On a delayed train journey at the weekend I finally made it to the end of the “teaching books” of the Mahabharata. I am so relieved. I thought the battle books were largely boring, but I was little prepared for the concentration required to digest what Van Buitenen called “the longest death-bed sermon on record”. This, for those who don’t know, is the teaching given to King Yudhisthira by his grandfather Bhisma, who is lying on a bed of arrows on the battlefield. The trouble is, from my perspective, that the sermon contained very little narrative material, and far too many lists and statements of doctrine. These books are truly encyclopedic, and certainly enable the text to live up to its declaration that all that is here is elsewhere, and all that is not here is nowhere.
During my reading of the teaching books I found that each time a story came along my attention was immediately grabbed and my fading concentration restored. I see a not dissimilar response in the faces of my students whenever I get carried away with the telling of a story to elucidate a point of religious doctrine or practice. Story really does have the power to capture the attention. It is also memorable in a way that dry teachings are not. When I reflect on my Mahabharata experience thus far I find that I can recall much of the main plot (especially the drama in the year of disguise, still my favourite) and many of the embedded stories from the forest book. Even this close to their reading I can recall little of the contents of the teaching books.
Assuming I am not alone in my experience of the power of stories, what should we make of this long non-narrative portion of the great epic? Of course the epic is by nature open and inclusive, and many teachings have been absorbed into its pages. But why do they stay? And does anybody respond, these days, to this dry portion of such a vivid story? Does it even get included in modern retellings and adaptations?
There is an interesting comparison to be made with the Bhagavad Gita, which is also a non-narrative teaching embedded in the story of the Mahabharata. Is it only the fact that the Bhagavad Gita is short and punchy that ensures it remains memorable and potent? Perhaps if Bhisma had stuck to one teaching instead of trying to cover everything, we would be remembering his wisdom as we remember that of Krishna.
Meanwhile I am pleased to move forward and see what happens next in the story of the Mahabharata.