Mahabharata: Ways of reading the epic in our times

Excerpt from G.N. Devy’s ‘Mahabharata: The Epic and the Nation’

G. N. Devy | April 21, 2022


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Mahabharata: The Epic and the Nation
By G.N. Devy
Aleph Books, 150 pages, Rs 499

The Mahabharata is one of the greatest literary masterpieces in the world, and for Indians, it is the ur-text. It has been said, “Whatever is here, may be found elsewhere; what is not cannot be found anywhere else.” No wonder the epic has provoked seers and sages, thinkers and scholars to comment on it. With commentaries and versions and a variety of studies, the literature on the Mahabharata keeps proliferating.

This essay by G.N. Devy, however, is different. The literary theorist-turned-activist explores his concerns in a range of domains – politics, culture, language and more – in the light of the text that has shaped the Indian worldview. The excerpt reproduced here will give an idea of what his tract has to offer:


THE ORAL BHARATA, as I have argued earlier, comes at the end of an era extending over nearly a millennium that witnessed the great historical mixing of the Indian population. The larger Mahabharata comes at a time when India had gone through a great philosophical contestation that extended over almost a millennium. During that long time, the subcontinent had seen Buddhism and Jainism taking on the consolidated ritualism of the post-Rig Veda era. The most contentious metaphysical and moral issues in this great debate were the nature of reality, ethical responsibilities of man, ahimsa or non-violence, and, of course, the essence of life. The Bharata invented a method for bringing all strands of the past together, the method that the poem called itihasa, making myth the vehicle for stitching together various stretches of time in that long past. The larger Mahabharata was a compendium skilfully versed, great in its meter, caesuras, syllabic combinations (sandhis), and generous in detail. But its primary loyalty remained with the older narrative poem rather than the times in which the larger version was being composed. Thus, it remained shy of the philosophical and metaphysical debates that had been taking place in the centuries preceding its composition. It focused more on warfare, military tactics, political pulls and pushes, and depiction of individual characters. Its hesitation in engaging with the great metaphysical and theological tussles of its times led to it becoming less aggressive in addressing the growing orthodoxy of the post-Rig Veda ritualistic idea of dharma. This had a profound effect on the course of the Mahabharata throughout the history of India.

It needs to be remembered that the times during which the larger Bharata, that is the Mahabharata with a hundred thousand verses, was composed were the times when some of the most definitive cultural texts of ancient India were being written in the Sanskrit language. Within the matter of some four or five centuries, thinkers, scholars, and pundits of the day had produced the Ashtadhyayi (Panini), Varttika (Katyayana), Mahabhashya (Patanjali), Arthashastra (Kautilya), Ramayana (Valmiki), Natyashastra (Bharata), and Madhyamakavatara (Chandrakirti). This list can be very long. The latter-day Upanishads were emerging and the Puranas were soon to follow. The Dharmasutras were driving the process of consolidation of the Brahminical, ritualistic Vedic dharma. The Jains were producing significant literature and Buddhism had already reached lands outside India, after receiving an unprecedented level of political patronage from the times of Emperor Ashoka. Within this context, the prolific poet of the Mahabharata had to craft his epic based on the previously existing Bharata. Literature in his times was classified as mantra, sutra, shastra, and Suta literature. Kautilya’s work on politics was shastra, as was Bharata’s work on drama. As against this, the Mahabharata was, and remained forever, a work of suta literature. Sutas were reciters of poetry, who wandered from place to place and narrated heroic sagas. Their work was non-Brahminical, and hence, looked down upon by the Brahmins engaged in studying the Vedas. The Sutas in ancient India were not exclusively enjoyed by the Brahminical class. Reading, memorizing, or reciting their works was not taboo for non-Brahmins.

Therefore, the Mahabharata was intended from the time of its composition as a work available for all. Its author, Vyasa, is also ascribed the authorship of a massive verse companion called Bhagavat (not to be confused with the Gita). In the times after Vyasa, careful rituals came to be associated with the reading of the Bhagavat. The audience for it could be non-Brahminical, but the reader had to be from the Brahmin community. As against this, no such elaborate rules were associated with the reading or reciting of the Mahabharata. And, thus it became—as did Valmiki’s Ramayana—an epic for everybody. Between the two, the Mahabharata came to be seen as itihasa while the Ramayana came to be seen as kavya, poetry, first. The Mahabharata of Vyasa earned this unique distinction, but it had to pay the price of keeping itself aloof from its contemporary times and turning its glance entirely towards the remote past.

Ever since Vyasa’s Mahabharata came into circulation, generations of Indians have felt compelled to relate to it, to revive it, and to make it their own through different mediums. In a way, it became the non-Brahmin’s book of religion, their dharma grantha, not because it made any claim to being a Dharmasutra but because it carefully avoided making that claim. The canonical Dharmasutras such as the Manusmriti became the fountainhead of scorn, hatred, and social exclusion. Their naked advocacy of varna and caste distinction justified in pseudo-theological and legislative styles, their entirely non-forgiving attitude to labour and the classes engaged in labour, their canonization of scorn and inequality, were sure to alienate the non-Brahminical classes. The Mahabharata, on the other hand, remained a much-loved text. Its audiences were prepared to overlook the fact that it too spoke of the Kshatriyas and the Brahmins according to the norms of social orthodoxy. But the characters it depicted in hues of myth, grandeur, and heroism provided all classes of the population a space for imagining a society which had women like Kunti and Draupadi, rulers like Bhishma and Yudhishthira, and heroes like Karna and Abhimanyu. The Mahabharata became for Indians during the last 2,000 years a veritable mine of ideals of courage, moral truth, and liberation. The Bhagavad Gita, which draws heavily upon the Upanishads, too received this kind of response. Generations of Indians read and recited it as a work that teaches the virtues of action, detachment, and devotion, not so much as a work that advocates violence. Living in a society that was marked by severe exclusions based on caste and gender, repressive pollution norms, and taboos instilled by superstition and fear of divine retribution, people deprived of recognition as humans continued to develop a unique affinity towards the heroes and deities valorized in the Mahabharata. Sects and cults dedicated to Vishnu, Krishna, and Ganesha grew in significance throughout the first millennium. The influence of the Mahabharata has been so pervasive during the last two millennia that presenting merely an outline of it should easily take several volumes.

[The excerpt reproduced with the permission of the publishers.]

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