Mahabharata - Oldest Debate Ever?



Heard a very good talk today on the Mahabharata. It was delivered by my friend, a professor in the fine arts department, who also happens to have a cubicle, er, office, right across the hall from mine. As a result of this we enjoy chatting and generally procrastinating together from time to time. And Eastern religion is one of our favorite subjects.

So I was excited to hear his talk. He did a very good job of giving ample background on the religion, the places where this work is important, and even a good job of the summary of the stories, people involved, and the role of the Gita in the larger context. He read aloud one of the most interesting portions, which is the Q&A at the poison lake that one of the characters has to answer. I think it was a well received talk.

I am trying to still digest a great book I recently read titled The Argumentative Indian by Amartya Sen. In that book, Sen argues that the cultural/religious tradition of India foregrounds a conception of honest and open debate from points of real doubt and disagreement. This he terms the "heterodoxy" of Hindu traditional works.

During the talk, my friend mentioned two interpretations that might classify the Mahabharata as not just the source or topic for religious debate, but a debate itself. The first is the sense that the performance of particular characters in the drama push societal boundaries intensely. The second is the idea that the entire poem is occurring as an internal struggle of the poet as to the right way to live.

Both would require more expertise than I have to flesh out here, but suffice it to say that both ideas are worth some discussion and debate themselves. The idea of foregrounding questions, even serious ones directly to God, and doubting God's "claims" on the good life seem central to this work. And they seem even more central (as well as happily accepted by God) in the Bhagavad-Gita. This seems an opposite religious tradition to the West, where obedience is valued and questions, well, let's just not really seriously ask those.