Monday, May 31, 2010

On the Mahabharata and Other Related Works

It’s impossible to tell the story of Govinda Shauri, without the Mahabharata, the Harivamsa, and the Bhagavatam. And it’s even tougher to tell the story with them, because what we already know often gets in the way.

To those who have grown up with the grand canvas of grandmother’s bedtime tales from the epics, the pink-and gold finery of BR Chopra’s TV series, or Rajaji’s wonderful retelling of the tale; there are certain aspects which have taken on the simple, but infallible strength of ‘fact.’ To many others, Indians and non-Indians included, it’s the great treatise that holds within its volumes the Bhagvad Gita – the holy book of the Hindus. It’s also the story of strange flying weapons, magic and incantation, and of course, a blue-skinned God.

Was there really a Govinda Shauri? Did these events really happen? And of course, in rather practical terms – Are the Chronicles of Aryavarta a work of fiction? Or a retelling of mythology?

The options range from those who believe it is an act of unfaithfulness to question matters of divinity, to those who treat it as myth and lore – something that today’s scientific Darwinianism cannot accept. And then, there are many in-between, trying to construct, reconcile meanings, in the context of the many rational, scientific, social and many other factors that affect us.

Therein lies the key.

Constructing reality is what elevates humanity from individual to society; howsoever widely we define the latter. It is a process of life, the way we are, and nothing is untouched by it – leave alone something that has lasted many, many years. It no longer matters whether these events happened or not, or whether they happened in a completely different way, because the notion that such things have come to pass has affected the lives of many, for a long time now. There is a sanctity which has developed as a result of what people have come to think and do, as they interact with the concept. Something, for which I have no other phrase other than, a reverence for humanity, and no further explanation, than to say it is the very spirit of the character called Govinda.

So, what really happened? From television soaps to movies, books based-on and inspired-by, to method – contemporary interpretations, critical perspectives, metaphorical approaches; the bodies of work are endless. But the difference between the mainstream and the alternative stems not from historical authenticity alone, but more importantly, the socially-constructed belief of what is authentic. The story changes with every telling, because the narrators stress the ‘facts’ that support their conclusions.

Consider this: the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (BORI) version (also known as the Poona Critical Edition) of the Mahabharata is estimated to have been the version that existed around the 5th century A.D; that is, the Gupta Age. That leaves a fair 3000 odd years, or so, during which the story was bound to have been told over and over again, endlessly. It also explains perhaps, how we went from the 8800 verses said to be composed by Dwaipayana Vyasa to 24,000 verses in the very next generation, when Vyasa teaches it to his disciple Vaishampayana. Vaishampayana then tells the story to King Janamejaya, at which point he expands it to nearly three times in size. He is followed by Ugrasravas Sauti, who recites a 100,000 verse version at the great gathering of sages at Naimisha Forest. Somewhere in between these versions, the Harivamsa is added as an appendix. In three generations, the epic grows ten-fold! But that is not all. The Naimisha version is pretty much the ‘final’ product which is known till date as Krishna Dwaipayana Vyasa’s Mahabharata.

And that, may be the clue.

Was the great assembly of sages at Naimisha a conclave, or council of some sort, where perhaps, the most acceptable version was agreed upon? The gathering, while also a sacrifice in progress, is described as a sattra or session, where Ugrashravas’ narrative is interspersed with inputs from the Vedas. Were the sages, in fact drafting what was to them a ‘vedically-congruent’ epic? And what about the lesser-known appendix – the Harivamsa? Perhaps that carried the bulk of interpolations – after all, Govinda Shauri was clearly no longer a man, but on his way to becoming the blue-skinned god, the incarnation of Vishnu. The whole does also bring to mind a rather similar-sounding event, the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325...

The point is not to dispute that there is an authentic core within the epic. The question then arises, what really is the core, that one thing to which we owe some integrity? In my own, and admittedly ineffective words, I think of the core as being the fundamental principles which have endured through the ages, as part of the story, something which cannot change with every retelling.

Something that lasts beyond labels of myth and fiction.

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