A Social Ecological Perspective on some Episodes from the                       Mahabharata                               ...
MBh: Social Ecological Perspective                                                                2                       ...
MBh: Social Ecological Perspective                                                               3                        ...
MBh: Social Ecological Perspective                                                              4                         ...
MBh: Social Ecological Perspective                                                               5                        ...
MBh: Social Ecological Perspective                                                              6                         ...
MBh: Social Ecological Perspective                                                              7                         ...
MBh: Social Ecological Perspective                                                               8                        ...
MBh: Social Ecological Perspective                                                               9                        ...
MBh: Social Ecological Perspective                                                             10                         ...
MBh: Social Ecological Perspective                                                          11                            ...
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Ecocritical review of the mahabharata


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This was published in The Indian Journal of Eco-criticism, but unfortunately I cannot find a web-link for that version.

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Ecocritical review of the mahabharata

  1. 1. A Social Ecological Perspective on some Episodes from the Mahabharata Kamesh R. AiyerAbstract Without doing violence to Vyaasa, the Mahabharata can be properly viewed through anecological prism, as a story of how Dharma came to be established as a result of a conflict oversocial policies in response to on-going environmental/ecological crises. This article selectivelyreviews some episodes in the Mahabharata to identify the crisis and the social policies implicitlyadvocated by the contending Pandavas and Kauravas. The Pandavas’ proposals helped theirculture survive the crises and became the Dharma for the new age that followed the war. Aselements of Hindu orthodox religion, some of these policies operate to the present day.Biographical Note The author received his Ph.D. in Computer Science from Carnegie-Mellon University in1981 and was a B.Tech (BSEE) from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur in 1974. Likemany Indians, he has been fascinated by the Mahabharata since childhood but did little about it.In 1990, he realized that various episodes appeared to illustrate themes explored by theanthropologist Marvin Harris (Harris, 1975) and that this hinted at a continental-scaleenvironmental disaster in the background akin to the planetary-scale “global warming” disasterthat humanity now faces. He has been exploring the role of religion, both positive and negative,in addressing the crisis, and hopes we can do better this time.Introduction The Great War of the Mahabharata (Vyaasa, 1933-1966) is traditionally considered aDharma-Yuddha, a war to establish the rule of Law. The problem for the skeptic arises when thedetails of the epic story are examined – one is tempted to exclaim, “Law? This is Law”? Both thevictors, the Pandavas (the miraculously born sons of Pandu), and the villains (the Kauravas, thenatural sons of Dhritarashtra, Pandu’s brother, named after their common ancestor Kuru) of theepic are shown acting in their own self-interest. Of what we moderns might consider Lawful,there is scant evidence. Krishna, revered by modern Hindus as the God Vishnu, befriends andhelps the Pandavas; goes through the motions of negotiating a peace deal; ultimately, acts todefeat the Kauravas. There is little of our commonsensical notions of righteousness or Law oreven Dharma to be found. But an alternative reading of the story is possible – without doing violence to Vyaasa, theMahabharata can be properly viewed through an ecological prism, as a story of how Dharmacame to be established as a result of a conflict over social policies in response to on-goingenvironmental/ecological crises. In this article, we selectively review some episodes to identifythe crisis and the social policy implicitly advocated by the Pandavas. Some of these policies will
  2. 2. MBh: Social Ecological Perspective 2 Kamesh R. Aiyershock or repel us, as they have shocked others through the ages; it is important to realize that it isthe victors of the epic who supported these policies. The Pandavas’ proposals helped theirculture survive the crises and became the Dharma for the new age that followed the war. Asothers have pointed out (Feller, 2003, pp. 10-11), the epics (the Mahabharata and the Ramayana)represent the end of Vedic religion and the beginning of “Brahmanism”. As elements of Hinduorthodox religion, some of these policies operate to the present day. The policies and related episodes discussed here are: 1. Forced migration to new lands, with attendant deportation of the original inhabitants represented by the two episodes in which the Nagas (“Snakes”) are massacred. 2. Infanticide controlled population growth, represented by the story of the goddess Ganga drowning her children by Santanu, King of Hastinapur, and grandfather of Pandu and Dhritarashtra. 3. Jaatis (endogamous castes) enforced social segregation and controlled consumption, represented by the story of Karna and the multiple times he is rejected and humiliated and the story of Ekalavya. 4. Forest “commons” that recognized the rights of forest-dwellers and limited the growth of towns, represented by episodes during the exile in the forest, the most compelling being the episode called the “Questions of the Crane Demon”. These forest-dweller rights survived many years despite constant population pressure, and it is only in the last hundred or so years that the system has broken down. Policies not discussed here, but discussed elsewhere (Aiyer, 2009) include: 1. Cow protection, providing insurance against the frequent droughts and famines. 2. The iron-clad plough to support migration into the Gangetic plain. 3. The need for and limits to empire in northern India. 4. Polyandry, represented by the single wife common by the Pandavas – however, we discuss this peripheral in association with infanticide. 5. Adoption, possibly represented by the Pandavas themselves, but also discussed peripherally along with infanticide.The crises of the second millennium B.C.E. A series of tectonic events in the Himalayas (Valdiya, 2002, pp. 52-60) resulted inrepeated floods of the Indus and changes in its course destroying great urban centers. Meanwhile,the Yamuna shifted course to the east and the Sutlej to the west thus starving the then great riverSaraswati of its major sources of water. Refugees from settlements along the Indus and theSaraswati migrated to the existing upper Gangetic settlements of Hastinapur and Panchalastressing the ability of those regions to support them. Prior to this forced movement, the slow
  3. 3. MBh: Social Ecological Perspective 3 Kamesh R. Aiyereastward expansion of the Indus-Saraswati culture had stalled because their agriculturaltechniques were inadequate to till the Gangetic plain. In the last fifty years, scientists have obtained evidence for the tectonic events of about4000 to 5000 years before the present. The change in direction of the Yamuna has beenestablished. The Saraswati, formerly considered mythical is now identified with the bed of agreat river visible in satellite photos. Abandoned settlements along this bed have been identifiedand classified as part of the Indus Valley civilization that was discovered in Mohenjo-Daro andHarappa. We have no contemporary records that help us understand what happened. We doknow that a thousand years later, by 1000 BCE, the entire Indo-Gangetic plain was denselypopulated by a physically similar people who had developed a way of life and a society that wenow call Hindu. That way of life was governed by “Dharma”, usually translated as “Law”.Numerous texts, including the Mahabharata, seek to elucidate the concept of Dharma. The crisishad been resolved by Dharma. We surmise that the following elements constituted the crisis: a) Over-population: The population was crowded into safe regions that could sustain agriculture using techniques developed in the older settlements but not appropriate in the Gangetic plain to the east. The dense forests of the south depended on erratic rainfall rather than a steady supply of water from snow-fed rivers and water management was critical. b) Wars over resources: The forests and other non-urban lands were occupied by an aboriginal population that resisted the expropriation of their lands. They needed to be dealt with. c) An energy crisis: Cities and towns in the Indus plain were built with kiln-fired bricks. This practice was initially continued when refugees moved to the Gangetic plain -- as the refugee population continued to grow, the land around the main cities of Hastinapur and Kampilya became deforested. Age-old practices had to change. d) A food crisis: There was a scarcity of food. People had not changed their eating habits and meat continued to be a prized food. The land was insufficient to produce both fodder for domesticated animals and plant products for human consumption. Dietary and consumption patterns had to change.The crisis in the MahabharataForced migrations and Genocide Over-population and a shortage of productive resources set the stage for the Great War.The Mahabharata provides mixed evidence for the elements of these crises. There are multiplestories that associate one or more gods promising to redress the problem of over-population. Forinstance, when the Pandavas are faced with the problem of obeying Kunti’s demand that they allshare Draupadi, Vyaasa appears and tells them the story of the five Indras.
  4. 4. MBh: Social Ecological Perspective 4 Kamesh R. Aiyer Indra and the gods attend a sacrifice sponsored by Yama, the god of Death. Yama beingthus pre-occupied, stops killing the mortals on earth. They grow numerous, the earth cannotsustain them, and the balance between the immortal gods and mortals is upset. Indra’s efforts torestore the balance results in him being paralyzed and imprisoned with four other prior Indraswho had similarly interfered with Yama. All five Indras are then sent to earth to redress thebalance and it was ordained that they marry one woman, an incarnation of Lakshmi. The GreatWar then becomes the means by which over-population is resolved. Other religious texts, the Harivamsa (Dutt, 1897) and the Vishnu Purana (Wilson, 2006),though not as old as the Mahabharata, have similar stories. The Vishnu Purana depicts Bhumi-devi, Mother Earth, imploring Vishnu to save her for she is overpopulated, the people havebecome evil, and are ruled by criminals. Vishnu promises that he will be incarnated as Krishna,kill the criminals, and cause a great war to bring down the population. Krishna is not a god inmost of the Mahabharata, though he is a compelling leading character and the popular versions ofmany episodes ascribe miracles to him. In Book 6 of the Mahabharata, in the Bhagavad-Gita chapters, Krishna asserts thatwhenever evil dominates in the world, he (i.e., the supreme being Vishnu) incarnates himself toeradicate the evil. He goes on to encourage Arjuna to fight for what he is doing is Dharma, evenif it does not fit with past interpretations of right behavior. Resolving the problem of over-population, then, is part of the divine rationale for thestory emphasized by multiple variations on the theme. But over-population, by itself, is not evil.Over-population creates imbalance between the urban human and other beings. It exacerbates thestruggle for resources. War becomes inevitable which then changes priorities and values. Thestory of the establishment of Indraprastha, the capital city of the Pandavas, shows such a war. The Mahabharata culture is overwhelmingly urban and the forest is a place of exile forcivilized people. There are forest-dwellers, portrayed as backward or demonic or child-like.Scattered among the forest-dwellers are urban people who have gone to the forest in search ofsomething – enlightenment, perhaps, or to live out the last years of their life. What is apparentfrom the Mahabharata itself is that the urbanites do not move around. Contrast this with the Rig-Veda (Arya, 2001) (Wilson, 1990) where the people depictedare constantly on the move, nomadic even if not migrating. There are battles and victories, landsto be won and cattle to be gained. The rishis occupy the forests, busy in meditation, determiningbalance. In the Mahabharata, on the other hand, ownership and rule of all but the forest has beensettled. A host of cities are mentioned, all described in glowing terms as great, beautiful, large,well-laid out, veritably heaven on earth. There are forests, dark and deep, and populated byanimals, Nagas, Rakshasas, Danavas, Gandharvas, and other non-humans. Cities are safe andcomfortable; forests are dangerous and uncomfortable. The Khandavaprastha is such a forest. Settled at one time by the mythical ancestors of theKurus themselves, Yayati and Nahusha, it was abandoned in favor of Hastinapur (though theMahabharata does not explain why). The old city had gone back to forest and the area was a
  5. 5. MBh: Social Ecological Perspective 5 Kamesh R. Aiyerdense, impenetrable tract – a “terrifying” place. The dreaded Nagas (mythical snake people)occupy it, making the land poisonous. Despite all the virgin lands available, establishing a new settlement does not appear tohave been easy. When the Pandavas are given the forested half of the kingdom as their share,they do not establish a small settlement that grows organically into a great city. They burn theforest, kill the existing inhabitants, and import an architect to design and build a complete newcity and fort with palaces, buildings, and all. The Mahabharata gives an additional divinerationale for burning the forest and killing its inhabitants – the god of Fire comes to Krishna andArjuna and begs them to do this for he has been starved! Vyaasa, the poet, is said to have made parts of the Mahabharata difficult to understand.This seems to be one of those parts. What could be meant by this story of Fire being starved ofofferings? What analogy or metaphor, if any, is being proposed? Possibly, the massacre of theinhabitants may have been born of the imagination of a later raconteur, but the Mahabharataleaves no doubt that this was a new city constructed de novo. The Mahabharata does not explainwhere and how the new city is populated. But it is, and soon becomes a great city that evokes thejealousy of the Kauravas. There are some inferences we can make:1. Hastinapur was over-crowded – émigrés from there populated an equally great new city.2. The population wanted to continue in a comfortable urban life, not move to new small settlements in virgin lands.3. Cost was no barrier to creating a great new city.4. The native forest-dwellers had no rights and were massacred to create the city.5. Finally, they “burn” an entire forest to create this city. The émigrés are no longer pioneers inventing themselves as they go. They want to leave acrowded city but being colonizers, they want to build a clone of what they leave behind. They areprodigious consumers, people who burn the land for that is how they have lived. This attitudeleads to resource wars, for they inevitably conflict with the people who already occupy the land. The slaughter of Khandavaprastha is not the only evidence of genocidal war overresources in the Mahabharata. The great Naga, Takshaka, was absent from Khandavaprasthaduring the slaughter. His family was completely wiped out, except for a son who escapedthrough his mother’s heroism in protecting him. Takshaka vows revenge on Arjuna’s progeny.The Nagas play no role in the Great War, but the self-inflicted slaughter of the Kurus does notslake Takshaka’s anger. Takshaka kills Parikshit, Arjuna’s sole surviving grandson. But the cycleof revenge continues as Parikshit’s son Janamejaya vows to kill all the Nagas. He conducts theNaga Sacrifice, a magic ritual that induces the Nagas to jump into the sacrificial fire. Janamejayais finally induced to stop by a sage, Astika. The cycle is halted, but the mythical Nagas are nolonger a hindrance to urbanization.
  6. 6. MBh: Social Ecological Perspective 6 Kamesh R. Aiyer Nor for that matter are the modern Nagas of India a hindrance to urbanization. They area tribal people, mainly located in the Northeast. There are references to Nagas in historicaldocuments who appear to be the ancestors of the modern Naga even though they were notconfined to the Northeast. We do not know if the historical Nagas of India are the descendants ofthe mythical Nagas of the Mahabharata, but we can take note of the remarkable continuity ofcaste communities in India over a few thousand years. The traders opposed to Indra called Pani inthe Rig-Veda (Arya, 2001) (Wilson, 1990)seem to be the Bania of modern India who have beentraders for centuries. The Brahmins in the Vedas exist today with claims of paternal descent tonamed persons...Almost every ethnic group or category mentioned in mythological literature canbe found in real-life India today. The burning of Khandava forest is the mass killing of forest-dwellers by a king bent onfinding land for urban settlements. The Snake Sacrifice of Janamejaya portrays the mass killingof forest-dwelling tribes by a vengeful king. Between these events is the killing of a king by avengeful forest-dweller. These stories from the Mahabharata portray the eternal battle for landthat has marked the growth of human civilization.Infanticide Santanu, the King of Hastinapur, watches in horror as his wife drowns her children in theriver. Infatuated by her, he had asked to marry her and she had extracted a promise that he wouldnever question her actions. She drowns seven boys born of that marriage and as she is about todrown the eighth, Santanu stops her and demands to know what she is doing and what kind ofmonster she is. This is the stuff of fairy tale (the wicked witch who kills babies), but (again!) theMahabharata charts new territory as one of the earliest fairy tales. Santanu’s wife reveals that sheis the river Ganga and she was fulfilling a promise made to seven minor gods that she would givebirth to them but kill them so they did not have to suffer a long earthly life. They, along with aneighth god, had been cursed to be born as humans. The eighth god could not avoid a long life onearth and enters the story as the prince Devavrata. The god does not desire children – a god doesnot need children to avoid the dreaded hell occupied by people without descendants – for childrenwould be a bond. So, Devavrata vows eternal celibacy so that his father can re-marry and promisethe kingdom to the children of his new wife. In recognition of this terrible vow, Devavrata iscalled Bhishma (“the terrible”) in the rest of the epic. Vyaasa has gone to a lot of trouble, conjuring a complicated story with gods, goddesses,and terrible vows to explain the deaths of seven babies and Devavrata’s decision not to havechildren. It is not as though married couples had not been barren before. It is not as thoughinfants did not die. The plot is not advanced by the death of the seven babies. Why does this storylead off the epic? Unlike the other causes of infant death, both Santanu and Ganga are culpable inthe murder of the children. Though Santanu is portrayed as passive, he is a king used to rule, nota slave. Even a slave to passion makes insistent demands of the object of that passion, and thisking is not exempt from that. What the Mahabharata hides from us with its fairy-tale explanationis that the king is guilty of these murders.
  7. 7. MBh: Social Ecological Perspective 7 Kamesh R. Aiyer What happened in Hastinapur was state-sponsored infanticide, more specifically femaleinfanticide, a guaranteed-to-succeed mechanism for controlling population growth (Harris, 1975).The population crisis was multi-generational; it threatened all social classes and levels ofprosperity; and the city was hemmed in by natural or other boundaries. Hastinapur was underpressure internally from immigrants and externally by enemies in all directions (Panchala to thenorth-east, Salya to the west, Chedi and Magadha to the south and east, and Naga-infestedKhandavaprastha to the south-west). The king, whether to protect his own wealth or to providean example to the rest of the public arranged to kill his female children as infants. Kill, becauseabortion was not yet sufficiently safe; infants, so as to limit the investment in children who weredoomed to die; female, because the fertility of a population is directly proportional to the numberof child-bearing women and this was a long-term plan to control population growth. In addition,the spouses of a king’s daughters might harbor ambitions and threaten any sons, so this actionprotected Devavrata. Sons born after Devavrata may also have been killed (I surmise Devavratawas the eldest, not the youngest), though killing brothers may also kill natural allies. If the king’s plan succeeded, other families would have similarly curtailed the number ofdaughters and sons. The collateral damage might be loss of political support from these otherfamilies in a time of need. In later years, Santanu himself may have lost faith in his policy andthat would account for his desire to re-marry and have more children. Of course, other explanations are possible for the specifics of Santanu’s behavior.However, the later history of Santanu’s family leading to the Great War reinforce the hypothesisthat population control was his goal. Santanu’s grandson, Pandu chose to avoid sex and adoptedhis five children of unknown parentage (“born of gods”). Pandu may be contrasted with hisbrother Dhritarashtra, who had a hundred sons by one mother. Without belaboring the obvious,the Mahabharata makes it clear that Pandu and Dhritarashtra were on the opposite sides of thepopulation debate. That later raconteurs forgot this distinction while remembering the miraculousstory of how Gandhari gave birth to a hundred sons tells us how stories evolve. In the next generation, Pandu’s children, the Pandavas, jointly marry their first wifeDraupadi. This is a simple, low-tech means to limit the number of children per man. But it onlyworks if the many spouse-less women do not bear children, or if the proportion of women in thepopulation is low. These two policies result in diametrically opposed societies, with differentattitudes towards women. A society in which women do not automatically bear children is one inwhich the woman’s time and activities are valued more than child-birthing or rearing. Implicitly,women are valued highly and not encouraged to have children unless they can afford them andwant them. A society in which the proportion of women in the population is kept low is one inwhich females are culled, directly or indirectly, at a young age. Investing in a boy child is valuedmuch more highly than investing in a girl child, resulting in discrimination against women and alow valuation for women. If a woman has many acknowledged husbands, she must be valued highly. The Pandavasopt for a society that values women. Dhritarashtra with his 101 sons and one daughterexemplifies a society that proposes to keep fertility low by discriminating against women.Implicitly if not explicitly, the Kauravas sponsor the female infanticide that Santanu may havesupported.
  8. 8. MBh: Social Ecological Perspective 8 Kamesh R. Aiyer Unfortunately, the Pandava approach is unsustainable under short-term pressures and thathas been the history of the treatment of women in India. The payoff from preferring males comeswithin a generation as the marginal male advantage in warfare wins the resource wars andjustifies discrimination against women. The payoff from valuing women highly only comes overmany generations during which a relatively peaceful society builds, innovates, trades with itsneighbours, and grows organically. Thus radical patriarchy spelled the end of the Pandavaexperiment in polyandry.Caste Kunti, the mother of the Pandavas, has hidden the existence of an illegitimate son. Thatson, Karna, bursts out into the Mahabharata stage at a tournament held to display the prowess ofthe young princes. He matches and exceeds Arjuna’s feats at archery, arousing wonder at hisskills. Egged on by Duryodhana, he challenges Arjuna to a duel, but is brought up short when heis asked to validate his fitness to compete by naming his parents and his caste. He believeshimself to be the child of his foster-parents, a lower-caste chariot driver. Arjuna and Bhima mockhim for his pretensions and the duel never takes place. At that instant, it is easy to feel sympathy for Karna, for as the eldest son of Kunti heshould have been showered with honors. And one wonders at the Pandavas for their easyacceptance of something so fundamentally unfair. In fact, the only voice raised against thehumiliation of Karna was that of Duryodhana. He anoints Karna the King of Anga in a failedattempt to get around Karna’s lack of caste status; he befriends him, is close to him, and is thebrother Karna never had. But the Mahabharata does not let the Pandavas off easily. The lower-caste forest-dweller, Ekalavya, learns archery from a statue of their teacher Drona because Drona cites casteas the reason for not teaching him. When the Pandavas discover Ekalavya, Arjuna is disconsolatefor he fears that he is no longer the best archer in the world. To satisfy Arjuna, their teacherDrona demands his thumb from Ekalavya as guru-dakshina (the traditional gift from a pupil to ateacher). Ekalavya cuts off his thumb but is forever crippled as an archer, so that Arjuna can stillbe the best archer in the world. Yudhishthira, the wise older brother, does not raise a questionabout these actions. Why is caste so important in the Mahabharata? Caste in the Mahabharata is not theformalized four-caste system of the intellectual Hindu, but closer to the messy four thousand-plusjaatis encountered in practice. (When most Hindus refer to “caste”, they mean “jaati”. In thispaper, we will employ this common use rather than the formal definition). A Hindu caste hasbeen described in many ways – regional endogamous groups with rights to employment in certaintraditional occupations and corresponding prestige. This description does not capture how central,ubiquitous, and long-standing caste has been in Hindu society – recent as yet unpublishedanalysis of DNA data seems to indicate that many castes/jaatis have existed for hundreds ofgenerations (2000 to 4000 years old)! This is not just another institution, it has deep roots. Indian castes are not simply class divisions, though there is a correlation; they are notsimply endogamous groups (for certain violations are accepted); they are not simply
  9. 9. MBh: Social Ecological Perspective 9 Kamesh R. Aiyeroccupational. What is unique about the Indian caste system is the extent to which intra-familybehavior is caste determined. Along with this, the average Indian is unfamiliar with and incuriousabout family behavior in other castes. Caste corresponds closest to “ethnic group” in Westernparlance, but no Western sociologist would recognize an ethnic group in an Indian caste. One’scaste determines, to a very large extent, what one considers a reasonable way of life and this didnot differ dramatically between the rich, poor, or middle-class member of a caste. Members ofcertain caste groups live high-on-the-hog even when they are poor; members of other castegroups live like comparative misers even when rich. Certain castes consume addictive drugsmore than others. Certain castes tolerate a rich man who has lower-caste mistresses and evenfamilies with those mistresses though the families never mixed. Even if a caste was associatedwith a particular occupation, a member’s caste did not change just because they followed adifferent occupation. Membership in a caste was not a good predictor of the member’s income.However, membership in a caste was a very good predictor of the average level of consumptionof that person or family. I argue that the Mahabharata’s ratification of caste came out of a need to moderate theoverall consumption footprint of the culture. As discussed above, caste in India exists tomoderate the consumption patterns of the great majority of the population. The richest membersof the upper consuming castes, generally classifiable as Kshatriya, Vaishya, or Brahmin in theformal model of caste would exhibit extreme consumption patterns; even then, labor wasconsumed rather than capital or goods. The result is a system that radically limits the overallfootprint of the culture. The fear is that if, during flush times, everybody consumed like theserichest consumers, there would be nothing saved for the periods of drought and famine. Caste,however unfair, is Dharma and that is what the Mahabharata is about.Commons During the Pandavas’ exile, they wander through the forest of Dvaitavana and wreakhavoc to the fauna. Every day they kill animals in the hundreds. At one point (Vyaasa, p.3/40.244), Yudhishthira dreams that a group of deer plead with him to stop killing them as only asmall seed group is left. Thereupon, he recognizes that they have over-hunted the forest andpersuades his brothers and wife to move to the edge of the desert (the forest of Kamyaka by LakeTrnabindu) further away from their lost kingdom. This minor episode highlights the beginning ofYudhishthira’s recognition that the world is shared with other beings with rights to be recognized.His brothers and Draupadi agree to move but they have not achieved his insight. Kamyaka forestis not a safe haven for the Pandavas and they have to fight the Sindhu king Jayadratha to rescuethe abducted Draupadi. So they return to Dvaitavana and subsist on fruits. They are no longer killing deer but there is yet more to learn. This time, a deer steals thefire-starting tools of a brahmin who appeals to the Pandavas for help. This episode is commonlycalled Yaksha-prashna, or the “The Questions of the Crane demigod” (Vyaasa, 1933-1966, pp.3.44/295-299). The Pandavas chase the deer and fail to catch it. Exhausted they split up in searchof water. One by one they come to the same forest lake. A yaksha in the form of a crane denieseach Pandava access to the lake, claiming ownership. One by one, the younger Pandavas defy theyaksha and are killed, apparently by magic. When Yudhishthira comes upon his brothers lyingdead by the lake and tries to drink from the lake, the yaksha demands that Yudhishthira answer
  10. 10. MBh: Social Ecological Perspective 10 Kamesh R. Aiyersome questions before he attempts to drink. Upon being challenged on his right to barYudhishthira from a common resource, the yaksha claims the lake as his creation and hisproperty. Thereupon, Yudhishthira agrees to answer his questions. Four times a Pandava does not accept the yaksha’s claim of ownership and dies as aresult – the fifth time, Yudhishthira respects the claim. The rest of the episode does not matterfor the point I wish to make – that Yudhishthira accepts that water and natural resources likelakes can be subject to somebody else’s authority. The lake was not private property in the sensewe understand it now – the yaksha did not bar other creatures from the water. But nor was it a“commons” shared by all. The Pandavas did not pay anything or barter anything to get access tothe water, nor could they have. Instead the yaksha asked them some metaphysical andphilosophical questions as a test of their fitness to share in the water. The lake was a “managedcommons”, managed by the local forest dwellers and not by a remote urban king. Yudhishthira’s acceptance of the yaksha’s rights is a far cry from the carnage thatpreceded the creation of Indraprastha that we discussed earlier. The lesson that the youngerPandavas did not learn engendered a crisis that, for the first time in the Mahabharata, was avertedby Yudhishthira’s judgment. Arjuna may be the warrior but Yudhishthira is the king and thecrane-yaksha episode marks the transition of real power from the arrogant instrumentalism of thewarrior to the judicious wisdom of the king. But there is more. Sharing forests as commons with forest-dwellers means that the urbandwellers must limit their consumption. The forest is no longer a deep and infinite resource thatcan be exploited without limit. The city cannot grow without limit for it is bounded by forests thatbelong to others. If the urban population grows, it will migrate to lands elsewhere, not encroachon nearby land.Conclusion We have reviewed some events in the Mahabharata from the point-of-view of analternative narrative. The claim is that the Mahabharata tells the story of a violent dialecticbetween two sets of social policies responding to an environmental crisis. We looked at variousepisodes in the Mahabharata as illustrating state-sponsored infanticide, a state-sponsored castesystem, state-sponsored genocide, and finally state-sponsored cooperation to create sustainablecommons. The final synthesis is Dharma as it evolved over the centuries. The culture survivedbecause of the policies espoused by the Pandavas. Some of these policies seem repugnant to us,others seem wise; as part of Hindu orthodox religion, these policies have survived for manyyears.Bibliography Aiyer, K. R. (2009, September). Dharma in the Mahabharata as a response to EcologicalCrises: A speculation. The Trumpeter . Arya, R. P. (2001). Ṛgveda Saṃhitā: Sanskrit Text, English Translation, Notes & Indexof Verses. Delhi, India: Parimal Publications.
  11. 11. MBh: Social Ecological Perspective 11 Kamesh R. Aiyer Dutt, M. N. (1897). A Prose English Translation of the Harivamsa. (M. N. Dutt, Trans.)Calcutta, West Bengal, India: Elysium Press. Feller, D. (2003). The Sanskrit Epics’ Representation of Vedic Myths. Delhi: MotilalBanarsidas Publishers Private Ltd. Harris, M. (1975). Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture. New York:Vintage Books, USA. Valdiya, K. (2002). Saraswati: The River That Disappeared. Mumbai: Orient-Longman. Vyaasa, K. D. (1933-1966). The Mahabharata, for the First Time Critically Edited. (S.K. V. S. Sukthankar, Ed.) Poona, Maharashtra, India: Bhandarkar Oriental Institute. Wilson, H. H. (1990). Rgveda-Samhita, Text in Devanagari, English translation Notesand indices. (W. Webster, Ed., & H. H. Wilson, Trans.) Delhi, Delhi, India: Nag Publishers. Wilson, H. H. (2006). The Vishnu Purana: A System of Hindu Mythology and Tradition.(H. H. Wilson, Trans.) Cambridge: Read Country Books.