CHENNAI: In sage Markandeya’s retelling of the story of sage Koushiki and the hunter, there comes a point, after the hunter has educated the brahman about the ways of dharma and several other things including — yes — human anatomy, when Koushika becomes curious about the hunter’s own story. This curiosity originates in the simple fact that the hunter is a hunter, a working-class man and, according to the system, a shudra. Koushika basically asks the hunter, Being what you are, how is it possible that you are so erudite? Erudition, we have by now learned, is a quality and property of the brahmans. In Mahabharata-time, it is possible for kshatriyas, vaishyas and shudras to be erudite, but that erudition has to have a clear brahman source.
There is no native erudition — no culture, so to speak in the nonbrahman categories. It thus follows rather well — depressingly well, actually — that when the hunter explains the origins of his erudition, it starts with the revelation that he was a brahman in an earlier life. It is another brahman’s curse that made him lose his so-called station in the social order and led him to live as he is doing in this life. We are then told another rendition of a story that seems to be the staple narrative for vedic storytellers. A man of a high caste goes to the jungle to hunt for deer.
He looks at something shiny and thinks that it is a deer, and so he shoots an arrow, but then he discovers that he has, in fact, hurt a rishi. The rishi then curses the good man. Here, we have a story of redemption firmly set in motion. The same set of actions have happened with our hunter in his previous life, where he was a brahman. Attached to the kings, he had managed to learn to wield arms and enjoyed hunting expeditions with them.
The accident above happened on one such expedition. The only clemency provided to our hunter-brahman was that even as a hunter he was allowed to remain learned about the ways of dharma. This is the dispiriting side of the epic of Mahabharata, where the need to establish and maintain brahman hegemony is so urgent that any excellence by members of other varnas is necessarily shown to be derived from brahman sources, not in the sense that it has been transferred but in the sense that it has been borrowed (and must, therefore, be returned).
Knowing this story, Koushika consoles the hunter and advises him not to sorrow. This is, of course, unnecessary, for the savant hunter of Mithila is too wise to sorrow for things. He clarifies: ‘There is no end to dissatisfaction. Satisfaction is supreme happiness… I do not sorrow. I am waiting for the time to pass.’ It is notable how the hunter’s monkish mentality is removed from the cycles of desire and fulfillment to a degree that is unnatural even for the rigid brahmans of the day.
The writer is reading the unabridged Mahabharata