A few years ago, I was tasked with doing some background research for a TV show based on the legend of an ancient Indian king. I took on the project with gusto, pulling out every fact about the principal character and milieu I could lay my hands on.

Rooted in scientific historiography and archaeology, I excitedly spoke of stone tools, rudimentary garments and primitive technology, only to be met with disappointed faces of the story writers and show producers in the room. They wanted my findings to fit in with their vision of a glorious Indian past, overlaid with gold and gems – the kind we all grew up seeing in BR Chopra’s tele-verse.

I was aghast, and refused to cater to their “whimsy” story because those were simply not the facts. The project ended for me on a sour note, and that unresolved conflict had continued to bother me, until now. Reading GN Devy’s new book, Mahabharata: The Epic and the Nation, led to an epiphany that has finally helped me understand what that big fight was about.

The nation’s way of remembering

Devy is a literary and cultural giant, engaging with whose scholarship is a rite of passage for any Indian student of linguistics and anthropology. The renowned literary critic and activist was formerly a professor of English at the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, the founder and director of the Tribal Academy at Tejgadh, Gujarat, and the director of the Sahitya Akademi’s Project on Literature in Tribal Languages and Oral Traditions, among other things.

In 2015, Devy returned his Sahitya Akademi Award as a mark of protest against the “shrinking space for free expression and growing intolerance towards difference of opinion” in the country. He can be considered a purveyor not only of what India speaks, but also of what it is, increasingly, not allowed to speak.

In his latest book, Devy examines the intense relationship India has with one of its two principal epics – the Mahabharata. As much as the current dispensation in New Delhi uses and centralises the Ramayana to further its political motives, it is the Mahabharata that drives the national imagination. The Indian people’s obsession with Vyasa’s epic perhaps lies in its classification as itihasa (a record of things as they happened), whereas Valmiki’s epic poem is thought of falling more into the category of (maha)kavya (poetry). In Devy’s view, there is an essentialism to the Indian identity that draws from the Mahabharata, because it is not just an epic, it is also the nation’s “way of remembering”.

Permeating lives

This function that Devy ascribes to the Mahabharata is, thus, massive, and likely cannot be claimed by any other epic of any other time, nation or authorship. Unlike the ancient Greek epics – the Iliad and the Odyssey – the Mahabharata continues to permeate the common man’s life and mind. Devy differentiates between Homerian and other European epics and Vyasa’s in terms of authorship, length, structure, literary technique, but most of all, purpose. At the outset he asks, “The question that comes to one’s mind is, what does this vast mass of literary depiction intend to do? What indeed is its purpose? What do all these long books achieve as a single literary entity and as a single spectrum of imaginative depiction of things near and distant?”

Devy then proceeds to point out how the epic stands out in many ways. From the authorship to the time of composition, from the central characters to the theme, from the genre to the plot, the Mahabharata defies all norms. One cannot be sure if the epic’s author is Vyasa or Krishna Dvaipayana, and if the two are the same person, and whether they lived long enough to be able to create and compile this voluminous story that seems to have taken a few centuries. Also, Vyasa’s authorship and his simultaneous presence in the narrative among other things, blur its chronology. With so many back stories, there is no definitive starting point to the story, nor is there a singular authoritative version of the epic, since so many exist.

For example, the massively popular shloka “Yada yada hi dharmasya glanirbhavati bharata |Abhyuthanamadharmasya tadatmanam srijamyaham || Paritranaya sadhunang vinashay cha dushkritam | Dharmasangsthapanarthay sambhabami yuge yuge || (Ch. 4, verses 7-8), does not occur in the original version of the epic, titled Bharata, or even in its subsequent versions. Scholars like Devy believe this verse, heralding the arrival of an entity to combat waning adherence to religion and the rise of inequity, is an interpolation from a much later date. So, if an element that is so strongly identified with the epic is not even part of the original story, does that make it belong any less to the Mahabharata? Further, since the plot is not governed by the laws of probability, layers and layers have been added without disturbing much of the core narrative.

The people’s epic

Despite its covert affirmation of the discriminatory caste system, the Mahabharata managed to uphold the larger values of acceptance, synthesis, and inclusion, and has therefore remained the people’s epic. Unlike the mantra, shastra or sutra texts, which were reined in by Brahminical control, the Mahabharata moved around as suta (bardic) literature, picking up regional flavours. Like the many versions of the Ramayana, we hear of many Mahabharatas – such as the one in which the Pandavas matter little (the Harivamsa, also known as the Jain Mahabharata), or the one in which Draupadi romps with Vasuki while poor Arjuna is tied up and made an unwilling spectator (Bhil Mahabharata).

The folk versions aside, Devy identifies two major symbols in the epic – the horse and the wheel – which have remained significant to the Indian identity across centuries. The wheel, in particular, appearing as the Ashoka Chakra on the Indian flag, is a motif that has travelled across time in various avatars – as Yama’s wheel of time, as Buddha’s and Ashoka’s dhamma chakra, as the royal wheel of the Chakravatin kings, and so on.

Another quintessential element from the epic that finds universal acceptance among Indians is the Bhagvad Gita. Even though its parent text is tainted by the superstition that keeping a copy at home would bring ruin to a family, the Bhagvad Gita enjoys an almost scripture-like reverence. Endorsed by leaders and intellectuals, accepted as an oath text in courts, the Bhagvad Gita can easily be called India’s most popular religious text and the layman’s dharma grantha.

Traditions of memory

But the most striking thing about the Mahabharata, arguably, is its method of storytelling, says Devy. Vyasa’s ingenuity was in being able to combine myth and history to synthesise accounts of millennia’s worth of cultural transitions. To the informed eye, the transition of the social order from a Vedic pastoral people to feudal kingdoms ruled by the warrior class will be easy to spot. But it is in the seamless interweaving of ancient Vedic myths and protohistoric instances that the author’s greatest triumph lies. The continuity of the epic and its mesmerising appeal can be attributed to the author’s “use of history to enliven myth, and not use of myth to substantiate history.”

The characters of the Mahabharata exist simultaneously – and rather effortlessly – in the human and divine realms, within and outside temporal and geographical spaces. It is what Devy calls the epic’s enormous “negative capability”, where it doesn’t fit into any mould and yet is many things at once.

But Devy also warns his reader of the common misconceptions that arise as a result – such as people believing that the Kurukshetra war took place 5,000 years ago or that the epic was composed 4,000 years ago. Vyasa’s method simply holds together various traditions of memory – myth, legend, history – without ever making explicit assertions about any. It caters to India’s dilemma of not having one conclusive origin story. Our story begins at different points, led by different people. Therefore, Indians find Mahabharata’s method of remembrance so relatable… which brings me back to the little story I started this piece with.

What the show’s producers wanted was myth, what I offered them was history. Our little dharma yuddha could have been resolved if only we had taken a leaf out of Vyasa’s great book or Devy’s new book about it, where he rightly says, “When one tries to decide if Vyasa’s Mahabharata is myth or history, the judgement can only be ‘Yes, eminently, history and myth’.”

Mahabharata: The Epic and the Nation, GN Devy, Aleph Book Company.