Yuganta is a commentary about the Mahabharata written by Irawati Karve. I think it is one of the best books on the subjects that I have read so far. The book is a very light and easy read, and for those at UW Madison, available from the Memorial Library. If you are even the least bit interested in the epic, I cannot recommend this book enough.
The author takes a very critical view about the text that comprises the Mahabharata. The author explains that the original story of the battle, Jaya, was embellished and added-on to by storytellers as they carried the tale to different parts of the country. These embellishments became part of the story itself, until finally the whole thing came to be known as the Mahabharata. The author says we can differentiate between what was the core and what was added later by detecting inconsistencies: for example, the divinity of Krishna was clearly added later.
An interesting side-note about the name Vyasa: Vyasa is said to be the author of the Mahabharata, reciting it to Lord Ganesha who wrote it using a part of his task; the author speculates that the name Vyasa, which literally means collector or bringer of order to chaos. Thus, looking at it in this way, Vyasa simply denotes the person who takes all the stories comprising the Mahabharata and bring order to it. Thus Vyasa becomes a title, passed on from master to disciple, rather than a single person. I believe this makes much more sense.
What I love most about the book is that the author takes a very critical view of the story and points out inconsistencies mercilessly. For example, one of the most beloved characters in the Mahabharata is Bhishma: wise, strong, and without a stain on his character. The author tears this down in the very first chapter of the book. One of the claims she attacks is of Bhishma’s prowess at archery: she points out how the Mahabharata never talks about any battles/war that Bhishma won during his lifetime save one – the battle with Parasurama. The author claims that it was highly unlikely that Parasurama existed in that time at all, as he belonged to a much earlier period. If you take away that battle, there are no accounts of Bhishma’s strength being equivalent to Arjuna at all; he appears to be a wise old man, but not quite a strong one.
The author also points out how the Ramayana is a poem, while Mahabharata is history. One strong example of this is how the female characters and their family are shown: in the Mahabharata, the families of Draupadi, Kunti, and Gandhari all try to help them when they meet misfortunes; in contrast, once Sita gets married to Rama, neither Janaka nor any of Sita’s family appear in the Ramayana at all, not even to the extent of coming to comfort her in her misfortunes.
Yuganta also shows how my favorite character, Arjuna, is human and committed errors. The authors narrates how Arjuna and Krishna slaughtered entire tribes in the Khandava forest for expansion, and how it is this slaughter that led to Arjuna acquiring the Gandhiva bow. This was a bit painful for me as the Gandhiva had captured my imagination ever since I was a child: the thought of possessing an object/weapon that was special and unique in the whole world was very appealing. To see it tied to the massacre of a forest tribe in the pandava quest for expansion was jarring.
The book also takes away the myth that Karna was Arjuna’s equal in archery. It points out how Arjuna defeated the entire Kuru army, Karna included, when Arjuna defended Virata’s cattle at the end of their exile. In another incident with the Gandharvas, Karna was defeated and deserted Duruyodhana, who was later rescued by Arjuna. Karna losing to Arjuna at the end is conveniently explained using isolated incidents which “robbed” him of his weapons at the time of his death: if we remove those, we see that Karna is a much weaker archer than Arjuna. The chapter on Karna is one of the best in the book, showing how he was a tortured and conflicted soul, whose highest point was when he was enticed with a kingdom, five strong brothers, and Draupadi, and he said no and remained true to his salt.
It should come as no surprise that the author does not view Krishna as a god. Instead, he is viewed as a strong warrior, a crafty statesman, and a good ruler, who basically orchestrated all the battles, arranged for the Pandavas to get their kingdom, and once they got it, helped them govern and rule their kingdom. Reading the book, it becomes even more apparent how crucial the friendship of Arjuna and Krishna is to the whole Mahabharata: it is highly questionable if Krishna would have helped the Pandavas as much as he did, if he had not loved Arjuna deeply.
Let me end with a criticism of the book. The author talks about each person’s place in life as an absolute thing. Happiness lies in understanding what your place is, and living according to that. It attributes Karna’s troubles to his never really knowing his place: as the adopted son of a suta, not knowing whether he should get involved with kshatriyas, or at a deeper level, not knowing that he is the elder brother of the Pandavas. I think this is a very static philosophy, designed to keep people in their place. It reminds me of those dialogues in movies: know your place and hold your tongue! Very convenient for people in power and those who don’t want the established order to change. I believe progress would be the very opposite of this: when your place in life is not pre-determined, and when you can move ahead through hard work and education.