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Date:02/01/2007 URL:

Book Review

Holistic approach to human life


THE MAHABHARATA — An Inquiry in the Human Condition: Chaturvedi

Badrinath; Orient Longman Private Limited, 1/24, Asaf Ali Road, New Delhi-
110002. Rs.1095.

At first glance this book, mainly because of its size, leaves the erroneous impression
that it is yet again, another abridged and edited translation of one of our most favourite
and popular epics, the Mahabharata. Almost simultaneously, however, one is struck by
its subtitle. Expectedly interest is aroused and as one flips through the four pages of
the `Contents', one finds a stupendous corpus of material on, as the subtitle of the book
indicates, `An inquiry in the human condition'. This ranges from a discussion of the
core but simple questions about the materiality of life and its link to the spiritual, the
foundational and organisational linkages of human life, and their intrinsic relation with
the universal whole and ends with more complex conceptual issues of Time, human
endeavour, causality and the nature of freedom.
For those initiated into ideas about life and the universe emanating from the Indic
civilisational ethos and are familiar with terms such as `dharma', `karma', `svartha',
`sukha', `duhkha', `kama', `varna', `ashrama', `kala', `svabhava', `shistachara', `moksha'
and the like, this book provides a challenging new perspective within which this
conceptual world should be read.

For those generally familiar with the terrain but have now begun to want to get to
grips with these concepts because of the sudden upsurge in our contemporary world to
go back to `ancient' truisms, this book should be compulsory reading. For both
Chaturvedi Badrinath has provided an excellent introduction to set the stage for how
he sees the Mahabharata's methodological avenues unfold the complex and varied
conditions of human living.

Inherence in life

The author is not taking the Mahabharata as a text located somewhere in the distant
past. He continually emphasises that this text is not so much about abstract ideas as it
is about a method inherent in life itself, which it does not see as an artificial construct
of the mind. He thus clearly etches out for us how this text should be read as a site
where the conceptual burden of contradictions, dilemmas, debates and contestations
have been played out and thence graphically narrated. And, these, it is suggested, were
not unique to the protagonists of the epic alone but are found symbolically still
resounding our sensibilities in all domains of our activity — be it spiritual, economic,
social, psychological, political and so forth. He writes: "the concerns of the
Mahabharata are the concerns of everyday life everywhere."

Natural unity

Each of the chapters in the book extracts relevant passages presented in original with
translations by the author on the 18 or so major areas of inquiry. It is heartening to
note that all the chapters begin with introductory remarks on the theme being
highlighted and, for both the informed and the novice at the end of the book we have
an exhaustive `Index and Concordance' that helps the reader along.

In this well-presented book two significant points may be critically highlighted

suggestive of why Badrinath undertook this mammoth enterprise. One is his serious
anxiety, and he is quick to make us acutely aware of it, that as modern social scientists
we inherit ways of looking at reality which is flawed as it gives a falsified view of
human reality. This is so because most modern philosophic assumptions integrated
into the scientific method are built on a logic that understands human reality in
polarities, that is, it only enables us construct a binary world view of "either/or".
Drawing on the Mahabharata he suggests that attributes of human life cannot be seen
in fragments and in fact, this text shows how they form a natural unity and wholeness.
In fact, the moment one fragment is disentangled from the other, disorder emerges
(`adharma'), which, in turn, gives rise to violence of the `other'.
Nature of self

This leads on to the second central point highlighted by the author. If inquiry into the
human condition is not about fragments of human life or reality, he pertinently brings
to the fore the central theme of all Mahabharata conversations, namely, that they are
all "an inquiry into the nature of `self' in relation with the other", since life, it is
expanded upon, is all about a system of relationships, personal, social, political each
resting on an ethical ground that was sustained by order or dharma. It is thus pointed
out that from this emanate all other conversations exploring the human condition in
the Mahabharata revolving around the dichotomy of the particular with the universal,
discussion on `dharma' and truth, the importance of `vani' (speech) in the search for
truth, the relative notions of fate and freedom, the dilemma of violence and conflict
between right and wrong as also between right and right, the necessity of `kshama'
(forgiveness) and reconciliation, the issues of social order and bondage, the paradox of
self-interest, pleasure, happiness in relation to those of the `other' and finally, the
search for knowledge of reality.

The explanations on `desha' (place), `kala' (time), `patra' (individual concerned) in

relation to history, meaning and context, and the highlighting of the intellectual and
spiritual presence of women in exploring the human condition are two aspects of
discussion in the book that would be of considerable contemporary interest.

Finally, in all our endeavours Badrinath points out that the Mahabharata provides us a
discourse on the "language of experience" but not without this flowing into the
"language of transcendence" and it is this message, rising up raw history and empty
abstractions, that makes it a must read text; different as it is from others in the tradition
and those outside it.

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