Jan 11, 2013

Mahabharata Myth-busters

Once upon a time, a curious friend of mine requested me to tell her the story of Mahabharata. I jumped at the chance to show off my obsession with myths. But I was soon interrupted by a question. “Before you begin, I want to know, does Krishna always have that round thing behind his head?” It took me a while to even figure out that she meant the golden halo that appears behind the heads of deities.

I assured her that the orb was there just for effect on television, and that there was no mention of any such halo in the book. But her questions did not stop there. (“Didn’t Kunti get her children magically?” “No she didn’t, they were all born the perfectly natural way”) (Read here for a detailed explanation of Kunti's method of conception) After a while, I realized that all the questions could be traced back to one source: the television serial that many of us grew up watching. (“Why doesn’t anyone helping that man sleeping on arrows?” “He made a vow…” “To sleep on arrows?” “Umm it’s complicated…”) My curiosity piqued, I began collecting the instances where the TV serial differed from the book. Some of them were obvious and easily disproved, like the ones mentioned above. Others are not disproved so easily, because though they do not come from the original text, they are taken from already popular folklore, and are important in setting the theme and tone of the story.
The disrobing of Draupadi is one of the most memorable scenes in Mahabharata. Imagine how the scene would e different if Krishna, in fact, did not save Draupadi. But that is exactly what the original text says. According to the story, Dushaasan continues to pull at Draupadi’s sari, after which she cries out to Krishna. Krishna even comes running from wherever he is, but after that, no mention of him is made. Instead: “While Yajnaseni (Draupadi) was crying aloud to Krishna, also called Vishnu and Hari and Nara for protection, the illustrious Dharma, remaining unseen, covered her with excellent clothes of many hues. As the attire of Draupadi was being dragged, after one was taken off, another of the same kind appeared, covering her. Owing to the protection of Dharma, hundreds upon hundreds of robes of many hues came off Draupadi's person” (sic).

As we can see, somebody else called “Dharma” came and saved Draupadi from being ashamed. This name has confused many readers before me, and I found people advocating that Dharma could mean either Yudhishthir or Vidur, as both are believed to be parts of the god Dharmaraj, and are addressed by the name “Dharma” throughout the text. However, this does not seem to make sense in the story, as neither Yushishthir nor Vidur have any magical powers to remain unseen and supply clothes to Draupadi. Instead, an abstract interpretation of “Dharma” as goodness makes better sense here, meaning that Draupadi was saved by her own innate purity. Krishna’s absence from this scene is corroborated by several circumstantial statements, the most reliable of which occurs when Krishna comes to meet the Pandavas in the jungle. Draupadi pours her heart out to him, who regrets that he was unable to help her as he was busy battling his minor nemesis Shalva. The contradictions in Krishna’s alibi can be attributed to the fact until centuries after it was written, continuous additions to the core text were made by different people, resulting in the inconsistent tome that we have today (Read here for a detailed explanation of Mahabharata's evolution). But thanks to the TV series, there can be no debate on the inconsistencies any more, as one of the variations is firmly established as the official version.
Mahabharata stands out from most other mythological texts because unlike other religious texts that deify its heroes and vice versa, Mahabharata does not shy away from the failures of its heroes, or the valor of its villains. In a reflection of real life, all characters are gray, the villains just have a slightly darker shade. In contrast, by manipulating the tone and tampering with story angles, the TV serial presents manages to completely villainize the antagonists. Among many minor tweaks, one incident stands out: of the final battle between Duryodhan and Bheem. The popular perception is that Duryodhan had a boon from his mother that made his body rock hard, leaving only his upper thighs unprotected. In the original text, there is no mention of Gandhari’s tapasya that gave her the power to strengthen her son, and Duryodhan enters the battle ground with no superpowers.  In fact, before the battle, the Pandavas have a serious discussion with Krishna regarding the outcome, and Krishna frankly says that though Bheem may be strong, Duryodhan is the better fighter, and Bheem would never, ever, gain victory in a fair war. The decision to incapacitate Duryodhan by targeting his crotch was therefore made in cold blood, but according to the television serial, Bheem was forced to forego the rules of lawful battle because he had no other option. By rendering the incident in stark black and white, this version undermines the story’s potential for reflecting reality, and unfairly glorifies the hero.

To change course, while Brahmins far and wide hotly debate the issue of meat eating, and some even don’t partake of onions, garlic, and tomatoes, Mahabharata is quite clear on this issue: Brahmins, and everyone else, are supposed to rejoice in the nutritious values of meat. In one example, Illwala and Vatapi are asur bothers who enjoy killing Brahmins. Illwala has the power to transform human beings into other animals. He changes his brother Vatapi into a sheep, and cooks the meat. He then feeds it to Brahmins, and after they have eaten, simply says “Vatapi, come forth”. From within the stomach, the pieces of Vatapi begin reassembling into human form, and this process bursts the eater’s stomach, thus killing him. They brothers try the same trick on Rishi Agastya, but Agastya instead kills Vatapi by digesting him before Illwala calls out to him.

 This story clearly depicts Brahmins eating meat with a lot of relish and enjoyment. It has been said that Illwala disguised the meat as vegetarian dish to make Agastya eat it, but the original text does not support this idea. It clearly states that the meat was disguised as sheep. Sure, Brahmins are said to be mild in disposition and are recommended to eat satwik food, but those are just recommendations, and not rules. In fact, the Mahabharata expounds the virtue of meat on many occasions, and meat is mentioned as the best bali (sacrifice) because of its nutritious value. (The purpose of bali is for human beings to eat what is offered to deities.)
Some of these variations may have been popular even before the highly glamorized TV series. The concept of vegetarian Brahmins, for example, was deeply entrenched in our society long before BR Chopra’s television opera. But what the TV series did is to firmly establish these variations in the minds of an entire generation that got their religion from television. 


Subodh Rana said...

I have found that meat was offered pitri during shraddha during olden days.

It would be interesting if you write how Krishna and Christ stories are nearly identical from conception, birth, etc.


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