It is said that one can find every aspect of life covered in Mahabharata, an epic which also contains the holy Bhagavad Gita. Indeed the Mahabharata contains philosophical insights on war, life, intellect, passion, jealousy, treachery etc. Many of these things have been written about, spoken of and discussed on various platforms.
However, there is one element that is very much at the heart of the story that has not been discussed as much as it should have been. That element is disability. A central character of the Mahabharata is the blind king Dhritarashtra, who is largely viewed in a negative light. In fact, many believe that it is because of his ambition to crown his son Duryodhana as king (as opposed to his more deserving nephew Yudhisthira) that the epic battle between the cousins—the Kauravas and Pandavas—was fought.
By and large, our mythological texts have shown disabled people either as powerful, cunning and mischievous characters or as beggars or a state of extreme pain and poverty.
Since very few people in India have actually read the Mahabharata, the public's perception of his character comes largely from the BR Chopra-produced TV show Mahabharata that first aired in 1988. Because Doordarshan was the only channel around in those pre-liberalization days and the content of the show was so gripping, it became a magnum opus of Indian television.
As a result, the dominant public discourse became what was represented on the show. Everybody agreed that Dhritarashtra was a cruel and unworthy person who was sitting on the throne of his capital, Hastinapur. People made sweeping remarks such as, "What can be expected if a blind man is king?" Some even went to the extent of saying that Dhritarashtra used his visual disability as an excuse and played the victim card to defend his unruly sons' unacceptable actions.
Nobody is really born bad; it is society that makes or breaks a person. But what lakhs of Indian viewers saw was just a blind king with questionable ethics; they did not seek to unravel what might have made him that way. People who have historically discriminated against the differently-abled people got a further impetus to justify their biases.
By and large, our mythological texts have shown disabled people either as powerful, cunning and mischievous characters or as beggars or a state of extreme pain and poverty. Disabled gods and mythological characters are often shunned, and their pain sometimes justified in the name of sins they conducted in past births.
Dhritarashtra is not the only example of a disabled mythological character depicted in a negative light. If one looks at the Ramayana, one could find that the character of the hunchbacked maid Manthara has also been demonized to a great extent. In fact, the blame of sending Rama into 14 years of exile has been assigned to her.
To reprise, Manthara was the maid of Queen Keikeyi, and she convinced her to ask the king Dashratha (Ram's father) to give her two boons that he had promised her a long time ago.
The time has come to ask tough questions, to point out the negative messages which have been disseminated from these texts and to re-interpret them in the light of present day situations...
She asked Keikeyi to ask the king to anoint his son Bharat as the next king of Ayodhya instead of Rama—and to send Rama to 14 years of exile. This is the dominant public discourse but one can question it because at the heart of the Ramayana lies the fact that Rama was born only to kill Ravana. Had he not been sent to exile, the story of Ramayana wouldn't have turned out in the way it had. Everything happened for a reason and in the chain of events, some characters turned out to be negative.
In fact, some folktales mention that Manthara didn't have anything to gain by sending Ram to exile. She was a maid earlier and she remained so afterwards.
Shakuni in the Mahabharata is another example of a person with a bodily deformity (a limp) who again happened to be cunning. The visual representation of disabled characters combined with their undesirable behaviour made a bad impression in the minds of people about differently abled people in general.
Today, the time has come to ask tough questions, to point out the negative messages which have been disseminated from these texts and to re-interpret them in the light of present day situations so that differently-abled people are not judged by cultural lodestars that pair disability with moral failings and flaws.