The Mahabharata Project: Reading Epics Against the Grain – Mahasweta Devi’s “After Kurukshetra”

He regards it as his task to brush history against the grain.” – Walter Benjamin

It is in the nature of literature – like all narrative – to promote certain voices, viewpoints and perspectives over others. And unless we’re talking about a self-consciously revolutionary text, the privileged voices will often reflect the social, economic and cultural hierarchies of the society that produces the work of literature in question. In the case of epics, this is probably even more true, because it is epics that – originating as they do, for the most part, in oral form – that reflect, or are meant to reflect – the constructed idea of a people, a nation  or even an Empire (to use Benedict Anderson’s phrase, “imagined communities). So it is in epics, perhaps, that we see the dichotomy between the articulated and the submerged voices most clearly. For instance, one of the central conflicts in the Iliad is between Agamemnon and Achilles over the possession of Achilles’ “meed of honour”, Briseis. Briseis’ own voice (notwithstanding the hack job that was the movie Troy!) is never heard: not when it is her body that is the subject of a tug-of-war, and not when Achilles and Hector fight their climactic duel before the walls of Troy. Then again, what would a Penelopiad, as a companion volume to the Odyssey, chronicling the travails of Penelope while Odysseus stayed away from home all those years, look like? We have no idea, because the Odyssey itself gives us precious little to go by. What happened to the Carthaginians after their iconic and charismatic leader burnt herself to death lamenting the departing Aeneas? What happened to the survivors of the Battle of Roncesvalles? Or to the survivors after all the carnage was over in Das Nibelungenlied? As we can see, there are two kinds of silences here: the one is the silence of characters critical to the story; and the other is the silence of all those who were profoundly affected by the events of the story, but are never seen in person.

Nonetheless, even with the epic, there is a respected literary tradition that seeks precisely to raise the submerged voices into consciousness. Euripides, for instance, wrote Hecuba, Andromache and Medeaeach of which viewed the pivotal attempts of a significant event (the Battle of Troy in the first two, the story of Golden Fleece in the third) upon those characters who are silent in the original story. In modern times, Ursula Le Guin’s Lavinia tells the story of the princess over whom the critical battle that led to the foundation of Aeneas’ Rome was fought; Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon does the same with Arthurian legend; Mark Twain’s partly-playful, partly-comic and partly-savage Eve’s Diary is a take on the Fall (perhaps as expounded by Milton). And in a curious twist, French absurdist playwright Jean Anouilh’s Antigone lets us, perhaps for the first time, here Creon’s voice.

Into this eclectic mix, we can add Mahasweta Devi’s After KurukshetraAfter Kurukshetra begins when the great Mahabharata war has ended, and follows the stories of those who are either not mentioned, or mentioned only to be ignored, in the original epic. The first story, Five Women, interrogates – inter alia – the themes of just war, imposed social roles, the epic hero, and enforced widowhood. The tone is set in the first two pages, that describe the aftermath of the battle: 

“They [the foot soldiers] were issued no armour. So they died in large numbers.”

The prostitute quarters, an essential part of war, now lie abandoned.”

“The chandals have no role in war. They arrive when the battle is over.”

The tone is set because, in single sentences, Devi highlights three sets of submerged voices: the ordinary soldiers who – as ever – have nothing to do with the casus belli, the prostitutes that seem to become a near-inevitable appendage to any large-scale war, and those who must clean up after the fighting’s done. But there is more: there are two key themes that characterize the classical epics – the amorality of war and the great hero. We are asked to suspend moral judgment because the heroic society, that forms the grist for the epics’ mill, simply had a very different code of values and morals than we do now. Large-scale slaughter over seemingly trivial causes simply wasn’t a problem for these men – their codes just saw it as a done thing, something as inevitable as the ebb and flow of the tides, as Lord Dunsany might say. But that leaves the question hanging: whose code of values, and whose code of morals? Of the warrior class? Yes, but what about those who were not of the warrior class? Did they too feel this way about the inevitability and amorality of war? Did Briseis and Penelope feel this way?

Devi’s five women certainly do not. The Mahabharata goes one further than exempting war from moral judgment – it emphatically asserts that the battle of Kurukshetra was a just war, prosecuted by the Pandavas against the Kauravas, who had unjustly deprived them of their kingdom. That simple binary is overturned in this brief conversation between the five women whose husbands, ordinary soldiers, have just died, and who cannot go back until the funeral pyres on the plain of Kurukshetra stop burning:

During such a disaster…

Disaster? What disaster? Huh, old woman? Was this some natural calamity? … We know of quarrels – jealousies – rivalries too. But such a war for just a throne? This, a holy war?! A righteous war?! Just call it a war of greed.”

By setting their teeth against the amoral neutrality of “disaster”, that equates war precisely to something like Dunsany’s ebb and flow of the tides, or the falling of leaves, or forest fires, the women place human – and for that, read male – responsibility at the forefront of everything, and question whether war can ever be just, if prosecuted only for power.

Another theme the epic thrives upon is the epic hero. Iliad, Odyssey, Aeneid, Song of Roland, Lay of the Cid, Nibelungenleid, Ramayana, Mahabharata – every epic you can think of is choc-full of scenes where the hero descends on the battlefield, and slaughters a multitude of foot soldiers sent against him, before engaging an opposing hero in a pivotal, one-to-one battle. Through their wives, not only is the story of these soldiers brought to the forefront, but when they say:

“Day after day, the war heroes massacred hundreds of foot soldiers. Our men died in droves…”

You immediately link this up to the wry observation in the opening page about the lack of armor, and suddenly, all that death is not due to the greatness of the hero and the ordinariness of the soldier, but simply due to the callous negligence of an army that considers the lives of its soldiers expendable. The shift here is stark and brutal – just like the epic considers soldiers expendable, consigning faceless multitudes to their death at the hand of some hero every other chapter, the actual lives of soldiers are considered just as worthless by those who sent them to war.

The story continues with the five women being enlisted in the service of the Princess Uttara, who is about to give birth to a child; and “if Uttara bears a son, he will be King. It is imperative to keep Uttara in good spirits.”

This is where we have an added level of subtlety in the work. Because the submerged voices are never equally submerged, and even within the oppressed, there are the overseers. In the second part of the story, Devi develops a fascinating dynamic between three sets of characters: the five women, who have lost their husbands, and who are waiting to go back to the village once the plain of Kurukshetra cools down after the pyres have burnt themselves out; Princess Uttara, who is in every way a Marie Antoinette let-them-eat-cake royal; and Madraja, the majordomo, who hails from the same background as the five women but, having served at the court all her life, finds herself in a strange, undefinable liminal position, sometimes occupying one perspective, sometimes another, but never one entirely (the eternal fate of the rootless exile?). In that interaction, the blissful unawareness that the nobility has of the lives of is subjects becomes starkly clear, Uttara’s evident innocence and absence of malice only making the impact sharper. Explored also as is the oppressiveness of enforced widowhood (“In ihalok, in this world of ours, widows have no right to happiness. “) vis-a-vis an ethic that celebrates transience because it can afford no other philosophy, because who, otherwise, will harvest the next lot of crops? (After a terrible calamity, the sun always rises. Even after this dreadful war, Nature has not stood still.); and finally, a re-emphasis of the equanimity with which the nobility views war, because (again) it can afford to (But it was a dharmayuddha, a righteous war.), vis-a-vis the true sufferers of war, who reject it passionately, but are sidelined both in the decision to go to war, and the subsequent memory of it as recorded in epics (So many hundreds of widows! So many homes in which mothers have lost their sons.)

And yet, Devi is careful enough to avoid the trap of simple reductively. This is not about cloistered palace and idyllic village. When the women, at the end, leave, we know that they are going back not only to a life of toil, but to an enforced second marriage, one that they accept with an equable resignation, but conspicuously not with any great joy; and no amount of work-songs can rid us of the lingering unease about that. Much like the whole story, the ending rejects any easy conclusion; indeed, it rejects any sort of conclusion at all. And that is the point.

I will not here analyze the other two stories as closely; they deserve to be read in their own right. Souvali explores the complex dynamic between the classes, the struggle for acceptance, and loneliness and solidarity. Kunti and the Nishadin is perhaps the best story of the lot: dealing with the themes of choice and freedom (Karna is the only one of my sons whose father I took of my own free will.), the sanitizing role of language, myth and narrative (Only the wars of the victorious are known as dharmayuddha), and above all of guilt and responsibility, the ending plumbs the very depths of feeling that a reader can experience.

After Kurukshetra, then, is an essential companion to The Mahabharata. Yet not quite like a Dinkar gloss on Karna’s life in the Rashmirathi, taking an established hero and telling his tale. It is an essential companion because by telling us the stories that are not told, not only does it tell them for their own sake (which it certainly does), but in doing so, it holds up a mirror to the Mahabharata, and the principal themes, and voices are reflected, as though through a glass, darkly. For that alone, it deserves to be read, and read again, and again.


Filed under Mahasweta Devi, The Mahabharata Project

8 responses to “The Mahabharata Project: Reading Epics Against the Grain – Mahasweta Devi’s “After Kurukshetra”

  1. Prabhat

    This is a problem that happens almost every time when normal people write fiction about the past. Invariably, they can’t help importing their own standards and morality into those times. This sort of war was the norm in feudal times and people from all strata of society expected things to happen in this way.

    I am yet to read modern writers who address ancient or feudal periods without introducing their own modern standards of morality onto their characters.

    • While I agree that writers writing about the past need to be careful about anachronisms, I think we also need to avoid caricature. For instance –> “People from all strata of society expected things to happen in this way” – I’m not sure where that is coming from. Yes, you’d think so if your only source about classical Greece was the Homeric epics, or Sophocles/Aescheylus, but consider Aristophanes’ Lysistrata – an excellent example of how, evidently, not all people *did* think that war was norm and necessity. The morality of the dominant/ruling class is not – and has never been – the morality of all. We just don’t know about the submerged voices so much because they were, well, submerged, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t exist, and it’s writer’s task to reconstruct them as best as she can. Mahasweta Devi’s characters aren’t exactly talking blatantly anachronistically either – they don’t approach the King to enforce their constitutional right to equality, or something of that sort – so to dismiss it as introducing personal morality into the past is a tad too simplistic.

  2. Thanks for this. I am particularly interested in this work.

    It has been years since I read an abridged version (but still massively long) translation of the Mahabharata but it still seems very fresh in my mind.

    Tales that highlight these overlooked voices are so very important for the reasons that you allude to. I wonder what folks who were around when these works came into being would think of these modern takes upon these tales.

    I really want to find Lavinia now. I love Ursula Le Guin but have not read this.

  3. Have you read Irawati Karve’s “Yuganta” ? She deals with the aftermath of the war too, but as seen through the eyes of a few of the main characters (Karna, Kunti, Draupadi, Vidura and Bheeshma I think ). I think of her work as midway between the traditional “heroic/great men” perspective and the modern one. It was originally written in Marathi, in the 1960s, and it seems both dated and modern at the same time. She flip-flops between analysing things using current moral standards (I think she does this well with Bhishma, especially about that Amba episode) and through some kind of not even Mahabharat-era but medieval lens. I was literally yelling when I came to the Draupadi chapter and she essentially wrote that Draupadi had the vastraharan thing coming because she raised her voice in an assembly of elders (by asking Yudhishthira whether he had any authority over her any more). It was unclear whether this was a fault of the translation but my general impression was that Karve was saying that this was Draupadi’s *fault* for being so callow and idiotic and not Knowing the Wickedness of the World. To reference current events, this reminded me of those well-meaning people who say stuff like “Of course it’s never women’s fault but would *you* still go to Gurgaon wearing a sundress at 9 PM at night, alone?” Obviously, this made me pretty nauseous. I think she applauded Kunti similarly for sticking to her honour/duty/whatever. Again, I’m not sure if Karve personally was saying this was a good thing or whether she was just emphasizing the fatalism inherent in the standard story.

    • I think the great thing about this book is exactly that it’s *not* Kunti or Draupadi who are the focus but – not to put too fine a point on it – the subalterns. Alright, that’s a bit too simplistic – we don’t really hear Kunti or Draupadi’s voice in the epic either, so props on anyone who brings it out. Nonetheless, I think it’s even more important to reclaim the voices of those who were drowned out even more than Kunti and Draupadi. Kunti and Draupadi at least have faces, names and identities. Mahasweta Devi resurrects those who have none.

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  5. Jay

    I take it that Ms. Devi did not read the sanskrit version of Mahabharata. For had she read it, this book wouldn’t have been written. To her defence, ability and skill to read sanskrit properly has decreased greatly, and the ability and skill to understand sanskrit is more or less extinct today. It is clear that in her book, she analyses these self-proposed opinions using the lens of modern-day ethcis and morals. And for that reason, her book is flawed and she shouldnt have ventured to write this improper work. Taking in terms of vedic religion, dharma (righteous living, high morality and ethics led way of life) never changes accross yugas, however, a-dharma (opposite of dharma) will have it’s field day in kali yuga more than in the other three yugas. We today are all a-dharmic, the reference point for dharma being the four vedas, the puranas and the upanishats. Using our a-dharmic knowledge and faulty sense of morals and ethics, we (and Ms. Devi included) cannot write a dharmically meaningful work. That at best, is how this work and every other work mentioned on this page must be viewed and comprehended.

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