Apart from being a profound spiritual and philosophical commentary, the Mahabharatam is deeply humane in its treatment of the ephemeral pleasures of life.
Dr. Kausik Gangopadhyay is an Associate Professor in the area of Economics at the Indian Institute of Management, Kozhikode. An Economist by training, Humanist in yearning, he is interested in Dharma, Culture & Civilisation. Twitter Handle: @KausikGy
The Mahābhāratam is a synthesis of various aspects of human life. It is not merely a dry discourse of philosophies, but a lively presentation of a well-written, psychologically rich drama of human dilemmas. Fun and humour are integral parts of human life, which find their due accord in this epic. Many key moments of this epic happen in the “fun times”, so to speak.
How was fun like at the time of the Mahābhāratam? Who remembers not the famous dice game played between Shakuni and Yudhishthira? It was a great source of entertainment at the time. The game involved chance, strategy and a battle of the minds. You add gambling to this and it becomes even more heady and enticing. No wonder even a calm-headed person like Yudhishthira fell for it!
Along with this indoor fun, comes the outdoor activity of hunting, which was particularly popular among the warrior class (the Kshatriyas). Shāntanu, the exalted king of Hastināpura, was the father of Bhishma, the grandsire of Mahābhāratam. His favourite hobby was hunting. Out in the woods, not only did he chase and hunt the fast pacing animals, but also happened to meet his first wife Gangā during one of his hunting expeditions in his prime years. They immediately fell in love with each other. The romance between Shāntanu and the ever so mysterious Gangā lasted for quite some time. Eventually, it ended with Gangā walking out of their marriage. A long time passed before Shāntanu, having added a few decades to his age, found his new love interest Satyavati while he was out on a hunting expedition again.
Hunting was a fairly expensive hobby to cultivate and not everyone could afford that. For the women, hunting was practically prohibited. However, outings and picnics were quite common. We find Arjuna and Subhadrā falling in love with each other in one such outing outside Dwārakā. The Kuru princes, both Pāndavas and Kauravas, had gone on a picnic with their teacher Drone. There was a pet dog with them too, who kept barking incessantly, thereby disturbing Ekalavya, an extremely talented and devoted student of archery. Eklavya shut the mouth of the dog with his arrows without wounding the poor creature. The fun atmosphere of the picnic eventually evaporated when Drone demanded the right thumb of Ekalavya.
How was the state of affairs in those picnics? Vaisampayana narrates the story to Janamejaya, a descendant of Arjuna, who is referred to as Bhārata:
“After a few days, Vibhatsu [Arjuna], addressing Krishna, said, ‘The summer days have set in, O Krishna! Therefore, let us go to the banks of the Yamuna. O slayer of Madhu [Krishna], sporting there in the company of friends, we will, O Janārdana [Krishna], return in the evening’. Thereupon Vāsudeva [Krishna] said, 'O son of Kunti [Arjuna], this is also my wish. Let us, O Pārtha [Arjuna], sport in the waters as we please, in the company of friends.'
Vaisampayana continued, ‘Then, O Bhārata, having consulted thus with each other, Pārtha and Govinda [Krishna], with Yudhishthira's leave, set out, surrounded by friends. Reaching a fine spot (on the banks of the Yamuna) suitable for purposes of pleasure, overgrown with numerous tall trees and covered with several high mansions that made the place look like the celestial city and within which had been collected for Krishna and Pārtha numerous costly and well-flavoured viands and drinks and other articles of enjoyment and floral wreaths and various perfumes, the party entered without delay the inner apartments adorned with many precious gems of pure rays. Entering those apartments, everybody, O Bhārata, began to sport, according to his pleasure. The women of the party, all of full rotund hips and deep bosoms and handsome eyes, and gait unsteady with wine began to sport there at the command of Krishna and Pārtha. Some amongst the women sported as they liked in the woods, some in the waters, and some within the mansions, as directed by Pārtha and Govinda. Draupadi and Subhadrā, exhilarated with wine, began to give away unto the women so sporting, their costly robes and ornaments. And some amongst those women began to dance in joy, and some began to sing; and some amongst them began to laugh and jest, and some to drink excellent wines. Some began to obstruct one another's progress and some to fight with one another, and to discourse with one another in private. Those mansions and the woods, filled with the charming music of flutes and guitars and kettledrums, became the scene of Prosperity personified.” - Mahabharata Book 1, Section CCXXIV, Translated by Kisari Mohan Ganguli
Humour (hāsya) is a basic human emotion, a spontaneous reaction to an anomaly. Sometimes a physical awkwardness creates a ripple of laughter; other times a non-conforming attitude evokes laughter. We could actually visualize this situation in the time of Duryodhana’s stroll around the great marble palace of the Pāndavas in Indraprastha.
“And one day king Duryodhana in going round that mansion came upon a crystal surface. And the king, from ignorance, mistaking it for a pool of water, drew up his clothes. And afterwards finding out his mistake the king wandered about the mansion in great sorrow. And sometime after, the king, mistaking a lake of crystal water adorned with lotuses of crystal petals for land, fell into it with all his clothes on. Beholding Duryodhana fallen into the lake, the mighty Bhima laughed aloud as also the menials of the palace. And the servants, at the command of the king, soon brought him dry and handsome clothes. Beholding the plight of Duryodhana, the mighty Bhima and Arjuna and both the twins [Nakul and Sahadeva] – all laughed aloud. Being unused to putting up with insults, Duryodhana could not bear that laugh of theirs. Concealing his emotions he even did not cast his looks on them. And beholding the monarch once more draw up his clothes to cross a piece of dry land which he had mistaken for water, they all laughed again.” - Mahabharata Book 2, Section XLVI, Translated by Kisari Mohan Ganguli
However, one’s awkwardness not only causes laughter to the world; but creates a sense of insecurity in the mind of the awkward person as it happened in this particular instance. Among two bosom friends, there is hardly any insecurity. Among them, awkwardness brings out only laughter. A humorous moment is best shared among amigos like Krishna and Arjuna. Could it not be the case that they used to laugh at each other to enjoy the purest form of humour? Could it not be that these two individuals were often enjoying each other’s company with jokes and humour? The Bhagavat Gitā bears witness to that (Chapter 11, Verse 41-42). Among the lengthy philosophical discourses between Krishna and Arjuna, the latter confessed to the former that he had made fun of Krishna a lot of times during play, sleep, dinner, or even sitting together – sometimes when he had been alone and other times in the presence of friends! No doubt, fun served with a sense of humour was an integral part of their relationship.
The reality presents us with ripples of pleasure and pain as moments of happiness and sorrow unfold themselves in our life. However, we seek only pleasure; we disdain the ripples of pain. We invite only happy moments in our life; sorrow is an unwelcome guest – always. When pain and sorrow become overwhelming in our life, a penchant for humour is the only way to escape from the gross realities of life. Looking from a different perspective, the realities of life cannot snatch away the moments of fun from such personalities who are equipped with a fine sense of humour.
At one time, the Pāndavas were arguably the most dominating power in the Indian political panorama after the completion of Rājasuya Yajna with all available luxuries of life at their command. After the dice game, they suddenly abandoned essentially everything to embrace a life of hardship for thirteen years. They even became servants in the Kingdom of Virāt. They were not awarded back their kingdom as promised, but an ensuring great war was looming large. A war, which would probably leave most of their near and dear ones dead, was the stark reality of the hour. Sanjaya, a royal charioteer of Dhritarāshtra, entered the private compartment of Arjuna at this hour. He found Arjuna and Krishna with their wives Draupadi and Satyabhāmā having a fun time. They were drinking wine and in a state of merrymaking – Krishna’s feet resting on the lap of Arjuna and the ladies were in control of Arjuna’s feet. Arjuna politely welcomed Sanjaya, who narrated this incidence to his king, Dhritarāshtra,
“Sanjaya said, 'Listen, O king, as I tell thee the state in which I found Krishna and Dhananjaya [Arjuna]. I will also, O Bhārata, tell thee what those heroes said; O king, with looks bent down and hands joined together, and with senses well restrained, I entered the inner apartments for conferring with those gods among men. Neither Abhimanyu nor the Twins [Nakula and Sahadeva] can retire to that place where are the two Krishnas [Krishna and Arjuna] and Draupadi and lady Satyabhāmā. There I beheld those chastisers of foes, exhilarated with Bassia wine, their bodies adorned with garlands of flowers. Attired in excellent robes and adorned with celestial ornaments, they sat on a golden dais, decked with numerous gems, and covered over with carpets of diverse texture and hue. And I beheld Kesava's [Krishna] feet resting upon Arjuna's lap while those of the high-souled Arjuna rested upon the laps of Krishnā [Draupadi] and Satyabhāmā. Pārtha then pointed out to me (for a seat) a foot-stool made of gold.” - Mahabharata Book 5, Section LIX, Translated by Kisari Mohan Ganguli
An inherent contradiction could be exposed by a thousand words and arguments, but an even more severe blow could be delivered through a well-constructed irony. Bhima was always against the pacifist policies of Yudhishthira considering them policies of appeasement and weakness. Yudhishthira had to eventually abandon his pacifist policies to go to war against Duryodhana at Kurukshetra. The outcome was a pyrrhic victory for the Pāndavas, to say the least. After the war was over, tremendous grief and guilt engulfed Yudhishthira. To sooth his conscience, he called on his four brothers and announced to them his plan that the Pāndavas should once more retire to woods renouncing the hard-won kingdom and live like ascetics. Naturally, all the brothers were aghast at Yudhishthira. Instead of a long tirade and arguments, Bhima retorted back with a rather short irony. He welcomed the gesture of goodwill from his elder brother and asked if it would have been a little better had Yudhishthira expressed his intention a few days ago (before the war) to save millions of lives! (See Mahabharata Book 12, Section X)
The term, humour, is possibly apt only for a situation that is enjoyable by all involved. If the intention is mere self-pleasure, laughter at the expense of others is tantamount to cruelty. When arrogance runs high and the powerful have fun through inflicting cruelty on others, it meets the destiny with one and only outcome in the Mahābhāratam – “vināsha”, total destruction of the unjust. Duryodhana and his brothers met that outcome in the battlefield of Kurukshetra after insulting and mocking a helpless lady. Thirty-six years passed since then and arrogance was running high among the clan of Yadu, the very own flesh-and-blood of Krishna. The proud members of this clan started belittling and mocking the learned.
“One day, the Vrishni heroes [warriors of Dwārakā] numbering Sarana amongst them, saw Vishvāmitra and Kanwa and Nārada arrived at Dwārakā. Afflicted by the rod of chastisement wielded by the deities, those heroes, causing Sāmva [a son of Krishna] to be disguised like a woman, approached those ascetics and said, ‘This one is the wife of Vabhru of immeasurable energy who is desirous of having a son. Ye Rishis, do you know for certain what this one will bring forth?” - Mahabharata Book 16, Section I, Translated by Kisari Mohan Ganguli
The ascetics became angry at the vanity and pride emanating out of a vain sense of superiority and cursed the mockers to their destruction. They met their destiny in a day of outing when they were totally drunk having a real fun time. Nature has her very own sense of humour.
The original version of this commentary was first published in Mahabharata: Through Many Windows (Ed. Suresh Dalal and Kallolini Hazarat), Gujarat Research Society, Mumbai, India (2009).