On 'Dharma and Caste in Mahabharata'

On 'Dharma and Caste in Mahabharata'
Caste and Skin Colour in the Mahabharata

I read Rudrangshu Mukherjee's article on "Dharma and Caste in the Mahabharata" (5 February 2021) with great interest. I would like to preface my comments by acknowledging that I am far from being a scholar on the subject and my understanding of the Mahabharata is very superficial.

I agree with Mukherjee's assessment that although the Mahabharata is primarily written within the framework of a dominant-caste narrative some parts of the text also question the dominant system. Mukherjee provides indirect evidence by considering the characters of Vyasa, Eklavya, Yuyutsu and Vidura. But there are also several explicit discussions of these issues within the text.

Let me give just two examples out of many that can be found in the Mahabharata. (Quotes are from the Kisari Mohan Ganguli translation.) In the Vana Parva (Tirtha Yatra Parva), Bhima is captured by a giant serpent, who is actually the ancient king Nahusha living out a curse. Yudhishtira is forced to debate Nahusha on the question of "Who is a Brahmana" to secure Bhima's release. When Yudhishtira defines a Brahmana as one "in whom are seen truth, charity, forgiveness, good conduct, benevolence, observance of the rites of his order and mercy", Nahusha objects that these characteristics "are seen even in the Sudra" and "if thou recognize him as a Brahmana by characteristics, then, ... the distinction of caste becometh futile." Yudhishtira replies "In human society ... it is difficult to ascertain one's caste, because of promiscuous intercourse among the four orders ... Therefore, those that are wise have asserted that character is the chief essential requisite... Whosoever now conforms to the rules of pure and virtuous conduct, him have I ... designated as a Brahmana" Nahusha concedes: "having listened to thy words, how can I eat up thy brother" and releases Bhima.

A second well known example is also found in the Vana Parva (Markandeya-Samasya Parva). Kausika, described as "a very superior Brahmana" is enraged that he is made to wait by a lady when he goes to her house for procuring alms. The lady upbraids him for his arrogance and makes fun of the anger of Brahmanas: "The waters of the ocean have been made brackish and undrinkable by the wrath of the Brahmanas." She then directs him to a wise butcher (Dharmavyadha) in the city of Mithila to find out "what constitutes the highest virtue." Upon reaching the well-organized city of Mithila, Kausika finds that the famous wise man is "seated in a butcher's yard" and selling venision and buffalo meat. When Kausika expresses his prejudice by saying that "I deeply regret that thou shouldst follow such a cruel trade" the wise man tells him that "this profession is that of my family, myself having inherited it from my sires and grandsires... grieve not for me owing to my adhering to the duties that belong to me by birth." And in a rather sophisticated critique of the illusion of vegetarian non-violence, Dharmavyadha later explains to Kausika that "Men ... while walking about ... kill numberless creatures lurking in the ground" and "destroy animal life in various ways, even while sleeping." Moreover, since "the earth and the air all swarm with living organisms, which are unconsciously destroyed by men" Dharmavyadha explains that the "commandment that people should not do harm to any creature, was ordained of old by men, who were ignorant of the true facts."

To be clear: I am not arguing that the Mahabharata presents a uniformly egalitarian perspective; it does not. This is evident also in the story of Vidura. Pandu ascends to the throne ahead of Dhritarashtra because Dhritarashtra is blind. But, after the departure of Pandu, Vidura does not become the king due to his Sudra heritage even though he would evidently have been a more able monarch than Dhritarashtra. The story of Yuyutsu—who makes multiple appearances in the narrative and not just one in Kurukshetra—is interesting because Yuyutsu is later placed in charge of the kingdom when the Pandavas depart while Parikshit (Arjuna's grandson) becomes king. But it arguable that he is never quite considered an "equal" brother to the Pandavas unlike the sons of Gandhari.

Even the dialogues between Nahusha and Yudhishtira and Dharmavyadha and Kausika are multilayered and convey sometimes contradictory messages. Moreover, they can well be interpreted as nuanced concessions by someone who ultimately aims to uphold the system. But the Mahabharata is a complex accretive text, and I think of these features of the text as reflecting dialectical currents in the society of the time. Therefore I believe that the passages above, and others like them, should be viewed as an acknowledgment of old revolts against a hierarchical order.

However, I disagree with Mukherjee when he suggests a relation between dark skin and caste in the text. There is plenty of explicit discussion of skin colour in the Mahabharata and it is clear that dark skin is preferred for characters of all castes. The word "Krishna", of course, means "black" or "dark" in Sanskrit and it is well known that Vasudeva is called Krishna because of his skin colour. But it is perhaps not commonly appreciated that Draupadi, who is the most beautiful woman around, is so dark that she is also referred to as Krishna. The usage of the word "Krishna" to refer to Draupadi is extremely common in the Sanskrit text although some translations, such as the popular Gita Press Hindi translation by Pandit Ramnarayan Dutt, at times silently substitute "Krishna" where it appears in Sanskrit to "Draupadi" in Hindi.

Arjuna is the hero of the story and, in his dialogue with Virata's son, Uttar, Arjun explains that one of his names is also "Krishna" which was "given to me by my father out of affection towards his black-skinned boy". (Virata Parva; Gau harana parva.) Nakula, who is supposed to be so handsome that he has to stain "himself with dust" to avoid stealing "the hearts of the ladies" is clearly described as being "Shyama" or dark. (For instance, see Vana Parva; Aranya Parva.) Drona, who is a Brahmana, is also dark skinned. (For instance, see Drona Parva; Drona-vadha parva.) Vyasa is "Krishna Dwaipayana" but he is just one of many dark skinned major characters.

It is unfortunate that in modern picturizations of the Mahabharata --- whether in the Amar Chitra Katha or the Doordarshan serial --- the heroes are all depicted as having fair skin. This is an unconscionable imposition of modern prejudices about skin colour on an old text that does not exhibit these biases.

Suvrat Raju, International Centre for Theoretical Sciences, Bengaluru
Treachery on Eklavya

Professor Mukherjee’s insightful understanding of modern political history has enriched scholarship and public discourse for many decades. In that light, his essay in The India Forum raised many expectations. In his piece, underlines how the idea of Dharma, forms the moral and ethical core of the narrative of Mahabharata. While noting that it is essentially a Brahmanical text glorifying the ‘kshatriyadharma’, he argues that the ‘appearance’ of lower caste characters in the epic renders radical salience to the question of dharma’.

I would limit my criticism to the discussion of the Eklavya episode. My reason for doing this is that this episode has deep salience in the contemporary political and social churning on questions of Savarna supremacy and the treachery of the caste system. Egalitarianists rightly see the Eklavya episode as not showing Eklavya’s brave and unrequited devotion to his teacher but as a treacherous act to disfigure and disable any possibility of Bahujan assertion and defiance against the caste order. On the contrary, Mukherjee points out how the epic allows the lower-caste Eklavya to make a claim to Dharmic (righteous) conduct while exposing the unscrupulous actions of Dronacharya and Arjuna. He concludes that ‘[t]he epic is forcing readers to think that dharma is not a hidebound and rigid doctrine whose pursuit and practice are confined to the two highest varnas. Anyone, even a nishada can uphold dharma; a brahmin and a warrior can fall from the standards of their assigned dharma.’ He further says that this suggests that pursuit of Dharma has nothing to do with birth.

I disagree with his reading of Dharma as subversive and potentially egalitarian. Firstly, to understand Dharma as neutral and necessarily righteous while very conception of Dharma is that of perpetuating Brahmanical supremacy. One only needs to read Ambedkar’s classic internal critique of this claim to moral righteousness in his text, Riddles in Hinduism. This is primarily because the critique of the Brahmanical caste order is not just its obdurate orthodoxy but of its sophisticated structural treachery. What Mukherjee understands as potentially egalitarian in caste terms is actually what Dr BR Ambedkar describes in Annihilation of Caste (1936) as the sophisticated hypocrisy and the confounding logical inconsistency that sustains the caste system. Thus, the epic of Mahabharata is not signalling the potentially emancipatory nature of an ‘inclusive’ Dharma, but is in fact celebrating oppression and white-washing it. Prof Aparna Vaidik in her work on the Barbareek episode (My Son’s Inheritance) has exposed moral duplicity of this narrative. Barbareek, another lower caste ‘dissident’ who could dilute Arjuna’s claim to fame as an archer of unparalleled skill, was decapitated by Krishna in circumstances similar to ones that Eklavya underwent.

In reading religious texts and epics, Ambedkar’s moral compass should be put to use. Is a narrative or norm furthering liberty, equality and fraternity as an axiom, or is it contributing to its ‘structural denial’. The narrative of Eklavya has only denied equality of opportunity to emerge as a norm and has celebrated an oppression under the cloak of Brahmanical supremacy.

Prannv Dhawan (NLSIU)
Highlighting a Significant Feature

Rudrangshu Mukherjee’s article has brought up a couple of very interesting and important points. Through the examples of Vyasadeva, Vidura, Yuyutsa and Ekalavya he has shown how members of lower castes have played significant roles in the epic. Moreover, he points out that the fact that the last two upheld the principles of dharma as opposed to some belonging to higher castes, and demonstrates that dharma had nothing to do with caste affiliation.

Mukherjee agrees with the contention that it is impossible to fathom an author’s intentions (multiple authors in the case of the Mahabharata) accurately, but he still ventures to explore “intentionality” and presents the delinking of caste and dharma as a possible response to the Buddhist message. What intrigues one, is why this significant feature has not been adequately highlighted till now. Also, is there any reason for this very important point to be made “sotto voce” as Mukherjee puts it?

Yet another mystery is the strange phenomenon of the general reader allowing some of the main characters such as Bhisma, Arjuna and Drona, to get away with wrongdoings. Is it because of their high castes or exalted births? India has even instituted a national award in the name of the cruel Drona. Should our coaches be encouraged to emulate Drona no matter how skilled or renowned he was? Teachers are not supposed to play favourites.

Devi Kar, Kolkata
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