Written in 1953, Dharamvir Bharati's play Andha Yug is a response to what translator Alok Bhalla calls "the genocidal days" of the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan. Mahatma Gandhi had been assassinated, and humans had unleashed—not for the first or last time—a level of evil (adharma) and atrocity (atyachar) that, as Bhalla puts it, "we may not go [beyond] without inviting the wrath of the sacred."
The play reimagines a crucial event from the Mahabharata, the classic epic of India. The setting is the palace of the defeated Kaurava clan on the last day of the Great War. A handful of Kaurava survivors huddle in grief and rage, blaming their adversaries, fate, deceit, divine capriciousness—anyone or anything except their own moral choices—for the destruction of their families and their kingdom. Beyond the walls, the once-beautiful city of Hastina pur is burning and the battlefields are covered with millions of dead warriors.
Even if viewed as no more than the retelling of a tragic battle scene from an ancient "myth," Andha Yug makes for riveting drama and poetry. We may derive more meaning by viewing the play as parabolic commentary on the hair-trigger tensions that have existed among nations, religions, and cultures in South Asia since 1947. But Andha Yug probes deeper yet—into the human heart and the human condition—and the play's moral complexities reach across time and place. For contemporary readers, Andha Yug may be a mirror of the twenty-first century, with our urgent and perplexing problems for survival. We see in the play a world sliding irrevocably toward self-destruction—violent, despairing, ethically confused, and lacking the wisdom to solve the crises that threaten to destroy all living things. Given the frailty of our imperfect human nature, how are we to lead moral, compassionate lives in the perilous conditions we've created?
Andha Yug and the Mahabharata question the nurturing and orderly basis of ethical relationships, which they refer to with the capacious term dharma. In Andha Yug, Alok Bhalla translates dharma as "honor," "law," "ethics," "truth," "righteousness," et cetera, as is appropriate. The powerful wisdom of the Mahabharata and Andha Yug rests partly on the recognition that dharma has many elusive meanings, and therefore requires us to look [End Page vii] with considerable effort for its significance and application. The philosopher Chaturvedi Badrinath writes:
What is dharma? What are those foundations upon which all human relationships everywhere are based? Who determines what those foundations shall be? Are they given as inherent in human life itself? Are they subject to the varying conditions and circumstances of a person's life, so that there is one dharma for normal conditions, and another in times of distress, for example? Is there one dharma for the scholar devoted to learning and teaching; another dharma for the householder; a different dharma for the king; and a separate dharma for one who would maintain services? Is dharma a self-determining reality that gives direction to a person's life, and is to be discovered in a process of self-discovery as to what one is meant to be ?1
Nowhere in the Mahabharata or in Andha Yug is the moral complexity of our relations to others—and the difficulty of knowing ourselves—simplified. Indeed, these works clearly demonstrate the difficulty of unraveling dharma's many enigmas: whether the nature of goodness, tolerance, and justice are knowable—and whether such categories even exist. The gods themselves can mislead us. Nevertheless, the moral philosophy in these literary works will not allow us to surrender to relativism, divine authority, or nihilism. Like the Mahabharata, Andha Yug charges us to persevere in seeking the true nature of goodness—particularly in our own time of unfathomable atrocities—by warning us of the consequences of succumbing to the cruelty and cynicism of a blind, dispirited age.
As the play begins, trumpets sound and the curtains rise. We see two guards walking among the ruins created by armed ambition, vengeance, and unrestrained cruelty. The defeated King Dhritarashtra weeps with remorse, blaming his physical blindness for his moral blindness. His wife, Gandhari, writhes with bitterness and cynicism...