“The Kurukshetra war, may be well known, but there are innumerable stories set before, after and during the war that lend the Mahabharata its many varied shades and are largely unheard of.”
NO MAJOR SPOILERS
The Mahabharata is full of tales that people have forgotten simply because these days no one turns back to the original texts but relies on telefilm adaptations which usually focus on the more dramatic episodes.
Sudha Murthy has chosen to retell stories which most people know but which are these days overlooked except perhaps for the story of Yudhisthira and the dog on the pathway to heaven. Readers – and this is certainly not a book just meant for children who might require explanations into the nature of Bhishma’s celibacy for example – will find stories that illustrate the nature of dharma and the subtly balanced differences between the true way of life and the false.
Much of the Mahabharata is about behaviour and following the traditions of courtesy – which is why the serpent takes its revenge on Parikshit who insults a sleeping sadhu because he is overcome by thirst. Shankuntala too unwittingly breaks the laws of hospitality and is punished – and found a place in Kalidasa which gave her immortality as a literary heroine.
What is obvious is that punishment for rule breaking is swift and unexpected – though in Bhishma’s case retribution is slow and involves transgender issues the rejected princess Amba is reborn as Shikhandi whom Bhishma recognizes as a woman and will not fight.
Murthy also reiterates the fact that Krishna while being an avatar of Vishnu has his own strategies which may or may not conform to generally received notions of good and evil – he encouraged his subjects to run away from a war preferring commonsense over medieval honour, so that one of his names means ‘Turncoat’. He also illustrates the fact that the divine ‘big picture’ is very different from human imaginings.
Complexity is part and parcel of what Murthy narrates and there is a host of characters as might be expected from such a vast epic and twists and turns in relationships. The intervention of parents and grandmothers will certainly be required to explain the tales from time to time which may revive an ancient tradition of bonding now falling into disuse.
Added 22nd November 2016