chapter  1
Mahābhārata. Itihāsa. Agency
BySibesh Chandra Bhattacharya
Pages 14

This chapter reflects on the nature of Mahābhārata as a text, focusing particularly on its self-description as an itihāsa, not strictly ‘history’ in the Western sense of regarding the past but as interested in the past as ‘exemplary’ or having the didactic value of guiding humans to achieve dharma. The ‘past’ in an itihāsa is a dialogic partner so that engaging with it helps us clarify the idea of justice and perhaps achieve it in the present. Besides this pedagogical potential, the past itself in early Indian ethos was thought to work as an agent: as the accumulation of karma and the merits/demerits accruing from the upholding/violation of dharma. The life of Karṇa poignantly exemplifies this agency in the Mahābhārata. However, the author argues that Karṇa also remains an agent in his own right – deciding to take a stand against and in response to the humiliations dealt to him because of his history. In keeping with the near ambiguity of the text, Bhattacharya does not adjudicate on whether change of the life-governing dhārmic order through individual choice is at all possible or whether Karṇa, in self-styling himself as an ‘actor’, is successful in re-scripting justice.