Classics & Cult Books / Reviews

Mythological Ecstasy: Bibek DebRoy’s Ten Volume Mahabharata

Bibek Debroy Mahabharata

Bibek DebRoy’s Ten Volume Mahabharata

Mahabharata, in a sense, is somewhat similar to The Holy Bible. Every Indian knows the basic story. However, being the longest epic poem ever written (110,000 couplets – Whoa!!), few people, except the scholars, take the pain of going through the original text (which is not very reader friendly and written in Sanskrit). I was extremely excited when I came to know economist Bibek DebRoy has undertaken a project to translate a ten volume Mahabharata in modern English.

I finally bought the box set a few months back and I am half way through it. However, I couldn’t wait till I am done simply because I think this work is the best compromise between the original Sanskrit text and any other existing translation of the epic in English. Not sure if I am too fickle minded but Mahabharata has rekindled my interest in mythology.

Ramesh Menon's Two Volume Mahabharata

Ramesh Menon’s Two Volume Mahabharata

I have previously read Romesh Menon’s 2000 page / 2 volume translation, which is a decent abridged work in modern English and would suffice as an introduction to anyone new to the epic. DebRoy’s work, quite obviously, is in a different league altogether.

If you are an Indian reader, Mahabharata needs no introduction. If not, imagine this: the Iliad and the Odyssey coupled with the Lord of the Rings and King Arthur’s tales – ah, yes; this might conjure up a fairly accurate picture of the epic. The magnitude of the Mahabharata ensures that it is virtually impossible to make a true-to-spirit movie that can cover even the basic plot.

This ancient Hindu epic narrates events that slowly lead to the buildup of a cataclysmic war between two royal families. The war claimed 10 million lives and it is widely believed in the Indian subcontinent that this epic is loosely based on true events. It is believed that the events may have occurred 3000 – 5000 years ago. The violence and tragedy delineated in the pages of The Mahabharata are unprecedented.

The magnificent cast of characters include humans, demons, gods and demi-gods. The Bhagavad-Gita, an intense part of the Mahabharata, is a classic book in itself.

The Storyline

Exile of the Pandavas

Exile of the Pandavas

Without mentioning the lengthy prologue and infinite subplots that lead to the main event (which is the war) and span across generations, the Mahabharata can be summed up as follows:

Two group of royal cousins — Kauravas and Pandavas — from the same lineage grow up together but do not get along well. Sensing hostility, the elders divide the kingdom in two parts. The Kauravas, led by the anti-hero Duryodhan, want the entire kingdom for themselves and come up with a sinister plot. They invite their cousins for a game of dice and the stakes are the kingdoms. Aided by their uncle Shakuni, who is a champion dice player, Kauravas win the game. They send the Pandavas to exile for 14 years. After the exile is over, the Pandavas are supposed to get their kingdom back.

During their exile, Pandavas fight demons, villains, face gargantuan snakes. They are sons of divine creatures and one of them gets to meet the lord of destruction and visits heaven. He is bestowed with unearthly weapons and fights creatures of the netherworld as well.

On returning from exile, the Pandavas find that the Kauravas would not return the Kingdom to them by peaceful means. So preparations for a ghastly war follow. Kings across the globe start taking sides. Even demons, and supernatural creatures join camps. The Kauravas are backed by dark forces while an incarnation of God lends his support to the Pandavas. The war that follows throws the best of warriors against one another. Two greatest archers on earth fight each other to death. Magical and celestial weapons wreak havoc on both armies. The sacred laws of war are violated. Unforeseen twists follow.

 

Kauravas Try to Molest Pandava Princess During the Game of Dice

Kauravas Try to Molest Pandava Princess During the infamous Game of Dice

Weapons: The Most Curious Thing About Mahabharata

The variety of weapons used in this epic is incredible. There are weapons which can be described as voice controlled nuclear missiles.

Weapons like Brahmaastra would destroy an entire army but few could wield it. The weapon manifests one of the four faces of the lord of creation – Brahma – on its tip.

Pashupatastra is one of the most lethal weapons in the history of Hindu mythology. It can be discharged by the mind or eyes of the one wielding the weapon. It can be wielded by mantras or special bows as well.  Pashupatastra cannot be used against lesser enemies who have no knowledge of celestial weapons.

Lord Shiva Blessed Arjun with the Weapon Pashupatastra.

Lord Shiva Blessed Arjun with the Weapon Pashupatastra

 

Sudarshana Chakra or the discus of Lord Vishnu can behead anyone.

Nagaastra would take the form of a deadly snake and deliver a fatal blow.

Maheshwarastra is backed the power of the third eye of the lord of destruction. It can turn anything into ashes. If wielded by Shiva himself, it can turn the creation itself into ashes.

Narayanastra: An absolutely fatal astra that showers a combination of weapons on the enemies once it is invoked. The power of this weapon will increase if resistance is offered. It can be used only once in a lifetime.

There is extensive description of futuristic concepts like aircrafts, inter-planatory space travels, biotechnology and innovative body armors. The weapons described have striking similarity to modern day missiles.

Brilliant Characterization: 

Arjun Kills Karna When He was Off Chariot and Violates Sacred Laws of War

Arjun Kills Arch-rival Karna When He was Off Chariot and Violates the Sacred Laws of War

Sublime characters are the trademark of epics. However, the cast of Mahabharata stands out even by the lofty standards of the ancient poems.

The characters are endowed with remarkable depth. Instead of being motivated by pure good or evil, they are multi-layered human beings exhibiting intricate responses. You start developing feeling for the characters and when the war begins, you start getting excited as the titans clash.

Some characters like Krishna, Arjun, Karna and Bhisma have become legendary.

The Grand Plot:

Spanning across generations, the Mahabharata reaches a depth difficult to fathom. Though there are countless sub plots and sub quests, most of them are neatly tied up to the main story. The story of Arjun fighting the creatures of the netherworld, who have occupied part of heaven is breathtaking. The yearlong war is the main event but the events that lead to it are remarkable. Mahabharata does not follow “The happy ending” trend and it closes in the same spirit as it began — solemn, somber, and sublime.

Of course, like all ancient epics, it discusses philosophy, ethics, politics and management at length. Surprisingly, the lessons it teaches are relevant even today.

Download Mahabharata Online:

Click here

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Yeah, I said above no movie can cover even the basic plot. But someone has to make a movie with new age CGI. Oriental mysticism, esoteric mythology, epic characters and fierce violence can make an incredible combination.

An Artist's Impression of the devastating Effect of Brahmaastra

An Artist’s Impression of the Devastating Brahmaastra

22 thoughts on “Mythological Ecstasy: Bibek DebRoy’s Ten Volume Mahabharata

  1. Sounds fantastic! I’ve heard the name of course, but never really had any idea what it was about, so thanks for the great summary. I don’t know if I could read ten volumes of verse, in truth, but you’ve certainly piqued my interest. Can the Bhagavad-Gita be read on its own by someone who doesn’t know the mythology?

  2. The Iliad and the Odyssey coupled with the Lord of the Rings and King Arthur’s tales—> wow, that sounds like an amazing reading: almost like a trip, right!?. Thank you so much for introducing us to Mahabharata. Such a great post!…. Sending love & best wishes. 😀

  3. It’s a humongous task to translate an epic like “The Mahabharata”! Glad to know about this new 10 volume addition to your shelf. I’ve read Kaliprasanna Singha’s Mahabharat which I think, as a Bangali, you’re quite acquainted with. 🙂 Nrishinghaprasad Bhaduri and Debdutt Pattanaik have also written some great books on selected characters of Mahabharata. The epic intrigues me a lot, especially the symbolisms and inner meanings.

    • I have had the opportunity to read Debdutt Pattanaik’s Mahabharata / Jaya. It’s very impressive. I am yet to read Kaliprasanna Singha’s translation. Hope to grab a copy soon.

      I find the characters very inspiring. Particularly Karna and Bhisma are unforgetable. Yes, the epic is full of symbolism. Who is your favorite character by the way?

  4. Such great Epic, I have read an abridged version, I am glad there is now the complete version in English. 🙂

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