Many decades back I wrote a story on Amba, a character from the Mahabharata. The story travelled around, collecting rejections all the way. Only one editor gave me a reason: when most readers would not know who Bhishma is, why would they be interested in a story which centred round an almost unknown character like Amba? Would I write a brief note explaining who Amba was? An explanatory note to a short story?

Today such a problem would never arise. We are swamped with books, either retelling the stories of the two epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, or about a character from the epics – quite often a much lesser-known character, taken out of an obscure corner, dusted and put under the spotlight. Obviously, neither writers nor publishers worry about readers not knowing any of the characters.

What has brought about this change? (I am speaking only of writing in English.) Is it only a trend which will soon pass? Or are the English writers discovering what the bhasha writers have always known, that the epics are a great source of inspiration for Indian writers? Or, has it anything to do with the dominant ideology of the day which emphasises India’s glorious past? Not just any past, mind, but a time before the Muslim invaders came into India.

This does not mean that writers are writing to order; it only means that there is an atmosphere, the Zeitgeist, in which certain ideas are more likely to flourish and find acceptance. Whatever the reason, there is undoubtedly a resurgence of interest in the two great epics in English writing.

Joyous responses

India’s glorious past has little to do with great rulers, wars and victories and has much to do with having some of the most ancient texts of humankind. Indologists, both Indian and foreign, have done great work on these texts. The ideas and philosophy that the Vedas, the Upanishads and other texts of that time propounded are our unique gifts from the past. But they are not for the common reader; they are esoteric, beyond the comprehension of most, except scholars and researchers.

So I thought, until, one day, on a whim, I bought a copy of Wendy Doniger’s translation of a hundred and eight hymns from the Rig Veda. I put it aside to read another day, like one often does with “worthy” books. And, like it also always does, that day did come.

When I opened the book, the first line of Doniger’s introduction to the book flashed at me: “This is a book for people, not for scholars.” Doniger adds: “...there is much in it [the Rig Veda] to interest and excite the non-Vedist.” I became aware of the truth of this when I began reading. The verses were not expressions of dry abstract philosophy. Instead, through Doniger’s translation and P Lal’s transcreation, I got a glimpse of people who found the world a wondrous thing, who took delight in the dew-fresh, pristine world they were living in.

There is, in the hymns, a joyous response to the forces of nature. And fear as well. For which reason they converted these forces into gods whom they had to appease – like Indra, Varuna, Agni, Surya, Prithvi and so on. There are lofty thoughts too in the hymns of creation. This, for example: if the gods came later than the world, who then created the world? An innocent-seeming question, but mind-boggling, revolutionary. It shook me. I was not prepared for such thoughts.

Even more surprising are the lines that ask whether he who created the world – or perhaps did not – did he know what he had done? Perhaps even he did not know.

Once again, amazing words, amazing thoughts, the doubt expressed at the end raising the question to a different level, leaving room for greater knowledge, greater understanding. Almost on the same lines is another verse in which the refrain is: “To which god shall we offer worship?” We are still far from having a definitive answer to this deceptively simple question.

A glorious example of the unexpectedness of the Rig Veda is the verse “The Soma-Drinker Praises Himself”. The soma-drinking god, whoever he is (most probably Indra), boasts of his achievements with an astonishing bravado, each couplet ending with the refrain, For I have drunk the juice of the Soma.”

With great skill and accuracy, the lines follow the rising euphoria in a man who is drinking. Beginning with, “I am lord of the Earth, I am lord of Heaven”, he goes on to, “I can break this earth” and the final triumphant, “l touch the clouds.” Most of the verses are not religious in the expected sense, they are the songs of people who are celebrating life. Asking questions about life. Staggering to think that these were composed some three thousand years ago – or more.

Spirit of debate

The Upanishads, as S Radhakrishnan pithily puts it, move from the wonder of the outside world to a meditation on the self, though there is a search for the mystery of existence, of creation, in them as well. There is more certainty in the Upanishads; they are didactic since they are meant to instruct students. The importance of teachers is emphasised by long passages which recite names of teachers and pupils.

The Upanishads are philosophical, spiritual, complex and abstruse. They work through conversations, stories, examples and questions and answers, which make it easier to understand (though not always) difficult concepts. There are some famous dialogues, like the one between a young man, Svetaketu, and his father, Uddalaka Aruni, in which the father instructs his son about the nature of the self.

Another well-known dialogue is between Maitreyi and her philosopher-husband Yajnavalkya about immortality. And yet another is between Nachiket, a bright youth, and Yama the god of death, about death.

A very modern-seeming story is the story of Satyakama, who asked his mother what family he belonged to. Her reply, innocent and honest, was that she had been a maid when young and had moved about a lot. “And so I got you.” She adds, “...your name is Satyakama, my name is Jabala. Call yourself Satyakama Jabala.” Which he does, and finds himself a teacher who appreciates his honesty. A problem solved by unflinchingly facing the truth.

In another story, King Janaka invites a large number of Brahmins to a sacrifice and announces, “The wisest among you can take the thousand cows I have brought here.” While the Brahmins hesitate, the learned Yajnavalkya tells his pupil, “Take away the cows.”

The Brahmins, incensed by this, ask, “Do you think you are the wisest?”

“No, I only wanted the cows.”

A delightful tongue-in-cheek response – and this from a learned man who had studied all the Vedas. But once again the same honesty.

Flawed people

Questing, questioning, hazarding guesses, open-minded, truthful – what connects us to these people? How can we, superstition-ridden, and unable or refusing to think for ourselves, be the descendants of such people?

Perhaps we are wrong to look for our earlier, better selves in a religious, spiritual text. We need to go to stories, which are the best guide to a people and to how they lived. Which is why our two epics are still alive; the characters are people we know as well as we do our families and friends, the people and the events in the Mahabharata still a point of reference to much that happens in our lives.

Both the epics are full of Dharma – an ideal not always attainable. In the Mahabharata, in spite of the word Dharma being the keynote of the story, Adharma flourishes. Everyone indulges in wrong acts, even Krishna, when he finds Arjuna vacillating, not giving his best to the fight.

It was only after reading Iravati Karve’s Yuganta that I realised that the characters in the epic are flawed erring humans, not the larger-than-life characters we imagine them to be. It was a kind of turning point in my thinking and writing life. I could never look at the Mahabharata with the same vision ever again.

With this new vision, an episode in the epic that happened before the war, one of the best-known and most dramatic stories in the Mahabharata, gave me some very surprising truths. Almost everyone knows this story, but perhaps it can do with another retelling. So listen:

The Pandavas were invited to play a game of dice by Shakuni, the evil spirit of the Kauravas. Yudhishtira played and rapidly lost his property, his kingdom, his brothers, and finally himself. When it seemed he had nothing more to wager, Shakuni prompted him. “You have Draupadi,” he said. And a desperate Yudhishtira, hoping, like all gamblers, that his luck would change, wagered his wife. And lost.

Duryodhana was gleeful, triumphant. This was the moment he had been waiting for, for years. He immediately sent a messenger to Draupadi, to tell her that her husband had lost her and she was now their slave. Ask her to come here, he ordered.

Draupadi was stunned by this message. How could she, a queen, become a slave? Recovering, she told the messenger, “Go and ask the man who played the game of dice whether he lost himself first or me?” The messenger came back saying, “They want you to go there and ask the question.” She sent back the same message.

Now Duryodhana was furious. He sent his brother Duhshasana this time. Duhsasana, as impatient as Duryodhana, sped to the women’s rooms, calling out for Draupadi in disrespectful, dishonourable words. Draupadi, terrified, fled, trying to get to Gandhari. Duhshasana chased her, held her by her hair and dragged her into the assembly, in spite of Draupadi’s repeated pleas to let her go, in spite of her telling him bluntly that she was having her periods. (One can imagine how hard it must have been to say this aloud in public.)

The men were stunned when they saw Draupadi, a proud woman, a queen, in this state! Draupadi ignored the gleeful, leering Kauravas, ignored her husbands who seemed to have been struck dumb and addressed the elders of the family – Dhritarashtra, Bhishma, Vidura, Drona, Kripa. “How could you let this happen?” she asked them. They were silent. And then, once again, she asked her original question: “Did the King (Yudhishtira) lose himself first or did he lose me earlier?”

Unheroic heroes

Iravati Karve calls this question Draupadi’s greatest mistake. Whatever the answer, Draupadi was in a situation fraught with danger. If her husband had lost himself first, he became a slave who could own no property. What did that make Draupadi then? Whereas, if Yudhishtira had a right to wager her, she would, like the rest of them, become a slave of the Kauravas.

Great admirer though I am of Iravati Karve’s Yuganta, I am not sure I agree with her. The question was not a mistake, it had to be asked at some time. And what Draupadi was really asking was: Am I my husband’s property? Does he have the right to do with me whatever he wishes?

Vikarna, the one white sheep among the Kauravas, got up to defend Draupadi. She was right, he said. Yudhishtira had no right to wager her because she was the wife of five men, not of Yudhishtira alone. Small comfort for Draupadi, this!

Karna chastised Vikarna; the Pandavas, he said, had lost everything, even the clothes they were wearing. Take them, he ordered Duhshasana. At which, the five brothers threw away their upper garments.

When Duhshasana moved towards Draupadi, she was terrified. It was a tense moment. Bhima knew he and Arjuna would have to kill Duhshasana if he touched Draupadi. But Draupadi was not looking to her husbands for protection. She prayed to Krishna to help her. And a miracle happened. The single strip of cloth that she wore became an endless one. Duhshasana could not disrobe her, however much he tried.

This miracle is for most people the climax of the story. For the Krishna-bhakts it is indeed the climax of the entire epic. To me, however, the miracle is not this feat of Krishna’s, which saved Draupadi, and in a sense saved the Kauravas as well. Gods are bound to perform miracles; it is what their devotees expect from them. To me the miracle is Draupadi, fearlessly confronting an assembly of hostile men, ignoring their ugly looks, their lewd gestures.

The miracle is Draupadi, in an uncontested male-dominated society, not looking to her husbands for help or protection, but boldly asking a question of the elders, a question to which she demanded an answer. Bhishma, the family elder, Vidura one of the wisest of men, Drona and Kripa, the two Gurus – none of them could answer her question.

Not surprising, because if the answer was that a wife was not her husband’s property, the very foundations of society would be shaken. Which is why Draupadi’s anguished question was not answered then, or even in the future.

Looking at what happened later, it seems Draupadi was right to ignore her husbands. For, when Draupadi had won their freedom (and hers) from a frightened Dhritarashtra, the Pandavas were once again challenged by Shakuni to play a game of dice. And they agreed! Incredible folly, hard to believe. The explanation was that one could not honourably decline an invitation to a game of dice.

And so Yudihistira played once again and lost everything yet again. The result was that the Pandavas had to go on a twelve-year exile, with one year of living incognito after that. If recognised, they would have to go back to another twelve years of exile.

One wonders whether Yudhishtira accepted the challenge because he did not want to owe his freedom to a woman. Whether he was humiliated by it and hoped to recover his lost prestige by winning – this time on his own. One can only say – what utter folly! What unheroic heroes! In fact, no one comes out of this episode smelling good. Except Draupadi.

What changed us?

There is yet another miracle concealed within this story. It is well known that the Mahabharata began as a small text called Jaya. Composed by Vyasa, it was later narrated by his disciple Vaishampayana to King Janmejaya, Arjuna’s great grandson, and became the Bharata. Ugrashravas then, with more additions, made it the Mahabharata.

Which means that, like all oral narratives it was fluid and kept changing, with chunks of interpolations introduced by each narrator. There must have been deletions as well, though scholarly work would perhaps find this harder to locate. And so, with apologies to all the scholars who have worked diligently on the texts, I, an ignorant non-scholar, a lay reader, feel the need to ask: why did no one delete this episode which does not show the heroes in a good light? An episode in which the hero is supposedly Krishna, but the real hero is a woman, Draupadi.

I think of her, a lone woman, wearing a stained garment (every woman’s nightmare), standing in the midst of a crowd of men, fighting for her freedom, for her husbands’ freedom. Why did they leave this as it was?

Did the interpolators, who obviously were narrators / writers as well, let the episode stay because they knew it was the pivot of the story, that the war, which was the real subject of the story, hinged on it? Os was it because their creativity would not allow them to tamper with the story as it was? Or was it that they knew that without protest, without dissent, a story was incomplete, it would not move?

Dissent provides the impetus for a story to move. Whatever the reason, the story gives us all of it, the good as well as the bad. There is no evading of the facts, they are given to us straight. The heroes are downsized, the villains are at their villainous worst and the wise elders shame-faced and silent. All this is laid out before us without glossing over any of the ugly facts.

The rule of Sanskrit drama was that it could not end in tragedy. But both the epics end tragically. The victory in the Mahabharata is not a glorious victory, but a hollow one. Yudhishtira would rule over a kingdom of widows and orphans. The elders, Dhritarashtra, Gandhari and Kunti went away to the forests. All the young men in the family were dead. These things are not glossed over, either.

We are a jaded people in whom the spirit of inquiry seems dead; we are full of blind faith, a people happy to accept ideas that are thrust on us, unable to think for ourselves. (Covid is cured by smearing cow-dung on the body and washing it off with cow urine! An idol, made of clay, can drink milk. And so on and on.) How can we, mealy-mouthed hypocrites that we are, have anything to do with people who were not afraid to call a spade a spade?

How is it that we, who have been given this rich legacy, have so narrow, so tubular a vision of morality? What changed people from being joyous, thinking beings to a people believing in rigid dogmas and rituals? Where has the spirit of arguing, debating, questioning gone? I think of Shankaracharya, trying to revive and strengthen Hinduism by travelling the length and breadth of the country, debating with other scholars.

Any attempt to paint the past as glorious should make us wary. It is generally done to divert attention from a not-so-glorious present. And, sadly, for most people, the glorious past has been distilled into a mélange of cows, yoga and spurious herbal remedies. Right now we are in the midst of a name-changing game, as if by changing a name, history can be erased. Battles lost have become battles won, words on plaques have been changed, the victor becoming the loser, the loser the victor. You can change names, but you can’t change the truth of history, slithery though it is. Though, today, the question that confronts us is: where is the truth of history? Or is there no such thing, and will we continue to have different versions depending on who is in power?