R.K. Narayan’s Translation of the Mahabharata

Perhaps there is something to be said for prose translations!

As my summer vacation is coming to a close, I am continuing to read various books here and there.  One is R.K. Narayan’s prose translation & abridgement of the Mahabharata…which is probably an infinitely better way of getting to know this epic than the excerpts in our anthology are!    Perhaps one of these days I’ll assign this book!

If you’re coming to this entry after watching Peter Brook’s film version or perhaps a YouTube video of the Indian TV series, Narayan’s translation gives a very, very different perspective on this epic.  For one, it’s prose.  For another, Narayan grew up in India, so Indian culture was *his* culture.  Here is a link to some information about him and his work:


This biography is a little old as it predates Mr. Narayan’s death in 2001.


For more flavor, read this essay:


Now I have some ideas for my Winter 2009 reading list!

But back to The Mahabharata…the story of a family feud with cosmic consequences…

This translation begins with Bhishma’s birth.  Below is a picture of him on his deathbed after the battle between the cousins.

  However, at the beginning of the Mahabharata, he is a baby that his father, King Satanu, has rescued from his mother, the goddess Ganga (yes, she is the goddess of the Ganges River).  (She appears to have drowned her previous children, but, as she reveals later, these children were incarnations of deities who were to be punished by briefly living as humans.  These deities had stolen a sacred cow, and the deity that became Bhishma had been the mastermind of the crime.)  After Ganga returns to her divine form, King Satanu remarries the poet Vyasa’s mother.  Bhishma will eventually take a vow of celibacy so that the new queen’s sons may inherit the throne.Here is a picture of an older Vyasa dictating the Mahabharata to the god Ganesh:

As R.K. Narayan notes in his introduction, we will see a lot of Vyasa in this version.  He intrigued Narayan.  After all, the author is a common character in modernist works, and our translator was of that era.

Vyasa’s younger half-brother does become king, but Bhishma wins his three wives for him.  Actually, he takes the three women, whisking them away to his half-brother’s kingdom.  One wife, Amba, is betrothed to another king, and, as in Peter Brook’s film, she is allowed to return to her fiance who then rejects her.  She returns to Bhishma who reminds her of his vow of celibacy.  She then vows to kill him; in fact, at the time of the battle between the cousins, she will return as a male warrior fighting on the side of the Pandava, and she will help to kill her enemy.  Below is a picture of Amba vowing to kill Bhishma.

Recently Indian artist Usha Rani performed a one-person show from Amba’s point of view:


The other two wives remain with their husband, NotBhishma (OK, that’s not his name, but it might as well be).  When he dies, they are childless, and Satyavati (the queen) tries to convince Bhishma to marry them, to continue the family line, to cheer them up, etc..  He refuses, and she has to call on her son, Vyasa, who, at this point, is a hermit.  He comes to the palace as he is…hairy, disheveled…and the queens are disgusted.  One closes her eyes in fear; her child (Dhritarashtra) is born blind.  Another turns pale; her son (Pandu) remains pale.  She then puts her maid in her bed in place of her; the maid’s son is healthy.  He (Vidura) will become the king’s adviser.

At first, Pandu is the king, and he is married to Kunti and Madri.  By the way, according to one legend, Kunti freely chose her husband.  (Below is a picture of a shadow puppet performance of the Mahabharata.  This type of theater from Indonesia is called Wayang Kulit.

However, as we may see in Peter Brook’s film, Pandu is cursed after killing what he believes to be a gazelle.  Once cursed, he and his wives go into exile, and Dhritarashtra becomes regent with Bhishma as his adviser.  The blindfolded woman in this picture is Dhiritarashtra’s queen, Gandhari who did this so that she would not see more than her husband could.

In R.K. Narayan’s translation, all of this is prologue.  The story begins with the birth of the cousins: Pandu’s sons (the five Pandava) and Dhritarashtra’s sons (the 100 Kaurava).  At first, the cousins are raised together at the royal court in Hastinapura.  Dhritarashtra (now king) tries to be fair to his sons and his nephews alike.  Eventually, Drona (the man at the right in the picture above) comes to educate the boys. This situation falls apart when the Pandava, especially Arjuna, prove to be more skilled warriors than their cousins are.  The king’s eldest son, Duryodhana, takes it especially hard.

In fact, when Dhritarishtra (who is portrayed as a weak, wishy-washy man in this translation) names the oldest Pandava, Yudhistira, to be his heir, Duryodhana plots to kill his cousins by setting their palace on fire.  It is a highly flammable palace, being made of shellac.  Since this is just the beginning of the story, the brothers escape and go into exile where Arjuna will win and all of them will marry the princess Draupadi, daughter of a king whom Drona had humiliated.

The narrator of the epic explains that Draupadi is fated to marry the five brothers because the god she prays to misinterprets her cry for her “husband–husband–husband–husband–husband.”   (She had been the devoted wife of a sage who eventually abandoned her.)

After the Pandavas’ wedding, their uncle the king decides to reconcile with them (despite his oldest son).  As a wedding present, the king gives his nephews half of his kingdom.  Originally, this part of the kingdom is a desert, but the Pandava are able to improve it vastly until it is far superior to the Kaurava’s half.  The narrator attributes this situation to Yudhistira’s virtue.  Duryodhana continues to plot against his cousins. This time, he decides to embroil Yudhistira in a game of dice, knowing that he can neither refuse nor play.

Able neither to refuse nor to play, Yudhistira eventually loses his kingdom, his brothers, himself, and Draupadi to his cousin.  Duryodhana and his brothers are gleeful because now they may treat their cousins as their slaves.  They are especially happy to humiliate Draupadi.
She calls on her husbands and the onlookers to save her, but no one is willing or able to…until the god Krishna intervenes.  Then the king follows, granting her a boon.  She wishes for her husbands’ freedom.  He allows this, returning their kingdom and riches to them as well.  The Pandavas go home…until Duryodhana lures Yudhistira back for another game of dice.  This time, when he loses, he agrees to go into exile for twelve years and live incognito for a thirteenth year.

All the while, while the Pandavas are in exile, they are gathering strength and allies for the great battle.  It’s true that towards the end they, especially Draupadi, lose patience and, in their year of living incognito, they have to battle their cousins anyway when the Kaurava attack their employers.  (In this battle, the warrior Arjuna, disguised as a eunuch, helps the king’s cowardly son Uttara to defeat Duryodhana and Karna (the Pandava’s half-brother but Duryodhana’s staunch ally.)

At the end of the thirteenth year, the battle begins.  Narayan acknowledges that he has briefly summarized this section of the epic.  However, as he mentioned earlier, this part of the epic does not interest him as much as others do.  He is particularly intrigued by Vyasa’s inserting himself into his story.  In fact, after the first dice game, Dhritarishtra calls on Vyasa to talk sense into his son, and Vyasa succeeds somewhat.  The king will call on him again when the cousins are about to go to war and he attempts to make peace between them.

Of course, the king’s peacemaking efforts fail.  Krishna serves as the Pandava’s envoy, but he is a very assertive envoy, speaking up for his side against the opposition.  He agrees to let his men serve on the Kaurava side while he will fight with the Pandava.

 The battle is brutal and bloody.  It would be interesting to see what a different translator would have done with this section.

The Pandavas vanquish the Kaurava, killing all but one of the king’s sons as well as Drona and Karna.  On the other hand, all of the Pandavas’ sons except one are killed as well.  Even Bhishma is mortally wounded in battle although he lives long enough to pass on his knowledge to Yudhistira, the new king.  (Narayan states that many readers are especially interested in this part of the Mahabharata.  Others are enthralled by discourses on religion and philosophy; in one chapter, Narayan recounts an example.)  Having fought this terrible battle, Yudhistira is extremely disillusioned and nearly renounces his throne, but his wife and brothers persuade him not to.  At times, they are very harsh.

Narayan does not really include this section in his translation, but I’ve read that at the end of the epic, after all of the Pandava die, Yudhistira goes to heaven and finds his cousins, including Duryodhana, there.  His family members are in hell.

As a postscript, here are links to sites about the film versions of the Mahabharata.  The first is an Indian film from 1965.


The other is Peter Brook’s 1989 version:


Below are pictures from the 1980s TV miniseries by B.R. Chopra.  (Whereas Brook’s version is “merely” nine hours long, this miniseries is made up of ninety-five episodes and is contained on *eight* DVDs.)

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