The great Sanskrit epic Mahabharata is the longest book in world literature, longer than the Bible, the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Tales of King Arthur combined. Because the Mahabharata revolves around Krsna, for years we devotees of Krsna used to fantasize: "If only Hollywood could make a movie of the Mahabharata how wonderful it would be!" We thought Steven Spielberg could direct and arrange for special effects. Devotees even prompted the actress Hayley Mills to present the famed director with a copy of the Mahabharata. And an actor who knew of our idea told Spielberg that the Hare Krsna devotees would like him to direct a movie of one of their stories. But the kitsch meister clearly wasn't interested, replying that he knew we'd been after him for years, but that he had his own stories in his head. So much for that dream.
Although the Mahabharata still hasn't made it to Hollywood, it has made its appearance in Western theatre in a big way with the nine-hour production by Peter Brook and Jean-Claude Carriere. Unfortunately, despite the grandeur of the production, it lacks the essential ingredient of devotion to Lord Krsna. For devotees, therefore, it is a disappointment.
The Mahabharata is a compendium of Vedic philosophy and history. Centering on the global battle between the Pandava brothers and their cousins the Kurus, the Mahabharata is basically a struggle between the forces of good and evil. At the core of the epic lies the Bhagavad-gita, a pre-battle dialogue between Lord Krsna and His devotee the warrior Arjuna.
The Gita contains the essence of the Vedas, or transcendental knowledge. And although interpreters of the Gita often reduce its message to a homily to perform one's duty, its actual, essential message is to render loving service (bhakti) unto Krsna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. The nine-hour stage adaptation of the Mahabharata by Peter Brook and Jean-Claude Carriere is a prominent example of missing this essential point. Of course, this is not surprising, since in the Gita itself Krsna tells Arjuna that its most confidential message cannot be understood by those who are not devoted to Him. Although both Brook and Carriere are eminently qualified dramatists, being nondevotees they could not penetrate into the mysteries of the Gita and, hence, the Mahabharata as a whole. By their own admission, they could not comprehend the transcendental position of Krsna.
In the introduction of the published script, Carriere reveals his bewilderment. He confesses, "Krsna presented us with a special problem … man or god? It is obviously not up to us to decide. Any theological truth, controversial by its very nature, is closed to us our aim is a certain dramatic truth." Although admitting his ignorance of Krsna, he did not realize that by not understanding the supremacy of Krsna, he missed out on the dramatic truth as well. Without understanding Krsna's position as the prime mover of the Mahabharata (what to speak of His being the primal cause of all causes), and without understanding the great bond of love between Arjuna and Krsna, one cannot understand the Mahabharata.
What spoils the Brook/Carriere production is precisely this, that Krsna is depicted as an ordinary mortal not only is He not given any special costume or make-up to differentiate Him from the other actors, but He is portrayed as a cunning and unscrupulous partisan. Granted, Krsna does sometimes display trickery, but it must be understood in the context of His transcendental position as the Supreme Lord. Whereas the Gitareveals Krsna as the summum bonum, and the highest morality as acting to please Him, in the Brook/Carriere stage version of the Mahabharata, Krsna is just another mysterious character.
Queen Kunti, Krsna's aunt and the mother of the Pandavas, spoke of the common man's misunderstanding of Krsna in the Srimad-Bhagavatam (1.8.19, 29):
You are invisible to the foolish observer, exactly as an actor dressed as a player is not recognized…. O Lord, no one can understand Your transcendental pastimes, which appear to be human and are so misleading. You have no specific object of favor, nor do You have any object of envy. People only imagine that You are partial.
Brook, like the "foolish observer" of Kunti's prayer, was also unable to recognize Krsna, and thus he had the Lord dressed as an ordinary man.
In his introduction to the published script, Brook credits his initial interest in the Mahabharata to his having attended a demonstration of Kathakali dance in Paris. He found the enactment of the episodes from theMahabharata so strange that "I could only guess at something mythical and remote, from another culture, nothing to do with my life."
Fascinated by the story nonetheless, Brook was inspired to adapt it for the stage. But he never tried to understand the inner meaning of the Mahabharata. Rather, in an effort to make the story relevant to his own life and, by implication, to modern man Brook reduced the Mahabharata to a parable about nuclear weapons and the fate of the human race. True, there is some similarity between the nuclear weaponry of our day and the brahmastra weapons described in the Mahabharata. But there is also a great difference. The brahmastra would affect only a predetermined, individual target. It would not indiscriminately annihilate millions of innocent civilians. The etiquette of the Vedic martial class (ksatriyas) was such that only other warriors could be killed, and only during daylight. No itchy fingers could surreptitiously "press the button." And thebrahmastra could be released only by one who was qualified by being thoroughly versed in the subtle science of sound.
According to the accounts of the Mahabharata itself, 640 million soldiers died in the eighteen-day Battle of Kuruksetra. Yet however shocking such an incomprehensible mortality statistic may be, what Brook, Carriere, and other nonbelievers fail to appreciate is that the whole battle was arranged by Lord Krsna just to rid the earth of demonic kings and to establish the righteous as the rulers of the world.
Krsna takes great pains in the Gita to explain to Arjuna how such "killing" on the battlefield was inevitable and not at all lamentable. The eternal soul can never be killed, Krsna explained; only the temporary, changing body is killed. Brook and Carriere, along with most people in the materialistic West, apparently have no understanding of this fundamental truth. Of course, Krsna's encouraging Arjuna to fight on the battlefield should never be taken as justification for killing. Even the unnecessary killing of an ant is forbidden in the Vedic literature.
By attempting to relate the Battle of Kuruksetra to the plight of modern man, Brook has misconstrued the important message of the Bhagavad-gita and the Mahabharata. Yet Bhagavad-gita is relevant to modern man because its message, though spoken to a particular person at a particular time in a particular place, is universal and timeless. The message spoken by the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Sri Krsna, is that we should return to our original, constitutional position as His devotees. He wants everyone to love Him, worship Him, and serve Him by whatever God-given talents he or she may possess. In other words, if Peter Brook wants to make Bhagavad-gita relevant to his life, he should produce plays that glorify God and deal with man's relationship with Him.
One drama critic has suggested that one should not go to the Brook/Carriere production of the Mahabharata seeking spiritual enlightenment, just as one would not watch Cecil B. de Mille's movie The Ten Commandments to learn about the Bible. But that needn't be the case. Even if the audience doesn't share in the values and beliefs presented onstage, if the performers believe and are committed to raising the consciousness of the audience, their performances can produce that effect.
Brook himself admits the shortcomings of his production. As he once said in an interview, "The pinnacle of the Mahabharata is the Bhagavad-gita, but in our production we don't present it or have it spoken we just have Krsna whisper it to Arjuna. You don't get cured in a theatre! But if you want to go further, there is the Gita … and the whole rest of your life to continue your search."
Bravo! But, I ask, why not get cured in the theatre? Why not get cured of the illusory bodily conception of life? Theatre has traditionally been a place for enlightenment, instruction, and purification. Why not bring theatre back to its roots? If the masses will not read the Gita or cannot understand it, why not put its real message on stage, video, and cinema screens?