Workshop on Mahabharat: Some perspectives

Wendy Doniger, the American Indologist, called the Bhagwad Gita a dishonest text!  Many of us wondered why would Narayana himself order a man wishing for peace to pick up arms?

Several academic papers, books and popular articles linked televisation of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata with the rise of Hindu nationalism.  We Hindus started to sway between taking the texts to be ‘mythology’ or ‘history’.

The truth is, Hindu texts are so extensive, so vast, so diverse and so detailed that most of us have barely read any of them.  Today Hinduism is sustained, just as for millennia by temples goers, those who maintain a shrine at home, continue weekly fasts, and attend satsangs.  Then there is a small number of people who actually engage in reading Vrath Kathas (stories around specific fasts) and chanting some mantras, especially as given by their Gurus.  Even smaller number are those who have actually read a few texts such as the Ramayana, Mahabharata and the gist of it all, Naryana’s Song-The Bhagwat Gita. Fewer still is the number of those who engage in a dialogue about these texts, trying to intellectually articulate the meanings and implications of itihasa.

So, when on the first day of a four-day course on the Mahabharata organized by the Indic Academy, Prof. Vishwa Adluri, asked us two following two questions, we answered like students would in any literature course.

Why does an author enter his own text and make himself a part of his creation?  –Someone whose presence plays a significant role in plot? (Kapola Kalpana)?

Why does VedVyasa, the author-compiler of the Mahabharata enter the text himself in a most physical of acts?

Answers ranged from ‘But that happens in any text, Because the author wants us to know that the text is his creation, Isn’t the author always in his creation?’

But the answer transformed the way I look at the Mahabharata, as I am sure it did for others who took the course.

‘Vyasa blurs the line between reality and fiction.  Vyasa is not just the author, but also the editor and compiler of many other texts.  The text (Mahabharata) is the Universe, and Universe (a) text. Thus reading/entering the epic is the same as entering the universe, depending on our dharma, our actions, our attitude towards our own situation in the world, we are either in Naimisha forest or in the Sarp Satra.’ (paraphrased)

Prof. Vishwa Adluri, who co-taught the course with his student Dr. Joydeep Bagchee, his co-author on The Nay Science: A History of German Indology, said that the Mahabharata was so intricate and detailed that it contained all the stories that could be found anywhere in the world—love, betrayal, war, reconciliation, retaliation, love and hate for the divine.

For the four days we were not only welcomed into the text, but also given new lenses to look at the epic, which came alive, as we realized that Sarp Satra and Naimisha are not just in the book or somewhere in the past, but manifest even today, all around us.

Vyasa by being part of his own creation breaks the distinction between ‘nature and the world’. The man who wrote the Puranas and then divided the Vedas, wrote the Mahabharata, to adapt the already existing material to manifest it as a guide for conducting ourselves in daily Kurukshetra, both inside our hearts and outside in the world. Itihasa then, is the commentary on the temporal aspect, while relating to it to something constant, namely the immortal atman.   In that context, the focus of the Mahabharata moves from being a story of a war, to a story that points only to the fact that ‘reality is not as concrete as we think’,  that ‘pratyaksha (apparent) is not pramana (evidence) and that we must conduct our lives as a ‘yagna’.

One of the most important takeaways from the course was the focus on how Kali Yuga, the time when dharma is in decline, is also the best time to learn about and practice dharma.

Adluri, throughout the course, used examples from the Mahabharata to relate to several western philosophers and comment on the current state of society, ‘Modernity’ runs ‘high on the optimism of utopia.  It is in the name of the good—that evil is perpetuated–Once an ideology does not want to dialogue, it only kills.  Evil is due to non-thinking (Hannah Arendt)’.

Conflict, stated Adluri, is a necessary element to keep the world going, and the only way out of the pain caused by this ongoing, ever present conflict, is ‘thinking, love and compassion’.  Especially, since like in the Mahabharata, in the real world too, the heroes are flawed, and the anti-heroes are never without praiseworthy qualities.

Both Adluri and Bagchee brought home the point that to learn from the Mahabharata we must approach the poem with an attitude of respect (hermeneutics of respect), with a belief that it has something to teach us.

And the text has much to teach.  None of the teaching would be revealed to us, until we approach it with care, and with an attitude of learning.

One aspect of the conference, that might have been peripheral, if it were not so central, so significant to us, the participants receiving such profound wisdom, was the respect that Adluri and Bagchee shared for each other.  Adluri who has mentored Bagchee, shared his gratitude for receiving an ardent student, while Bagchee said that for all he has achieved, he has remained nothing else but his teacher’s student.  Who among us would not want that for ourselves? I think the entire room was quiet at the time student and teacher expressed their regard for each other, probably moved to think of many such teacher-student relationships in the Mahabharata itself.

Commenting on Hindus being considered idolaters, Adluri said, ‘When I visit the temple, I ask Narayana, ‘are you an image?’ He in return asks me, ‘Are you an image?’.  The Hindus, said the scholars, have nothing to do except continue with their daily work (dharma).  When someone asked him about his book Nay Science, that traces the history of German Indology and how it reads Hindu text in its own ‘image’ (context of the west), he simply lifted the book and said, ‘I wrote this, so that I can continue to enjoy my Mahabharata’.

Towards the last day Adluri had, lightly, suggested that we share with him our responses, so that he may be feel he made the right choice of profession, rather than going into medicine or more lucrative careers.  I, as a participant know that the significance of Mahabharata was enhanced for me multiple times in those four days.

For days after the conference, I looked at things as if I was trying to remove a film of ‘maya’ from everything around me, as if I wanted to gauge my actions so that each step I took, moved me towards Naimisha forest.  I know the effect will wear off as daily life takes over, but I will be sure to remember that ‘universe is a text’.  And that whether we consider the Bhagwad Gita an honest or dishonest, liberating or constricting text will depend on how well we have approached it and how well we have learnt to ‘read it.’

Author: Charu Uppal

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