Towards A Non-Devotional Non-Ideological Approach To Epics

September 20, 2015 at 9:15 AMSep (Activism, Literature, Media, Musings, Slice Of Life, Soliloquy)

On 19 Sep 2015 media reported one Institute for Scientific Research’s claim to have established that Lord Rama was born on 5114 BC January 10 at 12:05 hours and that Mahabharata war began on 13 Oct, 3139 BC. On the same day media reported Kalai Selvi making a statement in Bengalooru that “Mahabharata has resulted in increase of child abuse.”

Sharing the same stage with Kalai Selvi was K.S. Bhagwan who couple of months ago was in news for making his statement critiquing Bhagawad-Geeta and his call to burn Ramayana and Mahabharata. Following this the seer of Pejawara Mutt, Udupi had called K.S. Bhagwan for an open debate in Mysore which got cancelled in the last minute as the police did not grant permission for the event.

kurukshetra - hussain

Recollecting D.D. Kosamb’s argument that Bhagwad-Geeta was inserted into Mahabharata at a later stage of history and in real is not a part of the Mahabharata text one must make note the observation made by U.R. Ananthamurthy at a seminar held in Mangalore on Art vis a vis Violence. U.R. Ananthamurthy said, “… If you read the Bhagawad-Geeta in Mahabharta, as a part of Mahabharata, it shows that wisdom is possible, it can be taught, it can be analyzed; like Krishna does, it can be even shown how futile it is. Yet, man will go through the same futility, as if it is inevitable. That is frightening in Mahabharata. That even after Vishwaroopadarshana the war doesn’t stop. The war goes on…”

While the take of Ananthamurthy can be critiqued what is actually important to note is that Ananthamurthy instead of looking at the Bhgawad-Geeta in a devotional manner or suspiciously through an ideological/ rational lens as a conspiracy, looks at it to decipher it in a way to understand human nature and human life. That is significant because it shows a pathway to read mythologies which refuses to be devotional or get caught in ideological or an extreme rational framework.

While a devotional approach to epics can result in hilarious claims and statements, for which we have innumerable examples in the recent past, and distant past too, the approach to epics which look at them from an ideological or extreme rational framework also end up taking us away from the purpose of epics, the only difference being the latter approach can never be as hilarious as the earlier one.

Epics, as I see them, are the attempts made by humans in a state of anxiety and awe regarding life, to understand human life, human world, human mind, human nature and human relationships while swimming and crossing the tumultuous ocean of life.

Ramyana Kalpavruksham (Ramayana, A wish-fulfilling divine tree) was written in Telugu by Vishwanath Satyanarayana. As a response to this book Ranganayakamma wrote the book Ramayana Vishavruksham (Ramayana, a poisonous tree). Both the titles suggest the approach taken by the authors to decipher Ramayana. While one takes the devotional path the other takes an extremely ideological and rational path. Both, as I see, are traps.

ramayana - mf hussain

Ramayana scholar Arshia Sattar in her collection of essays titled Lost Loves speaks of how over the years of reading and studying Ramayana she was pulled towards the character of Rama making her empathize more and more with him. She says the character of Rama, because of his vulnerability, the pressures on him, his helplessness and his turmoil, made her heart ache for Rama. In her attempt to understand the character of Rama and his actions, without trying to justify him or his actions or accusing him for his actions, Arshia Sattar provides us with a picture of Rama which speaks of human vulnerability and the human conflict with himself and the world while being a part of the world at large.

Arshia Sattar in her reading of Rama draws our attention to what he hears from the people of Ayodhya when Dasharatha in order to keep his word to Kaikeyi agreed to crown Bharata and not Rama. The people of Ayodhya, who were celebrating the return of Rama to Ayodhya and looking forward to his crowning ceremony, angered by the move by Dasharata speak of him quite lowly as a person whose weakness was women and who for something very personal put his public/ social responsibility at stake. This accusation targeted at Dasharatha gets etched in the mind of Rama who sees the same pattern, of women becoming the weakness and for which people putting their public life and public responsibility at stake, repeating itself in Rama and also in the case of Vali and Sugreeva. This constant reminder of a ‘mistake’ makes him utter to Sita, at the end of war, that he waged war against Ravana to save the honour of Ayodhya, fearing if he doesn’t put Ayodhya over Sita he too will be accused of someone for whom matters personal is more important.

Demonstrating how the shadow of our fathers burdens us with their weight Arshia explores the human in Rama by dissecting how Rama got caught between his personal and public life and as a result of which lost Sita and also his peace of mind. Rama, in the reading of Arshia, comes across as a fallible and failed, like anyone of us and spells out the inner and outer conflict which makes Rama fall and break.

By reading Rama neither as a ‘maryada purushottama’ (man of noble qualities) nor as a ‘conspirator’ Arshia, through Rama, throws rare insights at human life, human nature, struggle of human beings and human relationships.

Similarly in reading of Mahabharata a devotional or ideological/ rational reading can actually dissuade from an understanding of life, humans and society. It was Anandavardhana who studied the entire text of Mahabharata for the first time as a whole. It was he who first said that Mahabharata is not just  kavya but also shastra.

hussain mahabharat

But a non-devotional and non-ideological reading of Mahabharata tells us that it is neither a text preaching righteousness. What the text of Mahabharata finally says is that whether you live a life of righteousness or not, on the path of truth or not, you are bound to suffer. It speaks of how one oath of Bhishma can unleash an entire Mahabharata to happen leading to collapse and at once and at the same time also speaks how the river of life continues to flow even when individual characters die, disappear and decay. It speaks of the significance and insignificance of humans and their actions at the same time.

The revolutionary Kannada theater artist C.G. Krishnamoorthy in his autobiography Kattaaley Beladingalolagey mentions of an episode from his student life. As a student CGK was active in politics and Marxist study circles. He, as he records, hardly attended classes. One day when he got back to his room in the hostel his roommate mentioned about the exam on the following day about which CGK was unaware. CGK asked his roommate what the portion for the exam was and the roommate said, “Udyoga Parva.” CGK, says in his autobiography, listening to the word Udyoga (employment), because of his ideological frame of mind of those days, told himself that he knows quite enough about employment, class, capital, surplus etc thanks to the study circle. Its only on the following day when CGK went to the exam hall that he realized that Udyoga Parva is a chapter in Mahabharata. He says he had walked out of the exam hall leaving the answer sheet empty.

Human life and world are extremely complicated, complex and chaotic which pushes humans to understand life in various ways, in his helplessness and his will to sail through. While devotion is a method to deal with the chaotic life and ideology is a method to decipher and set things right, epics are a humanistic way of understanding human life in its complexities within its context. But this approach is metaphoric where metaphors are shot into the void of life causing multiple echoes and making way for multiple meanings which fill the gap which neither a devotional reading nor an ideological reading of epics fail to fill.

While it can be understood as to what prompts people to take into a devotional and ideological frameworks to read epics and mythologies, the texts actually demand a different approach to read and decipher them.

(Paintings: Maqbool Fida Husain)

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