In by HS

An Illustrated Retelling of the Mahabharata

Book Cover: Jaya

High above the sky stands Swarga, paradise, abode of the gods. Still above is Vaikuntha, heaven, abode of God. The doorkeepers of Vaikuntha are the twins, Jaya and Vijaya, both whose names mean ‘victory’. One keeps you in Swarga; the other raises you into Vaikuntha. In Vaikuntha there is bliss forever, in Swarga there is pleasure for only as long as you deserve. What is the difference between Jaya and Vijaya? Solve this puzzle and you will solve the mystery of the Mahabharata.

7 reasons to buy Jaya: Illustrated Retelling of Mahabharata by Devdutt Pattanaik

1. The whole Mahabharata is presented systematically in 18 sections and108 9chapters, restructured to facilitate easy reading and comprehension of his grand and complex meditation of the human condition.
2. The stories are embellished with 250 line illustrations; the style is unique, a break from standard visual formats (Amar Chitra Katha or DC comics)
3. It includes tales not just from the classical Sanskrit but also from regional and folk variants from across India and even South East Asia. There are women’s stories (Satyavati, Gandhari, Kunti, Draupadi) as well as queer narratives (Aravan, Budh, Ila, Shikhandi).
4. The story of Krishna is part of the great epic, from his birth to his death;even his song, the Bhagavad Gita, is retold in simple prose.
5. Every chapter has comments that draws attention to variations of the story, the intention of the story, the rituals and customs that may have emerged from the story and practiced even today. There are Duryodhan temples in Uttarakhand and Draupadi temples in Tamil Nadu, for example.
6. It explains why the epic is part of the grand Vedic cosmos and how it cannot be understood without appreciating Ramayana, Vishnu Purana, Shiva Purana and Devi Purana
7. This book has an ending that has never ever been told in any retelling of the Mahabharata. This ending is the reason the book was originally called Jaya by Vyasa.

Publisher: Penguin Books India
Reviews:Bibek Debroy wrote:

Devdutt Pattanaik is a master story-teller, as his several books on Indian mythology testify. However, why the Mahabharata? There are several translations and retellings floating around. What value addition can a new one offer? Where is the USP? There are four excellent reasons to read this book.

First, the illustrations, and until carefully reading this, I had not realized that Devdutt does his own illustrations, with some help from his driver.

Second, this is not quite an abridged retelling of the Mahabharata. It is a collection of stories, which of course are the core stories from the Mahabharata. However, these stories occur in other places too, such as the Puranas. What is the Mahabharata? We tend to think of it as the Sanskrit Mahabharata. Unlike the Ramayana, where there are several versions, authored by several different people, the Mahabharata has been authored by Vedavyasa or Vyasadeva, more accurately, Krishna Dvaipayana. Vedavyasa or Vyasadeva is a title, conferred on someone who collates and classifies the Vedas. In each era, there is a different Vedavyasa and there have been 28 Vedavyasas so far, Krishna Dvaipayana being the last. So runs the belief.

There were different regional versions of the Sanskrit Mahabharata too, more than 1000. Pune’s Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute started a mammoth exercise in 1916, ending in 1966. A group of scholars examined all the 1000-plus versions and produced what they believed to be the authentic text, shorn of subsequent interpolations. This is known as the Critical Version. Many popular stories do not figure in this critical version, such as Vedavyasa dictating to Ganesha or Krishna saving Droupadi when she was being disrobed by Duhshasana. However, beliefs and myths do not necessarily adhere to a Sanskrit cum authenticated scholarly version, a point made in a slightly different context by Wendy Doniger in her study of Hinduism.

Devdutt’s third USP is that, while he recounts the Mahabharata stories, he doesn’t always stick to the Sanskrit version. He uses stuff from popular renderings of the Mahabharata and from the Puranas too. The stories are embellished and become richer. My favourite is the folk-tale from Tamil Nadu, about the origin of “Aviyal”. Duryodhana attempted to poison Bhima and Bhima drowned in the river, travelling to the city of the Nagas. Everyone thought Bhima was dead and prepared a funeral feast for him, with vegetables and spices. When Bhima surfaced, everyone was delighted. More to the point, Bhima cooked a special dish, with all the vegetables and spices thrown in, and that became “Aviyal”.

Fourth, and this is probably the most important USP, this isn’t a straight abridged retelling of the Mahabharata. There are several explanatory boxes that help understand the context. It is these boxes that are the richest part of Devdutt’s rendering and these make it different from a pedestrian retelling of the story. Increasingly, English is becoming the language of communication, even among young Indians. There should be translations of the Mahabharata in English and several such have emerged, including those in non-print form. But these presuppose that readers (or viewers) know or understand the context. However, that assumption isn’t always true and it is this that Devdutt Pattanaik, the interpreter of myths, has accomplished in this version.

Recently, “Sunday Guardian” asked me about the best books I had read recently. I have no idea why, probably for some year-end supplement. In my professional career as an economist, I read several books, almost always centred on economics. I responded that I would exclude such professional books and restrict myself to the “non-professional”. Having said that, the only book I could immediately think of was this one. It is a great book and it is a pity that it hasn’t so far received the recognition it deserves. Part of the reason may be the title. This isn’t an illustrated retelling of the Mahabharata. While it is that, it shouldn’t be looked at as only that. It is much more than that and perhaps this narrow interpretation has deterred people, who look at the title and the cover, without getting into what the book actually contains.