Now is the Golden Age of the epics

Book recommendation – Yuganta by Iravati Karve. You don’t have to look beyond Quora to find people passing off all kinds of weird stories as being in the Mahabharata. There was one I read recently where Karna outdoes Arjuna in Drona’s eye-of-the-bird lesson by shooting an arrow into both eyes .

Till only a few decades back, any kind of objective study of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana was more or less impossible because they were so amorphous. In the last few decades, however, there are two amazing projects whose culmination finally makes these epics tractable in academic circles. I refer to the preparation of the “Critical Editions” of the epics – by the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, prepared over 50 years (1919-1966), of the Mahabharata; and by the Maharaj Sayajirao University of Baroda (1951-75), of the Ramayana. These versions have been prepared by carefully collating hundreds, perhaps thousands, of manuscripts from different periods of Indian history, and trying to untangle later additions from the original versions of these epics.

The critical editions are, of course, in Sanskrit. (For the Sanskrit-initiate, here is the former: There are attempts to translate them into English – which is something to look forward to. In the meantime, there have been precious few authors who have created amazing commentaries based on the critical editions. Of them, Iravati Karve’s book is the best book on the Mahabharata that I have ever read, and would recommend it very highly.

I think we are living in the Golden Age of the epics – at least, the “most golden age” of the last 300 years. In the coming 20-30 years, we should see English versions, research publications (and who can say, perhaps Amar Chitra Katha versions!) of these critical editions, finally “standardizing” the epics and enabling serious researchers to plumb their hidden depths.

Here is my review of Yuganta on Amazon:

Yuganta is, quite simply, the best book on the Mahabharata that I have read. The razor edge of Irawati Karve’s intelligence transforms the entire Mahabharata from a work full of religious allusions and inconsistencies explained away by deus ex machina into something much more valuable – the ultimate humanist story, of real people, facing real problems, and with real consequences that they had to come to terms with.

Karve’s book is perhaps the only commentary on the Mahabharata that I have read, which is based on BORI’s Critical Edition of the Mahabharata. This 18-volume Critical Edition, which consumed nearly 50 years of research to produce the ‘definitive Mahabharata’, is referred to in Yuganta repeatedly; and for good reason. The Mahabharata, being the touchstone of Indian epics, has seen accretions and extrapolations ever since it was first written; each addition adding layers of religion on top of a brilliantly consistent and realistic work. Karve strips away these layers and presents the beauty of the work underneath.

Karve particularly thrills in demolishing myths and cutting characters down to size. Bhishma as the avuncular grandfather-figure who sacrifices much, achieves much and means good to all people? In the light of Karve’s analysis, he becomes a shirker and an old man of 90, who spends most of the time that he commands the Kaurava army in trying to broker peace rather than in trying to win the war. Karna, whom every reader of the Mahabharata idolizes? Karve certainly points out the good in him, but explains how all of his so-called “bad karma” stems from a terrible lack of judgment and a misplaced sense of charity and goodness.

My favourite chapter in this book, though, is the one about Krishna. I must admit that I have never been a Krishna fan, taking him for a bit of a womanizer and a person with flexible morality (going by his actions in the Mahabharata). After reading Karve’s stunning takedowns of Bhishma, Karna and Draupadi, I was looking forward to seeing Krishna ravaged by her wit.

Au contraire. Karve is the first writer who has made me admire the role of Krishna in the Mahabharata. She paints a lovely, human picture of him as the ultimate “karma yogi”, detached soul, whose only real friend in the Mahabharata is Arjuna. And she makes a compelling case that it is because of Krishna that the Pandavas managed to rule at all — the Pandavas, one addicted to dice, one a muscle-man, one an adventurer with no sense of state-craft, and two children. Krishna was everything to them — advisor, champion, diplomat and counsellor — who gave them everything without seeking anything in return.

Krishna the human hero, in the light of Karve’s impeccable balance of his positive and negative qualities, is so much more worthy of admiration. And Karve no less – in the vast library of books about the Mahabharata, this is the most intelligent, most humanistic and most worthy book about that marvellous epic. 5 stars.



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