Retold by Aruna Sharan

Coming soon on Kindle!

Vyasa said: "It’s the greatest story ever told. A most excellent story, deep as the ocean and full of priceless gems. Whatever is not in it is not anywhere. Whoever hears it and understands just a little of it is freed of darkness. It will still be told thousands of years from today."

Sunday, March 08, 2015

A new Mahabharata? WHY?

Over the years, whenever I mentioned that I was working on the Mahabharata, people have asked me questions. Such as:

Does the world really need yet another Mahabharata?

That's for every individual to decide. I certainly believe it does; that's why I wrote it!

What does this version have that the others don't?

A long time ago, it seemed to me that with every new version I read, some vital element was lacking. Either the writing was inadequate to truly reflect the subject, or essential elements of the story were missing, or major characters seemed lifeless, or it was just a basic summary without dramatic punch, or it was so long the actual story was buried in a thousand minor sub-plots or stories-within-stories, or it was too scholarly, or had too much authorial intrusion, or it lacked spiritual depth. 

What I wanted was a book the length of an average novel, a continuous story distilled down to its vital essence but dramatised so as to captivate the reader, with living, breathing characters, spiritually alive and written in an accessible style yet retaining the powerful spirit of the original. That's a lot to ask of one book. It took a long time...

How long have you been working on it?

Over thirty years. I suppose I've been working on it the moment I read my first version, in India in 1974. That was Kamala Subramaniam's huge tome, almost 800 pages long, in hardback with large print. Once I read the first page I could not put it down; I read day and night till it was finished. That gave me the model of what mine should be like: in the words of modern publishing, I wanted it to be unputdownable. And that meant following Subramaniam's example, which was to dramatise the story in her own words, using her imagination to create scenes that would draw the reader in. She achieved that brilliantly. However, her book seemed to be written primarily for children, in short simple sentences, and often too sentimental, especially for modern sensibilities. So while her version completely overwhelmed me by its sheer power of narration, it still left me wanting.

In the following years I bought or borrowed every English version I could get my hands on. But none of these satisfied me. Around 1978 I started on a first draft of my own, and have been working on it ever since. Sometimes I put it away for years at a time, only to dig it out again and improve on it, laboriously retyping everything from start to finish. In the 90's I typed the whole thing on to my first word processor, a very primitive Brother which could only save on floppy discs, a few chapters at a time. Once I had it saved digitally revising became much easier, and more frequent, maybe once a year. It was a labour of love, always at the back of my mind. I didn't even think of publication until recently.

And what made you think of publication now?

The fact that even today, there seems to be no definitive condensation available, particularly for Western readers. And I make no apologies for the fact that this is, in fact, a Mahabharata with a more Western slant. It uses very few Sanskrit terms, and those that it does become clear in the context. 

 I think Western readers in particular should be reading the Mahabharata. It belongs in the annals of world literature, and every educated person should be familiar with it. Its message is timeless, and especially relevant in these turbulent times. I'd like to recommend it to everyone I know, beg them to read it. But then comes the question: which version?

Now that it is possible to self-publish on Kindle, I decided to just go ahead. Now I can say, this version!

Isn't it presumptuous for you, a virtual nobody in the academic world, to think you could rewrite such a classic?

I'm sure many Vedic scholars are going to tear out their hair in horror; after all, I don't know Sanskrit and I haven't read the Ganguli Mahabharata from beginning to end, not even in translation, and I haven't got a PhD in Sanskrit Literature. And I have taken great liberties with the story, putting words into the mouths of the protagonists. I've always felt that presumption, been intimidated by it; asked myself who gave me the right to tackle such a powerful subject.

On the other hand (and this is the answer that always gives me courage): the Mahabharata belongs to everyone. The original versions - despite the Scribe Ganesh's efforts! - were not written but spoken. The story was passed on by word of mouth. I can well imagine storytellers in ancient India with a group of rapt villagers gathered around, listening to this story. I can see mothers and fathers telling the stories to their children, passing the story along from generation to generation in their own words, and each according to his or her own understanding. These storytellers were not Sanskrit scholars. They did not keep to an official text: the best of those narrators would have embellished and dramatised to their heart's content, using their imagination to bring the scenes to life for the pleasure of their listeners. They made it their own. I worked in that oral tradition, that of the storyteller. For that, the only qualification is the ability to tell a good story. And if a story appears with the immediacy and urgency of how this one came to me, that is a call to write.

I do not claim to have written a scholarly version, and of course it is not a translation. Academics are most certainly going to raise objections. But I think I have made a good story out of it, and that is what counts in the eyes of readers. Readers, especially first-time readers, don't care about how close it is to the Ganguli or the Valmiki version. All they care about is loving the story and identifying with the characters.

What was your main source?

I first referred to the Van Buitenan three-volume version to get the basic narrative right, names and so on, though that only covers part of the story. Later, I was able to refer to the Ganguli Mahabharata which is online. Mostly, though, I already knew the essential story by heart and simply pulled it out of my own memory.

Have you made any essential changes to the traditional written versions?

I've given myself a certain amount of artistic licence by dramatising throughout, which means putting words into the mouths of characters which aren't there in the traditional written versions. Here and there I have embellished the story, for instance in the case of the Bhishma/Sikhandin/Amba sub-plot. I've also made a few minor amendments where they serve the inner logic of the story. For instance, it doesn't makes sense for Arjuna to abduct Subhadra after he has won her affection with his sadhu disguise. So I have her choose him at a Swayamvara, which incidentally is also more politically correct. But I did not make this change for the sake of political correctness; I made it primarily because it improves the story.
But these are not essential changes. They were made entirely for narrative purposes, and do not change the main thrust of the story.

You've omitted most of the stories-within-stories. Why?

My first priority in writing this version was to distil it to its vital essence, and a positive side-effect of that is getting it down to a reasonable length. The first things that had to go was a pruning of the stories-within-stories, charming as many of these may be. I kept only those that actually add depth and understanding to the main plot, such as the killing of Ganga's babies, and the story of the demon twins. In some cases I've given brief backgrounds of some of the characters, which had to suffice: Sisupala, Jarasandha, Jayadraha.

What are your own favourite parts of the story; favourite characters?

By far, my favourite is Karna. And it is Karna's story above all that I wanted to tell. Again, I'd like to refer to Subramaniam's Mahabharata, because for all its literary shortcomings it does tell Karna's story beautifully. And I think that it was Karna's story I was always looking for in my hunt for the Mahabharata. In every other English version I've read to date, Karna was just one of a myriad other characters; an important one, true enough, but still not given the weight that he deserves. Always, Krishna and Arjuna are at the centrepiece of these stories.

For me, Karna is the lynchpin of the entire story. Without him there would be no Mahabharata. Without Karna, Duryodhana would never have challenged the Pandavas; he would not have dared. Karna is a tragic, great character, the true hero of this story. I love the fact that he is not black-and-white; he is torn in two by the agonising choice he must make when he learns the truth of his parentage. He is the most complex of all the characters, a solid mixture of weakness and strength, and I have given him place of honour in this version, even bringing forward the story of his conception to make it the prologue. In terms of modern storytelling, Karna's story is the essential "hook", the twist in the tale.

I also love the story of Amba and Bhishma, and have embellished it out a little more than you'll find in traditional versions.

...and favourite scenes?

There are many. Bhishma taking his vow of chastity, Karna's conception, the winning of Draupadi, Arjuna and Uttara in battle together after the thirteenth year, Kunti revealing herself to Karna, Indra asking Karna for a gift, Abhimanyu defending himself against the veterans. And countless scenes involving Krishna: the miracle of Draupadi's sari; Arjuna choosing him to be his charioteer; Krishna showing his true form to the assembled court at Hastinapura; the telling of the Bhagavad Gita; the slaying of Bhishma; the bowing of the army to the Astra of Narayana; the saving of Parikshit. Krishna is the incarnation of Vishnu. The reader should have no doubt whatsoever of the divine power behind him. For me, any version of the Mahabharata MUST have all these scenes in it, dramatised to come over in full force.

And that, finally, is why I wrote this version and sent it out into the world. It wanted to be written.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Women in the Mahabharata

A few days ago, Hindu Blog posted an interview with me on Sons of Gods. A couple of the questions concerned a subject I was planning to write about in the near future, so let’s see  what I said there:

Who do you think is the most tragic woman character in the Mahabharata? 
The Mahabharata is a book about men, yet the few female characters are powerful indeed: the goddess Ganga, the Pandava’s mother Kunti, the Princess Amba, and of course the Pandavas common wife, Draupadi. Of them all, I find Amba the most tragic, as well as the most interesting, and I tend to identify with her.

As a woman, how do you see the treatment of women in Mahabharat? Is your view reflected in the book?
When we consider the women in the Mahabharata and their treatment,  it’s important not to see them through the prism of Western feminism. This is a story set in an age and a place far removed from our own world. Different standards were valid in that age, and it wouldn’t be fair to speak of “repression” and “subservience” in that context. Yes, the Mahabharata is a story dominated by men. Yes, all the great heroes are male. And yes, there are only a few women, whose roles are mainly that of wife and mother. Yet, how powerful they are in those roles!

There’s the goddess Ganga, who dictates the terms of her marriage to King Santanu; there’s Gandhari, the mother of Duryodhana and his 99 brothers, who, after all the leading statesmen and wise councillors have pled in vain for peace, is summoned to the court to give the final word: as mother of the Kauravas, her wish is—or should be—final, and obeyed. Kunti is revered by her five sons, the Pandavas, to the extent that a word of hers spoken in jest is taken as an absolute command. And Draupadi: it’s for her sake, to restore honour to her, that the entire war is fought.

There remains only Amba, who is cruelly wronged by Bhishma near the beginning of the story; but I love the way how, after she experiences the most bitter shame and dishonour, she rallies her forces, decides on revenge, and focuses all her energy and her will on executing justice on Bhishma—even if she must die and be reborn again and become a man in order to do so. Amba is without doubt the very first transgendered character in literature; but even in a man’s body, she remains a woman, and it is as a woman she engages in battle against Bhishma. In Sons of Gods I’ve tried in a small way to honour Amba; yes, she makes mistakes, but in the end truth wins out.

As for Draupadi: she’s the most assertive of all the women; something of a diva, in the way she orders her husbands about! She’s not a female character I particularly like; she’s proud and vengeful and very bossy, and that’s how I’ve portrayed her. Thank goodness, another author, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, managed to portray a different side to Draupadi in her book Palace of Illusions, so that I ended up understanding and even liking her.

We must remember that in Hinduism, the so-called female attributes of selflessness, forbearance and gentleness are seen as positive, whereas the so-called male characteristics of assertiveness, domination and control are considered negative, being traits of the ego that must, eventually, be surrendered to God.

Siva and Shakti, male and female energy, are seen as two halves of a whole, each valuable in its own right, each needing the other as a complement. God can be mother as well as father, and the Mother is, finally, divine. Ideally, women are seen as the invisible backbone of society; it is that backbone that holds society upright, and when it falls, so too, according to Hindu thought, does society. Of course this ideal, humans being as flawed as they are, is seldom realised, and women all too often trodden underfoot in India as everywhere in the world. But it is there, a goal to be aspired to.

  In Sons of Gods I’ve tried to get under the skin of the few women, so that the reader understands their inherent, though perhaps quieter, strength.

The trouble with “getting under the skin” of the female characters, of course, is that such to do so with every one of the women, and do so thoroughly, would have extended the whole book by a couple of hundred pages, which would defeat the whole purpose of a condensation. And so I was reduced to giving just a glimpse here and there into the inner life of the women: Kunti, when she summons the Sun God in the prologue. Amba, when she is disgraced by Bhishma and seeks revenge. Again and again, Kunti’s feelings for Karna: just a sentence or two that reveal the depth of her love for him.

And then Draupadi. I have to admit that the only time in the entire book that I felt any liking for her was in the famous Assembly Hall scene, where she is dragged by her hair and Duhsasana tries to strip her naked. I won’t drop a spoiler here, but those who familiar with the Mahabharata know what she does; and that is the moment I love Draupadi.

It was only when I read the book mentioned above, the Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruna, that I finally saw a different side to Draupadi.  Unfortunately, I first heard of, bought and read this book the very week after Sons of Gods was published; but in a way that’s a good thing, because I might have been tempted to go back and make some changes to the manuscript!

As it was, I was astonished and delighted to see how well the two books complement each other. Divakaruni wrote the entire Mahabharata from the point of view of a single character, which of course means firstly, that the point of view of that character is biased, and secondly, that the reader only gets to see those scenes in which that character is present; everything else is by definition only hearsay, reported by the narrator or by the other characters, and by necessity much condensed. I often wondered, while reading Palace of Illusions, how well a reader unfamiliar with the Mahabharata story would really understand what is going on. But for a reader who does know the story, Palace of Illusions is wonderful; I have to thank Divakaruni for opening up the character of Draupadi and making her not only a living, breathing character, but one I could actually sympathise with and even love.

Most of all, though, I was delighted with the treatment of Karna in this book.  I’ve said it before in various places in this blog, and in the Hindu Blog interview:

Karna is my favourite character. In many shorter versions of the Mahabharata his role is skimmed over; he is merely one of the antagonists, Duryodhana’s right-hand man, Arjuna’s arch-enemy, a villain. And in the longer versions the reader tends to lose sight of him; he is lost amid the sheer vastness of the epic. But I’ve always been on the side of the underdog, and I love the fact that Karna in the role of the underdog actually possesses a secret power, a power he is unaware of. His position is pivotal to the entire story, and I was determined to make this clear. That’s why I brought forward the scene of his conception and began the story with that, as a sort of prologue. It’s to say: watch this guy. He’s important. Don’t forget him. He’s a great character. Flawed, but honourable to his fingertips.

Divakaruni obviously sees Karna in the very light that I did, because, wonder of wonders, in her book Karna is a main character! It’s not a spoiler to say that Palace of Illusions is about Draupadi’s secret love for Karna, because that is the hook of the entire story: and what a Karna we have here! He is just as I imagined him: a truly noble hero, the greatest of them all, whose only flaw is a result of the tragic circumstances of his birth.

And so it is Karna in particular who links these two books: Sons of Gods, that tells the whole story of his life and death, and Palace of Illusions, that tells the story of the woman who loved him most.

Thank you, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, thank you a thousand times!

The Palace of Illusions is available through Amazon and at all good booksellers.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Gita Series: Arjuna's Despair

The Gita really begins with Arjuna's despair as he sees the great army of the Kauravas before him on the battlefireld of Kurukshetra.
Krishna, seeing all these kinsmen arrayed here to fight, my mind reels; I can hardly stand, for my limbs grow limp. My mouth is as parched dry as desert sand; my body quivers. The mighty Gandiva bow slips from my fingers wet with sweat; my skin is on fire. What greater crime is there than killing one's own friends and relatives? What gain is victory, what use sovereignty, what joy in wealth and pleasures, what value life itself, if gained by killing one's loved ones? It  is a great sin, Krishna. I cannot do it. How can we ever live happily hereafter, if we kill our own people? I cannot do it, Krishna. I prefer to be poor, and live as a beggar, or a pauper. Krishna, I cannot fight.

He casts away his bow and arrows and sinks down in his chariot in utter dejection.
And who cannot sympathise with him? After all the tribulations of the years and decades leading up to this date; after all the negotiations ofr peace and preparations for war, Arjuna is finally face to face with what the war will actually mean. On the enemy side are men beloved to him: his teacher, Drona; his uncle, Salya. Most of all, the dear Grandsire of the entire clan, Bhishma. The Kauravas themselves are first cousins of the Pandavas. The enormity of what he is about to do stands before him stark and horrifying, and to refuse to fight at first glance seems the noble response.

 But Krishna will have none of it:

You grieve in vain, Arjuna; the wise grieve neither for the dead nor for the living. For there is no time that I did not exist, nor you, nor any of these warriors: and there is no time we shall not exist hereafter. The body dies, but not the living spirit within it. Know this, and do your duty; without grief.
The embodied soul attains the stages of childhood, youth, maturity and old age: leaving the body, it goes on to another. The body is born only to perish again: but That which pervades body and soul cannot die or be killed.

Bodies slay and are slain on the vast tapestry of Time and Space: but the eternal Self is imperishable, immeasurable; an immutable principle, indestructible. It is not born, it does not die. It is constantly eternal: the same yesterday, today and for evermore; pure unchanging consciousness. Weapons cannot kill that Self, fire cannot burn it, water cannot wet it, wind cannot dry it. It is eternal, all-pervading, stable, immovable, primordial.

With these words Krishna summarises the entire Gita, and gets to the very core of Hinduism: we are not the body. The body goes through many changes: it is born, grows, moves through the stages of childhood, adolescence, adulthood and old age; and then it dies.  There is no constancy in the body, no permanence. What is permanent is the sense of being which every one of us experiences:  the child, the adult, the old woman. That knowledge of "I Am" is like a silved thread that accompanies us all through our lives. Though our minds may change, our attitudes, our likes and dislikes, our hobbies, indeed, even our sex, there is SOMETHING there beyond all these, a constant sense of one's own existence: that is the life within us upon which all these changes move and flicker like the pictures on a screen.

That, says Krishna, cannot be killed. It is not the agent throughout all the changes; it is merely the observer, the silent witness, the true Self of all. It occupies the body, it occupies the mind, but it is neither of these. It is the mystery beyond all the appearances that distract us day and night. It is the true reality.

That is the teaching of Hinduism, of the Vedas and Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita in a nutshell.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Gita Series: Part One

As promised, I've published Chapter 58: The Song of God as a blog page above.

To understand what is happening here one really needs to have read the Mahabharata, but the Gita is important  that it has taken on a life as its own: 18 chapters of sublime wisdom, known  as a major world scripture in its own right. For Hindus it's the equivalent of the Bible.

There are many translations, of course, and I certainly have not read them all in order to make a choice as to which is the best. The version I own is a translation by W. J. Johnson published by the Oxford University Press.

The chapter 58 of Sons of Gods is a much condensed version of the Gita, and not a translation of a selection of verses: it's what I believe to be the essence of Krishna's message to Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. Much as I would have loved to include the entire Gita, doing so would have broken the word limit I had set for myself and held back the story. I do encourage everyone to get their own copy of the entire Gita and read it whenever they can; of course, online versions are available for free, but there's nothing like holding this book in your hands, packing it into hour luggage when you go on a trip, slipping it under your pillow when you go to sleep. It just doesn't do to have it on your Kindle along with a thousand other books.

For those who have not yet read Sons of Gods, or any Mahabharata at all, here's the context of the Gita:
Krishna, who is the incarnation of Lord Vishnu, gave his friend Arjuna the choice when it became clear that the Pandavas--Arjuna and his five brothers, who live in Righteousness--must go to war with their cousins, Kauravas--Duryodhana and his 99 brothers, who have taken the kingdom from them by unrighteous means.

Krishna is also a cousin of the Pandavas, and he commands an army that is known to be invincible: the Vrishnis. According to the rules, Arjuna and Duryodhana both approach Krishna to ask him to be their ally in the great battle, and according to the rules, Krishna is duty bound to ally himself to whomever asks first.
Duryodhana enters his chamber first, finds Krishna asleep, and so sits beside his head to wait till he awakes.
Arjuna enters after Duryodhana, and sits at Krishna's feet, where he sinks into meditation. Krishna wakes up, opens his eyes, and sees Arjuna first.

Duryodhana, however, insists that chivalry demands that Krishna side with him, as he was there first. Krishna only smiles, and says, "but I saw Arjuna first." What a conundrum! To solve the  problem, Krishna gives the cousins a choice: on the one side his mighty army, the Vrishnus, who cannot be defeated. On the other side he alone, as a charioteer. He will not fight: he will only drive the chariot.

To Duryodhana's fury, Krishna gives Arjuna the first choice: what will he have, the entire army, or he himself, weaponless, as a charioteer?

Arjuna does not think twice. He folds his hands in prayer, sinks to his knees, and says: "I want You my Lord; I only want You."

For me, that is one of the most poignant, the most moving, the most important scenes in the entire Mahabharta. To me, Arjuna's answer contains the whole Gita in itself.

In the coming days I'll be going through the Gita -- the condensed version as posted on this page -- but I'll start with that sentence: I want You, my Lord. I only want You.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Gita Series: Introduction

A few posts ago I said I’d be going through the Bhagavad Gita chapter by chapter, and the time has come to do so.
As it is for many people, the Gita was my first real introduction to the Hindu faith and philosophy,. Yesterday I wrote on my other blog, Sadhana Day by Day, about the experience that turned my life around forty years ago, and set me on the uphill path I am still walking to this day. The aftermath of that experience was that I returned home and turned over a new leaf completely; and the lifeline that straightened out my oh so crooked life was this little book: the Bhagavad Gita.
In retrospect it seems that that path was already predetermined, and that everything was all planned out in advance that I should end up devouring the Gita as if I were starving and it was living water. Before my trip through South America I had already discovered the miracle of Hatha Yoga, and diligent practice  had sorted out many of my more pressing, physical problems: drinking, smoking and an eating disorder that had made me so fat I’d fallen into a slump of inferiority  and self-loathing. The Gita was the next step; for that inferiority and self-loathing still lived on in me, but in a more subtle, mental form.
The Gita pulled me out. The Gita showed me the way. The Gita opened doors for me and I walked through into a wonderful new world where inferiority and self-loathing could be shed like an old used skin and I gradually woke up to another me hidden beneath all the layers of self that had seemed so real, and were  so suffocating.
The Gita is, of course, the central teaching at the heart of the Mahabharata. Everything else, the huge cast of characters, the discourses, the sub-plots and plots-within-plots, the war, the entire vast story itself, are all merely spokes in a wheel of which the Gita is the hub. I’m always astonished when I read some short versions of the Gita, which omit the Gita as if it were a mere distraction from the story. It’s actually the other way around: the story is a distraction from the Gita, and that’s why the Gita has found a life of its own beyond the Mahabharata. Millions of people, in the West as well as in the East, have read and loved and revered the Gita who have never come near to the Mahabharata; it can exist on its own, whereas the Mahabharata on  its own—well, it’s still a great story, but a story without a spine: just another book in the fantasy genre.
The Gita, of course, is pretty long in itself, and there was no way I could include the whole of it in Sons of Gods. I did, however, try to prise out its essence, find new words for the jewel Krishna handed to Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra; and so Chapter 58 of Sons of Gods, the Song of God, is a condensed version of the Gita. The day after tomorrow I’m going to post that entire Chapter as a page in this blog, and that’s the Gita that will be discussed here.

Monday, February 06, 2012

More Interviews, and what's coming up

There's an interview with me today on Hindu Blog about the Mahabharata.

 And last week this interview was published on Diane Dooley's writers' blog: Interview and Giveaway with Aruna Sharan.

 My thanks to those blog owners.

 Meanwhile, on my new blog Sadhana Day by Day the ideas for future posts are simply overflowing -- I'm very excited about putting all of this to paper!

 And right here on Sons of Gods I'll be keeping my promise to highlight the Bhagavad Gita over the next few days.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Quiz: Identify Hindu deities!

This is a fun quiz -- see how well you do!

The thing to remember, though, is that in spite of all the gods and goddesses in Hinduism -- they are all only aspects of the One; the mind, being too gross and scattered to understand that One, likes to have a form and a name and tangible personification of that One on which to focus, and that's where gods and goddesses come in useful. By focussing on that name and form the mind grows subtle, and capable of more abstract understanding. That is what meditation is all about.