Book Reviews

Delightfully Unique

Sharma's effort of culling out tales from the highly involved web of the epic and placing them in one book is laudable...

Birds, Beasts, Men, and Nature: Tales from the Mahabharata, by Kavita A. Sharma
TransEditCommunications Noida, 2008, Price: Rs. 350

It is like clouds to man,
It is, to illustrious poets,
a source of livelihood.
(P.Lal, Adi Parva, 1.92) 

Says Sauti, the raconteur of the Mahabharata to the sages of the Naimisha forest. 

Kavita Sharma's book too, in the same tradition, is inspired by the epic. It is the latest addition to the massive corpus of Mahabharata literature and no doubt, a very pleasant addition. 

It is a collection of thirty-eight tales, picked up from different parvas of the Mahabharata - nine from the Adi Parva, eight from the Vana Parva, four from the Udyoga Parva, one each from the Drona, Karna, Sauptika and Stree Parvas, ten from the Shanti Parva, two from the Anushasana Parva and one from the Ashvamedhika Parva. The tales are preceded by a long Introduction explaining the basic traditional framework of the stories for a better appreciation. It also has a Preface written by the author and an erudite foreword by the eminent Mahabharata scholar, Dr. Pradip Bhattacharya. 

Sharma begins the book with an excellent Introduction. She investigates at length the nature, structure and system of story-telling in the ambience of the forest which is an important part of Indian culture and the role stories play in instructing people in ways of "living well and wisely." Stories are a vital part of our instructional tradition. The Introduction helps the reader to understand how “The Mahabharata is part of the tradition of teaching through stories of human and animal interaction.” The appended bibliography is helpful. 

What sets the book apart from the rest of the literature is its content. This reviewer has not come across another book that deals exclusively with tales of the Mahabharatan beasts and birds interacting with man and nature. Vyasa pioneered a genre of literature - animal tales where animals spout words of wisdom in human language, an essentially folk form, for the education of humans. In times to come, other writers would pick up this strain to author books like Panchatantra, Hitopadesa, Shuka-saptasat, etc. Pradip Bhattacharya has noted in the Foreword “…no writer had thought of focusing on its (forest's) denizens. The birds and beasts of the forests are used by the narrator to bring home to the audience many a lesson about human life, expounding not just basic values but also political wisdom and common-sense sagacity that anticipate the Panchtantra.” 

But the problem with the Mahabharata is that most of these stories remain hidden behind the sheer immensity of the epic and its indescribably large canvas. The impatient modern reader usually seeks limited information only on the principal story-line of the epic, the story of the Kurus and the Pandavas, nothing else. On the other hand, many are familiar with some of these stories from their childhood having heard these recounted by grandmothers or having read them in their school textbooks but always without knowing that they were from the Mahabharata. Sharma's effort of culling out these delightful tales from the highly involved web of the epic and placing them in one book is, therefore, laudable. 

All these stories expound some basic value. These provide one with a code of conduct, prescribe a mode of behaviour by which one can follow the path of dharma and “live wisely and well.” Often a story conveys political and administrative wisdom by which a king can rule justly. And many stipulate a common-sense sagacity which, again, helps in “living well and wisely.” Interestingly, these stories which preach common-sense do not necessarily recommend traditional values of universal benevolence and truthfulness. If circumstances so require, violence and falsehood must be resorted to. In Karna Parva, Krishna tells Arjuna when he wanted to kill Yudhishthira to keep a vow, 

To speak the truth
is good.
Nothing excels truth.
But to know when
to speak the truth
is very difficult indeed.
Truth should not be spoken
If its motive
is to deceive.
lie may be spoken
if its motive is to help.
No blame attaches to lies
spoken on these occasions:
at a marriage, love-making , to save life,
when all one's wealth is being stolen,
and for Brahmin-benefit -
these five.
(Karna Parva, 69:32-33, the P.Lal transcreation.) 

He goes on to say that 

He knows dharma who knows
when to speak the truth
and when to lie.
Not surprising then
that a clear-thinking man,
though acting brutally,"
gains maha-merit.
(Karna Parva, 69:35-36) 

Thereafter, Krishna narrates two tales - those of the hunter Balaka and the rigidly truthful Brahmin Kaushika - to illustrate this statement. Balaka goes to heaven even though he kills the blind but wicked carnivore and Kaushika got the fugitives killed because he stuck to truth. For this maha-adharma of speaking the truth that should not be spoken, Kaushika had to suffer the torments of hell (Karna Parva, 69:52-53). So, on occasion, basic values tempered with common-sense rationality, is wisdom - the way to “live wisely and well.” The story of Balaka, the hunter, even though a tale-let could have been included to bring this point home. 

Besides the value-orientation, there is another curious characteristic of these tales. Two dog-tales hold the epic together like the covers of a book - the Sarama story begins the epic and the story of Dharma as a dog accompanying Yudhishthira to the gates of heaven ends the story of the Pandavas on earth. Similarly the story-line of the Mahabharata begins with the story of serpents in Astikaparvadhyaya and ends with Janamejaya's Sarpasattra. This indicates that Vyasa himself attached a lot of importance to the animal tales, most probably because animals 'speaking' to humans creates an ambience that grips the attention of the audience. Moreover, it is much easier to convey abstruse didactic principles through stories to common people who can remember and convey these to others with ease. 

Therefore, Vyasa has used these fables to bring home various instructional points many times over in the epic. Sharma has not used the Yudhishthira-dog story which would have underlined this aspect. 

Sharma has narrated the Utanka episode from the Adi Parva of which there is another version in the Ashvamedhika Parva. There are many such stories which are repeated elsewhere in the Mahabharata, some not differing much and others different in many details. For example, the story of Ushinara, the pigeon and the hawk of Vana Parva is repeated more or less with the same details as the story of Shibi in Anushasana Parva. The story of Nahusha of Vana Parva is repeated, though differently, in Anushasana Parva. If these repetitions too were mentioned as tailpieces, the reader would see how stories change with time, place and person - a fact underlined in the Introduction. 

Some stories in Mahabharata have an extended end or related information elsewhere which would be interesting for the reader to know. While narrating the story of Nandini in the Vashishtha-Vishvamitra episode of the Adi Parva, Nandini's role in the birth of Devavrata (the curse on Dyu-Vasu and others) could have been mentioned. The second story of Garuda's discomfiture in the Udyoga Parva has unfortunately been abandoned in the middle. Whatever happened to Galava's quest for the horses? Sharma could have written a few lines to complete the story. 

The Khandava-dahana episode of the Adi Parva has an interesting postscript. Takshaka's son Ashvasena, who escaped the conflagration, entered Karna's Nagastra in Karna Parva to avenge his mother's death by killing death-blow to Arjuna. The Nakula story of Ashvamedhika Parva too has a postscript. This Nakula is Dharma himself disguised as Krodha, who became a mongoose by the curse of the sage Jamadagni's manes. In Jaimini's Ashvamedha Parva, the mongoose is Krodha himself, not Dharma. These inputs would whet the appetite of readers and enrich the stories. 

Many stories have been excluded. Even though Sharma confesses, “What has been put together is certainly not exhaustive,” some of the stories deserved the author's attention. These are the stories of the Fox, the Mongoose, the Tiger, the Mouse and the Vrika;, Bhima in the kingdom of the Nagas (Adi Parva); Yudhishthira and the Crane, Deer in Yudhisthira's dream (Vana Parva); the sage Kalakavrikshiya, his Crow and Kshemadarshi, Padmanabha Naga and the Brahmin, Narijangha the Heron and Gautama, the Brahmin Satya and Dharma as deer (Shanti Parva); Indra and the Parrot, the Jackal and the Monkey, Matanga and the she-donkey, Lakshmi and Cowdung, King Nriga as chameleon, Agni's curse on animals, (Anushasana Parva) and the Dog and Yudhishthira (Mahaprasthanika Parva). 

There are other stories where nature and animals are involved but their participation is somewhat passive and indirect, e.g. Puloma and the Boar-Rakshasa, Ani-Mandavya and the Grasshoppers, Pandu and Kimindama-deer, Ekalavya and the Dog, Drona and Crocodile (Adi Parva); Vatapi-Ilvala, Kirata, Arjuna and the Boar, Swan as messenger to Damayanti and Kali as a bird taking away Nala's clothes (Vana Parva); Bhagadatta and his elephant, Shalmali-Pavana, Vetranadi-Sagara, Boar incarnation, Cow and Kapila, Jajali and the birds (Shanti Parva); and Gautama, Indra and the Elephant (Anushasana Parva). Further, Bali as donkey and Indra, Sadhyas and Brahma as Hamsa (Shanti Parva), though essentially didactic, this story can be a part of the essential stories above.

Travelling through this diverting book has not been quite smooth going. The path is filled with editorial potholes. You have them all - mis-punctuation, unintelligible sentences due to missing words, spelling errors, inconsistency in spelling names, etc. A careful look needs to be taken to rectify these before the next edition is printed. 

The name of Ugrasrava's father is Lomaharshana, not Lomaharsha (p.49); Arjuna's son is Babhruvahana not Vibhru Vahana (p.96); Vasuki is the churning rope and not the churning rod (p.67); the name of the fourth daughter of Surabhi is not Sarvakamadugha (p.158) but Ailabila who is sarvakamaprasuti. On the same page, the name of the place is Bhogavati, not Bhagavati. Finally, in the Nandini story we are told, “The king was disgusted with the carnage”(p.93). There was no carnage. Nandini's army merely drove Vishvamitra's army away. A book with such a novel idea would have read much better with better editing. 

The printing is excellent and reader-friendly. The illustrations are unusual and interesting. It is a pity that no credit is given to the illustrator. All in all, the book is delightfully unique in content and will be savoured by both young and old.      

First published in The Statesman's 8th Day literary supplement on January 4, 2009  


More by :  Maj. Gen. Shekhar Sen

Top | Book Reviews

Views: 3498      Comments: 0

Name *

Email ID

Comment *
Verification Code*

Can't read? Reload

Please fill the above code for verification.