Though it has been around for more than 2,000 years, the Mahabharata unfailingly surprises, with its imaginative density and narrative complexity. First of all, there is the coherent framing device, sustained for the entirety of the poem: a series of recessed narrators tell the story and signal its telling. The longest epic poem in the world even contains a meta-narrative of its own transmission. The sage Vyasa not only composes the poem and passes it on to one of the narrators but is also a major player in the story – he is the grandfather of the 100 Kaurava and the five Pandava brothers, the cousins who engage in a war that is at the heart of the epic and destroys almost the entire cast of characters.
The spine of that central story, however, is just the bare bones. The rest, a profusion of stories, is cornucopian. There are inset narratives, which can be self-contained or related organically to the main story, such as the parables and fables in books 12 and 13, designed to deliver or illustrate a particular point of wisdom. There are the astonishing genealogies, which are about as far as one can get from the dry roll-call of proper nouns in the “begats” of Genesis and Numbers. No birth in the book is straightforward or undramatic. The Pandavas, for example, are the sons of gods and Kunti and Madri, the two wives of Pandu, but behind this story lies an older one of how the gods had to be born as human beings in order to redeem a fallen world. Karna, a vital character in the action, is the brother of the Pandavas; he was born to Kunti after she was impregnated by Surya, the sun god, well before she married Pandu. In a prolonged deployment of dramatic irony, it’s a piece of information that is kept secret from the actors in the drama, with devastating consequences.
The narrative fertility and proliferation are reflected in the size of the poem: three million words, about 15 times the combined length of the Old and New Testaments. You would be hard-pushed to find a narrative so long yet so gripping. Mahabharata readers divide into two categories – those who read it purely for the story and those who read it for its moral and spiritual content, for the epic is also a central text of the Hindu religion. The latter aspect resides mostly in the Bhagavadgita, or “The Song of God”, comprising the sermon that Krishna gives Arjuna on the battlefield when he becomes overcome with slackness and grief at the thought of attacking his cousins.
A pervasive theme is that of dharma – it is a difficult word to translate but “right conduct”, or “the right way of living one’s life”, gives an approximate idea. It is the slipperiest of concepts, contradictory, inconsistent, evasive, forever changing according to context or contingency. “Dharma is sukshma [subtle],” we hear time and again, an acknowledgement that human beings can only ever do the wrong thing within the matrix of life ordained for them by the gods. This is the other philosophical underpinning of the epic, the tension between predestination and free will and how, ultimately, the preordained order trumps human agency. Nowhere is this illustrated more vividly than in the crucial dice game at which Yudhishthira gambles away everything – his kingdom, his brothers and Draupadi, the wife of the five brothers – despite repeated warnings from several quarters to stop while there is still something salvageable. Yudhishthira is powerless. He says, “What happens to us, good and bad, depends/on what’s ordained. Whether I accept/or refuse, in the end it makes no difference.