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Columns

If We Hadn’t: Grief and Hypothetical Realities in the Mahabharata

By Pranati P. Parikh, Contributing Opinion Writer
Pranati P. Parikh ‘21 is a joint Religion and Comparative Literature concentrator in Adams House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

There’s a strange comfort in discovering that the bedtime stories my parents chose to tell me often came from one of the longest epics in the world: the “Mahabharata.” The “Mahabharata” is a fourth-century BCE Sanskrit poem traditionally attributed to Vyasa, and its stories permeate the Hindu tradition. It’s about a fratricidal war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas over the kingdom of Hastinapura, and narrates the intertwining fates of these clans and their successors. Part of the comfort is that the “Mahabharata” is long — about seven times the Iliad and Odyssey combined — and thus an endless ravine for a wandering mind.

More central, though, is the scale and texture of the epic’s violence and loss, and the fact that it always seems to engage with my contemporary predicaments. In the end, even in triumph, every insult, favor, disguise, and promise matters—sometimes with catastrophic consequences. When the war has run its course, the battlefield is described as a river of blood where pebbles are severed heads. The casualties are not just enormous; they are total.

This irreversible tragedy is what Yudhishthira, the eldest Pandava brother, stands to inherit. On the verge of abandoning the kingdom, and even fasting unto death, Yudhishthira turns to his grandfather, Bhishma, who is known for his prophetic scriptural wisdom. However, Yudhishthira’s first question has nothing to do with sacred text. He simply asks why he can’t shake the sadness of having caused so much carnage. Why, he asks, does victory feel so much like defeat? What if we hadn’t? What if we had? Would things be different?

The “Mahabharata” isn’t exactly describing a pandemic, or national political upheaval, but it does speak to a reality we experience this year: widespread death, injustice, confusion, and uncertainty about the future in a peculiarly fatalistic way. That is to say, like in the “Mahabharata,” we can trace the causes and effects of many tragedies. The spread of coronavirus is exacerbated by those who do not wear masks or take precautions, for instance. Racial inequities are perpetuated by insidious systemic biases and ignorant people. Increased carbon dioxide emissions and an aggravated atmosphere make forest fires more likely. We know why things happen, and even if we can’t explain how the mechanisms got started in the first place, we can think of lots of ways in which the world could have been, or could still be, better. Yet, months, even years, of decisions keep catching up with us.

Sometimes, we are powerless — or too tired — to overcome their consequences. I think it is the whopping burden of this fact that makes a concept like radical forgiveness or love — the idea that all of that sediment might just get washed away — so appealing. But sometimes ubiquitous statements don’t help. For instance, Bhishma speaks of a paradigm in which all living things must eventually die before they are reborn, and therefore deaths should not be grieved. Unsurprisingly, Yudhishthira’s grief resists that logic. Why, after all, should the fact that all that is born must die diminish Yudhishthira’s grief for the deaths of his own brother, sons, and nephews? Time may indeed be cyclical, and fate may turn the wheel to happier times only to fall into misery later, but our lives feel no less real. Yudhishthira teaches us that we do not grieve in generalities, and therefore generalities cannot vanish grief.

Grief is as much a multidimensional condition as a mental state, and one of Yudhishthira’s final questions to Bhishma reflects his transformed reality. He asks: Which is a better means of knowing, direct perception, or scriptural authority? The question has some technical philosophical meanings, but we can interpret it variously: Should I trust my experiences, or the wisdom of those who have lived before me? Should I dwell in my grief, or reason myself out of it? Bhishma’s response is this: to the extent that there are limits to reason, seek guidance. And, your experiences are uniquely yours, so don’t expect them to adhere to the paths of those who came before. The response is circular, but it’s a circle that encloses Yudhishthira and propels him forward. Let go, not because the primeval wheel is turning, but because your wheel is turning. The decisions are catching up to us, but there are still opportunities for us as individuals — ballots, masks, our relationships — to make new ones.

It would be silly to say that afterwards, Yudhishthira stops grieving. He doesn’t really ever forget — or stop experiencing — the consequences of the war. The “Mahabharata” gives us a semblance of a happy ending, but it never lets us forget our grief, and in that way doesn’t end at all. For now, as the pandemic evolves, and as the state of the nation remains in flux, we remember the same: grief is particular but permeating, painful but permeable. Its contradictions ultimately deliver us from it.

Pranati P. Parikh ‘21 is a joint Religion and Comparative Literature concentrator in Adams House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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