Friday, 16 April 2010

Kim's Review: The Indian Epics Retold

I had been looking for a translation of Ramavataram - Kamban's Ramayan since I read In Search of Sita, when I came across this collection by R K Narayan. This book is a collection of 3 of his books - a translation of The Ramavataram, The Mahabharath and also his collection of short stories "Gods, Demons and Others"

Looking at the size of the book, I should have realised that I would only be getting an abridged version, but I was so excited to see an English translation of the Ramavataram, that I did not think twice before picking it up.

The Mahabharath in this book is a compressed version (18 chapters of the Bhagavad Geetha are compressed into 5-6 paragraphs) of the main incidents and there isn't anything spectacularly remarkable about that section.

Narayan conducted an indepth study into the Ramavataram to fulfill the dying request of an uncle. Kamban himself is said to have spent every night studying Valmiki's Sanskrit version and every day writing thousands of lines of his own poetry in Tamil. He described himself as "I am verily like the cat sitting on the edge of an ocean of milk, hoping to lap it all up". Unfortunately Narayan has only translated this epic in an abridged format.

A few minor variations I found from the Valmiki Ramayan include the reasoning attributed by Kamban for Ram killing Vali from behind a tree. However this was too short a version to appreciate Kambans other variations (if any). I will have to look for a more comprehensive translation. Perhaps Shanti Lal Nagar or P S Sundaram.

Both these translations, while not what I was looking for, are a quick and easy read for those who want a brief introduction to the Indian epics. Easy to read, covering the main highlights of both.

However I really enjoyed the third section of this book : "Gods, Demons and Others" These short stories help tie-in a lot of characters referred to in the main epics. Told in the form of the narrative of a village bard/story teller, they include the stories of : Lavana, Chudala, Yayati (stories concerned with a discovery in the realm of the spirit), Devi, Vishwamithra, Manmatha (depicting a process of sublimation), Ravana, Valmiki, Draupadi (incarnation of God to destroy, inspire and assist), Nala, Savitri, the mispaired anklet, Shakuntala (wives who overcame obstacles to regain lost husbands), Harishchandra & Sibi (ideal rulers)

Most of these are stories of characters from the epics including that of Shakuntala. This version is slightly different from the Kalidasa version Abhijnana Shakuntalam which is more popular in the South. The Mispaired anklet is a Tamil classic.

What might seem suprising to those unfamilair with Indian mythology is that certain characters (even if they aren't Gods) are present at different periods of time. Like Durvasa (of the famed temper) whom the Kauravs sent to visit the Pandav's in vanvas in the hopes that he might curse them, the same Durvasa who blessed Kunti with the mantra for calling upon a God to beget a child, is the same one who cursed Shakuntala. Sages like Vyas, Valmiki, Vishwamitra make guest appearances all over the epics.

I was at a gathering the other day, where some mothers of young children confessed that is was easier to let their kids read Disney comics rather than Amar Chitra Katha. The problem being that, if their children read stroies from mythology and asked for clarifications on characters and incidents, the mothers did not have the knowledge to answer them immmediately.

A collection like this, is like a Cliffs Notes to update the reader on all the major events and characters of these epics. So its ideal for someone who wants a quick introduction to the epics or an easy refresher. For me, I am still searching for more comprehensive translations to better appreciate regional variations in the stories.

Also published on

Narayan sums up the yugas very succintly & I would like to record that here:
Each yuga lasts 3000 celestial years. One celestial year is 3600 human years. Hence the 4 yugas cover 43,200,000 mortal years. Each of the 4 yugas possess special characteristics of good and evil.
In Kritayuga, righteousness prevails universally.
In Tretayuga, righteousness reduces by a quarter, but sacrifices & ceremonies are given greater emphasis. Men act with material and other objectives while performing rites instead of with a sense of duty. A gradual decrease in austerity.
In Dwaparyuga righteousness diminishes by half. some men study 4 vedas, some 3, others 1 or none. Ceremonies are multiplied as goodness declines. Disease and calamities make their appearance.
In Kaliyuga, righteousness, virtue and goodness completely disappear. Rites and sacrifices are abanadoned as mere superstitions. Anger, distress, hunger and fear prevail and rulers behave lke highwaymen, seizing power and riches in various ways.

So what do you think, are we in Dwaparyuga or Kaliyuga?

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