Do you think you understand everything that is explicitly written or said? Most of us do. But what about reading between the lines? Sometimes, the true message is not so clear. It has to be carved out from the seemingly dull and monotonous pieces of literature. That’s where interpretations come into the picture. Hermeneutics is the interpretation of texts, especially of biblical and philosophical texts and wisdom literature. We find our lives shaped with our beliefs, our faith and our knowledge of our religious texts. How contrasting will we be, if these texts are elucidated a bit differently? All our religions and associated texts are expounded, sometimes by us and sometimes by our religious leaders. Don’t you think this interpretation is vital for us to delve to the core of the learning and shaping the world around us? Today, my focus is on some of the major incidents of Hindu mythology, though I can guarantee you such interpretations can be drawn from every single religious text from every single religion. More on that some other day!
The Ramayana and the Mahabharata are the two major Hindu texts. The reasons I like the Mahabharata more are many. I find Ramayana prescriptive, telling us what to do and what not to do. On the other hand, Mahabharata is the study of human nature, psychology and motivation. It is universal and capable of constant re-interpretations. One connotation portrays it as the battle between the Pandavas representing our 5 senses and Kauravas representing our rest of the body: the battle within. The story of Rama is an epic in itself but the story of Hastinapur is special. Hasti, in Sanskrit, means “Elephant”, which has traditionally been a symbol of wisdom. Hastinapur simply meant “the city of wisdom”. It is a city whose story, when learnt and understood, gives you wisdom. Ramayana paints the world black and white while Mahabharata is all grey and I love grey! But that’s my personal opinion and you can have yours. One thing which you will agree on with me is that the ending of both the texts is really weird. There is absolutely no sense of conclusion. But the more I thought about it, clearer it became that our stories are not meant to leave us with a sense of conclusion; they should leave you troubled, with more questions than you had at the beginning and urging you to find answers which suit you. Let’s discuss some of the major events in these texts and try to look at them through a different lens, a different interpretation.
It pains me when people translate “dharma” as religion. In no religious text is dharma translated as such. In Mahabharata, it is used in 5 different ways, the meaning changing with the context it is used in:
- Dharma as in varnashram dharma
- Dharma meaning good behaviour; sadachaar
- Dharma as in what we call today “governance”; Rajdharma
- As a last resort, dharma is an individual choice. When there is no absolute notion of what is right or wrong, you take your own decisions and face consequences.
Similarly, we misinterpret the concept of Karma. Let’s take an example. Bhishma’s father, Shantanu fell in love with a lady. When he proposed to her, she put forward a condition- her sons should become the future kings, not Bhishma. Shantanu agreed. Bhishma, being a righteous man, would have been a great king and helped his people. What would have been the good karma on his part- challenging his father’s decision to benefit the society or being an obedient son? He chose the latter. Let’s take another example. Bhishma had taken a vow of Brahmacharya. The princess of Kashi, Amba asked him to marry her. She threatened to commit suicide if he didn’t. Bhishma stood by his vow and refused to marry her. Amba killed herself. On the flip side, when Arjuna had taken a temporary vow of Brahmacharya, he was asked by a Naga princess, Ulupi to marry her. She also threatened to commit suicide if he didn’t. Arjuna relented and married her. These two instances leave us with big questions: What are more important, good intentions or good outcomes? What is more important, being good or being right??
Most of you will not be familiar with the story of Yayati. When Yayati grew old, he called two of his five sons, Yadu and Puru. Yayati said, “I have grown old now. I want to experience my youth once more and enjoy it”. So, he asked his sons to exchange their youth with him for some time and when he would feel content, he would return their youth to them. The elder son, Yadu refused saying that Yayati had already lived his youth once and it was not fair of him to ask Yadu to give up his youth so that Yayati can enjoy once again. Puru was an obedient son and he readily agreed. So, Yayati exchanged Puru’s youth with his old age and became young once more. After some years, when he was satisfied, he swapped back his old age, returning Puru his youth. Naturally, Yayati was very angry at Yadu and cursed him saying, “You and your successors will always suffer and never become kings”. At the same time, he showered Puru with blessings, saying “you and your successors will always achieve glory and remain kings”. You might be surprised to know that Pandavas were the successors of Puru and Kauravas, being Yadavs, were the successors of Yadu. All this makes sense as Pandavas defeated Kauravas and ruled once again. But let’s consider what happened at the end of Mahabharata. Pandavas departed for Heaven, making Parikshit the king. Parikshit was the son of Abhimanyu. Abhimanyu was the son of Arjuna and Subhadra (sister of Krishna, a Yadav). Arjuna himself was the son of Indra (who was not a successor of either Puru or Yadu) and Kunti, a Yadav. So, technically, that makes Arjuna, Abhimanyu and Parikshit Yadavs. Lord Krishna, who ruled over large kingdoms, was himself a Yadav. Kartavirya Arjuna (not to be confused with Mahabharata’s Arjuna) was one of the greatest rulers ever and he was a Yadav as well. So, did Yayati’s curse work? What is more important, being good or being right?
We all vividly remember the infamous disrobing of Draupadi. When Draupadi was dragged in the royal court by Dushasana, Duryodhana bared his left thigh. That action is considered obscene, vulgar and derogatory. You will be surprised to know that in ancient times, the left thigh or lap was always reserved for wives and the right thigh or lap, was for daughters or daughters-in-law. If you visit the temples made during the Gupta era (from 320 to 550 AD), you will find that if the God and the Goddess are in a romantic relationship, the Goddess will always be sitting on the God’s left thigh or lap. So, if you think about it, Duryodhana was simply making a proposal to Draupadi, to marry him and save herself from the impending dishonour and troubles of exile. It was definitely immoral, but not vulgar or obscene.
Coming to the Ramayana, we are told that Ravana abducted Sita after she had been in the exile for 10 years. Rama defeated him (on Dussehra) and returned with his wife to Ayodhya (on Diwali). So, common-sense dictates that Sita was held captive for around 4 years. Ravana, being the king, was the most powerful person in Lanka. Imagine what he could have done to Sita on that island, given he had 4 years!! He never tried to force himself physically on her (I am not trying to belittle the concepts of mental and emotional harassment). Think of the example he set in front of the demons around; you cannot harass a lady sexually even if no one dares to stop you. But Rama disowned his pregnant wife just because a washer-man questioned her fidelity. Think of the example he set in front of his countrymen; you should pay heed to every Tom’s, Dick’s and Harry’s opinions and treat your wife as an object. So, Ravana was the evil??
I am not challenging your belief system or insulting your faith. Frankly, if it is so easy to challenge, offend or insult them, then I see no point in having them! You are entitled to your opinions. The only thing I want you to do is to read those texts, learn to understand them, interpret them in your own ways and most importantly, ask questions. In the 18th Chapter of Shrimad Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna says, “I have given you all the wisdom and knowledge. Your task is to contemplate, and do what you think is right”. Even God doesn’t want us to have blind-faith on him. He wants us to analyse everything and take our own decisions. In Gita, Shri Krishna also asks us to “Pari Prashnen, Pravi Paaten, Sevayaa”, meaning “ask, bow down and serve”. The first thing God wants us to do is “ask”. Let us, for once, listen to Him! I hope I have left you with more questions than you began with!