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Interview with S. Aruna – the author of book – Sons of Gods – The Mahabharata Retold

Sons of Gods – The Mahabharata Retold by S. Aruna is a condensation of the epic Mahabharata. Below is an interview with S. Aruna – to understand what new she offers to the reader through the book, the language, the women characters etc.

  1. To those who have already read the Mahabharata or know the story, what new aspects does your book offer? 
Every writer who attempts a condensation of the Mahabharata will have a certain vision of which elements of the vast epic are essential, which less essential. Thus each condensation is unique in itself, since each one moulds together a different set of story elements. In my case, I was motivated to achieve three goals: first: it should essentially be a whole, rounded story similar in structure and style to a modern novel: that is, to bring the central story to life through the characters and dialogue while omitting almost all of the hundreds of “side-plots”, and avoiding the sermonising which, to my mind, detracts from the story in so many
interpretations. I also spend far less time on the details of the actual war; I don’t see the point in describing a battle blow-by-blow, punch-by-punch. So the actual Kurukshetra war is less than a third of the story in Sons of Gods, and limits itself to the fights between the main heroes.

Secondly: I wanted to reveal the essential spiritual core of the epic, but without beating the religious drum. The spirituality had to be between the lines, subtle yet potent.

My third goal was to present the Mahabharata through a different angle by emphasising the role of one particular character—but I’ll get to that later.

  1. I have not read the Mahabharat. Will your book be completely helpful? 
Yes. It will give you the essence of the story and perhaps inspire you to read longer, more detailed versions.

  1. The language used in the book is it scholarly or simple? 
It’s definitely not scholarly; scholarly styles, I believe, only distance the reader from the characters, and I wanted the opposite: for readers to feel and be moved by the dilemmas the characters face and really get into the story. So I use a plain yet archaic and dramatic language; I wanted to invoke the abundance, the colour, the highly-charged drama, the very Indianness of the epic through language. These are larger than life heroes; nothing is ordinary for them, and I think it’s rather fun to have flowers raining down from heaven, and arrows like hissing snakes flying through the air! These are not Western images at all—but that is
deliberate. I want readers to get into the spirit of the epic, which means stepping into this extraordinary world where mortals walk with gods, where a word spoken takes terrible, irrevocable effect.

  1. How is the Bhagavad Gita treated in book? 
It’s by necessity condensed to the essential message: Arjuna must fight, but do so with detachment, knowing that there is no death, no killing; that he is but an instrument of a higher power, and that his innermost Self is divine.

  1. Who do you think is the most tragic woman character in the Mahabharata? 
The Mahabharata is a book about men, yet the few female characters are powerful indeed: the goddess Ganga, the Pandava’s mother Kunti, the Princess Amba, and of course the Pandavas' common wife, Draupadi. Of them all, I find Amba the most tragic, as well as the most interesting, and I tend to identify with her.

  1. As a woman, how do you see the treatment of women in Mahabharat? Does your view reflect in the book? 
When we consider the women in the Mahabharata and their treatment, it’s important not to see them through the prism of Western feminism. This is a story set in an age and a place far removed from our own world. Different standards were valid in that age, and it wouldn’t be fair to speak of “repression” and “subservience” in that context. Yes, the Mahabharata is a story dominated by men. Yes, all the great heroes are male. And yes, there are only a few women, whose roles are mainly that of wife and mother. Yet, how powerful they are in those roles!

There’s the goddess Ganga, who dictates the terms of her marriage to King Santanu; there’s Gandhari, the mother of Duryodhana and his 99 brothers, who, after all the leading statesmen and wise councillors have pled in vain for peace, is summoned to the court to give the final word: as mother of the Kauravas, her wish is—or should be—final, and obeyed. Kunti is revered by her five sons, the Pandavas, to the extent that a word of hers spoken in jest is taken as an absolute command. And Draupadi: it’s for her sake, to restore honour to her, that the entire war is fought.

There remains only Amba, who is cruelly wronged by Bhishma near the beginning of the story; but I love the way how, after she experiences the most bitter shame and dishonour, she rallies her forces, decides on revenge, and focuses all her energy and her will on executing justice on Bhishma—even if she must die and be reborn again and become a man in order to do so. Amba is without doubt the very first transgendered character in literature; but even in a man’s body, she remains a woman, and it is as a woman she engages in battle against Bhishma. In Sons of Gods I’ve tried in a small way to honour Amba; yes, she makes mistakes, but in the end truth wins out.

As for Draupadi: she’s the most assertive of all the women; something of a diva, in the way she orders her husbands about! She’s not a female character I particularly like; she’s proud and vengeful and very bossy, and that’s how I’ve portrayed her. Thank goodness, another author, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, managed to portray a different side to Draupadi in her book Palace of Illusions, so that I ended up understanding and even liking her! We must remember that in Hinduism, the so-called female attributes of selflessness, forbearance and gentleness are seen as positive, whereas the so-called male characteristics
of assertiveness, domination and control are considered negative, being traits of the ego that must, eventually, be surrendered to God.

Siva and Shakti, male and female energy, are seen as two halves of a whole, each valuable in its own right, each needing the other as a complement. God can be mother as well as father, and the Mother is, finally, divine. Ideally, women are seen as the invisible backbone of society; it is that backbone that holds society upright, and when it falls, so too, according to Hindu thought, does society. Of course this ideal, humans being as flawed as they are, is seldom realised, and women all too often trodden underfoot in India as everywhere in the world. But it is there, a goal to be aspired to.

In Sons of Gods I’ve tried to get under the skin of the few women, so that the reader understands their inherent, though perhaps quieter, strength.

  1. What is your approach towards the character of Karna in the book? 

Karna is my favourite character. In many shorter versions of the Mahabharata his role is skimmed over; he is merely one of the antagonists, Duryodhana’s right-hand man, Arjuna’s arch-enemy, a villain. And in the longer versions the reader tends to lose sight of him; he is lost amid the sheer vastness of the epic. But I’ve always been on the side of the underdog, and I love the fact that Karna in the role of the underdog actually possesses a secret power, a power he is unaware of. His position is pivotal to the entire story, and I was determined to make this clear. That’s why I brought forward the scene of his conception and began the story
with that, as a sort of prologue. It’s to say: watch this guy. He’s important. Don’t forget him. He’s a great character. Flawed, but honourable to his fingertips.

  1. Mahabharat is essentially a conflict of Dharma and Adharma – How does the book treat this statement? 

I tried to make it clear that Dharma and Adharma are not black and white concepts. It’s not a Western, with the baddies and the goodies clear-cut and indisputable. Many of the heroes on the side of the villains are fine men, who know Dharma—take Bhishma, and his dramatic call to Krishna to kill him, for he longs for death by the hand of the Lord! And the Pandavas are only able to achieve victory in the great war through means that are on the surface adharmic, against all the rules of chivalry—and they do so with the blessing of Krishna, the Lord. So I think the essence of the story is not so much Dharma versus Adharma but Detachment; this is also the essence of the Bhagavad Gita. It’s not the action itself that is important, but our attitude as we perform the action that needs to be done; our duty, which arises through the necessity of the moment.

  1. How long did it take to complete the book? How was the experience like? 

I began writing my own version of the Mahabharata in 1975, when I was 24, and in India. I did so for my own enjoyment; it was supposed to be a composite of all the different versions I had read, trying to mould together all the elements I liked best, the parts that moved me most, and omitting those scenes and side-plots that I felt were distracting. In the following decades I kept rewriting the story, improving on it, reading other versions to see what I had missed, paring it down, and so on. Sometimes I put it away for years at a time, but always it came back to me. I started out on a very faulty typewriter; sooner or later I retyped everything on to a PC and since then revising it has been much easier. It’s very likely, however, that in a year or two I will pull it back and re-publish it in a new, improved, revision! So you could say it’s taken almost 40 years to write.

It has always been a joy to write. I wasn’t even thinking of publication at first; I just loved getting into the story, being moved by it, understanding the characters, finding the right words to describe my enthusiasm. It was a very emotional undertaking, and I still don’t think the form I ended up with is perfect—words are so inadequate! I can only hope that readers can get behind the words to actually feel the story as I felt it.

Sons of Gods – The Mahabharata Retold is currently also available in e-book format in Amazon.

You can find out more about the book and also articles by the author here at the blog of S. Aruna.