Mahabharata: A Modern Retelling by Carole Satyamurti

07/05/15, New Statesman

It is always surprising how much one doesn’t know of the actual contents of the Mahabharata. Despite partial rereadings, and despite the fact that it has been around for over 2,000 years, the longest epic poem in the world unfailingly surprises, once you enter (or re-enter) its universe, with its imaginative density and narrative complexity. First of all, there is the coherent framing device, sustained for the entirety of the poem: a series of recessed narrators tell the story and signal its telling. It even contains a meta-narrative of its own composition and transmission: the sage, Vyasa, not only composes the poem and passes it on to one of the narrators, but is also a key player in the story – he is the grandfather of the hundred Kaurava and the five Pandava brothers, the cousins who engage in the fratricidal war at Kurukshetra that is at the heart of the epic and will destroy almost the entire cast of characters.

The spine of that central story, however, is just the bare bones: the internecine war occupies only around twenty percent of the poem. The rest, a profusion of stories, is cornucopian. There are inset narratives, which can be self-contained, such as the stories of Savitri, or Nala and Damayanti, or related more organically to the main narrative, such as the numerous parables and fables in Books 12 and 13, designed to deliver or illustrate a particular point of wisdom. There are the astonishing genealogies, about as far as one can get from the dry roll-call of proper nouns in, say, the ‘begats’ of the Genesis and Numbers. No birth in the book is straightforward, uninteresting, or undramatic: the Pandavas (Yudhishthira, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva), for example, are the sons of gods, fathered on Kunti and Madri, the two wives of Pandu, but behind this story lies an older one of how the gods had to be born as humans in order to redeem a fallen world. The birth of Vyasa himself, and the way he engenders Pandu and Dhritarashtra (the fathers, respectively, of the Pandavas and the Kauravas), are enthralling stories. Karna, a vital character in the action, is the brother of the Pandavas; he was born to Kunti after she was impregnated by Surya, the sun god, well before she married Pandu. In a prolonged deployment of dramatic irony, it’s a piece of information that is kept secret from the actors in the drama, resulting in devastating consequences.

The narrative fertility and proliferation, so rich and endlessly giving, are reflected in the sheer size of the poem: three million words, around 15 times the combined length of the Old and New Testaments, or seven times the Iliad and the Odyssey combined; and, according to one of the most prominent scholars of ancient India, Wendy Doniger, ‘a hundred times more interesting’. That final normative judgement is incontrovertible: you would be hard pushed to find a narrative so long yet so unfailingly gripping. In fact, the world of Mahabharata readers divides into two categories – those who read it purely for story; and those who read for its moral/spiritual content, for the epic is also a central text of the Hindu religion. The latter resides mostly in the Bhagavad Gita, or the Song of God, comprising the sermon Krishna gives Arjuna on the battlefield when he becomes overcome with slackness and grief at the thought of attacking his cousins.

However, the Bhagavad Gita is only a concentrated locus for the ethical-spiritual dimension of the epic. A general and pervasive theme throughout is that of dharma, which is a difficult word to translate, but ‘right conduct’, or ‘the right way of living one’s life’, can give an approximate idea. It is the slipperiest of concepts, contradictory, inconsistent, evasive, forever changing according to context, moral agent, action, or contingency. ‘Dharma is sukshma (subtle)’, we hear time and time again, an acknowledgement that humans can only ever do the wrong thing within the matrix of life that has been ordained for them by the gods. This is the other philosophical underpinning of the epic, the tension between predestination and free will and how, ultimately, the pre-ordained order trumps human agency all the time. Nowhere is this illustrated more vividly than in the crucial dice game at which Yudhishthira gambles away everything, his kingdom, his brothers, and Draupadi, the wife of the five bothers, despite repeated warnings from several quarters to stop while there is still something salvageable. Yudhishthira is powerless; he says, ‘What happens to us, good and bad, depends/on what’s ordained. Whether I accept/or refuse, in the end it makes no difference.’

The latest English translation of the Mahabharata was by John D. Smith in the Penguin Classics in 2009. Smith’s copy-text was the 21-volume Sanskrit ‘Poona critical edition’, published between 1919 and 1969. He translated what seemed important to him, abridging and summarising the rest in italicised passages. It is a happy midway mark between a proper scholarly/academic translated edition and a text for the general reader. Carole Satyamurti’s Mahabharata, crucially not a translation, uses previous English versions, notably Kisari Mohan Ganguli’s complete nineteenth-century translation, J.A.B. van Buitenen’s translation of Books 1 to 5, and the Clay Sanskrit Library’s parallel text version of just over half of the eighteen books, as a springing board for her blank-verse ‘modern retelling’. Her aim has been to produce a readable, gripping narrative, focusing on the story, for the reader who may have little to no previous knowledge of the epic, and in this she has been resoundingly successful. Her iambic pentameter lines, with their rhythms, stresses and flow of ordinary English speech, give the narrative an easy, elegant momentum. Scenes of action are vivid and charged with a fast, drumming beat, quickening the reader’s answering pulse. The very rare infelicity – Bhishma’s name, for example, is glossed as ‘awesome’, a word forever tainted by the Friends generation – only accentuates how her remaking, a monumental task that has resulted in a narrative poem nearly three times as long as Paradise Lost, is a remarkable achievement.