The Living Mahabharata.

Audrey Truschke, who teaches South Asian History at Rutgers, has a lively piece for Aeon on the Mahabharata:

From the moment that the Mahabharata was first written two millennia ago, people began to rework the epic to add new ideas that spoke to new circumstances. No two manuscripts are identical (there are thousands of handwritten Sanskrit copies), and the tale was recited as much or more often than it was read. Some of the most beloved parts of the Mahabharata today – such as that the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesha wrote the epic with his broken tusk as he heard Vyasa’s narration – were added centuries after the story was first compiled.

The Mahabharata is long. It is roughly seven times the length of the Iliad and Odyssey combined, and 15 times the length of the Christian Bible. The plot covers multiple generations, and the text sometimes follows side stories for the length of a modern novel. But for all its narrative breadth and manifold asides, the Mahabharata can be accurately characterised as a set of narratives about vice.

What I particularly like is that she quotes Sanskrit in the original and provides what read in English as excellent translations (I actually studied Sanskrit almost half a century ago, but it’s way too rusty for me to try to figure out how accurate they are):

After the slaughter, when blood has soaked the earth and most of the characters lie dead, Yudhishthira, the eldest of the five Pandavas, decides that he no longer wants the throne of Hastinapura. What is the point of ruling when you got there only through deceit, sin and death? Yudhishthira says:

आत्मानमात्मना हत्वा किं धर्मफलमाप्नुमः
धिगस्तु क्षात्रमाचारं धिगस्तु बलमौरसम्
धिगस्त्वमर्षं येनेमामापदं गमिता वयम्

Since we slaughtered our own, what good can possibly come from ruling?
Damn the ways of kings! Damn might makes right!
Damn the turmoil that brought us to this disaster!

At the end she says:

A note on the text: translations in this article are my own; I prefer colloquial translations. For recent retellings of the Mahabharata in English, I recommend that of John D Smith’s Penguin edition (2009) for fidelity to text and completeness, and Carole Satyamurti’s Norton edition (2016) for poetry.

So if you want to investigate further, there are some suggested translations. Thanks, Jack!


  1. “The Modernity of Sanskrit” by Simona Sawhney quotes this passage as:

    Dhik krodham dhiksakhe lobham
    Dhikmoham dhigamarshitam
    Dhigastu kshatramacharam
    Dhigastu balamaurasam

    Damn anger, my friend, damn greed,
    damn avarice and intolerance.
    Damned be the Kshatriya code of conduct,
    and damned be our strength

  2. jdmartinsen says

    That’s not the same passage. You’ve quoted a speech by Duryodhana in Book 7, but the speech quoted in the article is by Yudhishthira in Book 12. They share the line धिगस्तु क्षात्रमाचारं धिगस्तु बलमौरसम् “Damn the ways of kings! Damn might makes right!” (or “Fie on Kshatriya usage, and fie on might and prowess[/valor]” in the Kisari Mohan Ganguli translation).

  3. Stu Clayton says

    Knowledge of Sanskrit is not a must. You can get the whole thing in 94 episodes on 16 DVDs in Hindi with English, French and Spanish subtitles. “The most popular Indian TV series of all time”.

    # 1988–1990: Mahabharat (Regie: B. R. Chopra und Ravi Chopra) – 94-teilige Fernsehserie zu je 45 Minuten. Die Serie wurde über das nationale indische Fernsehen (Doordarshan) ausgestrahlt und war die populärste indische TV-Serie aller Zeiten (Die Serie ist auf 16 DVDs im Handel erhältlich; die 94 Episoden sind in Hindi mit englischen, französischen und spanischen Untertiteln versehen). #

    The German WiPe often provides such info, beyond what is absolutely required by your average well-informed anglophone.

    As an alternative Christmas present, there is The Complete Bible Box Set on 17 (!) DVDs. And that’s only the Old Testament ! The music is by Morricone, he of Once Upon a Time in the West.

  4. Apparently there is some ambiguity between Mahabharata and Mahabharat. Is -a-less version Hindi? Sanscrit is Mahābhāratam (my friend Wiki tells me).

  5. David Marjanović says

    Is -a-less version Hindi?

    Yes. The Sanskrit a seems to have dropped out wherever that wouldn’t create a bad consonant cluster.

  6. The Sanskrit a seems to have dropped out wherever that wouldn’t create a bad consonant cluster.

    What an insidious plot, turn all PIE vowels into a, then eliminate it.

  7. Jen in Edinburgh says

    David E appears to know who invented vowels, so maybe he could put them back.

  8. Stu Clayton says

    Sanscrit is Mahābhāratam

    If you drop the final “a”, the word would end in “tm”. Is that a bad consonant cluster ? I wonder whether people addressing Gandhi had trouble with mahatma. There the “a” may be mitigating a bad consonant cluster.

    So the rule may be: drop “a” except when a bad consonant cluster results. If it does, add “a” back on the other side, in mitigation.

    Or maybe: either drop final “m” (as in Mahābhāratam) so that you can eliminate the preceding “a” as well, or else switch the positions of “a” and “m” instead of dropping.

    What I want to know is: why would people dick around with their languages like that ? Will the answer be something like: “we’re merely describing regularities. As with quantum mechanics, the descriptions are accurate so we don’t bother with why” ? Or less extravagantly, but equivalently: “tha’s jes’ the way it is” ?

    How is an explanation not like a just-so story ?

    I tell just-so stories to people every day. When they accept them as explanations, my work is done.

  9. David Eddyshaw says

    David E appears to know who invented vowels, so maybe he could put them back.

    My rates are very reasonable. Naturally, you can expect to pay a little more if you are looking for something more elaborate than your basic anaptyctic schwas, of course. I have overheads.

    Vowel harmony is a good compromise if you’re on a budget.

  10. Stu Clayton says

    At least you’re open about it. Overhead claims are not always easy to distinguish from underhand margins.

  11. Lars Mathiesen says

    “Bill Gates doesn’t want you to know.” Always remember this explanation before trying to figure out how Windows Server works, because half the time it’s the one that best fits the facts. (And don’t get me started on systemd).

  12. David Eddyshaw says

    systemd is Roko’s Basilisk.

  13. Stu Clayton says

    I’ve given up on looking for motives. Everything is so effing complicated. It could well be that Bill Gates merely doesn’t want you to know that he doesn’t know, nor does anyone else.

    In my twilight years I am betting heavily on equifinality as an explanation for everything. When behavior is repeated over and over, the result must be the payoff. No need to speculate about motives. I mean “payoff” as described in Games People Play – it’s often not what you are accustomed to think of as a “good thing”, but it’s reliable.

    Observing the behavior of our dog Sparky, and of certain young programmers with whom I have to deal, is what brought me back to GPP, which I read in the 60s. The payoff for me is a heady mixture of certainty and doubt. As some guy said on the radio this week: Donde hay duda, hay libertad.

  14. Stu Clayton says

    David E: there seem to be a lot of people who found that Sentenz so cool that they put it into Latin: ubi dubium, ibi libertas. But is it genuine, do you think or know ?

  15. David Eddyshaw says

    Well, it’s genuine Latin …

  16. Google Books cannot find any 19th-century uses, so I strongly suspect it’s a recent invention.

  17. David Eddyshaw says

    It’s not a very Classical thought, certainly. It seems to rely on a Romantic conception of “doubt” which would have puzzled premoderns greatly.

    [This seems like tempting fate. John Cowan, with his superior Google-fu, will now promptly reveal that it actually comes from Cicero.]

  18. Dubito. If anyone is the master of Google-fu, it is 2900 (aka MMcM). What I seem to be good at is synthesis, pulling together a lot of disparate facts into a pleasing summary. I always wanted to write like Isaac Asimov….

    Of course, sometimes the facts pull together into a farfetched farrago of random criss-crossing connections.

  19. David Eddyshaw says

    ubi dubium, ibi libertas

    Strategically deployed unclarity certainly has its uses from time to time.
    How else would we ever retain our professional mystique? Or the respect (such as it is) of our juniors?

    I like to imagine that the young interpret my obfuscations as profundity. My wisdom is such that it can be difficult to express in mere words at times.

  20. David Eddyshaw says

    The nearest Latin echt-principle I can think of with a family resemblance is the legal nulla poena sine lege, traditionally interpreted by Anglophones as “everything which is not forbidden is allowed.”

    WP actually has an article for the latter, which libellously alleges that the corresponding German doctrine is “everything which is not allowed is forbidden”, whereas the French subscribe to the clearly superior maxim “everything is allowed even if it is forbidden.”

  21. Russian has a nice set of proverbs, including:

    Where there’s law, there’s crime.
    If there were no law, there would be no criminals.
    The law is like a spiderweb: a bumblebee races through, but a fly gets stuck.
    Whoever writes the laws also breaks them.
    The law is not written for fools.
    What do I care about the laws as long as I know the judges.

  22. I suppose only a minority faction in the German-speaking lands goes with “Nichts ist wahr, Alles ist erlaubt”?

  23. nulla poena sine lege

    There are four standard extensions: nulla poena sine lege {praevia, scripta, certa, stricta}, although there are still crimes by the lex non scripta in England (murder) and Scotland (hamesucken).

    “everything is allowed even if it is forbidden.”

    I believe the Russian version would be “everything is forbidden even if it is allowed.”

    Where there’s law, there’s crime

    Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell” (selected):

    Prisons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion.

    If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.

  24. David Eddyshaw says

    Where there’s law, there’s crime

    This is actually a Christian trope, of course: as St Paul says (in his original Jacobean English):

    What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet. But sin, taking occasion by the commandment, wrought in me all manner of concupiscence. For without the law sin was dead. For I was alive without the law once: but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died.

  25. Дураку закон не писан is not as much “the law is not written for fools”, but “a fool heeds no law” (usually deployed when someone does something stupid).

  26. I told you Blake was no heretic. If it comes to that, not all heretics disclaim the title, thus:

    My Heretic Heart (Catherine Madsen as modified by the folk process)

    I am a bold and a pagan soul a-ramblin’ through this land;
    I judge the world by my own lights and I [***] by my own hand.
    And if you ask me where I learned to live so recklessly,
    My skin, my bones, my heretic heart, are my authority.

    My mother was a spinner of tales, my father a dreaming man,
    And I have swung from the dragon’s tongue and danced in the holy land.
    I have sung the seed up out of the ground and the bird down from the tree,
    My skin, my bones, my heretic heart, are my authority.

    Once I was found but now I’m gone, far away from the faithful fold
    Of those who preach that holiness is to do what you are told.
    Though law and scripture, prayer and priest, have all instructed me,
    My skin, my bones, my heretic heart, are my authority.

    And while I breathe this glorious air, an outlaw I’ll remain;
    My body will not be subdued, and I will not be saved.
    And if I cannot shout out loud, I’ll sing it secretly:
    My skin, my bones, my heretic heart, are my authority.

    Air: “Forest Green” (the UK melody of “O Little Town of Bethlehem”; the U.S. one is called “St. Louis”). I first learned this from a solo recording accompanied by (apparently) a twanged rubber band.

    [***] There is no authoritative reading here: different MSS have different verbs.

  27. In physics we have, “Anything not forbidden is mandatory.” This is sometimes attributed to Feynman, who did say it (or something close), but he was only paraphrasing Gell-Mann. The trickiness of the aphorism comes from the unclear scope of everything. In context, with the correctly delimited scope, the statement is totally natural. The joke is that it is obviously absurd if applied too broadly.

  28. David Marjanović says

    “everything is allowed even if it is forbidden.”

    Müssen tut man aufs Klo – only going to the toilet is mandatory, everything else is really optional. Including death and taxes.

    “Anything not forbidden is mandatory.”

    Anything not forbidden has a nonzero chance of happening, so you’ll see it happen if you wait long enough – but in many cases that means many orders of magnitude beyond the age of the universe.

  29. Including death

    Are we talking about the kind of people who have their bodies packed in dry ice in the firm expectation of being revived?

  30. David Marjanović says

    No, liquid nitrogen. 🙂

    (I haven’t heard of any nitrogen-cooled Austrians specifically, though.)

  31. @David Marjanović: That might be a reasonable interpretation, but it’s not what the phrase means. It refers to the fact that in an interacting quantum field theory, every kind of interaction that is not forbidden by a symmetry will occur (and must be accounted for mathematically). Even if you start with just electron-photon interactions, quantum corrections will produce photon-photon scattering (mediated by virtual electrons). For Higgs-electron interactions, the rule becomes even stronger: You cannot have a consistent theory without including a fundamental Higgs-Higgs scattering interaction from the outset.

  32. i thought all austrians were nitrogen-cooled from the age of majority onward – wasn’t that the provision of the treaty of versailles that ritter von trapp liked (until he met maria kutschera, of course)?

  33. David Marjanović says


    Barely known in Austria. I watched parts of the movie (called Familie Trapp!) only once and don’t seem to have seen whatever scene you’re alluding to…

  34. There is nothing in The Sound of Music, the movie or the (better) original play, about refrigerants.

  35. I’m pretty sure rozele is riffing rather than recounting an aspect of the actual plot of that wretched movie.

  36. Stu Clayton says

    the movie (called Familie Trapp!)

    The title of the 1956 German Heimatfilm is Die Trapp Familie, without any ! The American musical and subsequent film were based on it and its own background story – the memoirs of Maria Augusta Trapp.

  37. PlasticPaddy says

    I suspect rozele may be referring to the ‘flower of the snow, may you bloom and grow’

  38. Stu Clayton says

    there is nothing in The Sound of Music about refrigerants

    But I clearly remember that Julie Andrews number:

    # Icicles, snowflakes, or any old weather,
    As long as it’s cold I’ve a song to sing !
    Freon, ammonia and diethylether –
    These are a few of my favorite things! #

  39. trapp — Barely known in Austria

    It’s either this or Schwarzenegger. What would you rather have?

  40. If he sang The Hills are Alive while dancing against a cheesy backdrop, it might be like lye and muriatic acid adding up to something palatable in small quantities.

  41. David Marjanović says

    I’m pretty sure rozele is riffing rather than recounting an aspect of the actual plot of that wretched movie.

    Sure, but I don’t even know there’s any mention of the Treaty of… wait a minute, it’s St-Germain-en-Laye for Austria, not Versailles!

    It’s either this or Schwarzenegger. What would you rather have?

    Schwarzenegger, and I’m surprised you ask.

  42. To get a better understanding of the Trapp family’s circumstances when I was playing in the orchestra for The Sound of Music, I did some research, and I found that Trapps’ original act had not been very successful, once their novelty as a family of performers who had fled Nazi Austria faded. Early on, they billed themselves as the Trapp Family Choir, dressed in somber colors, and largely limited their repertoire to religious hymns. Although the quality of Maria’s arranging, with fugues and multiple harmonies, was widely praised, interest in the Trapp Family Choir tended to flag quickly wherever they went, and eventually the act was not drawing enough of an audience to be a viable moneymaking concern. Only after this stage did they rework themselves the Trapp Family Singers, with much lighter fare (although still sophisticatedly arranged) that proved to be a lot more popular.

  43. The Mahabharata is long. It is roughly seven times the length of the Iliad and Odyssey combined, and 15 times the length of the Christian Bible.

    Wikipedia sez “At about 1.8 million words in total, the Mahābhārata is roughly ten times the length of the Iliad and the Odyssey combined”

    KJV wordcounts are ~780,000 total, ~180,000 New Testament. Maybe Greek NT ~138,213 is what is meant?

  44. Stu Clayton says

    How clever of you to figure that out ! With pleasantly back-handed consequences, since it implies that whoever wrote “Christian Bible” knows from nothing. Well, I suppose it’s possible that the person knows from something, but merely can’t divide or multiply correctly.

  45. David Eddyshaw says

    Maybe the words in the Mahābhārata are all just five times as long …

    On the other hand, mollymooly may be the first person ever to actually check the factoid.

  46. J.W. Brewer says

    It should be obvious (as the difference between the Greek NT and the KJV NT shows) that total-number-of-words is not a particularly good metric for comparing the length of texts not written in the same language. Harder to figure out what would be best: maybe total-time-to-read-aloud, assuming some sort of agreement on appropriate reading-speed(s) intended to converge on some sort of language-neutral consistent rate of information-content-per-minute ingested by the hearer.

  47. Trapp – Barely known in Austria

    I have noticed, living in Austria, that, of course, every university educated Austrian knows perfectly well who the Von Trapps were/are, and are well aware that there is a beloved completely inaccurate British/American movie about them. I understand why this is a fact about the universe most Austrians find annoying and unfair, but maybe this is a just punishment for Austria’s enthusiasm for the Anschluss.

  48. Brett, the 1950s Austrian biopic Familie Trapp David mentioned covers that exact period.

  49. David Eddyshaw says

    I have long supposed that I was the only person in the world never to have seen The Sound of Music. I am greatly comforted by the revelation that the entire population of Austria is with me in this.

  50. J.W. Brewer says

    @Vanya: It is perhaps to be regretted that Hollywood never made a big-budget musical film celebrating Kurt Schuschnigg’s valiant-but-doomed resistance to the Anschluss in defense of Austria’s sacred right to have her own proper form of illiberal authoritarianism free of Nazi influence. Or is this the wrong thread for that idea?

  51. The Mahābhārata is about 2,000,000 words in English translation.

  52. i’m genuinely sorry to have started this trappist diversion…
    but now that it’s underway, i have to tell a story i heard at a theo bikel memorial concert about the origin of Edelweiss (the song, not the flower or the lexical item):

    apparently during previews for the stage musical, the character of captain von trapp was true-to-life enough that audiences found him profoundly unlovable. rogers & hammerstein (and presumably lindsay & crouse as well) were unable to figure out how to make the man seem like a person until the day before the opening, when they came upon theo bikel sitting on a table in the theater lunchroom playing the guitar and singing a folk song. “that’s the vibe we need!” they shouted, and went off to write a folksong that bikel could play on stage. and so we have Edelweiss. which is, i must say, best in yiddish translation, here performed by joanne borts & lorin sklamberg (with a long introduction including a version of this story).

  53. Thanks for that — I never thought I needed to hear that song again, but what a delightful performance!

  54. Stu Clayton says

    That pleasing rendition – first in English, then Yiddish – starts at 2:40 after the looong introduction.

    To all the Sound of Music Stirnrunzler – if it were not for that, most people would not have heard the music or about the story. Inter faeces et urinam nascimur with Muzak playing from the ceiling of the OP.

  55. To all the Sound of Music Stirnrunzler

    Yes, and without the stage version we also wouldn’t have the Coltrane rendition of “My Favorite Things”.

  56. That’s the only justification for its existence. (Though my wife can’t listen to it because she can’t abstract it from the hated song.)

  57. J.W. Brewer says

    I feel confident that in that alternate timeline Trane and his colleagues would have found some other saccharine Broadway melody to use as raw material for their alchemy and things would have proceeded just fine.

  58. Stu Clayton says

    Sure. The pros don’t look down their snoots at raw material. Many punters can handle only the processed meat. Augustine was a pro. The nascimur thing is not about humility, unless that’s all you can think of.

  59. Hat, I’m with your wife on MFT. I’m sure there’s a story about why Coltrane picked it; obviously it didn’t bother him. It doesn’t negate his other gifts at all. It’s painful all the same.

  60. Stu Clayton says

    I wonder why Terry Riley picked C. Obviously it didn’t bother him.

  61. Lars Mathiesen says

    Isn’t this the equivalent of ad hominem for music: The melody is bad because a Muzak version plays in elevators? I wasn’t exposed to huge amounts of The Sound of Music growing up, in fact I don’t think I ever sat through the whole thing; it was certainly a name that people recognized, but not the epitome of pap that it seems to be for US people. (I actually had to look up MFT to remember the melody — it’s pretty harmless and forgettable, if you ask me — I think Edelweiss is a much better song, as song, and I could pretty much remember the whole melody though I thought it was just a chorus I recalled).

  62. The melody is bad because a Muzak version plays in elevators?

    No. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a Muzak version. If you’re not a born fan of Broadway musicals and that whole tradition of saccharine belt-em-out songs, trust me, having the original-cast recording played over and over by a musical-loving brother will fill your heart with lasting hate.

  63. @Stu Clayton: That reminds of something Hitchcock said. He said that he actually would not want to make a movie out of a great novel and that he intentionally chose more mediocre works for the plots of his movies. He wanted stories that were interesting to tell, but not great works—since for those he would feel obliged to try to do the original justice. He said that he would inevitably want to make many changes, in order to make the best movie possible, even if that meant it was no longer the best adaptation of the original work. Hence he chose books like John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, a cheesy and at times nonsensical spy adventure. Hitchcock’s 1939 version made major changes to the story (including fixing a major plot hole), and it became one of most highly regarded British films of all time.

  64. languagehat: … having the original-cast recording played over and over by a musical-loving brother will fill your heart with lasting hate.

    For exactly that reason, I could not stand Cats* and The Phantom of the Opera for a long time.

    * Actually, there were a few songs on his original cast Cats CD that my brother consistently skipped over. For that reason, I still find “Jennyanydots” a lot easier to listen to than “Mr. Mistoffelees.”

  65. John Emerson says

    1. Coltrane played all kinds of things. People know about his MFT because it got more airplay than his best stuff.

    2. The ultimate scriptwriter of “Gone with the Wind” was Ben Hecht; several had tried and failed before him. He’d never actually read the book; his friends paraphrased the book for him chapter by chapter and less than halfway through he said “We can’t make a movie out of this crap!” He basically took a few of the characters and a bit of the plot and went from there.

  66. David Eddyshaw says

    Things have come to a pretty pass when a man can’t runzle his stirn at The Sound of Music in his own home.

  67. David Marjanović says

    Or is this the wrong thread for that idea?

    Yes. 🙂 Austrofascism was very similar to the original fascism, save for the lack of a charismatic leader.

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