This book which came as a gift from a dear friend, was written by Irawati Karve in Marathi , translated to English by W. Norman Brown and published in 1967. The book has impartial, unbiased essays on some of the characters in Mahabharata, like Kunti, Krishna, Gandhari, Draupadi, Vidura etc. Mahabharata fascinates a scholar and a lay person alike for its composite display of characters, human behaviour and documentation of lives of people in that era. This book arrived late in my reading life and many of the arguments and observations made were already familiar to me from other books on the subject and by listening to talks on Mahabharata by Marxist scholar, Dr Sunil P Elayidom (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gKwxZWrSi3o).
There would be hardly any bibliophile Malayali who has not read MT Vasudevan Nair’s novel ‘Randamoozham'(Bhima in English),published in 1984. Some of the ideas mentioned in Karve’s book could have influenced MT in writing Randamoozham. (I am stating this because I read a review where it was mentioned that most of the ideas in Karve’s book were ‘already mentioned’ in MT’s Randamoozham!)
Mahabharata endures the test of time and space. Of course that is why it is labelled an epic. Karve’s observations on parts of the story that could have been later added to the main text by Brahmins when they got hold of it, are intriguing. Karve remarks that Krishna was never a God in Mahabharata and projecting Krishna as a butter thief, thief of women’s hearts and a divine God came much later. Karve’s comments are impartial, objective and intelligent. Her deductions are made based on logic and not on assumptions. Karve has tried to bring out the human being in every character in Mahabharata and has tried to portray them in shades of grey, which is perhaps the true shade of human beings. That makes them more real and human, unlike Rama and Sita in Ramayana. Mahabharata makes us realise that we are all amalgamation of good and bad and many a times it is contextual. Mahabharata does not promise any solution to our problems as human beings. Mahabharata focuses on living our lives as we are without worrying about consequences. There is nothing to be learnt or taught. Just awareness of what is happening till we lose awareness is all that is needed to be done.
Karve’s book should be read by anyone interested in understanding Mahbharatha and its characters as they are, although many of the ideas discussed have lost its novelty in present day era. Definitely Karve deserves a lot of respect because she was the first woman anthropologist in India who went to Germany to take PhD after marriage, in a era when female education itself was unheard of.