It is difficult to date the Mahabharata. Experts believe that some of its earliest sections could be as old as three thousand years, if not older. Over a millennium, various Vyasas—literally narrators—went on adding lore and legends of their time. The tome in its present form was complete by about 300 BC and remains largely unchanged ever since. Relevance of its contents, however, is timeless.
The text itself is nearly twelve times bigger than the Bible and contains almost everything about life, death and eternity.
With the taciturnity of the tactful, a sentence in the book concedes, “What is found herein may also be found elsewhere,” but asserts in the very next line, “What is not found herein does not matter.” The declaration is made without a hint of pomposity. The last of the Vyasas is confident about the completeness of the volume.
The Vyasas who compiled, reviewed and updated the monumental work knew that they were mere storytellers. They had no pretense of having an agenda to change the course of history. The claim to divinity too was perhaps grafted into the volume much later. The Vyasas were just narrating legends so that generations to come would read or hear their tales and find solace in the fact that their predicaments are not new. Gods have been fallible. Heroes, too, are human, all too human. History ultimately is indeed His Story: It is His screenplay, His direction, and everyone plays the role Destiny has assigned to disappear afterwards into eternity. Later Hindu priests would insult the memory of the creators of Mahabharata by calling them foxes, the Vyas Rishis who howl in the darkness without the light of religion to guide them. Mahabharata is as much about forces of profanity as graces of piety.
Apart from being Itihas—Sanskrit term for ‘this is what happened’—the Mahabharata is a book of philosophy, as also a religious text. The literary merit of the work remains unsurpassed. The section of Bhagvad Gita—the Celestial Song—captures the inherent music of words in such captivating manners that meaning is absorbed without understanding the terms. Little wonder, Arjuna acquires the capacity to see the cosmos in the person of Krishna upon listening to the sermons of Bhagvad Gita.
Chanted properly, right words can enchant and lift the listener to a completely different plane. BP Koirala mentions somewhere that the music of Pandit Ravishankar’s sitar exposed him to the beauty of divinity. Howsoever perfect, musical instruments are manmade objects. The sound and silence of living beings can capture infinite musical notes and catch every hue of emotion in all their majesty.
The Mahabharata is also an epic—a collection of epics would perhaps be a better characterization—in the western sense of the term where a hero rises against all odds but finally succumbs to his own minor frailty as the world around him crumbles. Bhishma, Drona, Karna, Yudhisthir, Arjun, Eklavya and every other warrior live through struggles of epic proportions. Like any other wars of human history, nobody comes out clean from the war of Mahabharata.
Bhisma sacrifices Dharma to protect his oath. Drona is complicit in blatant violations of the norms of war. Faced with a choice between righteousness and friendship, Karna opts for the latter and falls on the warfront. Yudhisthir is Dharmaraj, but he gambles away the queen even after he had lost the kingdom and agrees to utter a white lie to disorient his guru on the battlefield. With Krishna as his charioteer, Arjun can do no wrong but he seldom does anything right to fight the dirty war, either. Consumed by his urge to master archery, Eklavya becomes the best bowman in history only to surrender it all to the ghosts of his imagination when Drona unabashedly asks for his thumb in fees for services never rendered.
All human emotions appear in their magnified form. Insatiable greed for glory in Duryodhana, unquenchable thirst of recognition in Karna, remorse and vengefulness of Bhim, illusions of infallibility in Yudhisthir, and debilitating doubts alternating with fierce determination in Arjuna add multiple layers of complexity to the grand narrative. However, peril of humiliation is the thread that binds all events, emotions and their effects in Mahabharata. If Ramayana is a story of struggles for honor, Mahabharata tells tales of humiliation and its consequences in a magnificent manner.
Food, water, procreation and fear are fundamental urges of all living beings. Humanity rises and falls when it strikes back in revenge of humiliation or struggles to either gain or restore honor. No wonder, all history is history of warfare; Marx’s depiction of history as ‘class struggle’ is a political rhetoric rather than statement of scholarly analysis. Peace is often an interlude that victors and victims alike use in preparation of yet another war to ‘end all wars,’ which only reactivates the endless cycle of honor and humiliation.
The violent conflict that consumed lives of over 14,000 Nepalis, majority of them innocent civilians and non-combatants, is on the verge of conclusion as cantonments where Maoist fighters had been interned for four years passes into the hands of Nepal Army. The promise of peace appears alluringly close with the formulation of a new Constitution within grasping distance. However, dark clouds hover behind the silver lining and it has nothing to do with risks of tribal uprisings or fears of fragmentation that federalism may induce in the polity. Pieces of peace would fall apart only if humiliation is heaped upon Maoists combatants going back home with shards of shattered dreams in their otherwise broken hearts and agitated minds.
Sustainable peace will depend a lot upon the ability of the Maoist vanguard in weaving yarns to reassure former combatants that their sacrifices have not been completely in vain. For their own good, anti-Maoist forces would do well to refrain from heaping scorn upon the disillusioned.
In traditional political discourse, honor and humiliation seldom figure as motive forces of history. Honor goes to the victorious. The vanquished are fated to endure all humiliations and wait for a savior to restore their honor. In Hindu traditions, the wait can last as long as an epoch for the Divine to intervene: Sambhavami yuge yuge, says the Incarnate in the Gita. That may have been true in earlier ages. Attention spans of living beings have since shortened and people tend to lose their patience a lot faster. Be it in religion or in politics—the two streams of human life mingle and separate in a haphazard manner—the scorned tend to rush towards whoever can promise them instant salvation.
Baba Ramdev offers wellness in a quick package and has become a rage on the strength of his promise. The ‘Double Shree’ Ravishankar quenches the thirst for meaning in ordinary lives. Shopping malls in developing countries are islands of opulence where the lower middleclass go to have a glimpse of consumerist heaven. A Smart-phone—the name itself is extremely suggestive—assures instantaneous suaveness. What did the Maoists do in the mid-nineties to delude energetic youngsters into taking up weapons rather than implements of agriculture or tools of industry? The ideological wares that these ‘political entrepreneurs’ sold in the countryside had perhaps more to do with restoration of dignity than prospects of prosperity.
Critics of suicide bombers sometimes claim that Islamic preachers exploit the gullibility of Muslims and sell the promise of heaven after death to starry-eyed youths. Such an assertion may have an element of truth, but it is far from a complete explanation. Fear of retaliatory violence upon family members also may partly be responsible for desperate acts of mindless violence. However, it is the perception of having been insulted, whether real or imagined is mostly immaterial, that drives men into committing acts of madness. Without the disheveled mane of Draupadi constantly reminding the Pandavas of their dishonor, it is doubtful whether there would have been any Mahabharata.
In the coming days, mythmakers and storytellers of Maoists would need to go back to their core constituency among Dalits, Janjatis, and women, and reassure them that their collective sacrifices have been successful in overthrowing Hindu monarchy. It has liberated the downtrodden from shackles of tradition and opened doors of opportunity for the marginalized. For the Madheshis, the Maoists can be helpful in institutionalizing federalism. Madheshbadi leaders admit in private that Maoist politicos born even in Bahun families are far more amenable towards policies of inclusion than Madheshis, Janjatis and Dalits in traditional parliamentary parties. If that be so, honor those Madheshi combatants who fought alongside their Pahadi brethren in a spirit of camaraderie.
Sushil Koirala and his sycophants belong to hoary struggles of the past. Madhav Nepal and his minions are waiting for the irrelevance of their opportunistic sloganeering. Pushpa Kamal Dahal and his acolytes too would soon be history. For good or bad, the future course of Nepali politics would be decided by the decisions that released combatants make after going back to their villages that they had left nearly fifteen years ago.
Truth be told, all violent conflicts ultimately end up in failure. Despite Mahabharata, there is no dearth of ambitious Duryodhanas, mercenary Karnas, or learned Dronas in any society. The two great and the third mean—the Cold War was ignoble for preponderance of deception—wars have all failed to remove the fear of annihilation. Conflicts between countries decrease even as violence between communities rise. Maoist combatants played a historic role, denying them dignity could prove to be counterproductive for the entire society.
Lal contributes to The Week with his biweekly column Reflections. He is one of the widely read political analysts in Nepal.