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.