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.

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.