The Mahabharata, the great Sanskrit epic, is a fiery, dangerous book. One is not supposed to keep a copy in the house, lest it burn down. And it is dangerous, perhaps fatal, to read it from beginning to end, in linear sequence. Similarly, translating it from Sanskrit into another language, beginning at the beginning, is not recommended. The classical Telugu version from South India has three authors; two died during its composition.
The book has this reputation not only because it is so long—about 100,000 Sanskrit couplets—but because of the lethal properties inherent in its vision of the world. In the southern state of Karnataka, shadow puppet performances of the text, or segments from it, always begin somewhere in the middle, in the section called Virata, an extended carnivalesque moment that precedes the catastrophic war about to unfold. The beautiful puppets are kept in big wooden boxes, always with the clown figure on top, to protect everyone from the doomed, ferocious characters below it. The Sanskrit philosopher Abhinavagupta, at the beginning of the eleventh century, recommended reading the Mahabharata because its dark picture of humanity can serve as an incentive to the reader to renounce the world.
Yet this two-thousand-year-old book is, in a way, a template for Indian civilization; it remains as vital and relevant today as it ever was, and not only for South Asia. The apocalypse it describes is something all too human, driven by greed, egotism, spite, and the usual phoney fixation on the glories of dying in war. As the Turkish novelist Ahmet Altan says in his memoir, I Will Never See the World Again (2019), a book he smuggled out of prison, “Everything changes on earth, but meanness and stupidity never change.” One could take this as a motto for the Mahabharata, along with other statements from the epic, such as “Whatever exists here may also exist elsewhere; but what is not mentioned here does not exist” or “Time cooks us, and we die”—a more succinct and repeated refrain for the immense and tragic story.
This epic, undoubtedly mostly oral in its original forms, has a putative author: the sage Vyasa, who also happens to be the direct progenitor of nearly all its major characters. Vyasa is thus writing the story of his own family’s self-destruction from the point of view of a lonely, aged survivor. His children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren split into two rival factions of cousins: the Kaurava warriors, classed as the antiheroes, and the five Pandava brothers and their common wife, Draupadi, who are seen as heroes despite their all-too-evident moral flaws. The Pandavas eventually triumph, but none of their descendants survives…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.