Last year, I didn’t realise until I was well into writing that I would be working on two books at the same time, each from a text that could not be more unlike the other. The Ramayana (which is the basis of my book Maryada), offers us the hope that we can be good, while the Mahabharata (which I have just retold for young adults) cautions us that being good might actually be beyond the reach of humans all together.
To make matters even more confusing for me, the books have been published within weeks of each other because of the pandemic that has kept us all captive, searching for that pinhole of light which will allow the plans we had made to blossom as they should have, even as flowers do, however late or mild the Spring.
I was doing the final edits on the Mahabharata for Children as the lockdown set in at the end of March. Who knew then that it would last months, that we would be separated from our homes, our families, our friends, our places of work? Who knew that we would live through an uncountenanced disruption, the likes of which our longest living memory has never seen in terms of scope and virulence?
For many of us, though, the darkness had already begun to deepen, long before the night of the pandemic fell. Across the world, many of us have pinched ourselves in disbelief as governments have stifled lawful dissent, sat by while the weakest and most vulnerable died, used sledgehammers to destroy institutions that uphold democracy. Many of us have joined the battle to save the world that we knew and that we believed in – we took to the streets, we used our words and our voices. Others of us have been paralysed into inaction, afraid for the safety of those that we love, afraid, also, for ourselves.
But wherever we have been in this twilight of decency, we have all muttered, in our own languages and with reference to our own cultures, about the end of the world. For us, here, the obvious reference has been Kali Yuga, the last age of the Hindu cycle of time, when dharma itself totters on a single leg.
In confused consolation, we have offered each other explanations, perhaps even justifications for the horrors around us, by quoting the unemotional wisdom of the ancient texts, vinashakale viparitabuddhi – in the time of destruction, intelligence is perverted. In our despair, we could be persuaded to translate the somewhat bald dictum and say, still accurately, that in the time of destruction, the mind turns away from love.
Beyond allegories and analogies
In retrospect, I cannot say that I was unaffected by what was happening around me as I retold this story about the end of Time as we have known it and lived it. Much of what happens in the Mahabharata is predicated on misplaced ambition, greed, envy and lust. And much of this is played out in the most intimate of human relationships – brothers, cousins, friends, wives and husbands, teachers and disciples, elders and the boys that they have trained to be men.
Everyone is a rival, everything is contested, hatred and violence simmer under the surface, and the skies are dark with suspicion and doubt. Dhritarashtra’s literal and metaphorical blindness, Bhishma’s moral impotence, Duryodhana’s smouldering anger at being ignored and disrespected, Yudhishthira’s naive passivity in the face of impending disaster, Bhima’s aggression, Arjuna’s clinical, single-minded focus on his own glorious destiny, the stifled suffering and sustained humiliation of all the women in the story: surely I saw these being played out in our 21st century world increasingly impelled by corrupt political, economic and social systems.
But metaphors, allegories, analogies, parables, parallels, resonances, all fell away as I confronted the burning of the Khandava forest by Arjuna and Krishna in the Mahabharata. Forest fires raged in Australia and the US, local flora and fauna were being incinerated in their natural habitat, and I was reading about the Pandavas wanting to build a city, the likes of which the world had never seen, on the inhospitable lands that their uncle had grudgingly bestowed upon them.
Agni, ever hungry, came to Arjuna and Krishna and asked them to feed him by burning down the Khandava. He gave them both the celestial weapons they needed to keep the fire alive as he ate and he ate. Trees that had lived longer than most men burst into flames, undergrowth turned to smouldering embers, feathers burned, flesh roasted, fat melted as birds and animals of every kind were consumed by the fire.
Arjuna and Krishna used their arrows to create a net over the forest that would stop Indra’s rain from putting out the flames. They drove their chariots around the perimeter of the forest so that animals could not escape. The skies turned dark with soot and smoke and ash. Cries of pain rose in the thickening air as mothers tried to protect their young ones from being burned alive. But the fire was only quelled when Agni said that he had eaten enough. And then, in the twinkling of an eye, Krishna’s friend, Maya, created Indraprastha where the bountiful and generous forest had once stood.
The road to renewal
It’s possible that had our own times been different, I would not have found the Khandava episode so devastating, so critical to include in my retelling. I felt the same way about the Stri Parvan in the Mahabharata where, at the end of the war, women go to Kurukshetra to find the bodies of their sons, their fathers, their brothers and their husbands.
Girish Karnad once told me that the power of the Mahabharata lies in the fact that it makes you think of the war that is closest to you, the war that is most recent. Our world has mostly lost track of the number of wars it holds within itself simultaneously, and it is worth remembering that in our time, all wars are not fought on battlefields. Women claim their dead in many ways and in many places: they weep by the side of small coffins, over bloodied and broken bodies, on street corners, on railway stations, on long marches home. It is the women who pick up the pieces to remake a world, albeit one with a hollow centre.
Is the Mahabharata only about darkness, the darkness without and the darkness within our souls. It is not – it offers us the hope that all that is bad in the world will be wiped out, that there will be rebirth and renewal. But what it also tells us is that for the world to be renewed, to be reborn to the promise of a new age, it must end. The difficulty that the Mahabharata presents us with is that this end will be one of violence and fratricide, that we must live through the killing of our dearest, we must survive the death of our gods and watch the complete and utter destruction of all that we have held to be true and beautiful.
Should we be reading a book like this at a time like this? Should we share the Mahabharata with our children who are already disturbed and disoriented by the seismic changes of the last year? Yes, we should. Precisely because the Mahabharata reminds us that for centuries, we have been persuaded to hate those closest to us, that we have been burning the Khandava, that women have been claiming the bodies of their husbands and children killed in war or murdered for their faith.
Most of us will survive the pandemic, but we will emerge into a world that we cannot yet foresee or imagine. Our solutions from the past will have been used up, they will be neither useful nor relevant to the time and place that we will inhabit in a few short years from now. As we are forced into new ways of being, there is a possibility that we can be liberated from the thoughts and deeds that brought us to the brink. It will be entirely up to us what we do with our second chance.
When our children read the Mahabharata, they will clearly see the mistakes that their ancestors and elders have made over the centuries. Perhaps they will vow to live differently, to find new ways of thinking and doing that are less destructive to the soul and the body. If they do, it will be time for us to listen to them, the young have a far greater stake in the future than we do.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.