Friday, 27 June 2014

Book review: Marvels and Mysteries of the Mahabharata


Marvels and Mysteries of the Mahabharata
Abhijit Basu
Leadstart Publishing 2014

Okay, we know the story.  Or we think we know it.  Mahabharata is so vast and so complicated, with multiple layers of plots, subplots, twists and angles, that it is open to interpretation in innumerable ways.  People spend years and a whole lifetime studying our complex epic.  This is what this book highlights, along with characters sketches of some of its key players; notably Arjuna, Krishna, Draupadi and Yudhishthira.

The efforts made by scholars to compile an authentic and authoritative text to describe the epic in its entirety is described in detail.  The Critical Edition - compiled by the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Pune, which takes into consideration various bits of the epic from multiple sources, the shortened version called Jaya, and everything in between is touched upon informatively.  There is also a profile of the scholars who dedicated themselves to the study of the epic, including notable western scholars such as Alf Hiltebeitel, J A B van Buitenen, etc, as well as V S Sukthankar, who was the chief editor of the Critical Edition.

But what make the book really worth your while are the character sketches.  Arjuna's heroism and the ability to tackle each adversity head on; Krishna's brilliance and guile during the war, as well as some of his less realised and perhaps questionable tactics such as retreating from battle - that earned him the epithet ranchchod (one who left the battle) - and the bending of the rules of dharma during the epic war itself; Draupadi's suffering and subsequent emergence as a strong character, and Yudhishthira's progression in the spiritual path and moral sphere.  It is this last achievement by Yudhishthira, which earns him Basu's admiration, who declares that he is the true hero of the epic; not only is he only one to ascend to heaven in his bodily form, but also the only one to learn from each calamity, each error, and progress to a higher plane of spiritual existence.

One tends to agree with Basu's conclusion, although the epic remains elusive in terms of any single understanding of its narrative, characterisation, or message.  This is an apt, but different tribute to the timeless, peerless, most complicated and beloved epic of ours.  As a result, this is highly recommended reading.