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  • Writer's pictureBen Hellman

A Review of P. Lal's Mahabharata

Updated: Jul 27, 2020

A warning that Lal's Mahabharata, in English, does not seem to be in print or easily obtained. I purchased one of two available used paperback copies online for about $35 and it was warped, with onion-thin pages, some of which were not even cut properly, meaning that I had to tear them open if there weren't scissors about.

The best part of P Lal is the language, and Lal is credited, in my limited research, with presenting an English idiom that suits Vyasa. Lal wrote something along the lines of: 'If Vyasa spoke English, this is the sort of English I believe he would have spoken.' (He had me there!) There are some lovely turns of phrase in this translation. At one point a waterfall falls "like a woman's loose dress," and there are stirring epithets, such as "mace-armed Bhima." A warrior shines like a cloud at sunset illuminated by lightning. Battle scenes are grisly and evocative, as is Lal's description of hell. One detail that stuck with me about hell was that human hair grew in place of the grass.

This is the second version of the Mahabharata that I have read, the first being Jaya, by Devdutt Pattanaik. I was already quite enamored with the story and in general terms, it is not different, but only by its differences can I really remark on the plot at this moment. Where Pattanaik states that this is an age of degradation, in Lal it is clear that even the heroes seem to be in trouble. There are direct signs of it, not the least of which was the cheeky golden mongoose with blue eyes that appeared a la the Cheshire cat and said they were in trouble before puffing out of existence. Yudhisthira's dice match is a bit more ambiguous. There are clues elsewhere that he has a gambling problem, but it isn't clear in the moment. There is a much clearer sense that the Pandavas have won a Pyrrhic victory, that none of them can enjoy. They have ruined their lives and the lives of their loved ones. It is harder for me not to see a man (rather than a god) in Krishna, who goads on Arjuna and Yudhisthira in battle. Krishna seems to bear the anger of a man, and a man's desire for revenge.

The most noble character, for me, in this telling was Bhishma, a guru willing to tell his nephews how to kill him and win the war, and then willing to instruct them on how to follow dharma before he dies. It is hard not to admire a guy pierced by thousands of arrows, who is able to stave off the moment of his death by sheer will (and a boon from the gods) for more than six months, lying on the ground more like an arrow porcupine than I've even seen a Christian saint.

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