Yuganta by Irawati Karve

Just finished reading Yuganta by Irawati Karve. The book is basically an exploration of the major characters and events in the Mahabharata, so some familiarity with the story is essential for reading this, although it will probably suffice even to have just the cursory knowledge gained from grandmothers and half remembered, fairly ridiculous TV serials.

The first thing that struck me was that the author was on a mission to undermine many fondly held beliefs. She ascribes the basest of motives to the actions of major characters and cannot see good in anyone. Her’s is certainly an iconoclastic view. She decries the way women were treated in the Mahabharata, blaming the men for all their woes. However, she never gets too strident about it either, managing to convey her views rationally (well, as rational as any interpretation of a 3000 year old epic can get) and without losing her tone of equanimity.

The most interesting parts of the book for me were when she ties in the verses of the Mahabharata with historical detail, explaining the relationship between the words and the way things were way back when all this written. For her, the Mahabharata is not just an exquisitely told story, it is also a document of the past, an anthropological living being. Throughout the book, one thing that stands out is her great love for this classic tale, as well as the awesome scholarship of this remarkable woman.

She ends the book with a particularly poignant essay. She says that the Mahabharata is a thing of great beauty, and the most beautiful thing about it is its philosophy that in a world where everything is open-ended, undecided, fragile, the thing to do is to get on with it. Not everything is pleasant. Sometimes you go unrewarded while others less worthy than you rule. Life is hard, deal with it. She goes on to contrast this with post-Mahabharata literature which was without exception sweetly sentimental and designed not to disturb, as well as reflective of the increasing dogmatisation of literature in the more puritanical Brahminic age, which rejected the rumbunctiousness of the earler ethos. She writes one sentence that makes me shiver - “How did we accept the dreamy escapism of bhakti or blind hero worship after having faced and thought undauntingly of the hard realities of life? How did the people who used to eat all meats, including beef, find satisfaction in ritually drinking the urine and eating the dung of the cow and calling this quadruped their mother?”

Yes, she has strong views, but as I look around at all the stereotypification - especially on TV - and the lack of anything thought provoking in the mass-media, I wonder if it can be good for a society to be fed on a steady diet of sachharine sedatives and Page 3 self-respect. Where is the discordant, tortured voice of our times? Where is the dissent? Who is going to make us introspect and improve? Someone needs to do this, or there’ll be nothing to do.

In other words, buy this book. It is wonderful.

A small sidenote about Irawati Karve - the bio-blurb in the book says that she got her Doctoral degree in Anthropology from Berlin U in 1928. 1928?!?! A scant few years after Cambridge produced it’s first female graduates, this woman from India was doing a doctorate in Berlin? In German? I find that most impressive. As Anoop said, this woman is the greatest feminist icon that never was.

Greater than Aishwarya Rai? I asked.

No comment, said Anoop.