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Home» Book Review» Book Review» The heroics of a cultural icon

The heroics of a cultural icon

Sudhirendar Sharma | December 21, 2013, 06:53 PM IST
the heroics of a cultural icon

New Delhi : Endowed with enormous virtues, Krsna has been differently understood: as an epitome of beauty, as an invincible warrior and as a mythological reincarnation. It has perhaps been so because the pre-classical figure existed in three distinct roles: as a charming pastoral figure; as a warrior hero; and as the divine incarnation. Of these three, Kevin McGrath analyses the role of Krsna as a military strategist and a moral teacher.

McGrath’s Krsna is mortal, endowed with a great fluidity of speech. Throughout his ksatriya life, Krsna excelled as a dextrous and agile performer in all situations, never inflexible, always responsive but without losing control. If Krsna could be viciously obdurate one moment, he was gentle sage the other moment. Since he didn’t draw any blood in the battlefield, his words become the most potent weapon used in the war.

Unlike other incarnations of Visnu, notably Ram, who had led life as a ksatriya, it is Krsna who draws power from his mental agility alone. He is always percetible and thoughtful, aware of his surroundings at all times. Krsna handles all episodes with consummate oration, be it the disrobing of Draupadi in the court or the demise of Ashwatthama in the battlefield. It is Krsna’s oration, the ‘magnetic and unspeakable’, that uplifts him to a superhuman status. The poetic richness of Mahabharata showers praise on the multi-talented Krsna, converting some of his immoral actions into strategic moves for winning the battle over the symbolic ‘evil’. Assigning a ‘divine’ status to Krsna, according to the author, has been an after thought!   

McGrath depicts the heroic life of Krsna which apparently pre-existed his divine status. This (assumption) lends objectivity to his analysis of the complex friendship and profound amity between a charioteer and his hero - sometimes referred to as ‘two krsnas’ for being partners both in fighting and in intimate camaradarie. Probably compiled during the Bronze Age, the composition of epic Mahabharata went through the hands of at least four composers. No wonder, the author observes few inconsistencies in rendering of the verses.

Spread over eight chapters, the book offers a radical peep into the heroic character of Krsna as he conducts himself as an intimate companion, as an invincible warrior and as a fine poet. Laced with intricacies, the epic offers studies in contrast of its central characters. Heroic Krsna is an absorbing study of the period that is distanced from our imagination. Despite the characters and the events of the epic Mahabharata frozen in time, the narrative help relive those glorious moments and their relevance for the present. Using Sanskrit verses, McGrath interprets the many stories and sub-stories that have formed the cultural basis of India.

Heroic Krsna is not a work of brahmanical literature but one that is pitched around academic enquiry to understand the cultural icon.

Heroic Krsna
by Kevin McGrath

Harvard University Press, Harvard
Extent: 278, Price: $85


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Sudhirendar Sharma

Sudhirendar Sharma

Trained as an environmental scientist, Sudhirendar Sharma efficiently performs multiple roles of writer-commentator, academic, activist and development strategist. Having varied interests and rich experience gained from travelling all over the world, he enjoys playing with words and sharing ideas. 

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