Sunday, 17 November 2013

Book Review: Mahabharata

Publisher: Penguin

Author: R.K. Narayan

Pages: 208

ISBN: 9780141185002 

The Mahabharata is some 3500 years old and is the longest epic poem in existence. As one of the founding epics of Indian culture, it is also a highly dramatic and enthralling story. Growing from an oral tradition of ballads based on historic events in India, the Mahabharata was passed down and extended through the centuries, thus becoming the longest poem ever written. One of the many narratives about the Mahabharata is by R.K. Narayan. His version provides a superb rendition in an abbreviated and elegant retelling of the greatest epic. 


The Mahabharata is Hinduism's great epic story. It may be the oldest written story in the world, and certainly the longest. It tells the tale of kings and queens, gods and demons. It goes off on tangents lasting hundreds of pages, yet always comes back to the one main story, the story of the Kauravas and the Pandavas, the two great warrior clans, and the men and women whose lives are entangled in the fight between good and evil.  

Contemporary readers have a much more accessible entry point to the fascinating world of the epic through R.K. Narayan's masterful translation in English from the original in Sanskrit and abridgment of the poem. This version has a concise character and place guide and a family tree that illustrates that this version is predominantly meant for a new generation of readers. As American Indologist Wendy Doniger in her foreword for the book explains, "Narayan makes this treasury of Indian folklore and mythology readily accessible to the general reader. He tells the stories so well because they're all his stories." Thus, it gives a feeling that R.K. Narayan, like any other child in India, grew up hearing stories from the Mahabharata, internalising their mythology which gives him an innate ability to choose the right passages and place their best as translations. 

In this elegant translation, R.K. Narayan ably distills a tale that is both traditional and constantly changing. He draws from both scholarly analysis and creative interpretation by vividly blending the spiritual and secular. The often violent narrative of the Mahabharata also encompasses philosophy, history and cosmology and also contains The Bhagavad Gita, the masterly spiritual discussion between Krishna and the Pandava prince Arjuna, which forms the cornerstone of Hinduism.

While this version completely skips The Bhagavad Gita, R.K. Narayan's Mahabharata is an easy and pleasant introduction to an immensely diverse and complicated work. The language of his translation is clear and direct and he manages to capture the spirit of the narrative. His brilliant shortened prose interpretation of the monumental, cosmic drama that the Mahabharata is known for, happens to be one of R.K. Narayan's finest achievements in a manner that brings all the excitement and depth of this great Indian epic called the Mahabharata to life. 

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