Sunday, November 26, 2023

Review: Sacred Songs The Mahabharata's Many Gitas

Sacred Songs: The Mahabharata's Many Gitas, by Bibek Debroy

The Mahabharata, given its encyclopaedic length, unsurprisingly, contains many, many Gitas (songs). Surprisingly though, not many people are aware of the presence of Gitas other than the Bhagwat Gita in the Mahabharata. This book is a selection of 25 Gitas from the Mahabharata, with the Sanskrit verses in Devanagri script, along with their English translation. 
Gita means song. When one mentions the word ‘Gita’ in the context of the Mahabharata, one is invariably referring to the Bhagwat Gita—Krishna’s divine message to Arjuna on the eve of the great battle between the Kauravas and Pandavas in Kurukshetra. However, there are other passages that are also called ‘Gita’. Taken across the Mahabharata, Ramayana, and Puranas, these number over fifty. In this book, Bibek Debroy has selected twenty-five such Gitas, excluding the Bhagwat Gita, from the Mahabharata. 

An obvious question that arises is—what is the criteria for classifying a Gita? In the book’s Introduction, several criteria are listed. One is to take only those that are explicitly called out as such in the Critical Edition of the Mahabharata; only nine qualify. Categorizing expositions and conversations that further an understanding of the purushaarthas (dharma, artha, kaama, moksha) are a more acceptable criterion. This brings the list up to twenty-two. Add the Yaksha Prashna and Sanatsujata and you get twenty-four. The twenty-fifth is the Pandava (or Prapanna) Gita, added on admittedly weaker grounds. 

Saturday, September 30, 2023

Shiva Purana, Vol.1, tr. by Bibek Debroy

Shiva Purana, Vol. 1, tr. by Bibek Debroy

Shiva Purana, Vol, 1 is the first of a three-volume unabridged English translation of the Shiva Purana, accompanied by more than one-thousand explanatory footnotes. 

In the corpus of religious texts in Hinduism, the Puranas are classified as smritis (remembered texts), as opposed to the Vedas, that are classified as shruti (those that are heard and divine and timeless in origin). Purana literally means old. They are encyclopaedia texts on many, many topics. Specifically, a Purana is supposed to cover five topics—sarga (cosmogony), pratisarga (cosmology), vamsha (genealogy), manvantara (cosmic cycles), and vamshanucharitam (accounts of royal dynasties). 

There are eighteen major Puranas, also called Maha Puranas. There are minor, or upa, Puranas, and then there are local, or sthala, Puranas that are devoted to sites of religious importance. The Shiva Purana is, interestingly enough, sometimes not counted as one of the 18 major Puranas, mostly on account of the fact that much of this purana is also to be found in Vayu Purana. However, the Shiva Purana is counted as a maha Purana in most enumerations. 

Saturday, September 23, 2023

SoufflĂ©, by Anand Ranganathan—Review

Soufflé, by Anand Ranganathan

At under 200 pages, Anand Ranganathan’s fiction thriller-mystery novel is an ideal read on a Delhi-Mumbai or Bangalore-Delhi plane ride. The book starts off in India’s business capital, Mumbai, where, at a lavish party at a luxury hotel, business tycoon Mihir Kothari takes a spoonful of Michelin star chef Rajiv Mehra’s soufflĂ© and drops dead. The police find Rajiv in his hotel room’s bathroom, barely alive after what looks like an attempted suicide. CCTV footage shows him adding what is later confirmed to be cyanide from a vial to the soufflĂ© marked for Mihir Kothari. An open-and-shut case, with a speedy trial and a death sentence guaranteed. Except he is not guilty. He cannot be guilty. Could he? Is he?  

Saturday, May 6, 2023

Spy Stories: Inside the Secret World of the RAW and the ISI, by Cathy Scott-Clark Adrian Levy - Review

This is a fast-paced read, but which comes across more as a Pakistan ISI sponsored pamphlet. 

The material is haphazardly put together. The veracity of several key conclusions is unsubstantiated. One has to rely on the authors' word. No corroborative evidence is presented. Pakistan's point of view is presented without critical scrutiny, as gospel. India's external intelligence agency, R&AW, is painted as a diabolical outfit that is incompetent and unaccountable by turn. 

The strife in Kashmir is presented after suppressing all accounts of horrors perpetrated over the decades against the ethnic Hindu minority. Former Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf is shown as a leader who tried to solve the Kashmir crisis, notwithstanding his complicity in several terrorist attacks on India. 

The authors draw an equivalence between terror groups like LeT, Al Qaeda, and Jaish on the one hand and so-called Hindu terror organizations on the other. The authors' dislike for India's National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval, borders on the disturbing. 

The Pulwama terrorist attack of 2019 is hinted at as a "false-flag" operation, using the same line of reasoning that would also make the 9/11 attacks in the United States a similar false flag operation. Yes, truly. 

India is the perpetual aggressor in this book, Pakistan the eternal wronged state at the receiving end. In other words, the authors seek to profit from luring gullible Indians into buying the book by promising them lurid details of spycraft, but delivers a left-liberal screed that whitewashes radical terrorism without compunctions.

© 2023, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.

Saturday, April 15, 2023

Aryaa: An Anthology of Vedic Women—Review

Aryaa: An Anthology of Vedic Women

Ten Women Who Shaped Ancient India.

Aryaa is a collection of ten stories from Vedic and post-Vedic literature that brings to life the stories of ten women, each unique, each strong, each of whose story is an adventure in itself, and who shaped in small, and big, ways ancient India.

Eight of the women featured figure in the Mahabharata, while two are from the Upanishads. There is Shakuntala, born to an apsara and a sage, and who became the progenitor of the race of the Bharatas. Chitrangada, the warrior princess who married the Pandava Arjuna and whose stepson, Babruvahana, would meet his father in battlefield. One cannot talk about Chitraganda without also writing about Ulupi, the Naga princess who basically kidnapped Arjuna to have as her husband. From that union was born Iravan. The tale of Damayanti is perhaps the most romantic tale ever penned and whose account was narrated to Yudhishthira as a reminder that what was the present had repeated in the past; such was the way of itihasa—history. Subhadra, whose posthumous son was carried on the lineage of the Pandavas. Or Madhavi, who raises her father, Yayati, back to heaven after his fall on the strength of her merits. Then there is Satyavati, the fisherwoman who ensured her lineage survived in the face of the vicissitudes of fate and the dictates of karma. That leaves two women—Gargi and Maitreyi. Their accounts figure prominently in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. Whereas Ved Vyasa is considered the composer of the Mahabharata, he is called the collector, organizer, of the Vedas. In that sense, even these two accounts are of women Vyasa wrote about. These two women are not only unique individuals in their own right, but also one of the most learned sages mentioned in the Vedas. 

Sunday, April 9, 2023

Mahabharata The Epic and the Nation, by GN Devy - Review

Mahabharata The Epic and the Nation, by GN Devy

What gives the Mahabharata its "timeless magic", what about the epic has captivated the imaginations of millions, do its characters make it so captivating, or is it the philosophical ideas captured therein? The book avers that it answers all these questions. 

Ved Vyasa is considered the author of the Mahabharata. The appellation Ved Vyasa means someone who divided the Vedas. Ved Vyasa can therefore refer to more than one person. Krishna Dwaipayana is also called Ved Vyasa. 'Krishna' means dark, and Dwaipayana means 'island born' and is derived from 'dweep', which means island. He was dark in color and was born on an island, which is why he was called Krishna Dwaipayana. The author translates it as 'Krishna of the Dark Island'. A cursory look at any Sanskrit dictionary may have sufficed by way of clarification, like Monier-Williams or Apte. The author didn't deem it necessary. One expected better from someone who has written and edited ninety books and was awarded a Padma Shri in 2014.

Thursday, March 30, 2023

Ajaya, by Anand Neelkanthan—Review

Ajaya: Roll of the Dice, by Anand Neelkanthan

A screed and a rant, but not a book or a story.

This is a book written with the sole purpose of inciting outrage, and therefore, publicity, and therefore sales. 

Is this an alternate retelling of the Mahabharat? No. It reads more like the outpouring of a mind that sees discrimination everywhere and consequently projects it on to the characters in his book. The molester of a woman, the instigator, the one who cheered are the heroes and protagonists. Tells something, tells all, doesn’t it, and then some more, about the book and its author?