Many centuries went into the making of the Mahabharata text available to us. With several generations contributing to its writing, the text inevitably acquired a polyphonic character. Treated as a philosophical treatise, it appears full of ambiguities and inconsistencies.
But there is another way in which, this monograph suggests, the text can be read: not as a treatise but as “a human document about people inhabiting a possible world.” Whether or not they ever existed historically, Mahabharata is peopled with characters that have moulded the Indian psyche. The reason is that they reflect ‘human condition’ in a manner that transcends narrow confines of immediate time and space.
Based on a lecture series delivered at the has in 1990, this monograph adopts an existentialist perspective to consider some major issues concerning the human condition: the nature of being human, interpersonal relationships and the purpose of life.
DR. Rekha Jhanji is a Professor of Philosophy at Punjab University, Chandigarh. Besides several papers in national and international journals, her publications include the books The Sensuous in Art: Reflections on Indian Aesthetics (has, Simla with Motilal Banarasidas, Delhi, 1989); Aesthetic Communication: The Indian Perspective (Munshiram Manoharlal, 1985); and Aesthetic Meaning: Some Recent Theories (Ajanta Publications, Delhi, 1980). She has also edited the anthologies Communications and the Arts (Ajanta, 1984) and Knowledge, Culture and Action: Essays in Honour of Dharmendra Goel (Ajanta, 1994).
Dr. Jhanji is presently engaged in the study of consciousness in Kashmir Saivism.
An Indian practically grows up listening to the stories of the Mahabharata. Each year the birth of kia is celebrated — temples are adorned with plaster castes, reprehending the different incidents of his life and cribs are made for the baby Krsna which the devotees feel honoured to rock. The battle of Kuruksetra is acted out in folk dances. Many of the incidents in the Mahabharata have become an essential part of almost all classical dance forms. The characters of the Mahabharata have become standards from which judgements on people and their actions are made. One is struck by the pervasive impact this work has on the life of an ordinary Indian. I have called it a “work” for want of an appropriate characterization for this treasure-trove of Indian culture. Commentators and critics have given various epithets to the Mahabharata. Even in the text itself it is sometimes called itihasa (history) sometimes puräna (legend) and sometimes kavya (epic). These diverse characterizations are a testimony of the immense richness of this text. In fact it is so multi-dimensional that putting it in the mould of either chronicles, mythology or legends would do violence to its richness. But one cannot completely escape labelling it, however open-ended the boundaries of this labelling. So I thought it better to turn to the characterization given to it by Vyasa himself. As against Saud, who calls it a purãpa and itihasa, Vyasa calls it a kãvya. Kavya is usually understood to be a poetical composition written by a sage, having a coherent plot. Epic is its nearest equivalent in English. For epic too, despite its ambiguity and open-endedness, is understood to be a long narrative poem recounting heroic deeds interspersed with legends, religious tales and moral theories. Now the question is whether we can call the Mahabharata an epic and one must be conscious of the problems associated with this label. For unlike most Epics, the Mahabharata has neither a single hero nor a single author. Consequently it cannot be treated like a literary text in the usual sense of the term. However, it does have a central plot which emerges despite the morass of subsidiary stories and/ legends. While reading the text one has often the feeling o being lost in the woods without a compass. But the moment one spots a Pãndava, a Kaurava, Vyasa or Krsna, one is reassured that one is not totally rudderless. Due to its amorphousness, many of the Western critics have called the Mahabharata a veritable chaos. But this chaos is more generated by our mental set the kind of expectations with which we approach this text. If we start by accepting the fact that it is a text which has sedimented over centuries and has been written by a number of authors, then we would not look for a unidimensional intentionality in its polyphonic character. Neither would we try to sift the “original text” from the “interpolations”.
A short while ago I said that the Mahabharata is not a literary text in the usual sense because it does not have a single author, consequently it is not possible to read into it an unequivocal aesthetic intention. But it does have a leading plot which unfolds and culminates, much like human life culminates into death. And despite the moral lapses by both the parties, it does claim to be a struggle for the victory of dharma (good) over adharma (evil). In a certain sense, in order to enter the world of the Mahabharata, we do need to treat it like an account of the journey of life of a certain people. This journey has certain spatio-temporal dimensions which take us into the society of the ancient times. Any society is a multilayered institution which sediments into it the dreams, hopes, fears and longings of a certain community. The Mahabharata is a chest which has preserved within it the cherished values, hopes, fears and passions of the ancient Indians over a couple of thousand years. Sukhthankar has very appropriately called the Mahabharata a “treasury”. I think there could be no better characterization for this store house of Indian culture. If a people are alive and their culture vibrant and pulsating, their treasury cannot be sealed and dated, it also keeps growing. New treasures are added to it, thus creating a symbiosis of past and present. While I am talking of the Mahabharata as a window into the ancient Indian psyche, I am by no means suggesting that the Mahabharata is a work of history and the incidents recounted in it are historical facts. In terms of its truth- claims it would be best to treat it like a work of fiction. Its principal author himself has called it a kavya. But it is obvious to any reader of ancient Indian texts that the boundaries between history, fiction and legends were not clearly marked in those times. All three percolated into one another in such a casual manner that the demand of strict subdivisions looks quite unfair and unnatural.
Historians are not clear about the exact date of the written text of the Mahabharata which, in all probability, started as an oral tradition. All they have said is that some sort of a written text existed in the 5th century A.D. And they are equally clear that additions kept being made into it well up to 1000 A.D. This only corroborates my point that the Indian texts have sedimented over long periods of time and the desire to fix them at one particular historical juncture would be a hopeless exercise. Thus the Mahabharata, like many other written texts of classical India, is a process which congealed into its present form in nearly two thousand years. Much before the written text came into being, it was preserved in the memory of the people by the wandering bards who sang it as a story of victory.
When one is faced with a text like the Mahabharata, which is neither written by one person nor written in the same historical epoch, there are bound to be inconsistencies and ambiguities in its import. Actually, a search for a monolithic intention in a collage done by numerous writers at different times may be a futile activity resulting in destruction of the uniqueness of this grandiose creation. But despite its consolidation over centuries, this text has maintained a specific identity however loosely knit its identifying unity. This text is also special because unlike many other epics of the world, it plays an important role in the psyche of the people even to this day. Sukthankar rightly said that whether we realize it or not, it remains a fact that we in India still stand under the spell of the Mahabharata. Despite its great antiquity, the Mahabharata is still alive and it is this living character of this text which made me delve into it.
There are many ways in which one can study an ancient text. One could be an antiquarian and take delight in the preservation of lost cultures. One could draw from it information about the society of bygone days — its economy, its social institutions and its mores. I had none of these objectives for undertaking this study. Neither am I qualified to study the antiquity from these vantage points, for I am neither an Indologist nor a social anthropologist or historian. Then why am I studying the Mahabharata? My interest in the Mahabharata stems from my desire to look upon it as a human document representing certain persons inhabiting a possible world. I have deliberately used the phrase “possible world” because I do not know whether the characters of the Mahabharata actually lived the way they are said to have lived or they are largely products of people’s phantasies. Their factual existence is not my concern. I am interested in them because they are an important part of our psychic furniture. The metaphysical and social beliefs propounded by them are still living. The methodology of my study could be placed somewhere between the realms of literary criticism and philosophy. The methodology is inspired by the nature of the text itself For in a sense the Mahabharata is like any fictional creation having a dominant plot and a set of human agents that execute this plot. But in another sense it is close to the puranic tradition because there is woven into its plot a rich collection of allegories and philosophical theories. All these put together, it projects a fascinating world picture.
I am aware that a fictional creation springs from a socio historical matrix and addresses itself to that particular historical milieu. But in spite of originating in a spatiotemporal context, it also projects problems and solutions which have a universal bearing. In its universality a fictional creation transcends its spatio-temporal matrix. Aristotle had this transcendence in mind when he held that poetry manifests the universal through a particular. In my study of the Mahabharata it is this transcendence and universality which has been the driving force. This universality stems from the universality of the human condition. What characterizes the human condition is man’s existential situation within the polarities of freedom and finitude. It is this dissonance between human autonomy and the constant fear of the unknown that generates the complex network of human choices. The interplay between human freedom and the overwhelming power of the unknown manifests itself in the Mahabharata through the polarities of puruákara (individual effort) on the one hand and daiva (destiny) and adr5ra (unknown) on the other. It is interesting to note that even though in their retrospective reflections the protagonists of this epic keep harping upon the insurmountable power of destiny, when confronted with a choice they behave as if nothing is preordained and they are completely autonomous. And it is this autonomy which highlights their essential humanity with its sublimity as well as depravity.
It must have become obvious from my use of the term, “human condition” that I have looked upon it largely from an existential point of view. By existence I mean nothing more than the concrete life as it is lived in the nexus of human relationships against the background of non-human life — nature. In these lectures I intend to view the human condition from the following three dimensions:
a) Being human;
b) Interpersonal relationships; and
c) The purpose of life.
These taken together would give us a glimpse of the psychic repertory if the people in the Mahabharata. I would devote one lecture each to these three facts of the human condition.
Finally let me mention that I have based these lectures on the text published by the gita press Gorakhpur. I have used M.N. Dutt’s English translation because it appeared to me the most faithful rendering of the Sanskrit version.
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