First published in First City,
New Delhi, Mythos in April 2006

I have often been asked if the war at Kurukshetra actually took place a few thousand years ago. History is real. Is the Mahabharata a document of facts? Historical? Real? I say: no. No, it is not real. It is not historical.

To call Mahabharata a story based on historical war is to strip it of its magic, its power, its sheer magnificence. To make Mahabharata historical is to confine it to one period of history. If one does that, it holds little relevance in modern times. To be relevant, it cannot be confined to one period in history. It must be a-historical, timeless, free of geographical and historical moorings, independent of space and time. To me, that is what Mahabharata is.

To me Mahabharata is a symbolic narration that reflects the thoughts and feelings, concerns and commentaries of the Indian people over centuries. That is why it is an epic. That is why it is sacred. It continues to enchant and enthrall us just as it enchanted and enthralled audiences a hundred years go. Through the story of the Pandavas and the Kauravas, it discusses the nature of human society.

In the Mahabharata, the five Pandavas share a kingdom called Indraprastha and a queen called Draupadi. Historically speaking, this is indicative of a primitive society where polyandry was practiced. So what? I ask myself. But if this is decoded symbolically, we discover ideas that enrich our life.

In the world of symbols, a queen personifies the kingdom and a king’s royal power. Draupadi, like Indraprastha, is the royal power of the Pandavas. Only after marrying Draupadi, daughter of the powerful king of Panchala, are the Pandavas bold enough to come out of hiding and demand from their uncle their half of the inheritance. The kingdom thus carved out, Indraprastha, owes its existence to Draupadi. Indraprastha is Draupadi. What is done to Draupadi is done to Indraprastha. The domestication of the forest to create Indraprastha using fire is the domestication of Draupadi through marriage. When Indraprastha is gambled, Draupadi is gambled. When Draupadi is abused, Indraprastha is abused.

The name Indraprastha, the residence of Indra, chosen by the Pandavas for their city is interesting. The Puranas refer to the Pandavas repeatedly as men who in their former lives were Indras. Indra is the king of the gods. That, the Pandavas are no longer Indras means that they had to abdicate their former exalted position because they were found wanting in some qualities.

To be Indra forever, one must possess all five qualities of a perfect king: one must uphold the rules, one must be physically strong, one must be a skilled warrior, one must be handsome and one must be knowledgeable. We are told that in her former life Draupadi had invoked Shiva and asked to marry a perfect king with all these five qualities. Since no man possesses all five qualities, Shiva said that she would marry five men each with these five qualities, all former Indras, individually imperfect but collectively perfect.

Only Vishnu has all five qualities. He is the perfect Indra. He is Trivikrama, lord of the three worlds. His kingdom is the cosmos, the world, the Goddess. When he descends as Rama, he is the perfect king and the perfect husband, and his wife, Sita, is the Goddess, embodiment of his perfect kingdom where everyone does their duty without question. One king, one kingdom, one wife. Perfect alignment. Eternally faithful. When Vishnu descends as Krishna, logic dictates that he should marry Draupadi. But it is not so. Draupadi has many husbands but not Krishna. Krishna has many wives but not Draupadi. It seems a mismatch. A dissonance. An indication that all is not well with the world. Rama’s world is more perfect than Krishna’s world. Ethics and morality of Krishna’s world lack clarity.

Krishna is present at the swayamvara of Draupadi. But the author never explains why Krishna does not participate in the archery contest. Krishna is not Rama. He is not of a royal family. His upbringing is amongst people of the lower social orders. He has many wives and lovers. He is not king. Draupadi refused to let Karna contest for her hand in marriage because he was raised by charioteers and did not know his true origins. Could this be the reason why Krishna voluntarily kept out of the swayamvara? Symbolically speaking, the kingdom (Draupadi) prefers men of high birth (either kings or priests) over men of high merit (Karna). She ends up marrying five priests, who are really not priests, but princes in disguise, all of them imperfect, all of them of questionable birth – their father could not make his wives pregnant and so the wives invoked gods who gave them children. That choice seals her fate.

Significantly, Krishna comes into the life of the Pandavas, only after the episode of Draupadi’s marriage. Clearly they are not as important as she is. She is the kingdom. A kingdom’s welfare is dharma. Vishnu’s descent as Krishna or Rama, as we learn in the Bhagavad Gita, is primarily to restore dharma.

On Krishna’s advice, each of the five brothers agrees to be the husband of the common wife in turns, one year at a time. Being imperfect, the Pandavas are not entirely faithful. Each Pandava has wives other than Draupadi. As long as Krishna is with the Pandavas, all is well. When he is away in Dwaraka, comes the invitation to the gambling match which the five brothers accept. Symbolically speaking, Krishna is good sense. He is tact and discretion that unites the five brothers. He is buddhi, intelligence, while the five brothers are the indriyas, which means sense organs in Sanksrit. From Indriya comes Indra. Indra is passionate and sensual. Uncontrolled and imperfect. Krishna is the intellect, the good sense, the wisdom, which is why he is Bhagavan, God, greater than the king of the gods.

We are told in the Puranas, Indras come and go but his wife, Sachi, like his kingdom, Svarga, remain the same. The kingdom and queen are faithful to no one man. Whosoever lords over them becomes their master. When the Pandavas handover control of their kingdom to the Kauravas, the Kauravas can do to the kingdom, hence the queen, as they please.

This brings us to a very important question. Why do kings exist? To do as they please with their kingdom and their people or to govern the kingdom, ensure welfare of the land. In traditional Indian philosophy, a king exists only to uphold dharma. And what is dharma. For God, dharma is ensuring welfare of all living creatures. For a king, it is welfare of the all his subjects, from the strongest to the weakest.

God’s kingdom is the whole world. Nature. Where all animals are given an equal chance – either brain or brawn – to survive. In man’s world, the definition of dharma changes. The aim is to provide for the weakest of men. The weakest of men cannot survive in the forest. And so man tames the forest and establishes fields. This cannot be done unless an ecosystem is destroyed. This is brought out in the episode the burning of Khandavaprastha when Arjuna and Krishna kill hundreds of plants and animals to set up Indraprastha. Implicit in the idea of human culture and human civilization is the destruction of nature. Symbolically, the burning of the forest to create a field is expressed as the tying of the hair of the Goddess and the covering of her nakedeness.

If Vishnu is the king of the cosmos, then the cosmos or nature or the earth is his kingdom, his wife. She is the Goddess. In her natural state she is wild and free until we domesticate her. In her wild state, her hair is unbound and she is naked. She is Kali. She drinks blood. She is fearful. Mother of all living creatures. In her cultured state, she is transformed by man into a field or an orchard. She ties her hair, wears clothes and jewels, and offers milk like a cow. In this demure form she is called Gauri, mother of all human beings.

Sita is Gauri, tame, dutiful and domesticated, the perfect wife and the perfect kingdom of the perfect king, Rama. Draupadi is also Gauri, the perfect wife of five kings. But the kings are not incarnations of Vishnu. They are imperfect. When Krishna is away, they gamble her away. And the winners don’t respect her. They drag her by the hair and disrobe her in public. In other words, they destroy culture. Gauri is made Kali and Kali demands blood. Draupadi refuses to tie her hair until it is washed in the blood of her tormentors.

This is reason enough for the war. But the war does not take place. The Pandavas and the Kauravas agree to play another game of dice. If the Pandavas win they regain their possessions. If the Pandavas lose, they forfeit the right to their kingdom for 13 years. The Pandavas lose. They go into exile in the forest for 13 years. When they return, Krishna goes to the Kauravas and asks that they give the Pandava kingdom back. They refuse. “Give them at least five villages,” says Krishna. “Not a needlepoint of land will I give them,” says Duryodhana. And that becomes the trigger for the war.

Because in not giving back the land to the Pandavas after the stipulated period of exile that both parties agreed upon, Duryodhana is bringing the law of the jungle – might is right – into human culture. He says what he says because he can. He can get away with it. Because he is powerful. He has eleven armies while the Pandavas have only seven.

This is adharma, the collapse of culture, of civilization, when man, the fountainhead of culture, subscribes to the law of nature, the law of the jungle. If nature is the opposite of culture and if in nature only the fit survive then in culture even the weakest should thrive. This is what civilization and culture is all about. This is what human dharma is all about.

Today, we find ourselves in a country where we feel that if you are rich and powerful you can get away with murder and rape and crime. Newspapers are full of reports of how easy it is for criminals to walk free. What we are witnessing is the unclothing of Draupadi. Every one in the gambling hall knows that disrobing a woman in public is just not done. Yet no one – neither the wise Bhisma or Drona – come to Draupadi’s rescue. They argue on the letter of the law and ignore its spirit. In the war, Krishna therefore shows them no mercy. They may be old and wise but they have to be killed by fair means or foul. It was they who allowed the law of the jungle to permeate and pollute human culture. So they die by the effects of their own misdeeds. The law of the jungle which was used to abuse Draupadi turns around to kill them. When law does not protect man, man rejects the law. Increasingly Hindi films like Rang De Basanti are venting the frustration of society when they depict heroes taking the law into their own hands. It represents a collapse of faith in a tired old judiciary.

Mahabharata thus reflects an eternal human concern. What is cultured conduct? Culture is created by controlling and overpowering nature. Implicit in civilization is the forceful suppression of natural instincts. Is such suppression good or is it just necessary? How much is good? Too much of suppression causes stress. And release of the suppression unleashes dark and ugly forces we can do without. The Pandavas represent that side of us which yearns for culture and order. The Kauravas represent our desire for power and domination. We want to rule over others. But civilization forces us to make space for others. Culture says we bow to the rule. But we would rather get away with it.