Saturday, October 29, 2005

An anthropologist reads Mahabharata!

Readings of Mahabharata are subjective and individualistic. Even for the same person, the readings change with time, with moods, and with reflection and meditation.

When we were kids, Mahabharata was narrated (episodically) to us by our grandmother. She was highly critical of her own narration. More than once I have heard her say, "Yes, this is an inconsistency. But, the elders used to say so; and, I am an ignorant woman. You guys, when you grow up, should be able to read the original and find things out for yourself".

Thanks to Kiran, I recently found the book YugAnta of Irawati Karve, which is a scholarly and anthropologist reading of Mahabharata. The character sketches of Karve are stark in their simplicity and power, and the book is unputdownable. Karve brings to relief the various characters in a few simple sentences, and breathes life into them. Many of her explanations look deceptively simple; however, a huge amount of critical study of the text must have happened, the essence of which is distilled and crystallised into this book.

While a similar scholarly reading of Ramayana by Srinivasa Sastri is voluminous (and by no means anthropological), YugAnta is short and flows easy. The book leaves you asking for more; it kindled enough interest in me that I felt like going through the original Mahabharata at least once.

I recommend this book for anybody who is interested in knowing (a) the characters of Mahabharata at a greater depth, (b) the possible later interpolations and additions to the text of Mahabharata, (c) the socio-anthropological aspects of the Indian society at the time of Mahabharata, and (d) plausible explanations for all those inconsistencies that you always noted but were afraid to ask. It, however, is not recommended for those who can not (and will not) tolerate any secular (and non-scriptural) reading of the text of Mahabharata.


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