I have often wondered about the contrast in the number of writings that have been woven around bible and its testaments, and those of Indian epics. For instance, there is little deliberation on Mahabharata, the story of epic proportions with it’s very complex and real characters. Only a handful of texts come to my mind: Shashi Tharoor’s Great Indian novel; Chitra Banerjee’s Palace of Illusions; Sawant’s Mrityunjai. I have chalked up the difference to be because of a focus on oral traditions in India, and the lack of good translations of some of the regional works. But often, I worry that the reason could also be my own reading oeuvre, which is not exposed to works in this space.
I had not heard of Yuganta, and I have to thank the friend who introduced me to it. (She has introduced me to a lot of Indian writing, a genre that I have largely ignored). The author, Irawati Karve is an anthropologist and that reflects very clearly in how she has studied the characters in Mahabharata as real humans and not as mythical creatures. Mahabharata never had ideal heroes unlike Ramayana where both Ram and Sita offered the image of perfection. Even in the poetic eulogies of Mahabharata, deceit, vices, greed are left in plain sight. Yuganta brings the human side to the forefront.
An anthropologist’s reading of Mahabharata
The writing is structured in ten chapters, and most of these follow a character, except some which talk about aspects of the society at the time – castes, treatment of aliens, end of an epoch. Karve dates Mahabharata in ~1000 BC, and she sees all of the behaviours with the lens of the time.
There is a lot that is interesting about the writing. The first chapter, focused on Bhishma immediately drew my attention, because it was contrarian to the popular view. Bhishma is usually put on a high pedestal of sacrifice and suffering, and the author is brutal in lifting the hood on this ideal. She points him to be a person who holds his personal vow above the duties that were expected of him. Bhishma tried his utmost to live up to his self-less image, and therein lay disaster.
When a man does something for himself his actions are performed under certain limits set by the jealous scrutiny of others. But let a man set out to sacrifice himself and do good to others, the limits vanish…the injustices done by idealists, patriots, saints and crusaders are far greater than those done by the worst tyrants.The final effort, Yuganta
Fulfilling one’s dharma
The theme of fulfilling one’s dharma is often repeated in the story of Mahabharata, and I also saw this theme run through the analysis in Yuganta.
Karve navigates away from the pandavas, never diving into their individual characters directly. The women get more attention: there is a chapter each on Kunti, Gandhari and Draupadi. These provide interesting insights into the backstories of these women, and I couldn’t help but feel some sympathy for Kunti, who was given away as a slave to a Brahmin in her youth. She is cited as the reason for the Great War, but being the woman of her times, she is only reminding her sons to fulfil their “dharma”.
(Krishna) said that though reality was the ultimate goal, it could never be reached without taking a definite stand about human life. The human society had a validity provided the values did not become a means of personal aggrandisement.The end of the Yuga, Yuganta
The most illuminating chapters of the collection for me were Krishna Vasudeva and The end of the Yuga. in fact, most of my take away from the book came from this last chapter which clearly outlines how Mahabharata was a very different era of social norms compared to what came after. One of these distinctions was ideal of woman’s loyalty. If one did not have heir, it was customary to let your wife beget you a son from another man.
Krishna becomes a God
The other interesting distinction was god devotion or Bhakti, which emerged after the Mahabharata but was not present during. I have always assumed that Krishna was the basis of Bhakti and therefore this form of religious thinking must have started around the Mahabharata, but it seems that as part of the story, no one worshipped Krishna. The Krishna of Mahabharata was an even keel, non emotional person. Many revered him as a wise and clever person, Arjuna saw him as a friend, but the hero-worship was added later.It is also the later stories which make Krishna into a warm, naughty and lovable person. This evolution of Krishna’s character and power, sounds very similar to the divine attribution to Jesus after his death.
Religion in my own reading
I am dipping my feet in religion, and the wetness hasn’t touched me yet. What better place to start understanding this remarkably complex phenomenon than exploring the corner of it that I inherited at birth: Hinduism. I have started scrolling around, a little lazily, for understanding this religion through information and knowledge. That is the only way I know to understand things – read about them and reflect. Yuganta offers a good context for reflection. Thank you for joining me in this journey.