culture, literature

The persistence of the Mahabharata

One year ago I was about to fly to Bali, as it turned out in the last window of easy international travel before wide COVID travel restrictions. It was a wonderful, relaxing, luxurious and rejuvenating trip. Part of the regrowth came from the direct experience of the cultural traditions that India disseminated over South East Asia over millennia, and that I have long been a guest in, if never a resident. On the return from the tip on March 5 2020, I wrote this brief post on the great epic poem, great books of stories, the Mahabharata

The persistence of the Mahabharata

(originally posted 5 March 2020)

My trip to Bali – now over, since I am returned from the tropical paradise to the dry urban refuge of my home in Melbourne – reminded me not only of Clifford Geertz, but also of the great Indian epic, the Mahabharata.

As we drove through Denpasar, we saw massive modern statues depicting scenes from the Mahabharata, featuring one of the culminating battles between Ghatodkacha and Karna and another of Arjuna. The driver pointed out another statue from the Ramayana, which I confessed to him I had not read, although I had read some of the Mahabharata.

I took from these glimpses into Balinese culture, for little reason really, that the two great Indian epics, the Mahabharata and Ramayana, persist today as vital, living organs of the culture. I could be wrong, but there are many signs of the living presence of the epics in contemporary popular culture in the Indo-South-East Asian world, such as successful television series and comic books. One Indian, Chindu Sreedharan, launched in 2009 a retelling of the 90 000 verse epic one tweet at a time – the venture still goes on. Reportedly, the Pandava brothers still offer charcter cut-outs for Indian politicians to cast their tired narratives against at each election, and Professor Shubha Tiwari writes:

“The Mahabharata is the bedrock of Indian consciousness. It is an important building block of the collective social psyche of India. Since it has become a part of the social mind, Indians forever try to interpret contemporary political and social scenes in terms of The Mahabharata

Shubha Tiwari, Presence of The Mahabharata in Contemporary Political Narration and Literature (2015)

Is it still the kind of canon that functions like a fruitful, graceful tree, not like the burned down stump of the Western canon? Is it a sign of decadence in “the West” or the American imperium that such a canon has been attacked repeatedly by its own elites, who are now stripped of all resources for powerful social imagery outside of Marvel comics? Does the Mahabharata still guide the thinking, judgement and values of the Indo-Hindu world in a vital, creative way – as Spengler or Toynbee might have put it – that the West does not? Is it protected from the Burning Archive?

Image source: Wikimedia Cultural Commons, Drapaudi is presented to a pachisi game. Chore Bagan Art Studio – British Museum

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