I was a bit taken aback by this film adaptation of the Mahabharata.
The Mahabharata is an ancient Indian epic that talks about ancient views of duty and what is right. The story centers on branches in a family that vie for the throne (Pandava and Kaurava).
Pandu gives up the throne to his blind brother Dhritarashtra and retreats to the forest with his wives. His wives give birth to five sons through the gods. Meanwhile, Dhritarashtra’s wife gives birth to a hundred sons. After Pandu’s death, the cousins end up growing up together. An intense rivalry develops that results in a game of dice, banishment, and ultimately war. The god Krishna—the human form of the god Vishnu—appears as a go-between and a counselor to Arjuna, one of the five Pandava brothers.
I expected an Indian cast but discovered that Peter Brook had directed a multicultural cast. Caucasian, East Asian, African, Indian—the members of the families came from all races and cultures. The Mahabharata is the poetical history of mankind through the lens of ancient Indian culture. Brook strove to make the Indian history of mankind universal through the cast of actors he used in his movie.
Originally, Brook and writer Jean-Claude Carrière wrote a theatre production and then adapted the nine-hour (!) production to a six-hour and then three-hour film production. This three-hour rendition of the Mahabharata has been whittled down to three parts: The Game of Dice, the Exile in the Forest, and the War.
The Game of Dice sets the stage for the story, culminating in the fateful gambling that leads to the Pandava brothers, along with their wife (yes, wife not wives), being exiled for 12 years and incognito for another year. Arjuna, the ultimate warrior, wins Draupadi in a contest involving skill with a bow and arrow. Upon telling his mother of his success, she tells him to share whatever he won with his brothers.
Whenever the sacred law of the universe (dharma), which maintains the order of the world is threatened by chaos, then the god Krishna appears to bring order. The rivalry between the Pandava and Kaurava grows, leading to the appearance of the god Krishna.
Yudhishthira, the eldest of the Pandava brothers and a lover of gambling, agrees to gamble with the Kauravas. The stakes are high. One by one, Yudishthira loses everything he owns, even his brothers, himself, and Draupadi. In one final vain play, he agrees that if he loses, the Pandavas and Draupadi will go into exile for 12 years and then disappear for an additional year. If they fail at this, then war will ensue. Of course, Yudhishthira loses and the Pandavas go into exile.
The Exile in the Forest section covers this time in exile during which the Pandavas face challenges. Bhima encounters rakshasa, fierce-looking, man-eating creatures in ancient Indian mythology. One shape-shifts into a woman and has a child with Bhima before disappearing from whence she came (along with the child). Before departing, the child tells Bhima that if he ever needs him, call him and he will save Bhima. (This child makes a later appearance during the war.)
During this time, Arjuna, the ultimate warrior born of the god Indra, encounters the god Shiva while on a hunt. After battling with Shiva, the god of destruction, Shiva grants him the ultimate weapon (pashupatastra), which can destroy all creation.
Both the Pandavas and Kauravas approach Krishna for his blessing in the impending war. Krishna ends up seeing Arjuna before Duryodhana. Ultimately, he promises to be neutral in the war, but take the role of Arjuna’s chariot driver and counselor.
The battle is set. Both sides align. Arjuna rides out to start the war but hesitates. He looks out and sees his relatives. Killing his family is madness. He lays down his bow. Krishna counsels him in the dharma, duty, and morality—in what is the famous Bhagavada-gita, which often stands as a work separate from the larger context of the Mahabharata.
Krishna explains to Arjuna that defeat and victory is the same. He must act but seek detachment from acting. Krishna instructs Arjuna on illusion. “He who thinks he can kill and he who thinks he can be killed are both mistaken.” Krishna advises what may seem contradictory. But what is right is dependent on the person, the time, and the place. Following one’s dharma or duty is the utmost. Preserving dharma preserves the universe. Not preserving dharma leads to chaos and the destruction of the universe.
In the end, Arjuna takes up his bow and an 18-day war follows. As with his pre-war counsel, Krishna’s advice during battle goes against normal feelings of right and wrong. Krishna tells Arjuna to shoot his bow into an undefended Kaurava. Krishna tells Bhima to hit his opponent in one-on-one combat on the thigh. Both pieces of advice break the normal rules involving combat.
The Mahabharata instructs on how to live in the world. Some instruction is easy to see and accept. Duryodhana, the eldest of the Kauravas, is consumed by hatred, a weakness that has haunted him all his life. (Do not be consumed by hatred seems like good advice to follow.) But Krishna counseling the following of duty, even if it means killing extended family members, is a hard one to grasp.
Some of the themes are timeless, appearing in later Indian traditions. The stress on action, illusion, and detachment appear in various Indian religious and philosophical strains, though interpreted slightly differently.
Like other ancient works, the Mahabharata contains words of wisdom. Kunti, the mother of the five Pandava brothers states, “If you live with the fear of death, why were you given life?” Krishna notices before the war, “Death is already here observing us.” And later, he speaks to a Kaurava, “No good man is entirely good. No bad man entirely bad.”
At just under three hours, this film version of the Mahabharata is a manageable watch. I found the use of a multicultural cast initially an odd choice, but it grew on me as I watched the film. Peter Brook’s film helps bring the Mahabharata to audiences outside of India, where the epic is a part of national consciousness and informs everyday life. The Mahabharata itself is a huge work; a more manageable entrance into the epic may be the Bhagavada-gita, an excerpt of the war from the larger Mahabharata, which covers Krishna’s discussion with Arjuna about duty.