An objective analysis of the Mahabharata through the life of its most famous Pandava.
When the mighty Arjuna stands frozen in the midst of the Kurukshetra war, it is Krishna, his sarathy, who talks to him of the inevitable. “Know that the soul to be immortal by which all this [universe] is pervaded. No one can compass the destruction of that which is imperishable.” And true to this message, Arjuna’s story continues to be told through the centuries and now emerges in Anuja Chandramouli’s book Arjuna: The Saga of a Pandava Warrior-Prince.
What, perhaps, sets this book apart from other retellings is the fact that it doesn’t try to get into his shoes. In fact, it detaches itself from its protagonist and analyses his persona as one would a character on the screen or in a book. This helps the reader look at the story objectively, even if the focus is on Arjuna, rather than look at it through his eyes.
Janamejaya, the King of the Kurus, is about to perform the Sarpasatra, a yagna that will last 12 years and deplete the serpents in order to avenge his father, who was killed by the serpent king Takshaka. Just before the yagna begins, Janamejaya is reminded of his great-grandfather, the pride of their line, Arjuna. He requests Veda Vyasa to narrate the Mahabharata; Vyasa consents and asks his disciple Vaishampayana to begin.
Much of the story will be familiar to one who has previously read the Mahabharata. In this book, however, one looks not just at the big picture but also at the little details that stoke this fire. What is endearing about Anuja’s storytelling is that it isn’t in chronological order. While there is a seamless flow to the narrative, she goes back and forth, forging connections between events, analysing their intent and clearly explaining what a particular event leads to.
For example, the epic begins with Vyasa (who eventually writes the Mahabharata). He impregnates Amba and Ambalika, who in turn give birth to Pandu and Dhritarashtra. Ambalika is so appalled by the sight of the unkempt sage (Vyasa) that she closes her eyes during their union. Her son is the blind king, Dhritarashtra. In a way, the Mahabharatha is all about cause and effect.
Another comparison that Anuja continues to make from start to finish is that between Arjuna and Karna. Arjuna is called fortune’s child while Karna is always shunned due to his caste. They are equally matched and yet the scale continuously tips in Arjuna’s favour. It is he who becomes the famed archer, he who cannot be won in battle, he who begets divine astras and who eventually emerges alive at the end of the Great War. Karna, on the other hand, is shown as a passionate and loyal friend and a man whose generosity precedes his name. And it is precisely these that eventually bring his fall.
Arjuna is very human in Anuja’s eyes; a strong-willed warrior who wants to be depended upon. He is fiercely competitive and a tad too proud. Drona, his guru, promises to make him the most powerful warrior on earth but when Arjuna finds Ekalavya is just as good, he is angry. And so, Drona, despite his admiration for Ekalavya’s skills, asks him to cut off his thumb as Gurudakshina. His relationships with his brothers, Draupadi and Krishna are dealt in detail, throwing light on what they feel about each other. Krishna, as always, continues to be the thread that binds the entire story together. Much like Draupadi in Palace of Illusions, Arjuna looks up to his friend and is often in awe of the things he does. He finds Krishna mysterious, endearing and many other things at the same time. He understands that it is Krishna, the incarnation of Vishnu, who will eventually triumph and listens to him implicitly.
The book ends on an eventuality, and yet there is an endearing touch to it. As Arjuna falls off the mountain that the Pandavas ascend after completing their duties, his life flashes before his eyes and he realises that his strength and his weakness were one and the same: his pride.