As a professor of Sanskrit, Dr Sucheta Paranjape has been reaching out to those who do not know India’s epic texts and taking them on a journey through a magical wonderland of larger-than-life protagonists, whose shadows cover us even today. With the curiosity of an academic and the style of a storyteller, she brings alive the great wars and the people behind these at a lecture series, organised by the Pune-based Heritage India, on the Mahabharata. The lecture series will be held on May 27, 29 and 31 and includes an introduction to the Mahabharata by Dr Jahnavi Bidnur. Paranjape talks to The Indian Express about her fascination with the Mahabharata, its strong-willed women and the prejudices that stalk the epic to this day
One of your lectures is about misunderstanding the Mahabharata? What are some ways in which we have misinterpreted the epic?
Who wrote the Mahabharata? Ved Vyas. What if I told you that the Mahabharata was not written by Ved Vyas? Vyas wrote a text called Jaya, which means victory, when the Pandavas won the great war. A need was felt that the records of the war must be documented. Vyas wrote a small documentation of the 18-day war. This was a drab thing, very brief and dry. It contained data on the number of soldiers killed and arms used and so on. Jaya is always called Itihaas, a word that comes in the Mahabharata, all the time. In those days, there was no media so Vyas taught Jaya to four of his disciples and one son, who went in different directions to spread the information about the war. It is important to remember that the Mahabharata was passed down through oral tradition. Vaishampayan was one of the disciples and the family priest of the Pandavas. He began to talk of Jaya to the Pandavas’ great-grandson, Janmejaya, who asked, ‘Why was there a war?’ Now, when Jaya was written, everybody alive knew that the war had taken place and why and by who. Janmejaya did not know. He asked questions like, ‘What do you mean by Draupadi vastraharan?’ As a result, for every shloka, Vaishampayan had to go back and explain a lot of things. It so happened that the work went on increasing and, with Jaya as the centre, a story of the Bharata dynasty was created. That story became so important that it was no longer called Jaya, it began to be called the Mahabharata. So, Vyas wrote the seed of the story but the Mahabharata has many creators, authors and writers.
How deeply does the Mahabharata impact our daily life even now?
How we are, as people, is impacted by the epics because our culture is influenced by the Ramayana and the Mahabharata at such a subconscious level that nobody realises it. In Marathi, for instance, there is a phrase, Draupadichi Thali. This is drawn from the story that Draupadi had a plate and she could get whatever food she wished for from it. We use the term Draupadichi Thali to refer to somebody who has what she wishes for. There are words like baka baka for eating, which is strange because, while eating, we never make that sound, baka baka. The legend is that there was a demon called Bakasura and he used to eat a lot and that is where the phrase has come from. When we use it, we are not aware of this.
The Mahabharata has been revisited in television, novels and art. Why does a general ignorance still prevail?
For thousands of years, a piece of historic stories are being read. Is there any other history book or fiction that has survived so long? The problem is that a common person’s knowledge of the Mahabharata is through modern interpretations of these tales that were written more than 2,000 years ago. That is too much of a gap. What we need is for people to read the original. That is not to say that people should read the original Sanskrit version. They could read translations from the original that are available in all languages, certainly in English. If you had the original, you will have no misunderstanding.
Which edition of the Mahabharata do you follow?
There used to be many Mahabharatas editions from Kolkata to Mumbai. Thirty years ago, the Bhandarkar Institute in Pune published the critical edition of the epic, for which many great scholars came together and compared texts. Please remember that these versions were not even in the same script. The scholars brought out a critical edition and now, when we talk about the Mahabharata, we talk about Bhandarkar’s edition.
When you talk to children about the Mahabharata, what is the reaction?
The younger generation, such as my grandchildren, hardly know of the Mahabharata. If we tell them these stories, it will stay with them. When I tell tales from the epic to my grandsons and granddaughter, they ask questions like, ‘Why did the cousins fight’? In earlier generations, we rarely encounter such questions because we accepted whatever the elders said. There is much in the Mahabharata that even older people do not know. My mother is 91 and I had to tell her that Vishnu Shahastra Naam is from the Mahabharata. On both ends of the age spectrum, there are gaps in the knowledge of the Mahabharata.
The other part of your talk is about the women in the Mahabharata. A war epic is largely centred around the achievements of men. How does the Mahabharata balance the role of women with that of men?
A simple question, ‘Who is the hero of the Ramayana?’ Ram. ‘Who is the hero of the Mahabharata?’ Somebody might say, ‘Krishna’. But, Krishna comes in the Mahabharata at the time of Draupadi’s swayamvara. Till then, Krishna is not seen anywhere in the story. All his bal leela is in a separate story called Hari Vansh. Arjun is only one of the Pandavas. Almost everybody is confused when it comes to naming one person as the hero of the Mahabharata. Who is the heroine of the Mahabharata? Pat comes the answer every time, ‘Draupadi’. She is the leading character, around whom the story revolves. She takes the lead in everything and she does so knowingly. The role of women in the Mahabharata depends on the position of women. I will quote my favourite sentence from My Fair Lady. Eliza Doolittle says, ‘The difference between a flower girl and a lady is not how she behaved but how she is treated’. Think about this — Kunti is said to have delivered only sons, Gandhari delivered a hundred sons (by hundred, they mean, a lot), Draupadi delivered five sons. Didn’t anybody deliver a daughter? Is it possible that there was no daughter born? The fact is that when a daughter was born, they weren’t noted. For instance, who was Draupadi’s mother? Nobody stops for a moment to think.
When we look at ideal women, we turn to the Ramayana. What is the difference between the two epics in their treatment of women?
In the Ramayana, the women are meek, mild and submissive. In the Mahabharata, the women are very strong, have defined personalities and handle situations on their own. Kunti, after her husband’s death, brought up her sons and was a constant presence in their lives. Satyavati, Shantanu’s wife, was a strong character. Nobody paid attention to them. Draupadi, in a household with five husbands, was obviously the boss. Had she not been their wife, they would have been doomed long back. She was the person who kindled their ambitions. She would always push them. I believe that, if there is one woman who is a real pativrata, it was Draupadi. She was like many women today who actively participate even in their husband’s professional life.
Yet, nobody names their daughter Draupadi.
Not in Maharashtra at least. The prejudice extends to the Mahabharata itself. Even 50 years ago in Maharashtra, you were not supposed to keep a text of the Mahabharata in the house. It was believed that, if you did, you would bring all the violence and evil into your home. When I worked at the Bhandarkar Institute in Pune after my retirement, I picked up the critical edition and my mother asked, ‘Are you sure you have to keep these in the house’. I mean, I bring home so many murder mysteries but does that mean I am going to kill somebody. People have a prejudice against the Mahabharata.
What brought you to Sanskrit literature and is there any prejudice associated with that?
I grew up in Mumbai and had a great teacher in school. She taught me Sanskrit in Class VII, IX and X, and I was so attracted to Sanskrit that I decided I would do something in Sanskrit. I was the stereotypical intelligent girl and came in the merit list of Class XI with two gold medals. Journalists came to my house and asked, ‘Doctor or engineer?’ and I said, ‘I am going into Arts and to Fergusson College in Pune because Pune is the centre of Sanskrit’. Much later, as a professor, when I told people I was a professor of Sanskrit, they would say, ‘Oh ok’. Once, as an experiment, I said, ‘I am professor of Russian in Pune University’, and the reaction was, ‘Oh wow’. And till today, there never was a moment of regret about pursuing Sanskrit studies: that’s what brought me immense happiness and satisfaction. I would like to share that with everyone.