The Mahabharata, along with the Ramayana one of the major literary works of ancient India, is an epic in the Sanskrit language that was largely created in the middle of the first millennium BCE and came to written form around 300 CE. The epic ranges widely, but centers on the story of two sets of cousins: the five Pandavas, sons of the deceased King Pandu, and the one hundred Kauravas or Dhartarashtras, sons of blind King Dhritarashtra. They and their armies fight the huge Kurukshetra War for possession of the kingdom of Bharata. Stories from the Mahabharata have become standard fare in dance and theater throughout Southeast Asia, and have been translated into a variety of languages and retold by countless other artists. Perhaps best known in the west, and throughout the world for that matter, is the famous and beloved Bhagavad Gita, a philosophical and spiritual dialogue (from the sixth of the Mahabharata’s eighteen books) between Arjun, the warrior hero of the Pandavas, and his charioteer Lord Krishna.
In the author’s note to The Palace of Illusions, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni – author of many acclaimed novels and short stories, and a teacher in the Creative Writing program at the University of Houston – talks about how she became fascinated with the stories of the Mahabharata as a young girl, but also how frustrated she was by the lack of a woman’s perspective within the work. So her novel tells much of the Mahabharata story through the eyes of Panchaali (sometimes known as Draupadi), the wife of all five of the Pandavas. Clearly Divakaruni could not wrap the entirety of the Mahabharata – which is said to be the world’s second largest book (after Tibet’s Epic of King Gesar), encompassing about 100,000 verses, or about ten times the length of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey combined – into a novel of under 400 pages. But she does effectively and evocatively manage to capture the broad range and human drama of the story.
Panchaali’s education is the traditional one for highborn women of the time – singing, dancing, sewing, painting. She later, however, acquires some supernatural powers from a sorceress that will serve her well as her story develops. Despite the fact that she is expected to, as her teacher puts it, “support the warriors in her life: her father, brother, husband, and sons,” the sage Vyasa (the legendary author of the Mahabharata) tells her that she will marry five men and cause the Great War that will kill a million people. The human aspects of the story are consistently Divakaruni’s focus, although the divine is never far away. In fact, one consistent theme of the novel is how events and people become mythologized, almost in real time. Even Panchaali’s birth is colored by myth – she and her beloved brother Dhristadyumna (or Dhri, as she calls him) were apparently born from a sacrificial fire.
Panchaali’s husband is to be chosen through an archery contest. Arjun, the most valiant of the five Pandavas, is the likely winner. But Panchaali’s attention is drawn by Karna, who, although of low birth, may match Arjun’s skills. (Later it is revealed that Karna is in fact brother to the Pandavas.) In the end Arjun wins, and Panchaali is forced to reject Karna, though her infatuation, even love, for him remains intact through the years. Later, as Vyasa predicted, Arjun’s four brothers also marry Panchaali, taking turns as groom for a year apiece.
King Dhritarashtra decides to divide his kingdom in two, with the Pandavas receiving the larger but more desolate portion. Arjun sets the local forest ablaze to clear space for a huge, lush, and soon famous new palace, which Panchaali dubs The Palace of Illusions. Ten years pass: Panchaali, now queen, is the mother of five children (one by each husband), and the husbands, as would have been expected in that day, take further wives and have even more children. But in a fateful dice game between Yudhisthir, the oldest of the Pandava brothers, and Duryodhan, the leader of the Kauravas, Yudhisthir loses everything – his brothers, palace, kingdom, and wife. Panchaali and the Pandavas are exiled to the forest for a dozen years, followed by a year in hiding. Anger festers, especially that of Panchaali.
Panchaali at one point engages in some self-examination, as Divakaruni suggests some of the alternative paths the narrative of the Mahabharata could have taken: “The princess who longed for acceptance, the guilty girl whose heart wouldn’t listen, the wife who balanced her fivefold role precariously, the rebellious daughter-in-law, the queen who ruled in the most magical of palaces, the distracted mother, the beloved companion of Krishna, who refused to learn the lessons he offered, the woman obsessed with vengeance – none of them were the true Panchaali. If not, who was I?”
Once again events move to the mythological realm. Arjun, preparing for battle, encounters the god Shiva on a mountaintop and acquires a magical weapon that will enable him to be victorious on the battlefield. Likewise, Karna is visited by the sun god Surya and told to relinquish his armor to Indra, who offers Karna the boon of the Shakti, another great weapon. Vyasa the sage returns to give Panchaali the ability to see all the fighting in her mind, and to see into the hearts of the participants: “With a start I realized that every single person I cared for in the world was gathered on this field.” Unlike some of the actual Mahabharata, or similar passages in the Iliad, Divakaruni doesn’t dwell overmuch on the gory details of the war. She makes it clear, however, that the fighting is fierce, with thousands upon thousands dead on both sides. On the seventeenth day, the great confrontation between Karna and Arjun takes place. Panchaali can see the whole thing as Karna, rendered defenseless, is killed. Ultimately the Pandavas win the war.
But at what cost? Panchaali remembers the final words of the Kaurava leader Duryodhan to Yudhisthir: “I’m going to heaven to enjoy all its pleasures with my friends. You’ll rule a kingdom peopled with widows and orphans and wake each morning to the grief of loss. Who’s the real winner, then, and who the loser?” Mothers and widows of the dead are moved to commit suttee, or ritual suicide. But Panchaali convinces them to remain alive to care for all those still living. Later they collaborate to create a women’s court, selling their jewelry to set up the widows and others with homes and businesses.
With all the killing – and the subsequent death of Krishna and the sacking of his city, Dwarka – Yudhisthir proclaims that it is time for the Pandavas to die. Panchaali and the Pandavas depart for the Himalayas and mahaprasthan, the path of the great departure. Panchaali reflects on the three times she left her home at Hastinapur – once as an optimistic young bride, once to be exiled for years before the great battle, and now clad in tree bark for her final trip. As she lies in the snow, near death, in the final and perhaps most moving scene of the novel, those who have preceded her in death appear around her, all content with “the satisfaction of actors who have successfully concluded their roles in a great drama.” In Divakaruni’s extraordinary and beautiful concluding flourish, Panchaali dies only to become truly herself, “buoyant and expansive and uncontainable … Above us our palace waits, the only one I’ve ever needed. Its walls are space, its floor is sky, its center everywhere. We rise; the shapes cluster around us in welcome, dissolving and forming and dissolving again like fireflies in a summer evening.”