After the War
The Last Books of the Mahabharata
- ISBN: 9780197553404
- Published By: Oxford University Press
- Published: September 2022
It is a notorious tradition of Mahābhārata scholarship that complete translations tend to remain unfinished, and for this reason more concentrated renderings published in piecemeal fashion have won out in recent years over serial translation projects. Wendy Doniger's latest offering, After the War: The Last Books of the Mahābhārata, satisfies a need in this regard, providing an independently printed and affordable translation that gathers the concluding parvans, or books of the epic, for a general readership. While the "last books" selected for this are parvans 15-18, she in fact begins with MBh 15.26, and in one or two sections (e.g., MBh 15.42-43) opts for summary rather than translation. Thus in one sense the volume does not provide a vastly more comprehensive account than John D. Smith's 2009 Penguin Classics translation of the same material, although Doniger delivers a complete rendering where Smith largely summarizes, particularly across MBh 15.26-39. In any case, the real purpose here is to frame and make available in a convenient format the Mahābhārata's concluding books, singling them out for special attention. General readers, students, and scholars of the epic alike will appreciate and benefit greatly from this contribution.
As one might expect, Doniger's rendering is smooth, readable, and appealing without artificial or anachronizing reduction in the formal tone of the text. Many times when reading I encountered phrasing that struck me as almost too natural or amenable to my 21st-century eyes, but on inspection discovered that Doniger was simply rendering elegantly what an over-thinking translator might have turned out more clumsily: "standing on their toes in eagerness" (ugrapādasthita); "in a flood of tears" (bāṣpaparipluta); "to hell with!" (dhik). A lifetime of scholarship on Hindu and Sanskrit traditions underlies and informs this translation, which at times must deal with challenging material that defies reduction to any single religious or theological construct. It goes without saying that readers are in good hands here, with generous notes—including many parenthetical illuminations from the text's principal commentator Nīlakaṇṭha—that assist in the clarification of some of the more opaque passages. Likewise, the introduction serves well to orient those not already familiar with the epic, preparing them to understand the principal characters and events of books 15-18.
Doniger works from the Bhandarkar Critical Edition MBh (Sukthankar 1933-1966, Pune), but as I have noted, does not deliver the complete text of the final four books: 15.1-25 is excluded; 15.42-43 is densely summarized, as are shorter passages, such as 15.36.1-5, 18.5.1-6 and 18.5.26-30. Meanwhile she reintroduces into her rendering a great many verses excluded from the critical edition (that is, verses found only in some manuscripts and which post-date the critical text). Such verses are marked clearly in italics to distinguish them from the critical text, and their sources are identified in Appendix 6. However, this combined freedom on Doniger's part to add and subtract from the critical Bhandarkar text rather compromises the value and purpose of the critical edition itself as the earliest reconstructable form of the Sanskrit Mahābhārata. Doniger of course understands this and only wishes to spare her readers disorienting material, particularly where the epic's complex narrative frames are concerned (74). But if the critically edited text includes awkward, repetitive or "somewhat incoherent" (85) passages, I would argue it is better to adopt a "warts and all" policy and include them in the interests of combatting the notion—misguided but all too frequently encountered—that the Mahābhārata is a flawless literary masterpiece. Moreover, were she to render them fully, one could hardly ask for a better guide than Doniger to assist with the understanding of such problem passages as 15.42-43.
Conversely, the incorporation of late material can be potentially misleading: in the critical text of the final four books of the epic, there is no mention of the Kali Yuga or any discourse on yugas. This mythology is only inserted into the text in later manuscripts (e.g., 16 *42 ins. at 8.40; 17 *5 ins. at 1.17). Italicization notwithstanding, where Doniger reintroduces and elaborates upon such late passages in notes (e.g. 121 note 96) and in her introductory comments (33-34), my fear is that the particulars of what the critical text actually says will be lost, and along with it an opportunity to understand an important point about the development of Hindu mythology over time. In this regard Doniger's decision to render the phrase kāla-pary[a/ā]ya / kālasya paryaya (16.3.16; 4.29,30,42; 8.48; 9.10) uniformly as "twisting of time" is significant. This is a perfectly defensible reading and its other senses are flagged (104 note 33), although choosing this—rather than simply "turning," "depletion," or "expiration"—may prompt readers to understand the dark events of the epic's ending in terms of the later construct of yugic cycles, and again this is unsupported by the critical text. As I demonstrate in a forthcoming edited volume for which Doniger has kindly written the preface (edited by Raj Balkaran and McComas Taylor, Australian National University Press), what informs book 16 in particular is the older and, for the epic as a whole, far more elemental kālavāda doctrine of relentless destructive time (see also Vassilkov).
Among the six appendices provided, I would note that none direct readers to existing secondary scholarship treating the concluding books of the MBh. Doniger rather misrepresents the state of the field when she remarks on "how wrong the native and scholarly traditions have been to neglect [books 15-18]" (2). Where traditional South Asian commentators are concerned, this may be true, but the past decades have seen many studies treating the materials of MBh books 15-18, some of which bear directly on problem issues treated in Doniger's notes and introduction such as the theological question of Kṛṣṇa’s role in the destruction of his own clan (see, e.g. Granoff; Sharma), the reckoning for Yudhiṣṭhira’s wartime lie in the hell scene (see, e.g. González-Reimann) or the matter of the epic characters’ mythological identities once arrived in heaven (see, e.g. Austin). In any case, Doniger’s own contribution with the present translation is most welcome and will no doubt stimulate further interest in these and other features of the MBh’s fascinating conclusion.
Christopher R. Austin is an associate professor of religious studies at Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia.Christopher AustinDate Of Review:April 24, 2023