Sunday, June 13, 2004

A work of epic proportions
Chaman Lal

The Mahabharata: A Modern Rendering
Two volumes, both by Ramesh Menon, Rupa & Co., 2004. Pages 821
and 718.

The Mahabharata: A Modern RenderingTHERE are hundreds of translations and renderings of the Mahabharata in all Indian languages, as well as in English and in some foreign languages. Many fictional characters based on Krishna, Draupdi and Arjuna, and other characters from the Mahabharata are found not only in Hindi, but also in the literature of Oriya, Kannada, Marathi, Gujarati and other Indian languages. Rahi Masoom Razaís rendering of Mahabharata and its television presentation are remembered till today.

Mahabharata is an enigmatic text. Is it just the story of a war, of the intrigues and cruelties of rulers, or is it a book of philosophy? One thing is certain: Mahabharata is the most fascinating among all ancient Indian texts. The challenge before any author who attempts to retell the Mahabharta is one of emphasis and implicit interpretation which comes through in his choice of the parts of the huge text that he focuses on.

The epic is based on the 18-day war that took place at Kurukshetra between the Kaurvas and the Pandavas. Ramesh Menonís rendering is based upon the original structure of the Mahabharata, spread over 18 Parvas, each of which tells the story of one day of the war. Adi Parva gives the brief history of the composition of the Mahabharata. The original composition by Ved Vyas consists of 24,000 shlokas. Each of the 18 Parvas is further divided into sections and shlokas. The first volume of Menonís work has 132 chapters and the second 117 chapters. Like other writers who have retold the Mahabharata, Menon, too, has kept the essence of the story intact.

After winning the war, Pandavas ruled for 36 years and then, since all their sons had been killed by Ashwathama, son of their guru Dronacharya, they gave up the throne and crowned Parikshit, the son of Abhimanyu, the slain son of Arjuna. But before they quit the scene, Krishna, along with his entire Yaadva clan, was killed in internecine wars. Even Krishna was party to killing his kin.

The Mahabharata has many anecdotes and stories, which are close to the modern values of life. Most of the characters in the Mahabharata come across as vulnerable human beings. Many of them had relationships with women, sometimes outside marriage. If Krishna had 16,000 queens, Arjuna married wherever he went. He had five or six wives, while all other Pandvas, except Yudhishthira, had more than one wife. Ved Vyas was born from the union between an unmarried Satyawati and sage Prashar. Karna was born to Kunti prior to her marriage with Pandu. Pandu died while making love to his second wife Madari, as he had been cursed with death if he indulged in sex. Ved Vyas had sexual unions with his cousinís wives. The first of these women gave birth to Dhritarashtra, the second to Pandu, while his union with a servant woman led to the birth of Vidur. Draupadi had five sons from five husbands.

Then there was Bhishma, who brought a fisherman kingís daughter for his old father and the renounced the kingdom. Bhishmaís act is still the best-known example of renunciation in Indian ancient stories.

Out of ancient Indian texts perhaps, the Mahabharata is closest to being archetypal in the sense that the conduct of present-day men is very close to the behaviour of the rulers of those times. Deceit and intrigues in public life were then, as they are now, the order of the day.

Mahabharata, authored by Ved Vyas was narrated by Vaishmpayan, the son of Parikshit and great grandson of Arjuna, while he was performing the sarp yagna (snake sacrifice).

Ramesh Menon has referred to two earlier English version: one by Kamla Subramaniam and the other by Kishori Mohan Ganguly. By the looks of it, it seems that Menonís work will become popular. Its presentation is attractive. A paperback edition would attract many more readers.