Epic fictions: the Rashomon-like world of the Mahabharata
作者：Jai Arjun Singh
[This is the “extended mix” of an essay I wrote for the August issue of Caravan magazine – a look at perspective tellings of a very complex epic, with Maggi Lidchi-Grassi’s book The Great Golden Sacrifice of the Mahabharata as the focal point. In the magazine version - which you can read here - we left out the bits about Lidchi-Grassi’s comparison of the Kurukshetra battle to the Second World War, since we thought that slightly diluted the focus of the piece. But I’ve included it here]
My first stab at literary censorship came at an early age. I was barely 10 when I took it upon myself to read out C Rajagopalachari’s translation of the Mahabharata to my mother. For days on end, as she did her housework, I followed her about with the book in my hand, omitting not a sentence — with one exception: I would bowdlerise any passages that presented my personal hero, Karna, in an unfavourable light. Thus, the command to disrobe the Pandavas and Draupadi was transferred from his mouth to Duryodhana’s. The Kauravas’ disastrous expedition to the forest to mock their exiled cousins — an adventure stirred up by Karna — found no mention in my selective retelling. And the Abhimanyu killing was toned down somewhat.
By that age I had devoured at least three other Mahabharata translations (the ones by RK Narayan, P Lal and William Buck) along with uncounted Amar Chitra Katha comics, and much of my interest was centred on Karna’s unhappy life. This is not an uncommon reaction among young Mahabharata readers who are introverted by nature and whose literary heroes tend to be loners and outsiders: the Pandavas’ illegitimate elder brother is one of ancient literature’s major tragic figures, and some of the most stirring episodes in the final third of the narrative are built around him. But I may have taken the hero worship too far. Perhaps I had subconsciously linked Karna with the social outcasts played by another childhood idol, Amitabh Bachchan, in films like Deewaar and Kaala Patthar.
The adoration and the attendant defensiveness reached proportions that are easy to smile about today. I felt a sense of vindication while reading passages that stressed Karna’s virtues — such as an introduction to Shanta Rameshwar Rao’s translation, which proclaimed that he could be viewed as the “real hero” of the epic. Later, I would revel in Kamala Subramaniam’s gentle, humanist retelling (still a personal favourite) that emphasised the nobler qualities not just of Karna— – or Radheya, as she refers to him throughout— – but of most figures in the epic (Subramaniam even cast Duryodhana as a Shakespearean hero doomed by a single fatal flaw). When BR Chopra’s TV version premiered in late 1988, I spent much time fuming about the show’s simplifications to anyone who would listen. Sharing my seat on the school bus was a friend who disapproved of Karna (because he was on the side of the bad guys); our Monday-morning discussions about the previous day’s episode were frequently heated.
Even as a child I resisted grandparental attempts to paint the story as a simple good-versus-evil treatise. But it took a few more years — and deeper engagement with the Mahabharata as well as with scholarly literature on it — to appreciate that this epic is bigger than the sum of its parts. Karna’s struggles are stirring, no doubt; but so too — if perhaps less dramatically — are the predicaments of other characters like Arjuna and Drona, Gandhari and Dhritarashtra, Kunti and Vidura.
For the Mahabharata junkie, one of the best ways of appreciating the epic’s complexities is to read “perspective retellings” centred on the lives and experiences of specific characters. Such works (whether narrated in the first or the third person) affix us to the consciousness of a single protagonist and can be very effective when the reader is already familiar with the story as told in the conventional way. It’s possible, then, for retellings to open new doors — allowing us to grasp a range of motivations and compulsions.
Versions of the Mahabharata told from the perspective of individual characters can be traced back nearly 2,000 years, when the legendary playwright Bhasa portrayed Duryodhana as a generous prince, mindful of family honour, in "Urubhanga". In more recent times, dozens of notable books have appeared in all the major Indian languages (though unfortunately for the English-language reader, few have been translated well). Shivaji Sawant’s Mrityunjay (Marathi) is a powerful account of Karna’s tribulations, while Pratibha Ray’s Yajnaseni (Oriya) and PK Balakrishnan’s Ini Nhan Urangatte (“And Now Let me Sleep”; Malayalam) leave the stage to the Pandavas’ queen Draupadi. Even non-Indian writers who possess only a passing acquaintance with Hindu mythology have been tempted by the epic’s possibilities, often with amusing results — a couple of decades ago an American writer named Elaine Aron produced a florid work titled Samraj, which emphasised the roles of Yudhisthira and Draupadi as emperor and empress of a new world (along with much eyebrow-raising sexual imagery involving plough-and-furrow metaphors, and even a small part for a slave-girl imported from Egypt!).
For me, the value of a really good perspective retelling was demonstrated by Prem Panicker’s ‘Bhimsen’ — an excellent transcreation in English of MT Vasudevan Nair’s Malayalam Randamoozham, written in the voice of the second Pandava, Bhima. In mainstream renderings Bhima is frequently depicted as a gluttonous oaf or a comic foil, but Nair turned him into a sensitive, thoughtful figure — a large-hearted and brutally frank man with a minor complex about being in the shadow of his brothers Yudhisthira and Arjuna.
Reading this narrative, one must constantly remember that each incident is filtered through the prism of Bhima’s biases and prejudices. This isn’t always an easy idea to process. On his blog, where his transcreation was initially serialised, Panicker has often been asked to elaborate on events that Bhima has no firsthand knowledge of. (If I had read "Bhimsen" at age 10, I would have been incensed by it, for Karna is portrayed almost throughout as an arrogant, mean-spirited man constantly trying to rise above his station in life. But then, Bhima has no reason to view “the suta” in any other terms.) It’s easy to see that if you gather together enough retellings of the calibre of Randamoozham and Mrityunjay, you get a tantalising, Rashomon-like collection of conflicting perspectives on the same events.
Such retellings are also important reminders of how malleable old stories are, especially in a country as culturally and socially diverse as India. As you travel from one region to another, plot specifics vary, as do people’s perceptions of different characters. Duryodhana might be the villain-in-chief in any conventional version of the Mahabharata, but there are temples in Kerala and Uttaranchal where he is worshipped as a just ruler. And not all Mahabharata traditions subscribe to a misty-eyed view of the Pandavas as heroes. Tribal communities who revere Ekalavya as a folk-hero — cruelly denied the status of the world’s greatest archer — are likely to think of Arjuna and Drona as privileged schemers.
Now we have Maggi Lidchi-Grassi’s The Great Golden Sacrifice of the Mahabharata, which is described as a “reinterpretation of Vyasa’s epic from Arjuna’s point of view”. This is misleading on two fronts. First, Arjuna isn’t the book’s only narrator: the initial hundred or so pages of the story are narrated in the voice of Drona’s son Ashwatthama, who is a relatively peripheral character until the end of the war (when he puts the finishing touches to the macabre ritual sacrifice of Kurukshetra). And second, for most of their narratives, Arjuna and Ashwatthama serve the function of all-knowing storytellers rather than individuals with limited perspectives.
Lidchi-Grassi’s Ashwatthama begins on a genuinely personal note: in the very first sentence, he wonders if his childhood yearning for the taste of milk — and the effect this had on his father’s life — directly caused the war. This is a pertinent thought in a story where the competing desires and weaknesses of different characters build towards a cataclysm. But the intimate tone doesn’t last long; Ashwatthama soon becomes a practically omniscient narrator. He knows the secret of Karna’s birth from the outset, because Kunti had conveniently confided in Ashwatthama’s mother Kripi (and Kripi had passed the story on to her son). He knows that the Pandavas did not perish in the house of lac because he chances to overhear Vidura whisper the truth to Bheeshma. More improbably, after Draupadi’s swayamvara, when Krishna and Balarama follow the five Pandavas (dressed as Brahmins) back to their hut, Ashwatthama simply tags along — thus witnessing firsthand a historic meeting between cousins as well as the consequence of Kunti asking her sons to share their “alms”.
Thus, a straightforward retelling (and one that is often very good on its own terms) masquerades as something it isn’t. An effective perspective telling must have immediacy — the narrator should focus on relating his own reaction to each event as it occurs — but this one often refuses to stay in the moment, because the storytellers are too conscious of how well-known their story already is. “Uncle Vidura came from Hastinapura with Duryodhana’s now-famous invitation,” (italics mine) says Arjuna. In Nair’s Randaamoozham, Bhima too occasionally breaks the fourth wall between himself and the reader, but it’s done for a good reason: to de-mythologise some of the stories that have been told about the Pandavas. (The bards who sang about us had colourful imaginations, he often says wryly — we weren’t really that glamorous.) But when Arjuna in Lidchi-Grassi’s retelling begins narrating episodes with “Everybody knows the story of how...”, this serves no useful purpose, and even has the effect of diluting the value of his perspective. Some episodes are also strangely inert and passionless — when Arjuna goes to fetch water in the forest and discovers Nakula and Sahadeva lying dead near the lake, we don’t get a real sense of his grief at the sight.
That said, there is much to appreciate in Lidchi-Grassi’s book. I thought it particularly noteworthy that nearly half of its 900 pages deal with the period after the war, as the Pandavas come to terms with their pyrrhic victory, and face the ambiguous consequences of having performed their dharma. Her prose is elegant and vivid — comparable to that of Ramesh Menon’s fine two-part The Mahabharata: A Modern Rendering — and there are little moments of creative inspiration that humanise the characters (as when Yudhisthira wryly tells his dog Raja to consider himself lucky: “you don’t even know who your cousins are”). There are also many fine character sketches, such as this one of the self-deceiving king Dhritarashtra welcoming the Pandavas to Hastinapura for the ruinous game of dice:
“He played the overjoyed uncle — and he was overjoyed. There were tears in his eyes as he fumbled to embrace us and ceremoniously take the perfume from our hair. Yes, real tears, and I doubt not that one in three ran in affection and remorse, the other two in joyful foresight of grabbing all we had for Duryodhana. Uncle Dhritarashtra was the most muddled old fool in the world, and never had his mixture of sentimentality and guile been so grotesque.”
What I found most provocative about this book, however, is the Preface where Lidchi-Grassi allows herself a personal aside. Recalling her youth in post-WWII Paris, having recently learnt about the horrors of the concentration camps, she mentions her discovery of Sri Aurobindo’s Essays on the Gita – a source of comfort in a world gone insane. Describing Arjuna’s famous dilemma as the Pandava and Kaurava armies face each other on the battlefield, she writes, “What finally releases him is something from another dimension, a vision in which the terrifying ambiguities of morality are somehow resolved. I cannot begin to describe the catharsis this passage produced in me [...] I became convinced that the answers I sought could only come from another plane.”
To the irreligious mind this is a vague-sounding passage (contrast it with Amartya Sen’s thesis that the Gita can be read as a conversation between equals and that Arjuna’s pacifist argument is never lost), but it can at least be understood in terms of one person’s spiritual epiphany. However, Lidchi-Grassi then goes on to draw whimsical parallels between Kurukshetra and the Second World War, saying that the events leading up to the latter represented “a tremendous clash between the forces of darkness and the forces of light such as takes place in a time of changing Dharma”.
To an extent such hyperbole is understandable coming from someone who was at an impressionable age in post-war Europe and had a second-hand brush with the Holocaust (one of Lidchi-Grassi’s cousins was an Auschwitz survivor). But when she casts Winston Churchill in the role of the “champion of the Light” (with Hitler as the “Asura’s agent”) and remarks that his war speeches “had the unmistakeable ring of an inspired mystic” – implying that he was guided by an otherworldly power much the same way Arjuna was guided by Krishna – it’s possible to wonder if an analogy has been stretched too far.
This is not to gloss over the dangers posed by fascist Germany. You don’t have to be a moral absolutist to see that Nazism was a tremendous evil that had to be fought to preserve ideals of equality and freedom, and there is a certain poetic sense in which it can be said, with hindsight, that the things we most value in human civilisation were on the brink in the 1930s – that a German victory might have ushered in something resembling a Kaliyug. But simplistic talk about “light and darkness” is never a useful way of examining the vicissitudes of history, and on another level it’s a disservice to the Mahabharata too. It’s also typical of the many attempts to make ancient texts relevant to our own lives and times in very specific – and occasionally contrived – ways.
It’s no secret that religious leaders around the world constantly reinterpret their texts to bring them in line with modern thought. (A venerable old book has a passage recommending that a husband horse-whip his wife for a transgression like mismanaging the household funds? How embarrassing – but never mind. What it can mean is that he make the symbolic gesture of whipping, perhaps by lightly brushing her with a feather or whatever useful implement is at hand.)
But the Mahabharata presents a special case study: its mercilessly questioning tone is very different from that of most other ancient literature, and it has a bleak sense of humour – which is one reason why much of the contemporary reference-making is done in a playful, tongue-in-cheek vein. The day after Baba Ramdev was arrested while disguised in a woman’s salwar-kameez, a leading newspaper offered a humorous edit quoting the epic on the subject of cross-dressing. (“Arjuna wearing red silk, long hair and bangles as Brihannala hid his ‘masculine glory’ without eclipsing it ‘like Ketu covering the full moon’.”) Shashi Tharoor’s The Great Indian Novel (literally “The Maha Bharat Novel”) invented characters who were amalgams of Bheeshma and Mahatma Gandhi, Karna and Jinnah, Duryodhana and Indira Gandhi, but it didn’t feign a direct connection between the epic and contemporary politics; the tone was ironic rather than pedantic.
There are, of course, more solemn, scholarly attempts such as Gurcharan Das’s The Difficulty of Being Good, which brings the lessons of Vyasa’s epic to bear on such aspects of modern life as corporate governance and ethics (even likening Anil Ambani’s feelings about his elder brother to Duryodhana’s envy). But even Das’s book does acknowledge the many moral ambiguities of the epic. “[The concept of] Dharma is at the heart of the poem; it is not only untranslatable, but the Mahabharata’s characters are still trying to figure it out at the end.”
The contemporary reader would do well to remember that the Mahabharata can be read as a work completely shorn of supernatural elements; in fact, it’s highly probable that that’s how it was first read. There are references in medieval literature to a much shorter critical text called the Jaya, which made no mention of such miracles as the vastra haran incident, and in which Krishna is a shrewd Yadav chieftain, not the Vishnu avatar with a beatific smile. Bhasa’s plays and contemporary books like Randamoozham draw on this text, fleshing out the quotidian aspects of the story, stressing the human conflicts.
Read in this way, the Mahabharata is a fluid work of literature, with interpretations that can range from Kamala Subramaniam’s sentimental-idealistic view of the characters to Iravati Karve’s anthropological take in Yuganta, which analyses the ulterior motives of the most revered figures, placing even Krishna under the microscope. Lidchi-Grassi’s retelling repeatedly informs us that Krishna is “beyond Dharma”, but I think he becomes much more interesting if one sees him not as a smug God — forever in control, a puppet-master — but as a man with godlike qualities and a powerful understanding of the hearts and minds of other people; or even an avatar who has only a dim view of the role he must play in the larger picture, and who is frequently swayed by the human dramas around him. (Ramesh Menon’s retelling portrays a lonely, almost frightened Krishna preparing to impart the Bhagavad Gita to Arjuna, knowing that this is the test his whole life has led up to.)
There’s an intriguing passage in The Great Golden Sacrifice where Arjuna, sulking because Krishna perceives Karna to be a serious threat (and possibly a greater warrior than himself), wonders:
“For if Arjuna was not the greatest archer in the world, who was he?”
This question — and the related questions of identity, self-doubt and affirmation implicit in it — cuts very close to the true heart of the epic. This is a story about people discovering their potential for good and bad, grappling with duty and conscience. Celestial voices may herald Yudhisthira as the son of Dharma (and hence the embodiment of truth and righteousness) at the moment of his birth, but for the man himself this oppressive responsibility is something he must struggle with all his life. Eventually, he becomes a worthy king — even something resembling a “Dharmaraj” — not by divine right but by slowly, painfully accepting the many weaknesses in his character and finding ways to overcome them.
This makes it possible to read the Mahabharata as the first great literary novel, relevant to us not in a facile, connect-the-dots sense but in a more general, abstract way: for the glimpses it offers into the hearts, minds and personal conflicts of an array of very different individuals – their encounters with their circumstances and how they transcend or succumb to them.
It’s precisely because these characters are so fresh and modern that fine academicians like Karve and Krishna Chaitanya have been able to bring the rigour of contemporary literary criticism to their studies. In The Mahabharata: A Literary Study, Chaitanya treats the epic as a poem where “heterogenous material accumulating over a long time-span was given an unmistakable unity, a focal thrust of meaning” by an editor (or vyasa), and points out that it uses sophisticated literary devices such as foreshadowing and recurring imagery. Karve similarly views the original Jaya as one of the last examples of a pragmatism in Indian literature that was subsequently lost; in later years, she writes, Indian literature became more sentimental, more centered around “the dreamy escapism of the Bhakti tradition”.
This is not to say that a "realist" Mahabharata is inherently superior to the grander, more fantastical one that most readers are familiar with. (Many such tellings, including the ones by Subramaniam, Menon and Lidchi-Grassi, offer powerful insights into the human condition even as they stick with the God-as-charioteer theme.) Both approaches have different strengths and both tell us valuable things about the processes by which stories are generated and acquire new meanings. But at a time when fundamentalism has become almost fashionable, when people take chauvinistic pride in sacred texts that pontificate and preach, it’s important not to undermine the worth of an old story that follows the “show, don’t tell” principle and provides more questions than answers.
A few years ago I wrote a facetious blog post quoting from Kisara Mohan Ganguli’s translation of an episode where Karna, angry with his charioteer Shalya, launches a surreal attack on the morals of the women of Shalya’s kingdom Madra. Among other things, he denounces the Madraka ladies for “eating beef with garlic and boiled rice”, “singing while drunk obscene songs of diverse kinds” and “in intercourse being absolutely without any restraint”.
Someone commented on the post, expressing deep disappointment that the noble Karna would insult women in this fashion. Whereupon I began a reply: “There are many instances of Karna saying provocative things not because he really believes in them but because it provides an outlet for the anger and resentment that he carries inside him. In any case, don’t make sweeping judgements based on things said in the heat of battle.”
Halfway through the comment, I smiled to myself; here I was, in my thirties, still mounting a defence of a childhood hero! But I also realised that this was the sort of analysis I wouldn’t have been able to conduct at age nine (when I would have been more likely to turn a blind eye to the passage) – as an adult, I had a better understanding of the idea that being a “good” person doesn’t mean that you always say and do “good” things. Time and age do alter the perspective tellings we carry around in our heads, and the Mahabharata is a vast enough work to accommodate them all.