Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies

Research Article

The Mahābhārata as national history and allegory in modern tales of Abhimanyu

Pamela Lothspeicha1

a1 University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, email: ploth@email.unc.edu


During a renaissance of Hindu mythology in the late colonial period, the Mahābhārata in particular was embraced as the essential account of the nation's ancient past. In the many literary retellings of the period, epic history is often recast as national history, even as the epic narratives themselves are inscribed with allegorical significance. Such is the case in the many poems and plays on the subject of Abhimanyu and his nemesis Jayadrath, including the most famous example in Hindi, Maithilisharan Gupta's narrative poem, Jayadrath-vadh (The slaying of Jayadrath, 1910). In this essay I situate Gupta's poem within the genre of paurāxs1E47ik or mythological literature and read the poem against the Abhimanyu-Jayadrath episode as found in the critical edition of the Sanskrit Mahābhārata to illustrate how Gupta both modernizes the poem and imbues it with nationalist ideology. I ultimately argue that Gupta's Abhimanyu is like a freedom fighter battling an imperial goliath, and his wife, Subhadra, a model for women dedicated to the cause. I also discuss some of the subsequent literature on Abhimanyu which was inspired by Gupta's classic work, and which also re-envisions the story in terms of contemporary political circumstances.