The Mahabharata by Veda Vyasa is a sprawling epic that has spawned many an interpretation and philosophical debate. It is centered on the concept of Dharma - interpreted variously as ethic, duty, the path of righteousness and the natural law.
At the heart of the story is the futile rivalry between the Pandavas and their cousins, the Kauravas, that leads to a great war which the Pandavas win. It begins with the recounting of the ancestry of the two warring factions and ends with Yudhishtira, the eldest Pandava ascending to heaven, only to find his arch rival Duryodhana already there.
Devdutt Pattanaik, a renowned name in the field of Indian Mythology, takes on the onus of demystifying the grand epic, delving into its intricate plots and sub-plots. Pattanaik titles his book Jaya - the original name of the epic that we now know as Mahabharata. He narrates the story succinctly and dwells on the fascinating interconnectedness of events and characters, the layers, paradoxes and symbolisms. Pattanaik's enthusiasm is infectious – he includes folklore, interpretations and cross-references in other texts - and his accompanying illustrations are exquisite.
The pivotal chapter on the game of dice, for instance, begins with the envious Duryodhana returning from Yudhishtira's coronation. His uncle, Shakuni devises a plot to overthrow the Pandavas with loaded dice. We see the heady lure of a gamble that dulls Yudhishtira's intellect enough to pawn away his wealth, his kingdom, his brothers and finally, Draupadi, their wife. When Draupadi is publicly disrobed by the Kauravas, Dhritharashtra, the father of the Kauravas intervenes and offers her boons by which she frees her husbands. Sadly, Yudhishtira squanders away this too and the Pandavas are exiled for 13 years. In the footnotes of this chapter, we learn that Draupadi is worshipped in parts of India as a goddess and there are rituals enacted by men representing the Pandavas, seeking her forgiveness.
While Pattanaik's Jaya loosely follows the chronology of the original epic, the author invests time in dwelling on significances. There are stories within stories, curses and blessings that change destinies, and repercussions across timelines and beyond lifetimes. In this retelling, Pattanaik chooses to reiterate that the theme of the Mahabharata is conveyed in the character arc of Yudhishtira who first chases Vijaya (victory over others) but finally realises Jaya (mastery over self).
An edited version appeared in Culturama's April 2011 Issue