The most remarkable thing about Indic civilisation might be the uninterrupted lifespan of its beliefs. Most Hindu gods and goddesses were already being worshipped in South Asia when the Greeks were building temples to Zeus and Athena, or when Jupiter and Diana ruled ancient Roman hearts. But while the Greek and Roman gods have been long superseded by the Semitic religions, ours live on. Deities like Shiva, Vishnu, Ganesh, Karthik and Durga, and divine epic heroes like Ram and Krishna remain a vivid presence for religious Hindus. Mythology is still the matrix for modern Indian life.
But as a cynical politics digs its claws into people's beliefs, that matrix is turned into a never-ending maelstrom of offense-taking and offense-giving. On Saraswati Puja this February, for instance, right-wing Indian Twitter trended demands for the arrest of a Dalit activist for having insulting the Hindu goddess of learning by referring to her as 'exploited' by Brahma. According to the myth, Lord Brahma, creator of the universe, fell in love with Saraswati after he made her. Philosophical-metaphorical readings (an artist besotted with his own creation), or anthropological ones (the fact that incest figures in most ancient creation myths) stand no chance in belligerent social media battles, where the dominant narrative frame is men avenging women's 'honour'.
Of course, such 'dishonouring' drives both our epics: the abduction of Sita in the Ramayana, the stripping of Draupadi in the Mahabharata. But while the plots may turn on women, the male characters receive greater attention. Relationships between them—Krishna and Sudama, Krishna and Arjun, Arjun and Karna, Ram and Lakshman, even Ram and Hanuman—have formed popular models of friendship, fraternal love and loyalty. Most literary retellings, too, have been through the eyes of a male character: Bhima in MT Vasudevan Nair’s famous Malayalam novel Randaamoozham, Karna in Shivaji Sawant's Marathi classic Mrintyunjay, and Yudhishtira, Bhishma and Abhimanyu in Aditya Iyengar's The Thirteenth Day (2015).
A female perspective on our epics has only begun to appear in recent decades, mostly in fiction by women. Draupadi got pride of place in Pratibha Ray's award-winning 1993 Oriya novel Yajnaseni and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's 2008 novel The Palace of Illusions. Sita got some play in the graphic novel Sita's Ramayana and Nina Paley's film Sita Sings the Blues. Lesser female characters are now getting their due in popular English-language fiction: for example, Aditi Banerjee's The Curse of Gandhari, and Kavita Kane's series of books centred on Ahalya, Surpanakha, Sita's sister and Karna's wife.
Kaajal Oza Vaidya's hugely popular novel Krishnayan, which has sold over 200,000 copies in Gujarati since its publication in 2006, is an important addition to this literature, using the figure of Krishna to explore aspects of the man-woman relationship.
Recently translated into English by Subha Pande, Vaidya's narrative starts where the usual telling of Krishna's life stops. What is traditionally called Krishna Leela, literally Krishna's play, is a set of stories about the birth, childhood and adolescence of the Yadava chieftain, with such set themes as the naughty baby Krishna stealing butter from the milkmaids of Gokul, or his youthful flute-playing assignations with Radha.
Krishnayan, by contrast, opens with Krishna awaiting death, reminiscing about his life. And in Vaidya's unusually frank telling, what emerges as significant as he waits for Gandhari's curse to take effect are his bonds with women. There are four primary ones: Rukmini, his intelligent, stately senior queen, his consort in the administration of Dwarka; Satyabhama, his younger queen, childish but captivating; Draupadi, loyal wife to the five Pandava brothers, but still carrying a special attachment to Krishna—and Radha, the childhood sweetheart he hasn't seen in decades, now not just a married woman and a mother, but a mother-in-law.
Vaidya's narrative can feel laboured, and her dialogue borders on florid, at least in Pande's translation. Here, for instance, is Rukmini, “The fire raging in my heart is trying to tell me that he is waiting to answer all my questions.” And here is Arjun on the eve of the war: “I have a lot to say and yet nothing to say. I am dumbfounded. I am hit by thousands of thoughts at times and sometimes, I just can't think. I am going through a strange period of indecision.”
But Krishnayan's fictional premise is as layered as any present-day polyamorous situation, and Vaidya has all the depth of the Mahabharata behind her as she moves deftly across characters and revisits familiar dramatic situations: the ethics of game of dice, or how the five Pandavas deal with their shared connection to Draupadi. She explores each of Krishna's loves for what makes it unique – intellectual partnership, sexual allure, emotional understanding, a shared history – and goes refreshingly beyond him, to these women's relationships with each other.
But for all the empathy with which she writes about women, Vaidya remains staunchly invested in an essential separation of the genders. The Krishna of Krishnayan is an adept lover, loving husband and devoted friend—but he remains a man. In some of Vaidya's most emotional scenes, Krishna claims limitations in gendered terms, applauding women for their greater capacity for selflessness. “While I have only been contemplating seeking moksha and preparing myself for it, these two dearly loved women [Draupadi and Rukmini] have... come forward to liberate me from the cycle of life. Only women can do this. Only a woman can control heart and mind and fulfil her moral duties... And only she has the magnanimity to accept a co-wife and give true meaning to the word life-partner, Krishna thought...”.
It probably helps that Vaidya's Krishna isn't a god in the way we usually understand gods. He may know what is predestined—the Mahabharata war, the end of the Yadava race, or his own death—but he is powerless in the face of it. Rather than an uber-manipulator who's playing everyone else, this is a Krishna almost surprised to find that he, too, is caught in in a web of expectations and desires. “Why is everyone surrendering their selves to me? Unacceptance would be immoral, but where would I take them with me even if I accept? I will have to break these shackles of attachment.”
Full of intense exchanges on desire and ownership, mind and body, attachment and the atma, Krishnayan is a sort of manual for letting go. And if you can deal with its somewhat repetitive melodramatic style, it helps thicken the most famous Indian plot of all. It adds some real women to our mythological matrix.
Trisha Gupta is a writer and critic based in Delhi.