Yugant / युगान्त : Book Review/Recommendation

Yugant / युगान्त is a critical and rational analysis of Mahabharata by the Irawati Karve – the anthropologist, sociologist, educationist and writer from Maharashtra, India. She was the daughter in law of Dhondo Keshav Karve – a reformer from Maharashtra.

Yugant confronts various versions of Mahabharat analytically and tries to make sense of character arcs and motivations. Intelligently analyzed without religious respect but with literary respect. The motivations of Pandavas for marrying Draupadi as the Royal Queen are very well explained. The literary accounts of chats between Dhritarashtra and Gandhari & those of Draupadi’s death are very well written and move your heart. Krishna (Vasudeva) stands out not only because of the brilliance of his character but the wonderful analysis and the crisp unraveling of his motivations. The Arya (Kshatriya) Dharma is explained in Krishna and Yugant chapters. The author enthralls with deep and intelligent writing in the final chapter that resonates wonderfully even in the 21st-century internet age. The sincere and irreligious comparisons of Mahabharat Era – Arya Dharma to contemporary Hindu religion and other Prophetic Faiths are interesting. Throughout the book, the author refrains from applying current Zeitgeist as a yardstick – something which is refreshing in 21st century polarized analysis and debates which always have political undertones. Even without a direct running story arc – the arrangement of essays offers a wonderful climax – especially Krishna and Yugant chapters.  With recent elevation of Heroic Karna in Indian literature and thought, a look back of the character of Karna as seen in 1950s-60s is a pleasant change.
Surprisingly the argument for conservatism offered at times by the author towards the end – is also a stimulating one.  Further readings of Mahabharata (Bhandarkar critical edition) may lead to various disagreements with author’s positions at various points – but that has to be expected, especially for a text as dense and significant as Mahabharata.

Post Script:

I have not read the English edition. I cant vouch for the  English version. The analysis is very well explained in the original Marathi editions. Some of her work – especially on Anthropology is hotly contested today, but IMHO her MO is very relevant even today.

A recent twitter thread on the Author:

This book is easily available on Amazon in India in both languages. The price on Amazon.com appears unreasonably high.



A note for Traditionally inclined Hindus  – None of the analysis is reverential but it avoids the viewing of Mahabharata from western lens. 



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30 thoughts on “Yugant / युगान्त : Book Review/Recommendation”

  1. There is similar one in Kannada by S. L. Bhairappa called “Parva”. It still has a cult status among Kannadigas.
    An english translation is also available:
    “Bhyrappa retains the characters, incidents and the time span of the ‘Mahabharata’. Yet, he demystifies the incidents, characters and the texture of the epic and imbues in them human feelings and weaknesses, and divests them of their superhuman and divine quality.”

  2. Well written review, Gaurav.

    The book had been sitting on my Amazon wishlist forever. Just ordered the English version.

  3. @GauravL, thanks for the reminder. Mean to get to this eventually. We have a rich tradition of critical work, and personally I’d like to get to a place to read both primary works and commentary.

    Not at the same level, but have you read Mrutyinjaya by Sawant? Thoughts?

  4. I have read Mrityunjay. It’s a very nice read. But it’s purely a literary novel with Karna as the Protaganist.

    There were these novels with Karna as protagonist in marathi together – Mrityunjay and Radheya which have been very famous – but their narrative of Karna as a Heroic tragic figure is a recent narrative and not the normative one as per Yugant.

  5. Agreed. But we need both kinds and lots of it to have multiple points of interpretation for our texts. Recently, there’s a surge of pop books, I’m not aware of a little more serious ones. My hope is to help the society prepare for modern India, and do it on our own terms.

    1. Yes. Native liberalism – not the deracinated ones seen on Indian left. I respect most marathi progressive traditions – Dabholkar, Baba Amte, and others.
      Even someone like Yogendra Yadav IMHO has more respectability than most other lefties who have no connection to the ground pulse.

  6. “With recent elevation of Heroic Karna in Indian literature and thought, a look back of the character of Karna as seen in 1950s-60s is a pleasant change.”

    Is it all that recent?

    Rashmirathi was published in 1952.

    1. Prats,
      I mean in the sense of timeline of existence of Mahabharata. Even 1-2 centuries is recent.
      But I put that out after reading this book along with Karna Novels

  7. I feel Mahabharata is the greatest Epic there exists in the world, its not just the length but its a non-binary characters and themes it ultimately has even if India(-ns) has gone through cycles where certain aspects of it is attempted to be elevated to something more, doctrinal, binary. It can’t really be pinned down like that because there is always a counter narrative buried inside the story.

    To me, Krishna in Mahabharata is an utterly despicable and villainous character. He knew everything that would happen and he actively still played a part in human affairs, manipulating the actors in both active and passive scope. As a God-Head this act alone makes him THE mega-villain of the story to me.

    Mahabharata is not supposed(relative & collective narrative themes wise) to be Ramayana or some other generic Good-Bad story, a major internal theme of it is end of an Era & the beginning of another. To me that should have meant Humans needed to make that transition to that worse next era (thus carrying the responsibility of the act and the consequences) but since a God-Head played such an active part in it that takes away the agency of mortals/humans. i

    Indian Gods aren’t nice in the platonic sense. They just are. There is much mythos consistency with the Greek pantheon in God-Head psychology (not surprising given certain shared roots of the development of these cultures).

    The other major theme is Dharma (possibly the dominant one) but it too isn’t really Binary. Enough natural logic holes exist in it that one has to conduct extreme mental gymnastics to remain consistent to that theme’s dogma and that inherently means good story material. Which is why Mahabharata survived for so long and captivates people to a degree which often makes them uncomfortably drawn to it even (there is that dynamic among many a Indian families to not keep Mahabharata in the house lest something bad happens).

    This post reminded me of Shyam Benegal’s Kalyug (1981 film) starring Shashi Kapoor – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kalyug_(1981_film). Its decent 80s Indian movie.

  8. Mahabharatha has been rewritten many times. Tamil Writer Jeyamohan rewrote the entire Mahabharatha (of course in Tamil) and it is one of the longest Novel series. Arguably best literary work from India. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Venmurasu

    Best Introduction in English can be found here. https://venmurasudiscussions.blogspot.com/2020/08/venmurasu-suchithra.html

    //The scope of the work is breathtaking. 26 separate standard fiction length novels, over 25000 pages in print, written over roughly 6.5 years. The author serialised the novels, a chapter a day, since 2014. The last chapter of the last novel was published last night.

    Venmurasu is written entirely in Tamil, a classical language of antiquity like Latin or Sanskrit, with a rich literary tradition, but still spoken today. It is based on the Indian epic, the Vyasa-Mahabharatha. For non-Indian readers, it’s a living story still narrated in oral and art forms, that’s centres on an Iron-age civil war in the Indo-gangetic plain. It depicts a time of great social, political and moral transition.

    In India, a period that held the seeds for the subsequent emergence of the Nandas and Mauryas and the rise of Buddhism. But it’s also a family saga, an internecine bloodbath between cousins; an investigation of dharma, righteousness; a philosophical text; a devotional text. It includes genealogies, mythologies, moral texts.

    Needless to say, it has all the inherent complexity that’s just ripe material for a novel. And indeed, narratives in the Mahabharatha (Mbh) have been novelised in literary form in many Indian languages over the past century. Off the top of my head – Mahasasmar (Narendra Kohli, Hindi), Parva (SL Bhyrappa, Kannada), Randamoozham (MT Vasudevan Nair, Malayalam), Yagnaseni (Pratibha Ray, Hindi), Yuganta (Iravati Karve, Marathi), Yayati (VS Khandekar, Marathi), Nithyakanni (MV Venkatram,Tamil) and additionally numerous serialisations and novelisations in English – Ashok Banker, Ramesh Menon, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Kamala Subramaniam, Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan etc. Shashi Tharoor’s The Great Indian Novel sets the characters in the context of India’s freedom struggle .However, most of the stand-alone novels in this list present the epic from the view of one character (Randamoozham, Yagnaseni) or one sub-story (Yayati) or one perspective (Yuganta).//

    1. Interesting will read it up.

      Been meaning to read Yagneseni for some time.
      Yayati is also very famous in among marathi ppl.

  9. I mostly agree with comments regarding Mahabharata itself (only – Latin is a pretty young artificial language, cannot be compared with Sanskrit). But, what is missing (I think without any justification) is the assertion (maybe not the most important, but is important) if the Kaurava and the Pāṇḍava princes were Aryans? Or, not? And any idea where similarities with Iliad came from (RK found two in the neighbouring thread)? And to confirm the place and (approximate) year of the Kurukshetra battle?

    1. I currently am in the AMT camp.
      The texts make it clear the Bharatas identify themselves as Arya. As acknowledged Arya is not exclusively a racial term but more a cultural term ( with overlap with certain languages and maybe some populations).

      I would firmly put MahaBharata around 1000+-200 BCE (it’s clearly post Rgvdic). A smaller scale fight that became grandiose over time. We can clearly see some additions to the text are clearly post Magadhan state.

      1. We can clearly see some additions to the text are clearly post Magadhan state.

        Which ones?

        1. The conversations between Yudhishthira and Bhishma about Kshatriya Dharma (I guess Bhishma parva) – have critical comments about Saffron/Yellow/Red/White clad bald monks. It’s clearly a Brahminical critique of Sramana traditions. So most probably post Magadhan or contemporary with Magadh super state ( Bimbisara – Sungas)

      2. Other than being post-rgvedic what is the evidence for being circa 1000bc? There has been double solar eclipse recording during the war, which was fitted to occur pre-IVC. (I say fitted because of back-casting astronomical models on eclipses). But not a strong evidence on the whole.

        Mahabharata has to be post-Ramayana too. (E.g. hanuman on Arjuna’s flag, jambavanta story, unless this is also added later?). It’s clear that parts of Mahabharata are added later. Adi parva being disproportionate to the rest is cited as one of the reasons. But it still seems to have knowledge of Ramayana?

        However, 200-300 years seems to be pretty short time for a bunch of people to invade, establish themselves, finish writing Veda, upanishads and churn out two epics. (Traditional timing of RgVeda at 1200bc with AIT).

        Just to translate Sanskrit Mahabharata to Telugu completely took longer under relatively stable kingdoms. (~300 years).
        That shallow timing seems like a stretch of plausibility.

        1. I firmly believe that these things can be added retrospectively in evolution of texts. The time most scholars believe the bulk of these texts were written – 300BCE – 500CE one can argue that both these texts evolved together with one being told as precursor. We can even speculate that Kosala (Doab) was later populated than Kurukshetra (Punjab). ie became center of Vedic world later.

          Both the tales – are firmly Iron age. We know for sure that iron starts appearing from archaeological records around 1500- the earliest. much more conservative date for iron is 1200+-100.

          Another lacunae for old written MahaBharata n Ramayana is the fact that none of the Sramanas , Ashoka, Even Kautilya confront philosophical and moral questions posed by Mahabharata and especially geeta. So imho it’s fair to assume these texts even if they existed pre Mauryan State – were probably small not very consequential texts. Scholars also claim that the sophisticated editions of these texts post Mauryan state can be seen as the Brahminical response to changed posed by the Sramanas.

          1. There is a clear consensus that Geetha was a later insertion to Mahabharata (even parts modified to ce due to how the text jumps between concepts). What matters is the practices and events within the main story itself. (One can’t add eclipse observations of an older date unless they were observed as such).

            Iron use was found around 2000-1800bc in Deccan and the start of Iron Age is pushed back usually. That’s not a strong evidence by itself for later dating.

            In any case, there is a difference between “inconsequential” and original texts vs. popular text.

            Some elements of Old Testament such as Noah’s flood are thought to be repackaging of epic of Gilgamesh. Just because Old Testament is more popular than the epic of Gilgamesh, we don’t have to date the flood story based on Old Testament.

            Unfortunately most of the texts contemporary to Kautilya are lost and some of the languages are also extinct. We can’t be sure of all of their output/specialization.
            Thanks for explaining your inference.

  10. https://www.boloji.com/articles/1052/dating-mahabharata–two-eclipses-in-thirteen-days

    looks interesting –
    but I tend to trust these pieces of evidence less than my earlier school of reasoning.

    Another concrete point is (lets assume we dont hold AIT as true) – clearly, Mahabharata is not the same as IVC- houses – chariots – etc etc.
    Modern Kurukshetra is not much away from Rakhigarhi.
    So it has to be before IVC formation or after its collapse. So I would infer possible dates to be around 5000BCE-3000BCE or 1600BCE – 1000BCE.
    Out of even these 2 – i trust the second one over the first.

  11. Tangential to topic, but any idea why medieval or modern India hasn’t produced any significant literature of the fantastic, like Lord of the Rings, that’s not based on the Ramayana or the Mahabharata? There are some great writers referenced in this post but none of them created original fantasies or worlds from what I can tell.

    1. Would you consider Ponniyin Selvan to be of this genre?

      We had a discussion on why there’s not much science fiction from Indian in an open thread a couple of months ago. You could probably check that out for some pointers.

      1. Thanks. Could you give a link to that open thread if you remember which one?

        And baahubali might be another wholly original fantasy right?

        1. Haven’t followed enough to comment intelligently.

          But from what I have followed – there were certain expected storylines and certain genres which were not encouraged in ancient India – that maybe one of the reasons

  12. Mahabharat contains 200 thousand lines of verses in 18 books. In one of them ‘Forest’, saint sources, rivers and lakes are described. Rivers and lakes of the country called by epic ‘Bharata’, i.e. land of Da’Aryans and H’Aryans. The largest river of Central Russia – Volga till 2nd c.BC was called Ra, in the Avesta was called ‘Ranha’, in Rig Veda and Mahabharata ‘Ganges’.

    Ancient Indian legends call Yamuna the only large tributary of Ganges (Volga), flowing from south-west, what corresponds modern Oka. Tributaries of Oka and rivers of Volga-Oka basin have got names: Yamna, Yam, Ima, Imyev, Yaran (Sunny, Light), Urga (Light Movement), Sura (Sunny) Alatyr (Saint Stone), Lama (Spiritual teacher), Moksha (Enlightenment) and others. According to texts of ancient India, second name of the river Yamuna was Kala, and till nowadays estuary of Yamuna is called by the locals as estuary of Kala.

    In Rigveda and Mahabharata other large rivers and towns are mentioned. Thus, not far from river head of Yamuna (Oka) there is a river head of Sindhu (in Sanskrit – flow, sea) – modern Don, flowing to the East and South and falling into Red Sea (how Black Sea was called by ancient tribes). On the coast of this Sea nation Sindi lived and there was situated town Sind (Anapa). Town Manusha correlates with modern Moscow, town Rama geographically corresponds Kolomna, Sita-to Serpukhov, Shiva-to Ryazan, Soma-to Suzdal, Vamana – to Murom and others.

    Kurukshetra was the city of Kursk where was the big WW2 battle between invading Germans (lost 200 000 soldiers) and Russians (lost 860 000 people).

    1. According to Mahabharata, to the south of saint forest Kamyaka there was river Praveni (i.e. Pra-river) falling to Yamuna, with lake Godovary. And, still to the south of the Russian city of Vladimir forests there is flowing the river Pra to the river Oka and there is lake God.

      Mahabharata tells how wise man Kaushika during drought watered river Paru, which was renamed after him because of this. But further epic tells, that ungrateful local inhabitants still call this river Paru and it flows from the south to Yamuna (i.e. Oka). And, till nowadays river Para is flowing from the south to Oka, which local inhabitants call the same, as many centuries ago.

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