Reading dates: 24 April – 25 June 2016
At the All Tomorrow’s Parties music festival, I attended a session by Andy Miller, author of ‘The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books (and Two Not-So-Great Ones) Saved My Life’. He made us pledge we would read that book we have been resisting and, in my piece of paper, I wrote ‘War and Peace’. Instantly, I went for the western cannon, for what I thought I ought to read but after a little more thought and less coercion, I realised the book I really wanted to read and had been putting off was the Mahabharata. But how to approach this massive 18-book epic poem? What translation? Where to start?
I turned to the best storyteller I know. On his website, James Boag answers the question of what a yogi should read, which he gets asked often. Ramesh Menon’s work gets mentioned a few times, so I picked his modern rendition of the Mahabharata, much abridged and in prose. This is what James says about the book, which made me read it:
Just awesome! They say about the epic Mahābhārata, that everything you can find in the world you find in here, if you don’t find it in here, you won’t find it in the world. Menon’s version doesn’t present the whole Mahābhārata, but does an amazingly rich, evocative and page-turning job of telling the main story and many of the principal side stories that are woven into the original.
I don’t know what it would be like to read the original but Menon’s book is delightful, one of the best I have ever read. the story of the war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas is impeccably told, a page turner with deep philosophical introjections. I have so many favourite chapters: The game of dice certainly stands out, Draupadi’s appearance in the Hastinapura court, the girl who smells of fish, the explanation of time in relation to Brahma, the second game of dice (which almost gave me a heart attack), the battle at Virata’s, Devaloka (the kingdom of Gods), when Siva appears … The story is modern, eternal, always contemporary (very Game of Thrones, if you ask me). It is wise and primary and I would not get tired of reading and re-reading it.
It is true that I am a yoga practitioner and that the text contains many Sanskrit terms (and a glossary) so one needs to approach it with a little patience too and try to understand the concepts not as direct translation but through their essence. I have not mastered this yet and I suspect that understanding what dharma is and who Krishna is will take me a lifetime.
I am very grateful there is a volume 2. The war has not even begun and I am yet to read the Bhagavad Gita, which is contained in book 6 of the Mahabharata. If books can change one’s life, this might be it for me.