Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,

February Books 2) The Mahābhārata

I've been working my way through various works of Asian religion recently (see my takes on The Koran and Ta Hsüeh and Chung Yung from last year). The Mahābhārata is much more accessible than the other two, though also much much longer - the Penguin edition is 800 pages, and that is with two thirds of the text brutally summarized. Of course, it helps that there is a plot as well as profound philosophical, theological and moral discourse; perhaps the fairer comparison is with Homer (where I think the Mahābhārata still wins).

I did sometimes find it difficult to keep the names straight on my head; John D. Smith's translation and adaptation makes few concessions. I'm not used to Indian nomenclature and wasn't quite prepared for Kṛṣṇa rather than Krishna. It was rather late in the book before I distinguished Bhīṣma and Bhīma; and I was puzzled by the brother and sister demons Hiḍimbā and Hiḍimba until I looked a bit closer. But this is how one learns.

The epic itself is a grand mythological tale of a battle between two families, the hundred demonic sons of Dhṛtarāṣtra and the five Pāṇḍava brothers (who between them have four fathers and two mothers). The first five books (of 18) are the setup: the genealogy of the two sides, including various miraculous feats of reproduction - pregnancies varying in length from a day to a year, children born from the landscape after passing heroic men ejaculate upon it; I note also that women in the Mahābhārata actually menstruate which is rare in any fiction I have read. There is even a transsexual charioteer, Śikhaṇḍī.

The actual battle, which occupies the next five books, is about as tedious as most fictional epic battles. I was interested though that the world of the Mahābhārata is actually rather high-tech; Indra's chariot which takes people to another world is distinctly spaceshippy, and the mystical Weapons of This and That which are wielded on the battlefield are definitely technologies of mass destruction, a thought which famously occurred to Robert Oppenheimer. Also of course one has built up a certain sympathy for the characters in the earlier chapters, particularly the Pāṇḍava brothers and their long-suffering joint wife, Draupadī.

The philosophy comes in two large chunks. The more famous passage is actually the shorter of the two: the Bhagavad Gītā is preached by Kṛṣṇa to Arjuna, the most attractive character among the Pāṇḍava brothers, on the eve of the battle, and is an exposition on the theme of dharma, which encompasses duty, legal obligation, and destiny. But I actually found more interesting the longer passage, two entire books (books 12 and 13) of the dying reflections of Bhīṣma (fatally wounded at the start of the battle, seven books earlier). It is a fascinating blend of very profound meditations on the meaning of life and how one should behave to one's fellow human beings and the natural world, combined with a fairly strong element of supernatural justification for the continued social supremacy of the Brahman class.

Anyway, this is a colossally intense read, and probably it's worth trying to absorb through some other medium rather than a paperback adaptation (eg the Indian TV series, which in this day and age cannot be too difficult to obtain). But I found it rather rewarding.
Tags: bookblog 2011, poc, world: india

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