Mahabharata: A book of hope, not fear

In my view, if one tries reading the Gita in the flow of the epic, it makes more sense than it might otherwise in its dispassionate loftiness.
Image used for representational purposes only.
Image used for representational purposes only.

It has long surprised me that many people in North India do not keep a copy of the Mahabharata at home because of a local belief that, as a book of war, it will cause trouble in the family. What they may keep are the Bhagavad Gita and the Ramayana. But is the Ramayana also not a story of family politics leading to trouble? Moreover, the Mahabharata is alternatively known as ‘Jaya’ or Victory, which is wholly positive.

Purely as a cultural observation and without judgement, I find this apparent fear of the Bharatam missing in the South where homes are decorated with an inlaid wooden wall plaque of the ‘Parthasarathiyam’. It is the scene of Krishna as Arjuna’s charioteer at Kurukshetra. People even gift the Parthasarathiyam at weddings. This is because the image embodies the holy writ of the Bhagavad Gita and is considered an auspicious and inspiring sight for the eye to rest on during the journey of life.

Indeed, the epic is a marvellous treatise on anger management and a stark guide on what we could do and must not do. A striking example is the contrast between Duryodhana and Yudhishthira.

Unlike Duryodhana, Yudhishthira, although a brave warrior, is a sworn ‘peacenik’, always seeking to diffuse situations and tone things down to a state of equanimity. But it does not come easy. Draupadi and Bhima constantly reproach him and quarrel with him about his pacifist attitude and bemoan their terrible fate. Those years of exile are a long, heavy period of reproach for Yudhishthira and it is quite remarkable that he does not go to pieces but gently talks himself and the others out of it. Sometimes, when he is particularly down and out, he happens to be counselled by Rishi Markandeya who tells him stories to restore perspective.

Rishi Markandeya visits the Pandavas twice in exile, once in the Kamyaka forest to the west of the Kurukshetra plain, and another time in the Dvaitavana forest on the border of the Thar Desert. One time, his visit coincides with Krishna’s. This rishi is a great favourite of theirs as he is an excellent storyteller. They like to sit around him and enjoy long story sessions. It conjures up a lovely picture of the Pandavas listening to stories in the forest including important tales like that of the Ramayana and Nala-Damayanti.

We, too, may think poorly of Yudhishthira for his weakness for dice and for gambling it all away. Moreover, he blots his stainless record of honesty by murmuring on the battlefield that the elephant Ashvatthama was dead, implying that it was Drona’s son. But in the end, it is Yudhishthira who goes to heaven in Indra’s chariot for sticking to his principles. I have often wondered about this aspect of Yudhishthira’s character and found some fascinating clues in a passage of the Mahabharata called the ‘Yaksha Prashna’ or the Yaksha’s Questions.

The episode of the Yaksha Prashna, when read in full, is a thought-provoking passage on life choices. It takes place between Yudhishthira and his heavenly father, Yama, disguised as a ‘Yaksha’ or spirit.

In the middle of a war story we hear the question, “What is the highest duty in the world?” and Yudhishthira’s moving answer, “To abstain from injury is the highest of all duties.” Yudhishthira’s sensible, insightful nature shines through in this passage and sets a gold standard of good behaviour worthy of a ‘Dharmaputra’.

Such ethical epiphanies could sometimes be missing from the renditions of the Bharatam that we may have read, and so we may not be up to speed with the saar or essence of the epic or realise how cleverly Vyasa weaves in values through stories. I would go so far as to say that the Bhagavad Gita, if read by itself and out of its epic context, can be heavy reading. Whereas reading the Yaksha Prashna is much easier and can be taught from a young age.

In my view, if one tries reading the Gita in the flow of the epic, it makes more sense than it might otherwise in its dispassionate loftiness.

My bank manager, in his late thirties, once said that he tried reading the Gita but felt it was “a big ego trip” by Krishna. We talked about it. I shared my feeling that when we read it within the epic, we are able to grasp its nature as a powerful pep talk and can appreciate how Krishna offers emotional counsel to the unhappy Arjuna. Centrally, he tries to give Arjuna a long perspective on life, how to live it, and its often unpleasant duties, and assures him of his total spiritual support. The Vishwaroopam is a grand bonus that takes things to the ultimate level. The Gita’s poetic beauty, when explained to us, is another reason for its popularity. My bank manager seemed open to the idea.

Meanwhile, I find that I don’t relate to Bhishma. Perhaps because of his own sacrifice, he took a narrow view of duty, sacrificing the happiness of others for the Kaurava throne, and most shocking of all, did nothing to stop the disrobing of Draupadi. But close to death, from his bed of arrows, he gives wonderful advice to Yudhishthira and imparts the Vishnu Sahasranamam. We can hear this power paean to Krishna on YouTube chanted by the late M S Subbulakshmi. The Bharatam is thus a part of daily life through books, music and art, and nobody, as far as I know, has come to grief specifically because of it.

The most haunting passage for me is the passing of Krishna at the end, after more than 125 years on Earth. It is heartbreaking to read but I would not miss the complex and intense emotional journey of the Bharatam for anything. I am happy to have it at home to re-read as much for its exciting narrative pace as for its inspiring passages, not forgetting Krishna’s promise of hope that

“I will appear from age to age.”

Renuka Narayanan
(shebaba09@gmail.com)

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