The Maha·bhárata is the longest poem in human history. Its origins stretch back deep into the past. Over three thousand years ago in ancient India there arose new stories of gods and men who had come to heaven and earth after the old divinities of the Veda. In palaces and villages, from Kashmir to Bengal, bards and storytellers intoned these fables in their own tongues, joining their voices together in a polyphony that gradually grew in strength and complexity. As generations came and went, others added their own motifs until, after many years, a vast interlocking song hung across the whole of the subcontinent. It was then that the scribes began their work, and the Maha·bhárata its slow journey into text. Each scribe etched into palm leaves the words that he had heard in the script that he knew, adding his own personal adjustments and embellishments as he went along. Stacked in waterlogged libraries, worn by eager fingers, gnawed by the passing years, these first manuscripts would have decayed fast, and as they did so they were copied and altered by other scribes to produce a second scattering of books, then a third and a fourth. The process of rewriting continued like this for centuries. It must be said that the enormous text running to some hundred thousand lines that is the Sanskrit Maha·bhárata is only one trace in ink of this vast and unimaginable evolution. Yet within its pages nothing of the poem’s history has been truly lost. Whenever we read its verses we awaken once again the immense and ghostly chorus of voices from across the abysses of time. The books of the Sanskrit Maha·bhárata are the imprint of centuries of human culture, of myths and legends, teachings, histories, cosmologies, theogonies and theologies, of what came before us and what we will remain after we are gone. How can we even begin to get to grips with this awesome, multi-layered compendium?
We can, in fact, begin at the heart of the Maha·bhárata, where we find a very simple story. It is the story of mankind, the story that has followed mankind as a million days have followed a million nights, as empires have risen and fallen, as tribes and cities have appeared and disappeared: the story of war. And being the first war, it carries within it the truth of all wars. The Maha·bhárata is the story of the war of man against himself. It depicts the struggle for supremacy between two groups of cousins who find that they cannot share power. A plot of enormous complexity winds out from this central drama, since the whole of the known world is at stake, and the conflict will decide the fate of all living things. Alongside the kings, queens, warriors and heroes of the epic’s cast we find thieves and vagabonds, gods and demons, goblins and sorcerers, ascetics, hermits, merchants, seers, scholars, saints, murderers, madmen, birds and beasts. The Maha·bhárata is the pulse of a whole culture. It cannot be read like a normal book from cover to cover, from beginning to end. One can and should begin reading anywhere. In the shadow plays of Java and the Kathakali dances of Kerala, the merest sliver of the epic will provide enough for an evening’s fitful entertainment. There is no need to worry about ‘finishing’ the Maha·bhárata – nor even of ‘starting’ it. No Indologist would claim to have made sense of it, to have grasped it in its entirety. The Maha·bhárata lends itself to the random foray of the adventurous reader: in fact, starting in the middle reveals the epic for what it is: less a monolith of tradition and more a work-in-progress, a teeming architecture of the collective imagination of a people, still under construction in the myriad minds of its modern audience.
In a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, the narrator buys from an enigmatic bookdealer an ancient tome written in an indecipherable Indian script: the Book of Sand, so named because like the sand it has no beginning and no end. Whenever he opens the book, he finds different paragraphs and different illustrations on pages whose shifting numbers make no sense. Soon he becomes obsessed by the book’s fathomless depths, and his evenings are spent consumed in its protean secrets. I suspect that when Borges wrote his story, he had the Maha·bhárata in mind.