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"The secret of the Mahabharata is simply this - it makes one reflect and introspect on everything that one does."

Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik

Is the Mahabharata a gratingly honest tome about war that most people don’t want to narrate to their children – and who then wonder why their children become warmongers? Does pulling the curtain over the horrors of war, as epitomised in the Mahabharata, not amount to a needless refutation of a reality that, in the ultimate analysis, is not worth pursuing?

These are just a few of the points to ponder that were thrown up at the last meeting by the guest speaker who was expounding on the “Secrets of the Mahabharata” and who enunciated a different way of looking at it and at its inherent message.

Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik, who was described by Programme Chairperson Dolly Thakore as “a doctor by education, a leadership consultant by profession and a mythologist by passion”, is employed as the Chief Belief Officer of the Future Group. He has lectured extensively on sacred stories, symbols and rituals and their relevance in modern times.

A popular columnist, he is known for sardonically linking everyday occurrences to events in the Mahabharata and has authored several books. His latest is titled Jaya: An Illustrated Retelling of the Mahabharata.

Dr. Pattanaik stated at the outset that while the Ramayana described righteousness as personified by Shri Rama, the Mahabharata took the opposite route through the mischievous figure of Lord Krishna. “Everything that is right is there in the Ramayana and everything wrong is in the Mahabharata.”

But essentially the two tomes dealt with disputes over property, thus giving them a direct link to modern times. Disputes were common in most family businesses today.

“It’s very tragic... when you ask a fundamental question, why are you fighting over property, the answers are never forthcoming. It’s all about ‘justice’ and ‘fair play’; but beyond this rational veneer lies something deeper that nobody wants to introspect or reflect upon. And that (reflection and introspection) is what the Ramayana does and what the Mahabharata does.”

The Ramayana featured three sets of brothers – Rama and his brothers who never fought over Ayodhya; Sugriva and Bali who fought over Kishkindha; and Ravana and his brother Kuber who fought over Lanka. The Mahabharata, on the other hand, restricted itself to just one property, the kingdom of Hastinapur, with two sets of brothers fighting over it.

One day, they decided to kill each other. They went to Krishna and said that since he was equally related to both sides, it was imperative that he supported them equally. Krishna said he loved them equally so he would divide himself into two parts. On one side he would stand alone, without weapons. On the other would be his fully-equipped army. Which one would they prefer?

Thus, on one side there was Narayan and on the other was the “Narayani sena”. The choice was between Narayan and “Narayani”. Dr. Pattanaik said the Pandavas wanted the unarmed Krishna. But the Kauravas, “the villains”, chose the army.

“If I were to ask you this question, what would you choose? Having been told this story, in all probability you, too, will choose Krishna; you, too, will choose Narayan. But let’s look at it carefully. What are we talking about?

“When we look at M.S. Dhoni, the captain of the Indian cricket team, what do we look at? Do we look at him or do we look at his cricketing skills? When we look at the beautiful Aishwarya Rai, do we look at her or do we look at her beauty? When we refer to Mr. Mukesh Ambani, do we look at him or at his wealth?

“What do we look at when we look at human beings? When you enter the airport and move towards the Jet Airlines counter, the only thing that the Jet Airlines Customer Service Agent looks at is whether you are carrying a blue card, a silver card, a gold card or a platinum card. And the smile changes accordingly.”

Dr. Pattanaik continued with the questions. When a mother looked at her son, did she look at him or at his report card? When a mother-in-law looked at her daughter-in-law, did she look at the woman standing before her, apprehensive about entering a new house? Or did she look at the dowry? What did a wife look at when she looked at her husband – the fact that he was a good man or that he had a good job?

It was a toss-up between Narayan and “Narayani sena”. This applied to every choice that one made – the question that always came to the fore was, was the final choice the “Pandava choice” or was it the “Kaurava choice”?

This was what the Mahabharata talked about. It split things with grating honesty and did not even offer an answer because it knew the answer (and implied that the reader also knew).

And, like Krishna, the Mahabharata smiled mischievously, knowing that in a public forum, in a politically correct debate, the answer would always be the same, viz., “I care for you; but privately it will always be about what you have”.

It was on account of such brutal honesty that most people chose not to keep a copy of the Mahabharata at home, for fear that it would disturb them, that it wouldn’t let them sleep or that it would suddenly reveal truths that they did not want to deal with.

Turning to a less popular part of the tale, Dr. Pattanaik narrated the plight of Gandhari, the wife of the blind king Dhritarashtra, mourning the death of her hundred sons in the great battle of Kurukshetra. As she sobbed inconsolably, Krishna approached her.

“If you loved your children so much, Gandhari, why didn’t you remove your blindfold? (Did you think about) what happens to children when their father is blind and their mother is blindfolded? One cannot see them and the other refuses to see them? What will happen to such a child? Will it grow up to be a normal human being?”

Krishna asked her to take responsibility for the war, but Gandhari refused to do so. On the contrary, she blamed Krishna and said that he could have prevented the war. As Krishna smiled, she told him that he would never understand or experience the pain a mother felt at such a loss.

Dr. Pattanaik said that this particular story was not part of the classical Mahabharata but had been taken from folk tradition. According to this tale, Krishna told Gandhari that her pain would pass when an even greater pain would visit her. But Gandhari was unrelenting; she said that a mother’s pain would never pass. Krishna uttered not a word.

That night, as the sun was about to set over a battlefield strewn with bodies, the warriors and others were going back to the palace, deciding to return the next day to perfor