Few texts in history have generated as much debate around philosophical and ethical issues as did the ancient Indian text named the Mahabharata. Its huge size, encyclopaedic nature, and openness in discourse has turned the Mahabharata into an archive of diverse thoughts and viewpoints prevalent in early India, alongside the extensive period of the composition of the text, ranging over a millennium if not more. The composition of the Mahabharata is usually dated between 500 BCE and 500 CE, dates which were almost certainly preceded by a long existence of the text as an oral tradition which possibly originated between the tenth and eighth centuries BCE. Though the text underwent several revisions, additions, interpolations and alterations over its long journey, the issue of dharma remained one of its central questions. Dharma, which can be loosely translated as the proper way of living, has been perceived as a guiding principle in an ideal life in the Mahabharata. However, the text also repeatedly proclaims the fluidity, subtlety, uncertainty and multiplicity of the meaning of dharma. This has kept the text open ended where various viewpoints could coexist and interact, turning it into an intellectual mine to explore for the thinkers even of much later times.
Despite the pluralism in the ethical world of the Mahabharata, the text is relentless in its advocacy of ‘action’. This has made many scholars interpret the text as a Brahmanical response to the heterodox ideas where renunciation of all actions has been preached as the cardinal virtue. The Mahabharata accepts, even valorizes, renunciation in certain sections. But, in the greater part of the text, dharma is informed by actions and their consequences, and the supremacy of action (karman) is emphatically proclaimed over non-action (naishkarmya) in the Bhagavad Gita,the most celebrated didactic section of the text. If we consider the centrality of action in the Mahabharata, the question of ‘agency’––something that distinguishes an ‘action’ from an ‘event’––is bound to be essential to understand the text. However, interestingly, the Bhagavad Gita while extolling action, says in the same breath that Time (Kala) has already performed all the acts, while the ‘actor’ is not an ‘agent’ but a mere instrument (nimittamatra). Time being the originator and final arbiter of human action is a trope invoked throughout the text. The very theory of karman theoretically accepts a possibility where the inclinations and activities of a person might have been determined by her acts of the previous birth, leaving little scope for agency. The debate between determinism and freedom of action, also a key question in western philosophical thought, is thus very much important and relevant to understand the Mahabharata. The book Exploring Agency in the Mahabharata engages thoroughly with the central premise of this debate, the duality of purushakara (human effort) and daiva (destiny), and extends its scope to incorporate the issues such as the agency of women, the role of agency in pedagogy, even the question of the agency of the non-human species.
Vrinda Dalmiya and Gangeya Mukherji, in a fascinating Introduction, contextualize the central questions of the book, and point out that the text offers no simple solution to the problem of destiny and free-will. Rather, as Nick Sutton has said, it offers different perspectives each of which contributes to the development of the reader’s comprehension. It has been pointed out that agency invokes choice and thus responsibility. However, in the Mahabharata, a simple compatibilist explanation of agency in a causally determined world––on the basis of choice and responsibility––cannot be sufficient because the question is enfolded in its dharmic context. Even though the Mahabharata’s support for the pravrtti (pertaining to action) values is beyond doubt, agency is seen as a pursuit of dharma. This complicates the problem further. Because of the prevalence of the varnasrama dharma which provides undeviating norms for the human agent and is a social hierarchy, the agent is born in an unequal society and the very element of ‘choice’ in the field of dharmic action becomes limited. Moreover, the Bhagavad Gita while celebrating dharmic action, calls for undercutting any sense of the action as ‘mine’, complicating the issue of responsibility for a seemingly free act. The editors, while addressing all these problems, point out that the dharmic vision rejects a thick sense of identity rather than rejecting agency. The dharmic actor performs action motivated by its rightness, not by its fruits, and the ‘rightness’ of action is very much dependent on the choice/judgment of the actor. Therefore, the editors, following Jonardan Ganeri, rightly point out receptivity––a disposition that makes sense of a value in terms of others and grasps their contextualized significance––as a crucial quality for dharmic action. Thus, when Drona was killing numerous ordinary soldiers, and telling him a ‘lie’ about his son’s death was the only way to stop him, Krishna deprioritized literal truth because other values like compassion and heroism affected what truth-speaking meant in that situation. What truth amounts to is conditional on all the intrinsic values relevant in the specific context. The ‘receptive’ agent sees this and transforms contextualism into a deep, moral particularism. Krishna, being receptive, was open to reconstituting the meaning of ‘truth’ creatively. However, the rule-fetishist Yudhisthira is unable to see the positive ethical quality in the ‘lie’, and utters a convoluted truth. There he misses what is dharma, either in terms of truthfulness or in terms of receptivity, and commits a sin. The Mahabharata, despite advocating unattached/desireless action, does not exempt the actor from the ensuing responsibilities. Rather, one has to bear responsibility even for unintended results of an action in an uncertain world. Thus, context-dependent sensitivity of action is crucial to the text, creating an open-ended space that makes it a moral text for all and for all time.
The context-specificity of the Mahabharata evaluation of action and agency is a recurrent issue in many of the articles included in the book. Reviewing various episodes of the Mahabharata in the light of modern western theories of action, Amita Chattejee shows how the text advocates a form of compatabilism based on self-determinism, where the true agent has to remain morally responsible for her intentional acts. Lakshmi Bandlamudi points out that, ‘while the Mahabharata does not espouse absolutes, it does not vouch for anything-goes relativism either; instead it calls for a context-dependent, history-sensitive nature of ethical action.’ Using Bakhtin’s idea of answerability being a valid and justifiable link between art and life, she shows how the Mahabharata deals with context-specific concretes, rather than phantom, abstract ethics. An ethics of answerability helps one to be imaginative amidst constraints and compose a persuasive moral argument with the available tools. This makes the Mahabharata suitable even for what Nietzsche calls the ‘ambiguous character of the modern world’ with all the insoluble disharmonies of existence. Yet, in moral dilemmas, one must exercise the full force of their agency and accept responsibility for the choices made and experience the consequences even if they are unjustified.
This kind of analysis raises the question whether the Mahabharata is a timeless text relevant for all time and all societies or whether, despite elements of universality in the text, it has to be seen in its historical context. Sibesh Chandra Bhattacharya, pointing out the character of the Mahabharata as an itihasa, argues in favour of the former, stating that itihasa is much more explicitly didactic than history. It does not deal with the whole of the past, but what is exemplary and full of didactic values. That which does not change with time is what, Bhattacharya thinks, is valuable to itihasa. The conjecture is highly problematic, since it entails a static nature of the past, even though the Mahabharata itself proclaims that the itihasa is open to multiple telling and interpretations in the hands of the past, present and future poets. Similarly problematic is the statement that the transition from Dvapara to Kali, ‘according to modern experts, took place around 1000 BC’, which confuses cyclic and linear time.
Uma Chakravarti’s essay historically contextualizes the Mahabharata as the document of a society in transition where there is a considerable tension in forging kshatriya marriages. The abduction of women, known as the rakshasa form of marriage, was generating considerable conflict, but women were still regarded as a prize for their reproductive potential. Thus, the seeming autonomy in the svayamvara was hardly a reality, and the Kashi princess Amba, who was abducted by Bhishma for his brother Vichitravirya in her svayamvara and released after conveying her prior decision to choose Salva, was rejected by all three (Bhishma, Vichitravirya and Salva) for the temerity to believe that she could actually choose. Her sisters were also violently obtained before their choice could be asserted and gradually reified as wombs, with a tragic history of thwarted sexual autonomy and agency.
Arti Dhand points out the problems of reading the Mahabharata out of its context. The principle of karmayoga had been a strong instrument in delegitimizing renunciation, pointing out that renunciation served only individual aspirations, while an active dharmic life—doing one’s own duties without any desire for particular results—served both the self and the other. Serving one’s function in the social ecosystem, honouring one’s responsibilities, and continuing care to one’s dependents are the critical moral functions of karmayoga inspired by self-abnegating altruism with a concern with the welfare of the world (lokasamgraha). However, while acknowledging its effectiveness as a soteriology, Dhand shows the problems created by its entanglement with ideas like svadharma, karma and guna (ideas which, in Christopher G Framarin’s essay, are related to a more sophisticated understanding of karma, such as in the Yoga Sutra). In Dhand’s words, ‘In karmayoga, one must do one’s own duty, which is one’s svadharma of class, life-stage, gender and so forth; one’s svadharma, overwhelmingly predicated upon one’s birth, is shaped by one’s innate nature; this innate nature itself reflects the ratio of one’s gunas, which are themselves pre-determined by one’s supposed karma in previous lives.’ Thus, it is something that prioritizes order over ethics, advocates an abdication of moral conscience, brings moral stultification by reifying social duty, and discourages social innovation. Therefore, karmayoga––doing one’s socially prescribed duties without question or without desire––can be a morally loathsome proposition if addressed to the subaltern/underprivileged, smothering resistance to one’s social circumstances, silencing complaint and dissent, and viewing tradition as sacrosanct. Following this example, a slave girl, a subjugated wife and an outcaste hunter accept and celebrate their subjugation in the Mahabharata. Thus, reified without contextualizing, it cloaks social injustice as the transcendental Right, constructs a false consciousness where lack of moral reasoning, lack of resistance and deemed docility are treated as positive values, and appropriates all positive values from the disenfranchized to the elite. This problem can only be solved by replacing class hierarchy with meritocracy and making particularism answerable to universalism.
This lack of answerability is most apparent in the article by Sundar Sarukkai who attempts a metaphorical reading of the episode where Drona, the brahmana teacher of khatriya pupils, made Ekalavya, an outcaste hunter boy who learned archery with an image of Drona in front of him, cut off his thumb and gift it to him as the teacher’s fee, seemingly to ensure the supremacy of his favourite princely disciple, Arjuna, as an archer, as an illustration of how teaching is primarily done in and through the student, a lesson essential to study and learn from the Mahabharata. He elaborates on technical points about how both Ekalavya and Drona were doing their ‘duties’, and how the cutting off of the thumb is symbolic of the dissolution of the pupil’s ego into the teacher’s own, without understanding that such duties have been located in an unequal class/caste society without which the Ekalavya episode loses its vitality.
On the other hand, in a much more context-sensitive manner, BN Patnaik shows how the same episode is completely recreated by the Odia poet Sarala Das to give it a different meaning in a different context. There, Ekalavya is shown as a talented and dedicated pupil accepted by Drona and welcomed by Yudhishthira and Arjuna. However, Duryodhana vehemently protested against having a subject, that too an uncultured forest-dweller, as a fellow learner, and ordered his brothers to beat him up and throw him out of the akhada. Ekalavya learnt archery by stealthily looking at Drona’s lessons. Later, he killed all the Kaurava brothers with one arrow after they teased his wife, and revived them with another arrow on Drona’s request. When Drona decided to close down his akhada in the forest, Ekalavya insisted on giving him a fee. Drona then asked for his thumb, presumably to ensure the safety of his Kaurava disciples from him, since he still cherished his desire to avenge the insult by Duryodhana. Here, Drona becomes an ideal teacher who knows power acquired through knowledge of weaponry must reside in the hands of those with self-control, in the writings of a poet to whom no provocation was adequate to justify mass killing. Thus, he reduced the power of Ekalavya, but by letting him pay a fee, acknowledged him as his disciple and blessed him to be an invincible archer. The story changes according to its context, and so does its lessons. However, Das does not overlook the sociological implications of the original story. He shows how Ekalavya took up arms in response to the oppression of the downtrodden by the princely class. His text engages with the aspiration of the marginalized to be integrated in the civilized world also in the story of Kiratasena, a great forest chief who possessed three invincible arrows but was refused by both the Kauravas and the Pandavas when he wanted to fight under their banner. This sub-theme would continue up to the duel between the hunter Jar, who accidentally killed Krishna, and an angry Arjuna, when a voice of the sky would ask them to jointly dispose off Krishna’s body, leading towards the final coming together of two opposing cultures, culminating in the remanifestation of Krishna as Jagannatha, a deity worshipped by the Sabaras, a statement essential for Das’s regional context.
Sudipta Kaviraj also shows how Rabindranth Tagore overwrites epic aesthetics—as in the story of Karna and Kunti—to suit modern sensibilities. However, Kaviraj hardly engages with the question of agency, despite the immense relevance and potential of the question regarding Karna’s choice between daiva and purushakara, between the royal status which he deserved because of his birth but was denied for a long time and the status of a loyal hero he acquired by his efforts.
Like Das’s text, the Sanskrit Mahabharata is also uncomfortable with violence as willed action. Gangeya Mukherji contrasts Arjuna, the natural agent of judicial violence, with Asvattaman, who falls short of this required merit, to establish a symbiotic relationship between the agent and the agency. Agencies like nonviolence and knowledge facilitate more autonomy to the agent with increasing awareness of herself and putting herself under her own censory/cerebral control, whereas agency like violence acquires more autonomy with time with a corresponding reduction to the agent clouded in understanding. The Mahabharata shows the incompleteness of the violent agent and presents non-martial ideas of agency.
Perhaps this unique celebration of non-martial agency makes Yudhisthira the central protagonist of the Mahabharata. The irresolution of Yudhisthira, which Ganeri read as a lack of receptivity, appears to Shirshendu Chakrabarti as equivalent to the Renaissance idea of self-interrogation as the freedom specific to man. Yudhisthira is always aware of ethical alternatives and thus plunged into moral dilemma out of deliberate choice. He interrogates accepted codes, of both the kstriya and the brahmana, and dwells on the margins, thereby extending the margins of both. He is not the exceptional hero. He is the paradigm of the common man. His freedom is the freedom of man as man, in its capacity for reflexive self-transformation. Thus, he does not subscribe to any received code, order or coterie. He listens to all the sages, but chooses none as his guru. He ultimately reflects and acts on his own. He is the true agent, his agency anchored in self-questioning selfhood.
One of the most thought-provoking essays in the book is by Arindam Chakravarti who shows how the animal stories in the Mahabharata may represent, besides the morally participatory human reactive agentive attitude and the detached objective onlooker’s scientific attitude, a third trans-species point of view from a shared non-human subjectivity. The Mahabharata possibly extends the entitlement to moral agency and considerability beyond the capacity for speech and logical thinking to the capacity for suffering and empathy for other’s suffering, the basic drive to stay alive and live together. By lending the animals the power of speech, these stories provide an insight that they are ethical agents who can judge us. By grasping their ethical agency in the sense of them being ‘reactive’, we are pushed to realize the pain of radically different ‘others’. Thus, in such stories, a dissatisfied mongoose in search of a moral miracle points out the futility of a sacrifice where the giver has not given up the last morsel of all he has, has not taken the infinite responsibility for the other, and has not left enough remainder; ungrateful, destructive humans on earth get a second chance thanks to the grace of the wronged but wiser species—others. Perhaps, this addresses the issue that, for millennia, human beings have failed to include within their communal ‘self-hood’ those who are radically different in skin colour, language, culture, class, gender or species. Yet, all living beings love to live and hate to suffer. Thus, Chakravarti rightly states, ‘until the human moral imagination is retrained to encompass what it is likely to have a radically different kind of body with equal vulnerability to pain and same fear of death, reflective human agency––the ability to listen to outcry (anukrosa) in another heart––cannot be developed. Perhaps, in questioning and extending the horizon of the ethical empathetic horizon of humanity, an open-ended classic like the Mahabharata, despite its historical context, remains relevant today. This is an excellent collection of essays to re-engage with the classic from such an essential standpoint standpoint.
Kanad Sinha is Assistant Professor in the Department of Ancient Indian and World History, The Sanskrit College and University, Kolkata.