Book Discussion: Many Mahabhartas

The Centre for Studies of Plural Societies (CSPS) organised a book discussion on Many Mahabharatas on 29th June 2022 at 7.00 PM (IST) by Dr Sohini Shah Pillai and Nell Shapira Hawley.

About the Editors 

Dr Sohini Sarah Pillai: She is an Assistant Professor of Religion at Kalamazoo College. She is a comparatist of South Asian religious literature. Her area of specialisation is the Mahabharata and Ramayana epic narrative traditions, with a particular focus on retellings created in Hindi and Tamil. She received her PhD in South and Southeast Asian Studies from the University of California, Berkley.

Nell Shapiro Hawley: She is Preceptor in Sanskrit at Harvard University. She is a doctoral candidate in South Asian languages and civilisations at the University of Chicago. Her dissertation is titled “The War that Wasn’t: The Virātaparvan, the Pañcarātra, and the Fantasy life of the Mahābhārata.” She designed and taught the undergraduate course “Yoga: Texts, Practices, Politics” and taught elementary and intermediate Sanskrit.

The speakers began the session by introducing the book as a scholarly introduction to the diversity of Mahabharata literature in South Asia. “The Mahabharata story inherently invites more Mahabharata,” claimed the speakers while maintaining that there is something dangerous about the idea of a complete Mahabharata. The speakers mentioned that the clearest indicator of its allure in the past 2000 years has been to recreate the story in several different South Asian languages. Each chapter in the book discusses this phenomenon of the many retellings and numerous interpretations of the epic.

Told in the form of poems, plays, sculptures, comic books, paintings, novels, short stories, films, folk tales, essays, and tv shows, – the desire for more retellings is baked into the Mahabharata’s creation myth. The editors explained that the chapters demonstrate that any Mahabharata represents many Mahabharata. They mentioned some examples of retellings of the epic: The Jain narrative of Mahabharata depicts that the 100 brothers renounce all earthy possessions and become ascetics. Another version poem depicts Pandavas and Kauravas joining forces to wage battle with Krishna to save a local king’s life. Another version shows the brothers split the kingdom and did not go to war. Some versions focus on other side characters like Shakuntala, Suparna, Ashwathama, and Gatothkacha without mentioning Pandavas or Kauravas.

The book’s editors read the Mahabharata tradition as its genre using A.K. Ramanujan’s concept of ‘presences and absences.’ The editors hoped that the audience would listen closely to Mahabharata’s interpretation while hearing a polyphony of absent tellings in the background.

The book’s sections follow a chronological progression of Mahabharata representations across South Asian literature. The editors decided to restrict the primary sources to Mahabharata of South Asian origin while prioritising the lesser accessible texts. The editors summarised the book’s eighteen chapters, which are divided into four parts- the first discusses the themes of multiplicity and retellings that emerge from the Sanskrit Mahabharata. However, the editors asked the readers to be careful about the many versions of Mahabharata in Sanskrit and cautioned that there is no “original” Sanskrit text. The book’s next section, “Sanskrit Mahabharata in Poetry and Performance,” expands the definition of Sanskrit Mahabharata beyond the early texts.

The book’s third section discusses the “Regional and Vernacular Mahabharata in Pre-modern Asia,” focusing on Mahabharata composed between 800-1800CE in languages other than Sanskrit. The final section, titled “Mahabharata of Modern South Asia,” discusses the diverse ways in which the idea of the Mahabharata inspires south Asian literary, religious, artistic and political thought from the 19th century up until the 21st.

The editors claimed that the entire story of Mahabharata is yet to be told. In this way, their various retellings allow them to forestall Mahabharata’s famous curse of being destructive. Nell Shapiro Hawley said, “Each return to the story responds to the ethos of disintegration and decay, with the equally powerful force of creativity. So long as we continue to make something new to the Mahabharata, we stay safe. When we keep the Mahabharata alive, it keeps us alive.”

The editors concluded the discussion by mentioning a famous quote by Ramanujan- “no one reads the Mahabharata for the first time,” to which the editors added, “no one reads the Mahabharata for the last time.”

The discussion followed a question-answer session. A participant posed a question about Mahabharata being a sight of genocide for Dalits and asked about the place of the cast in the stories discussed. Ms. Hawley responded that the way the common understandings of Mahabharata have been invoked to justify this caste-based violence is inaccurate and intellectually dishonest from the Sanskrit text. There is a strong anti-violence and anti-discrimination side to the Mahabharata, which is only understood from a close reading of the text. Dr. Sohini Sarah Pillai added that they are aware of their privileged identities and ensured that marginal voices are heard. Dr. Pillai added that in one of the chapters by Sucheta Kanjilal, “From Excluded to Exceptional: Caste in Contemporary Mahabharatas,” discusses the plight of Eklavya, the Adivasi Dalit upon whom terrible caste-based violence was inflicted. She also demonstrates how complicated it is to represent social marginalities in contemporary India within the Mahabharata context and discusses in her chapter the lack of Dalit representation and documentation in the Mahabharata. 

A research intern at CSPS asked the editors if their book at any point switches the protagonist and the antagonist roles in the story, the way it is done in Devdutt Pattanayak’s version of Mahabharata titled Jaya, where Krishna is portrayed as a morally dubious character, and Duryodhana (Suyodhana in this version) being the protagonist who advocates against caste-based segregation. Ms Hawley mentioned that Mahabharata is multi-sympathetic; how it is told gives readers the tools to embody and see things from different perspectives. Krishna, for example, is mentioned as honourable and respectable, and in the next breath, is failing to comfort Arjuna after Abhimanyu’s death, or Gandhari is deeply disappointed in him. Dr Pillai highlighted that she is working on a project that Mahabharata in a regional language is told as a narrative of Bhakti. However, the Krishna in Sanskrit Mahabharata is a paradox – he is enigmatic, a diplomat gives conflicting advice, and pushes other characters towards violence or adharma. 

The report is prepared by Shruti Purohit, Research Intern at CSPS