The Mahabharata: A Shortened Modern Prose Version of the Indian Epicby R. K. Narayan
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The Mahabharata tells a story of such violence and tragedy that many people in India refuse to keep the full text in their homes, fearing that if they do, they will invite a disastrous fate upon their house. Covering everything from creation to destruction, this ancient poem remains an indelible part of Hindu culture and a landmark in ancient literature.
Centuries of listeners and readers have been drawn to The Mahabharata, which began as disparate oral ballads and grew into a sprawling epic. The modern version is famously long, and at more than 1.8 million words—seven times the combined lengths of the Iliad and Odyssey—it can be incredibly daunting.
Contemporary readers have a much more accessible entry point to this important work, thanks to R. K. Narayan’s masterful translation and abridgement of the poem. Now with a new foreword by Wendy Doniger, as well as a concise character and place guide and a family tree, The Mahabharata is ready for a new generation of readers. As Wendy Doniger explains in the foreword, “Narayan tells the stories so well because they’re all his stories.” He grew up hearing them, internalizing their mythology, which gave him an innate ability to choose the right passages and their best translations.
In this elegant translation, Narayan ably distills a tale that is both traditional and constantly changing. He draws from both scholarly analysis and creative interpretation and vividly fuses the spiritual with the secular. Through this balance he has produced a translation that is not only clear, but graceful, one that stands as its own story as much as an adaptation of a larger work.
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A Shortened Modern Prose Version of the Indian Epic
By R. K. Narayan
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2013 University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
The Eighth Baby
SANTANU WAS THE RULER of an ancient kingdom with its capital at Hastinapura. One day while out hunting, he came upon a lovely maiden by the river and fell in love with her. He announced himself and asked, "Will you be my wife?" Being equally attracted to him, she said, "Yes, but listen carefully to what I say now. When I am married, I must be absolutely free to do what I like. At no stage should you ever question my action. I'll stay as your wife only as long as you observe this rule." Santanu accepted the condition wholeheartedly and they were married.
In due course, she brought forth a baby, and as soon as it could be lifted, drowned it in the river. Santanu was shocked and bewildered, but could ask no questions. The next child was also promptly drowned, and then another and another. As soon as it was born, she carried off every child to the river and returned to the palace with a smile of satisfaction. Her husband never referred to this monstrous habit of hers for fear that she might leave, since in all other respects she proved a splendid wife.
When the eighth child came and she got ready to dispose of it, he followed her. Unable to control himself any more, he cried, "This is too horrible. Stop it!"
She replied calmly, "Yes, I will spare this child, but the moment has come for us to part."
"Oh, tell me why, before you go."
So she explained, "Know me now as Ganga, the deity of this river. I took human form only in order to give birth to these eight babies, as ordained. I married you because you were the only one worthy of fathering them. The children are the eight vasus. In their past life, for the sin of stealing Sage Vasishta's rare cow, Nandini, they were cursed to be born on earth. On appealing, seven of them were permitted to leave their physical bodies soon after birth and return to heaven. However, the eighth member among them, who had arranged the whole expedition to satisfy the whims of his wife, and who had actually stolen the cow—the one I am holding now—is to continue his existence on earth as a man of brilliant accomplishments, but condemned to a life of celibacy."
After these explanations Ganga said, "I'll take this child with me now, but restore him to you later."
His desperate questions, "Oh, when? Where?" were ignored as she vanished with the child into the river.
Years later, once again at the same spot, the King was accosted by Ganga and presented with their son, now grown into a youth. She said, "I have brought him up with care. Now he can go with you. He is named Devavratha. He has mastered all the Vedas under Sage Vasishta himself; he will be a great warrior, an expert in the use of astras, and endowed with rare mental and spiritual qualities. Take him home." At this, she vanished.
King Santanu returned to the palace a very happy man, and installed the youth as the heir apparent.
Four years later, King Santanu, following a deer while hunting, came upon a beautiful maiden in the woods and was once again love-stricken. "Who are you? Why are you here?" he asked.
She answered, "I am the daughter of a fisherman. I help my father to ferry pilgrims across the river."
The King sought her father and asked, "Will you permit us to marry?" He agreed readily but added, "On the condition that the son born to her will be your successor." The King could not accept this and returned to the palace frustrated.
In the days that followed, the young Prince Devavratha, noticing his father's melancholic state, enquired, "What's troubling your mind?"
The King replied, "I am worried about the future, or rather the future of our dynasty. You are my only son. If any mishap befalls you, our dynasty will come to an end. The scriptures say that having an only son is like having no son. You are at all times engaged in the exercise of arms and you will be a great warrior, but how can one prophesy a warrior's end?"
The Prince was bewildered by his father's statement and sought an explanation, privately, from their minister. The minister explained that the King desired to marry the fisherman's daughter, but that he felt unable to accept the man's condition. Devavratha visited the fisherman at his hut and assured him that when the time came, his daughter's issue would succeed to the throne. The fisherman, being too far-sighted, had a further misgiving, and asked, "Who will be my grandson's successor?"
"Well, naturally, his son," said Devavratha. "Perhaps you fear that if I marry, my sons will be rivals to your daughter's progeny. I hereby promise that I'll live and die a bachelor. This is a firm vow."
The fisherman was pleased. Devavratha—who from that time came to be known as Bhishma, meaning "one of firm vow"—addressed the girl, "Now get into the chariot, please. You will be my mother henceforth."
Satyavathi, the daughter of the fisherman, bore the King two sons, Chitrangada and Vichitravirya. Chitrangada succeeded Santanu, but he was killed in a battle with a gandharva king. His brother, Vichitravirya, who was still young, was installed as his successor, with Bhishma acting as a regent at the request of Satyavathi herself.
Bhishma, anxious not to let the family become extinct, waited for a chance to find a bride for his ward. When the ruler of Kasi announced a swayamwara for his three daughters named Amba, Ambika, and Ambalika, he presented himself at that court, where many princes from far and near had assembled to catch the eye of the beauties. At a crucial moment, Bhishma rose and announced, "Of the several forms of choosing a bride, as the sages have mentioned, the noblest is that in which a maiden is acquired by force from amidst a valiant gathering such as this." Thus saying, he seized the three girls before anyone could understand what was happening and, pushing them into his chariot, sped away, pursued by the outraged princes and the father of the girls. He fought his pursuers off and arrived at Hastinapura with the girls intended for his half-brother, Vichitravirya.
When the date for their wedding was settled, the eldest of the sisters, called Amba, said, "I cannot marry your brother, as my heart is already set on the King of Salwa and I cannot consider anyone else."
Bhishma admitted her objection and sent her away to Salwa as she desired. Ambika and Ambalika were married to Vichitravirya and they lived a happy life for seven years, when Vichitravirya contracted a wasting disease and died without issue.
At this, Satyavathi pleaded with Bhishma, "Under certain circumstances, one could perpetuate one's line through the widows of one's brother. The shastras permit it. Please save these girls from ending their lives as barren women. Our race should continue."
Bhishma replied, "Order me to do anything else, I will obey you. I cannot break my vow of celibacy."
Satyavathi sounded desperate as she said, "There will be no one to offer our ancestors the funeral cake, no one to perform their annual ceremonies on the days of remembrance. Save our ancestors. By your good deeds, you must help them attain their proper regions in the next world. I'm your mother; you must obey my order. Raise children on these two lovely daughters-in-law of mine. Ascend the throne yourself and rule Hastinapura. It rests upon you now to see that the Kuru clan does not perish at this point. You owe a duty to our ancestors and to the future generations."
"No, no, no," Bhishma cried. "I cannot violate any of my vows, even if you sanction it. You must think of some other means."
Satyavathi just repeated, "You are adamant. It will be a great solace to those two girls, now plunged in sorrow, to have children."
Bhishma said, "Once a vow is made, it's eternal. It cannot be modified or given up. There must be other remedies. Let us think it over."
After further consideration, another proposal occurred to Satyavathi. She turned to Bhishma, "Now listen to this story and tell me if it seems proper to you. Years ago, I was in the habit of ferrying people across the river and once my passenger happened to be an eminent rishi, Parasar. When I was rowing him across, he looked passionately at me and spoke words of love, whereupon I trembled with fear. I was afraid of being cursed by him if I repulsed his advances, and of my father's fury if ever he should come to know of any misconduct on my part. I pleaded with the sage, 'I was born of a fish mother and an odour of fish always clings to me.'
"'I am aware of your origin,' he said, 'how you came to be conceived in the womb of a fish. Your real father was a gandharva who, while flying across the river, spilled his seed, which entered the fish while it was looking up. Thus you were conceived and, when born, the fisherman adopted you. The odour of fish clings to you because of your origin, but I will dispel it.' By his magical powers, he not only rid me of my lifelong fish odour, but endowed my person with a perpetual fragrance!"
"Yes, my father told me that the first time he was drawn by a fragrance pervading the woods, and following it, reached you."
"In return for this favour, I surrendered to the sage's embraces, the rishi having caused a fog to arise and envelop us so that we might remain unobserved. The rishi said, 'Stay on that island and give birth to your child; thereby your virginity will not be considered lost.' Thus was Vyasa born. He is a sage and a savant, and I have his promise to come to me when I need him. I can summon him by thought. In a sense and as a matter of fact, he is my eldest son. If you approve, I will summon him."
Bhishma replied, "You know best."
She thought of Vyasa and he arrived at once. Satyavathi explained their predicament to him and begged him to perpetuate their race through her daughters-in-law. He agreed, but asked for a year's time to make himself presentable, as he was going through a period of penance and was hardly in a state to approach women. But Satyavathi brushed aside his reservations and left him no choice in the matter.
Vyasa ordered, "Let the girls be prepared; I will come back."
Satyavathi directed her first daughter-in-law, Ambika, to dress and decorate herself and wait in her bedchamber. When Vyasa came to her, the girl was repelled by his appearance, clothes, complexion, hirsuteness, and uncleanliness. She went to bed with him with her eyes tightly shut.
Subsequently, Vyasa declared to Satyavathi, "A beautiful child will be born to Ambika. He'll rule this country, but he will be blind since Ambika shut her eyes during conception."
Thereupon Satyavathi induced him to come again and offered him her second daughter-in-law, Ambalika. The girl, decorated and dressed, waited in bed, but at the approach of Vyasa, she turned pale with fright.
Vyasa told Satyavathi later, "The child born to Ambalika will be brave and distinguished but will be pallid."
Satyavathi persuaded Ambalika to give herself another chance after begging Vyasa to make a third visit. When Vyasa arrived, Ambalika dressed her maidservant appropriately and substituted her in her bed. The servant was bold and responsive, which pleased Vyasa, and hence the child born of this union was normal.
The eldest son, blind from birth, was named Dhritarashtra. The second, owing to his pallor, was named Pandu; and the third child born to the servant maid, who was normal in every way, was named Vidura, whose wisdom, judgement, and courage in speech and action, have made him an outstanding character in the story of The Mahabharata, which may be said to begin with these three personalities.
Dhritarashtra grew up under the care of Bhishma, who found him a suitable bride when he attained manhood—the Princess of Gandhara, called Gandhari. In order to share her husband's blind condition, she spent the rest of her life with eyes bandaged tight. However, owing to his handicap, Dhritarashtra surrendered his authority to his younger brother, Pandu, who had two wives called Kunthi and Madri.
Pandu's enthronement received all-round approval. He proved to be valorous and just, and enhanced the prestige and power of the Kuru clan by subjugating their neighbouring kingdoms. After these martial exertions, Pandu sought relaxation in a retreat amidst a forest of Sal trees on the southern slopes of the Himalayas.
One day while hunting, Pandu killed a deer, which was engaged in love play with its mate. Before dying, the deer—actually a celestial being—uttered the curse, "Your end will come at a moment when you attempt to unite with your wife." Thus was an irrevocable celibacy imposed upon Pandu. He became unhappy and planned to renounce the world. To die without issue, never to approach his wives again, seemed terrible.
At this juncture, Kunthi explained to him a blessing conferred on her by Sage Dhurvasa when she was young. Dhurvasa was a quick-tempered man, but Kunthi managed to please him by her ministrations when he visited her parents. He blessed her, "May you be the mother of godly children," and taught her a mantra with which she could invoke any god of her choice and enjoy his company. Dhurvasa had a seer's vision and realised that she would need this help in the future. After he left, she became curious about the privilege conferred on her, and invoked Surya, the Sun God, by uttering the mantra. He stood before her in all his glory and asked, "What is your desire?"
"No, no, nothing," she stammered. "I was only ... playing...." She prostrated herself before him and begged, "Forgive me, please go, forgive me."
"Did you not know that you should not play thus; and that a mantra is not to be trifled with?"
She stood speechless, petrified with fear, whereupon the god took her in his arms and caressed her and left after a prolonged dalliance. A child was born of this union, his future indicated by the fact that he was born encased in armour and wearing large earrings. The child was named Kama.
To avoid a scandal, Kunthi placed the baby in a basket and floated it down the river. It was picked up by one Radhe, the wife of a charioteer, who dwelt on the river bank. The foundling was viewed as a godsend and cherished by the couple.
On hearing this story, Pandu said, "The gods have blessed you thus for fulfilling a divine purpose. The curse on me debars fatherhood for the rest of my life. But you could be a unique and blessed mother. Don't let time run out. Prepare yourself to invite and receive the gods. First pray to Yama, the God of Death and Ultimate Justice. He is the most judicious among the celestial beings. The son born to him will always lead our Kuru race along the right path at all times."
Kunthi prepared herself in her chambers, meditated upon Yama, and uttered the mantra which she had already experimented with. Yama responded to her invocation, and this being her second effort, she knew how to conduct herself before a god. Thus came her first born. A heavenly voice announced at the time of his birth, "The child will be the best of men, truthful in thought, word, and deed, and also blessed with strength and courage. He shall be named Yudhistira, which means one unflinching in war."
Pandu induced Kunthi to pray for a second son. "A kshatriya's life cannot be complete, except with possession of physical strength. So now pray for a son endowed with extraordinary strength." Kunthi invoked Vayu, the God of Wind, and got a child so strong that when he rolled off his mother's side he caused a minor earthquake. The child was named Bhimasena.
After this Pandu once again thought, "We must have a warrior in our family whose prowess at arms should be unmatched." After a full year's penance observed by both himself and Kunthi, they prayed to Indra, the Chief of Gods, who had great endowments. When Kunthi gave birth to a son, a heavenly voice said, "This son will be unmatched in energy, wisdom, and the knowledge of weapons; he will wield with ease every kind of weapon and subjugate all his enemies and bring fame to the race of Kurus." This child was named Arjuna.
After this Kunthi declined to bear any more children, although Pandu was eager for more. Madri, his second wife, also pleaded at this time that she should not be left barren, while Kunthi had three children. Pandu appealed to Kunthi to impart the mantra to Madri. Invoking the gods Aswins, she conceived and brought forth the brilliant twins Nakula and Sahadeva. These five brothers came to be known as the Pandavas.
Meanwhile, Gandhari had borne a hundred sons by Dhritarashtra, the blind King, the eldest being Duryodhana, the second Dussasana, and so on. These set themselves up as enemies of the Pandavas all their life, and The Mahabharata may be said to be a tale of conflict between the two groups that never ceased except with death.
Pandu's end came on rather suddenly. One day, going into the woods in the company of Madri, he was overcome by the spirit of the hour and the mood of the spring, with tender leaves on the trees, and colourful blossoms, and the cries of birds, and the stirrings of animal life all around. Unable to resist the attraction of Madri at his side, he seized her passionately, in spite of her reminder of the curse, and died during intercourse. Entrusting Entrusting her twins to the care of Kunthi, Madri ascended the funeral pyre along with her husband and ended her life.
Excerpted from The Mahabharata by R. K. Narayan. Copyright © 2013 University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Meet the Author
R. K. Narayan (1906–2001) was one of the most prominent Indian novelists of the twentieth century. His works include Mr. Sampath—The Printer of Malgudi, Swami and Friends, Waiting for Mahatma, and Gods, Demons, and Others, all published by the University of Chicago Press.
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