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.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Many Mahabharatas

The "Great Bharata" of Vyasa comprises over 100,000 Sanskrit stanzas organized into eighteen volumes. With about 1.8 million words in total, the Mahabharata is one of the longest epic poems in the world, about ten times the size of the Iliad and the Odyssey combined, roughly five times longer than Dante's Divine Comedy, and about four times the size of the other Indian epic, the Ramayana. Within this vastness lies a net of countless stories, one story leading into another and that into another, a veritable mine of ancient Hindu folktales, myths and legends that serve to illuminate the ancient Hindu concept of dharma and adharma: righteous, dutiful, virtuous, wise living versus unrighteous, ignorant living. At its core is the conflict between the Kauravas and the Pandavas, two rival branches of the Lunar clan, culminating in the horrific civil war on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, a holocaust which wiped out the entire warrior caste and ushered in the degenerate Fourth Age of Mankind, in which we are all living today.
There have been many attempts to unravel the Mahabharata’s historical growth and layers of composition . Its authorship is traditionally attributed to Vyasa, an itinerant naked sage who himself appears as a character within the story. Its earliest layers probably date back to the late Vedic period, around the 8th century BC, and it probably reached its final form by the time the Gupta period which began in the 4th century CE. Over the centuries it spread and grew both in Sanskrit and in translation into other languages of India, both through oral tradition and in writing.
With each retelling new digressions and diversions were added on. Hundreds of other stories and philosophical discussions attached themselves to it; Sanskrit scholars and village storytellers contributed to it, adding jewels to the vast mosaic, so that it became a great compendium of myth, folklore and moral theory.
There are many English versions available today, which can basically be divided into translations, condensations, and their hybrid, condensed translations. The most well-known of the translations is the Victorian prose version by Kisari Mohan Ganguli, published between 1883 and 1896 (Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers). The complete 18-volume text is available online, free, here.
Countless authors have attempted the task of paring the vast work down to a readable size, their chief mission being the decision what to leave out, what to include, and what, if anything, to change or add on. These condensations vary in length between J. A. B. Van Buitenan's three-volume version (1981; University of Chicago Press), Ramesh Menon’s two-volume version (2004; Rupa & Co) and several longer or shorter one-volume editions. Some are scholarly works with many annotations; some are popular versions; some are children's books; some are comics. Some are little more than summaries, the bare bones of the story with no attempt at dramatisation, characterisation or embellishment. Some go further, the author fleshing out the skeleton and dressing the basic plot with new details from his or her imagination.
This new interpretation fits comfortably and unashamedly into the last category.


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