‘Dharma’ in Mahabharata is a Brahminical Construction, Not any Transcendental Ethical Values

  • February 23, 2021

‘Dharma’ of Mahabharata, is nothing more than a Brahminical construction, where the lower caste characters are fitted to ‘brahmin-wash’/ “hindu-wash” them. To obliterate the blatant caste discrimination and ferocity with which it is practiced, ‘Dharma’ is the ethical ‘veneer’, a modality to justify the essential naturalization of caste divisions, argues Abhik (Mohd.Uzair). 


Savarna liberal academics have always tried to justify both Brahminical patriarchy and the entrenched caste system in one way or the other. The recent addition to the long list of defenders is none other than Prof. Rudrangshu Mukherjee, Chancellor of Ashoka University. In his recent article titled ‘Dharma and Caste in Mahabharata’, published in The India Forum (February 5, 2021), he has not limited his efforts only in justifying the intrinsic casteism in Mahabharata, rather he has used morality and ethics as  departure points, through which one may look into the Brahminical ‘epic’.


While talking about these epics, one must not forget the readings of Babasaheb Ambedkar regarding the constitution of such texts. According to Dr. Ambedkar, what is predominantly known as “mythological literatures” today, were written after the political victory of Pushyamitra, the first ruler of Shunga Empire in East India, who displaced the Buddhist Maurya Empire assassinating its last Emperor Brihadratha Maurya. The establishment of this Hindu kingdom led to the constitution of multiple texts – (1) Manusmriti (2) Gita (3) Sankaracharya’s Vedanta (4) Mahabharata (5) Ramayana and (6) Puranas. So, reading Mahabharata without taking into consideration its context of production, is another deliberate attempt to Hindu-wash the ancient past.


At the very outset of his article, Prof. Mukherjee tried to establish how the presence of “lower castes…. gives a radical salience to ‘dharma’ as set out in the epic”. In reference to few characters, most of whom do not belong to lower castes, as he tried to portray, and discussion of few incidents, he tried to bring in an idea of a casteless ‘Dharma,’ where it somehow refers to a transcendental ethics, instead of being a constitutive component of Brahminical caste dominance, as well as its derivative. In brief and much simpler words, he argues that the caste locations neither take away the ethical conducts of ‘Dharma’ by the lower castes (mostly compliance to the Savarna rules), nor it made the Brahmins and other upper castes infallible in regards to the practice of ‘Dharma’.


This reading of ‘Dharma’, when placed in contrast to Ambedkar’s understanding of Bhagwat Gita, the Holy ‘Dharma Grantha’ for the Hindus, can reveal the embedded caste system and tyranny of patrilineal heredity. In one of his unfinished chapters of the book ‘Revolution and Counter Revolution in India’, Dr. Ambedkar elaborates on the casteist construction of ‘Dharma’. In an effort to make the Chaturvarnya sacrosanct, Bhagwat Gita makes the God (Presumable Lord Krishna as the Narrator) its ultimate creator. For Dr. Ambedkar, “It offers a philosophic basis to the theory of Chaturvarnya by linking it to the theory of innate, inborn qualities in men. The fixing of the Varna of man is not an arbitrary act, says the Bhagvat Gita. But it is fixed according to his innate, inborn qualities”. 


In Chapter XVIII verses 41-48, Krishna tells Arjun, there are only a few who are entitled to salvation. As Dr. Ambedkar points out, devotion to the God was not enough, rather salvation was only possible when the devotion is accompanied by observance of Karma prescribed by the specific roles ascribed to a specific varna. To quote Dr. Ambedkar- “In short, a Shudra however great he may be as a devotee will not get salvation if he has transgressed the duty of the Shudra—namely to live and die in the service of the higher classes”. These varna roles are considered as duties, and by extension, if one emphasizes on the idea of ‘Dharma’ as even Mukherjee does, one can define it as nothing but ‘determined hereditary roles’. In this larger context, we can read Mukherjee’s article as embodying a savarna understanding of Dharma, stripping it off of its caste covalent.


Veda Vyasa- A Case of Casteist Oppression and Savarna Code of Beauty


The article begins with reference to sage Vyasa, known as the author of the epic, and also known as Veda Vyasa for his enormous knowledge of the Brahminical Vedas. Vyasa, according to Mukherjee, appeared 42 times throughout the epic, and there are at least 38 occasions, where his presence was absolutely essential to take the story forward. For example, when Satyavati found that the Hastinapur’s dynastic lineage is in crisis, because of Bhishma’s promise to remain a celibate, and the death of both Chitravirya & Vichitravirya, she called her son Vyasa to impregnate the widowed queens, Ambika & Ambalika.


During this period, Satyavati told Bhishma the birth story of Vyasa. Satyavati was a daughter of a fisherman (presumably lower caste) and used to sail a boat in the river. One day, one of the known Brahmin sages, Parasar, got onto the boat, and in the middle of the journey he felt sexually incited and asked Satyavati for a sexual favor. Satyavati, being unmarried, initially denied. However, after being promised to be given blessings to reinstall her virginity, she agreed. As Parasar was sexually gratified, he asked Satyavati to seek any blessing. Satyavati sought to eliminate the ‘fishy’ smell from the body, and consequently was given a body ‘full of fragrance,’ that later attracted Maharaja Shantanu and assured her marriage to an upper caste family.


Vyasa was the result of this sexual encounter. He was born as a full adult and left his mother’s body, saying that whenever it was necessary, she could remember him and he would come as beckoned. The colour of Vyasa’s skin was dark, as was his mother’s. The first argument that Prof. Mukherjee derives from this story is that Vyasa didn’t belong to the twice-born caste as his complexion was dark and his mother was a daughter of a fisherman. By this logic, the historian was assuming a matrilineal identity of a person during a time in history, when an instance of a simple sexual incitement of a sage in a boat, during a journey, can compel a woman sailor to succumb to his desire. Vyasa was the son of that great sage Parasar, and by every means, he was a Brahmin himself, who possessed a huge knowledge of Brahminical Vedas. So, the caste location of Vyasa is equally important as his role in taking forward the story of Mahabharata.


Secondly, although the  sage Parasar got sexually engaged with a lower caste woman with ‘fishy smell’, he never thought of a matrimonial relation with her, as it would have gone against the basic rule of Brahminical endogamy. Thirdly, Satyabati’s desire to smell better than ‘fishy,’ comes from the Brahmanical author’s intention and presumptions to make the lower caste women to comply with an essentially Brahmanical idea of beauty. Fourthly, the very idea of Vyasa being recruited to impregnate two queens, Ambika and Ambalika was a typically Brahminical choice where the caste lineage matters more than anything else. These counter- readings of the episode that Dr. Mukherjee used to understand Vyasa’s position in Mahabharata, bring out the intrinsic casteism of the epic and its Brahminical interpretations.


Ekalavya- Let the Skills be With the Brahmins


The second incident that Dr. Mukherjee refers to is that of Ekalavya, where he found that the son of a ‘Nishada’ (a lower caste) held on to his ethical duty as a student, whereas the Brahmin Guru Dronacharya failed to do so. This argument, anyway, lacks the nuances and complexities it requires. Dronacharya was the Guru of Kshatriya students, and he was very much aware of his caste positions, and caste duties, as mentioned in the Vedas. Ekalavya, being a talented archer, was not allowed to join as a student of Dronacharya. Instead, he started practicing on his own, and stunned the great Pandavas through his extraordinary capacity to muzzle the face of a barking dog with arrows. This incident led Pandavas to bring Dronacharya to the spot, who on his visit, found Ekalavya practicing archery by keeping a statue of his presumed Guru. Dronacharya, feeling the risk of losing his promise to his other student, the Kshatriya Arjuna, that he would be the finest archer in the universe, played one of the most brutal tricks, and asked for Ekalavya’s thumb.


Historian Audrey Truschke rightly points out “Internalising the caste prejudice that condemned him, Ekalavya cut off his thumb and was never a threat to Arjuna again.” Her reading of Mahabharata as an ancient resource to get glimpses of history led her to comment, “The Mahabharata represents a world of caste and class, where bloodline determines identity. Many characters try to break out of the bonds of lineage, but they usually fail in the end.” The fixity of caste system is so inherent that any effort to morally constitute ‘Dharma,’ transcending the immediate caste identity, thus, can be read as nothing but privileged Savarna imagination of a casteless ancient ‘India’.


Dronacharya’s fear that Arjun may lose his feat to a lower caste archer, was the driving force behind his actions. It had nothing to do with a guru’s failed ‘Dharma’ and the lower caste Ekalavya’s ethics as a student. Reading Eklavya’s story as a case of ethical corruption on the part of Dronacharya, along with his desire to build out of his own son Ashwathama, an archer who would even be far superior than Arjuna, and therefore, should receive separate training, is nothing except a deliberate omission of the question of caste oppression. Drona’s inclination towards Ashwathama, and his interest to make him the greatest archer, had more to do with his love for the clan, than a function of his despicable moral values. ‘Dharma’ of a Brahmin, in Mahabharata, then, is dictated by its inherent caste ideology, and is performed through caste oppression. It is neither an ethical quest, nor a larger moral question.


In this context, one might think of the words of the twentieth century Marathi Dalit poet Shashikant Hingonekar:


“If you had kept your thumb
history would have happened
somewhat differently.
But … you gave your thumb
and history also
became theirs.
Ekalavya, since that day they have not even given you a glance.
Forgive me, Ekalavya, I won’t be fooled now by their sweet words.
My thumb will never be broken”

Had Ekalavya denied cutting the thumb and had read the caste atrocity inherent in Dronacharya’s very demand, history perhaps would have been different. Creating a high moral ground for ‘sacrifice’ is another Brahminical trope that wants the lower castes to sacrifice and dedicate their lives in the services of the Savarnas. This is also precisely the notion of “Dharma” that Mukherjee holds on to in his commentary. 


Yuyutsu- Whose ethics is it anyway?


In yet another incident, he referred to Yuyutsu, who joined forces with the Pandavas, because it is with them, rather than the other side, that the “Dharma” lies. Yuyutsu shifted his side, when Yudhisthir gave the call to Kauravas, for a voluntary change of position. Yuyutsu’s belief in ‘Dharma,’ and his show of moral courage to leave Kauravas at the final moment, has been shown by Dr. Mukherjee as an instance of a superior ethical position.


Without questioning the presumption that how Dharma (ethics, as Mukherjee wants to show) lies with the Pandavas, the author primarily relies upon the prevalent Brahminical interpretations of the text. Secondly, he brings out Yuyutsu’s caste position, which further complicates the situation. Yuyutsu was born out of the sexual liaisons between the King Dhritarashtra, and one of his caretakers (read ‘slaves’). Neither do we know if the woman who gave birth to Yuyutsu, consented to this relationship, nor do we know much about her position in the kingdom. The erasure of the details of her life from the text, provides testament to the fact that hers was a case of absolute caste exploitation as is habitual and prevalent within a kingdom ruled by Brahmanical political and social ethos of domination. Within such ethos, it was the right of a Kshatriya king to lay claim over the body of a lower caste woman, who originally had recruited for taking care of the blind king who sired Yuyutsu.


Thirdly, the caste position of Yuyutsu, as exemplified in the epic was ambiguous at best. As the son of a Kshatriya king, he was, according to the norms of   the patrilineal order, a Kshatriya himself. Consequently, when Mukherjee states that though Bhishma, Drona and other Brahmin and Kshatriya Kaurav leaders couldn’t get out of the trap of ‘Artha’, but it was a son of a lower caste woman who could, and did cross the line for the sake of  morality, the Brahminical presumptions regarding the ethical positions of the lower caste become evident. Brahminical perceptions do not allow for any qualitatively different ethical and moral position to the lower castes, and thus it always presumes infallibility of Savarna morals, within which the lower caste characters always revolve. When such Savarna morals prove to be fallen, the whole issue of ethical and moral position becomes a matter of arguments and contentions.


Vidur- What does ‘Dharma’ constitute of? 


Mukherjee’s last case study is that of Vidur, who was also born out of a non-matrimonial relationship between Vyasa and a slave. When Vyasa was called by Satyavati to impregnate the queens, Ambika became afraid, and closed her eyes, leading to the birth of the blind king Dhritarashtra. Ambalika, in fear, became yellow, and gave birth to the yellow king Pandu. So, Satyavati asked Ambika to go to Vyasa another time, shedding her fear. Ambika, instead of going herself, sent one of her slaves, who eventually became the mother of Vidur, who was blessed to become the ethical emblem of the time. As the epic mentions, he was the God ‘Dharma’ himself, who came as a human to serve a curse. On the other hand, Kunti’s son Yudisthir was the son of God ‘Dharma’. So, in this context, Dr. Mukherjee opines that Vidura, despite being born from a womb of a lower caste mother, was an embodiment of ‘Ethics,’ thus challenging the very confinement of ‘Dharma’ amongst the Brahmins. Here, he also mentions a case where Vidur and Yudisthir had a secret interaction in Prakrit, the language of the lower castes to avoid others understanding what they were talking about. Here, the blatant casteism of the epic society is manifested in the different languages used by different castes, and provides us a glimpse into the still-prevalent dangerously exclusionist Brahminical attitude, that still underlines every aspect of our social lives.


The whole analysis concludes with a sort of ‘Karmik’ (Out of ‘Karma’) conclusion, where the Professor – Dr. Mukherjee – writes how, within the epic, it is the work of the individuals that make them significant, not their births. Several reverberations of caste system, “natural” duty of specific castes in Bhagavad Gita, as I mentioned in the beginning, finds a new expression in the words of Mukherjee. The ethical positions, as claimed by the author, taken by the lower caste characters in Mahabharata, neither make them ‘caste-less’, nor give them any moral, material or physical superiority in a Brahminical reading. At the very first place, one must argue what is ‘Dharma’? By whose sanctions and for whose interests, the codes of ‘Dharma’ are written? The Savarna construction of Dharma is just a branch of casteist ethics- to uphold it as a measurer of moral value itself is Brahminical.


So, Dharma of Mahabharata, as I argued, is nothing more than a Brahminical construction, where the lower caste characters are fitted to ‘brahmin-wash’/ “hindu-wash” them. To obliterate the blatant caste discrimination and ferocity with which it is practiced, ‘Dharma’ is the ethical ‘veneer’, a modality to justify the essential naturalization of caste divisions. The foremost necessity, right now, is to deny and challenge that gaze and read it the way it is- a Brahminical text that justifies numerous forms of  caste and sexual exploitation.


 Abhik (Mohd. Uzair) is currently a Doctoral fellow at School of Liberal Studies, Ambedkar University Delhi. The views and opinions expressed in the article are the author’s own.

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