Yuganta-the end of an epoch
I read the Mahabharata because I like it. The Mahabharata is an inexhaustible mine¦ may as well be my own words (those who know me well, even my students, may vouch for it). But, these words are not mine. These are just two of the three things I share with Irawati Karve, a celebrated and distinguished anthropologist. The third one is exploring the humanity in the characters of this lofty epic, unlike the demi-gods they are made out to be in conventional literature. Professor Karve’s book Yuganta makes this possible by offering fresh perceptions about their lives. For the same reason, Yuganta also makes it to the list of books we study in my Leadership through Literature’ course, prompting a close look at Ideals and Reality.
The beauty of Yuganta lies in its wholly pragmatic regard to the mythical. It is consistent with Karve’s declaration in the Introduction to the book: To this author, and to Indians in general, this is not an imaginary, made-up story, but represents a real event which took place around 1000 B.C. From this frame of reference, she eschews the almost magical, superhuman realm of viewing mighty epics as purveyors of divine glory, and adopts an attitude of inquiry and reasoning. This blossoms into an understanding about how human, how fallible, and how very much like us these great souls were – Gandhari, Kunti, Vidura, Yudhishthira, Draupadi, Karna, Krishna Vasudeva¦ the characters Karve has analysed.
Here, I assume my reader’s familiarity with the epic, and thus, allow myself to forego a description of the plot and the characters. Even a concise and most basic description is bound to run into a few pages. I personally recommend Gita Press version of the Mahabharata, which is in Sanskrit (with a Hindi translation). As for a basic familiarity, even C Rajagopalachari’s version in English would serve the purpose, except I can’t vouch for its accuracy.
Yuganta is not by any means, an exposition of the Mahabharata. The Mahabharata itself distinguishes itself from other literary works in Sanskrit that never really embraced tragedies. Also, the Mahabharata stands loftier than any other work for being the genesis of the Bhagavad Gita “ the fount of the most abiding philosophy ever to appear in the Indian subcontinent, one whose wisdom was necessary and relevant then, and is necessary and relevant now. The conflicts it portrays, the emotions it brings out, and the situation it discusses, are timeless. And then it goes a step forward: The Bhagavad Gita proposes a way out of all the travails of human suffering.
Yuganta, in this regard, is significant because it looks at this human suffering by shedding the aura of myth, awe, reverence, and worship of the personalities involved. It is a very important step for us readers to take in order to identify with the issues that led to the great war that decimated almost all of the most powerful figures of the time. It is incongruous if not impossible for us to worship Sri Krishna and revere Arjuna as a great warrior while also trying to understand his hesitation and sheer refusal to answer the call of duty on the battlefield against his own brothers and gurus. Yuganta sees through the halo, questions critically the human frailties that caused such heroes to falter, and celebrates their redeeming qualities that may help us, down many generations, learn and grow!
I deem Yuganta as a work not without its own set of inaccuracies “ considering the version of The Mahabharata I follow. But, the spirit of inquiry, analysis, and reasoning it exhibits is authentic. A couple of examples would be in order:
It would be an understatement to say that Karve does not go easy on Bhishma or his great sacrifice’ of renouncing the claim to the throne, and taking a vow never to marry. From Karve’s point of view, few women in this epic do not owe their woes to Bhishma. Not only did he treat women horribly, he even failed to foresee the struggle over succession to the throne between the Kauravas and the Pandavas. Karve ruthlessly explores the much-revered idea of sacrifice’ that supposedly drove all of Bhishma’s actions towards ineffectuality as a patriarch, de facto king, de facto father, commander-in-chief, statesman, and states that the injustices done by idealists, patriots, saints, and crusaders are far greater than those done by the worst tyrants.
With Gandhari, Karve paints a touching portrait of a woman, who gives up sight when she learns that the man she was deceitfully married to was born blind. Despite being the mother of a hundred sons, she loses all but one to the great war. She is the voice of conscience of the Kauravas who are bent upon spilling their brothers’ blood for power, fame, and glory, a voice they all turn a deaf ear to.
Kunti here symbolizes all possible ways a woman could be harmed and hurt, even as she follows the norms and customs of the society. In Karve’s words, men acted, men directed, and women suffered’. From having to give up her illegitimate’ son, to having to share her husband with his second wife, to embrace the travails of widowhood, to live in exile for 14 years, to have to single-handedly protect her young sons¦ she did it all, thanks to her extraordinary will. But, in the end, Yudhishthira in utter anguish over the death of Karna, ends up blaming her for the war.
Talking about Draupadi, her writing dons a reproachful tone. Through Draupadi’s character, she seems to be channeling her disappointment with the fact that women, through our history as in this epic, seem not to have counted for much¦ before men’s desires, ambition, needs, glory, ambition, etc. This does not mean she would refrain from mentioning Draupadi’s only mistake: starting an intellectual debate before a roomful of men who had lost the ability to make a call based on their higher faculties. Karve tears into her foolish, terrible audacity, even likening her to a lady pundit “ not a compliment in those times.
If Karve looked past such strong characters as Duryodhana, Arjuna, Drona, I may have to consider certain aspects of her own life. She earned her doctorate in anthropology from Berlin in 1930, I wonder how many Indians, not to mention women, were educated then. For her to critically question an epic that to this day finds a mention during discussions of morality and values, and to start a debate is an achievement. To say her work has a feminist bent would be to demean its spirit. I would only say that her questions regarding the plight of the highest of women in our history were long overdue.