The Mahabharata for the Intimidated
Updated: Jun 14
An Illustration to the Mahabharata: The Pandava and Kaurava armies face each other, circa 1700, Mewar, India; courtesy of Wikimedia.
To begin, this is an introduction for beginners by a western, three-time reader of the Mahabharata. It is meant to quiet the fears I had when I sought to read the great Indian epic for the first time. The good news is that the Mahabharata is very readable, very enjoyable, and importantly, will not stump a reader who lacks knowledge of Indian literature, religion or culture. The trickiest part of the Mahabharata is the number of characters, but this can be overcome. I was a little confused my first time through until the narrative settled on the main characters. At that point I had moments of confusion when some of the other characters appeared, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying the story. And that would be my message to the reader: just truck on through. The story is good and the messages meaningful to the first-time reader. Like any other work of literature, multiple readings will add to what you get out of it, but I say give it the one chance for now. It’s worth it.
The hardest part of getting to the basic story of the Mahabharata was reading through the lineages of the main characters. The Mahabharata is generational in scope, but the great majority of it deals with a set of brothers in conflict with their cousins (another set of brothers.) And these sets of brothers aren’t hard to keep straight. The protagonists are a superhero team including Hawkeye, the Hulk, and Captain America (without powers) and two younger brothers who sort of have special powers, but just sort of go along. (I think one of them is handsome and the other maybe can foretell the future but will be punished if he ever reveals anything; this never comes into play.) The other set of brothers is basically Loki with ninety-nine red-shirt brothers. That’s probably not too intimidating. (And Marvel Studios should definitely get on this!)
The tricky bit is keeping the uncles and grandsires and gods and gurus straight. Reading with a family tree print-out sitting next to the text is too distracting for me, but if you are the sort of person who can brook no uncertainty about a character’s identity, this might be good for you. I’m not providing graphics or family trees here because I’m not a graphic designer and there are plenty of family trees out there. I’m just providing the moral support that you can handle this -- and should!
If you are like me the first-time reading Mahabharata, you can really wait until the Pandava brothers show up to devote energy to remembering names. They are the main story. Yes, there are other significant characters, but for my brain, the Pandavas were the hook. They are the superhero team and are basically the protagonists. And the stories that come before the Pandavas take over the narrative are not a loss even if there are so many new names you have trouble holding them all. They are good folklore stories: The king has forsworn society and locked himself in his castle; The goddess feels unappreciated by her husband and wishes to run off with another god; The father asks his son to make a great sacrifice. I’m interested in rereading these now and I still can’t recount the names of the characters!
To further entice you to try this foundational epic, let me tell you about the new set of mythological creatures and characters you get to learn about. The savage Rakshasas, the wise Nagas, the sylph-like Apsaras, the musical Gandharvas, to say nothing of a European-style pantheon of gods interacting with various incarnations of a tripartite capital-g God and his human avatar. I don’t know if a Hindu would agree with this analogy, but to me, the Hinduism of the Mahabharata looks like what would have happened if the various polytheistic European cults accepted Christianity, but made no effort to obscure their earlier beliefs. Imagine Zeus or Odin (and all of the various members of those pantheons) interacting with the three figures of the Christian trinity and no one finding that odd. This is exciting stuff if you like mythology and these elements are woven throughout the text.
And in case you feel you’ve read enough mythology to think you’ve seen it all, gender fluidity and female agency are two elements of the Mahabharata that one can find in small doses in Greek and Norse stories, but seem much more prominent and at home here. Krishna becomes female and marries a hero so he doesn’t die a virgin. A king raises his daughter as a male because an oracle tells him that she is destined to become a male; a nature spirit lends her his penis on her wedding night. The great hero Arjuna spurns the advances of a nature spirit and is forced to live as a eunuch for a year, giving dancing instructions to princesses. Women also seem to have more agency in these stories than in European mythology. A forum is held to hear a goddess’s complaints against her husband, and she is only forced to stay with him because the universe will come unraveled if she leaves. One has to compare this to Greek goddesses having to take special care not to be forced to marry whomever Zeus chooses. The main heroes of the story share a wife, which sounds bad, but she has five husbands. There may be examples of polyandry in European mythic tales, but they are so little known that I can’t think of any. As with gender fluidity, which does exist in Greek and Norse myths, it may be that these are the tales that did not make it past Victorian censors and have never really caught on because mythology has been the province of children’s literature.
My final pitch is that the Mahabharata is essentially about promoting dharma, or pro-social behavior. That means that might does not make right. Even the gods are held to this standard. The plot revolves around what happens when one doesn’t live up to one’s vows. And though this sounds very western, and it is fairly easy to recognize and root for heroes in the story, there is an ambivalence about whether there are good guys. The Pandavas are not perfect. The bad guys are not all bad. The capital-G incarnations of God are prey to the laws of right and wrong.
I hope you are excited to dive into the Mahabharata. My personal introductory edition was Devdutt Pattanaik’s illustrated Jaya. I have also read P Lal’s condensed Mahabharata, which I loved, but it was very hard to get a decent hard copy of. I haven’t seen an electronic version of it either, but I prefer reading physical books. Lal’s language is exciting and worth it if you fall in love with the text. I have read parts of DK’s 5.7 pound The Illustrated Mahabharata, but I found that the many lovely images and informative sidebars were too much for a first time reading, and it’s just unwieldy. There is a long tradition of regional Mahabharatas and every edition will be abridged in some way. This means there is not one correct edition for a newcomer. Find one you like and get reading!
The year 2020 will be remembered for other things by most, but for me, among other obviously more prominent things, it has been a year of reading and studying the Mahabharata and being challenged, intrigued and enamored enough to move on to the Ramayana and supporting literature to these masterpieces. I hope I’ve eased your fears at jumping into one of the oldest works of literature. It deserves a place in western study and will bring you fulfillment.