*Mahabharata: A Modern Retelling*

There is a new version of the Mahabharata, in blank verse rather than prose, translated/created by Carole Satyamurti.  I’ve only read an initial sliver of it, but dramatically and linguistically it is very effective.  This is a beautiful edition, and deserves serious consideration as a purchase for just about every library.  I have yet to see any significant reviews of the work.


Oh come on now. From Amazon: "An epic masterpiece of huge sweep and magisterial power, “a hundred times more interesting” than the Iliad and the Odyssey, writes Wendy Doniger in the introduction, the Mahabharata is a timeless work that evokes a world of myth, passion, and warfare while exploring eternal questions of duty, love, and spiritual freedom."

I doubt it's more interesting than Homer since it's probably derivative to a degree. By 0 BCE/AD when this work was composed, the myths and legends of ancient Greece were well known. So the author(s) took a few bits and pieces from there, and elsewhere, and scrapped together this poem. Blank verse? Something will be lost in translation. Bah humbug.

Mahabharata reached its final form at around 200BC to 200 AD. But the story kernel and legend dates to early Indo-Aryan legends of 1000 BC. It is quasi-historical, as per several historians.

There is little to connect it with the Hellenic world, though I agree that ancient India circa 0AD had been exposed to significant Hellenic influence.

Do you actually know anything about the Mahabharata or ancient Hindu culture? Clearly not, or you wouldn't have written such a stupid, ignorant comment. Wow.

A modest liberal education should at least include recognition of the Mahabharata as one of the two great Indian epics (the other is the Ramayana), and, in particular, some familiarity with one part of the Mahabharata, the Bhagavad Gita, a central scripture of Hinduism largely in the form of instructions to the hero Arjuna by the God Krishna. The Bhagavad Gita is a text that inspired Gandhi and his followers in its call for selfless action but also provided Oppenheimer with his famous words on witnessing the first atomic bomb explosion: "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds"

It's nice to see that the commenter above went to all the trouble of reading an Amazon.com review before impugning one of the defining works of a culture and civilization that predates the Greeks he thinks so highly of. Perhaps next time before stooping to shoot from the hip ethnocentrism on a topic he clearly knows nothing about, he will actually read a clifs notes version instead.

Welcome to Ray's World. He combines a willingness to comment on anything with an unshakeable confidence in his own wisdom. That being said, he is a good sport and takes the comments about his relationship in stride. Actually, he is proud of it.

In fairness, Doniger's comment were asinine. More interesting than Homer? How is that measured exactly? You mean more interesting to Doniger? Or do you think sales have been higher?

Indians often seem very defensive about their epics. So defensive, it does not encourage me to read them. If I was truly missing out, I would think Indians would be smug, not angry.

One way of measuring is to see what its influence has been through the ages. The Mahabharata story is familiar to most Indians cutting across region and even caste. It is a living epic that influences ideas of right and wrong to this day and has an imprint on the everyday cultural life of most Indians.

Whereas Homer's epics haven't really lasted as long. They did not really survive the Judeo-Christian onslaught. They are no longer revered as ancient sagas but merely as works of literature. The modern day European looks east to the land of Israel for his spiritual guidance. Not Greece or Rome.

Yes. Influence of Mahabharata and Ramayana survives largely intact even in rest of the Indosphere among Buddhists and Muslims (prominently in Indonesia).

I think you're selling Homer short. When you meet a stranger, it's Homer who provides the narration to that meeting so I'd say he's been thoroughly absorbed into modern culture.

The Odyssey in particular--and to a lesser degree the Iliad--had a great concern with "xenia"--the guest-host relationship (the origin for the words guest, host and xenophobia). It's a relationship that the west has been so saturated in, that we've lost the word to describe that relationship: hospitality doesn't quite suffice as its only a positive virtue while "xenia" is more of a responsibility. So, for example, when you come to someone's house, you don't eat like a pig (Circe). Nor, as a host, should you eat your guest (Polyphemus). You don't pressure a woman in mourning to remarry (Penelope). You don't hold your guest hostage (Calypso). In the Iliad, don't sleep with the host's wife (Paris and Helen). The superficial stuff is obvious especially to us now though it was clearly less obvious to the ancients. But we have continued writing tales about this relationship from Procrustes to Psycho. Homer also had more to say about this than just the obvious stuff, including its role in the battlefield as when Glaucus and Diomedes face off, announce their lineage and realize they shared xenia through their grandfathers. In recognition of this, they trade armor and then try to kill each other. This also illustrates why "hospitality" isn't quite the same word.

I have a great deal of respect for both the Mahabharata and the works of Homer. No need to get into a dactylic measuring contest over it.

Thanks. A very enlightening comment :)

Yes, one doesn't deny the enormous classical influence on modern western civilisation. And am sure the two epics of Homer also have subtle influences as the one you described.

Nevertheless, I think it is fair to argue that Christianity introduced a discontinuity of sorts in European civilisation. A smaller proportion of Europeans are familiar with the story of Iliad and Odyssey than the proportion of Indians who are familiar with the Mahabharata or the Ramayana.

I tend to agree with shrikanthk. I think Christianity introduced a serious discontinuity with the Classical world. To the point that you have to carefully explain Homer to young 'uns. The values are simply bizarre by modern standards. A problem Hollywood tried hard to avoid in the film by leaving a lot out. Achilles goes into his tent and sulks because his favorite female prisoner has been taken from him and he is insulted? Hollywood has a problem with that and has to re-write the story to get around it.

I don't know what Homer, if he existed, intended, if he intended anything, but to the modern ear I think that all the good characters, all the sympathetic people, in the Illiad are Trojans. Hector is a better man in every respect than Achilles. Priam is sympathetic when he comes begging for his son's body in a way that Agamemnon and Menelaus are not. Even, to a modern ear, Paris' actions are not shameful as it was to the Greeks.

Of course if you were determined, you could spin this as the Eternal, Unchanging Orient vs the Evolving Modern West. But I wouldn't. It is interesting that the rise of the BJP has been linked to the TV series.

That TV serial myth is one of the big lies. And in great epics the opposition has to be admirable to make a good story. The Kauravas and Karna in Mahabharata or Ravana in Ramayana have similar tendencies.

The trajectory also can been seen as going: Homer, tragedians, Plato (Socrates/sages), Aristotle, Stoicism, Renaissance neostoicism, Montaigne, Renaissance tragedy, Nietzsche, contemporary virtue ethics...

@So Much for Subtlety,
If Doniger says the Mahabharata is the "more interesting" than Homer, then it is Donger you should challenge, and not "Indians".
If Indians do get defensive about their epics (I admit I don't really know what you are talking about), it is probably in response to people who portray the opinions of one or two fringe individuals as the opinions of all Indians and who seem predisposed to believing that, contrary to abundant evidence, nothing good ever came out of India, and that all epics and achievements had to have foreign origins.

Actually I don't particularly want to challenge anyone. But I was pointing out two things. One of which was the silliness of Doniger's comment. So I think she was challenged.

But the other is the anger you often get in threads like this. That is a separate issue. No Hindu is endorsing Doniger's comment so it is not fair to tar them with it. But many of them do get angry. If it because they feel slighted, that is a logical and reasonable explanation. But it has nothing to do with the quality of this or any other book as such.

However I do agree with people upthread that this ought to be on the horizon of anyone with a liberal education. Not necessarily that they have read it, but they ought to, at least, know about it. I doubt many people have read Homer either.

Exactly. I've never heard of this 'epic'. I rather read the tales of Gilgamesh. As for Doniger, she wrote a book, that was deemed 'offensive' by Hindus to the point where her work was banned (or Oxford University Press withdrew its sponsorship, forget which). I still have that book, unread, but it's on my list. BTW I've never read Homer except excerpts. But it's a classic as M. Twain says (a never read book you intend to read someday). Let's face it: all of history comes from the Greeks and the West. It's the West and the rest. Anybody who disagrees is one of those 'world history' freaks. Ever read their textbooks? They are laughably generic, downplaying the West while making a big to-do over some mud hut in Timbuktu. Nuff said else we'll draw out the racists.

There is no reason for you to have heard of the Mahabharata. But it is universally known in Indian and Indian-influenced (like SE Asian) societies. Whether it teaches you useful lessons, or is a classic, is completely subjective. Doniger's book raised a hue and cry in India because it interpreted classic Indian/Hindu texts in a way that is very different from (and I am sure, offensive to) the general understanding. To be specific, it seemed to use Freudian analysis to explain a lot of ambiguous phrases, and was filled with sexual metaphors (offensive to conservative people.) When I read about this incident, I was reminded about a Lincoln biography that came out around a decade ago, which claimed that Lincoln was a homosexual based on anecdotal evidence of another man having shared a bed with him (not an unusual occurrence back in the day, so the conclusion was unwarranted.) Now I am a 100% free speecher and protest the book-banning, but that doesn't necessarily make Doniger right.

Excellent comment

@Kris--LOL thanks for the laughs. It is universally known that Caro-Kann Fantasy Variation (1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.f3!?) is a viable alternative to the mainstream Advance Variation (3.e5), Classical (3.Nd2 or 3.Nc3) and Exchange / Panov Attack (3.exd5), however, there's no reason for you to have heard of it. But it is universally known in chess circles to practitioners of the Caro-Kann. Whether it teaches you useful lessons, or is a classic, is completely subjective.

Ray :

One of the great and rightly celebrated virtues of Western civilisation is its ability to laugh at itself. And its remarkable philosophical diffidence (Read Naipaul's lecture - Our Universal Civilization for greater elaboration).

It is sad that your comments lack this philosophical diffidence, which is what makes Western culture so very special.

more evidence that ray Lopez is not white

Interesting that dice rather than chess was the game they played

Just give in and read the damn Illiad, Ray, you won't regret it.

Can anyone find out what the source of this translation is? The author does not appear to be a Sanskrit scholar. Reads well, though, and the Doniger endorsement is something. Has Tyler taken a look at Purushottam Lal's version?

Shanker, all of Ray's comments are like that, don't bother.

oh, nm, foreword says it's Ganguli and vB/F.

I read posts like this and think that here Professor Cowen goes again, with his taste for the exotic. I read the Amazon review and thought that this is so unlike my usual reading that I might give it a try. It is 928 pages, however.

Yes. Influence of Mahabharata and Ramayana survives largely intact even in rest of the Indosphere among Buddhists and Muslims (prominently in Indonesia).

The definitive scholarly English translation of the Mahabharata is the one begun by the late Prof. J.A.B. Van Buitenen of the University of Chicago and completed after his passing in the Clay Sanskrit Library.

The English translation everyone (who reads English translations) reads in India is the prose one by C. Rajagopalachari but it is abridged and somewhat bowdlerized. I wouldn't recommend it personally.

If you really want to experience the Mahabharata the way Hindus do, watch the delightfully cheesy '80s TV series by B.R. Chopra. (Who knew ancient India was so...shiny?) All the episodes can be found on youtube. (There's a slicker Sony TV series too.)

The Mahabharata is written in verse (the standard 32 syllable shloka meter) but I find attempts to put Sanskrit literature into English verse annoying because they always feel subtly "wrong" in cadence. I'll take a look at this edition but I suspect I won't like it for this reason.

Is this abridged? According to Wikpedia the mahabharata is 10x as long as the Iliad and the Odyssey combined. This seems to be written with very few words per page, and yet it only comes out to 928 pages. Why the discrepancy?

Jaldhar recommends the late Professor J.A.B. Van Buitenen's version. I notice that Volume 1 Book 1 is about 550 pages long. There is, at least, a Volume 3 Book 4.

So I am feeling a little ripped off. We have a non-Sanskrit-speaking poet, who has to have relied on someone else's translation, producing an abridged edition. I tend to feel that is not worth the money. I can only think of one abridged version by a non-native speaker that turned out well, and that would be Arthur Waley's The Tale of Genji.

It better be a damned good poem.

Yes, Bibek Debroy, an economist, has attempted a transliteration of the critical edition of the epic in several volumes. Strangely it hasn't received too many reviews outside India.

I think Indology, like any other discipline, is an old boys' network. You write forewords and extol works selectively depending on whether you like the political orientation of the author.

Also with Sanskrit translation, it is often a case of a trust-deficit. Neither Indians nor western scholars understand the language particularly well. You don't have a large enough mass of readership conversant with the language, who can readily separate out the wheat from the chaff. So one ends up reading translations without really knowing how accurate they are.

I actually took a class in south Asian civilization which for one quarter was taught by Professor Van Buitenen. Rather surprisingly we read very little of the Mahabharata, mainly just the Bhagavad Gita. We did however read the Ramayana. The main thing that I learned from that class was how little I knew about India -- and how much there was to learn. I believe that Van Buitenen's translation runs 20 volumes, and though it's India's premier epic, it's only a tiny bit of the vast literary, historical, mythical, and religious sets of writings from, by, and about India and the rest of the subcontinent. And when one moves beyond Sanskrit, there are dozens of languages to deal with, some of them with their own literary traditions.

But as far as this Satyamurti version: yes it has to be severely shortened compared to the original. Which might be a good idea, for the benefit of western readers, but since I haven't actually read the Mahabharata I can't say for sure. Sometimes quality counts more than quantity. I've only read one third of Dante's Divine Comedy, because I barely got through the Inferno and didn't feel like tackling Purgatorio. Later I realized that this was probably because I had a low quality translation, and that's why it was such an effort to slog through. Someday I'll get a better translation and try reading it again.

Guys, you most probably didn't realize it, but you've written a wonderful piece of "found poetry".
See also: http://www.brainpickings.org/2013/02/13/uncreative-writing-kenneth-goldsmith/

There is no reason for you
to have heard of the Mahabharata.
But it is universally known
in Indian
and Indian-influenced societies.

Whether it teaches you useful lessons,
or is a classic,
is completely subjective.

It is universally known
that Caro-Kann Fantasy Variation
is a viable alternative
to the mainstream Advance Variation,
and the Classical and Exchange-Panov Attack.

However, there’s no reason for you
to have heard of it.
But it is universally known
in chess circles
to practitioners of the Caro-Kann.

Whether it teaches you useful lessons,
or is a classic,
is completely subjective.

Oops, the comment section does not accept the right poetry layout.
This is how it should look:

I had attempted to read a translated version of Mahabharata but though the content is very interesting but it was very hard going, so I gave up and tried to watch the serialized episodes on TV but also gave up after 80 episodes.

What intrigued me was the parallel events on the early life of Krishna and Moses, and the part that parallel what happened to Alexander and the horse. Where actually is Utara Kuru also intrigued me. What surprised me was that the Malay language contains so many Sanskrit words that I more or less already know a little Sanskrit without knowing it.

"a hundred times more interesting” than the Iliad and the Odyssey, writes Wendy Doniger in the introduction"
Oh, perhaps that is why Hindu fanatics in India brand her an enemy of Hinduism!

Unlike the Greek epics, the Indian epics are a part of the living tradition. Hence unorthodox renderings are likely to provoke sharp criticism. This is no surprise at all.

Try writing an alternative history of Ancient Rome whose decline was precipitated by a very scheming, dishonest Asiatic named Jesus Christ whose mischievous, unhealthy cult stealthily conquered pagan Rome and rendered it effeminate in the face of German aggression. I wonder what the reception of such a history would be in the United States.

Oh great. Peter Brook's Mahabharata is now available on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EENh1hxkD6E

Just have to find 5 and a half hours to watch it. Previously only the episode on Bhagavad Gita was available. Maybe this time I can watch the whole thing.

The charge that Indians are unduly defensive is not without foundation. They (us, as I was born in India, and left in 1970 at the age of 20), generally look for validation of our culture and other achievements from the westerners, and any intimations of criticism from them makes many of us go to great lengths to defend whatever we perceive as being attacked.

I don't see why it is necessary to pay attention to Mr. Lopez. Who cares if someone does not see the epics what they are - some of the greatest pieces of literature, all the more remarkable for how long ago they were written.

Signaling cough cough.

Here is another translation.

http://www.amazon.com/Mahabharata-Krishna-Dwaipayana-Vyasa-Books-ebook/dp/B004TRTM0Y/ref=sr_1_3?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1396192972&sr=1-3&keywords=kisari (2042 Pages)
http://www.amazon.com/Mahabharata-Krishna-Dwaipayana-Vyasa-Books-13-ebook/dp/B004TRTLRI/ref=sr_1_5?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1396192972&sr=1-5&keywords=kisari (2284 pages)
http://www.amazon.com/Mahabharata-Krishna-Dwaipayana-Vyasa-3Books-10-ebook/dp/B0082X9NXC/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1396192972&sr=1-1&keywords=kisari (1903 Pages)
http://www.amazon.com/Mahabharata-Krishna-Dwaipayana-Vyasa-Books-13-ebook/dp/B004TRTLRI/ref=sr_1_5?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1396192972&sr=1-5&keywords=kisari (1030 Pages)

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