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Frank Stewart
Manoa, Volume 22, Number 1, 2010, pp. vii-ix (Article)
Published by University of Hawai'i Press

For additional information about this article

Access Provided by University Of Chicago Libraries at 11/04/10 11:33AM GMT



Written in 1953, Dharamvir Bharatis play Andha Yug is a response to what translator Alok Bhalla calls the genocidal days of the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan. Mahatma Gandhi had been assassinated, and humans had unleashednot for the first or last timea level of evil (adharma) and atrocity (atyachar) that, as Bhalla puts it, we may not go [beyond] without inviting the wrath of the sacred. The play reimagines a crucial event from the Mahabharata, the classic epic of India. The setting is the palace of the defeated Kaurava clan on the last day of the Great War. A handful of Kaurava survivors huddle in grief and rage, blaming their adversaries, fate, deceit, divine capriciousness anyone or anything except their own moral choicesfor the destruction of their families and their kingdom. Beyond the walls, the once-beautiful city of Hastinapur is burning and the battlefields are covered with millions of dead warriors. Even if viewed as no more than the retelling of a tragic battle scene from an ancient myth, Andha Yug makes for riveting drama and poetry. We may derive more meaning by viewing the play as parabolic commentary on the hair-trigger tensions that have existed among nations, religions, and cultures in South Asia since 1947. But Andha Yug probes deeper yetinto the human heart and the human conditionand the plays moral complexities reach across time and place. For contemporary readers, Andha Yug may be a mirror of the twenty-first century, with our urgent and perplexing problems for survival. We see in the play a world sliding irrevocably toward self-destructionviolent, despairing, ethically confused, and lacking the wisdom to solve the crises that threaten to destroy all living things. Given the frailty of our imperfect human nature, how are we to lead moral, compassionate lives in the perilous conditions weve created? Andha Yug and the Mahabharata question the nurturing and orderly basis of ethical relationships, which they refer to with the capacious term dharma. In Andha Yug, Alok Bhalla translates dharma as honor, law, ethics, truth, righteousness, et cetera, as is appropriate. The powerful wisdom of the Mahabharata and Andha Yug rests partly on the recognition that dharma has many elusive meanings, and therefore requires us to look


with considerable effort for its significance and application. The philosopher Chaturvedi Badrinath writes:
What is dharma? What are those foundations upon which all human relationships everywhere are based? Who determines what those foundations shall be? Are they given as inherent in human life itself? Are they subject to the varying conditions and circumstances of a persons life, so that there is one dharma for normal conditions, and another in times of distress, for example? Is there one dharma for the scholar devoted to learning and teaching; another dharma for the householder; a different dharma for the king; and a separate dharma for one who would maintain services? Is dharma a self-determining reality that gives direction to a persons life, and is to be discovered in a process of self-discovery as to what one is meant to be?1

Nowhere in the Mahabharata or in Andha Yug is the moral complexity of our relations to othersand the difficulty of knowing ourselvessimplified. Indeed, these works clearly demonstrate the difficulty of unraveling dharmas many enigmas: whether the nature of goodness, tolerance, and justice are knowableand whether such categories even exist. The gods themselves can mislead us. Nevertheless, the moral philosophy in these literary works will not allow us to surrender to relativism, divine authority, or nihilism. Like the Mahabharata, Andha Yug charges us to persevere in seeking the true nature of goodnessparticularly in our own time of unfathomable atrocitiesby warning us of the consequences of succumbing to the cruelty and cynicism of a blind, dispirited age. As the play begins, trumpets sound and the curtains rise. We see two guards walking among the ruins created by armed ambition, vengeance, and unrestrained cruelty. The defeated King Dhritarashtra weeps with remorse, blaming his physical blindness for his moral blindness. His wife, Gandhari, writhes with bitterness and cynicism and blames others for what has happened. The surviving Kaurava warriors justify their actions as adherence to ancient warrior codes of vengeance and as loyalty to family connections conduct that for them takes precedence over the well-being of humanity as a whole. Were reminded of the self-justifying slogan of Hitlers SS, My honor is my loyalty, and the Third Reichs seductive appeal to its benighted heroes of darkness: We realize that what we are expecting from you is superhuman, to be superhumanly inhuman.2 Countering this horrific, disordered logic is the kind of reasoning that tries to keep faith in humanitys capacitythough finite and imperfectto know the Good and to refrain from cruelty. In times of atrocity, however, when all sides have committed wrongs, the way forward is difficult even for the wise. The axle is broken, the sage Vidura says in Andha Yug, and the wheel spins / without a center. How is it possible to act decisivelyto kill, to sacrifice oneself if necessarywithout also weakening the ground that supports compassion, truthfulness, forgiveness, and nonviolence?



Written in Hindi, Bharatis play relies on the audiences familiarity with the characters and events in the Mahabharata. Some Western readers may feel daunted by the references to the great Indian epic; however, the lack of detailed background knowledge need not be a hindrance to experiencing the plays immediacy and nuances. When reading Homer or the Athenian tragedies of the fifth century b.c.e., readers may similarly wish they had a better grasp of the ancient Greek worldview, the puzzling behavior of the Olympian deities, and the social customs and laws of Achaean warrior culture. Yet with some effort (and a skillful translation), the moral concerns in those stories, as in Andha Yug, are recognizable as the inheritance of every human being: rage, suffering, fate, agency, love, death, and hope. Readers with little knowledge of the events from the Mahabharata referenced in the play may want to start by reading the brief summary at the back of this edition of Andha Yug. The images on the cover and throughout this edition of Andha Yug were created to illustrate a Persian translation of the Mahabharata, commissioned by the Mughal emperor Akbar, ruler of the northern part of South Asia from 1556 to 1605. The history of Akbars interest in rendering the Hindu sacred text into a language readable by the empires Muslim elites is summarized here in an essay by professor Yael Rice, assistant curator of Indian and Himalayan art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. These elaborately illustrated pages are as much an example of Hindu and Muslim cooperation as the Mahabharata translation itself, titled in Persian the Razmnama (literally, The Book of War). Although Akbar may have had many political reasons for making the sacred texts of Hinduism available to his Muslim subjects, he surely hoped that greater understanding between communities long at odds with one another was possible, and might contribute to the lessening of violence and intolerancean issue central to Andha Yug. We wish to thank Professor Rice and the Free Library of Philadelphia, where the paintings reproduced here are housed among the treasures of the John Frederick Lewis Collection.

1. The Mahabharata: An Inquiry in the Human Condition (Hyderabad: Orient Longman, 2006), 4. 2. Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York: Penguin, 2006), 105.