Mahabharata viewed in a new perspective | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, July 18, 2016 / LAST MODIFIED: 01:58 AM, July 18, 2016

Mahabharata viewed in a new perspective


Publisher: Murdhonno, Dhaka, Year: 2014, Price: Tk 180

MAHABHARATA, an ancient Indian epic, literally means 'Great India' and propagates 'eternal truth' for humanity. Of all the epics of the world, the Mahabharata is the second oldest (next only to the Ramayana), and the second largest (next only to the Gilgamesh). The Mahabharata is a circle whose centre is everywhere but circumference nowhere. It was the purpose of the author Subrata Kumar Das in his book Aamar Mahabharat (My Mahabharata) to explore the outwardly unseen facets of the Indian epic, which is universally appealing and immensely popular to the Bengali literati as well.

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Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore considered the Mahabharata as India's history of past thousands of years. Tagore did not consider it as a book; rather it was the subtotal of the experiences of the inhabitants on earth. Tagore considered the Mahabharata as a great tragedy as it ended with the death of so many people. But its uniqueness is that when the Pandavas decisively won the battle of Kurukshretra, the real tragedy began. The protagonists realized the 'defeat in victory' as we can see darkness in light, experience silence in sound and death in life. Subrata has tried to see the five-millennia-old book as a documentation of the bygone history that represents the spirit of the whole nation.

It goes to the credit of Subrata that in his late forties he could delve deep into the labyrinthine mystery of this ancient epic and feel the pulse of the presumably greatest book of the world. In a book only of 112 pages, he has tried to discuss the whole gamut of the Mahabharata, which is several hundred times bulkier. He has succeeded in his mission with singular devotion. To appreciate his book, we should read inside the lines, between the lines and beyond the lines. Only then we will be able to have a feel of the vast canvas that is the Mahabharata. Subrata has touched the fringe of the epic and has presented before us the Mahabharata in miniature, preserving its essence.

We are bewildered by the super-human qualities of Krishna Dwaipayana Vyasa, the author of the Mahabharata. He was named Krishna because he was black-complexioned; he was named Dwaipayana because he was born in a Dwip (island). He was popularly known as Veda Vyasa as he divided the Vedas (earliest scriptures of the Aryans) into explicit categories. It may be worth mentioning that Krishna Dwaipayana Vyasa authored not only the Mahabharata but also most of the Puranas. Considering the bulk of volumes, scholars were forced to surmise that Dwapayana Vyasa was not a single person, rather it was the collective name of many writers writing for centuries. Subrata has rightly drawn our attention to the enormous knowledge of Vyasa, who knew mythology, history, politics, war-strategy, apart from sociology, anthropology and many other disciplines millennia ago. For Subrata, it was surprising how even a group of writers could write such lofty pieces with appreciable coherence. 

The Mahabharata is a gold mine. Subrata has endeavored to penetrate its layers to show its contents. The light emanating from this gold mine simply dazzled our eyes and baffled our senses. It is easier to say what is not in the Mahabharata than to say what is in it. The Mahabharata is the epitome of human experiences manifest in different taboos, totems, and customs. The Mahabharata was relevant five millennia ago; no doubt it was relevant to the times of Gautama Buddha and Jesus Christ as it is relevant today, in all the ramifications of the global family of the Homo sapiens called 'man'.

Subrata has thrown penetrating insights into the narratological acumen of Vyasa. Mythical references claim that originally Vyasa composed a Mahabharata of six million shlokas (verses). Of them, three million were preserved in the heaven (Devaloka), 15 hundred thousand reserved for the ancestors (Pitriloka), 14 hundred thousand for the demigods (Gandhorbaloka) and only one hundred thousand were publicized in the world (Noroloka). We know that the Mahabharata developed from the 8,800 shlokas of 'Joy's 'Bharata' chapter which ran into 24,000 shlokas. And the one hundred thousand shlokas known as the Mahabharata were narrated by Ugrashroba Souti. The original listeners of Souti's story were the Sounak Rishis (sages) and others. Such an epic of universal dimensions would not suffice to be narrated by one person, however super-intelligent and extra-meritorious he or she might be. So, Vyasa engaged different narrators to convey the episodes in the Mahabharata. It speaks of the pragmatic sagacity of Vyasa. In the book Aamar Mahabharat Subrata has analyzed the narratology from a literary point of view.  

Subrata has hinted at a very significant coincidence about the numerical number 18 (eighteen). It may be noted that the Mahabharata has 18 chapters (Parvas); the Kurukshetra War continued for 18 days; there were 18 Akshouhini soldiers – 11 in the Kaurava side, and 7 in the Pandava side. Furthermore, there are 18 chapters in the Gita, which is told in the Mahabharata also. And thus how this number took a special value in the ancient India has been evaluated by Subrata. At some stage of history this number 18 earned spiritual and religious overtones, as numbers did in many scriptures of other religions. Even today there are many temples where devotes have to ascend 18 stairs to have a glimpse of the Lord.

Subrata has again enlightened us when he elaborately describes Vyasa's war strategy. In his small but worthy book, Subrata has referred that what one Akshouhini is. We know that three million people took part in the great war and all but seven died. Such a huge 'dance of death' could not have happened in a small arena. Here lies the pragmatic wisdom of Vyasa that he spread the area of battle over seventy three square miles. Also mind blowing is the hierarchy of the soldiers. There were nine cadres among soldiers very much like the present day army ranks of Lieutenant, Captain, Major, Lt. Colonel, Colonel, Brigadier, Major General, Lt. General, and General, though in different names. No doubt, Subrata deserves thanks for making such a comparison between the old and the present systems.

I fully agree with Subrata that throughout the history of mankind there is no such multi-dimensional character like Krishna – the profound scholar, clever diplomat, wise counselor and superb war-strategist. Krishna is the central figure and the dynamic force behind the Mahabharata. All events in the epic revolve around him. So, our author has written a chapter on him.

I feel happy to see the book, published in Dhaka, available to buy on Amazon that Bengalis across the globe can reach it. I wish, some organization could come forth to encourage the writer to render the book into English.  


The reviewer is formerly Principal of Women's College, Nawalgarh, India; and now lives in Brampton, Ontario, Canada. 

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