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On Ramayana and Mahabharata - India’s epic dilemma

Peter Ronald deSouza in The Hindu

 Our stories are richest when they are read as ethical texts, not ideological guides

Some days ago, during a discussion on the many ways to interpret episodes in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the issue came up of whether these are ethical texts or merely ideological ones. Should one regard them as repositories of moral conundrums, on the human condition, that needed to be decoded and debated by every age for itself, or whether their messages, about the nature of the dharmic order to which all must conform, were clear and without ambiguity. What gave rise to this debate were two stories that were being discussed: the case of Eklavya who willingly offered his thumb to Drona on the Guru’s request, thereby assuring an anxious Arjun of his supremacy as an archer, and that of Ram beheading Shambuka for falling out of dharmic line. I wondered if one were a feminist, a Dalit scholar, a passionate nationalist of the current variety found among Ministers of State, or even a European Marxist, would one find morally grey areas in such episodes or would one see them as containing clear messages of how power and social relationships in a ‘just’ society should be ordered?

At this point let me step back a bit and carefully probe the distinction between an ethical and an ideological text. An ethical text is one which presents episodes as forks in the road where each path offered is attractive because it contains desirable goals. Choosing one path presents one with a quandary because the benefits offered by the other path would now have to be willingly foregone. Each path at the fork leads to the same destination. One only needs to decide what gains and losses one wished to forego.

For example, path A would offer to cut a journey short by four hours. But it would mean travelling on a bad road full of potholes and perhaps risking a bad back and a breakdown. Path B, in contrast, is longer and would get the traveller home past midnight. But it would be a smooth ride on a freshly metalled road that went through a forest. Travelling at night would risk a dacoit hold-up. An ethical text does not give a clear moral message. It compels one to weigh options before making a choice.

The ideological text, in contrast, is like a road within the National Highway system. Clearly numbered exits are given to one’s destination. You know where and when to leave the highway. Here there are no moral conundrums. There are just clear signposts prepared by a highways authority which tell you where to stop, at what speed to travel, which lane to follow, and where to exit. The highways authority offers a distinct route map for the whole society. It does so with the certainty of one who knows.

Civilisational abundance

So are the epics ethical texts or ideological ones? I believe they are the former. I believe each episode is a site for debate, an opportunity for each moral position in society to be heard and to solicit adherents. An Irawati Karve can see in Bhishma an egoistical, old man who, never having fought a war, still accepts the generalship of an army at a ripe age extending into the eighties, a measure of his narcissism. The Jain Ramayana has Laxman, instead of Ram, killing Ravan because that was the only way for them to reconcile the central Jain doctrine of Ahimsa and still valorise the Maryada Purusha. It is only an ethical text which allows for an A.K. Ramanujan’s 300 Ramayanas, suggesting that the story is alive in the country as people and places interpolate into the text their own aspirations and values. Individuals and social groups, of all ages, have drawn from the epics to fight their moral and political battles. This is what makes the epics so relevant to contemporary India. Today we need new interpretations to fight our political battles. The epics today need to be contemporanised.

An ethical text is the organic fertiliser of a society. Being fully open-ended, it delights, beckons, and recaptures the deracinated Indian from the lure of the ideological camp. While it generates passion, it also respects diversity of interpretation. It represents life but, in contrast to life’s chaos, also offers options. An ethical text is a living text. India is fortunate to be the land of several epics such as Silappatikaram in Tamil or Palnati Virula katha in Telugu and so on.

I am not saying something very new here but only presenting, in a binary way, the contrast between an ethical and an ideological text so that we can fight our current politics. Because the Indian tradition has always seen the epics as ethical texts, in contrast to the political trend today, we have great commentaries such as that of V.S. Sukthankar. The sophisticated elaboration by Mehendale on the rules of war and the consequences in terms of punishment of their violation, in his wonderfully slim book Reflections on the Mahabharata war, is another illustration of the Indian tradition of diverse interpretations. Critical commentaries, dissent, alternative readings are merely different forks in the road as we explore our national cultural heritage. Unfortunately today, with the rise of cultural vigilantes, these great epics are being converted into ideological texts. Because they receive tacit support from the powers that control the state, they attempt to push everyone onto the highway and away from the byways of Indian society.

It bears repeating here that the National Highway is good for the movement of goods and traffic, for practical and efficiency purposes, but not for cultural journeys for which it is the byways that matter. They nurture the richness of our cultural life. It is through the byways that we will discover the cultural ecosystems that local communities have created through complex negotiations with each other.

Isn’t this anti-national?

The smell of the mahua tree, for example, means a great deal in central India but has little significance in coastal India where the smell of fish is more exciting. Unless of course the rishi Parashar aroused by Satyavati replaced her fish smell of matsyagandha with the heavenly smell of yojanagandha, making coastal people like me to think this to be a parochial tale. Such playful stories can only be told when the epic is an ethical text. The cultural vigilantes have created a climate of anxiety which the people in control of the state have done little to diminish, for it pays them political dividends. Do they not realise that while they may gain the country, they will lose a civilisation? Do they not realise how anti-national this is?