Friday, July 29, 2011

Epic fictions: the Rashomon-like world of the Mahabharata

[This is the “extended mix” of an essay I wrote for the August issue of Caravan magazine – a look at perspective tellings of a very complex epic, with Maggi Lidchi-Grassi’s book The Great Golden Sacrifice of the Mahabharata as the focal point. In the magazine version - which you can read here - we left out the bits about Lidchi-Grassi’s comparison of the Kurukshetra battle to the Second World War, since we thought that slightly diluted the focus of the piece. But I’ve included it here] 

My first stab at literary censorship came at an early age. I was barely 10 when I took it upon myself to read out C Rajagopalachari’s translation of the Mahabharata to my mother. For days on end, as she did her housework, I followed her about with the book in my hand, omitting not a sentence — with one exception: I would bowdlerise any passages that presented my personal hero, Karna, in an unfavourable light. Thus, the command to disrobe the Pandavas and Draupadi was transferred from his mouth to Duryodhana’s. The Kauravas’ disastrous expedition to the forest to mock their exiled cousins — an adventure stirred up by Karna — found no mention in my selective retelling. And the Abhimanyu killing was toned down somewhat.

By that age I had devoured at least three other Mahabharata translations (the ones by RK Narayan, P Lal and William Buck) along with uncounted Amar Chitra Katha comics, and much of my interest was centred on Karna’s unhappy life. This is not an uncommon reaction among young Mahabharata readers who are introverted by nature and whose literary heroes tend to be loners and outsiders: the Pandavas’ illegitimate elder brother is one of ancient literature’s major tragic figures, and some of the most stirring episodes in the final third of the narrative are built around him. But I may have taken the hero worship too far. Perhaps I had subconsciously linked Karna with the social outcasts played by another childhood idol, Amitabh Bachchan, in films like Deewaar and Kaala Patthar.

The adoration and the attendant defensiveness reached proportions that are easy to smile about today. I felt a sense of vindication while reading passages that stressed Karna’s virtues — such as an introduction to Shanta Rameshwar Rao’s translation, which proclaimed that he could be viewed as the “real hero” of the epic. Later, I would revel in Kamala Subramaniam’s gentle, humanist retelling (still a personal favourite) that emphasised the nobler qualities not just of Karna— – or Radheya, as she refers to him throughout— – but of most figures in the epic (Subramaniam even cast Duryodhana as a Shakespearean hero doomed by a single fatal flaw). When BR Chopra’s TV version premiered in late 1988, I spent much time fuming about the show’s simplifications to anyone who would listen. Sharing my seat on the school bus was a friend who disapproved of Karna (because he was on the side of the bad guys); our Monday-morning discussions about the previous day’s episode were frequently heated.

Even as a child I resisted grandparental attempts to paint the story as a simple good-versus-evil treatise. But it took a few more years — and deeper engagement with the Mahabharata as well as with scholarly literature on it
to appreciate that this epic is bigger than the sum of its parts. Karna’s struggles are stirring, no doubt; but so too — if perhaps less dramatically — are the predicaments of other characters like Arjuna and Drona, Gandhari and Dhritarashtra, Kunti and Vidura.

For the Mahabharata junkie, one of the best ways of appreciating the epic’s complexities is to read “perspective retellings” centred on the lives and experiences of specific characters. Such works (whether narrated in the first or the third person) affix us to the consciousness of a single protagonist and can be very effective when the reader is already familiar with the story as told in the conventional way. It’s possible, then, for retellings to open new doors — allowing us to grasp a range of motivations and compulsions.

Versions of the Mahabharata told from the perspective of individual characters can be traced back nearly 2,000 years, when the legendary playwright Bhasa portrayed Duryodhana as a generous prince, mindful of family honour, in "Urubhanga". In more recent times, dozens of notable books have appeared in all the major Indian languages (though unfortunately for the English-language reader, few have been translated well). Shivaji Sawant’s Mrityunjay (Marathi) is a powerful account of Karna’s tribulations, while Pratibha Ray’s Yajnaseni (Oriya) and PK Balakrishnan’s Ini Nhan Urangatte (“And Now Let me Sleep”; Malayalam) leave the stage to the Pandavas’ queen Draupadi. Even non-Indian writers who possess only a passing acquaintance with Hindu mythology have been tempted by the epic’s possibilities, often with amusing results — a couple of decades ago an American writer named Elaine Aron produced a florid work titled Samraj, which emphasised the roles of Yudhisthira and Draupadi as emperor and empress of a new world (along with much eyebrow-raising sexual imagery involving plough-and-furrow metaphors, and even a small part for a slave-girl imported from Egypt!).

For me, the value of a really good perspective retelling was demonstrated by Prem Panicker’s ‘Bhimsen’ — an excellent transcreation in English of MT Vasudevan Nair’s Malayalam Randamoozham, written in the voice of the second Pandava, Bhima. In mainstream renderings Bhima is frequently depicted as a gluttonous oaf or a comic foil, but Nair turned him into a sensitive, thoughtful figure — a large-hearted and brutally frank man with a minor complex about being in the shadow of his brothers Yudhisthira and Arjuna.

Reading this narrative, one must constantly remember that each incident is filtered through the prism of Bhima’s biases and prejudices. This isn’t always an easy idea to process. On his blog, where his transcreation was initially serialised, Panicker has often been asked to elaborate on events that Bhima has no firsthand knowledge of. (If I had read "Bhimsen" at age 10, I would have been incensed by it, for Karna is portrayed almost throughout as an arrogant, mean-spirited man constantly trying to rise above his station in life. But then, Bhima has no reason to view “the suta” in any other terms.) It’s easy to see that if you gather together enough retellings of the calibre of Randamoozham and Mrityunjay, you get a tantalising, Rashomon-like collection of conflicting perspectives on the same events.

Such retellings are also important reminders of how malleable old stories are, especially in a country as culturally and socially diverse as India. As you travel from one region to another, plot specifics vary, as do people’s perceptions of different characters. Duryodhana might be the villain-in-chief in any conventional version of the Mahabharata, but there are temples in Kerala and Uttaranchal where he is worshipped as a just ruler. And not all Mahabharata traditions subscribe to a misty-eyed view of the Pandavas as heroes. Tribal communities who revere Ekalavya as a folk-hero — cruelly denied the status of the world’s greatest archer — are likely to think of Arjuna and Drona as privileged schemers.


Now we have Maggi Lidchi-Grassi’s The Great Golden Sacrifice of the Mahabharata, which is described as a “reinterpretation of Vyasa’s epic from Arjuna’s point of view”. This is misleading on two fronts. First, Arjuna isn’t the book’s only narrator: the initial hundred or so pages of the story are narrated in the voice of Drona’s son Ashwatthama, who is a relatively peripheral character until the end of the war (when he puts the finishing touches to the macabre ritual sacrifice of Kurukshetra). And second, for most of their narratives, Arjuna and Ashwatthama serve the function of all-knowing storytellers rather than individuals with limited perspectives.

Lidchi-Grassi’s Ashwatthama begins on a genuinely personal note: in the very first sentence, he wonders if his childhood yearning for the taste of milk — and the effect this had on his father’s life — directly caused the war. This is a pertinent thought in a story where the competing desires and weaknesses of different characters build towards a cataclysm. But the intimate tone doesn’t last long; Ashwatthama soon becomes a practically omniscient narrator. He knows the secret of Karna’s birth from the outset, because Kunti had conveniently confided in Ashwatthama’s mother Kripi (and Kripi had passed the story on to her son). He knows that the Pandavas did not perish in the house of lac because he chances to overhear Vidura whisper the truth to Bheeshma. More improbably, after Draupadi’s swayamvara, when Krishna and Balarama follow the five Pandavas (dressed as Brahmins) back to their hut, Ashwatthama simply tags along — thus witnessing firsthand a historic meeting between cousins as well as the consequence of Kunti asking her sons to share their “alms”.

Thus, a straightforward retelling (and one that is often very good on its own terms) masquerades as something it isn’t. An effective perspective telling must have immediacy — the narrator should focus on relating his own reaction to each event as it occurs
but this one often refuses to stay in the moment, because the storytellers are too conscious of how well-known their story already is. “Uncle Vidura came from Hastinapura with Duryodhana’s now-famous invitation,” (italics mine) says Arjuna. In Nair’s Randaamoozham, Bhima too occasionally breaks the fourth wall between himself and the reader, but it’s done for a good reason: to de-mythologise some of the stories that have been told about the Pandavas. (The bards who sang about us had colourful imaginations, he often says wryly — we weren’t really that glamorous.) But when Arjuna in Lidchi-Grassi’s retelling begins narrating episodes with “Everybody knows the story of how...”, this serves no useful purpose, and even has the effect of diluting the value of his perspective. Some episodes are also strangely inert and passionless — when Arjuna goes to fetch water in the forest and discovers Nakula and Sahadeva lying dead near the lake, we don’t get a real sense of his grief at the sight.

That said, there is much to appreciate in Lidchi-Grassi’s book. I thought it particularly noteworthy that nearly half of its 900 pages deal with the period after the war, as the Pandavas come to terms with their pyrrhic victory, and face the ambiguous consequences of having performed their dharma. Her prose is elegant and vivid — comparable to that of Ramesh Menon’s fine two-part The Mahabharata: A Modern Rendering — and there are little moments of creative inspiration that humanise the characters (as when Yudhisthira wryly tells his dog Raja to consider himself lucky: “you don’t even know who your cousins are”). There are also many fine character sketches, such as this one of the self-deceiving king Dhritarashtra welcoming the Pandavas to Hastinapura for the ruinous game of dice:
“He played the overjoyed uncle — and he was overjoyed. There were tears in his eyes as he fumbled to embrace us and ceremoniously take the perfume from our hair. Yes, real tears, and I doubt not that one in three ran in affection and remorse, the other two in joyful foresight of grabbing all we had for Duryodhana. Uncle Dhritarashtra was the most muddled old fool in the world, and never had his mixture of sentimentality and guile been so grotesque.”

What I found most provocative about this book, however, is the Preface where Lidchi-Grassi allows herself a personal aside. Recalling her youth in post-WWII Paris, having recently learnt about the horrors of the concentration camps, she mentions her discovery of Sri Aurobindo’s Essays on the Gita – a source of comfort in a world gone insane. Describing Arjuna’s famous dilemma as the Pandava and Kaurava armies face each other on the battlefield, she writes, “What finally releases him is something from another dimension, a vision in which the terrifying ambiguities of morality are somehow resolved. I cannot begin to describe the catharsis this passage produced in me [...] I became convinced that the answers I sought could only come from another plane.”

To the irreligious mind this is a vague-sounding passage (contrast it with Amartya Sen’s thesis that the Gita can be read as a conversation between equals and that Arjuna’s pacifist argument is never lost), but it can at least be understood in terms of one person’s spiritual epiphany. However, Lidchi-Grassi then goes on to draw whimsical parallels between Kurukshetra and the Second World War, saying that the events leading up to the latter represented “a tremendous clash between the forces of darkness and the forces of light such as takes place in a time of changing Dharma”.

To an extent such hyperbole is understandable coming from someone who was at an impressionable age in post-war Europe and had a second-hand brush with the Holocaust (one of Lidchi-Grassi’s cousins was an Auschwitz survivor). But when she casts Winston Churchill in the role of the “champion of the Light” (with Hitler as the “Asura’s agent”) and remarks that his war speeches “had the unmistakeable ring of an inspired mystic” – implying that he was guided by an otherworldly power much the same way Arjuna was guided by Krishna – it’s possible to wonder if an analogy has been stretched too far.

This is not to gloss over the dangers posed by fascist Germany. You don’t have to be a moral absolutist to see that Nazism was a tremendous evil that had to be fought to preserve ideals of equality and freedom, and there is a certain poetic sense in which it can be said, with hindsight, that the things we most value in human civilisation were on the brink in the 1930s – that a German victory might have ushered in something resembling a Kaliyug. But simplistic talk about “light and darkness” is never a useful way of examining the vicissitudes of history, and on another level it’s a disservice to the Mahabharata too. It’s also typical of the many attempts to make ancient texts relevant to our own lives and times in very specific – and occasionally contrived – ways.

It’s no secret that religious leaders around the world constantly reinterpret their texts to bring them in line with modern thought. (A venerable old book has a passage recommending that a husband horse-whip his wife for a transgression like mismanaging the household funds? How embarrassing – but never mind. What it can mean is that he make the symbolic gesture of whipping, perhaps by lightly brushing her with a feather or whatever useful implement is at hand.)

But the Mahabharata presents a special case study: its mercilessly questioning tone is very different from that of most other ancient literature, and it has a bleak sense of humour – which is one reason why much of the contemporary reference-making is done in a playful, tongue-in-cheek vein. The day after Baba Ramdev was arrested while disguised in a woman’s salwar-kameez, a leading newspaper offered a humorous edit quoting the epic on the subject of cross-dressing. (“Arjuna wearing red silk, long hair and bangles as Brihannala hid his ‘masculine glory’ without eclipsing it ‘like Ketu covering the full moon’.”) Shashi Tharoor’s The Great Indian Novel (literally “The Maha Bharat Novel”) invented characters who were amalgams of Bheeshma and Mahatma Gandhi, Karna and Jinnah, Duryodhana and Indira Gandhi, but it didn’t feign a direct connection between the epic and contemporary politics; the tone was ironic rather than pedantic.

There are, of course, more solemn, scholarly attempts such as Gurcharan Das’s The Difficulty of Being Good, which brings the lessons of Vyasa’s epic to bear on such aspects of modern life as corporate governance and ethics (even likening Anil Ambani’s feelings about his elder brother to Duryodhana’s envy). But even Das’s book does acknowledge the many moral ambiguities of the epic. “[The concept of] Dharma is at the heart of the poem; it is not only untranslatable, but the Mahabharata’s characters are still trying to figure it out at the end.”

The contemporary reader would do well to remember that the Mahabharata can be read as a work completely shorn of supernatural elements; in fact, it’s highly probable that that’s how it was first read. There are references in medieval literature to a much shorter critical text called the Jaya, which made no mention of such miracles as the vastra haran incident, and in which Krishna is a shrewd Yadav chieftain, not the Vishnu avatar with a beatific smile. Bhasa’s plays and contemporary books like Randamoozham draw on this text, fleshing out the quotidian aspects of the story, stressing the human conflicts.

Read in this way, the Mahabharata is a fluid work of literature, with interpretations that can range from Kamala Subramaniam’s sentimental-idealistic view of the characters to Iravati Karve’s anthropological take in Yuganta, which analyses the ulterior motives of the most revered figures, placing even Krishna under the microscope. Lidchi-Grassi’s retelling repeatedly informs us that Krishna is “beyond Dharma”, but I think he becomes much more interesting if one sees him not as a smug God — forever in control, a puppet-master — but as a man with godlike qualities and a powerful understanding of the hearts and minds of other people; or even an avatar who has only a dim view of the role he must play in the larger picture, and who is frequently swayed by the human dramas around him. (Ramesh Menon’s retelling portrays a lonely, almost frightened Krishna preparing to impart the Bhagavad Gita to Arjuna, knowing that this is the test his whole life has led up to.)

There’s an intriguing passage in The Great Golden Sacrifice where Arjuna, sulking because Krishna perceives Karna to be a serious threat (and possibly a greater warrior than himself), wonders:

“For if Arjuna was not the greatest archer in the world, who was he?”

This question — and the related questions of identity, self-doubt and affirmation implicit in it — cuts very close to the true heart of the epic. This is a story about people discovering their potential for good and bad, grappling with duty and conscience. Celestial voices may herald Yudhisthira as the son of Dharma (and hence the embodiment of truth and righteousness) at the moment of his birth, but for the man himself this oppressive responsibility is something he must struggle with all his life. Eventually, he becomes a worthy king — even something resembling a “Dharmaraj” — not by divine right but by slowly, painfully accepting the many weaknesses in his character and finding ways to overcome them.

This makes it possible to read the Mahabharata as the first great literary novel, relevant to us not in a facile, connect-the-dots sense but in a more general, abstract way: for the glimpses it offers into the hearts, minds and personal conflicts of an array of very different individuals – their encounters with their circumstances and how they transcend or succumb to them.

It’s precisely because these characters are so fresh and modern that fine academicians like Karve and Krishna Chaitanya have been able to bring the rigour of contemporary literary criticism to their studies. In The Mahabharata: A Literary Study, Chaitanya treats the epic as a poem where “heterogenous material accumulating over a long time-span was given an unmistakable unity, a focal thrust of meaning” by an editor (or vyasa), and points out that it uses sophisticated literary devices such as foreshadowing and recurring imagery. Karve similarly views the original Jaya as one of the last examples of a pragmatism in Indian literature that was subsequently lost; in later years, she writes, Indian literature became more sentimental, more centered around “the dreamy escapism of the Bhakti tradition”.

This is not to say that a "realist" Mahabharata is inherently superior to the grander, more fantastical one that most readers are familiar with. (Many such tellings, including the ones by Subramaniam, Menon and Lidchi-Grassi, offer powerful insights into the human condition even as they stick with the God-as-charioteer theme.) Both approaches have different strengths and both tell us valuable things about the processes by which stories are generated and acquire new meanings. But at a time when fundamentalism has become almost fashionable, when people take chauvinistic pride in sacred texts that pontificate and preach, it’s important not to undermine the worth of an old story that follows the “show, don’t tell” principle and provides more questions than answers.


A few years ago I wrote a facetious blog post quoting from Kisara Mohan Ganguli’s translation of an episode where Karna, angry with his charioteer Shalya, launches a surreal attack on the morals of the women of Shalya’s kingdom Madra. Among other things, he denounces the Madraka ladies for “eating beef with garlic and boiled rice”, “singing while drunk obscene songs of diverse kinds” and “in intercourse being absolutely without any restraint”.

Someone commented on the post, expressing deep disappointment that the noble Karna would insult women in this fashion. Whereupon I began a reply: “There are many instances of Karna saying provocative things not because he really believes in them but because it provides an outlet for the anger and resentment that he carries inside him. In any case, don’t make sweeping judgements based on things said in the heat of battle.”

Halfway through the comment, I smiled to myself; here I was, in my thirties, still mounting a defence of a childhood hero! But I also realised that this was the sort of analysis I wouldn’t have been able to conduct at age nine (when I would have been more likely to turn a blind eye to the passage) – as an adult, I had a better understanding of the idea that being a “good” person doesn’t mean that you always say and do “good” things. Time and age do alter the perspective tellings we carry around in our heads, and the Mahabharata is a vast enough work to accommodate them all.


  1. Thanks for this excellent post, I have a question about the Samraj book by Elaine Aron, its mentioned on the Amazon link that its the first in a trilogy, what are the other 2 books?



  2. It’s also typical of the many attempts to make ancient texts relevant to our own lives and times in very specific – and occasionally contrived – ways.

    It's a bit ironical that my first proper exposure to Mahabharata came in the form of Shashi Tharoor's satirical The Great Indian Novel. Reading it in the library one evening, I had found it to be 'un-putdownable'. It's a sad story, though, that Tharoor's subsequent works failed to generate such excitement.

    Close on the heels of this retelling came Iravati Karve's excellent treatise - Yuganta. I remember other students reading it as a part of a course on epics (that I incidentally did not opt for) and debating heatedly whether Krave was right in portraying divine figures like Krishna in a more human light. However surprising that may seem, this analysis proved to be an eye opener (Some people raise their eye brows over how late this revelation has come into my life!).

    Inspired by Yuganta (and up to some extent ashamed by my half-baked knowledge of the epic), I picked up C. Rajagopalachari's simplistic account of the events and marvelled how none of the characters are either good or bad and are constantly plagued by their inefficiencies. I believe it is this very moral ambiguity which has allowed modern story tellers to narrate the tale from a perspective that is distinct from the all-knowing one. Stripped of the divine aura that has threatened to cloud its message, the epic might actually have more to tell us than we bargained for.

  3. The Reader: I know Samraj was intended to be a trilogy, but I have a feeling the other two books never got written (or published) - haven't been able to find anything about them online. I myself read Samraj when I was 13 or so, shortly after it first came out, and much to the horror of a visiting aunt who chanced to flip through the pages!

  4. Thanks JW for the clarification, since you have read it, would you recommend I buy it as I'm getting it for a $3-4.


  5. Interesting post, I have been a Mahabharata addict since I was 5 years old, and my great grandmother would tell me Hindu mythology stories. I found Palace of illusions Chitra Banerjee Divakarun, a really good book from Draupadi's point of view.

  6. Stripped of the divine aura that has threatened to cloud its message, the epic might actually have more to tell us than we bargained for.

    Marvin. true. And perhaps more than our pattern-seeking minds can even cope with!

    The Reader: about Samraj...I'd recommend it if you're looking for a highly exoticised telling of the epic (or the completely tangential perspective of someone who hasn't grown up with any Mahabharata baggage). But keep in mind that I haven't read it since I was in my early teens.

  7. Kady: here's a post I wrote on The Palace of Illusions. If you're interested in Draupadi's perspective, do try to get hold of Yagnaseni too.

  8. One of the areas where the Mahabharata falls short is in the plot details concerning the illegitimate births in the epic.

    For instance, I suppose Dhritarashtra and Pandu know that they are actually illegitimate sons fathered by a Brahmin sage. The epic becomes more fascinating if this "detail" about their birth is not known to them and the people at large, barring Bheeshma and Satyavati who engineered it.

    Similarly, the epic is better off with the Kauravas being made to believe that the "Pandavas" are actually sons of Pandu, and yet suspecting strongly whether they're legitimate (given Pandu's sexual problems).

    However, Mahabharata is rather naive in the way it treats these important details. Everyone seems to be aware of everyone else's illegitimacy and doesn't seem to mind it. And yet, there is a lot of fuss about the illegitimacy of one unfortunate character - Karna.

    Strangely, all these modern renderings treat these details in exactly the same way as the original epic does, which takes a lot away from the story.

    Imagine an alternative version of the story where Arjuna abuses his mother after the war for having mothered Karna, and then discovers that he himself is illegitimate!!
    This discovery benumbs the "Pandavas" to the extent that they decide to give up the kingdom and take sanyas!

  9. Imagine an alternative version of the story where Arjuna abuses his mother after the war for having mothered Karna, and then discovers that he himself is illegitimate!!
    This discovery benumbs the "Pandavas" to the extent that they decide to give up the kingdom and take sanyas!

    Leaving Kripacharya to rule over the remnants of Hastinapura? Oh dear. Now that would be one pointless war!

  10. Thank you for an awesome post on the Mahabharata - I too started reading the epic with the C.R book. I remember feeling anguish towards the end of the book, when the massacre happens. The ending always left me feeling a little more.

    My own object of hero-worship was Arjuna. Like you, I would get offended or angry whenever anyone online talked ill of him to me, with comparisons with Karna being inevitable.

  11. I would get offended or angry whenever anyone online talked ill of him to me

    Vijay: I can imagine. If the Internet - and online discussions - had been around when I was growing up, I would have spent a huge amount of my time fighting with strangers about Mahabharata nitty-gritties.

  12. It's a fantastic post.My childhood hero was also Karna and I have seen some episodes of Mrityunjaya on DD and it is the only religious based soap with different angle as far as I remember.

  13. Awesome post, JA. One book that went missing from the list was Devdutt Pattanaik's Jaya, one of the best Mahabharat books. Please read it (this is a request to everyone) if you haven't.

    We Bengalis are actually quite lucky in the sense that there have been multiple excellent translations of the epic in our language for various age-groups.

    As for Karna, I personally feel that he's somewhat overhyped. You can read my Karna vs Arjun analysis at

    And this is the mythology section of my blog:

  14. Abhishek: actually, I "missed" quite a few other Mahabharata-related books that I've read - there's no way this could have been a comprehensive essay in that sense. I did write about Devdutt Pattanaik's The Pregnant King here though.

    Enjoyed your post very much - very sharp and witty (and that Fardeen Khan bit in the chart was hilarious, much as I loved him in No Entry). I often think of the Mahabharata characters' individual battles in terms of tennis head-to-heads myself.

    However, if looked at as dead-serious analysis, I can certainly make a few rejoinders to your post. Maybe in a lengthier comment when I have the time later, but for now just a sample: the "duel" after Draupadi's swayamvara was essentially a split-second thing where Karna reached for his bow and Arjuna severed the string in a flash, whereupon Karna respectfully withdrew saying that only Parashuram, Bheeshma and Drona among living persons could have done this, etc.

    A reader with Karna-biased "blinkers" can offer perfectly reasonable rationalisations for each of the Arjuna-Karna confrontations and even argue that the only battles that really counted were their meetings on the 16th and 17th days - in both of which Karna had the upper hand despite having so many cards stacked against him. Krishna repeatedly told Arjuna that Karna was a better warrior than him, and not just to fire him up (he said this after the war too). And Karna did after all make that legendary "all-India tour" and conquer every kingdom singlehanded for Duryodhana - a task that Arjuna, Bheema, Nakula and Sahadeva had had to divide up between themselves.

    Anyway, this sort of discussion only confirms what I said about the various perspectives the Mahabharata affords a reader according to his own biases and prejudices!

  15. @Shrikant,
    Clearly You haven't read the Mahabharata as you have posted that comment. This is what happens when people don't understand what they are reading and come to their own conclusions.
    Contrary to what you have said, the birth of Dhiritharashtra and Pandu is clearly attributed to the sage vyasa by a procedure called niyoga. Bhagavan vyasa is not an ordinary man, he is the compiler of the vedas. Please read about niyoga before commenting on it. It is an extraordinary procedure done by few exceptional people done in an extraordinary time.

    Again and again you are making deceptive interpretations based on extraordinary circumstances.
    People like you should either shun from reading books or should read further before coming into conclusions. Everyone knew that the pandavas were of divine birth, but the kauravas rejected it. If you want to explore further,you browse the part when Drona becomes the chief of the kauravan army. He clearly says that he believes that Pandavas are of divine birth and by nature undefeatable whether the kauravas accepted it or not.

    Mahabharata is "naive" you say, you are again exposing your
    lack of intelligence or knowledge. You really need to read the epic again. You have only read the abridged form.

    Mahabharata is about the efficacy of Dharma above everything else.

    I regret to have read your post. It made me waste useful energy because of your ignorance. Henceforth, research before drawing conclusions

  16. Bhagavan vyasa is not an ordinary man, he is the compiler of the vedas. Please read about niyoga before commenting on it. It is an extraordinary procedure done by few exceptional people done in an extraordinary time.

    Pundit: I was all set to assume that your comment was a parody, but then I remembered Poe's Law, and now I'm no longer sure!

    This "useful energy" you've wasted in reading Shrikanth's comment - I hope it isn't the same energy that goes into the performance of niyoga? :D

  17. Pundit: You're mostly on the mark.
    I have only read Mahabharata in abridged form and plead my ignorance of niyoga!

    Nevertheless, I suppose I never will graduate beyond these abridged versions of the great epic. I neither have the time nor the scholarly aptitude to read either Vyasa's original (does it even exist in print?) or even Ganguli's verbatim translation!

    On a more serious note, let me grant you that Vyasa's "Niyoga" is a sublimely divine process. I'm sure it ain't as vulgar as the process that mortals like us resort to when it comes to breeding kids!

    Nevertheless, the fact remains that the Pandavas were not "Pandavas" i.e they were not sons of Pandu! Everyone in the Mahabharata appears to know this and yet it doesn't seem to be a major issue in the epic. Which is why I regard the epic as flawed.

    The epic would be far more interesting if the paternity of the Pandavas were a secret between Pandu and his two wives, only to be revealed at the end.

  18. Priveleged to read this post Jai. Some of the themes in Mahabharata have been explored by so many writers still there is scope for more analysis.

    The case of Nakul and Sahadev comes to mind , both of them remained or are potrayed as fringe characters in the classical text. One gets some glimpses of character flair, the larger part gets diluted due to other larger than life characters.

    The brothers relationship with Draupadi e.g leaves us with more scope for interpretation. We see that Nakul is potrayed as the most handsome among the pandavas. Still the Mahabharata implies Draupadi being closer to Arjuna than anybody else. It would be great to read Mahabharata from the brothers point of view.

  19. Shrikanth: I am surprised that the issue of paternity can cause you to declare the Mahabharata as flawed.

    I will not troll about Mahabharata being the best piece of literature, i have come across as this would be trying to change a dogmatic approach.

    Your reasons in finding the Mahabharata as flawed are a trifle bigoted. Pardon for the use of this word but the reasons do not sit well with me.

  20. Jai, this was an excellent read!

    Karna was, and continues to be, my favourite character in the epic. But after reading Prem Panickers Bhimsen, I have a soft corner for this particular Pandava.

    I particularly enjoyed reading Tharoors novel, and this discussion makes me want to go back and read it again.

    It surprises me though that most Indians view it as a simplistic good versus evil story, when it's so much more complex than that, and with every version, and every
    author, bringing in a different perspective.

    I wonder though, if kids today read the abridged version of the Mahabharata anymore. As a child, I was one of the few among my friends to have read the Mahabharata, rather than just hearing about it from the grandparents. But the TV series did generate a lot of interest even among children. I wonder if kids today have any access to simpler versions of the epic.

  21. Enjoyed the post! Yagnaseni is a personal favourite as also KM Munshi's Krishnavatara series which has more Mahabharata intertwined than Bhagwatam. Bhimsen I must get ahold of! you say it is in English...then there are some wonderful Telugu mythologicals based on this epic, wish they were subtitled and re-released, much much superior to BR CHopra's both in production values (tho made in the 50s/60s) and subtleties...thanx

  22. Your reasons in finding the Mahabharata as flawed are a trifle bigoted.

    Shwet: curious. Why "bigoted"? That's a very loaded word and I seriously doubt it applies here.

    About Nakula and Sahadeva: I'm sure I've heard about at least one text that tells the story through Sahadeva's perspective, though I can't find any reference online.

  23. I wonder though, if kids today read the abridged version of the Mahabharata anymore.

    Ramya: I think there are even more child-friendly abridged versions of the epic today than there were two decades ago (often by fine writers like Namita Gokhale), but no idea about how well they are selling or if they are really being read and appreciated.

    Kaivalyam: Panicker's Bhimsen is available on Scribd as well as in PDF form on his site (I've provided the links in the post) - easy enough to download and read on the comp. It hasn't been officially published anyway.

  24. Your reasons in finding the Mahabharata as flawed are a trifle bigoted

    What's so bigoted about discussing moral dilemmas of property inheritance?

    To my mind, one of the central themes of the Mahabharata ought to be whether the eldest "Kuru" price (who is strongly suspected of being illegitimate) has a greater claim to the throne than the second eldest Kuru prince (who is most definitely legitimate).

    PS: Just for a moment, I am ignoring the illegitimacy of Dritharashtra and Pandu (since that should ideally have been a well preserved secret)

    The case for Kauravas grows stronger if the issue of legitimacy were a stronger talking point in the epic. In which case, the reader would've found reading the epic a more ambivalent experience.

  25. Shrikanth: this is a complex subject, but I don't think the issue of "legitimacy" as you define it is really so important. Once we accept the idea of niyoga as a legitimate means of propagating a family line, Duryodhana's claim to the throne is no more valid than Yudhisthira's (and strictly, speaking in that generation, Karna has the biggest claim - since the norms of the time permitted him to be accepted as Pandu's heir if Kunti had acknowledged him as her son).

    Of course, defining legitimacy in the strictest sense possible, Chitrangada and Vichitraveerya (both of whom die young) are the last members of the Kuru blood-line. Which leaves us with the rather amusing scenario of generations of imposters of dubious birth squabbling over a throne that doesn't really belong to any of them!

    In any case, the really important moral dilemmas and conundrums of the Mahabharata go well beyond the specific legalities of "property rights".

  26. I don't think the issue of "legitimacy" as you define it is really so important

    Agree. It is probably not fair to be overly critical of the original treatment of these illegitimacies in the epic. It is hard to judge a pre-Christian era poem by the moral and ethical standards of the 21st century.

    Karna has the biggest claim - since the norms of the time permitted him to be accepted as Pandu's heir if Kunti had acknowledged him as her son

    Maybe. But to the 20th century reader, this reasoning sounds strange and dare I say, downright immoral. The kid who is the result of a teenage girl's indiscreet fling cannot claim any relationship with Mr.Pandu who wasn't even aware of Kunti's idiocy.

    I can understand Mahabharata's lack of concern with these issues. But the "modern renderings" ought to take more liberty in retelling the story such that these issues have a greater bearing on the judgments that readers form.

  27. I am going to do something unpardonable again and ask you for advice since list of Mahabharata reading appears to be quite endless. Given that my love affair with the epic began only recently and that during its course I have come to know of The Great Indian Novel, Yuganta, and CR's version, what would you recommend as the logical next step?

    I would like to mention here that though I am not a purist, I am in favour staying honest to the original text but at the same time highlighting the moral ambiguity that in this story seem to be everyone's cross to bear. Understanding those moral dilemmas better and making sense of them in the context of my own life is my major motivation for reading Mahabharata. So, would Kamala Subramaniam's retelling be a good choice?

    Btw, I bought The Blind Watchmaker on your recommendation and found it to be an insanely enlightening read!

  28. I should stab myself to death (ok, not literally) for forgetting the name of the book and the author. It was written in Hindi by poet whose pen name is “Bhavya”. The book is like a "war ballet" written from Karna's perspective. Usually, Karna gets more acclaim than criticism, but that was one book where Karna was “fairly” dealt with. The pièce de résistance of the book was the final chapter, where Karna meets his father. The father’s reproach and Karna’s insecurity is beautifully described.

    In addition to the reproach, Karna himself agrees that most of what he did was for fame, not righteousness. Given that most of the literature/opinion on Karna is around his sacrifices and bravery, it was interesting to see a perspective where his foibles are highlighted by himself.

  29. In addition to the reproach, Karna himself agrees that most of what he did was for fame, not righteousness.

    Rantings: sounds interesting. Even in the early days of my Karna-worship, I could see that here was someone who has an almost unhealthy obsession with posterity and how he will be remembered. Of course, that doesn't have to take away the essential sheen from his character - in fact, it adds tremendous depth to his conversation with Krishna before the war, an episode that can in some ways be seen as a pre-echo of the Gita (right down to Karna serving as charioteer for Krishna!).

    Btw, Krishna Chaitanya and a few other writers have pointed out that as the great war approaches, Karna is the only major character who seems fully aware of and reconciled to his personal destiny. Again, that may have something to do with his sense that all the good things that happen to him will happen after his death (not necessarily talking about an afterlife here, just the "good name" living on forever).

  30. Marvin: yes, Kamala Subramaniam's retelling would be a good choice. Or - if you're up to reading a two-volume, 1500-page version - I would say Ramesh Menon's version. Have written about both these translations in this old post. Also see this and this.

  31. The issue of legitimacy is not a point you want to note, when discussing the merits of Mahabharata as a literary piece. If that had been the case then some other great works can seem frivolous by today's standards.

    'Siddhartha' by Herman Hesse can seem totally pointless when one studies the dilemma of a young Siddharth trying to decipher the meaning of this world. The need of the young scholar to listen to his 'Atman'. If you see it from today's perspective that book would come across as preachy and maybe pompous.

    The perspective i am talking about is idealism in today's world. Some people would find the work fulfilling, others confusing and yet others as redundant. The underlying theme of the book would remain , the questions it asks, the philosophy it discusses would remain valid for a long time.

    The case with Mahabharata is the same, it is not a simplistic story of Kurus as your 6th standard I.C.S.E history book would tell you. It is a layered text of rich emotions and a fascinating study of human psychology even after all this time. It is a co-incidence that it's lyrical as well.

  32. Karna's appeal is hardly because he is the most virtuous, or the most heroic ; but I believe it is because he is the most complex.He is, IMHO, one of the most compelling characters in fiction, ever.
    He lived his life on the fault line -actually he became the fault line - between castes , classes and warring cousins.

  33. very very late comment, but, have you read palace of illusions? i always thought it was such a wonderful idea and well-executed, besides questioning the idea that yuddhistira and arjuna were the big heroes of the epic.

  34. MinCat: I've written about Palace of Illusions here. Nothing new about the idea of a Draupadi perspective telling, but yes, there were some interesting bits like the childhood storytelling games between Draupadi and her brother.

  35. Shrikant: Not commenting about your opinions at all.

    Just checking here...the legitimacy or otherwise of Karna's birth was never a big issue. At least for the most part. Only a handful of people knew about Karna's origins. The problem was about him being known (erroneously of course) as a charioteer's son. And therefore not being at par with the princes.

    In any case, the problem with Karna's actual birth was more a cause of shame for Kunti than it was for Karna. It would actually work out quite well for Karna if the truth came out. It was entirely Kunti's problem and Karna played his role of a martyr brilliantly by promising Kunti that he will keep the secret.

    And in connection with the other 'illegitimate' births, you do say in a later comment that you haven't really read the Mahabharat in great detail, and that does explain it. I wouldn't advice anyone to read the 'entire' Mahabharata, but if you were to, you would find that almost everything is explained as well as it possible can be.

  36. Thank you for this post Jai! This is a brilliant example of the reason why I keep coming back to your blog!And I'm so glad you picked The Mahabharatha for this lengthy post.

  37. oh shame on me, i read that review too =) my lamentable memory...

  38. On the Mahabharata, I'd be interested to know what you thought of Leela's Book. Not that it's related, really, just how the Vyasa story has been interpreted. On my part I was, frankly, disappointed. I'd loved Empires of the Indus, and expected more depth of writing from Albinia.

  39. Hi Jai,

    Good one...Have you read Parva by S.L.Bhyrappa which is a retelling of Mahabharatha from the personal reflections of few main characters.

    Its been translated to all major Indian languages and also to English.

  40. the legitimacy or otherwise of Karna's birth was never a big issue

    In retrospect, I think you're right.
    No wonder Yudhishtira even says that had Kunti divulged Karna's maternity earlier, he would've given up his claims quite readily and supported Karna's claim to the throne!! Hope I got this detail right. If I did, then I must say Yudhishtira's "Dharma" is rather odd.

    This just goes to show the enormous difference between Yudhishtira's moral code and the sensibilities of most people on this thread! That's why I said that Mahabharata ought to be retold to suit modern sensibilities. It is a narrative that can be improved upon.

    I think we're a tad sensitive when it comes to evaluating epic literature. We have no qualms to judge secular works of literature and film as "dated". But when it comes to the epics, we turn defensive.

  41. In retrospect, I think you're right. No wonder Yudhishtira even says that had Kunti divulged Karna's maternity earlier, he would've given up his claims quite readily and supported Karna's claim to the throne!! Hope I got this detail right.

    Shrikanth: yes, of course this detail is right, and I'm surprised that you didn't remember it - after all, this is the very crux of the Karna-Krishna conversation. Karna refuses Krishna's offer precisely because he knows that if the truth about his parentage came to light, Yudhisthira would give him the throne - and he in turn would immediately pass it to Duryodhana. And at this point he recognises that Yudhisthira has the greatest claim to kingship.

  42. Okay, just to clarify: that isn't the only reason he refuses Krishna's offer; his loyalties rest with Duryodhana to begin with. But the Karna-Krishna conversation is key to the epic's central themes in so many ways. If you can get hold of Krishna Chaitanya's book, read his analysis of the episode - it's very good.

  43. Cloud Mother: haven't read Leela's Book. Was about to start it but then got sidetracked with some other books that had to be read for reviewing.

    Ravi Kiran: no, haven't read Parva - had heard of it though.

  44. Shrikant: Everything about Ol' Yudi is quite odd. He's quite the role model for, say, someone like our present PM. At no stage in the entire book does he actually put his foot down and take a call. Quite a blithering idiot actually, if you ask me. And quite the biggest villain of the piece in an off-centre kind of way.

    But you write: "Mahabharata ought to be retold to suit modern sensibilities. It is a narrative that can be improved upon. I think we're a tad sensitive when it comes to evaluating epic literature."

    This is where I disagree a bit. Quite a bit actually. Can it be improved upon? Sure it can be. As everything can be, including 'The Night Watch'. I personally am not a big fan of words like 'epic'. It's a book. The problem really is that most of us end up reading only abridged editions, translations, specific versions, etc. Justifiably of course. Now I don't know much about the original, but I do possess what Bengalis call the definitive translation of the book. It's approximately 20,000 pages long (with extremely small print and extremely tough to fathom, old-fashioned language). Managed to plough through it once. And truth is that there is not one loose thread anywhere. Every single detail is explained beyond necessary extents.

  45. The translation I mentioned is by Kaliprasanna Singha - he used a team of seven scholars of the time (around 1860) and got the entire translation done. The final product is quite invaluable.

    Interestingly, he is credited with having pulled off a translation that is 'modern' in its retelling and not 'weighed down by Sanskrit' usages. Bollocks! It's almost impossible to read - took me well over a year to complete it.

  46. Shamya: you may be indulging in Vyasa-like poetic exaggeration when you say 20,000 pages, but I imagine you mean the Kisara Mohan Ganguli translation, which is on the Sacred Texts site (it's painfully, unreadably unformatted too). As I recall, the print version of this takes up something like 200 stanzas just to describe the various places Balarama visited during his pilgrimage, before showing up in time to see the Bheema-Duryodhana duel. Yes, excessive detail I'd say.

  47. Okay, Kaliprasanna Singha then. But he died at age 29, Wikipedia tells me. Unless those were Brahminnical years, where did he find the time?

    Also, "modern" circa 1860 might well be different from the "modern" of 2011.

  48. What a delightful read! Thank you, Jai.

  49. Since a literary work(and one written as a poem at that), is as much as about form as content, talking of all these interpretations and abridged versions is like constructing your Shakespeare world-view from Charles & Mary Lamb.

  50. Like many others, I was told Mahabharata stories by my grandmother - Iravati Karve. I get the feeling the stories I got were a bit different... I loved reading this piece, as always, JAS.

  51. Jai: Yeah, Wiki says he died at 29. Wiki also confirms that he employed a group of Brahmins to pull off the job. So...

  52. I have never read it. But did have interest to see what it says. I probably now more about Bollywood and Hindi music. May be Bangla song too. I find music another way to recognise myself.

  53. I read a version on Livejournal that had a sci-fi mahabharat set in the stars!
    It had a glorious Draupadi(love!), pensive Yudhi, upright Karna, astute Dur, strong and intelligent Bhima, genius twins, but Arjuna was intellectually challenged, clumsy, short-sighted(literally), had an eating disorder, stammered etc.. The only thing he missed was a hump!

    Dare I say, it's a fairly common problem with the retellings- a strawman Arjuna to poke fun at?

    From the 'book of Yudhisthir' to 'Second Turn', and 'Palace' (one Draupadi perspective had Arjuna look like a woman!), all through the Karna retellings ( the Tamil movie had Arjuna clutching onto his chariot pleding for rescue - heh,heh!), it's pretty much a given even if the story needs to be streched to accomodate it.

    To me, there is enough room for everyone in the Mahabharata. Even Duryodhan has his moments of glory.
    Is it a weakness of the story itself - a kind of zero sum game of heroism, where Arjuna must be made less heroic in order to make Bhima or Karna more so?

  54. To me, there is enough room for everyone in the Mahabharata.

    Of course - that's exactly the point being made in this post.

    Dare I say, it's a fairly common problem with the retellings- a strawman Arjuna to poke fun at?

    Farima: no offence, but I think you might be setting up a straw man yourself, without intending to do so. I don't think most perspective tellers go out on a limb to make Arjuna look unheroic - it's just that when a figure is the closest that a complex epic has to a conventional "hero" and he comes with tags like "greatest archer in the world", it's natural for a perspective/alternate telling to present a different way of looking at him. Anyway, in my view it's Yudhisthira who has suffered the most from the zero-sum-game attitude; very few writers have been able to appreciate his complexities.

  55. I recommend The Book of Yudhisthir - Buddadeb Bose. He makes the case that the epic is all about the education of Yudhisthira.
    Also Alf Hilbeitel.

    So, why isn't there an Arjuna perspective? - Maggie Lidchi's books are written from the devotional perspective of a Vaishnavite. A friend made the point that Vyasa's Maha B would itself qualify as such.

    Also, it's already been said, but as an avid Draupadi admirer, all retellings with the Karna-Draupadi theme leave me dissapointed. No sane woman could love a man who calls for her to be stripped in public. I am firm in this and still await a definitive Draupadi retelling...:-)

  56. What a wonderful post, sir! Thank you for stirring some nerves in my brain that had lay dormant for a long while. Will definitely pick up some of the references you cite some time.

  57. For a person of your caliber of understanding, I would strongly recommend PARVA by Dr SL Bhyrappa. The original work is in Kannada and official English translation by Dr Raghavendra Rao by National Book Trust and Sahitya Academy. No other book on Mahabharata has dared to look at realism as this work. Read it to enhance your vision into the great epic.

  58. Makes you interested in the great Indian novel all over again and sit up and take cognizance of some facts which might have been circumvented due to various reasons. The author's illustrations also add a dramatic touch teh book. Read teh book in frenzy to know more about an epic which does teach a lot. Doing the second read with my husband now. It is still asgripping the second time over...

  59. Just the post I was looking for...I have been a mahabharatha addict since childhood and am longing to get my hands on all possible angles to get a complete picture.

    I think I may be the only one saying this - I used to adore Duryodhan right from the start more than any other character

    I am planning to pick Samraj, Palace Of Illusions and Jaya to start with since the only literature I have read is Amar Chitra Katha. Any more suggestions are welcome :)

  60. I agree with Farima.

  61. Thanks for your in-depth perspective on Mahabharata. I also see Karna as a tragic hero and that there is certainly a lot of humor in the storyline. I have had a long time connection with the epic and have recenty published my book Mahabharata: The Eternal Quest. To see reviews and for more info please see

  62. What a beautiful article, thanks so much for this, absolute delight to read, and must come back to it a few times before I can actually make a sensible comment. This has given much to think about......

  63. Any idea if Vyasa's "Jaya" is now available as a book? Someone mentioned to me that a English version may be available.

  64. Readers interested in alternative Mahabharata that ends without the war of Kurukshetra written by me. It can be downloaded as ebook from POTHI.COM or send your requst for a soft copy to