Saturday, May 07, 2005

The Mahabharata

After seeing repeated mentions of The Mahabharata in my blog over the last month or so, you might be either totally bugged or intrigued. Well, this post would be a relief to people of either kind – as I have completed the book and am totally impressed!

The Mahabharata, with its innumerable characters, makes the task of character assessing and picking my favourite protagonist a very unenviable one. As I began reading the epic, the filter I used at the topmost level was one of “absolute righteousness”. I decided to go on a case-to-case basis for the subsequent levels.

Well, so much for that noble attempt! After having read the whole epic, I stand completely stunned. The only people who would even squeeze through this filter of righteousness are Vidura and Ekalavya – possibly because of the limited exposure that they are provided in the story.

Ekalavya is truly a great character. A dedicated student who willingly gives away his thumb as a token of respect. More than respect, that is the price he pays to be recognized. Ah “recognition” – this is a quality or aspect that another hero strives for throughout the story, and travels a much harder path to achieve it. More on him later though. But I definitely can’t proclaim Ekalavya as the character simply because of his miniscule role.

Vidura is just like the other elders from the Kuru family - doting on their grandsons, be it the Pandavas or the Kauravas, considerate to the people’s needs, etc. But the reason why he is the only person who could be termed truly virtuous is his reaction during the “Draupadi incident”. When all the elders sat quiet in the sabha, the venue of the Pandavas and Draupadi humiliation, Vidura spoke out against Dhritarashtra and Duryodhana. He tried to make them see reason, compassion, mercy, but to no avail.
(Another person who deserves a lot of credit is Vikharna, one of Duryodhana’s brothers. He is the only Kaurava with the gumption to defy his eldest brother and state that Draupadi was indeed a free woman, as Yudhishtira alone didn’t have the right to wager her. Unfortunately, his is just a cameo which does him a lot of credit, and further vilifies the other silent Kuru elders.)

Well, if there is one thing that stands out prominently in the Mahabharata, it is the fact that every person is tainted with adharma. Circumstances could make one leave the righteous path, or it could be just that person’s innate character. The second option is also called as fate’s doing, apparently a scenario where the person has no say in the way his life is moulded or veers away.

Hence, the only real option left to me was to factor in the taint, and then trying to determine my favourite character. The main contenders were:

Karna: Cursed from the day he was born. The hardships he encounters through the miserable sojourn called life are none of his own doing. Generous to a fault. Attached to a fault, and this is literally. Gives friendship the utmost importance. (a quality that I can relate to the most) What should have been a perfect life is marred by 2 incidents – breaking of Abhimanyu’s bowstring from the back, and a more serious crime of putting forth the suggestion of disrobing Draupadi.

Yudhishtira: If Karna had 2 huge blots in his life, Yudhishtira has just one – a tiny one at that. His lie to Drona that Ashwattama had indeed died. Technically, the lie would have been negated as he does mutter under his breath that it was the elephant. But the damage had been done. (Incidentally/coincidentally, the segment of the story where they decide that lying is the only way of killing Drona starts at page number 420 in the book. Nice touch, either way! :))
Personally, I do not consider this lie as a sin for the simple fact that Drona had fallen away from the path of dharma by that time. Deceit needs to be embraced if one has to get rid off the scum. But Yudhishtira’s stand of sticking to dharma when his wife was getting humiliated isn’t something that I could digest. Agreed that it depicts his focus on dharma and his resilience, characteristics which define his entire life. But I would have rather lived as a mere mortal indulging in petty adharma than letting the humiliation continue and gain an exalted status.

Krishna: Undoubtedly the enigmatic of the lot. If The Ramayana had made me not like the character of the earlier Avatara of Vishnu, this book compensates for that in huge measure. Krishna is an incredible character who doesn’t seem to indicate a penchant for sticking to absolute righteousness. Neither does he say so.
Comparatively, Rama seems to be a hypocrite with his publicly proclaimed stand of being always righteous and then covering his mistakes with frivolous arguments and reasoning.
Krishna’s brilliance, tact, anger, greatness, weaknesses are all brought forth with remarkable clarity in the book. The mystery of his frequent disappearances are so tantalizing that I definitely need to buy Ramesh Menon’s Blue God – obviously the entire life story of the Dark One.

Bheeshma: “The greatest man to have ever walked upon this earth” is how he is referred to in various instances. Renouncing his kingship and remaining a celibate throughout his life for the sake of his father’s happiness, and going to the extent of keeping his word even when faced with true love for Amba indicates his greatness. Frankly, the word “great” fails to express or encompass his true character.
I fault him on just one count, and this is not on account of doing something sinful. Rather it is more to do with Bheeshma NOT doing anything when Draupadi was being disrobed in the sabha. Those minutes of silence are inexplicable. Or maybe I am at fault. The greatness of this epic lies in these conundrums. And the inconsistency of human nature stands out in all those who walk through the Mahabharata.

But…oh yes…there has to be a but, eh? It means that I am going to attempt to justify the flaws of my favourite character. Karna faces countless insults on his status of “sutaputra”. But the two that would/should have hurt him the most are the ones by Bheema and Draupadi. On the day of the exhibition of the princes’ prowess, Karna makes his introduction and surpasses everyone, including Arjuna. Bheema’s taunts stating that Karna wasn’t a kshatriya and just a measly sutaputra, and hence had no right to even dream of contesting Arjuna shows the Pandava in poor light. Later, during Draupadi’s swayamvara, when Karna is confident of shooting down the fish and is about release the arrow, she insults him by saying that she wouldn’t marry a suta. When the entire epic is all about revenge, isn’t it but reasonable to expect that Karna would definitely get his own revenge, albeit minor triumphs. Thus came into being his two sins.

In his long quest for recognition, he encounters numerous obstacles, but still manages to get what his truly his at the very end. For his perseverance, and the sorrow he had to carry throughout his life I adore Karna. (yet another coincidence was the screening of the Shivaji Ganesan movie Karna on Raj TV on the very day I was reading about his death) If that isn’t sign enough, I do not know what is.

If you have stuck around till this, I admire your perserverance and a huge thanks for that!


At 3:25 AM, Blogger Tejaswi said...

Dude, How can you not talk about the greatest of all heroes....Duryodhana?

There is a saying in Kannada - "chaladoL Duryodhana!!"

No one epitomizes chala as he did. His ego, friendship, his being the best king Hastinapur had ever seen, his prowess in the gadayudda, his legendary shishyatva to Balraam, etc make him a truly majestic hero.

I remember a lesson in Sankrit we had during our 10th, where different categories of heroes were discussed. And Duryodhana had his own category, they made one for him.

He is my favorite.

At 12:19 PM, Blogger Sridhar Raman said...

As much as I admire his friendship towards Karna, dont you feel that the seed of it was sown more from the prospect of getting an archer of Arjuna's equal in his team, rather than actual affection for Karna. Maybe, later on it epitomised true friendship, but I still have my own doubts on its germination.

I do not dispute the fact that Duryodhana was a hero, but I feel that his good qualities are amplified only because of his overall decadent nature. A thing such as kingship is more because of the coffers of Indraprastha, and his generosity to anyone who his "good" enough to befriend him - things that didnt impress me that much.

And more than anything, maybe it is my tendency to be a little softer towards the hard-luckers, the strugglers, the ones who dont have it ALL in a silver platter, and yet achieve greatness, that swings my vote towards Karna.

At 9:09 PM, Anonymous pradip said...

Great choice indeed. Poets, dramatist and novelist were impressed enough to devote their most significant works to this great character.

4. SUTPUTRA (HINDI DRAMA, foregt the name of author. UP Board Intermediate Curriculum)

#2 above end with the lines quoted in foreward to #3
Displaying respect by addressing in plural rather than singular.

At 12:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I accept all the facts mentioned, karna's nobility,valour, genorousity what not.If refusing to use nagastra more than once is a virtue, what would one call the virtue to sacrifice the use of sudarshana chakra. Can any one's virtue ever measure up to that of Krishna's. He could have finished the entire thing in less than a day, but he had to get things done with mortals. What I am trying to get at is warriors cannot be compared with God, Krishna is a class apart. Among mortals karna might shine, but in front of krishna, no body even comes closer.


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