Most of us have only a Nodding Acquaintance With the Mahabharata, gleaned from the stories we have heard when in our grandmothers' care to the television serial that brought the country to a halt with its riveting power. But if we actually embark upon the adventure of reading the largest book in the world which has the claim that anything that is not in Mahabharata cannot be found anywhere else, we come across a fascinating array of characters, situations and motivations that mirror our innermost desires and thoughts that propel us into action. The text is an inalienable part of the Indian psyche, whose characters are so alive that they form an integral part of any politics, from domestic to electoral. It took about a thousand years to grow, as is generally believed, from Jaya to Bharata to Mahabharata. It not only exists in two major versions, the Northern and the Southern, but every region of India has contributed its own customs, myths, legends, folk tales and heroes to it. Every subsequent generation has interpreted and reinterpreted the epic in its own way, in order to find justifications and solutions to the situations, conflicts and challenges that life may have thrown at it.
The Mahabharata portrays the 'all grey' of human nature and the difficulty of making ethical distinctions. This accounts for the excitement and perennial appeal attached to it. Unlike in the Ramayana, there are no ideal fathers, sons, mothers and wives to be found in the Mahabharata. All unabashedly pursue their self interest, the goal being power, wealth and satisfaction of desires. Their tragedy is as ours, stemming from narrow self interest which is finally self defeating. That is why Vyasa throws his hands up at the end of the Great War and cries out in anguish that wealth can be attained and desire fulfilled through dharma or righteousness but no one ever listens and so one ever will. How short human memory is, is evident when Arjuna's great grandson Janamejaya prepares a naga sacrifice to avenge the death of his father Parikshit who died of a snakebite by Takshak, the king of the nagas. It has taken only two generations to forget the horrors of war and begin the cycle of vengeance and destruction once again.
But Vyasa's desperate cry from the forest cannot go in vain. When a person as wise as Vyasa talks of victory, it cannot be merely physical victory nor is it only the destruction of ignorance or the victory of dharma over adharma because that in any case ultimately happens. What the great narrative, perhaps, wishes to convey is that such darkness will recur in time and that will cause an ambivalence and temporary corrosion in values. A person can only recount it whether someone listens to it or not. It is an act of stepping back to witness the flow of the river of Time.
At the first obvious instance, the Mahabharata seems to be a story of men fighting a fratricidal war for the throne of Hastinapur, with its surrounding patriarchy that places no value on women, save for as wives and mothers of sons. But the more one reads the text the more one acknowledges the courage of women like Kunti, Satyavati, Gandhari and Draupadi together with others who played minor roles. With the odds stacked against them, they use their minds and bodies to fight their own wars with a decisive and never-say-die attitude. They carve out pivotal places for themselves and play roles of such significance that the men have no potion but to follow their lead. Where they cannot get their way directly, they subvert and manipulate but their fight is as much for the throne of Hastinapur as that of their men. Yet, they are not petty. They are painted in heroic proportions and one cannot help but be sympathetic, awe-struck and stunned by their wisdom, cunning, craft and intellect, their immense enthusiasm to not only get the most that life has to offer but also to get it on their own terms.
So, is the justification of expediency and dissembling to gain power and wealth the message of the Mahabharata? Or does the Mahabharata bring all to grief, both the victorious and the defeated, as the victories are hollow, often worse than the defeats. Is it an unrelenting picture of horrifying destruction and a lament over the futility of war?
Neither of these is able to capture the centrality of this mahakavya or verse epic. It is actually a message of life that transcends death, a song of peace salvaged from the carnage of war, a sign of hope culled out from the spiritual desolation marking the end of the dvapara yuga. It opens the path to transcending one's concerns and seeing that one's happiness can only be a part of everyone's happiness. It brings the message of the truly unconquerable state of mind that can accept with equanimity, happiness and unhappiness, likes and dislikes, whatever may come one's way. It asks one to never accept defeat in one's heart and to remain calm and hopeful even in moments of trial and great suffering. That is possibly why, the narrative begins with the lament of the king, Dhritarashtra, overpowered by his attachments and incapacities, and ends not only with a great sadness but also with the immense calm and peace that comes with a ripening and maturing obtained through sorrow and endurance.
Back of the Book
With the possible exception of Draupadi, the queens in Mahabharata have, for long, been regarded as mere figures of ornamental significance in our popular imagination. Even informed discourses on the perennial epic have glossed over the importance and stature of these women by failing to initiate ways of analyzing the text from their points of view. This book is an effort to redress the crucial shortcoming.
Though the world of the epic is governed by an unambiguous patriarchy, the qeens are able to participate in and radically affect the dramatic unfolding of its central moral theme. This is no mean achievement, the book argues, as it is a clear index of the strength of character and the shrewd political will that guide these women in their efforts to establish themselves as recognizable subjects and agents. Queens of Mahabharata details this process of the women transcending their limited circumstances and redefining their relationships with the larger body politic as well as their own intimate domesticity.
Sociology, poetics, cultural anthropology and feminist theory are made to intersect with as remarkable an ease and aptitude in the author's approach to her subject as they do in her broad sympathy with the critical traditions of the epic is a colourful, yet logical, extension of such an imagination. In the variorum of modern readings of the Mahabharata, this effort is irreplaceable.
Kavita A Sharma is the principal of the prestigious Hindu College in Delhi. She is one of the most distinguished and versatile academicians in the country today, with distinctions in the field of English Literature as well as Law.
Apart from teaching, Kavita A Sharma is also an accomplished author. Her first book, Byron's Plays: A Reassessment, was published in 1981. Subsequently she published Ongoing Journey: Indian Migration to Canada, which has received significant acclaim. She has also been a prolific contributor to leading publications in the country on a broad range of subjects ranging from education and literature of women's issues and religion.
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