There are countless legends regarding the origin of Diwali. One of them is that it marks the day on which the Pandavas returned to Indraprastha after thirteen year of exile. And so, the festival is intimately associated with both Hindu epics: Ramayan and Mahabharat.
For people of my generation, Ramayan or Mahabharat are, first and foremost, serials that appeared on Doordarshan in the late 80s. I was watching an episode of Mahabharat some days ago- the one in which Gandhari is informed that her to be husband is blind, whereupon she promptly blindfolds herself in solidarity with her husband.
Watching it on tv as a seven year old, I unquestioningly accepted it as part of the story. Viewing it after eight and twenty years, a sudden thought occured to me: was there a deeper meaning to it than the commonly accepted one? As if in a flash, it suddenly dawned upon me that there was much in the Mahabharat that could be interpreted metaphorically (to be sure, Mahabharat lends itself to multiple layers of interpretation).
Dhritharashtra, to this writer. is a man whose blindness was more spiritual than physical. Countless times in the course of the Mahabharat, he comes across as a man whose conscience is blinded by his love for his son. Gandhari's blindfold could just as easily be interpreted as a decision to emphasise obedience over conscience- just following orders- a theme that remains just as relevant in our own day.
In fact the conflict between duty and conscience is a recurring theme in the Mahabharata. Karna is torn between his inner voice and his duty to stand by his dear friend. Arjun too is overcome with emotion when confronted by his very own family members in the battle of Kurukshetra and finds himself unable to reconcile his attachment to his family with his moral responsibilities.
Several shraaps (curses) occur in the course of the Mahabharat, each one playing a significant role There is Pandu's curse of being unable to enjoy a conjugal relationship with his wives. Arjun too was cursed to be a eunuch for a a year- one that he would use to his advantage much later. Karan too has his share of curses- notably Parshuram's curse that he would be unable to use the Brahmastra in his moment of need.
Perhaps the 'shrap' as it were is but a reference to the individual's past deeds coming back to haunt him. And so no one, not even the mightiest warriors, can escape the responsibility for their deeds. However, as we can see in the case of Arjun, even a curse/ weakness can be turned into a blessing/ strength if well managed.
Karna, all by himself, makes a fascinating study, He represents all that is right about human nature: generosity, commitment to values, bravery, will-power and strength, And yet, the same person also has moments when his actions are far from noble: he makes no effort to oppose Draupadi's humiliation. He is also complicit in the dishonourable killing of Abhimanyu.
In many ways, Karna is the very embodiment of the conflict between the right and wrong that inherent to human nature. And yet Karna ultimately emerges as a heroic figure. The not so noble actions of his simply illustrate the fact that no one is perfect. Yudhisthir- the very epitome of righteousness and the son of Dharmraj- is never viewed in the heroic light that Karna is. Perhaps it is a recognition of the fact that greatness is attained not because one is perfect, but in spite of one's imperfections.
It is remarkable that all these insights can be gleamed and debated over for ages. Whichever way you look at it, the Mahabharat has something on offer. If it has the elements of a masala film, it also has enough material for an intellectual discussion that could go on till the end of time. That it can still do so thousands of years after it was first narrated is by itself a tribute to its sheer genius.
This is the reproduction of an article I wrote for the now defunct website thoughtsconnect.com in October 2011.