There are four very great events in history, the siege of Troy, the life and crucifixion of Christ, the exile of Krishna in Brindavan and the colloquy with Arjuna on the field of Kuruksetra,” scribbled Sri Aurobindo in a notebook way back in 1913. He continued, “The siege of Troy created Hellas, the exile in Brindavan created devotional religion (for before there was only meditation and worship), Christ from his cross humanised Europe. The colloquy at Kurukshetra will yet liberate humanity. Yet it is said that none of these four events ever happened.”
That was the time when some intellectuals, in one of the 20th century’s periodical feats of materialism attempted to dismantle several pillars of faith on which civilisation and culture rested. But their zeal, even if quixotic, could be looked upon as a line of quest. But when a lawyer-politico attempts to humour us by associating Krishna with eve-teasers, when an avant-garde drama group associates the Pandavas demolishing a forest for founding their habitation with contemporary ecological misadventures, when novelists in several languages, Indian and English, find in Draupadi an opportunity to recreate her in the light of common psychology, it is time to wonder which, between our environmental and cerebral climates, had become more polluted.
Judging Draupadi: A number of contemporary novels, plays and poems in different languages have attributed to Draupadi of the Mahabharata, emotions and passions common to us. Her father, King Drupad, performed a sacrificial fire-rite wishing to have a son powerful enough to vanquish his enemy, Drona. Since no being short of an emanation of Shakti, the Female Divinity, could destroy the terrible evil that was Drona’s camp, from the fire emerged Draupadi, already a radiant young lady, along with a son.
Hence, before we pounce upon Draupadi armed with our concepts, we must remember that she was no human being. At the end of the battle when some of the ladies requested her to reveal her wizardry that could command allegiance of five husbands, she answered disarmingly, she could do that because she had no lust in her!
Over the millennia the two epics have inspired innumerable works of literature in every genre. They have also been retold by geniuses who have added new flavours to the original situations—Kamban in Tamil and Tulsidas in Hindi, so far as the Ramayana is concerned. They carried the epic situations to new heights through their lofty realisations; they did not degrade them through any puny sense of social realism. We have enough of social realism as well as cocktail of that and eroticism, surrealism and existentialism. We may leave the epics to rest in their own genre.
The episode of Ekalavya: Both Valmiki and Vyasa were realists. Facts are presented by them in a detached way. The princely forest-dweller Ekalavya had secretly learnt certain miraculous feats of archery taught by Drona only to select disciples. Confronted by the master, Ekalavya is ready to pay him his due. The latter demands his thumb and he readily sacrifices it. Surely, nobody can fail to sympathise with the young man and criticise Drona.
Even then we shouldn't ignore the backdrop. Ekalavya had disabled a dog from opening its mouth, applying a complex formula of archery that at once sealed its lips with a crisscross of seven arrows, simply because it had the audacity to bark at him. This is indication enough to make us wonder about the fate of forest-dwellers under him. There are two arguments in favour of Drona’s action. A rather light argument is, some occult techniques were Drona’s ‘copyright’; none should ‘steal’ them. The second, a serious one is, a guru in those days was not concerned with a disciple’s worldly success alone, but also with the consequence of his deeds. It is better if one was less successful than spiritually crushed by the success.
It is to be noted that Ekalavya continued to be an archer. Significantly, he participated in the Kurukshetra battle on the side of the Kauravas, the camp that Drona commanded for a while. But Ekalavya remains unique for his honesty and courage, independent of a later-day estimate of his greatness shadowed by contemporary bias.
We are not bound to look upon our epics as a repository of spiritual truths. We can regard them as ancient creative works containing elements of history. Or we may simply disregard them. But we cannot judge characters or incidents snatching them from their context and milieu.
Krishna the incredible survivor: Krishna is abused time and again in poetry and plays including films showing him as a young man dancing with damsels or with Radha. We forget that he was a small boy as long as he lived in Gopa. His education began only after he left for Mathura, put an end to the tyrant Kamsa and, arranged by his father, proceeded to the Gurukul of Sage Sandipani at Avantipura.
In fact, Radha does not appear anywhere in the three mythological works containing Krishna’s biographical information: Bhagavatam, Harivamsha and the Mahabharata. While his relationship with the Gopis as narrated by the Bhagavatam had an esoteric significance, although seen by the masses as happenings at the physical plane, Radha is nowhere in these works.
She is an experience, a revelation nonpareil of Divine Love that dawned in the consciousness of the post-Bhagavatam Vaishnava mystics.
But despite all kinds of popular treatment of Krishna, some even farcical, the Indian psyche had seen nothing but the supreme liberator in him, or rather something inexplicable in that character that dazzled through layers of ignorance heaped on it through the ages.
Let us not be ungrateful towards our heritage of mythology, and to the two epics in particular, the mighty base and succour for the growth of our literature, philosophy and all the aspects of our culture.
Eminent author and recipient of several awards including the Sahitya Akademi Fellowship