Revisiting The Great Indian Epics With Pioneering Hindi Author Narendra Kohli

Writer and philosopher Narendra Kohli at his residence in New Delhi, India. (Shishirmit at en.wikipedia)
  • Swarajya caught up with one of the greats of Hindi literature, Narendra Kohli.

    Among the things discussed were characters from the Mahabharata and Ramayana, the future of Hindi language, and the fallacy of comparing different eras.

    Here are excerpts from the interview.

Professor Narendra Kohli is best known as the author of novels retelling India’s greatest epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, which he started writing in 1975.

Professor Kohli is honoured as the fountainhead of the era of cultural resurgence in Hindi literature. In our interview with him, we take the opportunity to discuss some of the main characters of these two epics and seek his perspective on some of the narratives prevalent in popular imagination today.

Hindi as we know it, has ceased to exist. Whether it is in our day-to-day conversation or even in Hindi newspapers, the use of pure Hindi has disappeared, and what we have today largely is Hinglish(a combination of Hindi and English) and other such variants of Hindi language. Given this backdrop, how do you see the future of Hindi?

Whose future is more worrisome – Hindi language, or the one who doesn’t know how to speak Hindi properly?

Yes, today, owners and professionals in communication media are such that the language being used is either improper or corrupt due to a borrowing of words from Farsi and English. But this situation can turn around anytime. If the initiative comes from the government, or if there is a demand from the readers to read newspapers in pure Hindi, things will definitely change for the better. There is no reason to worry.

So, what should be the initiative, in your opinion? Who should do what, and what will be your recommendations in this regard?

The initiative can come from the government. In many countries, governments take steps to promote their languages. The government can certainly regulate matters by saying that Hindi shouldn’t be corrupted by replacing words from the language with those from other languages.

People can also take the initiative. If people were to someday rise for the love of their mother tongue and decide that they would not read newspapers which employ a corrupt form of Hindi, things will improve.

Third, universities can refuse to award degrees to students if they can’t write the language in its pure form. Then, if these graduates get employed in newspapers, they will use proper Hindi. Now, it is not even necessary to have studied Hindi to get employed in these places.

In your opinion, should the state governments in the north take the initiative or would you like the central government to step in because, say, in the case of the latter, there is a danger of southern states raising objections?

If the state governments in the north take steps to promote Hindi in its pure form, then there is no question of someone having issues with that. But even if the centre does it, for Hindi speakers, why would the southern states raise any objection? First, there is a need to improve the Hindi of Hindi speakers.

What should be the Government of India’s approach regarding languages other than Hindi, such as Tamil, Telugu, Bengali, Kannada? Should they be treated at par with Hindi?

First, one should give up this notion that Hindi will ever be used for official purposes in Tamil Nadu or other states. The non-Hindi-speaking states will use their state languages.

Second, the language of interaction between the centre and the states should be Hindi. That can’t be Tamil or some other language. At the state level, they can continue to use their languages. In fact, they are already doing it, and in a much better manner than those in the Hindi-speaking ones.

Where do the local dialects in Hindi-speaking states fit in all this? What should the attitude towards them be?

I did my MA in 1963. When we used to study Hindi, we also studied Meera in Rajasthani, Vidyapati in Maithili, Surdas in Braj, Tulsidas in Awadhi, or others who wrote in Magadhi or Bundelkhandi. What is Hindi if not the sum total of all these dialects? Just like all the states combined represent India abroad, the sum total of these dialects is Hindi. I’m not opposed to their independent development, but only opposed to their separation from Hindi. If they get separated, then Hindi won’t remain a national language.

Among the most frequently asked questions today among regular people on the Ramayana is how one can call Shri Ram maryada purushottam?

Shri Ram abided by maryada when he decided to go into exile after knowing the dilemma his mother Kaikeyi had gotten his father into, even though Dasharatha himself didn’t give any explicit command. He abided by maryada when he killed the person who abducted Sita. Bali captured his brother’s kingdom and abducted his wife. Shri Ram abided by maryada when he killed him. He stood against whatever was wrong. That’s why he is maryada purushottam.

The objection to the use of that phrase to describe him comes specifically from the context of his relationship with Sita after the war and his asking her to prove herself through agni pariksha.

That [agni pariksha] was also for maryada. Certainly you don’t believe that he made her sit on fire?

No, of course not. At least I don’t. But I guess those who ask these questions must think Shri Ram made Sita go through something of that sort.

Well, tell them to look up what kavya rudhi means.

According to Tulsi’s Ramayana, after the war is won, Ram tells Sita that now that he had avenged the loss of dignity and freed her, she was free to either go with him or with someone else, to which Sita takes offence and asks Lakshman to prepare a pyre so that she could give up her body as she had no desire to live with Ram. Then, the people themselves pleaded with Ram that it was wrong and that Sita was pure. Ram agrees and asks Sita to come with him. He then says that if he had agreed to take Sita back as she is, then these same people would have spat on them. Now, they themselves are vouching for her purity.

So, you have to show to society that you are abiding by maryada.

According to the constitution of the society at the time, it was necessary to isolate anyone from the power centre against whom there was allegations of wrongdoing by the people until such time that they themselves clamour for their return. So, he did what he did for maryada.

So, was Shri Ram a maryada purushottam – an ideal person but not an ideal husband?

He was an ideal husband too. He left Sita knowing she is blameless and kept crying in anguish. He stopped eating off of the utensils of gold and silver, and started sleeping on the floor. At the time of aśvamedhá yagna, it was said that it couldn’t take place without the king’s wife and it was suggested that he should remarry. He had Sita’s statue made of gold for yagna but refused to marry. What else do you consider ideal?

Why is Yudhishthira ‘dharmaraj’ even when he bet his brothers and wife in a game of dice? Which dharma was he following in that situation?

The constitution of every yuga is different. It keeps changing and evolving. It’s not necessary that my sons or grandsons see things the same way as I or my father would.

During the Mahabharata, according to the constitution of the society, the kingdom, including its people, were the property of the king (except Brahmins). All members in a family were the property of its head. So, if one is playing a game of dice, it is obvious that one would bet his property. First, Yudhishthir bet his wealth, kingdom and physical property. When nothing else was left, since his brothers were his property, he had to bet them because, according to the rules of the game, you cannot stop unless you have put everything on the line. It starts with the king’s command and can end with his command alone. In this case, Dhritarashtra was the king, so he alone could command it to be stopped.

Draupadi asked some questions in the sabha. It is often said that those questions were not answered at the time, even by Bhishma, and have not been answered since. What were those questions?

Draupadi asked if including her in the bet was just – if it was dharma. She questioned that if Yudhishthira had bet on himself and had become a slave, how could he bet on her, an independent person. She was right. He couldn’t have bet on her if one went by that argument. But since the husband is the head of the family and the wife his property, he could bet on her. Draupadi, in fact, had become a slave the moment her husband, Yudhishthira, had bet on himself and lost. There was no need for separately betting on Draupadi. But Shakuni specifically asked Yudhishthira to bet on Draupadi. Even if he hadn’t, she had already become a slave. But then, this question wouldn’t have arisen had Shakuni not proposed this. Therefore, Yudhishthira couldn’t have bet on her considering the slave/independent person angle, but could do so from the husband/wife perspective. So, even Bhishma failed to answer to Draupadi and could only say, “dharma ki gati atyant sukshma hai”. What else could he say?

Today, even we can get into such dilemmas for which there are no easy answers. So, there are no definite answers to the questions posed by Draupadi.

I think these types of questions arise when we try to judge the society of Ramayana or Mahabharata by the standards of today’s society.

You are right. Today, especially the women, try to impose their frame of mind on the women of that time.

This, when we can’t even compare today’s society to what was the norm five or six decades ago.

Forget 50-60 years; it’s hard to do that even today in the same society. There is a novel called Teri, Meri, Uski Baat by Yashpal, where one of the main protagonists is a Hindu women’s doctor and she pities a burqa-clad Muslim woman for living in a cage-like situation, wishing that she should get freedom. The Muslim woman, on the other hand, pities this shameless Hindu woman for walking around without any veil. That’s the psychology of two persons living in the same society at the same time.

If we take this example, we can’t be objective about what is right and what is wrong. It’s all about perspective. Then, how do we deal with issues such as triple talaq. There has also been a lot of debate on whether the country should have a uniform civil code to give equality to all before the law.

Where there is no democracy, the rules are different. Since we have chosen the republican form of democracy, we demand equal rights for everyone. So, a lot depends on the age that a particular nation is in. We can’t impose our rules on others.

But that way, we become two nations within the same state by having different legal regimes for Hindus and Muslims.

The day we became independent, we should have declared that Hindus and Muslims will not be treated differently and there would be no sharia. But, after giving concession after concession, the problem has now taken deep root.

What is the way out, in your opinion?

My opinion is that we should have one form. Sometimes, it can be achieved with love; other times, you have to be harsh.

Going back to Yudhishthira – to kill guru Dronacharya, he lied about the death of Ashwatthama, after which the guru laid down his weapons and went into meditation and was then beheaded by Dhrishtadyumna. Was that in accordance with dharma?

In war, only the weak follow the rules, not the strong. Didn’t the Kauravas surround and kill Abhimanyu first, violating all the rules? Krishna rightly says that dharma is won by weapons and bravery, but to win wars, strategy is important. Even if you ask those in the army today, they will tell you that deploying cunning to defeat the enemy is also a part of the strategy. Now, one can ask what kind of dharma is it to use deceit to fight the enemy. Those who fight in war do it to win and they deploy various tricks to achieve that. “Ashwatthama hatha” was also a kind of trick that the Pandavas used successfully. There are many such instances in the Mahabharata.

The rules of peace time are different from those in existence during war time. When our army is fighting terrorists, they also make various kinds of strategy. They are dealing with stone pelters and employ such tricks as tying one pelter in front of the jeep. See how well it worked. We should understand that they are there to vanquish the enemy, not to conduct havan.

But there was pretence on Yudhishthira’s part to not appear to lie even when he knew deep down that he was lying.

He simply said, “Ashwatthama hatha”. It also meant the elephant is dead. The words “narova kunjarova”, which clarify that he doesn’t know whether it is an elephant or the guru’s son, are not part of the Mahabharata. They were added later.

On that note, I would like to ask which translated versions of these two epics should one read?

I’m not aware of the English translations, but in Hindi we consider the ones by Geeta Press to be close to authentic. They’re also not heavy on the common man’s pocket, which is an important factor.

Regarding translations, one thing needs to be considered. When one says Ram “said” or “did” something, we should ask, whose Ram? Tulsi’s, Valmiki’s or someone else’s? Though we accept the Ramayana of both Tulsi and Valmiki as sacrosanct, there is a huge difference between the Rams in these two accounts. While in the former, Ram is an avatar, in the latter, he is a person. At the beginning of Ramcharitmanas, Tulsi writes, बिप्र धेनु सुर संत हित लीन्ह मनुज अवतार। निज इच्छा निर्मित तनु माया गुन गो पार|

In Hindi literature, your period of writing is now famously referred to as the Kohli era. You brought our epics into the mainstream through novels like Mahasamar and Abhyudaya. Now, many authors are attempting to do the same. What would your advice to them be?

I will give advice when they seek it. Jo Hindu aastha ki dhaara hai, maine usko kabhi bhang nahi kiya. No aastik Hindu has ever had a problem with my novels. No one has attacked me physically or dragged me to court. These people writing in English, inhone uss dhaara ko toda hai. It is a testament to the tolerance of Hindus that they don’t physically attack these people, but they can’t bring themselves to read their versions. How many years can they sustain these books? I started writing novels almost 50 years ago, which you call the Kohli era. And they are still standing on their merit and are selling like hot cakes from as many as three publishers.

Another thing is that most of those who are reading these new authors and their versions in English are not aware of the original versions of the epics. So, when they read their books, they take those books at face value. These authors are further confusing the already confused Hindu masses.

Going back to the Mahabharata, how do you view Bhishma’s life? What dharma was he following?

Some people have taken one element as dharma and stuck to it diligently, be it satya, ahimsa and so on. Bhishma followed jadd dharma. He didn’t see things through the prism of right or wrong. He vowed to protect Hastinapura’s throne. Even if he agreed that something was wrong, he didn’t oppose it for the sake of his pledge. The root cause of all of this lies in Shantanu’s desire for marriage when instead Bhishma should have been the one to get married. At the time, Bhishma considered pitraseva as his dharma, so he allowed that to happen.

Now, about Karna. Many feel sympathetic towards his character, either out of ignorance or perhaps because he has not been depicted in the correct manner in visual versions of the epic, which is what most people have seen. Can you tell us how you see him?

That’s why I recommend everyone to read the original Mahabharata. In that, Karna is always part of chandal chowkdi, consisting of four evil characters – Duryodhana, Dushasana, Shakuni, and the fourth is Karna himself. He is the one who not only supports disrobing of Draupadi but also encourages it and calls her a vaishya because she was married to five brothers. Though his fight is with Shalya, who was king of Madradesha, he directs the choicest of abuses to the women of that nation. He went to Parshurama and lied that he was a Brahmin to learn from him. This at a time when Eklavya learns from afar and considers Drona as his guru and sacrifices his thumb on his command. In the very first battle with Drupad, Karna is the first one to run. In the battle with Gandharva also, he runs away from the battlefield and then Gandharvas take away all Kaurava women, who are later freed by Arjuna on Yudhishthira’s command.

Who, according to you, is the finest of all the characters in Mahabharata?

Yudhishthir is the hero of the Mahabharata.

Not Krishna?

Krishna is the hero of Bhagwat. But he is like a megastar, so wherever he comes, everyone else is relegated to second place. As far as the story of the Mahabharata is concerned, the hero is undoubtedly Yudhishthir. He is dharmaraj. Now why is he called that? If you read and probe for yourself, you will understand.

Here’s another frequently asked question. If Krishna wanted, could he have stopped the war from breaking out between the Pandavas and Kauravas?

Yes, he could have. But why would he do that? Stopping the war would mean the rule of Duryodhana, the rule of adharma. When Krishna decided to go to the Kauravas with a peace proposal, Draupadi tries to stop him and asks how justice could be served without war. Krishna tells her then and there that war will happen.

So, it was all a gimmick?

Yes. Krishna knew his proposal would be rejected.

And what is dharma? Does it differ from person to person, or is there some parma dharma also?

There is the independent state of atma and there is an atma which has become entangled in bondage. Atreya’s son Datta, who wrote Avadhuta, considers himself the creator as he sees a supreme being in himself. On the other hand, Janak asks Ashtavakra the path to mukti and Ashtavakra asks him to renounce kaamna. Here, the atma is not free and hence needs a path for mukti. Dharma is that path which helps us free our atmas from karma chakras. That’s its necessity.

Many greats have chosen different dharmas to free themselves from the wretched cycle of life and death. Buddha saw grief and reached the conclusion that getting rid of grief was the only way for mukti. Mahavir identified that inner enemies – kama, krodha, lobh, moha – clasped the atma and he chose the path of tapasya.

Many others have taken an element as a dharma such as pitradharma, ahimsa, satya and so on.

Krishna’s dharma is based on karma. Parma dharma ultimately is to work towards freeing our atmas from the birth-death cycle.

Thank you, Professor Kohli for giving us your precious time and for such an enlightening interview.

Thank you.

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