The Mahabharata is a complex epic. The snag with producing a quick summary is its richness is in the detail, in the complexity of what happens across generations and extended families, and the interplay of virtue and messy human reality.
Reducing The Mahabharata to a story of the conflict of good and evil makes sense in Western terms, but looses much of the point of it. I first read it in an attempt to get a better understanding of the Hindus in Bali soon after reading a book on Jung’s lectures on the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises. Jung makes sense of some of Ignatius’ ideas by talking of the devil as the fourth person of the Christian Trinity. His underlying point is that things seem to come on groups of four for humans, raising the question of what’s missing in the Christian concept of the Trinity (God as father son and Holy Spirit). In practical terms of spiritual direction this is a really useful concept because it holds a space for that of God that’s outside people’s conception of God. With more of a psychoanalytic lens, it shifts the dynamic from pushing things away as “evil” or “the devil” in a crudely-dualistic way. One of the fruits of that is to help people own both their limitedness and their capacity for evil, rather than simply to project it onto others who then get labelled as “bad”. Not doing evil things involves owning one’s ability to do just that and choosing not to go there: assuming that evil is what “bad people” do is a recipe for rationalising one’s way into doing appalling things.
The story of The Mahabharata takes place around the court of Hastinapur. Much of the story concerns a dreadful war. In the background to that is the rivalry between two sets of cousins, the Pandavas and the Kauravas. Dhritarashtra, father of the Kauravas, is the elder son of Vichitravirya, King of Hastinapur, but is passed over in favour of his younger brother Pandu because he is blind. After the sin of accidentally shooting a sage, Pandu relinquishes the throne and is replaced by Dhritarashtra. Both Kings’ eldest sons have a claim to succeed to the throne. There is an assassination attempt on the acknowledged sons of Pandu, the Pandavas, engineered by the Kauravas and made to look like an accident. While they are thought to have died, Dhritarashtra’s eldest son, Duryodhana is named crown prince. The rivalry is temporarily solved by dividing the kingdom.
But ambition and a sense of grievance push Duryodhana on. The quick summary is that he ends up inveigling his cousins into a game of dice — with loaded dice — in which they gamble away their kingdom. King Dhritarashtra is finally persuaded of the injustice and restores what has been lost. But Duryodhana insists on a second game — as an alternative to war. The agreement is that the losers will face twelve years of exile and a thirteenth year of living in the city without being recognised — with the periods of exile and anonymity to repeat if anyone recognises them. In that period of exile the Pandavas grow in strength, after the year of anonymity win the now-inevitable war. It is a war they seek to avoid: the Bhagavad Gita is actually the lengthy discourse between the god Vishnu, incarnate as Krishna, and the third Pandava brother, Arjuna, on the battlefield — Arjuna doesn’t seeks to avoid violence, and Krishna explains that, in this case, fighting is his duty.
I’ve been re-visiting this recently, watching the Indian television serialisation of The Mahabharata on YouTube. While the British approach to Brexit had been getting ever more farcical since Theresa May’s Chequers “deal”, I have been watching the episodes surrounding that ill-fated game of dice. Last night I watched as the Pandavas, now shorn of their crowns and jewels and dressed as pilgrims, bid farewell to the court in Hastinapur.
What’s struck a powerful chord is the sense of the vaulting ambition of Duryodhana, firmly under the spell of his manipulative uncle Shakuni (master of persuading dice to do his bidding), in contrast with mounting horror of senior figures in the court, who are trapped in their stories and unable to act. Bhishma, very much the centre of wisdom, is silenced because of a vow of loyalty to the throne — a vow that silences him when King Dhritarashtra fails to restrain his son. Dhritarashtra himself, fuelled by resentment at the injustice of his blindness becomes also inwardly blind. The sages at the court are also bound by loyalty. Vidura, the half brother of both kings, but denied the thrown because his mother was a maid, manages to speak, but it is conflicted and Duryodhana threatens violence. Rules of good conduct bind the Pandavas, both to accept the invitation to play dice and to agree to Duryodhana’s terms. The sense is of a cataclysm unfolding that no-one can stop. It’s made more real by the reader knowing the horror of the Kurukshetra war that will eventually transpire.
But there is also a dignity in the apparent powerlessness — the idea is paradoxical to the Western mind, but it feels more rooted than the fantasy of powerlessness that never quite works.
And on Brexit
We seem caught between the vaulting ambition of Brexiteers putting personal interests ahead of the people — like Duryodhana, showing scant regard for the ruler’s duty of care to the people. Others seem caught up in the story. Theresa May might well still believe that EU membership is the best thing for the UK, but is trapped in a sense that the referendum must be implemented. Many MPs are definitely in that place. We have civil servants who know from the inside the value of EU membership, required to plot a course they know to be destructive. High turnover of staff in the Department for Exiting the EU can be read as a sign that some of these are less trapped than their equivalents in The Mahabharata and getting out.
The lessons of this?
There is something about an ancient story speaking to the present time, showing the power of myth
There’s little doubt that Brexit is the biggest peace time crisis the UK has faced in a long time, but The Mahabharata is a reminder that we have been in places like this before. The sense of crisis easily invokes a sense of panic, and The Mahabharata is a reminder that clear thinking is more important than panic. It’s hard not to jump from there to the exceptional widom and leadership in difficult times of people like Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.
The sense of dignity in powerlessness might also be important. So much of the design of the EU is about making it hard for one person or one nation or one institution (including the EU itself) to dominate. That flies in the face of fantasies of huge power and wealth for Brexit Britain, and is a reminder of the darker side of the British character that is now being projected onto the EU. It’s in marked contrast to the alternative path of non-violence and all that offers.
The Mahabharata does end well, but the journey to that place is nasty. Like Yudhishthira, the eldest Pandava brother, agreeing to play dice rather then fight a battle, the EU was born out of a wise desire to prevent another European war. Yet the chain of events around that game don’t stop the war: they simply put it off, until a time when it is very clear that the Panadavas will win (which makes Duryodhana’s insistence on fighting rather than making peace all the more foolish). We Remainers, and our friends in the EU, might be too willing to avoid conflict with Brexiteers, when all that means is we are postponing the inevitable (though here too, the postponement might also strengthen our hand).
This doesn’t make me any less sure that the wise path is to avoid Brexit. It leaves me unimpressed by the personal and selfish ambition of some of the key Brexiteers in public life. But it also makes me think of the displaced ambition of the Brexit-supporters I’ve seen at street stalls, who are wildly optimistic about those trade deals that turn out to be harder to negotiate than the Leave said, and to behave as if British dominance of the globe (Empire 2.0) is inevitable and desirable. The Mahabharata instead puts me in touch with the place where ambition had to be out on one side for participation in something better. The Mahabharata doesn’t present the calling of monarchs and rulers as easy, and suggests a selflessness rather than vaulting ambition: many of the key figures in the EU model that brilliantly, and humbly.
And British Empire 2.0?
One of the shameful things about the British empire is that we did treat people of other countries as inferior. The Mahabharata is a reminder of the richness of an Indian culture to which we were not superior. The xenophobia implicit in opposing immigration from countries like India implies a British superiority, or a sense of “put Britain first” that can only end badly.
Brexit does not bring back the empire. Choosing to turn the other way puts us in touch with the best of European values. Learning from the richnesses both of India and China is a way open up genuine friendship with the cultures coming to dominance in this century. The best defence against the threats people might feel in this is not to prepare to fight, but to develop genuine and mutual friendship.