The Mahabharata

A showcase for the oldest and longest epic in the world. A resource for the better understanding of all aspects ofSanatana Dharma, Vedanta and Yoga.A place for West to meet and embrace East beyond cliché, presumption and prejudice.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Now in Print!

Sons of Gods is now available in Print -- at last!

It's available on Amazon and other retailers, in paperback. I've planned this for so many years -- I can't believe it's happened! And to celebrate, I have a new review, and a great one at that, by Shelley Schanfield a Goodreads member,
There are many retellings of the Mahabharata, India's classic epic. I have read several and would recommend Sons of Gods for anyone not already familiar with this ancient tale.

Taken as a whole, the Mahabharata is unwieldy, to say the least. It is filled with digressions and stories within stories that resist linear narrative. Sharon Maas's version is admirably streamlined for readers who want to get a grounding in the basic story before exploring in more detail the rambling conglomeration of myths, legends, and history that make up this massive tale.

The greatest strength of Sons of Gods lies in its introduction to the complex Kuru-Pandava lineage. Understanding the complicated issues around the succession is key to understanding the tragic war between the two princely lines. Maas lays out the whole convoluted tale, from the grandfather Santanu to the grandsons Dhritarashtra and Pandu. Dhritarashtra, who is born blind, cannot rule. Pandu, the younger one, will inherit.

The princess Kunti serves the great sage Durvasa and because of her piety receives a boon from him. He teaches her a mantra that enables her to summon any god, and though she is warned not to use it lightly, she can't resist trying it. She summons the sun god Surya, and by him she bears a son. Her honor is at stake, however. Not daring to reveal she has borne a child she sets her little son afloat in a basket. Unlike Moses, who is rescued by a royal princess, a charioteer's wife finds Kunti's son. She and her husband, ignorant of his illustrious lineage, raise the child as their own , calling him Karna.

In due course, Kunti marries Pandu. Because of a curse (read the book if you want to know more!) Pandu is unable to father children on his wives Kunti and Madri. To ensure her husband's line, Kunti uses her mantra to summon the gods Dharma, Vayu, and Indra, who father sons on her. She allows Pandu's other wife to use the mantra to summon the Ashvins, twin gods who father Madri's twins. These sons of gods, who by ancient law of levirate become Pandu's heirs (the Pandavas), grow to manhood ignorant of their half-brother Karna just as he is ignorant of his lineage.

Maas's version goes straight and true from the early conflicts between the young Kuru and Pandava princes, who are raised in the same royal household, to the martial contest where an unknown charioteer's son Karna challenges the haughty Pandava prince Arjuna and becomes an ally of the Kurus, through the infamous game of dice to the Pandavas' thirteen year exile to the final war. I read avidly; didn't put it down, even though the ending was no mystery to me. It hits the most important events and illustrates the moral conflicts, but necessarily leaves out a great deal.

Maas's prose is lovely and descriptive. It also reflects the fact that the Mahabharata is a religious text as well as a ripping tale. For me, this sometimes renders the characters two-dimensional. Nevertheless, it's a very good read.

Friday, April 03, 2015

Brand new cover!



Sons of Gods has had a makeover! A new cover and revised content -- and soon to be available in digital and print! More to come in the next few days so stay tuned....


Thursday, April 02, 2015

Myths of Mankind: The Mahabharata



"Young officers or civil servants arriving for the first time  at their new home among the palm frond  and rice fields, or the dust and heat of a desert cantonment, would commonly be told by an some well-meaning old India hand that if they wish to grasp the essence of the place and its people they should read one book: the Mahabharata, the world's oldest epic by far and, with 90,000 verses exceeding the Bible and all of Shakespeare's poems bundled together, by far the world longest epic poem."
-- Paul Roberts Author


"We are brought up with the Mahabharata as our popular heritage, as our heroes and heroines, as our popular stories, bedtime stores, as our parables on morality on values. The greatest success story of every comic strip is something based entirely on the Mahabharata or Ramayana. It's difficult to understand this in the Western context, where religion is something you go to church to practice. For us it is not like that. Children in school for instance:  if there is a child at school who is very strong or very fat, they will say he is just like Bhima. And that is the kind of total livability and contemprary-ness of the Mahabharata today."

-- Mallika Sarabhai  actress, playing Draupadi

"The last age, Kali Yuga, is the one in which we now live, when people are at their most degenerate, the most wicked. But it began according to the Vedas 14000 years ago when the great battle of Kurukshetra was fought, the battle around which the Mahabharata revolves.

Was there ever such an era or such battle? If there was one, when was it, and how preposterous are Brahmin students who place it way before recorded history began?

It's customary to view ancient Egypt as the world's longest continuous civilisation . It's a view we inherited from the Greeks and the Romans, who really knew nothing beyond the Mediterranean. The first to see it was Alexander the Great; and something he encountered there dissuaded him from adding India to his  empire. Instead, he turned his vast army around and returned West, by all accounts a changed man.

But our ignorance of the vast age of India's civilisation was due even more to a tendency to view Europe, our world, as the heart of  life of earth; an expedient which was self-serving during the heady days of Empire."

--Paul Roberts, author.

"We still think that all other civilisations were of minor quality, and this is why we still have difficulties in accepting that in the Indian subcontinent something developed that was more important that all the other ancient civilisations."

-- Michael Jansen; Professor of Architectural History 

Sunday, March 29, 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, bland, not truly reflecting the power of the story. Or else (to me) 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. The story needed restructuring, to make it a powerful read that would pull the reader in and let him or her truly live the story. It was a lot of work. It took a long time...

How long have you been working on it?

Almost forty 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. 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. It has a jerky, staccato style and is often too sentimental, especially for modern sensibilities. It also assumes the reader already knows the story and is a Hindu, using many Sanskrit terms as well as references to well-known stories that might leave the non-Hindu reader guessing. 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, including non-resident Indians who may have lost touch with their roots. It belongs in the annals of world literature, and every educated person should be familiar with it. Its message is timeless (without it being a "message" book), 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?

I hope readers will choose 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  immediacy and urgency, the way 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.

Isn't it presumptuous for you, a non-Hindu, to attempt to rewrite a classic Hindu epic?

I may not be a Hindu by birth, but I am definitely one in spirit. In my youth I was extremely unsettled and insecure, and could not find my bearings at all in the Western world. It was after I discovered Yoga at the age of 18, and went on to read the works of venerable Hindu teachers such as Swami Vivekananda, Sri Ramakrishna, and Ramana Maharshi that I finally became alive and found my roots. So much so that I travelled overland to India at the age of 23 -- with very little money and no intention of ever returning to the West -- and lived in a traditional and very well respected Ashram for 18 months. I return there at regular intervals, at present annually.


I am a Vedantist by nature, and am steeped in the understanding of Advaitic teaching, regarded as the most subtle and abstract of Hindu philosophies. Advaita, similar to Buddhism, is  about Self-enquiry and internal experience and discovery rather than dogma, ritual worship, faith or the belief in a distant God up in heaven.  It's actually the very antithesis of the Mahabharata with its many gods, goddesses and supernatural beings! But that's what made the story so enthralling to me.

 As a result, I am far more Hindu that Western; more Hindu than many born into that faith but not practicing it. Meditation is my daily nourishment, and I can listen to Vedic chanting for hours, never bored. So I do think I am qualified not only to understand the subtext of the Mahabharata, but also to translate it for those unfamiliar with the mentality behind it.


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 license 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. I have also cut huge chunks out of the Kurukshetra war. In many versions, the war takes up almost half of the book. In Sons of Gods, it's far less than a quarter. I decided to distill the war down to the riveting battles between the main heroes. This makes everything so much stronger. Dwelling on each move made by battling warriors tends to dilute the action. This is not an action movie, but a drama. It's about people, not actions.

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 distill 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.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Karna -- the anti-villain.

From the video:

"Karna is the character I think our audience will most identify with, the ones the girls will hate to love and love to hate. He's the most tragic and misunderstood member of the cast. The 'Hamlet'. Karna is a handsome, hawkish, brooding man, burdened with guilt. He's the boy most likely to succeed, until it all went wrong."

I would like to add: Karna is also brave, loyal, trustworthy, compassionate, unselfish, and the greatest Giver of all time. He is unforgettable. I wrote this whole book, really, in Karna's honour.



The story of Karna is the main subplot of Sons of Gods, and the video above perfectly captures his story as told in Sons of Gods. The main reason I was so dissatisfied with all the Mahabharatas I read as a young girl in India was that I fell in love with Karna early on, but could not find a single book which did his character justice. He seemed as neglected in literature as his character is in the story; the whole tragedy of his life often buried beneath the exploits of his noble half-brother, Arjuna. 


I wanted Karna to be the lynch-pin of the story. Without him, there would be no Mahabharata. 

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Women in the Mahabharat, Part 2: The Palace of Illusions

Last week I wrote about the role of women  in the Mahabharata. Today I'd like to go a bit deeper into that theme--and discuss Draupadi.
One day, after I had readjust about every available version of the Mahabharata and written my own in frustration, a book by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruna fell into my hands: The Palace of Illusions.  A whole book told from the point of view of Draupadi: at first I was delighted. Then I had second thoughts

For those new to the story, some information: Draupadi is not born as other mortals. She is the result of the overwhelming desire of her father, the King Drupada, to have a daughter to marry the hero Arjuna. He undergoes a strict penance in order to do this, and one day he is rewarded: at the culminating religious ceremony, a glorious woman, surpassing all others in beauty and character, steps out of the sacrificial fire, along with her brother, Drishtaumnya. They are the fire-born twins, superior in every way.

In the traditional Mahabharata story, Draupadi is "born" as an adult woman. In the Palace of Illusions, she is born as a child, and goes on to reject her given name, Draupadi, meaning daughter of Drupada, in favour of the name Panchali, meaning, from the kingdom of Panchala. And it is that first act of assertion, rebellion even, that determines the rest of Panchali's actions throughout the novel.

Throughout the ages, in Hindu society Draupadi's portrayal is  mostly negative  – few girls are named after her in India, for she is regarded as responsible for the downfall of the Kuru clan, the chief instigator for the cataclysmic war that ends it all. For the Indian concept of ideal femininity  she is too headstrong, too dominating, too independent. And of course, it is exactly these qualities which will endear her to modern Western women. Divakaruni gives her a powerful voice, one that places her as an equal alongside the men at her side.  Though she is pledged, without choice, to five husbands, and must rotate among them spending a year as dutiful wife to each one in turn, within this role she asserts herself and there is no doubt that she will not be pushed around. 

Although I enjoyed the book as a whole, and found myself identifying completely with Draupadi while reading it, I do have some quibbles. I didn't quite see eye to eye with Divakaruni's attempt to give Draupadi the soul of a modern feminist, railing against her destiny as wife to five husbands, mother of their children. I believe that the sense of Dharma would have been so fully ingrained into her soul she would not have once questioned that role; from the perspective of a Hindu, adhering to Dharma is strength, not weakness. But this is Divakarauni's book, her vision, her Draupadi, and I accept it. The book is simply too good.

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, and I often wondered, while reading Palace of Illusions, how well a reader unfamiliar with the Mahabharata story would really understand what is going on. As it was, I was astonished and delighted to see how well it complements Sons of Gods.

Most of all I was pleasantly surprised 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,  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.
and I have to thank Divakaruni for opening up the character of Draupadi and making her a living, breathing character with her own story to tell.

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



Sunday, March 01, 2015

Women in the Mahabharata, Part 1: a different Perspective


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.

And then there is Draupadi, the Queen of them all. She's so important she gets her own blog post, here. 
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.


 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.