Sunday, March 27, 2011

Holy Mahabharata, Batman!

Sometimes you finish a book, and the overriding feeling you get is of accomplishing a feat of endurance. Just so with the Mahabharata, the great Hindu epic of India. Now, the work in its entirety is eighteen volumes, so my one volume summary and translation is more like the Mahabharata Cliff's notes, but at 800 pages requiring over a month of dedicated reading, it was still quite a bit more substantial than a mere gloss. It was, to be frank, an effort to read it. Worth doing once, to be sure, but work nonetheless, and an effort I wouldn't have undertaken fifteen years ago, having in those days no tolerance for countless digressions and highly exaggerated and nearly interminable (even in summary) scenes of battlefield carnage.

In all honesty, it's an effort I probably wouldn't have undertaken now if not for another work: comic writer Grant Morrison's 18 Days, a retro-future (or more correctly, futuristic deep history) re-imagining of the eighteen day Bharata war, full of jaw-dropping illustrations by Mukesh Singh. 18 Days is, in a word, rad, and it's radness is such that it manages to infect the original with an apocalyptic relevance that makes it seem somehow less overblown and more accessible to the 21st century reader weaned on Science Fiction. If this seems trite, be assured that's not my intention. The Mahabharata is a great work, and certainly worth reading in summary with selected translations. The characters are astounding, particularly the incomparable man/god Krishna, and there are passages of incredible humanity and day to day relevance scattered like precious gems throughout. But it's not a casual read by any stretch of the imagination, and your mileage will vary with your patience.

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