Book Review: 'The Mahabharata' Volume 8 translated by Bibek Debroy

Friday, 9 May 2014 - 3:08pm IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna
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Book: The Mahabharata, Volume 8
Translated by Bibek Debroy
Publisher: Penguin Books India

“Impose taxes so that both the king and the producer have a share in the outcome of the work.” Sage words, one would say. What would you say if I told you these words are from the longest parva of the Mahabharata, and not from Kautilya’s Arthashastra, as you may have been tempted to guess?

Few people know that the longest parva in the Mahabharata is the Shanti Parva. It, along with the subsequent Anushasan Parva, is also the most ignored in most retellings of the epic. Even Devdutt Pattanaik’s excellent Jaya gave short shrift to these two parvas – which together add up to more than 19,000 shlokas and form almost a quarter of the unabridged epic. Without getting into the reasons, this alone makes the eighth volume of Dr Bibek Debroy’s ongoing translation of the unabridged Mahabharata, published by Penguin India, and based on the Critical Edition published by the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, a must-read. It is also the longest volume of the series thus far – clocking in at more than 700 pages. It covers the entire Souptika and Stree Parvas, and from the Shanti Parva it contains the entire Raja Dharma and Apad Dharma upa-Parvas (sub parvas), and 1,000 shlokas from the Moksha Dharma Parva. This book then contains a whopping 8,500 verses.

When Arjuna was faced with a dilemma on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, he had Krishna as his charioteer, who imparted the profound wisdom of karma in a concise 18 chapters known as the Bhagvad Gita. Arjuna’s dilemma happened before the war, when he could see the terrible cost that would have to be paid for the victory of dharma over adharma. Yudhishthira found himself in the horns of a similar dilemma after the war. Indeed, during the war, he even berated Arjuna for what he perceived as cowardice, leading to a potentially fatal altercation between the two brothers. It was averted only through the deft intervention of Krishna. This is described in chapter 48 of the Karna-vadha Parva (covered in volume seven). Even when Duryodhana wanted to give over the kingdom to Yudhishthira and leave, Yudhishthira was clear that this was a fight to the finish, stating, “If, between the two of us, both of us remain alive, all beings will be uncertain about who has emerged victorious.” This is described in the Tirtha Yatra Parva (volume seven).

After the war however, Yudhishthira did not want to ascend the throne over the bodies of his relatives who had lost their lives in the war. Such was his adamance that even the combined entreaties of Arjuna, Bhima, Droupadi, the other Pandavas, and even Krishna could not budge him. And this thus is the start of the longest parva in the epic Mahabharata – a gargantuan 13,000 shlokas, most of which are in the form of lengthy question and answer sessions between a dying Bhishma and the newly anointed emperor Yudhishthira. 

It is a veritable storehouse of statecraft, fables, while also shedding light on cultural mores prevalent at the time. More than anything, readers will find the animal stories embedded in this parva the most informative and entertaining, and would have encountered these in other books and collections. The Amar Chitra Katha series come to mind. Like the story of Lomasha the cat and Palita the rat, who came to spend one night together because of hunters, a mongoose named Harika and an owl named Chandraka. This story alone is perhaps worth the price of the book. It uses this fable to elucidate who should be treated as an enemy and who as a friend, and the value of partnerships, even those formed in times of distress and compulsion – “If someone wishes to cross a deep and great river with a piece of wood, the wood takes him across, and he takes the wood across too.” And while political parties may find much to rejoice in this particular statement – “There are well-wishers in the form of enemies. There are enemies in the form of friends.... there is no friendship that is permanent. There is no enmity that is permanent” – the tale was stating a pragmatic fact of life.

Similarly, it came as a revelation of sorts to read that the book has more than a line of advice for rulers on how to deal with whistleblowers. Their identity should be protected and their safety guaranteed. This sage piece of advice would not be out of place in manuals for modern administrators. That it is from a 3,000 year old book makes it that much profounder. The advice to the king is straightforward – “Whether a person is paid or is not paid, if he comes and tells you that the royal treasury is being destroyed and depleted by a minister, you must hear him in secret and protect him from ministers.” As is the warning that such whistleblowers are at grave danger from the ones they seek to expose – “Ministers tend to kill such informants. All those who destroy the treasury work collectively against the one who protects the treasury.”

I could go on and on about the book, but I will end with two pieces of advice. First, do not be daunted if you have not read the first seven volumes. The story of the Mahabharata is not likely to be unknown to you. You will not lose much by picking up this eighth volume. Second, the animal fables, the stories, the advice on statecraft - all make the book quite an enjoyable read. It is a Mahabharata that you have probably not encountered before. Be prepared to be surprised, yet again, by the most epic of epics.

(Abhinav Agarwal is a a software professional in the field of analytics, data visualizations, and spatial BI. A computer engineer, and a gold medalist from the Indian Institute of Management at Bangalore, his interests are reading, writing, and photography. His tweets at @abhinavagarwal. All views expressed are personal.)




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