Dharma in Maha-Bharat – Irawati Karve vs. Gurcharan Das

The Maha-Bharat (pronounced Mahaa-Bhaarat) is simply the greatest story ever told. Even authors who despise Hindu Religion end up praising the appeal of the Maha-Bharat. Witness one such description:

  • “The Mahabharata is a text of about 75,000 verses or 3mm words, some 15 times the combined length of the Hebrew Bible & the New Testament, or 7 times the Iliad & the Odyssey combined and a hundred times more interesting.” (emphasis ours)
The vast span of this great epic is well described in one of its verses:

  • What is here is found elsewhere, What is here is nowhere Maha-Bharat, I.56. 34-35
This is a text that is taught to virtually every single child in India and to a majority of children of Indian origin worldwide.

The Maha-Bharat (the Great or Vast  Bharat) is not a religious story. It is the story of the Bharat Dynasty. It is an “Itti-Haas(what has happened) or History. Besides the story, the Maha-Bharat contains a fascinating description of the Society of that time.  The story presents ethical and moral dilemmas to every character. How they deal with their dilemmas creates a discussion of Dharma as no other book can. 

Many authors have written about Maha-Bharat from many different points of view. We have chosen two authors who look very differently at the characters of the Maha-Bharat.  The contrast between their attitudes tells a great deal about the past glory and the present weakness of Indian society.

Professor Irawati Karve was a distinguished anthropologist of modern India.  She first published her essays on the Maha-Bharat in a book called Yuganta (pronounced Yugant) in the 1960s. The book was awarded the prestigious Sahitya Academy prize in 1968. 

Yuganta means the end of an epoch. A better description cannot be found for the Maha-Bharat. An entire generation of kings and warriors from all over the known world perished in the Maha-Bharat War. By its own account, it was the most destructive war in history with over 3 million warriors killed in 14 days.

Irawati Karve approaches the Maha-Bharat from a detached perspective of an anthropologist and a dispassionate analyst. This makes her book unique.

At the other end of the spectrum is the book The Difficulty of Being GoodOn the Subtle Art of Dharma by Gurcharan Das.  He graduated from Harvard in Philosophy. He later became the CEO of Proctor & Gamble, India. He is now a full-time writer. 

In our series, we will examine how these two authors look at the actions of the various people central to the Maha-Bharat.

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