How do I connect with the ancient world by performing in a modern world a play written many centuries ago? This past Friday, I performed the ancient playwright Bhāsa’s Karnabhāram, or “Karna’s Burden.” Written well before the 5th Century, this play is still performed in some Southern Indian cities, and was performed most recently right here in America, by the 2nd year Sanskrit class of Emory University. Taken out of its cultural context, an ancient performance brought to light several layers of meaning. The script was the same, the characters and their lines the same, the circumstances however were quite different, and the people even more so.
Several important characters from the epic Mahabharata emblematize many ethical issues that compete for relevance with a texts’ audience. For example, Arjuna and Krishna’s discourse in the Bhagavad Gita is popularly taken out of the epic and read alone for lessons on dharma. So, by writing a play on a particular character, Bhāsa brought to the forefront a hero otherwise buried under the shifting sands of the epic’s text and its many appropriations. His play elaborated on Karna, a tragic hero figure from the Mahabharata, the oldest Pāndava, abandoned by his young mother, and raised by charioteers. Unaware of his true role as a warrior, he loyally serves the Kurus in their battle against their Pāndava cousins, knowing his own brothers are on the other side.
In this play Karna’s benevolent character is epitomized. Indra, the king of gods, appears as a wandering brahmin, demanding alms and showering praises upon Karna. But Indra, by the command of the gods, deceives Karna and thus ensures his defeat in the upcoming battle. Erudite and virtuous, Karna recognizes his fate, and makes the ultimate offering of his most cherished possessions – the armor and earrings born with his body to protect him – while still hungering to wage war against the Pāndavas. Why does Karna make the ultimate sacrifice when he knows it may spell his defeat?
Professor Elliott McCarter introduced the play with these words, “like so much great literature in Sanskrit, Bhāsa’s play expands a singular moment and provides us with a vision of, in the words of William Blake, “the whole world in a grain of sand.” This weekend’s Karnabhāram symbolized more simply the reiteration of the play itself. Performing such an ancient character with a troubled history and a tragic tale, I struggled to give Karna a voice, to an audience from a different time period, perhaps unfamiliar with Sanskrit poetic and dramatic conventions or with the concerns of Bhāsa’s era. Whether the plot had relevance to us today is hardly of importance, but what is significant is what the doing did for the performers as well as the audience.
Performing the play meant something special to us. As Emory threatens to downsize its’ Middle East and South Asian Studies (MESAS) department cutting the Sanskrit language program, this play conveyed a special burden. Just like Karna, we too courageously went forth into our performance, hoping our skills would display the importance of our language program and what it means for us as students from diverse backgrounds. As Karna contested his intentions within a larger text, we too competed for attention from an audience who came to support the Hindi and Persian classes.
To the audience, our voices seemed to express an unfamiliar language but perhaps with relatable concerns. Our loud voices boomed through the student center, displaying our enthusiasm for a laborious, highly grammatical Sanskrit language. Our audience may not have connected with Karna’s burden, but they witnessed an ancient performance, rendered by a modern American class, riddled with institutional concerns. We didn’t offer the ultimate alms as Karna did, but we did share the gift of communicating our enthusiasm for the fight to keep Sanskrit alive.
Sanskrit may be dead according to the Emory decision makers, but indeed it was never a dead language. Veiled by cumbersome linguistic compounds and embellished with Bhāsa’s poetic imagination, this performance held a powerful significance to us as much as it did to its ancient performers. The language, once spoken, communicated more than its grammatical meanings. Perhaps the audience didn’t care much for Karna’s burden, but they may have been aware of our burden. If they didn’t know of either they came together for other reasons and each person took away more than we intended to convey.