Mahabharata in the time of COVID-19

Draupadi Ka Danda — HimalayanPeak — Garhwal,India — Wikimedia Commons (AmarChandra)

We frequently turn to literature to find analogies for situations that we find ourselves in, both as individuals and as communities. Literature can perhaps provide guidance or a mental model that helps us to deal with situations that may be hard to process rationally or emotionally. In the context of Indian literature, frequently it is the Mahābhārata to which people turn to find an analogy for a situation in their life or in society.

After they lose everything to their Kaurava cousins in the game of dice, Draupadī and the five Pāṇḍava brothers are forced into a long period of exile in the forest. They are at once isolated from the urban landscape and social world that they have known, in a way which perhaps parallels our predicament of social isolation. This initially propels them into a state of some uncertainty, anxiety and confusion about what their immediate future will now look like, just as the COVID-19 situation does for us.

As Draupadī and the five Pāṇḍava brothers settle into their new pattern of life, they are in a sense quarantined from the urban society they know, and a certain amount of tension naturally arises. Draupadī and Bhīma in particular find it difficult to hide their impatience and extreme frustration about having their life and freedom constrained in such a fashion. (Interestingly, these were also the two who spoke out in protest during the game of dice itself.)

As Draupadī realises that Yudhiṣṭhira is quite content to live the simple stay-home lifestyle, and has no particular desire for things to change, she confronts him in the following words –

“The evil, wicked and sinful son of Dhṛtarāṣṭra [viz. Duryodhana] is not troubled that you and I, together with your brothers, have set out for the woods dressed in animal-skins without saying a word, as that evil and foolish person doesn’t repent. The heart of that evil-doer is certainly made of iron, that he could talk to you, a supremely moral person, in such a cruel way … O Bhārata, seeing you covered in mud and dirt, I am seriously confused … Why doesn’t your rage swell up at the right moment, thinking about this Bhīmasena, living with difficulty in the woods? … For even now he is powerful enough to slay all the Kurus.”

[Mahābhārata 3.28 (part); my own translation]

Draupadī continues in this vein for some time, urging Yudhiṣṭhira to realise that the time is right to take his revenge on Duryodhana and his brothers through war, concluding as follows –

“[People are] indifferent to gentle [treatment]; people fear the fierce. A king is one who knows the right time for each of these.”

[Mahābhārata 3.29 (extracts); my own translation]

Yudhiṣṭhira immediately replies by rejecting Draupadī’s viewpoint, condemning the expression of anger and praising the virtue of forgiveness, as follows –

Know this, wise one, that both making and unmaking are rooted in anger. To explain, excellent one, controlling anger is the making of a person, whereas not controlling anger is the unmaking of a person … Knowing this, Draupadī, I don’t get angry … The angry person does not perceive what should be done nor what is within the bounds of morality … To explain, powerful qualities such as intelligence, heroism and speed cannot truly be got by [someone who is] overcome by anger … An angry person cannot [exhibit their] power at the right time … Were there not those among men who are as patient as the earth, there would be no peace among men but only strife rooted in anger … Suyodhana (sic.) is not worthy, hence he does not know patience. I however am worthy hence I know patience. This is the behaviour of the self-possessed; eṣa dharmaḥ sanātana. Truly, I will be patient and kind.”

[Mahābhārata 3.30 (extracts); my own translation]

Draupadī however is not at all convinced. In a powerful speech, she claims that Yudhiṣṭhira’s thinking has been confused by Dhātā and Vidhātā. These seem to be the names of two separate but closely connected gods who control the fate of humans in a somewhat deterministic way. Draupadī claims that Yudhiṣṭhira’s thinking is out-of-line with that of all his ancestors. Draupadī famously states –

“I have heard from religious people that “Dharma protects those who protect it”; however, you are king and a protector of dharma yet I think dharma does not protect you.”

[Mahābhārata 3.31.7; my own translation]

Draupadī finishes her speech by arguing that even if one believes in fate and the karmic consequences of action, it is best for Yudhiṣṭhira to act autonomously. For, if some ordainer of fate has determined that wicked Duryodhana should prosper, then the negative karmic consequences of any activities committed by Yudhiṣṭhira against that pre-ordained outcome would attach to the one who decided in favour of Duryodhana rather than to Yudhiṣṭhira himself.

Yudhiṣṭhira however is again unmoved by these passionate exhortations of Draupadī, and doubles down on his own outlook on the situation. Indeed, the debate between Yudhiṣṭhira and Draupadī continues for some time, and with some depth of philosophical and psychological insight. Bhīma too joins the debate, expressing his own point of view on the matter. This does cause Yudhiṣṭhira to stop and reflect deeply on the matter, but it seems that the debate is fundamentally unresolved at the end of the discussion. Indeed for the modern reader too, the conversation which has been only briefly surveyed above leaves many perplexities about the right way to determine the course of action and the right time to take action, for Yudhiṣṭhira in the situation he found himself in, as well as for us in taking action to combat COVID-19.

Indeed, just as with COVID-19, in the Mahābhārata too, characters struggle to adapt to new situations and new information that casts things in a different light. Similarly too, there are early warning signs that are not fully heeded, such as the tension between Pāṇḍava brothers and Kaurava brothers, as well as impulsive and reckless actions by a section of the society. The ultimate outcome of the Mahābhārata too, sad to say, is a high death-count and a sense that the world has changed fundamentally and not for the better.

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