A lack of cultural grounding and humility has led to serious comprehension issues for most western reviewers of the Mahabharata.
Continued from Part 1
Mahabharata On the Ethical Plane
So, what does the MB mean on an ethical level? What is the eternal reason message for humanity across time and space which suffuses the entire corpus of the MB? According to the text itself in the Adi Parvan, the MB is the expression of a state of tension between two orders of beings- one moral, represented by the gods incarnating as heroic individuals; the other ‘unmoral’, represented by the Asuric or demonic forces. The object of the former is to destroy the latter and thus the MB is the archetype of all wars of the past, present, and the future. Sukthankar stresses that this aspect of the MB as a projection of the cosmic background is not well known or understood, despite being evident in the epic.
The cosmic nature of Krishna is that of an Avatara undoubtedly. He is the Ishwara, Brahman of the Vedantins, and Purusa of the Samkhyas. The Pandavas are incarnations of god on a lower plane: Yudhishtra of Dharma, Bhima of Vayu which makes him related to Hanuman, Arjuna of Indra, and Nakula-Sahadeva twins of the Asvins. Yudhishtra is a supreme embodiment of Dharma. But, why did he lie regarding Ashwatthama to Drona to disarm the latter, say the naysayers? Cherry-picking of Indian scriptures and massive texts of the MB can always project the narrow biases to create alternative narratives; these people fail grandly to understand the larger context and meaning. Arjuna is a favourite of Indra and is the only Pandava to visit Indraloka in a mortal frame.
The Kauravas are incarnations of the Asuras or the anti-gods. Kalipurushah and its inseparable associate Dvapara are the evil forces who are born as Duryodhana and Shakuni respectively. Danavas, Rakshasa, and the Daityas are born as Kshatriyas to help fight Duryodhana’s enemies. The Aranya Parvan of the MB, the episode of the twelve-year banishment of the Pandavas clearly reveals this. The blind king Dhritarashtra was an incarnation of Hamsa, a son of Arishta, who represents evil and calamity. The brothers of Duryodhana were Pulastya demons.
Sukthankar says that it is wrong to imagine these representations as ‘interpolations’, a favourite accusation of the Indologists. The ideas are deeply ingrained into the texture of the epic in the form received by us. The Western experts try to identify Krishna as a later interpolation into the text where a local god becomes an important character in the book. Some even try the opposite, Krishna was a normal chieftain and becomes a god in later corruptions. Sukthankar firmly rejects this and says that there is no passage in the epic which does not presuppose, or which contradicts, Krishna’s character as an incarnation of the Supreme Being- Vishnu or Narayana.
Like the Vedas, the MB is full of allusions of conflict between the Devas and the Asuras. The Vedas refer to the fights for the lordship of worlds, the MB conflict is for another principle; and that is Dharma or a moral-ethical law. The discussion of Dharma or the right conduct during different times is the underlying essence of the MB. The subtle message and the direct discourses on the topic of Dharma permeates the entire body of the MB. The conversation between Yudhishtra with his wife Draupadi, who questions him on the misery brought about by Dharma; and later, in the Yaksha-Prashna episode where a god puts him through a series of questions are the most detailed and nuanced discussions on Dharma in the entire MB.
Yudhishtra explains his life’s philosophy of Dharma to his wife:
‘I sacrifice because it is my duty to do so. I act virtuously not to reap the fruits of virtue, but because of my desire not to transgress the ordinances of the scriptures, and beholding also the conduct of the good and the wise. The man who wishes to reap the fruits of virtue is a trader in virtue.’
The MB is a story of the eternal conflict between Dharma and Adharma, between Light and Darkness, between Right and Wrong. But what constitutes Right, or Light, or Dharma is always a difficult question.
Sukthankar then dwells upon the various definitions of Dharma in the Indian context; this is my favourite part in the book. Manusmriti says, ‘The Veda, the sacred tradition, the customs of virtuous men, and one’s own pleasure, they declare to be visibly the four-fold means of defining Dharma.’
At the bottom of various definitions, Dharma is a belief in the conservation of moral values. Amongst the various definitions, Sukthankar finds that of Dr Bhagavan Das the best:
‘That which holds a thing together, makes it what it is, prevents it from breaking up and changing into something else; that characteristic function, fundamental attribute, and essential nature is its Dharma. Scientifically, it is characteristic property; morally and legally, it is duty; psychologically and spiritually, it is religion; and generally, it is righteousness and law. However, it is Duty above all.’
There are many instances in the MB where there is a serious questioning of Dharma: when Draupadi is at stake in the gamble; the killing of Drona and Bhishma through means which are questionable; the killing of Karna when he is stuck in unfortunate circumstances. Sukthankar says that these questions require a deep understanding of varnas, ashramas, rites, rights and duties of women, karma, sin, expiation, and so on to get a correct answer. In this regard, the answers are not outright justifications but come from deep and subtle levels, which is beyond the comprehension of any superficial reading of the text itself.
Human existence has four ends or goals: Dharma, Artha (material pursuits), Kama (sexual, emotional, and aesthetic pursuits), and Moksha. In Indian scriptures, there never has been a condemnation of material pursuits. Artha and Kama form the bedrock of human purpose, but the important thing is to look at all the four. Material pursuits are always in the framework of Dharma, and the final ideal is a transcendence-Moksha. The final purpose of a series of human lives is Moksha, a state of no further births and never an eternal life. Ashwatthama gets an eternal life as a curse for killing the sons of Pandavas in their sleep. Dharma should always be a source for Artha and Kama; if it comes to choose between the three, it is only Dharma. The Shanti Parvan of the MB, where Bhishma on his death bed advises Yudhishtra on statecraft and human values, is another wonderful exposition on Dharma.
Sukthankar says that, in fact, the constant endeavour of the poem is the consideration of four important subjects: the duties of a king (Rajdharma); conduct in times of stress and calamity (Apadadharma), emancipation from liability to rebirth, the highest goal of human existence; and liberality. Hence, there is a higher ethical purpose in the poem. In this projection on a cosmic background, and its dealing with the constant fight between Dharma and Adharma, the MB ends up having universal validity. The fixed axis on which the universe and existence gyrate is Dharma; this is the meaning of MB on an ethical plane. Get monthly updates
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MB on the Metaphysical Plane
Finally, Sukthankar explains the message of MB at the highest plane going beyond Dharma and Adharma. Dharma always wins in the end, but there is a transcendent unity where both Dharma and Adharma, the Good and the Bad, merge into one whole. This unity which is both transcendental as well as immanent in creation is the Brahman (also known as Paramatman, Atman). In the MB, there is a crystallization of the attempts made by the poets to understand, to formulate, and illuminate the elusive, paradoxical Reality. This Brahman is also the innermost Ruler of the individual in the deep recesses of the heart. And this Internal Ruler is none other than Krishna, says Sukthankar.
Krishna is always anathema to the western critics; one calls him a ‘tricky mortal’ and a ‘bizarre figure.’ That Krishna represents the Brahman, the ultimate Reality is a consistent message of the MB, says Sukthankar, and this has been the opinion of many-core traditional commentators and not of a select few at the periphery. The majestic sweep of this subtle Indian conception has left the western critics ‘nonplussed and dumbfounded’, says Sukthankar without mincing his words. In fact, the chaos which they discover in the MB is a chaos in their minds which cannot comprehend the subtility of MB. It is unfortunate that many Indians wear western glasses and join the chorus in applying strange reasoning to the MB. There is no confusion and incoherence in the MB if one approaches it with respect.
For the Indian poet-philosopher and for the ordinary folk, there is absolutely no inconsistency in the twin depiction of Krishna as a Man who has become God, and a God who has become a Man. It is only the modern critic who, with different modes of thought, different cultural backgrounds, different norms of expression, approaches the MB with a suspicion, hesitation, and superciliousness. In the process, he comes across irresolvable anomalies and the text goes out of bounds of his comprehension. Dissecting the book into parts and throwing away passages which one deems as ‘interpolations’ is not the way to understand the MB.
Arjuna and Krishna represent the Nara-Narayana– the Superman and the God respectively. God in the sense of a Supreme Reality- the Brahman, which as mentioned before, is both transcendent and immanent. The ancient commentators are clear about Arjuna and Krishna representing the Jivatman (individual soul) and the Paramatman. The Jivatman fights the great battle of life to reach the state of Paramatman. The stories of MB finally are about the quest of a human being’s need to break the thousands of obstacles to reach a final state of peace and happiness. The representation of Krishna and Arjuna is explicit in the MB about which there is no confusion. Other characters have such representations too, maybe not so explicit, says Sukthankar.
Dhritarashtra represents the lower ego blinded by foolish infatuation; he is the perfect symbol of the vacillating ego-centric self, pandering to its base passions. Duryodhana and his brothers represent the aggregate of egocentric desires and passions like lust, greed, anger, hate, envy, pride, vanity, and so on. The Gita is clear on the three most important reasons for the downfall of man which are lust, greed, and anger (Kama, Lobah, Krodha). The Kurukshetra is nothing but the psychological conflict within man of the good and evil propensities. Vidura, the wise half-brother of Dhritarashtra is the wise Buddhi, the one-pointed reason which guides the lower ones to take the correct route. Bhishma undoubtedly is the symbol of tradition, the time-binding element in human life and society, on matters concerning Dharma.
In the symbolism of the MB, finally it is Krishna, a symbol of the Changeless First Principle, free from the operation of Maya, beyond Good and Evil, who is the symbol of hope and destiny of humankind. He says categorically that godhead or ‘becoming as I am’ is a difficult ideal but possible to achieve for those who follow any of the lines of Karma, Bhakti, or Jnana Yoga with complete sincerity. The best symbolism which Sukthankar feels in the Kurukshetra war is the chariot of Arjuna, where Arjuna is the confused rider, the horses are the senses, and the charioteer Krishna is the Supreme Self.
One western critic Hopkins says, ‘if Vishnu commanded a hero to do this, who could question the right or the wrong.’ This is a typical western critic’s idea of Krishna prompting the heroes to commit certain supposed excesses in the Bharata war by calling it as a last resort of command of a deity and hence not have moral apprehensions. Sukthankar says this is ‘sheer nonsense’ emanating from a poor comprehension of the idea of Self with a capital ‘S’.
Many of the scenes of the MB appear unintelligible, uncouth, and grotesque to the superficial mind seeking inconsistencies. But they achieve a deep significance when the MB stories are analyzed on the metaphysical or the psychological plane of the mind. The keynote of the MB and the Gita is samatva, which means harmony or balance. Balance of personality which does not want a man to run away from his Dharma, but achieve a state of perfect happiness while living in the ambit of his varna and ashrama. The harmony of reason, will, and emotion is the way to a good life and reaching a destination which promises no return. The final statement of Sukthankar is a most brilliant summary of the book:
The chaos which modern critics think they see in the Great Epic of India is but a reflex of the state of their own mind and not in the work at all, which on the other hand is a mighty pulsating work, clothing in noble language and with pleasing imagery a profound and universal philosophy, a glowing and rhythmic synthesis of life.
Can there be a better statement?
I deeply enjoy English classic and non-classic literature and I have no problems in their inclusion in our school curriculums. However, like the ancient story, we are desperately searching for the jewels which are all the time around our necks. The MB is the brightest diamond of India standing unique, belonging to each one of us, irrespective of ‘caste’, ‘religion’, language, and gender. Did the Pandavas and Kauravas really exist; where was the actual Kurukshetra; was Draupadi born from a sacrifice; did gods freely mix with humans; did Arjuna really visit the heavenly abode of Indra – these are all interesting questions which Indians forever speculate about. However, our dealing with history is different from that of the west. As SN Balagangadhara says, Rama or Krishna may or may not have existed, but Ramayana and Mahabharata are always true. The west cannot come to grips with this because of cultural differences; The west (and their colonised cousins from India) simply use different paradigms in understanding and approaching our scriptures. When lenses from another culture come to use for the study of Indian scriptures, there is a tremendous amount of intellectual violence to the scripture and to the culture.
Vishwa Adluri and Joydeep Bagchee in their The Nay Science carry forward the deconstruction of German Indological enterprise to much higher planes. VS Sukthankar brings German Indologists down to Earth and sets the tone. Adluri and Bagchee drive them to the deepest recesses of the Earth after thoroughly dismantling them first. Adluri says that the basic approach to study any text, especially Indian scriptures, is to primarily believe that the author knows more than the reader. This humility has always guided our traditional commentators and the general readers while reading the MB, and hence, there are no surprises when the MB has the status of the pancham Veda or the fifth Veda. The MB can be a source to moksha too. Indology is a malignant enterprise starting with the Germans and has now evolved into a finer and more refined form, especially in the American Universities, attacking our scriptures with the same intensity, if not more. It is funny how the discredited Freudian psychoanalysis gets an application in the study of characters in Indian texts. The Asuric forces are always active across time and space, but the message of the MB itself is clear that the Dharmic forces will always fight them. We must don the Kshatriya role and fight these inimical forces taking strength from the eternal message of the MB-Dharma is always victorious.
References / Footnotes
1. https://hunter-cuny.academia.edu/VishwaAdluri/Resources: A link to the scanned version of Sukthankar’s book. (out of copyright and hence legal)
3. https://www.academia.edu/37012141/17th_World_Sanskrit_Conference_Handout_pdf: the above two are brilliant papers of Vishwa Adluri and Joydeep Bagchee presenting an overview of their work rejecting Indological scholarship of the Mahabharata.
4. The Nay Science: A History of German Indology by Vishwa Adluri and Joydeep Bagchee, Oxford University Press, 2014. A complete deconstruction of German Indology.