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Book review Vyasa’s Mahabharata: Epic of the lot

The genesis of Abhinav Agarwal’s latest book, Completing Vyas’s Mahabharata, lies in an article by Columbian scholar and academic Alf Hiltebeitel. Titled Not Without Subtales: Telling Laws and Truths in the Sanskrit Epics, Hiltebeitel detailed the list of 67 sub-tales or ‘Upa-Akhayans’, named so in the ‘Parva-Sangraha’ section of the Mahabharata.

Agarwal goes a step further, and retells all 67 sub-tales in one book. With a surfeit of the Mahabharata retellings in the past decade, one must look for certain shibboleths. Veda Vyasa created an eternal building (sabha) called the Mahabharata. The retellings are like renting rooms in the powerful construct. Vyasa would be the first to uphold the principle of athithi devobhava and thus, a guiding principle for any reteller is that of shraddha or reverence for this great itihasa (piece of history).

That shraddha, the first shibboleth, is unfortunately missing in most retellings, mutilates the character of the Mahabharata. Agarwal’s book is an exception. Another parameter that the author successfully traverses is that of authenticity by using Bibek Debroy’s English translation of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute’s Critical Edition of the Mahabharata. For adding bones and flesh to the characters, he has consulted Sorenson’s An Index to the Names in the Mahabharata. Thus, he passes the third test as well—research, another lacunae afflicting most retellings.

The author’s decision to add Sanskrit slokas as footnotes elevates the reading experience. While many may find the idea intimidating, one doesn’t have to be a Sanskrit expert to understand the essence, thanks to the easily accessible translations based on the original encoding of the Mahabharata by Japanese Indologist Muneo Tokunaga available online.

An important factor to take under consideration while retelling an epic is the degree of embellishment. For a text like the Mahabharata, which has powerful and engrossing tales, the requirement is minimum. It is evident that Agarwal has been mindful of that. He notes that the essence of the drama is dialogue, inflexion and atmosphere; no need for false theatrics.

As riveting as mythology can be, the plots can also often get overwhelming. The purpose of modern retellings, therefore, is also to unravel, for which simplicity is key. Agarwal’s presentation of the ‘Upakathas’ in easy-to-digest, bite-sized stories makes the book attractive for those unfamiliar with the epic, as well as the casual reader. The inclusion of several lesser-known tales, which are rarely part of the abridged versions, however, makes it a keeper also for experts. That is what puts Agarwal’s retelling in a unique category of its own.

Completing Vyasa’s Mahabharata

By: Abhinav Agarwal

Publisher: Bluprint

Pages: 464

Price: Rs 699

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