Gems, Monsters, and Broodmares for Corpses

Whitney Cox

“No Hindu ever reads the Mahabharata for the first time,” A. K. Ramanujan, the celebrated poet, translator, and linguist, once wrote. The same cannot be said of the reader of contemporary literary English. Most have probably heard of the Bhagavad Gita, some might have an acquaintance with one of the poem’s modern Indian television avatars or a dim recollection of the film of Peter Brook’s version for the stage. It was through the latter—which I carefully mispronounced Maha-bu-RAta—that I first encountered the epic, almost 30 years ago.

While many potential readers might know of the Mahabharata (ahem, “Mahābhārata”: please take care to pronounce the second ‘h’ as a sharp aspiration of the preceding consonant), few will have any real familiarity with it, much less the deep-seated sense that Ramanujan described. In teaching the Mahabharata in an undergraduate core course on world literature, I’ve found that both my students and colleagues tend to find the epic overwhelming: its cast of characters is too unwieldy, their names too unfamiliar and too polysyllabic, its story too convoluted and above all just too big to be comprehensible.

While there are many things about the text that are difficult to come to terms with, and deliberately so, much of the onus here lies with its available English renderings. The only complete translation is 18 heavy volumes long and very much a product of 19th-century Calcutta. More recent versions have varied in their scholarly and literary value, but none has succeeded in capturing the epic poem’s unruly magnificence. As a result, the Mahabharata remains little-known to the wider world of non-Indian readers. Some introduction is called for—about the epic’s central narrative and cast of characters, its textual dynamics, and its place in South Asian cultural history—before turning to a new attempt to bring the Mahabharata to an English audience.

Its story seems to be a simple one, a tale of a civil war between two sets of royal cousins: the good guys, the five Pandava brothers, versus the hundred uniformly wicked Kauravas. The Pandavas are repeatedly wronged and forced into an unjust exile, and reluctantly go to war. They triumph, though at great cost. Virtue is rewarded, vice punished, and the heroes end up in heaven. The result is never really in question: not only are the Pandava brothers the world’s greatest warriors, but they have a friend and counselor in Krishna, whom many of the epic’s characters (as well as its pious audience) recognize to be God incarnate. 

Inevitably, things are more complicated, and the Mahabharata revels in its narrative intricacy and in its frequent divergence from what should be a straightforward heroic poem. It has dozens of significant characters, many of them wonderfully complex. Take its chief protagonists, the three eldest Pandava brothers. Yudhishthira, the oldest, is learned, faultlessly moral, and woefully inconstant; seized by a madness for gambling, he is tricked into staking his entire kingdom, loses, and leads his brothers into exile. Bhima is strong, appetitive, passionate, and a prejudiced bully with a capacity for horrific violence. Arjuna by contrast seems at first to be without any rough edges: the perfect warrior, given to wandering off into solitary erotic and heroic adventures, he is Krishna’s particular friend.

All five brothers are actually the sons of deities, thanks to a magic spell possessed by Kunti, the mother of the big three. Strangely—indeed, shockingly to Indian norms of patriarchy—all five share a common wife, Draupadi, the most beautiful woman in the world, possessed of an iron will and a thirst for vengeance. Duryodhana, the eldest of the Kauravas, is fuelled by his resentment for his cousins, but is otherwise a paragon of the values of the warrior caste. There is something of Milton’s Lucifer in his grandiose intransigence. The Pandavas’ implacable enemy Karna is supposedly the son of a chariot-driver, humiliated by the five brothers at their first meeting on account of his caste. Training himself to be a great warrior, Arjuna’s equal, he is made a king by Duryodhana, who becomes his patron and best friend. There is, however, a secret about Karna, which not even he knows: he is the eldest brother of the Pandavas, the result of Kunti’s teenage pregnancy by the Sun-god. 

<i>The five Pandava Princes of the Mahabharata</i>. Photograph by vaticanus / Flickr

And then there is Krishna; or rather, the two Krishnas. One of these, Krishna the son of Vasudeva, is a prince from a nearby kingdom, the Pandavas’ cousin on their mother’s side. He is also an incarnation of the cosmic divinity variously called Vishnu or Narayana. Certain characters in the epic know this consistently; others are periodically aware of Krishna’s true identity. Most famously, Arjuna is relieved of an uncharacteristic moment of doubt on the cusp of battle, first by Krishna’s bluff harangue (which I would render as “stop acting like such a eunuch”) through a series of moral and metaphysical teachings, and finally by a culminating hierophany, which Arjuna subsequently forgets. This is the Bhagavad Gita, “The Song of the Blessed One.”

Krishna is unquestionably an omnipotent and compassionate deity, but he is also an unscrupulous, Machiavellian advisor to the Pandavas, who urges them to lie, cheat, and violate the explicit code of the kshatriyas, their warrior caste. The Mahabharata’s other Krishna—better known as Vyasa, “The Redactor”—is at once the poem’s recognized author, and the biological grandfather of the war’s main combatants. He intervenes at points throughout the poem, shaping the Pandavas’ actions and once late in the poem bringing the narrative to a sudden halt. That we can be privy to a story whose author is also a character derives from the Mahabharata’s central structural conceit: the text purports to be a transcription of a retelling of another retelling of the epic narrative composed by Vyasa.

There are dozens of other leading characters, and hundreds of side-stories over the course of the epic’s vast narrative machinery of polyamory, moral paradox, hyperbolic violence, and broad sexual humor (the birth of not a few of its characters is the unforeseen consequence of premature ejaculation). It is a tribute to the vibrancy of classical Indic civilization that it could take such a wild and prodigious work as its central monument.

Satyamurti lays a finger on one of the classic text’s real aesthetic paradoxes: how can arousal and terror be described in the same breath? 

It was the Mahabharata’s open architecture—conversation within conversation within conversation—that permitted it to grow to such a gargantuan size. Its standard Sanskrit text is conventionally said to be 15 times the length of the Bible, or eight times the combined texts of the Homeric epics (“and a hundred times more interesting,” as Wendy Doniger quips in her foreword). It is equally conventional to date it somewhere between the fourth century B.C.E. and the fourth century C.E. Whether this is meant to suggest a possible range, or a period of either punctuated compositional equilibrium or slow stalactite-like accretion has never been entirely clear. The Mahabharata continued to grow long after its initial composition, and even that earliest integral version was the work of many hands, as the text itself suggests. Over the centuries of its transmission, it continued to grow and be altered, eventually yielding a number of distinctive regional recensions. If the model for the textual history of works in Greek and Latin is the branching stemmatic tree, some have suggested that the best model for the Mahabharata is a banyan, with dangling roots forming new, quasi-independent trunks over time.

It was one of the greatest feats of the global humanistic scholarship of the last century that this apparent chaos was brought under the control of a critical edition, achieved by a team of (mostly) Indian scholars presided over by the great V. S. Sukthankar (1887–1943). The methods and results of the edition have been argued over ever since—as well they should be—but its fundamental accomplishment is undeniable: an exhaustive documentation of the Epic’s pan-Indian transmission, and the presentation of a rationally reconstructed text underlying all of these extant versions. The Mahabharata, moreover, existed in ways beyond this integral epic text, providing the themes for many of the masterworks of Sanskrit drama and court poetry, catalyzing the creation of vernacular poetries as far away as Java, and supplying the narrative raw material for legions of visual artists. 

Carole Satyamurti’s new blank verse “retelling” represents the most sustained attempt ever to render the epic as an English poem. It is a necessarily compressed take on the epic, channeling the source material into a fascinating, occasionally frustrating, new form. Satyamurti does not read Sanskrit, and her access to the text is provided by earlier work in English. She is commendably clear about the divinatory way she went about this, describing in her preface a process of reading, reflection, and, finally, composition, tacking back and forth between earlier renderings and her own. The result adheres to a familiar contemporary style of verse translations of premodern poetry: unrhymed, heavily enjambed, cast in a high register of transatlantic English but flirting for effect with vernacular words and syntax. It is a style recognizable in Robert Fagels’s translations of Homer or Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf. What separates Satyamurti’s version from those, of course, is Fagels’s control over classical Greek and Heaney’s studies in Old English.

<i>Krishna and Arjun on the Chariot</i> (18–19th Century). Smithsonian Freer Sackler Gallery / Flickr

Satyamurti’s effort can be placed in another, rather different literary genealogy, reaching back to Ezra Pound’s works from the Chinese, spurious as translation but brilliant as Modernist free verse. Famously, or infamously, Pound worked from existing renderings, initially those of Ernest Fenollosa, bane of the Sinologist, and later those of more conventional authorities. An adjunct of his claim that “literature is news that STAYS news,” Pound’s works from the Chinese were of a piece with his other engagements with the literary past, with Propertius, Cavalcanti, and The Seafarer. Whatever their (often considerable) value as independent poems, these “translucences” formed part of an openly reactionary effort to defibrillate what Pound understood to be the congested heart of early 20th-century Anglo-European writing.  

Thankfully, the modern translation or recasting of poetry of the past can no longer credibly be framed as a medical intervention to revive ancient excellence. Instead, two strategies seem now to be available for the translator or reinventor with serious literary ambition. An old source text can act as a provocation, a site to demonstrate the extent of the poet’s powers. Here, the distance in time, place, or idiom are less obstacles to the recaster as they are essential parts of her daredevil attempt. I take Heaney’s Beowulf as the premiere modern instance of this type; stripped of their cranky apparatus, Pound’s reinventions can be read this way, too. The second strategy—much more in line with Satyamurti’s ambitions—stages a controlled collision between source text and contemporary language, style, and structures of feeling.

It might seem that, in placing Satyamurti’s effort against such celebrated predecessors, I am setting up an unfair standard of comparison. And, in contrast to these virtuoso works, much of her retelling is bare of any kind of obviously poetic devices, the language carefully avoiding calling attention to itself. The narrative unfolds in a steady blank verse, each line hovering around 11 syllables, and weighing in with an average of five beats each. Satyamurti intelligently avoids decorating her writing with many gestures toward desi chic: besides two incidental “Guruji”’s, a few references to food, and one declaration by Kaurava retainers that “we be true to our salt” (shadow-boxing with a Hindi idiom), she doesn’t reach for an awkward authenticity of vocabulary. If anything, there are unanticipated and odd musical-comedy flourishes to the language, as when the sages in the Naimisha Forest are said to be “avid for entertainment / of an improving kind,” or when the incognito Pandavas are said to look “like beggarly provincials.” Other attempts at self-conscious anachronism are occasional and effective: the early end to a heated mock-battle between Bhima and Duryodhana at a tournament leaves “grumbling on the terraces” in its wake, and the sage Narada—his stock Sanskrit epithet means “beloved of quarrels”—is said to savor “stirring the stockpot of the status quo.”

The devices that Satyamurti does draw upon are largely those of the novel at its most cinematic. Moving beyond from the kings and Brahmins of her main story, she invents vignettes of the everyday world around them: what was happening in the farmers’s fields close by to the battleground at Kurukshetra, or the ways an army in camp “seethed with furious activity / though not yet with a purpose or direction.” This is alien to the Sanskrit epic, which pays scant attention to its supernumerary cast of millions. She also possesses a fine imagination for the built environment, whose description never rises above cliché in the original. In a nice touch early on, when the Pandavas first enter the royal capital of Hastinapura, they discover that

 

Just inside the gate, a tall stone column,

its capital ornately carved, proclaimed

the king’s authority, and the protection

that his rule extended to the people,

like a father’s strong, benevolent arm.

 

This clearly is meant to call to mind the carved stone pillars of the Mauryan emperor Ashoka (who ruled from around 260 to 230 B.C.E.). This piece of historical double vision is wonderfully apropos, as this philo-Buddhist ruler arguably lurks in the background of the epic’s portrayal of Yudhishthira.

The Mahabharata, for all the multitudes it contains, is preeminently a war poem, and it is in the central books on the 18 days at Kurukshetra that Satyamurti allows herself recourse to the explicitly poetic effects. At its best, this can be remarkable:

 

                                    Bitter and prolonged

was the struggle between those fine warriors,

with many wounds inflicted on both sides,

and many deadly darts and spears deflected.

Hard pressed and desperate, Bhagadatta hurled

straight at Arjuna’s chest an iron hook

charged with the celestial Vaishnava mantra.

· · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · ·

            Quickly, Arjuna let loose

a crescent-headed spear at Bhagadatta.

Arrows and bow fell from the king’s hands.

His world became a mesh of darkness, heart

skewered by Arjuna’s unerring weapon,

and the celebrated warrior, wreathed in gold,

slid from the elephant, his gorgeous headdress

unraveling as he plummeted to earth.

 

With its patterned alliterative emphases—stops for the thudding fall of missiles, sibilants for the fighters’ swift movements—subtle inversions, and syntactic alternations, this approaches the sort of poetic intensification of the Sanskrit, where the battles are equally an occasion for formal fireworks.

On at least two points, Satyamurti outdoes any of the English translations I know. Her version of the Gita is set out from the rest of her nearly 900-page text, narrated in the present tense instead of the narrative past. This neat formal trick serves both the Gita’s narrative purpose (a secret whispered in the anxious hush before the war’s beginning) and its deliberately modular structure (as a revelation intended for any “deserving” audience).

But it is in her version of the Mahabharata’s 11th book, the postwar Book of the Women, that she far outpaces her sources. In the book’s central passage, narrated by the now-dead Kauravas’s mother Gandhari, the bereaved mothers and widowed wives of millions of slain kings, heroes, and ordinary soldiers roam the battlefield after the war’s end. As the women’s shrieks fill the air, Gandhari describes how one after the other they find their sons’ and husbands’ disfigured bodies. The difficulty here lies in the juxtaposition of descriptions of eros and male beauty in the midst of horror. “Your skin is soft, delicate as a girl’s; / isn’t the rough ground grazing you?” asks the child-widow of Arjuna’s son Abhimanyu. Gandhari describes another woman as she finds the severed arm of her husband:

 

His wife is bathing it with her hot tears,

mourning the hand that lately would have loosened

her clothing, stroked her breasts, caressed her face.

 

Earlier translators—all of them male, one notes—haven’t really known what to do with this: it easily can shade over into bathos. But Satyamurti, whether she knows it or not, lays a finger on one of the Mahabharata’s real aesthetic paradoxes, one which preoccupied some of the Sanskrit tradition’s greatest literary minds: how can arousal and terror be described in the same breath? The passage’s final note belongs entirely to Satyamurti: “Broodmares for corpses—that’s what women are / if they are born unlucky Kshatriyas.”

In his lucidly intelligent afterword, Vinay Dharwadker sketches in a folk poetics of the Mahabharata: audiences who grow up with the epic develop the ability to “imaginatively traverse the poem’s aggregate plot many times over,” in each case anchored by one of its many characters. One can follow Arjuna’s path through the story, or Duryodhana’s, or Draupadi’s, each time processing the events from a changed perspective. As a relative latecomer to the poem, this strikes me as fundamentally correct: this is a profound tribute to the imaginative generosity of the many hands that have had a part in shaping the text, including, now, Satyamurti’s.

The Mahabharata is an ocean, and in classical India the ocean was thought to be the source at once of gems and of sea-monsters. No other work of the Indic narrative imagination is as capacious. The reader is liable to discover in it treasures as well as horrors, both the strange and the eerily familiar. It is a work that belongs to the global cultural commons, and it deserves as wide an audience as possible. Satyamurti’s retelling is a welcome means to this greater end. What it lacks in poetic intensity, it makes up in its efforts to capture the original’s breadth within two covers, allowing a new audience a controlled glimpse of an inexhaustible source.