“Mahabharata”: a modern retelling by Carole Satyamurti

Well – I’ve knocked the bugger off, as they say!

Some 900 odd pages of blank verse. Some two and a half times the length of Paradise Lost. (Or so I’m told: I didn’t count the words.) And it was still an abridgement.

The poet A. K. Ramanujan once remarked that no-one reads the Mahabharata for the first time. He was referring to Indian readers, of course. The stories are so widespread, that everyone knows them, or, at least, some of them. Even I, who have lived in the West from the age of five, have been acquainted with the stories from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata from comic strip children’s versions, which, as I understand, are ubiquitous in India. Indeed, when Indian television, Doordarshan, dramatised the Ramayana and the Mahabharata in the 80s and 90s, it was effectively these comic strip versions they adapted, thus meeting expectations of its target audience, but producing (as far as I could discern, at any rate) merely a festival of kitsch.

Of course, as I grew older, I wanted to look beyond these comic strips. I read the Ramayana in Ashia Sattar’s excellent (though abridged) translation (I do get the impression that the full, unabridged version is for the specialist rather than for a lay reader such as myself), but the situation is considerably more complex when it comes to the Mahabharata.

There are two complete translations currently under way, one published by University of Chicago Press (nearly complete), and another in the Clay Sanskrit Library (published by NY University Press). Penguin Classics publish a complete translation in ten volumes by Bibek Debroy, but that’s not very easy to get hold of outside India: at least, I have never seen it in even the bigger British bookshops, though it can, no doubt, be ordered. More easily available in Penguin Classics is a translation by John Smith, but Smith only translates selected passages, with the bits in-between narrated in parentheses. I found that a bit fragmented, to be honest, and kept losing the thread. There’s an older complete translation from the late 19th century by K. M. Ganguly, but, having looked into it, I found it written in a very correct and somewhat pedantic English, and I didn’t think I’d be able to manage it all.

There are also, of course, several complete translations of the Bhagavad Gita (which is a part of the Mahabharata); and mention should also be made of W. J. Johnson’s thrilling translation, available in Oxford World Classics, of the Sauptikaparvan, the terrifying 10th book of the Mahabharata: it stands up as a great poem in its own right.

I was considering placing an order on the Debroy translation, or maybe starting on the other complete translations currently in progress, but, to be frank, I wasn’t sure I wanted to devote a year or so of my life to reading the whole thing. Did I really want to plough through the various genealogies?  The details of Vedic sacrificial rites? I am, after all, but a lay reader, and the Mahabharata seems too vast an ocean simply to dive into.

And in any case, what do we mean by “completeness”? Both internal and external evidence suggest that it was written across a few centuries – from, perhaps, 400BC to about 400 AD – and, very obviously, by different authors. However, from what I gather, there is, despite the vast diversity, also a unity, which suggests that at some time, a poet, or, perhaps, a committee of poets, collated them all together, and maybe adapted their material to impose some sort of unity. But a text such as this never stays still. As Wendy Doniger says in her introduction to the Satyamurti book, there are literally hundreds of Mahabharatas – translations, recensions, and retellings into different Indian languages – each one a new creation, and each a valid creation, in its own right. Indeed, many of these versions are themselves great literary creations. The very idea of putting together a “standard text” seems an absurdity. But nonetheless, given the importance of the Mahabharata (both in literary and in other terms), some sort of standard text seemed desirable, and, to this end, the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Poona (now Pune) collated and calibrated all existing manuscripts from different parts of the subcontinent, and published a critical edition in 21 volumes between 1919 and 1969, and that edition is, I believe, generally regarded by scholars about as close to a standard text as is possible. I am, of course, in no position to judge: I am, as I say, but a layman.

Carole Satyamurti’s version is not a translation: she describes it as a “retelling”. It is, and should, I think, be taken as, a modern English poem (it was published in 2015). Satyamurti casts her retelling in blank verse based on iambic pentameters, as this is the form that approximates most closely to the natural patterns of English speech. She stays very close to the content and to the structure of what we may (despite quibbles) refer to for convenience as the “original text”. There are abridgements, of course, but despite this, she still produces a poem that is about two and a half times the length of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Not knowing Sanskrit, she has worked from literal translations, especially the version by K. M. Ganguly. And of course, inevitably, she has refracted the entire material through her own poetic sensibilities. I see no problem with any of this: to insist of textual purity in the case of something such as this is an absurdity; and in any case, given the hundreds of Mahabharatas Wendy Doniger talks about, Satyamurti’s “retelling” seems very much a part of what is a time-honoured tradition.

I compared some of her text to parts of the John Smith translation; to the various translations I have of the Bhagavad Gita (which is, of course, a part of the Mahabharata); and to W. J. Johnson’s translation of the Sauptikparvan. While Satyamurti’s wording and versification are, of course, her own, she certainly has a respect for the original text (however we choose to define it), and remains close to it in terms of content. For those not wishing to wade through one of the complete translations, and even for those who do, this version seems admirable – a most welcome addition to the tradition of new evolving Mahabharatas.

The content itself, as one would expect given the history of the book, is almost unbelievably diverse. Heroic legends, mythology, folklore, animal fables; historical chronicle, courtly romance, fantasy and magic, high tragic drama; religious instruction, philosophical disquisitions, homely wisdom, cosmic visions … it’s all there, and placed in a narrative structure of startling sophistication (Vinay Dharwadkar discusses the narrative structure in some detail in a fascinating afterword to Satyamurti’s book). And she doesn’t just focus on the narrative: much of her volume is devoted to the various other aspects too, thus giving a sense of the range and plenitude of the work, rather than merely reducing it to what may be found (at least in outline) in the comic strip retellings. After all, the major event of the poem, the great apocalyptic battle of Kurukshetra, is over after Book 10: there are still eight more books to go, and many of these are taken with Bhisma’s long disquisition to Yudhisthira – firstly on how best to rule a kingdom, then on the nature of dharma (of righteousness),  on how society is to be structured, on what happens to the soul after death, on the will of the gods and the action of men, and so on. One may understand why the comic strip adaptations may skimp a bit here, but Satyamurti gives these passages their full weight. The whole isn’t reduced merely to a sequence of events.

The narrative itself is splendid. And, underlying all the dazzling diversity, there runs insistently the question: “What is the right thing to do?” The concept dharma is often translated as “religion”, but in its Sanskritic context, it means considerably more than that: it refers to righteousness, to the moral code that one lives by. That dharma exists is never questioned: indeed, there exists a god Dharma, who exemplifies the very concept. Dharma is often presented as something humans must follow in order to keep the cosmic forces in balance, in order for existence itself to be possible. What is at issue is what dharma entails, and many characters, throughout this vast epic, are puzzled by this. Even when they are given answers to their dilemma, sometimes by divine authorities, they remain puzzled.

The most famous of these answers comes in the extended passage known as the Bhagavad Gita, still revered by many Hindus as their principal scripture. Here, the hero Arjuna, before the great battle of Kurukshestra, tells his charioteer Krishna (an incarnation of the god Vishnu), of his horror of what he knows will come: in this battle, countless thousands will die; he will have to inflict injury and death upon his own kinsmen, his revered teachers – upon men whom he loves and respects; such a thing can only be a great evil, and he would rather renounce his claim to the kingdom than take part in such an atrocity. Krishna’s answer forms the substance of the Bhagavad Gita, and, while it is resplendent and magnificent – expanding as it does to depict a vision of divinity, and of the cosmos itself – I must confess that I have never personally found it morally or aesthetically satisfying.  And even in the context of the epic, Krishna’s answer does not silence the questioning: the same question recurs, in different forms, and proposed answers never quite satisfy.

Krishna’s answer is effectively this: Arjuna must act according his dharma, which is his duty, and, as a kshatriya, that is, as a member of the warrior caste, his duty is to fight. He must carry out his duty for its own sake, without expectation of earthly reward, without attachment to anything of this earth. He will not be morally responsible for anyone’s death, as the soul itself cannot be killed: it is immortal, has always existed and will always continue to exist. One’s individual soul is not entire in itself, but is part of the Brahman, the Godhead, the universal soul that has always been and always will be, that is in all things, in all beings, past, present, and future, created and uncreated. Arjuna, as an individual human, is contained in all parts of the cosmos, as all the cosmos, including all other humans, is contained in him.

This cosmic vision is indeed magnificent, but what it enjoins us to do, I must admit, I find less than satisfying. For what sort of dharma is it that results in such immense suffering, such mass carnage? Of course, we all hold to some of this: no-one attaches blame to the soldier who, following his duty, kills on the field of battle – much though we may deplore the battle itself. But the idea of a duty that is allotted to us by birth, predestined, that we must carry out, struck me as unsatisfactory when I first read the Bhagavad Gita as a young lad, and strikes me as unsatisfactory still. And, despite the Mahabharata’s significance as a book of religious instruction, this answer doesn’t seem entirely to satisfy the writers of the epic either. That collective authorship is continually questioning, never wholly satisfied by the answers put forward, even from divine mouths. Arjuna, many years later, says, astonishingly, that he has forgotten what Krishna had told him. Yudhisthira, the most righteous of men, poses similar questions to the great seer Bhisma, and receives similar answers, but he, too, is failed to be convinced by them. This is not to say that these religious teachings are debunked: rather, that there can be no one satisfactory answers to such questioning. Various contradictory things appear simultaneously to be true. And these contradictions are acknowledged. The dharma that tells us to do our duty, even if that means killing, is not compatible with the dharma that tells us to have compassion fir all, and to harm no living thing. Far from papering over such contradictions, they are pointed out.

And dharma itself proves to be a slippery concept. Bhisma actually explains to Yudhisthira (in a disquisition on the nature of power that isn’t too far removed from the writings of Machiavelli) that there can be different types of dharma, not merely for different people on account of caste, but also in different situations, and eventually, the wise man must decide for himself what the true dharma is at any given point. Nothing, in short, is fixed, or can be fixed, in this endlessly complex and ever-changing world. But even that isn’t the final answer: there is no final answer – merely a multiplicity of questions that we cannot stop asking ourselves. Arjuna’s voice of distress at the start of the Bhagavad Gita remains potent, and cannot be silenced.

The principal story tells of a dynastic struggle between the sons of two brothers – Dhritarastra, who was born blind, and Pandu. Dhritarastra has one hundred sons by his wife Gandhari (and here, we have to go into the realms of folklore and of magic to explain this miraculous occurrence), and Pandu has five, by his two wives, Kunti and Madri. (Although, to be accurate, Pandu is not the biological father: the poor man is under a curse that decrees that his point of orgasm will also be his point of death. His “sons” are fathered by various gods.) The Kauravas (the sons of Dhitarastra) and the Pandavas (sons of Pandu) become embroiled in a dynastic conflict. From the beginning, the two sets of cousins have not got on well together. The kingdom is split between the two sets, but then, Yudhisthira, the eldest and most virtuous of the Pandavas, is invited by the Kauravas to a game of dice, and here he loses everything to his cousins – his kingdom, and even his brothers, his wife Draupadi (who is the wife of all five Pandava brothers); even his own self. Draupadi, now no more than a slave, is called for, and is humiliated, while her five heroic husbands sit by, unable to protect her.

The penalty for losing the game of dice is reduced to years of exile in the forest, but afterwards, a dynastic struggle emerges between the Pandavas and the Kauravas – a struggle that climaxes in the catastrophic battle of Kurukshestra: the Pandavas emerge victors, but it is a pyrrhic victory, as the slaughter on both sides is overwhelming. Yudhisthira, the eldest of the Pandavas, and the most righteous, is horrified, and is determined to renounce all he has won. His brothers remonstrate with him, but neither they, nor all the wisdom imparted to him by the great seer Bhisma, can convince him otherwise: it is only a horse sacrifice to the gods that somehow reconciles him to his fate, which, we are told, was preordained by the gods anyway.

At the end, the Pandavas, now old and feeble – even the heroic Arjuna can no longer wield his arms – journey into the Himalayas to reach heaven, and all but the righteous Yudhisthira die on the journey: only Yudhisthira may enter heaven in his bodily form, but even there, he refuses to do so unless the dog that has accompanied him is allowed entry also. His compassion for, and attachment to, the dog is seen as virtuous, even though we have repeatedly been enjoined to leave behind all earthly attachment. For here, everything is true – even contradictory things.

This, in essence, is the main story of the Mahabharata, though there are also innumerable sub-stories, interpolated stories (including the entire story of Rama that had been the focus of the earlier epic, the Ramayana), parallel stories, that, taken together, form a vast and magnificent collage of the entire range of Indian folklore and mythology. These stories have taken on their own life, in all sorts of ways. Right at the start, for instance, we are given the story of Sakuntala, whose son Bharata, begins the dynasty that is later to tear itself apart in the Battle of Kurukshestra: the poet Kalidasa later expanded the story of Sakuntala to create the most famous play of Sanskrit literature.

And there are stories told almost in passing, such as the story of Ekalavya, a tribal youth, who asks the great Drona to teach him the arts of warfare. Drona, given Ekalavya’s low birth, refuses. So Ekalavya builds a statue of Drona, and practices in sight of the image. Later, when Drona is out hunting with his royal students, they come across a feat of archery that surpasses anything even the great Arjuna could do. Arjuna is aggrieved, as Drona had promised him that he would be the finest. Drona asks Ekalavya who is teacher had been, and Ekalavya answers it was he, Drona, in the shadow of whose image he had studied and had practised his art. So Drona, as teacher, asks for a fee: he asks of Ekalavya the thumb of his right hand, without which all his skills would become useless. Ekalavya, without hesitation, slices off his thumb. This story is told only in passing, but such is its resonance that the figure of Ekalavya has been adopted as a symbol for the struggle for Dalit rights.

And there is the story of Karna, one of the great tragic figures of all literature. He is a half-brother of the Pandavas – though neither he nor the Pandavas know it: he was born to Kunti, an illegitimate son, before her marriage, and his father was Surya, the sun god (as in Greek mythology, Hindu gods often impregnate mortal women). And as a baby, to hide the mother’s shame, he had been, like the infant Moses, placed in a cradle, and allowed to drift down the river. He had been found and brought up by Adhiratha, and had grown up not knowing his origin. And as he grows up, he develops skills in warfare every bit as great as Arjuna’s, but his assumed low birth is held against him. In the tournament to decide a suitable husband for Draupadi, he is the only one who could match the extraordinary feats of Arjuna, but even before he can begin, Draupadi herself calls out that she will not marry anyone of such low birth, and he has to withdraw, humiliated. (Draupadi, lucky lady, ends up marrying all five Pandava brothers.) But Karna is offered friendship by Duryadhana, the eldest of the Kauravas, and Karna becomes his loyal friend.

Later, as battle looms, Krishna, in an attempt to persuade Karna not to fight, tells him his true parentage: if he fights for Duryadhana, he would be fighting against his own brothers. Even Kunti, his mother, comes to him, makes herself known, and tries to persuade him not to fight. (This meeting is the theme of a very famous poem by Rabindranath Tagore.)  At last, Karna knows what he had desired to know all his life: he now knows who he is. But as soon as he knows it, he knows he must reject it. Duryadhana had offered him friendship, and nothing, not even the fact of his own origin, could weigh against that.

Throughout, the question is asked – sometimes explicitly, but always implicitly – how much of what happens is of these characters’ agency, and how much is pre-ordained by the gods. Krishna tells us it is all pre-ordained, and, being himself an incarnation of the god Vishnu, I suppose he should know: Bhisma says the same thing. But then we run upon the usual objections: if all is pre-ordained, humans can have no agency – so why the insistence upon dharma?  Of course, it is an old dilemma, and after millennia of musing upon it, no culture, eastern or western, has come across a solution to it: it is one of those questions we must learn to live with unanswered, as reasonable answers appear to contradict each other, but the Mahabharata does not shy away from this contradiction either. The actions of the individual characters do certainly shape the events, but at times, the characters themselves seem to be in the grip of something larger than themselves, something over which they have no control. This is particularly apparent in the fateful dice game, where Yudhisthira, playing against the expert gambler Shakuni, keeps on staking more and more, even though he knows he will lose. This is, of course, on one level, a psychologically accurate depiction of addiction, but in the context of the wider narrative, we must question whether his will had become subordinate to something greater – to what the gods have willed for him. And later, before the war begins, Duryodhana, the eldest of the Kauravas, repeatedly rejects all overtures of peace, insisting that he can win, despite being told at each turn by his advisers that he cannot, and that, furthermore, he is in the wrong. Furthermore, all the omens are portents are against him. But he is adamant: he will fight, no matter what. Once again, we cannot help but feel that he is not in command of himself here, that he is being ruled by something greater than himself – perhaps, once again, the will of the gods. At the end, we see him, arguably the villain of the whole piece, in heaven: for, after all, he has carried out his dharma – he has done what his dharma had demanded of him. As with so much else in this epic, this raises far more questions than it answers.

As we approach the battle, there is a growing sense of terror, and of the inevitable: this is an approaching horror that cannot be stopped. The great Battle of Kurukshestra itself takes up some five or so of the Mahabharata’s eighteen books. The whole is narrated in three voices – not three distinct voices, as they merge into each other, but three very recognisably different voices. The first of these belongs to the realms of heroic narration; it tells of great heroes and of their superhuman feats of courage and skill, providing so exciting a spectacle that even gods gasp in wonder and in astonishment; the second speaks of the sorrow of it all, of the horror, as men in their countless thousands are horribly slain, mangled, and mutilated; and the third voice speaks of the apocalypse: what we are witnessing, this unspeakable carnage, is the promised end, or an image of that horror.

As the battle progresses, all rules of warfare, all considerations of chivalry, fall by the wayside, and it soon becomes unmitigated butchery on all sides. Karna is killed by his nemesis Arjuna, but Arjuna breaks all rules of warfare in doing so: he attacks Karna when Karna’s chariot is stuck in the mud, and beheads him:

                    It fell to earth

as the red disc of the sun

drops at sunset. It was afternoon. 

                  When Karna fell

the rivers ceased to flow, the sun turned pale,

the planet Mercury seemed to change its course

Karna is not, of course, the only victim, although he is perhaps, with Arjuna, the most heroic. Gandhari, the wife of Dhritarashtra, had voluntarily put on a blindfold when she had married, swearing never to take it off, so she would never see more than her blind husband; but in the aftermath of the carnage, she is granted a special vision to see the devastated battlefield for herself, where all her hundred sons have perished. It’s not just the heroes who have died: there are men, just ordinary men, for whom, we are explicitly told, no poems will ever be written, but who have died horribly. We are given the image of a woman who has found her husband’s headless trunk, and is now searching for the head she had once loved – that she still loves. A mother sees her daughter-in-law weeping over her husband’s severed arm:

His wife is bathing it with her hot tears,

mourning the hand that lately would have loosened

her clothing, stroked her breasts, caressed her face.

Even the queen who had donned a blindfold, and had sworn never to see again, cannot turn away from visions such as this. There is no victory here, for anyone. And afterwards, Kunti tells her Pandava sons to say special prayers for their great enemy Karna, for he had been their brother.

Much later in the poem, Dhritarashtra and Gandhari, and Kunti, mother of the tragic Pandavas, are granted a mystic vision, where, for one night, all the dead arise from the waters, and are reconciled with each other, and with the living too – a radiant vision in which all losses are restored, and sorrows end. It is up to the reader whether to take this as but a vision of something wished-for but impossible, a fulfilment of a much-desired fantasy; or whether it is some sort of foreshadowing of what will, some day, happen. But even if it does happen in some realm beyond human imagining, all we are left with in our mortal lives is loss, and devastation. An epic of the range of the Mahabharata has a bewildering variety of tones and registers, but, on the basis of this version at least, it is hard to see the overriding tone as anything other than tragic. Even by the end, where Yudhisthira and the dog enter the Kingdom of Heaven, it is the tragic mode that predominates.

All these various registers are accommodated with seeming effortlessness in Satyamurti’s blank verse. The underlying metre is the iambic pentameter, but Satyamurti is by no means rigid in this: most lines have nine, ten, or eleven syllables, and five stresses, but Satyamurti allows such things to vary as and when she needs to. She achieves narrative drive when required, but also repose, contemplation. The verse is supple enough to depict magic and wonder, sorrow and tragic intensity; and it can accommodate as well the various philosophical and moral disquisitions. It is, indeed, a quite extraordinary achievement. Even if we think of it purely as a modern English poem, it is a remarkable work in its own right. Satyamurti passed away in 2019, a few years after the publication of this poem in 2015, and it is a worthy, and quite majestic, memorial.

By the end, one is left with a sense of the sheer wonder of it all. Yes, there are many aspects of the poem that will be alien to many readers, especially of the West: caste, for instance, which plays a major part; or the concept of reincarnation, and of karma. But then, there are aspects of The Iliad, or of The Aeneid, or even of Christian poems like the Commedia, that are similarly alien to our modern Western sensibilities, but which can nonetheless touch us to the very heart.

I am now wondering whether I should attempt one of the complete translations. I think I should. But whether I do or not, I am so glad I tackled this. For those wondering what the best way is into the vast and seemingly intractable literary masterpiece that is the Mahabharata, Satyuamurti’s extraordinary blank verse English poem can be recommended without reservation. It is masterly, and it does, indeed, touch the very heart.

5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by alan on September 10, 2020 at 7:07 pm

    “But the idea of a duty that is allotted to us by birth, predestined, that we must carry out, struck me as unsatisfactory when I first read the Bhagavad Gita as a young lad, and strikes me as unsatisfactory still. “.
    But evidently it has been sufficient for many. I suspect that giving up this way of thinking hasn’t provided any more satisfactory solutions.

    Reply

  2. That is a feat in itself to attempt to write about your response to this reading so clearly. I have this edition as well but, not being acquainted with the story, I am beginning with a very abridged retelling (RK Narayan). Thanks for this excellent post!

    Reply

  3. Wow, what a piece of amateur literary criticism. Highly enjoyable and instructive.

    I’ll note that that Clay Sanskrit set is as “complete” as its ever going to get, since funding for that project ran out.

    Reply

  4. Thank you so much for this wonderful piece, I second Joe with my admiration.

    Reply

  5. Posted by Madhavan on September 30, 2020 at 11:24 am

    Would recommend the critical edition of bibek debroy translation, many indologists had slightings on them like Wendy doniger, David shulman but as Alf hiltebeitel said you can’t belittle many scholars effort of Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute.

    Reply

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