The Indian Iliad to the Nth Degree

by Kenneth Champeon, Apr 26, 2002 | Destinations: India / New Delhi

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Review of R. K. Narayan's The Mahabharata, Penguin Classics, 2001.

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Writing a brief essay about the Indian epic Mahabharata is rather like making a hasty pencil sketch of the known universe. The original poem, running to 100,000 stanzas, is the longest literary work in existence. It contains the Bhagavad Gita, an epic in its own right, like a beach contains a grain of sand. There is only one complete and unabridged English translation: another was attempted but the translator DIED before finishing the work. In the introduction to his prose version of the poem, the late R. K. Narayan asserts that the original is "eight times longer than The Iliad and The Odyssey put together." The many televised versions run on for weeks and months.

So there is something almost ridiculous about Narayan's 179-page version, which in certain ways resembles those mutilated "Bibles" popular in Sunday schools. In Narayan's work the Gita takes up six paragraphs or so, and its inimitable poetry is reduced to lecture notes for Vedanta 101. But as we are grateful to the pupils of Aristotle for their own good notes, so we should be grateful to Narayan, for his audacity if for nothing else. Thanks to him, one of the world's foremost literary treasures can be read and enjoyed by the majority of the world with little Hindi, less Sanskrit, and still less time to read.

The subject of the Mahabharata, like the Iliad, is a conflict between two groups more alike than they are different. In this case, the two groups, known as the Kauravas and the Pandavas, are cousins. They are descended from Vyasa, who is no less than the poem's alleged author, and who in very postmodern fashion actually participates in the poem's events.

The root cause of the dispute is simple envy. The Pandavas are nobler and more skillful in warfare than the Kauravas, so the Kauravas would like to knock them down a peg. The conflict is complicated by the fact that Dhritarashtra is father to the Kauravas, uncle to the Pandavas, and the reigning king. Thus he must (and often fails to) juggle a number of conflicting allegiances and responsibilities.

The ancients valued honor to a degree that we who value wealth or celebrity cannot well understand. It was not enough to be rich or famous. You also had to be respected. If someone threatened that respect, he would rue the day.

Like the Homeric heroes, these heroes are honored for particular virtues. Yudhistira, the eldest of the Pandavas, is dutiful. The archwarrior Arjuna is skilled in battle. Bhishma, whose name means "one of firm vow," keeps his word. And the poem's main female character Draupadi is esteemed for her loyalty and pride.

For a poem about war, the Mahabharata contains precious little fighting. Mostly it is a meditation upon whether war is necessary, and under what circumstances. Though it seems to have been written as early as and perhaps earlier than 1500 BC (about 800 years before the putative appearance of Homer's works), its arguments for and against pacifism are still relevant today.

As is well known, these arguments form the substance of the Gita. But they are found not only there. The Kaurava Duryodhana offers a starkly zero-sum thesis on war: "Either I will slay the Pandavas and rule the earth, or they will slay me and rule the earth. It will have to be one or the other." A more subtle analysis takes place between Draupadi and Yudhistira, who debate whether "blind forgiveness [is] superior to judicious anger." Wisely, Vyasa has Draupadi appear more the hawk, Yudhistira the dove. Draupadi suggests that excessive forgiveness can lead to one's ruin at the hands of the "evil-minded," who "will never be affected by compassion." Later in the work she argues that it is a sin to kill the innocent, but an equal sin to spare the guilty.

Using arguments very similar to those of Buddhism, Yudhistira rejects Draupadi's views. Everybody wants peace, he says, and the only way to bring about peace is through a renunciation of violence, because violence only spawns more violence. At one point he even resents being born a kshatriya, or warrior. But Draupadi cannot brook his somewhat callous idealism: "It seems to me that you would sooner abandon me and your brothers than abandon your principles."

Nearly every aspect of human existence in addition to war gets discussed. Anticipating Machiavelli by millennia, a minister of Dhritarashtra promotes a theory of how a king is to remain in power: "You should stand in fear even of those from whom you could expect no treachery. Never trust anyone or show your distrust openly." The king's son suggests how a king will most certainly fall: by "drinking, gambling, hunting, and the enjoyment of women in excess." At one point in the story, Yudhistira undergoes questioning by a yaksha, or demon, in an attempt to resurrect his fallen brothers. Some notable questions and answers:

Q: Who is the friend of one about to die? A: The charity done in one's lifetime. Q: What is one's highest duty? A: To refrain from injury. Q: Who is really happy? A: One who has scanty means but is free from debt.

Finally Yudhistira offers one of the poem's most sublime and oft-quoted ideas:

Q: What is the greatest wonder? A: Day after day and hour after hour, people die and corpses are carried along, yet the onlookers never realise that they are also to die one day, but think they will live for ever.

As in the Greek battles, the gods intervene in those of the Mahabharata. Krishna, eighth incarnation of Vishnu, takes the side of the Pandavas on the condition that he not fight. He instead provides moral support to Arjuna, who often cannot bring himself to murder his kith and kin. It would be interesting to witness the reaction of the notoriously peace-loving Hare Krishnas to a passage like this: "Arjuna hesitated, since he did not really like to take advantage of this awkward moment, but Krishna urged, 'Waste no more time, go on, shoot....' At this, Arjuna raised his [divine bow] Gandiva and sent an arrow, which cut off Karna's head." Krishna does not however seem to be actuated by malice or even partisanship. In the Gita he says that whenever injustice prevails he reappears on earth to set things straight.

One of the most important messages of the Mahabharata is how easily conflict can arise between people in the absence of malice. Everybody does what he believes to be right, but no one can agree on what is right. Acting in one's apparent self-interest can lead not to victory but to ruin, while acting in the apparent interest of others can often cause more harm than good. This is why thousands of years after the Mahabharata's composition, there continue to be great wars and only temporary victories; why to this day, in Matthew Arnold's words, "ignorant armies clash by night."

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