Thursday 21 September 2017

Backlist books: Mahabharata retold by William Buck

Backlist books is a column by Lucy Day Werts that focuses on enduring, important works from or about Asia.

This post is about The Mahabharata, specifically a short prose retelling by William Buck. The 2,000-year-old Sanskrit original is the longest epic poem in the world, consisting of over 200,000 verses or 1.8 million words. If you combine The Mahabharata with the much shorter Sanskrit epic The Ramayana, you get more words than there are in The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Bible, and the complete works of Shakespeare combined. Even the short version of The Mahabharata bristles with more heroes, fair maidens, and helpful, mischievous, or jealous gods than you can shake a stick at. Nevertheless, let’s shake that stick.

See below to find out what you need to know to decide whether you should read The Mahabharata, or what you should know about it even if you never do!

Which parts of The Mahabharata does Buck omit?

The Mahabharata is built around the story of the Bharata dynasty, of how two branches of one family vie for control of a kingdom. That story is only a small fraction of the whole work, however, which when considered more broadly is more like a collection of didactic religious texts meant to show people how to live.

Parts of The Mahabharata are thus considered separate works. The Bhagavad-gita, for example, is a religious and philosophical treatise often used and referred to for spiritual and moral guidance. It takes the form of a dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna, two important Mahabharata figures. It is not included in Buck’s version, nor are many other doctrinal and mythological components.

Since Buck separately wrote and published a retelling of The Ramayana, the story of the kidnapping and rescue of Rama’s wife Sita, he does not relate those events his retelling of The Mahabharata, though the monkey god Hanuman makes an appearance and mentions the adventure.

What are the main characters and events in Buck’s retelling of The Mahabharata?

The work begins with a frame story, the tale of how the author Vyasa narrated the epic to the elephant-headed god Ganesha to record for posterity.

The tale then describes the ancestors of the Pandavas and Kurus and the origin of their conflict. The Kurus try to kill the Pandavas by setting fire to a specially built, fire-prone house, but the Pandavas escape. When the Kurus visit them in their new palace, one is humiliated and seeks revenge through a dice game, in which he cheats and wins the Pandavas’ wealth and kingdom. The Pandavas go into exile in the forest in the hopes of returning after the conditions of their exile are met. At the end of their exile and a year living undetected in disguise, they return and try to make peace. Unsuccessful, they prepare for war.

If you have been to Angkor Wat in Cambodia, you have already seen a depiction of the Battle of Kurukshetra, memorably depicted in the bas reliefs there. The Pandavas win, but the war takes a heavy toll, and The Mahabharata only ends after the Pandavas and their divine helper Krishna also die.

Buck’s Mahabharata also tells the story of the princess Damayanti (who fell in love with King Nala, who was cursed for being chosen by her even above the gods who wanted her as a wife) and the story of the innocent deer boy Rsyasringa (who was seduced by a princess in order to save her kingdom from drought), among many others.

How difficult is it to read the retelling?

Still pretty difficult! The trouble is that there are too many unfamiliar proper nouns to take in all in one go. The text requires careful study and/or re-reading, but such study is rewarding in that it brings understanding of an important classic of world literature. Buck’s retelling is quite a manageable length and a good place to start to get to know the characters.

Translations of The Mahabharata

Buck’s translation, published by University of California Press, is still in print (though it has been given several different covers since its original publication).

If the Buck retelling is still too intimidating, check out the eminently accessible Real Reads volumes that contain parts of the epic.

If you are up for a serious challenge, or just in need a reference work, there is a complete and overwhelmingly huge public-domain translation of The Mahabharata by Kisari Mohan Ganguli. It is available online as a PDF and in a variety of text formats.