The Mahabharata is without question the most moving, enlightening, mystifying, and compelling book I have ever read. I truly believe it is a gift to humanity and should be read by all people who yearn to understand the riddle of Life more deeply, by all seekers of Truth. Yet the Mahabharata is anything but a dry and tedious scripture. It is a heroic epic, the tale of the five Pandava princes and the great dharma yuddha (war) at the crack of the ages between the dvapara and kali yugas. It is a page turner of a book, and touches on every possible human emotion and conflict.
The Mahabharata was written by the immortal sage Vyasa. So many times we wonder “What is life? What is the lesson that life teaches? What is the meaning of the bedazzling and wondrous mystery?” I feel that, being an immortal, Vyasa had seen and known the entire arc of Life’s story, and in the Mahabharata he set forth to encapsulate and illustrate the entire scope, meaning, and purpose of Life for us mortals of limited perspective and experience. It’s all in there. Vyasa’s lens leaves nothing unexplored. He lays out the entire map. I know some people call the Bible the Greatest Story Ever Told. As one who holds deep reverance for the New Testament, I personally believe that honor goes to the Mahabharata.
This is my second reading of the Mahabharata this year. It is an incredibly long story but has not lost my interest for a second. There are only two or three unabridged translations that I know of in the English language, one of which will provide for my third reading of the epic. The two I have read were tasteful retellings as opposed to translations. The first was by William Buck. I loved his retelling of the Ramayana, however I discovered that his version of the Mahabharata was far too truncated, leaving out too many important aspects of the story. Nevertheless I found it compelling and deeply moving; the source material is simply that good that it’s light shines through. The second retelling of the Mahabharata I read was by Ramesh Menon and it came in a two volume set totalling 1564 pages. His version is very thorough and true to the original, and I was floored to discover just how much greater depth, detail, and nuance his version contained compared to Buck’s. I do highly recommend his version. The unabridged translations are a bit tedious for the modern ear, nevertheless I will read Bibrek Debroy’s unabridged translation next.
I took the above picture not so much for my few readers on this blog, but more for my own memories. This period of my Life has been incredibly pivotal and the study of the Mahabharata has much to do with that. During my reading of this text I have bought my dream ranch in Wyoming, worked for several months rennovating my new home while adapting to the new area, and I suffered through not one but two bouts with Covid, and still suffer from frustrating long haul symptoms that just won’t go away. I took the picture to memorialize this time in my life. Reading the Mahabharata is a true landmark in my life, and one of the greatest pleasures I’ve ever enjoyed. As you can see by the open book in the picture, I’m actually still not finished with my second reading, but today I did read the pivotal chapters where the anti-hero Karna is slain, which is perhaps the climax of the story. I’m writing this now rather than when I finish because it’s the journey I want to remember.
I wanted to briefly mention the character Karna. His entire life was tragic and full of suffering and misfortune, and even though he fought in the war on the side of evil for the wicked prince Duryodhana, that didn’t diminish his status as the greatest archer to ever live and one of the noblest humans to ever walk the Earth. I know that sounds strange to hear, but the book is very clear about that, even Lord Krishna himself extols Karna’s skill and virtue over the story’s true hero, Arjuna. You’ll have to read it to understand. Nevertheless, I don’t think I’ve ever been so deeply moved by a single character’s plight in any film or literature I’ve ever absorbed. I have cried for Karna many times. Tears well up in my eyes as I write this. So heart wrenching. At one point during my reading I said to myself, “If I ever had a son, I might name him Karna, or perhaps I’ll name my next dog Karna.” And then shortly after, I read a passage that said something to the effect of: “Karna’s fame will be known around the world throughout the ages, and men in the far distant Kali Yuga will name their sons after him.” That’s how deeply moving and affecting his story is.
God bless Vyasa for gifting this work to humanity, and God bless Ramesh Menon for his faithful and beautiful retelling. One aspect of William Buck’s translation deeply moved me and is found on the very first page of his rendition: “Vyasa the poet tells you, Oh beware, beware of Reality, beware of Justice, enough of waiting and waiting, you are in danger. Once hearing the Bharata, who can bear listening to other stories, which sound like the braying of an ass?” And so it is. I will soon begin my third reading of the Mahabharata, and perhaps I will read it for the rest of my life. I have never been more moved by any other work of art I have ever encountered during my 47 years on Earth. The Mahabharata is Life, and I am deeply grateful for it.