The Mahabharata is an ancient Hindu epic, ten times the length of the Iliad and the Oyssey combined, entirely in Sanskrit verse, comprised of over 100,000 shloka (couplets) and extended prose passages, and detailing the stories of over one hundred characters.
In keeping with UK poet laureate Andrew Motion’s statement some years ago, that everyone studying English Literature ought to be taught the bible in order to glean any understanding of literature and culture, I thought it best to get on and read this, the fundamental text of Hindu culture.
Thus I recently read a translated, annotated and abridged version by Devdutt Patanaik: 'Jaya: An Illustrated Retelling of the Mahabharata', which was on sale at the Jaipur Literature Festival. This fun and concise edition also contains pictures, a must for a spirituality that has more than a million deities and is heavily image-based.
The Mahabharata explains so much of Hindu culture: the roots of sayings and superstitions, the cause of religious festivals, the meaning of dharma and what it is to do one’s duty, the roots of the caste system, with Brahmins at the top, the power of the Kshatriya (warrior) class, the reasons for the sanctity of various animals and the inferiority of others, the significance of numerous popular names, the patterns and arrangements of love and marriage, the role of women and the expectations of gender and the potency of blessings and curses in society.
Naturally, the text has been adapted for the screen numerous times, and what fascinates me is that the ninety-four episode TV series which first aired in 1988 is still watched by friends of mine and has retained nationwide popularity. The venture cost over $1,500,000 dollars over the course of the two year production and even when aired on BBC2 in the afternoons in the nineties, with subtitles, managed viewing figures of five million!
As both a spiritual and historical text, it is highly didactic. When I was asking for some clarification of a story, a friend told me, ‘all of the stories were made up in order to teach us how to behave when we were children’. The described conflicts over illegitimacy, land battles, inheritance and nepotism still resonate today in modern Indian society, and the older generation express that it is imperative that the Mahabharata is still read, taught and understood. Patanaik’s annotations refer to historians, context and multiple analyses and as a true hermeneuticist, he expresses that there are various ways in which to interpret the words and stories that have accumulated over the centuries. It is on this basis of this ambiguity and scope for interpretation and the timelessness of the moral dharma it teaches, that this magnificent Hindu epic has stood the test of time and retained its popularity.