Updated: September 24, 2009 19:07 IST

Tales from the Mahabharata

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Epic accounts: The book jacket.
Epic accounts: The book jacket.

The role of flora and fauna find a prominent place in Kavita Sharma’s book of tales from the Mahabharata.

“If the ethos of India is enshrined in its two great epics, its soul lies in the woodlands that lie at the heart of the compositions of Valmiki and Vyasa,” says Pradip Bhattacharya in his Foreword to a book that seeks to retell some gripping tales from the great epic.

Indeed, much action in both the epics, “the very fountainhead of our civilisation” takes place in the forests of the land: whether it is the Pandavas’ years in exile or Ram’s eventful 14 years of banishment and in the centre are the feathered and four-legged creatures of the earth.

And at least some of them are there for a purpose, lending of support to the principal characters involved in action, undergoing a curse of some sort and awaiting salvation from the sins of their previous births.

This is more clearly outlined by Kavita Sharma, the author, in her preface: “Apart from active contribution to the events of the main story, tales involving birds and beasts are told to illustrate a code of conduct or a mode of behaviour?

What has been put together is certainly not exhaustive and the work itself can be expanded to read the lessons of life in nature as nature speaks not only through birds and beasts but also through rivers, mountains and trees. All creation interacts intimately as heavenly beings, humans, denizens of the animal world and natural phenomenon all take part in the cosmic dance called life.”

The book is divided into eight distinct sections – Introduction; The telling of the tale Adi Parva; Exile in the forest – Vana Parva; Preparation for the war – Udyog Parva; The battle of Kurukshetra; The Aftermath; The duties of a King in times of Crisis – Shanti Parva; The Life of Discipline – Anushansana Parva; and Janamejaya’s Final Lesson – Ashwamedhika Parva, Birds, Beasts, Men and Nature.

Tales from the Mahabharata (TransEdit Communications, New Delhi. Pp. 256. Rs 350) is a compendium of 38 tales randomly picked up from the different parvas of the epic. They follow no fixed pattern, nor are they joined together through a specific undercurrent, except that they have been put in the sequence of appearance and have been selected from Kisari Mohan Ganguli’s rendering of the epic.

Narrative style

The Mahabharata abounds with fables, parables and moralistic dialogue between humans and birds and beasts forming definitive characters. While some are similar to the ones recounted in the Panchatantra and, with some variations, in later day Puranic texts as well, what distinguishes them is the definitive contextualising and narrative style which is appropriate and lyrical.

The long Introduction serves as substantial backgrounder, the logical preamble to what is contained in the subsequent text. The Nagas, the celestial she dog, hawks, pigeons, fishes, frogs, horses, fowlers, cats, camels, crows, swans, garudas, owls, tigers, jackals, rats, and the mongooses fritter in and out of the engrossing text.

Each story or tale carries a message or a moral at the end. Many of these deal with the arrogance of the celestials and their abhorrence of the humans.

Somewhere in her introduction, Dr. Kavita Sharma points out: “?natural, human, and supernatural worldly freely interact in the Mahabharata. This is because, in India, as many ancient cultures, non-human forms of life, birds, animals, and even trees are believed superhuman abilities and powers. They possess special wisdom and have a relationship to the sacred.

With such a world view, words of wisdom can come from both human and non-human characters and the two worlds can interact and mirror each other smoothly.” That’s, perhaps, why the Hindus continue to worship birds, trees, and animals.

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