Palace of Illusions: The Feminist Mahabharata?

fa98c4b8-22f6-4039-a1d8-39334c72680cimg100Chitra Divakaruni, The Palace of Illusions, New York: Doubleday, 2008.

Review By Bhrigupada dasa

Why is historical fiction so popular? The exoticism of bygone ages is one factor, but perhaps the most important reason is that it gives us an intimate view into the thoughts and actions of famous, historical persons. It is well-known that Richard the Lionheart failed in capturing Jerusalem, but what were the underlying reasons? How did this disappointment affect the mind of the conqueror? In contrast to the historians, authors such as Walter Scott might start out with the medieval chronicles, but will inevitably use their own fantasy and experiences to flesh out the story. Nonetheless, the careful author will research the times and places of the story, so that while the book is fiction, the reader may well learn something of the culture, persons, and history of the milieu described. No doubt, this educational aspect is another reason for the genre’s popularity.

When it comes to historical fiction connected to important religious persons or incidents, equally important is the opportunity such books give their authors to present their own religious agenda. In Jesus, The Son of Man (1928), Khalil Gibran presents a number of first-person accounts of meetings with Jesus, from Mary the Magdalene to Barabbas. In all cases, what emerges is of course Gibran’s understanding of Jesus.

Considering the limited knowledge (to put it mildly) that Western readers have of Indian culture and religiosity, it is not surprising that the amount of historical fiction connected to Hinduism written for Westerners is meager. On the other hand, works such as Mahabharata and Ramayana are still the bedtime stories of much of the Indian population and thus they can speak of them with familiarity. It is therefore with great interest one picks up Chitra Divakaruni’s The Palace of Illusions, a novel centered on Draupadi, the strong-willed heroine of the Mahabharata. Divakaruni’s explicit motive is to present a “feminist” view of the great epic. Persons afraid of the word feminism need not be taken aback—apart from some jabs at silly manly notions of chivalry, pride, and duty at the expense of love—what Divakaruni really does is give a woman’s perspective of the events at hand. For readers familiar with the Mahabharata, this presents a dramatic change of view. The great manly heroes of the epic are no longer the perfect supermen of the popular retellings (and here, one may add, Divakaruni comes close to the great psychological depth of the original text). This perspective also means filling in some gaps. We all know what happened with the armies of men fighting at Kurukshetra, but what was the fate of all the soldiers’ widows? Divakaruni tells the story.

In retelling Draupadi’s story, Divakaruni focuses on a number of themes. One is that of Draupadi’s destiny. In the novel, as a child she hears Vyasa prophesize that she will become the wife of five men, the mistress of a wonderful palace that she will eventually lose, and the cause of a universal conflagration. The chapters narrating her journey through disbelief, realization, acceptance, and understanding are poignant and captivating, though I did find the fast-moving middle part of the book rather bland. Another theme—and one that no doubt will raise many eyebrows—is Draupadi’s secret love for Karna. There is of course no basis for such a love in the epic itself. Rather, by explaining the true reasons for why the world thought that these two hated each other, Divakaruni gets an opportunity to go beyond the ordinary, masculine version of the epic. She also gets to put the spotlight on the tragic figure of Karna and show the greatness of his character. Here she is of course following a long Indian tradition.

For Gaudiya Vaishnavas, the most interesting of Divakaruni’s themes will probably be that of Draupadi’s friendship with Sri Krishna. Already as a child, she hears stories about how he is an incarnation, but she puts them down as old-wives tales, for by her own experience she knows that he is just a human being – though an enigmatic one. Gradually, the truth of Krishna’s being—one that is described in terms of the Mahabharata rather than the Srimad Bhagavatam—dawns on her, until her final realization at the end. As a Gaudiya reader, Draupadi’s long refusal to see Krishna as God is a sign of her sakhya bhakti that transports the reader closer to the heart of Gaudiya Vedanta, wherein the Godhead manifests in a form which facilitates intimacy with the devotees. Sri Rupa Goswami has stated that Draupadi’s relationship with Krishna is one of fraternal love akin to that of Arjuna, metropolitan friendship, as opposed to the still more intimate pastoral friendship of Krishna’s Vraja-lila. While I liked the way Divakaruni dealt with this theme, it also necessitates her following the version of Draupadi’s disrobing in the critical edition of the Mahabharata, rather than the more well known “Krishna comes to the rescue” of the popular vulgate. For me, who views this scene as one of the great climaxes of the whole epic, Divakaruni’s treatment of it was thus a disappointment. Thankfully, she makes up for this by how she handles several other important scenes, such as that of the Pandavas’ final journey.

Of course, for many devotees, the question of mixing fiction and scriptural reality is not an easy one, hence my brief discussion of historical fiction at the onset of this review. However, a book need not be true in all respects to be of value. Divakaruni will not claim that her book supersedes the original sources in terms of historical veracity. Divakaruni is a novelist, and therefore practicing Gaudiya Vaishnavas will learn little in terms of siddhanta from her book. Its value lies rather, in my opinion, apart from being good entertainment, in the new perspectives it offers. The reader may not agree with all of Divakaruni’s conclusions—I for one feel that the Karna theme is rather far-fetched—but her conclusions do offer us new ways in which to interact with the epic and to enter into its world. I found my mind returning to the events and characters of this book many days after reading it. That fact alone suggests that there may be something to gain. Besides, who would not want to read about the life of a friend of Krishna?

About the Author

8 Responses to Palace of Illusions: The Feminist Mahabharata?

  1. Urmila devi dasi

    Is this the same book, Yajnaseni, published under a different title? If so, that should be mentioned in the review.

    • Madan Gopal das

      No, Yajnaseni is by Pratibha Ray.

      • Urmila devi dasi

        Have you read both? (I’ve read Yajnaseni, which I think is *excellent*!)

        If so, would you willing to compare/contrast them?

        It is more than interesting that there are *two* historical novels on Draupadi.

        • Bhrigupada Dasa

          I wasn’t aware of that book, Urmilaji. It would indeed be interesting to compare them…

        • I think a comparison might be very useful. I haven’t read this book yet, but I’ve enjoyed what I have read of Divakaruni’s, and I’ve always enjoyed the interviews I’ve heard. She may not be as devout as some may like, but she’s thoughtful and generally respectful.

          I may have to put both books on my list, so I can make my own comparison.

  2. A book that I have heard good reviews of that might be an interest to devotees is Cuckold. It is the story of Mirabai.

    I am really interested in Hindu as well as Historical fiction with religious tones. I think that fiction is a subtle and info-taining way of presenting philosophical and spiritual notions to a wide audience.
    Curious to know if there devotees actively working in this field or have an interest in it.

    I think that many Christian authors have made very strong strides in this direction. C.S Lewis with his Narnia series, among other books, comes to mind. A google search for Christian fiction gives a long list.

    I suppose Bhaktivinode Thakur’s Jaiva Dharma is an example of presenting the G.V philosophy in a fictionalized context. It reads a lot like Srila Prabhupada’s ‘Perfect questions and perfect answers.’ I think this type of presentation makes the philosophy a lot more accessible than simply essay articles.

    A google search provided me a link with a list of what passes for Hindu fiction. It seems that Hinduism has a lot more thinner library of fiction writing than Christians do.

    Personally I have benefitted a lot in understanding different cultures by reading James Michener’s Historical fiction books. I see a lot of potential in this type of writing. I would love to meet other people interested in Historical and religous fiction from the Vaisnava perspective.

  3. I read ‘Palace of Illusions’ after I had read ‘Yajnaseni’ and it was quite a let down. I did not like it at all. I have reviwed ‘Yajnaseni’ here:
    ‘Palace of Illusions’ s it sounds too much like Mills & Boons in the way it treats the relationship between Draupadi & Karna.

  4. Akruranatha Dasa

    Speaking of historical fiction based on Hindu epics, I really loved “Am I A Demon Or A Vaisnava?”, by Satsvarupa Das Goswami. It is a short, dystopian novel along the lines of 1984, but the setting is the dictatorship of the demon Hiranyakasipu, from the Seventh Canto of Srimad-Bhagavatam, whose powerful, fearsome regime keeps even the great universal authorities like Indra, Candra and Surya under his thumb.

    The narrator is one of the ministers of that evil emperor, who finds himself being swayed by the budding Vaisnavism of his young son, a classmate, in the elite children’s school run by Sanda and Amarka, of the Emperor’s saintly Vaisnava son, Prahlada Maharaja. Vaisnavism in Hiranyakasipu’s empire is nothing short of treason, and as the protagonist minister’s faith in “the enemy” Vishnu blossoms, he comes under suspicion and eventually must go into hiding. Just as the empire’s gestapo-like noose is closing around him and his son and their situation becomes desperate, a great apocalyptic event occurs when Vishnu, in His never-before-seen form as a magnificent half-man/half-lion, appears in the palace with the power of a nuclear weapon, and kills the evil Hiranyakasipu and his army, restoring peace and order to the universe, and saving the Vaisnavas including our narrator and his son.

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