In accordance with our meta agreement to have topic challenges and a later meta agreement to have topic challenges lasting for two months and overlapping by one month, it is time to announce the May–June 2021 topic challenge.
Based on the number of votes (+6), the fifth topic challenge of the year 2021 will be
the Mahabharata and its adaptations
What's a topic challenge?
See the meta posts linked above, and also this main Meta post. In short, during May and June 2021 you are invited to try to read at least part of the Mahabharata (it's among the longest extant poems in any language) or one of its adaptations and ask questions about it. (Tip: the Bhagavad Gita is a short and famous part of the Mahabharata that is often read on its own.)
Participation is not obligatory in any sense, and questions on other works are more than welcome during May and June too; they just won't count as part of this topic challenge.
How can I take part?
By getting hold of the Mahabharata or one of its adaptations and asking good questions about it (or them). Questions about the Mahabharata should be tagged with mahabharata and sanskrit-literature; questions about adaptations would require their own tags. We'll keep a list of all such questions in an answer to this meta post.
Paradoxically, while it's common to find a copy of the Geeta in Hindu households, the entire Mahabharata itself is considered inauspicious to have around. Since the epic is about a bitter family quarrel that blows up into internecine warfare, resulting in a epic battle that leaves fewer than ten warriors standing, the superstition is that keeping the Mahabharata on the bookshelf will lead to family disunity and catastrophic fallout.
That said, the Mahabharata is readily available.
- The Sanskrit text is online, including that of the standard critical edition.
- A complete translation by K. M. Ganguli, in a Victorian idiom that feels rather out of date, is also in the public domain.
- An extremely well known single-volume 1958 retelling by Chakravarti Rajagopalachari, the first and only Governor-General of independent India, is also available in its entirety online. This was the standard introduction to the epic for English-speaking readers in India for many years. It hits all the high points of the story. For someone interested in the Mahabharata but lacking the time or the inclination to read all eighteen books in Ganguli's translation, this is an excellent choice.
- Romesh Chunder Dutt's 1899 retelling in rhymed couplets is available online at Sacred Texts and also as a free audiobook at Librivox
Translations not yet in the public domain are also available in print:
- The U of Chicago P has been working on a scholarly translation since 1980. I have not been able to ascertain the current status of the translation, but several volumes have been published and can be found in university libraries.
- Bibek Debroy has a complete translation in ten volumes that's better than competent, although I dislike his handling of the characters' names; his transliterations seem inept. This is the only choice for a complete translation into a modern idiom.
Some retellings or retold versions of the epic that are not yet in the public domain are available fairly inexpensively in print:
- R. K. Narayan has a brief retelling.
- John Smith, obviously a pseudonym, also has a version in the Penguin Classics series.
- Ramesh Menon has a two-volume version that is hugely popular. I found it intellectually unserious and couldn't get through it, but YMMV.
- Devdutt Pattanaik has two related works, both very quick reads: Jaya and Shikhandi. The latter is particularly interesting in that it reclaims the Mahabharata for queer history.
And of course, there are innumerable web pages, most of dubious quality, that retell stories from the Mahabharata.
Since the story circulates as myth, and since there's no entirely satisfactory complete translation into English of the standard Sanskrit text, it would be unwise to try and restrict the topic challenge to a specific version of the story. Any material relating to the Mahabharata is fair game for the challenge. Some examples of the kinds of questions that would qualify:
- How does Shyam Benegal's Kalyug make use of parallels from the Mahabharata?
- How does Erutacchan's 15th C. Malayalam version of the Mahabharata adapt the Sanskrit text?
- Why does Karna refuse Kunti's offer to recognize him as her eldest son, which would make him king if the Pandavas win the war?
- Why does the standard text of the critical edition leave out so many well-known episodes that are found in other extant texts?
- Draupadi is married to all five Pandavas. Was polyandry an accepted custom in ancient India?
Several interesting questions could be asked about the corpus of works that derive from the Mahabharata.
Feel free to add links to other translations and online texts below.
- Vote for the next topic challenge, or propose your own!