In traditional Indian society, the caste system has played a dominant role in determining the social hierarchy. Traditionally, the roles of women have clearly been subordinated to a secondary status. The prevalent warrior code tends to overvalue war-like male characteristics and undervalue those behaviors, which are not immediately relevant to combat. This way of thinking tends to portray women as weak and subservient by misinterpreting peaceful/nurturing behavior. The Mahabharata, although viewed by many as glorifying a warrior ethic, may actually be exploring a feminist critique of warrior dharma.
In prior chapters, we investigated several other major themes of the Mahabharata. Three motifs were of particular interest to this writer. They address the destructive consequences of: 1) stubbornly resisting one’s social Dharma, 2) greedily pursuing personal gain at the expense of the larger community, and 3) a warrior dharma unrestrained by a devaraja/god-king.
Beyond the need for a devaraja, the Mahabharata reveals yet another aspect of the warrior dharma that must be refined. For a warrior dharma to be truly refined, it must reject a secondary role for women and replace it with a deep respect for the integrity and power of women. The ethic that values an honorable death during wartime ought to be balanced by an ethic that values an honorable treatment of life.
Duryodhana and his human warriors treat women, as if they are chattel. Equating human beings with property displays an incredible lack of respect. In this regard, an earlier chapter noted Bhishma's comment regarding one's spouse: “the wife is most dear who is stolen by force.” This quotation, coming as it does from the ideal teacher of the warrior ethic, is a telling indictment of warrior dharma. The ideal warrior views a wife as property.
This disrespectful attitude proved to be his undoing. None of the warriors could or would harm him. The one exception is a prince, who was once a woman ‘stolen by force’ by Bhishma. The violation of this woman’s integrity by Bhishma appears to be the driving force that leads her to fire the arrow of her revenge. Shiva clearly relates to the justice of her claim by providing her with the arrow that will ultimately lead to Bhishma’s demise.
Duryodhana's clan exhibits another notorious instance of male chauvinism within the warrior ethic. Duryodhana challenges his cousin Yudhishthira to a game of high stakes dice. It starts with a jar of pearls, extends to the wealth and then to the territory of their respective kingdoms, and finally even to their women. Yudhishthira loses every time. By the end, he has lost everything including his wife. He did not need to play. He ignored the advice of his brothers as well as the potentially dangerous consequences to his wife, family and nation. He was enticed to take the challenge by the competitive pride of his warrior dharma.
Because of his unwillingness to refuse an unreasonable challenge combined with exceedingly bad luck, Yudhishthira must give up his wife, Draupadi. Draupadi is no ordinary wife, but is fire-born of Shiva. She is so dynamic that she has married all 5 of the god-spawned Pandava brothers.
Duryodhana commands his uncle Vidura: “Bring in Draupadi of slender waist and wide hips so we can put her to work in the kitchen.” …
“You blockhead!” said Vidura. “You are binding yourself with cords the gods themselves could not undo! Tigers are eating your feet, deadly snakes lie coiled on your head, and you are standing on the edge of a cliff telling me to push you over! Yudhishthira already lost himself; he had no right to stake Draupadi. Stop this, for you have your hand on the door to Hell itself!” (Buck’s Mahabharata, p. 58)
Duryodhana ignores his uncle’s dire warning and sends a servant to procure his cousin’s wife. The servant comes back alone and speaks to the stunned Yudhishthira: “Draupadi asks you: Who stakes his wife in a dice game?” Clearly, his wife is offended by the notion that she is a piece of property that can be won or lost. She has a greater respect for herself than that.
Duryodhana persists in his folly and now sends his brother, Duhsasana, to fetch his property. “Go get my prize. … Our slaves can not hurt us.” Draupadi resists. Duhsasana grabs her by the hair and pulls her back to the gambling room. In his anger, he then attempts to rip her clothes off.
At that moment Draupadi thinks of Krishna. ‘Before her thought is fully formed’, Krishna comes to the room. Krishna seems to use a cloak of invisibility to protect Draupadi. Beneath each layer of her dress, he places an additional layer.
The Mahabharata goes on to relate that:
“After ripping off 20 to 30 garments, Duhsasana stops to catch his breath. Draupadi strikes him. She doesn't slap him; she hits him with her fist like a boxer and he drops down like a swatted fly, which suddenly ceases buzzing. He was out cold and blood ran from his mouth.”
Duryodhana is offended by Draupadi’s independent behavior and wants to kill her as an owner would a slave. Bhishma, although guilty of his own chauvinistic biases, stops Duryodhana from this particularly excessive behavior. Bhishma then asks the assembly, “Has Draupadi been won or not?”
The Sun-born Karna, although divine, supports the prevalent, patriarchal attitude of the human warrior class. He argues: “This Draupadi with five husbands deserves to be won or lost at dice.”
At that point Vidura returns with Duryodhana's father, the blind king Dhiritarashtra. After hearing about his own son’s unjust attempt to win his cousin’s kingdom and wife in a game of dice, Dhiritarashtra crushes the dice in his bare hands.
Draupadi displays her compassionate nature by cleaning and bandaging his bleeding hands. In his gratitude, Dhiritarashtra nullifies the results of the game of dice. Because of Draupadi’s act of compassion, Yudhishthira's clan is saved from losing everything to their cousin.
Duryodhana is still not satisfied, of course. When his father asks why, he responds in defiant tone: “I am what I am. As water flows down and not up, I follow my own nature. Peaceful kings are eaten up by others. Only discontent leads to happiness.” He then challenges Yudhishthira to one last game of dice - winner take all. The loser gives up his half of the kingdom and goes to live in the forest for 12 years.
Despite the devastating results of his prior bad luck, Yudhishthira stubbornly holds onto his competitive warrior ethic: “I cannot refuse a challenge. … Success or misfortune will come to me whether I play or not. I am not afraid.” He, of course, loses again. His clan with their wives goes to live in the forest until the final confrontation.
We have examined 2 examples of the chauvinist warrior dharma as portrayed in the Mahabharata. Even though Bhishma’s behavior is less extreme than that of the two gambling cousins, both situations reflect the chauvinistic warrior attitude that women are property. Duryodhana and his human warriors consistently reflect this mentality. In contrast, the divine warriors, with the exception of Karna, exhibit extreme respect for women, as epitomized by Draupadi.
Judging by the tenor and consequences of the tale, we can assume that Vyasa, the Author, agrees with the perspective of the divine warriors. Vyasa appears to be attempting to expose the negative consequences of the caveman attitude towards women. Instead of devious and manipulative women, Vyasa presents powerful, resourceful and independent women in the Mahabharata. This classic Hindu novel presents an atypical, yet positive, attitude towards women, which must have been appealing to the receptive Southeast Asian populace.
One last underlying theme of the Mahabharata that we choose to discuss concerns a reverence for art and the artist who creates it. Art perhaps in its broadest sense can be viewed as the human attempt to represent meaning in a symbolic manner. Symbol and metaphor are companion concepts that represent meanings that go far beyond literal interpretation.
In this sense, Mahabharata could be viewed as a book, acting as metaphor, that challenges our notion of ‘literal’ reality. The written words convey a plausible scenario that could have happened. Cousins on two sides of a ruling warrior family could have battled it out on the plains of northern India with the Ganges River nearby. This scenario is a believable portrayal of the conflict experienced between warrior cultures. In other words, the book contains a semi-historical story. So far, so good.
Every book also has at least one author who wrote the story. We happen to know that the Mahabharata was written over centuries by many authors. However, the book is written as if the entire story was the accomplishment of a single author, Vyasa. In this sense, Vyasa could be said to symbolize the author conglomerate that actually wrote the book. On a more general level, Vyasa may represent the notion of Author.
What does Vyasa, the symbol, convey about authors? How do the real authors portray their symbolic author? On the surface, Vyasa belongs to the class of wandering bards that belong to the oral tradition. In the Mahabharata, one bard hears the story from another bard who has heard the story from Vyasa. This scenario is certainly plausible.
In this tale, Vyasa never writes the story down, but rather narrates it to the elephant-headed god Ganesha. According to the Mahabharata, it is Ganesha who then transcribes the narration into its initial written form. This is how the Mahabharata explains the transformation of oral tradition into written literature. Vyasa, however, remains the classic bard.
What is the role of bards in the oral tradition?
Bards, of all cultures, tend to be those who tell stories about events they’ve witnessed or about tales they’ve heard from others. The Mahabharata portrays Vyasa as a bard who witnessed the Great Battle. As such, the book is represented as a first hand account of Vyasa’s experience as told to Ganesha.
In the oral tradition, bards were repositories of semi-historical events of significance to a tribe or culture. For instance, bards in the Homeric tradition have been telling the stories of the Iliad and Odyssey around campfires for millennia. These classic tales were an integral part of Greek culture.
In similar fashion, the retelling of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata both transmitted and reinforced important cultural values. In a modern context, both Greek and Hindu cultures continue to experience these great works as part of an unbroken oral tradition. It is true that these works exist as literature in the modern world yet the speaker/listener experience continues to have a powerful allure.
When a bard chooses to tell a particular story, it may have begun as history. Both the Greek and Hindu classics could have indeed grown from historical seeds. However, part of the greatness of these works derives from the use of the poetic voice to explore larger issues.
The telling or even singing of the tale becomes an opportunity to say something greater about human nature. Rather than dutifully recording the outcome of a particular battle or war, bards speak with a voice that is more complex than the voice of any single person’s perspective. The oral tradition tells a story that is larger than any one man could express.
Some stories have the kind of audience appeal that leads to its retelling over and over again. The retelling is presumably warranted because the tale addresses arguably universal features of human nature. It is only these sorts of tales that have the staying power to transcend time and place.
When bards tell tales of humans and gods interacting, as in the Greek and Hindu classics, they have entered into the world of mythos. The gods serve as symbolic indicatorsthat the significant thematic messages are not so much historical as they are psychological. In this sense, bards can be more than just transmitters of culture; they have the potential to participate in the actual shaping of culture. As we shall see, the Mahabharata reinforces this perspective.
Although bards relate stories, they don’t tend to be players in the action of those tales. For instance, Homer was not an actual character in the Greek classics and did not portray himself as such. Bards tend to be artists and observers rather than active participants in life’s many dramas. They tell fanciful stories about reality that inform and entertain us.
While imaginative tales may be a metaphorical reflection of reality, many in the contemporary world view these ‘imaginary’works as, by definition,not real. Viewed from the perspective of these ‘realists’, the bard is a ‘mere’ entertainer. He is not doing something ‘real’, like cooking food, building houses or fighting in wars. In other words, some modernist thinking questions the applicability of the bard’s poetry to everyday life.
In the Mahabharata, Vyasa plays the role of the original storyteller. Yet Vyasa also plays another role, which is unusual for the typical bard or storyteller. Vyasa, the character who symbolizes the notion of author in the Mahabharata, is hardly what you would call a passive participant in this famous tale. Instead he is a principle player in the events leading up to the Great Battle.
Besides witnessing the conflagration, Vyasa fathers the two kings whose sons are the key warriors in the Great Battle. He also provides timely advice to a number of significant characters in the story. All of these features presumably add credibility to his testimony and status. More importantly, these story motifs suggest that Vyasa, the symbol of the author, has incredible potency.
Further Vyasa, the character, understands that he is a storyteller and that he alone has the power to manipulate the narrative as he sees fit. While not the inventor of the metaphors, Vyasa employs metaphor to communicate theme. This is the true power of a storyteller.
After the Great Battle, the Mahabharata reveals the author’s great power, as symbolized by Vyasa. As the widows are grieving, Vyasa states:
“I am poison to grief. Like fire I burn his limbs and destroy his mind.” (Buck’s Mahabharata, p 210)
Here Vyasa articulates the power of the author by suggesting that his poetry has the potency to alleviate emotional pain. Perhaps his stories have the potential to entertain or provide perspective for the grieving widows.
Vyasa’s behavior at the River Ganges is also suggestive of an author who understands the power of symbol. He enters the river and the water swirls around him. Then all the characters that have been killed in the Great Battle come back to life for one last experience with their loved ones. But the storyteller provides a major difference:
“There were both armies together without suspicion or reproach. They had lost all unfriendliness when they had put on their heavenly clothes and brilliant earrings; they had no jealously, no unkindness.” (Buck’s Mahabharata, p 211)
Vyasa breaks free from history and portrays a warrior culture that has evolved beyond war. Could it be that peace begins in the imagination? After the night is over, Vyasa returns the fallen warriors to the Ganges. Perhaps the author has taken this opportunity to provide his editorial comment on the warrior ethic of his times.
Only an author has that kind of power. Both the Mahabharata and Ramayana frequently praise their authors. Vyasa and Valmiki are portrayed as almost god-like figures, whose words and stories will transform the listener. These authors use symbols to address the mysteries that enrich our complex individual and social lives.
This symbolic approach is particularly important in Southeast Asia. A number of cultures embrace costume, dance, drama, music, architecture, sculpture and painting as central elements of social life. During these social experiences, the illusion becomes the important reality, while concrete reality loses some of its urgency.
This synergy of the spiritual and artistic that transcends ordinary secular reality permeates both past and present Southeast Asian culture. As we shall see, Cambodia’s Angkor Wat and Java’s Borobudur, both constructed a millennium ago, are symbolic stone testaments to the ambiguity of our perception of human perception. The design of each structure creates visual illusions that are suggestive of the transcendence of spirit beyond the experience of everyday reality.
In many of the Southeast Asian countries, dancers and musicians regularly perform scenes from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. The participants are not merely acting. They report that they actually believe themselves to be the characters that they are portraying. This extraordinary reality, which the scientifically oriented secular mind may call imaginary, becomes a central feature in their lives.
This deliberate blurring of the line between Art and Reality seems to be a prevalent feature of both Southeast Asian culture and the Mahabharata. This classic Hindu novel may have brought a new aesthetic to Southeast Asia. It is also possible that its message resonated with an existing, indigenous aesthetic. Regardless of its origin, this intriguing motif is widespread throughout the diverse artistic expressions of the region. This blending of Art and Reality seems to suggest a great reverence for the role of the Artist in Southeast Asian ‘society’.
The Mahabharata can be viewed as a cautionary Hindu tale regarding the gods and men who make war. This arguably controversial interpretation appears to have found a unique home in Southeast Asia. The 3 themes that we have identified may have appealed to Southeast Asians because of the implicit warning concerning the limitations and dangers of traditional warrior dharma.
Initially we discussed the appeal of the devaraja who transcends the warrior ethic on behalf of his people. We then considered a noteworthy interpretation of the Mahabharata that suggests a respectful attitude toward the role of women in culture. This theme presents a striking contrast with the traditional warrior ethic.
Finally we addressed the significance of the artist and an appreciation for the role of metaphor and symbol in the uplifting of the human spirit. In a sense, the Mahabharata contrasts the power of the warrior code with the emerging power of the poet. In this case, Vyasa the bard employs a tale of war to ask his audience to reflect on the wisdom of the warrior ethic.
Unfortunately, the war-like European culture was never quite that reflective. This culture was not exposed to the mythology of the Mahabharata. Instead they were nurtured upon a mythology that unashamedly glorified the warrior ethic. Perhaps the foremost example in this mythological tradition is the Greek Iliad. The European warrior kings along with their vassal armies embraced the love of war well into the Common Era.
Early in the 2nd millennium, Western European knights continued to crave tests for their martial talents on the field of battle. This militaristic orientation created havoc throughout much of Europe. This regional disturbance was connected with a sequence of events that motivated the Pope to issue a Papal Bull. This Papal directive led to a series of Crusades by Christian warriors against the Muslims who held Jerusalem. One of the motives behind this directive was surely an attempt to move these destructive knights out of Europe.
Five hundred years later, the glorification of the warrior ethic was still alive and well in Europe. The focus of the Crusaders was no longer limited to the Middle East, but had grown to include ridding the Iberian peninsula of its Moorish/Islamic population. Once this task was accomplished, the knights shifted their attention to the new and growing Islamic population in Southeast Asia.
Traditional religious motives were accompanied by emerging economic interests in this burgeoning age of exploration. The potential to achieve fame and glory in the pursuit of conquest and conversion was characteristic of European behavior during this era.. The European warrior ethic led to the successful invasion of the trade-based cultures of Southeast Asia. The destructive excesses of the warrior dharma exposed by the Mahabharata were on full display.
To dispel any modernist illusions, the cursed warrior code still possesses great potency. Under the guise of national pride and religion, it still inspires young men to embrace the image of themselves as honorable warriors. A compelling argument can be made that they often foolishly throw away their precious lives for some misunderstood ideals that only enrich the masters of war.
Because economic motives drive much foreign military policy, military solutions are often misrepresented as last resorts. In fact, the rush to war is frequently premature and even quite unnecessary. The growing acceptance of concepts like ‘preventive warfare’ and ‘preemptive strikes’ are evidence of a dangerous tendency of the warrior ethic. The appeal of ‘real’ war games is virtually irresistible to the modern warrior, just as it was for his ancient predecessor.
As a ship leaves harbor for more exotic locales, let us leave our depressing editorial comments behind. Intriguing ports of call await us as we leave the Southeast Asian mainland to visit the neighboring maritime cultures. We will return to a time that precedes the arrival of the ‘barbaric’ Europeans. Before we wave goodbye to this familiar territory, let us summarize our discussion thus far. We believe this summary will provide meaningful context for a better understanding of our upcoming investigation of Southeast Asian Maritime culture.
Remember that we began this work with an exploration of Southeast Asia’s prehistory. We then investigated her mainland Empires with a special focus upon the great Khmer Empire. In both prehistoric and historic times, there is strong evidence of an intense cultural interaction between the cultures of Southeast Asia, India, and China.
In historical times, the cultural flow was primarily from the Indian subcontinent to China and Southeast Asia. Due to Asoka’s imperial support, Indian Buddhism flowed first north to Central Asia and then east to China where it became Mahayana Buddhism. Simultaneously, Asoka encouraged missionaries to spread Buddhism across the Indian Ocean to Southeast Asia, where it became Theravada Buddhism.
At about the same time, Indian traders arrived in Southeast Asia along with their Brahmin priests. They introduced Indian politics, technology, art and religion to the region. Hinduism blended with Buddhism and native religious beliefs to generate a unique cultural mixture. The primary vehicles that carried Indian mythology to the Southeast Asian populace were the two great Hindu novels, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.
Because of their importance to both ancient and contemporary Southeast Asian culture, we were naturally curious about the source(s) of their great cultural appeal. Although it is difficult to empirically link particular cultural behaviors to specific literary themes, we find certain themes to be suggestive. Among the thematic elements that may have appealed to the Southeast Asian audience were: 1) a respect for women that far exceeded that of the typical ancient warrior culture, 2) an appreciation for the perceptual ambiguity of apparently evil behavior, and 3) the belief in the transformative power of love inherent in the notion of a ‘soul mate’.
There is stronger empirical evidence for the influence of these works on both the political and artistic level. In Southeast Asian politics, the emergence of the devaraja as well as the related notion of a Bodhisattva king appears to be more overtly connected. Artistically, the plot elements of these two epics are in evidence throughout ancient and contemporary Southeast Asia. The most spectacular artistic examples are the stone friezes carved into the walls of their palace-like temples. Further, artistic recreation of these works was and still is widely reflected in the dance, painting and sculpture of this region.
Southeast Asian culture expresses its unique appreciation for these two works through a synergy of art, politics, and religion. In this context let us consider the role of the devaraja in Southeast Asian political culture. The devaraja is viewed as a sort of god-king who is chiefly responsible for keeping the peace and setting up conditions that are conducive to earning ‘merit’, and thus enhancing karma. In connection with these duties, the devaraja regularly funds and supports the artistic community, resulting in the creation of enormous collective art projects of a religious nature.
The Khmer Empire perhaps best exemplified this notion of a devaraja in its marriage of art, religion and politics. The Khmer devarajas played an undeniably obvious and significant role in the creation of the magnificent architectural achievements at Angkor. The devaraja played the same role in the other early empires of Southeast Asia’s mainland, notably the Pyu, the Mon, and the Cham. The Southeast Asian understanding of the role of the devaraja seems to flow from its unique regional interpretation of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The content of its architectural masterpieces clearly reflect this unique perspective.
In the following part, we will see that Southeast Asia’s island cultures followed the same dynamic pattern. We will examine the significant role that the Javanese devaraja played in the creation of Java’s amazing architectural monuments: with a special focus upon the Ramayana-inspired Prambanan temple complex and Buddhist Borobudur.
The Southeast Asian mainlanders and islanders share a similar cultural background. However, they also have some significant differences that are worthy of discussion. We will examine the historical development of these unique maritime empires. Ultimately, we will both compare and contrast mainland and maritime cultures.
It’s time to say farewell and set sail for Southeast Asia’s islands. We hope that this discussion has provided a deeper appreciation for some of the underlying themes of Hinduism’s two great religious novels, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. These 2 epics certainly had an enormous impact upon Southeast Asian culture.