Sharon Maas reached out to me to share this retelling of The Mahabharata that she has created. It is called The Mahabharata — Sons of Gods: The Mother of all Epic Sagas. Reviews praise this version as being a good way to get introduced to what can be a very complicated and confusing story! Ms Maas also agreed to answer some questions about it. Here is her interview.
Tell us a little about your background. How did you discover The Mahabharata? What got you interested in Hindu history and philosophy?
Sharon: I grew up in Guyana, South America, a small country with a large Hindu population. Though I came from a Christian/atheist background (my parents were atheist but their families were Christian) I was always fascinated by the colorful, gaudy even, pictures of Hindu gods and goddesses you’d see in the shops and market stalls. Later on, as a teenager, my best friend was a Hindu and I was able to experience first hand some of the ceremonies of that culture.
As I grew older, I felt a longing for something “more”. As a young journalist at my first job, I got to interview a Yoga teacher visiting the country, and that was it. I was hooked. My first Yoga lesson was utterly life-changing. I went on to borrow every library book I could find on Yoga, Hinduism, Vedantic philosophy and educated myself. This was in the late 60s, early 70s.
Then in 1972 I found the book that was to set my on fire: it was about Ramana Maharshi, the eminent sage who had passed away in 1951. I hadto get to his ashram. I begged, borrowed and worked for the money to get me to India. Finally, I left in 1973, flying to England and from there overland to India with some Swiss friends.
It was while staying at the ashram—I was there for eighteen months – that I first read the Mahabharata. I couldn’t put it down – I was riveted and read it day and night. That was a big book, but I simply devoured it!
What led you to feel that there was space in the market for a new translation? What sets your version apart from others?
Sharon: The book I first read told a magnificent story, but the writing itself was extremely simplistic – almost as if written for very young children. Also, I felt there were some flaws in the storytelling itself. I had always been a voracious reader of fiction so I had high demands. Though I could feel past the flaws to the story. I felt the need for a better version, one that brought the story alive. So I went on to read other versions.
Yet every version I read seemed to have some major flaw. In most cases it was the writing – such a magnificent book deserves magnificent writing! Mostly, the books I read were mere summaries of the great work, with very bland, lifeless storytelling. But when I found a book with exquisite writing – William Buck’s version – I found that the story was not cohesive, did not flow, omitted certain vital aspects of the “plot” and so on.
Every single version I read left me wanting.
But as I read all these different versions, I discovered that a new vision, a new understanding of the book was rising within me.
In “my” version, it wasn’t the Panadava brothers, Arjuna especially, who are the heroes of the story. It is Karna. I have placed him center stage, made him the lynch-pin of the story. Without Karna, there would have been no war, no Mahabharata. No other Mahabharata version makes this clear.
I felt this very strongly way back in the early 70s.
I began to write this version down back in 1975. Over the years, I developed and improved it. One day, I decided to share my vision with others – that was in 2012 when I put a digital version of Sons of Gods online. By then it had been over 30 years in the making. Of course the writing isn’t as perfect as I would like it – I am never satisfied! But by then I was a professional novelist and was able to restructure the entire book, add dialogue, scenes etc to bring the story to life, and so on.
Have you studied Sanskrit? How was your translation done? Is it like Ezra Pound with reworking previous translations to make them smoother?
Sharon: It isn’t a translation—I know several words of Sanskrit but never studied it. It isn’t necessary for the Mahabharata – there are so many English versions, as well as a full translation of the original, that it’s possible to imbibe the story without knowing Sanskrit.
Some Mahabharata writers pride themselves on sticking close to the original version, not changing anything. I make no such claim; in fact, I have deliberately changed, subtracted, added elements to make the story “round” and alive.
We must remember that The Mahabharata was originally in the oral tradition, passed on from story-teller to story-teller. Each teller of the tale would almost certainly have been creative in the telling of it, used different words and so on. The main thing is the living story, wordless, at the centre of the tale.
The Mahabharata is a very long story. How did you choose which parts to include in your version?
Sharon: The central story is actually quite clear, and it is this core narrative we find in all the condensed versions. As I had made Karna a central figure, I linked it all back to him.
I don’t think that cutting the original is necessarily a bad thing.
In modern novel-writing we writers are warned not to “pad” the story – too much of a good thing can dilute the essence of the story, thus hiding the spirit in a multitude of excursions, stories-within-stories, and so on. My aim was to find the essence and concentrate on that.
Besides, a work of that length (18 volumes) can be so intimidating that many readers wouldn’t even start. Even the two- and three-volume editions require a huge amount of time to finish. That whole version is out there if anyone wants to read it, but for an introduction, and an understanding of the spirit of the Mahabharata, a short version works better.
It was really a matter of picking out the essential scenes and characters, and weaving them together into a unified whole.
The amount of time you spent, Ms. Maas, is impressive! It probably takes at least 30 years to really get the story right. I appreciate the emphasis that you placed on Karna as a character. He is a tragic hero and someone it is very easy to admire as well as relate to.
Narendra Modi does not represent classical Hinduism. But few Hindus are open to realizing this. Here is an inventory of points, to expand on my premise. Indeed, if Hindus are to emulate the policies of the Hindu Right Wing, we will move closer to
the Abrahamic ideology.
Modi is ethnocentric (meaning Indocentric), a vegetarian extremist promoting teetotalism, anti-LGBT (lesbians, gays, bisexuals and the transgender), can’t distinguish between traditional western culture and neoliberal westernization, has colluded in the mass murder of innocent Gujarati Muslims (not Islamic terrorists, mind you) and openly courts the bourgeoisie, while promoting complete privatization. To complete the picture, Modi, the RSS and the rest of the Hindu right wing, covertly encourage casteism and linguistic jingoism.
But in conjunction with denouncing Modi, the half-informed Marxists and the pseudo-
liberal bogey, also decry Hinduism. As if Modi’s views, are Hinduism’s faults! This is why a re-assessment of historical Hinduism is the need of the hour, so that the image of Hinduism – South Asia’s classical identity – may be rescued.
1) For the past 2000 years, Hindus have accommodated: Armenians, Zoroastrians,
Greeks, Jews, Black Africans called Siddis, Chinese and Tibetans on their soil, not
once asking any of these communities to renege on their religions. Persecuting any
of India’s religious minorities, goes against the grain of Hindu religious thought. Sure,
there have been frictions between Hinduism and the Indic religion of Buddhism at
intermittent periods of India’s bygone history, but this friction cannot be possibly
compared to the scale and ferocity of monotheism’s religious crusades.
Hinduism allows its adherents to remain atheistic. It has evolved the ‘Charvaka’ and
‘Sankhya’ schools of philosophy, which reject divinity and concentrate on atheistic materialism.
Even though Judaism, Christianity and Islam are the best-known proselytizing faiths;
Buddhism is not innocent of proselytization, either. Few Hindus want to admit, that in
endowing East Asia with Buddhism, which carried over Hindu ideas and cultural
nuances to that part of the world; Buddhism quietly subordinated and decimated the
indigenous, ethnic religions of East Asia, such as: Muism, Bonism, Tengrism,
Shenism and Satsana Phi. Only Shintoism, Japan’s indigenous, polytheistic identity,
could hold on stubbornly.
Hinduism’s all-encompassing outlook at other faiths, stands in opposition to the
dogmatic and insular approach of the Hindu Right towards India’s religious
minorities, which include Muslims and Christians.
2) Never has Hinduism – or for that matter any other polytheistic, indigenous religion
– discriminated against the LGBT. India’s anti-LGBT laws were promulgated in mid-
19th century, Christian England and were imported into India, via the British. It is
disturbing, how Hindus like Modi and his clique, have embraced the monotheistic
prejudice against the LGBT, while at the same time, projecting themselves as the
defenders of Hinduism.
The Indian epic Mahabharat, contains two characters named Shikhandi, and Aravan.
Both Shikhandi and Aravan, are transgenders. There is a temple dedicated to
Aravan named the Koothandavar Temple. It is located inside the Indian state of
Tamil Nadu. Every year, an 18-day festival to commemorate the transgender status
of Aravan, is organized there. Pagan philosophy of which Hinduism is a branch, has
had a long tradition of recognizing alternative sexuality in the form of the LGBT.
When the Hindu Right beginning with the RSS, denounces intimacy between
members of the LGBT community as being unnatural and offensive, we become a
mirror image of the three Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam,
which condemn the LGBT community as being sinful.
3)Hindu Right goons have accosted couples on Valentine’s Day and beaten them up
claiming the festival was a degenerate adoption from the West. They are ignorant of
the fact, that Valentine’s Day has its roots, in the ancient, pagan Roman celebration
of ‘Lupercalia’, which was a commemoration of love and fertility, that was held
between the 13th and the 15th of February. Christianity, merely plagiarized the
festivals of the pre-Christian people.
While original Abrahamic philosophy (and not its modern, watered down version)
looks askance at the intermingling of unmarried boys and girls, Classical Paganism
takes the opposing view. In the Polytheistic Greco-Roman observance, three days,
the 13, the 14 th , and the 15 th of February, were set aside for celebrating love, fertility,
and the socializing of the sexes, which involved paying obeisance to the Roman
wolf-goddess Lupa, who was said to have suckled Remus and Romulus, the twin
brothers who had founded Rome.
The Indian treatise Kamasutra deals with sexuality and so does the temple art of
Khajuraho. Thus, by shunning Hinduism’s long tradition of recognizing and feting
human sexuality, and by victimizing couples on Valentine’s Day, the Hindu Right has
amply displayed its slide towards Abrahamic segregation of the sexes.
4)Indocentrism is as faulty as Eurocentrism and Afrocentrism. Indocentric Hindus
are in effect, reacting to European racism, with counter-racism. 19th century
European ethnologists had forwarded ideas which proposed that non-European
people are inferior to Europeans. In the 20th century, such racist ideas were
overturned with the discovery of ancient civilizations all over the world, which pointed
at sophisticated ways of thinking, outside of the European orbit. India’s ‘Indus Valley
Civilization’ and the Native Americans’ ‘Tenochtitlan’, were just two of the ancient
non-European seats of civilization, that were unearthed. Since then, history has been
revised several times, with non-European cultures and their achievements hogging
most of the spotlight. However, the memory of European colonialism, has also had a
neurotic, and narcissistic effect on the majority of Hindus. Such Hindus have
elbowed aside all the fine classical achievements of Europe and other non-Hindu,
Polytheistic, Classical civilizations and have projected Hinduism as the creative
source of all other forms of Polytheism. It would have been hilarious, if it wasn’t so
demeaning and offensive. Does it ever occur to Indocentric Hindus, how disrespectful this is, to our polytheistic sisters and brothers in other parts of the world? European, Middle Eastern, Sub-Saharan African and West Asian polytheism, are being revived at present. How do the Indocentric Hindus reckon, our pagan fellow travellers will treat our affront to their dignity?
The ‘Indian Origin Of The Aryans’, is the pet theory of Indocentric Hindus. They put
their faith in the idea, that the Aryans originated out of India. There are serious
problems with this theory. The region which produces a race, will exhibit the
maximum diversity present in that race. If India was indeed the birthplace of the
Caucasian race, then all varieties of Caucasians would have been represented in the
population of India. But is that the case? Certainly not! Scholars have already
located the birthplace of the Caucasian race. It is the steppes of the Ukraine-Russian
flatlands. About two decades back, the Indian media had reported the finds of a
submerged metropolis off the coast of Gujarat, that was touted as being ‘Dwarka’,
the city associated with Lord Krishna. There is a thesis doing the rounds, which
supposes, that the Indus Valley Civilization, was in reality the ‘Saraswati Civilization’
of the Vedas. But both these theories have a serious flaw. Adherents of these two
theories, hold, that the North Indian Caucasians and the Dravidians of Southern
India, are essentially of the same genetic stock. Such purloining of genetic and
anthropological data, at the hands of Hindus, of all people, is unbecoming. It has
been well established through mtDNA (Mitochondrial DNA) testing, that North
Indians share 3/4ths of their genes with Afghans, West Asians, and Europeans,
especially the people of the Mediterranean. North Indians also bear Greek and
German blood, as in the days of yore, many pagan Greeks, following Alexander’s
invasion of India; and a good number of pagan Huns, had formed colonies in north
India, married north Indian women and settled down to build families. mtDNA
analysis has similarly established, that South Indians (and Sri Lankans), share their
genes with Australian Aborigines. Australian Aborigines, the Dravidians and the
Sinhalese, are offshoots of East Africans; in other words, the Somalis and the
Ethiopians, who branched off to constitute the fourth race, known as the Australoid
Race. How then, can North Indians and South Indians, be a part of the same race?
Indocentric Indians are so hard pressed to prove to the world that Hinduism is over
and above all the other polytheistic faiths, that if the Mongoloid people in India’s
north-east had been Hindus by majority, Indocentric Hindus would have made the
ludicrous claim, that the north-east Hindus also share the same race as that of other
A scholarly article establishes the genetic distinctiveness of the Indo-Aryan Indians
of the North and the Dravidian Indians of the South, from each-other, by stating :“We
analyze 25 diverse groups to provide strong evidence for two ancient populations,
genetically divergent, that are ancestral to most Indians today. One, the “Ancestral
North Indians” (ANI), is genetically close to Middle Easterners, Central Asians, and
Europeans, while the other, the “Ancestral South Indians” (ASI), is as distinct from
ANI and East Asians as they are from each other. By introducing methods that can
estimate ancestry without accurate ancestral populations, we show that ANI ancestry
ranges from 39-71% in India, and is higher in traditionally upper caste and Indo-
European speakers. Groups with only ASI ancestry may no longer exist in mainland
India. However, the Andamanese are an ASI-related group without ANI ancestry,
showing that the peopling of the islands must have occurred before ANI-ASI gene
flow on the mainland. Allele frequency differences between groups in India are larger than in Europe, reflecting strong founder effects whose signatures have been
maintained for thousands of years due to endogamy.”
Conclusion: The Aryan people did not originate in India and spill out to other parts of
the globe. Q.E.D. It is proven.
5) Narendra Modi is bourgeoisie friendly, whereas Hinduism repeatedly warns
against the perils of hoarding wealth. The Brahmin priestly class, was meant to live
off the alms of the other castes, in an attempt to prevent any consolidation of power
by them. The Hindutva wadis are in cahoots with the business class and the
industrialists who virtually run this country and its media. Big industries routinely flout
environmental procedures and jeopardize the safety of our water resources. They
exploit our natural wealth, immiserate our workers, fell our forests, in the process
depriving our fauna of their natural habitats and inch our country and the earth,
closer to a man-made cataclysm.
The Niyamgiri mountains of the state of Odisha, is home to the Dongria Kondh tribal
community. Over decades of mining, the Indian mining conglomerate Vedanta, has
reduced the resident tribals to homelessness as the latter would depend on the
mountain for survival. The slopes of the mountain hosted a waterfall, which is today
all but lost, thanks to mining.
Treating Mother Nature casually, is peculiar to the three Abrahamic faiths. They
propound, that Nature is secondary to their Almighty God, since he has created her.
For, how can the creation be higher than its creator? By ignoring environmental
concerns as a result of courting big businesses who exploit our natural wealth, Modi
and the Hindu Right have rendered Mother Nature a second class citizen, much as
the three Monotheistic religions do.
6) It is amazing, that so many Hindus are not even aware, that the oldest Hindu
spiritual text, the ‘Rig Ved’ doesn’t make any mention of a birth based caste system.
Instead it clearly speaks about professional segregation as defining caste. It speaks
of inter-caste marriage and projects the caste system as being an open order, in
which one could travel up and down the caste hierarchy. A passage in the Rig Ved
goes as “I am a trader, my father is a priest and my mother is a reaper of corn”.
Traders are Vaishya; priests are Brahmins and reapers of corn, are Shudra, by
caste. Scholars know, that in Early Vedic Hinduism, the caste system was egalitarian
and easy on the adherents. It was only during the Later Vedic Age, that the caste
system became rigid, closed and birth oriented. This could not have been achieved,
without the shenanigans of the priestly Brahmin caste, who, in order to consolidate
prestige and power, made the caste system a dogmatic affair. What is truly
unfortunate is that, so many modern Hindus protect the birth-based caste system as
something intrinsic to Hinduism. They protect an undemocratic classification, that
has brought untold misery and persecution to millions of low caste people through
the centuries, prompting them to convert to other religions. The birth based caste
hierarchy is a prime reason, Hinduism is fodder meant for ridiculing if you ask Jews,
Christians, Muslims and Marxists. Even though, original, early Hinduism never endorsed a birth-based caste system, oblivious and snooty Hindus, portray this as a
‘Christian-Marxist’ interpretation of our holy texts.
The Islamic and Christian invasions of India, made a bad situation, worse. Hinduism
– in an attempt to protect itself from the invaders and their alien monotheistic ways –
closed in on itself and became rigid and streamlined. The caste system,
accompanied by patriarchy and misogyny, took their toll on a religion which had
placed great relevance on its goddesses.
In Early Vedic Hinduism, caste was a matter of proclivities in the professional arena.
If the son of a Brahmin chose to not learn about the spiritual texts and took up selling
spices as his profession, he would automatically slide into the ‘Vaishya’ caste. On the contrary, if the son of a street sweeper and thus a Shudra, was sent to a school
by his father, where he learnt about the spiritual texts, he would qualify in becoming
a Brahmin by caste. So on and so forth. So deep rooted has become the
stranglehold of the birth-based Caste System of Hinduism, that its only antidote, as
Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar, the father of the Indian constitution has proposed, is
to root it out in totality. While promoting development, Narendra Modi takes no
concrete measures to end Manual Scavenging, which involves the physical removal
of blockages from drains and sewers. Manual Scavenging is India’s secret shame
and a profession that has kept our lowest castes/Dalits, in shackles.
Instead of working toward the annihilation of Caste, the Hindu Right has time and
again, covertly supported Casteist elements, and gone on record to state, even
before foreign audiences, that the birth-based Caste structure of Hinduism, is
intrinsic to Hinduism, is a core value, and is eternal by presence.
7) Southern India must not be required to learn Hindi, since North Indians, are not
required to master any of the Dravidian languages of the South. Nor should the
north-east, which speaks ‘Sino-Tibetan’ languages, be required to learn the Indo- European, Hindi tongue, as North Indians are under no obligation to learn the Sino-
Tibetan languages. Failing to realize this, the Hindu right wing, uphold Hindi as the
sole representative of India’s masses. While it is true, that Hindi has suffered neglect,
at the hands of the elitist, western-educated Indian populace and