The Mahabharata, in its most important aspect, is a sublime work of art in the sense that the German philosopher Martin Heidegger used the term. Through it, a whole world opens up, terms of reference and relationships are defined.
But it is not easy, in the times in which we live, to approach the layers of history and memory, the archetypes and the clichés, which 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 unpacking the complexity of the epic for it.
Devy is not shy about engaging with the epic as a story, its influence on language and religion, and its profound philosophical significance. For example, he discusses whether or not the Bhagavad Gita is a later interpolation of the Bharata (it probably was) – the many additions, in fact, make it “great” – but adds that this only reduces not the meaning of any. The notions of time, living history, perception; and caste, violence and gender of an entire subcontinent are reflected, and perhaps shaped, by this epic as Devy reads it. Devy’s argument is complex and seductive. His hermeneutic exercise does not seek to categorize out of convenience, nor to sanitize out of fear. After all, the epic’s enduring novelty stems from this complexity. In essence, Devy argues that the Mahabharata is a method by which India came to understand itself.
What makes the appeal of the epic both universal and enduring? Like the Ramayana, it has been said over and over again. From television and cinema to treatises and interpretations, almost every Indian knows Arjuna and Karna, Krishna Vasudev and Duryodhan. There is of course the Heideggerian interpretation, the richness of the text itself and the role it played in social identity. Second, the function it serves for society, as discussed earlier – as a means of remembering (both history and social lessons) as well as understanding suffering, relationships and violence – the Mahabharata of Devy delves into all of these explanations.
But, perhaps, his most important insight is sociological. The Mahabharata, despite being a story of kings and wars, was not the repository of Brahmins unlike, say, the Vedas. This conclusion – perhaps obvious to those who have taken an academic interest in Indian epics – is also a revelation. It maintains, as a living cultural phenomenon, the essence of oral tradition. It accumulates stories of bravery and injustice, of the tragic futility of violence, into an incoherent whole.
None of this is to say, as Devy points out, that the Mahabharata does not justify the deeply unequal values that have defined “civilizational” Hinduism. The caste-varna order is maintained, individual moral responsibility is subsumed under notions of dharma and karma which irritate – as they should – modern sensibilities. But, at the same time, it’s a work of honesty, a work without villains or heroes or ideal men and women.
In a broader sense, Mahabharata: the epic and the nation is an example of the kind of confident scholarship on Indian thought that is rare. Devy’s book is certainly a work of great academic value. It seamlessly weaves Western analytical categories, without being beholden to them, and understands the epic on its own terms, in context. However, this kind of writing and rigor is unlikely to please the powers that be, too inclined to throw around phrases like viswaguru and vasudhaiva kutumbakam but are afraid of the shades of gray, 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 enduring influence of Mahabharata and Ramayana is more visible today than ever, from saas-bahu soap operas and Sooraj Barjatya films, to science fiction novels and film series such as Wasseypur Gangs (2012). Is the epic so powerful in its influence that we cannot, creatively and culturally, get out of its clutches? Like the conquest of American cinema by the superhero genre, the Indian cultural imagination often seems incapable of transcending its epics. More importantly, however, are the values the epics set up so enduring that India is really destined to be ruled by a philosophical construct whose sociological basis is inequality?
These may be the wrong questions to ask and certainly the unanswered ones. However, in New India, it is rare that work on the cultural and collective consciousness of the country leads to it. For this reason, among many others, Devy’s work is of great importance.