Book Reviews

Mahabharata: An Existentialist Text

James Hegarty: Religion, Narrative and Public Imagination in South Asia
—Past and Present in the Sanskrit Mahabharata
Routledge Hindu Studies Series, UK, price not stated. 234 pages.

“The MBH presents a narrative solution to the ideological and social situation in which the Brahminical establishment found itself around the beginning of the Common Era.”

Here is a fascinating exploration of how the Mahabharata (MBH), the story-to-end-all-stories, re-constructed the significant past for the listeners and readers of its present and for its world which, James Hegarty of Cardiff University proposes, was South Asia. He explores what the MBH tried to do, how and with what success. He argues that it had a specific socio-religious and exegetical agenda, categorically placing itself above the Vedas and Upanishads as the sine qua non of learning. It constructs stories from Vedic rites (e.g. the churning of the ocean from soma pressing). In doing so it transforms ritual into itihasa (the Brihaddevata, composed by the epic’s immediate interlocutor Shaunaka, has similar features) and executes a narrative coup d’état. Just as Brahma’s Smriti, says the MBH, was abridged successively by Shiva, Indra, Brihaspati, Kavi and the seven rishis, so was the MBH from six million to successively briefer editions, the final being of one hundred thousand slokas. It also plucks Vedic figures like Indra, Atri, Surabhi, out of their context to expound new philosophical doctrines. In battle-descriptions it invariably likens the combatants to past heroes, creating an elaborate network of connections.

An obvious example of using the past to make sense of the present is the Book of the Forest, where moping Yudhishthira hears the tales of Rama and Nala. His coming to terms with his existential predicament is portrayed at the end of this book where—over the corpses of his brothers—he solves the riddles posed by Dharma-Yama disguised as a crane. It is this relevance for practical living draws the audience and readers to the MBH.

Another attraction is the repetitive debunking it indulges in. Thus, having extolled the emperor-making rajasuya sacrifice sky-high, it demolishes its empowering effect by the catastrophic dice-game that follows. Again, the potency of the much-vaunted ashvamedha is wholly undermined by the scoffing of a mongoose with a half-golden pelt (yet again Dharma). Even the merit of the much celebrated dharma-yuddha, righteous war, is questioned. The mongoose extols the poverty-stricken life of a Brahmin living by gleaning as the ideal and quotes Dharma on kings achieving salvation by selfless giving, while those holding showy sacrifices fall.

However, for this Hegarty need not have gone to the 14th book. The very first book prefaces Janamejaya’s holocaust of snakes with a harmless lizard telling the vengeful Ruru that ahimsa is the supreme dharma. The mongoose-Dharma being freed from his curse by denigrating the sacrifice does not imply restoration of the value of the ashvamedha, as Hegarty asserts. For, this book concludes with Vaishampayana telling Janamejaya that equal to sacrificial ritual are gleaning, ahimsa, contentment, good conduct, sincerity, self-restraint, truthfulness and charity. He further states that gleaning and charity are salvific for all four classes (even the Shudra who was prohibited the Vedas). The MBH was meant for all four classes as well as women to whom the Vedas were not available. Let us not overlook the significant fact that Yama-Dharma had to take birth as a Shudra maidservant’s son Vidura because of another curse, and that he is Vyasa’s mouthpiece of morality, never subject to the dilemmas plaguing Dharma’s son Yudhishthira, but whose advice is like straws in the wind (except for his alter-ego Yudhishthira). The importance of the mongoose story in social and religious contexts is seen in its recurrence in Kshemendra’s epitome of the MBH, Bharatamanjari (11th century) and Vyasa’s disciple Jaimini’s Ashvamedhaparva (c. 12th century).

Repeatedly, in the two massive tomes of Bhishma’s counsel, Vedic sacrifices of the past are critiqued. Even austerities and sannyasis are denigrated, while chaste domesticity, taking care of parents, honesty and non-attachment are held up as the paths to moksha. The MBH’s very setting is Shaunaka’s 12-year-long sacrifice against the background of Janamejaya’s snake-holocaust. Then, Yama’s 12-year-long sacrifice is the setting for the mortal birth of five Indras and Shri. Narada warns Yudhishthira that the rajasuya sacrifice heralds destructive war. In the Ramayana, Bharata prevents Rama from performing it because of this. At the end of the Udyoga Parva, Karna pictures the impending war in terms of a bloody sacrificial ritual. Then there is the over-arching image of Rudra presiding over it all, right from causing the descent of the five Indras and Shri to empowering Ashvatthama for the holocaust-at-night.

Hegarty argues that studying narrative against the background of early South Asian public imagination provides insight into the intellectual and social conditions underlying it. Modifying Marx’s description of the 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, he proposes that here every matter of concern is “transformed into narrative and debated as narrative” about both modes of governance and ways of moral living and reflect the processes of change in South Asia in late BC and early AD periods. The MBH was a deliberate intervention relating to issues of cultural power linked to current and past doctrines of belief and to processes of state formation against the Ashokan background of dharma-propagation (272-185 BC) and the Sunga campaign against it. Patanjali (of Pushyamitra Sunga’s time 185 BC?), has several references to the MBH, as does his predecessor Panini (possibly early Mauryan).

Prior to the 7th century BC (the Upanishads) and Buddhists and Jains (c. 500 BC) there is no mention of ahimsa or retiring to forest-life. In extolling these, the MBH is deliberately anachronistic, validating current ideologies by inserting them into the past, “Vedicizing” them. Other early texts and inscriptions testify to its success in this attempt. While legitimizing Brahmins, it also integrates new practices as “traditional.” For instance, instead of sacrifices, performing puja with lamps and incense, visiting tirthas, and, supremely, studying the MBH!

Hegarty makes a dubious suggestion that the tale of the Chedi king Vasu falling into a hole for having recommended animal sacrifice reveals a “regionalist agenda of denigrating the Cedis.” After all, it is with this Chedi king that Vaishampayana begins his narrative, who is favoured by Indra with a sky-roaming chariot, an unfading garland and a bamboo pole to protect the good. Further, the Queen Mother of the Kauravas, Satyavati, is said to be his daughter.

The book contains nuggets of information such as Sanskrit first appearing in inscriptions, replacing Prakrit, at the time of the Kanvas (c.73 BC); and the earliest MBH manuscript in Brahmi script being found in Kizil (Xinjiang, c.230 AD) listing the books Adi, Aranyaka, Udyoga (partly), Bhishma, Shanti, Ashvamedhika and the supplement (Harivansha), proving its circulation in Central Asia that early. The next evidence is from Kashmir in Kshemendra’s epitome in Sanskrit verse, Bharatamanjari c.11th century AD. Both lack the Anushasana Parva but include the Shanti Parva, showing that right from the 3rd century AD the epic was disseminated with considerable doctrinal material. This is evidence of deliberate composition, not compilation of disparate bardic narratives. The extensive spread of the MBH is seen in 6th century AD Cambodian inscriptions, the sculptures of Baphuon (11th century) and Angkor Wat (12th century). Eight parvas are found in Old Javanese (c. 10th century) and currently in shadow wayang puppetry. Stories from both epics and tales of Vikramaditya, Bhoja and Krishna are part of Mongolian folklore. A late 17th century Mongolian commentary, revising a Tibetan original, contains a summary of the MBH. The Japanese Kabuki play Narukami is the Rishyashringa tale. A 14th century Tibetan genealogy traces royal descent from Rupati a brother of Pandu who, after the war, went to Tibet where the people made him king. No evidence is cited, however, from Sri Lanka and Myanmar possibly because of the very strong Theravada influence. Therefore, it seems South-East Asia instead of South Asia, which Hegarty proposes, was the world of the MBH.

In the Middle East, beyond Hegarty’s focus, the first Arabic summary of the MBH was by Abu Saleh (1026 AD), which was translated into Persian in 1125 AD by Abul-Hasan-Ali, keeper of the city library of Jurjan located near the Caspian seashore, for a chieftain of the Dilemites. Then there is Vidura’s parable of the man in the well that St. John of Damascus retold in the eighth century. It was Latinised in 1048-49 AD as Barlaam and Josephat, and became part of the Gesta Romanorum by the thirteenth century as Chapter 168, "On Eternal Damnation."

Through his treatise on Sanskrit grammar, states Hegarty, Patanjali sought to codify the language and thereby restore social traditions. The same ideological agenda underlies the Manava Dharmashastra, Arthashastra, Ramayana and MBH, of which the last highlights the turbulent clashes of forces in contemporary times, i.e. the centuries following Ashoka’s passing (pace Witzel and Hiltebeitel). Bronkhorst has suggested the existence of a strong non-Brahminical culture in and around Magadha. In that context, the MBH could be “an attempt to impose, at least imaginatively, a pan-Indian Brahmanism,” writes Hegarty. He adopts Stientencron’s suggestion that the epic might have been composed in Vidisha, the last Sunga stronghold. Its nearness to Sanchi would explain the strong perception of Buddhist threat. Vidisha continued as a locus of political strife even during the Guptas. It could also have been the site for production of the dynastic histories incorporated in the Purana (vide Hans Bakker).

MBH’s open-ended narrative structure enables it to interweave commentaries and to focus on existential dilemmas for drawing audience attention and mould their thinking. Realising this helps us to comprehend its use of the past to resolve present confusion—as the Buddhist Dighnikaya does—and to appreciate its locale. The selection of Shaunaka, the Rig Vedic commentator, as the immediate audience shows that the MBH is interested in aggrandizing the Vedic past and applying it to daily knowledge. Frequently it engages Vedic figures like Indra in ideological discussions quite distant from the Vedic. Its three themes are: Brahminical triumphalism; integrating new ideologies and practices; and the existential problems of living.

Regarding “place,” Hegarty argues that the Sabhaparva accounts of the halls of gods and men reveals political and social concerns not of mythical antiquity but rather the scattered power-centres of the present. As a counterpoint, Sanjaya in the Bhishma Parva presents a detailed picture of the known world with legitimate rulers as the central authority.

Hegarty’s main argument is that the MBH transforms Vedic ritual structures into textual form, setting it deliberately in two sattras (Shaunaka’s and Janamejaya’s) and also in Yama’s sacrifice. These are rites that are repetitive and endlessly extendable. Each rite is embedded within one or many others—just like the Russian doll-like structure of the upakhyanas, complementary tales, of the MBH. The first narrative frame is provided by Sauti repeating Vaishampayana’s recital, which is the frame for subsequent tales-within-tales, of which the major ones are those of Markandeya, Lomasha and Balarama on tirthas and Sanjaya’s narration of the battle-books. Hegarty takes up the Drona Parva as a case-study of this technique of permutation-and-combination, representing it diagrammatically—a telling instance of the application of mathematical models to literature without making it unintelligible. Vidura’s recounting of the trial of Prahlada during the gambling match is analysed to demonstrate how a commentary is woven into the text.

The MBH repeatedly asserts that by reading and listening to it the audience is transformed—much as Greek Tragedy sought to do through catharsis. Indeed, that is why Anandavardhana stated that the overwhelming rasa of the MBH was shanta, quietude. This role of the MBH parallels that of Vedic rituals that sought to impose order and stability on the chaos of the first creation, manipulating the microcosm to re-form the macrocosm: “The MBH presents a parallel narrative tool for the ongoing creation and re-creation of a functional cosmos… (presenting) a narrative solution to the ideological and social situation in which the Brahminical establishment found itself around the beginning of the Common Era.” In the context of major social upheaval, it offers new options for a good life and escaping rebirth. The MBH sees itself as a rescue mission, an intervention by the gods to restore society that has become nasty, brutish and short, overrun by demonic overlords. While the MBH explicitly equates itself with the Vedas, as the fifth Veda, at the end it emphasizes the benefits it confers in daily life. Here Hegarty’s translation of the exhortation why dharma should not be abandoned, “nor on account of…ignorance” is an error as the original is “lobhad,” “on account of greed.”

Part of the narrative technique is the repetitive interjection of vocatives (“O Brahmin,” “O Raja”) which refer to the audience, not to anyone in the tale, thus indicating the context of the narration. In particular, the repetition of “O best of Bharatas” helps to stress the “overarching dynastic and narrative continuity.” These vocatives act as signals to the audience within and without the text to interpret the material being presented in the context of their own lives. Thus, each narration is a performance too and the speeches within each often pose ironic questions. For instance, Kanva forecasts perpetual imperial hegemony for Bharata’s dynasty, yet his speech is reported in Janamejaya’s sacrifice, long after that dynasty was almost wiped out. Both Janamejaya and Sauti’s audience would be wondering what went wrong. Moreover, the current Kali Yuga began soon after the Pandavas died. So, the same question becomes relevant for all audiences since Shaunaka and his companions. The picture Markandeya paints of Kali Yuga for Yudhishthira is that of post-Mauryan South Asia, current for the audience of the MBH: “much of the Mahabharata is intended to provide a space within which to articulate a new series of understandings of what it means to be human…The war is one way to clear the ground of this.” In contrast, the Ramayana never seeks to address the problematic present, and keeps to its recital of things past.

What is of great interest is the manner in which the MBH questions its greatest revelations. Thus, despite the Gita and the many upanishadic exhortations of Vidura, Krishna is cursed and dies an inglorious death, as does Vidura. It is not only the glory of dynastic history that is questioned, but even philosophical solace and the power of the Purushottama himself. The last four books of the MBH relentlessly focus on loss and grief, discounting the salvific messages of the Shanti and Anushasana Parvas. The cultivation of equanimity is urged, but how feasible is it in the context of all the suffering? The final book cites moral failings as the cause of the death of Draupadi and four Pandavas. The final reconciliation comes only after Yudhishthira reaches heaven, and there too with some difficulty.

The MBH narration proceeds both horizontally (developing in linear fashion) and vertically (emboxing stories within one another), thus offering the audience a variety of ways of interpreting the material in terms of the varying contexts of the narrations. For instance, while the story of Nala is aimed at consoling Yudhishthira, for Janamejaya and Shaunaka its happily-ever-after ending rings hollow, as they know what happened to the Pandavas. It is because of this ambiguity and irony in its narration that the MBH is very much “a modernist text”, very existential indeed.

Dharma, originally ritual activity, is portrayed in the context of social norms in the MBH, taken to a crisis in the gambling match. The MBH repeatedly situates ritual activity in social contexts to tease out the implications of human conduct vis-à-vis dharma. Rites were no longer meaningful only for preserving cosmic order, but had to be meaningful in terms of social conduct: “if the Dharmashastras are …a commentary on life as a special of ritual, then the MBH is the revelatory account of a past and a place conceived of in these terms.” Hobbes’ insight is so applicable to what happens in the MBH:

“For the laws of nature (as justice, equity, modesty, mercy, and, in sum, doing to others as we would be done to) of themselves, without the terror of some power to cause them to be observed, are contrary to our natural passions, that carry us to partiality, pride, revenge and the like.”

Tales such as those of the Sadhyas and the swan stress self-restraint, serenity and, above all, the intention behind an act as salvific, which resonates with Buddhist doctrine. Hegarty provides several examples of such Buddhistic parallels from the Dighnikaya which sought to incorporate and supersede Vedic knowledge, as does the MBH. The emphasis on avoiding violence is a message for the ruler from an audience aware of the human cost of the imperial Mauryan impulse. There is emphasis on domestic puja and humble gifts in the post-war book of instructions, turning daily worship into a type of sacrificial rite. These are still practised in all Hindu communities. While innovating, the MBH carefully embeds these in a Vedic context, thus offering a Brahminical synthesis of new ideologies in the late BC and early AD period.

Hegarty analyses the Sabhaparva to show that here not only does Maya, instructed by Krishna, construct the hall to reflect the abhipraya, intention, of gods, demons and men, but the parva has a plan of its own. Yudhishthira’s very entrance “is a model of Brahmin-centred conservatism.” Further, there are references to yavana-Greeks and their kings pointing to political contexts relevant to audiences outside the text. Heterodox beliefs are condemned as a vice, and a mini-Arthashastra is presented on norms of governance. The description of divine halls contains the seed of the rajasuya rite, which is the imperial vision of conquest of the four quarters aimed at by this parva. The paradigm of Brahma’s hall being at the centre surrounded by those of the lords of the quarters (lokapalas) is mirrored by Yudhishthira in the Indraprastha hall at the centre of the conquest of the four directions (by his four brothers), whose peoples are enumerated at length, including Rome and Antioch! Interestingly, while rishis are found in all divine and human halls, only one king, Harishchandra, has a place in Brahma’s hall. Atheists and Greeks are absent from the divine halls, which contain only Vedic and post-Vedic figures. The conservative agenda becomes quite clear.

However, the destruction the rajasuya brings in its wake seems to wipe out the triumphant galactic picture of the Sabhaparva. We find that at the beginning of the war, in the Bhishmaparva, Sanjaya presents a geography of the earth concentrating on hare-shaped Jambudvipa, mentioning Romans, Greeks, Chinese and Huns, i.e., the world as known at the time of composition of the MBH, not when the Kurukshetra war had occurred. No foreigners exist in the other regions. The four yugas are said to pertain only to Bharatavarsha. Through the lists and descriptions, the war is focussed upon “as the cusp of the problematic present,” which is Janamejaya’s time. The region at the northern extremity ruled solely by Prajapati has only one dharma, contrasted with the many in Bharatavarsha, along with many disputing kings and foreigners. The assurance that listening to this account makes a ruler healthy, wealthy and wise is demolished by the war that follows.

Moreover, there is the intense personal tragedy of Vyasa himself. Not only does he witness the destruction of most of his grandchildren (Pandaveyas and Dhartarashtras), but also of all his four sons (Pandu, Dhritarashtra, Vidura, Shuka). The culminating irony is in Vidura, Dharma-incarnate, starving to death, wandering madly, filth-covered, in a forest. No wonder that Vyasa’s final outcry is the anguished query:

          “With arms uplifted
             I cry out
             but no one listens.
             From dharma flow profit and pleasure.
             Why is dharma not practised?”

Consistently, the MBH appears to subvert the visions it creates. As T.S. Eliot wrote, “Between the idea/And the reality/…Falls the shadow.”

Hegarty is the first to bring out what makes Kurukshetra such a significant place. It is Prajapati’s main altar; the dwelling of Takshaka, assassin of Janamejaya’s father; where Shantanu’s son Chitrangad was slain; the residence of the asuras Sunda and Upasunda; where Bhishma fought Parashurama; where Skanda was anointed general of the gods; where Sudarshana and Oghavati conquered death.

Similarly, of critical importance is the forest of Naimisha, featuring as a major tirtha created by the turning back of the river Sarasvati at the end of a twelve-year rite performed by ascetics. Here Yama held a rite during which the five Indras were cursed; here Yayati’s grandsons sacrificed; and here the MBH is narrated. Tirthas mark great past events, are sites of major rites and where Puranas are composed, many of which are narrated in Naimisha, Kurukshetra and other tirthas. Descendants of MBH characters become interlocutors in these. Both Kurukshetra and Naimisha are linked to the Sarasvati, which is one with Vedic knowledge and ritual. To this, the MBH adds the statement that gods visit tirthas while asuras do not. Visiting tirthas, even listening to their origin tales, earns merit manifold to that from sacrifices. The pilgrimage spots are also located in the four quarters, paralleling the rajasuya conquests. Superior to both tirthas and sacrifices, it is asserted emphatically, is studying the MBH, which contains tales of visiting tirthas. In this manne,r the MBH integrates religious ideas and activities preceding it, and establishes new paradigms in the current socio-cultural and political scenario.

For establishing the influence of the MBH on South Asia (actually, South-East Asia) over the first twelve centuries AD, Hegarty selects epigraphs of the Guptas and thereafter. These monarchs compared themselves to the epic heroes and the descriptions of their conquests use terms reflecting the world-conquest goal of the MBH. Land grants refer to Vyasa’s pronouncements and the samhita of one lakh verses. So, in the 5th century AD the size of the MBH was almost what it is today. They emulate the reciprocal relationship between king and Brahmins depicted in Yudhishthira’s gifts to them. Both epics are looked up to as models for kingly conduct. Some, like the Chalukyas, trace their descent to epic figures like Drona and Kartavirya Arjuna.

This influence is, of course, is more widespread in literature. Hegarty finds the richest engagement with the MBH in Kashmir. Retellings of the MBH begin with Kshemendra’s in the 11th century AD. Then come numerous adaptations of episodes, more from the MBH than the Ramayana. Elsewhere, Bhasa’s plays bring out not the triumphant imperialism of the epigraphs but the human tragedy of war, thus focussing on what makes the MBH “modern” in its appeal. Hegarty studies Kashmir’s Nilamata Purana (c. 6th to 8th century AD) to show how, beginning with a question from Janamejaya, it follows the MBH’s imperial agenda as also its integrative approach towards new ideologies by making Buddha an avatar of Vishnu in the 28th Kaliyuga. However, in doing this is it not following the centuries earlier Vishnu Purana? Like the MBH, the Nilamata sacralizes new tirthas and makes an innovation by stressing the holiness of images of deities. The Nilamata is to Kashmir what the MBH is to Bharatavarsha. Imagining Kashmir’s past in ways similar to the MBH, the Rajatarangini (12th century AD) also projects an existential sense of transience and instability and explicitly states its aim to be the cultivation of serenity (shanta rasa). Kalhana makes explicit much that is implicit in the MBH with respect to present situations: “For Kalhana, the MBH captured something essential about the predicament of being human, be this in the exalted past or in the more mundane present.”

One wishes that sculptural representations from the MBH had also been touched upon to bring out what aspects were considered significant. The epilogue deals with fresh re-construction of the past in the MBH tele-serial—introducing ideas of democracy and nationhood—but loses out by being aware only of the Chopra version, not the different approaches seen in versions by Sanjay Khan (2001) and Siddharth Tewary (2013). Nor is he aware that the script for the Chopra serial was by a Muslim, Rahi Masoom Reza (available in English translation), which lends it a unique dimension, and that in the repeat telecast the government, for political reasons, excised the initial episode in which Bharata disinherits his unfit sons, thus proving the modernity of the MBH. One expected a comparison with Peter Brook’s interpretation. Hegarty surprisingly refers to Vajpayee as “Bihari Vajpayee.” His immersion in Sanskrit ought to have provided an awareness of Indian names.

All in all, the book is an extremely stimulating read, laying out a rich repast of new insights into the relevance the MBH had for the time of its composition and continues to have even today as an existential, modernist text.

A shorter version of this was published on 20.9.2015 in the 8th Day supplement of The Sunday Statesman.


More by :  Dr. Pradip Bhattacharya

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