For several years now, my father and I have been eyeing a rexine-bound, 19 volume set of The Critical Edition of the Mahabharata, published by Pune’s Bhandarkar Institute, with the same lust that Duryodhana had reserved for Draupadi. The prohibitive price tag (in excess of Rs 25,000), the additional expenditure on a new Bhima of a bookshelf it would necessitate, and the modest dimensions of our home prove to be dogged deterrents. My mother, perhaps secretly happy, offers the consolation that it’s anyway not a great idea to have a copy of the epic in the house, for it brings ill luck and irreconcilable rancour.
As a result of a quandary worthy of Bhishma-like gravitas, and having bought into the ancient epic’s claim that, ‘What is here is found elsewhere, what is not here is nowhere’, both father and son are by now so obsessed with The Mahabharata that we find it impossible to read any other work of fiction.
We are not alone. Even 2,000 years after the grand epic was compiled, India and Indians continue to be under the spell of The Mahabharata, differing only in degree. Of all ancient texts known to mankind, this never-ending poem is by far the most remarkable. It runs into some 100,000 stanzas, which makes it eight times as voluminous as the two Homeric epics Iliad and Odyssey put together, and represents a link between a civilisation’s hoary past and present.
The Mahabharata is not only the story of warring Kuru princes, but reflective of the soul of religious and ethical thought and practice in the context of social and political ideals of a civilisation that has maintained an unparalleled continuity down the ages. This is perhaps why AK Ramanujan wrote that no Hindu ever reads The Mahabharata for the first time. Often termed the Fifth Veda, its uniqueness lies in the fact that it still throbs with life in the lives of hundreds of millions—not merely of the Indian intelligentsia, but also the unlettered masses, the ‘hewers of wood and carriers of water’. As the Mahabharata scholar Stanley Rice wrote, it is the perennial fount from which draught after draught never quenches an insatiable thirst.
Not surprisingly, Gurcharan Das’ The Difficulty of Being Good, a rare non-academic interpretation of The Mahabharata, was one of India’s runaway bestsellers in 2009. While the lead actors in Greek epics are preoccupied with the conquest of ideal beauty, The Mahabharata’s superheroes, all of them possessing unimaginable yogic powers that render them almost invincible, are motivated by the realisation of Dharma, or the ideal life. Like millions of Indians today, these superheroes believe themselves to be in a cosmic cauldron, to be cooked by Time to perfection.
They are, therefore, duty bound to act. Every character in The Mahabharata acts in full knowledge of the consequences of his or her actions. The five Pandavas marry Draupadi despite their awareness that she was born to annihilate the Kurus. Yudhishthira, the eldest of the five, plays that fateful game of dice knowing he’d lose the kingdom to their Kaurava cousins, who refuse to return any authority to them even after their exile term is over. Clan elder Bhishma, guru Drona and the five’s lost brother Karna all know the outcome of the futile battle, but side with the incumbent Kauravas against the righteous Pandavas. The more righteous you are, as the Pandava super-warrior Arjuna finds, the more rigorous the tests become. There’s no giving up. And Time keeps you in the pressure cooker that much longer for it.
There is no retirement for Bhishma, who must witness the destruction of a clan he was vow-bound to protect. Yudhishthira, who embodies Dharma, is tested even once he reaches the heavens. No one has it easy. If you do, there’s almost always a setback. The creation of Indraprastha brings with it the game of dice; the Pandava’s Kurukshetra victory is accompanied by the death of Draupadi’s five sons.
One of my favourite passages in the epic comes close to the end—in the Mausala Parva. Arjuna goes to Dwaravati, grief stricken on hearing of the death of his charioteer-philosopher-guide Krishna, to bring back the women, children and elderly to the safety of Indraprastha. Now, the victorious Arjuna, perhaps the greatest warrior ever, finds himself unable to even string his divine bow Gandiva. Thus is Indra’s colossal son humbled; a motley bunch of robbers waylay the caravan, abducting some ladies from Krishna’s harem even as others are frightened into going with them. Arjuna realises that with his spiritual anchor in Krishna gone, his time is up too. His story has been cooked.
The Mahabharata’s narrative meanders at a leisurely pace, but without losing the central thread of Dharma, recounting for readers along its way thousands of sub-plots, many of which serve as eloquent treatises in themselves on religion, jurisprudence, rituals and the larger cosmic order. Characters such as Karna not only have multiple layers, they are brought to life by the constraints of competing moral objectives, all of which help current-day Indians make sense of several contemporary issues such as caste equations.
Commenting on the poetic quality of The Mahabharata, Aurobindo Ghosh, a prolific poet himself, writes: ‘It is a far greater creation than The Iliad. Both The Ramayana and The Mahabharata are built on an almost cosmic vastness of plan and take all human life (The Mahabharata all human thought as well) in their scope and touch on things which the Greek and Elizabethan poets could not even glimpse… The whole poem has been built like a vast national temple unrolling slowly its immense and complex idea from chamber to chamber, crowded with significant groups and sculptures and inscriptions, the grouped figures carved in divine or semi-divine proportions, a humanity aggrandised and half uplifted to superhumanity and yet always true to the human motive and idea and feeling, the strain of the real constantly raised by the tones of the ideal.’
Is Ved Vyasa the greatest storyteller in history? Going by the live relevance of his work, the very place and resonance that it has in Indian life on a day-to-day and issue-to-issue basis, one could even venture to say he’s the greatest poet alive.