What makes a classic so compelling is its ability to reinvent and reinsert itself so unexpectedly in our present times. Perhaps there is no better example than the great epic of India, the Mahabharata. That is what struck me when my students and I recently read Andha Yug (1953), Dharamveer Bharati’s acclaimed post-independence retelling of the ancient story.

The play, in its experimental ambitions, tries to do so many things. There’s the element of Greek tragedy that Bharati wants to bring to Hindi, with choric elements, the sense of impending doom, and the incantatory, poetic language, which has dated somewhat in its highly Sanskritist usage. But Bharati does manage to touch the depths of great truths concerning the human condition, as great art ought to.

Is that why the play continues to speak to us today, in a context quite different from when it was written? Of course, Bharati is very modern in that he doesn’t ever show Krishna; it remains a very human conflict, with the gods being on the sidelines.

No wonder, following our class discussions, we also went to watch the Robin Das directed Bharatendu Natya Akademi production at the Shri Ram Centre.

We had, perhaps, too many expectations for the play was rather disappointing, with flat dialogue delivery and indifferent acting. Perhaps the director’s only thought-provoking innovation was his tripling of both Gandhari and Ashvatthama, each character simultaneously played by three actors. Was he trying to demonstrate, both visually and aurally, the multiplication and magnification of the hatred and revenge that the two embody? After all, Vyasa did suggest something similar in the original by making the Kauravas a hundred to the Pandava’s five.

Was the other translation to blame?

Alok Bhalla, reacting to the way his own students read the play, became the second translator of Andha Yug six years ago. Was the play merely an indictment of Krishna? It is Krishna whom everyone finds it convenient to blame, even curse, for the terrible tragedy that signalled the very end of civilisation. Bhalla’s students were no exception: “Nearly every student pitied Gandhari, and there was a unanimous condemnation of Krishna.” His decision to re-translate the play, he explains, “was the result of whimsy of course, but whimsy in the service of practical reason, and, given the present condition of the country, in the aid of political sanity too.”

Was the only other English translation, by Tripurari Sharma in 2001, partly to blame? To all appearances, like other modernist rewritings of Mahabharata, Bharati too gives centre-stage to the underdog. In this case, not Karna, their favourite, but Ashvatthama, a far more morally ambiguous character. And of course, Gandhari, the wronged mother of a hundred evil sons, all of whom, except Yuyutsu, perish in the great war.

It is all too easy to read the text as an anti-war play, as Sharma does, with both sides equally to blame, with the post-war world emptied of value. But Bhalla faults translators for failing “to guide their moral attention along the pilgrim path of truth, a path that Vidura and Yudhishthira never abandon in the play even in the midst of carnage.”

Not content with such easy misreadings of the play, where a simplistic reversal of the traditional reading of the epic is sufficient outlet to our modern need to pin the blame of our condition on an unjust social and supernatural order, Bhalla decided to translate the play himself.

In contrast to such revisionism, Bhalla clearly and courageously set out his counter-agenda: “In my translation, I have tried to restore the sacred and the ethical back to the text.” In doing so, he was combing the traditional religious impulse with the modern moral imperative. Surely, in our many Mahabharatas, as in Indic civilisation itself, the two cannot be divorced from one another. For it is dharma that binds both the sacred and the ethical into one, integrated perspective on life.

Human being must cleave to ethics

This may be phrased even more radically: you may or may not accept the divinity of Krishna, but you cannot forswear the centrality of dharma. In Andha Yug, Asvatthama and Gandhari occupy centrestage, while Bhima and Arjuna are totally absent. Even Krishna is never seen and heard only once.

Was Bharati, nevertheless, reasserting Krishna’s primacy as the law-giver, silent, invisible, but omnipresent in the course of human destiny? Because only Krishna knows and upholds dharma; only he is supremely unattached, with no personal stake in the outcome of things, doing what he must to restore the moral order.

Bharati, in his Preface to the play, which Bhalla surprisingly neglected to translate, suggests as much. In its own time, soon after the unspeakable human tragedy of the partition that accompanied independence, to speak of dharma in India might have seemed incongruous. Yet, Bharati, in his own exploration of the depths of human horror, discovers that there is a bottom (dharatal) below which humanity is not allowed to sink.

That is why the critics of Krishna, though given so much narrative amplitude, remain unconvincing. Their main argument is usually the specious if querulous plea, “We are not the only ones who broke the moral code. Look at Krishna; he violated every principle of dharma.” And so on.

What readers begin to perceive somewhat dimly at first but much more certainly as the play proceeds is that while all of former deliberately and intentionally violated dharma, citing Krishna’s acts as excuses later, Krishna only upheld dharma in difficult times by paying attention to its spirit, tweaking its letter if needed. The difference is fundamental.

Bharati endeavours to show that regardless of the contingency or justification, human beings must cleave to ethics, to dharma, if we are to remain human. Ashwatthama, the Brahmin who loses his humanity is the archetypal modern genocidal figure. He alone is condemned to roam the worlds without peace for having descended below the threshold of the human in his pursuit of revenge in exterminating the Pandavas, down to their unborn children.

Whose is the path of truth?

Andha Yug is much more than an anti-war play. Ultimately it is not about the loss but about the persistence of dharma, almost echoing Mahatma Gandhi’s only gramophone recording: “For I can see that in the midst of death life persists, in the midst of untruth truth persists, in the midst of darkness light persists.” As its name indicates, Andha Yug highlights multiple kinds and levels of blindness; yet dharma still remains its core concern. It is the centrality of this great theme that Bhalla tries to restore to the text.

In difficult, ethically ambiguous times, is it all right to be immoral? No, the play reminds us; that is a convenient and self-absolving subterfuge. Yes, we may be compelled to bend the letter of moral law, but we must never compromise with its spirit. To be human, then, is to be inclined to be moral even in difficult circumstances.

Is Bharati’s play, once again, strikingly relevant to our times? Have we, once more, found ourselves in a sort of Kurukshetra, unclear, however, as to where or on which side dharma abides? Ideologically, centre-left and centre-right are not really all that opposed; yet they are at each other’s throats as it the end of time were nigh. That seems to be the plot in mainstream politics.

As to civil society, intolerance rages across the subcontinent: from Hindus and Muslims fighting each other during the partition, it seems as if Muslims in Pakistan and Bangladesh and Hindus in India are themselves at each others’ throats today. In India we are fighting over religion, ideology, caste, language, region, even eating preferences.

The crucial question, which neither side seems to be asking in its pursuit of realpolitik, is which side is dharma on? Whose is the path of truth? What is the ethical course of action? What is really good for India? With so much blindness, confusion, and distortion on all sides, we are forced to ask whether this is how a mature democracy ought to behave?

Who will sound the note of harmony and integration? Who will safeguard the common good? Who will stand up for dharma? Who will speak in the voice of practical reason? Or are we to fight each other to the better end as the Kauravas and Pandavas, or the Yadavas with one another, did in the Mausala or 16th Parva of the Mahabharata, which is one of the main sources of Bharati’s play?

From the mythical time of the Mahabharata to the present historical times, this country has known multiple civil wars and partitions. It was the mimetic logic of violence and counter-violence that Gandhi tried to stop when he came to Delhi on September 9, 1947 after miraculously restoring order in a strife-torn Kolkata. Have we learned nothing from our recent, if not our distant, pasts?

While re-reading and watching Andha Yug, I could not help wondering if we are not in the midst of yet another internecine conflict today. Is the sea of faith, as Matthew Arnold put it, once again at low ebb, “its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,” sounding so loud and dirge-like to our tired ears? Are we, once again, “as on a darkling plain/ Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,/ Where ignorant armies clash by night”?

Makarand R Paranjape is Professor of English at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. His latest book is Cultural Politics in Modern India.