Mahabharata: The Epic and the Nation

Vishakh Rathi*

Book Review

(Aleph Book Company, 2022 edition. Rs. 499. 142 pages)

The roughly 2,000-year-old Mahabharata has been told and retold in countless languages, forms and mediums. Every Indian knows the story, and can claim to be familiar with some of its characters. It is history for some, myth for others. It is not a religious text in itself, although the Bhagwad Gita is an intrinsic and inseparable part of it now. It’s widely accepted by scholars that the Gita was a later addition to the text of Bharata or Jaya, from which emerged the Mahabharata as we know it today.

So what gives the Mahabharata, its enduring appeal for generations of Indians?

A new book by renowned linguist and scholar GN Devy, Mahabharata – The Epic and the Nation, tries to answer this question.  The book is less than 150-pages, but reading it requires time. Anyone interested in understanding the enduring appeal of the Mahabharata must read it. Though people familiar with the Mahabharata would find it easier to follow, those with knowledge (or interest) in linguistics, comparative literature, mythology, archaeology, and genetics would perhaps understand the nuances and references in the book even better.

Devy writes, ‘Indians, old or young, in cities or in villages, think that they know the Mahabharata although they rarely read the poem in print’, and yet, he points out, ‘No other imaginative composition, no other literary work except perhaps the Ramayana, has held so much sway over such vast numbers and over such a long time span’ (p23, emphasis added).

That ‘the Mahabharata is awe-inspiring’, does sound like a cliché, but when one actually reads it, its breadth, imagination, and the talent of its creator(s) cannot but take one’s breath away. Those who only know it through the immensely popular televised versions cannot fully experience this.

Devy points out, as have other writers and scholars, that the Epic is neither pure history, nor is it pure myth – in fact it is difficult to separate the two in its telling because, ‘myth is in the making of the Mahabharata what bones are to a body’. (p 41)

How is mythology created? Why do myths have a hold over us? While the former question is not answered in the book, the latter is addressed.

Devy says, ‘myths are a kind of truth which the entire community accepts as a ‘given’…they are…a collective dream of an entire civilisation.’ (p 69, emphasis added). Sri Aurobindo, says something similar, and Devy cites him: ‘the Mahabharata is the creation and expression of not a single mind, but of the mind of a nation; it is a poem of itself written by a whole people”. (p 125, emphasis added)

What is the purpose of employing myth to embellish a story that is supposed to be a recording of real events? The Mahabharata, says GN Devy, is ‘no doubt itihas, a manner of remembering events in the past, but in order to imbue that retelling with dignity and grandeur, the narrative is painted as if all the events that occur in it belong to a timeless and ever present era’. (p 71)

The book is replete with scholarly references to various branches of the sciences (social and natural). As mentioned earlier, it requires patience and perhaps even reading it more than once, to understand its arguments and postulations.

From a lay reader’s perspective, with a fair bit of interest in Mahabharata, three things struck this reviewer.

One, Devy says that by the time the Mahabharata was composed, ‘India had gone a fierce conflict between Vedic thought, rituals and social, and political structures and Buddhist ideas, practices, views and political consolidation’, (p 78) and then he goes on to say that both the Bharata and the Mahabharata chose to stay away from those contemporary debates, choosing to depict the ‘epic’s vision of Bharat’. (p 78)

It is true (in this reviewer’s limited knowledge) that the Epic mentions ceremonies associated with birth, death, ascension to a throne etc., but it doesn’t expand on what kind of rituals were involved in them in any great detail. Irawati Karve, in Yuganta, has pointed out that even temples are barely mentioned in the Epic. (p171, Yuganta, Orient Black Swan 2008 edition). (Yuganta, incidentally, is strongly recommended for anyone who has any interest in a dispassionate understanding of the Epic, but doesn’t have the inclination or time to read it even in an abridged form.)

However, the Mahabharata is very particular about etiquette and protocols – the ‘proper way’ of doing things. A king, a minister, a sage or even lesser characters are mentioned with a certain respect – “the illustrious bull among the Kurus/men”, “O monarch”, “the wise one” etc., or even with pointed derision – the “evil or wicked minded” so on and so forth. That does seem to reflect not just a deep consciousness about social structures and hierarchies in society, but also takes care that these are reflected in the text without fail.

Further, there are long passages in the Mahabharata about duties– not just in the way we know them from the Gita, but almost every act has to pass through the altar of duty, before it is given effect. Whether it passes the test of righteousness or not is another matter.

So, for instance, when Pandu’s act of killing a mating deer-couple is chastised by the deer itself, Pandu justifies the killing to the dying deer thus:

‘O deer, kings behave in the matter of slaying animals of thy species exactly as they do in the matter of slaying foes. It behoveth thee not, therefore, to reprove me thus from ignorance. Animals of thy species are slain by open or covert means. This, indeed, is the practice of kings”. Extracted from this link, of KM Ganguli’s translation of the Mahabharta

This incident is about a hobby or pastime of a monarch – but even that doesn’t go unquestioned, and is in fact presented with both sides (one side not even being ‘human’!) engaging in fascinating arguments. There are chapters devoted to what a King’s duties towards his subjects/kingdom ought to be. The proper way of conquest over other kingdoms is discussed. Irawati Karve writes:

A king who performed the ‘Rajasuya’ had to defeat a few kings in battle, others he won through friendship, and still others agreed to his being called ‘Samrat’ because they were his kin. He had to invite and honour all the kings, give them gifts, feed thousands of Brahmins and perform the whole sacrifice with due pomp and ceremony. (Yuganta, p171, Yuganta, Orient Black Swan 2008 edition).

Aren’t these all instances about political and moral considerations? Perhaps, GN Devy means something altogether different, when he says that the Mahabharata primarily stays away from discussing social and political structures?

The second fascinating aspect about the book is when Devy points out that reading the Epicevokes the ‘Shanta Rasa’ in its audience, for which he cites Abhinavagupta, a 11th century literary scholar. Devy also says that:

‘one can be certain beyond any doubt that the essence of the Gita – the precept of detachment, and the perspective of an uninvolved witness, the stithpragnya or sakshi – was the precise sentiment that that the Mahabharata sought to evoke in the minds of its audience’ (p 43)

Since the book is about Mahabharata’s enduring effect on the Indian psyche, one wonders if the detachment that the Epic evokes in the audience, is imbued into our collective subconscious. Is that the reason, that a vast majority of Indians are content being mere witnesses of the great upheavals happening around us? That they are comfortable as sakshis, and don’t feel the need to participate in either debate, or in action? Though Devy doesn’t draw this kind of a straight line, it may be a question that students of politics, sociology or philosophy may like to explore further.

The third striking thing about the book, is of course the conclusion Devy draws towards the end – the purpose so to say, for which the book has been written. It leaves one with a sense of disquiet. And why is that? Consider what Devy writes earlier on in the book: 

‘The past for the original poet of the Bharata was as much the past in time as it was the recollection of past in the mind. The seamless combining of the two was also his comment on the course of history of Indian civilization till the time of the Kurukshetra war: it was history whose distinctive features were assimilation, synthesis, combination, acceptance and moving forward without exclusions.’ (p 77)

Towards the end, Devy presents the ‘Mahabharata method of presenting history’ – i.e., history which is deeply intertwined with myths, where historical and mythical time dissolve into each other. In his own words it is ‘never a complete objective truth nor a complete fiction’ (p 127).

He says that this method has in fact become the way that Indians think about history. And that, he says, manifests itself in the ways Indians perceive caste/varna, feudalism and modernity among other things (and which is perhaps the reason for their continuity over millennia).

These two seemingly contradictory readings of the effect of the Epic on the nation, are also what make it a fascinating subject for scholarship, and perhaps is another reason for its enduring appeal?

It also reminds one of Joan Robinson’s, oft quoted quip about India, “The frustrating thing about India is that whatever you can rightly say about India, the opposite is also true.”

And of course, this is what the Mahabharata famously claims about itself: “Whatever is here, only that can be found elsewhere, what’s not here, won’t be found elsewhere”

So, will we always have an India of two alternate (or parallel) realities? One which has learnt to assimilate and accept differences, and the other, where those differences continue to have a separate life of their own?


*Vishakh Rathi is a media professional with over two decades of experience. He was formerly associated with news (Headlines Today, CNN-IBN) as well as non-news channels (Star TV) besides various reputed production houses. Presently, freelancing as a communication consultant for some NGOs, he has also been doing story development assignments for web-series based on factual events. He can be contacted at [email protected]

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the personal opinion of the author and do not reflect the views of which does not assume any responsibility for the same.



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