The Mahabharata, the great Sanskrit epic, is a fiery, dangerous book. One is not supposed to keep a copy in the house, lest it burn down. And it is dangerous, perhaps fatal, to read it from beginning to end, in linear sequence. Similarly, translating it from Sanskrit into another language, beginning at the beginning, is not recommended. The classical Telugu version from South India has three authors; two died during its composition.
The book has this reputation not only because it is so long—about 100,000 Sanskrit couplets—but because of the lethal properties inherent in its vision of the world. In the southern state of Karnataka, shadow puppet performances of the text, or segments from it, always begin somewhere in the middle, in the section called Virata, an extended carnivalesque moment that precedes the catastrophic war about to unfold. The beautiful puppets are kept in big wooden boxes, always with the clown figure on top, to protect everyone from the doomed, ferocious characters below it. The Sanskrit philosopher Abhinavagupta, at the beginning of the eleventh century, recommended reading the Mahabharata because its dark picture of humanity can serve as an incentive to the reader to renounce the world.
Yet this two-thousand-year-old book is, in a way, a template for Indian civilization; it remains as vital and relevant today as it ever was, and not only for South Asia. The apocalypse it describes is something all too human, driven by greed, egotism, spite, and the usual phoney fixation on the glories of dying in war. As the Turkish novelist Ahmet Altan says in his memoir, I Will Never See the World Again (2019), a book he smuggled out of prison, “Everything changes on earth, but meanness and stupidity never change.” One could take this as a motto for the Mahabharata, along with other statements from the epic, such as “Whatever exists here may also exist elsewhere; but what is not mentioned here does not exist” or “Time cooks us, and we die”—a more succinct and repeated refrain for the immense and tragic story.
This epic, undoubtedly mostly oral in its original forms, has a putative author: the sage Vyasa, who also happens to be the direct progenitor of nearly all its major characters. Vyasa is thus writing the story of his own family’s self-destruction from the point of view of a lonely, aged survivor. His children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren split into two rival factions of cousins: the Kaurava warriors, classed as the antiheroes, and the five Pandava brothers and their common wife, Draupadi, who are seen as heroes despite their all-too-evident moral flaws. The Pandavas eventually triumph, but none of their descendants survives except for a single child, stillborn and revived at birth by the god Krishna, who was one of the major instigators of the war but who chose to side with the Pandavas. Never was there so Pyrrhic a victory as the one that concludes this book.
According to the tradition, Vyasa dictated the huge text to a scribe, the elephant-headed god Ganesha, who broke off one of his tusks to use as a stylus. But Ganesha agreed to record it only on condition that Vyasa would never pause for even a second in the course of his improvised dictation. Vyasa accepted this superhuman demand but added a condition of his own: Ganesha would not proceed to write down the next couplet until he had understood the previous one. This bargain worked more or less smoothly, but at times even Vyasa became tired and needed a moment to think about what to say next. To gain time, he would throw out a verse, in good metrical form, that was nothing but gibberish. We do find many such verses scattered throughout the Sanskrit text, in its various recensions and regional variations. Take this story as an accurate metapoetic model of the process of composing, memorizing, and ultimately writing down a text that was almost infinitely capable of expansion, invention, and radical expressive variation.
The great poet and translator A.K. Ramanujan used to say that no one in India ever hears the Mahabharata (or its sister epic, the Ramayana) for the first time. One grows up with these texts as a deep part of the self, their characters serving as models for all kinds of human conduct, more often than not self-destructive, and for a vast range of emotion and sensation. In the twentieth century—following medieval precedents—there appeared several penetrating psychological interpretations of these epic characters; the text readily lends itself to such attempts at understanding by entering into their minds.
By far the most powerful such interpretation that I have read, Wandering the Mahabharata, was written in the South Indian language Malayalam by a maverick scholar, Kuttikrishna Marar; his book is being translated into English by the historian M.G.S. Narayanan. Another incisive study along these lines, one better known throughout India, is Yuganta: The End of an Epoch by the Maharashtrian anthropologist-sociologist Irawati Karve. Many readers of these pages will have seen Peter Brook’s truly epic—that is, lengthy, daunting, all-encompassing—version of the text either on stage or on screen. We also have a book-length cycle of astonishing poems, Sarpa Satra (Serpent Rite), by Arun Kolatkar, perhaps India’s finest modern poet, about the lurid ritual that, not by chance, forms the framing story for the entire narrative: the omniscient storyteller, Vaisampayana, recounts the epic to Brahmin priests and sages while all the snakes in the universe are being drawn, as if by a magnet, into the sacrificial flames.
But surely the most lyrical of all such attempts to see the Mahabharata through the eyes of its characters is the remarkable dramatic poem Until the Lions by the Kerala-born, Paris-based poet, dance producer, and librettist Karthika Naïr.* She has given her book an appropriate subtitle: “Echoes from the Mahabharata.” The thirty haunting, heartrending chapters, in a wide range of forms and styles, resonate powerfully with one another; together they offer a text clearly meant for live performance, in oral recitation—or rather incantation—and in dance. The Akram Khan Company in London has been performing a version of this work, scripted by Karthika, since 2016. An opera based on the book, scored by Thierry Pécou and directed and choreographed by Shobana Jeyasingh, was scheduled to open in Strasbourg in March at the Opéra National du Rhin but was postponed because of Covid-19.
The poems of Until the Lions are graphically typeset on the page so that they seem to be dancing, a celebration of visible sound. Karthika plays with metrical modes—canzone, rima dissoluta, the Panjabi Sufi acrostic form known as Si Harfi, and the Tamil andadi, in which each new verse begins with the final syllables of the previous one. Some of the chapters are rhythmic prose poems—a dancer’s prose.
Nearly all the chapters are first-person dramatic monologues uttered by female characters known from the Mahabharata (with the exception of one newly invented voice, that of the clairvoyant canine Shunaka, who reembodies the speaking dog Sarama mentioned at the very beginning, or one of the beginnings, of the epic). The female voices are, almost without exception, tormented, ravaged, grief-stricken, bitterly lamenting the irrevocable, unthinkable losses that their fathers, husbands, brothers, brothers-in-law, lovers, and sons have inflicted on them. I don’t think I have ever seen a description of rape as unflinching as Sauvali’s rage at King Dhritarashtra and the configuration of sycophantic politicians and courtiers who force her to submit to him. Sauvali exemplifies a prominent pattern in these chapters: women whose names are known from the Sanskrit epic but whose character and inner experience are muted there suddenly come to life as full-blooded people caught up in the destruction endemic to a male world (well, maybe to any human world).
The most moving of the laments, for me, is that of the young widow Uttaraa, whose husband, Abhimanyu, is sent into battle before completing his basic training: while still in his mother’s womb, Abhimanyu had mastered the martial art of penetrating the ranks of his enemies, but he never learned how to escape alive afterward. Uttaraa, pregnant with Abhimanyu’s child—who will be the stillborn baby that the god revives at the war’s end—speaks in sorrow of her slain teenage husband:
thing—not quite trust, nor truly
like life, undesigned. The notion
of future, earth’s gift
to our sixteenth year—the first,
and only, summer
together—that swelled and curved
to tempt him:
a curled up, compact
quarter-moon in me.
Then the refrain:
Choose, child, while still unborn;
choose, for we
no longer can, choose
to remain free.
She wants this baby to know about war, and about the toxic cant and mendacity that inevitably fuel it:
are dearest when dead….
He was a son, Abhimanyu,
nephew, Kuru prince, brave,
loyal, foolishly so; bravely,
has he gone to his end. Here he
lies, he that most wished to be
not hero—this, they will not tell
you, child—but father.
Karthika, in the voice of Uttaraa, has articulated something I remember all too well from my own wartime service in Lebanon. Among the soldiers in my unit, only one, I think—our gung-ho commanding officer—identified with the specious rhetoric coming at us from the politicians back home in Jerusalem. Karthika’s Mahabharata is, among other things, a passionate antiwar manifesto; she and her characters are sensitive to the perversion of language that is always needed to generate more dead heroes, and to the cost borne by those who survive. It is possible to read the Sanskrit Mahabharata itself in such a light, just as Book 24 of the Iliad reframes the endless killing described in the previous twenty-three books and the Greek warrior’s ideal of posthumous fame, kleos, as no more than human foolishness sustained by the corresponding foolishness of the gods. A major section of the Mahabharata, the Book of Women (Striparvan), similarly sings of the unbearable, also entirely superfluous suffering of the widows, mothers, and orphans in a devastated world.
Often the voice of a hitherto unfathomed character surprises us with its nuanced, conflicted innerness. Here is Hidimbi, a strangely alluring, man-eating demoness (worshiped today as a goddess in the Himalayan regions), sister to the violent Hidimba, whom the macho warrior Bhima kills. Hidimbi immediately falls in love with this most lovable of the Pandavas and eventually bears him a son, Ghatotkaca, who will participate in the war. The two unlikely lovers spend a year and a half in the wilderness, playing together, coupling, wandering as if that other world of palaces and sordid politics were of no concern to them. The wilderness has its delights, as Hidimbi tells us:
I taught him smell. The odour
of roe and rabbit, of morel
the distant hint of
of resin, of wild elephant
in rut. Venom in half-bloom on
petals. The nidor
in enemy sweat, the mute
smell of death. Taught him
touch. Taught him to
of a royal courtship from lion’s
spoor, to relive the songs
with fingers on the
whorls of a murdered
“Petrichor” is the intoxicating fragrance of raindrops falling on sun-baked soil. In India, it comes every year at the beginning of the monsoon; no one who has experienced it forgets it.
When Hidimbi eventually has to say good-bye to her newfound as-if husband, she offers pointed insight into his nature and that of his brothers: Bhima, she says, is at heart
wistful, and more loyal than
As for the others,
were to remain sons, at best
they could seldom grow
into husbands, and never
No, it was best to bid them adieu
though it isn’t quite that—
stay unsevered, even
That last statement belongs to one of the poetic ornaments in Sanskrit, named arthantaranyasa, “shifting to another level of meaning”—usually an intuition generalized on the basis of some concrete experience. One of the joys of reading Until the Lions is the sudden appearance of such uncanny, yet profoundly convincing, perceptions.
The character whose recurrent monologues hold Until the Lions together is Satyavati, a fisherwoman who becomes queen, grandmother, and great-grandmother to both branches of warring cousins. She speaks in complex, jarring tones that allow for both the memory of real happiness—“the quiet, grateful joy of those who dare not exult too much”—and its opposite, “the baneful underside of bliss.” She is living at the royal court, and she understands politics and the exigencies of states, unbroken succession, some semblance of order. And she knows a lot about hate: in the opening words of this book, in the first of several chapters called “Fault Lines,” she says:
Listen. Listen: hate rises, hate blazes, hate billows from battlefields. Hate arrives—searing rivers, shrivelling plains, reaping deserts on its path—even to this doorstep…. Old hate, descended from heavens, leavened on my land. Old hate, diffused through blood and womb and semen.
For Satyavati, if there is one primary cause of the overdetermined cataclysm, it must be hatred, which is not the same thing as evil. As Vyasa, Satyavati’s son who is also the author of the Mahabharata, says to her: “Many good men hate.” She begs him to rewrite the story, to erase all this hatred and save the world. He understands her wish: “This is a splendrous—if gruelling—epic to read or write, but not one you want to inhabit, Mother, no, not when the killers and the killed will all be your own sinew and blood.” Unfortunately, however, “I cannot invent the story. The story invented itself, invented you and me. I can merely act as channel, as implement.” Satyavati, recognizing the truth of this typically Indian notion in which the author is internal to, indeed created by, his own book, says in terror, “The night was damp with unspilled blood, the sky hung low, clouds of unshed tears dragging it to earth.”
This is a Mahabharata for our generation. It includes stories that have attached themselves to the classical epic via local, regional traditions. The most trenchant of these are three monologues that tell the tale of Aravan, son of the hero Arjuna and the snake-woman Ulupi, as it is known and ritually enacted each year in the Tamil country. The Pandava brothers need someone to be sacrificed to the fierce goddess Kali in order to achieve victory over their foes. Aravan, very young, still a bachelor and a newcomer to the war, volunteers; he says he belongs to Kali anyway and is ready to die, but he wants two things in exchange: first, to be married and to spend a night with his bride, and second, to remain a witness to the entire war. The first wish is not so easily fulfilled; no woman wants to marry a boy who will leave her a widow the day after the marriage. Eventually, Lord Krishna assumes his seductive female form as the enchantress Mohini and marries Aravan. In Karthika’s inspired reenactment, Aravan’s serpentine mother mourns him proleptically:
I knew the ache to belong
would send him here, to this
crazed, dissonant swansong
of war—for sons will slash their
lifelines for distant
fathers, to please kin who’ve
disdained them all along
while mothers and lovers and life,
in an instant,
are forsaken for combat, for the
death or painless triumph they
believe lies ahead.
Neither—they will find, alas—
proves to be constant.
Krishna cynically persuades the Pandava king that this sacrifice is necessary, a purely instrumental event:
Yudhishthira, someone must die,
must kill himself, and
we can prevail….
someone must die, Yudhishthira,
the reason countless others will
Finally, Mohini, the one-night bride, now a tormented, leftover part of the god, cries out to her dead husband and curses everyone involved in the grisly ritual—gods, demons, kings, warriors, the earth, night and day, the bloodthirsty goddess Kali, the Pandava brothers (including Aravan’s father, Arjuna), Krishna (“for spinning this loathsome universe into light for this war”), and herself, her womb, her “transient woman’s soul” that will revert the next day to maleness. Aravan is worshiped in Tamil Nadu in temples devoted to the goddess Draupadi and, in particular, in the village of Kuvakam, where transvestites and transgender people come from all over South India to mourn the dead warrior at his annual festival. Usually one finds him in the form of a huge painted head that, in accordance with his wish, survived to watch the war to its end and is now watching us.
In the introduction to the American edition of Until the Lions, Karthika writes of the relevance of the Mahabharata for a world in which ruthless (mostly male) authoritarian rule has become the norm. She also speaks of her father, a soldier who fought in three of India’s wars: “Each of the characters in the book views one or more of the triggers and upshots of war through separate vantage points, whose existence I learnt from my father’s earlier, farsighted self.” (“Earlier” since his views on war changed over time.) Her poems share the kaleidoscopic quality of the epic text, its persistent, dizzying perspectivism as it moves from one episode to the next, one ardent speaker to another.
One could also see the Mahabharata, as the anthropologist Don Handelman has suggested, as a vast laboratory for existential experiment, in which the great themes and above all the ethical quandaries of a civilization can be brought to light, played out, and examined. Such themes are not abstract entities but lived human realities, mostly agonizing and opaque, eluding any simple or, indeed, possible resolution. From a point somewhere deep within this laboratory, Karthika Naïr has captured in words the tonality of this mammoth text:
We’re all dying, less or more
The sages say this is what it means
to be human.
To be human, like runes on
to fade, to tear, to melt—and,
sometimes, to be unmeant….
Each light I shall weep—weep
their names, etch their voices on
these woods, this wind, this
Karthika has also published several other volumes of English poetry as well as one of the most beautiful children’s books ever written, The Honey Hunter (Le Tigre de Miel), with illustrations by Joëlle Jolivet (2013), which has been published in English, French, German, and Bengali. ↩