Alf Hiltebeitel observes:
‘What the Indian epics do, and what the Mahabharata does in particular, is develop devices by which to construct for its audiences an experience of multiple possibilities in its heroes lives. This is made possible above all by the way they put their authors in their works, and introduce their audiences to the multiple selves of such authors and the nature of their interventions in the text and the lives of their characters. We may characterize this cluster of techniques by Morsen’s term “sideshadowing.” Over and against the more or less linear chronicities and the foreordained words implied by foreshadowing and backshadowing, “sideshadowing projects – from the side – the shadow of an alternative present” (Morson 1994, 11) that is filled with possibilities.’ 
What Hiltebeitel calls ‘the shadow of an alternative present’, I submit, can not be ‘shadow’, because ‘shadow’ implies the unreal silhouette of the presence of a ‘lighted’ real and concrete entity, i.e. implying, there is a central holistic presence creating shadow presences. In Mahabharata, where is that real and concrete central entity except the presence of Mahabharata itself? And even that presence – i.e. Mahabharata – is a supposition that requires overlooking multiple Mahabharatas. Thus, the presence of a narrative supposed to create a shadow is itself a shadow to a different presence. Every such presence is at best an approximation, and any preferred presence at a particular time yields tentative experience which is like a wave in the vast sea of narrative possibilities provided by the Text and conditional, but not subservient, to different reading of the Text. In other words, multiple narrative possibilities are the possible products of multiple reading possibilities.
In Mahabharata, the name of a character is the ‘only’ certain presence, the real and concrete presence, because such name alone is the only constant throughout the narrative possibilities. All ideas formed about that character, and surrounding that character, i.e. all ideas formed to characterize that character, are actually the products of narratives that are alternative presences, none of which is central. In other words, all narrative possibilities are alternative in relation to each other. To borrow from Derrida, all presences of narrative possibilities are in ‘Free-Play’:
‘Besides the tension of freeplay with history, there is also the tension of freeplay with presence. Freeplay is the disruption of presence. The presence of an element is always a signifying and substitutive reference inscribed in a system of differences and the movement of a chain. Freeplay is always an interplay of absence and presence, but if it is to be radically conceived, freeplay must be conceived of before the alternative of presence and absence; being must be conceived of as presence or absence beginning with the possibility of freeplay and not the other way around.’ 
It is also analogous to the nature of a particle in Quantum physics; every quantum particle is both wave and particle, every particle simultaneously exists in the realm of multiple possibilities.
Alf Hiltebeitel notes:
‘the palpable tension between contingency and determinism open up the field of narrative possibilities. At every point we are given the possibility of many stories. No story is ever the whole story. Every version has another version. Every outcome has multiple fatalities behind it.’ 
Given the rich textuality and inter-textuality of Mahabharata Text, it is thus possible to derive different narratives from the M-Text, which ‘narrative possibilities’ I will broadly call ‘Alternative Narratives’ and the ‘Reading’ act/s of a person approaching Mahabharata that make/s the Alternative Narratives palpable, I will broadly call Alternative Reading/s.
It is the Language of the Text that makes Alternative Narrative possible, and this possibility in turn is indeed one aspect of the Language of the Text.
Alternative Narratives do need for existence and subsistence Alternative Reading of the Text or some particular way of reading the text other than the ‘usual’ one that produces Dominant Narrative.
‘Alternative Reading’ is by implication to be constantly aware of ‘Dominant Narrative/s’ without being influenced by them. It is to be remembered that ‘Dominant Narrative/s’ is not always the product of reading the Text or conditional to the Text though its root is always in the Text, but it has its own way of emerging into existence and surviving with triumph over multiple possible narratives. The power of ‘Dominant Narrative/s’ is akin to femme fatale or enfant terrible – or a mystery like the human mind, perhaps because its sperm and womb and nurse are the same human mind.
One such Alternative Reading is Rational Reading ‘Rational’ reading of the Text with non-belief in supernatural matters. Such reading prefers ‘rational’ events to ‘supernatural’ events, questions ‘supernatural’ and tries to find rational explanations of ‘supernatural’ events depending on rational clues in the Text itself, or taking into account traditional rational explanations of them as found in ancient Indian texts like Kautilya’s Arthasastra, which rather cynically suggests political use of ‘supernatural’ propaganda for acquiring, retaining and sustaining ‘Power.’
Tradition of Rational Reading of Life in the Text
The Text itself suggests rational approach to life, which I would call ‘Rational Reading’ of Life.
In Mahabharata, the rational philosophy based on the importance of sense perception is stated repeatedly and sometimes emphatically in the voice of none other than K???a.
Once K???a's tells Yudhi??hira:
‘Those branches of knowledge that help the doing of work, bear fruit, but not other kinds, for the fruit of work is of ocular demonstration. A thirsty person drinks water, and by that act his thirst is allayed. This result proceeds, no doubt, from work. Therein lies the efficacy of work. If anyone thinks that something else is better than work, I deem, his work and his words are meaningless.’ (5.29.5-7)
In Bhi?ma’s discourse to Yudhi??hira Kapila says,
'Betaking yourselves to the path of the good (viz., Yoga), do you even in this life realise its fruits by the direct evidence of your senses. What, however, are the visible results of those other objects which you (men of acts) pursue?' (12.261.37)
In Ramayana Jabali tells almost the same thing to Rama –
sa nasti param ity eva kuru buddhi? mahamate
pratyak?a? yat tad ati??ha parok?a? p???hata? kuru (2.100.16)
"O, the highly wise! Arrive at a conclusion, therefore, that there is nothing beyond this Universe. Give precedence to that which meets the eye and turn your back on what is beyond our knowledge." (2-108-17) 
K???a's emphasis on Sense-perception is re-stated in the Dharmasastras. For example, Bauddhayana Dharmasastra states –
dharme?a^adhigato ye?a? veda? saparib??ha?a? /
si??as tad.anumana.jña? sruti.pratyak?a.hetava? //
‘'(Those are called) Sishtas who, in accordance with the sacred law, have studied the Veda together 6 with its appendages, know how to draw inferences from that, (and) are able to adduce proofs perceptible by the senses from the revealed texts.'(B188.8.131.52)
Vedas must be interpreted with concern to this worldly result – pratyak?aetavas. The same idea of ‘pratyak?a.hetava?’ is found in Vasi??a Dharmasastra (6.43) and Manu (12. 109). Manu Samhita stresses the importance of vijñana? (4.20) . 
Needless to say, ‘pratyak?aetavas’ and the importance of bodily existence preclude the ‘reality’ of supernatural and mythical.
The idea of rational approach to life giving primary importance to actual experience is indeed one of the central messages of Mahabharata.
‘Rational Reading’ of Life, and Rational Reading of the Text are same.
In Mahabharata, the mythical and rational are not two separate paradigms or separate channels of tradition. Often they overlap, even assume one another’s nature, and often they thrive on each other. It is impossible to determine whether the mythical emerged through the symbols and metaphors of representing the rational/real, or the rational/real transformed into mythical by the natural myth-making logic inherent in human nature.
Mahabharata is itihasa in narrative form and also kavya, thus use of metaphor and symbol is imperative. The association, intermingling and blending of myth and historic event in Mahabharata is both an ‘instant’ process – as when composed by a poet – and also a prolonged process – as when one subsequent poet ‘improves’ upon his predecessor; and this process might be owing to several causes and in several modes, which – though not exhaustive – may be as follows:
- Historic event or character compared with pre-existing myth or mythical character. Over time the association has become inseparably firm – either by intention or by historical naturalization
- Historic event or character intentionally symbolized through pre-existing myth.
- Pre-existing myth interpreted newly, and subsequently Historic event or character associated with pre-existing myth based on new interpretation
- Historic event or character compared with one pre-existing myth and then extended to other set of pre-existing myths by law of association
In the literary culture too, the tradition of interpreting Mahabharata rationally is well founded in ancient India.
Bhasa  is one of the earliest and most celebrated Indian playwrights in Sanskrit. He does not follow all the dictates of the Natyasastra, which shows either he was pre-BharataMuni, or his genius was like the much latter Renaissance dramatists of England who ‘violated’ Aristotle’s poetics.
Bhasa’s Uru-Bhanga and Kar?a-bhara are the only known tragic Sanskrit plays in ancient India. Duryodhana is the actual hero in Uru-Bhanga shown repenting his past as he lies awaiting death with his thighs crushed. His relations with his family are shown with great pathos. Bhasa’s Kar?a-bhara ends with the premonitions of the sad end of Kar?a. Though Natyasastra strictly considers sad endings inappropriate, Bhasa is the pioneer of interpreting Mahabharata as tragedy of Duryodhana and Kar?a. 
Coming to Bengal, Bankimchandra is the pioneer of reading Mahabharata rationally, he says: ‘We will not believe in whatever is mythical or supernatural (yähä atiprakõt vä anaisargika tähäte ämrä biçväs korbo nä).’ 
He considers that the Text has three layers; the first is the ‘primary skeleton (adim kankala),’ which he supposes to be of 24, 000 slokas; the second layer has high poetry, but it is mythical, supernatural and consists of philosophic elements, and it preaches K???a as God or Vi??u; and the third layer has been interpolated for centuries, and it consists mostly of the didactic matters and description of pilgrimages. Bankim Chandra rejects the second and third layers from the rational discussion of Mahabharata because ‘whatever is not in the first layer, if seen in the second and third layer, we must reject them as non-historical narratives of poetic imagination (kavikalpita anaitihäsika võttänta).’  (Translation from Bengali – Author).
Kautilya and Rational Reading
In my opinion, the most important and precious traditiona of Rational Reading of Mahabharata is to be found in Kautilya’s Arthasastra. Kautilya mentions Yudhi??hira and Duryodhana and the dice game, other than regarding ‘itihasa Veda’ at par with the three Vedas –
sama.?g.yajur.vedas trayas trayi //
atharva.veda.itihasa.vedau ca veda? // (Kautilya-1.3.01)
‘The three Vedas, Sama, Rik and Yajus, constitute the triple Vedas. These together with Atharvaveda and the Itihasaveda are (known as) the Vedas.’
Kautilya defines ‘itihasa’ as – ‘Pura?a, Itivritta (history), Akhyayika (tales), Udahara?a (illustrative stories), Dharmasastra, and Arthasastra are (known by the name) Itihasa -
pura?am itiv?ttam akhyayika.udahara?a? dharma.sastram artha.sastra? ca^iti^itihasa? // (Kautilya-1.5.14)’
Undoubtedly, Kautilya’s Arthasastra shows heavy influence of Mahabharata in formulation of policies.
One ‘Alternative Reading’ would be, then, to read the Text following Kautilya’s tradition – which for the convenience of understanding and reference, I will call ‘rational and cynical’ tradition. However, this ‘rational and cynical’ tradition is only contextual to the ‘ruling class’ of ancient India, and how the ‘ruling class’ exercised, grasped, retained and sustained power by using and manipulating general belief in God and supernatural powers.
Kautilya takes a very rational and even cynical approach to the rulers’ belief of God and supernatural power of God, and the ruler’s attitude to Love. To him, the ruling class believes in only one God – ‘Power’, so that general belief in God and supernatural, and even Love and sexual attraction can be used and manipulated to suit political ends as part of ‘diplomatic art’ of the ‘ruling class.’
For example, he suggests –
‘Harlots, or a dancing woman, or a songstress may make an appointment to meet a lover in some secret house; and when the lover comes to the house with the desire of meeting her there, fiery spies may kill him or carry him off bound (in chains). (Chapter I, "Causes of Dissension, and Secret Punishment," in Book XI, "The Conduct of Corporations," of the Arthasástra of Kautilya).’
Kicaka-vadha may be interpreted in the light of this dictum.
Draupadi was certainly not a harlot, but to Kicaka she should have appeared so, as despite being a married woman (which Kicaka knew) she agreed to have sexual intercourse with him at the dancing hall of Virata at night.
Draupadi lures Kicaka with the hope of love and sex to the dancing hall and gets him killed by Bhima who acts as the ‘fiery spy’ in this respect.
It is only the absolute belief in the Godness and goodness of the Pa??ava and Draupadi that resists such interpretation. But Vyasa, the ??i and poet has never intended to show the absolute Godness and goodness of any of his characters.
It is to be remembered that the ‘rational’ and ‘cynical’ tradition has its root in the Mahabharata.
The freedom of ‘ruling class’ to do whatever it likes, which includes the ‘power to interpret’ has been pronounced by none other than Bhi?ma, Vyasa and most interestingly by Draupadi.
Bhi?ma once reveals the true nature of ‘bala’ (power) and Dharma and their mutual relationship in a Kuru Sabha witnessing Draupadi’s humiliation thus –
balava?s tu yatha dharma? loke pasyati puru?a?
sa dharmo dharmavelaya? bhavaty abhihita? parai? (2.62.15)’
‘What in this world a strong man calls morality is regarded as such by others, however otherwise it may really be; but what a weak man calls morality is scarcely regarded as such even if it be the highest morality.’
Almost in similar vein, Vyasa once tells Kunti –
sarva? balavata? pathya? sarva? balavata? suci
sarva? balavata? dharma? sarva? balavata? svakam (15.38.23)
‘For those that are mighty, everything is becoming. 'For those that are mighty, everything is pure. everything is meritorious. For those that are mighty, everything is their own.’
In Vana Parva, Draupadi says to Yudhi??hira –
pasya mayaprabhavo 'yam isvare?a yatha k?ta?
yo hanti bhutair bhutani mohayitvatmamayaya (3.31.31)
‘Behold the power of illusion that hath been spread by God, who confounding with his illusion, maketh creatures slay their fellows!’
Draupadi does not see any benign aspect in God’s ‘maya’; the purpose seems to her to be slaughter. Death seems to be her to be God’s only game. If this is her cynicism to the power of God and belief in God’s absolute benignly, she goes yet further on to show the power of ‘Power’- that presages Foucault -
atha karma k?ta? papa? na cet kartaram ?cchati
kara?a? balam eveha janañ socami durbalan (3.31.42)
‘If however, the sin of an act done doth not attach to the doer, then (individual) might (and not God) is the true cause of acts, and I grieve for those that have no might!’
In the light of these utterances, it is thus possible to see Kicaka’s death as a ‘political murder’ devised by Draupadi by using her sexuality. To the believer in absolute goodness of Draupadi, this reading would naturally seem outrageous.
Then again it is to be remembered that Draupadi is called Saci-incarnate in the Text, and one important action of Saci as narrated in Mahabharata is the destruction of Nahu?a through use of her sexuality. If Draupadi is Saci then she must be everything that Saci represents. Indeed, Draupadi bears much resemblance with Saci of ?g Veda. 
The Rig Vedic hymn 10.86 is a unique ‘dramatic monologue’ in Saci’s persona. With reference to this Sukta, E. Washburn Hopkins observes – ‘(Indra’s) wife is the most lascivious of women.’ The myth of Draupadi being Saci is therefore a rational and logical indicator that she indeed could use her sexuality for political ends. (For further on the Saci-Draupadi link, see my "Fall of Draupadi and the Pandavas: Upanishadic Significance" )
It is not an accident then that Vatsayana – in his Kamasutra - names one position of intercourse ‘Indrani’ (Kamasutra-2.6.7). And it is perhaps not another accident that from ancient times, Panchala (Draupadi’s nation) was the centre of Kamashashtra study – a fact endorsed by our old good Vatsayana again.
This again prompts the reading that establishing the Pa??ava and Draupadi in Godhood and absolute goodness might be one ploy (though we cannot be sure whose ploy it is – Vyasa’s, Vaisa?payana’s, Ugrasrava’s or some later pro-Pa??ava poets’) to create the necessary ‘resistance’ to thwart ‘rational’ and ‘cynical’ interpretation of Draupadi’s conduct.
Another example from Kautilya’s dictum will make things even clearer:
‘Proclamation of (King’s) association with gods is as follows:--Holding conversation with, and worshipping, the spies who pretend to be the gods of fire or altar when through a tunnel they come to stand in the midst of fire, altar, or in the interior of a hollow image; holding conversation with, and worshipping, the spies who rise up from water and pretend to be the gods and goddesses of Nágas (snakes); placing under water at night a mass of sea-foam mixed with burning oil, and exhibiting it as the spontaneous outbreak of fire, when it is burning in a line; sitting on a raft in water which is secretly fastened by a rope to a rock; such magical performance in water as is usually done at night by bands of magicians, using the sack of abdomen or womb of water animals to hide the head and the nose, and applying to the nose the oil, prepared from the entrails of red spotted deer and the serum of the flesh of the crab, crocodile, porpoise and otter; holding conversation, as though, with women of Varuna (the god of water), or of Nága (the snake-god) when they are performing magical tricks in water; and sending out volumes of smoke from the mouth on occasions of anger (Chapter I, “Sowing the Seeds of Dissension,” in Book XIII, “Strategic Means to Capture a Fortress” of the Arthasástra, of Kautilya.)’
Men posing as Gods, spies coming through tunnels to stand in the midst of fire altar, use of magicians to proclaim association with gods, in other words, using an expert propaganda machinery by the ‘ruling class’ all for creating the illusion of superior power, retaining and sustaining power – in the light of these, several ‘events’ in Mahabharata may be explained, for example, the birth of Pandava from Gods, Draupadi and Dh???adyumna’s birth from sacrificial altar, the miracle involved in Duryodhana’s birth, Jayadratha’s getting boon from Siva, and even K???a’s visvarupa in Kuru court.
The fascination with Mythical and supernatural and prioritizing them over rational and humane is perhaps a social construct of the ‘big fishes’ to manipulate mass psyche and compel inculcation of ideologies and belief-systems with the aim to perpetuate Matsyanyayam as a one-directional system through a process of naturalization by agencies from all domains of society. It is sustained by Ideological and Repressive State Apparatus – as pointed out by Althuser - where ‘small fishes’ would never be able to turn Matsyanyayam in their favour.
Kautilya in Arthasastra has shown this process, the agencies, and acts of transfer in vivid details.
‘Astrologers, sooth-sayers, horologists, story-tellers, (Pauránika), as well as those who read the forebodings of every moment, together with spies and their disciples, inclusive of those who have witnessed the wonderful performances of the conqueror should give wide publicity to the power of the king to associate with gods throughout his territory. Likewise in foreign countries, they should spread the news of gods appearing before the conqueror and of his having received from heaven weapons and treasure. Those who are well versed in horary and astrology and the science of omens should proclaim abroad that the conqueror is a successful expert in explaining the indications of dreams and in understanding the language of beasts and birds.’ [Chapter I, “Sowing the Seeds of Dissension,” in Book XIII, “Strategic Means to Capture a Fortress” of the Arthasástra, of Kautilya. End of the hundred and forty-first chapter from the beginning.]
In the light of Kautilya, it is understandable, how many Brahma?as and ??is acted as the agencies of political propaganda.
If we have a giant like Kautilya in our ancient tradition, it is really amazing, surprising and shocking, why even in the 21st century – the so-called ‘post-modern age’- readers, performers and interpreters of Mahabharata continue to view Mahabharata as mythical and supernatural narrative.
Instead of being a believer of Hinduism of the Dh?tara??ra-brand, I think it is time we remember and follow our glorious rational tradition in understanding ancient literature like Mahabharata.
Undoubtedly, Rational Reading needs courage, and it is indeed a road – to use Robert Frost’s famous words – ‘less traveled by.’
I think, in the glorious forest called Mahabharata, choosing the ‘less traveled by’ do make all the difference -
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference
I firmly believe that way would be the appropriate way to pay tribute and homage to ‘real’ Hinduism.
Read Also: Why Draupadi is Sachi-Indrani
- Hiltebeitel Alf. ‘The Author in the Works’. Rethinking the Mahabharata: A Reader’s Guide to the Education of the Dharma King. Oxford University Press. New Delhi. 2002. p. 37
- Derrida, Jacques. "Structure, Sign and Play", Writing and Difference. Trans. Alan Bass. London: Routledge, pp 278-294
- Hiltebeitel Alf. ‘The Author in the Works’. Rethinking the Mahabharata: A Reader’s Guide to the Education of the Dharma King. Oxford University Press. New Delhi. 2002. p. 37 Translation by Desiraju Hanumanto Rao.
- yatha yatha hi puru?a? sastra? samadhigacchati /
tatha tatha vijanati vijñana? casya rocate // Mn_4.20 //
For the more a man completely studies the Institutes of science, the more he fully understands (them), and his great learning shines brightly.’
- Kalidasa in the introduction to his first play Malavikagnimitram mentions Bhasa with great reverence. As the date for Kalidasa might be between 1st century BCE and the 4th century CE, Bhasa may be dated between the 2nd century BCE and 2nd century CE. Some scholars opine, his date might be around 5th century BC. The plays of Bhasa had been lost for centuries. He was known only from mention in other works like the famous text on poetics Kavyamimamsa written during 880-920 AD by Rajasekhara a famous poet, dramatist and critic. In the Kavyamimamsa, he attributes the play Svapnavasavadatta to Bhasa.
- Dharwadker, Aparna Bhargava (2005). Theatres of independence: drama, theory, and urban performance in India since 1947. University of Iowa Press. ISBN 0877459614. p. 147
- Chattopadhyay, Bankim Chandra, Krishnacharitra, 1st Khanda 12th pariccheda, in Bankimchandra Rachanavali, 2nd Khanda. Sahitya Samsada, Kolkata, 1390, P- 430
- Chattopadhyay, Bankim Chandra, op. cit. P- 428-29
- Bandyopadhyay Indrajit. Fall of Draupadi and the Pandavas: Upanishadic Significance. Hopkins, E. Washburn. Indra as God of Fertility. Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 36 (1916), American Oriental Society. pp. 242-268
- Robert Frost (1874–1963). The Road Not Taken. Mountain Interval. 1920.