- Defending the Sacred in an Age of Atrocities:On Translating Andha Yug
My decision to translate Dharamvir Bharati's Andha Yug (1953) was the result of whimsy of course, but whimsy in the service of practical reason, and, given the present condition of the country, in the aid of political sanity too. In 2001, I spent a semester teaching a course on contemporary Indian theatre, with the help of English translations which were mostly bad. Strangely enough, Andha Yug, which was so literally translated as to seem like a long poem without any distinguishable theatrical or moral voices at all, and so thoughtlessly edited as to confuse any good logician, became the focus of rather disturbing discussions about the politics of revenge, the impotence of grief, the meaning of karuna (compassion), the failure of a morally responsible will to intervene in acts of violation, and the responsibility of the gods in leading us to moral dereliction and decay.1 Nearly every student pitied Gandhari, and there was unanimous condemnation of Krishna. Krishna made them uncomfortable. He should have behaved more like a dissembling politician pretending to fulfill our needs and wishes, rights and demands so as to win our votes, instead of acting like a god on behalf of morality and justice. Gandhari, they felt, was right in making Ashwatthama the invincible instrument of her revenge against the Pan-davas. She had a greater moral claim to our sympathy than Krishna, whose omnipotence should have alerted him to his responsibilities and, thereby, helped the Pandavas and the Kauravas evade a catastrophic war by transforming them into moral visionaries.
My students, I must insist, were not more ethically obtuse than any of us. After all, most of us demand that gods behave like highly paid karamcharis (lower-caste workers) or nongovernment officers, look after our social and physical hygiene, be alert to all our psychological anxieties, and protest on our behalf against caste, gender, or class wrongs, instead of bearing witness to the causes of grief, or marking out places of evil in our souls, and, sometimes, even singing praises for acts which are just so as to save that fragile thing called hope. Maybe, if we are more charitable, we think that God is no more than a junior judge in the lower court, where "arid disputes"2 are sorted out, instead of being the very form and idea of [End Page xi] the Good, which finds its earthly incarnation in acts of knowledge, work, and love when they are performed with the full absorbedness of the soul.
Talking to my students about the moral issues raised by Andha Yug, I recalled what the great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, who had corresponded with Mahatma Gandhi about the ethics of nonviolent resistance against a ruthless enemy,3 had rightly said when he asserted that thinking about God was unavoidable in times of atrocities. Without invoking an absolute notion of the good or the just, all our truth-seeking impulses, especially when our very existence as a people is threatened, can only flounder and fall into nothingness. Thinking about what could be absolute and unconditional for human survival during the years of the Holocaust in Germany, years which coincided with the holocaust during the Partition of India, Buber felt, as perhaps Dharamvir Bharati did, that no other "word of human speech is so misused, so defiled, so desecrated" as the word God. Yet, Buber insisted, as I think Bharati does in the play, that in times of extreme violence the word God needs to be defended with passion, for our sense of ourselves as human beings depends upon it. Buber's case for holding on to the word God is moving and eloquent:
Yes, it [God] is the most heavy-laden of all human words. None has become so soiled, so mutilated. Just for this reason I may not abandon it. Generations of men have laid the burden of their anxious lives upon this word…it lies in the dust and bears their whole burden. The races of man with their religious factions have torn the word to pieces; they have killed for it and died for it, and...