Songs for the times

The Emperor Ashoka, after the gory battle of Kalinga, embraced Buddhism. This was a step forward for peace but certainly a setback for the established caste hierarchy. When Ashoka started issuing his own edicts it was seen as a usurpation of the powers of the Brahmin. Western scholars, with their focus on the power relations of the time, see the epic Mahabharata as a fight back by the privileged Brahmin classes to retain their position of dominance. The Bhagavad Gita rendered to Arjuna by Krishna urges him to fight as a warrior should.

Arjuna’s despondency on the battlefield echoes Ashoka’s anguish but it is dismissed as a symbol of impotence. Yudhishtara’s preoccupation with morality is mocked by Draupadi as unbecoming of a Kshatriya. The war itself is seen as retribution for the lapse on the part of the Kshatriyas in observing their prescribed Dharma, which included respecting the Brahmin and ruling according to the laws laid down by the learned.

The Mahabharata is however more complex, lending itself to multiple interpretations. In south India, the Pallava king Mahendra Verma got the epic translated to Tamil. Coming after his defeat at the hands of Pulakesi, the Chalukya of Badami, Draupadi – the mother who has lost all her sons in battle – becomes the central character. She calls upon warriors to rise and fight for her honour. She in turn becomes the mother Goddess Shakti who protects warriors on the battlefield. The cultured Pallavas needed a war song and this was performed on the streets to make them militant.

Mahatma Gandhi saw the Gita very differently. For him, reality was a series of actions, in which the prime concern was the correctness of an action. The mind then became the battlefield where everyday battles raged between good and evil, right and wrong. These were battles which, as Krishna told Arjuna in the Gita, one could not avoid. The victors were those who overcame temptation, ego, anger and attachment to ensure they did not commit a misguided action.  The Mahabharata has been kept alive over many centuries by its many interpretations. Different time periods and different generations find new meaning and relevance in it, lending credibility to the claim that “what is here maybe found elsewhere, what is not here is nowhere at all”.

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