Book Review : Jaya

I opened the book and this is what I read on the inside of its cover.

High above the sky stands Swarga, paradise, abode of the gods. Still above is Vaikuntha, heaven, abode of God. The doorkeepers of Vaikuntha are the twins, Jaya and Vijaya, both whose names mean ‘victory’. One keeps you in Swarga; the other raises you into Vaikuntha. In Vaikuntha there is bliss forever, in Swarga there is pleasure for only as long as you deserve. What is the difference between Jaya and Vijaya? Solve this puzzle and you will solve the mystery of the Mahabharata.

Jaya-_webI was surprised to know that Hindus have more than one heaven. One is where all desires are fulfilled, and the other, where one is free of all desires! Wow. That beats me. All this while, I thought that this life is all we got… that this is ‘THE PLACE’ to manifest all desires and every moment is meant to be lived fully. And pray tell me, how is action possible without a desire for an end result? Even the act of being in love is a selfish act.

Having read that, I knew I had a very interesting book in hand. All I had ever known about Mahabharata was through story books such as Amar Chitra Kathas which I often read out to my nephew. Many a time, I was left baffled by his innocent questions like: “if Pandavas were the true heroes of this tale then why did Yudhishtira gamble away his wife? Isn’t that being irresponsible?” and “What is the big deal if your friend doesn’t share his things with you? You should still be a friend and not get angry …”. Hoping to find answers to all that and more, I have started reading ‘Jaya’. This book is extremely powerful and written with a very simple and honest approach. The illustrations are entertaining and very aesthetically done. Devdutt’s manner is quite novel. Who would have thought of retelling Mahabharata through such fascinating and evocative illustrations? The stories are short but give a fairly detailed description of the various plots and sub plots of the grand epic. But what is most interesting are the various perspectives conveyed by the anecdotes.

I was deeply intrigued by the first story ‘Chandra’s Son’, where Tara, goddess of the stars leaves her husband Brihaspati, god of planet Jupiter and elopes with the moon-god Chandra. I found it an interesting anecdote of cuckoldry and realized that infidelity is not a new phenomenon. In Hinduism, where such sacredness is built around the institute of marriage, it is quite interesting to observe the various facades built around it crumbling down in such a grand epic.

Jaya is seamlessly woven from the story of Ancestors, Parents and Birth to the ultimate war and what happened after that, making it an eye-opening read. It not only includes tales from the classical Sanskrit but also regional and folk variants from across India and even South East Asia. I got introduced to the queer narratives such as Aravan, Budh and my favorite Ila, who was a woman when the moon wanes and a man when the moon waxes.

There is a high sense of irony in a story called ‘Bhishma’s sacrifice’ where a son renounces sex so that his old father can remarry. His vow stunned the Devas so much that they descended from the skies and showered him with flowers for taking the most terrible of vows.

It made me think about the Sages of today’s world who choose the life of celibacy to attain moksha. But they miss the whole point – nirvana isn’t renouncing sex, it is renouncing desires as a whole – even the desire to attain nirvana. Each anecdote is full of surprises and every time you re-read one, you find more surprises.

I was amused by ‘The common wife’, where the author sheds light on Draupadi’s past life, in which she was called Nalayani, and married to a Rishi called Maudgalya. The sage took the form of many different men, and made love to her in many different ways. One day, he decided to renounce the world but his wife was not satisfied and asked him, ‘Who will make love to me after you are gone?’. Disgusted by her insatiable lust, he cursed her that in her next birth she would be the wife of many men. And thus, in this life Kunti instructed Arjuna to share his wife, Draupadi, with all his brothers else it would disrupt the unity of the brothers. What’s more ironic is the fact that all five, even collectively, could not save their wife!

In my view, the author is trying to undercut the holiness built around Mahabharata. The various notions of right and wrong are questioned by him. I am so comfortable reading this book, probably because its grandeur has been diluted and the anecdotes provoke me to think and question the meaning of law of karma, Dharma, and how it is different from Justice! It also forces one to examine what these laws were intended for and how it applies or doesn’t apply in today’s world. And that’s why I’d recommend ‘Jaya’ to everyone: Hindu, Non-Hindu, theist, atheist, spiritual, religious, and mythology lover, whatever!

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