Mahabharata: A Modern Translation
is an updated translation and reinterpretation of the Sanskrit epic
of ancient Indian literature. It is the longest literary work in the world, with one hundred thousand verses. A legendary narrative, it follows the Kurukshetra War and its impact on the Kaurava royal family and the Pandava princes. It takes place over twelve books and includes philosophical and devotional materials, including discussions of the four goals of life. It includes many of the most famous works of Hindu literature, including the Bhagavad Gita,
as well as an abbreviated version of the Ramayana
. Although authorship is traditionally attributed to the Hindu sage Vyasa, who is also a major character in the narrative, little is known about its original composition. Exploring themes of responsibility, virtue, truth, the endless battle between order and chaos and good and evil, and the nature of the spirit in Hindu tradition, it is considered one of the most important works of early human literature. Mahabharata: A Modern Translation
was widely praised for making it accessible to modern readers, although it was controversial among believers and readers of the original version for some of her interpretations.
Divided into eighteen segments, Mahabharata: A Modern Translation
begins with the origins of the families who are the focus of the book. Sauti, a storyteller returning from a sacrifice, relates the story of the sacred texts as he remembers them. It is the tale of the people descended from the ancient emperor Bharata. Shantanu, the king of Hastinapura, is married to the river goddess Ganga. She gives birth to Devata, a wise and strong boy who is the heir to the throne. However, after Ganga dies and returns to godhood, Shantanu marries a woman named Satyavati, who has a son named Vyasa. He promises her that her future son by him will be king. They have two sons, but both die young. Satyavati asks Vyasa to father children with the widows of her dead son, so she’ll maintain her claim to the throne. He does, and one of the widows gives birth to a blind child named Dritharashtra, and her sister gives birth to a pale-skinned child named Pandu. Because of his blindness, Dritharashtra is not eligible to be king, and Pandu becomes king. However, Pandu has been cursed and will die if he lies with a woman. He marries Kunti, who is blessed with exceptional fertility. They have three children—the brave Yudhishthira, the mighty Bhima, and the warrior Arjuna. However, she has a secret fourth child, Karna, whom she had abandoned before getting married.
Madri, Pandu’s second wife, also gives birth to two children, the twins Nakula and Sahadev. These five children become known as the Pandavas. King Pandu dies after mating with Madri, and his blind brother becomes king. The Pandavas marry the same woman, Draupadi, whom they treat as their common wife. Dritharashtra and his wife, Gandhari, have a hundred children, known as the Kauravas, led by the eldest, Duryodhana. The two clans become vicious rivals as the Pandavas win the love of the people with their strength, kindness, and good deeds. The Kauravas are seen as jealous and wicked. Duryodhana teams up with the Pandavas’ jealous half-brother, Karna, along with their uncle Shakuni to drive the Pandavas out of the kingdom. They challenge their rival clan to a game of dice and manage to defeat the Pandavas by cheating. The Pandavas lose everything, including their wife Draupadi, to the Kauravas and are exiled.
The Kauvaras sentence the Pandavas to a twelve-year exile, followed by a year of anonymity and shunning. The Kauvaras, however, don’t plan to let their rivals simply disappear into the countryside. They send many assassins after them and attempt to kill them in exile. However, the Pandavas manage to escape every time, finding refuge with their maternal uncle, Lord Sri Krishna. The thirteen years pass and the Pandavas return to claim their piece of the empire. However, the Kauvaras don’t plan to honor their part of the arrangement. They refuse to surrender the land, leading to the Great War of Kurukshetra. This epic battle takes place in the fields of the Kuru clan and lasts for eighteen days. This episode of the narrative is the basis for the holy Hindu scripture known as the Bhagavad Gita
. The Pandavas ultimately triumph, reclaiming the land for their family, but their friends, relatives, and loved ones die in the battle. The narrative ends with a test in heaven, as they are cleansed of their sins and join their brothers who died in battle in the afterlife, as Sauti closes his narrative.
Carole Satyamurti is a British poet, sociologist, and translator who has taught at the University of East London and at the Tavistock Clinic. She runs a poetry program at the National Gallery in London, and is the author of multiple works of poetry, many printed in the Oxford University Press. She is the 1986 winner of the National Poetry Competition and the 2000 winner of the Cholmondeley Award.