Perspectives from the Himalaya

The Mahabharata #1: Dharma and Human Degradation

Judge a book, not by its cover.

Big A has searching questions hurled towards me with prodding eyes when he saw the Mahabharata Vol.1 (unabridged translation by Bibek Debroy) and Child of God (Cormac McCarthy) glued together on my reading stack almost as if, twined by crime. Truth be told, these pages could not be more polarised in their content and culture, style and artistry. The Mahabharata has its bookmark grudgingly park at page 144 (of a total 6000+ pages). We are still at the snake sacrifice, setting the scene where the Mahabharata story was narrated. Even Sage Vyasa has yet to enter the scene. Time has been crawling. I need a counterpart. McCarthy calls from a distance. He enters the scene at one of his pinnacles, chiselling at the depths of human degradation and depicting the most sordid aspects of life in lyrical prose.

My response to the Mahabharata was that I had encountered the epitome of righteousness to the point of queasiness. Being well aware that Volume I sets out the origins, stage and tone for all that is yet to come from its hundreds of characters and here we are, still gnawing at the fringes of the narrative before the main substance begins to unfold, I find myself compelled to digress for a moment.

Reading at this point had brought about an overwhelming distaste for moral lessons. My counter-reaction, with patience turning an odd colour calls for an intoxicating need to diverge into the darker dwellings of humanity, almost a craving to balance the scales – to regain a perspective of what humanity truly represents. I had the urge for a wicked bard that could churn the gut sap. A bard that spoke with shades of nihilism and moral decay and alienation. The choices on our bookshelves were limiting but stark. ‘Child of God’, yet to be read, bears the weight of a gruesome parable. Cormac McCarthy surprises the reader with a curious title, depicting a character akin to Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs. He seeks nothing from his readers but his book magnetically seeks them. I was immediately drawn into his lyrical wordplay of human degradation. ‘Were there darker provinces of night he would have found them.’

I came to the Mahabharata, predominantly, as an attempt to understand the concept of dharma.

From previous abridged reads, my understanding of dharma demands manifold layers. It feels warm when placed in context. I am grasping the concept and am convinced that dharma does not hold adequate weight to righteousness or morality. There probably isn’t a precise word for it in the English language nor can it be summarised in a word or a sentence but could be understood in a dialogue or discussion. Hence the epic-ness of the Mahabharata which lends drama, and how dharma can be digested through it. Alan Watts, a provocative English writer who had spent most of his life interpreting Eastern wisdom, explains dharma concisely as cosmic order or law, a fundamental principle that governs the natural order of the universe. Dharma goes beyond mere morals or social duties but encompasses the inherent ways in which the universe interconnects and operates. More importantly, living with dharma involves recognising and aligning oneself with the natural flow of existence rather than resisting or going against it.

McCarthy tugs again. I nudge through his dark. The antipode.

‘See him. You could say he is sustained by his fellow men, like you. Has peopled the shore with them calling to him. A race that gives suck to the maimed and the crazed, that wants their wrong blood in its history and will have it. But they want this man’s life. He has heard them in the night seeking him with lanterns and cries of execration. How then is he borne up? Or rather, why will these waters not take him?’

McCarthy raises the question of how the protagonist manages to endure and survive his wicked deeds and despite it all, there seems to be a lack of divine intervention to put a stop to it all.

And as the pendulum swings to the other side yet again, to the upright mighty Bhishma in the Mahabharata who reminds his mother: I will again repeat the truthful pledge that I then took. I can give up the three worlds. I can also renounce the kingdom of the gods, or anything greater than both of these. But I can never go back on the truth. The earth can give up its fragrances, the water can give up its juices, light can give up its diverse forms, wind can give up its sense of touch, the sun can give up its radiance, the smoke-crested flame can give up its heat, the sky can give up its sounds, the moon can give up its cool rays, the slayer of Vritra can give up his valour, the god of dharma can give up dharma, but I can never give up the truth. (p.274, v.1)

Bhishma took a solemn vow known as the Bhishma Pratigna wherein he pledged lifelong celibacy, lifelong service to the throne of Hastinapura and an oath to never ascend the throne himself. This vow was a result of his commitment to his father’s wishes, King Shantanu and to avoid potential conflicts over the throne. Bhishma’s adherence to dharma is evident when his personal principles conflict with the unfolding events in the epic. Despite his allegiance to the Kuru dynasty, Bhishma played a complex role during the Kurukshetra War, torn between his duty to the throne and his affection for his grand-nephews, the Pandavas.

In the Mahabharata, the churning of the ocean, known as Samudra Manthan, is a pivotal episode where Devas (gods) and Asuras (demons) collaborate to extract the nectar of immortality (amrita) from the ocean. They use Mount Mandara as the churning rod and Vasuki, the serpent, as the rope. The process leads to the emergence of various treasures, including the divine elixir. However, it also brings forth toxic substances and a formidable poison, which Lord Shiva consumes to save the universe. The churning symbolizes the eternal dynamic interplay between positive and negative forces with profound allegorical significance. It highlights the interconnectedness of these forces, the pursuit of the cosmic equilibrium through its eternal cyclical nature and processes within the cosmic order. The universe undergoes cycles of creation (Brahma), preservation (Vishnu) and dissolution (Shiva), with each cycle contributing to the perpetual flow of cosmic energies.

And thus I attempt to churn my ocean, depicting the depths of the human condition and trying to make a piece of it all. Putting aside the explicit patriarchal cultural overtones and the constant concern for carrying on the family lineage by marrying unblemished women with slender waists to bear virtuous sons, I persevere, placing content in context. I will strive the drive onward with the next volume, so I tell myself. Else I have the urge to take a delinquent leap to leaf up close and personal with Krishna and Arjuna – the climax – to prod into their philosophical dialogue whilst they battle on their chariot in the heat of an ugly war. I am informed that this is in the far distant land of Volume 5. I project a tiresome journey there, but hope I will be proved wrong.

McCarthy pens his conclusive words for the fate of his protagonist and one cannot help wondering if the universal laws of dharma have a hand here. ‘He was laid out on a slab and flayed, eviscerated, dissected. His head was sawed open and the brains removed. His muscles were stripped from his bones. His heart was taken out. His entrails were hauled forth and delineated and the four young students who bent over him like those haruspices of old perhaps saw monsters worse to come in their configurations.