Hierarchy of Rasa-s in Vyāsa’s Mahābhārata: Themes, Forms and Aesthetics

This article will enquire about the aesthetic effects of the Mahābhārata with suitable examples drawn from the text.

Is there a singular, supreme, overarching conclusion – superseding all others – which the composer(s)/compiler(s) of the ‘epic’ text of Mahābhārata (the one traditionally attributed to Vyāsa) had intended to deliver by composing/compiling it? In other words, does there exist a singular subtext of Vyāsa’s Mahābhārata? Is it ever possible to carry out a purely thematological analysis of this text in an attempt to answer the question above? How far can a familiarity with the myriad forms of storytelling and narrative techniques, imbibed with poetic excellence of the highest order, employed within this text help us find an answer to such a query?

In this context, it is also important to keep in mind that Vyāsa’s Mahābhārata has been treated by many influential Western scholars (e.g. by the American Sanskrit scholar and translator of the Bhagavad Gītā, Franklin Edgerton) (Edgerton 1944, 3-4) as a compendium of many texts (such as the Bhagavad Gītā and the AṇuGītā) and subtexts which, over long stretches of time, have each assumed an independent existence and textual life in their own right.

Is then a hierarchical pattern, ostensibly on account of aesthetic/psychological/didactic/metaphysical/theological value, among the various rasa-s apparent in such a reading of the text, especially when one is reading this text in line with the poetic considerations put forward by Bharata and his successors, such as Ānandavardhana? With these questions in mind I wish to enquire about the aesthetic effects of the Mahābhārata in this paper with selected, suitable examples drawn from the text, from the perspective of the aesthetic needs presented to us by our times.

In the award citation dedicated to the great Marathi writer Vishnu Sakharam Khandekar for his Marathi novel Yayati (which has received a second life in the form of an abridged English translation by Y P Kulkarni under the title Yayati: A Classic Tale of Lust), the Sahitya Akademi, India’s national academy of letters, offered – as a sort of justification for their choice of the awardee for the year 1960 – the following words of praise:

“Artistic maturity and a high seriousness of purpose make this work a significant contribution to Marathi Literature.” (Khandekar 1978)

I wish to draw the reader’s attention specifically to the second reason cited by the Sahitya Akademi for their choice of the awardee in that year: “a high seriousness of purpose”. How could the Akademi be so sure of the existence of a so-called purpose of this literary work, let alone the high seriousness that the Akademi took to be its hallmark? Whoever, if anybody at all, dictated such a purpose of Yayati the Marathi novel?

Perhaps, the answer to such musings could be found in the introduction to the novel, penned by Khandekar himself. This introduction serves, at the same time, as Khandekar’s defense for the choice of Yayati’s tale out of so many others from the vast body of Vyāsa’s Mahābhārata, based on his inclinations and curiosities towards it since his childhood days on one hand, as well as a space within the text created by the writer with an aim to set the ‘serious’ tone of the ensuing narrative on the other. The second of these two is where the question of purpose comes into play. In Khandekar’s own words:

“I do not know if I would have written this novel, if in the decade 1942-51 I had not been witness to the happenings in the world and in the country – the strange spectacle of physical advancement and moral degeneration going hand in hand. If I had written it before 1942 it would have been a very different story. I would then have confined myself to Sharmishtha’s love affair.” (Khandekar 1978)

Khandekar further adds:

“The common man of today is groping like Yayati in the twilight of a world in which the old spiritual values have been swept away and new spiritual ones have yet to be discovered. Blind pursuit of pleasure is tending to be his religion.

In the case of the mythological Yayati, the idea of pleasure was limited to that with a woman. Not so today. The whole world, made more beautiful and prosperous by science, machine and culture is spread before us. The various instruments of pleasure tempt us at every step, all the time. Every moment passions are being moved and roused. This is leading to a degeneration of social values and corruption of the human mind. The loss is society’s which I feel very keenly about.” (Khandekar 1978)

Toward the end of this introduction, Khandekar urges the potential reader to keep in mind the fact that the principal characters in the novel – Kacha, Devyani, Sharmishtha or Yayati – are representative of certain values, virtues and vices each rather than just being a few mortals controlled by the diktats of fate.

I have used Khandekar’s Yayati as a pretext to my discussion on Vyāsa’s Mahābhārata in order to foreground the question of an alleged “purpose” of a text, which has been raised time and again by numerous critics, including Ānandavardhana and Abhinavagupta (Daniel H. H. Ingalls 1990) within the Indic traditions; in addition to the obvious reason that Khandekar’s Marathi novel draws its Stoff from the same Rohstoff as Vyāsa’s text does. I shall try to investigate if the content, form and the aesthetic considerations that went into the making of Vyāsa’s text are, in any way, correlated to such an alleged “purpose” of the text. But for that, we have to first comment on the existence of any such claim of a definite ‘purpose’ of this text, as is definitely the case with Khandekar’s novel.

To reiterate (and rephrase) the opening line of this exercise: Is there, and can there be, any one end or purpose which the composer(s)/compiler(s) of the ‘epic’ text under consideration had in mind while composing/compiling it? [I am using the word epic within quotation marks because I would not categorise Vyāsa’s Mahābhārata as an epic. Epic is a literary form, originating and mostly prevalent in European literary traditions and drawing on the classics from Greek, Latin and the modern European languages’ literary traditions, which always has one or more central ‘heroic’ figures; concerns itself mainly with their adventures/exploits; whereas Vyasa’s Mahābhārata has been categorised in the Indian literary tradition and several schools of philosophical thought as a Kāvya (a poetic work), Itihāsa (history) and a Śāstra (a didactic work).]

Coming back to my question; even if the answer to it is found to be in the affirmative, it can hardly be said that an analysis of the text based purely on thematological considerations can be attempted to come to such a definite conclusion that claims: this is the one and only purpose of this text; and “nānyaḥ panthā vidyate ayanāya” – there is no other alternative. The very fact that Vyāsa’s Mahābhārata has been considered, within Indian traditions, as both Kāvya and Śāstra testifies that it was not (and cannot sufficiently be) ascribed one single purpose. Doing so would smell of an imposition of a teleological design, historicism (of the Judeo-Christian kind) and positivism often found in Abrahamic religious literature and emic (i.e. insider’s) scholarship on the same, which has been the case so very often ever since Indology as an academic discipline started producing considerable scholarly output in Europe since early 19th century and later in North America. (Vishwa Adluri 2014)

But, to approach this problem from the perspective of literature and poetics, we are forced to consider both theme and form, as I have already indicated earlier in this exercise that thematology alone may not suffice to pave a path for us in this literary critical-analytical forest. This is especially the case with a Sanskrit text like Vyāsa’s Mahābhārata which, apart from being a narrative of certain events, has been elevated to the stature of a didactic text intended to teach the essence of dharma or dharmaśāstra. This we must never forget in any of our discussions regarding Vyāsa’s or somebody else’s Mahābhārata text; it is not simply meant to be a Kāvya or for that matter, Mahākāvya intended for the rasika who seeks kāvyāsvāda – poetic pleasure, indeed it is a self-proclaimed itihāsa and a śāstra. So much so that in the Ādi Parva, or the first book of Vyāsa’s Mahābhārata, Sauti Ugraśravā, the first narrator in the text, informs us that in the olden days the gods had weighed this tome, only to find out that it weighed more (owing to its depth and variety of content) than the four Vedas including the Upanishads taken together. (Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute 2017)

A didactic text is sure to employ aesthetic techniques, which are capable of producing the desired effects in its audience/reader – as has been the case for such texts across different nations, religions and philosophical schools of thought. Ācārya Ānandavardhana’s Dhvanyāloka, coupled with the Locana or commentary by Ācārya Abhinavagupta on it, has some important observations to make in this regard. It categorically declares,

“Again, in the Mahabharata, which has the form of didactic work although it contains poetic beauty, the great sage, who was its author, by his furnishing a conclusion that dismays our hearts by the miserable end of the Vrisnis and the Pandavas, shows that the primary aim of his work has been to produce a disenchantment with the world and that he has intended his primary subject to be liberation (moksha) from worldly life and the rasa of peace. This has been partly revealed indeed by others in their commenting on the work. The most compassionate of sage (Bhisma) himself asserts the same when he seeks, by imparting the light of his pure knowledge, to rescue the world from the cruel illusion in which it is plunged.” (Daniel H. H. Ingalls 1990)

From these remarks we realize that Ācārya Ānandavardhana (and perhaps the commentator Ācārya Abhinavagupta too) links the human goal or varga named mokṣa with the śānta rasa as far as the interrelation between literary purpose and aesthetic-metaphysical effects is concerned. Now we may ask the following question: what makes the Ācārya-s have such firm conviction about the “ultimate” (or at least, “principal”) aim of Maharṣi Vyāsa in the Mahābhārata? To this the revered Ācārya-s have to say that Vyāsa in the Mahābhārata had furnished “a conclusion that dismays our hearts by the miserable end of the Vṛṣṇis and the Pāṇdavas…” To corroborate this theory, the Ācārya-s quote Bhīṣma from the Anuśāsana Parva as saying:

“The more the world’s affairs go wrong for us and lose their substance, the more the disenchantment with them grow, there is no doubt. (Mahābhārata 12.168.4)” (Daniel H. H. Ingalls 1990)

Keeping all this in mind, I proceed to raise the question whether there are references in the text that might contradict or problematize the theory propounded by the Dhvanyāloka /Locana. For this, I will first look for any such references, within the text, to the alleged purpose that it is believed to fulfil by the end of it. I will then use the premise put forward by the Dhvanyāloka/Lochana viz. the purpose of a text and the aesthetic considerations in it are highly positively correlated, to demonstrate a kind of ‘democracy’ of the varied purposes and the rasa-s employed (apparently to achieve those purposes) in the Mahābhārata of Vyāsa, such that no single purpose and consequently no single rasa has been bestowed the ultimate/principal role in the text.

Let us go directly into the text and try to know what the text itself has to say on this subject.

As the narrative (or itihāsa – which is one the appellations applied to the text by itself) draws toward its conclusion, in the final book, the Svargārohaṇa Parva, the primary narrator Sauti Ugraśrava reappears in the scene to inform the dvija-s (or twice born-s – those whose upanayana saṁskāra has been accomplished) residing in the āśrama of Maharṣi Śaunaka and partaking in his 12-year-long yajña, who were the primary listeners to his narration, about the fruits one may reap from the act of reading/listening to this ‘kathā’. This section of the final Parva is known as the MahābhārataMāhātmya. These fruits, as recounted by Sauti, are listed as follows, although the list that I have prepared here is not an exhaustive one:

  • Victory comes to them who have the Mahābhārata in their house.
  • As the rising sun destroys darkness, the act of listening to the Mahābhārata likewise purges the body, speech and mind of all sins.
  • Those who desire the paradise attain it as a result of listening to this history.
  • Those who desire victory attain it as a result of listening to the Mahābhārata.
  • A pregnant woman, if she listens to the Mahābhārata, gives birth to either a son or a daughter of many fortunes.
  • One who listens with full concentration to the whole of the Mahābhārata, which is comparable to the Veda-s, is liberated from the shackles of billions of sinful acts such as the killing of a Brahmin.
  • Brahmins and Kṣatriya-s who seek liberation, mokṣa, should listen to this itihāsa which is also known as Jaya.
  • (S)he who reads out each and every Parva of the Mahābhārata to listeners is freed from sins and attains the Brahma.

During a Śrāddha, if a yajamān (on whose behalf the Brahmins perform the sacrifices according to the Vedic rituals) reads out the Mahābhārata even in part to Brahmins, then her/his late ancestors are provided with ever-replenishing havi – i.e. food and drink for the departed soul.

Such variation of the fruits that the text claims can be reaped from the act of reading/listening to it, points out a relative balance of importance attached to the four varga-s, i.e. goals of the human life – dharma, artha, kāma and mokṣa, as we can clearly see that there is a prevalence of all sorts of desires (ranging from childbirth to victory to the eternal rest of one’s ancestors) and their fulfilment in the list mentioned above. If we look at another, and arguably the most famous, part of the text – the Bhagavad Gītā, we shall find enough references to this harmony of varied purposes, sought by different persons who are characterised by various guṇa-s or qualities. Needless to say, such an approach rules out the possibility of treating the Bhagavad Gītā as an interpolation into the body of the Mahābhārata as Edgerton et al have frequently done. In the Bhagavad Gītā, Bhagavāna Krishna declares:

Ye yathā maṃ prapadyante tāṃstahaiva bhajāmyaham

Mama vartmānuvartante manuṣyāḥ pārtha sarvaśaḥ

(In whatever way men approach Me, even so do I reward them; My path do men tread in all ways, O Arjuna!) (Bhagavad Gītā 4:11)

Even though the ultimate goal of the human soul may be the attaining of mokṣa, the text makes the Bhagavāna himself utter such words which suggest that people having different set of goals or different desires may attain the same through the act of reading/listening to the text – even the very act of reading the text of the Bhagavad Gītā has been described by the text as an act of worshipping, a sacrifice in itself.

Adhyeṣyate cha ya imāṃ dharmyāṃ saṃvādamāvayoḥ

Jñānyajñena tenā ’hamiṣṭaḥ syāmiti me matiḥ

(He who studies this sacred conversation worships Me by his intelligence) (Bhagavad Gītā 18:70)

Coming toward the conclusion, I would like to make the observation that the rasa-s that the Bhagavad Gītā employs in its literary-aesthetic body-complex are varied as well – karuṇa, vībhatsa, vīra – and even the bhakti rasa – a later day addition to the prescriptions of Bharata, Ānandavardhana and Abhinavagupta. We must also remember that the śānta rasa itself is a later-day addition to Bharata’s system of eight rasa-s expounded in the Nāṭyaśāstra. It has often been described as the nirasa or no-rasa at all, that pervades and transcends all the others; as such it may be described as being a derivative of all the eight rasa-s of the Nāṭyaśāstra.

Even if it is granted, if only for the sake of argument, that Vyāsa intended to produce the ultimate aesthetic effects on the reader made manifest by the śānta rasa without naming or mentioning it, then it may be contested by saying that irrespective of whether the śānta rasa may, or may not, have been the “ultimate” aesthetic objective of Vyāsa, he evidently had to use every other rasa in his arsenal to employ it in the final analysis and consequently create the effects which it is supposed to have the potential for.

So in this regard, there seems to be room for accommodating doubts; such that one cannot possibly emphasize the conjecture of the śānta rasa being the principal rasa producing a purportedly ultimate and singular aesthetic effect on the reader of the Mahābhārata. Clearly, the critic still cannot assert that, again to borrow the words of the Upanishads, “nānyaḥ panthā vidyate ayanāya” – there is no other way – as far as the domain of literary-aesthetic criticism in Sanskrit traditions is concerned.

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Sreejit Datta teaches English and Cultural Studies at the Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham in Mysore. Variously trained in comparative literature, Hindustani music and statistics; Sreejit is an acclaimed vocalist who has been regularly performing across multiple Indian and non-Indian genres in India and abroad. He can be reached at [email protected]

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