The End of the Mahabharata!

At long last, merely 11 months after starting, I have finished reading the Mahabharata. The final books swept by as each of the characters decided it was the end and they should head into the forest or up to heaven. I can understand why many re-tellings finish at the end of the war, as not a lot else happens after that – some immensely long teachings, a lot of grief, some comfort, some more grief, some more comfort, some more grief, and then a lot of death and a reunion in heaven. There were some narrative treasures in the final books too though: the mongoose that turns up to criticise the sacrifice, the temporary reappearance of all the slain warriors, the truly bizarre end to Krsna and his kinsmen, and of course the final scenes when Yudhisthira refuses to go to heaven without the loyal dog that has followed him on his travels.

Looking back over the past year I can say that, although it was at times hugely tedious, overall I have thoroughly enjoyed my experience of the great epic. It has given me plenty to think about, especially in terms of the aspects it shares with Buddhist narratives. It seems that all my favourite texts date from the same period of South Asian history – what many call the Epic and Puranic period, but which is also the period of composition of the great Pali Jataka collection as well as some of the most interesting Sanskrit Buddhist narrative collections. I am certain that my greater familiarity with the Mahabharata will be hugely beneficial to my research – indeed it already has been. I also hope to develop an undergraduate course on the Mahabharata, though perhaps I will give them John Smith’s abridged version to read rather than Ganguli!

So what next? Well, I was thinking maybe 2014 will be the year of the Ramayana…

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About naomiappleton

I work in the Divinity School at the University of Edinburgh, where I research and teach subjects related to South and Southeast Asian religions.
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11 Responses to The End of the Mahabharata!

  1. Nancy Gandhi says:

    Congratulations! I am still slogging through Karna — I keep taking time off to read mystery novels and such, for relief. Your post encourages me to believe that it really will end at some point. And it is quite wonderful, in spite of everything.

  2. Congratulations on finishing this. I intend to read the whole thing myself eventually, but I have my own reading project to finish first: the King James Bible. Barnes and Noble sells a really nice edition with illustrations by Gustave Dore for about twenty dollars and I’m reading a bit of that every night. The Mahabharata is more compelling reading but I’ve learned a few things from the KJV that they never mentioned in Sunday School.

    It is interesting to me that the Puranas and Epics were written in the same period as Buddhist texts. In the Bhagavat Purana it says that the Buddha is an incarnation of Vishnu who appeared to deceive the atheists and put a stop to animal sacrifices (in the Hare Krishna movement we were told that this is the reason that demigods don’t visit Earth much anymore). HK devotees believe that all these books were written by Veda Vyasa 5,000 years ago and that they are historically accurate.

    Good luck with your classes.

    • Thank you! I hope you enjoy the rest of the KJV.

      Only some of the earliest Puranas are from the same period – usually said to be roughly 5th c BCE to 5th c CE. The Bhagavata is quite a bit later I believe. The inclusion of the Buddha (and actually the/a Jina too) as an avatara of Visnu is interesting. In the earliest sources it is clearly a way of denigrating the heretics, but later he seems to be rather admired. There is so much dialogue and interaction between the traditions that is often ignored when we scholars specialise in one “ism” or another.

  3. Pingback: Hindu Scriptures (Part c) Mahabharata : Some Interesting Questions about Hinduism… | Whatever It's Worth...

  4. Raghu Mani says:

    Just came across your blog. I am quite the Mahabharata junkie – have been since I was a little kid. Something about it just connected with me and I simply cannot get enough of the story. My favorite book when I was a kid was Kamala Subramaniam’s translation – which I re-read so many times that my parents decided to take me to meet the author. I remember very little about that encounter but my parents tell me that I made quite an impression on her.

    I read the Ganguli version many years ago – it is pretty hard going at times but in the end, it was worth it. For the longest time, it was the only full English translation that was widely available. I am aware of the Manmatha Nath Dutta version which nearly contemporaneous with the Ganguli version but that has never been easy to get a hold of. I’ve been thinking of picking up one of the newer versions but I’d like to wait till they are complete to do so. Bibek Debroy is up to volume 8 of his translation and, if he continues at this rate, he should be done by early 2015. Thanks to the efforts of Fitzgerald et al, I am hoping that the Chicago/van Buitenen translation may finally be completed. I’ll probably pick up one of the two – just to be able to read a translation in contemporary English.

    Of the abridged versions, my favorite remains the one by Kamala Subramaniam. Even though the Rajagopalachari and R. K. Narayan versions are the most popular ones among Indians, I never really liked them because they condense the story way too much. Kamala Subramaniam strikes the right balance – her version is highly readable but does not leave out too many essential details of the story. I have read a lot of good things about the Ramesh Menon version and I recently picked it up – but I haven’t yet got around to reading it. I am in two minds about the John Smith version. His writing style is pretty nice but I am not sure I like his method of combining translated passages with summaries of the untranslated ones.

    Not much point to this post. Just thought I’d share my thoughts.

    – RM

    • Thank you so much for your comment! It is lovely to hear from others who have read the full epic and feel drawn to its story. I have not come across Kamala Subramaniam’s version – I will have to track it down following your recommendation. I really hope the Chicago translation will eventually get finished – certainly the Clay Sanskrit Library will remain forever incomplete. I have started reading the Ramayana now – in Goldman’s translation – and it is so very readable, it only makes me more sad that the Mahabharata is still waiting for a full translation of equivalent quality. Happy reading! Naomi

  5. Math Boy says:

    I am surprised you haven’t heard of the Bibek Debroy translation. It’s based on the Bhandarkar Oriental Institutes’s (BORI) Critical Edition.

    Vol. 1 through 8 have been published by Penguin India. The remaining three will be published in 2014 and mid-2015. (Initially, it was supposed to be 10 volumes but it’s been bumped up to 11.)

    I find it much more readable that the Buitenen versions. I just can’t get past the word “baron”. It sticks in my craw. The new translation also gives a much more elegant flavor of the Sanskrit with word usage (and footnotes.)

    • Thanks for the tip! I actually enjoyed Buitenen’s barons and nitwits, but found Ganguli very hard going, so I will seek out Debroy as an alternative. Naomi

      • Math Boy says:

        Buitenen amply illustrates a fundamental fallacy when translating a complex text namely ignoring the fact that humans have a capacity to learn new things.

        If I were to translate a Japanese text, and there’s a concept like 物の哀れ (“mono no aware”) that is basically untranslatable or unwieldy in translation, it would be best to just italicize it and explain what it means in a footnote. The reader will pick it up with repeated contact especially if it occurs innumerous times. This is the learning part.

        Same goes for Sanskrit with concepts like “dharma” and “Kshatriya” (surely both words that are used a very large number of times.) Translation is just dumb. It assumes that the reader can never learn a new thing which has to be, in the parlance of our time, an EPIC FAIL.

        Do seek out Debroy. He does a great balancing act. I’m also impressed that he renders the “set phrase” like “O Bull among Bharata’s”, “O Indra among kings”, etc. as set phrases and never varies them. Gradually, you learn to recognize them as such and your eyes glide over them effortlessly so the epic becomes as swift and supple in translation as it must’ve been in narration.

        This is a really tough act to pull off.

  6. Raghu Mani says:

    Talking about the Bibek Debroy version, the eight volumes that have been published so far are available as Kindle e-books for around $10 each. That’s a lot cheaper than buying hard copies.

    – RM

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