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Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Mahabharata: A Summary

Poet and sociologist Carole Satyamurti has spent most of her life working as a professor at the Tavistock Clinic in London, occasionally publishing her own volumes of poetry. Then in 2015, she published Mahabharata: A Modern Retelling, an elegantly accessible English language rendition of the Indian epic told in 900 pages of blank verse (that’s three times as long as Paradise Lost). Below, peruse Satyamurti's introduction to better prepare for Brook’s latest directorial masterpiece, Battlefieldcoming to the BAM Harvey Theater Sep 28–Oct 9.

Love, loss, heroism, envy, loyalty, humor, spiritual aspiration, ethical and political dilemmas—the Mahabharata, the great epic poem of ancient India, brings to life all these timeless human experiences, and more. The central story concerns a royal warrior dynasty, and the bitter rivalry between two sets of cousins: the five Pandava brothers and the hundred Kaurava brothers. The eldest Pandava, Yudhishthira, is the legitimate heir to the kingdom, but Duryodhana, the eldest Kaurava, disputes his entitlement, and seeks repeatedly to eliminate his cousins. The Pandavas have a great ally: Krishna, who is an incarnation of the god, Vishnu. The Pandavas are themselves descended from gods, owing to a boon bestowed on their mother, Kunti.

Kunti has another son, however. When little more than a child herself, she gave birth to a son fathered by the sun god, Surya. She abandoned him, and he was found and raised by a low-class family. Ignorant of his origins, Karna nevertheless grows up to be a great warrior.

The rivalry between the Kauravas and the Pandavas takes many turns, including a rigged dice game which Yudhishthira loses, forcing him, his brothers, and their joint wife, Draupadi, into exile for thirteen years, during which they have many adventures. At the end of that time, despite diplomatic efforts, war between the cousins is declared, involving vast numbers of fighters on both sides. On the brink of war, Arjuna, the legendary archer among the Pandava brothers, loses his nerve at the prospect of the coming slaughter. Krishna talks to him at length, persuading him that, as a warrior, his duty is to act. This discourse is known as the Bhagavad Gita, and is perhaps the single most sacred text for Hindus.

The war lasts eighteen days, and at the end of it the Pandavas are victorious—but at huge cost. All their sons have been killed, and vast numbers of men lie dead on the battlefield, to be mourned by their womenfolk. The dead include Karna, who is now revealed to be the eldest Pandava, and as such would have been the rightful heir to the kingdom.

Yudhishthira is prostrate with grief and wants to relinquish the kingdom and become a hermit. By listening to extensive teaching and stories told by the family patriarch, Bhishma, he is eventually persuaded to set aside his doubts, and proceeds to reign for the next 36 years. At the end of that time, Krishna dies and his city is swallowed by the sea. Yudhishthira decides the time has come to leave the throne to his great-nephew. The five Pandavas, with Draupadi, set off on a pilgrimage to the Himalayas?. One by one they drop dead until only Yudhishthira is left. Eventually, after having been tested in various ways, he enters heaven together with his family.

This is the bare outline of the epic. There are many other sub-plots, stories, teachings, and a wealth of subsidiary characters. Unusually for an ancient epic, women play a prominent role in the narrative. The main characters are complex, not two-dimensionally good or bad. Even Duryodhana, evil though many of his actions are, is an exemplary follower of the warrior code. Karna, a proud and bitter man who devotes himself to Duryodhana, his only friend, is a tragic figure. Just before the war, Krishna reveals to him his true origins and, in effect, offers him the kingdom. He refuses out of loyalty to his adoptive family, and to Duryodhana. In the final battle with Arjuna, he makes every effort to win the kingdom for his friend, refusing dishonorable short cuts, and dying in the attempt.

The Mahabharata was composed around 2000 years ago, supposedly by Vyasa who is both the author and a character in the narrative. It is said to be the longest poem in world literature.

Peter Brook's Battlefield, an epic distillation of 1985's The Mahabharata, comes to the BAM Harvey Theater Sep 28–Oct 9, and tickets are still available.

On Fri, Sep 28, BAM hosts a day-long reading of The Mahabharata in the Wendy's Subway Reading Room. Members of the public are welcome to attend and listen at any point throughout the afternoon as readers of all ages read selections from this recent retelling. Each hour will feature an introduction of the selected passages by Satyamurti, a brief group vocal warm-up, a reading of the highlighted section, and a short discussion. Copies of the book will be available for purchase and signing. Familiarize yourself with selected passages here.

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