Evil in the Mahabharata

Meena Arora Nayak

Oxford University Press,

No: of pages: 354,

Price: Rs 650

Whose dharma is it anyway?

Ask anyone even remotely familiar with the Mahabharata what the epic battle was all about and the answer will likely come out in a flash: victory of good over evil. Far from it says author Meena Arora Nayak.This is a book that questions everything we believe to be good and whether good finally does win in the world.The fact is that “Mahabharata’s history is replete with problems of evil,” she writes.

The epic she says is ambiguous about morality, often crossing its own codes of honour in the depiction of its protagonists.And therefore to uphold it as a code for moral behavior, is self-defeating and dangerous. The author runs her arguments circuitously but makes a strong point. Unfortunately however, sometimes the language obscures the simplicity of the thought that is being essayed. But even so it is an interesting read. It does not deal in absolutes and diktats, it does not offer a quick fix and it digs deep into the epic, uncovering the many contradictory strands that hold it together.

The book forces the reader to challenge everything. Even dharma, the underlying principle of all human behavior in the epic, is leavened with dubiousness. The author says that the epic places the values of right and wrong, of righteousness and fair play and of morality in “each individual’s action, thought and behavior”. And thereby creates a system of ethics where the code of conduct is an individual obligation where an individual is accountable to himself. Dharma therefore cannot a standard measure of morality, instead it is more like an individual compass.The Mahabharata makes “people active collaborators of custom” Nayak says.

Ambiguities rest quite easily within the many layered narratives of the epic, at peace with the contradictory messages in its stories and prescribed actions. As the author points out, the biggest anomaly is perhaps that while the storiesgive Brahmins the status of demi gods, the epic is recited by sutas who “were so much of the hoi polloi that often they were even outside the caste system because they had hybrid bloodlines.” How did the narrators of these tales continue to tell these tales without rancor or revolt?

One of the reasons was that the epic was part of an oral tradition, which allowed for a fluidity that the written word does not. Storytellers and listeners were free to debate, dispute, ridicule and make the stories their own. Besides the epic itself seems to be challenging the status quo at several points, forcing people to take a look at whether the caste system was really just (through the stories of Eklavya and Karna for instance).

The transformation from a bard’s song to words on a page changed the character of the epic from one that questioned everything to one that had all the answers. Nayak sees the Mahabharata as one of the earliest evidencesof a tradition of doubt and debate—from religion to caste to food to women and sex. Good, evil and a bunch of complex concepts were examined and every convention turned on its head.

Its popularity is a testimony to how deeply the stories resonated with the people but that is also what led to its appropriation by a section of the elite to further their own self interests. Particularly interesting is the story of Kurukshetra where the great battle between the Pandavas and Kauravas was fought. War is and was abhorrent to most of the people, it was being denounced even more around the time the Mahabharata was being written and read with the influence of pacifist religions such as Buddhism gaining popularity. However the Pandavas were the heroes of the epic and their fight is the fight against evil and thus Kurukshetra is established in the Hindu mind as dharmaksetra.

Apart from the Mahabharata, several other ancient texts too furthered the perception that this is god’s chosen land on earth. According to VamanaPurana, this is where all creation emerged from. Also Kurukshetra is where King Kuru tilled the land, whereVishnu cut up the king to sacrifice his body from whose seeds would sprout truthfulness, charity, etc. Kurukshetrais called as the gate of heaven in the Mahabharata.The battlefield as devabhumi is a belief that is firmly entrenched in the collective imagination.

But there is another popular legend about the place. As the cousins got ready for war, they sent their envoys out to look for a suitable battlefield. They needed a place that could accommodate 18 aksauhini(battle formation) of soldiers. Theenvoys petitioned many kings but none agreed because they knew there would be extreme bloodshed. They knew that all dharma codes would be breached and blood would fight blood. Dejected the envoys were on their way back to Hastinapura, when they saw a farmer tilling the land. His levee broke and hard though he tried he could not fix it. So he killed his son and used his dead body to secure the levee. When the envoys saw this they realized that this was the land cruel enough to bear the burden of a war. This is a story commonly told in the region and also part of the temple texts. Perhaps if the stories were still a part of the oral tradition, this one would also be as popular as the others.