The basic plot of the epic, the Mahabharata, is known to every Indian child. The theme is of greed, ambition, revenge, chicanery — on and off the battlefield, and a final faceoff between good and bad on the sacred land river plains of Northern India, home to the early Aryans settlers in India. The ancient tome holds a motherlode of themes familiar to us from a zillion movies. And sprinkled about it are hundreds of vignettes, side stories, morals and ironies, many far superior in content and import to what the average movie or novel even attempts.
The Mahabharata is regarded by many as a religious text as well. But it is set apart from similar works by an important feature — an unrelenting element of doubt. Its heroes all have flaws, and its villains are seldom all bad. It is this avoidance of dogma which lends the epic its humanity, and its timelessness. “What is not here, is nowhere”, they say about the Mahabharata, meaning that it covers just about every human predicament and situation. Mahatma Gandhi, in one of his last speeches, remarked that the Mahabharata was the permanent history of Man.
And so it was, when I saw pictures of Saddam Hussain, looking like an Old Testament figure, or a Lear as ridiculous as he was malevolent, being examined “like a cow” (in the words of a Roman Catholic cardinal), that my mind wandered to the Mahabharata.
In the epic, the villain, Duryodhana, who cheats his cousins out of their kingdom (Kuwait?) and reneges on his promises (UN resolutions?) is finally routed with divine help (the messianic Bush?). After his army’s defeat, he is found by the victors (Iraqi Governing Council?) sitting on the banks of the river, mourning his comrades and coming to terms with his lost kingdom.
They taunt him, until he loses his cool and challenges the strongest of them, Bhima, to a duel. A bout of maces commences, and goes on evenly matched with no end in sight. Then the Lord Krishna slyly urges Bhima to hit Duryodhana in the thigh — a clear violation of the rules, but hey, Krishna is God. Bhima after some compunctions breaks his opponent’s thighs, and the wretch falls to the ground, writhing and helpless. When Duryodhana asks Bhima how he had broken the code of honorable combat so essential to a warrior. Bhima maintains an embarrassed silence, but Krishna replies, taunting him further with memories of all his wrongdoings. To which Duryodhana replies with an eloquent flow of invective ripping Krishna to bits (wait for the trial?).
Bhima then proceeds to seal his side’s triumph by placing his foot on Duryodhana’s head, ready to crush it, when Lord Krishna dissuades him (Geneva Conventions?). They leave him, albeit with a gnawing feeling of having been shortchanged, for though they had broken him physically, they were unable to extract any words of regret or repentance from the brute.
I was also reminded of the scene when President George W. Bush and others derided Hussain for being dishevelled and living in a hole in the ground, and for not having fought to the finish. These were almost exactly the words used by Krishna and others to goad Duryodhana when they found him.
Strong words, indeed, from a President with such a distinguished war record! In talking about Saddam’s capture, Bush also recalled how he could never forget 9/11: “thousands of our fellow citizens were killed”. To some of us, 9-11 holds other sad memories as well. We expected the President to rally the country. Instead, as I recall, Bush continued reading to schoolkids as though nothing had happened, and then took a leisurely course through Louisiana, Nebraska, etc., including (it was reported) some underground bunkers, before showing up at his command post some 12 hours later. Is he seriously suggesting that, in Saddam’s place, he would not have hidden, or that he would have fought to the end? It is a difficult question for anyone to answer. It is easy to kick a man when he is down. The pat answer is that Saddam did it to his enemies. Be that as it may, those living in glass bunkers should not throw pretzels at others.
Duryodhana contemptuously calls out to Bhima and the rest, saying he lived gloriously, and will shortly die, and that he cares little what they think of him. “Soon the jackals will be making a feast of me”, he concludes.
Here too the Mahabharata proves a book for the ages. Bush’s taunts were rendered almost dignified by the unseemly hurry of Joe Lieberman and John Kerry to turn the capture into a Dean slamfest. When Chris Matthews cut short Lieberman’s high talk and forced him to say what exactly Iraq had done to the United States to merit a military assault, Mr. Morality had no answer. As to Kerry, he has displayed all the steadfastness of a windsock. It seemed fitting that a day after all their joyous nipping at his heels, Dean’s lead in New Hampshire actually rose.
But back to Duryodhana. Three stragglers from his army find him lying near the river, bones crushed. Duryodhana tells them how he was treated, infusing in them an ardent spirit of revenge. They promise to avenge his insult. One of them is Ashwaththama, an immortal. So too, as the writer Rajmohan Gandhi writes in his book on Indian history, ‘Revenge and Reconciliation’, seems the game of back and forth revenge. In the dead of night, the three proceed to the tents where the victorious army is resting, tired after the war, and kill all the males (children included) in their sleep. Thus does the Mahabharata describe perhaps the first ever terrorist incident.
They then go back to Duryodhana, who has been holding on to life, only waiting to hear that their mission was complete. He listens to them, and after hearing their report, dies.