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Covid-19 and the Mahabharata

Can lessons to fight the virus be garnered from the epic battle between the Pandavas and the Kauravas? Can war strategies fortify us today to defeat this vicious enemy? By Vivek K Agnihotri

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On March 24, while announcing the unprecedented 21-day lockdown, the prime minister compared it to the war of Mahabharata which lasted all of 18 days. The insinuation was that if it took 18 days to finish off the ruinous war of Mahabharata, the leeway of 21 days should be more than sufficient to decimate and drive away the evil of Covid-19. India’s battle against the coronavirus started on a war footing thereafter. The lockdown was an extension of the Janata curfew, which had preceded it on March 22.

Doordarshan, the bouquet of 21 TV channels promoted by the government, decided to make its own contribution to the war effort. In its endeavour to keep lovers of soap operas and cinema enthralled at home, it decided to repeat two of its most popular TV serials, the Ramayana (1987-88) and the Mahabharata (1988-90), with two episodes per day, seven days a week. A hypnotic dispensation, indeed.

As I watched them, apart from the longer duration of each episode compared to the current crop, three things stood out in contrast. The fast pace of story execution: in six episodes, the Mahabharata serial covered four generations of the Kurus; Bhishma (born as Devavrat in the second episode, as the eighth child of the Ganga) had become the uncle of two grown-up princes (Dhritarashtra and Pandu) by the sixth episode and Pandu had been crowned.

Second was the near absence of breaks unlike today, which make you lose the thread of the storyline. There is no attempt to make do with very little new content by using devices such as “what has gone before” and “what is coming up” and many flashbacks, repeated ad nauseam. These interruptions, coupled with advertisements and previews of other serials of the channel, take up almost two-thirds of the serial’s half-an-hour slot.

Finally, earlier there was smooth and uninterrupted conversation. No unharmonious, and occasionally jarring background scores which drown the niceties of nuanced dialogue today. Again, in the Mahabharata, there are spells of silence when you can hear water being poured into a vessel; occasionally, there is no sound. What I also like are the subtle ways of depicting immaculate conception and how the mental state of the mother impacts the child.

The corona pandemic is being tackled on a war footing. The two armies, comprising the authorities ostensibly backed by civil society on the one hand and the corona (sounding suspiciously like the Kauravas) on the other, are face to face on the battlefield of human carnage. Each day, the enemy employs new tactics, forcing humanity to devise new strategies to meet the “novel’’ challenges. Arjuna is in doubt because of the irresponsible behaviour of some of his own tribe. How are we going to win this war?

The central theme of the Mahabharata war strategy, in a sense, is trickery. The war had to be won at any cost. Fair was foul and foul was fair, to rephrase Macbeth’s witches. Of the two warring sides, the Pandavas made the maximum use of foul means, though some of them look fair, with Lord Krishna playing the stellar partisan role.

It all began with the Pandavas realising that Bhishma, the commander-in-chief of the Kaurava army, should be eliminated if they had to win the war. Arjuna placed Shikhandi (a transgender) in front of him on his chariot. As Bhishma had vowed never to strike women, he laid his bow down on seeing Shikhandi. Arjuna then pierced him with 25 arrows and Bhishma fell from his chariot on the bed of arrows and remained there till he decided to call it a day.

On the 13th day of the war, Abhimanyu, the underage son of Arjuna, was trapped in the chakravyuha by the Kauravas; technically, it was not an unfair warfare tactic. But what followed till the end were a series of blatantly foul and ingenious tricks used by the Pandavas, aided and abetted by Krishna.

Jayadratha, who killed Abhimanyu, was tricked by Krishna into believing that the sun had set, thus giving an opportunity to Arjuna to kill him as he had put down his weapons, thinking it was the end of the day’s battle. Dronacharya was killed when he felt distraught on account of Yudhisthira telling a white lie about the death of his son, Ashwatthama. Upon the death of an eponymous elephant, Yudhisthira announced: “Ashwatthama is dead.” Against the backdrop of the beating of war drums by his army to celebrate the achievement, he added: “May be a man or an elephant.” What he said later was inaudible, much like the nuanced dialogues against the cacophonous background music in TV serials today.

Karna, the next commander-in-chief of the Kauravas, was killed when Arjuna, instigated by Krishna and in violation of the rules of the battle, struck him as he bent down to disengage the mired wheel of his chariot. Then, on the final day, Bhima struck Duryodhana below the belt with his mace on a signal from Krishna via Arjuna. The war was over and the Kauravas lost in spite of the scheming Shakuni on their side; but the acrimony created by it led to mayhem and more devastation in due course. It was indeed a pyrrhic victory. Only two things came out unscathed: Bhishma Pitamaha and Gita, the scripture.

Are there any lessons in these manoeuvres and shenanigans on how to win the war against corona, humanity’s enemy number one today? Will the advice of Krishna to the Pandava army to duck (comparable to a lockdown) in order to avoid the harmful effects of Narayanastra launched by Ashwatthama work today? Are the Kauravas comparable to community transmission? Will our inherent shortcomings lead to devastation or will the Gitopadesh rescue us? While we debate and discuss various strategies to fortify and arm ourselves to the teeth to defeat the enemy, some good news has started to trickle in. A new, controlled clinical study conducted by doctors in France shows that a combo of hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) and (Z-Pak) completely cures coronavirus patients within six days of treatment. Can Covid-19 be tricked into mutating as a malarial mosquito variant? The government has allowed the use of hydroxychloroquine in combination with azithromycin under close monitoring for serious patients. In the meanwhile, Italian doctors said that Tocilizumab, a drug used to treat moderate to severe rheumatoid arthritis, has shown more promise than HCQ, the anti-malaria drug. Or will some other trick or a combination of tricks be able to mutate foul into fair?  Is that the way to win the corona war? Only time will tell.

Finally, could the Mahabharata or the corona disaster have been avoided? The compulsive obsession with finding an heir to the throne of Hastinapura, from time to time, followed by an all-consuming desire to wrest power by hook or crook led to devastation in the Mahabharata. Is similar uncontrolled greed, coupled with a flawed value system, at the root of the Covid-19 catastrophe? Is it time to get ready to face the world beyond corona: the restructuring of the global economic order? Are we heading for a pyrrhic victory in the war against Covid-19?

—The writer is a former Secretary-General, Rajya Sabha,
and a retired IAS officer of the AP cadre



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