Sunday, August 24, 2014

An Epic Worthy of Its Name: Review of Jaya, an Illustrated Retelling of the Mahabharata

Jaya: An Illustrated Retelling of the MahabharataJaya: An Illustrated Retelling of the Mahabharata by Devdutt Pattanaik
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Despite what GoodReads says, there is an audio version of Jaya by Devdutt Pattanaik and it is that version of the Pattanaik's illustrated retelling of the epic of India, the Mahabharata to which I listened.

These are the bona fides that Penguin India, the publisher, offers for this work:

"Devdutt Pattanaik seamlessly weaves into a single narrative plots from the Sanskrit classic as well as its many folk and regional variants, including the Pandavani of Chattisgarh, Gondhal of Maharashtra, Terukkuttu of Tamil Nadu, and Yakshagana of Karnataka. Richly illustrated with over 250 line drawings by the author, the 108 chapters abound with little-known details such as the names of the hundred Kauravas, the worship of Draupadi as a goddess in Tamil Nadu, the stories of Astika, Madhavi, Jaimini, Aravan and Barbareek, the Mahabharata version of the Shakuntalam and the Ramayana, and the dating of the war based on astronomical data."

Pattanaik is assisted in his narration by a group of voice actors who go collectively by the name of Dramanon, "an English language theater group that operates out of three cities in India: Manipal, Bangalore and Hyderabad."  The work done by these narrators was nonpareil, if you will allow me the conceit of using a word rarely employed.  It befits the work done by these narrators.  Careful listening was called for- Indian English has a much different inflection than what I am accustomed to- but it was well worth the extra attention. In fact, I would say that the extra effort to attend to the stories only enhanced my listening experience.

Audio chapters were brief, each fitted to the particular story featured. Direct narration was interspersed with explanatory sections that offered additional commentary on historical and narrative background, the larger narrative context for each story, divergent versions of particular stories, religious implications and literary connections.  I was impressed with the deftness with which commentary was both set off from and woven into the retelling without intruding into the larger story itself.  "Masterful" is a word that comes to mind when I think of the competence manifested in this dimension.

This was my first interaction with the text of the Mahabharata, so I cannot comment on the faithfulness of this version to the original text. One reviewer on Goodreads states that Jaya did not give adequate attention and exposure to the individual tales leading up to the climactic conflict at Kurukshetra. I can say that at 11:49 hours of listening and as a beginner coming to this text for the first time, I was more than satisfied and challenged by the length and breadth of the stories.

The pace, intensity and epic vision of the narration progresses from one story to the next. Jaya begins with seemingly trivial stories that build upon one another layer by layer with a kind of symphonic effect so that when Jaya reaches its climax and begins the descent into more reflective passages, the very structure and rhythm of the tale serves to draw one into an experience of the grand doctrines and transcendant vision of time and eternity that lies at the heart of the Mahabharata.  It is a magnificent work that, at least for me, powerfully fulfilled the characteristic of all great literature- not merely to TELL the tale but to invite the listener into an experience of the timeless truths to which the story is a witness.

I was particularly moved by the Bhagavad Gita, or Krishna's song to Arjuna just before the battle of Kurukshetra, and by Yudistara's experiences at the end of the tale, when he learns one last profound lesson about himself and the nature of forgiveness.  I had read the Gita before, but out of context of the larger story and without benefit of Pattanaik's translation, the real depth and pathos of the song was lost on me.

As a Christian listening to a sacred text from another tradition, I found so much with which to identify here and from which to take encouragement for my journey with Christ.  I must say that at this age I am not inclined to quarrel with the differences that I found in this text and in my experience of Christ and the gospels.  There is plenty with which one could argue, if debate were the only purpose in reading. However, my effort in reading the sacred texts of other religious traditions was simply that of a person of faith who lives in a world that is increasingly challenging me to to adequately understand just what the experiences of so many other people of faith happen to be, if only to converse more intelligently with them.

However, what I find incredibly affirming- miraculous even- were powerfully presented themes like those of God's incarnating himself in the world to save the world and restore the balance of good; the importance of self sacrifice; the tragic consequences of sin as well as the profound power that love of others can have; the necessity of real devotion to righteousness as opposed to the destructiveness of obsessive preoccupation with rules and rituals; and the ultimate realization that one's life lies within the context of a greater wisdom that urges us toward constant self-examination and spiritual growth. 

All of these themes were highlighted with unusual force and intensity, in part perhaps because they were cradled within narrative settings that were unfamiliar to my North American Western Christian sensibilities. More to the point, though, I experienced the power of these stories because of their authentic witness to human experience and to our experiences of the divine. They testify to a phenomenon I learned in Divinity School to call by the term "general revelation," that is, the idea that God has made certain truths known to all human beings in every culture and across the span of history.  In my reading of Jaya, I found out just how powerful, insightful and deeply life-affirming general revelation can be.

I don't have any real criticisms of this book, only profound gratitude for the opportunity to have engaged and to have been engaged by its stories.

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