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Epic lessons for Kali Yuga: Rereading the ‘Mahabharata’ in our contemporary moment

Justice is done: An illustration of Yudhishthira with his dog greeted by Indra, from Ramanarayanadatta Astri’s ‘Mahabharata’.

Justice is done: An illustration of Yudhishthira with his dog greeted by Indra, from Ramanarayanadatta Astri’s ‘Mahabharata’.   | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

The final books of the ‘Mahabharata’ speak of the unstrained quality of mercy. Have we lost that wisdom as we murder, lynch and destroy without heed?

In the 16th book of the Mahabharata, titled ‘Mausala Parva’ or ‘The Book of Clubs’, we find ourselves in the 36th year of Yudhishthira’s reign at Indraprastha, the great war long over and an uneasy peace prevailing over the Pandava kingdom. In Dvaraka, Krishna’s capital on the western seaboard, time is running out. He recalls that the curse of the Kaurava queen-mother Gandhari must inevitably befall his clan of Vrishnis. Kali Yuga, the last of the four cosmic ages, demonic in its might, awaits its beginning once Krishna passes on.

With the inexorable fatality that marks his tenure as the incarnation of Vishnu in human form, Krishna sets the ball rolling. This will be the final denouement of the long conflict that has decimated the fraternal Yadava lineages. The supposed triumph of Yudhishthira and his brothers is marred by a permanent sense of exhaustion. They suffer an existential, if not a military, defeat.

The death of god

Through a series of planned accidents and fated coincidences, through pettiness, cowardice, vengefulness and stupidity, the Vrishnis self-destruct. The sons and kinsmen of Krishna murder one another in an orgy of violence and drunken bloodletting. Krishna, his father Vasudeva, his brother Balarama and his cousin Uddhava all die. Krishna is felled when a hunter named Jara, literally ‘Old Age’, shoots an iron-tipped arrow that pierces the sole of his foot, the only vulnerable part of his divine body, like Achilles’ heel. Arjuna cremates his dearest friend and peerless mentor — a task that causes him unbearable grief.

The waters rise up in a huge storm, engulfing the magnificent city of Dvaraka and plunging its glittering palaces to the bottom of the sea. Arjuna must escort the women, children and animals of the Vrishnis to safety, but his capabilities as a valorous warrior are fatally depleted. As the refugees in his care attempt to flee from the massacre and subsequent deluge north to Hastinapura, he cannot stave off an attack of highway robbers en route, “in the land of the five rivers”.

By the time Arjuna returns to Indraprastha, his rescue mission failed almost entirely, Yudhishthira sees the writing on the wall. The war his side had supposedly won has been lost after all. It is time for the Pandavas to give up their kingdom and depart for their final death march to the high Himalaya. Krishna is gone from the world of men; Dvapara Yuga has ended; Kali Yuga begins in right earnest. In Carole Satyamurti’s lovely modern retelling of the Mahabharata (2015), “the past closed up behind them”.

In my late father Kailash Vajpeyi’s Hindi poetry collection Dooba sa andooba tara (2011), a series of tableaux, dialogues and meditations unfolds underneath the Ashvattha tree in the mysterious Prabhasa Kshetra, a luminous stretch of wooded beach between land and sea where the immortal Krishna paradoxically awaits his demise. Badi gahan gatha hai hatya ki, the blue-skinned one ruminates: the saga of killing is unfathomable.

In the Bhagavad Gita Krishna had revealed himself to Arjuna as Time. Here he says: Bhavishya ki niyati hokar sam-saamayik/ beet-beet jana hai/ main bhi ab beeta ki abhi beeta ki beet gaya. The future must become present, and then past. I too am about to pass, but I am passing — lo, I have passed away.

Forgiveness, the polestar

A little later he says to Jara, the hunter, who begs forgiveness for mistaking the god’s darkly glowing foot for the eye of a deer: Kshama ka koi sampraday nahin, forgiveness transcends all sectarian difference; asal mein kshama dhruv-tara hai, truth be told, forgiveness is the pole-star, the one fixed point that orients the vast slow turning of the moral universe. (This short poem, ‘Krishna ka kshama-daan’, ‘Krishna’s act of forgiveness’, is strongly reminiscent of Portia’s speech in Act IV of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice: “The quality of mercy is not strained/ It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven/ Upon the place beneath.”)

My teacher, the Sanskritist Sheldon Pollock, reminded me of this little-discussed but nevertheless significant chapter of the great epic in the aftermath of the recent Lok Sabha election in India and the lead-up to the American elections in 2020. I re-read it, not because of any perceived analogies of plot or personality to events and persons in our contemporary moment, but because of the sense of doom, moral collapse and political ruin that colours this blood-soaked book. And because of its unmistakable messages: that civil war has no happy endings; that fratricide polarises and ultimately hollows out a society beyond saving; that the sturdiest alliances and mightiest empires collapse before the tsunami of unethical ambition.

Whatever the cast of characters, there are no gods and no heroes in the Mahabharata, a naked struggle for hegemony that decimates every delicate human construct with brute force. A protracted and apocalyptic battle throws all dharma, all principles, and all relationships under the wheel of a heedless — and indeed, in the figure of King Dhritarashtra, a blind — will to power.

Those who somehow remain after catastrophe, they too will club one another to death. Not only are there no victors, in fact, there are no survivors either, in the long run.

This here in the ‘Mausala Parva’ is the timeless folk wisdom of India; this is the conclusion of the master text of Hindu culture; this is what we have always known and recounted. How far a cry from the triumphalist history of the Napoleonic wars and the devious stratagems of Clausewitz that the new Machiavellis of Hindutva bandy about nowadays!

Ultimate justice

The death of Krishna and the mass suicide of the Vrishnis end Yudhishthira’s half-hearted reign over Hastinapura. The five Pandava brothers and their wife Draupadi set out on their final journey. As they climb ever higher into the cold and barren Himalayas, one by one they die on the way. Only Yudhishthira makes it, together with his dog, to the gates of Svarga, the celestial realm. Indra the lord of gods stands there waiting to welcome the weary king, but insists he leave behind his canine companion.

Yudhishthira refuses. We have come thus far together, he says of the beast waiting patiently by his side in the snow. We go on together or I will turn back and die here on earth, one with my wretched family and my loyal dog. The god and the man are at an impasse, as the animal between them awaits its fate. But suddenly the dog disappears, to be replaced by Dharma, the very principle of righteousness, the Law that undergirds the order of things.

Dharma — Yudhishthira’s progenitor — has given his son a final test, which he passes with a demonstration of the very “quality of mercy” Krishna discusses with his hapless assassin in my father’s poem. The war may be lost, the kingdom forfeited, the band of brothers sundered, the omniscient avatar departed from an irredeemably flawed world. But the dog is saved, and with that, justice is done. There is no further impediment to the entry into Heaven. Yudhishthira ascends Indra’s chariot, and is whisked away into the vanishing heights of a crystal sky.

Our country — a microcosm of human history, a repository of all experience, an archive of all knowledge, a catalogue of all atrocity and a beacon of all wisdom; this land we call by its customary names, Bharat or Hindustan; this idea we call India; this dearly beloved home of ours on a planet whose very survival is today in question — what has it come to? Did we exercise our franchise to lynch the weak, to murder minorities, to defend the killers of Mahatma Gandhi? Is that what our vaunted civilisation was all about? Is this how it ends?

The article has been edited to remove the name of Kunti from the paragraph that describes the last journey of the Pandavas. Kunti died separately in a forest fire with Dhritarashtra and Gandhari.

The writer is a Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi.

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Printable version | Jul 28, 2020 2:20:36 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/epic-lessons-for-kali-yuga-rereading-the-mahabharata-in-our-contemporary-moment/article28196232.ece

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