Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Spines of the Mahabharata Books

I had lent the first volume of the Mahabharata translation by Dr. Bibek Debroy to someone I know. I got it back last evening. This completed my collection - I had, for the first time in almost a year, all six volumes published so far. Of course, this is not strictly accurate, because a year ago there were only four volumes that had been published, but you get the picture. And if not, I have a picture below.

After I got Vol.1 the first thing I did was to line them up, slightly askew, and take a couple of photos with my trusty, four-year old camera. Why did I do that? Mention the camera? I don't know. Why did I say I placed the books slightly askew? Ah, that! That is for a reason. These volumes have an almost identical layout and cover. All six volumes so far have followed the same template - the cover has no text on it, only a series of symbols associated with the epic and war - a sign of the sun, a flag ("ध्वज "), a fish, arrows, a lotus, swords, an elephant, and so on. Each volume has a different color - the first volume is a dark shade of red, while the sixth volume is a pale bluish-green.

The spine is the most interesting part of the cover, in my opinion. Apart from the fact that it has the book's title and author, which is not the interesting or exciting part, each volume has a single symbol on its spine. The first volume (my review) has an illustration  of snakes tumbling into a fire. This is the imagery of the "sarpa-satra", or snake sacrifice in the Adi Parva that King Janmajeya organized to avenge his father's death at the hands of Takshaka, the serpent king. The second volume (my review) has the "chausar", the board for the game of dice, laid out, and a few dice ("paasa") strewn about. This - the game of dice - occurs in the "Sabha Parva", where the Kauravas, led by their wily uncle Shakuni, invite the Pandavas for a game of dice. The game of dice resulted in the Pandavas losing everything, including their wife Draupadi, to the Kauravas, and set in motion a chain of events that would culminate more than thirteen years later, on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. Volume 3 (my review) looks somewhat difficult to decipher, but is quite straightforward if you look at it closely. This volume has a couple of earrings and an armour plate on its spine. These two, of course, are the "kavacha" and "kundala" of Karna, that he was born wearing, and which made him invincible in battle. And which Indra, the divine father of Arjuna, wanted to take away from Karna so as to ensure his son's victory. Knowing that Karna would never refuse anything if asked after his morning prayers, Indra approached Karna in the guise of a brahmana. The rest is history, so to say.

Volumes 1-6 of The Mahabharata, translated by Bibek Debroy
Volume 4 (my review) is a genuinely tough one for the casual Mahabharata reader. The spine feature a bunch of cows. This imagery is of the stealing of King Virata's cows by the Kauravas. The Pandavas had spent the thirteenth year of their exile living incognito in the palace of King Virata. After Bheema, living as Ballabha the cook, had bludgeoned Keechaka, the powerhouse commander of King Virata's army, to death for trying to molest Draupadi, Duryodhana suspected that this deed could have been performed by none other than Bheema. He used the pretext of stealing King Virata's cows to try and smoke out the Pandavas from hiding - which would ensure they would have to go to exile for a further thirteen years. The spine of volume five (my review -12) needs no introduction. It is Arjuna's chariot, with Krishna as the charioteer. Arjuna is standing with the bow in his right hand, meant to emphasize Arjuna's ambidexterity ("savyasachi"). It is also the only volume so far with a person, and two at that, on the spine. The sixth volume, (my review - 1, 2, 3) has a spiral - the chakra vyuha formation - on its spine. The chakra vyuha was the formation that Drona, the Kaurava commander, put in place on the fateful thirteenth day of the war. With Arjuna away fighting the Samshaptakas, it was left to his son, the sixteen year old Abhimanyu, to penetrate the formation. With Jayadratha, at the vyuha's entrance, holding off the four Pandavas, the lone Abhimanyu was done to death by six brave Kaurava warriors who followed Drona and Shakuni's advice on how to disarm the young prince.

The seventh volume will feature the death of Karna - the third commander of the Kaurava army, the battle between Duryodhana and Bheema, and the midnight destruction of the Pandava army by Ashwatthama. If a stuck chariot wheel makes it to the spine, then Karna, in an indirect way, would have made it to the spine of this series twice.


 © 2013, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Mahabharata, Episode 2

When Ganga seems ready to drown the eighth son too, Shantanu can bear no more, and he breaks his promise, and stops Ganga. He saves the eighth son, but loses both Ganga and their eighth son, Devavrata. Ganga recounts two stories, and two curses. One is the story of their divinity, fall, and their reason behind a human birth. The other is the story of the eight sons. They were eight vasus, and were cursed by Sage Vashishta, for stealing his cow, to be born on earth. While seven of them could escape a long life on earth through the grace of Ganga, the eighth vasu's sin was more severe than the others, and thus was cursed to live a long life on earth. While Shantanu waited for the return of his son, he chanced upon Kripa and Kripi, two abandoned siblings, and entrusted them to the care of the royal sage. One day, Ganga returns, and returns Devavrata to Shantanu. Shantanu takes his now young son into his charge. The second episode ends wtih Devavrata taking a horse for a ride, and coming face to face with the Shalva King, bent upon annexing Hastinapura.

 © 2013, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Mahabharata, Episode 1

Where do yo begin the Mahabharata from? Where do you start? Do you start with the snake sacrifice (सर्प सत्र) ? And what do you do if you are making a television serial of the epic? And what happens if you also want to inject a subtext of political probity, even if the powers that be may see it as less than politically acceptable - of having the king be told that he is a प्रतिनिधि, not a नीतिपति, or that even royal succession has to be on the basis of merit, and not birth? This is not explicit in the epic, but notable is the fact that such a message was only somewhat unpalatable in the 1980s, but would be seen as a direct, full-frontal assault on the royal, imported dynasty in India today.

So, talking about beginnings, what about starting with King Bharata, son of King Dushyanta and Queen Shakuntala, who appointed not one of his sons as his successor, but instead chose someone else as his heir, and thus set perhaps the first precedent of democracy? Would that be a stretch? What if this beginning, the sapling that King Bharata planted, would be uprooted several generations later, during King Shantanu's reign? Such is the beginning of the Mahabharata that BR Chopra's epic serialization of the panch-veda chooses - a tale with time, समय , as the sutradhar, सूत्रधार| King Shantanu is besotted with the river goddess Ganga, and the two marry. But here is a condition. A condition that is the first of several conditions that will dot the epic, and each condition an attempt to control fate, a futile, human attempt. Ganga imposes a condition on Shantanu - that he will not question her, no matter what she does. Shantanu agrees. Ganga tests him, repeatedly, and most cruelly so, by drowning their first born son, and then the second born, and then the third, and so on... Shantanu can only watch.

 © 2013, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.