A 21st Century Mahabharata


Of the two itihasas, I much prefer the Mahabharata. I don't recall a time when I wasn't fascinated with the it, it's multiplicity of stories and insights and the immense synthesis of an entire civilizations understanding of life, the universe and everything else. I have some facility with Sanskrit and my bookshelves are lined with translations and transcreations of the epic. Ganguli's five volumes from the late Victorian era to the Gita Press version in Sanskrit and Hindi, Van Buitenen's unfinished translation from Chicago, Masoom Raza's script for the B.R Chopra T.V version, the unfinished Clay Sanskrit Library translation, Purushottam Lal's transcreation in the Writer's Workshop (one of my most cherished possessions: fifteen handbound volumes signed by Lal himself with his exquisite calligraphy and illustrated with Patra paintings commissioned just for the purpose), and more recently, Bibek Debroy's ten volumes from Penguin and Carol Satyamurti's blank verse rendering from Norton.

Then there are the great abridgments from Rajagopalachari where I first read it (but as A.K Ramanujan said, no Indian ever reads the Mahabharata for the first time – I heard the stories from my grandmother before I could read a word), R.K Narayan and K.M Munshi's Krishnavatara.

Still, I find something missing. After all, the MbH is not just a story, though it's a gripping tale, it's not just a philosophical treatise, though it's filled with philosophical insights, it's not just a religious treatise even though it's of immense importance to Hindus and it's not just a history though it's depicting life of a certain time and place. In it's own words, what's not here is nowhere else; it's both the map and the territory.

My first task is to convince myself and then you, the reader, that the ideas, the mood and the insights of the epic are still important today. Shouldn't take much convincing – there's no other major work of literature I know that starts with millions of people and ends with exactly seven survivors. Everyone else dies in a battle over power and control over nature, a zero sum game with a vengeance.

Seems familiar doesn't it?

Among its many names, the Mahabharata's called Jaya. I suppose just reading such a massive text is a sign of victory. I am not sure if I will be able to read it all in a year or ten or ever, but it's not a linear text; digressions are central to the story and I plan on taking several digressions. Don't be surprised if there's a sideshow on big data or mathematical logic; they too need to be dissolved into this ocean. Think about it as an explorer's diary, or as I call it, a Jayary.

What’s next?

The Jayary is the Mahabharata for a networked age. In a previous yuga, the Jaya claimed “what’s not here is nowhere else.” Let’s modify that a bit, shall we? Let's say our goal is “what can’t be reached from here can’t be reached from anywhere else.” The new Jaya is a circulatory system of knowledge that nourishes the whole world with its arteries and veins and capillaries, and of course, with a heart that pumps dharma into the world.

Jayary had a previous avatar in 2015-2016. It was one of the hardest things I have ever done. As I return to the project after several years, my first goal is to get back into the rhythm of the project. How? Easy: by cleaning up what I have written. In doing so I want to meet the need that prompted the project: “to convince myself that the ideas, the mood and the insights of the epic are still important today”