The Mahābhārata

When Project: Well-ReadB4Dead (my randomised system for achieving a working knowledge of world literature before the age of ninety) threw up the ancient Indian epic The Mahābhārata, I found myself with a bit of a problem.  It’s long.  Very long.  So long, in fact, that if I were to read it in its entirety, I would have time for very little else before my ninetieth birthday.  Fortunately, the current Penguin Classics version, translated by John D. Smith, summarises a good two-thirds of the text so the reader can skip some of the less essential stuff and concentrate on the main story, leaving you with something that’s still very long, but not as long as some more recent Thomas Pynchon novels, and with probably less characters and a simpler story.

The epic tells of the battle between the heroic Pandavas, five not particularly-likable brothers with various superhuman attributes, and the hundred Kaurava brothers, who are the villains, and thus doomed to lose, despite there being a hundred of them.  Along the way, the story meanders this way and that, and encompasses many sub-stories that are told by various characters, as well as the spiritual instruction of the Bhagavadgītā.

Reading it is certainly a challenge.  There are long stretches where, even with the summarised sections, not an awful lot of interest happens.  Suddenly, however, the story will flare up in very imaginative ways indeed, with genders switching, gods revealing themselves in a fantastically trippy fashion, and mysterious rituals such as the Horse Sacrifice being performed.

What I find most interesting about works from this far back however (it is believed to have been written, and then added to, from the 8th C. BC to the 4th C. AD), is the way they swing from what could be called mythic storytelling, in which a people’s world and history is explained through narratives in a way that makes sense to them, and storytelling for its own sake, where deliberate use of tension and suspense is employed, sub-plots interact with the main story the way they’re meant to, and instead of things happening because they are the will of the gods, they occur because of human will and human action.

(This is the fundamental difference between The Iliad and The Odyssey, I think.  In the former, battles are often won or lost depending on whether a sacrifice pleased the gods.  In the latter, however, although Odysseus has help from Athena, much of the time he’s relying on his own wits.  Consequently, it feels a more ‘modern’ story.)

The Mahābhārata is explicitly concerned with this, as characters seek to understand what is ‘fate’ and must be, and what is the result of human desire.  Interestingly, and frustratingly, which events are determined as ‘fate’ aren’t consistent throughout the epic, and so a sinful action deserving of punishment in the afterlife halfway though the story is ‘what must be’ by the end.

Ultimately, the Mahābhārata pulls the modern reader in and pushes them away with about the same regularity as the more-famous ‘Bible’ by Moses, et al., but with less reasons provided for stoning people to death (There are also points of overlap, with a variant on the Noah story and that of Moses in the bull-rushes).  Nevertheless, it’s a fascinating read if you’re even remotely interested in the development of narrative technique throughout the ages.  7/10!

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