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Evil in The Mahabharata

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Item Code: NAH801
Author: Meena Arora Nayak
Publisher: Oxford University Press, New Delhi
Language: English
Edition: 2018
ISBN: 9780199477746
Pages: 374
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 9.0 inch X 6.0 inch
Weight 540 gm
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Book Description
Back of the Book

Good and evil, loyalty and treachery, faith and doubt, honour and ignominy-the Mahabharata has served as a primer for codes of conduct to generations of Hindus. Over time, the epic has also fascinated those who love a tale well told. In its telling, however, the story has lost much of its richness and nuance, and the characters have become one-dimensional cut-outs- either starkly good or irredeemably evil.

In this reinterpretation, Meena Arora ayak analyses how the values espoused in the Mahabharata came to be distorted into meagre archetypes, creating customary laws that injure society even today.

About the Book

The Mahabharata calls itself the 'book of rules for the conduct of mankind'. However, the tradition of good versus evil that has been educed from the epic portrays divine apotheoses and I mortal heroes as representative of a priori good, even though they commit questionable acts. But when these good characters are examined in the context of praxes and real- world behavioural paradigms, they are revealed as morally flawed ... By deifying these characters, tradition has created a potential for people to emulate their moral deficiencies.

About the author

Meena Arora Nayak is a professor of English at Northern Virginia Community College, USA. She is the author of the novels In the Aftermath (1992), About Daddy (2000), and Endless Rain (2006). She has also penned the children's book The Puffin Book of Legendary Lives (2004). She is currently working on a book of Indian myths and folktales.



In most Hindu cultures, ethical ideas are generally not derived from theistic commands of an omnipotent God (unlike in Abrahamic cultures). In these theistic models, the original good is God and the original evil is his antithesis, which means that God is the authority who formulates normative ethics and who guides moral behaviors. Hindu ethics, on the other hand, are based on the Srutis, and they are interpreted and understood through the Smritis, which establish ethical values as traditions; traditions, in turn, guide customary law and moral behaviours. Moreover, traditions inferred from myths in the Smritis are inculcated by sistacara and sadacara-moral conduct that exemplifies the actions and behaviours of characters who symbolize goodness in mythological texts such as the Mahabharata.

However, this delineating of ethical traditions through myth creates some of the problems of evil in Hindu cultures, because these traditions misrepresent myth. The myths of the Mahabharata are layered narratives in which truths of the human experience are embedded-truths that tell of life's perfections as well as its imperfections. Therefore, these myths include experiential values of both morality and immorality, which are explored in the actions, behaviours, and relationships of the mythical characters, and in the moral and immoral choices these characters make. Consequently, in the Mahabharata, no character is just an archetype of good or evil, and his or her behavior cannot be held up as an exemplar of these polarities. The Mahabharata calls itself the 'book of rules for the conduct of man- kind', and it is a true reflection of the human experience (Mbh 1.1.41). However, the tradition of good versus evil that has been educed from the Mahabharata portrays divine apotheoses and mortal heroes as being representative of a priori good-even though they commit morally questionable acts. But when these 'good' characters are examined in the context of praxes and real-world behavioural paradigms, they are revealed as morally flawed, and their actions, too, are often a consequence of those flaws. By deifying these characters, tradition has created a potential for people to emulate their moral deficiencies.

Furthermore, not only have Hindu ethical traditions limited empirical proof of morality and immorality that can be found in texts like the Mahabharata, but also, these traditions have resulted from an exploitation of myth's protean nature. By virtue of its ability to evolve and incorporate new and changing meanings, myth is open to interpretations of desa and kala, and also to interpolations by sistas. But this fluid nature of myth has been exploited by sistas, who have used the moral imperatives of the mythical characters 'to mobilize support for [their own] ideological position' (Thapar 1989: 4). For example, in the Mahabharata, tradition mobilizers of varna ideologies have evoked the characters' varnasrama dharma obligations to establish the predominance of one varna over the other. They have also interpreted myth from a perspective that has aggrandized their own position in society. This is especially so in the case of Brahmins, who have portrayed them-selves in the myths as elevated beings worthy of the reverence given to the gods. This exploitative use of the Mahabharata's myths has resulted in customary laws that continue to cause pain and suffering for many people in Hindu society. Moreover, these misrepresentations of myth have the potential to cause immoral behaviours in ordinary people, who generally follow customs and traditions without questioning their moral worth. Unfortunately, the myths of the Mahabharata are rarely ever examined free from the influence of these biased perspectives.

Added to this pitfall of sistas misusing the shifting and emulative nature of myth is the fact that the Mahabharata houses the Bhagavad Gita. This justifies the Mahabharata's view of itself as a spiritual guide that 'dispels the ignorance of man' (Mbh 1.1.86). However, there is a disconnect between the narrative of the Mahabharata and the meta-physics of the soul that the Gita teaches. In actuality, the conduct of the people in the narrative is rarely guided by the liberating doctrine of the Gita. Instead, the characters, including Krsna himself, and those that are influenced by him and his Bhagavad teachings, actually pursue pravrtti goals of trivarga (dharma, artha, and Kama) rather than purusartha, which includes the nivrtti ideals of moksa. In fact, aside from the peripheral story of Vyasa's son Suka, who achieves moksa, and Yudhisthira's occasional courting of the idea of moksa, there is little evidence in the Mahabharata of moksa dharma. Moreover, even the spiritual message of the Gita, which is given to Arjuna as a legacy for everyman, is lost in the narrative, so much so that this very character declares to Krsna in the Anu Gita, after his 'ignorance is [supposedly] dispelled', that he has forgotten the lessons he learnt (Mbh 14.16.6). Therefore, while the Gita constitutes a doctrine which can be seen as a guide to transcendence, its inclusion in the Mahabharata seems to serve little purpose; neither does it influence the actions and behaviours of the characters, nor does it guide them on the path of moksa. Yet the Mahabharata has been established in the Hindu mind as a dharmasatra-a text whose good characters are necessarily guided by both the ethics of dharma and the liberating truths of moksa.

The ordinary Hindu, who probably never reads the voluminous text of the Mahabharata, never learns that its Gita tradition and its narrative tradition don't cohere. Instead, this Hindu tries to see a continuum between the desire-based karma of trivarga and niskama karma of the Gita, between the mores of individual dharma and Krsna's ultimate dharma, between the theodicy of Krsna as a theistic divine and his moral evil in the non-theistic context of the narrative. This Hindu then, aspiring to the truths of the Gita and yet emulating the pravrtti behavior of the mythical characters, is not able to reconcile these contradictions. If this Hindu were able to address the ambiguities of this Smriti's traditions, he or she may be better equipped to comprehend its ethics. Also, acknowledging the discrepancies of the tradition may facilitate a questioning of the ethical and moral problem for evil. Consequently, this may lead Hindus to re-examine their own dharmas according to their own human impulses and Natural inclinations.


  Acknowledgement ix
  Note on the Text xi
  Glossary xiii
  Introduction 1
1 Nagas and Asuras : The Origin of Evil 25
2 The Ethical Framework of the Mahabharata 95
3 Dharmaksetra and Adharmaksetra : framing the Ksetra 144
4 Dharmaksetra and Adharmaksetra : Delineating the Ksetra 179
5 The Ideal of Dharmayuddha and its Practicabilitiy 279
  Conclusion : Questioning the Tradition of the Mahabharata 326
  Bibliography 340
  Index 347
  About the Author 355

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