The first thing that disconcerts you is the age of the characters. Bhyrappa starts almost every chapter by telling us the age of the person. As the war clouds gather and massive preparations are on for a large scale battle, we are introduced to Karna, who is sixty five years old!! That puts everything in a different perspective. Karna is no longer the one we read in our Amara Chitra Katha He is not your handsome young TV Karna nor is he the angry Sivaji Ganesan. He is a sixty five year old man who is preparing to go to the battle field. Similarly we get to know Drona, who is in his eighties, Bhishma who is beyond hundred and Bhima who is in late fifties. You are now seeing Mahabaratha through different eyes.
Bhyrappa’s ‘Parva’ is a retelling of Mahabaratha shorn of all its myths. It is now told as a simple human story of myriad emotions. The characters are normal men and woman with no magical powers. Whatever powers they have is achieved through their hard work. Krishna is not God incarnate. He is a master political strategist who understand people’s desires better than anyone else. Every character is stripped bare and there are very few who survive the author’s penetrating gaze.
The action of the novel starts in the Madra region, where king Salya resides. He is above eighty and is worried about his grand daughter’s wedding. She is still a virgin and her father, Salya’s son, is adamant that he will have a swayamvaram for her and not get her married the usual way of demanding ‘bride price’. He wants to follow the path of the Kauravas and others where swayamvaram is the norm. Salya’s son rejects the morals of his kingdom and wants to follow the morals of what he thinks is an evolved kingdom.
This clash between differing morals runs throughout the book. It is sometimes about swayamvaram, it is sometimes about niyoga, sometimes it is about who owns the child, father or the mother. This confrontation between differing moral standards happen often and gives us a glimpse of how human beings would have evolved and how difficult it would have been to reconcile the varying moral codes which each tribe or kingdom brings along with them. When people had to live together this would become the source of tension and even to this day we observe these fault lines in our daily lives.
The famous Tamil writer Jeyamohan, in his younger days, once went to visit the legendary Shivaram Karanth in his town (in Dakshina Kannada?). Jeyamohan asked Shivram Karanth as to what he thought was the central concern of literature. Shivram Karanth answered without hesitation, “Dharma. That is the central concern of literature. Krishna Dvaipayana himself has stated this. Who am I to disagree?”. Mahabaratham is always seen as a treatise on Dharma and ofcourse central to its story is the revered Bhagavat Geeta. ‘Parva’ is also about Dharma but the way Bhyrappa treats it is very different from the partisan tales we are used to. He is relentless in his pursuit to expose the hollowness of the ‘dharma’ argument of almost all the characters and this is what gives a different flavor to the novel.
The central dharmic question asked by Duryodhana and the question on which the war is to be fought is: “How can Pandavas be considered part of the Kuru lineage since they were not born to Pandu but were born to Kunti via the act of niyoga”. (Niyoga is the act of the wife having sex with a third person with the consent of the husband in order to bear a child. Pandu is impotent and hence he asks Kunti to perform Niyoga with different men from the Deva clan). According to the scholars of those days, niyoga is an accepted method to perpetrate the kshatriya lineage but Duryodhana now questions it and rejects it. This in turn converts Kunti into an adulteress.
Bhishma, though he agrees to fight on Duryodhana’s side and is also elected as the Chief Commander, is still unsure about the central question of dharma. He is not convinced with Duryodhana’s argument and travels to meet Veda Vyasa in order to get clarity about this question. Only to find that Krishna Dvaipayana himself is in confusion. His son has just starved himself to death with the reasoning being that he (Vyasa’s son) had embarked on a journey of brahmacharya and this meant he renounced all pleasures. He logically goes a step ahead asking that if all pleasures are renounced why live on this earth? People continue living because they are scared of death. They are scared because of their attachment. Why should a man without attachments be scared of death? Thus arguing Vyasa’s son Sukha stops partaking food and slowly dies. At the same time a couple of atheist arrive at Veda Vyasa’s ashram and want to engage Vyasa in a debate. Their central question is about the rituals performed by Vyasa on his son’s death and these questions lead them to questioning the Vedas themselves. Discussing about life after death and the land of spirits, the two strangers ask Vyasa’s disciple Paila, “Where is the proof that those who have talked about them in Vedas have actually seen them? How can one believe in existence of things beyond the grasp of our five senses?” These questions hit at the very foundation of Vyasa’s faith which are the Vedas.
A tired, sad and confused Vyasa is unable to answer Bhishma’s question about the validity of niyoga as per dharma. He answers Bhishma thus, “The burden of that thought has increased since this morning when the two strangers initiated the debate. Before that question, the issue of whether niyoga violates dharma or not fades into insignificance. When we have no answer for the key question, what is the point worrying over trivial details?” He further adds, “If only we can assign meaning to death can we assign meaning to life”. Bhishma returns back to the battlefield without his question answered.
The impact of dharma is felt more on women than on men and in this novel too we see how this impacts women. Draupadi is almost stripped naked in an open court with her husbands sitting silent because of dharma. Kunti sees her character questioned and all her actions termed immoral when Duryodhana questions the legitimacy of niyoga. Salya’s grand daughter’s marriage hangs in balance as the elders discuss the morality of pre marital sex. The fate of most woman in this saga is one of tragedy and everything hinges of dharma.
A conclusion that we can draw for this epic is that dharma cannot be absolute. There is no such dharmam which is true at all times. Dharma is intricately mingled with the lives of people and in many case is mingled with the vested interests and the traditions of a particular region. Time and again we see dharma being questioned and the goal posts of dharma being shifted. When Veda Vyasa himself is unsure about dharma it shows how slippery the concept of dharma is.
Additionally we see how dharma is used to protect one’s own interest and inaction. When Draupadi is dragged into the court and almost disrobed, Bhima wants to fight but is held back by Arjuna saying it is not dharma to do so. Yudishtira is portrayed as one who talks about dharma all the time but uses dharma as a shield for his inaction. This makes Bhima and Draupadi hate him and his cowardly actions. Dharma as a written text without any backing action leads to cowardice is what is implied. Bhima seems to inherently know what dharma is and he has no use for texts. Arjuna on the other hand uses dharma to his benefit and this again leads to both Bhima and Draupadi hating his actions. It is no wonder that the only person Draupadi respects is Bhima, for in him she sees a primordial dharma in action. This implied rejection of textual dharma and the upholding of a dharma in action is one of the key messages of this book. The book infact ends with some women asking a question to Dharmaraja and he being stunned by their question and unable to answer it.
This is ofcourse the most disturbing part of the book. Is there no such thing called dharma. Is everything relative? So a kshtriya dharma is something which caters to the vested interest of Kshatriyas and Brahmana dharma something which is advantageous to the Brahmins? There are no answers in this book but you do see that some people realize this double standard nature of dharma. For example, Ekalavya comes to Kurukshetra because he has turned himself into a Kshatriya, for he has great regard for the Kshatriyas. He thinks it is his duty to serve his guru Drona. So decked as a Kshatriya king he offers his services to Drona. Later he learns from Drona that Bhishma was responsible for him losing his finger, he realizes that Kshatriyas are no better than his forest tribe. He throws away his Kshatriya attire and decks himself in his tribal attire and gets back to his forest without participating in the war. The constant search of dharma and its evasive nature leads one to conclude that maybe our own life is nothing but a search for this quality called dharma. A quality which can help us to justify our actions and enable us to understand what is happening in the world around us. Unfortunately we need to search hard and deep for this. We should search beyond our religious beliefs, beyond our humanistic beliefs, beyond our class and caste prejudices and come to some conclusion about dharma. This is not a search for the faint hearted. That is why we take refuge in religion, caste, cult or gurus. This book questions everything and what is left behind are questions which we have to answer to ourselves. The author provides you no crutch. Therein lies the success of this book.
This is also one of the reasons why Bhyrappa strips the myth off and give us a plain story. Once God(s) enter the fray, the definition of dharma changes. We are ready to accept whatever is done by God or his avatara as dharma. That gives an easy resolution to the question of what is dharma. By pushing Gods away, Bhyrappa asks us to answer the question about. Ofcourse we too need our religion and our identity to answer this answer this question and more often than not we reach out to the epics for the answers. Bhyrappa asks us indirectly as to what happens if you do not have the religion as your support. It is something even atheist would want to look at. For even an atheist has some identity or ideology to hold on when he/she makes a decision about the right dharma. Also taking Gods out of the picture ensures this is not a fight between dharma and adharma. Rather it is about searching for the very definition of dharma. A search humankind is still undertaking. A search which will never end.
Bhyrappa adopts a non-linear approach to story telling. He brings a mammoth epic to earth in a very literal sense. In this you see the people sweating, women menstruating, the dust accumulating on people, the war field is filled with the stench of human feces and urine, the major heroes go out to defecate in the open, iron mongers come to the battlefield in search of iron, which they can take away from the dead bodies, the battlefield moving to a different place each day since the dead of the early day can neither be buried nor cremated and the vultures and jackals feasting on the dead. The story jumps all over the place but slowly Bhyrappa draws all the strings together. His main aim is to de-mythologize the whole of Mahabaratha and make it into a standard story of clash between two kingdoms and he does that quite well. The approach to each character is unique and in a way the whole novel moves on the monologue of the characters. It is to Bhyrappa’s credit that even though much of the story is told via monologue, he keeps it gripping enough and never lets the interest fade. Each character’s point of view adds a different colour to the story and gives us a kaleidoscopic picture which is in keeping with the epic nature of the tale. This is an excellent example on how you can retell an epic and still keep it an epic.
The book is so vast and the concerns numerous that it allows for multiple readings. You can read this as a treatise on how women were treated, you can read it as a treatise as how kingdoms were run, you can read this as a clash of civilization and values and in each case you would be right, for there is enough material in this book for every type of reading.
The sympathetic view it takes on the status of women, the way it portrays the destruction of smaller tribes by bigger kingdoms for their own reasons, the ineffectiveness of even the elders to stand up to adharma: all add up to provide us a comprehensive view of the human condition and the society in general. That is why ‘Parva’ can justifiably be held as a great achievement in the field of Indian literature.
( I read this in English translation. A few friends of mine have told me that they couldn’t go beyond a few chapters since they found the translation unsatisfactory. I am plain happy that this novel has been translated. It is better to read a not so good translation of this book than not read it at all)
( A second note: I wish they had included a map of ancient India which maps the current geographical names to the ancient ones)