THE EVER PRESENT QUESTIONS ON MORALITY
A READING OF S.L. BHYRAPPA'S 'PARVA'
The first thing that disconcerts you is the age of the characters. Bhyrappa starts almost every chapter by telling us the age of the person. As the war clouds gather and preparations for a large-scale war are ongoing, we are introduced to a sixty-five-year-old Karna. That puts everything in a different perspective. Karna is no longer the one we read in our Amar Chitra Katha; neither is he your handsome young Karna on T.V. nor is he the angry Sivaji Ganesan. He is a sixty-five-year-old man preparing to enter the battlefield. Similarly, we get to know that Drona is eighty years old; Bhishma is beyond a hundred, and Bhima is in his late fifties. You are now seeing Mahabaratha through different eyes.
Bhyrappa’s ‘Parva’ is a retelling of Mahabaratha shorn of all its myths. It is now told as a simple human story of myriad emotions where the characters are ordinary men and women with no magical powers. Krishna - who is not portrayed as God incarnate - is a master political strategist who understands people’s desires better than anyone else. Every character is stripped bare, and there are very few who survive the author’s penetrating gaze.
The novel starts in the Madra region, ruled by king Salya, who would later act as Karna's charioteer during the war. He is now more than eighty years old and is worried about his granddaughter’s wedding. She is still a virgin and her father, Salya’s son, is adamant that he will have a swayamvaram for her and not get her married the usual way of demanding ‘bride price.’ He wants to follow the path of the Kauravas and others where swayamvaram is the norm. Salya’s son rejects the morals of his kingdom and wants to follow, what he thinks, are the higher morals of Pandavas and Kauravas.
The clash of morals, which runs throughout the book, is the keynote of Bhyrappa's magnum opus, giving it a unique color and perspective. This confrontation between differing moral standards provides us with a glimpse of the complex nature of human beings. With each group developing its own sense of morals, integrating various groups into a homogeneous unit - like a country - is a herculean task. Even to this day, we observe these fault lines in our daily lives.
The famous Tamil writer Jeyamohan, in his younger days, once went to visit the legendary Shivaram Karanth in his town (in Dakshina Kannada?). Jeyamohan asked Shivram Karanth as to what he thought was the central concern of literature. Shivram Karanth answered without hesitation, “Dharma. That is the central concern of literature. Krishna Dvaipayana himself has stated this. Who am I to disagree?”. Mahabaratha is always seen as a treatise on Dharma, and of course, central to its story is the revered Bhagavat Geeta. ‘Parva’ is also about Dharma, but how Bhyrappa treats it is very different from the partisan tales we are used to. Bhyrappa is relentless in exposing the hollowness of the ‘dharma’ argument of almost all the characters, which gives a different flavor to the novel.
The central dharmic question of Duryodhana, on which the war is to be fought, is: “How can Pandavas be considered part of the Kuru lineage since they were not born to Pandu but were born to Kunti via the act of niyoga.” (Niyoga is the act of the wife having sex with a third person with the consent of the husband to bear a child. Pandu is impotent, and hence he asks Kunti to perform niyoga with different men from the Deva clan). According to the scholars of those days, niyoga is an accepted method to perpetuate the Kshatriya lineage, but Duryodhana now rejects it. This rejection of Duryodhana would convert Kunti into an adulteress.
Though he agrees to fight on Duryodhana’s side, Bhishma is still unsure about the central question of dharma. He is not convinced with Duryodhana’s argument and travels to meet Veda Vyasa to clarify this question, only to find that Krishna Dvaipayana himself is confused. His son has just starved himself to death, with the reasoning being that he (Vyasa’s son) had embarked on a journey of brahmacharya, and this meant he renounced all pleasures. He logically goes a step ahead, asking that if all pleasures are renounced, why live on this earth? People continue living because they are scared of death. They are scared because of their attachment. Why should a man without attachments be scared of death? Thus arguing, Vyasa’s son Sukha stops eating and slowly dies. At the same time, a couple of atheists arrive at Veda Vyasa’s ashram and want to engage Vyasa in a debate. Their central question is about the rituals performed by Vyasa on his son’s death, and these questions lead them to question the Vedas themselves. Discussing life after death and the land of spirits, the two strangers ask Vyasa’s disciple Paila, “Where is the proof that those who have talked about them in Vedas have actually seen them? How can one believe in the existence of things beyond the grasp of our five senses?” These questions hit at the very foundation of Vyasa’s faith which is the Vedas.
A tired, sad, and confused Vyasa cannot answer Bhishma’s question about the validity of niyoga as per dharma. He answers Bhishma thus, “The burden of that thought had increased since this morning when the two strangers initiated the debate. Before that question, the issue of whether niyoga violates dharma or not fades into insignificance. When we have no answer for the key question, what is the point of worrying over trivial details?” He further adds, “If only we can assign meaning to death can we assign meaning to life.” Bhishma returns back to the battlefield without his question answered.
Women have traditionally been central to the dharma of most faiths and have been impacted by it more than men. The novel explores this aspect in detail. Draupadi is almost stripped naked in an open court with her husbands sitting silent because of dharma. Kunti sees her character questioned and all her actions termed immoral when Duryodhana questions the legitimacy of niyoga. Salya’s granddaughter’s marriage hangs in the balance as the elders discuss the morality of pre-marital sex. The fate of most women in this saga is one of tragedy, and everything hinges on dharma.
A conclusion that we can draw from this epic is that dharma cannot be absolute. There is no such dharma that holds true at all times. Dharma is intricately mingled with multiple factors like the current times, geography, vested interests, and evolving philosophies. Time and again, we see dharma being questioned and the goalposts of dharma being shifted. When Veda Vyasa himself is unsure about dharma, it shows how slippery the concept of dharma is.
Additionally, we see how dharma is used to protect one’s own interest and inaction. When Draupadi is dragged into the court and almost disrobed, Bhima wants to fight but is held back by Arjuna, saying it is not dharma to do so. Yudhishthira is portrayed as one who uses dharma as a shield for his inaction. This makes Bhima and Draupadi hate him and his cowardly actions. Dharma as a written text without any backing action leads to cowardice is what is implied. Bhima seems to inherently know what dharma is, and he has no use for texts.
On the other hand, Arjuna uses dharma to his benefit, which again leads to both Bhima and Draupadi hating his actions. It is no wonder that the only person Draupadi respects is Bhima, for, in him, she sees primordial dharma in action. This implied rejection of textual dharma and the upholding of dharma in action is one of the key messages of this book. The book ends with some women asking a question that stuns Yudhistra and leaves him dumbfounded.
The most disturbing part of the book is the question, "Is there no such thing called dharma? Is everything relative? So a Kshatriya dharma is something that caters to the vested interest of Kshatriyas, and Brahmana dharma is advantageous to the Brahmins? There are no answers in this book, but you do see that some people realize the double standards of dharma. For example, Ekalavya comes to Kurukshetra because he has turned himself into a Kshatriya, for he has great regard for the Kshatriyas. He thinks he must serve his guru Drona and decked as a Kshatriya king, he offers his services to Drona. Later, he realizes that Kshatriyas are no better than his forest tribe when he learns that Bhishma was responsible for him losing his finger. So he throws away his Kshatriya attire and decks himself in his tribal dress, and leaves the battlefield. The constant search of dharma and its mysterious nature leads one to conclude that maybe our own life is nothing but a search for this quality called dharma. A quality that can help us justify our actions and enable us to understand what is happening in the world around us. Unfortunately, we need to search hard and deep for this. We should search beyond our religious beliefs, beyond our humanistic beliefs, beyond our class and caste prejudices, and come to some conclusion about dharma. This is not a search for the faint-hearted. That is why we take refuge in religion, caste, cult, or gurus. This book questions everything, and what is left behind are questions that we have to answer for ourselves. The author provides you with no crutch. Therein lies the success of this book.
This is also one of the reasons why Bhyrappa strips the myth off and gives us a plain story. Once God(s) enter the fray, the definition of dharma changes. We are ready to accept whatever is done by God or his avatar as dharma. That gives an easy resolution to the question of what is dharma. By pushing Gods away, Bhyrappa asks us to answer the question. Of course, we too need our religion and our identity to answer this question, and more often than not, we reach out to the epics for the answers. Bhyrappa asks us indirectly as to what happens if you do not have religion as your support. It is something even atheists would want to look at. Even atheists must have some identity or ideology to hold on to when distinguishing between right and wrong. Also, taking God out of the picture ensures this is not a fight between dharma and adharma. Rather it is about searching for the very definition of dharma. A never-ending search for humankind.
Bhyrappa adopts a non-linear approach to storytelling. He brings a mammoth epic down to earth in a very literal sense. In this book, you see the people sweating, women menstruating, the dust accumulating on people, the war field is filled with the stench of human feces and urine, the major heroes go out to defecate in the open, ironmongers come to the battlefield in search of iron that can be taken away from the dead bodies, the battlefield moving to a different place each day since those who died the earlier day can neither be buried nor cremated and the vultures and jackals feasting on the dead. The story jumps all over the place, but slowly Bhyrappa draws all the strings together. His main aim is to de-mythologize the whole of Mahabaratha and make it into a story of a clash between two kingdoms, and he does that brilliantly. Each character is unique and the whole novel moves on the monologue of the characters. To Bhyrappa’s credit, even though much of the story is told via monologue, he keeps it gripping enough and never lets the interest fade. Each character’s point of view adds a different color to the story and gives us a kaleidoscopic picture that is in keeping with the epic nature of the tale. This is an excellent example of how you can retell an epic and still keep it an epic.
The book is so vast and its concerns so numerous that it allows for multiple readings. For example, it can be read as a treatise on women and their suffering in societies over a period of time. It is also about the clash of civilizations, a treatise on dharma, and a book on statecraft.
The book's sympathetic view on the status of women, the way it portrays the destruction of smaller tribes by larger kingdoms for their own greed, the inability of the elders to stand up to adharma: all add up to provide us a comprehensive view of the human condition and the society in general. That is why ‘Parva’ can justifiably be held as a remarkable achievement in the field of Indian literature.
The English translation of this Kannada novel is available from Sahitya Akademi. The translation to English was done by K.Raghavendra Rao.