Tuesday December 11, 2018

Sons of Gods: A new version of the Mahabharata

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By Ambaa Choate

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 had to 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. 

(The interview was first published at The White Hindu)

You can purchase the book from Amazon.

 

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Puja for The Spiritualism, Not for Vulgar Entertainment

The westerners practicing Hinduism have learned a pretty well from our "scriptures" and are becoming more spiritual while we just locked up those "holy books" only in the drawers of the altar. Thus we only love to shake our “butts to the boom-boom of Bollywood”.. right in front of the Gods' idols !!!

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Hinduism
he westerners practicing Hinduism have learned a pretty well from our "scriptures"

By Salil Gewali

Any auspicious days in Hinduism are expected to be observed with a complete purity of action and thought. The same holds true for other religions too. As per the Hindu scriptures, the believers are required to stay away from any kind of sense gratifications, particularly when the specific days are dedicated to Gods and Goddess such as Navratri, Laxmi Puja, Krishna Janmashtami, Shivaratri, to name a few. The pathway to devotion and spiritualism should not be “desecrated” by the blot of the brazen entertainment. The scriptures logically explain why it is antithetical, and its adverse consequences.

Hindusim
Incidentally, the Bhagavad Gita describes such situation as the rise of “tamasic vibes”.

 But, what a huge irony, rather a blasphemy that many people these days have started to choose the auspicious days of Gods to satisfy their base senses. Without a wee bit of regret, a certain class of people holds almost every auspicious day as the most “unmissable” occasion to booze with the friends, and what not, and stagger back home, lol! Such bizarre practices are fast catching now than ever.  Sadly, hardly any conscious people and spiritual organizations stand up and take the right measures to check such godless deviations.

What is quite unpleasant is that such a kind of unholy practices are often being facilitated by certain “Hindu intuitions” as well. On this past Laxmi Puja, the “propitious time” to perform the ritual had fallen between 6 PM to 7:53 PM. Yours truly decided to use that span of time for meditation. But hell broke loose. Apart from fireworks around, the Bollywood songs in high decibel burst forth from a certain Hindu institution quite frustrated the mission.

Hindusim
Sadhu Sanga Retreat, 2016

 One senior citizen laments – “Nothing could be irreligious than the fact that a favorable time for “puja” is also being used for the wrongful purposes. We rather expect the “Hindu institutions” to teach our children Bhajan, Kirtan, and other spiritual activities, not the loud and feverish parties and disturb others.”

Another college student adds “Having been much disturbed by the noise pollution, I have persuaded my parents to shift our place of residence to elsewhere, not at least near holy places with an unholy mission. I have started to see such institutions with the eyes of suspicion these says.” Is it that our institutions are unable to use their “discretion”, and as a result, they fail to differentiate between right and wrong?  One is deeply apprehensive that Bollywood songs and vulgar dances might as well be included as a part of the “puja ritual” as we have long accepted the fun of fireworks bursting as an integral part of Laxmi Puja which in fact is just an entrenched “misconception”.

Hinduism
Hinduism is expected to be observed with a complete purity of action

Needless to say, our roar for consumerism has almost drowned the whisper of inherent spiritualism. We are only just sending out the wrong messages. I’m afraid, the whole culture itself might be looked down with derision by other faiths. It might just become a subject of ridicule! It is no exaggeration, such negative notions against the “wrong practices” are all what we often read these days in several newspapers and social media. Do we want others to demean our profound spiritual heritage thus?  I believe it calls for a serious soul-searching.

Incidentally, the Bhagavad Gita describes such situation as the rise of “tamasic vibes”.  It warns in the strongest terms that mankind should absolutely be careful not to fall under the influence of any short-lived sense gratifications. Or else, our endeavor to “practice and preserve” the sanctity of a religion/spiritualism will be a futile exercise.

However, on the other hand, the westerners practicing Hinduism have learned a pretty well from our “scriptures” and are becoming more spiritual while we just locked up those “holy books” only in a drawer of the altar. Thus we only love to shake our “butts to the boom-boom of Bollywood”.. right in front of the Gods’ idols !!!

Salil Gewali is a well-known writer and author of ‘Great minds on India’.

Twitter:@SGewali.