Mahabharata Tragedy and Time in The Mahabharata

The comparative literature scholar Lourens Minnema wrote a fascinating book on tragedy called Tragic Views of the Human Condition, in which he traces approaches to tragedy in Shakepeare's plays, Homer's Iliad, and the Mahabharata. His inquiry across all of these different incarnations of tragic literature concerns commonalities and divergences across narrative, literary style, socio-political concerns, religion, ethics, and more. It's a useful source for scholarship on both the specific literature Minnema writes about and tragedy, more generally, as a genre.

One of the most fascinating discussions of the Mahabharata in Minnema's book concerns the relationship between tragedy and time. In Western narratives, he writes, time helps processes unfold, as events change and characters' relationship with their circumstances evolve. Consider Hamlet's developing feud with Claudius in Hamlet or the narrative trajectory of the war in the Iliad. In both of these situations, the plots concern problems in need of solutions, which characters learning both the nature of the conflicts in which they are embroiled and either rising to the occasion to confront them, or crumbling under the pressure of the circumstances. The tragedy stems from the unforeseeable, as characters progress within a situation only to learn that something has gone terribly awry along the way.

In the Mahabharata, time and tragedy have a different relationship. Minnema uses Arjuna's feelings about the great war as an illustrative example of how time does not help events evolve or characters come to a new understanding of them, but instead simply ushers along events whose ending is foretold. As Minnema explains, Arjuna is well aware that the war he is about to fight will be a bleak enterprise, as gruesome as it is unnecessary. His misgivings spur Krsna to recite the Bhagavad Gita to him, and Krsna's message is clear. Arjuna's participation in the war is his fate, and the war's outcome is preordained. It is not Arjuna's duty to make the right decision or even to influence the course of the events to follow. Rather, it is Arjuna's duty to act in the exact capacity he is fated to act.

Time, in this case, is simply a vector for Arjuna coming to terms with his role and duties. Such is the case for all the characters embroiled in this war. Minnema makes the pertinent observation that almost all of the major warriors — be they Duryodhana's commanders, Dhrtarastra, or the Pandavas—understand exactly how fruitless the violence will prove, as they all know the outcome of the war well in advance. The war is ultimately a means for these men to come to terms with their dharma and act in accordance with it.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Krsna invokes his own mighty power with the line, "I am Time, destroyer of worlds." The conception of time that is related to dharma is effectively one stemming from the simple principle that every person knows he will die, that everything in the world is finite, that Time makes and undoes all that exists in the world. Tragedy is not an act of discovery as time progresses, but simply the senseless violence that transpires as time passes. Perhaps the true tragedy in the Mahabharata is that these characters with all their human afflictions and affections are in fact powerless, that the virtuous Yudhisthira and the wicked Duryodhana are both fated—one to live in heaven and one in hell, but fated nonetheless.