Mythology Books

The evolving ‘Mahabharata’: Scholar Sunil P. Elayidom’s new book attempts to decode the ancient epic

A Mahabharata mural in Prayagraj, Uttar Pradesh.   | Photo Credit: AP

Malayalam literature has a rich tradition of interpreting and retelling the Mahabharata. If P.K. Balakrishnan’s 1973 novel Ini Njan Urangatte (And Now Let Me Sleep) tells the tale of Karna from Draupadi’s perspective, M.T. Vasudevan Nair places Bhima at the centre of his Randamoozham (Second Turn, 1984).

Literary and social critics, from Kuttikrishna Marar to P. Govinda Pillai, have interpreted the Mahabharata from humanist and progressive perspectives, part of a larger Indian tradition of studying the epics to unearth their humanitarian side, literary values and underlying history. V.S. Sukthankar’s Critical Edition of the Mahabharata (1927-33) is among the most comprehensive texts. Historians D.D. Kosambi, Romila Thapar and D.N. Jha have studied the Puranas to understand the historical settings of ancient India. American indologist Wendy Doniger’s 2009 book, The Hindus: An Alternative History, which rebuilds the history of Hinduism from the point of view of the forgotten, draws extensively from both epics.

Scholar, critic and writer Sunil P. Elayidom has joined this long list of Mahabharata interpreters and retellers with his latest book in Malayalam, Mahabharatham: Samskarika Charithram (Mahabharata: Cultural History). Elayidom, who teaches Malayalam literature at Sree Sankaracharya University of Sanskrit, Kalady, has not rejected the studies or works of fiction done before him. Rather, he takes bits and pieces from them all to build a new cultural narrative. Elayidom’s book is a compilation of his Mahabharata speech series, which he delivered across Kerala from 2016 onwards. He has reworked the speeches and given references, notes and context for the book. Running into 973 pages, the book is divided into seven parts dealing with various aspects of the Mahabharata, from its text and form to its historical context and philosophy.

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The evolution

Vyasa could be the name of a series of writers, and it took hundreds of years for the ‘Mahabharata’ to take today’s written form, says Sunil P. Elayidom.

Vyasa could be the name of a series of writers, and it took hundreds of years for the ‘Mahabharata’ to take today’s written form, says Sunil P. Elayidom.   | Photo Credit: Satheesh Vellinezhi

Elayidom, like many of his predecessor-critics, doesn’t see the Mahabharata as an unvaried religious text written by a single author. Vyasa, he writes, could be the name of a series of writers, and it took hundreds of years for the Mahabharata to take today’s written form. The epic’s oldest available written text is from the 16th century. It’s believed that the written form came into existence in the early centuries of the Common Era, perhaps a thousand years after its early versions emerged in the songs of the Sutas (the bards of Puranic stories) in the Gangetic valley. The evolution of the Mahabharata over a millennium also reflects the evolution of ancient Indian society in northern India. Elayidom traces the Aryan invasion, the strengthening of Brahminism, the rise of the Mauryas and Guptas, and the challenge from Buddhism, all in the Mahabharata.

The epic’s complex narrative itself reflects its multifaceted character. It’s not the linear text of a flawless story. There are several contradictions within. While Rishi Vyasa is believed to be the creator of the Mahabharata, he is also a character in the epic. Vyasa, son of Satyavati and Parashara, is the biological father of the Kuru kings Pandu and Dhritarashtra, but they are not seen as Vyasa’s sons, rather as the medium through which the Kuru royal lineage continues. This broken bloodline can be seen in the story of the Pandavas as well. None of them are Pandu’s sons. They have two mothers and five fathers, but are still Pandavas. Kunti and Madri were allowed to get pregnant by the gods as their husband Pandu, under a curse from Rishi Kindama, was unable to consummate his union with them. Draupadi had five husbands, which would not have been acceptable in the later Brahminised Hinduism and Varnasrama Dharma.

An illustration from ‘18 Days’, Grant Morrison’s reimagining of the Mahabharata.

An illustration from ‘18 Days’, Grant Morrison’s reimagining of the Mahabharata.   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Elayidom says these instances of broken bloodlines and polyandry are examples of folk-clan traditions that existed in ancient societies. With the Aryan migration, this folk-clan tradition paved the way for a more organised priestly religion, followed by Varnashrama Dharma. Draupadi’s children do not have much relevance in the storyline. The Kuru bloodline is re-endorsed towards the end of the epic, with Janamejaya as the surviving Kuru king. He is the grandson of Abhimanyu, the son of Arjuna and Subhadra.

Elayidom also sees the challenge posed by Buddhism to Hinduism in the Mahabharata. After victory in Kurukshetra, Yudhishthira is not filled with joy, but with moral anguish. Realising that Karna is his older brother, he sees that victory is defeat. Elayidom finds similarities here with the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka, who fell into sorrow seeing the destruction wrought in the Kalinga war of BCE 260. Wendy Doniger calls Yudhishthira “the Brahmanised Ashoka”. “While it re-emphasises the violence based on Varnashrama dharma against Buddhism’s ahimsa, Mahabharata is also addressing the ahimsa principle,” writes Elayidom. “Along with the Brahminical values, the Buddhist value system is also trying to raise its head in Mahabharata.”

Did dharma win?

An illustration from ‘Mahabharata Nepal’, circa 1800, depicting the Pandavas setting fire to their enemy inside a striped tent.

An illustration from ‘Mahabharata Nepal’, circa 1800, depicting the Pandavas setting fire to their enemy inside a striped tent.   | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

No discussion of the Mahabharata is complete without the question of dharma. The war was fought in the name of dharma. Kurukshetra was called the land of righteousness (dharmakshetra). Every time Duryodhana went to his mother Gandhari for blessings, she said dharma would win. But Elayidom asks in the final chapters if dharma actually won in the Mahabharata. He depicts a dying Duryodhana on the battlefield, who is telling Krishna that the war was won through deceit. “Yudhishthira, a country of widows is waiting for you,” the dying king tells the victorious one. Giving the examples of the fall of Bhishma, Drona, Karna and Duryodhana, Elayidom asks, “Did dharma really win?”

By offering different interpretations and versions of the Mahabharata and retelling its stories with their inherent contradictions, Elayidom is fundamentally re-emphasising the multifaceted character of the epic. He has given detailed descriptions of the folk and oral Mahabharatas that existed in India’s hinterlands, the Persian translation of the epic, Razmnama, done during Mughal Emperor Akbar’s time, and the versions that travelled beyond boundaries.

Vyasa taught the Mahabharata to his five disciples. One of them, Vaisampayana, narrates it at Janamejaya’s snake sacrifice, which is retold by Ugrashravas. This itself underlines the diversity of the Mahabharata. By emphasising this diversity and offering different interpretations, Elayidom is rejecting a single authority over the text. As he writes in the preface, “at a time when communalists make epics their weapon depots,” he is making a reading that retells the Mahabharata in all its rich diversity.

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Printable version | Dec 3, 2021 8:01:49 AM |

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