Not Here and Nowhere Else

January 8, 2017 § 3 Comments

plalThe Mahabharata of Vyasa (Lal, Purushottama)

My obsession with world mythology in general, and with the Mahabharata in particular, is no secret. I am proud of having owned a collection of Mahabharata translations way before Devdutt Pattanayak made it fashionable to read mythology. I have blogged about Kamala Subramanian’s version in these pages, and it is time now to talk about P Lal’s.

To begin with, this isn’t the Mahabharata that Purushottama Lal is famous for. That is the legendary sloka-by-sloka poetic translation, a set of 18 volumes or 338 ‘fascicules’ that he started work on in the 1960s and took him twenty years to complete. This isn’t the Mahabharata that, to emphasize the oral nature of the epic tradition, he started reading out aloud from, for an hour every Sunday in a room in Kolkata, in 1999, a tradition that continues to this day.

No, what I own is a “condensation from Sanskrit and transcreation into English”, a slim paperback volume first published in 1989. How does he condense 20 years’ work in 250 pages? Unlike other authors I have read, Lal does not simplify, interpret or elaborate on the 100,000 sloka original: he keeps faithfully to the original verses, but selects verses that can be strung together in a single prose narrative, and omits the innumerable digressions and tangential material that make up the epic.

How does this version compare with any of the others I’ve read?


The Kurukshetra War (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)


Well, Kamala Subramanian, C Rajagopalachari and MT Vasudevan Nair (not to mention Peter Brooks and BR Chopra) were certainly more gripping, as human drama. And paradoxically, by abandoning the need to go verse by verse, they were being more faithful to the ancient oral story-telling tradition of the Mahabharata, than Lal is.

But Lal’s version has a deep impact, too. It is thanks to this version, and to Lal’s unique methodology of selectively faithful transcreation, that I realized that the Kurukshetra war, usually depicted as the denouement, gets over by the tenth book, and that there are eight whole volumes that follow.

If the story were to end with the war, it would tell a classic tale of a hero’s journey, from exile to triumphant homecoming. But now I think, to do so is the equivalent of ending the Ramayana with the kidnapping of Sita, as successful revenge exacted by Ravana for the mutilation of his sister; or of ending the Aeneid with the hero in the arms of the lovely Dido.

The last eight volumes of the Mahabharata are not as dramatic as the first ten, and less than satisfactory to a reader who demands a simplistic moral, that of the triumph of Dharma or righteousness over the forces of evil. But that is not the message of the 100,000 slokas of the Mahabharata. When read as a totality, a new meaning emerges: a richer, darker one, perhaps even a more pessimistic one: that Dharma is inherently complicated, and it isn’t easy in life to know right from wrong; that all things decay, that all heroes lie, make mistakes, grow old, and eventually lose their heroism; that a lifetime of great deeds and universal acclaim cannot forestall a lonely end, in the dull gray snow, with only a strange dog for company.

Of course other readings and interpretations are possible. Were this not the case, the Mahabharata would not be the world literature classic that it is. We who read it read into it: it contains all possible readings, and reflects back at us the ones we want to see.

What is found here
may be found elsewhere as well
but what isn’t in these verses
is nowhere else…

Every generation gets the translation it deserves, Lal says, not the one that best reflects its needs and interests. If a translation does not give us satisfaction, it could be merely that we are not its intended audience. I personally believe our present times could do with a healthy dose of pessimism, and I am aware that this is not the popular view. And it is the popular view that determines what the Mahabharata means, or defines who we are, which are essentially the same question.

“The Mahabharata is the content of our collective unconscious”, said VS Sukhtankar, arguably the biggest Mahabharata scholar of the 20th century, “and just for that reason it refuses to get discarded. We must therefore grasp this great book with both hands and face it squarely. Then we shall recognize that it is our past which has prolonged itself into the present. We are it: I mean the real We.”


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§ 3 Responses to Not Here and Nowhere Else

  • tskraghu says:

    Interesting observations on Dharma. In the foreword to Yaksha Pasna (B Vidya Bhavan), K M Munshi very briefly says how dharma is context sensitive. And at another time, a upanyasakar said that’s why we need a guru to explain/live thru the contradictions in dharma as stated by the sources.

    My exposure to M is only thru orthodox sources and a few scholarly articles on specific perspectives. Dont know if this is a characteristic that marks an epic – M fills up its canvas in time, space and people and gods with so much, it lets one find/idolize one’s own heroes. For me, for many years, it was Bishma until one day I switched.

    Liked the quote in italics about what is said and not said in M.

    Thanks, It was worth waiting for ur post.

  • tskraghu says:

    Reblogged this on Sanmargam and commented:
    An interesting short and readable post on relevance of the epic Mahabharata.

    Take care not to lose what he says while reading the words.

    Here he goes:

  • […] am conscious that my last review was also of a version of the Mahabharata – Purushottama Lal’s. This doesn’t mean I read […]

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