Yuganta: A critical eye on Mahabharata

I have often wondered about the contrast in the number of writings that have been woven around bible and its testaments, and those of Indian epics. For instance, there is little deliberation on Mahabharata, the story of epic proportions with it’s very complex and real characters. Only a handful of texts come to my mind: Shashi Tharoor’s Great Indian novel; Chitra Banerjee’s Palace of Illusions; Sawant’s Mrityunjai. I have chalked up the difference to be because of a focus on oral traditions in India, and the lack of good translations of some of the regional works. But often, I worry that the reason could also be my own reading oeuvre, which is not exposed to works in this space.

I had not heard of Yuganta, and I have to thank the friend who introduced me to it. (She has introduced me to a lot of Indian writing, a genre that I have largely ignored). The author, Irawati Karve is an anthropologist and that reflects very clearly in how she has studied the characters in Mahabharata as real humans and not as mythical creatures. Mahabharata never had ideal heroes unlike Ramayana where both Ram and Sita offered the image of perfection. Even in the poetic eulogies of Mahabharata, deceit, vices, greed are left in plain sight. Yuganta brings the human side to the forefront.

An anthropologist’s reading of Mahabharata

The writing is structured in ten chapters, and most of these follow a character, except some which talk about aspects of the society at the time – castes, treatment of aliens, end of an epoch. Karve dates Mahabharata in ~1000 BC, and she sees all of the behaviours with the lens of the time.

There is a lot that is interesting about the writing. The first chapter, focused on Bhishma immediately drew my attention, because it was contrarian to the popular view. Bhishma is usually put on a high pedestal of sacrifice and suffering, and the author is brutal in lifting the hood on this ideal. She points him to be a person who holds his personal vow above the duties that were expected of him. Bhishma tried his utmost to live up to his self-less image, and therein lay disaster.

When a man does something for himself his actions are performed under certain limits set by the jealous scrutiny of others. But let a man set out to sacrifice himself and do good to others, the limits vanish…the injustices done by idealists, patriots, saints and crusaders are far greater than those done by the worst tyrants.

The final effort, Yuganta

Fulfilling one’s dharma

The theme of fulfilling one’s dharma is often repeated in the story of Mahabharata, and I also saw this theme run through the analysis in Yuganta.

Karve navigates away from the pandavas, never diving into their individual characters directly. The women get more attention: there is a chapter each on Kunti, Gandhari and Draupadi. These provide interesting insights into the backstories of these women, and I couldn’t help but feel some sympathy for Kunti, who was given away as a slave to a Brahmin in her youth. She is cited as the reason for the Great War, but being the woman of her times, she is only reminding her sons to fulfil their “dharma”.

(Krishna) said that though reality was the ultimate goal, it could never be reached without taking a definite stand about human life. The human society had a validity provided the values did not become a means of personal aggrandisement.

The end of the Yuga, Yuganta

The most illuminating chapters of the collection for me were Krishna Vasudeva and The end of the Yuga. in fact, most of my take away from the book came from this last chapter which clearly outlines how Mahabharata was a very different era of social norms compared to what came after. One of these distinctions was ideal of woman’s loyalty. If one did not have heir, it was customary to let your wife beget you a son from another man.

Krishna becomes a God

The other interesting distinction was god devotion or Bhakti, which emerged after the Mahabharata but was not present during. I have always assumed that Krishna was the basis of Bhakti and therefore this form of religious thinking must have started around the Mahabharata, but it seems that as part of the story, no one worshipped Krishna. The Krishna of Mahabharata was an even keel, non emotional person. Many revered him as a wise and clever person, Arjuna saw him as a friend, but the hero-worship was added later.It is also the later stories which make Krishna into a warm, naughty and lovable person. This evolution of Krishna’s character and power, sounds very similar to the divine attribution to Jesus after his death.

Religion in my own reading

I am dipping my feet in religion, and the wetness hasn’t touched me yet. What better place to start understanding this remarkably complex phenomenon than exploring the corner of it that I inherited at birth: Hinduism. I have started scrolling around, a little lazily, for understanding this religion through information and knowledge. That is the only way I know to understand things – read about them and reflect. Yuganta offers a good context for reflection. Thank you for joining me in this journey.

The tale of Princess Kaguya

I have had a wavering relation to movies: growing up, I hated them. The idea of spending three hours immersed in someone else’s story in a dark room was claustrophobic. A little older, the stories began to seem alluring, may be because life was tiring and less entertaining ; writing your own story is exhausting and daunting after all. More likely it was because people introduced me to better movies than the ones available to me growing up.

After some gap in the late-blooming love, a gap fuelled by TV series addiction, this year I am trying to return to movies, albeit slowly. A Sunday at a time. To watch something gripping enough, I have been relying on dilapidated prints of old movies available on Youtube, so it was great to see that Netflix has finally brought some titles from Studio Ghibli to our living room. Studio Ghibli has been behind some of the most revered anime movies made in Japan from sublime directors like Miyazaki, and Japanese anime is a genre I have greatly enjoyed in the past.

When I sat down in front of the screen today, I was determined to watch an anime, particularly from Miyazaki. But scrolling through the title, the image of Princess Kaguya caught my eye. The water-colour hues in the background were so gentle and soothing, that I was immediately drawn to it.

The film is drawn from a folktale and is fantastical, but also very spiritual. A thumblina princess appears in front of a bamboo cutter, and transforms into a little child when he carries her home to his wife. The couple bring up the child as their own, but because of her initial appearance, the bamboo cutter is convinced that she is meant to be a noble princess. Lil’ bamboo (that’s how her friends call her) enjoys a carefree childhood with friends and Sutemaru, a boy, who would later personify all the happiness of this time. This idyllic world is shattered when the father takes her away to the capital and begins training her to be a princess. At her naming ceremony, she is christened Kaguya and the fame of her music and beauty reaches far and wide. Noblemen vie for her acceptance as she sends them on fool’s errands. All this while, she continues to pine for the idyllic home and forest she left behind. She prays to the moon, and threatened by a suitor’s advances, expresses a wish to not be on the earth. The moon takes her back on the next full moon night, as she desperately tries to cling on to the love on earth.

The story is a spiritual tale, and if you have any doubt about it, Buddha makes an appearance at the end as Kaguya struggles to disconnect from her parents. Kaguya spends her life in memory of a childhood, unhappy at the change and responsibility thrust upon her. The father continues to drive her towards what he thinks is her purpose, even though no one knows why is she on earth. Each of us is Kaguya, chasing a destiny which the world thinks is our way. But at the same time, we are lured by the carefree existence of childhood and keep wondering whether this pursuit is real and required. We want to escape to a past, even as parents and our well wishers push us to an imagined better future. And we end up ‘being’ in neither.

The brushstrokes used in the creation of the movie’s anime are ethereal. Like Kaguya, I wanted to freeze most frames, and seeing the message in front of me, couldn’t stop laughing at the irony of my behaviour. It is difficult to detach from the aesthetics and beauty of the world around, and all the heart desires is to possess. But possession doesn’t end the desire, which merely flies elsewhere. The lost love stories are so much more alluring than the ones that are found and become real.

I can’t ignore the triteness of my own words – how many times have they been said and written, perhaps even by myself. But they sound especially wise to me in the moment. If only, I can let go of the moment and still be blessed with the wisdom.

Samskara: A rite for a dead man

Samskara, a story by Kannada author U.R. Anathamurthy starts with a question, that of a dead body and what rites are appropriate for it. The body belongs to the bad sheep of a Brahmin community, a man who when alive, openly mocked the religious ways of this community, took a low caste woman as a mistress, ate meat, drank alcohol and defied every rule that the scriptures imposed on a man’s life.

The entire community is weighed down by the question of whether Naranappa the dead deserves a Brahim’s funeral. But the person who is weighed down most is the person who is the antithesis of the dead man – Praneshacharya. A man who has not only embraced the life prescribed by the scriptures, but gone a step ahead by even changing the nature of his grihastaashram by marrying an invalid woman. His marriage thus becomes an exercise in caring for the sick instead of the snare of a physical or emotional relationship.

The question unsettles this man who feels responsible for his community . The hungry Brahmins repeatedly implore him to resolve the problem so that they can return to their normal lives. Anxious that his knowledge is not enough, Praneshacharya retires to a temple seeking answers from an idol. This is the moment when his carefully constructed virtuous life is thrown into chaos – he has a sexual encounter with the dead man’s mistress. A stranger to physical intimacy, he loses his head at this encounter. What follows is a dream-like journey in the style of lost weekend. He walks to distant villages, forms an acquaintance Putta, a man who refuses to leave his side and insists on helping this unworldly man. Walking through a religious carnival, the colourful sights and invasive sounds scare and overwhelm Praneshacharya into further indecision. He has lost his context, his identity and is almost paralysed in the world he is unfamiliar with.

My favourite part of the story is Acharya’s transformation – from a person sitting on a high dry ground, to one who is suddenly thrown into a gushing water and anxiously follows the flow. The greeds and ugliness of the community is telling but an exaggeration. The plague (which is the cause of Naranappa’s death) is almost comical and superfluous to the plot. A plague cannot be a background score- I kept waiting for it to take the center stage, but it never did, and that was an unnecessary distraction to add to the story.

At times, I couldn’t help wondering that Acharya had defied the essential part of being a Hindu – it is a householder’s religion after all. But in his pride, he had chosen to dispense with the engagement of the household and skip to an ascetic life. Interestingly, this is what Buddhism proposes. But a Buddhist would probably not have to deal with the question of a dead body or rituals surrounding them. In trying to bridge the line, perhaps Acharya skipped some samskara that were essential to his way of life. If he had passed through all his rites, may be he would not have been so baffled with the question of the body.

For all its great ideas and alienation imagery, the book is poorly written, at least in translation. It is overly dramatised and the characters are mostly caricatures. And yet, I walked away from it feeling a warm glow in my mind.

Acharya’s introspections are the most telling parts of the story. I leave with these:

Have I the authority to include another’s life in my decision? The pain of it, the cowardice of it. God, take from me the burden of this decision”

“Putta gave him an entirely new personality. In the eyes of strangers, one gets a new form, a new make up. Even to the point of doubting who I really am, I have become many persons in one single day”

“It becomes clear that he didn’t have the skills to live in this world of sharp and cruel feelings. One part of lust is tenderness, the other part a demonic will.

Coming to Gita

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I have been brought up a Hindu, by a devout mother who adores Krishna and cares for him almost as her third child. So, Gita is not an alien text to me. I have heard its basic tenets a few times, I have seen some gatherings of elderly women weep over the message of divine devotion, I have oscillated between feeling the same surge of emotion and rolling my eyes at the overwhelmed group . But I know the messages only partially and superficially – in punchlines and not as embodied knowledge. When I began to transition into adolescence, like most young people, I violently threw the cloak of tradition and religion, afraid that it will consume me into a mass which I was not ready to become.

After wrapping life around myself in my own fashion for many years, I no longer feel threatened by a prescribed way of life. I feel strong enough to examine it with my own sight. Yet, I am not ready to dive into the literal translation of Gita, because I lack the context to interpret a text written many hundreds of years ago.

On the lookout for a starting point, three months ago, I found a copy of Devdutt Pattanaik’s “My Gita” on an airport bookstore, and I decided to start there. Pattanaik is not a renowned   expert on Hinduism or the Gita. He is often criticised for being ubiquitous, a false marketeer, biased Shaivate, inaccurate and more. But his Gita is well laid out, thematically presented, and draws comparisons between Hinduism and other religions, which may be difficult to find in traditional Hindu texts. For a person like me, the starting point in understanding Gita needs to look from outside-in, zoom in from what I see around me and crystallise the differences.

So ‘My Gita’ worked for me – even though I am cautious to not take it as the whole truth. I think of it has a starting point from where I can work my way into Gita in particular and Hinduism in general. The introduction helped me to re-affirm some of my earlier understanding and expand on a few concepts of Hindu believes, such as:

The concept of “iti” – as things are, and the acceptance of iti. There is a reality which encompasses violence, conflicts, desires and Hinduism advices to accept and acknowledge it, instead of negating and denying it.

Hinduism as a householder’s religion: One of the fundamental differences between Hinduism and Buddhism is the monastic nature of Buddhism, where a believer renounces and withdraws from the world, whereas Hindu tradition encourages people to engage with society and carry out responsibilities as per your current role.  Buddhism professes killing self-desire, while Hinduism talks about the ultimate desire to unite with Brahma.

Darshan or observation (versus judgement): Hindu mythology does not have a judgement day – instead one is encouraged to observe actions and understand/empathise with the fear underlying those actions. Judgement creates walls, whereas the world of observation is fluid and more empathetic.

Dehi or Atman (immortal resident within the body or deha): Gita talks about body and its immortal residents as two distinct entities. It is the deha which is entrapped in fear, and rebirth allows the immortal soul to escape the cycle of fear. However, stripped of the body, the soul immediately looks for a new body and perpetuates the cycle of rebirth. Through observation, dehi can go beyond the entrapments of body. Devotion to God can help the atman

The concepts don’t end here, but I am struggling to synthesize everything in one post (and one sitting). I will likely return to these concepts again in another post.

It is not difficult to see that all of the above concepts have a lot in common with popular axioms of letting go, not judging, accepting things; axioms that transcend beyond Hindu beliefs to charismatic speeches, psychological assistance, self-help guides and even pixar movies. It is sound advice, but it puts all action in the hands of the ‘actor’, which causes significant anxiety. It does not seem like Gita is ready to prescribe me a way of life, and is instead telling me that there is no script and I need to form my own. And shouldn’t this scare me?

Brothers Karamazov

I have not been much exposed to Dostoevsky except for a few short stories (In fact except for a bit from Tolstoy and Gogol, I have somehow skipped the Russian writing altogether). I have liked Dostoevsky’s short stories, and so his megalith had been on my reading wishlist and on my shelf for sometime now. I am glad I picked it up finally, for it was definitely amongst my top ten reads this year.

It is a story of parricide, where a son is accused of murdering his father, and the conservative Russia is aghast at such a heinous crime. (I suppose such an overt crime will raise contempt even today, despite the apparent apathy which has been cultivated through over-exposure to all kinds of horrifying crimes). However, this book can barely be summed as a book of crime or a courtroom drama, even though it has elements of both. Dostoevsky has added everything: a little bit of mystery-as the actual murder is never shared with the reader, a little bit of romance, some philanthropy, some religion, some sociology and a lot of philosophy and psychology. To think of it, he hardly left anything. Except perhaps science fiction, which he replaced it with mysticism and prophecy.

As is expected from such a heavy tome (my edition was 1040 pages long!), there were a few sub-plots and each was given a lot of detailing. The story began two days before the murder, and I had finished almost 600 pages before even the whiff of murder appeared. The narrator gives a detailed account of the movements of the brothers, their conversation amongst themselves, their conversation with others, the entangled love stories, the family drama and the religious discourses at a monastery in town. However, it is to Dostoevsky’s credit that he would exit the detailing just when it began to get arduous, though the sheer length of the book did ask for a lot of reader’s patience.

I liked the narration of the book. Most of the time the narrator pretended to be another resident of Staraya Russa (the town in which the novel is set), giving an account of the happenings. But this did not prevent him to be omniscient, omnipresent and completely aware of even the most intimate discussions amongst the characters.

Apart from the main plot, the book outlines a religious debate and explores the question of existence of God. Ivan, one of the Karamazov brothers who seem to have done a lot of rational thinking, gets into many such discussions. He also argues the rationality of having a system of justice separate from the justice of church (or God), and the book seems to subtly raise the same concerns with its plot.

Brothers Karamazov, apparently is the masterpiece that Dostoevsky hoped to write before meeting his end. He put in a lot of himself in his last work, including his own grief upon his son’s death. The grief finds expression in the sequence of the captain and his dying son Illyusha. The benign hero of the novel, Alyosha is also named after Dostoevsky’s departed son. It is believed that the death changed both Dostoevsky’s mind frame and the course of this novel significantly. Though it did not prevent Dostoevsky from writing the signature masterpiece.

Gospel according to Jesus Christ

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this unusual account of Jesus’ life by Jose Saramago – of course a version which the saviors of the religion will never accept or include in their canon. After all it raises severe doubts about the benevolence of their God. A God who has already been suspected of ‘severity‘ several times in the past.

The book is an account of Jesus’ life as narrated by Jesus of Nazareth himself. A simple man, son of another simple man and not God. A man with human instincts, who takes refuge in the arms of a woman (Mary Magdalene of course) after being troubled with his nightmares and a disturbing encounter with God.
The brilliantly held together story then goes on to describe the miracles that begin to happen to this simple man – something he is neither able to fathom, nor able to control. Miracles that are imposed upon him by God, in an endeavor to expand his empire. For God deems that the presence of his son in the world will spread his kingdom further. Perhaps even God believes in the ‘personal touch‘ – something that he cannot give himself and needs a medium!

Though I have not read either of the four canonical gospels, nor the denounced gospels, but I am sure this one must be more interesting. Its just right that the catholic church should have protested against this novel as blasphemous, but then no religious sect takes well to inspection and scrutiny.

Saramago, as usual is brilliant and original in this work as in all others. I thought his writing style was more expanded and verbose in this one as against the other two that I have read – The Double and The Cave, but that perhaps can be owed to different translators (That is the frustration of reading translations – you never know what got lost, or added, never know how the original author composed it). I love Saramago for his almost always unusual stories, a binding narrative, his tremendous originality, and his exploration of human thoughts under crazy circumstances.

Faith

After Roth, reading about the Mycogen sector of the Galactic empire (Ref.: Foundation Series, Issac Asimov), deepened my doubts in ‘faith’

There is something about faith that puzzles me extremely. Why does faith need to be so dogmatic and binding? One would assume that the thought of a benevolent super-power should set you free. It would make you respect the life that he has given, and live it with greater vitality, rather than tie it down in rituals.
Why are we so insecure about faith that we need to reinforce it and feel offended when a person flouts confirmity? Can the Pope seriously believe that his religion is so shallow that reading Harry Potter would influence children away from it? Can Parsi’s think that their religion can only be conserved by marrying in their own community? And does Hinduism stand on the pedestal of a long shattered and forgotten temple? Is it not faithlessness that people do not believe in the strength of their Gods or deem him a martinet?

I agree that rational is irrelavant to faith, but are rules the replacement of rationality?

Goodbye, Columbus and the dilemma of faith

After seeing his books on the reading list of some people whose reading tastes I hold in good esteem, I finally picked up my first book from venerable Philip Roth. Incidentally, Goodbye Columbus was also the author’s first book and earned him significant respect and a National Award.The book is a collection of a novella and 5 other short stories- all of them dealing with the lives of Jewish people in modern America.

The book is named after the novella, which is a love story of sorts, taut with the pulls of class distinction and the couples’ different ways of life. The young couple, from accross this class divide, struggle to have a normal courtship, but a power tussle continues to strain their relations. The relationship is further pressured by the conservative Jewish sentiments. Perhaps if I had never watched hindi movies with the same cliched theme, I might have been able to appreciate the story better. But it turns out that I have grown up on such movies like an average Indian, and find nothing remarkable in Mr. Roth’s tale.

However, the five stories that follow almost make-up for the interest that the novella could not generate.Roth has outlined the confusion of a Jew in a modern society very well, sometimes by exaggeration. Particularly noteworthy stories were “The Conversion of the Jews,” “Defender of the Faith,” and “Eli, the Fanatic.” Mr. Roth was widely criticised by the Jewish community who did not find the portrayal of certain Jewish characters in the book very appealing, especially in his story “Defender of faith”, where a trio of devout jew draftees in the army exploit a Jewish sergeant on religious grounds.

Though Roth’s stories talk about the cultural identity of Jews, I think the dilemma that he poses is one faced by people from many different faiths. Irrespective of the ethnic identity, people feel threatened to lose it in the face of a seemingly unifying world. In such cases, they feel compelled to hold on to this identity with exaggerated vigour. For example, Indians living abroad feel a greater necessity to celebrate Indian festivals and gather together on such occassions, while these days may go unnoticed by many young people living in India. As the world
tilts towards unipolarity, it is not surprising to find the springing up of so many religious fanatics.

At the same time there are many who have adopted religious/cultural indifference and are contend to be a part of a neutral modern race. However, often even these people foster a feeling of guilt/remorse and sometime when they come accross devout followers of their faith (like the drill sergeant of Roth’s story), the guilt forces them to either unjustly favour these people or turn unusually unfair to them. An impartial treatment under such encounters is often not possible. Perhaps religious and cultural conditioning from birth plays an important part in keeping the faith alive, even if dormant.

What keeps people from following an assimiliated faith and a unified religion? After all The ideas in the religions are not so distinct from each other. Perhaps it is the same threat as faced by two merging companies – one of them always rules the other.