My reviewrating: 4 of 5 stars
The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is a re-envisioning of the ancient Indian epic the Mahabharata. It is an historical chronicle full of intrigue and adventure. And like many ancient stories, it is embedded with spiritual wisdom. The spiritual section of the Mahabharata is called the Bhagavad Gita. I read this about fifteen years ago looking for some insight but found myself disillusioned by a very human tale of war.
What makes Divakaruni’s retelling accessible is that it is told through the voice of one of the women in the Mahabharata. It is in keeping with the original and still very much a tale of war. What brought it to life for me, however, was Divakaruni’s characterization. She used the female voice to bring the relationships alive so that we can see the characters’ motivations, their longings, their human frailty—as our own. She masterfully drew the parallel between war among kingdoms and the internal conflicts we experience.
While I may be reading into it, I think Divakaruni used the title, as well as Krishna’s character, to allude to the idea that our human experience is a “palace of illusions”—in which we suffer, forgetting our spiritual origin. However, the allusion, if there at all, is so subtle as to be nearly non-existent. Maybe Divakaruni didn’t want to turn people off with religion? It seems like she could have used Krishna a little more—not to preach or moralize—but to convey that slippery way that we experience the tension between duty and desire and what is true to us.
Divakaruni takes you to ancient India with her rich and sensual writing. And, even though the author did not include much reference to the original spiritual content, I think she might have opened the door for me to revisit the Bhagavad Gita. I wonder if it will have such a strong pulse? Maybe I’ll have to read it and then revisit The Palace of Illusions again!
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