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.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Spirit of India

"Only India has preserved the unbroken thread of the human story that binds us all.”

Michael Wood, BBC documentary “The Story of India”.

For 50 centuries the Mahabharata has survived as a cornerstone of Indian culture, loved by hundreds of millions of Hindus as a inexhaustible treasure-house of anecdotes, proverbs and wisdom. Its heroes are held up as standards of dharma, right action; its villains serve as warnings as to the consequences of adharma, wrong action; and it shows the grey area between these two where each individual must make a choice, and live with the results of that decision. It provides a powerful source work for themes in literature, art, drama, dance, song, and, in modern times, film. In it we find history and legend, myth and folklore, fable and parable, philosophy and religion; and last but not least, incredible romance. It’s a book of big ideas, magnificent events, simply a great story. Above all, at its core is the Bhagavad Gita, one of Hinduism’s central scriptures, often called “the fifth Veda”: a fountain of wisdom providing an ethic that has moulded the lives and the mentality of one of the most numerous peoples on earth.

It does this through its gospel of dharma, which runs like a golden thread through all the complex twists and turns in the epic; by its message, through story and characters, that hatred triggers hatred, that greed and violence inevitably lead to ruin; that, finally, the only real victory is in the battle against one’s lower nature; that we must rise above ourselves to be the best that we can be. Into it is woven all the elements of our life on earth, no matter where we may live or to what culture or age we belong; for Truth to be Truth it must be valid for everyone, at all times and all places, above and beyond cultural mores and changing values; it must be independent of trends, for only so can it be truly universal. A book that embeds such lasting truth into a wonderful story can live forever; and that is the secret of the Mahabharata's longevity and value to mankind. W. J. Johnson* has compared its importance to world civilization to that of the Bible, the works of Shakespeare, the works of Homer, Greek drama, and the Qur'an.
Krishna-Dvaipayana, also known as Veda Vyasa, is said to be the author of the original 24,000 slokas (verses); Vyasa is also a character in the book, and, in fact, the biological grandfather of the five Pandava brothers, the heroes of the story. Throughout the epic he makes his cameo appearances, walking into the story as an ugly, naked ascetic covered in ash, and apparently, wearing long dreadlocks. He speaks a few words of wisdom, directs the plot onward (it is Vyasa, for instance, who informs the Pandavas that a bride is waiting for Arjuna at the end of their first exile) and disappears again.
However, it does not seem possible that this vast poem could be the work of one individual; over the centuries, especially in the days when it was passed down orally, many poets and storytellers must have contributed to Vyasa's work.
The Mahabharata spread to become part of the tradition of every corner of India; but it is so powerful it could not be contained in the country of its origin. It has travelled to other Asian countries such as Indonesia, Thailand and Cambodia, and in each different setting it has absorbed some of the flavour of the region. Thus the separate versions of the epic differ from each other; there is not one Mahabharata, but many, though the basic story remains the same: a strong central strand around which innumerable side stories and legends are interwoven to make this epic a vast tapstry of ever-changing nuances.
But the power and appeal of the Mahabharata is not exclusively Asian. This is what Nhilde Davidson of the Northwest Branch of The Theosophical in Washington has to say in his online article A Wonder of Ancient India: The Mahabharata:
“Daunted by its size and a misconception that an intimate understanding of Hinduism was needed, I never considered taking the Mahabharata off the shelf. By accident I tuned into an episode of an Indian television production of the Mahabharata (subtitled in English) -- and I was hooked.
"Ninety-six one-hour episodes later (and many more hours of reading) I am still enthralled and continue delving into this fascinating epic. Its appeal is on many different levels and, through the ages, ascetics and scholars alike have dedicated their lives to studying, collating, and translating the varied and voluminous material. When the series aired on Indian television, railway schedules had to be adjusted as each week almost the entire country sat in front of a TV.
"We all love a hero -- heroic action appeals to children and adults alike -- and these epics are heroic. On a deeper level it is the philosophical depth and the psychological profundity that endure, keeping the stories alive in the soul, drawing one back again and again.”
Thus its spread to the West. Many Sanskrit scholars have attempted the translation into English and other European languages, first and foremost among them the celebrated Ganguli. Others have attempted condensed versions of the epic. Some are mere summaries, with no attempt at dramatisation or characterisation; some have been loosely interpreted, the author adding his or her own imagination to the basic story, in keeping with the oral tradition in which each teller retells the tale in his or her own words and adding new elements to the story. I would like to be part of this tradition.
Some modern Mahabharata writers insist that they do not stray away from the original written text. I make no such claim; I am first and foremost a writer of fiction, basically a storyteller, and in writing this I enjoyed nothing more than the act of getting under a character’s skin, putting words into their mouths and giving them a voice; adding little twists and turns of my own; giving my imagination free rein even as I told the basic central story.
I hope Westerners will enjoy reading this new version as much as I enjoyed writing it.

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