On seeing Peter Brook's Mahabharata

Classical history is the reverse of the version I was taught at primary school.

My school books suggested that there was a gradual ascent from the stone age to all the gleaming technological advances of modern humanity, whereas in ancient times it was believed that we have descended from a more innocent golden age to the primitive and violent age we now inhabit. In this the Indian, Greek and Roman authors agree.

In between that ancient and mythical golden age and our present demonic age stands the Silver age of heroes: in Homer: Achilles, Agamemnon, Odysseus, and in the Mahabharata: Bhishma, Drona and Arjuna.

In the time of heroes people thought differently and acted differently. They meant what they said - a word had power both over the person spoken to and over the person speaking. If a hero vowed to do something he would do his utmost to carry it out even at the cost of his life. A man's word used to be his bond, and to break it would involve unacceptable loss of being. Today promises are cheap and exchangeable often not for fulfilment but for excuses.

They had rules of war, some of which have trickled down to us in lip-service form, such as not killing an unarmed man, and some that have not survived at all, such as not fighting after dark, not fighting during the harvest.

At several points in the great battle between the Pandavas and the Kauravas the ancient rules of war are broken. One feels that the great epic stands on the edge between the Silver age and our age to follow, an age in which as a man's word means less, so is his being the less, and as the rules are broken so the world slips into chaos.

Yet at these points Krishna himself intervenes, not to keep the old law but to destroy it. Drona is lied to - the deception appears shocking to those who perpetrate it, as if they stand on the very precipice of the old order in doing the unthinkable. Krishna urges them gently on. Arjuna hesitates to plant the fatal arrow in his mortal enemy Karna, Krishna gently urges him to kill.

Consider then Odysseus - the man of many devices who wins the Trojan war on the very eve of defeat by deception. Does he not also stand at the very twilight of the age of heroes, and use language and trickery to survive? How also could he have escaped from the Cyclops except by the verbal ruse of pretending his name was 'Nobody'?

Now having accepted deception as a way of life we have become thoroughly self-deceived. This is what Socrates tried patiently to show and why he was killed.

To be like Silver Age heroes we have at least to know how to use deceptive words (I mean that all words are deceptive) without being ourselves deceived.

The Mahabharata [1989] [DVD] [1990]

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