The Five Brothers (Krishnavatara, #3)

By K.M. Munshi

Rating: 3 stars

The third volume of the Krishnanavatara deals mostly with the five Pandava brothers, with Krishna relegated to political mover and shaker, rather than taking part in the adventures himself. Duryodhana, the son of the blind king Dhritarashtra* hates his cousins, the five brothers, and plots to have them killed. Through “shenanigans”, they are believed dead, but go into hiding, only to be miraculously “brought back to life” by Krishna when it’s politically convenient.

In the course of the book, we encounter cannibalistic rakshasas, ridiculously overblown senses of entitlement, and a surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of a trans man. Through it all Krishna goes from crisis to crisis, exerting his (supernatural?) charisma, making people trust him and making unwise promises. But he somehow pulls it all together and comes out smelling of roses.

It does feel like most of the problems in the book (not counting cannibalistic rakshasas, who can be dealt with in the old-fashioned way of killing the existing chief and becoming their king) were mostly down to vastly inflated egos. Both Duryodhana and the brahmin master of warfare Dronacharya are idiots who who can’t take ‘no’ for an answer.

I did know about the polyandry of Draupadi marrying all five of the Pandava brothers, but I hadn’t known how that came about. She was “won” by Arjuna, but through a ridiculous misunderstanding, his mother tells him to share “his alms” with his brothers. And the boys always do what their mother tells them… Even though she admits that she made a mistake. It’s just silly.

We also finally get some “real” magic in this book, with both a Brahmin who heals the lame, and a Yaksha who magically turns Shikhandin from a girl into a boy. I’m still surprised how sympathetically that was handled, by the way (although I suspect it wouldn’t have been so understanding if the case had been that of a trans woman).

I will continue to read these, as I get a chance, but I can’t help feeling that so much could have been defused by people talking about their feelings, and going to therapy.

* it’s commented several times in the book that Dhritarashtra couldn’t be a king, because he’s blind (um, sure), and so his son couldn’t either (eh?), and yet Dhritarashtra is very definitely a king, and Duryodhana becomes crown prince, so I don’t know what that’s about

Book details

ISBN: 8172763786
Publisher: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan
Year of publication: 2006

The Wrath of an Emperor (Krishnavatara – 2)

By K.M. Munshi

Rating: 4 stars

The second volume in K. M. Munshi’s interpretation of Sri Krishna’s story sees his (mostly) indirect battle with the emperor Jarasandha, whose son-in-law he killed at the end of the first volume, and whose empire is now threatened. In between, Krishna and his brother Balarama have many adventures, make many friends, and forge the weapons that they would become known for.

I mostly knew the structure of the story in The Magic Flute, but this book tells stories of Krishna that I was completely unaware of. That he boards a pirate ship and displaces the captain; his sailing to a city of snake-goddess-worshipping women and freeing his tutor’s son from captivity as the princess’s husband; his joining the Garuda people and curing the paralysis of their prince. These are rip-roaring adventures and I’m really surprised that I haven’t heard of them.

There’s also quite deep political dealings, as he has to deal with Jarasandha’s attempts to strengthen his alliance and destroy the Yadava people and their city. This mostly has to do with various arranged marriages of princesses, and the desire of Princess Rukmini to marry Krishna, rather than be a tool of her brother and the emperor.

Following on from the first volume, Munshi continues to take a rather naturalistic line with his story, playing down the supernatural elements in other variations of the myth. His Rakshasas are barbarians who don’t respect Dharma, rather than literal demons. And his Garuda people are people who claim descent from a giant eagle, but who are just people who wear bird masks. This is an interesting interpretation of a myth that can sometimes be presented as much larger than life.

The treatment of women is sort of mixed. For every Revati (a giantess warrior princess whose country Balarama helps liberate), there are others who are there purely to be symbols of lust and desire and the path away from Dharma. Perhaps not unexpected in a myth this old, but still not pleasant.

If one can leave that aside, however, this is an exciting tale of adventure and politics, with the path of Dharma at the centre of it.

Book details

ISBN: 9788172764753
Publisher: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan
Year of publication: 1966

The Magic Flute (Krishnavatara #1)

By K.M. Munshi

Rating: 3 stars

My parents got the the full set of Krishnavatara books when I was young, but I’ve never really felt the urge to read them until recently, when I’ve felt more interested in reading up on parts of my heritage. I knew some of what was in this volume from the stories that my parents told me as a child, and others from when the BBC showed a dramatisation of the Mahabharat back in the early ’90s but I enjoyed refreshing my memory of those, and fitting them into a single narrative (even if it was difficult to keep the various relationships straight in my head).

One thing I liked quite a lot is that the young Krishna feels very human. He’s frankly a bit of a git at times, when he steals butter and breaks jars, and the chapter that involved him killing a heron that seemed to just be protecting its children only made any sense when it was revealed that the bird was possessed (a couple of chapters from the end!).

It was also very interesting to read the note preceding the chapter on Radha which admits that she wasn’t part of the ancient texts, the first mentions only appearing in the first few centuries CE and not becoming fixed in the consciousness until the 12th century CE.

On a similar note, but within the text itself is the festival of Gopotsava, in which Krishna persuades his village to abandon a festival of Indra based on fear and, instead, celebrate the herdsmen, cattle and mountain that give them life, effectively elevating the landscape to godhood. I thought that was a fascinating mindset with defiance and grace in one action.

As with all ancient writings, some things don’t fit well to a modern mindset: polygamy is normal, and the idea of a childless wife lying with a man other than her husband (with appropriate rituals) to gain a child is a bit icky, as is the condemnation of women who don’t want children. There’s also a slightly uncomfortable connection between physical health and beauty on the one side and goodness and grace on the other. But all these have to be read in the context of their time.

The stories are full of action and memorable characters, for good or evil; it’s an easy book to read. I’m not sure if it was written in English or if it’s just a very good translation, but it’s very readable (although I’ve never figured out the obsession with appending an unnecessary ‘a’ to the end of many transliterated names: Balarama instead of Balram etc). I’ll definitely pick up the the rest of the series when I get the chance.

Book details

Year of publication: 1966

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