How's my Luck now?

Reflections, views and descriptions during my stay at IIM Lucknow from July 2004 to March 2006

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Location: India

Sunday, August 14, 2005

'Yugaant' - I

I am grateful to the friend who lent me this wonderful book, written by Dr. Irawati Karve (Disha Books, 1991), first published in 1969 in Marathi. Interestingly, to cater to her Western students, the author, instead of translating the Marathi original, actually rewrote most of it.

The book is a collection of essays on various characters and events of the Mahabharat. These essays present a humanistic interpretation of the Mahabharat, based on scholarly research on the epic. Thus, as far as possible, the effort is to explain the behaviour of the characters in the socio-economic setting of the day, shorn of all divine interference. They also assume that the Mahabharat is a description of some real events and a real war that occurred around 1000 BC. I must say that it is one of the most personally valuable books I have read. So I will dwell upon it in some length.

The Introduction sets the tone for the rest of the book in terms of writing style, giving a brief look into the history of the Mahabharat. This reveals some facts which are little-known in the popular sense: the Mahabharat was originally called 'Jay' (triumph); it might not really have been composed by Vyas, but merely put together from the words of bards belonging to the suut caste who used to sing out the story for centuries after the events happened; many of the events described in the epic, and which have a place in the popular imagination, are actually established to be 'later interpolations', as the epic fell into the hands of Bhrugu brahman-s. Hence, the author bases her essays on a critical edition of the Mahabharat published by the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Pune.

The first essay is on Bhishma. She presents a new perspective on Bhishma - of a cursed Vasu who got further and further entangled in the affairs of his extended family. He is shown to have a misplaced sense of duty, overdoing things & taking terrible vows; but at the same time, having a desire to wield authority, ruling Hastinapur for four decades, till Dhrutarashtra's sons grew up. In the fight between the Pandavs and the Kauravs, he remained neutral throughout. But as Kaurav general in the main war, he effectively stalled proceedings and fought an inconclusive battle for ten days before he fell. The author also says that there is no substantial evidence to show that Bhishma was a very great warrior, and he was one of those routed totally by Arjun (in the guise of Bruhanallaa) in the Viraat cattle-herding episode. Even the blessing of deciding when he would receive death turned out to be a curse for him, as he lived for six months after the war and the destruction.

The next essay, on Gandhari, disputes the popular view of the queen as a sacrificing wife who tied up her eyes for life on knowing about her husband being blind. Actually, what is more likely is that Gandhari nursed a lifelong grudge against Bhishma and others who arranged her match with Dhrutarashtra for having been kept in the dark about her husband's blindness. The author imagines a conversation between the old couple when they stayed in the Himalayas after the war was over. Here, Dhrutarashtra finally tells her that she had really paid back all the wrong done to her, and finally, the couple stand up and embrace death by being consumed in a forest fire.

The essay on Kunti depicts her as a strong-willed Kshatriya woman who managed to protect, advise and admonish her sons through life. She had been wronged by her father who gave her away to the childless Kuntibhoj, who in turn made her serve the sage Durvasa. Now, according to the practice of the day, in this service to a sage, the daughter might even bear a child to him as well. Indeed, the author surmises that if we discount the blessing she supposedly received from Durvasa about bearing children of Gods, it is very probable that she actually bore a son by Durvasa - making Karna Durvasa's son! She had warts as well: she was envious of the more beautiful Madri and allowed the latter to be burnt as sati on Pandu's funeral pyre; she had done incalculable wrong to Karna, and then later went to beg him to join the Pandavs in the war for selfish reasons. But at the same time, she treated Nakul and Sahadev as her own sons; made the strong decision to make Draupadi the wife of all five Pandavs; admonished Yudhishthir to right the wrong done to them, even if by force.

The next essay, on Vidur, drops another bombshell. Based on the existing social practices of the day, it shows that Kunti might really have borne a son by Pandu's half-brother Vidur, making Yudhishthir Vidur's son! This is sought to be substantiated by the parallels in the life and nature of Vidur and Yudhishthir, both being incarnations of Yam or Dharma, and Vidur having been totally partial towards the Pandavs throughout. Vidur's life is shown to be one of not having received the kingship that he best deserved among the three half-brothers, being the most physically and mentally sound. But he played a most dutiful role in supporting Dhrutarashtra through life and meeting death only some time before the latter.

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