Room with a View|Dec 15, 2009 2:45 PM| by:

The Epic Novel

Some of the traditional and orthodox purists in India may object vehemently to this perspective and say Mahabharata is something too sacred to view as a novel. But the epic of Vyasa is not purely a sacred literature discoursing on gods, saints and sages. It is an epic and drama of human life in which human nature and life is depicted in all its colours and shades, weakness and virtues, nobility and depravity, divinity and beasthood.

In an esoteric perspective, the main characters of the epic are representatives of the three layers or dimensions of the human consciousness or self. First, is the higher self, which is open and receptive to the higher values and aims of life like truth, beauty, goodness, harmony and the Divine. In the Indian tradition all these higher values and ideals which lead to the mental, moral, aesthetic and spiritual progress of humanity are known as Dharma. The lower self is that part of human nature which is closed to these higher values of Dharma and the Divine and therefore tends towards the undivine or antidivine or adharma. The third is the divine Self, which is beyond the lower and higher self and governs the evolution of the human being mostly from behind the veil. However, when we are able to live in our higher self and open our consciousness to the divinity within us, then, we become more and more conscious of the direct guidance of the divine self. In Mahabharata, Sri Krishna represents the divine Self. The human characters represent the higher and lower self in man. The five Pandava heroes and the heroine represent the higher self, which is open to the divine Self. The Kaurava prince Duryodhana and his cohorts represent the lower self. But in our human consciousness the higher and lower self is mixed together, though in an individual any can dominate his life. But there are also complex intermediate states between the lower and the higher and also the higher and the divine self with mixed loyalties! Characters of Mahabharata reflect this complexity of human nature.

So in Mahabharata heroes and villains are not presented as unmixed good and evil. The Pandava heroes follow the values of their higher self and they are open to the divine guidance of Sri Krishna. But they are not without their weaknesses. Even the most righteous, noble and holy Yudhistra is not able to resist gambling. The most heroic Arjuna seems to have a weakness for women and sometimes tends to be a little vain and proud of his prowess. The strong and powerful Bheema is prone to violence. Draupadi, the heroine is wise and compassionate but also fiery, volatile and vengeful. Similarly, the villain, the Kaurava king Duryodhana suffers from an incurable jealousy and hatred towards the Pandava heroes who are his cousins. But he is also frank, brave, and magnanimous towards his friends and an able ruler.

There are characters like Dhritharashtra, the blind father of Duryodhana who represents the half-sincere and half-hypocritical philistine within us hovering in between the lower and higher self. He has an attraction or affinity to his higher self not perhaps inborn, but induced by the cultural influences of his age or the society. But he doesn’t have the strength to overcome his attachment to his lower self and its desires. His goodness is a little dubious because most often it is actuated by subconscious, selfish motives of his lower self. But he justifies whatever he does with lofty and noble justifications. He can hide his questionable motives and his negative feelings, even fierce hatred, behind gentle and sweet words and behaviour. For example, after the Kurukshetra war, when the victorious Pandava heroes come to meet Dritharashtra, he welcomes them with pleasant and affectionate words and embraces them, inwardly burning with anger against them, especially against Bheema who has killed his dear son Duryodhana. So when he embraces Bheema he tries to crush him to death in his arms. But Krishna, knowing the inner condition of Dritharashtra, saves Bhima by putting an iron image of Bheema into his arms, which gets crushed to pieces!

But Dritharashtra is not an average philistine who is comfortably in his half-conscious hypocrisy. Somewhere in a little corner of his being or in the depth of his heart he is open to his higher and divine self. This point of conscience will not allow him to reconcile entirely with the attachment and insincerities of his lower self. So he is a tormented character in the epic with constant lamentations and self-reproach expressed in pious and gentle words, but his frank and discerning charioteer Sanjaya, unmasking the deceptions of his royal master; says: “O, king your lamentations are like honey hiding poison.”

There are other characters in the epic like Bhishma, Drona and Karna who represent parts of the higher self either not open to the progressive march of the Divine or not able to surrender entirely to the Divine due to some attachment to old, traditional or established values and ideals which are no longer valid or relevant to the future evolution of the individual or the world. So we find them fighting against the Pandava heroes and their divine charioteer. Beyond this psychological symbolism, the characters and events of the Mahabharata may have a still deeper spiritual significance, indicating or representing the working out of the Divine Will in the life of man and the world. In this higher spiritual perspective even the defects of the main characters, who are missioned instruments of the Divine, serve a divine purpose.

But the greatness of Mahabharata lies in the perfect blending of the higher moral and spiritual aspiration, which runs throughout the epic, with the fury, tumult and pulse of human life. The dominant note of this higher aspiration in this Indian epic is Courage and Strength of Character, which communicates itself to the reader with an intense sincerity.

The heroes of Mahabharata pass through many vicissitudes of life and many sufferings, tribulations and humiliations inflicted on them by Duryodhana and his vicious assistants and advisers. But they cling steadfastly to the higher ideal and aspirations of Dharma and their faith in the divine guidance of Sri Krishna. And after a Great War at Kurukshethra, which leads to much destruction and slaughter, the heroes of the epic come out victorious with the divine help of Krishna. The significance of the story to the inner life of a seeker is unmistakable.

Life in Mahabharata

An ideal novel should not only mirror human nature but also the life around. The historic life that is mirrored in the Mahabharata is the life of ancient India, especially of the ruling and warrior class, the Kshatrias. This ruling class in ancient India is in general educated, learned, cultured, trained in the Indian Kshatria traditions of courage, heroism, chivalry, honour. But sometimes it is also rude, arrogant, lusty, violent and impulsive. The Mahabharata brings out both the strength and weakness of this Kshatria class. But the extent of life that is mirrored in the Mahabharata is much vaster than this thin strip of history. For the Mahabharata is not merely a novel but an epic created by a great sage, Vyasa, who is one of the greatest spiritual figures of ancient India. And a spiritual man like Vyasa can see what an ordinary novelist cannot see. He can see and feel not only the outer visible facts and phenomenon of life but also the invisible supraphysical, occult, cosmic and divine forces which act through and behind the outer life. He has also an intuitive and experiential understanding of the deeper and higher truths and laws which govern the life of man and the world or in other words intricacies of Fate and Karma, ways of the gods and the titans and the mysteries of the workings of the Divine in man which sometimes are baffling to our human moral nations.

The great Rishi Vyasa brings all this higher spiritual knowledge and vision of a sage into his epic, expressing it either openly in dialogue and story or symbolically through characters and events. For someone who is inwardly advanced and has a spiritual insight the Mahabharata may reveal many deep layers of inner meaning―psychological, occult and spiritual.

But even the historical life that is portrayed in the Mahabharata embraces almost every aspect of human life―religious, political, social, cultural, mental, moral and spiritual. We have said that an ideal novel must be able to communicate a higher aspiration to the reader and to do this it must be a creative expression of the personal experiences of the author. But is it possible for a single person to have such a vast and varied experience of life from the lowest mundane to the highest spiritual? To answer this question we must have some understanding of the nature of spiritual knowledge of a sage.

According to Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, experiences of a spiritual man are not narrowly personal. He can in his universal consciousness, identify with the experiences of others and know it and feel it as his own, but without getting involved in it or overwhelmed by it. He can also identify in a similar way with the universal life and the universal forces of life. For example a spiritual man may not have any personal experience of sex but he can identify with the sexual experiences of others or with the universal vital force behind sex. The Mother narrates an interesting incident. When she was sitting in a park in France, there was a couple nearby who were kissing passionately. When Mother looked at them, suddenly the joy they were feeling entered into her and she was able to feel it within her!(1) And Sri Aurobindo writes in one of his sonnets “The world’s joy thrilling runs through me, I bear the sorrow of millions in my lonely breast.”(2) But since the spiritual man has a deeper consciousness than the ordinary man he can feel and know the deeper truth of an experience, which the ordinary man cannot feel. So a spiritual man who has no personal experience of sex may sometimes have a better knowledge of sex than the worldly libertine who wallows in it! This applies to all worldly experience and knowledge. A spiritual man, because of his deeper and universal consciousness and his capacity for knowledge by identity can have a deeper and better knowledge of the world than the worldly man. This is perhaps the reason why in ancient India the Rishi was considered as the best guide of not only the religious and spiritual life but also the secular life and someone who has written Kamasutra is considered a sage!

Song of Ideal Humanity

One of the “secular” objections, which may be raised against calling the Mahabharata as a novel, is the superhuman element in the main characters and heroes of the epic. But this is because the heroes of the epic do not belong to ordinary humanity but to the archetypal humanity. They are universal archetypes of human character, temperament and quality. For in Indian thought, human soul and nature are limited expressions of the transcendent and universal Divine. In our deepest spiritual self or soul we are with an eternal spark of the transcendent Divine and when it comes to our body, life and mind we are flowers of Cosmic Nature. So whatever fundamental types, temperament, character or qualities we find in humanity, they have their ideal and universal archetypes in the cosmic or divine consciousness of the Spirit or Nature. The archetypes represent the ideal, universal, impersonal and higher potentialities of human types. In a religious or theistic language archetypes are the gods.

The main characters of the Mahabharata, especially its heroes, are creative representation of universal archetypes. The great heroes of the epic are depicted as sons of gods who successively unite with a human mother to give birth to the six heroes. So the heroes of the Mahabharata tend towards the ideal and the superhuman, representing the higher potentials of humanity. For the Mahabharata does not approve or glorify the cult of the average man. Its aim is to inspire the masses with the vision and values of an ideal humanity raised to its highest potential. It accepts the legitimate needs, interests and desires of the average man but at the same it also tells him “Don’t remain content there. They are not your highest potential or aim. Once the natural cravings of your body and life are reasonably fulfilled, move forward to realize your higher mental, moral, aesthetic and spiritual potentials and the highest spiritual aim of life.”

The Language and Style

But higher aspiration, idealism and vision are not enough to make a literary composition into an ideal novel. If the story and the narrative do not catch the sustained interest and attention of the emotional and vital being of the masses it fails as a novel, whatever may be its other literary merits.

The style of the Mahabharata is poetic and based on the canons of Sanskrit poetry of ancient India, which may not be appealing to a modern reader. Those who are not open to Indian poetic sensibilities may find the long-winding dialogues, amusing similes like “O, woman who has the gait of an elephant” and the labyrinthine maze of stories within stories, boring, heavy and dragging. However, the central story is still absorbing, at least to the Indian audience, though it may not match the taut and gripping pace of a Robert Ludlum or Fredrick Forsyth. The mass-appeal of the Mahabharata for the Indian audience is amply demonstrated when it was serialized for television. When this extremely popular serial was telecast in the morning hours of Sundays, most of urban life in India came to a standstill, people were glued to the television, shops were closed and streets were empty.



Champaklal, Champaklal Speaks, (1976), p.132.
Sri Aurobindo, SABCL, vol.5, pp.136