A new stream of fascinating Mahabharata books has arrived! I was reading Keerthik Sasidharan The Dharma Forest and Ira Mukhoty Song of Draupadi, and wondering what keeps the Mahabharata stories alive. One of the reasons the Mahabharata is so powerful is that it offers itself up to criticism and continually reflects, re-evaluates and negates its own ideas.
Krishna, considered as God himself, is not spared from this questioning. He is repeatedly questioned, by Arjuna, by the sage Uttanka and, most importantly, by Gandhari, who curses him and his entire clan to perish. Some characters are unconvinced by Krishna’s justifications for his actions. In fact, the one thing the Mahabharata establishes beyond doubt is the imperfection of all human effort.
Perhaps it is for this reason that some ancient thinkers of Sanskrit aesthetics concluded that the aesthetic purpose of the epic was to make us all aware of the uselessness of everything and to persuade us to renounce the world. ! In our time, the pandemic seems to have done a great job in this regard.
While many scholars have spent too much ink discussing the contradictions and inconsistencies of the Mahabharata and its philosophical outlook, perhaps the epic has a message it can only convey through these inconsistencies: as the importance of dialogue and reflection on the same things. from time to time, finding new answers and new questions.
We all know the great story of Bhishma’s vows. Bhishma, who was born Devavrata, discovers that his father is in love with a fisherman’s daughter, Satyavati. Satyavati’s father refuses to allow their marriage because his grandchildren will not succeed to the throne. Bhishma, hearing this, takes an oath that he would remain celibate and never marry (the oath gives him his name Bhishma).
Now Bhishma has just been celebrated for this oath throughout the epic. Even when the throne of Hastinapura is left without a successor, Bhishma refuses to give up his vow, although the throne was the reason for his vow in the first place.
Brian Black, in his new book on dialogue in the Mahabharata, tells a very interesting story related to these vows. Bhishma repeatedly justifies his wishes in the epic, revealing them to different characters and explaining his reasons. Each time, the explanations change, depending on the context and the character. Finally, when Bhishma is on his deathbed, he has to instruct Yudhishtira on the duties of a king. He tells Yudhishtira many stories, one of which is the story of Kaushika.
Kaushika is a well-meaning sage who has made a vow to always speak the truth. Kant might like it? But Krishna certainly does not. Unfortunately for Kaushika, one day he sees people running away from thieves. When the thieves come looking, they ask Kaushika where the people went. Kaushika, bound by his promise, reveals the leadership and the people are killed. As a result of his wish, Kaushika ends up in hell, where he suffers for a long time. But it is Bhishma who tells this story to Yudhishtira. Bhishma alludes to the danger of making rash vows and sticking to them regardless of the context, of which he himself is guilty!
Now you can say, of course, that self-criticism, and a critique of power, can only happen when the dialogue is in good faith. When the Prime Ministers of powerful countries organize binge drinking during a pandemic and call them “work meetings”, we are left with nothing but satirists to engage in real dialogue with! I agree.