The Great Indian Epic Trick

It is meaningless to seek clear and present evil in the Mahabharata, where every incident offers a conflict of dharma. There is no black or white

Written by Bibek Debroy | Updated: March 31, 2018 12:00:14 am
Arjuna Kills Jaydhratha with Pashupatastra. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Name: Evil in the Mahabharata
Writer: Meena Arora Nayak
Publisher: OUP India
Page: 376
Price: Rs 650

This is a well-researched book, but reminded me of a Sherlock Holmes quote from A Scandal in Bohemia: “Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” Professor Nayak does not get into issues of dating the composition of the Mahabharata, but acknowledges it was composed in layers, over time. The range between the earliest and latest layers, scholars speculate, is around 1,000 years. In the introduction, the author herself states, “Hence, the Mahabharata accommodates many values that do not cohere, with the result that the text is an assortment rather than a unified guiding system.” Therefore, we have different social norms, over time, and even at the same point of time. Ipso facto, the search for an absolute notion of evil or “a primer for codes of conduct” is non sequitur.  This isn’t a courtroom where a lawyer asks for a ‘yes’ or ‘no’. One can selectively pick evidence to prove a hypothesis, and one can also selectively pick evidence to prove the counter-hypothesis.

The Great Indian Epic Trick

Let’s take a well-known example to demonstrate how facts are chosen, and twisted, to suit theories. “While brahmins and ksatriyas were free to follow their svadharma, the other two castes were condemned for breaking the codes of varnasrama if they tried to rise above their varna.  The clearest examples (sic) of this is Ekalavya, who belongs to the Nisada tribe (a sudra) but feels naturally inclined to be a warrior. He is not only rejected by Drona because of his caste, but he is also made to suffer the extreme consequence of aspiring to be a kshatriya by cutting off and giving his right thumb to Drona, which deprives him of the ability to use a bow and arrows… The epic is silent about the wrongness of Drona’s and Arjuna’s behavior in this incident of gross injustice.”

When did nishadas become shudras?  There were plenty of nishada kingdoms.  Nala (of Nala-Damayanti fame) was a king of the nishadas. (So was Guha in the Valmiki Ramayana.) In the Mahabharata, in the course of conquests, Karna, Sahadeva, Bhima and Arjuna defeated nishada kingdoms.  The kings of these kingdoms are named and presumably Professor Nayak wouldn’t call them “shudra” kingdoms. Who killed Ekalavya? Krishna did, the Mahabharata tells us (before the Kurukshetra War). The Mahabharata also tells us that Ekalavya’s father was Hiranyadhanu. This Hiranyadhanu was Jarasandha’s general and fought against the Yadavas. Ekalavya and his family cannot have been favourites. This gives a slightly different twist to the facile assertion made.

If the author can use the Bhagavata Purana, Vamana Purana and Vishnu Purana to substantiate various propositions, surely one is entitled to use Hari Vamsha, regarded as an appendix to the Mahabharata. There, we are told that Drona did subsequently teach Ekalavya. Why was Ekalavya initially rejected by Drona? This being important, one would have expected a scholar to quote chapter and verse from the MN Dutt translation she has used. Drona actually said that he only taught the sons of kings. To me, this suggests that Drona wouldn’t have taught an ordinary kshatriya or vaishya either. Why did Drona ask for the thumb? Surely, it is necessary to mention Drona’s promise to Arjuna (after Arjuna saved him from a crocodile) that he would make Arjuna the best archer on earth. Therefore, this decision was about a conflict of dharma.

Indeed, every incident in the Mahabharata is about conflict of dharma.  There is no black or white. One takes a decision and faces the consequences. Observing a vow of brahmacharaya, Bhishma decides that it is more important to honour the pledge than to save a woman’s life (Amba’s).  Observing a temporary vow of brahmacharya, Arjuna, another kshatriya, decides it is more important to save a woman’s life (Ulupi’s) than to honour the pledge. The Mahabharata is silent about the “rightness” or “wrongness” of either decision, just as it is about Drona’s. If one expects the Mahabharata to take a position, one has simply not understood the nature of dharma/karma in the text. The idea of evil reflects a value judgement which the text avoids.

Arguing out one’s case is fine, but no scholar should indulge in suppressio veri to propagate suggestio falsi. One can still hold on to one’s belief in the Aryan Invasion Theory, as long as one takes cognizance of genetic evidence that suggests exactly the opposite. I shouldn’t label the asuras as evil, unless I factor in Bali’s (also an asura) generosity. If I single out Shvetaketu’s institution of the system of marriage (and condemnation of promiscuous women), surely I should mention that Shvetaketu’s mother (Uddalaka’s wife) was free to go off (for pleasure) with whichever man she chose. Why is Shakuntala not mentioned (much more fiery than the Kalidasa Shakuntala)? Because the hypothesis of women being oppressed won’t work? It is a well-researched book that would have been better with some training in research.

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