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.
Hindu religion, as we know it today, is mostly an aggregation of what used to be six independent sects called the Shanmatha, which included the worship of the Sun (Saura), Vishnu (Vaishnava), Shiva (Shaiva), Kumara or Skanda-Karthikeya (Kaumara), Devi (Shakta) and of course, Ganapati (Ganapatya).
The Missing Deity of the epic
The third and the fourth parvans of the Mahabharata namely the Vana parvan and the Virata parvan refer to the worship of many of these deities. But there is one deity, whose worship references are conspicuously absent in the epic. Which deity is that?
Let’s first start with the deities that the epic knew.
Vishnu: As everyone knows, Krishna, considered an avatar of Vishnu, plays an overarching role in the epic. The Bhagawad Gita clearly presents Krishna, the incarnation of Vishnu, as the supreme god.
That is not to say the other equally large Shaivite tradition does not find representation in the text.
Shiva: References to Shiva can be found in the Vana parvan where Arjuna performs a penance to please Shiva and obtains divine weapons such as the Pashupathastra from him. Of course, who else, but the destroyer God, to grant Arjuna weapons of mass destruction!
Shakti: While Shakti, as Parvati, does make a cameo appearance in the Pashupatastra episode of the Vana parvan, she finds greater representation in the Virata parvan. Just before the Pandavas enter the kingdom of Virata to complete the last year of their exile incognito, they pray to Durga, the goddess of war. The Pandavas, led by Yudhishtra, sings praises of goddess Durga seeking success in their mission. She appears before them and blesses them with successful completion of the incognito year without being recognised by the Kauravas and eventual victory over them in the war.
Surya: While in exile in the forest, Yudhishtra is faced with the responsibility of not just feeding his brothers and their wife, Draupadi, but with also ensuring that all the Rishis and Brahmins who have followed him into the forest are fed. So, he performs several austerities to the Sun god, Surya, who blesses him with the Akshaya patra, the vessel that ensured unending supply of food for the Pandavas and their retinue through their stint in the forest. Yudhishtra knew very well, which God to please, when it came to asking for bountiful food!
Karthikeya: The story of the birth of Skanda, the son of Shiva, his childhood exploits and his slaying of Tarakasura are narrated by sage Markandeya in detail in the Vana parvan. Stories about the exploits of Karthikeya, the war God, may have inspired the Pandavas to prepare themselves for the impending war.
Thus, we find that the epic, through its period of evolution, accommodated several existing and emerging religious sects in the form of stories about their chief deities. All deities of the Shanmatha, except one!
So, which deity is absent from the epic’s narrative?
It is Ganesha!
Why are there no stories about his worship in the epic?
One reason may be that for a long time, Ganapati worship was concentrated in the Western parts of India where he was considered a farmer’s god. Ganapati worship became more mainstream and widespread only around the 5-6th century CE by when it started to emerge as a large and independent sect. Interestingly, by this time, the Mahabharata, as a text, had more or less completed its period of evolution and had reached its final written form. That can explain why stories of Ganesha did not find themselves into the epic.
However, as the worship of Ganesha became popular over time, his devotees could not be disappointed. So, the story about how Vyasa requested Ganesha to be his scribe while composing his magnum opus, was inserted as a frame story in a later-period manuscript, written in Devanagari and belonging to India’s North-Central region.
Who knows? The clever interpolator who inserted the story, may have been a Ganpati devotee himself. But as an elephant-headed God of wisdom, he could not have found a better scribe to pen down Vyasa’s magnum opus!
Om Ganeshaya Namaha!
For more on the Vyasa and Ganesha story, watch this 2-minute video!
Damsels in distress and knights rushing to rescue them from the clutches of wily witches, scheming step-mothers and dangerous dragons has been the common theme of most fairy tales from our childhood. These stories from medieval Europe have largely presented women as delicate, helpless beings, incapable of defending themselves, and waiting for a valiant prince to arrive and liberate them from their miserable existence.
Surprisingly for a patriarchal society, this theme of men rescuing women is quite rare in Indian mythology, other than, of course, the famous story of Rama who goes out in search of his kidnapped wife.
On the contrary, Indian mythology is full of stories of women who go all out to rescue their lovers or consorts, with or without their shining armour. These women often save their beloveds from tricky tribulations and sticky situations, accompany them to the warfront, and at times even bring them back from the dead.
And the Mahabharata, unlike any other work of world mythology, is replete with stories of women champions. Here are some stories of gutsy women who displayed enormous valour in their quest to bring back their loved ones from the brink and beyond of disaster. What is interesting about these stories is that, unlike men, these women chose to rely entirely on their moral courage, wit and wisdom rather than swords and daggers to assist them in their quest.
Let’s begin with Ulupi, who revived her dead lover Arjuna with the Mrithasanjivani gem. As Arjuna lay dead, killed by his own son Babruvahana owing to a curse of the Vasus, it was Ulupi, Arjuna’s Naga wife, who summoned the jewel of the Nagas, placed it on Arjuna’s chest and brought him back to life. According to one version of the story, Ulupi plotted the entire drama of the son killing his father in order to redeem Arjuna from the curse of the Vasus for having slain their brother, Bhishma.
Shachi or Indrani, Indra’s consort, was yet another courageous woman, who was believed to be the source of Indra’s powers. Once, after having killed the demon Vritra treacherously, Indra was so overcome with guilt and shame that he fled Amaravathi, and hid himself in the stem of a lotus in a pond so far away, where he could not be found by other gods.
Unable to find Indra, the gods replaced him with a human, Nahusha. Unfortunately, Nahusha turned out a bad choice as he harassed the gods and the sages, and also tried to persuade Shachi into marrying him.However, clever Shachi managed to get rid of Nahusha by having sage Agasthya curse him into becoming a serpent. She also sought out Indra and convinced him to come out of his hiding and resume his position as the lord of the Devas. Thus, Shachi not only saved her husband from eternal damnation and but also became a kingmaker of sorts, giving back the Devas, their leader.
What makes Shachi’s story interesting is that, in her search for Indra, she is described as having undertaken a long and arduous journey, navigating high mountains and deep seas through darkness and difficulties, very similar to the journey undertaken by Joseph Campbell’s hero.
Equally critical was the role of Damayanthi in tracking down Nala, her husband, who had been banished from his kingdom and forced into hiding. Damayanthi hatched a clever plan to track down Nala. Using a difficult riddle which only Nala could solve, she traced him to King Rituparna’s court. There, Damayanthi’s messenger spread false news about her second swayamvara. Hoping to prevent Damayanthi’s remarriage, Nala rushed to her, and was thus reunited with his family.
Of course, the list of heroic women from the Mahabharatha cannot be complete without the mention of Savithri, who got none other than the Lord of Death to rewrite the destiny of Satyavan, her beloved. After Satyavan’s death, Savithri followed Yama over long distances on his journey to the land of the dead, till he was forced to yield to the persuasive Savithri and agree to return Satyavan alive to her.
To conclude, it would be unfair to dismiss these mythological women as pativratas, to be lauded merely for their sexual fidelity. It is feminine nature to fiercely protect the loved ones, whatever the cost! And loved their men, these women did! To the extent of even choosing them over gods (Damayanthi) and mighty kings (Savithri) sometimes!
More importantly, like Campbell’s hero, many of these women (Savithri, Shachi) stepped beyond their conventional role, crossing the threshold from the ordinary into the extraordinary, thus undergoing a significant transformation in their personalities in the course of their quest.
In light of these stories, maybe our perception of Indian mythology as having no female heroes needs a serious rethink!
Click the link to listen to the stories of the Panchakanyas, who were as bold as they were beautiful!
Goddess Lakshmi finds mention in an annexure to the oldest of Indian texts, the Rig Veda – the Sri Suktam to be precise.
What is interesting is that she continues to be depicted in popular art based on the descriptions given in the Sri Suktam. And so, we find her sitting on a red lotus in a pool of water, carrying a pot on her hands while two elephants stand on either side showering water on her.
This video explains the significance of each of these elements – the waters, the kumbha/pot, the lotus and the elephants.