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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.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 6th, 2011 02:18 pm (UTC)
I saw the Indian TV series sold as a single DVD collection a few years back, - but I remember staying up late to watch it on BBC2 (1990? 1991? - about then); the TV serial is definitely worth watching if you can get it.
Feb. 6th, 2011 06:00 pm (UTC)
It will probably not surprise you that there is a great deal of rubbish out there in which the "high-tech" elements of the Mahabharata are alleged to be records of ancient human-ET contact.
Feb. 6th, 2011 06:40 pm (UTC)
It's worth it to read some different versions! The TV miniseries is also very good.

I wonder what you would think of The Story of the Stone aka Dream of the Red Chamber? I think you'd like it quite a lot and you have the patience for it. The 5-volume Penguin version is great though I also like Gladys Yang's translation.

Feb. 7th, 2011 03:11 am (UTC)
You may have noticed the fact that I am a tad obsessed with Mahabharata. Which makes me rather glad that you read it....and a bit envious that you got to read it for the first time....

I haven't read Smith's translation but the versions I usually recommend are:

Kamala Markanday: An abridged version, around 1200 pages. The language isn't great but she does prune out all but the basic story [which still involves 4 generations, plenty of meddling and at least 4 clans]

Ramesh Menon: Written in a biased manner - Kauravas are definitely demonic and evil and Pandavas are undoubted good guys...but the 2 volumes are well written and the story is told as a story rather than a pre-ordained act.

Chitra Bannerjee's _Palace of Illusions_ is a retelling of the legend from the perspective of Draupadi. Another one is Yagyaseni.

I personally prefer the sanskrit text as it is the most ambiguous and least inclined towards moral judgments. In fact, the tradition and the myths surrounding the writing of the epic maintain that there were two versions of this composition of Vyasa. The one that survives gives the benefit of a doubt to the Pandavas, the one given to Jamdagani was written from the POV of the Kauravas. And both ended with Vyasa exhorting the reader to interpret the events in any way they wish to....

In terms of multi-media, there was a TV series by BR Chopra. I see the DVDs everywhere, so they must be available online. Peter Brooks also did a 9 hour movie on the epic. I haven't seen that but have heard good things about it.

Oh, and the Pandavas had 6 fathers and two mothers between them - Dharma, Vayu, Indra, The Ashwini Twins and then Pandu, the man whose name they took and used to stake a claim on a kingdom that wasn't even their adopted father's at the time of their birth.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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