For those looking for the essence of truth of the human experience, you will find them embedded in the many layered narratives, the tales, the nuances, the twists and turns of The Mahabharata. They will force you to dwell on life’s perfections and its imperfections as well.
This epic sets itself out as the ‘book of rules for the conduct of mankind’ and to this day it is said: ‘A tale which is not in this book is no tale at all.’
Good and evil, loyalty and treachery, faith and doubt, honour and ignominy, bravery and cowardice—The Mahabharata has in the East been a primer for the way people should conduct themselves through good times and bad. Its basic appeal survives as it is a tale well told. In numberless retellings, the story tends to lose much of its richness and nuance. Sometimes this tends to make the characters one-dimensional; almost black and white.
In this reinterpretation, the author seeks to trace how the values that it espouses, came to be distorted into mere archetypes, ending up in creating customs that continue to snipe at us to this day.
Come to Kurukshetra where few revisit the scene of the epic battle. It is as ugly as sin: ‘Covered with numberless killed men, horses and elephants… the bodies that were adorned with golden trappings are now covered with blood… the entire field is blackened with carcasses, corpses, broken chariots and arrows that Arjun and Karna shot.’
Victory turns into a double-edged sword. Yudhisthira laments: ‘The enemies who were defeated have become victorious. Ourselves, again, while victorious are defeated. Misery appears like prosperity and prosperity looks like misery. This, our victory, is turned into defeat… Having gained victory, I am obliged to grieve as an afflicted wretch... I have been doubly defeated by the enemy.’
Then there’s the ill-fated Karna. Betrayed, you have the peerless son of the Sun God, defeated in the battlefield not only by his enemies but by a skewed charioteer. In the epic, Karna stands out as the victim of fate. Despite every good intention, he has no control over the consequences of his actions.
In this scholarly, well-researched book, the author also explores the oral narratives that have grown around the written word. One such tale delves into Karna’s famed generosity. Disguised as mendicants, Krishna and Arjun approach the mortally wounded Karna, as he lies bleeding to death. What can he offer them except a gold tooth, which he proceeds to knock out with a rock and tries to give it to them. They object to this gory blood-covered gift. Karna washes it with his own tears before handing it to them.