#110: PEERING INTO KRISHNA’S MOUTH. “What is found here is also found elsewhere, but what is not here is not found elsewhere.” Because of its extraordinary length—the longest known epic poem in world literature, breaking the tape in its current full translation at just under 6,000 pages—the Mahabharata has always been problematic for English readers. The central kernel of plot—the rivalry of the Kourava clan for the Pandavas, leading to the huge, life-engulfing Kurukshetra war—became, during the long period of its composition (roughly, 300 BCE to 300 CE), the backdrop for a vast variety of subplots, side tales, who-was-there recitations, genealogical listings (much like the Old Testament’s tangle of begats), practical advice on governing and, most centrally, innumerable disquisitions on the rights and wrongs of things. Unlike its companion work, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata is not just an epic but a dharma text, a work of moral instruction, and one in which, more often than not, the best choice available to its characters in any situation is the lesser of two distinct evils. And its scale is part of its message. In the Iliad, the scenes of violence tend to be man to man, warrior to warrior, but the battles in the Mahabharata are enormous, cataclysmic; the imagination-stretching numbers of the battlefield dead are part of its message of the pyrrhic nature of military victory.
The text reached a size where pieces of it began to peel off and be read separately: the Bhagavad Gita, of course, to be read eventually by many Western readers who have little idea of its connection to the original epic, or the moving story of Nala and Damayanti, a redemptive version of the disastrous wagering that causes the Pandavas to be cheated of their kingdom, or the story of Sakuntala, which became the substance of a play by Kalidasa, one of the great pieces of the Indian repertory. The Mahabharata, touch it where you will, is the literary analogy of those Indian temples so elaborately, bewilderingly covered with sculptures that the mind boggles—and which in turn analogize the vastness of India itself. There have been decently readable earlier one-volume abridgments of the work, by William Buck, C. V. Narasimhan and Chakravarti Rajagopalahari among many others, but they were workmanlike rather than inspired, and all of them erred in the direction of whittling the tale down to its central plot, with none of the curlicues and digressions surviving. But W. W. Norton has now (2015) published The Mahabharata: A Modern Retelling, by Carole Satyamurti, 850 pages of blank verse, and a genuine astonishment and success. Working from older translations, Satyamurti has found an idiom for her tale; her verse carries us through not only the shock and tumult of the battle scenes but through the laments, the expositions, the side tales, the locales that range from the lush scenes of the Indian forests to the splendors of the Pandava court, even the two long books of political instruction, and including one of the most powerful and beautiful renderings of the Bhagavad Gita yet in English. So common is the Mahabharata in India—in its many translations and retellings, its stage and tv versions, its comic book and children’s book forms—that Ramanujan once wrote that no Indian ever hears the Mahabharata for the first time; but if you are an American reader new to the story, this is, simply, the best place to start. This is a version which allows us to possess the story emotionally, as we can possess Homer and Virgil and Dante only in versions which carry the mark of the artist in their translation; I find myself pairing it in my mind with Robert Fitzgerald’s translation of the Iliad. Part of the issue with tackling the vast original is the glacial pace of the narration; the Mahabharata can take a very, very long time to say relatively little. “Tell me all in great detail,” one of the interlocutors says, and it does, it does. Satyamurti has taken this huge agglomerated text and sculpted from it a version that moves with admirable pace and yet preserves much of the original’s staggering welter of invention; she has taken a catchall text and made of it a work of art in proportion as well as content. Here is the Mahabharata made accessible to a Western readership in a way it has not been before. “I am the brilliance in the brilliant,” Krishna says in the Gita; “Have no more fear. Now I am the friend you know.”
The older complete versions of the Mahabharata are arthritic and unrewarding, and two other recent attempts at full-length translation have stalled out. But from 2010 to 2014, the Indian economist Bibek Debroy published, in ten volumes with Penguin India, a complete prose translation of the work, and in 2016 a translation of the Harivamsha, a later appendix on the youth of Krishna. The prose is, I think, better than merely serviceable, the archaisms (perhaps unavoidable in a strict translation, as opposed to a retelling) unobjectionable, and the rendering of Sanskrit terms, the notes and the entire presentation are obviously meant to put the work in reach of the common reader. The common reader, of course, will probably not get within miles of a six-thousand page text of an ancient Indian poem; but there will always be some soul on a crazy-for-India kick who will want the entirety, and here that mad, fecund, frustrating entirety is. Once—the legend goes—the baby Krishna’s mother Yashoda was told by his friends that he had eaten dirt; when Yashoda opened Krishna’s mouth, she saw the universe of universes—the net of Indra—inside it. So it is with reading the Mahabharata; that “what is not here is not found elsewhere,” comes to seem no less than the truth.
P.S.: Traditionally, though the author of the Mahabharata is said to be Vyasa, the scribe who first wrote it down (making him the patron saint of writing) is the beloved elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesh (or Ganesha), another figure who in various forms dots the Indian landscape, sitting in philosophic repose, sometimes riding his mouse-steed, or dancing with most inelephantine grace. Two excellent books of introduction to this endearing figure are Ganesha: The Auspicious, The Begninning, by Shakunthala Jagannathan and Nanditha Krishna (Bombay, Vakils, Feffer and Simons, 1992) and The Book of Ganesha, by Royina Growal (New Delhi, Penguin India, 2001). For a translation of Kalidasa’s play, see Barbara Stoler Miller’s version in Theater of Memory: The Plays of Kalidasa (Columbia, 1994). The Sauptikaparvan of the Mahabharata: The Massacre at Night, translated by W.J. Johnson (Oxford, 1998), is a version of an episode from the tenth book, with a good intro and a useful summary of the entire work, but in a rather wooden translation.