How to Escape the Curse

Wendy Doniger

  • The Mahabharata translated by John Smith
    Penguin, 834 pp, £16.99, May 2009, ISBN 978 0 14 044681 4

Many people in India believe that, because the Mahabharata – the ancient epic poem, in Sanskrit, about a disastrous fratricidal war – is such a tragic, violent book, it is dangerous to keep the whole text in your house; most people who have it stow one part of it somewhere else, just to be on the safe side. The Mahabharata, in any case, takes up quite a lot of shelf space: it contains about 75,000 verses – sometimes rounded off to 100,000 – or three million words, some 15 times the combined length of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, or seven times the Iliad and the Odyssey combined; and a hundred times more interesting.

It has remained central to Hindu culture since it was first composed, during the period from before 300 BCE to after 300 CE. A.K. Ramanujan used to say that no Indian ever hears the Mahabharata for the first time. For centuries, Indians heard it in the form of public recitations, or performances of dramatised episodes, or in the explanations of scenes depicted in stone or paint on the sides of temples. More recently, they read it in India’s version of Classic Comics (the Amar Chitra Katha series) or saw it in the hugely successful televised version, 94 episodes, based largely on the comic book; the streets of India were empty (or as empty as anything ever is in India) during the broadcast hours on Sunday mornings, from 1988 to 1990. Or they saw various Bollywood versions, or the six-hour film version (1989) of Peter Brook’s nine-hour theatrical adaptation (1985). And now they can read Chindu Sreedharan’s ‘Epicretold’, posted on Twitter, one 140-character tweet at a time.

The bare bones of the central story are these: the five sons of King Pandu, called the Pandavas, were fathered by gods: Yudhishthira by Dharma (the moral law incarnate), Bhima by the Wind, Arjuna by Indra (king of the gods) and the twins by the Ashvins (the Dioskuroi). All five of them married Draupadi. When Yudhishthira lost the kingdom to his cousins in a game of dice, the Pandavas and Draupadi went into exile for 12 years, at the end of which – with the help of their cousin, the incarnate god Krishna, who befriended the Pandavas and whose counsel to Arjuna on the battlefield is the Bhagavad Gita – they regained their kingdom through a cataclysmic battle in which almost everyone on both sides was killed.

But the story of the Pyrrhic victory of the Pandava princes constitutes just a fifth of the epic, its skeleton. Much of the flesh is supplied by myths, folk tales, rituals, histories, theology, philosophy, science, legal debates, poetry and just about any other form of cultural knowledge that anyone wanted to preserve in ancient India. Most of these episodes, many of them about women, are fairly securely hooked to the fabric of the plot: a question about the ancestors of the Pandavas inspires the narrator to tell the story of the birth of their ancestor, Bharata, from Shakuntala, the innocent maiden whom King Dushyanta seduced and abandoned (a story that captivated Goethe); Yudhishthira is consoled, after his own gambling disaster, by the tale of Nala, whose compulsive gambling lost him his kingdom and his wife Damayanti, until she managed to reunite them. Other stories are told as moral lessons to the human heroes and heroines, such as the tale of King Sibi, who chopped off his own flesh to feed a dove fleeing from a hawk (both birds turned out to be gods disguised in order to test him); and Savitri, whose steadfastness persuaded the god of death to spare her doomed husband. Philosophical and legal questions also arise out of the aporias of the plot and are answered in discourses that often go on for thousands of verses.

Above all, the Mahabharata is an exposition of dharma, including the proper conduct of a king, of a warrior, of an individual living in times of calamity, and of a person seeking to attain freedom from rebirth. Time and again, when a character finds that every available moral choice is the wrong choice, or when one of the good guys does something obviously very wrong, he will mutter, or be told, ‘Dharma is subtle (sukshma),’ thin and slippery as a fine silk sari, internally inconsistent as well as disguised, hidden, masked. People try again and again to do the right thing, and fail and fail, until they no longer know what the right thing is.

Whenever the Mahabharata is told or retold, the ethical and religious questions that it raises are given new, contemporary meanings. In 1989, the diplomat Shashi Tharoor retold the Mahabharata as The Great Indian Novel, in which the heroes are recast as thinly veiled forms of Gandhi, Nehru, Indira Gandhi and others. (The hero Karna, who, in the Sanskrit version, slices off the armour that grows on his body and fights against his brothers, appears as Jinnah, who, when he goes over from the Hindu to the Muslim side, seizes a knife and circumcises himself.)

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