The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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The interpretation that the great epic Mahabharata is about the education of Yudhishthira is perhaps familiar to many Bengali readers. Buddhadev Bose made this the central point of his brilliant but alas, much neglected (because it was written in Bengali') study, Mahabharater Katha. Hiltebeitel revisits that interpretation although that is not his only concern. The subtitle of the book is thus somewhat misleading and the writing is also very cumbersome. He writes, following the style of traditional tikakars or glossators of writing, with reference to what other writers have written. This makes Hiltebeitel’s prose very erudite but difficult to read and to comprehend.

One of the central concerns of this book is the narrative techniques used in the epic. It is well known that the epic, as we read it, is recited in the Naimisa forest, an uncertainly located place which is also the site for similar purana recitations and retellings. Hiltebeitel rightly draws attention to the name: “Naimisa is a forest with a give-away name: ‘lasting for a moment, a twinkling’.” The play on nimesa is obvious but not noticed. Here arrives Ugrasrava, the son of a well-known storyteller, even as a ritual event is in progress under the Brahmin, Saunuka. At the initiative of his listeners and after some holding back, he begins a cycle of stories called the Mahabharata, which were recited first in the court of Janamejaya by Vaisampayana, the pupil of Vyasa, the first narrator of the stories. Vyasa, it will be recalled, narrated the stories to the scribe Ganesha, and thereby hangs a tale relating to the enormous complexity of some of the slokas of the Mahabharata.

Vyasa is the first teller but he is also an extremely important character in his own narrative. Hiltebeitel is very good in his analysis of the author-in-the-story aspects, listing the number of critical appearances that Vyasa makes in the story. It is important to underline that Vyasa is not only the father of the Mahabharata, but he is also the forefather of the Kauravas and Pandavas. At the request of his mother, he comes to save the Kuru lineage and fathers Dhritarashtra, Pandu and Vidura. The conception of the three makes a touching story. There are many such significant interventions that the author makes to push along his narrative. He gives special sight to Sanjaya so that he can describe the great battle and it is through Sanjaya’s retelling that readers learn of Krishna’s great injunction on the battlefield to Arjuna, known to the world as the Bhagavad Gita. It is to Vyasa, now in solitude in his hermitage, that a tired Arjuna goes, having failed even to string his bow to save the Yadava women from robbers. Vyasa’s words make the Pandavas start on the great pilgrimage that ends in Yudhishthira’s final test at the hands of his father, Dharma, and the ascension to heaven.

Hiltebeitel’s textual turn and consequent emphasis on narrative techniques distract from the more compelling ethical questions that he notes and the central position he ascribes to Yudhish- thira. But this is a serious monograph on the most important text to have come out of India.

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