Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Book Review: Marvels and Mysteries of the Mahabharata by Abhijit Basu

The Mahabharata is hailed as India’s greatest epic and poem. The continual war between cousins and the politics that leads to the war are widely known.  Also recounted in the Mahabharata is the Bhagvad Gita, a spiritual discourse on the way of life and hundreds of other stories that philosophize on various facets in our day today lives.

The book - Structure

The jacket claims, “Marvels and Mysteries with its lucid and engaging narrative, seeks to unravel some of its enigmas: the characters of Vyasa, Krishna, Yudhisthira, Arjun, and Draupadi; aspects of the Mahabharata’s historicity; medley of interpretations…’

True to its blurb, this is indeed what the book aims to achieve.  The book Marvels and Mysteries of the Mahabharata is divided into two parts – The first seeks to unravel some of the stories and delve into the lesser hailed heroes in the Mahabharata.  The second part of the book throws light on the various interpretations and its historicity.

I have not seen many treatises (atleast in popular writing for a lay person) on the lesser sung heroes such as Draupadi and Yudhistira and much less Vidura and the great sage Vyasa because of whom the whole Mahabharata played out and was recorded. 

Yudhisthira’s wisdom is highlighted in the book through his debates with his family and Q&A sessions with the Yaksha in the lake and King Nahusha.  His gambling habit is debated and his way around a few ethical dilemmas is discussed in the book. Another interesting take is a potential controversial relationship to Vidura.

I found the chapter on Draupadi particularly interesting.  Several facets of her personality  apart from her renowned ageless beauty are raised in the book. Her perceived haughtiness, her intelligence in her debates with Yudhistira and her questions to the elders are mentioned in the book. 

The second part of the book is particularly interesting too with the history of the various interpretations and the half-a-century development of the ‘Critical Edition’ which is now considered to be standard for any study on the Mahabharata. Several similarities have also been drawn with epics from other cultures such Greek and Sumerian.  Inter-relationships between the other great Indian epic the Ramayana and the Mahabharata have also been shown. 

My take

What I liked in the book was that lesser hailed characters or lesser known facts of well known characters are discussed.  Several questions about what the truth may really have been about Pandu and his supposed descendants are discussed.   Some uncomfortable questions around the ethics of Lord Krishna such as the extermination of Jarasandha, Shishupala , the rampage with Arjuna in the Khandava forest are discussed.  His character is ‘un-deified’ and questions are raised on his divinity. Although one would perceive many of his actions as incorrect, the writer needs to explain the bigger picture as talked about in the Bhagvad Gita on why these actions were necessary. But then not liking the part of not treating Lord Krishna as divine would be a more biased view on my part being a believer of Krishna.  But well, there are several other ethical dilemmas in the Mahabharata that are long debated and the ones raised on Lord Krishna are just some of them. Perhaps in the next volume, we can get a glimpse of more lesser discussed characters such as the twin Pandava brothers, Kunti and others.

All in all, I enjoyed reading the book and learning and understanding a few more facets of the epochal epic that is Mahabharata.   I look forward to more volumes on this series though.  There are way too many things to be learnt from this great epic! I would give a rating of 3.5 stars on 5 to this book.

To buy the book on Amazon check out the link here -


  1. A true marksman is never out of touch. That is what your quick and lucid take on the book proves. I like how the lesser known characters have been explored in the book. In fact, it usually is the strongest element the author may use when dealing in age old classics. It brings to my mind the Orange Prize winner of not too old a past, The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. The story centres around Patroclus, a lesser known character, rather than the much serenaded hero, who hounds the title of the book too.

    It is sad that the author of the book under review has chosen to humanise Krishna without offering his deeper insights into his seemingly unreasonable acts.

    Good to see you back in action.

  2. We can not see the actions of Krishna by human eye and interprete with our limited fund of knowledge.