Translated by Kate Crosby

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Three exhausted warriors return to their camp, stunned to find it overrun by their enemies. Their fellow soldiers all lie dead. The sound of their enemies, the five sons of Pandu and their allies the Panchálas, crowing mercilessly in jubilation, assaults their ears. The great war of the “Maha·bhárata” is over. Or is it?

This is a single extended family wracked in conflict. Both sides succumbed to treachery. The stain of patricide, the murder of teachers, pursue the victors into peace. The great god of destruction, Shiva, takes hold of Ashva·tthaman, the young leader of the three survivors on the losing side. Incensed at his father’s murder, Ashva·tthaman breaks the code of war to return at night to the now sleeping encampment. A gruesome blood-letting, the sacrifice of the unsuspecting champions, the ‘Dead of Night,’ ensues.

But the five sons of Pándu have escaped. In a final confrontation, a missile crisis threatens the entire world with obliteration. Ashva·tthaman concedes defeat but, unwilling to restrain his wrath, redirects his missile into the wombs of the victors’ women. They miscarry. They have lost their children and cannot hope for more.

Now the survivors, victors and vanquished, must struggle to comprehend their loss. ‘The Women’ of both sides are confronted by the mangled corpses of their men in a masterpiece of horror and pathos. They reminisce; but the battle ground must be cleared, the corpses cremated and the women’s potent curses curbed to usher in a new era.

“Maha·bhárata” Books X and XI give voice to the vanquished, to the psychology of loss and the conflicting desires for understanding and revenge.

A sight in the dark forest, where the survivors of the defeated side are hiding, inspires the son of the murdered teacher Drona:

He saw all of a sudden an owl swoop, a ghostly sight, with its loud screech, vast body, yellow eyes, and tawny hew, its long hooked beak and talons, deft in flight... Now making a soft sound … that rider of the sky killed many a crow in slumber... He ripped the wings off some, the heads off others. Of some he broke the feet, whose own feet were his weapon. … Their dismembered limbs and corpses… carpeted the entire circle of the banyan bole in every direction, while the taloned murderer of those black crows exulted in his work. Drona’s lone son realised: “This winged bird has given me a lesson in the art of war, tailored to the obliteration of my enemies.”

One of the widows speaks to her husband’s lifeless hand which she has placed in her lap:

“This is the hand that killed adversaries while ensuring the safety of friends… This is the hand that lifted up my bodice and fondled my full breasts, that stroked my navel, my thighs, my bottom, and loosened the fastening of my skirt.

c. 416 pp.  |  ISBN-13: 978-0-8147-1727-1  |  ISBN-10: 0-8147-1727-6  |  Co-published by New York University Press and JJC Foundation

About the Translator


Senior Lecturer in Buddhist Studies, Department of Study of Religions, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).