Friday, May 17, 2013

The Mahabharata-style, structure and narrative technique.

The Mahabharata-style, structure and narrative technique.
            The Mahabharata is one of the two oldest literary masterpieces of India. It is breathtaking in not only its length but also in its poetic and intellectual quality. It is precisely because of this reason that scholars differ on what genre does the Mahabharata belong to. In English, the genre given to it is that of an epic. Epics are long tales developed through oral culture, myths and legends. They areusually based on themes of love and war. Epics are stories about princes and princesses; its diction is exalted and dignified. In Indian context, the Mahabharata belongs to the genre of ‘itihasa’. The word breaks up into ‘iti’+’ha’+’asa’. In Hindi, the word simply means history, but in Sanskrit, it means, “So indeed it was”. 

            Here, the idea of history is connected to the idea of time. Time was perceived in two different paradoxical ways in ancient India. One was that time is never ending entity which never comes to a halt. The second concept is paradoxical to the first. It says that time is continuously completed, that is, a single moment is complete in itself. In the Mahabharata, time that has gone by is critically analyzed to see its universal significance and also learn from it. The Mahabharata has been accorded several names by various scholars. It is also known as ‘Akhyan’, ‘purana’, ‘dharmashastra’,arthshastra’,‘nitish astra’ and mokshashastra’. It is an ‘akhyana’ because it deals with many myths like those of  shakuntala, nala and damyanti, vidula, prahlada and others. As a purana, it deals with creation and also with genealogies and geographical lists. Dharma is extensively dealt with in the text, making it a dharmashastra. Similarly artha, niti and moksha are also dealt in detail. Therefore, the Mahabharata is all of these and not any one of them. Sukhthankar abstains from giving it any genre, but discusses the three- dimensional view of the Mahabharata—it’s an epic on the mundane, ethical and metaphysical planes. 

            On the mundane level, it’s a fratricidal war. On ethical level, it’s a war between dharma and adharma. On the metaphysical, it is just a process of cosmic evolution, of time being in its flow. The Vedas and the upanishads are the major source of Indian philosophy, ethics and morality. However, they were accessible only to the elite who knew sanskrit. Some critics say that the Mahabharata was created to bridge the gap between the lower classes and the Vedas. It simplified the meaning of artha, dharma, kama and moksha through the story of a feuding family. It is profoundly clear and scholars agree that it is a text beyond any one definition or a genre. Each genre becomes partial when applied to a text of such magnitude. The Mahabharata’s narrative technique matches its complexity and depth of philosophy. The technique of narration is that of a story within a story. The main account of the puru dynasty begins after several small stories. The narration happens at many levels. Vaismpayananarrates the tale to janmajeya at the snake ceremony. Another sage who heard the story at the ceremony narrates it to the bhrigu brahmans whom he meets in the naimisha forest.

             Finally, there is vyasa, the overarching narrator, who is telling the tale to lord ganesha, the penman of the Mahabharata. Such an intricate and elaborate narrative structure prepares the readers for further framings. Hegarty says that the narrative structure of the text is so complex because of the “dialogic relationship among voices” in the Mahabharata. To illustrate, he says that the sage brihadasva narrated the story of nala and damyanti to yuddhishthtira in the forest to console him for his loss in the dicing match. It also serves the purpose of comparing the results of dicing for yuddhishthira and nala. Such narratives are spread all over the text and they all add to its encyclopedic quality. Various responses to a particular vent of a specific problem add to the comprehensive dimension of the text. Let’s discuss the embedded narrative in the dicing with the story of prahalada. The tale gives comparative insight to the present happening of the dicing sequence. It is ironical when compared to draupadi's question. Prahalada always knew who the better man was-his son or

sudhanvan angirars. He was not able to decide whom should he favour because of his parental love. This story does not explicate the issues raised by draupadi, but emphasizes the breach of duty by the elders who did not follow the dharma codes.  The backbone of the Mahabharata is its dialogues. These dialogues bring out the various ideologies and view points to a particular situation. Nonetheless, it is not necessary that they reach a conclusion. To any question of dharma, several answers are given and no answer is adjudged supreme. Everyone answers according to his dharma and the reader has to choose according to his own dharma. That is why, the Mahabharata is considered to be a text of debates. The most important function of the dialogues is that it provides a meditative moment to characters to explore various moral options available to them for a given situation. Therefore, we can see how complex is the style, structure and narrative technique of the Mahabharata is. However its language is so free flowing and rhythmic that the philosophies that are really hard to understand are made easy to read.