Tnahsin Garg's Reviews > Jaya: An Illustrated Retelling of the Mahabharata

Jaya by Devdutt Pattanaik
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really liked it

“Atha shri Mahabharat katha...Mahabharat katha...”, the title song of BR Chopra's melodramatic TV series in the 1990's, plays in my head every time I come across anything related to this great Indian epic.

I could not understand then, when I was so little, what was all the fuss about. Why the family used to gather around our old Doordarshan on fine Sunday mornings to go through the ordeal of listening to monologues of jewelry-laden characters, always escaped my wits. Unfortunately, the situation didn't get better with time. I grew up, conveniently ignoring the epic as some religious, mythological bunch of crap which is thrust upon every individual who's born into a Hindu family. Apart from popular media, I had also some encounters with the epic via schooling. I remember that in the 7th class we were forced to read an abridged version of the story.

The only thing I remembered from it until now was that there were these five Pandav dudes, who got their only woman disrobed in public by their cousins and didn't do much about it, except going for a long exile and then coming back after 13 years to fight the same cousins about a piece of land instead. One of them, Bheem, was the only one with balls (but no brains), rest were kind of sissies – okay there was this exceptional archer guy but he apparently underwent some existential crises right before this major battle, so God, you know, as the archer's charioteer gave him a really long winded speech about ethics etc which we today call Geeta. And then what? I guess the good guys, Pandavs, killed off the bad guys, Kauravs in the end but still didn’t make it to the Swarag. Duh? Add to that the same old Indian bullshit of “Sachai ke Jeet, dharam ki jeet...” etc etc.

But thanks to Mr. Pattanaik, I learned how shallow my knowledge of the epic was. There's much more depth to the book, there are more connections between stories spanning different times and worlds, a lot more is going in the Mahabharta than just the battle, and bla bla, but essentially the underlying concept is more or less the same. :P Jokes apart, Pattanaik has done a fascinating job by telling the story from a historical perspective by interleaving the story chapters with facts and modern interpretations/spin-offs. You basically get to know the whole story along with the take-home messages, the themes that Vyas intended for his audience.

The epic has everything. From the death-defying arrows of Arjun which break all laws of physics, to the non-trivial issues of gender, class, and heredity which have been critical to our civilization in all these years. Even if we accept that some (most?) of the characters are vaguely drawn, and the plot is contrived with weak threads (for eg. The cheap tricks Krishna employs during the battle to present absurd solutions to equally absurd problems), studying and reading Mahabharata is delightful from the aspect that it's nearly two thousand years old and it is the longest epic poem in the world.

There's an unnecessary focus on upholding the 'Dharma' which is basically a set of vaguely sketched rules, and it often allows one to be conveniently unsympathetic and irrational. Krishna, who plays the role of God, at times appear as a scheming politician who even gets some of Pandav sons killed to get their fathers more interested in the battle – letting the reader think that the most Dharmic man then is the heartless, schizophrenic who follows a set of rules called Dharma without worrying too much about logic. Nevertheless, I guess it is a great resource to get a glimpse into the intellect of people who lived before us, and it is reassuring to know that they too spent most of their time and energy fighting over little pieces of land.

Pattanaik at some points succumbs to foolery by suggesting improbable things like, “Gender equality was at the highest level in Vedic times” - I guess that's why women had little role in the epic other than squirting out sons like machines or occasionally getting disrobed. The author also makes some other tempting to make observations like “the ancients had knowledge of nuclear war-heads” - I wouldn't even consider debating such illusions.

Overall, the tension and the pacing in the overall plot kept me hooked.

Final Verdict: For the ignorant and pretentious fools like me, this is a humble and exciting introduction to the great Indian epic.

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Reading Progress

December 15, 2013 – Shelved
December 15, 2013 – Shelved as: to-read
February 9, 2015 – Started Reading
April 26, 2015 – Finished Reading

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