Saturday, 23 November 2013

Book Review: The Pregnant King

Book: The Pregnant King

Author: Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik

Publisher: Penguin

ISBN: 9780143063476

Pages: 360

Hindu mythology holds many important events and stories which have often been handed down generation after generation as part of society's ways and norms. The story of King Yuvanashva and his unique story is validated in the Harivamsa and some of the Puranas. However, the Vishnu Purana and Bhagavata Purana tell his extraordinary story about him.

The popular and just ruler of Vallabhi, King Yuvanashva, is an obedient son and an equally devoted husband to his wives. However, even the happiest of homes have secret tragedies hidden in their midst. Yuvanashva, a King who is denied his right to sitting on the throne by his own mother because he fails to produce an heir to the throne, even after having three wives. As a result, Shilavati, the king’s mother, refuses to give him permission to join the famous battle of Kurukshetra as the king is unable to sire a worthy heir for his throne despite years of devotion and rituals. 

After years of trying naturally, in sheer desperation, he turns to Yaja and Upajaya, two powerful sages, who create a magical potion that when taken by his queens will impregnate them. This backfires when he accidentally drinks the potion that was meant for his wives and hence, the strange title of the story. Here arises a series of complications; a pregnant king? The whole book then follows Yuvanashva and him fighting his maternal instincts. One of his first dilemmas being what should his son call him, mother or father? Perhaps, the greatest irony of the tale is that the virile King faces his life’s greatest dilemma, when the great upholder of dharma and the epitome of manhood longs to hear his son call him ‘Mother’ just once, before he breathes his last. 

Through the book, we are introduced to Shilavati, who cannot rule as a king because she is a woman, Pruthalashva, who must sire a child because he is a man, a Yaksha named Sthunakarna, who surrenders his manhood so that Shikhandi (a woman) can become a man and a husband, and later reclaims it, and of the great warrior Arjuna with his many wives, who is forced to disguise himself as a woman when a nymph castrates him. And in this journey, we witness King Yuvanashva’s struggle to be just to all, his conflict with himself, and his duty to bring about Dharma in his kingdom.

Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik plays around with the timeline in this book. At 360 pages, it is a rich and complex weaving of tales intersecting both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata and its characters. The Pregnant King takes its readers through a journey of realism and contemporary ideologies that seem to haunt mankind not just today, but also in a world built around 2000 years ago. The book very aptly points out how thin a line there is between the male and the female powers. The issue of sexuality and gender occupies a large part of our discourse in this day and age when people tend to forget that we ourselves have mythologies and hence come from a culture that was tolerant, but yet very private. 

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Book Review: Mahabharata

Publisher: Penguin

Author: R.K. Narayan

Pages: 208

ISBN: 9780141185002 

The Mahabharata is some 3500 years old and is the longest epic poem in existence. As one of the founding epics of Indian culture, it is also a highly dramatic and enthralling story. Growing from an oral tradition of ballads based on historic events in India, the Mahabharata was passed down and extended through the centuries, thus becoming the longest poem ever written. One of the many narratives about the Mahabharata is by R.K. Narayan. His version provides a superb rendition in an abbreviated and elegant retelling of the greatest epic. 

The Mahabharata is Hinduism's great epic story. It may be the oldest written story in the world, and certainly the longest. It tells the tale of kings and queens, gods and demons. It goes off on tangents lasting hundreds of pages, yet always comes back to the one main story, the story of the Kauravas and the Pandavas, the two great warrior clans, and the men and women whose lives are entangled in the fight between good and evil.  

Contemporary readers have a much more accessible entry point to the fascinating world of the epic through R.K. Narayan's masterful translation in English from the original in Sanskrit and abridgment of the poem. This version has a concise character and place guide and a family tree that illustrates that this version is predominantly meant for a new generation of readers. As American Indologist Wendy Doniger in her foreword for the book explains, "Narayan makes this treasury of Indian folklore and mythology readily accessible to the general reader. He tells the stories so well because they're all his stories." Thus, it gives a feeling that R.K. Narayan, like any other child in India, grew up hearing stories from the Mahabharata, internalising their mythology which gives him an innate ability to choose the right passages and place their best as translations. 

In this elegant translation, R.K. Narayan ably distills a tale that is both traditional and constantly changing. He draws from both scholarly analysis and creative interpretation by vividly blending the spiritual and secular. The often violent narrative of the Mahabharata also encompasses philosophy, history and cosmology and also contains The Bhagavad Gita, the masterly spiritual discussion between Krishna and the Pandava prince Arjuna, which forms the cornerstone of Hinduism.

While this version completely skips The Bhagavad Gita, R.K. Narayan's Mahabharata is an easy and pleasant introduction to an immensely diverse and complicated work. The language of his translation is clear and direct and he manages to capture the spirit of the narrative. His brilliant shortened prose interpretation of the monumental, cosmic drama that the Mahabharata is known for, happens to be one of R.K. Narayan's finest achievements in a manner that brings all the excitement and depth of this great Indian epic called the Mahabharata to life. 

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Book Review: Vishnu Sahasranamam

Publisher: Central Chinmaya Mission Trust

Author: Swami Chinmayananda 

Pages: 266

ISBN: 9788175972452 

Every human being has some inner conception of God, which is formed or fuelled by selective interpretations depending on the environment, experiences and temperament an individual is associated with. The Vishnu Sahasranamam, is a stotra containing the 1000 names of Lord Vishnu. During the interaction between Yudhisthira and Bheeshma after the Mahabharata war, the Vishnu Sahasranamam was revealed by Bheeshma Pitamaha in the Shanti Parva of the Mahabharata as he awaits his death on the bed of arrows. 

The Vishnu Sahasranamam summarises in 1000 names all the attributes and deduced facts about God. Students and scholars of Indian philosophy often start with the Vishnu Sahasranamam along with an incisive commentary of Adi Sankaracharya which enables a person to understand the concept of God in Hinduism in one go.

Broadly speaking, the Upanishads form the core principles of Vedanta, a branch of Indian philosophy that explains the Vedas. The Bhagavad Gita summarises the teachings of various Upanishads while the Vishnu Sahasranamam summarises what The Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads and Puranas and other ancient texts say about God. In other words, the Vishnu Sahasranamam acts as a shortcut to illumination. 

There is a deep connection between the name and the named. The 1000 names of Lord Vishnu invoke a deep sense of bonding with the Lord. The commentary with word meanings point out the essence and the goal. Swami Chinmayananda's version of the Vishnu Sahasranamam, draws from Adi Sankaracharya's commentary. The commentary gives us a reference behind each name that can be found in all the other sacred texts. It is together a gripping work with each explanation shining like a 1000 watt torch in a deep dark cave. In other words, it is like a mini-treatise on Advaita philosophy.