Friday, October 26, 2007

Irawati Karve and Yuganta: an anthropologist's Mahabharata

I've been reading Irawati Karve's Yuganta, a collection of essays on the Mahabharata and its characters. Had read a couple of these essays as an adolescent when I was heavily into Mahabharata-related literature (straightforward translations as well as analytical works by Krishna Chaitanya and others) and I remember feeling a mild annoyance towards them at the time. Karve's approach is very much that of the anthropologist – mercilessly practical, often giving the impression that she has the characters and their motivations under a microscope in a lab. Though she speaks of the Mahabharata with genuine fondness ("I am indeed fortunate that I can read today a story called Jaya, which was sung three thousand years ago, and discover myself in it"), her treatment of the characters is at the other end of the spectrum from that of Kamala Subramanian, whose tender, empathetic Mahabharata was my favourite version of the epic for many years, and who did her best to present the best qualities and personal struggles of most of the characters.

It's important to note that Karve's approach is a historical one, based on the belief that the seed of the story was an actual event that took place around 1000 BC; this is, of course, tempered by the idea that the epic in its original form was vastly different from the embellished, repeatedly reworked version we have today. Her thesis is that the original work was one of the last examples of a pragmatism in Indian literature that was subsequently lost. In her essays she doesn’t at all deal with the religious aspects of the Mahabharata, treating them as a later interpolation: she makes the point that the Krishna of the original epic – a powerful and shrewd Yadava king who was indeed the prime mover for many of the key events in the story – bore little resemblance to the Krishna who emerged in subsequent centuries ("the flute-playing lover of milkmaids, the divine child") as Indian literature became more sentimental, more centered around what she calls "the dreamy escapism of the Bhakti tradition". (Some of the phrases she uses in this context are pleasingly irreverent: "in later times, when Godhead had been thrust upon Krishna..." and "later authors made Bhishma speak the banalities of the Shantiparva".)

Note: In my readings of the Mahabharata I've personally been interested in Krishna much more as a conflicted avatar, not always fully aware of his role, struggling to reconcile his human feelings and attachments with the Big Picture (a bit like Gandalf in the Tolkien Universe, having only a dim recollection that he is an incarnation of Olorin, the powerful Maia) than as a cocky God-figure manipulating the other characters like puppets. But this is one of the first times that I've come across a Mahabharata-Krishna who can be defined in strictly human terms, without raising the question of his divinity at all.

Bheeshma and Karna

Though I find Karve's essays much more stimulating now, I can't help being simultaneously amused and discomfited by her treatment of two of the Mahabharat's most complex and esteemed characters: Bheeshma and Karna. In the essay titled "The Final Effort", she makes the provocative point that Bheeshma, by sacrificing conjugal happiness and his rights to the throne, put himself in a position where he acquired moral superiority over the other characters (who led more conventional lives) – so that it was never possible for them to question his actions. And that, under the pretext of being responsible for the house of the Kurus, he far overstayed his welcome – continuing to dodder about as a granddaddy/great-granddaddy figure to generations of princes long after he should properly have given up worldly life and retired to the forest with his step-mother Satyavati. "That is what a Kshatriya was supposed to do...but this rule applied to ordinary family men immersed in their own affairs. Did Bhishma think he was immune because he belonged to that category of men who sacrifice the self and live only for others?...In the last chapter of his life it looks as if he deliberately sought out responsibilities that were not even his."

In this context, Karve makes another astute observation:
Bhishma was famed as a man who was completely unselfish...a man who lived for the good of his clan, not himself. 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. He can become completely ruthless in carrying out his objectives. The injustices done by idealists, patriots, saints and crusaders can be far greater than those done by the worst tyrants.
In her view, almost all the significant women characters in the epic are victims of Bheeshma's injustices – notably Kunti, Gandhari and Madri, princesses of noble houses who were all married off to undeserving and/or cursed men and yoked to the house of Hastinapur where they found nothing but unhappiness.

However, she's even harsher with poor Karna. 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. Incidentally, Karve treats Karna’s tirade about the immorality of the Madraka women, mentioned in this post, as a later addition to the text. It makes no sense, she says, because people routinely ate beef in those days, and the standards of "morality" in this passage are defined more by contemporary standards than those prevalent at the time of the epic. (The RSS can start sharpening their tridents again.)

There's much more to say about Yuganta but I'm pressed for time now (going out of town for a few days) and will save it for another post. But do pick the book up if you're interested in a perspective on the Mahabharata that runs against the conventional wisdom handed down to us through Amar Chitra Kathas, grannies' tales and TV serials – and especially if you've ever wondered what the epic might have been like in its original form, and the nature and purpose of the alterations that crept into it over the centuries. Whether or not you agree with Karve’s interpretations, Yuganta is certainly a valuable look at how different the Mahabharata is when sentimentality/melodrama (of the sort that in Karve's view became popular long after the original epic was written) have been siphoned out of it. (I'm not making any judgement call about which form is better, but they are notably different.)

Related post: Old tales, new renderings

27 comments:

  1. A tangential note:

    Quite a few people hereabouts (Pune, that is) believe that Karve actually stole a lot of her research from the venerated Durga Bhagwat, author of the (much shorter) Vyaasaparva.

    I have no idea if this is true, but supposedly much of her approach comes from Bhagwat, as do many of the conclusions she draws.

    I have access to both in their original Marathi form, but haven't read either because I'm too lazy to read Marathi.

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  2. The copying issue aside, the book was one of the treasures I discovered in our institute library. Completely fresh perspectives and lots of food for thought, especially the historical notes she makes. Would love to explore similar works.

    On a tangential note, Jaiarjun, I remember you mentioning about a DVD store in Delhi which sells DVDs of World cinema (european, asian etc) could you tell me more about the same, would love to pay them a visit now tht I am in gurgaon.

    -Rahul

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  3. Jai, you are THE go to guy for all things mahabharata.
    Haven't read the author's works but I'd have to agree with a lot of what she said about Bheeshma and Karna.
    Its a shitty analogy, but Krishna's role is similar to the oracle from ze matrix trilogy. He plays a very risky and dangerous game and gets his in the end, but his victory was never sure.

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  4. hi, jai why do u brand all people who dont eat beef as RSS? i dont understand the logic of analysing the mahabharata..it is not a historical document rather a treatise that teaches u how to live life ....

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  5. I think Anonymous you are missing the point here. Jai has mentioned that any mention of beef in India ,typically leads to RSS sharpening its tridents. I don't think he was refering to anybody not eating beef as RSS allies.

    The problem is perception, I respect your right to choose what you wish to eat. However I hardly believe that Jai was trying to pass a judgement here.

    The topic is about a version of Mahabharata, whether people ate beef or not during that period is hardly relevant.

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  6. I think I came across this idea in 'Aurbindo's notes on the Mahabharat' which suggested that if you see Krishna as completely human in one chapter and as a God with 7 forms in another, then the character is not consistent and points to mulitple authors. From memory Aurbindo points to 3 different authors of the Mahabharat.

    I was wondering if this was a popularly held opinion? Have you read the 'Aurbindo's notes...'?

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  7. jai why do u brand all people who dont eat beef as RSS?

    Anon: I did that? Really? Wow, this means my mother and my wife are RSS. Must report them to the Liberal Police.

    (This does give new meaning to the term "RSS feed" though.)

    Also, if the Mahabharata "is a treatise that teaches u how to live life", why does that mean it shouldn't be analysed?

    Neha: no, I haven't read the Aurobindo notes. Will try to get hold of them.

    Rahul: The Electronic Zone in Palika Bazaar. Shop number 34 I think.

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  8. Shop No. 34, which gate is this closest to? Going to Palika these days is like going to a seedy , dingy place where shopkeepers are interested in selling you porn CD's.

    Jai,if you can just tell me near which gate is the shop situated? It will spare me from roaming the whole bazzar and being heckled by CD sellers.

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  9. Shwet: I'm not sure actually, because for some reason whenever I've gone there it's been through gate 6, which is not the nearest gate to the shop. But it's easy enough to find - has Electronic Zone written in white on a blue background.

    Speaking of "seedies", you might want to check this post.

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  10. @Jai: Yuganta has been on my reading list for a long time. This review will push it to the top. Thanks.

    @Neha: I have not read Aurobindo's notes. But the idea of "three layers" of Mahabharata and three different (sets of) writers was first developed by Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, who incidentally had a very strong influence on Aurobindo, in his seminal "Krishna Charitra".

    The first layer is the "original" Chaturbishotisahasra Bharata Samhita which has the skeletons of the main story lines. This layer has the greatest literary value and in this, Krishna does not acknowledge his divine power. He is completely human.

    The second layer was added not much later. However, it considers Krishna to be an incarnation of Vishnu. This layer's strengths are more spiritual and philosophical than literary.

    The third layer has been added over centuries and aims at "mass education" as well as entertainment. According to Bankim, this layer explains why Mahabharata is called the "fifth Veda". Women and lower caste Hindus could not access Vedas, and the third layer of Mahabharata was designed to fill that void.

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  11. Oh thank you Dipanjan!

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  12. I do not know if you have read Mrityunjaya, and if you haven't, pick it up.
    Karve's observation is interesting and engaging but relies on rhetoric. At least that is what I feel.
    @Neha@ If by Aurobindo's notes, you mean the works by the Gandhian impersonator post-independence... well, leave that I do not want to be rude against someone who you believe in. I personally do not think anyone except Prabhupada and Vivekananda (courtesy his guru) have analysed Krishna that well. Karve's analysis, like I said is governed by opinion.

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  13. Great to see a post on Yuganta (though perhaps there is a grain of truth in the Bhagwat story). I liked Karve's compare and contrast with Greek women in mythology - if I remember correctly, she dismissed the general idea of Draupadi as a "strong" woman. Had particular resonance because I was reading Graves Greek Myths at the time......

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  14. Parva by SL Bhyrappa a kannada novelist is epic novel version of the Mahabharata - similar in perspective to Yuganta - well worth a read. Has been translated into english.

    ravi

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  15. Mrityunjaya/Shivaji Sawant, in chaste Hindi would be worth a read.

    Would like to hear your comments on that, please.

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  16. Iravati Karve's Yuganta did give a fresh perspective to the characters in Mahabharata, but it somehow lands up conforming to the stereotypical notions of the characters that we've been subject to as children. The exposition on Krishna was particularly disappointing, maybe I was expecting something out of this world, but Karve ends up justifying, or at least supporting, his shifitng notions of dharma, etc., thus subscribing to the idea of "Krishna - the do-gooder, pure-intentioned soul".

    And yes, she could have been easier on Karna, he wasn't entirely bad. Throughout his wavering allegiances there is no way that Karve could have determined if Karna gave his promise to Kunti just out of spite.

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  17. And yes, she could have been easier on Karna, he wasn't entirely bad.

    wallpaper: good heavens, now that sounds harsh! Most readers I know think of Karna as one of the noblest characters in the epic. And yes, there's no way that Karve (or anyone else) can know anything about a character's motivations (or the complicated set of factors that combine to form a character's motivations) - but hers is a single perspective on the Mahabharata and its characters, not the final word.

    Of course, the fact that she is an anthropologist seems to carry its own weight and occasionally gives the impression that she's trying to lay down the final word! But the reader is under no obligation to accept that. I personally disagree with many of her interpretations, while still believing that she's being honest about them.

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  18. I also hold a keen interest on Mahabharata and I have tried to get hold of whatever books on the subject possible, and my efforts have been to find different perspectives, different voices. I think your blog in general is quite enlightening and engaging, in fact, the discussions going on in the ‘Comments’ section also are adding quite a lot to the Post itself. For e.g., I have read ‘Yuganta’ and through the comments here I also came to know about several other perspectives. I am sure going to be back for more!

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  19. Dear Jai : Your comments are good and insightful. The original book by all means is a very provocative piece.
    Indeed the first reading can shock a lay reader. Later on you go over the words and the sharp intellect behind the words and you no choice but to agree with most of what the author has to say.
    I purchased the second English edition in 1991, still holding on to it well. Even though something might have been lost in translation from original in Marathi, it is still a wonderful work and I think the translator must be congratulated for that.

    Are you aware of a Hindi translation of this work.

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  20. Dear Jai : Your comments are good and insightful. The original book by all means is a very provocative piece.
    Indeed the first reading can shock a lay reader. Later on you go over the words and the sharp intellect behind the words and you no choice but to agree with most of what the author has to say.
    I purchased the second English edition in 1991, still holding on to it well. Even though something might have been lost in translation from original in Marathi, it is still a wonderful work and I think the translator must be congratulated for that.

    Are you aware of a Hindi translation of this work.

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  21. Anon: Karve herself did the translation from Marathi to English. I don't know about a Hindi version.

    Later on you go over the words and the sharp intellect behind the words and you no choice but to agree with most of what the author has to say.

    I don't agree with this. It's possible to admire Karve's analysis and writing and to respect her opinions without actually agreeing with them. I personally disagree with a lot of things she's written here, but that doesn't affect my overall appreciation for the book.

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  22. Stumbled across your page while searching on "karve yuganta". In case you haven't already, do check out "Second Turn" by M T Vasudevan Nair (orig. Malayalam "Randamoozham"). Topsy turvy.

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  23. Ajit: check these two posts about my friend Prem Panicker's excellent English translation of Randaamoozham - here and here. The full Bhimsen series is available here.

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  24. Apart from Bhishma and Karna, I think she has sketched Draupadi beautifully. I was particularly startled by her description of Draupadi's question to the Assembly as foolish. On second thoughts I realised the truth of Karve's assertion. It was indeed foolish for a young bride to pretend to understand what baffled many learned and experienced people in the assembly. The most touching part however for Draupadi realising Dharma's life long hurt at the last minute and Bhima's devotion.

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  25. Apart from Bhishma and Karna, I think she has sketched Draupadi beautifully. I was particularly startled by her description of Draupadi's question to the Assembly as foolish. On second thoughts I realised the truth of Karve's assertion. It was indeed foolish for a young bride to pretend to understand what baffled many learned and experienced people in the assembly. The most touching part however for Draupadi realising Dharma's life long hurt at the last minute and Bhima's devotion.

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  26. when i read karve for the first time, i was awestruck. she told me a lot of things that i did'nt know about and if left to our spiritual "gurus" would have never known about. But when we finally discussed her in class i realised how narrow is her point of view about certain things. but here i am particularly interested in her analysis of draupadi, she has greatly misjudged her quetions in sabha parva. in light of legality of her question karve forgot the ethical and philosphical value of her ques. i have to write an academic essay about it. does anyone know any text which might help me?
    nisha

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  27. when you read karve for the first time she surprised you but after some analysis one finds her narrow viewed on certain issues, one of such issues being draupadi's question.in light of pertaining to legality of her question she did away with the philosphical and ethical value of it. can anyone suggest some essays that i can read on draupadi's question in sabha parva?

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