The Molten Notebook

Mostly Asian classics, most of the time

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Ten Things to Know about the Mahabharata: #3

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Singapore. Statue of Krishna as Vishnu in his divine form.

#3. The problem of violence and responsibility. To regain their kingdom, the Pandava brothers go to war.

At the close of the 18-day battle, the dead include their sons, cousins, guru, and a brother they never knew they had. Some didn’t even die a clean death. They were distracted by imitations of their son’s voices, shot while trying to free a chariot from the mud.

How does a reader come to terms with the carnage of the Kurukshetra War? Even the heroes have their doubts.

Overwhelmed by the prospect of killing his relatives, Arjuna lost the will to fight. He dropped his bow and turned to his chariot driver. “How can we be happy after killing our kinsmen, O Krishna?” In fighting for his country, he would lose the very people for whom he wanted to win it.

Little does he know that his chariot driver is an incarnation of the god Vishnu. The divine Krishna responds with a meditation on faith, right action, and the eternal soul.

Do your duty to the best of your ability, O Arjuna, with your mind attached to the Lord, abandoning worry and attachment to the results, and remaining calm in both success and failure.

His speech is known as the Bhagavad Gita, or Song of God, and is readily available as a book as in its own right. The 700-verse treatise, possibly a later addition to the Mahabharata, is a seminal work of Hindu philosophy. Along with the Vishnu Sahasranamam, a prayer spoken by a dying warrior, it forms the religious core of the epic.

The Mahabharata helps the reader see the cosmic forces at work on the battlefield. Dying there is the result of a series of actions in a man’s life, or a previous one. Some enemies were actually demons in human form that the gods wanted killed. Warriors are merely instruments of fate.

On a cosmic level, it all makes sense. Yet as the wives of the dead search the battlefield, the suffering doesn’t seem any less real.


Written by asianclassicsproject

September 7, 2009 at 8:30 pm

Ten Things to Know about the Mahabharata: #4

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Javanese shadow puppet of Karna, a character in the Mahabharata

4. Caste counts. Caste has a long, complex, and politically fraught history in India. This post merely outlines a few basics that are relevant to a reading of the Mahabharata.

Humans in the epic are born into a caste that determines their status and lifestyle. Caste resembles but is not quite the same as a social or feudal class. It determines the the jobs a character may hold, whom they may marry, and their duty toward members of other castes, among other things.

The castes you’ll encounter in the epic are mainly the kshatriya, who tend to be warrior and rulers, and the priestly brahmins.

A man of the kshatriya caste studies the art of weapons and statescraft; he’s likely to become a warrior or a ruler. His duties often include ruling justly, defending his kingdom, treating holy men with respect, and keeping his word. Many of the main characters, including the Pandava brothers and their cousins, belong to this caste.

A man of the priestly brahmin class studies the Vedas, or Sanskrit scriptures, from childhood, and officiates at religious rites. They lead ascetic lives of near-poverty and often live on donations of food. A notable brahmin in the epic is Vyasa, the sage who transcribes the Mahabharata as the god Ganesh tells it and appears as a character in the story.

Assumptions about caste are so strong that the warrior princes can disguise themselves by behaving like members of other castes. When they need to hide from spies, the warrior brothers dress as brahmins and beg for alms. This ploy succeeds until they hear of a demon who has been forcing villagers to sacrifice one of their youths for his supper. One brother, Bhima, is so outraged that he kills the demon, an act that unfortunately “outs” him as warrior. The brothers later conceal themselves by taking unusual jobs for warriors in a palace: a cook, an animal keeper, a lady-in-waiting, and so on. When the local prince goes to battle, though, the “lady-in-waiting” can’t help but take the field.

One can hardly identify a single attitude toward caste in the enormous, episodic work. It does, however, raise recurring questions.  What happens when a man’s skills and aspirations appear to conflict with his birth? Drona, the heroes’ weapons instructor, also happens to be a brahmin; Vishwamitra, a kshatriya king, becomes a respected sage. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by asianclassicsproject

September 7, 2009 at 5:06 pm

Ten Things to Know about the Mahabharata: #5

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gita-comic15. It’s destiny. The world of the Mahabharata is governed by karma, the notion that every action has a consequence. Characters reap the rewards or punishments for their deeds in this life or the next.

Many actions in the epic are explained both in terms of present-day context and cosmic destiny. Bhishma, for example, takes a vow of chastity so he’ll never have a child who lays claim to the throne. On the cosmic level, he was once a divinity who plotted the theft of some sacred cows and was cursed to live a celibate life on earth. Similarly, the warriors who die on the battlefield had sealed their fates by misdeeds in this or previous lives.

Readers who expect the heroes to make difficult choices may find the epic a frustrating read. There’s no escaping a fate you created yourself through past actions. The foreseen events click into place as though the epic were a Greek tragedy.

Free will in the epic is not in making choices, but in understanding the forces of karmic destiny while continuing to do one’s duty. The eldest brother, Yudhistira, foresees the war that will destroy his friends and family. He knows the blind king is plotting against him, and yet he calmly continues performing his (sometimes conflicting) duties as a loyal son, citizen, and devotee. He is a Christ-figure inasmuch as he realizes that his actions are fulfilling the greater purpose of a supreme being.

Through various religious practices, such as meditating on or serving God, a Hindu may escape the karmic cycle of action and consequence, birth and rebirth, and attain moksha or liberation. The Buddhist nirvana is a related concept.

Will our heroes achieve it? On to #4…

Mahabharata, Ten Things to Know: 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

Written by asianclassicsproject

March 14, 2009 at 11:17 am

Ten Things to Know about The Mahabharata: #6

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The Hindu god Ganesh was the first to write down The Mahabharata, according to the epic.

6. It’s a narrative.  The first to tell the Mahabharata was the sage Vyāsa; the first to listen, the elephant-headed Ganesh.

Vyāsa — who appears in the epic as the princes’ grandfather — promised to continue the story as long as the god could keep writing.

So when Ganesh’s pen gave out, he broke off his tusk, dipped it in ink, and kept writing. This is why the god is often depicted with a broken tusk (left).

The epic goes on to describe human kings who told and retold the epic until it reached full size.

That’s the legend, anyway. (“Vyāsa” is also a general term for “composer” or “compiler.”)

Throughout the Mahabharata, characters tell each other stories, largely to explain why things are the way they are. Why should the blind king plot the downfall of his nephews? His minister convinces him with a fable about a cunning jackal.

Other questions are thornier. Why does the princess Draupadi end up marrying all five princes? Why do the princes, with God on their side, slay the very men they should revere, including their cousins, guru, and brother?

The answer, as we shall see in #5, often lies in a past life — or beyond human understanding.

Mahabharata, Ten Things to Know: 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

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March 5, 2009 at 10:05 pm

Ten Things to Know about the Mahabharata: #7

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A scene from the Razmnama, the Persian version of the Mahabharata. The 16th century king Akbar had the epic translated to foster good will between faiths.

7. It’s a national epic. The “bharata” in Mahabharata refers to the first man to conquer and rule a united India, the mythical King Bharata. His story is one of the many prequels to the princes’ adventures in the epic.

Modern Indians sometimes refer to their country as Bharat or Bharata, as in the second line of the national anthem: “Bhārata bhāgya Vidhātā” (“Dispenser of India’s destiny”).

However, the Mahabharata doesn’t seem as popular abroad as another Indian epic, the Ramayana.

The Ramayana, the story of an exiled prince who rescues his kidnapped wife from a demon, spread over the centuries to Thailand, Cambodia, Burma and beyond. (Read the ACP post on the Ramayana here.)

Perhaps the questions the Mahabharata raises about caste are fairly specific to India. The epic is full of clashes between warriors and the priesthood, those who shake heaven and the ones who rule the earth.  Princes disguise themselves as priests; priests emerge as weapons coaches with a thirst for revenge. Karna, a powerful warrior, is continually snubbed throughout the epic for being a charioteer’s son — although his heritage is not what it seems.

Then again, the concept of caste — a hereditary system of social class — shouldn’t be any harder for the interested outsider to grasp than, say, bushido, the way of the samurai. Maybe it’s the greater length and the unwieldiness of the plot that make the Mahabharata less portable.

I’d be interested to hear what others think of this question. I’ll have to look into it myself.

In the meantime, on to #6!

Mahabharata, Ten Things to Know: 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

Written by asianclassicsproject

March 4, 2009 at 11:26 pm

Ten Things to Know about the Mahabharata: #8

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Kurukshetra War scene, ca. 18th century

8. It’s ancient. But like many things ancient and Indian, the Mahabharata has no date on which scholars agree.

Reteller R.K.Narayan suggests the story began developing arond 1500 B.C.E., while historian A.L. Basham places the epic Kurukshetra War in the early 9th century BCE. Still others put it later.

The epic continued to grow until approximately the 4th century CE, according to translator J.A.B. Buitenen. Scholars argue for different dates for different “layers” of the massive story.

Mythologically speaking, the death of Krishna at the end of the Mahabharata brings the age of heroes to a close. And so begins Kali Yuga, the age of discord or vice, in which we live now.

Happily, the Mahabharata not only survives in our dark age,  it continues to grow — as does this list. On to #7.

Mahabharata, Ten Things to Know: 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

Written by asianclassicsproject

February 28, 2009 at 9:59 pm

Ten Things to Know about the Mahabharata: #9

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Princess Draupadi has more on her mind than the size of the story she's in. (Painting by Ravi Varma)

9. It’s huge. The “maha” in Mahabharata is Sanskrit for great, in both senses of the word.

Ten times the size of the Iliad and the Odyssey combined, one unabridged translation runs to 12 volumes.

If you’re not a completist, R.K. Narayan, William Buck and several others have retold the main plot and some of the more famous sub-stories. (To me, the Narayan retelling is like following “The Sopranos” by reading TV Guide, but that’s another post.)

I’d encourage readers to try at least one volume of an unabridged translation, if only to see how some versions “correct” the erotic, classist, and  otherwise questionable elements of an ancient, sacred text.

The only full English translation, finished in 1896 by Kisari Mohan Ganguli, is available for free online. Written in dated but perfectly readable prose, it conveys the sheer meandering sprawl of the original. Unfortunately, it lacks notes for the reader who doesn’t know Duryodhana from Dhritarashtra or forgets that a blow to the head in Book XXII is karmic payback for an act on page three. In short, it’s best undertaken by the serious reader who knows where the story is going.

More recently, the Clay Sanskrit Library has been publishing scholarly translations that include critical notes and the Sanskrit text on facing pages. It’s a worthy project, and about time, too, seeing as the epic is a good deal older than the English language. How much older? On to #8

Mahabharata, Ten Things to Know: 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

Written by asianclassicsproject

February 28, 2009 at 2:16 am