My first encounter with Mahabharat was in school at the age of 11, courtesy a kiddish Bengali version by Upendrakishore Raychaudhuri. Ancient Indian Epics hardly entice a child standing at the edge of her teens. Thus, once the academic year came to an end, the book was locked behind other novels to be covered with layers and layers of dust in the coming years. Little did I know back then, that my tryst with Mahabharat had only begun.
Copyrighted Image. Source: http://www.champa-art.com/
As fate would have it, the epic found its way back to my life again, when a popular Hindi television channel adapted Vyasa’s magnum opus on a grand scale in 2013. And like a magnet pulls iron, I was instantly drawn to it. What began as a curious young girl’s accidental interest, soon turned into passion of a conscious woman. Till that time an ardent admirer of Coldplay, Keane, Arrow, The OC and, an advocate of anything that had the “imported” tag, I gradually metamorphosed into an avid reader of ancient indigenous Hindu scriptures! Now the question is –How did I perceive Mahabharat as a young adult?
My perception of the epic and its various characters in the early days was just like any other Indian, and a young one at that.
I believed that Mahabharat was a story of good vs. evil. I believed Draupadi, the heroine of the epic to be the sole cause of the Great War and Shakuni to be the main villain. It was also my belief that Karna was an innocent, tragic hero fighting against the caste system, the Pandavas were saints and that Duryodhana was black as coal.
Yes, I “believed”. It is important to note this word, because most of the things I stated above turned out to be either myths or half-truths. Surprised? Well, read on for more…
‘Vedic subjects’ are not exactly everyone’s cup of tea, especially in today’s time when westernization has seeped in. Yet, in this country of 1.3 billion, there is still a considerable amount of readers who take interest in Ramayana and Mahabharat. But the problem is, we do not really have the time and patience to read epic stories of such lengths. We live in a busy world, and thanks to easy access to everything via Internet, most of us have very less attention span too. In light of that, we prefer simpler ways to give us an insight into the Epics.
Abridged, illustrated books, Wikipedia pages, grandmother’s tales, and televised versions – these are the standard sources of our acquaintance to the great heritage of Ramayan and Mahabharat. If these manage to grab our attention, we pick up some excellent works of fiction, some of the popular choices being Palace of Illusions (Chitra Banerjee), Mrityunjay (Shivaji Sawant), Karna’s Wife (Kavita Kane), and so on. My journey wasn’t very different.Having gone through a couple of blogs, I was instantly drawn to the epic. I began to take part in debates on a public platforms as though I was some subject matter expert!
But I was wrong. Terribly wrong. Once, in a heated discussion, a fellow Mahabharat lover – one who was well-versed in Sanskrit – asked me, what were the sources of my knowledge. “Have you ever read Mahabharat in its unabridged form seriously or are you babbling here after watching and reading a couple of Bollywood movies and potboilers on the epic?”
Her irate remark had jolted me out of my reverie. What did she mean by “unabridged” epic? It was around this time, when I stumbled upon K. M. Ganguli’s English translation and Gita Press’ Hindi translation of the unabridged Sanskrit version. Soon after, someone directed me to the Critical Edition of Mahabharat by Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute. And my life took a turn.
For a beginner, the above-mentioned versions are some of the classically accepted unabridged editions of Mahabharat. In other words, these are the text books of the epic in its current form. One might wonder, what difference is there anyway? There is. There is a huge difference in reading any text in its unabridged form, that we will gradually explore when we move on.
Krishna Dwaipayana, or more popularly, Veda Vyasa, had not composed just another story or merely chronicled history. He had created a vast disquisition embedded with philosophy and social science. Every character in his work has his or her own story to tell. Every incident can be seen from multiple perspectives. In light of this, it is practically impossible to capture the multi-dimensional essence of the epic in its totality in a limited 3-hour film or 300-page book. The fictionalized versions and television shows that most of us are accustomed to are merely the easiest ways to tell the story to the masses. In these depictions, writers and makers condense the magnum opus into a typical good vs. evil tale. And we are made to believe that innocent brothers are being victimized by their vile cousins and hammered into war by their ‘bloodthirsty’ wife. With the concept of Dharmasthapana sprinkled on, we even had a television series on Mahabharat served to a naïve audience!
Without a doubt, these adaptations have done a great service to Indian literature as well as audience/readers by presenting this epic in a relate-able format to the general population. But everything has its own downside. While the epic has reached millions through this simple format of storytelling, this process has left us with a very constricted view of the colossal story and the characters, which are far more nuanced, layered, and complex in the unabridged state.
Now, there are some who read Mahabharat as just as another fascinating tale at leisure. For them, the “authenticity” or “accuracy” of facts hardly matters. Such “mumbo-jumbo” barely makes a difference to the casual readers, even though the biases of the writers subconsciously stain their thoughts. But if we choose to take a step further and enter the debating arena and literary world related to Mahabharat, the rules change. Then the process of reading is no longer about amusement or entertainment, and more about factual authenticity. It is here that the concepts of ‘unauthentic vs. authentic’, ‘canon vs. folklore’ become essential.
I have a specific reason for opening this blog. If you’ve stayed with me so far, you’ve realized that I’m an earnest student of Mahabharat, learning, discovering and correcting my previous false notions with each reading of the text! This blog is my humble attempt to share what I’ve learned, debunk myths related to the epic, and learn from those who happen by.
I will refer extensively to KMG, BORI, and other unabridged texts of Mahabharat. Other references would be books/scholarly posts by Indologists and Sanskrit scholars like Prof Nrishingho Prasad Bhaduri, P. Lal, Neelkantha Chatudhara, P.P. Shastri, et al. I might also frequently refer to various writers of fictional classics (like Shivaji Sawant) to draw comparisons with canon. There is absolutely no intention to dismiss any work or author. My only objective is to differentiate between canon and fiction. Constructive criticism is always welcome, but kindly validate them with citations from accepted sources. If you’re here because you wish to start your research on Mahabharat or simply wish to learn more about it, here are a few things I’d like you to take away:
Go for the unabridged texts for research: For any epic—Indian or otherwise—reading the unabridged text is an absolute necessity for researchers and writers. Fictional takes by modern authors are undeniably wonderful reads. But they are not designed to disperse correct information unless the author provides detailed footnotes.
Differentiate between unabridged canon and retellings: Over the years, various bards had retold and rewritten Mahabharat in regional languages. Unknowingly, we often read these retold versions as “exact translations” of Vyasa’s Mahabharat. Examples of such regional retellings are Villi Bharatham in Tamil (14th Century) and Kashiram Das’s Mahabharat (15th Century) in Bengali. I’ll present a detailed explanation on this later.
Let’s not always judge characters of Mahabharat with modern sensibilities: Can we accuse Bhishma of being sexist? No, it would be rather laughable to even expect a Dwapara Yuga patriarch to behave like a modern feminist! Same is the case of accusing an epic character as casteist or polygamous. Of course, the prevalent social structure in general may have been worthy of criticism. But then is it fair to single out one character accusingly for being a product of the contemporaneous society? Unless a person shows staunch adherence to an acceptedly evil social practice and injuring others with it, we need to exercise thoughtfulness in criticizing the behavior of these legendary characters.
Let us not judge incidents in isolation: Bibek Debroy, translator of the Sanskrit Critical Edition of Mahabharat by BORI, emphasizes the above point. The characters of Mahabharat exhibited marvelous variety in their actions, words and ideologies on different occasions. Sometimes, they were mean, other times they showed outstanding magnanimity. So it is important that we read the whole story, and not just selective incidents, before drawing conclusions. Some repeated behaviors surely need to be looked upon askance. But, at the same time, a full picture of the society and the character graph is imperative for judging him/ her accurately. For example, before we dismiss Kunti as a selfish woman, we need to thoroughly read and analyze her circumstances.
Let us not judge every situation or character through the lenses of our favourite figure(s) from the epic: This is perhaps the biggest mistake which many of us make. More than often, we tend to fix coordinates on one character, say Karna or Draupadi. And then, we judge the whole story of 100,000 verses from this favourite character’s perspective. This comes in the way of understanding the epic by significantly narrowing our vision.
If my blog manages to kindle any interest in Mahabharat, then let this be only a starting point. Read the unabridged text and taste the nectar in its purest form. Because, in the end, no blog or novel or retelling can replace the unabridged Mahabharat in all its messy glory. On this note, let us begin this journey. For better navigation, you may start from here: Mahabharat Archives .