Yuganta: The end of an epoch by Irawati Karve
Reviewed by Erica Friedman
Yuganta: The end of an epoch, by Irawati Karve, is a series of essays on the Indian epic cycle Mahabharata. Karve (1905-1970) was India's first female anthropologist; a woman highly educated, very eloquent, openly feminist, and very willing to discuss her own culture with the same enthusiasm most anthropologists discuss other peoples'. Yuganta was originally published in Marathi in 1967, and the English version, also written by Karve, was published in 1969, primarily for a foreign audience.
To fully appreciate Yuganta, it is best to have some familiarity with the Mahabharata. I frequently found myself reading the words of the characters in the voices of the actors from the Peter Brook/Brooklyn Academy of Music version and, as a result, I would strongly recommend that as a solid introduction to the story if you're not already familiar with it. (It's available in pieces on Youtube, or from your local library on DVD by Interlibrary Loan if they don't have it in-house.)
Each chapter of Yuganta highlights the main players in the epic tale, focusing on why, all these many years later and miles away, we find ourselves still mesmerized as Yudishtara gambles away his kingdom, his brothers, his self and his wife, or as Arjuna sits in between armies and refuses to fight his cousins. Discussions include the inconsistencies in Bhishma's reputation for wisdom and his unwise actions; Kunti as the best exemplar of Kshatriya in the epic and Karna as the scion of an older, now-replaced pantheon; the the burning of the Khandava forest; the evolution of Krishna from a man into a god; and Draupadi's "crime" of wanting to argue the law in the King's court.
Yuganta is written in a very approachable, non-scholarly tone. So approachable, I had the sensation throughout that Karve and I would get along rather well. I could see us sitting over tea, discussing the essential humanity of the characters and their place in the world and what it means that the Mahabharata is understood to have marked the end of a "Yuga," an epoch of human history.
One of the joys of epic literature is discussing them with peers. I recently realized that when anyone mentioned Achilles in conversation, in my head I always heard a drag queen say "Oh, *her*", which is exactly the kind of thing you can't tell a teacher, but your pagan pals will laugh at.
Yuganta is just such a conversation in which Karve muses about the humanity that drives the narrative, rather than the spectacle in which it is set. Yuganta is a fabulous treasure box of thought about the story, the people, the time and place of the greatest of epics, the Mahabharata.
Yuganta, Irawati Karve, from Orient Black Swan Press: http://www.orientblackswan.com