‘Mayabharata: The Untold Story Behind the Death of Lord Krishna’ book review: When all illusions fade


Express News Service

Imagine a covey of family and friends conversing over tea and snacks when the topic turns to what happened immediately after the great internecine war at Kurukshetra as recorded in the Mahabharata. Assume too, this informal gathering has scholars, sceptics, thinkers and dilettantes.

Mayabharata by Meghnad Desai evokes hours of such engaged discussion, new factoids and newer interpretations being propounded in the process until the night deepens and all talk tapers away at the death of Lord Krishna.

Full credit to the author for presenting multiple viewpoints with the flawless ease of conversational yet meaningful fiction. Perhaps the greatest quality of this book is how it frees commentary on the Mahabharata from the pedantic to the flippant axis, opting instead for a global perspective, studying stark simplicity as the vehicle for a lifetime of scholarship and revisionary rereading of the epic.

This is a master storyteller offering an alternate view, a 21st-century humanitarian perspective on the fall-out of the great war in a format ideal for a reader seeking an inroad into the world of Indian mythology and classics.

Creative ploys present myriad counterpoints. Krishna is not yet a god, though he has honed himself in the mould of his progenitors Shura and Vasudeva to have almost superhuman learning and abilities. Most of his contemporaries regard him as a man who has mastered magic. And he communes with a chosen few via thought alone. Lord Ganesha, on the other hand, is in a corner of the palace at Hastinapur as sage Vyasa’s scribe, who vanishes in the presence of humans, for he is divine.

The carnage of the war, unclaimed carrion and the wailing of the widows and families of hundreds of thousands dead affect those in their newly won palace in varied ways. Yudhishthira, Arjuna, Draupadi, Krishna, Bhishma and Kunti speak of their experiences in personal and immediate ways and tell us of their inner lives and their evolving coping mechanisms. This layers the fiction well, presenting much that blooms in the interstices.

Midway through the book, the narrative spins away on a technicality such that it begins to border on fantasy. As a reinterpretation, this is radical and open to dispute, though in the interests of plurality, all views must be valid and welcome. The central belief in Mayabharata posits that the ancient character Mayasura or Maya Danav is part-visitor, part-refugee from the intrigues of the Mayan civilisation.


The term ‘Maya‘ is both common and valid in the Sanskrit dictionary from times that pre-date the appearance of Mayasura in epics and classics. By that token, both Maya Angelou and former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati must also be Mayan. So far, scholars have understood the nature of homonyms and left this extreme strand alone.

The retelling then veers towards the royal architect father of the Mayan Quetl (a fictional character of Mayan origin in the book) and his travels until he meets the powerful Naga King, Takshak, who brings him to India and to the forest that is set on fire by Arjun and Krishna. That is how he comes into the ambit of the two princes. Hereafter, the narrative is much about the red-haired Mayan visiting giant.

This strand reunites with the concise flow of the epic in the denouement just as an identical carnage is set to unfold upon Dwarka and the race of Vrishnis even as the yuga cycle comes to a close and Kali Yuga begins. It is almost impossible to juggle such well-known characters and do justice, both to their voice and their original role in the epic. Full props to the author for the dexterity with which the text accordions to his will, even as the speech of each character is contemporary in tone and feasible within our limited worldview.

The only string left untied is the story of Asvatthama who is left to lurk in hiding with a curse upon his head. Yet, all of it comes together brilliantly, in great beauty. Rewritten mythology such as this ought to reach the furthest reader for this is also a record of our history, our inception.

A word of caution though. Much like the Mahabharata, this spin-off occupies itself with intimacies, the sexual act and its many preludes, pregnancies and rules under which virgins may be taken. While the flawless language and expert craftsmanship make this a book for all, this aspect may require parental guidance for young readers. 

Mayabharata: The Untold Story Behind the Death of Lord Krishna 
By: Meghnad Desai
Publisher: Rupa
Pages: 160
Price: Rs 295

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