I’m reading the Mahabharata while working on Gandiva. As it happens, the Mahabharata is not really intended as a dramatic piece of fiction; it’s a parable that exists to chronicle national mytho-history and communicate religious and cultural values, like the Bible or whatever.
I am reading a translation by one Kisari Mohan Ganguli (it is available for free on iBooks, likely through the auspices of Project Gutenberg, although I didn’t look to check), who proposes to translate very closely to the original version of the text. It is dense with lists and intertextual references, tangled of honorifics and characters with many alternate names. Its sentences are florid and long.
As a result, it is very tedious reading, and it effectually bars the reader from absorbing the gist of the text.
So, I am trying to make it more comprehensible to me by retelling it as I read it, stripped of (much of) its floridity.
Ugrasrava Sauti, a man important enough to have two names, came to some sages in an ashrama called Naimisha, and they said, “Hey buddy, what brings you to our neck of the woods?”
“I just went on vacation to Kurukshetra and then I decided to come here, do you want to have story time?”
“Sure, tell us the Mahabharata please.”
“Okay sounds rad.”
At the beginning the universe was born from an egg, and after the creation of things, 333,333 generations of the gods passed and then someone was born who is a distant ancestor of the Kuru and Pandu, the parents of the characters in the story that I am about to recount a recounting of.
At some point after the events of this story, the sage Vyasa memorized every book ever and summoned Brahma, the creator of all things, to brag about how learned and accomplished he was and tell him that he had composed a poem that contained the entirety of human knowledge, plus Vyasa’s commentary on that and his advice for everyone. But he didn’t have anyone to write it down!
Brahma said, “It’s cool bro, Ganesha will do it. He has lots of time on his hands,” which advice proved to be true, as Ganesha appeared the moment that Vyasa joined his hands in prayer.
Ganesha said, “Okay dude, I’ll write your thing but I’m stopping as soon as you stop for any reason.”
Vyasa said, “Bet you stop first, dork.”
“Game on, pointy-haired nerd.”
Vyasa opens with, “I really like tables of contents. Here are the contents of this poem. Isn’t it neat how I invented textual organization before we even became a widely literate culture? By the way there are several appendices as well.” Sauti comments, “I happen to have memorized those too so get ready.”
Our story begins with Pandu and his brother Kuru.
Pandu was out hunting at one time when he shot two deer amidfuck with a single arrow, which was a terrible omen and a great embarrassment to him. Some time later he died, childless.
Left without heirs, his wives summoned the gods Dharma, Vayu, Sakra, and the Ashwini twins to impregnate them. This operation was successful, but there was some doubt in various quarters as to whether this clutch of god-children should be considered legitimate heirs of the late Pandu. Most of all, their cousins, the hundred sons of Kuru, saw an opportunity to capture Pandu’s territory, so they opposed the Pandavas with determination.
Then follows a summary of the events of the Mahabharata, in the form of Dhritirashtra lamenting that, at every turn, he foresaw the destruction of his line at the hands of the mighty Pandavas. It is a litany of wife-takings and strange miracles and terrifying killings that gives us a vague idea of what will follow.