There are basically two kinds of people that read Mahabharat. The traditionalists, who loyally stick to the standard texts and their conventional interpretations. And the intellectuals who question and challenge the existing narrations, seeing the primary texts through a prism of skepticism. There are third/fourth sub-categories too, but that is a discussion for another day. Nonetheless, some pertinent questions of morality are often raised by the latter kind:
Who were actually righteous in the Mahabharat?
Isn’t Mahabharat biased towards the Pandavas?
Were the Pandavas or Krishna really that good?
To all these above questions, the first kind takes the traditional route: The Pandavas were completely righteous, and were only following the dharmic path given to them by God Incarnate Krishna. The other half, however, categorically dismisses this notion. Reason? Winston Churchill’s famous saying: History is written by winners. If the conservatives follow the easy good vs bad template, the seculars vow to dismiss such binaries by creating more binaries (but of a different kind): Upper Caste vs Lower Caste, Brahmin vs non-Brahmin and Aryan vs non-Aryan (forgive me for doing the same to categorize epic readers). The latter are further aided by a new breed of authors who – perhaps to counter fundamentalists – polarize the whole narrative as a struggle between supposed orthodoxy of Pandavas and equally conjectured progressiveness of the Kauravas. Had I not been exposed to Mahabharat in its unabridged form (by work of fate), perhaps, I too would have wholly subscribed to the latter’s ideology.
While growing up, my mother used to tell me stories about Ravana, who, according to her, was a braver man than Ram. I do not know whether her opinions were the effect of Meghnad Bodh Kabyo by Michael Madhusudan Dutta that most of us Bong kids grow up reading. For the uninitiated, it is a colossal masterpiece of Dutta, where Ravana’s son Meghnad is hailed as a tragic hero, while Ram’s beloved brother Lakshman is berated as a coward. But irrespective of the reason, as a kid, I most certainly wanted to believe in what my mother said. There is something particularly fascinating about Inversion Theories that attracts every cynic.
But in the past few years, owing to my close association with the Indian Epics and some real Indologists and scholars on the topic, I have come to realize that the answers to the above questions are not so straightforward as one might presume. Putting aside the discussion of whether Mahabharat is history or fiction for another day, let’s delve a bit deeper into the main story to understand why.
The story of Jaya, as we know it, was narrated by Ugrasvas Sauti in the forest of Naimisha, to a group of twelve sages. Sauti had just attended the snake-sacrifice conducted by Janmejaya, the great grand son of Arjun, where he had listened with attention to the entire narration by Vaisampayana, disciple of Veda Vyasa, about the ancestors of Janmajaya and the Great War. Sauti narrated to the sages what he had heard.
Now, observe one thing. The poem composed by Vyasa is narrated to whom? Janmajeya, who was the son of Parikshit, who in turn was son of Abhimanyu and grandson of Arjun.
Consequently, we see detailed life story of the Pandavas and Draupadi, whereas we are kept in the shadow about the personal lives of Duryodhan, Karna, etc. In fact, the wives of the anti-heroes are barely named, let alone given space. We see glorious adjectives being used for the “hero” Pandavas consistently, while the Kauravas and Karna are mostly described as “wicked” and “wretched”, except before their deaths. Note how, the conspiracy of the Kauravas to burn their cousins are reminded by the narrator multiple times, and yet, when the Pandavas flee from the House of Lac, setting fire to the palace with a Nishada woman and her sons, their misgivings are dealt with in just a line or two. Here, I’d also like to add that in some canonical versions (K.M Ganguly’s translation, for instance), the presence of the Nishada family is shown as mere coincidence, whereas in some others, the act of burning them along with the house is shown as a deliberate attempt by the Pandavas to cover their tracks, and save their lives from further attacks by Duryodhan. I find the latter version more plausible (as given in the Critical Edition) though one can always give them the benefit of doubt.
If read very carefully, one thing is clear. The tone of narration by Vaisampayana is partial towards the Pandavas. The glorification of the five heroes is palpable in the beautiful metaphors, in contrast to the judgmental description of Duryodhan and Co. And thus, so far the “intellectuals” are not entirely wrong in questioning the epic and its bias.
But sadly, this is where their correctness begins to fizzle out.
To understand this better, let’s go a little further. King Shantanu had two wives, Ganga and Satyavati. Post his death, his youngest son Vichitravirya became the next King. But his reign was short-lived. He died young, leaving his widows Ambika and Ambalika without heir. Since Bhishma was going to be a celibate, Satyavati summoned her son, born out of wedlock to impregnate his daughters-in-law in the process of Niyoga. This son is none other than Krishna-Dwaipayana, also known as Veda Vyasa, who is attributed the authorship of the epic. Vyasa impregnated two unwilling Ambika and Ambalika, and out of these unions were born Dhritarashtra and Pandu. Later on, blind Dhritarashtra went on to marry Princess Gandhari, and begot a hundred sons collectively called “Kauravas”. Pandu turned out to be less fortunate in this matter, despite being coronated as the King (owing to his elder brother’s blindness). He was most likely impotent or had a heart disease (the canon text says, he was cursed by a certain Rishi Kindama), for which he remained childless. Thanks to his first wife Kunti’s “mantras”, he got five sons, who were said to have been the off-springs of five Gods. I believe they were product of Niyoga.
Now, the reason why I narrated this whole story is to draw attention to a cardinal point, which we often miss out on. Who are the Kauravas? Biological grandsons of Veda Vyasa. Who wrote Mahabharat? Veda Vyasa.
That’s right. It is the antagonist Duryodhan who is the direct bloodline of the composer of the epic, not the Pandavas. If indeed there is an ounce of truth in the Inversion Theory, a pertinent question remains: why would Veda Vyasa malign his own grandsons and hail the Pandavas (who are not even related to him by blood) without any rhyme or reason? So, yes, the tone of narration is biased. But it would be unfair to dismiss the entire epic in the same vein.
Another important point that hampers the understanding of a reader about the epics is the colossal gap between abridged and unabridged renditions of the text. Bibek Debroy, translator of the Critical Edition of Mahabharat explains this beautifully in his Preface:
Most of us are aware of the Mahabharata story because we have read some version or the other, typically an abridged one. Every abridged version simplifies and condenses, distills out the core story. And in doing that, it tends to paint things in black and white, fitting everything into the mould of good and bad. The Kouravas are bad. The Pandavas are good. And good eventually triumphs. The unabridged Mahabharata is anything but that. It is much more nuanced. Duryodhana isn’t invariably bad. He is referred to as Suyodhana as well, and not just by his father. History is always written from the point of view of the victors. While the Mahabharata is generally laudatory towards the Pandavas, there are several places where the text has a pro-Kourava stance. There are several places where the text has an anti- Krishna stance. That’s yet another reason why one should read an unabridged version, so as not to miss out on these nuances.
Despite the heroic titles, Vyasa does not shy away from depicting Yudisthir’s gambling, Pandavas’ burning down a forest land and driving out the Nagas (whether human tribes or animals) to establish their kingdom or even the House of Lac incident. That brings me to the infamous deceit that was implemented by Krishna and the Pandavas to win the Great Kurukshetra War. The strategy to win the ultimate battle often becomes a moot point, giving scope to skeptics to ask a another valid question – Was the Mahabharat War really a means to achieve justice, when the supposed heroes had attained this victory through plain treachery?
The answer to this question lies in the unabridged text as well. Because, contrary to popular depiction, the uncut narrative gives us details of how almost all major characters from both sides had bent the perceived “sacred” rules of war at some point or the other. And to be fair, how far do rules apply between blood and gore? Interestingly, in popular renditions such as BRC or Star Plus’ Mahabharat, it is only the transgression of the Pandavas in war that are highlighted more (with of course, dharmic justifications). The practical reason behind this is simple: most of the illustrious warriors of the epic (who died) hailed from the Kauravas’ army, while on Pandava-side, except Abhimanyu, almost all the glorious heroes had survived. Thus condensed adaptations focus only on the famous dead (Bhishma, Drona, Karna, Abhimanyu), ignoring many not-so-known characters in non-glorified moments who were at the receiving end of the trickery/group attacks, etc implemented by Kauravas’ side, leaving us with only half the picture. One example is the death of Arjun’s lesser known son Iravan with Naga Princess Uloopi.
So, now, we need to ask ourselves : If we choose to believe all the above mentioned flaws of the Pandavas from the unabridged text as depicted honestly by Vyasa, why should we not extend the same faith to their virtues as well from the same text?
So, is Mahabharat biased?
Partly, yes. We cannot completely rule out the possibility of History being written from the perspective of the winners as rightly pointed out by Debroy. There is also no doubt that there have been generous insertions from later Bhargav Brahmins. But a complete inversion as suggested by a section of skeptics is unlikely. Ignore the laudatory word-gymnastics and focus on the facts alone from the uncut editions, and you would see that the “bias” is mostly on the exterior. Vyasa gives us enough clues and insights to show that in the end, all humans – be it Pandavas or Kauravas – are grey. Only some are lighter shades of grey, and others are darker shades of grey.
1.)To read the complete text of Critical editions in Sanskrit free of cost online:
Mahabharata – BORI Critical Edition – Sanskrit Documents
2.) To read the non-Critical Editions in translations: Internet Sacred Text Archive Home
3.) Image Courtesy: Image Source