Sunday, March 14, 2010

Penguin Spring Fever - Kal, Aaj aur Kal - Writings on the Mahabharata

Penguin India is currently conducting a festival of Literature at the IHC. Penguin India started 23 years ago (Penguin is 75 years old) and has since then become the publisher of choice that most Indian authors aspire to.

This festival which is a celebration of the 75th anniversary is a chance for the public to interact with its well known and budding authors.

The 14th of March saw Gurcharan Das, Namita Gokhale, Shashi Tharoor and Bibek Debroy meet for a discussion on Kal, Aaj aur Kal - Writings on the Mahabharata.

Gurcharan Das has written "The Difficulty of Being Good - On the Subtle art of Dharma, Namita Gokhale has written a childrens edition of the Mahabharatha in 40,000 words. Shashi Tharoor's The Great Indian Novel is a series of stories of modern day India running parallel with stories in the Mahabharatha and Bibek Debroy is half way through writing the first complete English translation of the Mahabharatha by an Indian.

Bibek's endeavour is to try and present the situations and decisions and actions in a context relevant to its times. For eg: he says that Dushasan baring his left thigh and asking Draupadi to sit on it, isnt as vulgar as interpreted today by the baring of his flesh. To put it in context of those times, the left thigh was reserved for the wife and the right thigh for the daughter or child. So while it was a vulgar invitation to be his "wife" it isn't as vulgar as it is currently interpreted.

Given the context of the recent "Women's Reservation Bill", the discussion started with the role and power of female characters in the Mahabharatha. Draupadi's polyandry, Kunti's sons with fathers other than her husband, Gandhari's decision to blindfold herself were all brought into consideration.

The conversation then moved onto the concept of dharma and Gurcharan Das illuminated the audience on how the concept of dharma had changed across the ages. Including as recently as the 19th century, when the Christian missionaries landed in Calcutta and equated religion with Dharma.

The audience questioned the role of Krishna as a God and if the authors in the panel believed in the divinity of Krishna and if they beleived that he was divine then the question was raised as to why he allowed the massive war and destruction to take place. Gurcharan Das narrated 2 incidents to clarify this. He spoke of Krishna meeting an ascetic in the Rajasthan desert after the Kurukshetra war was fought, who asked the same question. Krishna replied that it was not something that he could control, bringing into play the role of destiny.

In another incident Krishna is believed to have replied that it was time to rid the world of the kshatriyas who were creating havoc and destruction on earth.

An audience member asked how the panel could say that women were empowered in the Mahabharatha when Kunti felt compelled to relinquish her eldest born son and not claim him as her own through all the shame he was put through, until matters came to a head with the possibility of her valiant eldest son fighting against all her other children.

There were two different points of view on this matter. The first was that while having a child out of wedlock was acceptable for a married woman in those times, it may not have been so for an unmarried girl. The second was that Kunti simply panicked. She used a mantra whose power she didn't completely believe in and the consequences made her panic and these caused her subsequent actions. And later when she saw Karna it was too late to publicly accept him as her own.

All the authors had a depth of knowledge of their subject and the audience could have listened forever. Looking forward to more such illuminating discussions in this week.

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