R.K. Narayan’s abridged, prose version of India’s national epic, The Mahabharata, is concise, fast paced, well written, and – unfortunately – passionlR.K. Narayan’s abridged, prose version of India’s national epic, The Mahabharata, is concise, fast paced, well written, and – unfortunately – passionless. Narayan has excised nearly everything not directly related to the Pandavas (Yudhistira, Bhima, Arjuna, and Nakula and Sahadeva) and their wife, Draupadi. In the process, he’s also stripped the story of any emotional power. For the most part, it’s like reading a book summary rather than a proper story. For example, there’s the chapter that has come down to us as The Bhagavad Gita, one of the more profound scriptures by anyone’s reckoning. In Narayan’s telling, it’s reduced to:
When Arjuna fell into a silence after exhausting his feelings, Krishna quietly said, “You are stricken with grief at the thought of those who deserve no consideration.”
Krishna then began to preach in gentle tones, a profound philosophy of detached conduct. He analyzed the categories and subtle qualities of the mind that give rise to different kinds of action and responses. He defined the true nature of personality, its scope and stature in relation to society, the world, and God, and of existence and death. He expounded yoga of different types, and how one should realize the deathlessness of the soul encased in the perishable physical body. Again and again Krishna emphasized the importance of performing one’s duty with detachment in a spirit of dedication. Arjuna listened reverently, now and then interrupting to clear a doubt or to seek an elucidation. Krishna answered all his questions with the utmost grace, and finally granted him a grand vision of his real stature. Krishna, whom he had taken to be his companion, suddenly stood transformed – he was God himself, multidimensional and all-pervading.
Time, creatures, friends and foes alike were absorbed in the great being whose stature spanned the space between sky and earth, and extended from horizon to horizon. Birth, death, slaughter, protection, and every activity seemed to be a part of this being, nothing existed beyond it. Creation, destruction, actity and inactivity all formed a part and parcel of this grand being, whose vision filled Arjuna with terror and ecstasy. He cried out, “Now I understand!”
The God declared, “I am death, I am destruction. These men who stand before you are already slain through their own karma, you will be only an instrument of their destruction.”
“O Great God,” said Arjuna, “my weakness has passed. I have no more doubts in my mind.” And he lifted his bow, ready to face the battle. Krishna then resumed his mortal appearance. (pp. 147-8)
If all you’re looking for is a readable English synopsis of the epic, then I would recommend this book. But if you’re looking for an English version that captures the gravitas of the original, you won’t find it here....more
One might fault Hitchens for using too broad a brush to condemn religion but his point is that any institution or belief – no matter how beneficent itOne might fault Hitchens for using too broad a brush to condemn religion but his point is that any institution or belief – no matter how beneficent its dogma* – that demands that an individual surrender choice and freedom of conscience to an outside power for which there is no evidence is profoundly wrong and immoral.** Any such belief represses or – worse – perverts the best in human nature and leads to needless misery (“religion poisons everything,” as the author reiterates several many times).
Whatever utility religion may once have had (and I’m not sure Hitchens would have ever credited it with any at any time), humanity is capable of moving beyond it and standing on its own two feet. The species is not a three-year old who needs daddy to tell it how to behave or what to do. And Hitchens is passionate in his belief that we need to dispense with all such nonsense.
I can’t say I disagree with Hitchens because I don’t, though I don’t see his call for a new Enlightenment making any serious headway. We are in an era of fundamentalisms and voices of reason, tolerance, mercy and compassion are drowned out by people unwilling to admit anyone’s right to freedom of conscience.
I listened to the Audio CD version as read by Hitchens in my car so don’t have any notes or more to say about the book. The only complaint I had with the reading was that the author had an annoying tendency to bark out the first few words of a sentence and then fall back into a more normal voice. The only good thing about this was that it did keep the listener from nodding off.***
* Hitchens has a very respectful and laudatory bit about Martin Luther King but points out that – like other apologists for the good religion can inspire – the reverend was very selective in what he chose to emphasize in his version of Christianity, ignoring the “bad” parts. And I don’t think Hitchens is disrespectful of believers who sincerely act morally; he only wishes that they would face up to the hypocrisies and absurdities of their faiths and realize that they can be just as moral without them. (While Hitchens can talk to believers who evidence reason and toleration, he has no mercy for the fanatic or the thug who uses religion to impose their will on others. I was especially taken by the image he evoked when mentioning Tim LaHaye and his co-author of the Left Behind series: Two orangutans provided with a typewriter.)
** Indeed, the existence of so many mutually contradictory revelations and the often sordid histories of their origins is evidence of their manmade geneses.
*** Not that I was in any danger of nodding off as I cruised down the Santa Monica freeway, the subject matter was too interesting....more