“Yuganta: the end of an epoch”
By Dibyajyoti Sarma
The book has all the potentials of blasphemy. It is a commentary on the Mahabharata by a woman. Karve, however, has a vision. She has the power to see things in unconventional manner, even when she is just describing them.
Karve sees the Mahabharata not as a Hindu religious text, or a literary text of ancient India, but as a way of life. It chronicles of the life of upper class Aryan society, namely Brahmans and Kshatriyas. It deals with characters that are flesh and blood, who are human with all their faults and idiosyncrasies. Even a personality like Krishna is a man; it is the later commentators who elevated him to the status of a god.
The book is a study of the major characters of the Mahabharata, pointing out their majestic qualities and their fatal choices, which ultimately shaped the grand drama of the Mahabharata. If not entirely, the major portion of Karve’s postmortem of the characters is clinical, rational and socio-anthropologically correct. While doing so, however, she intentionally or unintentionally invites controversies. She takes Draupadi’s fate as a wife of five husbands for granted, which is surprising since Karve tries to find a rational explanation for everything that is mystical about the Mahabharata. She is, however, most divisive when she almost convince us to believe that Bidura is the real father of Dharma Yudhisthira.
Barring the introduction, the book contains 10 chapters devoted to characters and issues. Apart from the characters of Bhishma, Gandhari, Kunti, Draupadi, Karna and Krishna, Karve also talks about how the famous Mayashabha was built, the relationship between Dharma and Bidura, the role of the Brahmans in the Mahabharata story and what it means to be an end of an epoch, as Mahabharata heralds the end of the Drapadha Yuga and the beginning of the Kali Yuga.
Karve is at her seminal best in interpreting the story of the burning of the Kandava forest. She questions why two respected people like Krishna and Arjuna should burn down the entire forest killing all its inhabitants, except for the Asura Maya, who as a courtesy to this act, builds the mesmerising palace Mayasabha in the Pandava capital of Indraprastha. She goes on to find out the reason, in the process discarding all the conventional ones; such as it was a divine ordained act. Finally, Karve comes to the conclusion that the whole act was in reality the process of Aryan invasion of Indian mainland, thereby eradicating the indigenous inhabitants of the land. In her scrutiny, the Nagas referred to as serpents in the epic becomes a local non-Aryan tribe who were ruthlessly massacred by the Aryan warriors, Krishna and Arjuna. There is conviction and reasoning in the thesis and it give a whole new perspective to the Mahabharata story (in the final analysis the story turns into story of tribal feud running for three generations: Arjuna massacred the Naga tribe, his grandson Parikshit in turn was killed by a Naga called Takshaka, and finally the entire Naga tribe was slaughtered by Parikshit’s son Janmejaya. It is at this juncture that the story of Mahabharata begins.)
Karve’s hawk-eyed inquiry makes room for none as blemish free. She admires them, but never betrays any sympathy, and in her ruthless analysis we see the players of the Mahabharata stripped from their glories. They appear before us as flesh and bone caught into the existential drama of choice.
In her analysis, Gandhari is a stubborn woman, who obstinately blindfolded herself at the news of her husband’s blindness and in the process never tired to see the reality even the expense of destroying her own clan.
Kunti was luckier. She was at least a queen, even if for a short period of time. But she was married to an impotent man, and had a past, which she could tell no one. Finally, she had five children who could do nothing without her advice. It was a judicious and shrewd decision by Kunti to get Draupadi to marry all her five children. Otherwise, there are possibilities that the Pandavas might have fought against each other for Draupadi.
Karve is somewhat sympathetic to Draupadi. Unlike Sita, who lived in perpetual honeymoon, especially in the forest before Ravana abducted her, Draupadi had to suffer every kind of humiliations. She was dragged to the Kuru court in front of everyone, and most importantly, had to suffer a hard life in the forest without any fault of her own. After the war was over, she had already lost her five sons. Surprisingly, the one fault Karve finds in Draupadi is that she questioned about dharma and ethics before public, an act which she was not supposed to do being a woman. Karve sees Draupadi as an earth woman, a real raw personality who can wait for vengeance patiently, and it arrives, enjoy it in full blood. One man who comes closer to Draupadi in this respect is Bhima, the earthman, representing raw energy.
Karve is most unsympathetic towards Karna, which is startling because for generations Karna is portrayed as a great warrior and an unfortunate man who demands our sympathy (Shivaji Sawant’s famous Marathi novel Mritunjay). For Karve, Karna is uncultured, selfish and unreasonably proud. He is unfortunate all right, but he does not do anything to elevate his status, except for occasional glimmer of greatness. He was the one who suggested the vastraharan of Draupadi. Another evil character that comes through Karve’s discussion is Ashwathama, the son of Drona. Both Drona and his son are incongruous in the military environment of an Aryan society, for they were Brahmans and it was not there job to fight, and finally when they performed the job, it to only to create havoc, the son doing worse then his father.
The interesting part of the book is Karve’s demystification of the character of Krishna. Karve does not believe him as a divine character, but just another Aryan king, an evolved and enlightened one.
Somehow, Karve does not give any allowance for fiction and fantasy. For every divine thing she tries to find a rational answer. She questions who Pandava’s real father were. They were certainly not gods.
The last section of the book is devoted to the discussion of the culture and society of the Mahabharata age, and the process of collecting the epic itself. She describes how the original story is developed into the enormous epic of Mahabharata from a small book called Jaya, meaning victory.
The book is undoubtedly a seminal work in the scholarship of ancient Indian culture and literature.
If you enjoyed Mahabharata and like to believe that there is a seed of real history in its roots, then this book is certainly for you.
Noted indologist and anthropologist Irawati Karve is better known for her two celebrated daughters, Gauri Deshpande and Jai Nimbkar. She was with the Department of Anthropology, University of Pune for many years. She is highly respected as a free individual and free thinker. She is famous for being one of the few early women to drive a scooter on Pune roads.
Yuganta: the end of an epoch
Originally published in Marathi under the title Yuganta by Deshmukh Prakashan, 1969; the book subsequently won a Sahitya Academy Prize as the best book in Marathi for that year.
Translated and trans-created by the author
First published by Sangam Books, 1974
Published by Disha Books, 1991, 1999