Reading the Mahābhārata

1 December 2009

Once in a ruptured past before mutiny or Midnight’s Children,
partition turning brother against brother, the Imperial tea-party
over, before the Mongul cavalry crossed the Ganges-Jumna doab,
or Tamberlane abandoned his jade and ribbed cantaloupe dome,

his leafy gardens of Samarkand, to convert infidels and polytheists
into a pyramid of skulls—the Rig Veda was written as divine ink.
The sword proselytised; distinctions were blurred between Hindu
and Muslim Sultans, forts of the Rajputs, their temples and idols

razed, reduced to ashes, a hundred thousand slain by the Ghazis,
who looted rubies, diamonds, garnets, tapestries of silver and gold
brocade in a measureless day. Before the syllables of Chingis Khan’s
army infused with the market vernacular into a different alphabet,

rendering Urdu with its Nasta’liq calligraphy as the lingua franca,
idiom of poets, musicians, the vocabulary of mosques, mudrasahs,
and today’s Afghan refugees drifting homelessly through Pakistan,
an ancestral war distilled time’s accretions, its battlefield dividing

myth and history. Dramatic tension follows, for in myth the stakes
are high: dharma, kama, moksha are synonyms for the same goal.
History accrues its minor errors as finite incidents, whereas myth
like love endures. So filial and divine love was tested at Kurukshetra

between the Pāndavas and the Kauravas, between Krishna and Kali,
dynasties of gods and ordinary mortals. Arjuna’s desire for Draupadi,
was matched by faultless archery in the swayamwara, and fraternally
coupled. A fated promise to his mother proved that destiny is duty.

 

Sarasvati, river of forgiveness, was a parched divan of cow dust.
As wisdom and nobility are paradox, Duryodhana fell into a pond
of his own reflection. Semi-divine, his father sightless, his mother
blindfolded by preference or the obligation to feel a husband’s pain.

So the sons of darkness avenged their exemplary cousin in a game
of loaded dice, to bankrupt Yudhisthira, who gambled his kingdom,
his wife and brothers. All five Pāndavas were exiled to other worlds,
Draupadi’s honour saved, her body dressed by Krishna’s seam.

These archetypes, renewed in painting, tabloid, poetry and screen,
were first inscribed by Ganeśa’s tusk, a 100,000 verses, a frame-tale
of the Iron–Age, which according to Pānini, the grammarian, alludes
to a Roman empire, the Huns, and the Hellenistic floruit of Antioch.

Who were the Aryans? What men or gods? For what mad pursuit
did they abandon the oasis delta of Turkmenistan, with its fire altars,
its foal burials? What drove their kafilas beyond the valley of Kabul,
the snows of the Hindu Kush, towards the fertile plains of India?

Trade or climate change drove them south. Conquerors in the style
of Indra himself, their wars and divisions are historicity, the subject
of a fossilised verse, which like the grey pottery of an ancient citadel
breathes life into an Indian heroic age, the origin of a timeless myth

whose elisions are perfect riddles, Attic shapes, truth’s arithmetic.
For this, Ganeśa broke his tusk. Without pause, or doubt Vyāsa spoke
his cosmic fiction, synchronising Kali’s birth with the death of a god,
whose vishvarupa form reverses thought, time and human struggle.

NOTES

madrasahs: schools for the teaching of Islam
dharma: duty
karma: pleasure, aesthetic experience
moksha: liberation
swayamwara: ritual practice of chosing a husband. In the case of Draupadi suitors had to hit a fish’s eye with a bow and arrow. This fish was an image rotating on a wheel, placed in a pan filled with water
Pānini: an ancient Sanskrit linguist and grammarian
kafilas: camel caravans
vishvarupa: universal or celestial form, the thousand headed appearance, which Krishna reveals to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, book 6 of the Mahābhārata


											
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