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Ancient Sanskrit Poem Teaches About Modern War

Sean O’Callaghan relates a parable as the "Battlefield" ensemble listens.
Sean O’Callaghan relates a parable as the "Battlefield" ensemble listens.
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The Sanskrit poem “The Mahabharata” is considered the longest work in world literature.

The 200,000-line poem tells the story of a great war between two groups of relatives. They are fighting for control of ancient India.

Thirty years ago, director Peter Brook led a theatrical production of "The Mahabharata."

Some critics say it was one of the greatest theater events of the 20th century. The performance lasted nine hours, and included more than 20 actors on a stage covered in dirt.

Brook started working to bring "The Mahabharata" to the theater near the end of the Vietnam War.

Now, there is another long conflict taking place: the civil war in Syria. So, the 91-year-old director decided to re-explore a part of the famous poem.

The new play is called “Battlefield.” It begins after a disastrous war. The conflict ends in victory for Yudishtira, a prince who is about to become king.

What happens to the winner?

Brook said that for “Battlefield,” he wanted to direct the attention of theatergoers to just one idea.

“Which is not all the causes that lead to a war, not all the horrors of a great massacre, but what is the position of the great leader who realizes that he has done what he set out to do? He has won...”

In the play, all the killing saddens Yudishtira at the end of the war. “This victory is a defeat,” he declares, saying that bodies of heroes cover the battlefield.

Yudishtira then wishes to go away and hide in the forest. He wants to live a life of penance, seeking to punish himself for his earlier mistakes. But Peter Brook says he cannot.

“You have to live to the responsibility of a person who has won, which is even greater than the responsibility of a person who has lost.”

Because he feels guilty, the prince asks for help from a god, asking, "The other war, where will it take place? On the battlefield or in my heart?”

Krishna, the god, answers, “I do not see a real difference. The earth will need you. She will enjoy your victory. She will need you to wake up again, to recover her beauty, her calm, her harmony.”

Small cast delivers important messages

The ideas in "Battlefield" are important. The play looks at death and one’s purpose in life. It also explore issues such as war and peace. It does this with only four actors, some sticks, and a man beating a drum.

Brook explains, “We are doing it with a tiny group who are, collectively, one storyteller.” The group explores the story in great detail, and uses their own experiences to help present the human problems in the play.

The drummer, Toshi Tsuchitori, tells the story as much as the actors do. He sits at the side of the stage, and he uses the beat of the drum to emphasize different parts of the story.

During parts of the show dealing with war, Tsuchitori plays the drum harder. During parts about peace, he plays it softly.

Brook says that every performance of “Battlefield” is different. He changes the play a little for each place the players perform.

The play is only about an hour, but it is full of many stories from "The Mahabharata."

Brook says that the play talks about the most important and powerful ideas about truth, life, and death. It does so in a way that is touching and human.

These are exactly the kinds of stories that Peter Brook has been famous for telling for over 70 years.

I’m Phil Dierking.

And I'm Jill Robbins.

Jeff Lunden wrote this story for Phil Dierking adapted his report for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

What do you think of the ideas in this play? We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section or on our Facebook page.


Words in This Story

drumn. a musical instrument that is played by hitting a layer of skin or plastic stretched over a round frame with sticks or with your hands

collectivelyadj. shared or done by a group of people

emphasizev. to give special attention to something

harmonyn. a pleasing combination or arrangement of different things

horrorsn. something that causes feelings of fear, dread, and shock

kingn. a male ruler of a country who usually inherits his position and rules for life

massacren. the violent killing of many people

penancen. something that you do or are given to do in order to show that you are sad or sorry about doing something wrong

princen. the son of a king or queen

stagen. a raised platform in a theater, auditorium, etc., where the performers stand

tinyadj. very small

The first two minutes of this video are about the story in this play.