Before a climber attempts to scale a peak, he consults other mountaineers, asks them about potential pitfalls and inquires about routes that make the climb easier. No one ever climbs a mountain for the first time. It’s sheer foolishness to set out from one’s door in jeans and T-shirt and expect to scale Sagarmatha in a week. As I approach the Mahabharata, I am circling the mountain, looking for tracks left by generations of scholars and writers. I am also finding it useful to put on a surveyor’s hat, scouting the landscape for key features and making a rough assessment before the campaign starts in earnest.

The first question the surveyor might ask is whether the entity being surveyed exists at all. Is the Jaya a single text? Of course, individual chapters and verses exist, but in what way does it all come together? Is it really multiple narratives stitched together in a shotgun wedding or does it have a deeper unity?

Asking these questions leaves us vulnerable to a metaphysical trap. To start with, there’s the philosophical question about the unity of any utterance whatsoever. What makes a word into a word, a sentence into a sentence and a conversation into a conversation? Is the unity a property of the words themselves or is the unity in the mind of the speaker(s)? Can we construct the world of a text from the inside, gluing word to word, sentence to sentence, chapter to chapter until the book stands on its own or does the book always need support from the outside, a ground of shared cultural knowledge on which it stands?

There’s no settled answer to these questions even for a single sentence, let alone a text the size of the Mahabharata. While my sympathies are with the text-is-always-in-a-context crowd, I can see when the opposing view makes sense. When it comes to a single work of fiction by a identifiable modern author — say, Dickens’ David Copperfield — we can pretend as if the text has its own internal unity, that it can be fully understood from within. That’s the way we read David Copperfield as ordinary readers who aren’t literary theorists — we crack open the book to the bookmark and keep reading until we fall asleep. In fact, the act of reading a modern work of fiction depends on the fiction that we are entering a self-contained world. A world we can understand without reference to other texts, even by the same author.

A website is another matter. We are always clicking on links, zig-zagging back and forth from one tab to another. The Mahabharata is more like a website than a modern novel. It doesn’t live in a hermetically sealed world; instead it continuously refers back and forth to itself and to other texts and its unity makes sense only because it synthesizes the imagination and insights of an entire culture. Websites, however, are not experienced as single texts. Even at first glance, David Copperfield is different from Is the MbH a unity? Yes. Is it the same kind of unity as David Copperfield? No. Is it the same kind of disunity as No.

Then what kind of unity is it?

I am going to duck that question. For my purposes, we can replace these metaphysical questions about the true nature of sentences with a cognitive prescription about the attitude one brings to a text. We read David Copperfield as if it was a stand-alone autonomous text, a monad in the universe of books. We should read the Mahabharata as if it’s a maximally connected node in the text-graph, a text that’s connected to most other nodes. Both are idealizations, but they are idealizations that serve a purpose. As good readers, we want to immerse ourselves in the text and adopt a cognitive attitude that helps us do so. A linear attitude serves us well when approaching David Copperfield. A nonlinear attitude serves us well when approaching the Mahabharata. Shifting our gaze from metaphysics to cognition also helps us recognize that we are constantly assessing the unity of objects we encounter. Consider the two houses in the figure below:

It’s clear that the house on the left is a finished product. It’s equally clear that the house on the right is unfinished. The unity of the former and the incompleteness of the latter are immediately obvious to us. That innate capacity to perceive coherence and incompleteness can be cultivated. A good scientist knows where a theory is complete and where it’s lacking in essential features; for example, we know that classical mechanics is complete in some aspects and incomplete in others. A nose for detecting incompleteness and the talent for filling in the gaps is crucial to a research career. That talent might come in handy while exploring the Jaya, since I believe that the Mahabharata is a dynamic unity similar to the book of nature; it too is complete in some aspects and incomplete in others. It may even need to be completely rewritten for the current era.

Back to the mountain. The Mahabharata is enormous, and its size makes it hard to grasp its unity. In of itself, size is not the best measure of monumentality — surely Wikipedia is much much bigger — but no one considers Wikipedia to be a unified text, even if all articles look alike. Dictionaries and encyclopedias aren’t texts even if they’re bound within two covers. No one ever reads Wikipedia, they only read a particular article to which they have been led by a search engine.

The Mahabharata has been termed an ancient Wikipedia by some scholars, which is why they have whittled it down to a critical edition or discern a narrative core of about eight thousand verses. That line of inquiry also leads to the conclusion that the Jaya wasn’t written by a single individual. Who cares? All that proves is that the monadic model is a bad one, that we need other models of unity. Instead of David Copperfield, let’s compare the MbH to textbooks in physics or mathematics, such as Bourbaki in mathematics or the Landau Lifshitz series in physics. They clearly bear the stamp of a unique author (or authorial collective). No one besides the Bourbakistas could have written Bourbaki and no one besides Landau could have written the famous physics books, but in no way are they presenting their work in the way that Charles Dickens is the author of David Copperfield.

While the analogy to mathematics and physics helps, the Jaya defeats this analogy as well. Bourbaki doesn’t have the same cognitive attitude as Vyasa. Bourbaki isn’t telling us a story; they’re describing mathematical truths. Jaya can’t get away with that claim. While it has some of the qualities of collective wisdom, it is also — clearly — a story. It’s that conjunction of literary and analytic registers that makes the unity of the Mahabharata a tough nut to crack.

While thinking about that puzzle, I was reminded of the Sound of Music. Toward the beginning of that cheesy classic, Maria von Trapp’s colleagues burst into lyrical commentary:

How do we solve a problem like Maria?

If you have seen the movie, you know why the nuns are perplexed. Maria might have given her life over to God but she shows too much independence and spirit to be cloistered. Truth be told, even her shift cuts closer to her figure than the shapeless robes worn by the other nuns. The rest of the movie is a chronicle of how her free spirit is tamed, paradoxically, by leaving the nunnery, turning into a governess and then a hausfrau. By the end of the movie, the problem has been solved, but not before the nuns demonstrate their courage by hiding the von Trapp family from the Nazis.

That song came to my mind as I start knocking on the Mahabharata’s door. Is it a problem to be solved? Can it be tamed into a “Mahabharata for the Modern World” or “Eighteen Management Lessons from Krishna?” A quick trip through bookstores in Bangalore makes it clear there’s a Bhagavad Gita for X for almost all X. From product managers to schoolchildren preparing for entrance exams, there’s something in Krishna’s Viswarupa for everyone. Is that what we want from the great epic — the itihasa as karma cola?

While I am sounding like an elitist scold, the history of the Jaya is one of appropriation. Every narrator of the epic starting with Vaisampayana himself has narrated the Mahabharata with his or her own twist. My grandmother would slip in a couple of life lessons every time she recited an episode.

The tradition says that the Mahabharata is the fifth veda, containing all the insights of the other four and then some, open to everyone and not just twice born men. That’s not the only important difference; the four vedas are Sruti whose mantras were heard by the great rsis; nothing can be changed from that point onward. The Mahabharata is more active, it’s never (only) heard, it’s always told. A.K. Ramanujan said that no Indian reads the Mahabharata for the first time, for it’s always heard at bedtime or on other occasions. There’s a corollary to that claim: that the Mahabharata is always passed down from speaker to hearer, a meme that breathes life into every mind that encounters the story. I might add an additional caveat — that until a person narrates the Mahabharata she doesn’t know it.

How does one tell the Jaya?

Vyasa himself faced that problem. He had the story in his head, but suffering from writers block, he didn’t know if he could ever get it out. Ganesa is his alter-ego, eager to write it down, but prone to haste, which is why he has to be advised to stop and understand before he moves on to the next sloka. Together, the poet and the elephant-god are a perfect couple, a volcano emitting lava combined with a smith who forges that molten metal into a river of poetry. From the very beginning, the epic queries the relationship between the creator and the scribe and the challenges of writing in several registers.

Like the nunnery in the Sound of Music, the itihasa can be a forbidding castle; of rooms within rooms and hidden staircases that play snakes and ladders with our mind. Its profusion is a sign of great energy, of artistic creativity and epistemic freedom. The contemporary narrator faces a doubled edged sword; one the one hand, it’s easy to cut ourselves off from the roots of the Mahabharata in the name of modernization, by making the story more palatable to our tastes. At the same time, no teller can narrate the same tale; every narration has to be embedded in Desakala, in its own place and time.

How does one tell the Jaya?

It’s not a problem of abridgment, of turning a hundred thousand stanzas into a novel sized book. It’s about recognizing and respecting the registers in which the Jaya is narrated — from the action packed story to the philosophical and religious discourses to the various verse forms and narrative digressions. The Mahabharata transitions seamlessly between these registers, combining narrative, dialog, discourse and action into one tapestry. The universality of register is the source of the Mahabharata’s claim that what’s not here is nowhere else.

Consider the Yaksa Prasna, a famous scene in the Vana Parva, where Yudhisthira is questioned on his knowledge of Dharma by a celestial being. The episode is at the cusp of an important development. The thirteenth year of the Pandava’s exile is about to begin. They’re forced to remain incognito or risk losing their kingdom. Much happens in that year, culminating in the decision to go to war. Between these action packed scenes is a deep philosophical discourse in a bucolic setting. The last of the thirty three questions posed by the Yaksa to Dharmaraja is a real beauty (I am paraphrasing loosely, and I have only excerpted one part of that question):

Yaksa: What is the greatest wonder in the world?

Yudhisthira: That countless beings die everyday but no one ever thinks he’s mortal.

The Yaksa Prasna is a tiny breather before the action quickens, as the twelve years of relatively peaceful exile turn into the cat and mouse chase of the thirteenth year. If you listen carefully, you can hear hints of an even more famous dialog later in the epic, the Bhagavad Gita between Krishna and Yudhisthira’s brother Arjuna. While the topic is the same — the nature of the Dharma — the Gita switches the roles of the human being and the divinity; the man is the questioner and the God is the one answering questions. Consistent with the recursive structure of Jaya, the Gita is also a breather, a vision of infinity before the thirteenth year of exile turns into eighteen days of slaughter.

Jaya uses these transitions to great effect, almost as a z-axis of wisdom to the x-y plane of the main narrative, incomparably better than showing educational films during the intermission of a long Bollywood movie. Unlike the educational films, which everyone recognizes as filler and heads to the bathroom or the popcorn stand, the Mahabharata convinces us that edification and entertainment are part of the same itihasa.

We don’t write texts like that anymore, and in saying so, I am not suggesting nostalgia for the good old days; I am making a factual statement. One of the hallmarks of modern textual production is the separation of register. We write novels that are entirely fiction and scientific treatises that are entirely fact. The twain shall never meet. Tolstoy comes close to mixing registers in his writings, but many readers consider his moral counsel boring and sanctimonious (Gandhi might have been an exception) and they haven’t stood the test of time in the way his novels have.

Today, factual writing is dominated by scientific inquiry and communication. Except that we don’t see it as writing at all. The act of writing is almost erased from the act of scientific communication, as if one brain in a vat is telepathically addressing another brain in a vat. It takes some energy to realize that writing equations is also a form of writing. Equations, like poetry, are compressions of thought that take great imagination and creativity. Unfortunately, the two compression schemes have diverged, so that most people who write equations well aren’t people who turn a pithy phrase. It’s partly a consequence of how we train scientists: the ten thousand hours it takes to learn mathematics well eats into the ten thousand hours it takes to write sparkling prose. Then there’s the unrelenting pressure to specialize, not only in one’s professional role but also in the cognitive skills that we choose to cultivate.

For these reasons, I don’t think we can recount the Mahabharata without special effort. Knowing Sanskrit isn’t a solution, because modern Sanskrit speakers have also internalized the separation between equations and entertainment. A gap has opened between thinking and writing and like Ganesa himself, we also have to stop and reflect before we proceed. Cultivating a synthetic mindset is key to narrating the Jaya.

Originally published at