This month I’m recommending a challenging but very rewarding Fantasy Read – the Indian epic known as The Mahabharata. It has everything that a Fantasy-lover could want – conflict and adventure, heroes with superweapons, dauntless heroines, demons, monsters and interfering deities. The original Sanskrit poems were composed and collected between around 400 BCE and 400 CE. The stories they contain are probably much earlier and have been celebrated in Indian literature, drama, dance and art from ancient times right up to the present day. The specific English language version that I’m recommending is Mahabharata: A Modern Retelling by British poet Carole Satyamurti, which was published in 2015. Yes, it is long (843 pages) and in blank verse but don’t panic. Please give me a chance to persuade you. I’ll start with the remarkable storyline, which will quickly make you forget that you are reading a poem.
The Mahabharata centres on a long struggle between two branches of a family of the kshatriya (warrior) caste for the throne of the kingdom of Kuru. The epic begins with a framing story in which the wise brahmin, Vyasa, tries to dissuade a king from killing all snakes in revenge for his father’s death by telling him about the tragic fates of his ancestors. The royal family who ruled in Hastinapura (the City of the Elephants) had many problems with the succession. The noble Prince Bhishma renounced his right to the throne in favour of his half-brothers but they died childless. Vyasa was asked to sire heirs on the half-brothers’ widows but one son, Dhritarashtra, was born blind and the other, Pandu was pale and weak. The latter became king but, due to an unfortunate encounter with a brahmin, he was cursed to die if he ever had sex with either of his two wives. His chief queen, Kunti, was granted the boon of conceiving sons by different Hindu deities and she shared this boon with her sister-wife, Madri. Kunti gave birth to three sons, Yudhishthira, Bhima and Arjuna and Madri to two sons, Nakula and Sahadeva. These five were known as the Pandava brothers, destined to be among India’s greatest heroes. Unknown to them, they had an older brother. Before she was married, Kunti had secretly born a child to the sun god. She abandoned the baby, Karna, but he was adopted by a chariot-driver and his wife. All clear so far?
When a moment of passion led to the deaths of Pandu and Madri, blind Dhritarashtra became king. His devoted wife, Gandhari gave birth to a lump of flesh which Vyasa divided into a hundred pieces. Nurtured in pots of ghee, the pieces grew into one hundred strong sons, known as the Kauravas, and a single daughter. The birth of the eldest son, Duryodhana, was marked by terrible omens but his parents refused to kill the child. The Kauravas and the Pandava brothers were brought up together and taught all the arts of war. There was much rivalry and Bhima, the biggest and strongest of the Pandava brothers, bullied his cousins. Duryodhana came to hate the Pandava brothers but he befriended Karna, who was the only warrior and archer who could equal Arjuna. Both Karna and Arjuna wanted to compete in an archery competition to win the hand of Princess Draupadi, the most beautiful woman of her era, but the princess would not allow the son of a mere chariot driver to be one of her suitors. Arjuna won the competition. At his mother’s request, Draupadi became the chief wife of all five of the Pandava brothers.
To put an end to plots and quarrels, a separate kingdom was created for the Pandava brothers. Yudhishthira ruled this so successfully that Duryodhana was more jealous than ever. The Kaurava prince worked out a plan with his uncle, Shakuni. Yudhishthira was invited to Hastinapura to play dice with cunning Shakuni and with each game the stakes were raised. As Shakuni kept winning, Yudhishthira rashly gambled away his most precious possessions, his kingdom, his brothers and even his beloved wife. King Dhritarashtra intervened to help Queen Draupadi but in the end the Pandava brothers and Draupadi were forced into a thirteen-year exile with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
After many adventures, the years of exile come to an end. Yudhishthira tries to reclaim his kingdom but Duryodhana will not allow this to happen. In spite of many attempts at peace-making, war between the Pandava brothers and the Kauravas becomes inevitable. Many of the Pandavas’ friends and relatives are obliged by their codes of honour to fight against them. Defeat seems inevitable but the Pandava brothers have one extraordinary ally – their cousin Khrishna, who is the earthly incarnation of the supreme god, Vishnu. The opposing armies assemble and the great and terrible Kurukshetra War begins…
I’ve just mentioned a large number of exotic names and these are only the most important of the hundreds of characters who feature in this epic but if you coped with the huge cast list of Game of Thrones I’m sure you can tackle The Mahabharata. Satyamurti’s retelling includes an annotated list of characters and two family trees, though the latter don’t help very much because the leading players all have several identities. In this epic, characters are conceived and born in many bizarre ways – including one person who is born in halves and stuck together and another who is a woman inhabiting a man’s body for purposes of vengeance. People are legally the sons of their mother’s husband but often have a different genetic father. Some are endowed with super-powers because they have one divine parent and many are deemed to be reincarnations of Hindu deities, though they don’t always know this. To help me sort all this out, I equipped myself with The Illustrated Mahabharata: The Definitive Guide to India’s Greatest Epic. This is a splendidly colourful book, though almost too heavy to lift.
In the event, I rarely had difficulty remembering who was what, because the leading players aren’t just mythical archetypes but fully rounded characters with believable emotions and motives. It surprised and impressed me that people on both sides of the great quarrel are treated with equal empathy. The Pandava brothers are unjustly treated heroes but they are have their faults. Violent Bhima can be a bully and mighty Arjuna is too arrogant. Yudhishthira tries to embody dharma (righteousness) but is indecisive and makes some poor decisions. Their cousin Duryodhana is shown as someone who has never recovered from early humiliations and we feel the almost physical pain of his jealousy. Blind Drisharashtra is a weak ruler but a loving husband and father. Wicked uncle Shakuni is the nearest thing to an outright villain but even he is given an horrific backstory to account for his desire for vengeance on the whole royal family. Perhaps because I’m adopted myself, the character I sympathised with most was Karna who defies the caste system to become a great warrior. When Khrishna tempts him to change sides and take his rightful place as the eldest Pandava brother, Karna chooses to stay loyal to his humble adoptive parents and to his best friend, Duryodhana. The leading female characters are memorable too, particularly Queen Ghandari who permanently blindfolds herself to share her husband’s state of blindness and courageous Draupadi who is constantly let down by her five husbands but always retains a fierce dignity.
At various points in the epic the Pandava brothers are sent wandering in wild places, which allows them to have all kinds of entertaining adventures, battling monsters, getting involved in divine conflicts, and seducing princesses and demonesses. As well as these folktale-like episodes, the brothers are often told stories which illustrate moral points or explain the way in which the universe works. One of the things I most admire about The Mahabharata is the belief it demonstrates in the power of stories to help people cope with the difficulties of life. I’m also in awe of the storytelling skills of the original author (traditionally Vyasa himself) or authors of this epic . The great war is particularly well handled. For much of it we get a ringside seat as a courtier describes the battles in detail to the blind king and his wife. Their distressed reactions constantly emphasize the tragic price of this terrible conflict.
As part of a divine plan, Khrishna has become a mortal to ensure that the Pandava brothers win the war against their cousins. He is not allowed to intervene directly, so he does this mainly by offering advice, sometimes urging the Pandavas to break the normal rules of warfare. In the most famous section of the epic, often known as The Bhagavad Gita, Khrishna explains to a reluctant Arjuna why he should fight to win, even though it means slaughtering friends and relatives. This is a text revered by millions of Hindus and it contains many profound and beautiful passages. From my Western perspective, I found Krishna’s `ends justify the means’ argument disturbing but it is one of the great strengths of The Mahabharata that the characters engage in genuine ethical debates. Krishna’s view may represent divine wisdom but there are dissenting voices among the humans, particularly the women. Even Krishna can’t escape the consequences of a bereaved queen’s curse. This is a jewel among epics, magnificently retold by Carole Satyamurti, and I implore you to try it.