'Battlefield' lays bare the truth: Victory can also feel like defeat

The Pandavas' victory over the Kauravas in the Mahabharata drives home the hard fact that victory over others feels more like a defeat.

FOUR actors and a drummer with bare minimum stage setting — there is probably no other economical drama for presenting the world’s oldest and longest epic poem, the Mahabharata, to a modern audience than Peter Brook’s 70-minute production “Battlefield.”

The Indian masterpiece, which is longer than Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey combined, deals with the story of wars between family members and imparts moral lessons on desire and destruction, victory and defeat, life and death, and much more.

“Renouncing attachment to the fruits of one’s work” stands out as probably the most singular message from the Mahabharata, and this message resonates throughout Bhagavad Gita, an independent epic poem derived from the Mahabharata.

In plain language, this central message suggests: Do it right for others.

On November 2, I went with an Indian colleague to watch the “Battlefield” at a theatre in Shanghai. It was a sold-out performance with many young people in the audience — all of them absorbed in the intense discourse among the protagonists.

Many in the crowd would probably have been disappointed by the simple stage setup. The bamboo sticks and colorful fabric were the only props used that symbolized forests and flames among other things.

I read the Mahabharata (a condensed English version) before going to the play. I found “Battlefield” extremely economical and yet rich enough to convey the epic’s essential messages — that hatred toward others is always misplaced, for one has only oneself to blame for one’s fate (as illustrated in the story of a snake biting a child to death and yet arguing eloquently that it was just a snake, it had no intention to kill and, probably most importantly, it was not the only cause of his death); that wars are not just about fighting among men but a revenge by Mother Earth against human greed; that a victory at the cost of millions of lives often feels like a defeat; and that the poor, not the privileged, should be taken care of.

Indian thoughts

When one of the actors held aloft a bunch of long scarves (symbolic of sacrificial materials) and tried to deliver them to the needy, he faced the audience and asked: “Where is the poor? Are you poor?” Many members of the audience caught his message and responded enthusiastically: “Here, here! Yes, I am poor!”

Brook’s production was part of this year’s Shanghai International Arts Festival. To me, it was a rare window into ancient Indian culture and thoughts which, in a nuanced way, differ from ancient Greek ideas, especially those expressed in Iliad.

While Achilles’ victory over Hector in Iliad almost amounts to a victory of force over civilization (there is a winner and a loser, and the winner may not claim a higher level of civilization), the Pandavas’ victory over the Kauravas in the Mahabharata drives home the hard fact that victory over others feels more like a defeat, while victory over one’s ego is the more consummate victory.

In many ways, the Mahabharata, by invoking the images of gods like in ancient Greek stories, actually resembles old Chinese thoughts that men should do good without expecting a favor in return; that men should be promoted according to one’s merit, not one’s blood, and that men should treat the earth like mother, not cow.

There are many more messages from the Mahabharata that neither this article nor the “Battlefield” can cover. But thanks to Peter Brook’s handling of the narrative, we get a glimpse of something beyond victory by force, beyond conflicts, beyond hatred.

And thanks too, to Shanghai, the city that plays host to the world’s best ideas.

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