Friday, April 04, 2008

The relevance of the Mahabharat and the Ramayana in the present day

When one reads Indian epics, one comes away with a sense of a "glorious" but somehow "lost" past. As readers today, we seem distant from the developments of an age gone by ... a much simpler time when everything worked the way it was "supposed to". Some of us relate to personal aspects of a character in the story and attempt to model ourselves after their conduct - so begins the Cult of Arjuna, or Sita and so on. The "rationalists" among us quickly dismiss these cults as being irrelevant in the modern age.

Yet it seems obvious that while the structure of personal choice may have been different in an age gone by - the manner in which personal choices interact with social dynamics are largely ... unchanged. If one does something that society finds positive/negative one gains its approval/disapproval. The net social approval one gains in any act decides ones' social capital.

At the end of the day... both the great epics of India, the Ramayana and the Mahabharat revolved around the question of legitimacy in a complex and highly structured social order. Legitimacy is a measure of social capital. In each epic, the personal actions of the characters, as depicted by the writers of the epics, colour the reader's perceptions of the character's claim to legitimacy.

In order to understand the relevance of the great Indian epics, I ask you to journey with me into the distant land of the Khans.

The Khan-i-Khanan has been plagued since his first day in office by questions of legitimacy. Those close in often look upon him as an usurper - who took the legacy and rightful place of another. Yet others somewhat further away see him as an unlawful leader who played with the ideas of justice to secure his access to power. A still further away, an utter disdain manifests among those that care to speak of him, a veritable cult of disfavour has built around him. His only supporters appear to be a small group of clerics whose loyalty he secured in the early days of his political career. Among the waqia nahvis is considered polite to describe him as affable but incompetent.

It is said that these limitations were well recognised in the past and the choice of succession weighed heavily on Abbaji. Rumour has it that a Prince was consulted by Abbaji and it is the advice of the Prince that decided the matter of succession. It is also rumoured that Abbaji allowed the Khan-i-Khanan as much freedom as was reasonable and so the Khan-i-Khanan picked people that thought themselves to be comparable in competence to Abbaji himself. Perhaps the Khan-i-Khanan thought that surrounding himself with wazirs of Abbajis calibre would protect him from harm, but it appears that this has unanticipated results.

In any case, it is too late to change that now. There is a real problem that the potnahvis cannot simply hide in his books. The Amir-al-Umara is convinced that the predictions of the jyotish are correct and Shani will remain firm in its place in the charts. Abbaji's khaas, who is currently the Wazir-ul-Harb was sent to sort things out but instead he returned bearing bad news that the Amir-ul-Umara was largely "spinning his wheels" and "burning gas" - the consensus between the Wazir-ul-Harb, Amir-al-Umara and the Potnahvis was that wasteful expenditure was rising.

Rather than do the obvious, the Khan-i-Khanan, decided instead to send his vice regal to Ctesiphon, and manged to arm twist them into releasing more fuel. This necessitated a rearrangement with followers of Ali.

At the time this was going on, the Waqia nahvis were asked by the Khan-i-Khanan's men to keep silent. It is here that the idea of illegitimacy has come to plague the Khan-i-Khanan again. As the Waqia nahvis are susceptible to the idea of illegitimacy - the Khan-i-Khanan cannot silence them without a visible gesture. As the waqia nahvis put pen to paper, their lack of silence will completely colour perceptions of the legitimacy of the Khan-i-Khanan throughout the land.

A growing sense of illegitimacy among the people at large will not benifit the Khan-i-Khanan.


At 10:55 AM, Anonymous Sparsh said...


On the question of succession in the land of the Khans:

It is rumoured that Abbaji had originally chosen and groomed another to be his successor as the Khan-i-Khanan a long time ago and that the present Khan-i-Khanan was able to sideline Abbaji's original choice much later on.

Remember that the present Khan-i-Khanan had led a rather irresponsible life as an adult riding on Abbaji's name to get out of trouble before he straightened himself out. He was not meant to be the Khan-i-Khanan, he was meant to be someone who Abbaji's men made sure did not become an embarrassment to the family. How and why he was able to sideline Abbaji's original choice is, to the best of my knowledge, not known outside Abbaji's family and I suspect will never be known outside the family.

Abbaji's original choice, he who was meant to be the Khan-i-Khanan, had to contend himself with an ordinary satrapi in the land of the Khans. Unfortunately, in the eyes of most in the land of the Khans as well as outside, the present Khan-i-Khanan ne Abbaji ka khandani naam mitti me mila diya hai. I can't see how Abbaji's original choice of successor can ever hope to become the Khan-i-Khanan with all the baggage this his name now carries.

At 6:42 AM, Blogger maverick said...


There is a book that talks at length about the struggle for succession. It is written by an Indian. I think it is worth a read - you know where to look for such things.

In the land of Princes, a collegiate approach was chosen to deal with issues when the question of succession was contested. This way of doing things sidestepped the legitimacy issue that could have destroyed the kingdom. Such wisdom was not displayed in the Land of the Khans.

The question of legitimacy is a troubling one and worse still is a legacy that leaves Abbaji's name in the mud. No wonder he was in tears recently.

With each passing day - the strength of the Khans is successfully challenged by the descendants of Kuroush. In each and every wrestling match, the competitor from the land of our cousins emerges victorious.

In a battle between cousins and friends, - what is the more appropriate conduct? that of Yashodanandan or that of his brother. For it seems that despite the efforts of either, the Yaduvansh still paid in full measure the price of its' own stupidity.

At 7:29 AM, Anonymous alok_n said...

Hi M,

(melikes Khan-i-Khanan ... )

the problems of legitimacy are plaguing Indian leadership as well ... Sita has accorded herself an indefinite Vanvaas, and planted junior Bharat type to run Ayodhya ...

the problem is that Sita never left for the forest and is pulling strings from behind ...

this lack of leadership has allowed deplorable Rakhasas (dragons?) to usurp a piece of the legitimacy pie ...

I know that this analogy sucks but you get the point ...

At 8:00 AM, Blogger maverick said...

Hi Alok,

Legitimacy is not so much of a problem in India - purely because the person whose legitimacy is questioned, does not sit on the chair itself.

This makes our lives easier.

Others who claim legitimacy are not taken seriously.

So what is your opinion?

Is the conduct of Yashodanandan more appropriate or the conduct of Balarama?

At 11:34 AM, Blogger quantum chaos said...

what about legitimacy of M.S.Gills appointment?
your choice between yashodanandan and balram is like khan-i-khanan's you are either with us or with them.why cant we be a witness like sanjay or wring our hands in despair like vidura? i mean where is god damn non alignment when you need it the most? and reading this question of yours with wazir ul harbs minion's assesment it seems koroush and khan-i-khanan are headed towards collision.

PS:your post whats in for us and reading that thread on DF it seemed to me that political invasion being talked about is just a new version of doctrine of lapse.I mean how is title of munna really different from khan bahadur?


At 12:33 PM, Blogger maverick said...

Dear Quantum Chaos,

Unfortunately, neither Vidura nor Sanjaya are given a place of pride in the story, by contrast both Yashodanandan and Balarama are the subjects of high praise. Were our ancestors attempting to tell us something?

I do not wish to comment on the legitimacy of anyone. I am merely pointing out that questions of legitimacy plague some more than others.

Yes, there is no difference between Munna and Khan Bahadur.

The present control model proposed by Khan-e-Khanan and the Vice Regal seems to rely heavily on the ability to protect a confrontationist attitude vis-a-vis the Clan of Kuroush.

If (hypothetically speaking) hostilities do break out, are we to pursue the path of Balarama or are we to pursue the path of Keshava?

At 7:06 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am sorry I couldnt get you.Are you trying to say that Keshav supported cousins and Dau supported friends?Or are you saying that like Keshav we should pro actively try to avert war by making a case for reason failing which we should take sides and that its better than professed neutrality of Dau who only fumed later when rules of war were not adhered to(Bhima hiiting Duryodhana below navel with mace.)?

If its the former then is it not bit of a false choice? weren't both factions cousins of Keshav And Dau?Only person who had to make that kind of a choice was karna(b/w foster brothers and friends) and you have thankfully ruled that one out.
PS:I have a very pessimistic view of polity in land of shakuntala's my opinion our position is like draupadi before game of dice. the supposed dharmaraj of today(champion of freedom and all that jazz) wouldnt hesitate to gamble draupadi if they were to lose their face.


At 11:02 AM, Blogger maverick said...

Quantum Chaos,

The two sides had already decided to go to war before approaching the Yaduvanshis to participate in their bloodfest. There was no way for the Yaduvanshis to remain out of the war.

Faced with such a situation, the Yadus naturally chose neutrality.

Keshava choose to participate in the combat in a neutral fashion - he gave his army to the Kauravas and himself to the Pandavas.

Baladeva chose not to participate in combat but urged both sides to settle their differences peacefully. He offered his services as a messenger between both sides.

In the war between our cousins and our friends, we will likewise choose neutrality.

It must be recalled that pre-independence millions of young Indians were dragged off to fight in wars for British industrial groups and millions of Indians died in famines that were created when the British robbed India to fight their stupid wars.

Post-colonialist thinking that underlies our foreign policy emphasizes not getting into that kind of situation again. Post independence we have participated in international peace enforcement activities via the United Nations and that too only to the limited extent where the activity supported India's economic needs.
Everywhere else we have chosen to play non-combatant support roles.

We need to pick a model for how we are going to deal with a potential conflict between our friends and our cousins.

Keshava and Baladeva represent two extreme cases.

At 10:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

my money would be on Balrama option.Keshava option seems like running with hare and hunting with hounds which by itself is not bad if we can manage it.given my low opinion of politicos and also the ability of both parties to create maaajor troubles for us, it seems imprudent.Better to be panned as wimpish soft state in psy-ops than invite something nasty.
whats your take on it? Keshav,Dau or something else?

At 7:14 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

take a look.


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