Irawati Karve

Yuganta is not a linear retelling of the Mahabharata, instead it uses a few characters to do a critical analysis of the epic. At a simplistic level, the basic story thread is indeed communicated, while delving into these characters and placing them in the context of the story. But more importantly, the examination of various characters, their motivations and actions, belief systems and relationships with each other, as well as the societal frameworks of class, makes up most of the book.
Irawati Karve begins with Bhishma and I almost laughed out loud at her systematic takedown of one of the epic’s revered characters. An observation that I really loved – “When a man does something for himself, his actions are performed within certain limits – limits that are set by the jealous scrutiny of others. But let a man set out to sacrifice himself and do good to others, and the normal limits vanish.” The portion on Vidura is also a look into the prevailing caste system, roles in society, and the strict adherence to these rules. This is extended in the chapter on Drona and Ashwathama.
Karna is another fan favourite who is at the receiving end of her rebuke. She is not only absolutely clear that he was nowhere in Arjuna’s league as a warrior, she also massively tempers the perception of him as a benevolent person. Krishna, in the original work, is portrayed as an astute statesman with his own self interest in play, as opposed to a God. His relationship with Arjuna is as a friend and equal. All these aspects have been wonderfully studied by the author.
Gandhari and Kunti rarely get the amount of attention in retellings and in this respect, this book is very different. Kunti is actually treated very favourably. The essay on Draupadi is different too, because the comparison is to Sita. The similarities and the disparities are analysed very well.
There is a flow of logic that the author adheres to, and the conviction that the epic is based on real events is thus infectious. (though I am quite a believer anyway) The tone through the book is a mix of several emotions – on one hand, the author clearly loves and respects the book, but on the other, she is also merciless in pointing out its inconsistencies and contradictions. I felt that the mood did tend to become preachy occasionally, but that, I think, is a subjective take. The last chapter – ‘the end of yuga’ seems to mean at least two things here. The obvious one is the end of the Dwapara yuga. But she also mentions that this work was the last one to display original thinking.
For a book that was published almost 50 years ago, this is a refreshing read that offers unique perspectives.
P.S. There is some inconsistency in how Vidura’s death is described. In one section, it is along with Kunti, Gandhari and Dhritarashtra and in another, it occurs a few days earlier. Hope it will be looked into in later editions.