Interview | History & Culture

Sunil P. Elayidom on what makes the ‘Mahabharata’ so compellingly modern

Sunil P. Elayidom teaches Malayalam literature at Sree Sankaracharya University of Sanskrit, Kalady.  

Why the Mahabharata?

There are two reasons. Historicity and literarity. As French philosopher Jacques Rancière pointed out, literarity is the ‘living dialectic’. On one hand, India’s social history from ancient times has been intermingled with the Mahabharata. From 1000 BC, the Mahabharata has been functioning in Indian society. We can see a multilayered history of social formations and the structural evolution of Indian society through the text.

 

On the other, it’s a literary text that a modern society can find itself in. It offers a contemporary imaginative domain with its never-ending contradictions and open-ended character. Take a look at the novels, plays or movies [based on the Mahabharata]. The text has played a role in the modern imagination. On one side is its ability to assimilate social history, and on the other its imaginative potential to remain the most contemporary. Also, the Mahabharata has worked in different layers of society in different ways. From marginal, folk traditions to extreme Brahminical traditions, it’s worked as a multilayered text. We see the Mahabharata in the Mughal palace and among folk groups. All these factors influenced me. From a personal point of view, its literary contemporariness is what attracted me the most.

The book has drawn both praise and criticism. One criticism is that a study of the Mahabharata would indirectly help those who use religion for politics. How do you look at such criticism?

That’s a rigid position about the ideological character of a text. As academic Raymond Williams said, every text is ideologically multilayered. There could be a dominant ideology. At the same time, there could be a residual one and an emergent one. And there are conflicts among them within the textual life. By exposing these conflicts, we are actually defending the text against the right wing’s efforts to essentialise it as a Brahminical text. Leaving this effort unaddressed is ahistorical. There are two problems in that position — one, considering a text as a single ideological representation; two, turning a blind eye towards a text’s multilayered life.

Mahabharatham: Samskarika Charithram (Mahabharata: Cultural History) by Sunil P. Elayidom.

Mahabharatham: Samskarika Charithram (Mahabharata: Cultural History) by Sunil P. Elayidom.  

Attributing essential values to texts is metaphysical. There is definitely a dominant layer of Brahminic ideology but there are other layers as well. It does not have a homogeneous religious meaning, which is exactly what the right wing tries to attribute to it. The life and function of the Mahabharata in the Mughal court or among the Meo Muslims is not Brahminical, right? Even if we keep it away, Mahabharata won’t stop functioning in Indian society. It’s not like Homer’s epic, the Odyssey, which now has only a literary value. The Mahabharata is a text that keeps intervening in day-to-day life. We should not allow such texts to be hijacked by Hindutva’s essentialist projects.

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You argue that Krishna represents the Brahminisation of Mahabharata. But Krishna is from the Yadava community and doesn’t always fit into Brahminical righteousness. How does he become a symbol of Brahminisation?

Krishna is an evolving figure, not a static idol. Historian Kosambi said that in one of our earlier Upanishads, Krishna is an asura. In fact, Krishna acquired the importance he has today only after the Bhagavata movement. Then, the Mahabharata was re-organised as Krishna-centric. So, Krishna had different representations in different epochs of history. He is a hero of both pastoral and agricultural societies. But those early representations were brushed to the margins during the Bhagavata cult. And after the national movement came the Bhagavad Gita’s Krishna.

What is the Mahabharata?

A saga of life with living contradictions. What attracted me was that it’s a text that opens into the great conflicts of human life. To be precise, it engages deeply with the internal conflicts of the modern human. If you set aside its mythical aspects, there’s a great domain of literary imagination in the epic. I think it’s not there in any other ancient text. It says it’s trying to present the principles of dharma, truth and justice, but ends up failing due to its own internal contradictions. It’s like an Aristotelian tragedy, what he calls hamartia — a flaw leading to a chain of actions culminating in a bigger tragedy. We see this throughout the Mahabharata, not as a personal problem but an overall characteristic of human life.

Who is your favourite character?

Bhishma. He’s a great tragic hero. He gave up power, but had to assume power later. He considered himself a man of dharma, but had to be a part of adharma. He didn’t want to live, but had to live till the end... he is a battlefield of contradictions. You can see the Mahabharata’s essence in Bhishma’s life. The meaninglessness of life; its emptiness.

stanly.johny@thehindu.co.in


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