T. S. Rukmani (ed.), The Mahabharata: What is not here is nowhere else (yennéhâsti na tadkvacit)

That the Mahabharata is one of the greatest cultural legacies of humanity is no secret. That it is the longest integrated work of literature in any language is beyond question. That it has been a powerful source of inspiration in the construction of Hindu culture is also a well-recognize fact. No other work, whether of history or literature, poetry or philosophy has breathed life into a great civilization and sustained it for more than two millennia as the Mahabharata has done. Whereas scriptures to which religious traditions are anchored are regarded as revealed and infallible, the Mahabharata is essentially a narrative of sacred history that commands all the respect and reverence of a great composition, but is not a scripture in the usual sense of the term. The precise origins of this immortal masterpiece are shrouded in the mist and mystery of unrecorded lore.

The Mahabharata  has enjoyed countless translations, adaptations,  and scholarly commentaries. Its legendary characters have become living personages in India’s long history and rich lore. Lord Krishna who plays a central role in the epic is divinity incarnate, revered and worshiped in countless temples in the Hindu world.

Such a magnificent creation is the theme of this fascinating book. It is a reflective anthology by a galaxy of scholars who have studied the Mahabharata with interest and scholarly scrutiny. As befits a work whose message and meaning transcend religious and cultural boundaries, the commentators in this volume come from Canberra and California, from Norway and Tel Aviv, from Georgia and Canada and India and more.

With their varied  backgrounds and keen insights, the scholars explore a variety of aspects of the grand epic, without exhausting the inexhaustible. Madhav M Deshpande wonders if there can be a single interpretation of the work, and the pages that follow illustrate his thesis.  He discusses the role of the listener in the oral tradition, for it should not be forgotten that the marvel of India’s cultural continuity rested largely on the oral tradition during many long centuries.  Barbara Gombach reflects on how the Mahabharata could have become a smriti. Perhaps, she suggests, some Brahmin scholars put various ancient remembrances together  and brought out a memorable compendium. Knut A. Jocobsen  focuses on Kapila, suggesting that the revered personage with that name probably referred to more than one individual in Hindu cultural history, a not uncommon occurrence in Indic mythopoeic history.  Aditya Adarkar and  Christopher Key Chapple, Edeltraud Harzer, T. S. Rukmani  , and Lisa E. Crothers, discuss separately Karna, Bhihma, Dharmaputra, and Duryodhana in separate essays. Peter M. Scharf analyzes the Mehabharata version of the Ramayana (Ramopakhyana) at some length. Julin F. Woods talks about fatalism and freewill in the epic under the title of Destiny and Human Initiative. Greg Bailey gives an insightful analysis of the shades of meaning of dharma in the epic.  Nick Sutton handles the same theme from another perspective.  Gerald J. Larson brings out the multi-faceted nature of the epic. Other topics explored include theodicy (Emily H. Hudson) and value systems (Gautam Chatterjee). The possible date of the epic is calculated from astronomical considerations by B. H. Narahari Achar. One can see from this incomplete listing the range and variety of the many facets of the epic that these scholars have brought to our attention and understanding. All the articles are amply  end-noted to ensure that these are not random speculations on matters that need to be studied in depth before one makes any comment.

Scholarship on the Mahabharata is ancient. In India rhapsodists have always given their commentaries on the work. Since the time the work was made accessible to foreigners, there have been many reflections on it by Non-Hindus also. Since  the rise of Indology as a discipline, scholarly commentaries on various aspects of the work have increased considerably in volume and depth. But there have not been too many books that bring together such a rich variety of perspectives from such an international group of scholars as we find in this book. This too adds to the weight and value of the work, for it has raised India’s grand epic to a new level of universalism. No matter what legitimate criticisms Hindus may have about the West, it is only fair to recognize that there continue to be within the Western matrix thinkers, writers, and scholars who dedicate themselves to serious studies of alien cultures out of genuine interest for their subject.

The reader of this book, whether familiar with the epic or not, will find here a treasure-chest of perspectives on the great classic. Most people linked to the Hindu tradition know in rough outline the story line of the epic. Thanks to television, millions have familiarized themselves with this in even greater detail. But not many people look into its history, characters, episodes, and ethical framework in analytical modes. Fewer still even know that such approaches are possible or exist in the world. This book offers to the educated reader views and insights that the he/she may not have considered previously from casual reading. Interpretations by competent authors  enable the lay person to understand the not so apparent features of  great works of art and contribute to their deeper appreciation.

The world of Hindu scholarship should be grateful to Professor Rukmani from bringing out this volume which is destined to have an honored place in the literature on the Mahanharata.

September 18, 2007


About Varadaraja V. Raman

Physicist, philosopher, explorer of ideas, bridge-builder, devotee of Modern Science and Enlightenment, respecter of whatever is good and noble in religious traditions as well as in secular humanism,versifier and humorist, public speaker, dreamer of inter-cultural,international,inter-religious peace.
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