. Bhima’s viewpoint is refreshing. The side effects of war are highlighted and that is again very contemporary.

Whenever we have an election, politicians try to identify with one of the five brothers, Pandavas and try to paint opponents as Duryodhana or one of his ninety nine Kaurava brothers. Fighting election campaigns and drawing The Mahabharata analogies go hand in hand.

The society that is depicted in The Mahabharata is a very rich and colorful mix of languages, cultures, rulers and regions. The epic lists about four hundred persons. The royal culture easily slips into tribal culture and there is no rupture in narration. Tribes are a part and parcel of the fabric of life depicted in The Mahabharata. The epic does not draw a difference between caste and creed. The rich tapestry of life allures the readers, listeners and viewers alike. The epic is breathing in the masses of India. Nehru wrote, ‘Everywhere I found a cultural background which had exerted a powerful influence on their lives. This background was a mixture of popular philosophy, tradition, history, myth, and legend and it was not possible to draw a line between any of these. Even the entirely uneducated and illiterate shared this background. The old epics of India, The Ramayana and The Mahabharata and other books, in popular translations and paraphrases, were widely known among the masses and every incident and story and the moral in them was engraved on the popular mind and gave a richness and content to it. Illiterate villagers would know hundreds of verses by heart and their conversation would be full of references to them or to some story with a moral, enshrined in some old classic.’(3)

An interesting experiment with The Mahabharata has been carried out in Nepal where Sarwanam Theatre has been staging ‘Sakuni Pasaharu’ or ‘Sakuni’s Dice’ , a play by Ashish Malla for decades. These youths staged their very first performance in 1981. The play revolves around the allegorical figure of Sakuni, the famous trickster from The Mahabharata epic, who is known to have made the Kaurava brothers fight deadly battles among themselves. The Mahabharata is a source of stories for theatre directors and writers of both South Asia and the West. Adherence to the storyline of the epic is considered to be the norm among writers and directors. Any deviation from the norm would be considered an unacceptable digression carrying a veiled sacrilegious intention. Such accusations become even more prominent if it is written or used by Western playwrights and directors. Peter Brook, an English theatre director and experimentalist, is widely known for performing a nine-hour long The Mahabharata drama. His Mahabharata is a cosmopolitan play, which he performed on a lovely yet non-descript chalk-rock face in d'Avignon in Southern France. Rustom Bharucha, a Bengali theatre scholar, has critiqued Brook for violating others' culture in this manner. But several Indian scholars have other ideas.

In fact, no one owns The Mahabharata. As an open society, everyone is free to interpret and reinterpret the epic in whichever way one wants. It is only when texts are openly experimented that they live. When something becomes too sacred, it becomes untouchable; it starts decaying. Reinterpretation of epics is welcome in every sense of the word.

Ashesh Malla's Shakuni Pasaharu is a complete flip of The Mahabharata story. As the play opens, we see a game of dice going on in a somewhat tense but intriguing atmosphere. It is a metatheatrical use of The Mahabharata episode with massive intervention by the playwright. Yudhisthira, who loses the game of dice in The Mahabharata, is sitting with his brother Arjuna, facing Sakuni and Duryodhana — son of Sakuni's sister who is condemned to marry a blind king, Dhritrashtra. Yudhisthira tells Duryodhana and Sakuni in a somewhat loud voice that he is familiar with The Mahabharata story involving the insult of Draupadi, the common wife of the Pandava brothers. Then the story is given a contemporary political twist. Yudhisthira proposes Duryodhana to be prepared for an election instead of a battle. After the election date is announced, Yudhisthira and Arjuna convince Sakuni, the principal player of politics, to desert Duryodhana and join their ranks by promising him important ministerial berths and lucrative projects. Sakuni joins their party. Consequently, Yudhisthira wins the elections, leaving Duryodhana burning in the flames of betrayal and humiliation. But the election does not make any difference to the people wailing in the background. Finally, Dhritrashtra throws off his royal robe and declares that he, Om Mani Sharma, needs none of these. He would be happier living with his modest income, mainly his pension from Nepal Bank Limited.

Ashesh Malla, the writer and director, drives his meaning home by dismantling the normative mythopoetic use of The Mahabharata. He told me that he wrote this play to express his disillusionment with the greed for money and hunger for power among Nepali politicians, who interestingly believe in the electoral system. Malla's argument is that the binary between good Yudhisthira and wicked Duryodhana does not exist anymore. Yudhisthira can successfully play Duryodhana and Sakuni can change his allegiances according to the perks he receives. This playwright's vision has been dramatized at a time when election, not armed contestation, has been deeply rooted in South Asia.

Nepali elections too mark a tremendous shift in politics. And the Indian election, projecting a party representing a rightwing wave in India, has created ripples among India's neighbors. But tomorrow's political scene may be unpredictably theatrical. There are reasons to believe that the Indian elections bring important changes. The politics of Nepal is affected by Indian politics. Nepal too may encounter dramatic turns that nobody can predict yet. As the play projects, elections may change political alliances but the misery, insecurity, poverty and uncertainty in the lives of the common majority will remain constant as long as the Sakuni allegory remains dominant in politics. The negative dialectic between political principles and the fate of the common people, the director believes, evinces the dramatic change.

The metatheatrical intervention of the playwright, a good performance by the actors, the effective but minimalist scenography, all provide ample room for the imagination of the audience, who carry their own political ideas into the theatre, to play freely. The performance was like a canvas with effective swaths of brush work in the actions of the actors and scenograph, leavings gaps that an audience has to fill up. Such is indeed the character of The Mahabharata. The viewers fill up the gaps and many unsaid things are conveyed in the process.

The Mahabharata is about themes which never fade. It is about political power, consolidation of power, intercaste marriages, protection and patronage of local cultures and human transformation through experience. Such themes never get old. The reach of this epic is in the whole of this Asian region. In Tamil language, there are about hundred versions of The Mahabharata which come down to us in the form of folklore. The north eastern part of India has its own stories emanating from The Mahabharata. Bhagadatta and Hidimba are said to be north easterners.

The Mahabharata is full of political advice. It many ways, it approves practical approach. Many people commonly quote the epic to say that pure idealism does not work. If we look at hard political advice, we find that The Mahabharata is not very far from Sun Tzu and Machiavelli. It contains practical strategies. It focuses on political supremacy and military triumph. Lord Krishna actually justifies use of strategies in national interest and necessity of war in times of crises. A number of political strategies, policies and approaches emerge from The Mahabharata shows ways which have practical political relevance today. This discourse keeps Indians rooted. Our politicians, leaders, ministers, officers, policy makers and Indians at large can remain Indian in spirit and succeed at diplomacy and other fronts of governance. The question is from where we draw our inspiration. A simple reference makes us at ease and confident.(4)

Many people take the message of The Mahabharata to be anti-hypocrisy. There is no point in taking a high moral ground if it harms the interests of the nation. There are situations where war is justifiable. Sometimes, to prove a point and to be on the right side, war becomes essential. Recent international interventions in Afghanistan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq can be seen in this light. Another interpretation is that rules, traditions and customs are flexible. Nothing is honor bound when it comes to the welfare of the country.

Kiran Nagarkar, novelist, playwright and screenwriter has exploited mythology and particularly The Mahabharata extensively for his artistic expression. Nagarkar has talked about magic moments of literature which are immortalized in collective memory. There are moments in world literature which reveal the ultimate truth. There are heightened, passionate, unforgettable moments in great literature. These moments are dramatic, intense and full of energy. Life and death depend on the words spoken at those junctures. The Mahabharata has such moments. When Kauravas opt for armies instead of Lord Krishna, when the game of dice is deceitfully played in court and Draupadi is insulted and disrobed, when in the midst of battleground where thousands are ready for attacking the other side, Arjun breaks down, and of course the words of Lord Krishna known as Srimad Bhagwad Gita- these are immortal, magic moments of The Mahabharata. Such moments come rarely in world literature. The reader knows that the moment of truth has arrived. Such moments never die, never fade, never lose relevance. The Mahabharata will live as long as the human race lives simply because of its utterances of pure truth, what we call universal knowledge. The nature of truth is such that it is forever old and forever new. One may look at truth a thousand times over but its charm does not die. Every moment, the truth reinvents itself and presents itself before the world. The more we consume truth, the more we want to consume it. I’m much impressed by following words of Kiran Nagarkar and want to quote him at length:

‘My first moment is from The Mahabharata on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. On one side are the hundred Kaurava Princes backed by the vast armies of their allies. Ranged opposite them are the five sons of Pandu, Dharmaraj, Bheem, Arjun, Nakul and Sahadev and thousands upon thousands of their armed feudatories. The drums should roll now and the bugles blow but it’s time for an operatic moment, the kind where the villain has run his sword clean through the heart of the heroine but instead of dying sensibly and quietly, she has time to sing a fifteen minute aria and then drop to the floor in a heap.

‘Instead of joining battle, Lord Shri Krishna who was as you know, is Arjun’s charioteer, will keep the troops and their masters gathered for mother of all battles, waiting till he has recited the whole of the Gita. But we were talking about the moment, the moment prior to Krishna’s discourse that will bring our pulse, blood and world to a standstill. The Kauravas have brought great hardship, deprivation and dishonor to the Pandavas by cheating Dharmaraj at a game of dice, then dispossessing them of their throne, kingdom and all their belongings. As if that was not bad enough, they have dared to disrobe Draupadi, the wife of the five Pandavas, before sending them into exile. Now fourteen years later, the Pandavas are back but the Kauravas refuse to return their kingdom, Indraprastha. Hence the great war. How long have the Pandavas waited for this moment, this moment when they can redress all the wrongs they have suffered over the years at the hands of the Kauravas? And yet it is this very moment that Arjun chooses to tell Krishna, that he will not fight this battle, that he will not spill the blood of his cousins. Nothing, he feels, neither some mistaken notion of dishonor nor being without a kingdom is worth a single drop of blood.

‘It is a heroic moment, a monumental moment for peace that could have changed the history of mankind, for Arjun is that rarest of human beings whose honor lies not in vengeance but in eschewing bloodshed. To no avail, of course. The Machiavellian Krishna will dissuade Arjun from his noble purpose. The battle of battles will leave nothing but perdition and annihilation in its wake. Ultimately every single person in this Armageddon, the Kauravas, the Pandavas and even Krishna himself will come to grief.(5)

Shashi Tharoor wrote The Great Indian Novel, a political satire based on the epic. He says that The Mahabharata is anchored in real human beings. Greed, lust, betrayal, treachery, love, passion, and politics - all play important roles. In The Ramayana, characters behave in a highly idealistic and impossible manner. The Mahabharata comes handy in life-lessons.

It is said about The Mahabharata that what one finds here, one finds everywhere; but what one does not find here, does not exist. The Mahabharata is related to issues of governance, and strategy and it is also deeply involved with issues of righteousness. Over the centuries, the epic has continuously contributed to Indian political philosophy. The Mahabharata underlines not only the value of strategy but also its limitations. Any strategy, if not backed by righteousness can only give short term success. Shakuni is a brilliant strategist but not a good human being.

The worldly lessons of The Mahabharata are innumerable as well as valuable. When we look at the life of Karna, we realize that being kind, humble and generous is not enough in this world. At the very same time, we see that bad company (Shakuni) can ruin one’s life beyond repair. Unconditional support of friends like Krishna can work wonders. One does not get one’s due automatically; one has to fight for it. Being over-emotional is a bad idea. Those who keep learning all their lives like Arjun attain impossible feats. Sometimes, enemies come in the form of friends like Bheeshma, Vidura, and Drona. Half knowledge can be more dangerous than no knowledge (Abhimanyu). No one can stop someone’s aspirations (Eklavya). The most important worldly lesson of The Mahabharata is that it underlines the importance of strategy, planning and approach in life.

When we look at contemporary political narrative, we find that there are continuous references to The Mahabharata. After defeat in Lok Sabha election in 2014, the leader of Congress in the lower house began his address in the house with a lofty reference to The Mahabharata, ‘We may be forty four in Lok Sabha but the Pandavas will never be intimidated by a hundred Kauravas’. This was his method of face-saving. The Indian mindset is such that it falls back on the terminology of The Mahabharata again and again. In 2012, Prashant Bhushan famously said that just as Shikhandi was used as a shield in The Mahabharata, the then government was using Manmohan Singh. In 2010, referring to the corruption the Common Wealth Games, Kirti Azad said, ‘Shakuni and Duryadhana are busy making money. The Delhi government is like a blindfolded Gandhari and you are sitting like Bheeshma Pitamaha’. In 2008, when the then Prime Minister, Dr. Man Mohan Singh wanted the nuclear deal with American and he wanted the support of BJP, he referred to Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee as the Bheeshma Pitamaha of Indian politics.

The never-ending political fight in India gets inevitably linked to terms of The Mahabharata. Whenever, there is a sense of ‘injured merit, when the deserving does not seem to get his due, Karna is remembered. Lord Krishna is remembered both for righteousness as well as for deviation from righteousness. If seen through the eyes of Krishna, The Mahabharata is the story of what happens when the ruling class forgets it duty; when the ruling class is alienated from reality. The Mahabharata is a wide-spread revolt against tyranny, injustice and inequality. It is the story of one of those times when people really crave for a savior. If seen through the eyes of Sanjay, who narrated the story to Dhritrashra, it is the story of a violent power struggle, a clash of egos and a slighted woman’s quest for justice. In other words, it is also the tragic saga of a blind man’s blind faith in his power-hungry, incompetent, and immoral son. With changing circumstances, different political groups and personalities start resembling different situations, camps and characters of The Mahabharata. Whenever there seems to be an unholy congregation of courtiers, Kauravas are remembered. Whenever there seems to be a right guy in a wrong camp, Bheeshma, Drona, Kripacharya or Karna is remembered. Every single politician tries to identify himself with the Pandavas and Krishna. On and off literature takes a dip at this ongoing story told thousands of years back. In modern times, there has been a tendency to underline the missed opportunity of peace in the epic. Every period interprets The Mahabharata in its own way.

The Mahabharata shows immense daring of writing. It takes human imagination beyond the possible. It opens up new horizons of thought and catches electrifying moments of truth. This is the reason why the epic remains relevant today. We have to bow down to the intellect of Maharshi Vyas. ‘How can we not doff our caps to these ancients and rejoice in the power of their imagination which could grasp the innermost aspirations of mankind’. (6) The politicians and the common man alike identify with this text simply because it echoes their own thought processes and actions. The ambition of the human being, the unbelievable intensity for material pleasures, the energy to go on, the desire to dominate others, the good and the bad of human nature- this marvel of literature encompasses it all and presents it all in a relish-able and relatable manner. The eternal saga goes on. The Mahabharata never ends.

1. Sreedharan, Chindu. 2014. Epic Retold: The Mahabharata in Tweets. New Delhi: Harper Collins.
2. Sreedharan,Chindu.
3. Nehru, Jawaharlal. 1946. The Discovery of India. New Delhi: Penguin. P 67.
4. mahabharat
5. Nagarkar, Kiran. 91st Meridian. 6.2 Winter 2009. International Writing Program. The University of Iowa.
6. Nagarkar, Kiran. 91st Meridian. 6.2 Winter 2009. International Writing Program. The University of Iowa.

(Prof. Shubha Tiwari delivered this lecture as a resource person at a UGC sponsored national seminar at Govt. Excellence Institute, Bhopal, MP, India on 19-03-2015)


More by :  Prof. Shubha Tiwari

Top | Literary Shelf

Views: 3779      Comments: 4

Comment Exquisite piece of writing ma'am. I came across this erudite account of 'The Maha Bharatha' and its relevance by chance.I am regards.

T.S.Chandra Mouli
17-Feb-2023 12:35 PM

Comment Shubha,
I am much impressed by your articles a few of which I read while browsing through BOLOJI. Keep it up.
Do you remember we met once at some seminar?

Usha Bande
06-May-2016 07:57 AM

Comment Outstanding coverage.

H N Bali

H N Bali
08-Apr-2015 09:50 AM

Comment The Mahabharata as Bhima's story was done by Vasudevan Nair in "Randamoozham: The Second Turn". From Shalya's viewpoint it was done in "Parva" by Bhyrappa; from Karna's by Shivaji Sawant in "Mrityunjaya" and several others; from Draupadi's by Pratibha Ray in "Yagyaseni"; from Arjuna's by Maggi Lidchi Grassi in her trilogy, from Sanjay's by Gurudutt in his pentalogy in Hindi--and there must be many others I do not know of. No one has made a list of all the regional novels from the viewpoint of one of the characters. Nothing like this, as far as I know, for the Ramayana.

pradip bhattacharya
29-Mar-2015 02:02 AM

Name *

Email ID

Comment *
Verification Code*

Can't read? Reload

Please fill the above code for verification.