I don’t recall a time when I wasn’t fascinated with the Mahabharata, it’s multiplicity of stories and insights and the immense synthesis of an entire civilizations understanding of life, the universe and everything else. I have some facility with Sanskrit and my bookshelves are lined with translations and transcreations of the epic. Ganguli’s five volumes from the late Victorian era to the Gita Press version in Sanskrit and Hindi, Van Buitenen’s unfinished translation from Chicago, Masoom Raza’s script for the B.R Chopra T.V version, the unfinished Clay Sanskrit Library translation, Purushottam Lal’s transcreation in the Writer’s Workshop (one of my most cherished possessions: fifteen handbound volumes signed by Lal himself with his exquisite calligraphy and illustrated with Patra paintings commissioned just for the purpose), and more recently, Bibek Debroy’s ten volumes from Penguin and Carol Satyamurti’s blank verse rendering from Norton.
Then there are the great abridgments from Rajagopalachari where I first read it (but as A.K Ramanujan said, no Indian ever reads the Mahabharata for the first time — I heard the stories from my grandmother before I could read a word), R.K Narayan and K.M Munshi’s Krishnavatara.
Still, I find something missing. After all, the MbH is not just a story, though it’s a gripping tale, it’s not just a philosophical treatise, though it’s filled with philosophical insights, it’s not just a religious treatise even though it’s of immense importance to Hindus and it’s not just a history though it’s depicting life of a certain time and place. In it’s own words, what’s not here is nowhere else; it’s both the map and the territory.
I want to understand what mad ambition can lead to the creation of such a monument, the literary skill that can mix metaphysics in one chapter with realpolitik in the next and finally, speculating on what the ‘mahabharata mind’ mind would do when faced with the existential and philosophical quandaries of the present day. So for the next year, my newsletters will take the MbH one small bite at a time. I will not treat the text with a false sacredness that’s all too common; it stands on it’s own merits. Obsequiousness is not the same as reverence. I am not going to translate it, though at times I might do so. I am not going to engage with the text directly. The epic is best seen from the corner of one’s eye, through an inner peripheral vision which is better at detecting change than foveal vision.
My real task is to convince myself first and then you, the reader, that the ideas, the mood and the insights of the epic are still important today. Shouldn’t take much convincing — there’s no other major work of literature I know that starts with millions of people and ends with exactly seven survivors. Everyone else dies in a battle over power and control over nature, a zero sum game with a vengeance. Seems familiar doesn’t it?
Among its many names, the Mahabharata’s called Jaya (victory). I suppose just reading such a massive text is a sign of victory. I am not sure if I will be able to read it all in a year, but it’s not a linear text; digressions are central to the story and I plan on taking several digressions. Don’t be surprised if there’s a sideshow on big data or mathematical logic; they too need to be dissolved into this ocean. Think about it as an explorer’s diary, or as I call it, a Jayary. I will publish the Jayary over here every week. I will also send it as a weekly newsletter. I hope my exploration will be of some interest to both my Indian and non-Indian readers. I look forward to your feedback and encouragement.