DSR: First things first. What is the Mahabharata?
AD: The Mahabharata is a great text, composed 2000 years ago, that is so important for south Asians, for Hindu culture. It is their core scriptural work, and so important for the development of religious ideals and practises and norms. It informs the culture at every level. Northrop Frye said all western civilization is indebted to the bible; it informs how we think, all aspects of life, and the same can be said for the Mahabharata.
At its core it’s a family drama about the Bharata clan, which established “Hindu tradition". The Mahabharata claims to be telling the story of this dominant family, and the story that Hindu tradition descended from. It also takes this story as the occasion to record all ancient law, and it sees itself as a repository for reflection on big questions, and ultimate goals; what is the right way to be in the world, the right way to live, ethics, what should society look like, relationships between men and women, social hierarchies, the different roles of people in society. It represents itself as the source of all knowledge. It’s not what you'd call modest.
DSR: Why did you decide to turn your passion for the Mahabharata into a podcast?
AD: I was cooped up during COVID, that’s how it came about. It became a fun way of dealing with COVID - thank you, one of the good things to come out of it. I was teaching a class pre COVID on the first book of the Mahabharata, and it was so much fun, sitting around discussing the text. I had two profs from across campus who joined the class for fun, and then we’d continue talking after class. It was a way of exploring the text and looking at the dimensions; those conversations could go on for hours. When COVID arrived, everyone disappeared. There was a big vacuum left, so I continued on my own with the podcast. It's been a great stress management tool; a way of coping with what has been a difficult time, the isolation and confinement, and general uncertainty of everything around us.
My elder son is addicted to podcasts, and he told me I should do a podcast. I hadn't thought about it. You know, you’re self-conscious about what you say, and your voice, you listen and record it and you say oh my goodness! But then at some point you conquer your fear of perfection – which is a big issue for academics, we like things exactly so, and we like to control what we put out. So, you can live in that quest for perfection and do nothing, or just keep going. One big challenge I had was finding a microphone - they’re sold out because everyone is making a podcast.
DSR: Does the Mahabharata translate easily into a podcast?
AD: I would not say the Mahabharata translates easily to a podcast! It is a huge piece of work, it’s extraordinarily challenging, it is not a linear narrative. It doesn’t follow the principle of narration that one is familiar with. No one is connecting the dots for the reader, there is no way to know how we end up here, and you won’t find out the connection (and you may never find out the connection!) until 20, 50, 80 chapters later, or until 16 books later. The Mahabharata doesn’t make it easy on the reader. It is difficult text, but this was what some of us have been studying for 20 or 30 years.
DSR: You begin your podcast by introducing the Mahabharata as a story that rivals Game of Thrones! GOT fans might wonder how you can make this claim!
AD: Sure, Game of Thrones is a gripping tale with multiple tales, family drama, complex characters, but Game of Thrones is a swimming pool, and the Mahabharata is an ocean. Game of Thrones is a contained narrative, with a finite set of characters, identifiable narrator. It is so much less complex. The Mahabharata is mind-bending.
DSR: Why is this 2000-year-old story still relevant in 2020? What can it teach us that matters in our lives today?
AD: It speaks to universal issues, the dynamics of relationships, human anxieties about the afterlife, questions of suffering, human ambition, human aspiration, the big questions - who am I? What's my relationship to the world? What is the right way to be in the world? It is very perceptive about human relationships dynamics, between those who have power, and those who don’t. How do people try to get power, how is it that some people can so easily go off the rails into violence and abuse of all sorts, and how it is important to live a disciplined life, to live in a way that conforms to a moral code. The basic core speaks to a stoic sense of resolve that you can't control the world around you, you can’t control what people do, so the best you can do is to control yourself, and your response to the world. Quintessentially those are the questions the Mahabharata is addressing, interwoven with a gripping narrative.
DSR: For those of us who won't read the hundred thousand or so pages, does it have a happy ending?
AD: There's never an ending, and happiness depends on how you approach things. In terms of the narrative, everybody dies, as they must, and we move on to a new generation.
The Mahabharata deals with existential questions, of the substance of life. This will always be more or less the same - the good alternating with the difficult, happiness with sorrow. Its purpose is to offer a wise reflection on how to navigate the vicissitudes of life without collapsing into anxiety or despair. Self-discipline is hard and emotional. Self-restraint is hard. But it's only through such stoic self-mastery that we achieve tranquility or lasting happiness.
Arti Dhand is an associate professor in the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto where her research interests are The Mahabharata and the Ramayana, and Hindu ethics. She is teaching RLG369H1: The Mahabharata this fall.
To check out Arti’s podcast please go to her website: themahabharatapodcast.com