Category: Ancient Indian literature

17. The Mahabharata

Plot: Some similarities to the Ramayana, as five princes undergo exile in the forest before waging a war with their cousins, although in this case, to regain their kingdom.
Within the great expanse of text, there are many side stories, including the tale of the Ramayana read earlier, and a whole section discussing dharma (the correct way to live) of kings and warriors which has gained its own title – the Bhagavad Gita, and has had a deep impact on Hinduism.

My thoughts : The Mahabharata is the very definition of epic. The abridged version I read still ran to over 790 pages, but the original in Sanskrit can run to 32 volumes.
I felt that the Mahabharata was much more gritty and less fantastical than the Ramayana, despite the presence of gods, demons, supernatural weapons and superhuman stamina and abilities of the various heroes and their anatagonists. Much of the story centres on the battles of the war, with each encounter between heroes showering each other with thousands of arrows; and chariots, horses, elephants and drivers destroyed in their hundreds of thousands.
Favourite lines/passages:
“his weapon…. was as unbearable as a flesh-eating ghoul” p. 523 – What??!!!
“ Bhrgu’s son Cyavana performs [religious] austerities for so long that he becomes an anthill” p. 189. This has to be the most bizarre and random opening line of a chapter in the whole of world literature!

And finally, not so much a favourite as a jaw-dropping image repeated several times descibes a battle so ferocious that …”with his torrents of sharp arrows the wearer of the diadem set a dreadful river flowing on that battlefield: its water was blood from the wounds of weapons on men’s bodies, its foam human fat ….. corpses of elephants and horses formed its banks, the entrails, marrow and flesh of men its mud. Ghosts and great throngs of demons lned its banks. Its waterweed was hair attached to human skulls, its billows severed pieces of armour … fragments of the bones of men, horses and elephants formed the gravel of that fearful destructive, hellish river ; crows, jackals, vultures and storks, and throngs of carrion beasts and hyenas were approaching its banks from every direction”  p.377.
Diversions/digressions : When reading a 800 page epic with a huge cast and lots of repetition of circumstances and similes, everything else in life is a distraction
Personal rating : plenty of great ratings for the Mahabharata on, so I don’t feel too guilty giving this only 4/10. Just too long to enjoy (as The Prince said to Mozart in Amadeus), and I didn’t feel the ‘heroes’ demonstrated true dharma – quite the opposite : Arjuna burning the Khandeva forest and killing 1000s of animals, Yudhisthira lying to Drona in the midst of battle, telling him that his son was dead to demoralise and defeat him, the five Pandava heroes not acting to protect their shared wife from the humiliation and torment of the Kauravas. Or maybe I still don’t understand the true concept of dharma.
Next : The Homeric Hymns – not written by Homer, but are they hymns?

While you are waiting … The Mahabharata

I have started on an abridged version of the Mahabharata – only 800 pages instead of the 30 VOLUME set in my local university library. I am disregarding the warning by the editor in his introduction that it is “common throughout large parts of India is a superstition that reading the Mahabharata (or at least reading all of it) brings misfortune” and instead focusing on the actual promises in the first section, of the great boons granted to any one who reads or repeats even a small part.

My copy is a Penguin Classic abridged and translated by John D. Smith (9780670084159) which took him over ten years to complete, so will understand if I don’t finish it quickly. 🙂

We have also passed 100 views for this little blog, and considering its focus, I am pleased to have had that much notice in the first three months.

14. The Ramayana by Valmiki

Plot :  A young prince Rama, his beautiful wife Sita and his loyal brother Lakshmana agree to 14 years’ exile in the jungle on the eve of Rama’s coronation as King of Asoyada. In the last year of exile, Sita is kidnapped by the king of demons Ravana,  and it is Rama’s destiny to kill Ravana. He is aided by a race of magical monkeys (vanaras), bears and other demons (rakshasas)


My thoughts : A truly epic masterpiece, ranking in terms of literature with western classics such as The Lord of the Rings, yet with a very strong moral centre and a host of admirable and godlike individuals. Even the villain Ravana is described in noble and praiseworthy ways, and the reader has to be reminded how evil he is, when it is easy to sympathise with his Fate to love Sita leading him and many of his subjects to their doom.

I read a modern English version written by Ramesh Menon which was extremely approachable despite hundreds of unfamiliar Indian words (a glossary is provided in the back of the book, but the reader soon becomes in tune with the words and accepts their approximate meaning so as not to disrupt the story too much). Menon uses a great many small chapters within the original seven book structure, and it took me a long time to read the almost 700 pages.

Favourite lines/passages : In such a long epic, there are many scenes which stand out. Ravana’s gigantic brother Kumbhakarna who must sleep all but two days per year as his massive appetite would devour the world, and must be woken carefully with great piles of food and drink, and willing women, to satisfy all his hungers at once, was a wonderful villain, and his ravenous attack on the monkey army was chilling to read. The marvellous and wise vanara Hanuman, who flew to the Himalayas not once but twice to carry a mountain of medicinal herbs to the battle at Ravana’s citadel in Lanka (Sri Lanka), and his other magical tricks, was also a favourite.

Diversions/digressions : As Rama and Sita are human incarnations of Vishnu and Lakshmi, it would be appropriate to learn more about the Hindu pantheon. It was also interesting to speculate on the flying machine, the Pushpaka vimana, which Menon describes as a flying disc, bigger on the inside (able to carry the thousands of monkey-like vanaras at one time back to Rama’s coronation), and transparent from the inside.

Personal rating : Enjoyed immensely 8/10.

13. The Upanishads

Content : Roughly translated as “lessons at the foot of the Master”, The Upanishads are spiritual lessons originally written in Sanskrit, mostly between 800 BC and 400 BC.

Although there are over one hundred recognized Upanishads in Sanskrit (some over one hundred pages long), my copy is a selection from twelve of the older Upanishads, translated by Juan Mascaro, and published by Penguin (0140441638)

My thoughts: Far more spiritual than the Rig Veda, The Upanishads are about seeking union with the Spirit (Brahman) and despite the existence of other God figures (Siva, Vishnu, Krishna) in this pantheon, the Lessons are  much more monotheistic – indeed, there is a strong idea that all gods/religions are really coming from one source. Instead of praying for worldly advantage, there is a strong emphasis on attaining perfection via good deeds, and glorifying and rejoicing in God/Brahman.  Indeed, freeing oneself from earthly desires and longings is crucial to becoming one with the omniscient, omnipresent Spirit of the Universe by moving to a higher state of Self and Consciousness.  Faith is valued above seeking knowledge and the concepts of karma and reincarnation arise.

“The soul is born and unfolds in a body, with dreams and desires, and the food of life. And then it is reborn in new bodies, in accordance with its former works. The quality of the soul determines its future body : earthy or airy, heavy or light. Its thoughts and its actions can lead it to freedom, or lead it to bondage, in life after life”  Svetasvatara Upanishad, p. 94

 Favourite lines/passages:  “thus they realize the ineffable joy supreme”  Katha Upanishad, p.64

“At the end of the worlds, all things sleep; he alone is awake in Eternity. Then from his infinite space new worlds arise and awake, a universe which is a vastness of thought. In the consciousness of Brahman the universe is, and into him it returns”    Maitri Upanishad, p, 101

Diversions/digressions:  Despite the religious theme of the work, a piece of scientific/anatomical knowledge slipped in which is quite accurate and surprising for its time, regarding the circulatory system down to capillary level and its role in carrying oxygen through the body:

“In the Heart dwells the Atman, the Self. It is the centre of a hundred and one little channels. From each one of them comes a hundred channels more. Seventy two thousand smaller channels branch from each one of these. In all these millions of little channels moves the power of Vyana [Air]”

Personal rating:  5/10

Next : The epic Ramayana

4. The Rig Veda c. 1200 BC

Content : A selection from the larger collection of 1,028 Vedic (pre-Hindu) hymns. My copy is the Penguin edition translated by Wendy O’Flaherty (ISBN 0140444025)

My thoughts : Not as incomprehensible as The Book of the Dead, but still a difficult read. In this case, the obscurity is deliberate as a single line of a hymn can be interpreted in 3 or 4 or even 5 different ways. Thankfully the editor prefaces most hymns with an explanation which generally gave me the gist of the meaning. Other confusing patterns include different hymns praising different gods for the same acts (such as separating the heaven and earth), Gods known by different names, switching back and forth between cause and effect, etc.
All of the hymns are seeking material gain of some sort in the current life – there is no mention of the Afterlife or spiritual redemption and everlasting life. It is all about immediate gain – very materialistic for our modern idea of a sacred text. And since the caste system is already in place in Indian civilization at the time of the hymns’ writing, they are no doubt written and to be sung by the higher educated classes.
Some of the mythological hymns reflect similar tales from European stories. One I noticed that the editor didn’t comment on was the God Indra killing the dragon Vrtra and its mother Danu – shades of Beowulf!

Favourite lines/passages
I have proclaimed your wondrous deeds, Asvins. Let me be lord over this world, with good cattle and good sons; let me see and win a long life-span and enter old age as if going home. (p. 184)
Can’t say better than that!

Diversions/digressions : A quick bit of research into the Vedic gods thanks to Veronica Ions’ Indian mythology.

Personal rating 3/10

Next : Off to Ancient Troy. Polish your spears and gird your loins – we’re off to rescue (?) Helen with the Greek Army in Homer’s The Iliad.