Book Reviews

Of Dharma and Doom

A fresh translation revives the ending of an ancient Indian epic

By Sunil Iyengar | September 5, 2022
Painting depicting a battle between Arjuna and Krishna, the final battle of the Mahabharata epic, ca. 1820 (Wikimedia Commons)
Painting depicting a battle between Arjuna and Krishna, the final battle of the Mahabharata epic, ca. 1820 (Wikimedia Commons)

After the War: The Last Books of the Mahabharata, translated by Wendy Doniger; Oxford University Press, 192 pp., $19.95

The final books of the Mahabharata, one of Sanskrit literature’s two epic poems (the other being the Ramayana), depict the aftermath of the 18-day Kurukshetra War. This conflict pits the Kauravas against the Pandavas—rival factions of the same family, each seeking the throne to the Kuru kingdom. Once the war ends, omens start to appear. Comparable to the harbingers of doom in Macbeth and Julius Caesar, these scenes involve animals in strange ways. Here is the relevant passage from a new prose translation by the American Indologist Wendy Doniger:

When food was completely cooked and perfectly prepared in the kitchens, worms were seen in it just as it was being served. When people were wishing one another good day and the great-hearted people were chanting, the sound of people running toward them was heard, but no one was seen. Ear-shattering howls of dogs were heard everywhere. … When Krishna’s conch sounded in the houses of the Vrishnis and Andhakas, donkeys brayed in response, making a horrible noise all around them.

So begins Kali Yuga, the “Dark Age” that Hindu scriptures characterize as the fourth and final phase of the cosmos before it implodes and regenerates—a period said to last hundreds of thousands of years, well through the present day.

The Bhagavad Gita, one of Hinduism’s venerated texts, is generally believed to have found its place in the Mahabharata no later than 200 CE. The Gita extolls the virtues of duty and self-sacrifice, recording a sacred dialogue between Krishna and the hero-warrior Arjuna. It also forecasts the outcome of the Kurukshetra War, telling readers and listeners that everything will be all right in the end. Although heroes on both sides are destined to perish, the Gita promises us that the war’s outcome is not only inevitable, but necessary for balance to be restored in the universe. Contrast this divine assurance with the disgust and sense of futility that even the victors exhibit as the epic winds down.

Why are the final books of the Mahabharata so unsettling, so gloomy about postwar prospects for what we now might call closure? Doniger offers a hint in her introduction, which presents the text’s two clashing visions of the afterlife. One is, in her view, the Indo-European idea of a heaven for warriors (Wotan’s Valhalla in Wagner’s Ring Cycle) and a corresponding hell. The other is a later concept—”Vedantic or Upanishadic,” Doniger calls it—which assumes that every action accrues merit or disgrace that will determine whether the doer is fated for rebirth or has achieved liberation (moksha) from this seemingly endless cycle.

Here’s the problem: in the war of the Mahabharata, it is not only the villains, the Kauravas, who fail to act honorably; their noble cousins, the Pandavas—the ultimate winners—also use deceit to advance on the battlefield. A famous episode has the normally upright Yudhishthira dupe his opponent, an old guru, into surrendering his life out of the belief that his own son has been killed. Even Arjuna’s friend and preceptor, Lord Krishna, is shown on occasion to act unethically. The guiding rationale is that, on the road to victory over evil, sometimes the ends justify the means. But do they? Not if the epic’s final books are any indication.

The trouble begins when the mother of the Kauravas—Gandhari—having lost all but one of her 100 sons to the Pandavas, curses Krishna for having permitted the carnage. Earlier in the epic, the almighty Krishna had pledged not to take up arms in the war, but instead to serve as Arjuna’s charioteer—an ostensibly peaceful role.  Yet, in at least a couple of crucial instances, Krishna either prepares or advises Arjuna to throw scruples to the winds; in each case, an opponent is slain under sketchy circumstances. On behalf of the Kaurava clan, Gandhari is now crying foul—not so much for  these isolated lapses of Krishna’s, but for his refusal to stop the general bloodshed.

Originally an Afghan princess, Gandhari has acquired formidable spiritual power through a single meritorious deed. (Such power, “a kind of heat,” is called tapas, which, as Doniger quips, “is not Spanish food.”) Her deed, or sacrifice, was to don a blindfold upon marrying a blind king, and not remove it for the rest of her life. So she has the moral authority to scold Krishna—whom Hindus worship as an avatar of Vishnu—and to vow that his clan, the Yadavas, will die ignominiously in a drunken riot.

Krishna bears all of this stoically. He is already aware, he claims, that his dynasty is at the end of its line. Not only that: as he volunteers to Gandhari, it is he who will cause the Yadavas’ extinction. Still, as Doniger argues in her introduction, it is not Gandhari’s curse—or any mere curse—that precipitates the downfall of Krishna and his clan:

A curse does not actually make things happen. The evil itself sets the ball of karmic retribution in motion; the curse simply puts a spin on it, narrowing down the rut in which the ball runs, from its original vague headlong flight toward disaster, toward a more specific time and place and agent involved in the disaster.

If “karmic retribution” cannot be halted any more than the arrival of Kali Yuga, then time itself is to be abhorred. Among Doniger’s improvements on previous translations is her rendering of the term kala-paryaya as the “‘the twisting of Time,’ meaning both that Time twists certain events and that Time itself is twisted by other forces.” (In the original Sanskrit, the term “is often cited as an explanation for an otherwise inexplicable catastrophe,” she notes.) Similarly, in Doniger’s translation, the hunter who eventually kills Krishna is represented as “Old Age,” a nuance often omitted from other retellings. A weary Krishna dies because, as he reclines in meditation under a tree, he is mistaken for a deer; his foot attracts the hunter’s arrow.

“The Mahabharata wants to have its karma and eat it too,” Doniger writes in her introduction. Consider the final quest of the Pandavas. Disillusioned after the war, especially by Krishna’s death, they climb Mount Meru, the symbolic center of the Hindu universe, leading to the kingdom of the gods. Along the way, four of the five brothers—and the brothers’ single wife, Draupadi—fall one by one, punished because of prior misdeeds, as karma would dictate. Only Yudhishthira, the oldest, makes it to the top, followed by a dog. Scorning the rule that dogs are banned from heaven, he refuses to enter until his lone companion is admitted. The dog then is revealed to be a form of Dharma, Yudhishthira’s father—the god of duty and death alike. This crisis, it turns out, is one of three tests that Yudhishthira must pass, in a kind of limbo, before achieving heaven. Until the epic’s very end, in other words, the ways of Dharma are murky, if unremitting.

Doniger hails this ambiguity as an enduring charm of the text. It “is precisely the uncompromising and unresolved nature of their ethics,” she writes, “that makes these books particularly useful to us in this age of doubt and confusion.” Or, as the Mahabharata’s final book instructs, “Whatever there is here about dharma, politics, pleasure, and freedom, you an also find elsewhere but what is not here is nowhere.” In 2015, Doniger, no stranger to controversy (having riled Hindu fundamentalists with some of her previous work), wrote:

The Mahabharata is a text of about 75,000 verses—sometimes rounded off to 100,000—or three million words, some fifteen times the combined length of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, or seven times the Iliad and the Odyssey combined, and a hundred times more interesting [italics mine].

It’s a breathtaking assertion. Read Doniger’s graceful, lucid, and efficient account of the Mahabharata’s last days—preferably, alongside other translations of the epic in full—and see if you agree.

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