Rich or poor, literate or illiterate, knowledgeable or ignorant almost all Hindus would have either read the Mahabharata in howsoever limited a form or have heard stories from it recounted to them. To most of them the names of Bhishma and Yudhishtira, Bhima and Duryodhana, Karna and Arjuna, Kunti and Draupadi, let alone Krishna, would be as familiar as any names of Gods and Goddesses. Few would know, however, that the Mahabharata that we know has gone through many revisions and additions and has continuously taken new forms. But no matter. Abhimanyu remains the quintessential hero as Duryodhana the ultimate villain. Vyasa, its original compiler would probably be shocked, pleasantly or otherwise at what has happened to his original work.
The Mahabharata as we now know it, is seven times larger than the Iliad and Odyssey combined. But what is so intriguing about this epic that Gurcharan Das who had done so well in his business career should get so enamoured of it, to give up his career at the relatively young age of fifty, in search of wisdom? That he felt compelled to go to Chicago University, of all places, to study the Mahabharata in both Sanskrit and English is a poor commentary on our Indian Universities. It is also strange that while Gurcharan Das refers to many Indian authors like RK Narayan and CV Narasimhan who had written abridged versions in English of the epic, he has forgotten the work of C Rajagopalachari. He mentions many works written by foreign scholars but says in the end that he has chosen Barbara Stoler Miller’s translation because it seemed to him it was “both accurate, poetical and has the great virtue of simplicity”.
At the same time Gurcharan Das says that the best discussion of the moral ideas of the Mahabharata is by the philosopher, Bimal K Motilal and the most stimulating works are by VS Sukthankar, Krishna Chaitanya and Iravati Karve. Gurcharan Das had a subtle reason to study the epic. He was feeling lost, weary of life and, as his mother told him, entering the third phase of life. He was asking himself: What is life all about? Is success all that matters? Is virtue the one thing that in the end is relevant? The Mahabharata, he felt, could possibly provide him the answers to his philosophic queries. As he put it: “Although human perfection may be illusory, dharma may be ‘subtle’ and there are limits to what moral education can achieve, the epic leaves one with the confidence that it is in our nature also to be good”. That thought, he says, more than any other, helped him assuage his “third stage melancholy”. This is not a study of the Mahabharata in toto.
Gurcharan Das is selective in his approach. He discusses Duryodhana’s envy, Draupadi’s courage, Yudhishtira’s duty, Arjuna’s despair, Bhishma’s selflessness, Karna’s status anxiety, Krishna’s guile (about which more ado), Ashwatthama’s revenge, Yudhishtira’s ultimate remorse and finally what constitutes Mahabharata’s dharma.
What, in the end, did Gurcharan Das learn? Iravati Karve had said that Mahabharata showed that all human effort was fruitless and all human life ended in frustration. Gurcharan Das does not agree with that. To him Mahabharata presents us with another moral dilemma to which there is no easy answer, reminding us about the difficulty of being good. As Gurcharan Das sees it, the epic forces us to reflect on our beliefs and our behaviour, making us aware about how we deceive ourselves. What kind of a person was Krishna? God Incarnate? Can a God Incarnate use questionable means to win victory? Can a God Incarnate persuade Yudhishtira to tell a lie? Gurcharan Das quotes VS Sukthankar as calling Krishna a “cynic who preaches the highest morality and stoops to practice the lowest tricks… an opportunist who teaches a god-fearing man to tell all lie.” Can such a man be a God?
According to Gurcharan Das, “the epic has a difficult task in defending his (Krishna’s) dirty tricks”, considering that early on he showed “a penchant for cunning and mischief”. Says Gurcharan: “It seems to me the question-man or God—is posed incorrectly. One must accept Krishna as he appears in the epic. The epic is clear that Krishna is God, Vishnu’s incarnation. The historical or theological truth matters less than the dramatic truth within the epic. One must accept both sides of Krishna, no matter how paradoxical or contrary. Despite his faults, the characters in the epic admire him.
For two thousand years, Indians have known these contradictions and have continued to worship him. I must confess I am drawn to Krishna who gets thirsty and hungry….” And no wiser words were said. One must read this book for its sheer analytical force and deep humility in admitting to one’s frailty. So many issues are discussed against their appropriate background. The Mahabharata must be the most puzzling epic ever written because it explores the sheer complexity of life at every stage. Dharma, it seems, is the most elusive of all rulers of right behaviour. Should we then prepare ourselves to accept that we are all a mixture of good and evil and perfectability is an illusion? The Mahabharata throws us into a world without moral closures. The chapter on Arjuna’s despair is the right forum for discussing the Gita. What is right action?
Krishna, says Gurcharan Das, does not define what it is: any action performed in selfless spirit is superior. Throughout the ages, people in India have tended to identify with Krishna’s position. Even Mahatma Gandhi, the great Apostle of non-violence had felt inspired by Krishna’s words. But, says Gurcharan Das, and one can easily empathise with him, he does not think that Arjuna was ever fully convinced that the great end of preserving the world from evil, justified the violent means. Indeed, some have even argued that Arjuna is, in many ways, a better model of ethical deliveration than Krishna. But then, was President Truman in any doubt over the dropping of nuclear bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Not at all.
To read this book is to spend sleepless nights and tortuous days worrying about what is right. And the ultimate prize for seeking to resolve the dilemma goes to—guess who!—the one and only Gurcharan Das himself. He is the ultimate Hindu—perhaps credit should also go to his parents, wise in their own way—who is not afraid to raise questions knowing very well that no answer can be fully satisfying.
(Allen Lane C/o Penguin Books (India) Pvt. Ltd., 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110 017.)