Feb 5, 2012

Framing issues in Mahabharata

Most myths are written from the third person omniscient perspective, which is the most common way of storytelling. But Mahabharata has a complicated story behind its vantage point. It was first of all composed by Ved Vyas. A priest Vaisampayan narrates this composition to king Janamejaya at a yagya. Lomash hears this story at the yagya and his friends back home ask him to recite the story. Lomash asks his disciple to do so, and this narration forms the outermost frame of the story. However, most of the times Vaisampayan is mentioned as the narrator instead of the unidentified disciple. This makes for a very convoluted frame indeed, where we read a person (unidentified writer) write about another person(Lomash) describe a story that he has heard from another person(Vaisampayan) who may or may not have read the original work (by Vyas.) This already presents a challenge to the authenticity of the writer, because if Vyas wrote the Mahabharata, then who wrote the frame story of Mahabharata being recited?
Furthermore, if Mahabharata were taken to be a report of actual happenings, then there is a lot of space for distortions. The fact that this story is told four generations after it happened is the first and most noticeable hindrance to truth. And it doesn’t help that Janamejaya, the great grandson of Arjun, is a direct descendant of the victors. For him this is family history and for that reason Vaisampayan noticeably sugar coats the story. Janamejaya always addresses his ancestors in the most deferential terms, eg . illustrious, leonine, etc.. Vaisampayan follows these cues and takes care to describe Pandavas as respectful and learned. In contrast, he always addresses Duryodhan by the worst adjectives like vile and block headed.
A few times, Vaisampayan does slip and depart from his stereotypical characterization.  He describes how Bhim bullied all hundred of Kaurava brothers in childhood, striking their heads together and sometimes breaking their limbs. The anger that Duryodhan felt for such acts is maligned as stubbornness.  This raises the question of what else was missed in the characterization of “heroic” Pandavas. Meanwhile the heroism of Kauravas is left to a few backhanded compliments. We hear only one paragraph, for example, of how Karna fought an entire kingdom alone to gain a wife for Duryodhan. This paragraph occurs almost as an afterthought when Karna is dead, and is elaborated nowhere.  The full story is now buried in antiquity, but these scattered pieces tell us that there might be more to the story than we know today.
If the original convoluted framing isn’t enough, more and more frames are created as the story gains steam. Janamajeya often interrupts Vaisampayan and asks him to go in detail about something. Each character tells stories and these stories contain more stories, the reader often loses count of the frames.  Sometimes the famous ones like the story of Sivi are repeated several times. Repetition is frequent in Mahabharata: before the main characters are even introduced, the summary of Mahabharata is told many times. Besides, the story of each character is told from several dimensions. For just an example, when Drona is introduced, his entire history is recited. When he fights Drupad, the history is repeated. When Pandavas wed Drupad’s daughter, the same history is repeated, and so on. Foreshadowing is a specific type of repetition found overwhelmingly in Mahabharata. Many times learned persons (Vyas or Vidur or Narad) predict the future, and tell the story in excruciating detail. E.g. “Fear not Pandavas, there will soon be a war, when Bhimsen will kill Duryodhan, Arjun will kill Karna, ………….. (insert long list of all warriors) and you will be victorious!” No, Vyas is not a master of suspense.
Digressions do not stop here. There are also pages and pages of genealogy, where every person in the Kuru ancestry is named. At times the reader may be put off by overwhelming praise for each person, as each warrior is called the bravest, the most excellent, and many other epithets.  During vanavas, entire chapters pass by with nothing but names of places visited by Pandavas. Very interesting to geographers or historians for comparing ancient and modern geography, but tedious for a general reader. Not to forget the pages of bhajans that pop up without any context.
Why so many digressions and redundancies? Many scholars argue that Mahabharata was not written by a single person. (Such explanation is not unusual in the world of myths, scholars argue that Homer, who wrote the Greek epic Illiad, is the name of a school and not a person.)Mahabharata Scholars believe that the original composer (believed to be Vyas) wrote only a tenth of the story. This part is called Jaya. In an instance of Meta storytelling, Mahabharata itself admits that a group of verses called Jaya contains the original story.  Later, Vyas’ disciples added to Jaya, and this part is called Bharat. Throughout the ages, individual pieces were added by random writers, and this collection ended up as Mahabharata. As a result, it is not unusual to find discrepancies. The birth of Kumar, for example, is narrated five different times, and each time he has different parents. There are also mutually inconsistent creation stories where the creation is attributed to Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, or even Agni!
Sometimes, it is easy to tell which part is which. The core story is well crafted and eloquent with poignant dialogues. Every character is complex:  haughty Duryodhan shows his humble side, legendary Pandava unity threatens to splinter with domestic squabbles, and mature Kunti has an emotional outburst, blaming the entire Mahabharata war on her father Sura who neglected her in childhood!!! When the story lapses into bland bhajan-kirtan, the difference in writing is apparent. However, there are also pages of in-between material that are not at all easy to classify for a layperson, and are better left to experts.
In the end, Mahabharata is a moving story that I would recommend to anyone, but I would recommend that they read an abridged version which gets rid of the redundancies.

Published in the Kathmandu Post


Subodh said...

Hello Sewa, you are a very prolific writer! Although I am in your reader's list, for some reason I have been missing your writing since the last one I read - Kite Runner. Where are you based? Keep blogging!

I read this in Kathmandu Post. Thank you!

sewa said...

hello subodh, i am in the US right now. thanks for reading my blog, I read yours often too :)


why do we want to dissect rather than picking up the fruits..

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