Published in Devlok, Sunday Midday on August 29, 2010.
Reading the Mahabharata makes one experience rage; reading the Ramayana makes one experience peace. But things do an about turn when one reaches the last chapter.
The last chapter of the Ramayana speaks of how Ram abandons Sita; it shatters the peace and fills one with horror and disgust. The last chapter of the Mahabharata explains how Yudhishtira finally experienced heaven, and one is filled with great joy.
Why did the authors of the two epics twist the tales so? It is like creating a grating sound at the end of a superb musical concert or giving succulent fruits after a lousy meal. The experience transforms at the moment of climax. The negative ends on a positive note and the positive ends on a negative note. Was this deliberate? Or was this a coincidence, an accident? I feel this was deliberate.
The two epics are twin epics — meaning one cannot be understood without the other.. And so they display remarkable congruence in form. Ramayana is about rule-upholding at any cost. Mahabharata is about rule-breaking. Rule-upholding seems good in the Ramayana until the last chapter, when innocent Sita is at the receiving end of draconian family traditions. Rule-breaking seems necessary in the Mahabharata, until one realizes the underlying truth through Yudhishtira’s epiphany in the last chapter.
Most retellings of the Ramayana ignore the dark last chapter of Sita’s abandonment. It is too much to take. It destroys our image of Ram. Likewise, few narrators of the Mahabharata amplify the epiphany of Yudhishtira in the last chapter. It is overshadowed by the complex plots full of dark secrets, intrigue, exploitation, rage, rape, yearning, frustration and bitterness.
Not surprisingly, Mahabharata has not merited as much translation as the Ramayana. Most storytellers focus only on a few episodes, those that bring joy, like Bhima killing Bakasura, Drona teaching Arjuna, or Krishna rescuing Draupadi. Modern sanitized versions of the tale edit out the controversial characters like Shikhandi and disturbing stories related to sex. Not good for the children, is the standard excuse. So many generations of Indians have grown up with little knowledge of the true extent of this grand cultural inheritance.
The original epic was called Jaya, then it was called Vijaya, then Bharata and finally Mahabharata. Jaya had about twenty five thousand verses while the final form had over one hundred thousand verses. Jaya was about spiritual victory, Vijaya was about material victory, Bharata was the story of a clan and Mahabharata included also the wisdom of the land called Bharat-varsha. What began as an auspicious idea, ended up becoming a massive documentation of realities that frightened the common man. Many modern scholars, writers and playwrights, exhausted and overwhelmed by the maze of stories of the final version of the epic, are convinced that the Mahabharata is only about the futility of war.
But if one strips out the excess fat, one realizes that the Mahabharata is not a preachy tale appealing for peace. It is a determined exploration of the root of conflict. Hence the original title Jaya, which means victory where there are no losers, contrasting it with Vijaya, which is victory where there is always a loser. We realize that the Pandavas achieve Vijaya in Kurukshetra but only Yudhishtira attains Jaya, much later, six chapters after the war ends.