Yuganta-the end of an epoch

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.

51 thoughts on “Yuganta-the end of an epoch

  1. In general talking about the women of Mahabharat, Irawati Karve says that “Their happiness, their sorrows were decreed by men to who they belonged”. But she deals with Draupadi in her writing in a rather harsh way. According to the Karve the “Greatest mistake” of Draupadi was questioning the court about the legality of the issue whether Dharma had any right to claim her when he himself was a slave. In book this act of questioning was described as “not only foolish, but terrible”. I think this option of questioning was much better than the option of pleading for help, that too help from those people who had let this happen in the court. If she had asked for help she would be another case for which Karve will write “men acted, men directed, and women suffered”.

    It is beyond my understanding how the author could be sad for women who suffered due to the decisions of men and thrash the only woman who stood up and spoke for herself.

    While closing the chapter on Bhishma, Karve says, “Had Bhishma accomplished anything in keeping his vows? The question remains”. Maybe keeping the words itself was so important in those times. After all, “Raghukul reet sada chali aayi, pran jayi par vachan na jayi”. We are not able to appreciate it because we live in a different yuga, with different set of values. From what I have read seen and heard, even taking oath might not have been in Devvrata’s first choice. Maybe Shantanu was deliberately sad, so that Devvrata notices that, finds out the reason and takes the oath.

    All this doesn’t mean that I am discounting him on all the actions he took. Still his actions like not stopping the shameful act in the court were wrong, but we cannot judge a human character only by the mistakes he committed, but by a holistic view of all the actions in context.

  2. Why I liked this selected version of Mahabharata? Irawati Karve’s deep insights into the characters, not looking them as divine but from a point of view of human intellect of current times, showcasing imperfection and goodness at same time. Her thoughts on characters’ dilemma of ideals &reality are germane to each present living being. Although its difficult to make a clear demarcation between right vs wrong and whether ends justifies mean or not, the struggle in our thoughts is greatly simplified to a extent to make decisions by analyzing these characters.

    Karna’s constant conflict between desire for recognition and need to deliver expected actions on time, presents him as a person caught in web of what he knew as his perceived potential and the true power within him asked to present at needed time. Karna realized in the end the shallowness in the perception of his perceived power and his true potential. He shied away on all occasions when his strength was needed by kauravas. This character sheds teaching before us to find our hidden inner strength, not just find out but to test it in true sense to justify oneself to oneself.

    Bhishma is seen as sacrificing character with some faults in decisions and criticized to not see the future consequence of his actions. It’s easy to judge being on this side, but picture seems to clear itself when we sit on his place. The actions performed were true to his values and benefit of greater good, from my view its not justifiable to criticize one who chose to act without asking for any gain.

    Krishna Vasudeva is seen as a infallible character but he also had a goal to achieve Vasudeva significance, which might have biased his deeds. His loyalty towards pandavas and clear interpretation of reality, responsibility and ability to handle ambiguous situation provide guidance in current times when reality is peeping out from clouds but concealed with fog and droplets. Today, most of us desist ourselves from action due to lack of inner strength to face the outcome, Krishna’s dialogue with Arjuna, reminding him of his duty to fight, helps us to cross the threshold to see the true reality and gives courage to face the outcome whether in favor or against.

  3. After reading Yuganta by Irawati Karve, I realised how different the actual Mahabharata is from the version I had witnessed on television. There is so much more to every character and there is so much depth in the plot. Even Lord Krishna seems fallible, struggling to come to terms with his internal conflicts and human feelings.

    In my opinion, Bhishma was perhaps the most complex character in the Mahabharata and Irawati Karve, an Anthropologist by education, has been brilliant in her insights about what really goes on in the minds of individuals who are famed as completely unselfish. We, as mere mortals, are unable to comprehend or even reach close to some sort of a conclusion in this regard. According to Karve, Bhishma, by practicing abstinence and giving his rights to the throne, acquires a moral high ground over others. Hence, it became impossible for others around him to question his actions.
    In this context, Karve makes a rather savvy observation:
    “When a man does something for himself, his actions are performed within certain limits – limits that are set by the jealous scrutiny of others. But let a man set out to sacrifice himself and do good to others, and the normal limits vanish.”
    I couldn’t agree more with her. An idealist like Bhishma, I believe, is insecure about himself. He is afraid of even the slightest of criticisms directed his way and by being an “all-sacrificing and altruistic” kind of a human being; he was so busy establishing a defence mechanism for his own egoistic self that he even failed to foresee the struggle over succession to the throne between the Kauravas and the Pandavas which could have prevented Mahabharata itself.

    I also feel that Karve’s harsh criticism of Draupadi is a veiled attack on the plight of women in our male-dominated society. In a way, she could be making a sarcastic comment when she says that Draupadi was wrong in starting an intellectual debate before a room full of men instead of just pleading in front of them. Karve wants to highlight the pain she feels, as it’s a fact that even after three thousand years our society is so shallow that a woman has to plead her way through instead of reasoning, how dare Draupadi be so terribly audacious in those times?

  4. In this comment, I will discuss some interesting observations made by Karve and my views about those observations.
    About Bhishma, She writes:
    The throne of Hastinapura was left without an heir. She called Bhishma, absolved him from his vow and begged him to marry and take the throne. He refused. When Draupadi was dragged into the court of Dhritarashtra, Vidura was the one to intervene. Vidura had no power. Bhishma, on the other hand, had the authority to stop the shameful spectacle. Instead, he sat there futilely discussing what was dharma and what was not dharma.

    From these two instances we see that while Bhishma behaved in a very ideal way in the first case but his behaviour was completely opposite in the second case. What was the reason behind this significant change in behaviour? Iravati does not suggest any answer.
    From Gandhi and Manmohan Singh to Bill Gates and Strauss-Kahn, modern world is filled with Bhismas. It was Manmohan Singh who brought economic reforms to India in 1991 and same person was heading the Indian government when the biggest scam happened in India. Bhishma did not oppose when Draupadi was shamed in Mahabharata, Manmohan Singh was looking other way when A Raja and Suresh Kalmadi was looting this country. Same question arises here also. What was the reason behind this significant change in behaviour? Circumstances? Age? Lack of motivation?

    ….At this ceremony Dharma offered the first seat of honour to Krishna who had been his closest ally and adviser. When Shishupala protested against honouring Krishna, thus threatening to break up the assembly, he was killed by Krishna.

    Was Krishna justified in killing Shishupala? Later in the book, Iravati gives explanation for this act. She says a war may have started because of this action of Shishupala. Question still remains the same. Today we face similar situation in life. To give an example, assume that a terrorist has information about an imminent attack. Should he be tortured for the information?

    Bhishma’ s whole life had been a fruitless sacrifice

    Why do we need to say that his life had been a fruitless sacrifice? Bhishma was the eighth son of Kuru King Shantanu, who was blessed with wish-long life and had sworn to serve the ruling Kuru king. His father wanted to marry Satyavati. To fulfil his father’s desires, he made a vow to the girl’s parents that he would neither marry a girl nor accept the throne. It will be inappropriate to say that it was a fruitless sacrifice.

    …. These last ten days of his life are the climax of futility and sacrifice.

    It was only natural for Bhishma to fight along with Duryodhana. He was made general of the Kaurava army. Either Kaurava or Pandava, one had to loss. Should we say that last ten days of the general of an army was fruitless sacrifice simply because his army lost the battle? Do we not learn from Gita that one should do niskam karma? Bhishma did what he was supposed to till the last moment of his life.

    …..Amba was the first person he had ever injured

    Should Bhishma not be blamed for abducting of three girls? Was abducting from svayamvara considered an ethical and moral practice in Dwapar yuga?

    …..Nobody asked Gandhari her opinion. Everyone assumed that her husband’s wish was hers.
    Saying that Gandhari suffered at some point because no one asked her wish will be unfair. She could have expressed her wish. She was one of the eldest members in the family. She was so well respected that Kunti wanted to look after her and had asked for her consent.

    Never again could you open your eyes of your own accord. You could only have done it by my order. And that I would not give.

    We talk about different ideals in Mahabharata very often. There is Bhishma who will follow celibacy for the sake of his father. There is Arjuna who is not ready to kill his teacher Drona. At the same time there are instances where we see the real character of a person. Here we see that Dhritarashtra is taking revenge and not allowing his wife to see the world. All he had to do was to ask Gandhari to open her eyes.

    It is on extremely rare occasions that one feels one has been able to shape one’s life even to a small extent. Most often the feeling is that of floating directionless like a sere leaf in the wind. The making of some lives is entirely in the hands of others. That was the case of women in the times of the Mahabharata.

    In my opinion this was not the case. It can be seen through many examples. Gandhari decided to stay blind when she came to know that her husband is blind. She took an ideal decision and everyone around her supported her. Later when Kunti decided that she will not have only five children, her husband did not object to her decision.
    When Kunti suggested that all her sons marry one girl Draupadi, Her sons accepted her decisions without any protest. When she made up her mind to go with Dhritarashtra, other family members agreed with her and allowed her to fulfil her old wish to serve old people by by waiting upon her old father-in-law.

    …..If this is what you intended to do, why did you make us fight this terrible destructive war?

    From this also, one can understand that it was Kunti who inspired Pandavas to get their rightful share after fighting a war.

    But that Draupadi was the cause of the war in the Mahabharata — at least the main cause — is definitely not true.

    But Draupadi can definitely be considered the tipping point. It was she who said that he dragged me by the hair, have no mercy on the man who put his filthy hands on my hair. Many women suffered in Mahabharata but no one behaved like Draupadi.

    How little Draupadi mattered can be seen in Krishna’s offer to give her and a share of the kingdom to Karna if he would join the Pandavas.

    From this we can understand that status of women in indian society was very low in those days. It can be said that women used to be treated as object in those days.

    The woman who could think, “My enemy is dead, -now let me feast my eyes on his corpse”, was truly a daughter of the earth.

    Why do we need to say that she had lot courage? Why do we need to believe that she was a courageous woman? Why can’t we say that her behaviour was disgusting? In the land of Gautam Budha and Mahatma Gandhi, considering her behaviour inappropriate should be considered more appropriate.

    ….. She had put Dharma into a dilemma and unwittingly insulted him. The fact that the insult was unintentional did not make it forgivable.

    Draupadi was shamed because of Dharma. She was insulted in front of the entire assembly. She had every right to insult Dharma.
    Draupadi was standing in the assembly arguing about legal technicalities like a lady pundit because she knew whatever was supposed to happen has already happened. The unforgiveable sins were committed by those people who were present there but did not intervene.

    ….For a young bride to show off her intelligence in the presence of her elders was a grave mistake.

    Even if we assume for a moment that what she did was a grave mistake, how should we judge Dharma, Bhishma and Dhritarashtra? Young bride was being shamed right in front of their eyes and yet they kept watching that as a mute spectator. What exactly they were afraid of?

  5. At the outset I would like to clear a few things. I confess that I believe in the authenticity of the Mahabharata. By Mahabharata, I refer to the Sanskrit version (although I read a vernacular version). I believe that all the characters and events were reported accurately by Ved Vyas, the scholar who is supposed to have captured the story in the form that we now know. This is the result of the mental conditioning which I believe we all Indians are subjected to when it comes to the divinity of the epics be it the Mahabharata or the earlier Ramanyana. I have read several books which strip the characters of the epic off their power, mystery and divinity.

    However, I have to accept that Irawati Karve’s Yuganta was the best amongst these toned-down versions. It brought in a fresh perspective to the epic and its interpretation. It showed the characters in a new light and pointed out glaring inconsistencies in the character of the main protagonists. However, Karve seemed to have lost the track after a good beginning. She let her personal emotions and experiences affect the final rendering of the book. At the onset, it appears as though all she does through her book is take a deliberately different view to differentiate her version from the traditional versions. She uses modern society as a base to look at events that have taken eons before. Let us take a closer look at her views.

    The aura and invincibility of Bhishma is completely decimated by the author. She blames him for the plight of the main women characters in the epic. She accuses him of being insensitive and indifferent to women. She trivializes his vow of not to marry and says that he should have foreseen the tragic events that took place due to his vow. To be fair to Bhishma, he is at the receiving end of unnecessary flak from the author. I do not see how Bhishma could have foreseen the events of the future. His only mistake was to put the interests of this father before his own interests and if we stretch the logic the kingdom’s interest as well.

    Apart from that he was a great man in every sense. He was a great warrior, a good Kshatriya and an able ruler. He did not let the Kuru clan to die out in spite of his vow. He always found ways of protecting the clan without breaking his vows. In the end he took up the generalship of the Kaurava Army and tried to prevent the war even at the last stage. When it comes to women, I feel that the general attitude of men towards that of women in those times was indifference and callousness. They protected them and fought for their honour. However, they were seldom considered equal to men. Bhishma cannot be alone blamed for an attitude that was true of the general society.

    Gandhari is truly a woman whom fate had deceived. She had spent a life of delusion and misery, Right from marrying a blind prince to losing her sons in the battle, she only knew pain and suffering. In this regard I agree with Karve although for different reasons. I think Gandhari was the unhappiest of the women folk in the epic. However, this I believe is a result of her own Karma. Her jealousy of the sons of Kunti and Madri and her desire to be the Rajamata were the reasons for her unhappiness. Athough Karve adds her own story in Yuganta, I am not sure of the veracity and the truth behind it.

    Kunti is another character that Iravati Karve has written extensively about. As Sir has pointed out, Karve symbolizes her as an epitome of suffering throughout the epic. She was by nature a strong-willed person. She was always a virtuous mother who took care of not only her sons but also Madri’s sons whom she raised as her own. Her relationship with Karna is the high point of anguish in her life. She was torn between the love for her sons, Arjuna and Karna both fighting on opposite sides. One can but help feel sorry for her plight. Hence, I agree with the portrayal and ananlysis of Kunti by Karve.

    She is one of the central characters of the epic. Karve lashes out at Draupadi for being haughty and raising the question of Dharma in the court instead of appealing to the Kshatriya valour of those present in the court. This is where I have serious reservations with Karve’s interpretation. Draupadi was the Queen of the Pandavas. She was the famous for her knowledge of the Dharma and her courage to be outspoken. For her to have meekly surrendered and appealed to the better instincts of men would be a loss of face. She one of the few women characters who had the courage to question the men. Even when she finally pleads for help it is Krishna who she asks for help not anyone else. I think Karve ought to have showed more respect towards such a fearless and strong-willed character.

    Karve also tends to trivialize the contribution of men in other contexts throughout the book. This I feel is the most serious short-coming of her work. She sees the ancient past through lens of the modern society and lambasts the characters of the epic. This brings out an element of shallowness in her work.

    However, credit is due to Karve for the pertinent questions that she raised and the fresh perspective she brings in. Although I have not given up my traditional view of the characters of this great epic, I will now think twice before accepting the divinity and the invincibility of men.

  6. Karve’s interpretation provides fresh perspective of several characters we have hitherto appreciated in a different light; most notably her discussion on Bhishma whose image and character has seldom been questioned and Karn who has almost universally been accepted as a tragic hero and one of the most poignant characters of the epic made me think.
    The evidence Karve picks up from the Critical edition clearly suggests that Bhishma was not the great warrior he was deemed to be and his scant regard for the welfare of women when it came to the continuation of the kuru progeny was quite accurately painted. The points of inaction shown on the part of Bhishma at occasions where he should clearly stepped in to stop adharma also questions the fact whether Bhishma did in fact have a say as the head of the family, or if he was just there and his words were not taken seriously
    The last essay on the end of a yuga, from which the book takes its name is an eye opener and lets us appreciate how the Mahabharata is the last piece of literature written with real characters with real virtues, real vices, real perils, real choices and real rewards

  7. Mahabharata is probably the greatest literary piece Indians can claim as theirs. Not just for it’s own merit but for the sheer number of people it has inspired to write. And I’m not referring to the ‘later interpolations’ that seem to trouble Irawati Karve so much, but the expositions, analysis, life lesson books that it has spawned. I’ve heard it repeatedly being referred to the ‘greatest story ever told’ and going by the sheer size of the narrative, the characters and the drama that ensues amongst them, the title is probably justified.

    For me, that is what the Mahabharata is. It’s the greatest story ever told. I don’t think it’s fact, and that’s where I take exception to Karwe’s analysis. To read her analyses of the various characters, there’s no doubt about the fact that she brings out dimensions among characters like Bhishm Pitamah, Kunti, Gandhari and Duryodhan that are an absolute treat to read but there is an unhealthy obsession with reconciling every aspect of the story with what is ‘fact’ and cutting out the mystical/seemingly magical aspect which she regularly dismisses as later interpolations. Though there might have been a fair bit of research that went into this dissection of the story into ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’; as a standalone it seems constructed to ensure Karwe’s claim that these are actually facts that happened somewhere around 1000 B.C in India.

    Despite the obvious merit of her writing, this dimension of the book makes it extremely frustrating and self-serving at times.

    By the end of the book in fact, I couldn’t understand why Karve had bothered with the whole ‘this is real’, ‘this is an interpolation’ stuff. How does it matter whether or not two sides of these families actually fought in 1000 BC? It’s a fantastic story and a mine of well etched, conflicted and earthy characters acting in a decidedly amoral fashion. What’s the point in arguing about what actually happened some 3000 years ago and clipping the wings of both the narrative and the characters by leaving out what seems improbable? To me, a a reader and even a student, the exercise seems immensely futile! Does the merit of the book truly depend upon whether or not these events actually happened? Will the Bhagwad Gita lose any of its appeal if Krishna did not actually recite it impromptu perched on a chariot? No! They might add a bit of dramatic charm to the whole thing, but to take away from a good story to satisfy one’s own need to believe that the the story is ‘real’ is unfair to the epic and to first time readers.
    Another part of the book that irked me to a fair degree was her outburst at Draupadi. Karve, a supposed feminist lashes out vehemently against Draupadi for having ‘brought out legal arguments’ instead of simply pleading to the better nature of the men occupying the court at the moment. I have never heard a more ridiculous literary criticism, that too from a supposed feminist! At first it seemed to me that Karve is probably feels one with Draupadi and is hence chiding her for having a legal argument with men she knows are not worth it. And is appaled that she didn’t use a more womanly guile of simply asking for mercy and being spared the horror of being disrobed in a full court. (Though even that is by not feminist by any stretch of imagination, though at least its empathetic) But that’s obviously not the case since she went on to berate Draupadi for repeatedly trying ‘to be lady pundit’ and trying to ‘argue with her betters’, even in scenes other than the disrobing. That is not a feminist point of view. A feminist does not bring down a woman, who despite her repeated public shaming (being married to five men, being pawned off in a game for no fault of hers, being disrobed in public), stand her ground and refuses to cow down to men in her family who are mostly up to no good anyway. Her analysis of Draupadi was an absolute let down for me. In fact, in both, her chapters on Draupadi and Karn, Karve seemed more and more like a conformist who had taken obvious sides against these two characters, both of whom were extremely unfortunate people who refused to stand down and let circumstances work against them.

    But then, Karve probably did achieve her purpose with all her opinionated passionate outburst , she made the readers think about the epic and by questioning her understanding, she made me go back to my well thumbed copy of Mahabharata and also sneakily check out the B.R.Chopra venture once again. All she wanted was for more and more young people to read the book and familiarize themselves with it. Well then, good work!

  8. Well “Bhisma” deserves a better treatment which Karve has selectively ignored in her book. She has tried to portray Bhisma as a power hungry Indian politician who never want to leave the lime light even at the dusk of his life. Bhisma could have easily controlled the heirs of Hastinapur throne as none of them even stood a chance when it comes to martial skills but he was vowed to the service of the throne which he adhered till his last breath.
    “A servant has his own limitations ” – the author has failed to realize it probably.

  9. Following is a declaration by Karve in the introduction on in his book “Yuganta”:
    “To this author and to Indians in general, this is not an imaginary, made-up story, but represent a real event which took place about 1000 B.C.”
    Mahabharata tells the story of a family and their struggle to gain control of their kingdom. With the passage of time multiple events unfold and evolve taking the reader to deeper insights that I have tried to interpret through this comment. Each of the names of the characters in the epic represents states of being. Eg. Arjuna, meaning self-control.

    The poem begins with a tragedy. Ganga, a mother drowns 7 of her 8 children because they were the reincarnations of the eight Vasus who stole the precious cow of sage Vasistha. Her eighth child was Bhisma, the wise and the warrior, forced to celibacy from sin committed in the previous life. Then the story progresses with the rise of the Pandavas, the sons of Pandu and the Kauravas, of Dhritarashtra who later face against each other for the throne.

    Very interesting, in my opinion, is the analogy of this epic with another famous story of the foundation of the Great Roman Empire. Roman Empire too was born after a tragedy. After the destruction of Troy by Achille a series of events happened. One of which resulted in the foundation of Rome by Romulus and Remus, sons of divinity of war and Rea Silvia who later fights each other for the throne of the same. Romulus kills Remus and rules over Rome.

    In both stories there are common elements that bring values that transcend earthly life some of them being the confusion between history and legend, the intervention of divines, and finally the deep meaning behind the actions of the main characters. In the Mahabharata, the characters represents feelings which are also reflected by their names, reading the comment Yoganada helped me to better understand the spiritual significance of this Indian poem.

    The figure that particularly struck me was that of Krishna, who plans and directs the story of the Mahabharata. He directly affected the progress of two families, opposed the Kauravas [negative inclinations of the senses related to the vices] and supported the Pandavas [the sons of pure intelligence]. Krishna represents the Christ Consciousness in all its levels, the “I Am”, the “Daath” considered like the point of creation when the active principle of Chokhmah (wisdom), meets with the passive principle of Binah, ‘understanding’, and Creates the archetypal idea of knowledge and the higher true essence of the human being, “Soul”, the divine in all of us, self-awareness beyond time, space and life.

    In Krishna you can find some of the principles analyzed in Machiavelli’s Prince, which places the ultimate goal, the aim, above all. A famous Jewish dictum says: “when an unfair person does the right thing the right thing becomes wrong, when a fair person does the wrong thing the wrong thing becomes right”.

  10. Having read the Mahabharatha and then Yuganta, I can say Yuganta has forced me to think differently. I was convinced to look at the characters and the whole story from different perspectives altogether. The comparison the author has made between the Ramayana and the Mahabharatha is very interesting. Where the former presents a more idealistic picture, the latter is rooted in the chaos of human conflict and the struggles of human life.

    What I appreciate is the fact Iravati Karve was bold enough to present the critical analysis of the major characters of the Mahabharatha. The Mahabharatha is said to have taken place at the end of the Dwapar Yuga. It was composed and sung by Maharishi Vyas to his disciples, who carried the story forward by word-of-mouth, the only medium existent at that time. And being passed over from one generation to another, there was definitely a scope for interpretations (the mind only perceives what it wants to), and hence, the true story might have got distorted. Enter Bhakti cult in the Kali Yuga, where ‘Gods’ truly arrived. It was only man’s struggle to remain pious and leave everything for God that was rewarded in the end. What fascinated me is the way Iravati Karve has looked at the Mahabharatha. Instead of deifying its characters, as one would expect her to in the Kali Yuga, she looks at their flaws and struggles.

    As Iravati Karve analysed the characters of Gandhari, Kunti, and Draupadi, I saw the feminist in her being reflected as she talked about these characters. This is not to say she did not put forth her ideas beautifully. I had never seen Gandhari as the shy bride, the tough queen, and the vengeful mother; nor the fact that Kunti’s life reflects the true status of women in the society at that time; nor that Draupadi could be so aptly compared with Sita from the Ramayana.

    The struggles talked about in the lives of Bhishma, Arjuna, and Karna gave me new perspectives. When she asks about Bhishma “Was it worth it?”, I was forced to give it a thought. Bhishma’s vow not to marry, to not perceiving the struggle for power that was to follow, to abducting the three daughters, and everything else that he did – to what avail?
    I looked at Arjuna as a person who has the strength, but perhaps not the courage (initially) to fight the war, only to be told by Sri krishna to do so. It really reflects how priorities are what matter to one in life. I was moved to see the struggle Karna had to undergo. The author brought it out meaningfully by showing it was his struggle for finding his own identity.

    Overall, my takeaway from this book, and the classroom discussion, is that every one of us is unique and different. Every one of us has flaws. The biggest thing is to acknowledge this fact. Once that is done, half the battle is won. Because we then know what to focus upon, and can work towards achieving our goals.

  11. I will construct my reply in 2 parts. In the first, I will talk about Irawati Karve’s way of handling the epic, and in the second I will talk about how I grew up along with Mahabharata (its other versions and including some “later interpolation” as Karve would say) and how it has shaped me.

    Just as Karve begins her book with a declaration, so shall I begin my reply- To me, the Mahabharata is not at all an historical treatise in the sense that it could have possibly happened, but if the historical facts don’t match the epic, so much so worse for the facts. For me, the value of a story is independent of whether it actually happened, for reality is too narrow a field to investigate subjects as grand as human nature and human conflicts. And this is the first point where I am in direct and utter disagreement with the author. With a fear of digression, I would like to talk more on this point.
    Let’s take the historian Will Durant and his essay on Homer and compare it with Karve’s style (I dare not use the title ‘historian’ for Karve). Will Durant readily admits, and explains, that there was no single person named Homer who wrote the epics, rather, the epics grew over time and were sung by different bards (“Homer” possibly being one of them) of different generations to give the final form to the epics, and since we crave convenience we gave the unitary identity of “Homer” to the authors. Durant does not dismiss the mystical or fantastical elements of the Greek epics as being “later interpolations” as Karve is fond of doing, but he accepts them as a part of history, not a history of dry technical facts, but history of the collective mind of mankind, and it is from this essay that I borrow the earlier phrase “so much so worse for the facts.” I wish Karve displayed this necessary insight. In the written epics, Hector initially runs away from Achilles, but in the 2004 movie ‘Troy’, Hector boldly faces him. I like my Hector that way, bold and undaunted in the face of death, and I will practice my right to see Hector in my own chosen way. For it is mythology, and we are a part of it and have every bit of right to choose and shape it. And half of my disagreements with the book stem from this single point, hence I will not repeat other examples where her reason for dismissal of elements, without any due analysis (as she says, “does not deserve much attention”), is solely because she declares them as “could not have been true” or “later interpolations”.

    The other disagreement of her attitude, which runs throughout her analysis of characters, is with the way she seems to have separated characters into “good” and “bad” and uses only the most convenient facts to support her stance. For instance, according to her- Bhishma is “bad” and “not a great warrior”- She mentions how Bhishma “deliberately” insults Karna without considering the saner option that he did it for sake of Karna alone. And I wonder what is the point of having Shikhandi if Arjuna was able enough to defeat him.

    Karna again is “bad”- she dismisses him as being too egotistical and inferior to Arjuna. She doesn’t mention that Karna was actually ‘Digvijayi’ Karna- the winner of directions, and had spared the lives of the 4 Pandavas on the field. Absolutely no hint of these important parts. On pg 132 she takes this attitude to the extreme heights where she hints that Karna’s ‘daan’ of ‘kavach-kundal’ could not be “true”- “This stripping away of peeling of a natural armour did not prevent him from wearing armour” she says, as if, a person who donates his pants to the poor shall never wear pants again in his life if we are to believe that he really did wore pants in the place.

    As for her feminist stance, her dismissal of Draupadi’s questions as being “inexcusably arrogant” does not strike me as feminist at all. But she does give importance to the female characters in way that was probably unprecedented at her time and also until that time.

    To end my first part of reply dealing with Karve’s version, I would say that the only part I agreed with her completely and held total admiration for her was at the end of the preface, “I shall consider it a victory if they think that my interpretation is wrong and read the Mahabharata merely to prove it wrong.”

    Now to the second part of my reply. ‘Yuganta’ is originally written in Marathi, but if asked to name the top books in Marathi literature on Mahabharatha , I would name- ‘Yayati’ by V.S. Khandekar as the best one and it explores the destructive power of lust, followed closely by Shiwaji Savant’s ‘Mrityunjaya’ (on Karna) and ‘Yugandhar’ (on Krishna).

    In ‘Mrityunjaya’, there is a very, not for want of a better word but because it’s the most apt one, ‘Awesome’ scene. Karna has heard of Arjuna’s perfect shot of the parrot’s eye and how he “saw nothing but the parrot’s eye”. Karna then ties a wooden parrot to the tree-top, but he ties it with a string in the middle that runs horizontally through it, in such a way that the parrot rotates around the string with its middle part being the axis. Now, he takes out 2 arrows, and stretches them both on the bow simultaneously using 4 of his fingers. When Shona, his step-brother, asks him what does he see, Karna replies that he doesn’t see anything for his soul is now in the 2 arrows. The arrows are placed at a different distances in the bow. So when Karna shoots the bow and the arrows dart ahead, there’s a slight difference in speed and hence in time taken to reach a point. The first and faster arrow hits the wooden parrot in the eye, and due to the impact, in the next fraction of a second the parrot rotates 180 degrees on the attached string so that now the other side of the parrot is facing- and just at this exact time the second but slower arrow, arrives and hits the parrot on the second eye as well. All of this within the fraction of a second. How’s that for a “later interpolation” (20th century interpolation, in fact), I would ask the author of ‘Yuganta’, and would like to know how ready she is to dismiss this as well.

    But sorry for the long digression again. To speak only of the Mahabharata or its other modern versions that I stated above, I must say that the Mahabharata is an extremely comprehensive collection of human conflicts and a great exposition of human nature. Every main character could be taken as a hero or a villain, and I learned from it that no one is so completely a hero to be exempt from all flaws, and no one is so completely a villain as to deserve no attention for understanding the causes of the evil that they do. I learned about triumph from Karna’s life which had no obvious triumph in it, and I learned how history will tend to be tilted towards the side of the victors as well.

    The more I learn and grow, the better I am adept at understanding the epic, and understanding Mahabharata will always remain an unending adventure for me.

  12. Yuganta : End of an Epoch by Iravati Karve , presents Mahabharta as a base to realise the human aspect of the epic. Its dissection into prominent characters reflects each face we wear in our lives. She has critically examined and brought never thought of perspectives about Bhishma, Karna , Kunti , Gandhari and others.

    However, she is harsher with Karna when describing him. Though she admits at one point that he appears to be “a noble person and a true friend”, she casually dismisses the episodes that most of his fame is built on, and which are such crucial parts of Indian folklore: when he promised Kunti that he would not kill any of his brothers except Arjuna, she says he was motivated not by generosity or love but by contempt; the giving away of his kavacha and kundalas to Indra was apparently nothing but a self-conscious attempt to prove himself better than others; and he was an overrated warrior and a poor military strategist, given to running away from the battlefield.

  13. Irawati Karve proves how the end of the Mahabharata is like the end of an epoch. She compares the changes in the Indian society pre and post Mahabharata and brings to light how things changed. She compares the literature from both the eras to prove her point, clearly stating that post Mahabharata literature went from being etched in reality and the practicality of life to one dipped in romance and idealism. She argues that while Mahabharata is a story of the real life struggles, joys, tragedies and triumphs of its characters, the later literature and even Ramayana has pretentious in its approach. So, this book sums up how humans are always fighting with their emotions and the various actions they take to fulfill the ambitions they have set for themselves.

  14. In the book yuganta portrayal of characters is such that the problems they face are similar to the situations we are confronted with at each moment in our lives. The characters who have been discussed have also been chosen effectively to make the analysis even more effective and interesting. The book focuses how the events were connected and this is done from the point of view of various characters. I think Mahabharata brings out the extreme emotions of the people as they face dilemmas throughout the epic which are mostly based on ‘dharma’. The choices people take and its implication have also been discussed well in the book. Book has a lot of instances where individuals are faced with conflicting emotions and they choose based on the story behind them.

  15. Irawati Karve, one of the giants of Indian anthropology, has thrilled me with her spirit of questioning in ‘Yuganta’. I disagree often with the things she says, but never in the manner of her writing; never with the spirit of enquiry she brings to the epic.

    My conversations with several other loves of the Mahabharata has revealed to me a wealth of critical studies of its characters: in the Malayalam, Marathi and Bengali traditions. This showed me how this spirit of enquiry was not something new to our culture, but a culmination of a long tradition.

    It is in the face of Irawati Karve that newer renditions of the Mahabaharata pale — Jaya by Devdutt Pattnaik and the brief translation by Ramesh Menon come to mind — both attempting to reduce the text to a principle meaning. At no point did Irawati Karve give me the idea that she is stating a definitive translation of the text. On the other hand, the full translation by the economist Bibek Debroy has caught my eye, and I am overjoyed by the way he writes to explode the text into many meanings instead of trying to pin it down.

    Another thing that comes to mind, since Prof. Rai has discussed definitive texts and has yet allowed for multiple readings — an essay by one of the scholars I esteem most, AK Ramanujan, titled ‘Many Ramayanas’. Though it spoke of the other epic, it mentioned an anecdote that reflected the 1,000 Ramayanas that exist around the world: it was the end of Rama’s time on Earth when he dropped his ring. The ring, being too heavy for the Earth to bear, fell to Patallok. Hanuman was ordered to bring it back. Making himself tiny, he slipped into the hole the ring had made and landed in Patallok. Unfortunately for him, soldiers of King Bali found him and dragged him to that monarch. There, Hanuman respectfully described why he was visiting and how he had been tasked with bringing back the ring of his lord. King Bali smiled and pointed to a plateful of rings — each one identical to the next, and all of them just like Rama’s. Hanuman puzzled over the plate, but not even he could identify Rama’s ring. He looked up, perplexed, and King Bali said “Hanuman, this means that it is time for Rama to go. When you return to the Earth he will not be here any longer. All these rings, each one of them belonged to a Rama. There have been 1000 Ramas and there will be 1000 more.”

    Through this story, Prof. Ramanujan highlighted the sheer wealth and variety of interpretations and retellings that make the Ramayana tradition, simultaneously debunking essentialist readings carried out by the VHP and making the ‘other epic’ open to the moral scrutiny the Mahabharata is subject to.

    I wanted my post to celebrate this explosion of meaning, and the spirit of debate.

  16. I haven’t read the Mahabharata, I haven’t even had the good fortune of watching the entire series that played on Doordarshan. What I know of it is various different stories in bits and pieces, and Karve’s Yuganta helps make a coherent picture of various characters, writing an essay on each rather than tell an entire story. For most of the characters, she puts in the various scenes that depict them in a certain manner. She also puts across incidents in a way that seem to be biased towards the point that she’s trying to make rather than putting facts across. What we get here is her perspective, which is very sharp and one sided, and not very forgiving to most characters analyzed by her. She’s shockingly harsh towards women in that time.

    She has portrayed Gandhari as a selfish character. She points out how in a fit of rage she put a blindfold on her eyes, and instead of being a support, she indulged in her pride and did not take off the blindfold. Agreed, Gandhari wore a blindfold, and did not take it off, I think she can be forgiven for her momentary indiscretion. As Karve herself mentioned, once she had put it on, she could take it off only when Dhritrashtra asked her to. He did not, because he wanted her to suffer for how she had behaved. But an entire lifetime of punishment for a minor error should not be called a lifetime of selfishness.

    Kunti has a rather sad story. According to Karve, Kunti suffered the most. All the men in her life caused her suffering. Her father gave her away to serve his friend. The friend gave her away to serve a Brahman. The child born through that Brahman turned out to be Karna, who would be a further cause to her despair. Her husband had a curse on him which foretold that union with a woman would be fatal for him. Despite knowing this, he was still tempted by Madri and died after possessing her. Madri jumped in the king’s funeral pyre, saving herself from a lifetime of misery and bestowing it upon Kunti instead. Kunti’s sons made her live in a forest for 14 years. Here I have to agree with Karve that Kunti did indeed have the most miserable life of them all.

    As Sir has mentioned, Karve does take a reproachful tone while addressing Draupadi. Yes Draupadi probably could have saved herself some humiliation from the dishonor of being disrobed by begging for mercy. However, it is debatable if begging would have been effective considering the fact that such a despicable act was allowed by the elders despite Draupadi being a respectable woman of the household. But, for a woman so proud and so intelligent, begging for mercy from her wrongdoers – wouldn’t it have led to an equal, if not greater humiliation? Would it take absolute breaking down of a woman’s spirit to let her have her honor – what sort of justice is that?

    Probably Karve has been influenced by the way she perceives society and the role of women in it, and she is reflecting on what should have been an appropriate behavior for Draupadi through her own understanding. She’s mentioned how the society underwent a major change since the Mahabharata – it was an end of a yuga, an epoch and a lot of social norms prevalent during Mahabharata were found to be obsolete after it.

    It was, however, great to see these characters from a different perspective and think about them – the situation, the follies. Mahabharata makes you realize how every human suffers his frailties. It was an enlightening experience, and i feel inspired to familiarize myself with Mahabharata – read it, enjoy it, understand it.

  17. Yuganta as a book is an awakening for someone whose only brush with the Mahabharata has been through the portals of Doordarshan which ascribed demi god like qualities to all the characters shown on screen. Irawati Karve has however applied the cool lens of objectivity to all the actions of the principal characters of this epic and dissected them albeit through a slightly prejudiced eye.

    While discussing the book in class, we did not spare even the most god like character of the book, Krishna. Karve through her writing makes it clear that Krishna was not thought of as a deity during the time when the book was written. Instead, later revisions of the book have ascribed such divine qualities to him.

    To me, Krishna is the most fascinating character in the entire Mahabharatha. All his actions are deliberate and are executed with an end goal in mind. He is very conscious of his place in history and knows that through his actions he can elevate himself to an exalted position few will ever attain. He goes after this goal ferociously throughout his lifetime. At the same time, we see a different side of Krishna too, the man who develops a close friendship with the Pandavas and especially Arjuna and goes to every length to come to their aid, to a man consumed by his passions as we see when he destroys his own clan in a fit of rage.

    Throughout the book though, the one thing ascribed to Krishna is action. He never remains paralyzed by his thoughts and acts decisively whenever the occasion beckons. This is probably the single most important thing I might have learnt from the book: the call to action, the call to get off the sidelines and to do something. As Krishna himself says, You cannot choose not to act

  18. In the book, Karve questions the acts of Bhishma. She says, ” Is a person justified in doing things for others which would be condemned if he did them for himself? When a man does something for himself, his actions are performed within certain limits- limits set by the jealous scrutiny of others. But let a man set out to sacrifice himself and do good to others, and the normal limits vanish. He can become completely ruthless in carrying out his objectives.” This leads us to actually give it a thought and check on the way we, people and the society at large rationalize the actions done for others’ sake.

    Another interesting thought brought by Karve was in the scene when Gandhari is talking to her companion: Gandhari sighed and answered, ‘ there is nothing that can upset me now. After I had many children you thought that your Gandhari would at least be happy. But it was never so. If they were hurt, my heart would start to pound; if I heard them crying, I used to grieve ad get flurried. If I heard that they didn’t win in the chariot race, I would get dejected….Later, when the war started, I faced each new day with the dread, “What will be the news today?” Then as the battle went against them I would ask myself, “Today how many are left?” Each child was a new sorrow. I had no life of my own. All my life, their moments of happiness were my moments of happiness, there moments of sorrow were mine.’ And then she continues saying, ‘Today, I have become completely calm. No no one’s success can make my heart blossom in happiness; no one’s defeat can wither it with sorrow. My mind is permanently at peace. There is nothing to hope for, nothing to fear.’ The very next moment, she gets anxious when her husband Dhritarashtra calls him. And she realizes how false her words were. This scene also talks about the ‘nishkam karma’ discussion that we had in class. It made me realise the difference between ‘right to karma’ and ‘right to the fruits of the karma’. All her life, Gandhari had been attached to the outer world. And probably that is the reason she’s been depicted as a woman who had been in pain all her life.

  19. As a child I was introduced to Mahabharat through B.R Chopras TV series by the same name and the Amar Chitra Katha collections. And for a very long time, it remained one of those eternal stories of the triumph of good over evil. But only when I read Devdutt Patnaik’s ‘Jaya’ and Gurcharan Das’s ‘The Difficulty of Being Good’ did I realise there was more to Mahabharat than Good vs Evil.

    While reading Yuganta, there were several occasions where I disagreed with the author and wondered if Bhishma really was hungry for power and authority? Or whether Draupadi could have really saved herself by begging for mercy when she was being disrobed in the Maha sabha? And I always come up with arguments supporting these 2 characters.

    Bhishma vowed for lifelong celibacy so that Shantanu could marry Satyavati. And it is interesting to note that neither Shantanu nor Satyavati felt the need to ask him to break the vow. Only when the royal succession was at risk, did Satyavati ask Bhishma to break his vow. Refusing to do so earned him the wrath of the author who labelled him as power hungry man who wanted to retain his authority. Karve says, “Was Bhishma afraid that this might jeopardise his authority?” To counter this question I would like to quote a line from the chapter Bhishma’s Selflessness from The difficulty of Being Good. ‘Aside from Krishna, the Mahabharat does not say if any of the characters possesses the virtue of nishkama karma; nor does it call anyone a karma yogi; but if anyone in the epic does deserve this designation, it is Bhishma.’

    Similarly, I feel the author was too harsh on Draupadi. She sympathises with Gandhari and Kunti, because one was married to a blind person while the other to an impotent man. But I feel Draupadi was wronged too when even though won by Arjun at the swayamvar, she was married to all the 5 Pandavas on the behest of Kunti. She did suffer more than the other two because she was the one who was disrobed and humiliated at the Maha sabha. And about being called a lady pundit, it is well known that Draupadi was well learned in the vedas as her brother Dhristhadyumna. A Kshatriya woman’s dharma is to fight for her own right and safety than to beg for mercy.

    Except for the harsh treatment meted out to Bhishma and Draupadi, overall Yuganta was an interesting read. It makes one appreciate the human side of all the characters and how each had their own hopes and fears. And how it is dharma after all which distinguishes humans from animals.

  20. I always wondered how it feels to be in the middle of the Mahabharata. To understand the emotions, intentions, and underlying agendas of each of the protagonists. Also, due to the fact that most of the characters were the shades of grey, unlike other scriptures, the characters are very much relatable. In some ways Irawati Karve did answer provide some answers to the questions I used to ask myself. And the way she refuses to attribute divinity to anyone of the characters especially to Krishna and strictly represented them in human terms is very intriguing. Even I believed that most of the characters were divine. I reckon divinity was attributed to these characters somewhere down the line to perpetuate the Hindu religion.
    But I think we all have been myopic in understanding the wide ranging repercussions these epics and their protagonists have. We forgot about the effect these epics have on our thinking and lifestyle. Mahabharata and Ramayana are still the favourite bed time stories of most of the kids in India. These stories have powerful impact on the psychology (especially at a tender age) and more often than not decide how and where we progress as a nation. Just the way Confucius had a profound impact on the culture and the way of life of people in China and surrounding countries, the Hindu scriptures have profound effect on people living in the Indian subcontinent. Maybe that is why every reinterpretation of the Mahabharata comes up with a fresh perspective. And maybe that is why religion should be called ‘SanathanaDharma’ : the way of life more than anything else

  21. The critical questioning of characters in the Mahabharata as presented by Irawati Karwe in Yuganta is eye-opening. Through her method of questioning and analysis, she tears apart the demi-god status bestowed upon these characters and reveals their flaws, making them more human, more relatable. I haven’t researched the Mahabharata thoroughly and hence can’t comment on the authenticity of Yuganta, but the spirit in which the book is written appeals to my logical side, and hence I’m more inclined to believe its contents, as opposed to my earlier exposures to the Mahabharata (like Ramanand Sagar’s TV series). I would like to point one example from Yuganta which has forced me to question a few things I used to believe about one character in the Mahabharata: Karna.

    In most conventional literature, Karna is portrayed as a hero: selfless, brave, a great warrior. Some books even portray him as a victim. Yuganta, on the other hand, questions this image and brings to our notice his various flaws. All through his life, he struggled with his identity; the question ‘Who am I?’ haunted him throughout his life, and his actions were directed towards answering this question. The uninvited entry to Drona’s competition, the challenge to Arjuna was not an act on behalf of the Suta class, but instead an act that stemmed out of his selfishness. As far as his famed bravery is concerned, there are multiple instances in the Mahabharata that prove otherwise. He often ran away from the heat of the battle, be it during Draupadi’s swayamvar, or during the final war itself. Besides, participating in a family quarrel by instigating Dushyasana during the dice game, which led to Draupadi’s vastraharan, is not an act of a brave man. Conventional literature portrays Karna as a great warrior, perhaps the greatest of his time. However, every time he came up against Arjuna, he could neither prove himself to be the better warrior or the better man, as is unequivocably proven by his withdrawal from battle during Draupadi’s swayamvar, his defeat(s) at the cattle raids and ultimately his death at the hands of Arjuna in the final Mahabharata battle.

    I will conclude this post by saying that reading Yuganta has been a truly enriching experience for me, and I hope it was for the rest of the class too!

  22. Irawati Karve’s Yuganta though gives a different perspective of the Mahabharata and its characters; it was too much judgmental on some issues.

    If we take the case of Bhishma, though blasting him for kidnapping the women was justified, blaming him for failing to foresee the power struggle is too much. Why did not Karve blast Satyavati’s father who was responsible for Bhishma taking the vow? Even if Bhishma took a vow, How could he or for that matter any person foresee that the two sons who will be born in the future born with their deformities and how can Bhishma foresee that the sons of Drutarastra and Pandu will fight over the kingdom? Even if Bhishma had impregnated the queens as asked by Satyavati, would the children born have remained without power struggle? This brings us to the question that how can we evaluate the consequences of our actions and to what extent we should attribute the events happening afterwards as consequences of our actions. One more doubt that can be raised is why Bhishma and Drona were on the side of kauravas but not on the side of Pandavas or being neutral in the war. Did they feel that serving the king irrespective of his actions justifiable? Therefore, for these reasons I think would be justifiable for Irawati Karve to blame and blast Bhishma not for keeping his vow.

    Another character Karve blasts and dismisses is Karna. She says that Karna was no match to Arjuna in skills and was just made a hero out of nowhere. However, she does not give us any compelling reasons to justify her argument. She just says that all those were made up stories. Karna was a noble man except for the most heinous crime he committed that is supporting the stripping Draupadi when she became a slave. Legally at that point of time it might be justified because no other elders such as Bhishma retorted. Moral question still remains though. One may also say that, Draupadi did this to herself, when she said that she will not marry a suta in front of all the elders during her swayamvara thus making Karna burn with shame and anger for the rest of his life. Karna’s loyalty to Duryodhana was impeccable. Duryodhana gave him half-kingdom and made him an equal so that he would be a king. During all his times until his death, even though Karna knew that it was impossible to defeat the Pandavas because Lord Krishna was with them, he fought for his friend Duryodhana. Even when Krishna and Kunti asks him to join the side of the Pandavas, Karna remains by the side of Duryodhana. Also he was a man who would give his life for keeping his vow. All these speak volumes for his ideals and loyalty. One may say that he was stupid is sticking to his ideals but because of these ideals some of us revere him as a hero even now.
    In the hindsight, in Mahabharata, though Kauravas were unjust to Pandavas, Pandavas also cheated and tricked Kauravas to win the war. The killing of Drona and Karna will vouch for the same. There are lots of twists and turns and there are innumerable ethical and moral questions in Mahabharata to address. It is always a pleasure to read such a book. One of the books by Mr Gurucharan Das “The difficulty of being good” also uses Mahabharata to explain about Dharma.

  23. Iriwati Karwe has analysed the characters of the Mahabharata and subjected them to the light of critical analysis. She has been strong in her views of characters such as Bhisma, and Draupadi. She has expounded possible hidden motives, and brought out different angles to these characters. Another dimension to her analysis could have been the analysis “The Mahabharata” in the context of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. To Aristotle, ethics is practical rather than theoretical, and the Mahabharata shows us the classic consequences of letting passions run riot.

    I will point out one instance of Aristotle’s philosophy by quoting his dictates on anger:
    “The man who is angry at the right things and with the right people, and, further, as he ought, when he ought, and as long as he ought, is praised. This will be the good-tempered man, then, since good temper is praised.”

    As applicable to the Mahabharata, rarely did we witness characters express the “right emotion”, with the “right people”, “as and when they ought to” have expressed it. We see repeated instances of how each and every character failed to act with wisdom. People acted with passions running riot, and with complete disregard to the voices of reason and sanity. Cumulatively, each and every act escalated the situation, and we witnessed the massive destruction of entire kingdoms, and probably the wipeout of an entire generation.

    Not just Aristotle, but even the Buddha has also said very similar things about emotion, and the dire consequences of impulsiveness. I would take one simple exposition of his thoughts on anger: “You will not be punished for your anger; you will be punished by your anger.”
    Across countries, cultures and timelines, we see the same wisdom emanating, and we see how the story of the Mahabharata explores the dire destructiveness that arises when the voice of wisdom is squelched. Irawati Karwe has subjected some prominent characters to critical analysis, and examined their actions, and often the inherent lack of wisdom therein.

  24. In Yuganta, Irawati Karve has given a completely different light to the characters of Mahabharata. The follies of each character, from Bhishma’s treatment of women, his neglect of the bigger responsibilities in favour of his vow to the sometimes foolish acts of Dharma which resulted in them loosing Indraprastha and their pride in a game of dice open a completely different debate as to how could this disaster have been avoided.

    My own addition to this never ending debabte is the contribution of Gandhari in the lead up to war. I feel that the war could have been avoided had Gandhari not taken the vow of never opening her eyes. Why did she do that and how often in rage we take decisions we and our loved ones regret! By taking this vow, she added a huge limitation to her character and could not take the kind of involvement in the bringing up of Kaurvas as Kunti did with Pandvas especially Suyodhan (not Duryodhan as no parent would give such a name to their children though his actions later justified replacing Su with Dur). Had she played a proactive role in the upbringing of her children and tried to erase the enmity right from the childhood, things might not have taken wrong turns always. I can imagine Kaurvas surrounded by friends telling them that Pandavas are your enemies and they will take away your kingdom and you are the rightful heirs and you have to get rid of them. A mother in control here could have dispelled those fears and encouraged friendship between Kaurvas and Pandvas. We do not know if this would have averted the war or not because here again we are confronted by the two most dreaded words for mankind “If only” but this would have been worth a try. I believe that in this situation, Gandhari could have done a little and could have collaborated with Kunti to save the Kurus.

    This book on a whole dispels the mystery and awe surrounding these characters and portray them in a more human light. No human is free of follies and one man’s right is other man’s wrong; very few are able to see the holistic picture and even fewer are able to act on it. The debate on Mahabharata rages on…….

  25. Irvati Karve dissects all characters with an objectivity impossible for most native readers. She picks each of the major characters of the ‘Mahabharat’, giving an incisive character analysis. She opens the reader’s eyes to a lot of fallacies. She dispels a handful of myths and interprets the seemingly illogical in a manner best understood in our times. The best part about this book is that it critiques without ever being disrespectful or dismissive, apart from Draupadi. Also, her refusal to acknowledge the stories of any other version of the Mahabharata apart from the one that she refers to is slightly disconcerting because of the beautiful depictions in the others.

    One part in which I completely disagree with Karve is the one in which she believes that there is some relation between Vidura and Yudhishthira as they are both sons of Yama. As Bhima and Hanuman are both sons of Maruta, the wind God, they are considered to be brothers. They why not so in the case of Vidura and Yudhishthira also. Why do we need to change the entire perspective of the story on the basis of a hypothesis that might not have any ground?

  26. I must say that I agree with Karve’s critical demolition of Bhishmas actions. Given my firm beliefs in the learnings from the book, the Alchemist, I firmly believe that if a person has been born with certain abilities and through his experiences and exposure bestowed upon him by society and possibly serendipity, has become worthy candidate for the throne, then it is his moral obligation to accept it and give back to the society what has been bestowed upon him in his upbringing. In his role, Bhishma appears to consider it a privilege to take up the throne. Herein lies his misconception as the throne must be considered a responsibility before it is considered as a privilege. The act of giving up the throne therefore cannot be construed as an act of sacrifice but must be considered as an act of evading responsibility and shirking away from repaying to the society what has been given to him. It is a debt owed to society for everything it has given him and it must be honored. Delving further into the reasons for this sacrifice, I certainly feel that it was the blind love for his father and a supremely overstated sense of self importance which blinded him from understanding the true nature of situation wherein his expected inheritance of the throne and the societal expectation for him to not only lead ably but also marry and ensure that the same lineage continues to lead with similar ability was was an obligation for him to fulfill to the society rather than a privilege to enjoy.

  27. I read the text book version of Mahabharata while growing up. And like a child who holds on to his toys, I was holding onto my beliefs & interpretations about the epic. That’s until I read Yuganta. When I started reading Yuganta, I was full of apprehensions, it’s a big feat when something challenges the thoughts or in this case the epic you’ve revered over the years. By first few chapters, I even became critical- Finding faults in the facts, looking for loopholes in Ms Karve’s logic. The thoughts that Bhishma committed various atrocities towards women, that Kunti was jealous of Madri, that Vidura and Yudhishthira could be father & son, that Draupadi brought upon the courtroom incident upon herself were so atrocious at first, that I felt like keeping the book down. It’s like the child in me couldn’t bear to see these characters fall from a pedestal.

    And now when I look back I realise that this is the beauty of the book.. it’s not like a novella which you can read in one go. It’s an introduction to a whole new plethora of perspectives that challenge you.. that make you think & that make you question your beliefs & your own self.. And once you’re past that stage of reproach you realise the book is in a way comforting. A fantasy or not – you feel you’ve a better understanding of the characters now. You understand Bheem’s love for Draupadi, you understand futility of Bhishm’s oath, you understand the pain of Kunti, frustration of Karna, and deep bond of friendship between Arjuna & krishna.. You understand that these characters were not really the demi – gods we had made them out to be.. But were as human as any of us.. only bound by a different set of principles & rules.. And like these characters, we too are capable of achieving greatness or falling prey to our deepest insecurities & fears. We understand that none of our choices are devoid of repercussions – on our own life & lives of those around us. We understand that the concept of reality is free of our personal ideals but at the same time bound by the truth of it. We’re all gods.. with a little demon inside.

  28. It has been often debated whether Mahabharata is history or fiction. No doubt it is a much raw from modified over generations, and therefore compels me to think if Mahabharata actually represents the thought of the Treta Yuga or of the subsequent yugas that have added to and modified the story.

    In a hindi play “Mahabharat ki ek sanjh”, Bharat Bhushan Aggarwal outlines a candid conversation between dying Duryodhana and the Pandavas.

    Duryodhana, originally name Suyodhana, mentions that if his father were not a born blind, the Pandavas would have never had any claim to the throne. He regrets that history will remember him as Duryodhan and not by his original name, not because he was a bad soul, but because history has been writtine by the winners.

  29. I was exposed to Mahabharata from a very young age thanks to books and the stories told by my parents and of course the TV serial. Thus, Mahabharata to me, has been more than a story of the fight between Good and Evil. It has been a lesson on various aspects of life and how best to lead it.

    What makes it an epic is the way the lessons have been passed down through the ages. It is the way the various figures of speech are used, be it a metaphor or simile. For example, Bhishma being an “Ichhamarani” is more to emphasize the greatness of his sacrifice for his father, and it’s not supposed to be taken as a way to estimate what his age must have been. It is but our duty to absorb it in all its essence, if we are to appreciate and understand what the Mahabharata is all about.

    In my opinion, this is where Irawati Karve fails distinctly. She fails to understand the meaning behind the literary devices used by the authors. By stripping it down to a mere factual rhetoric, she successfully transforms an epic into another “Story”. The lessons are lost by the removal of all the so-called ‘later interpolations’ and her dismissals of things as not deserving attention.

    For example, she dismisses Draupadi as arrogant, not understanding that she was after all, a princess, living in a castle, who was dragged to be humiliated in front of people whom she considered family. In this context, her initial action was totally justified. Ms. Karve seemed to have taken a distorted view of what is feminism. Her actual anger should be against Yudhishtir, against whom she has not spoken a single critical word. Another instance is that where she deems Vidura as the illegitimate father of Dharma. Somehow, the fact (or even the mere possibility) that it is just that their thought processes are similar (like we usually say – thinking at the same wavelengths) and that his closeness to Dharma may merely be because he could have been a Godfather to him.
    Such blatant and biased assumptions are abound in ‘Yuganta’, and this makes what could have been a very good concise commentary on the Epic an average one. My respect, however, goes to Ms. Karve, for the disclaimer that she puts at the beginning that she does not enforce her views on anybody, and that her true victory would be if the book inspires somebody to read the original Mahabharata.

  30. My first exposure to the Mahabharata was through a combination of Amar Chitra Katha comics and bedtime stories from my grandparents. These gave me the basic narrative and characters, but I can’t pretend they interested me greatly in the epic. It all seemed too remote, to be reverenced maybe, but of no real connection with my life. Also the B.R.Chopra version aired on television seemed caricaturist and amateur and thus I made no further attempt to study the epic with any amount of seriousness.

    However I was sort of forced to read Irawati Karwe’s collection of essays on some of the major characters of this great Indian epic, the book being part of the course and I have to say that for me, it was the first time that I started looking at Mahabharata and its main characters in a new “human” light, instead of the godly status bestowed on them, as is usually the case, by our countrymen.

    Her training was as an anthropologist and as Prof. Himanshu mentions it in his blog, one of the first Indian women to leave the country to get a Ph.D in the subject, from Berlin, and this shows in the precise way she describes the hierarchies and rituals of the Kshatriya society in which the Mahabharata is set. But Karve’s tone is never too academic, and she also avoids the other trap of iconoclasm for its own sake. All too often retellings of the classics become vehicles for putting forth the writer’s own agenda, and while this can be valid and even interesting, the original usually suffers. Karve is popularly known to be a feminist and this bias I suspect leads her to examine the often overlooked world of the women of the epic, Gandhari, Kunti and Draupadi, each of whom is the subject of an essay. But others deal with Bhishma, Drona, Karna and Krishna, and the focus is always on the world of the Mahabharata, and how understanding it leads to a greater understanding of us.

    Karve’s achievement was to use intellectual tools on one of the founding myths of Indian society, yet what she produces is not the product of a mere intellectual exercise – Mahabharata matters to Karve and she makes it matter to you as well. Right at the end of the last and perhaps best essay of all, The End of a Yuga, she writes: “I am indeed fortunate that I can read today a story called Jaya, which was sung three thousand years ago, and find myself in it.” I would like to say that I have been fortunate to have Karve as a guide.

  31. I too read Jaya because I like it. Different versions of it – one painting an ephemeral world by one of the Bhavana writers, another a straightforward version by Devdutt Pattnaik and also the one by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni which is from the perspective of Draupadi. But the version that I am truly dying (at the expense of sounding frivolous) to read is one which is from Gandhari’s perspective. But before I elucidate why, I want to relate how I came across this idea. I have seen umpteen plays that relate stories from the Mahabharata from the point of views of different characters, my favourite being Girish Karnad’s Yayati. But it was actually a story from Ramayana that opened my eyes to how a story could turn around completely when related from someone else’s standpoint. It was the episode of Surpanakha expressing her love for Rama (most know it to be Lakshman) from her own perspective, beautifully depicted in the art form of Mohiniattam. It changed the Ramayana completely for me. In a way, I have been scarred for life.

    Coming back to why I want to particularly read Jaya from Gandhari’s perspective. This is because I firmly believe that she shoulders a great amount of responsibility for the occurrence of the Mahabharata. It was widely known that she was a well read, sensible, intelligent and quite an independent woman. How else could she make the long tempestuous journey from Gandhar to Hastinapur all alone with only her youngest kid brother (Shakuni), that too on an invitation to marry the prince? Irawati Karve criticizes Draupadi for being bold. But so was Gandhari. It’s a pity that so little has been written about her. Towards the end of the book (I shall refrain from calling it anything that exalts it to the position of a holy-ish text) when Dhritarashtra and Gandhari are in the forest during their Sanyasa, for the first time Dhritarashtra shows his anger towards Gandhari and castigates her for covering her eyes out of a hurt pride and ego. He says that, giver her intelligence, if she had taken his hand and ruled the kingdom along with him, they possibly would not have had to see the death of so many in their family. In my opinion, she is the most underplayed character of all who was one of the reasons why this feud took place.

    However, I believe that such a version has not been written yet. Till then, I guess I will just have to satisfy my thirst for more stories of Jaya from the Jain version that I have just ordered for myself from the internet. I can go on and on about the Mahabharata and truly, people close to me can vouch for that. The one part of the book that I have not yet been able to criticize on analysis is the Bhagavad Gita. I am truly thankful for the immense pool of wisdom that it has to provide to a hungry mind.

  32. Irvati Karve has tried to point out inconsistencies in Mahabharata. It seems from the outside as if the book is about finding fault in the characters, but what she might want to convey is that actions are criticized or justified keeping in mind the social conditions that prevail at that point in time.

    The criticism of Draupadi is what struck me especially. In such a situation one cannot really think straight and evaluate the best options. The only option left in such a case is to fight against the injustice and that is exactly what she did. The author points that there were many grown up men present and Draupadi should not have spoken in their presence according to the prevailing customs. But is that a fault? I wonder.

  33. Iravati Karve does believe Mahabharata to be the end of an epoch, a paradigm shift in the moral and behavioral values that have governed the society. However, I wonder if Mahabharata marks the beginning of a caste based social structure. The chapter “Pardharmo Bhayavahah” strongly criticizes Drona and his son Asvatthama for giving up their own dharma and taking up somebody else’s. One fails to understand as to who and when has established such expected orders in the society. Why is the son of a Brahmin expected to live the Brahmin way and not take up his own Dharma. If Drona and Asvatthama are to be criticized, why not Karna? Just because the reader knows from the beginning that he was a born Kshatriya!!
    Such questions leave me thinking, just like every other analysis in “Yuganta” does.

  34. My view is that to truly appreciate Yuganta, the Mahabharata epic should be a living part of your cultural heritage. Just like in western classics. How much I take away from a Shakespeare will always be less than how much a person doused in the English culture would. As Indians, not all of us are exposed systematically to the Mahabharata, and hence we lose this ability to appreciate what Yuganta tries to tell us.

    Yuganta possesses incredible innate strength. There are a lot of views in this book which can be debated upon and interpreted in different ways, but none the less each has its own implication and perspective. The book takes a more ‘realistic’ picture of things and tries to give this novel perspective to its readers. Now, how do we ascertain that this is as real as it can get is beyond my comprehension.

    It is noticeable the way Professor Karve has brought out the condition of women then. The claim as to how women were seen as fields where children can be harvested against today’s general view on women is quite contrasting. And the examples, such as Niyoga which go on to prove this are quite insightful.

    For me, the most striking fact in the whole book is the description and annihilation of Karna’s character. Having read Mahabharata and looking upto characters like Krishna and Karna for their strengths and weaknesses, my only other exposure to Karna’s character, before reading Yuganta, was through the Tamil movie Karna, starring Shivaji Ganesan as Karna. The portrayal was absolutely fantastic. But the striking part was I could find Shivaji’s idea of Karna as a midway between the 2 books. Shivaji shows how his past and his constant struggle with his identity as to who he is, shapes his character. And the way Prof. Karve shows Karna as a coward and weak person creates direct conflict with my image of Shivaji playing the loyal and courageous friend to Duryodhana or the son who yearned for his mother’s love. It is left to personnel choice to understand Karna given the lack of concrete evidence from either camps.

    However, reading Yuganta was like throwing light on different ways of looking at an accepted piece of work. It was an absolute pleasure to read the book.

  35. Yuganta gives a very different perspective of all the characters of Mahabharata . Irawati Karve through her critical approach has managed to bring out very interesting aspects of each character.

    Irawati Karve’s interpretation about Draupadi rightly seemed to be most controversial during the discussion in the class. Draupadi was always looked upon in a pitiful situation. But Karve’s comments that she deserved such a treatment because of her argumentative questions brings in thoughts of conflict about the situation. It also brings in question whether a person stuck in a difficult situation would argue first or plead for help?

    Its surprising and at the same time interesting to see Karve being so critical about female characters of Mahabharata who for ages were looked from a positive perspective.

  36. While I do not deny that Karve’s work on questioning an epic heralded as deeply religious by the vast majority in this country, I feel that your post protects her too much from some of the scathing criticism she, I daresay, rightfully deserves. Karve lived in a time of strong feminist influences as well. Let us not forget that the book was published in 1968, a time at which there plenty of strong feminist influences to go around, perhaps none as powerful as the beginnings of the daughter of a certain Pandit in this very nation. Perhaps, it is these influences that make me wonder whether calling it a feminist and realistic review of the epic would in fact, be demeaning for Yuganta. The ethical and moral conflicts that Mahabharata characters faced in itself are much quoted and cited in discussions and articles today as well. But I believe as if Yuganta’s value to this discussion is little more than a colored lens – the color being more pink than neutral.

    But is that true consistently? I particularly remember her acidic remarks over Draupadi’s choice of ways / hierarchy of means to save her dignity in an open court of ‘wise’ men. I thought it was rather anti-feminist for her to say that Draupadi was a fool not crying out for help but rather arguing on dharma and ideals in front of the people present.

    Nonetheless, I too admire the method in which she transcends the godlike nature of Arjun, Krishna, Bhishm and other characters into men and women like you and I. Perhaps, just due to the different range of emotions and thoughts she provokes throughout her attempt, perhaps just that alone, is enough to credit her with creating a work which sets a lot of balls bouncing in most heads and overall, with its controversies and misrepresentations, is a work worth reading again and again.

  37. Whether or not the story really happened, what is really fascinating to me is that unlike so many other stories that are told it does not end in a “happy ending” and nobody in the story lived happily ever after. As Karve’s work further strips off the divine statuses of all characters in the story, and unravels them layer by layer all I can see is people struggling with the real burdens of life with personas we all carry on our lives with every day.

    There are statements that are made about this book of how Karve rendered a feminist perspective to the story. True, she did ask questions that ought to have been asked ages ago by everyone who heard the story. But reading the essay on Draupadi made me wonder if she even comes close. She questions Draupadi’s actions in the courtroom and the tactical questions she raised when according to Karve she should have been pleading for help. I wonder if a women in a situation like that in this day and age could show even a little of that courage, self respect or rationality. Karve’s questioning of Draupadi’s actions goes totally against everything else she say s while describing the travails of the other female characters. She had her own prefixed opinions of what should or should not have been done.

    What is clearly highlighted in the reasons that each of the characters had for their actions was that it was an era of a definitive law and how people lived by their own extreme ideals. Bhishma is a clear example of clutching on to his own ideals. Karve might have been harsh on Bhishma or his actions and the injustice he meted out to women but she did raise questions on the lives of women that have been begging to be asked. In her analysis of every character of the book she has strong opinions and her arguments evoked equally strong responses whether or not I agreed with her.
    In the introduction, Karve says that “I shall consider it a victory if the readers think my interpretation is wrong and read the Mahabharata merely to prove me wrong”. If this was her aim then she definitely succeeded.

  38. Mahabharata depicts the epic battle between Kauravas and Pandavas. The epic is much more than the battle of Kurukshetra. It shows the human follies, the various trails any living being goes through in his lifetime. If one is born human, no matter in which class he belongs, he is bound to exhibit the follies of the human nature.

    Bhisma is criticized for sticking to his vows when he could have overturned them when asked by Satyavati. It would have been in greater good as it is envisioned but then can anyone guarantee that the war would have been averted? No one can guarantee that. And by breaking his vows he would have been belittled in his own eyes as it would have meant him compromising on his principles. The Khastriya code doesn’t allow compromises! Again it is said that he caused sorrow to many a women by abducting them and making them marry against their wishes. As the head of the family he was entrusted to look after the welfare of his brothers, what he did was to oblige his duty. Everyone aspires that the next generation should surpass the achievements of the current generation and the name of the family is taken to even greater heights. Bhisma couldn’t have married himself and by seeking out the nest brides for his brothers and their sons what he tried to do was to ensure that the next generation would be competent and would strive for the prosperity of the clan and the family. Instead of blindly blaming Bhimsa we should ask ourselves what we would have done if we were of high morals and were in the same situation. Would we stand by our principles and work for the growth and prosperity of our near and dear ones or would we do what pleased everyone?

    Similarly Prof. Karve says in her essay about Draupadi that she shouldn’t have angered the elders by talking about Dharma. What could have any other woman do when placed in her position? When you are sure that the people who are standing in front of you are not there to be merciful shouldn’t you evoke the card of reason and Dharma? Was she out of her right to question the right of her husband to gamble her away when he himself was a slave and hence didn’t possess anything? Was she unfair in asking a fair trial from the elders who were known for their wisdom and entrusted to dispense justice on much complex matters? She asked everyone what was right and what should be done? In the right frame of mind, the act of disrobing her would be called heinous, at least that is what the current society calls those acts presently.

    Gandhari was meek, even when asked by her husband she didn’t open her eyes. With none of the parents to guide them it was quite possible for the Kaurava children to go ashtray. Gandhari even when she didn’t say anything and lamented for the Pandavas for having to go on exile, inwardly she felt joy for now her children were unchallenged and could rule the kingdom. If she was so much sympathetic to cause of the Pandavas then she could have forced her children to stop the injustice, but that was not the case.

    Even a celestial being when born a human form is nothing more than flesh and blood. He is bound by the normal human tendencies. If at all he is to rise over the human tendencies then he wouldn’t be a part of the worldly matters and would transcend everything to be a part of the Absolute. Even Krishna as portrayed in Yuganta has human motives, both personal and for the betterment of his clan. He joins hand with the Pandavas because he thinks it will benefit both the clans. Personally he wants himself to be known as the Vasudeva, and to achieve this he challenges the king who calls himself Vasudeva and kills him. He is not impartial in his love for the Pandavas and the Kauravas. Even someone who is as revered as Vasudeva has imperfections in the human form so how can normal human beings expect not to have follies?

  39. Irawati Karve’s Yuganta is one of the best books that I have read on the Mahabharata till date. Her critical analysis of the book and the characters not only point out the incongruencies of the epic (that I have known) but has also shook my fundamental grounding on Ideals and made me realize how disastrous they can be when they multiply to realities.

    The war of the Mahabharata marks the end of a Yuga, and to me, the entire havoc wasn’t necessary and wouldn’t have been possible, if not for Bhishma’s ‘Terrible’ vow. There are certain instances where Bhishma, instead of sticking to his ideals, should have accepted the harsh realities and acted upon it. Once such incident is when Vichitravirya dies and the whole kuru line is threatened with extinction: Satyavati herself asks Bhishma to give up his vows. But Bhishma, as rigid as ever, sticks to his promise. Had he taken charge of the family then, there wouldn’t have been a fight or questions over succession. Another instance is when he remains completely indifferent to Draupadi’s humiliation in the court and talks of dharma rather than stopping the shameful spectacle.

    Bhishma was an idealist. He was particularly an idealist when it came to not unduly exercising his power and authority and laying it down at the service of the Kauravas. Bhishma had picked a place for him and a set of duties, but he neglected the reality of his own power and authority. Perhaps he feared being seen as a Kshatriya who had broken his word, but throughout the epic we see Kshatriyas who break their word and get away with it. Bhishma’s idealism prevented him from doing what was necessary: taking charge of the family, fathering children, consolidating power so the kingdom could enjoy peace and prosperity—arguably averting the Mahabharata.

    There is one quote in the book which aptly summarizes how ideals multiply into realities.

    “When a man does something for himself, his actions are performed within certain limits – limits set by the jealous scrutiny of others. But let a man set out to sacrifice himself and do good to others, and the normal limits vanish. “
    On finishing the book, there is one character that I cannot take my mind off and that is of Krishna Vasudeva, who is an exact opposite to the Idealist Bhishma. He prefers reality which is external, unchangeable, concrete, final, and consequential. This is quite evident in his actions, especially when he celebrates Ghatotkacha’s death and in another instance when he remains calm and composed to the news of Yudhisthira gambling away the kingdom. This is someone who absolutely accepts and submits before Reality instead of railing against it; someone who quickly moves to acting in the new context.

    Overall the book has been a fascinating experience and an enriching one. There are a few things that I wouldn’t agree with Karve especially the bashing of Draupadi. Karve, being a feminist, should have defended Draupadi’s actions. Rather, she mentions that Draupadi should have known better to keep quiet in the assembly of men – a statement unlikely from a feminist. Nevertheless, her bold take on the epic and the thorough analysis of the key characters is brilliant, extremely valuable and highly appreciable.

  40. Karve dissects all characters with an objectivity impossible for most native readers. She begins with a neat introduction explaining the literary tradition of the ‘Mahabharat’. She writes about how the original work was called ‘Jaya’ (victory), and composed/carried forth in the oral tradition by the members of the Suta caste. This sauta (of the Sutas) literature is then passed on to different sections of the society (especially Brahmins), who make additions and interpolations, thus enlarging the original story. What we consequently inherit is the ‘Mahabharat’ (great story of the house of King Bharat).

    In the subsequent essays, Karve picks each of the major characters of the ‘Mahabharat’, giving an incisive character analysis. The first of the lot is the character of Bhisma. Karve wonders aloud about the contrary motives of some of Bhisma’s actions, who while appearing to sacrifice all for the sake of others, takes some rather peculiar decisions that seem directed at proving his personal greatness.

    The two great matriarchs are then dealt with in a great manner, which elucidate mainly the injustices suffered by Gandhari and Kunti. Yet, Karve goes on to show the strength of the two Kshatriya women, and what part they played in binding the Kuru clan together. Gandhari’s great sacrifice though laced with bitterness, and Kunti’s pain and guilt on parting with her firstborn, Karna, are some of the instances described in these two chapters.
    There is an interesting chapter on Draupadi, and Karve compares and contrasts the character with that of Sita – the female protagonist of ‘Ramayana’. Karve points out the emotional richness and scope of Draupadi’s character as compared to Sita’s formulaic one. She also talks about her unique relationship with her five husbands, her ultimate insult at the Kaurava court and her thirst for revenge that, in part, pushes the Pandavas to war. Several more aspects are noted in this chapter.

    Karna’s character too is analysed in detail. Instead of the pitiable hero that Karna is made out to be in the popular renditions of the Mahabharat, Karve paints a not-so-rosy picture of him. Despite the occasional show of the strength of his character, Karna, according to Karve, is a flawed man because of his deep bitterness and rashness.

    Krishna is also studied from a very human perspective in Karve’s book. Krishna is not a god, whilst in the ‘Mahabharat’, but a very powerful, charismatic and clever man. He is shown by Karve to be more of a friend of Arjuna and a well-wisher of the Pandavas, rather than a divine being. She explains how subsequent literature, like the ‘Bhagvata’ accorded divinity to Krishna, unlike the Mahabharat. His role is the war, and the rise and fall of the Pandavas and the Yadavas is also spoken about in a chapter.

  41. I feel slightly amused and discomfited by Irawati Karve’s treatment of the Mahabharat’s most complex and esteemed characters: Bhishma. In the chapter titled “The Final Effort”, she makes the provocative point that Bhishma, by sacrificing his happiness and rights to the throne, he put himself in a position where he acquired moral superiority over the other characters– so that it was never possible for them to question his actions.

    In her view, the significant women characters in the epic are victims of Bhishma’s injustices – notably Kunti, Gandhari and Madri, princesses of noble houses who were all married off to undeserving and/or cursed men and they found nothing but unhappiness.

    Also, Irawati Karve criticizes Draupadi for the fact that when she was dishonored in the court in front of everyone, instead of begging to leave her alone she was fighting about legalities of whether Yudhistir had the right to put her on stake. According to me, may be the author here has failed to consider the mental state Draupadi might have been in . In such a situation one cannot really think straight and evaluate what is best for one. What one could do is fight against injustice and that is what she did.

    I think that Irawati Karve was too harsh on both, Bhishma and Draupadi.

  42. Mahabharata is a classic Indian epic I grew up with and to read it again, as a part of my curriculum, has been a delight. Irawati Karwe’s Yuganta is a discussion on the key characters of the Mahabharata, giving a completely new dimension to the characters and helping me understand their actions.

    What struck me especially was the special criticism of Bhishma for his inactions and supposed irresponsibility by taking the responsibilities he could not perform. Sticking to his sacrifice, he was only interested in the perpetuation of the Kuru clan and I personally agree with most of Karve’s criticism. However, to blame Bhishma for the killing of Amba was uncalled for. Bhishma was right in sending Amba back to Shalva, when she expressed her love for the latter. By not accepting her and by stating his doubts, he is equally responsible for her death.

    Another criticism of Karve that I would disagree with is her bashing of Draupadi for speaking in the court. Draupadi has been criticized for the fact that when she was dishonored in the court in front of everyone, instead of begging to leave her alone she was fighting about legalities of whether Yudhistira had the right to stake her. Karve should have considered the mental state she must have been in. In such a situation, it must have been very hard for Draupadi to really think straight and evaluate what is best for her. Infact, during those days all women, including Gandhari and Kunti, suffered in silence and Draupadi must be applauded for speaking so boldly in the open court. What one could do is fight against injustice and that is what she did.

    Apart from the critical analysis, the book explores many different facets of the Mahabharata; its history, its social and cultural structures, its sociological relevance in today’s era, the possible amendments and misinterpretations of some of the verses over the years. The reading has been very stimulating and helped me rearrange some of my thoughts and questions on the great epic, its immortal characters and the elusive meaning of Dharma.

  43. No one in this world is perfect, ever. Well this is what I interpreted of Irawati Karwe’s Yuganta as book which was written to highlight the complexity of human characters. Though Mahabharat was happened during the time when society has a very high degree of value system especially as compared to what is today. But this does not mean that all the individuals in the epic were flawless. Yuganta is an exceptional analysis of all the protagonists of Mahabharat and discussed the implications of flaws of these characters.

    Infact Karwe, discussed these flaws in detail help us in critically analyze the character their fallacies. May be it is the questionable act of Yudhishthir, involvement of Drona in war, questions of Draupadi which were not right or the indecisiveness of Arjun, misplaced sense of self righteousness of Bheesma etc, all these when viewed and analysed from Karwe’s viewpoint give us an intriguing food for thought. May be entire war could have been averted if there anyone of the character didnot have their flaw or may be not.

  44. Sociological perspective: Mahabarata/Yuganta is a great way to understand the social institutions that were present in the ancient time, and we can still see echoes of its impact resonating across our present time too. For example, we can understand how heavily patriarchal our society was, with the women being given the second status and considered valuable only as a means of giving birth to next generation. Even Karna’s ban from the tournament as well as the hundreds of insult he had to face show us that the Varna system, which wasn’t okay in itself in the first place, had already begun to degenerate in the perverse caste system.

    However, I found ‘yuganta’ to be taking sides with a heavy prejudice towards certain characters, and against some characters. For example, the author rarely finds fault with Yudhisthira but finds nothing but faults in Bhisma and Karna. I wish she had been more unbiased.

    In the Mahabharata, we can still see that human nature as depicted and portrayed in those times hasn’t changed much, and we still have to face those questions and dilemmas. By seeing that even the great warriors and intellectuals of those times had to grapple with the same kind of conflicts, one finds it easier to make a sense of this world. And it gives me courage to grapple the larger questions with life, questions which deal with morality, ethics and law.

  45. Mahabharata, for me, is the Great Indian epic I never bothered about. I had to read a condensed hindi version back in 6th standard. There were versions of it on television, a few movies ‘borrowed’ from the basic plotline and then of course there was the version that Grandma used to tell when the kids needed a bedtime story. The best version that I heard about involved tribal armies and basic methods of warfare in the real thing, and a healthy dose of hyperbole in the written version.

    Maybe I was just an ignoramus when it comes to the real thing, but Karwe’s take on the epic was definitely an eye-opener, along with the insights presented in the class. First of all was the scale of the war. 21 units with over a hundred thousand humans each, not counting the beasts. And we thought ‘merica was the one going overboard with the number of soldiers it was sending out!

    It was also refreshing to see the divine beings reduced to mortals with the similar passions and worries as your next door neighbor. It made them more approachable, more believable and thus more relatable. After reading this book, a lot of what was implied in the undercurrents of the epic came out and probably the biggest revelation for me was the chapter on Vidura and Dharma, where layer upon layer of logical arguments present a strong case about the origins of Dharma!

    I can’t argue against what she wrote, simply because I hadn’t included The Mahabharata in my to-read list and didn’t plan to either. However, reading this book has definitely sparked my interest in the epic. I’d have to consider her a victor for writing this as I’d love to read the original (a faithful adaptation, rather) just to see how much she got right!

  46. For a long time, Indian literature has remained unquestioned and very few people have dared to critically analyze it and challenge the conventional wisdom. Yugantha is a true achievement that bravely attempts to break the traditional narrative of the Mahabharata. Irawati Karve proudly mentions “I shall consider it a victory if they think that my interpretation is wrong and read the Mahabharata merely to prove it wrong.” I am reminded of Mani Rathnam’s “Raavan” movie which also made an attempt to critically analyze the characters of Ramayana. Some people couldn’t digest the movie as it questioned the conventional wisdom of associating Ravana with unreasonable ruthlessness and Ram with unquestioned holiness. Attempts like these that challenge conventional wisdom plants the seeds for a societal transformation towards rationality.

    The book particularly explores a lot on the conflicting nature of human mind that tries to strike a balance between emotions and reasoning. The book forces us to adapt to context of 1000.B.C- the culture and traditions of that time, the ethics and morals as perceived then, the intellectual capability and rationality of humans who lived then. I have not read Mahabharatha fully, but after reading Yugantha, I realize that Mahabharata is valuable not because it is a record of events that happened and is considered to a holy book, but due to the reason that it provides a good platform and cleverly designed characters to understand and explore human mind and behaviour.

  47. It is said that One should read a book in the original language in which it is written. But Irawati Karve puts Mahabharata in a beautiful way covering some characters which played pivotal role in the epic.

    I would like to speak on some of the characters which I found very intriguing.

    The purest and pious man ever born in mankind. His vow and his authority over state affairs was impeccable. But who knew that his vow would play a major role later in the starting the war. The war of Kurukshetra started not before Bheeshma himself had tried to stop it but he was always guilty of not stopping the Draupadi episode.

    Her mindset was way beyond that generation. It resonates from the question she asked to the court when she was dragged during the game. She more or less depicts the current generation women empowerment where they have equal rights and go neck to neck with a man. Though, she has been criticized by feminist Irawati Karve (which is strange), I feel that she had the guts to probe the unlawful which very few women at that time could do.

    Also, she gives entirely different treatment to the two greatly venerated characters in Mahabharata – Bheeshma and Karna. Being fed constantly to the fact that Karna is probably one of the greatest characters in the epic, she brings out a refreshingly different point for him. She shows us how Karna is constantly tormented by the fact that he has to prove he is Kshatriya (being brought up in a charioteer’s family) and also how he escapes from the war action at various crucial intervals (for example – when Duryodhana and other Kauravas are caught by Gandharvas) and how Karna gets defeated by Arjuna along with host of other warriors during the fight for cattle in the Virata kingdom (where Pandavas were hiding in disguise). That Karna gets defeated by Arjuna in this battle at Virata – when wearing his Kavacha throws up strong suspicions on the fact that the character of Karna got embellished and made heroic after the main Mahabharata.

    Although, one may not agree with what she says entirely. But it is an interesting eye-opener for the readers.

  48. Interpretations of classic works are always a delight to read as the author projects his or her own thoughts, societal undercurrents of the prevailing times & tries to challenge the existing dogmas. Karve in her rendition of the epic has done the same, but what is interesting to note is her selective representation of facts in order to build a case.

    It feels as if in order to prove a point, she chooses to colour the lens with which she views the epic in different parts at different stages of the book. The feminist interpretation is commendable but her tendency to go overboard with characterization & depiction of haplessness of Kunti & Gandhari seems forced at times. I particularly found Draupadi’s characterization unfair in certain parts.

    What I like most about the book is the fact that it is a good reflection of human relationships & conflicts, of very banal desires and unspoken ambitions. It expresses good & evil not as black & white but with enough shades of grey to make people question their long standing beliefs of what is right & wrong. The biggest example is Krishna’s representation & analysis of his actions throughout the book. The depth of characters & their motives are beautifully weaved together and make this book a good learning experience for first time readers of Mahabharata.

  49. Yuganta seems an interesting piece of literature to me because it provides a completely new window to the greatest and most loved story of mine Mahabharata. I always thought I had seen and heard it all about this story through various Medias let it be the BR Chopra’s TV adaptation or actual Mahabharata book or various other adaptations in movies, plays and what not. That is the beauty of this epic you will always find some part of Mahabharata in day to day situation around you and somebody will point out advice from Geeta to your problems solution because no matter who it is most of us are in some or other way get to know this epic.

    Professor Karve’s book brings the characters and hero’s and Gods of the Mahabharata into a new light and tries to interpret their actions as humans of that time. Her understanding of human nature and its fallacies and great aspects is totally undeniable .Her analysis of the character’s while very intellectual has its own flaws in it and it becomes very apparent from her selective use of facts and situations.

    The characters I always dreamed as heroes are portrayed in a light that seriously makes you think twice about your opinion about the characters .The Characters like Karna are portrayed as tormented , Bhishma as constant failure and completely ruthless due to his vows and Gandhari as selfless victim caught in the middle of love and justice. Again the subjectivity of the facts comes into play as to how much you believe in that makes you interpret the actions in the way they are done by author.

    I read Mritunjaya by Shivaji Sawant while I was in school and which is another interpretation like Yuganta and later one and that was the first time I was really thought the Mahabharata from the view of other characters and was able to understand agony of Duryodhana and motivations of Shakuni and actions of Kunti and Cleverness of Krishna and greatness of Karna. It finally comes down what you want to belive in, a Hero or villain is not absolute he has all the facets of a normal human being and they are as much sensitive or sometimes even more to emotions. It is their actions and their interpretation’s by future generations that makes them seem what they are.

    All in all I thought Yuganta is a good alternate viewpoint and it has a lot many things that makes you introspect your own actions in your life.

  50. Yuganta by Irawati Karve gives us a wonderful insight into the Mahabharata. It is not just telling the story of Mahabharata but giving us character sketch of some of the leading characters in the epic. It gives us insights into how situations and circumstances bring out various behavioral aspects of human nature. The book describes a lot of instances where individuals are faced with dilemmas and the path they choose. This gives an insight in understanding human psychology. the book looks into how people act under the influence of forces around them and the dilemmas they face in taking decisions. the story involves everyday human emotions but are a lot intense in context of Mahabharata but they still teach us some lessons on right and wrong. I also feel that there can be a different treatment to Mahabharata to make different inferences.

  51. Amongst the comments above, the incident about the 100 Ramas that have existed brings to mind the theory of time being cyclic, the kaalchakra. Elsewhere, Draupadi’s five husband debacle has been attributed to her stammering her desire for a noble husband five times in awe at the vision of Shiva whom she propitiated in a previous birth.
    Each character’s karmic burden, as Yuganta highlights, is driven by their desires.

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