Mahabharata Questions and Answers
Q.1. Discuss Mahabaharata as an epic.
Ans. Though there is some dispute among critics regarding the fact whether Mahabharata is an epic or it is history, usually it is considered as an epic.
One of the foremost characteristics of an epic is the depiction of war. The depiction of war is necessary because it shows the heroic tradition of an ancient society. Throughout book II of the text there is no large scale war though it does show the conquest of many countries and kingdoms by the four Pandavas. In this conquest we found that the Pandavas fought their enemies valiantly. More importantly we find that the battle between Bhima and Jarasandha in which Jarasandha is killed is not fought very honestly.
The trio – Krishna, Bhima and Arjuna enters the kingdom in disguise. However, Bhima uses no unfair means to defeat Jarasandha. Other than the minor skirmish between Krishna and Sisupala there are no major battles fought. Now, if there is war there will be boasts as well. For example – in the dicing episode, , Bhima makes certain boasts about as to how he will kill Duryodhana and Dussasana. Bhima says that he will kill Dussasana and drink his blood. He also says that he will break the thighs of Duryodhana.
In an epic not only are wars depicted but it is portrayed in a large scale. Not only is a war shown in a large scale but also every other aspects of description. In Mahabharata we not only find that the wars shown in Book II are to be grand but also the other aspects of the society
. For example – Rajasuyya Yajna, the palace built by the demon Maya and even the cloths and armours of the warriors.
The Mahabharata can be considered entirely to be a political document. The entire book II is filled with political intrigues. While Krishna intrigues with Pandavas to kill Jarasandha, Duryodhana intrigues with Shakuni to bring the downfall of the Pandavas. We have seen from the very beginning that the Kauravas were plotting against the Pandavas.
Like any other epic we find Mahabharata to be full of digressions. For example – the story of Jarasandha’s birth or the story of Maya are not directly relevant to the plot of the epic.
In mahabharata we find the interference of gods and demons in the activities of the humans. For example – Krishna provided cloths to Draupadi when her honour was at stake. Similarly it was the demon Jara who saved Jarasandha.
The length of Mahabharata is huge but book II itself is not that big. However, the book II also consists of approximately 2,387 verses (according to Vivek Debroy in his book The Mahabharata, 2011) talking about verses almost all scholars tell us that Mahabharata was originally written as a poem. Since we are dealing with the second book we do not find any invocation to the god or the muses. Yet in the dicing scene we find Draupadi invoking the help of Krishna.
The reason as to why Mahablicrata is often known as a history or Itihasan is because it tries to give us the true picture of the contemporary society. We find in the verses of the second book the following things – the correct way to rule a kingdom by king ( as told by Narada), we learn about the procedure to become an emperor (by Rajasuya Yajna), we come to know about the condition of women in the society (through Draupadi). It is amazing to note that in Mahabharata no one is idealized. All the characters come to us as humans with their mistakes and failures. In this scene it is neither epic nor history, because in both, the heroes and the rulers are always idealized.
Thus, from the above discussion it becomes clear that Mahabharata has a number of features that qualifies it as an epic but it also has certain qualities that make it unique.
*Q.2. Comment upon the narrative technique of Mahabharata with reference to Book II only.
Ans. By the time the second book i.e. Sava Parva starts the questions pertaining to the narrators are not focussed on. Sibesh Bhattacharya says, ” When we have come to the second book, we can find that the narrator whether, Vaisampayana or Ugrasrava have been consumed by the narrative structure and we can find the characters assuming the role of narrator and beyond narration – action.”
The Savha Parva enters into basic actions which make the reader forget as to who is narrating and how. However the style remains the same. It has been generally accepted that Mahabharata was not of this length when it was created initially. With time the length and depth of the epic increased. The first shape of the book was called Jaya or victory. The Jaya eventually developed into the Bharata, growing to a length of approximately 50,000 stanzas. When something is of this length then it becomes quite obvious that there will be certain stylistic discrepancies. However, when we read the second book itself we don’t come to notice these discrepancies too much. However, the tenor of the narrative that begins with the repetitive method of the premonitions of Dhritarastra about the destruction of the Kuru race changes into brilliant descriptions about the palace of the Pandavas. Yet at the end of the book at the scene of Draupadi’s insult, the tempo changes along with the requirements of the scene though the same repetition is there in the dicing scene.
When the descriptions are brought to the fore the action takes the back seat, however, the description is always there in the backdrop and visibly so even when the exploits of the four brothers are shown during the Rajasuyya Yajna they are interspersed with descriptions and repetitions. We can try to divide the second book in various narrative divisions. According to many scholars (Manmanath Dutta and Kisori Mohan Ganguly) the Sava Parva has ten sub books and eighty one chapters. However, according to Vivek Debroy in his book The Mahabharata, 2011, there are 9 books and 71 chapters. Whatever may be the chapter divisions, we could club a few chapters together for their similar contents and their consequent narrative techniques. For example – the first four chapters describe the building of the palace for the Pandavas. This section is entirely made of beautiful and hyperbolic description. The minuteness of the details and the comparison of the places with the known units of measurements lends an almost realistic touch to the description. Chapters 5 to 13 show Narada’s discourse on kingship. In this section, the narrative takes on the colour of didactic statements. Sava Parva exemplifies what is said at the end of Mahabharata.
“yadihasti tadanyatra, yannehasti na tat kvacchit”, it contains all. Along with the changing contents of the book, the way the contents are told also change. Chapters 14 to 19 see the description of the Rajasuyya Yajna.
The Second book records the author’s conscious effort to achieve a universal quality. It is in the same vein that the author utilizes certain consciously chosen narrative modes and devices to break free from the time-space constraints. It was a prevalent custom to narrate stories on the occasions of great sacrifices.
The Mahabharata opens with the description of the arrival of Sauti at Saunaka’s hermitage and his acceding to the request of the sages to narrate (pravaksyami) the wonderful creation (adbhutakarmanah) of Vyasa. This innocuous opening of a tale of violence in a hermitage, an abode of peace and contemplation and far removed from the hub of politics where ambitions and egos collided in wasteful frictions, is worth noting.
It is also worth noting that Sauti Ugrasrava is the primary narrator of the text of the Mahabharata. The account of the earlier narration during the snake sacrifice actually figures as a part of Sauti’s narration during Saunaka’s satra. It is a case of narration within narration. This affords us a glimpse of the interesting, and complex, narrative structure that the text employs. The text begins by challenging the simple chronological order. It opens with a later event, and an event not really related to the main story, the arrival of Sauti to the satra of Saunaka. And then it leisurely weaves the matrix of the main story. But the mode of narration employed in the Mahabharata is more complex. The narration moves back and forth over time and does not strictly obey a linear order. And then, as is well known, the narration leaving the main story often meanders into disparate byways – akhyanas, itihasas, didactic material, unrelated or very tenuously related to the main story — and then leisurely comes back to take up the threads of the main story. The Mahabharata maintains all through the form of an orally narrated work; in style and presentation it keeps up from end to end the look of a story being told to an assembled audience. Its style and format, however, are not that of a story being dished up to an audience from a platform or a stage. And, it is seldom declamatory. Both in form and style the text is conversational in character. There is a narrator, and there is also an interlocutor. This was absolutely necessary in a work of such vast proportions, abundant diversions and highly complex architecture. Without this aid, the reader/listener ran the risk of either losing his way or interest or both. It was all the more necessary in an age when a work like the Mahabharata was presented in the form of oral narrations before a listening audience. We venture to suggest that the narrative devices are not just clever and novel tools to stir and hold the interest of the listeners/readers. The purpose is to convey the message that the story basically is one of universal import. The form and the narrative devices signify the breaking of boundaries of the timespace context of the narrative.
Q.3. Explain the concept of Dharma as you find in the Mahabaharata (Sava Parva). Ans. With arms uplifted, loud I cry;
But no one deigns to hear. Pleasure and wealth from duty flow, Duty why not revere? The entire epic hinges on the single theme of Dharma as the most predominant motif. In fact so pervasive is the theme that a character, one of the chief protagonists – Yudhishthira is actually called Dharmaraja. According to the lore, Yudhisthira was the son of the god of justice – Dharma. However, the concept of dharma is seen from larger points of view than just the nomenclature of a character. The entire epic works under the larger signifier of dharma and its obedience by the characters or not. The concluding parts of the second book or the Sava Parva set the stage for the ultimate battle between dharma and adharma. While the Pandavas are on the side of dharma and the Kauravas are on the side of adharma.
However, things are not so clear when we peer deeper into the text. We are often confused between dharma and adharma. Someone’s dharma becomes adharma for others and vice-versa. Arjuna exemplifies kshatriya dharma by saving the demon Maya who builds the palace for the Pandavas. Thus a good deed comes back as a reward. This oversimplification is however soon questioned. All good deeds do not yield good results. For example, Krishna did much good to Sisupala but Sisupala’s hatred against his kin remained the same and actually led to the demise of Sisupala.
There is an ensuing abstract discussion on Dharma as well. When Narada enters into Yudhisthira’s palace and asks him several questions eliciting his responses regarding his concept about being a good king. Narada Muni lays down the rules for dharma of the king and Yudhishthira agrees to follow them for a prosperous kingdom. As a part of the raja dharma, Krishna convinces Yudhisthira to observe the rajasuyya yajna so that he could be declared as a proper emperor. Yudhisthira observes the digvijay procedure where the four brothers set out to win many nearby kingdoms. While this could be seen as completely normal, it could actually be an argument in favour of imperialism. Imperialism however, was the order of the day and to engulf another kingdom was just of the many duties of an everyday king. Yet whichever kingdom is defeated isn’t annexed but rather (and judiciously thus) made to pay a tribute and accept the suzerainty of Yudhisthira. Seen from the contemporary perspective it will be wrong for a nation to be made war upon but if we look at the issue from the perspective of the ancient world then what Yudhisthira did was the right dharma.
Following the lines of royal dharma Yudhisthira invites and honours each and every nearby king. Yet after the yajna is complete when Yudhisthira conveys the greatest honour to Krishna (after consulting with Bhishma), Sisupala intervenes and calls Krishna’s conduct and status into question. After putting up with the insult Krishna beheads Sisupala. Yudhisthira’s dharma came into question. Wasn’t he responsible for the safety of his guests? He turned a blind eye to the incident. A similar questioning of the dharma could be raised in the encounter between Jarasandha on one hand and Bhim, Arjuna and Krishna on another. Krishna convinces Yudhisthira that unless Jarasandha is defeated, Yudhisthira could not be the sovereign he wishes to be. The trio – Krishna, Bhima and Arjuna enters the kingdom in disguise. However, though Bhima uses no unfair means to defeat Jarasandha it was Krishna who gives the clue to his weakness from outside hence committing an adharma. Yet it was Jarasandha who had imprisoned hundred kings to be sacrificed thus committing a huge injustice.
The real dilemma of dharma arises in the episode where Draupadi is disrobed. After Yudhisthira loses all he has in the game of dice, he bets his wife. Inevitably he loses and Duryodhana becomes the owner of Draupadi. She becomes the ‘dasi’ of the Kauravas. Duryodhana tries to avenge his insult in the hands of Draupadi in the palace of the Pandavas. He orders Draupadi to be brought to the assembly hall and be disrobed publicly. Draupadi pleads with her husbands but they being bound by the laws of the court can’t protect her. Then she asks something that puts the subtle nature of dharma into focus. She asks that if Yudhisthira has lost himself and has become a slave then how can he bet his wife? While most of the people had remained mum on the issue it was suggested that even a slave can ‘own’ a wife and can do whatever he likes with her. Here many concepts of dharma come into conflict with each other. Isn’t it the dharma of the husband to protect his wife? Isn’t it the dharma of the guardians of the court to protect the hapless? Isn’t it the dharma of the Kshatriyas to protect the women? None of these concepts of dharma was given any importance. The husbands did not protect the wife, the elderly did not stop the horror, the khatriyas did not help the hapless, the host tried to disrobe the guest. If the Kauravas committed a sin or adharma, then the Pandavas did no better. The same could be said about the elders present in the court. They didn’t raise a single finger to stop the injustice. The very name of dharmaraja fell into shame. However, ultimately the honour of Draupadi was saved by Krishna. What is important for us to note is that since this adharma was committed the war of Mahabharata was fought. This adharma led to the cleaning of the soil of the Aryans. It became ready for a new crop. Perhaps this was the way in which the dharma really works.
Thus much before Milton had written Paradise Lost and had tried to justify the ways of god to men, Mahabharata has already tried to make the readers understand the subtle ways in which dharma works.
Q.4. Comment on the picture of society as you find the Mahabaharata (Sava Parva).
Ans. To present a reflection of the society is one of the chief functions of classic realist texts. The modernist and the post modernist also do the same to some extent but usually the process is diluted and often unconscious. Mahabharata being an epic presents before us a comprehensive picture of the society of that era. In fact at the end of the epic the ‘writer’ writes that, “yadihasti tadanyatra, yannehasti na tat kvacchit”, i.e., whatever is not mentioned here doesn’t exist and whatever exists has been mentioned in the pages. Hence there is no doubt that instead of being called an epic the same has been called ‘itihasan’ meaning history.
We can divide the picture of the society that Mahabharata shows into various sections. The first section could be the social aspects of the same. Basically the epic talks mainly about the kings and queens of a mythological past. Common people aren’t mentioned with any special description. The epic mainly describes the life and times of the kings. Mahabharata is no different from other primary epics which were mainly concerned with the aristocrats of their respective ages. In that aspect, then the epic does not portray the common folks. However, what can be largely said about the sava parva cannot be said about the entire Mahabharata since there are portrayals of the everyday people as well. While talking about the social picture drawn by · Mahabharata, we can comment on the condition of women as presented by the same. Women have been presented as the shadows of men in the society. Though the women have been slighted quite often in the text but is in the dice episode that the true position of women comes to the fore. Here the women are presented as lower in position than even the slaves. Thus the double marginalization of women becomes quite clear in the epic. In the same Parva the names of the queens of Kauravas aren’t mentioned signifying how least important they are in the story. Another aspect of social life is religion and domesticity. While religion is strictly Hinduism, the domestic life has not really been focused upon here.
The political picture of the era is quite clear. Obviously the system of government is that of monarchy. However, historically the age roughly depicted had the system of feudalism rather than an over arching monarchy. While Yudhisthira is crowned the king of Indrapastha, he is advised by Narada on his duties. The function and duties of the king have been elaborately dealt with in the Sava Parva. Krishna does the same and advises Yudhisthira to observe the Rajasuyya yajna. Bringing into limelight the constant state of war in which the Northern parts of the country during that time was plunged. One such battle is highlighted in the skirmish between Jarasandha and Bheema. Krishna plays a political game by taking the help of Bheema to eleiminate Jarsandha who could not have been defeated in a straight fight. Thus king making is something that Mahabharata teaches us well. The next political insight is found in the Pandavas’ conquest of the other kingdoms through real war or the threat of the same. Thus we can understand that it was war and conquest that one nation proved its suzerainty over others.
The economic condition of the society is understood vis-a-vis the huge resources of the kings. While the palace for Pandavas is built it is compared with the palaces of the gods. Yet Narada Muni explicitly underlines the rules for economic governance of a country by a wise ruler. It appears from the account of the text that wealth was of secondary importance to the kings while pride mattered most. It appears from the description given that almost all the kings during that time were quite rich, and that generally there was contentment among the common people as well.
Q.5. Comment upon the condition of women as you find the Mahabharata (Sava Parva) with special reference to Draupadi.
Ans. Georges Dumezil remarked, Draupadi the wife of five Pandavas as a goddess representing all three functions, sometimes supplements the principal male divinities in the Indian pantheon.
Duryodhana’s wife appears nowhere in the Sava Parva. There is no scene in Sava Parva like that in the Iliad between hector and Andromache, a scene often
copied by later poets, in which a brave warrior, who is about to engage in battle and is not very sanguine about the result, is taking leave of his noble and loving wife. It may be observed that the author of the Mahabharata exhibits better art in avoiding such a scene, for the implacable and proud character of the hero’s adversary is thus better sustained. Yet in Ramayana the role of Mandodari was quite extensive in her attempt to persuade Ravan to return Sita.
Yet the female characters of Mahabharata strike us as superior to those of the Iliad. Helen and even Andromache cannot rival Draupadi. We cannot sufficiently admire the stately character which the author of Mahabharata has built up in the person of Draupadi. She is a noble woman ever conscious of her dignity, never losing her temper in the worst of her trails, chaste and pure beyond all thought. But she is human still. She often discusses situations with the vehemence of a female’s susceptible temper. She often insists upon things which her husbands are sometimes compelled to accept. She is not, however, lowly and fit to be discussed to the distaff as Hector does his wife. She is a Rajput woman with Rajput bravery and determination illuminating her face. When Kichaka and Jayadratha try to take undue liberty with her, with the impulse of a royal queen she gives them a push which throws them down. She has a presence of mind which even men may be proud of. For instance, she loses not a moment in telling Karna that she does not want to marry a charioteer. And when she has been won in the disgraceful game at dice she asks a question which confounds the courtiers of Duryodhana. Above all noble willingness to share the fortunes of Arjuna disguised as a poor Brahmin when he won her at Swayamvara, when she followed the Pandavas in the forest in their exile, Draupadi has always inspired the Hindu women with courage, contentment in sharing the lot of their husbands.
The female characters of Mahabharata, elevated as they are, have a touch of humanity which makes the whole world kin. When Arjuna brings his second wife Subhadra to Indraprastha, Draupadi expresses her feeling of jealousy in a happy metaphor: “The first tie however firm and strong relaxes when followed by the another.” These and other touches of the poet, illustrative of feminine weakness, make the female characters of the Mahabharata all the more lovable.
The description of Draupadi which Yudhisthira gives when he stakes her at the game of dice is in the best fashion of Vyasa. Draupadi , says he, “… neither tall nor short, neither lean nor stout, with eyes as large and with breath as fragrant as an autumnal lotus, in temper, in beauty even as man could ever wish his wife to be, she who goes to bed after and rises before me, her I stake, Shakuni, come, play.
Q.6. Comment upon the role and character of Krishna.
Ans. Krishna enters the story of the Mahabharata at the very end of Adiparva. The Krishna shown in Mahabharta has no resemblance at all to the flute-playing lover of milkmaids, the divine child, or the miracle-worker of later tradition. Though he says in the Gita that he had no ambition or objective at all, yet he had, in reality, many political and personal goals to attain. Some of these goals concerned his clan, some for the whole class of Kshatriytas and some were entirely personal. His reason for killing Kamsa was in part personal, and in part to liberate his clan from a despot. He had to protect his people from Jarasandha and also, after having given them security, he had to keep them secured, he had to keep them together, repressing their internal feuds. Another of his objectives was to kill Jarasandha. This too, involved the dual purpose of personal revenge and the good of the Khastriya class. Jarasandha had imprisoned one hundred reigning kings to sacrifice them. This was totally opposed to the Kshatriya code of those times and had upset the internal order of the class. That is why his destruction was essential for the good of the class. The killing of Shishupal was done to avert a catastrophe by this timely though ruthless deed. All the efforts of Krishna were on behalf of his family, the Yadavas, his friends the Pandavas, and the whole Kshatriya class. He had, however, also a personal ambition. This ambition was to become a ‘Vasudeva’, a position approaching divinity. The Krishna in the Mahabharata is definitely not a god, as depicted on later literature. He was, however, an extraordinary man, and his great personal ambition was to be called Vasudeva.
In this philosophic outpouring of the first day, Krishna was Arjuna’s teacher and counsellor. But in the events that followed the death of Abhimanyu, Arjun’s son, Krishna revealed the depth of his affection for Arjuna. From the first day of the war to the last, Krishna had saved the Pandavas.
Krishna remains an elusive personality for various reasons. He worked, he thought intensely, he advised others, but we do not find him downcast or mourning because his actions, thought or advice did not bear fruit. He danced in joy, he killed in anger his own kinsmen as we are told in Mousalaparva, but we don’t find mourning even after the terrible end of his clan. He made arrangements that the old, the very young and the women be taken care of, and then met with his death. This is what he would have called yoga, this clam, this non-involvement. This is why Krishna remains a figure for thought and search, but never touches one emotionally as do the other figures of the epic. It might have been for this reason that when at last he was made into a god, he became a god with the warmest human qualities: the naughty child, the playmate of simple cow herds, and the eternal lover of all the young woman of India.
Q.7. Discuss the dicing scene.
Ans. Chance appears to be an intrinsic part of the evolutionary development of the world. Random events seems to operate within an over-arching law-like framework. As Elizabeth A. Johnson has pointed out the mechanistic view of the world associated with Newtonian physics has been replaced by twentieth century science by a dynamic, open-ended view of the world in which some events are in principle unpredictable, although in retrospect they may make sense. Vidura goes with the invitation to Yudhishthira although he is opposed to it. He is the king’s counselor because he has a very special place in the society of Mahabharata. He is born of the union of a brahmin who is outside the material realm and a slave or a sudra who is outside the realm of society itself. Thus, he is truly a neutral party able to cross the boundaries of caste and hierarchies and yet not a part of baronial intrigues. Besides he is dharma himself while Yudhishthira is the son of dharma. That is, in this game of dice, the dharma has to be tested. That is why Sakuni can be unethical but not Yudhishthira.
The main issue is one of kingdom and succession. The laws of primogeniture demand that the eldest must succeed. However, for several generations this has not been possible and now things have come to a point when the issue has to be resolved. The issue of succession between the Kauravas and the Pandavas is not a simple one of good over evil. Duryodhana certainly has as strong a case as Yudhishthira. To begin with he knows that wealth is useless without power. Then, follows the city, the country and his people’s property that are symbols of power because power is not worth fighting for as long as dharma remains. Finally went the brothers – Nakula and Sahdeva who represent wealth; and then Arjuna and Bhima who represent power. Finally goes Yudhishthira, king Dharma himself causing transgression of ‘lakshman rekha’ requiring the cosmos to realign itself and so necessitating a war by which the balance can be restored and dharma reinstalled. At a material level the aim of the game should have been over after winning Yudhishthira. Then, why does Sakuni challenge Yudhishthira to stake Draupadi? Perhaps once dharma is lost, honor too is lost. This is the lowest point to which the Kurus could fall. Also, Draupadi is seen as an embodiment of Sri, the consort of Lord Indra. Sri is the embodiment of sovereignty. Therefore, there cannot be any sovereignty without Sri. She has also been associated with pre-Aryan fertility goddesses who traditionally bestow wealth. However, her gift is not freely given. It has to be begged through ritual and sacrifice. Also, in order to get Sri, one has to give it away and then regain it through ritual. Yudhishthira literally gives his Sri away by gambling Draupadi. That is why it is Draupadi who frees Yudhishthira and his brothers through the two boons granted by Dhritrashtra.
The game at this point remains inconclusive because the validity of the final and the most vital stake of Draupadi has been made ambiguous by her raising the question of dharma of whether Yudhishthira wagered her before losing himself after. Since no one can answer this question including Yudhishthira, Bhishma and Vidura the game can only be considered as interrupted. In any case, the question of succession and kingship has not been resolved. Yudhishthira feels compelled to return to the game when called upon to do so. There is the final stake that he loses and is compelled to go into the thirteen year exile.
The game of dice takes place between the Kauravas and the Pandavas two branches of the same tree. This is the first time that an actual conflict of succession has taken place in which two sides have staked their claim for which they are willing to fight to the finish. At a metaphysical level this can also be seen as conflict within a divided self. One portion of the self wins through stratagem and aggression cheating and insulting Draupadi. However, this position is not reconcilable and hence
one half of the divided self has to be banished, hence the exile of the Pandavas. Even this cannot resolve the crisis of the divided self. A true resolution can only be found by confronting the dilemma or the ambiguity of succession and not by side stepping it. Hence, the game of dice cannot substitute the actual confrontation of war. The cheating at the game is played out in a larger arena in which every preconceived notion of ethics is wiped out – Yudhishthira cannot tell lies but he does; Krishna vows not to fight but takes up his arms against Bhishma; the dharmayudha degenerates into butchery and naked lust for power. In a way what Mahbharata shows is that all these presuppositions are childish, that all is lila. As Sri Aurobindo points out, “God’s lila in man moves always in a circle, from a Satyuga to Kaliyuga and through Kaliyuga to the Satyayuga from the age of gold to the age of urn and back again through the iron to the gold…. But the Kaliyuga is not merely evil, in it the necessary conditions are progressively built up for a new Satyayuga, another harmony, a more advanced perfection.”
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