The Mahabharata from a new angle

I recently read Jai Arjun‘s excellent article on the Mahabharata, where he talks about how different works centered around the Mahabharata present the immortal tale in their own different ways. For some example, in some works, Karna is glorified as being virtuous and heroic, and vilified thoroughly in others. In yet another work, Duryodhana himself is cast as a noble and virtuous prince.

I was quite intrigued by the post, and went on to read one of the works he had linked to in the blog – Bhimsen by Prem Panicker. It is an unofficial translation of the Malayalam book Randamoozham. It presents the Mahabharata from the point of view of Bhima, the second Pandava, known for his god-like strength. The book is available online as a PDF, free of charge. I highly recommend anyone remotely interested in the Mahabharata to read it.

I found the book to be quite raw and realistic. Bhima is refreshingly frank about all the songs sung about them – “Why do they call me the son of Vayu? Was I not born to Pandu?” wonders a young Bhima. He does not care much for the accolades, and instead chooses to focus on making himself stronger. Bhima is seen by the others as someone with brute strength, quite limited in intelligence. He is stung by this, but accepts it and takes cover under the guise of the “fat fool”, while focussing on developing skills other than strength – he gets quite adept at archery (nothing to equal Arjuna, but still quite good for someone considered to be a brute), at training elephants, and in general trains himself to be all-round warrior.

As someone who never has to depend on another person for strength, Bhima looks down upon Yudhistra, who depends on the strength of Arjuna and Bhima. Throughout the book, Bhima bows down to Yudhistra for one reason alone: He is the eldest brother, and hence must be respected and obeyed. Bhima follows this through to the very end, even though he is quite angry and disgusted with some of Yudhistra’s actions.

Having grown up reading C. Rajagopalachari‘s version of the tale, I always considered Yudhistra to be the purest ruler – wise, generous and averse to war and hatred. There was no conflict in my mind as a young boy reading the tale – Yudhistra was kind and wise, Duryodhana was evil, hence Yudhistra must be king. It was as simple as that. Reading this book was like someone throwing a bucket of cold water over all that.

Yudhistra is shown in quite a poor light in the book – in plain terms, a greedy, calculating wimp. Yudhistra is not alone in this treatment though – almost everyone in the book save Arjuna, Bheema and the youngest Pandavas are shown to have several shades of grey. This aspect repelled and attracted me at the same time – the pure Yudhistra, a victim to lust? The fiery Draupadi filled with blood-lust? The wise queen-mother Kunti a calculating, scheming old hag? I was aghast, at first. However, it triggered a lot of questions about various points in the Mahabharata. Why indeed did they share Draupadi? After the disastrous saree incident, why gamble again? Why did Bhima leave Hidimbi in the forest and never seek her again?

These were all questions that I had never thought about – The epic was wrapped in the wool of magic and myth for me, and inconvenient facts were simply explained away by attributing them to gods. Draupadi had to marry all five because of a boon she had asked for, in which she wanted five great qualities in her husband. This could not be satisfied by any one man, and hence five husbands. While the explanation sounded quite elegant when I was twelve, it is far from satisfying now. Bhima is quite disgusted by the concept in the book – the woman who was yesterday his sister-in-law, almost a mother, is now his wife?

Even Krishna is not spared in the book – he comes across as cold, cunning, calculating and brutal. While I was not such a big fan of Krishna to begin with, it was still quite shocking to see how he was portrayed. I suppose this is because of the narrator – Bhima does not see Krishna as a god, he is an uncle, and a great friend of Arjuna, but it stops with that. He is not the incarnation of Vishnu that  C. Rajagopalachari showed him to be.

You get to know Bhima quite well in the book – as you share his emotions at each  major event – elation on his first kill, sadness on leaving Hidimbi behind in the forest, disgust when asked to marry Draupadi, longing when building sculptures for Draupadi in anticipation of her becoming his wife, grief over his first born ghatotkacha’s death, and so on.

The book also brings out the special bond between Bhima and Arjuna – both men of war developing their strength side by side as children, and supporting each other in battles. Arjuna is shown to value Bhima’s opinion over Yudhistra’s in the book at several points – this seems only natural considering the childhood bond between the brothers. Another aspect brought out quite beautifully in the book is the frustration of Bhima and Arjuna towards Yudhistra, who possesses neither strength nor war intelligence, and must totally depend on his stronger brothers to become King. Arjuna suffers through the mistakes of Yudhistra throughout the book, but reaches his limit when Yudhistra rebukes him on the battlefield. It is Bhima who soothes Arjuna and sets him back on the right path. I have never read this incident before, and it made the epic more real to me.

Bhima also expresses frustration at what he views as the fancy concepts of Dharma in the book – when Yudhistra balks at lying to Drona, Bhima gets angry and points out that they have already decided to brutally kill the man – Would lying really matter next to that? At several points, he presents the voice of realism and reason – When the bards sing that Arjuna was gifted his weapons by the gods, he says Arjuna spent many years wandering in miserable places to get those weapons – it is quite a disservice to Arjuna to say it was a gift, even if it was from the Gods.

Overall, I really enjoyed reading the book – hats off to Prem Panicker for such a realistic interpretation of the Mahabharata. It was refreshing to view the characters from a neutral viewpoint and judge them with no preconceived notions. In a way, this book represented the transition of the Mahabharata from a myth to a more historical tale for me – concepts of Dharma are now dropped, and it is simply two groups of people fighting over a kingdom. Now I would like to read something from the perspective of the Kauravas – I’m sure that would change my understanding of this truly timeless epic yet again.

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47 thoughts on “The Mahabharata from a new angle

  1. The only version of the Mahabharata that I have read is the book “The Palace of Illusions” by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. This version of the myth is from Panchaali’s perspective.

    If you’ve read that version, I would like to hear what you thought of it. As I said it’s the only version that I’ve read but I really enjoyed it. I would love to hear what someone more familiar with the myth thinks about it.

  2. The book is an an unauthorized translation of a Malayalam Novel “Randamoozham” The original is Brilliant! Not sure if the essence has been captured in the translation

  3. Ah yes I forgot to mention that in the post. Added now. I have no idea since I haven’t read the original! But it’s good that the translation is there to make it accessible to non-malayalam readers. There are other such regional language books too, I hope someone translates them!

  4. Hey Vijay, how do you say this “hats off to Prem Panicker for such a realistic interpretation of the Mahabharata. It was refreshing to view the characters from a neutral viewpoint and judge them with no preconceived notions” What made you think this version is realistic and not the one you had read before? Why can’t this version be against Dharma? Just curious.

    Thanks!

    1. @snk: I think this version is more realistic in the sense magic and gods do not get involved in the tale at any point – Krishna is not portrayed as a God, and there is no glorifying any of the battles in the tale – Bhima’s battle with Hidimban are shown to occur in a matter of minutes, and not “they battled for 3 days, and on the last day, Bhima uprooted a tree and smote the asura with it”.

      As for the Dharma aspect, in C.R’s version of it, you can see plainly that the author believes the Pandavas are just and that they do things in the way of Dharma. This book is much more neutral in the sense that Bhima does not fight for some notion of Dharma – they insulted his wife, they must die. He must protect his family and kill anyone who seeks to kill them. It is simple and refreshing.

  5. I think nothing can get closer to reality than Vyasa’s version. After all he is supposed to have lived in that era. The most basic fact of the story is that the kingdom rightfully ( according to the Dharma of that era ) belonged to the Pandavas. This is the reason why generally the Kauravas as portrayed as the bad guys. And they also did some things to earn that name like setting a house on fire with the Pandavas in it .

    1. If you mean Indraprastha, which the Pandavas developed, I would agree. Hastinapura and the whole of the Kuru kingdom, I would say no – Duryodhana had equal rights.

      1. ^ The eldest heir gets to rule the kingdom. I don’t understand how you say Duryodhana had equal rights! Anyway that is not where the contention ends. It is about the Duryodhana’s Jealousy which made him try to kill Bhima in childhood, kill the Pandavas in the Lac House, challenging the Pandavas to an unfair game of dice, insulting Draupadi in the court, and finally refusing to give their kingdom rightfully back to them when they returned from their AgnAthavAsa.

  6. Interesting. I’ve carefully build my knowledge about this epic tale by watching sunday morning Dhoordhasan show and thats it. Never cared to read about our awesome epic though i’ve read HP and Twilight series back to back 2 times. But your post is so intriguing that it makes me wanna read about the epic 🙂 Kudos VJ.

  7. I find your diverse reading interests intriguing. Girl with Dragon Tattoo to Atlas Shrugged to Mahabaratha. Hmmm. Phd must do wonders to a person 🙂 And its a new angle as you told da. I never knew there were many such versions from diff perspectives. I haven’t read the book per se but coming from a hindu oriented school i know most of the events happening in it. Should definitely read the one you’ve suggested to feel the different.

    Well written and Informative post da !

  8. Thank you for the compliment, but athukum phd kum oru samandhamum illa 😀

    Yeah, I think you would be knowing most of the events in the book da. But perhaps one or two will surprise you. I don’t think Hindu orgs will like this book much, so some details of this won’t be taught at schools 🙂

  9. @Ganesh: Since I can’t nest comments more than 2, replying here. It’s not as simple as that da – Dhritarashtra was elder to Pandu – therefore he should have ruled first. But since he was blind, Pandu was asked to rule. Now when Pandu went away to the forest, rule of the kingdom came back to Dhritarashtra. Now as his son, Duryodhana has first bite at the kingdom apple.

    I agree that the saree thing, burn thing etc caused the war. However, in some works, it is said that Bhima terrorized the kauravas when they were little children due to his immense physical strength – this in turn caused them to hate the Pandavas and do the drowning thing etc. Also, in Bhimsen, the minute Bhima and the others arrive, the bards sing that Bhima was born to end the Kauravas. That might not have gone down too well, methinks.

  10. “It was refreshing to view the characters from a neutral viewpoint and judge them with no preconceived notions” – No viewpoint is a neutral viewpoint except for VyAsa’s because all he did was to report what happened. That is why it is called “ItihAsA”. Every viewpoint is the author’s viewpoint and interpretation of how they want to portray the characters. Even after you read VyAsa’s version, any viewpoint that you may develop may not be a neutral viewpoint. It is your viewpoint. It will be interesting to read authors who show different shades of your loved characters. But it is a story and that’s where it ends. You should not consider that as the way Bhima would have felt or thought. After all Prem Panicker could not have known what Bhima actually thought 🙂

  11. Ya I totally agree – We may not know what they actually felt. But my comment was with reference to C.R’s version da – in that version there is a heavy bias that the pandavas are good. By neutral viewpoint I meant setting aside the idea that Pandavas can do no wrong, and look at their actions in a critical light.

    And I have not read Vyasa’s original work, so cannot comment. But is it really neutral? Does he lay out the faults of Yudhistra and treat Krishna as a mortal?

    1. For one, he does not treat Krishna as a mortal. He just explains what happened. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna himself says he is an incarnation. And VyAsA reported that. Whether you believe Krishna or not is left to you. But if treating Krishna as a mortal is what you mean by being neutral, then I think you have a basic problem of accepting the concept of incarnation. But you should accept this fact that there are more things in this universe which are still unexplained by science than those that can be explained by science. In this context, I think you should be bit more open minded and approach the scriptures without any preconceived notions born out of our limited experience.

      1. Hmm. I’m not approaching this with a scripture outlook da – Just looking at it as an interesting literary work. Now how much of that feels real to us today depends on how much we can make sense of what was said.

        You’re right in that I’m assuming things like incarnation, magic, gods granting boons etc to be not “real”. But again, that is because I am looking as a literary work from the viewpoint of today. So just pointing out the sections which makes complete sense today.

        I agree with Vyasa being as neutral as was possible at his time. But looking at it today, I feel it is possible to be even more so, since we are not limited by belief in Krishna’s immortality.

  12. “The epic was wrapped in the wool of magic and myth for me, and inconvenient facts were simply explained away by attributing them to gods.” – Of course there maybe certain portions which maybe metaphors like the Gods “granting” Kunti with a child etc. and there may be a lot of symbolisms for the different abstract concepts in Hinduism. But be careful not to think of anything that is beyond the comprehension of the bounded human senses or limited knowledge is magic or myth. We always tend to find an explanation which can be understood by our intellect and can be perceived by our senses. It is not right for us to be that narrow-minded.

      1. Thinking of it as a mere literary work and not as something that could have actually happened is itself a form of narrow-mindedness. “I agree with Vyasa being as neutral as was possible at his time. But looking at it today, I feel it is possible to be even more so, since we are not limited by belief in Krishna’s immortality.” This is another form of narrow-mindedness 😀

  13. Okay, lets stop at this 😛 this is getting into a debate of science vs. religion. But as you said, it will be good to read different versions of the book. Will help in building different perspectives. I just said commented so that you don’t consider each and every version as the truth. But looks like you won’t even consider VyAsA’s version as the truth because you seem to be looking at it as a story 🙂 so nothing to debate 😛

  14. Thanks Vijay. I have completed Prem Panicker’s Bhimsen 🙂 .. super… keep looking for good stuff and let us all know 🙂

    -Sabs

  15. I’ve read an English translation of Randaam Oozham (not PP’s) and found it very impressive.

    The portion in bhArathiyAr’s pAnchAli sabatham – where Bheeman rails at Dharman for losing pAnchAli in a bet – was elevated a whole lot for me, because Bheeman’s love for her was fleshed out really well. And in Randaam Oozham, it is shown how she takes him for granted, he knows it and cannot help it.

    His love for her bubbles over when he rails at Dharman

    சக்ரவர்த்தி என்றே மேலாந் தன்மை படைத்திருந்தோம்
    பொக்கென்று ஓர்கணத்தே எல்லாம் போக தொலைத்துவிட்டாய்
    நாட்டையெல்லாம் தொலைத்தாய் -நாங்கள் பொறுத்திருந்தோம்
    மீட்டும் எமை அடிமை செய்தாய் -மேலும் பொறுத்திருந்தோம்

    திருபதன் மகளை திட்டதுய்னன் உடன்பிறப்பை
    இரு பகடை என்றாய். ஐயோ! இவர்க்கு அடிமை என்றாய்
    இது பொறுப்பதில்லை. தம்பி, எரிதழல் கொண்டு வா
    கதிரை வைத்து இழந்தான் அண்ணன் கையை எரித்திடுவோம்

    While Bharathi has done all he can to present the anger, Bheeman still comes across as impulsive. His public railing at his older brother is still seen by the reader as an indiscretion. But MTV’s Bheema’s fury comes across as well-founded. Excellent writing.

    1. Beautiful lines from pAnchAli sabatham. The lines are so good on the ear, and yet so easy to read!

      What I like most about this translation is that Bheema’s point of view is put across very very well. Little things like accepting how Draupadi takes him for granted, accepting his image of being a brute – these things were the most enjoyable for me.

  16. Good review of the book.. I am a fan of this book and the author.
    I saw a comment asking to stick on to Vyasas version of Mahabharata.

    No body knows what the actual vyasas version is.
    Mahabharata like all religious and ancient texts have been revised and edited over the periods by many Vyasas.

    Vyasa in sanscrit has a meaning a “Brahman who recites or expounds the purANas in public”

    It could be that each time they edit it they add colors to their favourite characters…

    The current version of Mahabharata we read has been last edited somewhere in 8th century..

    1. Glad you enjoyed it. I think the main intention of that commenter was to point out there is no “hard truth” here – Everything is an interpretation, including Prem Panicker’s version. He just wanted to caution me against believing too much in this version 🙂

  17. Hi Vijay.. Was reading some of your posts and you write very well. I so loved this discussion and that made me comment here. According to me, every one in the epic has shades of grey. No one (including the Avatara) is perfect/right at all times.

    I’ve read the English version (of Vyasa’s) Mahabharatha by Ramesh Menon. It doesn’t have any leanings like CR’s and forms a basis for a neutral viewpoint. Like some one suggested, The Palace of Illusions by CBD is a good book from Draupathi’s perspective; but I would not guarantee that the facts captured are right there. It has its leanings. Also, you can read ‘Jaya’ by Devadutt Patnaik. It covers a lot of (mis/)interpretations of the epic in various parts of India. In fact, it has a story about Saguni to justify his evilness.

    P.S – Congrats on the Blogadda pick. Came here from that post! 😀
    P.P.S – I am Prashanth Raghavan’s sis! This is such a small world!

    1. Hi indu akka! Small world indeed 🙂 Thanks for the kind words!

      I completely agree that everyone in the epic is grey – I remember C.R saying in the prologue that this was by intention. The sages could have made everyone black and white, but that was not their point. Morality comes from reflection upon the actions of others, and not just strictly following a set of rules. So the epics were designed to cause reflection.

      I have a long list of Mahabharatha related works I want to read 🙂 Tomorrow, tomorrow nu thali potutae iruken.

      1. Hi. It was good to read what you wrote. I have been struggling to find a copy of mahabharata from arjuna’s wifes point of view.please help me with that. Please.
        Thanks

  18. hi
    It was a lovely read. You have given great details about the book. I have been struggling to find a book on the Mahabharata from the point of view of arjuna’s wife. Please help me. Please.
    Thanks

  19. I know this is a very late reply.I came across this book AJAYA tht portrays Suryodhana(yes that is his name) as someone too good. It s indeed a narrative from an entirely different angle.One intriguing question posed is if Suryodhana was evil, then why wud vidura, drona, bhishma fight on his side.A valid one I suppose. Though author sounds desperate to emphasize on only one side of coin, making it convoluted to evade facts that might favor pandavas, it is worth a read.

  20. Excellent write-up. I also think that MTV’s Malayalam novel Randamoozham to be a work of great literary merit. I enjoyed reading the book in its Kannada translation (Bheemayana).

    But the best retelling of Mahabharata has to be S L Bhyrappa’s Kannada magnum opus Parva. It belongs to a class of its own making. It has been translated to English as well as many Indian languages.

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