Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Fascinating Mahabharata

The Mahabharata really is one of my favourite stories. It is absolutely fantastic in its complexity - the politics, the hypocrisy, the grey characters - everything about this story is just brilliant.

I never knew a thing about the Mahabharata in my childhood years, apart from the fact that it was a very annoying, boring show on television - wherein men wearing obviously fake gold-coloured cardboard crowns would fire an endless series of arrows at each other. These fabulously magical arrows would hurtle in slow motion ( rather unsteadily) towards each other for several minutes, accompanied with the sound effects of lightning and serious mood music -only to clash mid-way and cancel each other out, in a huge crescendo of sound and light. This spectacular scene would then be followed alternatingly, by close-up shots of the villian's face (heavy moustache and eyebrows quivering in shocked rage), and close-up shots of the hero's face (clean shaven or light moustache, one eyebrow arched triumphantly). It was fascinating for many, but very trying on my own patience.

Anyway, a couple of years back, I developed this fascination for the Mahabharata and have been trying to find a really good English version to read ever since. Sadly, there doesn't seem to be one: I have tried P.Lal and C.Rajagopalachari (both of which are very 'kunji' types) - I even read the Amar Chitra Katha version (all 3 volumes) - and am now reading Meera Uberoi's version, while waiting for Ashok Banker to release his 18 volume masterpiece. By the way, does anyone know a version that is really comprehensive, yet fun to read? Do let me know...

So while I am reading Meera Uberoi's version, I thought it would be fun to chronicle some of my favourite moments in the story so far - just to give you an idea of exactly why this story is so enjoyable.

a. When Vidura warns Yudhishthira about Duryodhana's plot to kill the Pandavas:

Vidura says cryptically 'The science of politics says that he who knows what the enemy is scheming takes suitable measures to protect his own interests. Be like the fox that has more than one exit in its burrow. Directions lie in the stars:let them guide you. One who is in control of the five senses cannot be defeated. Bear in mind there are weapons other than the obvious ones and they can destroy just as effectively. Creatures of the forest know that straw and wood burn'

Later, Yudhishthira is asked by his mother what Vidura told him. His reply 'He said that the palace being built for us will become an inferno and we should have our escape routes planned'

I love this because it reminds me how often, in corporate life, we often need to decode top management 'advice' - almost exactly like this.

b. When it is made imperative that Draupadi marries all the five Pandavas:

Arjuna wins the hand of the beautiful Draupadi after performing a fantastic feat at her swayamvara. But during this time, the Pandavas are disguised as Brahmanas as they are in hiding from the Kauravas. So when they get back to their humble abode, he tells his mother 'See what alms I have got today' and Kunti, without looking up, tells him to 'share it amongst yourselves and enjoy'!

She then looks up and sees Draupadi. She is dismayed and says 'Oh, what have I done? I didn't know he was talking about the king's daughter...but my words must not become an untruth'.

And thus starts the series of events which leads to Draupadi marrying all five brothers. Now, the point is - the royal Kunti had absolutely no issues lying in other parts of the story ( including the clever concealment of the fact that Karna was her son). So why this sudden urge to become Miss Honesty-Honestor? Why could her words not become an untruth? Was it because what she said was supposed to be a blessing of some sort? There is no further elaboration in the story on this point, I can't really be bothered to research it right now (probably will when I get vela enough in a couple of days).

Anyway, the point is that this one reminds me of one of my earlier bosses, who would often thoughtlessly make a commitment to his superiors like 'Sure, the presentation is all done- Y is just putting the finishing touches on it, and it will be with you in the morning' - and only then, come and casually inform me about it, for the first time, with no trace of 'dismay'. Then, I would have to work late evenings... 'so that my words do not become an untruth'. (The Cretin.)

c. When Arjuna needs to go into exile for a year:

So, Draupadi has the good fortune of being married to all the five Pandavas. But Narada (who else!) suggests that to prevent jealousy between the brothers, they must at all costs avoid 'catching each other in the act' with their common wife. They agree that if, for some reason this cannot be avoided, the brother who violates the privacy of the other, will go into voluntary exile for a year. Sounds like a good plan.

Now, Arjuna is approached by a brahamana about his cows being stolen, and is begged for protection - so he needs to go into a chamber to pick up his weapons. Except that he knows that Yudhisthira is with Draupadi in the chamber. But being the noble Kshatriya that he is, he decides that what must be done, must be done. So he walks in on the two of them, picks up his weapons, and 'greeting Yudhisthira lightly', informs him 'Thieves have stolen a brahmana's cows and I am going to retrieve them'.

He then leaves the chamber before Yudhisthira can say a word, and goes and does the needful about the cows - and then adamantly goes into exile for a year, as per the agreement.

Now, while this is all very significant and serious and moral, I love this not because it reminds me of any moment in corporate life - it is solely because I am imagining the look on Yudhisthira's face when Arjun walks in and out. See, while this particular version of the Mahabharata is not specific in what he and Draupadi are doing at this particular moment, it's not very difficult to hazard a guess. And the fact is, when you're in that moment, you probably don't want to be 'greeted lightly' by your younger brother and furthermore, be treated to a rather unnecessary explanation, consisting of a load of hogwash about some arbit brahmana's cows. Therefore, it is no wonder that Yudhisthira 'could not say a word' before Arjuna walked out. Ha ha ha ha ha ...sorry about this, can't help picturing it - it all seems very comic to me.

Anyway, I will now read on and will probably continue to chronicle other glorious moments sporadically. I repeat my request: does anyone know a really good version of the Mahabharata?

(Note: I really did like reading the Ramayana by Ashok Banker but Hanuman's eyes kept welling up with tears of emotion too often and it got very irritating after the fifth or sixth time. I still do look forward to his Mahabharata, just don't know when it will be out...)


  1. That was a fantastic read, and gave me a brainwave. Well, not really, 'cause it's actually the logical conclusion: YOU should write your version of the whole thing.

    I'm not joking here, really, I'm not! Well, granted, it won't be authentic or even remotely authentic, but what a gift to us all, a layman's understanding and interpretation of exalted happenings. Your dry, tongue-in-cheek humour is just right for this kind of work.

    Were you wondering what you could do to pass the time of day in the next couple of months? There's an idea....

    Go for it, girl!

  2. I will add my comment on this blog, but right now the Black Label is playing games with my mind. So hold your breath.. or maybe not.. but either way, a mega annexure to this post is coming your way...

  3. i like your aunt's idea - but better still you should not only write it, but make it into a TV series. And you can star in it - do multiple roles like mike myers in austin powers. in fact you can play all one hundred kauravas!

  4. aah..dear dear ganju. your wisecracks have been sorely missed. the dull ache that I felt at your silence is being fast replaced by a familiar sharp, shooting pain...

  5. Hi There,

    Very good read. I also love the story, with Arjun being a personal favourite.

    Just adding on to the Arjun exile, he was also supposed to be celibate for the duration of the exile. Hence, he decided to go on an all-India pilgrimage. The first lady he encounters is some snake-princess, who gives him some funda about scorning a woman in lust being a bigger sin, and he yields to temptation. Post that, the entire celibacy angle goes straight out of the window, and he b/weds one new woman every year, culminating with Subhadra.

    Btw, the Amar Chitra Katha is the closest version to Vyasa's Mahabharat.

  6. Citizen Shaker,

    Thanks for your comment -nice to meet another fan! I thought that snake woman or whatever was Ulupi, and Arjun did 'marry' her and stay the night after an initial protest. After which, he promptly did also get married to Chitrangada, and subsequently Subadhra. Quite a period of celibacy!

    Later, when he was in Indra's court, Urvashi was sent to him and she is the one who curses him to a year of eunuch-hood for scorning a woman in lust (he reveres her like a mother, he says) - and this enuch-ness of his helps disguise him in the thirteenth year of the Pandava's exile. What a story!!!

  7. Y, its great to have u blogging so frequently now...i laugh more

  8. duh duh - happy to be your shooting pain! as i said elsewhere "i'm back baby, i'm back!"

    but this whole sleeping around thing is quite an eye-opener. why does the holier than thou hindu brigade keep flailing morality in our faces and tell us it is un-indian to "hold hands" if we are steeped in such a long history of sleeping around! DOWN WITH THE NEO-NAZIS!

  9. Just my sentiments, Ganju.

    Sadly, after the 1995 shooting of "Horror House 1" written by Y. Lal, directed By Y. Lal, music by Y. Lal and starring G. Lal and M. Deb, Y. Lal seems to have washed her hands off anything remotely cinematographic.

    Y. Lal declared it was a flop, but it's the viewers that should judge, right? You should ask to see it. Has the makings of another Satyajit Ray, it has!

    Asked Y, for the umpteenth time, when we could begin filming "Horror House 2." I think she said something to the effect of, "Wait for Peanut..."

  10. She's going to kill me, she is! Just as well I'm not within arms reach!

  11. Yes Ma'am! I would have loved to watch the Lal-Deb production. I always knew this one had many talents. It's pity they are all so well hidden and covered up with large amounts of biting sarcasm and inertia!

    duh duh: the world awaits your next creative spurt :)

  12. "biting sarcasm and inertia!"

    You hit the nail on the head, Ganju!

    What a waste!

  13. Come on, Y, wakey, WAKEY!

  14. Hey...stumbled across ur blog through some other blog which had done an entry for your 'Just Married, Please Excuse' all the entries there and then decided to read your blog from the starting (!!!)....yeah i am a l'il crazy that way.

    So anyways I am commenting coz I wanted to recommend you to read R.K. Narayan's version of Ramanyana, Mahabharata and Gods, Demons and Others....if you still have the interest that is!
    Btw i liked your interpretations :)
    And i like ur writing too...

  15. Hi..

    I have had a lot of nice things to say till now, about your blog (I read one recent post through a friend and then backtracked to follow it chronologically). But, I thought I must have something to contribute to make my comment more meaningful to you.

    The version I am aware of how Draupadi came to marry all the Pandavas is different. And at least absolves Kunti of her wishing her words don't become 'untruth'. So, a story has it that Draupadi prays to Krishna asking for her to get a good husband. Being impatient, she repeats her prayer (I think, in succession) five times. And Krishna is impressed by her prayers and literally grants her five husbands. The version you mention could still be woven into the story, I suppose.

    Anyway, I have had fun reading.

  16. IMO the best version is by Kamala Subramaniam. I've read it multiple times over the years and still enjoy it every time:


Hi there. Go on, say it. Well? WELL?