The Mahabharata cannot be seen as a trivial record of data of people and wars fought. It was intended for a timeless universe, and its brilliance lies in its ability to guide humanity.
“When you walk into a mithai shop, do you enjoy the gulab jamuns and jalebis, or ask the shopkeeper for the time? And then tell him that his clock is not right. Same is the case with Mahabharata. Enjoy it, don’t bother about when it happened.”
A recent workshop titled, “The Mahabharata as History” by Prof Vishwa Adluri and Dr Joydeep Bagchi, not only provided valuable insights of the two scholars on the epic, but also presented examples with plenty of humour. While dwelling on themes like architecture of the text, the notion of ahimsa and dharma, the central question that lingered throughout the discussion was that of the so called historicity of the Mahabharata.
Talking of the Indian notion of itihasa, Prof Adluri highlighted how different the concept is from the Western (and currently dominant) idea of history. “Modern” history functions largely on three assumptions:
1. Time is linear
2. Things get better with time
3. Materiality is the basis of humanity.
This dominant narrative produced mainly by the so-called indologists in the eighteenth and the nineteenth century has now been imposed on Indians just as the impact Sinology had on the Chinese, and Japanology, on the Japanese.
When the narrative is seen through this lens, humanity is forced to ask wrong questions. When in the last century did men question the veracity of a story or belief? We now ask, how did men accept that as the truth? In the case of Mahabharata, thus, instead of trying to find answers to questions posed by Vyasa, we are burying ourselves in the useless quest of when a war took place, and in some cases, which caste Vyasa belonged to. The itihasa produced by Vyasa was intended to be a “great manipulation of ordinary life” in a timeless universe and not about any specific date and time.
Praising the sheer brilliance of the literary capabilities of Vyasa, Prof Adluri remarked that the reason Mahabharata engages us much more than any other story or novel is not because certain incidents have been featured in the epic, but because we could relate to the passions, sorrows and dilemmas experienced by individuals in those incidents.
The Indian tradition of itihasa with its narrative of self, history and universe reaches its zenith in Mahabharata and according to the two scholars the text explores every permutation and combination of identities and idea to make one think beyond the temporal and spatial notions and self. It is not fair to reduce this Indian itihasa to minimal on order to fit the Western notions of time, individual and history. The Mahabharata cannot be seen as a trivial record of data of people and wars fought at some point in time since such random occurrences hold no importance for humanity.
For history to become relevant, it has to discard random events and recognise the patterns that exist and give human life meaning. A simple historicist perspective of the epic is not adequate for either the Mahabharata or humanity itself. To grasp the text in its true meaning and intent one has to engage with multiple narratives involved (and not just the linear narrative offered by Western historians); thus according to Prof Adluri, “In the Mahabharata, history itself comes and confesses that I, too am a narrative and then becomes itihasa”. This model of thinking continues to persist among scholars leaning towards both the Left and the Right till date; where the Left wants to complete the history and the Right wants to recover it, but neither of them want to question their very basic assumptions about history itself, which might lead to a healthier and thoughtful debate.
The beauty of the text thus lies in how it moves away from Western anthropocentric history to paradigmatic history, where the author moves beyond just the immediate causes of events to engage the readers in finding the ultimate. The historical causes of human conflict have always been known (or can be established with relative ease) but it’s the ultimate cause rooted in human psyche and spirituality that we need to look for. The idea that conflict is built in our system and we as humans merely fall prey to the greater cosmic design is present not only in the Mahabharata, but also other ancient texts such as Iliad.
These ancient texts mock human calculations unlike the modern notion where human action is given prime importance. For example, in the episode of Draupadi’s birth, King Draupad performs the sacrificial ritual only for birth of a son who can avenge Dronacharya. Here a human (the king) is incapable of seeing beyond his limited calculations and capabilities to the larger divine design that gives him a daughter who would go on to play a central role in the war that leads to the defeat of Dronacharya (and other destruction). One can thus see the folly of those advocating war with China today using Mahabharata as their basis for argument. According to Prof Adluri such people (based on their limited capabilities) think it is not going to be a 1962 (defeat of India in Indo-China war) but a 1971 (India’s victory in Indo-Pak war); and thus defeat the very essence of the epic, which is basically questioning this very mechanical causality of humans.
Therefore, there is a need for humanity to move beyond its attempt to prove the historicity of the epics. While the so called “historic” narrative might be one of the many narratives, we need to move beyond the singularity of thought. We have nowhere to go but to rethink our presuppositions about history and realise that humanity cannot be reduced to history. We cannot be reduced to the body and therefore must think of ourselves as something more as ethical beings, as creative intellects and more importantly as souls. The Mahabharata has very successfully done this rethinking for us and for “those of us who do not have a guru, Mahabharata is the guru and has in fact been India’s guru for centuries”.