Sukumari Bhattacharji: The Popularity of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata—A Comparative Analysis. Translated by Tanika Sarkar and Somdatta Mandal. Anustup, 2018, pp. 109, Rs.300/-
The late Sukumari Bhattacharji was one of the rare Sanskrit scholars from India who was equally at home in English. Her The Indian Theogony has been a major reference work for decades and Legends of Devi is a delightful retelling. Possibly her most fascinating Bengali book is a study of why the Ramayana is more popular than the Mahabharata (1996). She asserts, “What we claim as Indian civilization today has The Ramayana at its root and not The Mahabharata.” Unfortunately, till now her trenchant and illuminating analysis has not been available to Indologists all over the globe.
Professor Bhattacharji always wrote to the point, was never guilty of verbiage or of pulling punches. Her professed Marxist bent does not vitiate her incisive and penetrating insights in this book. In the slim compass of just 87 pages she not only provides a parva-wise summary of the world’s longest epic in 15 chapters, but also investigates the elements that make the Ramayana more appealing than the Mahabharata. A splendid achievement, for anyone interested in our epics this is the finest overview. It steers the reader deftly through what Oldenberg called “the monstrous chaos” of the Mahabharata.
The matrix birthing the two epics, according to her, is the crisis of values during the Kushana times (1st-2nd centuries A.D.) with the emergence of small kingdoms and new clans leading to creation of the mahakavyas, the Kamasutra, Manusamhita and some Sanskrit Jataka tales. These dealt with practical issues of the paramountcy of filial duty, familial bonds and loyal friendship, enduring long suffering for the sake of vows etc. The Shanti and Anushasana Parvas are the text needed for the empires that emerged between the Maurya and the Gupta periods. Old values are revised and codified in a collective effort. Bhishma’s advice never to trust a woman “is an attempt to poison men against women” for all time, as post-Gupta society relied on male domination and Shudra servility.
Simultaneously there is Bhishma’s statement, “Nothing is greater than Man,” which Bhattacharji takes to heart as the concluding message of the Mahabharata. Animandavya curses Yama the god of death and Gandhari curses Krishna. “No higher justice governs the world…it depends on mortal beings to ensure justice.” The Ramayana, having no such revolutionary statement, is much more like a fairy-tale, replete with supra-normal events and characters which appeal powerfully to the general public as “Values of domination and subordination come decked out in supernatural mysteries, in a fairy-tale appeal.” With hardly any grey areas, all relationships being simple and linear, “It saves the reader from self-searching and self-doubt.” Above all, it is “suffused with lyrical qualities.” Hence, accepting the protagonists as models poses no problem.
Conversely, the Mahabharata mirrors an age and its peoples, prominently featuring crises of conscience and focusing on the annihilation of entire lineages. The grey areas are pervasive, each episode having complex resonances. Faced with the clash between ends and means people find it deeply disturbing. Bhattacharji cites Shakuntala publicly pouring scorn upon her husband as an example of what readers would have difficulty in accepting. That is why Kalidasa deprived his heroine of this fire. Again, Vyasa himself is a product of rape but there is no condemnation of the rapist rishi. Bhishma tells Draupadi that what the powerful do is considered dharma, i.e. might is right. Such concepts are difficult to digest. Finally, Vyasa’s poetry is far more intellectual than Valmiki’s lyricism, which also detracts from the popularity of the Mahabharata.
Does the reluctance to fight displayed by Yudhishthira and Arjuna reflect the belief in ahimsa propagated by Jains, Buddhists and Ajivikas from the 7th century BC when, according to Bhattacharji, the composition of the epic began? Here, again, the audience faces a dilemma without any clear answer. Confronted with complex problems and ambiguities in life, people long for simple solutions. The Mahabharata creates those very complications, questioning the prevalent belief system, which is why it loses out to the Ramayana in popular appeal.
While discussing Valmiki’s epic, Bhattacharji cannot resist the occasional quip, e.g., how could the two brothers carry adequate weapons for the Lanka battle; men did not have to prove chastity as a masculine equivalent did not exist in Sanskrit; shudras and chandalas were considered subhuman. In the Mahabharata, Arjuna’s mental paralysis is dissipated by “a magical performance” stunning him—and the audience—into submission. Magic, not logic, carries the day! Never has the Gita been accorded such short shrift!
Very perceptively Bhattacharji chooses to discuss Vidura’s parable of the man in the well which, she asserts, is composed after the concepts of Nirvana (Buddhist) and Moksha (Upanishadic). Despite death being the only reality, the persistence of desire keeps life precious as a positive experience although “negation found strong resonance in a class-divided society with a large oppressed population.” She overlooks that the Mahabharata calls itself the Veda for women and shudras too and that this parable found its way into the Bible as the tale of Barlaam and Josaphat. The Ramayana neither presents such conflicts nor does it take us to such great depths.
The Sauptika Parva is omitted from the survey without any explanation. There is a puzzling statement (p.19) that the Ramayana, being unsure of Sita’s chastity, installs Bharata at the end instead of Lava or Kusha. Actually, in the text the brothers and the subjects drown themselves with Rama in the Sarayu, before which Rama installs his sons to rule over northern and southern Kosala. In view of Bhattacharji’s pronounced feminist stance (the first fall and death en route Swarga was of Draupadi because she was a woman, p.63), it is intriguing to find no reference to the mutilation of Ayomukhi (ear, nose, breasts chopped off) and Surpanakha (nose and ears sliced) by Rama and Lakshmana. She asserts (p. 41) that as Kaurava bards sang the events of the Kurukshetra war, it is a partisan narrative making a great hero out of Karna. However, Karna is not a Kaurava at all but Yadava Kunti’s illegitimate son. Further, Rama does not refuse Guhaka’s hospitality because he is chandala (p. 19) but because, having taken to asceticism, he would live only on fruits and roots, as he himself explains.
Bhattacharji declares that the Mausala Parva is interpolated being full of supernatural events, yet she admits that they construct an inevitable sense of waste. She fails to substantiate that it is “not inherently related to the epic” and admits it reflects the wider perspective of destruction caused by war. The uneasiness it creates is the key to its effectiveness. Similarly, she dismisses the entire Bharata Savitri as irrelevant (p.62) although it ends with Vyasa’s remarkable query which remains a riddle for us all: “From Dharma come wealth and pleasure. Why is Dharma not practised?” Here the translators mistranslate “phalashruti” (the benefits of listening to the epic) as “hearsay.”
Bhattacharji, like her colleague Buddhadeb Bose in his The Book of Yudhishthira, establishes Yudhishthira as the epic’s hero the reader’s attention being focused only on him at the end. A deity (Krishna), being superhuman, cannot be the protagonist. Yudhishthira upholds Bhishma’s utterance that nothing is greater than man and would put aside Kshatriya creed in favour of ahimsa. Only a man can show other men the way out in crises. In the Mahabharata a greater idea of virtue and justice is at work. The Ramayana presents no complications over heaven and hell. Its idea of duty is rectilinear. Even in killing Bali and Shambuka, Rama suffers no moral pangs. Towards the end, the Mahabharata says twice that kings have to go to hell, giving no reason (this is from the section Bhattacharji has already rejected, yet she cites it approvingly!). No solution is presented to the clash between a king’s duties and that of humanity. The Ramayana does not perplex or mortify the reader—we are told to behave like Rama. The Mahabharata alone has the protagonist debate with death itself, proving the truth of human worth through all suffering and failures, confronting them and sacrificing the self for the greater good of society. It does not ask us to behave like Krishna to whom it assigns an ignominious death, while sending Yudhishthira triumphantly to Swarga in his mortal frame. Yudhishthira becomes the hero, repeatedly perturbed but achieving a stable world-view at the end.
Devoting an entire chapter to the enigma of Bhishma, she correctly points out that non-involvement characterizes him starting with aloofness during the three year long war in which a Gandharva killed his step-brother Chitrangada. Bhattacharji notes the similarities with Rama who abdicated for his father’s marital bliss. However, Bhishma never asked his father for the boon of death at will (p. 72). Shantanu, gratified, gave that to him on his own. Unlike Vibhishana who has no qualms about aiding Rama against his kin, Bhishma constantly dithers, making it difficult for the reader to respond to him. He chooses death being unable to resolve the conflict. The Mahabharata does not aim at popularity, “it is precious only to the reader who is split with mental agony…”
Bhattacharji cannot reconcile Draupadi as Lakshmi having sons from five gods as husbands instead of Vishnu. Further, “The social question of chastity remains unanswered.” However, this is resolved in the story of the five Indras and Shri cursed by Shiva to take mortal birth and further in the tale of Draupadi’s earlier birth. Though Bhattacharji says there is no hint of a personal relationship between Vyasa and his son Shuka, this is elaborately described in the Mokshadharma Parva. She states that animal sacrifice is intrinsic to Vedic rites, overlooking the Mokshadharma Parva where for asserting this Raja Uparichara is cursed by Agastya to fall into a hole. Agastya and his fellow sages advocate offerings of grains, not flesh.
With two translators plus an editor, one expected consistency and correctness in the spelling of names, particularly as the author was a distinguished Sanskritist. “Hanumana” (pp.17, 18, 96) should be “Hanuman”; “Jujutshu” (pp.61, 84) should be “Yuyutsu” as on p. 76. There are some egregious errors which editorial notes should have covered. Thus, Drona does not say to Ekalavya: “give me your fingers” (p. 25) but asks for his thumb. Vyasa does not restrain Duryodhana from attacking Pandavas in exile (p.81). Satyavati never insists that her son should inherit the throne, nor does she obtain the vow of celibacy from Bhishma (p. 26). On p.72 the author correctly ascribes these to the fisherman-chief. Chitrangada is never termed “a sinful man” (p. 27). Drupada was not “the king of Vidarbha” (p. 34) but of Panchala. Karna never “made an obscene gesture with his hand on his thigh” to Draupadi (p. 42). That was Duryodhana’s doing. Bhattacharji states the Pandavas knew krityas had formed Duryodhana below his waist with flowers (p. 46). They had nothing to do with it. It was Parvati who formed him thus. Duryodhana undertook a fast unto death not at the end of the Virata Parva (p.93) but early in the Vana Parva. Gandhari did not birth “a round stone” (pp.49, 53) but a stone-like lump of flesh. Krishna was never king of Mathura (p. 53). In Draupadi’s svayamvara. Shalya failed to string not “his” bow but the bow for the contest (p. 45). “Bhima tried to crush his head with his left foot but desisted” (p. 46) is incorrect, as he did do so. The reasons for the deaths of Nakula and Sahadeva have been transposed (p.63). Nakula fell not for pride in his wisdom, nor Sahadeva for his narcissism, but exactly the other way about. Yuyutsu fought on the Pandava side instead of not participating (p.76).
Over all it is a fine translation. The rendering of “Shreya” and “Preya” as “the best and the desired for” is particularly happy. We are grateful to the two translators and the publisher for making available this very important study to the English speaking world after over two decades. It is a great pity that her Women and society in ancient India remains out of print. Hopefully, the publisher will bring this out too.
A shorter version of this review was published in the 8th Day Literary Supplement of The Sunday Statesman dated 24th June 2018.