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.