Yuganta-Iravati Karve

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This is a second book in recent times that I have read about Mahabharata, and each one is diametrically opposite to the other. While the Palace of Illusions reads like a novel written by an amateur, Yuganta is disturbing and thought-provoking compilation by an expert.  Yuganta literally means End of an Epoch/Age. Yuganta is an analysis of Mahabharata by Dr. Iravati Karve. She was an anthropologist by education and in Yuganta she presented a complete analytical picture of the characters and personalities in Mahabharata.

Dr. Karve has analyzed the main characters of Mahabharata namely Bhishma, Dhritrashtra, Vidur, Kunti, Gandhari, Duryodhan, Arjun, Yudhishtir, Karna and Draupadi and of course Krishna. Surprisingly her analysis on Krishna is everything but reverent.  At the same time she explains the various Sanskrit terms, the caste system during the time of Mahabharata, the Kshatriya philosophies and code of conduct, and also draws parallels to the Greek philosophy.

In her analysis all the characters have shades of grey with none of them being completely bad nor fully good and right. While Duryodhana has always been considered villain, he has his good moments. And Arjun and Krishna while always being considered on the side of justice and good, have done some completely inhumane and unethical deeds. Her character analysis makes one think that Mahabharata actually did happen in 1000BC instead of being a mythical epic.  

I especially liked her analysis on concept of Hinduism, and Lord Krishna.  According to Dr. Karve, Krishna wasn’t considered God in those times, instead he was an incredibly clever statesman and a dear friend to Arjun. The relationship between him and Arjun wasn’t one of a devotee and God, but more like that between intimate close friends.  Krishna in those days drank, made merry, ate meat (including beef) and probably had women followers. Especially interesting are her musings on how and when Krishna became a God like figure and when did people start considering cow a scared holy being! Considering that Krishna was a Kshatriya and liked to hunt, it probably isn’t a stretch of imagination that his clan (Yadavs) did eat part of what hunted including cattle. 

As Hindus we have been raised thinking that Krishna is an all encompassing god and that cow was his favoured animal and is holy and not to be eaten. I will not deny that reading about him being a mere human and mortal did not disturb me, didn’t matter that rationally I know God is obviously a figment of our imagination. We invented a superior being who holds our fates in his hands, thus giving someone higher up the power to right our wrongs and someone to hold on when the world starts to go horribly wrong. Inspite of rationally knowing everything most of us hold on to the concept of religion and higher being. 

But all in all, it is a very thought provoking essay. It makes one think about how the society which was so culturally and morally forward could end up being what Indian society is today.

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