For a student of literature, the Mahabharata is perhaps the Mount Everest of insurmountable artefacts. It towers over all its closest competitors, being four times larger than the Ramayana, and ten times the size of the Iliad and the Odyssey combined. It is the motherlode of stories nested within stories, a fractal-like maze of endlessly forking paths that never ceases to amaze. No wonder the Mahabharata was Jorge Louis Borges’s favourite Indian text, which he read in German through Max Mueller’s translations. It is completely understandable therefore, as that famous mountaineer once said, that one would want to write a book about the Mahabharata simply because “it is there” for the taking.

A high-stakes moral game

There is, however, a huge queue of aspirants lined up on the way to the summit. To say something new and interesting about this mammoth epic, which has undergone so many translations and trans-creations, and has been subjected to centuries of reflective attention, is a tall task indeed. This is what Nikhil Govind’s new book The Moral Imagination of the Mahabharata ambitiously sets out to do. Govind divides the book creatively, through a traditional mode of classification of the four ends of life: dharma, artha, kama, and moksha. He recognises that “these are not mundane, straightforward concepts, but ones that grow in meaning and power through the dense, webbed intertextualities that the Mahabharata-narrative enunciates.”

Govind’s interpretation of these fundamental themes traces fresh, uncharted terrain, and very few ideas seemed already familiar to me. Dharma isn’t just moral didacticism, as exemplified in the Bhagavad Gita. It is a more elusive and inscrutable idea that is most dramatically and stimulatingly evoked in the preceding The Book of Effort, where peace missions are sent out by both the Kauravas and Pandavas to see if the war can be avoided.

Caught between a fatalistic inevitability of the tragedy and a desire to sue for peace, there is a high-stakes moral game happening here that is absent from the Gita, where everyone has already assembled for battle. There is a genuine tussle here between free will and determinism, which later gets diffused by the theophany of the Gita. This is how Govind argues that The Book of Effort asks subtler and deeper questions regarding the nexus of war, justice, and kingly duties. Existentialism is also humanism, as Sartre phrased it, and deserves its rightful place in the moral discourse.

Kama isn’t merely carnal love and romantic passion, and instead becomes a larger celebration of all the good things in life – the arts, love and friendship, fine wine, and food. In Arjuna’s wanderings through the forest during the Pandavas’ exile, the gorgeous mountainous landscape itself becomes the “rich kama of nature”. Govind describes these meanderings with evocative imagery, taking great delight in the Mahabharata’s descriptive genius.

Artha transcends simple binaries such as victory and failure and finds its fullest symbolism in Duryodhana, whom Govind calls “An Ideologue of the Worldly”. Duryodhana’s “native martial pride exposes the rich heart of the meditation on fundamental values that makes the Mahabharata so fertile.” Duryodhana occupies a lot of Govind’s attention and for good reason, but I could not help wondering if placing him more in contrast with Yudhishtira and mining their relationship would have made for a more interesting discussion in this respect.

Moksha, the highest spiritual validation, does not require grand utopian overtures, but can instead be accommodated within the ordinary and the mundane, such as the everyday family life and agricultural labour of wonder-boy Krishna’s childhood, described lovingly in the Harivamsa. Govind finds the circularity of divinity and morality a bit tedious, and this leads him away from more obvious soteriological pastures elsewhere in the text, like the Gita. In any case, the book is divided into these four sections only for the sake of convenience. All the themes interpenetrate one another, always offering interesting ways to approach the text.

Shining light on marginal characters

For those of us who are only familiar with the Mahabharata in its broad outline or through the story of its major protagonists, Govind’s monograph offers fascinating inscapes of secondary characters whose richly nuanced arcs we might not be privy to. His talent lies in elaborating these marginal figures to challenge commonly received wisdom and in showing us how exquisitely they are embedded within the narrative fabric of the Mahabharata.

For instance, not everyone will be familiar with the story of Rishyashringa (Antelope-horn), who is born after his hermit-father is taken aback by a celestial nymph and spontaneously spills semen into a river. A deer drinks the water and gives birth to Rishyashringa, an inter-species being who lives all alone with his father in the jungle. After many years, when Rishyashringa finally encounters a woman (a courtesan dispatched by Indra to seduce him) and discovers kama, he begins to feel “a sense of life being greater than he had been taught to envisage”.

In this tale, Govind sees “a marvellous imagination of the mystery of human sexuality – of innocence, of maleness and femaleness that may invoke sexualities that go beyond limiting binaries.” He also goes on to show how this story, which appears during the time of the Pandavas’ exile in the forest, complements and reflects the Pandavas’ amorous adventures (especially Arjuna’s) during this period. “The stories of kama that the Pandavas discover, embody, and learn from, reveal an imagination of desire that interpenetrates the world. Though the stories themselves often seem fantastical and bizarre, they are also, as in the case of the Antelope-horn, full of wonder at the erotic joust that the body ceaselessly is.”

Or take the tragic self-sacrificial tale of Karna, who has to rise above his lowly, “working-class” upbringing. When he is given the knowledge of his true birth, he rejects a throne that should rightfully have been his, in favour of his friendship with Duryodhana. He wilfully relinquishes his powerful armour to the wily Indra, despite being warned by his own protector, Surya. He is cursed by his guru Parashurama, in spite of being the most loving student, to forget his skills when in time of need. Through all these instances and more, Govind reads in Karna “a direct moral challenge to the idea of divinity that Krishna represents”, and argues that he “exposes the hollowness of pieties of an unthwarted elite that includes both kings and gods.”

Or the tale of Satyavati, the humble fisherwoman of fantastical origins who, “despite every disadvantage (including a fishy malodour)” – chases her ambitions for power (artha), and founds the kingdom and dynasty that sets the stage for the epic to unfold. Govind observes that Satyavati’s truest heir, united through their quest for absolute power, is indeed Duryodhana. In the process of setting out these excellent character sketches, Govind quotes widely from modern scholarship as well as from pre-modern Indian philosophers like Abhinavagupta. There is, however, a special place in his heart for the work of the 20th-century Bengali philosopher KC Bhattacharya, whose idea of “aesthetic sympathy” frames his approach towards the Mahabharata.

The contemporary relevance of the text

After quoting Bhattacharya’s urge for a sympathetic interpretation of ancient texts, Govind writes – “One hopes that this work partakes of some of this spirit and humility, and the awareness that the Mahabharata is not a text of ancient history, but one that also passes through and unfolds within and through the present.” Even though Govind recognises the relevance of the Mahabharata within the contemporary moment, he is content with situating all the intriguing ironies and contestations that he uncovers within the context of the Mahabharata itself. He invites the reader to find their own resonances and does not venture to explicitly connect them with modern political predicaments.

An essay by UR Ananthamurthy titled “Bheeshma Prajne” comes to mind, where he likens Bheeshma’s moral imagination to that of the modern “liberal”. Unable to come to simple conclusions, Bheeshma oscillates torturously between his support for the Kauravas and the Pandavas, preferring to remain a bystander at the back of the drama. His deeply humanistic liberal nature gives rise to a helplessness which takes away from his power to be a creative actor on the world stage. He remains a fence-sitter to the very end – even during his time as commander during the war, Bheeshma refuses to kill any of the Pandavas, nor does he allow any of the Kauravas to be killed. Such immediately relatable connections might have spoken more directly to readers who are themselves navigating the perilously polarising political climate that we see around the world today.

The cold fact remains that ancient Indian myths have become fertile ground for political adoption in recent decades. In fact, the Mahabharata and the locations mentioned in it have been a useful resource for the Sangh to undertake its political experiments in the Northeast. It has been argued that Arjuna, on his travels during exile, married the Naga princess Ulupi, as well as the Manipuri princess Chitrangada, thereby attempting to bring these states into the ambit of Akhand Bharat through mytho-geographical chicanery.

In 2018, the chief ministers of Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, and Gujarat came together to celebrate the marriage of Lord Krishna and Rukmini in Madhavpur, a quaint town on Gujarat’s coast. This was thanks to the latest version of the story, wherein it was claimed that Rukmini hailed from the Idu Mishmi community, and the chief minister of Manipur had travelled all the way on behalf of the bride’s side to demand a grand wedding as per tradition. These kinds of political appropriations impose a flat, infantilising banality over these stories, stripping them of their richness and complexity. They become mere agendas in service of homogenising ends. A forest of ideas is whittled down to a few fat pitchforks.

It is amidst this crisis of (im)maturity that Nikhil Govind’s book arrives as a timely contribution. At just under 150 pages, it is an accessible and pacey read. What shines through is Govind’s deep love for the text itself, and the remarkable breadth of his reading list. As for the reader, only a brief acquaintance with the Mahabharata is all you will need to dig into it. It is only the steep price of the book itself that might act as an impediment to the discerning reader.

The Moral Imagination of the Mahabharata, Nikhil Govind, Bloomsbury.