decision to translate Dharamvir Bharati's Andha Yug (1953) was the result of whimsy
of course, but whimsy in the service of practical reason, and, given the present
condition of the country, in the aid of political sanity too. I spent a semester
teaching a course on contemporary Indian theatre with the help of English translations,
which were mostly bad. Strangely enough, Andha Yug, which was so literally translated
as to seem like a long poem without any distinguishable theatrical or moral voices
at all, and so thoughtlessly edited as to confuse any good logician, became the
focus of rather disturbing discussions about the politics of revenge, the impotence
of grief, the meaning of karuna, the failure of a morally responsible will to
intervene in acts of violation, and the responsibility of the Gods in leading
us to moral dereliction and decay. Nearly every student pitied Gandhari, and there
was a unanimous condemnation of Krishna. Krishna made them uncomfortable. He should
have behaved more like a dissembling politician pretending to fulfil of our needs
and wishes, rights and demands so as to win our votes, instead of acting like
a God on behalf of morality and justice. Gandhari, they felt, was right in making
Ashwatthama the invincible instrument of her revenge against the Pandavas. She
had a greater moral claim to our sympathy than Krishna whose omnipotence should
have alerted him to his responsibilities and, thereby, helped the Pandavas and
the Kauravas evade a catastrophic war by transforming them into moral visionaries.
My students, I must insist, were not more ethically obtuse than any of us. After
all, we all demand that Gods behave like highly-paid karamcharis, or non-government
officers, look after our social and physical hygiene, be alert to all our psychological
anxieties, and protest on our behalf against all the various kinds of caste, gender
or class wrongs, instead of bearing witness to the causes of grief, or marking
out places of evil in our souls and, sometimes, even singing praises for acts
which are just so as to save that fragile thing called hope. Maybe, if we are
more charitable, we think that God is no more than a junior judge in the lower
court where "arid disputes" are sorted out, instead of being the very
form and idea of the good which finds its earthly incarnation in acts of knowledge
and work and love when they are performed with the full absorbedness of the soul.
Talking to my students about the moral issues raised by Andha
Yug, I recalled what the great Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, who had corresponded
with Mahatma Gandhi about the ethics of non-violent resistance against a ruthless
enemy, had rightly said when he asserted that thinking about God was unavoidable
in times of atrocities. Without invoking an absolute notion of the good or of
the just, all our truth-seeking impulses, especially when our very existence as
a people is threatened, can only flounder and fall into nothingness. Thinking
about what could be absolute and unconditional for human survival during the years
of the holocaust in Germany, years which coincided with the holocaust of the partition
of India, he felt, as perhaps Dharamvir Bharati did, that no other "word
of human speech is so misused, so defiled, so desecrated
" as the word
'God'. Yet, Buber insisted, as I think Bharati does in the play, that in times
of extreme violence the word 'God' needs to be defended with passion for our sense
of ourselves as human beings depends upon it. Buber's case for holding on to the
word 'God' is moving and eloquent:
it [God] is the most heavy-laden of all human words. None has become so soiled,
so mutilated. Just for this reason I may not abandon it. Generations of men have
laid the burden of their anxious lives upon this word
it lies in the dust
and bears their whole burden. The races of man with their religious factions have
torn the word to pieces; they have killed for it and died for it, and it bears
their finger marks and their blood. Where might I find a word like it to describe
the highest! If I took the purest, most sparkling concept from the inner treasure-chamber
of the philosophers
I could not capture the presence of Him whom generations
of men have honoured and degraded with their awesome living and dying. I do indeed
mean Him whom hell-tormented and heaven-storming generations of men mean. Certainly,
they draw caricatures and write "God" underneath; they murder one another
and say "in God's name". But when all the madness and delusion fall
to dust, when they stand over against Him in the loneliest darkness and no longer
say "He, He", but rather sigh "Thou", shout "Thou"
when they then add "God", is it not the real God whom they all implore,
the One Living God, the God of the children of man? Is it not He who hears them?
And just for this reason is not the word "God," the word of appeal,
the word which has become a name, consecrated in all human tongues for all time?
We must esteem those who interdict it because they rebel against the injustice
and wrong which are so readily referred to "God" for authorisation.
But we must not give up. How understandable it is that some suggest that we should
remain silent about the "last things" for a time in order that the misused
words may be redeemed! But they are not to be redeemed thus. We cannot cleanse
the word "God" and we cannot make it whole; but, defiled and mutilated
as it is, we can raise it from the ground and set it over an hour of great care.
(Quoted by Murdoch, pp.420-21)
God is the difficult and demanding Judaic God who is utterly remote, totally transcendent,
yet ever watchful over human affairs. His presence, Buber insists, is essential
for the survival of the soul in the conditions of extremity in which much of the
twentieth century has been lived.
In contrast, Bharati's Krishna, though equally firm and ruthless in his moral
judgements, is a more humanly-cherished figure with whom the self can always conduct
a dialogue. Because Krishna's presence does not produce fear and trembling, he
can be chastised and cursed, loved and worshipped, abandoned and killed. Indeed,
it is not surprising that in the play, an ordinary man can set himself up as Krishna's
brother and, acting as the keeper of Krishna's faith, chastise him for violations
of the law. Balaram can, thus, tell Krishna:
what you like, Krishna
But what Bhima did today
Was an act
The Pandavas are related to us
But are the Kauravas our enemies?
I would have confronted Bhima today
But you stopped me.
I have known you since childhood.
You have always
An unprincipled rogue!
is interesting to note that here, as elsewhere in the play, Krishna is neither
seen nor heard. The Kaurava soldiers, who overhear Balaram, are delighted by his
enraged condemnation of Krishna because it echoes their own blinding rage at their
defeat. Krishna's replies fail to penetrate the noise of their own blustering
and single-minded conviction about the rightness of their belief that power or
might can always be translated into justice. Indeed, what alienates the Kauravas
from our sympathy throughout the Mahabharata is their inability to imagine the
infinite variety of ways in which the good manifests itself in the ordinary world
and which may be the reality of Krishna. Like hundreds of Kaurava souls, we are
tempted into believing that ambition, mockery and the palaces of glass are more
worthy of all our efforts than accepting the grace of thinking about and seeking
the good. Like the Kauravas, we invariably refuse to hear the voice of God and
blame him when our ambitions are not fulfilled; refuse, like the Kauravas in the
play, to gaze inwards and find within the sources of grievous wrong.
Yet, while teaching Andha Yug, my sympathies were with my
students who responded with such rage against Krishna in the play because, after
all, it is easier to ask what God ought to do for us, than to consider what we
can do for God so that he searches for us. Unlike Buber's God, who is 'elsewhere'
and, thus, remote from the most contingent of human concerns and immune from our
commonest judgments, Krishna is a more complex figure to deal with. His very human
presence makes us demand that his actions and judgments support our present and
relative interests or suit the our contemporary style of functioning, and when
he fails to endorse our ordinary desires, we turn away from him as if he is the
reason for our guilty actions and the cause of our sorrows. The existing translations
also misdirected the attention of my students. They captured the shrill voices
of pain effectively, but erased the difficult cadences of speech and so muted
the voices of moral anxiety of characters like Vidura, Sanjaya or Yuyutsu so as
to drown them in the clash of armour and steel. Our moral difficulties were compounded
by the fact that the two crucial scenes in which Krishna made his presence felt
through small, gentle and loving things like the feather of a peacock or the sound
of a flute or the music of bells ringing in the midst of desolation, were allowed
to pass by as of little consequence so that we could get on with the real business
of listening to the voices of the defeated shouting for revenge.
Given the intensity of the moral anxieties Andha Yug evoked, it was obvious that
the play, written soon after the carnage of the partition of the Indian subcontinent,
which nearly erased a form of life and civilization, and being read once again
in our rakshas times of hysterical unreason, still had the power to make us realise
how close we live to the borders of nightmares.
however, the existing translations were not so finely inflected as to help us
understand whether the play was about our anguish at finding ourselves in a terrible
world where we could only lament and curse, or whether it invited us to hear,
in its difficult notes of tragedy, our own complicity in evil. Judging from the
fact that for a majority of my students it was the Gods who made the lives of
Gandhari, Dhritarashtra, Duryodhana or Ashwatthama so bitter suggested that the
translations had failed to guide their moral attention along the pilgrim path
of truth, a path that Vidura and Yudhishthira never abandon in the play even in
the midst of carnage. The translations, it was apparent, had not been undertaken
after a critical analysis of the play. It was, therefore, not surprising that
my students had failed to notice that the decisive events in the play, which had
opened an abyss before the Kauravas, had nothing to do with supernatural forces
seeking victims for their perverse delight. In Act I, for instance, Vidura reminds
Dhritarashtra that, years before the war, his councillors had warned the Kauravas
about the fate of kingdoms which refuse to abide by the laws of truth:
for the first time
in my life
I am afraid.
The fear you experience today
had gripped others years ago.
Why didn't you warn me then?
So did Dronacharya.
Indeed, in this very court
not violate the code of honour.
If you violate the code of honour
coil around the Kaurava clan
like a wounded python
and crush it like a
from the very first day
it was obvious that the Kaurava strength
final arbiter of truth --
was weak and vulnerable.
the past seventeen days
you have received news
of the death
by one --
of the entire Kaurava clan.
is right in insisting that virtue is not a utilitarian service which can be called
in to help when we are in trouble and forgotten about at other times. A moral
life demands perpetual attention. And those, like Dhritarashtra, who fail to understand
this, cannot hope to escape the consequences. In the balance of things, then,
it is right that at the end of all the carnage which he had failed to prevent,
Dhritarashtra is consumed by a relentless forest fire which is a manifestation
of the desolation and the affliction of his soul
translations of Andha Yug had erased the distinctions in moral perceptions, which
were carefully structured in the original Hindi text. They had also failed to
keep the separation between the different levels of ethical awareness available
to all human beings, so as to show why some characters, even those like Gandhari,
whose suffering saturates us with pity, deserve their fate because they were actually
responsible for the breakdown of the moral order and their own ruin with it. The
original version of the play in Hindi clarifies repeatedly, sometimes through
Vidura's moral commentary and at other times through choric interventions, as
to why it was neither Krishna's hardness of heart, nor his political cunning,
nor his amoral opportunism, which made him insist that Karna and Duryodhana be
killed ruthlessly. It also explains why he curses Ashwatthama to wander through
the endless wastes of time. Karna, for instance, chooses to live with the Kauravas
out of his mistaken notions of gratitude, faithfulness and duty. He realizes too
late that he had relied merely on armed might to protect him. It was not surprising,
therefore, that when the forces of the Kauravas crumble, he finds himself standing
in the mud beside his broken chariot, helpless, disabled and unarmed. What more
can he teach us? As he shouts for fairness in frustrated rage, we are required
to understand that power without the imagination of mercy can only lead to humiliation.
Why should he continue to live after that? And why should Krishna not condone
all means available to destroy him? The sacred, after all, is not required to
make sentimental compromises when it comes to restoring the just balance of the
world in which we live. In the face of an annihilating power, the sacred may use
all the available ruthlessness that it can muster up in order to survive. We may,
in our mistaken and fallen world, accuse the sacred of hard-heartedness. But,
how else will we sometimes learn that there are limits of adharma and atyachar
beyond which we may not go without inviting the wrath of the sacred?
Similarly, in Bharati's play, Duryodhana
has to experience the shame of fear before his death for he had not understood
it sufficiently when he had Draupadi stripped in court. There can be no consolation
for him as he slides behind some watery reeds trying to hide from his fate, and
is then crushed to death by Bhima -- the coarse and brutal face of justice that
sometimes must be revealed. That is why the description of his defeat in the battlefield
in Act III, given to us quite appropriately by Ashwatthama whose understanding
of the moral issues of the war is deficient, fills us with terror, but does not
touch us with pity. This is how Ashwatthama describes Duryodhana's death to Gandhari
- his voice marked with uncomprehending rage and contempt for the Pandavas:
Pandava sense of honour
was on display today
all the codes of war
threw Duryodhana down
smashed his thighs
his arms and his neck.
with his foot on Duryodhana's head
Bhima stood on him with all his
and roared like a wild beast!
veins on Duryodhana's head
swelled and suddenly burst.
He screamed in
His broken legs jerked.
He opened his eyes
and looked at his
we hear this account of his death, we must, if we don't want our souls to corrode
by seeming to relish such violence, stand beside Gandhari as she weeps over his
death. But we must not, for the sake of our rational well-being, approve when
she curses Krishna for her son's death and asserts that Duryodhana's victory would
have been the triumph of dharma.
Duryodhana's miserable fate should, instead,
remind us that he had erased the pledge to a minimum ethicality we must all make
in our daily lives so that we do not act with crass stupidity in our encounters
with the world. Till the end Duryodhana failed to see that he himself was responsible
for the extreme perversion of life that war represents. There was justice in the
fact that he died unconsoled, cursing Krishna. Words of repentance from him would
only have added another untruth to the world. His fanaticism had to be isolated
and identified as the cause of suffering. "Thus it is," as Simone Weil
says, "that those whom destiny lends might perish for having relied too much
Duryodhana and Karna are, however, only a part of the argument, the moral
imagery of the play, and not the primary concern of its theatrical narrative.
The action of the play takes place on the last night of the Mahabharata war and
is centred on the plight of a few bewildered survivors of the Kaurava clan - Gandhari,
Dhritarashtra, Ashwatthama and a handful of others. The ramparts are in ruins,
the city is burning and Kurukshetra is covered with corpses and vultures. The
ordinary foot-soldiers of the Kaurava army are cynical about those who control
the affairs of state. They are more concerned about their immediate physical survival
than about questions of law or virtue. Besides, they know that dynasties change
and fall, and that it is more prudent for people like themselves to stand by the
rampart walls and wait for the next ruler who needs their services and is willing
to pay for them.
1: Sorrow at the death of one's sons!
2: The future that is waiting to be born!
1: All these
grace the lives of kings!
2: And the one they worship as their Lord
takes responsibility for all of
1: But what about the lives
the two of us have spent
in these desolate
2 : Who shall take
responsibility for us?
Guard 1: We did not violate
because we did not have any
2: We were never tormented by disbelief because we never had any faith
1: We never experienced any sorrow
1: nor felt any pain
2: We spent our desolate lives in these desolate corridors
1: because we were only slaves
2: We merely followed the
orders of a blind king
1: We had no opinions of our own
we made no choices
2: That is why
from the beginning
we have paced these desolate
from right to left
and then from left to right
without any meaning
without any purpose.
2: Even after death
we shall pace
the desolate corridors
from right to left
and then from left to right.
other survivors, the ones who have invested the war with heroic arguments, are
overwhelmed by grief and rage. They have lived for so long in tamas that they
fail to notice how close they are to annihilation. Morally blind, they still cannot
turn away from egotism, give up their fascination with power, recognize that others
too have suffered, and stop longing for overwhelming vengeance, which will redeem
them. Ashwatthama, for instance, blinded by his passion for revenge, says:
like a blind and ruthless beast
Let both my hands
turn into claws!
Let these eyes
sharp like the teeth
of a carnivore
tear the body
of anyone they see!
From now on
my only dharma is;
'Kill, kill, kill
and kill again!'
Let that be
the final purpose
of my existence!
sympathise with the assumption of the remaining members of the Kaurava clan that
a battlefield is the harshest of places anywhere, and that the only choices which
matter there are strategic ones which can ensure survival or victory. That is
why the survivors quibble about violations of the laws of war. They think that
Krishna should act as a referee, and they curse him when, as the upholder of dharma,
he judges them. Since they lose the war, they think it is futile to talk about
right or wrong. For them, dharma is not that radical ethicality which a critically-alert
reason always recognizes, and which could enable them to escape the sorrows and
passions of profane time. They continue to debase the idea of dharma, continue
to mutilate it, by thinking of it as nothing more than all that satisfies their
personal desires in an utterly contingent world. It is not surprising, then, that
for the Kaurava survivors, still thirsting for revenge on the last night of the
war, Ashwatthama is the only saviour left. Indeed, Ashwatthama embodies what the
Kauravas have stood for all along - ambition instead of peace, power instead of
companionship, avoidance of responsibility instead of justice, contempt for everything
instead of hope for the well-being of all things. One of the terrible ironies
of the play is that Gandhari, refusing to understand the kind monster Ashwatthama
really is, removes the bandage from her eyes so as to bless him with her visionary
sight and give to his body the adamantine polish of precious stones. All her accumulated
grace is wasted as, immediately afterwards, Krishna curses Ashwatthama and transforms
his body into a putrid thing. It falls upon Sanjaya, the prophetic narrator whose
task it is to tell the truth always, to describe Ashwatthama's physical decay
to Gandhari as follows:
He is hideous
his body is rotten
with boils and open sores
the sin of infanticide
Krishna cursed him
to live forever and ever.
Cut and slashed by the Lord's disc
body shall fester forever.
Soiled bandages shall staunch
the blood that
from his wounds forever and ever.
defiled, filthy and corrupted
he shall wander
through thick and deep
forever and ever.
body shall be covered with boils
his skin shall rot with pus and scabs
and spittle and phlegm and bile
and he shall live forever and ever.
pain will rip
through each limb.
bone in his body
will be corroded by suffering
and the Lord shall not
let him die.
will become an abomination
and he shall live forever and ever.
At the end
of the play, as he tries to hide from human gaze, Ashwatthama becomes the dramatic
correlative of the exhaustion of the ethical. His broken presence signifies that
moment in the chronology of a civilization when, in complete despair, it ceases
to believe that it has a future. That is why Ashwatthama can contemplate genocide,
decide that everyone and everything on earth can be annihilated, and justify his
decision to erase all traces of life as the inevitable consequence of the history
he has lived. What is awful about him when he releases the 'unthinkable' weapon,
the brahmastra, is that he is the monster each of one of us can become when, afraid
of losing our selfhood, we dismiss Krishna as a rumour or an opinion, and deny
that the ethical must always have a sanctuary in human time.
Yet, throughout the play, as indeed in the Mahabharata, whenever we fear that
life is now so accursed that we shall never again see the ordinary world, the
Kauravas are given another chance to acknowledge their complicity in evil and
turn toward the ethical. Indeed, just as in the Mahabharata, the Gita lies at
the heart of the story (I am not concerned about whether it is an interpolation)
in Andha Yug, Krishna's presence, suddenly and unexpectedly, breaks into the narrative
of pain - the soft sounds of a flute drift across the battlefield, a peacock feather
floats down the ramparts, as if to remind the Kauravas that the sensuous world
they, like all human beings had once longed for, still lies just outside the present
circle of suffering and needs the grace of justice and truth. And then, as Gandhari
in her utter mistakenness, curses him for having caused the war, Krishna like
a calm satyagrahi (I use this word lest we forget the play was written soon after
the genocidal days of the partition when we had abused Gandhi), accepts the curse
in the hope of bringing the cycle of violence and revenge to an end. It is terrible
to watch her remorse as she realises the enormity of her fault. She suddenly understands
that she has lost the last of the honourable choices it was still possible for
the Kauravas to make, and that, henceforth, she can expect no mercy for herself
or her clan.
What have you done, Krishna!
What have you done!
Hear me now!
You will have to hear me today!
Hear me, Gandhari
who has sacrificed everything
who has lived a virtuous
who has lived a life of penance
and has earned the right
If you wanted
You could have stopped the war
incited Bhima's adharma
but you inflicted
a vile curse on Ashwatthama
who had committed no crime!
used your divine power
for unjust ends.
my sacrifice has any meaning
if my penance has any sanction in dharma
then listen, Krishna, to what I have to say.
may be a god
you may be omnipotent
whatever you be
whoever you are
I curse you
and I curse
all you friends and kinsmen.
They shall attack
and kill each other.
They shall eat each other
like rabid dogs.
many years later
after you have witnessed
return to this forest
and shall be killed
like a wild animal
sounds of a flute can be heard floating across the stage. The shadow of Krishna
falls upon the rear wall of the stage.)
I may be a god.
I may be omnipotent.
But I am also your son
are my mother.
I said to Arjuna:
'I take upon my shoulders
of all your good and evil deeds.'
In this terrible war of eighteen days
I am the only one who died a million
Every time a soldier was struck down
every time a soldier fell
to the ground
it was I who was struck down
it was I who was wounded
it was I who fell to the ground.
is I who shall flow
in the pus
in the blood
in the spittle
out of Ashwatthama's body
from age to age
forever and ever.
I am life
I am also death.
accept your curse, Mother!
what have you done!
to weep loudly)
did not weep like this
for my hundred sons.
as a mother
so deep and profound
is my affection for you.
could have refused
to accept my curse!
you done so
would I have grieved?
heart-broken and forlorn.
had lost all my sons!
do not say that.
I may be a god
I may be omnipotent
but I am your son
and you are my mother.
Krishna, given the chronologies of violence that follow the Mahabharata war, fails
to ensure peace is not the fault of the good that he represents, or of the compassionate
forms of life he pleads for. In Bharati's play, Krishna is the man of justice
and truth we can all become. He is "the advocate of all created things and
their finest embodiment."
If I am right, then the primary
concern of Andha Yug is to reveal that the ethical and the sacred, that Krishna
represents, is always available to human beings even in the most atrocious of
times. That is why he is at the centre of the play and his abiding presence frames
each act of the narrative during which the surviving Kauravas repeatedly refuse
to acknowledge his righteousness and so slide further into moral and spiritual
desolation. It is this aspect of Krishna's presence, which so clearly informs
the thematic, the poetic and the structural patterns of the original Hindi play
that is either distorted or ignored in the existing English translations.
Andha Yug is a tragedy that happens because the Kauravas, in their greed, stupidity
and blindness, so disfigure and deny Krishna as to blot out from their social
and political vision every possibility of creating cities of virtue and hope.
The English translations, on the other hand, make the anguish of Ashwatthama and
the sorrow of Gandhari the primary concern of the play. We are so overwhelmed
by the knowledge of their suffering that we sympathise with them as victims of
forces beyond their control and understanding. Krishna, thus, emerges as a capricious
and manipulative god who kills us for his sport - a sentiment that may appeal
to our present nausea with everything ethical or sacred, but is surely contrary
to Dharamvir Bharati's intention, and, perhaps, not altogether encouraging for
those who still dream of making good civil societies.
translation, I have tried to restore the sacred and the ethical back to the text.
I want to ensure that my English translation does not become vulnerable to existentialist
anxieties, but retains the play's essential tension between the nightmare of self-enchantment,
which the story of the Kauravas represents, and the ever-present possibility of
finding an opening out of tamas into a redemptive ethicality. My English translation,
I hope, shall clearly mark out the fact that the stories of Gandhari and Ashwatthama
are nearly always, and in every act, not only countered by different levels of
ethical awareness, but are also framed by two different kinds of choric voices.
I should like to call the first frame with which the play actually opens and which
is sung as we watch dispirited soldiers drag themselves off the battlefield "the
chorus of sacred rememorialsation." This choric beginning is made out of
fragments taken from Chapter XXIV, Book IV, of the Vishnu Purana and is meant
to be sung in Sanskrit. It asserts that the sacred, which had once manifested
itself in the ordinary and the profane world, can always reveal itself in historical
time again - that even a battlefield can be the site of hierophany. It should,
I think, be possible to convey the sonority of the Puranic song to the English
reader by having the English translation follow each separate phrase or shloka
I should like to call the second chorus
that frames the main narrative "the chorus of ethical lament". This
chorus does two things. It provides a link between the different episodes of the
story and, at the same time, it voices its moral dismay over the fact that the
characters, in their perversity of selfhood, refuse to pay heed to the song of
the sacred just heard, and slide further and further toward the blank silence
of non-being and nothingness, toward Andha Yug. These frames of sacrality and
ethicality, however, ensure that, despite human folly, life shall always be granted
a ground of mercy below which it will never fall. We are, I think, supposed to
remember this even as we watch the story of Gandhari's curse and Ashwatthama's
damnation come to an end with the final choric song:
day the world descended into the age of darkness
which has no end, and repeats
itself over and over again.
Every moment the Lord dies somewhere or the other
every moment the darkness grows deeper and deeper.
age of darkness has seeped into our very souls.
is darkness, and there is Ashwatthama, and there is Sanjaya
and there are
the two old guards with the mentality of slaves
and there is blind doubt,
and a shameful sense of defeat.
And yet it is also true
that like a small seed
the mind of man
there is courage
and a longing for freedom
imagination to create something new.
That seed is buried
in each of us
and it grows from
day to day
in our lives
It is this small seed
that makes us fear
and great wars
the future of mankind
from blind doubt