Here is a work written by a grandmother immersed in the riches of India’s ancient tradition, keen to pass on the gems of insight for the guidance of everyone, young and old, in this new millennium. Janaki Abhisheki meets head on the inevitable casual remark tossed off the shoulder about the irrelevance of ancient Indian tradition in the 21st century. No, we have not outgrown the epic of epics. To presume that would be “but an indication of our will to commit national suicide, the signal of our national extinction” as Sukhtankar, the great editor of the critical edition of Vyasa’s world-swaddling creation, warned.
In her retelling the author has, hamsa-like, scooped out of the one hundred thousand verses of the massive epic-corpus the portions that hold lessons for living--didactic and lived, taught and experienced. Unlike all other retellings so far, this one seizes upon two of the most telling episodes of the epic to start the book with. It is a measure of the soundness of Abhisheki’s insight that she begins with the story of Shakuntala, known so differently by most through Kalidasa’s romantic version as a weak, swooning helpless maiden. The original is a very different woman, fiery, assertive, berating the unscrupulous Dushyant in no uncertain terms and reading him a lesson in the true meaning of a wife: like a father in dharmic work, a mother in times of distress, the best of friends in death, and the source of righteousness, wealth, pleasure and liberation. Shakuntala compares him to a mustard seed and herself to Mount Meru and condemns him for behaving like a pig delighting in filth instead of distinguishing between the true and the false like the swan.
The very next retelling is the riveting existential experience of Yayati, epitomizing the torment of modern man in the clutches of greed and pride, and the lessons his life holds for us all. This should be read with the chapter “What is death?” Here Mrityu is anguished with the task assigned her and repeatedly refuses to undertake it. Death destroys first by urging people to desire and then to anger, which immerse them in self-created delusions that destroy. The omission in this retelling of his daughter Madhavi who, along with her four sons by four different kings, gifts her father her merit to enable him to return to heaven, is unfortunate. We also realize that prose can never convey the exquisite flavor of Yayati’s lament as he falls from heaven and the plangent notes of Ashtaka’s query to the falling hero which comes through so satisfyingly in Prof. P.Lal’s transcreation of the epic.
Space constraints do not permit doing justice to this excellent work, but some highlights must be mentioned. The Manusmriti distortions of the true Indian tradition get a sorely needed corrective through a book such as this. Abhisheki recounts a number of tales that show knowledge of dharma does not come merely by birth or by performing rituals and mortifying the body, but by good conduct and a pure heart. She also retells several passages that bluntly state brahminhood is not by birth but is the fruit of conduct. Leaving out the Gita, which is so well known, she includes less familiar portions of the epic that provide similar advice. Few realize that the Biblical commandment to do unto others as we would have others do unto us was enunciated originally by Bhishma to Yudhishthir (in the chapter “The eternal religion—Sanatana Dharma”).
It is a pleasure to find ample space provided to the stories of the faithful wife and the virtuous meat-seller (“Women of worth”) from whom the ascetic Kaushik learns that true dharma does not lie in acquiring power to harm by practicing penance. The butcher’s discourse is one of the most profound yet practical teachings in the Indian tradition resolving the dilemma of the vegetarian and the non-violent. It should be read along with the trader Tuladhar’s teaching to the Brahmin Jajali, proud of his ascetic powers. Kaushik seems to be the favorite name chosen by Vyasa to denote the person whose blind practice of austerities and rituals does not lead to acquiring dharma. It is a pity that the author does not include Krishna’s account of Kaushik landing up in hell for adhering stubbornly to his vow of truth at the cost of the lives of innocent people, for it is this story that distinguishes the Kantian concept of truth from the Indian concept of dharma.
Few are aware of the Satyavan-Dyumatsen dialogue retold in this book that, with superb clarity, removes all the confusion faced by conscientious objectors regarding how to rule and punish without guilt. The little-known dialogue between the jackal and the sage Kashyap who cannot reconcile himself to poverty is an extremely fine piece that ought to be widely studied. Similar little-known tales that are pregnant with profound meaning are those of the yaksha Kundadhar’s gift to the Brahmin who craves wealth (on which Sri Aurobindo might have drawn for his brilliant short story “Svapna”), a Naga’s advice to a Brahmin on what is the highest dharma, the story of the seven sages and Arundhati realizing that rejecting greed is the path to transcendence.
Towards the end comes the gripping tale of the half-golden mongoose who laughs to scorn the supposed greatness of Yudhishthir’s horse-sacrifice, finding it of no worth compared to a poor family’s gift of the only food they had to a guest. All retellers have stopped with the disappearance of the mongoose. Only Abhisheki remains faithful to the original and tells us that the mongoose was Anger itself metamorphosed by Jamadagni. Gajendrakumar Mitra used this to create a splendid sequel involving the Pandavas and Krishna to bring home a lesson regarding the perniciously destructive results of giving way to anger (translated into English fittingly by 11 year old Aurpon in Vyasa’s Mahabharata: Creative Insights).
The book ends with an excellent conflation of the tests Yudhishthir is put to by Dharma on three occasions: as the stork during their exile, as the dog following him during the last journey, and finally offering him the joys of heaven instead of living in hell with his brothers. In the retelling, however, we miss that most memorable question put to Yudhishthir by the mysterious slayer of his brothers: what is most wonderful? The reply is one that each of us needs to hear daily: we all know death is inevitable; yet we live as if we are immortal.
The book is enriched with 30 pages of quotations from the epic selected by the author followed by an excellent index of proper names that doubles as a pronunciation guide along with a cryptic note identifying the person. Coming to the end one realizes that Vyasa’s epic is, indeed, encyclopedic in scope and an immensely rewarding study for plumbing the meaning of the four aims of human life: dharma, wealth, pleasure and liberation. This massive work--at once history and revelation, Kavya and Puranas and itihasa--that was originally called Jaya, came to be called Mahabharata because “it is greater than the Vedas in substance and seriousness.” No wonder the Anukramanika Parva, which introduces the epic, states that this is the ship by which we can cross the storm-tossed ocean of life for,
Like a stick of collyrium
the wisdom of this poem opens the eyes
of a world swathed in darkness.