Book Reviews

Exploring Agency in the Mahabharata

S.C.Bhattacharya, V.Dalmiya, G.Mukherji (ed): Exploring Agency in the Mahabharata —ethical and political dimensions of Dharma. Routledge, 2018, 253 pages, Rs. 895/-

This collection of 16 papers is a sequel to 2014 publication from the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies exploring the perennial relevance of the Mahabharata (MB). The 12 papers in it provided meaningful insights into the contemporaneity of the epic. The current book has as its central theme the age-old face-off between “daiva” (fate) and “purushartha” (free will) as seen in the MB. In its first chapter, Anukramanika, Dhritarashtra laments that he is the helpless victim of circumstances. If all is pre-determined, why should Arjuna struggle in the throes of a dilemma and why does Krishna need to extricate him? If Fate is final, why do Kunti, Draupadi, Arjuna and Bhima berate Yudhishthira in exile, urging him to fight? The book examines these questions in three parts of four essays each: Action, Actor and Epic Agency and Retellings.

Sibesh Bhattacharya explores how “itihasa” in the MB is passive, setting an example or clarifying, not an active agent shaping current lives and events. He examines Karna as an example of an independent agent despite appearing doomed like Duryodhana (the tree of which the former is the trunk). Their lives seem to substantiate the Manusmriti’s epigram: dharma killed kills; dharma protected protects. The irony lies in Karna’s despairing protest that although he has always (as he thinks) protected dharma, it does not protect him! The converse lies in Duryodhana’s defiant dying declaration that he is going to Svarga while the Pandavas live on miserable. When Yudhishthira finally reaches Svarga, he is shocked to find Duryodhana already there resplendent on a golden throne!

Amita Chatterjee examines the concept of self-determination and finds the MB suggesting that alternative paths exist from the present to the future. The story of Gautami and her son dying of snake-bite depicts this at length. The serpent, Yama, Time are all agents but the boy’s own intentional acts make him responsible for his acts and their result.

Christopher Framarin studies the theory of karma and finds that Markandeya fails to answer Yudhishthira’s questions about rebirth and how acts produce corresponding consequences for the actor. All only establishes that karma alone determines the human lot. How past acts determine future births remains a mystery that neither the virtuous butcher nor Vidura, nor Brihaspati explain when asked. Framarin concludes that in the MB the theory of karma is underdeveloped, put aside as “the secrets of the gods”. The only clue offered is in the Gita: desires lead to rebirth.

Arti Dhand’s paper on karmayoga is a good example of blinkered vision quite unexpected from the author of Woman as Fire, Woman as Sage (2008). She sees karmayoga as an ingenious Brahminical response to heterodoxy “deftly packaging a philosophy of world renunciation in the garb of worldly engagement,” charting a middle path between renouncing samsara and falling victim to worldly passions. Karmayoga benefits both the self and society, which sanyasa does not. Dhand argues that by linking it to the doctrine of svadharma it perpetuates oppression of the have-nots by enslaving them, blindly adhering to traditional roles which perpetuate noxious practices. Svadharma, she argues, “obviates moral reflection” as seen in Rama beheading the Shudra ascetic. Dhand finds that while the epic’s soteriology upholds ahimsa, this is undermined by its commitment to the hierarchical model of society so that karmayoga provides a justification for social injustice. Dhand makes the common mistake of understanding karmayoga to connote “acquiescence to one’s lot in life—however unjust, however debased”. She bewails that the wisest of Vyasa’s sons, Vidura, was not made king because he was born to a servant maid. She condemns the concept of Stridharma which lauds the wife’s enslavement, killing her agency. She overlooks several pronouncements clarifying that character and conduct determine a person’s caste, not his birth. There is no “smothering” of resistance to social situations. King Trishanku becomes an outcaste because of his reprehensible conduct, and regains his station for his subsequent good deeds. The Kshatriya Vishvamitra becomes a great rishi, as does Matanga, a barber’s son. Yuyutsu, born to a Vaishya maid-servant, becomes the regent of Hastinapura. None of the epic heroines—Satyavati, Kunti, Gandhari, Draupadi, Damayanti, Savitri—can be described as devoid of moral agency.

Gangeya Mukherji focuses on agency and violence. After all, the genocide against nagas is what the epic begins with. Yet, the tale is retold after a non-venomous snake speaks of ahimsa being the supreme dharma. However, the question of non-violence remains unresolved in the Dyumatsena-Satyavat debate. Violence is certainly not the last resort, as Mukherji argues, where Nahusha’s descendants are concerned. All are addicted to hunting to sate blood lust. Key events shaping the epic narrative occur during a hunt. Mukherji suggests that Arjuna depicts “judicious violence” as opposed to Ashvatthama’s nocturnal massacre. But the latter is sanctioned by Rudra, while the former’s destruction of Khandava forest and its denizens is at Agni’s behest. Further, what do we make of Vishnu’s avatar Parashurama’s genocide against Kshatriyas which Ashvatthama seems to replicate? The dharmic butcher points out that violence is unavoidable in life, as does Krishna in the Gita. The beauty of the MB lies in its conflation of opposites: Agastya argues that in yajnas grains and not animals are the sacrifice, whereas the devas insist on the opposite. Mukherji argues that the war results from the overweening ambition of “two Brahmins.” This is puzzling as he names Dhritarashtra and Drona. The former is not a Brahmin at all! The justification for war as dharmic is completely undercut when Yudhishthira finds Duryodhana seated in Svarga with no sign of his brothers, and in rage exclaims, “This is not heaven!”

Shirshendu Chakrabarti examines Yudhishthira as the prime example of true human agency based on hovering between readiness for violence, living as a householder, and becoming a sanyasi. He is constantly conscious of manifold dharmic possibilities and their consequences—disastrous and otherwise. His irresolution vanishes en route Svarga when he is alone. Chakrabarti misses the similar situation at the end of the Vana Parva where Yudhishthira is tested with the corpses of his four brothers around him and similarly shows no signs of hesitancy. In his quest for humanity he is distinct from the West’s Faustian man seeking to be superhuman. It is interesting that he chooses no guru and remains the genuine agent, ever questioning the self.

MB is a rare epic that also features animal fables. These form Arindam Chakrabarti’s fascinating exposition of non-human agency. After all, if dharma is Vyasa’s core concern, he has a lizard first state that ahimsa is the supreme dharma, has a naga-raja expound dharma to a Brahmin, a mongoose laugh to scorn the Ashvamedha yajna, and embodies the deity first as a crane and finally as a dog. The narrative is thus “de-centred” from the anthropocentric to a parallel track of animal life whose moral agency occurs through speech. But it seems to culminate in silence, for, as the bird Pujani says, only one who has not known intimately the pain of others can hold forth in public.

Winning brides is one of the recurrent motifs in the MB. Uma Chakravarti focuses on the use of abduction for this, the rakshasa mode of marriage which, strangely, Kshatriyas celebrate. The reason is never stated. The other form they prefer is the “gandharva” i.e. love marriage for which no sanction of elders is required. In Amba she sees the problem of male violence against women represented. Her subsequent ascesis is for regaining the lost autonomy in choosing a spouse. Bhishma’s agony on the bed of arrows mirrors her physical and psychological anguish: “the distortions of an enforced sexual control over women are a fundamental factor in the Mahabharata narrative of war.” Presciently she notes that even svayamvara, the bridegroom-choice ceremony, is fraught with violence as in the cases of the Kashi princesses, Draupadi and Duryodhana’s wife the Kalinga princess. Marriage, therefore, is not uncontested among Kshatriyas. Indeed, it is a motif that persists to recur in the legend of Prithviraj and Samyukta centuries later.

Sundar Sarukkai examines the Ekalavya episode as “the first, most important theory of learning,” though prior to it we have the MB tell the stories of three disciples in the early Paushya Parva, each learning by a different method. As in the case of Ekalavya later, Aruni, Upamanyu and Utanka show that learning occurs “in and through the student.” No less than the tribal youth, these three are “allegorical figure(s) for education.” One can hardly agree with Sarukkai that the slicing off the thumb represents “the act of dissolution of a student into the teacher.”

B.N.Patnaik’s study of Sarala’s Oriya version of the Ekalavya episode shows how the regional imagination transformed epic narrative. He analyses Drona’s justification at length. Drona asks for no “dakshina”. Rather, Ekalavya insists he accept it—much as Utanka did with his guru Veda. By agreeing, Drona ritually accepts him as pupil. Krishna has Kunti take as “dakshina” from Karna his two invincible weapons. Krishna asks Kiratasen for his head as a donation. In Sarala, therefore, Ekalavya’s “dakshina” is not unique. In Ekalavya, Kiratsena and Jara Patnaik sees Sarala’s attempt to integrate the tribal culture with the urban “civilized” world.

Sudipta Kaviraj studies Rabindranath Thakur’s reading of the MB by stating he will discuss two poems but analyses only the Karna-Kunti encounter. His finding—which is well known—is that here the inner springs of action are revealed, and Karna’s tragedy in the epic is turned into Kunti’s tragedy too. The other poem that deserved close study is the Kacha-Devayani interaction which is so very cryptic in the MB.

Lakshmi Bandlamudi uses a striking image to describe her engagement with the MB: it is like “entering a hall of mirrors where we see ourselves seeing ourselves…an opportunity to find the Self in the self.” Dialogic interaction characterizes the MB throughout. While dharma in the Ramayana is fixed, the MB shows it as context-dependent. It exemplifies Nietzsche: “the ambiguous character of our modern world—the very same symptoms could point to decline and to strength.” Paradox is the central theme of the epic. She is mistaken, however, in going along with J.L. Mehta’s opinion that Vyasa’s work carries no signature and that he is a “strange absentee author.” He enters at critical junctures in the action to mould events and his poetic style is quite distinctive. Her reading is flawed in referring to Draupadi laughing at Duryodhana—which she never did—and in stating that in the Treta Yuga Narayana manifests as Nara. Bandlamudi unnecessarily uses jargon e.g. “unfinalizability and unsystematizability”. What is valuable is her insight that despite being the great story of Bharat, the MB speaks to different lands, peoples and times including contemporary issues: “the centripetal and centrifugal forces in the MB demand answerability from lived life as a form of rhythmic closure.”

What is surprising in this anthology is the absence of awareness regarding Duryodhana as an agent with Shakuni behind him, just as Arjuna is an agent impelled by Krishna. A study investigating this area would be beneficial indeed. Manoranjan Bhattacharya, a renowned playwright of Bengal, in his play “Chakravyuha” depicts the silent partnership between Shakuni and Krishna to engineer the destruction of the Dhartarashtras.

A much shorter version came out in the 8th Day supplement to The Sunday Statesman dated 17 Feb 2019.


More by :  Dr. Pradip Bhattacharya

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