Tuesday, 8 December 2009

It's time we reread Mahabharata for soul searching

Mallika Sarabhai / DNA

Have you ever wondered why the Ramayana became a religious text and the Mahabharata remained an epic? Why Sita became Sitama and Rama became Sri Rama, while Arjuna or Yudhishthira or Draupadi didn't become gods or goddesses?
I have often wondered about it and this is what I think. The Ramayana is a simple story, where good is good and bad is bad - for the most part anyway. In some versions Rama might put Sita through an agni pariksha (thankfully husbands haven't instituted this one in daily life) and in others he might have trusted a dhobi more than his ardhangana, but for the most part he is a good hero.
In the Mahabharata, on the contrary, no one is clearly good and no one is clearly bad. In fact, the characters are much more like us - with strengths and weaknesses, good sides and bad, convictions and doubts. This makes us uncomfortable - how can we idolize people who, like us, dither? How can we worship such complicated characters? And how can we make into a religious text a book which has no clear cut answers but demands that we assess personal dharma and universal dharma at every step of our lives? It is too much hard work, and that we certainly don't want to cope with - especially since we have to cope with doubts and risks all the time in our real lives. It's much better to have clear cut good and evil.
Of all the great religions of the world and especially the three religions of the Book - Christianity, Judaism and Islam - god makes the rules (or the son of god or a variant of this). Humans just follow these rules. No questions asked, no debate. Rules, rules and rules - and, if you break the rules you go to hell. In our Sanatana Dharma there are no such facilities. It is we who are at the core, not god.
It is the Brahman or the paramatma in US that is the truth not an external behaviour checking being. And this makes it really hard. Amidst the humdrumness of coping with self, family, community, finance, illness etc. where do we have time to be self questioning? Isn't it easier just to light a lamp at home or in the temple, offer some prayers and ask god to do what we want - get a first class, get more money from my shares than my neighbour, get my daughter married, ………..?
Further, Hinduism depends on enquiry, on doubt, on questions.  The Upanishads, Vedanta, some of the Vedas are a result of enquiry. Draupadi's two questions in the Rajsabha after the Pandava lose at dice are at the root of all the questions and doubts that all the players battle with for the rest of the epic.
As a society we have become afraid of enquiry, of a child's curiosity, about an adolescent's search for answers to a grown up and incomprehensible world. We know of teachers beating their students for daring to ask a question, for it is seen as disrespect to an authority. We know of parents (are we amongst them?) who ask their children to shut up or lie to them when they ask 'uncomfortable' questions. We know how governments respond with anger to questions asked through RTI enquiries.  And how often have we not heard the retort "mane puchchva vala tame kaun chho?' (Who are you to question me?)
Without questioning a society becomes frozen. Without self testing - of beliefs, of mores, or traditions, of habits - we become what Gurudev Tagore describes as a society mired in the dead weight of old habit.
With today being the black day of the demolition of the Babri Masjid, and Ambedkar Day, and two days ago being the 25th anniversary of the Bhopal tragedy, it is perhaps time for the thinking amongst us to go back to the Mahabharata, not as a story, but to question and grapple with the dilemmas that each character faces, and to source the parallel realities that surround us so many thousand years later.

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