This was one book that every Mahabharat lover recommended to me. Written almost 50 years back, this book was out of print for a long time till I recently found it at a bookstore. And what a gem it is! Author is a trained anthropologist and she uses that knowledge to analyze the key characters and relationships of Mahabharata. Thankfully, she does not take you through the complete story but refers to the incidents only as necessitated for her arguments.
She starts by looking at Bhishma, the great grand father of the clan and biologically who was the last in the Kuru line. She talks about his obsession to keep his word of remaining celibate throughout his life. She asks if it was really needed after there was no other male left in the family and the objective for which he had taken his famous vow no longer existed. She then talks about the suffering of various women because of Bhishma, as he made them go through Niyoga or abducted them to be married to the men in his family or when he kept quite when they were being disrobed. She also questions if he was indeed a brave warrior as he has been made out to be and substantiates her question with incidents.
Her chapters on Gandhari and Kunti take a look on the multiple aspects of their personalities. Her chapter on Vidura and Yudhishtira’s relationship is very interesting. You may have never thought of them as biological father and son but she puts her argument as both are supposed to be related to Yama the God of death. Particularly astonishing is the way Vidura transfers his body to Yudhishtra at the time of his death. She also looks at the political aspect of not making this fact public as anyway no stigma was attached to child born of such union then, as it would have diluted the claim of Yudhishta to the throne, having been born to a Suta.
Chapter on Draupadi takes you through a comparison of characters of Sita in Ramayana and Draupadi in Mahabharata, both of whom were the daughters of the earth and were born in unusual circumstances. While on the face of it, it seems that both had a tough life and had to spend a lot of their lives in the forests. But on comparison, Sita had a far simpler life than Draupadi. Sita went willingly to forest accompanying her husband while Draupadi was forced twice to go there. Sita did not have to face any humiliation barring her having to leave the palace in the end when she was pregnant, but Draupadi had to face it every now and then and the one she faced in Kuru sabha is incomparable. Author then talks about the character of Draupadi and the childish things she did and how she made sure that her husbands had a war with their cousins to avenge her humiliation. There is also an exploration of her relationship with Arjuna and Bhima. While she loved Arjuna the most, it was Bhima who truly cared for her and on whom she could depend.
Chapters on Karna and Krishna also look at the characters critically. She portrays Karna as someone who inherently knew he is a Kshtariya and tried to be one throughout his life but could only be so in his death. His behavior is extreme, either too harsh or too benevolent. One comes from his frustration of not being able to prove himself as a Kshtraiya and the other from a hope to be one by showing his benevolence when he can. Similarly Krishna is portrayed as someone who wants to be the Vasudeva, a title that puts him in the realms of godhood and above humans. He is portrayed as a fine human being who could be totally detached in his actions. He was the friend of Arjuna and always guided him to the right path. Author argues that at the time of epic Krishna was as human as everyone else, but he became God later and all the romantic stories associated with him are a later addition.
Her chapter on the roles of Brahmins in epic takes the case of Drona and his son Ashwathama. They were Brahmins but they took on the roles of Kshtriyas by first taking half the kingdom of Panchala and then being the commander of the Kuru Army. Point that emerges out of this discussion is that either the roles these two varnas not defined very clearly and there was an overlapping space or the conclusion that roles should not be exchanged, it leads to destruction. Her chapter on palace of Maya looks at the destruction of forest by Krishna and Arjuna and at the Nagas living there.
She looks at the caste system at the time of the epic. Though primary sects involved in the story are Kshatriyas and Brahmins, she looks at Sutas, which were part Kshatriyas and were never considered full Kshtraiyas. The progeny of Brahmins and Kshatriyas were considered Kshatriyas but it was not so for the other 2 varnas. She also notices the near absence of other two varnas i.e. Vaishyas and Shudras in the epic and their probable bigger role in societies post the epic era. She then looks at certain social systems that have continued to exist since the epic time like Patriarchy and some that has changed like the status of women in family and society. She is able to siphon out the stories that were probably later added to the original story as the epic went from being Jaya to Bharata to Mahabharata.
The book is a collection of independent essays and hence sometimes there are inconsistencies here and there like at once place she says that the Dhritrashtra, Gandhari, Kunti and Vidura walked to the forest fire while at the other place she mentions them sitting and not running away from the fire and the fact that Vidura had already passed away before the forest fire. There are repetitions of her favorite parts in the story but then there is no way you can not have your favorites in such an involving story.
Wow, that is a long review for this small book, but then is length not the proof of impact this exploration has on the reader. A must read for anyone who finds Mahabharata interesting.