Teaching the Mahabharata in a Time of War

When Russia invaded Ukraine—the day after my son’s birthday in Ukraine but on his actual birthday in Seattle (because of the time difference we had time for dinner but before the cake and the candles the news had come)—I was teaching one of my bread and butter classes, the Epic Tradition. I pack too much into the ten weeks of this course: we read the Gilgamesh, the Iliad, Táin Bó Cúailnge, and the Odyssey, all in their entirety, and then, at the end, R.K. Narayan’s very short retellings of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, supplemented by quotations from academic translations.

When the war started, we had reached the Mahabharata part of the course. Teaching the Mahabharata, in any form, at the beginning of this war is one of those teaching experiences I will not easily forget. The Mahabharata is many (many) things, but the main plot line is about the conflict between two sets of cousins—our heroes, the Pandavas, and our villains, the Kauravas—a conflict that ends in a cosmic and cataclysmic war. It all begins with delightfully complex lines of causality. The older prince is disqualified from ruling because he is blind, so the younger one becomes the king instead.

After a while, he resigns and then dies, so the older one becomes king after all. Whose son should inherit the kingdom? Yudhishthira, the eldest of the Pandavas, is born before Duryodhana, the eldest of the Kauravas—but Duryodhana’s mother becomes pregnant first. And so on. But as the action unfolds, the complexity, though it never disappears, becomes somehow less of a brainteaser and more of a background against which emerges something much starker, more tragic, more black-and-white. With an excessive, thought-experiment-like consistency Yudhishthira tries to avoid the war. What if I never contradict anyone? (Admittedly, he fails in that, but who wouldn’t?) What if I always completely obey my uncle’s orders? What if we accept half of the kingdom, the infertile lands? They do divide the kingdom, but it doesn’t help. At one point, he asks for just five villages, one for each of his brothers (To call Kauravas’ bluff or in earnest? What would he do if they agreed? We don’t get to find out).

But the war is not to be avoided, of course, as we all have known from the beginning. As in the Greek Epic Cycle, the war is caused by powers beyond mere humans, by the fundamental forces of the universe. It has to happen because the Earth is too burdened and she is shrugging off her load. And so Duryodhana says, in essence, “as long as the Pandavas have anything, I cannot live” and the war begins. Our heroes kill not only their cousins, but their grandfather and their teachers. The most brilliant of the Pandava children, Abhimanyu, is killed shortly after his wedding. Draupadi, the wife of the five Pandavas (yes, polyandry) loses all of her sons. In the end, the victory is won, but in the Mahabharata the moment when “the good prevails” feels terribly bitter and empty and full of grief.

And so here I was, trudging to class with my slides summarizing the battle books of the epic. I would wake up in the morning hoping that all that happened the day before was a bad dream, that it couldn’t be, or if it could then at least not to that extent—surely the awful, relentless cruelty of it was only a nightmare? But no, this was our new reality. I would feel as though, by the time I’d showered, my energy was spent. But what can you do? You go to class and pull up your slides. You read:

A loud wail went up in all the houses of the Kurus. The whole city, including the children, was riven with grief. Women whose lords had been killed were now in the gaze of common men—women whom not even the hosts of the Gods had ever seen! Having set their lovely tresses free to fly and taken off their ornaments, those women, clad only in simple shifts, ran to and fro helplessly. They emerged from houses that looked like snow-capped mountains, like does leaving secluded mountain valleys when the leader of their herd has been killed. Several groups of distraught women in the throes of grief ran about as if they were in the girls’ yard; and holding onto each others’ arms, they wept for their sons, brothers, and fathers—it was as if they were acting out the destruction of the world at the end of an Age. (Mahabharata 11.9.8, translated by James L. Fitzgerald)

I vividly remember the extreme fatigue of those first days. Was it just the cognitive effort of taking it in? Remarkable, if so.

I was born and grew up in Moscow, but my mother is from Ukraine. She grew up in Dnipro, a big city on Dnepr river, where, as a child, I spent many summer months with my grandparents. They were long, childhood summers— playing with a few local friends in the neighborhood playground, running around in the streets filled with cottonwood fluff, buying ice cream on the nearby leafy boulevard, staring forever at the swallows feeding chicks in their clay nests under cornices.

I remember using a magnet to gather pins from the carpet in my grandmother’s room, where she sewed elaborate dresses for clients (illegally, naturally, under Soviet law) and watching her bake, whipping egg whites by hand for what seemed like hours in front of the tv. I remember my grandfather repairing the clock, the tv, the sewing machine, tending, daily, his window-boxes of petunias and snapdragons. I remember the upheaval of the canning days (tomatoes, cucumbers, dill, shot glasses of vinegar, strictly following detailed instructions in an old notebook my grandmother called her “Talmud”). I remember reading all there was to read in the house, gorging on cherries and sprawling on the couch, through the afternoons.

The images of war are always shocking, but I have to admit that they are much more shocking when the building, the streets, the people, look and sound so achingly familiar. On the BBC news site a woman, tears and despair and rage in her voice, described how she went into the bathroom in her apartment to help her small child and came out to one of those pictures in which the outer walls are gone and the now naked domestic things—cupboards and couches and children’s cribs—hang askance over the void. I felt as if I’d heard her before, knew her somehow. In another video Ukrainian women howl over their dead son and grandson, their voices both familiar in their inflexions and alien in their beyond-human grief. I would wake up suddenly in the middle of the night, sit up in bed and feel as if my head were an empty echoing cupola reverberating with those voices, those animal howls, and nothing else. The next day I would stand in front of my class and read:

The earth seems to be crammed with fallen heads, hands, and every sort of limb mixed with every other and put into heaps. And thrilling with horror upon seeing headless bodies and bodiless heads, the women, unaccustomed to these things, are bewildered. After joining a head to a body they stare at it blankly, and then they are pained to realize, “This is not his,” but do not see another one in that place. And these over here, joining arms, thighs, feet, and other pieces cut off by arrows, are overwhelmed by the misery of it and faint over and over again. Some of the Bharata women see other decapitated bodies which the birds and beasts have eaten and which they fail to recognize as their husbands. Some beat their heads with their hands when they lay eyes upon their brothers, fathers, sons, and husbands killed by the enemy, swords still in their hands, earrings still on their ears.  (Mahabharata 11.81.16, translated by James L. Fitzgerald)

Well, I didn’t read this, actually—I pointed to the slide, briefly, and left it at that.

The students had to write short responses to the readings of the day. “My perspective on the matter is that Duryodhana and Yudhisthira’s conflict is a personal one and that involving soldiers and going to war over it is pointless. However, I understand that my perspective is warped because in modern times the leader of the government is not an all-ruling monarch, and perhaps it was more important in older days to consider who was in charge of the country” an excellent student wrote in response to a question about the war in the Mahabharata and whether Yudhishthira should have fought it. “In modern times the leader of the government is not an all-ruling monarch”…. “Not so in Russia,” I thought “not so in the country of my birth. Not so in the world you live in, even if you think that you live in a different, better, more reasonable, safer world. You think you live in a “modern” world. You think that you do. But you do not.” This I did say in class, in different words, to a hushed and surprised room.

One of the worst things about the beginning of the war was the expectation that we would all lose hope, a particular kind of hope. The hope that a country can emerge from the warped reality of the Soviet Union and not slide back, not be sucked back, as Russia inevitably is, into the same black hole. That something else is possible. I’ve always been very pessimistic about Russia, even in the early nineties, when many had visions of a different future for it. I just didn’t see it (and still do not). But Ukraine was different, it had a chance. Now, I thought as the war began, Russia would take that chance away. It would never change itself and it wouldn’t let Ukraine do that either: the hope would be lost as the world stood by.

Of course, that did not happen. The Ukrainians stood up and compelled the reluctant West to act. It felt as if, speaking from shelled and threatened Kiev, Zelenski shifted something big in the world. Types of weapons became household words around the dinner table in my family. Russia choked, and the prospect of its swallowing Ukraine whole evaporated.  People started talking about Russia’s defeat. I cheer every Ukrainian success and register, with some surprise, how much I want Russia to lose—not just to stop, but to lose. I listen to the Ukrainian political commentator and presidential advisor Oleksiy Arestovych as he speaks (with admiration) of Western values and envisages Ukraine as a frontline defender of these values, calling on all of us to remember what they are.

Such hope. Western values…. In some ways, in appealing to those values, the Ukrainians remind me of Black people in the US who took the “Declaration of Independence” seriously when their white compatriots would not: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” —so let’s act that way. Ukraine too is calling on the West to walk the walk. But there is also a way in which Russia actually embodies, if not Western values exactly, then something else very centrally Western: the colonial worldview.  Also, the concomitant notion of some “destined” way the world has to be. The Russian state is profoundly, quintessentially, colonial and does not have any other ways of being. It is even internally colonial, colonial towards Russians who live in places that have been Russian for as long as this word made sense. The treatment of indigenous peoples amounts to an attempted erasure. And now the worse version of that worldview is used to rationalize the aggression against Ukraine. What a perfect expression of colonialism—to tell a people that they do not exist. The whole world should hope that Russia is defeated, and decisively so. There is no other way of stopping it—or changing it.

But if it is defeated—how much will change? I have my doubts. And in the meanwhile, the Mahabharata is still on my mind, long after my course has ended.  I wonder why that is so. Because of a war between cousins? Perhaps, although in many ways the cousin part actually does not resonate all that much with Ukraine. In the Mahabharata, there are long negotiations and attempts to avert the war, expressions of friendship and affection across the divide, hesitations on everyone’s part—except for Duryodhana, that is. The war begins in a ritual-like way, with mutual respect among most of the opponents. The invasion of Ukraine, by contrast, was a shock not only to the Ukrainians, but also, initially, to the Russian troops who were told that they would do military exercises near the border and then go home—but crossed the border instead. Nor was there any polite and honorable fighting to start with: Russian soldiers seem to have entered this war pre-brutalized, pre-decomposed, ready for genocide.

India, Kangra, circa 1800
Depicting a battle scene with the central figures on horse-drawn chariots with bows and arrows, with numerous figures on horseback and elephants engaging, supported by foot soldiers above and below, the noblemen depicted wearing crowns and with individualized facial features, many identified with inscriptions

And so, no, it is something else, not the superficial similarly of a “war between cousins.” It is the way the war in the Mahabharata is simultaneously completely useless, senseless, and—you would think—easily avoidable, and yet also somehow inevitable. It has to happen because the Earth is burdened—and it isn’t hard to arrange. No matter how many wise and sensible and peace-loving people are involved, one Duryodhana at the right time and in the right place is apparently all it takes, and by the time the war begins the causes are piled up sky-high: disputed lands, mistreatment of Draupadi, the divine machinations. How can you be a Yudhishthira if you share a world with Duryodhanas? Is there any way— apart from fighting a catastrophic war you never wanted? Not in the Mahabharata.

Now, as I write this, new rows of freshly dug graves stand ready in Dnipro at the edge of a growing cemetery filled with flowers and flags and freshly poured earth. It is strange to see it on the BBC website and know that this exists in a city of my childhood, the one with acacia trees along boulevards, and walnut trees whose green fruit stains your fingers brown, and a busy market, and the skins of sunflower seeds always mixed in with the dust.

The city, also, where my great grandparents lie in a mass grave, killed by the Nazis in a mass execution of the Jews of Dnipro on October 13, 1941. I hope for Ukraine’s resounding victory fervently. Will the West really walk the walk? Will there be enough help for a victory? And after this victory, I hope Ukraine gets a chance to play its new role in the world, to live its new life, bereft though it will be of all those already lost and still to be lost in this war.

Except: will Ukraine have the time for this new life? How much CO2 is emitted when a tank battalion is destroyed? Or in the process of transporting hundreds of howitzers? Or when you burn and level an entire city? Or when you rebuild it? Will the Earth’s patience hold long enough for any new order to emerge? Will she hold out a little longer, for Ukraine?

As the war stretches indefinitely, I cannot get the Mahabharata out of my head. This war is so clear, so black and white. Ukraine’s is the just fight. They didn’t ask for it, they didn’t have a choice, this was brought upon them because of one man’s delusion and one country’s murderous system of statehood. What choice do they have but to fight? What choice do we all have but to hope that this war will be “the end of an Age” only in some good sense and not in any terrible one?

Below the hope lies horror at the stark insanity of this war, any war, now, when daily we hear of new climate disasters, droughts and starvation and devastating floods, when you need only to open your eyes to see “the end of an Age”—of our age— rolling our way. The Earth must be burdened with us. So very burdened.


Olga Levaniouk is a Professor of Classics at the University of Washington and the author of Eve of the Festival: Making Myth in Odyssey 19 (2011). Her work has focused on Homer, laments and wedding songs, and the comparative study of myth and culture. Her latest article (“Seeking Agariste,” 2022) is an example of a comparative analysis involving ancient Greece and modern India.