Growing up in the 1930s and surviving to remember the Holocaust all one's life was pure agony. “The horror of that time and place was not an abstraction for me: a cousin with whom I used to play as a child had come out of Auschwitz with her identity number tattooed on her arm and a burden of dreams from which she would wake up screaming, night after night,” writes Maggi Lidchi-Grassi, who was in Paris during the post-war years.
She chanced upon a French translation of Sri Aurobindo's Essays on the Gita. She realised that a rationalistic answer to what had happened in the global war was neither possible nor desirable. Caught in a moral dilemma, Arjuna found release “in something from another dimension, a vision in which the terrifying ambiguities of morality are somehow resolved.” Thus was born the author's anabasis carrying within her the spaces of Vyasa's epic. At the physical level, she found her retreat in Pondicherry (now Puducherry). At the spiritual level, the journey continues.
The Great Golden Sacrifice of the Mahabharata contains the first three mileposts in her journey into India's ancient ways and their relevance to the modern world. We need to search for help in such ancient texts, as Hitler has not been destroyed for all time to come. ‘The Master of Evil' that he was, his dynasty can be found in the terrorists of today who reject all civilised codes of behaviour. Gandhiji in an open appeal to the British people in 1940 asked them to press for a cessation of all hostilities: “I want you to fight Nazism without arms … Let them take possession of your beautiful islands with your many beautiful buildings.”
One important lacuna was there in this ideal of a non-violent confrontation. Without Kshatra Tej to back it, Dharma cannot be sustained on earth. This, in essence, is the call of Lord Krishna to Arjuna in the Mahabharata, the message received by Sri Aurobindo when championing the British war effort. The Asuric force of Nazism had to be defied and defeated, somehow, anyhow. “He is thus Krishna-like looking at a future of peace only through resolution by action.”
Maggi Lidchi-Grassi's detailed introduction on these lines helps us gain the very best out of this silver-jubilee revised version of her Mahabharata trilogy. The need for violence to counter evil is underlined but not justified for, in the process, the cleanser himself gets infected.
Maggi begins with Aswaththama and we go back and forth to know of the past that begins with Shantanu and Ganga. After life's fretful fury down the generations, the Kauravas and Pandavas make “a terrible garden of the brown earth of Kurukshetra.” Maggi's negative capability helps her enter Vyasa's world with poetic ease and some of the great scenes come to us with a sparkle of words: brave Bhagadatta and his elephant ‘Supratika'; Arjuna getting Ganga's waters for Bhishma; Dronacharya's death and Aswaththama's ire that sends the ‘Narayanaastra'.
The Pandavas escape the imperturbable weapon by surrendering their arms. Yes, there is a time to fight and there is a time to surrender. Such is the inexplicable tangle presented by Dharma.
In her ambitious attempt to present the Kurukshetra holocaust, Maggi does not fail to stop by occasionally and give us memorable vignettes like Arjuna's chariot being reduced to ashes after the War and the last night of Dwaraka. Arjuna's falling on the wayside in the Himalayas concludes this epic tale. Has life and heroism on earth been a futile experience? No, the message of the Gita and the ‘Viswaroopa' could never be in vain.
As Vyasa assures the wielder of the Gandiva: “On that first day of battle, something touched the heart and mind of man, that has changed his destiny … Man is not through with wars. But what was given to earth on that day will not be taken back. Its light will grow and grow, till men grow beyond themselves.” Man is very much at the threshold of this step beyond his battle-weary mind. That is the glowing badge of hope that we gain from Maggi's The Great Golden Sacrifice of the Mahabharata.