“What is not in it - does not exist”

The Mahabharata, as told by RK Narayan
Translated from English by Danny Raveh
Published by Bavel

There is a story that many years ago a very senior Israeli went to India on a semi-official visit. He was disconcerted to find that the Indians knew very little about Israel and were unaware of its vast importance in the world.
“Why should they much know about us?” asked a member of his entourage.
“What do you mean?” said the VIP. “We gave them the Bible!”
The story is amusing not only because of the absurd claim that we, who are living today, gave the world the ancient work created by our putative ancestors, but also because of the ignorant assumption that the Bible is a universal work. It is not.
In the Far East, which is mainly Buddhist, Hindu, Shinto etc., the Bible is only familiar to the small Christian minority. On the other hand, the immense epic whose condensed version has just been translated into Hebrew is familiar to billions of people. Former generations of Hebrew writers and poets, who laboured to translate the literary masterpieces of the Western world, did not know the cultures of the East, and the result is evident in our libraries to this day. In Europe, interest in the great Sanscrit epics began in the 18th century, when philologists discovered that Sanscrit was related to the European languages. The imperialist exposure to the Far East gave rise both to scorn for the local people and admiration and respect for their ancient civilizations. Some of the subsidiary stories of the “Mahabharata” were translated into English in the course of the 19th century. But the part of the “Mahabharata” known as the “Bhagavad Gita”, and regarded as a religious work on a par with the Vedas and Upanishads, was first translated into English in 1785, and many times since.

The cultural place of the “Mahabharata” is equivalent to that of the Bible and of the Homeric epics in Western civilization. It is an immense work: seven times the length of the Odyssey and Iliad combined. Its vast tapestry is incomparable, because apart from the central story about the conflict between two branches of a certain royal family there are hundreds of subsidiary tales, many of which inspired later works (for example, the play “Shakuntala” by the 3rd century playwright Kalidasa). The leading characters are human - unlike the characters in the other great Hindu epic, the “Ramayana” - and speak to readers everywhere and at all times. It has been said about the “Mahabharata” that whatever is not in it, does not exist. Anyone who takes this work to a desert island will need no other books.

R.K. Narayan is a well-known Indian writer, nowadays in his nineties, who writes in English, and his books are popular not only in India but all over the English-speaking world. Most of his novels take place in an imaginary south India town named Malgudi, but being a religious Hindu with a classical education, he set out to give Western readers some idea of the tremendous literary treasury of Sanscrit literature. With this in mind, he wrote three books which became international bestsellers - condensed versions of the “Ramayana” and the “Mahabharata”, as well as a selection of stories taken from these epics and some other ancient works, entitled “Gods, Demons and Others”.

My first introduction to the “Mahabharata” was - as it must have been for many - through Peter Brooks’ play, which was broadcast some ten years ago on BBC television. It took six hours, which passed like ten minutes. Later the BBC broadcast the Indian TV production of the “Mahabharata” in 92 episodes - it took about a year and a half! - and I didn’t miss one. I became convinced that this is one of the main sources of world literature. I discovered that some of the scenes and situations in the “Mahabharata” appear in “A Thousand and One Nights” - a medieval Persian-Arabic work which was first translated into European languages in the early 18th century. The ancient link between Persia and India had many effects, and when Arabic civilization came to bridge East and West, it transmitted, inter alia, the Indian invention which made modern mathematics possible - i.e., the numerals popularly called Arabic, including the all-important zero.

In English there is a full translation of the “Mahabharata” in eight volumes, as well as a shortened version in one massive volume, translated by Kamala Subramaniam. But the condensation which introduced the “Mahabharata” to thousands of readers the world over was this slim volume of Narayan’s, which manages to convey the feel of a vast and seductive epic. Narayan is especially good at sketching a character in a few lines. He brings to life the five brothers known as the Pandavas - Yudhistira, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva - and their joint wife, Draupadi; their sworn enemies Duryodhana and Karna; and the supporting characters: the blind king and his wife - who bound her eyes so as to share his condition; Kunti, the mother of the Pandavas; the great Bhishma; the wicked uncle Shakuni; and of course Krishna, who, while being a god - who manifests his godhood in certain situations - is also very human, with failings and emotions. Indeed, the eternal human element is never lost amid the most dramatic events, some of them realistic and others mythological. “What is the greatest wonder?” [the yaksha, the spirit of the lake, asks Yudhistira]

{Yudhistira replies:] “Day after day, hour after hour, people die and corpses are carried along, yet the onlookers never realize that they are also to die one day, but think they will live forever. That is the greatest wonder of the world.” (p. 131)

As well as the central story-line and all the subsidiary tales, the “Mahabharata” contains a wealth of philosophical and religious texts. This is how Romesh Dutt, who translated excerpts from the “Mahabharata” in 1898, described it: As if “the religious works of Hooker and Jeremy Taylor, the philosophy of Hobbes and Locke, the commentaries of Blackstone and the ballads of Percy, together with the tractarian writings of Newman, Keble and Pusey, were all thrown into blank verse and incorporated with the ‘Paradise Lost’...” Fortunately, the “Mahabharata” is infinitely more attractive than such a mishmash.

The main story-line may be summed up as follows: There was in ancient India a kingdom ruled by a blind king who had a hundred sons and five nephews. The rivalry between the five - known as the Pandavas, after their dead father Pandu - and their cousins, led by the prince Duryodhana and his great friend Karna, becomes a prolonged conflict, in the course of which the Pandavas go into exile and suffer great hardships. The five brothers have a joint wife, Draupadi, whose humiliation by Duryodhana and his minions kindles intense vengefulness. The climax of the epic is the great battle which lasts eighteen days, at the end of which the Pandavas’ enemies are all dead, but the victory appears like a terrible tragedy.

A striking quality is the ambivalence of most of the characters. Yudhishtira, the eldest of the Pandavas, is the perfect man, noble, honourable, tolerant - but he is also a compulsive gambler, and his weakness sometimes enrages his brothers and wife. Duryodhana is evil, but he is also capable of generosity and devotion. The great Bhishma, who sacrificed his own personal happiness for the sake of others, who is also a source of wisdom and statesmanship, stands by and does not intervene in the horrible scene of Draupadi’s humiliation. Karna is a great warrior known for his loyalty and generosity, but on certain occasions he behaves despicably. The passage when he discovers his true origin and confronts his mother Kunti, who pleads with him not to fight against his brothers, the Pandavas, is one of the most moving in the epic. It is not surprising that this character inspired numerous other stories and poems, as Prof. David Shulman shows in his article “The Tragic Hero in the Indian Epic”: “There is in the Indian literary tradition no figure better loved than Karna, the unknown eldest brother of the five Pandava brothers, the heroes of the epic. Thus, for example, does Pampa, the author of the ancient Kannadan ‘Mahabharata’, apostophize his readers: ‘Should you remember, O my brother, any of these heroes, remember Karna!’” (Proceedings of the Israeli National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 6, issue 11).

If the work itself is a colossus, the writings it has inspired, both fiction and research, would fill a library. The Israeli reader can learn Sanscrit and read it in the original, or read the available English versions, or begin with what has already appeared in Hebrew, including the little booklet which was recently published under the misleading title “Mahabharata”, containing some of the subsidiary stories - or read this brilliant short version of Narayan’s. The Hebrew translation is quite good, and I am told that the transliteration of the names is correct. My only reservation concerns the cover, which is very ugly. With a wealth of Indian art to choose from, why use such a crude local effort? My advice is, buy the book and wrap it up, to hide the cover and to protect the book. It is a literary jewel.