Text, Theme and Interpretation


As I already mentioned, Mbh defies any kind of literary criticism, the question of pointing any (or all) kind of contradiction in its teaching not only with the book but even with a chapter or within a verse is meaningless.  Mbh, representing Indian thought of pluralistic inclusivism, it never prescribes a kind of ‘either/or’ response to any issue.  Its answers is always ‘both and also’.

Considering its size and also the time of its writings, anyone want to share any kind of thought would insert, not even minding the context in which they simply insert their thought.  For example, in Shanti parva in Ch. CCLXXV, while Bhishma was answering Yudhishthira’s enquiry about liberation, suddenly Ch. CCLXXV changes the topic to creation in a dialogue between Narada and Asita.  This is one example and we can find many such interpolations without any continuity in several Parvas.1

However, even this contradiction is also based on our modern understanding of textual criticism.  Though we can safely say such interpolation leading to contradiction in the subject that is discussed in a particular context (chapter), yet what Doniger says is a telling rebuke even such (western or modern) understanding of Mbh.:

…European approaches to the Mahabharata often assumed that the collators did not know what they were doing, and, blindly cutting and pasting, accidentally created a monstrosity. But the Mahabharata is not the head of a Brahmin philosophy accidentally struck onto a body of non-Brahmin folklore…. But the powerful intertextuality of Hinduism ensured that anyone who added anything to the Mahabharata was well aware of the whole textual tradition behind it and fitted his or her own insight, or story, or long philosophical disquisition, thoughtfully into the ongoing conversation. However diverse its sources, for several thousand years the tradition has regarded it as a conversation among people who know one another’s views and argue with silent partners. It is a contested text, a brilliantly orchestrated hybrid narrative with no single party line on any subject. The text has an integrity that the culture supports (in part by attributing it to a single author, Vyasa, who is also a major player in the story) and that it is our duty to acknowledge. The contradictions at its heart are not the mistakes of a sloppy editor but enduring cultural dilemmas that no author could ever have resolved.— Wendy Doniger, The Hindus An Alternative History,New Delhi, Penguin/Viking. 2009, p. 264


Every scripture has commentary.  Similarly there should be several or few commentaries on Mbh. also.  But I never come across mention of any commentary so far, except one mentioned by Nilakanta Sastri the Lakshabharana of Vadiraja.

…On the Mahabharata, the Lakshaabharana of Vaadiraja, written some time during the sixteenth century, is the best known of the extant commentaries from South India; the author has sought in his own way to determine the authentic text of the 100,000 verses of the great epic….— K. A. Nilakanta Sastri. A History of South India, From Prehistoric Times to the Fall of Vijayanagar. With a new introduction by R. Champakalakshmi. Oxford India Paperbacks (1955), 26th impression, 2007. p. 311

Central message of Mbh.

Whenever we hear Mbh., the immediate picture that comes to our mind is the Great War and all the violence related with it—not only the death of millions of soldier in the War but violence in all its forms.  The way Pandavas were deprived of their (birth) right to have their share in the rule, the way they were cheated in the dice game, all the hardship they underwent during their exile and various plots by their cousin against them, finally the failure of negotiated settlement and the unavoidable war.  But those who read the entire epic will find a fine trace in favor of ‘ahimsa’ and ‘dharma’ in all the discourses and stories in Mbh.

Those who will identify with the characters of Mbh;, particularly those who are the victims, one will find reason in their arguments for revenge.  However, what finally prevails is the wisdom of elders and well wishers of the victims rather the mere emotions of the victims.  It is important to note that before giving their final counsel to resolve the tension and problems, the well wishers will allow the victims to pour out their heart by fiery speech, even accusing their well wishers.  However it is not only the wisdom of the well wishers but also the obedience of the victims, once their emotion is let out that brings the best possible solution in that given situation.

For example Draubati’s questions to her husbands and then the elders of the assembly when she was dragged to be humiliated.  Then at the end of the exile, Dharma’s hesitation to go for war and rest of his siblings and wife’s anger against him; the same way Dharma’s hesitation to become the King after the war and his preference to renounce and go to the forest etc.  Merely reading a summary of these incidents and the arguments won’t help one to catch the whole feelings and emotions of the victims and the wisdom of the well wishers.  One should read them completely both to enjoy but also to understand the conflicts and wisdom of the characters.

At the same time we should be careful when we read any book on Mbh. and their particular view on any incident and teaching in the Mbh.  Because taking one incident in a given context and super impose our view will mislead us to catch the over all teaching of Mbh.—which is very difficult to arrive.  For example, take the view of J. L. Mehta, a leading Indian philosopher:

…Far from merely recounting the story of an “internecine conflict between two groups of blood-relative,” the Mahabharata for Mehta reports the Pandava’s agonizing struggle against, and final victory over, a rebellious kshattra force, demonstrating in the end that kshattra divorced from brahma is “ruinous” while in the service of brahma it may guide to peace. This lesson in underscored in the final encounter of the Pandavas with Ashvatthama, whenKrishna orders the former to put away their arms, an order only Bhima disobeyed:

Then Krishna and Arjuna step down from their chariot, throw away their arms, walk into the fiery circle of that ultimate weapon [of Ashvatthama] and forcibly make Bhima obey and stop fighting.  Then the weapon became quiescent and inactive.  In the very midst of the discourse of violence, what more eloquent testimony could there be to the power of nonresistance, or nonviolent resistance, which is the quintessence of Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence.24—“that nonviolence (ahimsa) and compassion (anrisamsya) are the highest duties of man, states of being without which we fail to be completely human.”– Fred Dallmayr, Beyond Orientalism: Essays on Cross-Cultural Encounter.New Delhi, Rawat Publications. 2001.  pp. 110-111

24. “The Discourse of Violence in the Mahabharata” (1987), in J. L. Mehta, Philosophy and Religion: Essays in Interpretation (New Delhi: Indian Council of Philosophical Research and M. Manoharlal Publishers, 1990) 255-56, 259-60, 270.

The first question that come to my mind is by not resisting Ashvatthama’s weapon the Pnadavans and Krishna didn’t do it as a ‘service’ of brahmin.  Ashvatthama, being a Brahmin, already violated his dharma as a Brahmin by taking weapon and that too joining the adharmis (Kauravas).  So it is not with an aim to serve the brahmins but to survive from the approaching calamity that made Krishna to act like that.  Above all, Krishna never took any arm and there never came any need for him to bow before the weapon of Ashvatthama.

But whatKrishnadid in favor Pandavas is against his vow not to take part in the war and remain neutral.  If we read only Mehta, then we will appreciate the timely advice and act ofKrishna’s ‘nonresistance’.  But considering the overall picture, what Krishna has done here and throughout the war (both in negotiating the settlement and during the war and after that), one can find the violation of his own words and thereby doing adharma.  About this Periyazhvar says in Divyaprabandam:

கள்ளப் படைத்துணையாகிப் பாரதம் கைசெய்யக் கண்டாருளர்.

Kallap padaitthunaiyaakp baaratham kaiseyyak kandaarular (334)—Nalayira Divya Prabandam, Original with commentary by Dr. R. V. Kamalakkannan, Chennai, Vardaman publishers, 2010-2011. p.527

Gave support in a wrong/crafty way [Krishna] helped to win the [Bharata] war.

About this Dr. R.V. Kamalakkanna, who wrote commentary says:

In Bharata war, Kannan never remain neutral to both sides about which all knew.  He done even injustice by turning the day in to light (for Arjuna to kill Jarasandha?), took weapon contradictory to his promise not to take weapon and in the fight between Bhima and Dhuryodana, pointed the spot to kill Dhuryodana to Bhima in violation to the dharma of combat.—p. 528,

That is why Balarama,Krishna’s brother under whom Duryodana learnt the art of using Kada, become ferocious the way Bhima killed Duryodhana. ButKrishnaagain interferes and says to his brother:

16. Our relationship with the Pandavas is based on birth, bold and love. (16) On their advancement depends our own.  Do not, therefore, give way to anger….Morality is always followed by the good.  ‘Morality is always followed by two motives, viz., the desire for profit cherished and pleasure, always succeeds in obtaining great happiness. (17-18. But, ‘Hearing this fallacious argument from Keshava, …[Bala]Rama failed to remove his anger and become cheerful. He then said in that assembly, ‘having unfairly killed the righteous king Suyodhana [Duryodhana], the son of Pandu [Bhima] shall be known in the world as a wily warrior. (23-24.). The righteous Duryodhana, on the other hand, shall acquire eternal blessedness!  Dhritarashtra’s royal son who has been struck down, is a fair warrior! (25) —Dutt, Vol. V,Shalya Parva,Ch.LX. P. 114

This is one incident to show the way Krishnatook sides with Pandava in spite of his promise to remain neutral.  So there is no point of comparing Krishna’s act with that of Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence.  He never followed the non-violence to escape from any personal injury or attack but not harm to his opponents.  For example, when he landed in Durban on January 13, 1897 from the ship Courland, was ‘assaulted by section of Durban mob, but escaped serious harm through the intervention of Mrs. Alexander, the Police Superintendent’s wife’ but ‘Gandhiji declined to have his assailants prosecuted and gave (p.373) written expression to his wish that the matter be overlooked.’ (Chronology, in The Collected works of Mahatma Gandhi, vol. II, The Publication Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Govt. of India, 1959, pp. 373-74 (also see his Autobiography pp. 192-4) .  This in no way can be compared by the act ofKrishna and Arujna to save them from Ashvatthama bend to kill them.  Of course Gandhi could have done it based on his personal conviction of nonresistance to any kind of personal violence.  At the same time he never hesitates to protect against any violence against innocent in his own way of nonviolence.  He also could have done not to irritate and further alienate that section of White people inSouth Africa who were opposing the immigration of Indian workers and business people toSouth Africa.  But all his latter life proved his strong conviction in ahmisa and nonresistance not to save his skin but to serve others.

Of course Mehta has every right to read any of his philosophy as a philosopher but Dallmayr needs to be bit critical in presenting Mehta’s view.  I am sharing this not as a criticize Mehta or Dallmayr.  But in this way both in the past and at present several kinds of interpretation is given on any theme in Mbh.  So it is difficult for us to exclusively say that this is the central theme of Mbh.  And even on any one subject of Mbh. there are several interpretations, based on their own need and understanding that is relevant to their time and place.

It is not only Mehta but so many scholars both in the past and at present write books on the theme on Mbh.  For example the recent books by Sri Chaturvedi Badrinath, The Mahabharata: An Inquiry in the human condition, New Delhi, Orient Longman, 2007.

Women of the Mahabharata. The Question of Truth, under publication by Orient Longman.

And by Prof. Arvind Sharma, Essays on the Mahabharata, Mothilal Banarsidas.

Out of these I read and The Mahabharata: An Inquiry in the human condition and enjoyed his book.  I like his way of writing and presenting the facts before us.  However, his essays on Mbh. should be considered his personal interpretation of Mbh.’s theme and we cannot take them as the teaching of Mbh.  When I read this book, I also recorded my question on his way of interpreting Mbh.  Of course he is a scholar and read Mbh. in Sanskrit and spent more than 30 years with Mbh.  Whereas I read only the translation of Dutt and that too in few years not so deeply.  So my question about his interpretations is of a student struggle to understand the subject and not any critic of a scholar.  Here I don’t have the space for the share my questions and thought on Badrinathji’s interpretation on Mbh.  But my point is that when we read any book or essay on Mbh. (including that of mine here), we should remember the fact that any kinds of interpretation can never represent as the view of Mbh. itself.

May 30, 2011



1.. One example is suffice to show this.  Though Narada talks about the four ashramas and talks about their merits, however what we find in this chapter is a long list of ethical and moral teaching is given:

9. Seeing the followers of the four modes of life, who are thus exhorted by the scriptures and who fully approve of what the scriptures have sanctioned for them, thus traveling in various courses, and beholding that ourselves also are equally content with our own scriptures, we cannot understand what is truly wholesome. 10. If the scriptures were all of one opinion, then what is truly beneficial would have become clear.  On account, however, of the scriptures being multifarious, that which is truly beneficial is filled with mystery. [Galava to Narada]…. 13. See, the merits of those modes of life, as described, are varied in their form, divergent in their matter, and contradictory in their observances. 14. When seen with gross vision, all the Ashramas do not exhibit their true intent!  Others, however, having subtle sight, see their highest end. [Narada to Galava].–Dutt, Shanti Parva, Vol. 6, Ch. CCLXXXVIII. P. 444