*Mahabharta : An Enigma for Ever
** ‘The Mahabharta’ (A Modern Rendering) in two volumes by Ramesh Menon, Edition 2004, Rupa & Co., Delhi, pages 821 + 718 = 1539.
How one defines this one text of evergreen interest in all the ages ? Is this a book of history or fiction or mythology ? or a bit of all ? There is no clear time range of its writing or recording. It is spread out in one lakh shalokas of Sanskrit language which is more than seven times in volume in comparison to ‘Illiad’ and ‘Odeyesy’, the world, classic epics of Homer.
There are hundreds of translations, abridgments and renderings of Mahabharta in all Indian languages, as well as in English and in some other world languages as well. There are hundreds of fictional creations in all Indian languages based upon Mahabharta characters. Krishna, Draupadi and Karana are most fascinating characters for Indian fiction writers. Novels and short stories based on these characters are found not only in Hindi, but in Oriya, Kannada, Marathi, Gujrati, almost in all Indian languages. There are hundreds of interpretations of Mahabharta and its characters. Rahi Masoom Raza’s rendering of Mahabharta and its television presentation has been one of the most fascinating and popular.
In fact, Sanskrit literature is quite rich in its semi-fictional, semi-mythological writings in prose as well as in verse. Ramayana and Mahabharta, Puranas (Eighten in all) even Upanishads and earliest writing Vedas; all are full of story telling. Ved Vyas or Krishna Dwaipayan is considered the exponent of Vedas as well as Mahabharta, as such he is one of the significant characters of Mahabharta.
Mahabharta is quite an enigmatic text. Is it just a story of a war or a story of civilization or a story of intrigues and cruelties of rulers, or a book of philosophy as it includes ‘Gita’, the philosophy of ‘Selfless Karma’? One thing is certain that Mahabharta is most fascinating book among all ancient texts of India, written in Sanskrit or Tamil or other ancient languages. The challenge before any new rendering of Mahabharta is the challenge of emphasis and also of implicit interpretation, through selection of rendering out of a huge text, which was published throughout one whole year by ‘Kalyan’, a religious Hindu and Hindi journal from Gorakhpur.
The greatest, but may be one of the shortest war on earth, of just eighteen days had taken place at Kurukshetra and surrounding areas, between cousins Kaurvas and Pandavas for political power, the war story of which is called Mahabharta. This was the time, when political power grew out of swords and arrows, making it in modern times ‘from the barrel of the gun’. Ramesh Menon’s rendering is based upon Mahabharta’s original structure of story, spread in eighteen Parvas, as of eighteen days of war. Adi Parva, tells the brief history of Mahabharta’s composition as well. Original composition by Ved Vyas was that of 24000 Shlokes, then one lakh edition was prepared. There are eighteen Parvas, even Parvas are further divided into sections and shlokas. Menon has chosen to put the story in 132 chapters in 1st volume and 117 chapters in IInd, totalling 249 chapters in eighteen main books. Different renderings have been presented differently, but most retellers have tried to keep the essence of stories intact, which Menon has also successfully done in this rendering. The war, which perhaps took the toll of at least one crore human lives, apart from the lives of animals like elephants, horses. In modern terminology, Mahabharta may be called “The Mother of all wars”, even the IInd world war has not counted for this member of human deaths.
After winning Mahabharta war, Pandavas had ruled for 36 years and then, since all their sons had been killed by Ashwathama, son of Dronacharya, their guru, who, was killed in the war with half-truths of Yudhistra, they crowned Prakshit, the son of Abhimanyu, the slain son of Arjuna in the war and leave the rule, But as precursor to their quitting the scene, Krishna and his whole clan of Yaadvas is destroyed in internecine war among the kins. Even Krishna takes part in destroying some of his kins, after making them drunk. Two reasons have been given for this destruction – one the curse of Gandhari, the second more mundane reason is that Yaadvas had become arrogant in power. The third interpretation, which had emerged out in certain literary texts, such as Swarajbir’s Panjabi play ‘Krishna’, is that tribal Bheels, whose ancestors were burnt in Khandav forests by Krishna clan, had taken the revenge and it is by Bheel leader Jara’s arrow, that Krishna is killed. In modern times, what role Krishna’s clan man Laloo Yaadav will play is going to be revealed soon. Left’s self-annihilation campaigns can also be alluded to Krishna’s Yaadava clan self-annihilation.
‘Mahabharta’ has many such anecdotes and stories, which are very close to modern interpretation and values of life. Most of Mahabharta characters are human beings with all the vulnerabilities in them. Most of them are sex hungry, sex plays a major role in each character. If Krishna had sixteen thousand women as queens, Arjuna marries wherever he goes, he had 5-6 wives, while all other Pandvas except Yudhishtar had more than one wife. Ved Vyas had been born from unmarried Satyawati and Sage Prashar’s sexual union. Karna is born out of Sun God & Kunti union, prior to her marriage with Pandu. Pandu dies while making sex to his second beautiful wife Madari, as he was accursed that he would die if he indulged in sex. Then there is Ved Vyas having sexual union with cousin’s wives- which give birth to Dhritrashtra the blind, as the queen which in sexual union closed her eyes. The other queen became pale, so the son born was Pandu, the pale bodied. Only when a woman servant enjoys the full and pleasurable sexual union with Ved Vyas, the healthiest Vidur is born and who in time becomes the wisest sage in whole drama. Draupadi had five sons from five husbands.
There is Bheesam, who brings fisherman king’s daughter for his old father and who renounces kingdom, as he was the crowned prince of the state. Bheesam’s pledge is still the best known renunciation among Indian ancient stories.
Out of ancient Indian texts, which is archetypal one for Indian society? Vedas, Ramayana, Mahabharata or Puranas or Upnishadas ? Perhaps Mahabharata is closest to being archetypal in the sense, most of the present day conduct of men, is very close to the conduct of rulers of Mahabharta times. As if deceit and intrigues in the public administration and governance of today has got some lessons from Mahabharta rulers as well.
Mahabharta is the story of number of step-brothers, the concept which is little known in India and much more in vogue in the west. Ved Vyas and Bheesham are step brothers, Karna and five Pandavs are step brothers, Bheesam, Vichitarvirya and Chitrangad are step brothers as are Vidur and Pandavas etc.
Mahabharta, authored by Ved Vyas was narrated by Vaishmpayan, his disciple to king Janmaijya, the son of Parikshit and great grand son of Arjuna, when he was holding ‘Sarp yagna’ (Snake sacrifice).
Ramesh Menon has referred to two earlier English versions, from which he took help-one is late Kamla Subramaniam’s and another12 volume edition by Kishori Mohan Ganguly. It seems that Ramesh Menon’s rendering in two volumes in English, would also become popular, as it has been published by Rupa in a presentable edition. It would be better if publisher comes out with a paperback edition of the same in reasonable price, which will attract many more readers.