Several hundred books have been written about the Mahabharata. Why one more? Is there place for another sensible read? These are questions that often plague me when people ask me to write a book. Any book. Do I have anything new to say, anything worth saying, anything that has not been said before?
But with the Mahabharata, there is no place for such doubts. The epic is as evergreen as it is eternal. And it reveals newer and newer layers to the seeker. In this book, professor Ganesh N. Devy, an ardent seeker himself, sets out on a quest to answer questions about the epic that have plagued him for long:
What is it about the epic that gives it its timeless appeal – what can explain its incredible effect on the millions of people over thousands of years? How does the epic, even two millennia after its composition, continue to speak to the nation?
Seen from the context of time, these questions are extremely valid, for it explains the epic’s extraordinary survival story.
The epic’s extraordinary survival story
Consider this. In the time period the epic was birthed, evolved and reached its final stage of composition, the Indian sub-continent was ruled by several dynasties (the Mauryas, Guptas, etc.) that were guided by different ideologies. Through this long period, several new religions rose, some flourished, some others died here. Diverse philosophies and doctrines arose. All were discussed, some accepted and embraced while some others were discarded. Through all these historically turbulent times, the Mahabharata continued on its own quest, unperturbed, successfully surviving to this day, quietly crossing two thousand years along its way.
You will realise this is no mean feat, when you compare the Mahabharata with the epics of the near-east and the west such as the Gilgamesh, Iliad and the Odyssey. Today, these epics hold little or no significance today for the people of those geographies. It is from this perspective, professor Devy attempts to decode the eternality of the Mahabharata.
The epic quest
The book is divided into two parts titled – the epic’s quest, and the wheel.
In the first part, the author gives an overview of Mahabharata’s birth, its form and structure and its stages of evolution, from a global-historical perspective. Here, Devy rightly points out that an epic typically emerges at the beginning of a great civilisation and becomes an icon for that civilisation. In the case of the Mahabharata, it was a civilisation that was born at the cusp that marked the end of the pastoral-agrarian state system and the start of feudal state structure in the Indian sub-continent (yuganta).
The Nation’s way of remembering
Professor Devy interprets the Mahabharata as a way of remembering this slice of history. According to Devy, the epic records this history as an uninvolved witness, like the sthithapragnya mentioned in the Gita, with an empathetic detachment, a sage acceptance of all that has been, as it was. (That can certainly explain the epic’s non-judgemental narrative style, the close-to-life conundrums the epic poses and the shade of its characters, that is more grey than black & white.)
However, in reconstructing this past, the epic does not shy away from using myths and fantasy. And it is this technique of combining myth with history, according to professor Devy, that is one of the prime reasons for the epic’s timeless appeal.
An epic for all and everyone
In the second part of the book, the author discusses what he thinks is the epic’s relevance in the modern times and the significance it holds for us today.
Although the epic deliberates continuously on the aspect of dharma, Devy believes that the epic’s dharma is different from the dhamma (dharma) of Buddha or the dharma prescribed by the Dharmasutras that were laid down by Brahmins for Brahmins. Mahabharata, according to Devy, has steered clear of these influences. And that is an important reason why its appeal transcends religious, sectarian and linguistic communities making it an epic for all and everyone.
Mahabharata & the Chakra
The dharma of the epic, according to Devy, is the dharma of the chakra (wheel), that symbolises the relentless passage of time and eternal movement. In fact, the kala chakra or the wheel of time is, for Devy, the central metaphor of the epic.
Indeed, this idea of circular time is reflected in the narrative style of the epic too, with the epic beginning in the future, at the snake sacrifice of Janamajeya, where the past story is narrated before ending again at the snake sacrifice, which becomes the present for the reader. The past, the present and the future thus merge into one big circle of time carrying the potential for multiple beginnings and multiple endings.
Epic’s fluid narrative
According to Devy, it is this idea of multiple beginnings of the epic – which could either be the Satyavati-Shantanu story or the oath of Bhishma or the birth of Pandu and Dhritarashtra or the conflict between the Pandavas and the Kauravas – that is the epic’s central message for a diverse society such as ours with different origin stories. A diverse society that is unfortunately being forced to agree to a single narrative for the beginnings of Bharata.
As a linguist, Devy enriches his views by presenting some interesting possibilities about the interpolations in the epic and how the nature of tense in Sanskrit grammar could have been one of the reasons for the popularity of the epic. For me, these were the really interesting takeaways from the book. The book could have, however, done with better editing and proof reading.