Dialogics of Self, the Mahabharata and Culture: The History of Understanding and Understanding of History

Dialogics of Self, the Mahabharata and Culture: The History of Understanding and Understanding of History

by Lakshmi Bandlamudi


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‘Dialogics of Self, the Mahabharata and Culture: The History of Understanding and Understanding of History’ explores the interrelationships between individual and cultural historical dynamics in interpreting texts, using key concepts from Bakhtin’s theory of dialogics. This ambitious volume discusses the limits of fixed monologic discourses and the benefits of fluid dialogic discourses, and provides a cultural and psychological analysis of the epic Indian text the Mahabharata.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780857284150
Publisher: Anthem Press
Publication date: 10/01/2011
Series: Anthem South Asian Studies
Pages: 316
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Lakshmi Bandlamudi is Professor of Psychology at LaGuardia Community College, City University of New York. Her research and teaching interests are focused on the area of human development, with a special emphasis on dialogic consciousness. She is also the author of a travelogue.

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Dialogics of Self, the Mahabharata and Culture

The History of Understanding and Understanding of History

By Lakshmi Bandlamudi

Wimbledon Publishing Company

Copyright © 2011 Lakshmi Bandlamudi
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-85728-953-7



Art and life are not one, but they must become united in myself in the unity of my answerability.

Mikhail Bakhtin

Where do we seek answers to all the questions that life raises? Can works of art provide answers? If so, does art have absolute authority over life and is life subordinated to art? Or is art a mere reflection of life? Mikhail Bakhtin (1990) observes that art is far too grand and "audaciously self-confident" and "high flown," and the "humble prose of life" is no match for mighty art, and yet, within the individual they must converge, confront, and exchange ideas and achieve the "unity of answerability." Art simply cannot provide the inspiration and ignore the prosaic of life, and life in turn cannot remain ineffectual by not answering itself with what has been "experienced and understood in art." Without the answerability factor, both art and life become impoverished. Bakhtin further points out, "It is not only mutual answerability that art and life must assume, but also mutual liability for blame" (1990, 1). This complex equation between art and life seems to aptly capture the intense relationship that readers develop with the grand epic from India The Mahabharata.

This epic is unarguably one of the mightiest literary creations in human history, and certainly the longest – seven times the size of Iliad and Odyssey combined. Every human dilemma and conflict finds expression in this epic, as Sage Sauti, one of the narrators of the tales in the Mahabharata said, "That which occurs here occurs elsewhere. That which does not occur here occurs nowhere else" (Swargarohanika Parva, Section V). The Mahabharata is about power and politics, familial strife and national disintegration, and in every plot one confronts the forces of history. In this grand epic, no character, however noble their deeds might be, and no idea, however ideal it may seem to be, is perfect and pure. In the conventional sense, everyone is flawed, including gods. All roles are reversed at some point – the valorous warrior Arjun becomes despondent and turns into a pacifist, and the godhead Krishna resorts to human tactics and counsels on warfare. Even the most profound treatise on salvation is not Utopian in nature and does not necessarily rescue the individual from the abysmal world (Radhakrishnan 1948); instead, they are instruments for shaping and reshaping individual and social consciousness (Nandy 1987) by repeatedly directing our attention to the complexity and multiplicity of truth. Therefore, the meaning of "defeat" in war, however pathetic it might be, and "victory," despite its glory and grandeur, are not intrinsic to the events, but are contextual. The Mahabharata is not about purity, since it captures the pathos of human existence in its most sordid form and seems to assert that it is one of the most insoluble disharmonies of existence. The disharmony of the Mahabharata is certainly not about hopelessness and despair, but it directs our attention to the unfinalizability of ideas and ideals and unsystematizability of human existence. Every moment in the epic presents bewildering complexities. Hence the innumerable tales in the epic invite immediate identification; yet, it is disturbing and unsettling and as such is "liable to blame." The text itself evolved and continues to evolve and as such is referred to as Chakra – a wheel – and each generation serves as a cog to set this wheel in motion, thus enabling the evolution of the self and the text to occur in a synergistic fashion. This book is about the answerability between readers and the Mahabharata.

What sorts of exchanges take place between readers and the text? What happens when both the readers and the text are "culturally displaced" and have to confront other changing cultural systems? How complex are the cultural matrices within which individuals locate themselves and the text that they seek to interpret? How and with what cultural materials and tools do individuals construct their identities, and out of which cultural and intellectual histories do they achieve the characterological profile of the heroes and heroines in the Mahabharata? What may count as the "ancient past" in the postmodern world? Why, for whom, and at what cost? How are contemporary concerns and conflicts about class, caste, gender and nation intertwined in constructions of the ancient past? How do boundaries between the "ancient past" and the "modern present" shift and how are these notions of time amalgamated with constructions of cultural spaces – east and west? These questions guide my exploration of narratives on, and exchanges between, personal and cultural past and the dialogic tension thus created.

The underlying theme in this book is that interpretation is not a simple matter of discovery, but a complex act of creation. Thoughts instilled in a reader through the text never coincide with the intentions of the author, and this disjunction between reader, text and author is the most immediate reality in understanding, and therefore they must be considered partners on equal footing in the aesthetic activity (Vygotsky 1971). Texts and readers do not exist in isolation; they have their unique histories, and operate in an ever-changing world. Consequently, reading a cultural-historical text like the Mahabharata is not a simple mechanical interconnection between readers and the text; instead, it is a dynamic interaction between individual and cultural histories. Individuals select certain aspects of their lives and the world around them to write their life stories and likewise they select certain aspects of the epic to rewrite the story. The variation among the readers lies in this selective process. The reality about the Mahabharata is refracted through the individual's interpretation of everyday reality. In this regard, Yuri Lotman (1990) explains, "The spatial picture of the world is many-layered: it includes both the mythological universum and scientific modeling and everyday 'common sense'" (p. 203). Accordingly, one might expect constant tension between Mahabharata as the timeless epic and Mahabharata as a cultural-historical text, and the meta-language of Mahabharata, which includes the interpretive categories evolved over time and the individual sense of selfhood and their notions of common sense. Thus, the book will move by a necessarily circuitous route from a general problem of understanding to specific concerns about interpreting history – that of personal history (autobiographical narratives) on one hand, and cultural history, especially ancient history (narratives on epic), on the other hand.

Between Creators and Creations ...

When a work of art is created, be it a literary text, a poem or a painting, it flows through the variegated cultural-historical landscape and takes on layers of meaning. Having created, the creators do not have the final say on the creation, but must allow their creation that has been living through the consciousness of others to bring fresh perspectives. It is an ongoing dance between the creator, the creation and the receiving audience. The creation of multiple worlds and conversing with each of these worlds is necessary for any kind of aesthetic activity; as Bakhtin (1990) writes, "The author must be situated on the boundary of the world he is bringing into being as the active creator of this world, for his intrusion into that world destroys its aesthetic stability" (p. 191).

Multiplicity is necessary for development, and for this reason Bakhtin (1981) was very preoccupied with the novelistic genre. The novel, he asserts is distinctly a heteroglot text; it embraces a variety of "social voices," "social dialects," "authoritative pronouncements," "contesting voices," "voices of the past and the present," and so on, all forming a variety of links and interrelationships in a dialogized form. Bakhtin saw the novelistic hero as a growing child, struggling to find his niche in society as his life story is being co-authored by a variety of social, political and historical forces. The history of the novel symbolizes the history of consciousness in Bakhtin's scheme. Therefore, he explains that "development" occurs when the individual dialogizes various social, political and historical voices. By establishing complex links between these various voices, the individual creates "dialogized heteroglossia" and this dialogic energy in turn serves as a driving force for further development.

The production of a whole range of possible meanings is not only necessary in the acts of creation, but also in acts of comprehension. Understanding is not a simple matter of decoding; it entails recoding and re-accentuating the given information. The cognizing subject must not only understand the literal meaning of an utterance, but also the purpose of the utterance in the given context, must establish relationship with the uttering subject, evaluate it and relate it to his personal interests and also guess how others may potentially interpret it. Understanding itself is in many ways a drama that involves many actors and various conceptual frameworks, as Bakhtin writes:

Thus an active understanding, one that assimilates the word under consideration into a new conceptual system, that of the one striving to understand, establishes a series of complex interrelationships, consonances and dissonances with the word and enriches it with new elements. It is precisely such an understanding that the speaker counts on. (1981, 282)

The drama of understanding is explained in an even more detailed manner by Lev Vygotsky (1987), who saw theatrical elements in a variety of relationships: between private meanings (thinking) and public expression (speaking); action and thought; those kinds of knowledge that we imbibe as part and parcel of growing up in a cultural system, which we enact (everyday concepts), and the kinds of knowledge that we acquire through formal instruction (scientific concepts); nature and culture; student and teacher; parent and child; researcher and researched, and so on. Acts of meaning-making take place at least twice for Vygotsky – between individuals and within individuals. But there is always a disjunction between what has happened in the social realm and what happens within the individual. Being sharply aware of such a tension between the social and the individual, Vygotsky (1989) saw psychology in terms of drama. He asserts, "psychology = drama," and that is the only way that "concrete human psychology" gets "humanized." Vygotsky points out that, for Hegel, the individual is a "logical subject," and an "organism" or "soma" for Pavlov, whereas for him, the individual is "an aggregate of social relations" and the social environment is "full of internal struggles and contradictions." Vygotsky writes, "A drama cannot be otherwise, that is, it is a clash of systems"(p. 67). The clash is intrinsic to the understanding of "self," as Vygotsky points out: "I am a social relation of me to myself" (p. 67). The drama that Vygotsky is arguing for is not the kind in which each individual has a role to play in the world; he points out that "A drama with fixed roles = the idea of old psychology" (p. 69). The drama of old psychology renders the actor too passive, whereas in the new psychology, Vygotsky directs our attention to the variations in the roles.

In this book, I am concerned with the multifaceted nature of truth, creation and understanding, and am guided by the following stanzas from the Bhagavad Gita on the nature of knowledge:

21. prthaktvena tuyajjnanam
nanabhavan prthagvidhan
vetti sarvesu bhutesu
tajjnanam viddhi rajasam

22. yat tu krtsnavad ekasmin
karve saktam ahetukam
atattvarthavad alpam ca
tat tamasam udahartam

(21) The knowledge which sees multiplicity of beings in the different creatures, by reason of their separateness, know that that knowledge is of the nature of passion.

(22) But that which clings to one single effect as if it were the whole, without concern for the cause, without grasping the real, and narrow is declared to be the nature of dullness.

(The Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 18, stanzas 21, 22)

Self, Text and Context ...

This book is based on my extensive research exploring the interrelationships between the individual and cultural-historical dynamics in interpreting texts; more specifically, how three cohorts of individuals of Indian origin living in the United States of America tell stories about their lives and interpret certain segments from a recent television production of the Mahabharata by the Indian film maker B. R. Chopra (1989). The study was designed to explore the transactions between life and literary text, i.e., how do we tell stories about our lives and how does life enter into the stories we read? The videotapes of this television production were available in New York, and I selected segments to focus on the heroine Draupadi and the hero Karna. The plots selected for viewing were significant both to the text and to the present concerns and conflicts of gender, caste and class relations. The topics bore resemblance to contemporary social problems; they were about choosing a marriage partner (Draupadi's Svayamvar), and about boisterous laughter at lapses of intelligence (Maya Mahal Scene), gambling and public humiliation of a woman (Dice Game leading to disrobing of Draupadi – Vastraharan), and about a mother trying to reclaim the child she abandoned (dialogue between Kunti and Karna). My rationale for picking these plots was to allow the reader to come to grips with both the ancient past and the contemporary present, and examine the processes of negotiation between past and the present.

The problem I am addressing is not just how we understand/narrate history, but also how the very mechanism by which we understand/narrate history itself has a history. The book is about the interplay of several histories – that of the individual, the individual's past relationship to the text (which in turn is dependent on the nature of encounters they have had in the past), the history of the text and the very history of understanding. In short, the thematic unity I maintain in the book is with the interconnections between Self, Memory (personal and cultural) and Interpretation.

The chapters in the book deal with the relation between narrative genres and historical representation. My position is that narrative is not a neutral discursive form that represents "real" and "mythical" events; it entails ontological and epistemic choices with distinct ideological implications. In developing narrative, narrators actively select events that they consider worthy of focal attention, adapt it to their imagination, give some twists and turns and add their unique flavor. By this process they reveal and construct the "structures of consciousness" through which they grasp the very event that they attempt to narrate (White 1978 1987; de Certeau 1988; Schafer 1992; Crapanzano 1992; Wertsch 2002). Therefore, I am addressing the question of understanding "history" – both personal and cultural – as a historiographical problem, and I treat history simultaneously as a subject matter and as having a heuristic value. The Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1978) insists that this dual purpose of history is both an immediate reality and a necessity in our understanding of the social formation of the mind.

Reading a literary text, at a fundamental level, has at least three elements – the author, the text and the reader. Vygotsky (1971) points out that the psychology of art cannot be studied by purely analyzing the creator as revealed in the art form, or the receptors as revealed in their reading of the text, but as an interacting system. While the author intends to convey certain messages, the readers, depending on their history and social location, bring varied meanings to the text and subsequently transform the text. The reader is not someone who exists outside the text, but instead, as Susan Suleiman (1980) notes, "may be in a text as a character is in a novel." Thus, the reader, even while possessing the text, is simultaneously possessed by it. Jonathan Culler (1980) notes that, "the study of reading is a way of investigating how works have the meaning they do, and it leaves entirely open the question of what kinds of meanings or what range of meanings works have" (p. 51). It is in the act of reading that the aesthetic dimension of a literary work is realized. Wolfgang Iser (1978) points out that any literary work has two poles: the artistic, which is a creation of the author and the aesthetic, which is accomplished by the reader. As a result, the reading process is phenomenological in nature. By this token, aesthetic experience demand at least two subjects – a writer and a reader. Reader-response theorists (see series of articles in the books edited by Tompkins 1980 and Suleiman and Crosman 1980) point out the active role that the reader plays in constructing the meaning of the text. The reader is not someone who is situated in some ideal position attempting to decode the text without any preconceptions and prejudgments. On the contrary, a variety of preconceptions play an active role in comprehending textual narratives. Therefore, a reader and a writer are not two disparate positions in which one is the producer and the other a consumer; instead, as Roland Barthes (1974) suggests, there is a constant traffic between the "writerly" and "readerly" positions. The writer always has an imaginative audience and attempts to address them, while the reader may organize his or her conceptual scheme to be the "ideal" reader or go beyond the text. As a result, even while the author tries to draw the possible range of meanings, the reader may either expand or contract such a range. It is through the active participation of the reader that texts are set in motion. They become dynamic as meanings are made, remade, erased, contested and eventually transformed.


Excerpted from Dialogics of Self, the Mahabharata and Culture by Lakshmi Bandlamudi. Copyright © 2011 Lakshmi Bandlamudi. Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
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Table of Contents

Part I. About Theories and Philosophies; 1. Introduction: So What’s the Story and Why This Story?; Part II. About Self; 2. Telling Tales About Lives; 3. Who Tells What Kind of Stories?; Part III. About Memory; 4. The Cultural Scene: Allure of Tales in the Living; 5. Remembering Mahabharata: The Story Telling Time and the Time of the Story; 6. Gendered Memories: The Heroine's Journey in Time; Part IV. About Interpretation; 7. The Reading Act; 8. Readers, Plots, and Discourses; Part V. About Self, Memory and Interpretation; 9. Tales in Lives and Lives in Tales; 10. Reflections on Real Time in Great Time; Appendix I: Tables; Appendix II. Interview Documents; References

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'This wonderful book has something to offer readers of many backgrounds… Bandlamudi provides a model of textual scholarship for us all.' —James V. Wertsch, Marshall S. Snow Professor in Arts and Sciences, Washington University in St. Louis

'The author's insightful readings of the ancient text are indeed a tour de force. The data that she acquires from the immigrant Indians yields…a profoundly energetic and lively reading of a great Indian text.' —V. Narayana Rao, Krishnadevaraya Professor of Languages and Cultures of Asia at University of Wisconsin-Madison

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