Dharma: After Kurukshetra

Abstract: The following article is an attempt at analysing the concept of romantic imagery in relation to uproot the marginalisation and subordination of the subaltern woman. The co-relation with the natural entities that surrounds the adivasi brings about a component of self-transformation and self-empowerment through which these women find a platform to engage and move up the social ladder. The journey of self-realisation is one that entails hardship and going in introspect. Stark parallelism is drawn between the visual imagery in the texts that are analysed, and the position of a woman within the society.

Keywords: Dharma, Kurukshetram, journey inward, death, life, Matthiessan, self-realisation, everyday life

To the repentant thief upon the cross, the soft Jesus of the modern Bible holds out hope of Heaven: “Today thou art with me in Paradise.” But in older translations, as Soen Roshi points out, there is no “today”, no suggestions of the future. In the Russian translation, for example, the meaning is “right here now”. Thus, Jesus declares, “You are in Paradise right now”—how much more vital! There is no hope anywhere but in this moment, in the karmic terms laid down by one’s life. This very day is an aspect of nirvana, which is not different from samsara but, rather, a subtle alchemy, the transformation of dark mud into the pure, white blossom of the lotus.

“Of course I enjoy this life. It’s wonderful! Especially when I have no choice!”

And perhaps this is what Tukten knows—that the journey to Dolpo, step by step and day by day, is the Jewel in the Heart of the Lotus, the Tao, the Way, the Path, but no more so than small events of day at home. The teaching offered to us by Lama Tupjuk, with the snow leopard watching from the rocks and the Crystal Mountain flying on the sky, was not, as I had thought that day, the enlightened wisdom of one man but a splendid utterance of the divine in all mankind. (The Snow Leopard 274)

After Kurukshetra: Three Stories (2005) works a discourse that sublates margins, fragments, and hurts. All three stories look at grief and reflection, and mourning and renewal. The confessional mode brings into focus immediacy—the sense of retaining only the essential, indeed, the sense of the here and the now. In all three stories, the women move on. They don’t wait for endings. They meet the demands of life and find resolutions in nature. Peter Matthiessan appears to do very much the same thing in The Snow Leopard (1978), a text that may deem entirely different from After Kurukshetra. The Snow Leopard describes Matthiessan’s expedition to the Crystal Mountain in search of the Himalayan snow leopard. In no time Matthiessan’s journey becomes an inward journey. He grieves for his wife Deborah and he reflects on her death. In the mountains he also comes to understand that one may sight the snow leopard only when one is ready; and if one has not seen the snow leopard, it has still been wonderful. The kind of wisdom that Matthiessan seems to apprehend in the mountains finds resonance in Mahasweta Devi’s women. Ecological wisdom and harmony unfold in the apprehension that fulfilment comes only when one has understood oneself. Matthiessan’s search for the snow leopard appears the exploration of spirit, or what he terms, a journey of the heart (13). Mahasweta Devi’s pilgrimage to Kurukshetra is her attempt to retrieve palimpsests in dharma. Did victory occlude the vanquished or the conqueror? How do concepts of dharmayudh implode hen brother, guru, shishya and nephew contextualise the realities of the war? In ensuing journeys protagonists review codes and identify worlds that spin away from each other. They come to understand that ties between self and earth are interlocked and that only in the complexity and the fragility of ecosystems, whether of mountains or forests, may the heart find healing. For ultimately therein lies the Way, the Tao, the Path. Mahasweta Devi underscores Kunti’s vulnerability as she awaits the forest fire. Kunti has come to the forest to follow a predetermined and predestined path to death (26). Kunti registers that Kurukshetra has not impacted the forest; in fact the loneliness of the forest accentuates the pettiness of human beings (29); but she has never contemplated interlocking systems. Healing eludes her: “Burning alive in the flames of a forest fire, will she pray for forgiveness from a certain dead nishadin? In the rajavritta does one beg forgiveness for killing the innocent? Kunti does not know” (39).

Mahasweta Devi’s representations of stigmatisation set in processes that simultaneously operationalise atrocities of history, while building up narratives that will go beyond the specificities of documentation. She locates her narrative within the framework of the battle of Kurukshetra. The terms of reference are established: the dharmayudh, the families of the Pandavas and the Kauravas, the exile to the forest, the return to the forest, and closure in the final ceremony of the mahadarpan. Her protagonists however fall outside these parameters. They are simple peasant folk who are subject to deprivations and inequities. No gaze falls on them for they inhabit spaces beyond visibility lines. In choosing to foreground widows, nishadins, and dasis, Mahasweta Devi seeks to collapse boundaries of time. Here, in these interstitial spaces, she seems to make some of her most powerful interventions. On the one hand the narrative absorbs the aftermath of the battle of Kurukshetra; on the other hand the narrative absorbs the melodrama of contemporary political containment. In revisiting Kurukshetra she refashions the order of protagonists. The first story “Panchakanya” offers the unknown narrative of five war widows. Their husbands, called to be foot soldiers, died while shielding the bodies of warriors. When the time comes the Panchakanya will make their passage to the hills. The cry of the chatak will signal their return to everyday life. In the second story “Kunti and the Nishadin” Kunti encounters the first of five nishadins rendered widows, when five nishads and their mother were burned to death to validate the Pandava plot that unfolded the death of Kunti and her sons. The nishadin explains to Kunti that she will die in the forest fire. She harbours no hatred for Kunti, although she has been waiting for her for many years. She also recognizes that there may be no place for Kunti in nature’s scheme. The third story “Souvali” appears a transaction in historiography. A dasi in the royal household gives birth to a Kaurava. He is the only Kaurava to survive the war. Therefore he must perform the final rites for Dhritarashtra. The dasi recognises that, notwithstanding, her name will not figure in Vyas’s narrative. Her history lies elsewhere. She is the adivasi condemned to live on the margins of society. The starkness of her life however does not take away from her. Rather it reinforces her essential being and opens up the possibility that she may reinscribe her history. It provides her with perspectives, demonstrates for her the improbability of choices and proves to her that life is sacred. This primordial intuition as it were, while it endorses mortality, also calls for fulfilment.

The panchakanya, nishadin and Souvali reaffirm life. They will not sacrifice themselves in the chamber of silence that widows inhabit (1 7). These women learn to look outward: “We worship the earth. After a terrible calamity, the sun always rises. Even after this dreadful war, Nature has not stood still. . As long as there is life, that life demands fulfilment” (22). They are free, open, and without defence, and approximate Matthiessan’s description of the Sherpas, “true Bodhisattvas, accepting like the variable airs the large and small events of every day” (158). To witness oneself is to return to the source, to the very heart of existence. Matthiessan explains the process with great clarity. He has climbed the Crystal Mountain: “Having got here at last, I do not wish to leave the Crystal Mountain. I am in pain about it, truly, so much so that I have to smile, or I might weep. I think of D and how she would smile, too. In another life—this isn’t what I know, but how I feel—these mountains were my home; there is a rising of the earth. To glimpse one’s true nature is a kind of homegoing that needs no home, like that waterfall on the upper Suli Gad that turns to mist before touching the earth and rises once again into the sky.” (213)

The bodhisattva in After Kurukshetra has experienced homegoing. In addition she has also suffered the collective wounds of history. In Tarakot, Matthiessen watches the coming of the night:

A bat chitters and stars loom, and somewhere on the far side of the earth, the sun is burning. Soon Mars appears over the dark split in the northern mountains where the Tarap River comes down from the land of Dolpo, and in the snug warmth of my sleeping bag, 1 float under the round bowl of the heavens. Above is the glistening galaxy of childhood, now hidden in the western world by air pollution and the glare of artificial light; for my children’s children, the power, peace, and healing of the night will be obliterated (117).

Matthiessan captures magical properties in nature that can completely transform lives. At the same time he reiterates that eternity is not remote, it is in the present (208). Elemental truths hold across time and geography. Simple mysteries energise the women in After Kurukshetra. They worship the earth. They smell the air. Their senses pick up signs such as the calling of the chatak or the direction of clouds (38). They respect earth’s assurances: “Kurukshetra will grow cool. The waves of heat will die down. And perhaps, just perhaps, some day grass will grow green there again” (20); that the forest that has looked after tribals will never betray them: “The fire will do its work, then rain will quench the flames. The scorched earth will turn green again” (39). Ultimately all of them find healing. In the starkness of the mountains Matthiessen gains the insight that all ancient races are privileged to have: “all is present in this moment”; that “religious ceremony is life itself'(60). The panchakanya, nishadin and souvali find peace. They also survive. The healing Matthiessen fears will elude his children is precisely that which lies at the heart of experience of Mahasweta Devi’s women.

After Kurukshetra offers narratives that are honest and uncompromising, choosing to ignore the so called endings and beginnings that seemingly create closures of history. They read as testimonies in survival. The women who tell these stories seek spontaneous identities and draw energy from life. Mahasweta Devi seems to he altering the political present of these women by drawing them into debates of personhood and political worth. They seek to negotiate narratives that otherwise position their relationship with history in the politics of containment. Mahasweta Devi creates subtexts through sheer starkness of description:

On the margins of the town live the marginalized. Their settlement is a lively, noisy place. The alleys are narrow, the houses small. Ponds here and there, surrounded by trees. Cattle sheds beside the huts. There, on the stoop of a large hut, sat Souvali. Ageing, but still not infirm. Copper skin. Salt and pepper hair braided in a long plait. Black choli. Green ghagra, yellow chunni tucked in at the waist, drawn across the breasts and thrown over one shoulder. (41)

It seems likely that people such as Souvali who live on the margins, force discourses on ‘imagined’ nation people. They form representations of the notional subaltern whose identities not only elude Vyas and his school of historians, but also contest nation-stories. Their identities essentially lie in what may be seen as the non-negotiable right to carry on a certain way of living. When Souvali chooses to leave the palace after her son is taken away from her, she alters her reality. Disappointment and humiliation sharpen her perception. She can now see the equations very clearly: dasi in the royal household; free woman amongst the common people (49). When Dhritarashtra dies she chooses not to perform his death rites. She wonders whether she will go to hell or heaven for the lapse. Mahasweta Devi is gentle with her protagonist: “Souvali tells herself, why worry about all that? I’m hungry, so I’ll eat. I left the palace of my own free will. Today too I’ll let my own dharma tell me what’s right” (49). The Adivasi claiming dharma is indeed a statement in selfhood.

The Panchakanya, the Nishad ins and Souvali enjoy wisdom and harmony. They do not carry non-essentials. They do not burden nature. They arc in tune with nature’s law. Accordingly they honour life and abhor waste (36). In the final encounter between Kunti and the nishadin, the nishadin sets at rest Kunti’s fear that she will seek out punishment: “No. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, that’s the way of the rajavritta. That’s what Kurukshetra was all about. The lokavritta’s ways are different” (38). She is also quick to point out that Kunti is trapped. There is no room for humanity’s prime values of compassion and mercy in nature’s world. The laws of nature respect co-existence; these laws also instruct in survival:

Tell me, what should I do? You couldn’t even remember this sin. Causing six innocent forest tribals to be burnt to death to serve your own interests. That was not even a crime in your book. In our eyes, by the laws of Mother Nature, you, your sons, your allies, are all held guilty. The nishadin came even closer. Said, See this forest? Full of resin-bearing trees? Resin is highly inflammable, do you know that?


Resin oozes out of the trunks and congeals. Sometimes dry fir cones fall off the trees and roll down the hill slope. Then, when those dry cones hit the resin, sparks fly. A fire starts. Forest fire. Forest fire? Yes. We can tell, from smelling the air, just as other creatures of the forest can, that a fire has started. That’s why they are fleeing. Like we are.

Where to?

Far away, beyond the reach of the forest fire. Where there are mountains, lakes and winding rivers. (38-39) On his way down the Crystal Mountain Peter Matthiessan stops outside old Sonam’s yard:

Soon night will come and she will creep through her narrow door and eat a little barley; what does she dream of until daybreak, when she goes out on her endless quest for dung? Perhaps she knows better than to think at all, but goes simply about the business of survival, like the wolf; survival is her way of meditation. When I ask Jang-bu why Sonam lives alone all winter in the upper village when she might use an empty house near Namu, he seems astonished. “She has the habit of that place,” he says. (199-200)

Whether of forests or mountains, native dwellers commit to their bio-. region. Sonam has her yard on the mountain slopes while the nishadin has her forest routes. The panchakanya also map their territory. They tell Uttara: “if you ever see birds wheeling over fields ripe with grain, smoke rising from village kitchen fires, or hear a chorus of voices raised in song, just think to yourself—that must be their homeland” (23). Each dweller has her location. The transaction between dweller and locale preserves them both. The balance is fragile, the smallest violation triggering calamity. If the calamity is natural, the sun will rise .the next day; if it is unnatural, such as the battle of Kurukshetra, dwellers will wait. Draupadi comes to understand the movement, although her world is alienated from it. When the panchakanya leave for the hills, she speaks in a choked voice: “May you find peace, may you find fulfilment, may you return to the world of everyday life” (23). Small events of day approximate the miraculous.

It is indeed to this dharma, this ‘habit of that place’, that Mahasweta Devi and Peter Matthiessan pay obeisance. They applaud ordinary people who have assimilated eternity. Matthiessan’s Sherpa Tukten is known by bad reputation; he is a loner; he uses foul barrack language; he is an aggressive drunk. Tukten inhabits another world too. In the simplicity of his everyday example, in his freedom from attachment, in his life in the moment, Matthiessan recognises the master: ‘In the way he watched me, in the way he smiled, he was awaiting me; had I been ready, he might have led me far enough along the path “to see the snow leopard.”‘ (287). In life subsequent to Kurukshetra, Souvali grows in stature. Her choices, her grit, and her defiance signify for the contemporary reader, autonomy and agency. A dalit kotwal, who like Souvali, claimed a right, dies. This dalit is not a protagonist in the story. 17 August 1991, Ambadas Sawane entered the temple of Hanuman, for which act he was beaten to death. (Rao 141)

If indeed for a rare moment

We could all just human be…

If only we could redeem

The visions that hurtle

Through our dreaming soul…

—Ayyappa Paniker, Kurukshetram.


Mahasweta Devi. After Kurukshetra. Tr. Anjum Katyal. Calcutta: Seagull, 2005.

Matthiessen, Peter. The Snow Leopard. 1978; rpt. New Delhi: Rupa, 2000.

Menon, Vivek and Masayuki Sakamoto, Eds. Heaven and Earth and I: Ethics of Nature Conservation in Asia. New Delhi: Penguin, 2002.

Paniker, Ayyappa. “Kurukshetram”. Tr. Nakulan. Samyukta: A Journal of Women Studies. Vol.V11 1 (2007): 140-155.

Rao, Anupama. “Death of a Kotwal: Injury and the Politics of Recognition.” Subaltern Studies XII. Eds. Shail Mayaram, M.S.S. Pandian, and Ajay Skaria, Delhi: Permanent Black, 2005. 140187.

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