The Mahabharata, in its most important aspect, is a sublime work of art in the sense the German philosopher Martin Heidegger used the term. Through it, an entire world is opened up, terms of reference and relationships defined.
But it is not easy, in the times we live in, to engage with the layers of history and memory, the archetypes and the cliches, that form the Mahabharata in its many versions. GN Devy’s Mahabharata: The Epic and the Nation is literary criticism at its best: It gives the reader perspective and insight, finding novelty in the familiar, and unpacks for her the complexity of the epic.
Devy does not shy away from engaging with the epic as history, its influence on language and religion, and its deep philosophical import. For example, he deals with the question of whether or not the Bhagavad Gita is a later interpolation to the Bharata (it likely was) — the many additions, in fact, make it “great” — but adds that this does not reduce the significance of either. The notions of time, of living history, of perception; and of caste, violence and gender of an entire subcontinent are reflected, and perhaps formed, by this epic in Devy’s reading of it. Devy’s argument is complex and seductive. His hermeneutic exercise does not attempt to categorise for convenience, or sanitise out of fear. After all, the epic’s enduring novelty arises from this complexity. In essence, Devy argues that the Mahabharata is a method by which India understood itself.
What makes the epic’s appeal both universal and enduring? Like the Ramayana, it has been told and retold. From TV and film to treatises and interpretations, almost every Indian is acquainted with Arjuna and Karna, Krishna Vasudev and Duryodhan. There is, of course, the Heideggerian interpretation, the richness of the text itself and the role it has played in social identity. Then, the function it performs for society, as alluded to earlier — as a way of remembering (both history and social lessons) as well as understanding suffering, relationships and violence — Devy’s Mahabharata delves into all of these explanations.
But, perhaps, his most important insight is a sociological one. The Mahabharata, despite being a story of kings and wars, was not the repository of the Brahmins unlike, say, the Vedas. This — perhaps, obvious to those who have engaged academically with the Indian epics — conclusion is also a revelation. It maintains, as a living cultural phenomenon, the essence of the oral tradition. It accumulates the stories of valour and injustice, of the tragic futility of violence, into an incohesive whole.
None of this is to say, as Devy points out, that the Mahabharata does not justify deeply inegalitarian values that have defined “civilisational” Hinduism. The caste-varna order is upheld, individual moral responsibility is subsumed under notions of dharma and karma that irk — as they should — modern sensibilities. But, at the same time, it is a work of honesty, a work without villains or heroes, or ideal men and women.
In a larger sense, Mahabharata: The Epic and the Nation is an example of the kind of confident scholarship about Indian thought that is rare. Devy’s book is certainly a work of great academic value. He seamlessly weaves Western analytical categories, without being beholden to them and understands the epic on its own terms, in its context. Yet, this kind of writing and rigour is unlikely to please the powers that be, who are only too keen to throw out phrases like vishwaguru and vasudhaiva kutumbakam but are afraid of the shades of grey, the self-criticism and social analysis inherent in India’s many great literary, and even religious traditions.
As a lay reader, one is left with a somewhat odd thought at the end of Devy’s masterful essay. The abiding influence of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana is as visible today as ever, from saas-bahu serials and Sooraj Barjatya films, to sci-fi novels and film series such as Gangs of Wasseypur (2012). Is the epic so powerful in its influence that we cannot, creatively and culturally, break out of its clutches? Like American cinema’s conquest by the superhero genre, India’s cultural imagination often seems to be unable to transcend its epics. More importantly, though, are the values the epics set up so perennial that India is truly destined to be governed by a philosophical construct whose sociological basis is inequality?
These are, perhaps, the wrong questions to ask and certainly ones with no answer. Yet, in New India, it is rare that work on the country’s cultural, collective consciousness leads one to them. For that reason, among many others, Devy’s work is of great significance.