Govinda. We know him by many names – Krishna, the dark one, Vaasudeva, the son of Vasudev, Gopala – the cowherd, and many more. Then why Govinda? Why choose this among all his names?This was one of the questions on my mind when I began reading “The Aryavarta Chronicles, Book 1: Govinda” by Krishna Udayasankar. You can gauge the detailed work the author has put into it, simply by the beautiful way she explains her choice of name. She elaborates, not in the foreword or in any explanatory notes, but instead, through the words of Balabhadra, whom we also know as Balarama, Krishna’s older brother –
“They used to call you Krishna because of your dark skin. It was I who gave you the name Govinda. Did you think it was just another name for a gwala boy? The name contained all you meant to me. The cows that we used to tend are just metaphors for the senses with which every human chases the light of truth, the quest that defines us in every waking moment. You were a herdsman of these senses, my brother. You made me believe in the goodness of human beings, you made me dream of a better world, of something to live for, and that is why I named you Govinda”
What a beautiful way to describe Krishna! He is the one who did not take up arms in the Great War, but it is he who stands out among all those warriors. He might never have been a king, but he was accepted to be greater than all the kings put together. He was witness to, and even brought about events that brought about destruction on a scale never seen before. Yet, it is he who stands tall as a beacon of hope and goodness. Is it any wonder that we pray to Krishna as a God? And yet, this book is not just about Krishna. It is not the story of the simple and loveable cowherd Krishna. It is the story of the adult Krishna, the silent force behind the events of the Mahabharata.
The Mahabharata, as has been said often, means different things to different people. It is a story of politics, of intrigue, of statesmanship, of right and wrong, of duties and responsibility. But above all, it is history... or to put it more plausibly, a distorted version of history, where we have elevated historical characters to the status of gods and demigods. Hidden somewhere amidst the ever growing tree of mythology is a kernel of truth – the history of our ancestors. It is this history that Krishna Udayasankar tries to explore, in her own rendition of Vyasa’s immortal epic.
As she says, in the words of Yuyudhana,
“...what we call the beginning of civilization is really only the beginning of recorded history. The further we go back in time, the less we are certain about. Different people then begin to interpret and understand things differently. Some of these stories become indestructible myths and even acquire a supernatural tinge, because we start taking literally what might have been merely symbolic.”
As the title suggests, this is the story of Aryavarta – not just India, but the Indian Subcontinent as a whole. Its only southern India, or Dakshinavarta, which is excluded from this, mentioned only as the land chosen by the descendents of Pulastya, and as the abode of kings of the monkey banner. The residents of these lands are all the descendents of the 5 children of Brahma, the creator. From the lineage of the Firstborn Vasistha Varuna comes Vyasa; Kashyapa’s descendants are the kings of the Solar Dynasty, and from Atri’s lineage comes the Lunar Dynasty- the Kauravas, the Pandavas, the Yadus, and the Panchalas. Agni Angirasa’s kin are the Firewrights – those who have learnt to control the elements to their advantage, the scientists and the innovators of that era, and as for Pulastya’s descendants, this story is not about them.
The story begins at a time when Aryavarta is under the reign of Jarasandha. Most of the rulers of the independent states are his vassals, and satisfied with their status. Under this sheet of apparent calm are undercurrents, and further below, is a war that has been going on a long time – a war between the Firstborn and the Firewrights. The Firstborn, under the leadership of the Vyasa Dwaipayana, begin the tedious process of gathering and managing the collective knowledge of Aryavarta, creating an intricate system of scriptures and rituals. They are the ones who lay down the rules, determine right and wrong, moral and immoral. This power gives rise to a clash between them and the Firewrights, who as inventors, prefer to live by their own rules. This conflict of power leads to a drawn out war, which has lasted years, and has resulted in the almost complete extinction of the Firewrights by the time the story begins. It is this conflict which forms the essence of the book, and what I found most interesting about it. It challenges our concepts of the epic as we know it. It raises questions of right and wrong, and it makes us wonder about our own predilections too.
However, the conflict is not simply between the Firstborn and the Firewrights, There is another clash too... One that’s just below the surface, not as apparent, but still there, showing up every now and then... the clash between the classes, within the social fabric of the land. One where the Aryas, the nobles, consider themselves over and above the common men, where they believe that they have been born to rule, and that they alone, should. They are benevolent rulers, no doubt, but they fear the change in this accepted structure with the arrival of Govinda – a man of royal blood, but born in captivity, one who has lived his life as a cowherd, and even after victory, refuses the throne which is rightfully his. They cannot understand his abandonment of Mathura, and thus question his bravery, his intentions. They cannot accept the democratic rule he implements at Dwaraka, and fear his rise to power with the other kingdoms at Aryavarta. These layers and layers are what make this book not just an interesting, but thought provoking read.
Getting along with the story, it is one we are familiar with.... which is why, the characters are such a surprise. As befitting the epic, there are too many characters, but each of them is perfectly sketched. We see a different side of Shikandin, a completely new Sanjaya, an unexpected facet of Dharma, and a Panchali who is truly a queen fit to be an empress. And these are just a few. The best part of the book is undoubtedly Krishna Udayasankar’s portrayal of her innumerable characters. She has given every single one of them a voice of their own, which gives them their very own identity.... no matter how short their role.
There are surprises at every turn.... from Panchali’s marriage to the burning of Kandava. The killing of Jarasandha is a beautifully worked piece, bringing up questions of who is a good ruler. The empire building journey is an eye opener, showing us the warriors as they must have been, facing challenges we never read about elsewhere. Govinda’s interaction with the Kritya brings up thoughts about present day assassins, and the passage with Garud is simply too beautiful for words!
And finally, there is Govinda.... slowly working his way to make the best of the situation. As he explains himself towards the end to Panchali –
“ Always, always, I’ve tried to do what was right, what was in the interest of the greatest number, what was for the greater good of all. And that’s what your empire is – it’s a chance for us, the people of Aryavarta – not just its elite rulers – to find peace. It’s a chance for reason to prevail.”
There are many reasons that make this book as interesting as it is, but above all, there is the huge amount of research that has gone into it. Krishna Udayasankar treats it, not simply as a work of mythological fiction, but almost as a literary thesis, giving us a long list of sources and methods used, right at the very end. The references don’t just give you an idea of all the hard work, but beyond that, for the lover of the genre, this is a step to finding our own way into the world that once was.
P.S. I won the book as a prize for the Mythology edition of #TSBC, as I mentioned earlier. I wasn’t really required to write a review, but the book refused to lie low, and I read and re-read it till I just had to write about it just to leave it aside and go on to the next book awaiting me J