The following conversation took place as a part of the CANTO Poetry Festival 2023, an international multicultural, multilingual travelling poetry festival, which was held in March 2023. Wendy Doniger, Indologist and translator of Sanskrit, was in conversation with author Avik Chanda as a part of a concluding session of CANTO 2023.

Excerpts from the conversation:

Wendy Doniger is the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor Emerita of the History of Religions, and also in the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilisations, the Committee on Social Thought, and the College. Her research and teaching interests across her entire life have revolved around two principal areas – Hinduism and mythology.

Her entire body of work, comprises of more than 40 books written over half a century – some of which I’ve had the great privilege of reading over the past three or four years, and then discussing them with Wendy – and as her body of work shows, her expertise really lies across a dazzling spectrum, where death, dream, evil, masquerade, and animals of all denominations feature in the keen observation of life, as viewed through history, literature, law, gender, psychology, the fine arts, music, dance, and film. And her recent book is a translation of the last book, the concluding part of the Mahabharata – After the War.

Wendy, does it ever feel that it’s the work of multiple people, that it’s not just one person, but probably three or four people instead?
It certainly does feel that the early books were not written by me. I don’t remember them very well, and I wouldn’t have written books like that now. So, they were other people. When I started writing, I wasn’t who I am now, and my opinions were different. In some ways, I was sharper and brighter. In other ways, I was stupider. So, in that sense, I do feel that the books were written by several different people.

If you go back a little bit in time, whenever one talks about the University of Chicago in relation to translation of the epics, the first thing that springs to mind is the Clay edition, right? And the work of scholars such as Van Buitenen, whose work, whose translation of the Mahabharata was unfortunately left unfinished by his death. Would it be fair to say that your work, in a way, is a continuation of that? Or are there significant differences in approach and methodology between yours and that of Van Buitenen?
There are differences. I knew Hans Van Buitenen. I knew him for years before I came to
Chicago. Also, the first few years in Chicago and then he died.

I have enormous respect for his translations and I use them all the time. There’s no question about that. Those are important and accurate translations. They’re the best translations there are for those books of the Mahabharata. But our methods are different. In one way, it was that he translated the critical edition, the Pune edition of the Mahabharata, which is a strange edition that leaves out a great deal that I think is important in the Mahabharata.

The bad news is that they cut out a lot of stuff that I wish they hadn’t cut out. The good news is they didn’t really cut it all out. They put it into the bottom of the page. He went into the forest, footnote. In the following editions, ten of them, he went into the forest and he saw 12 naked women and three tigers and he ran around in a circle. Then you go back to the text that he translates. So Hans didn’t translate those excerpted bits. He just went straight through it. Since the Mahabharata is a living work and was put together over centuries, you can’t do a critical edition. It’s not like the European Greek text where you can find the first thing that some Greek wrote.

It is multi-authored right from the start and it’s passed around orally and in various manuscripts for hundreds and hundreds of years. So I think it was a real mistake to cut it down to a funny little textual edition based on manuscript. In my translation, wherever possible, I bring the reader in by noting that it is added out of the critical edition. I put them in italics, adding the parts that they left out. So that’s the main way in which I differ from the Van Buitenen translation. I also differ in leaving out some, but not all, of the long epithets and flattering words for your majesty.

There are like ten or 15,000 ways of saying your majesty in Sanskrit. The ruler of the earth, the son of the gods and all of that...and it comes down to “your majesty”. Since the whole of the Mahabharata is told to a king in the outermost frame, very often the words “your majesty” are really addressed by the bard singing the entire text to the king hearing the entire text. It’s not the person in the paragraph you’re translating who’s saying “Your majesty, would you please come over here?” So I also leave out some of the parenthetical insertions that I break up the text for an American or English speaking reader nowadays. So those are the main ways in which my approach was different from his.

Other than that, he’s a model and that is an honour to follow. And everyone does her own translation. You add certain things and you leave certain things out. There are many words that can be translated in a number of different ways. I decided not to translate the word “tapas”.

I just think it’s so important and you can trust an intelligent reader to learn it and not call it “becoming ascetic”, which implies, you know, giving up meat or not having women, whereas tapas is actively producing heat. So I don’t like to translate it as asceticism. I differ from Van Buitenen in that. Things like that along the way, what you translate, how you translate it. But basically, he did a great job.

Let’s talk a little bit more, if you will, about the critical edition, the Bhandarkar edition that was brought out in Pune maybe 100 years ago. What is it that, amongst scholars worldwide, has given it this reputation that it is the most representative? Because I’ll tell you where I’m going with this...

Correct me if I’m wrong, but the Bhandarkar edition, with all its exclusions and incisions, has roughly about 75,000, but certainly less than 80,000 shlokas. Whereas right at the end of the Mahabharata, the Mahabharata itself says, and this comes up in your translation, that there are 100,000 shlokas. So, what about these missing 20,000 to 25,000 shlokas? Where did they go? Are some of these the ones that are included in the Bhandarkar edition, but as exclusions in the appendix? And do we still need this? I know there are multiple questions here, but do we still need this quest for the “ultimate version” of the Mahabharata?
Let me answer your last question first. No, the quest for the ultimate Mahabharata is madness. It’s not there. What we want is as much Mahabharata as possible, in my humble opinion. You can’t have too much of the Mahabharata. Whether there ever were 100,000 verses, that’s a very nice round number, no poem was exactly 100,000 verses ever.

Whether there was more of it, sure there was more of it. There was a great deal more of it, and we’ll never have that. But we have a great deal. 75,000 verses is still quite enough to keep most people busy for a long time. What’s interesting to me in translating, and considering the other verses, is that sometimes one or two manuscripts have something interesting that was left out.

Let me give you an example, the story of the death of Krishna; which comes in the 16th book. Let me show you what the critical edition has for it.

“Krishna realized it was time to move on to death, and so he obstructed his sensory powers. He lay down and engaged in the ultimate yoga. Then Old Age came to that place.”  

Old age is a feminine noun that usually means old age. Here it is said that it’s the name of a hunter. No hunter ever had a feminine noun for a name. So there’s something funny about the text anyway.

“Old age came to that place. He was a fierce hunter, hoping to get a wild animal. As Krishna was lying down engaged in yoga, the hunter, Old Age, mistook him for a wild animal and hastily pierced him with an arrow in the sole of his foot.”  

This is an Indo-European myth, a one spot.

“He went up to him intending to lay hold of him, but then the hunter saw that it was a man engaged in yoga, wearing a yellow garment and with several arms.”  

I love that in particular, it doesn’t say four, just several arms.

“Realizing that he had made such a bad mistake, he touched the man’s two feet with his head, his body, revealing his distress. The great-hearted Krishna then consoled him and rose up, filling heaven and earth with his glory.”  

And that’s where the text ends, and it’s a nice ending. But several manuscripts, four or five manuscripts that were not included in the critical edition add this really interesting sentence. Remember, the hunter’s name is Old Age.

“Because of Old Age’s remorse, his karma and his birth, and because he had seen the God of infinite power when he had left his body, the gods brought him to heaven where Krishna was worshipped by the hosts of sages.”  

Now that is so interesting that many of the bards of the Mahabharata felt that the man who accidentally killed Krishna was graced even by that negative interaction with him and went to heaven. I just thought the reader should really know about that. It’s in italics, so you know that I know that we know that Bhandarkar Oriental Institute’s “sages” felt that it was not supported by very strong manuscript sources. But somebody, hundreds of years ago, thought I bet he went to heaven and put that in. And there are just lots of little things like that... that I feel it’s good to know.

And so a Sanskritist using the critical edition has it all. You read the text and you read the insertions, but an English speaking person is limited to what you give her. And I wanted to give her a little more than what Hans Van Buitenen would have given her in the books that he translated.

So in that particular passage, for example, Van Buitenen did not include that final sentence, that additional sentence.
I didn’t translate the book that he translated, but in similar places in the first book, there were interesting things in other parts. He never translated anything but the text in the first part. He would have ended with “filling heaven and earth with his glory”. All through the book, there are lots of places where I think you need to see what has been left out of the critical edition.

You just gave the account of the death of Krishna. And there are so many different treatments and discussions or discourses of death in the Mahabharata that would itself take up not just the session, but several volumes on a library shelf.

Just to go back to the death of Krishna itself, and I’m just quoting from some bits from memory
from the translation. So, do pardon me if I get this wrong. But purely just that particular death, there is a passage earlier in the Mahabharata where Krishna approaches Gandhari and she curses him saying, you may be Krishna, you may be an immortal, you may be invincible and you have your special powers, but I am Gandhari and, through my tapas that I have accrued over the several decades and years, I too have special powers and I curse you. I curse that you will be killed and it will be an ignominious death. And Krishna apparently smiles and says very calmly, but that is something that is already determined, that is already predestined. In other words, “you’re not telling me anything new.”

Is it fair to say that much of death, no matter the manner of it could be Suyodhana’s death or Karna’s death or the way that Draupadi dies on the way, and we’ll come to that presently or the rest of the brothers except for Yudhishtir. Are all of these meant to be predestined or is this one particular instance, Krishna’s death, which strikes out, which is more the exception than the norm?
I think they’re all predestined. And when the curse comes, the curse doesn’t make anything happen. The fact that Gandhari has all this power does not make it possible for her to kill Krishna. What makes it possible for her to do is to tell Krishna how and when he will die. So Krishna is going to die for reasons that have nothing to do with Gandhari or anybody else. It’s like a line going down a slope.

At that point, Gandhari, who has powers, can either give the ball a little push as it rolls on or reveal to the person exactly how this will happen. So if you commit a sin, and Krishna, of course, commits a number of sins, that’s what makes your death. But if someone says, you killed my child, and in fact, that’s what Gandhari says. She says, you killed all my sons. It’s your fault that all my sons are dead. Because you killed my sons, she says, in 14 years, at this certain place, there will be a big fight, and you will die there. So she doesn’t make it happen. She tells him exactly when it’ll happen. He is cursed to die, but now she says how and when and so forth. So she reveals to him the details. She reveals to the reader of the story, this is after all a text, the details, and she puts a little spin on the billiard ball as it rolls to the end.

And in fact, Krishna’s death is foreshadowed again. Gandhari’s curse is that Krishna’s people will die in a drunken party, not in the battle at all. They’ll get drunk and kill each other. So the heroes, the good guys, in Book 16, which is one of the books I translated, the heroes, our team, Yudhishthira and the Pandavas’ people...our team are there, and they start getting drunk, and they accuse one another of having violated the rules of war in their behaviour.

“You killed all these people when they were asleep. You killed a man when he laid down his arms and was unarmed”...these are all mistakes. These are all violations. These are all bad things that the good guys did. They get drunker and drunker, and start killing each other with clubs that arose in a magical way, which I won’t bother you with now. But anyway, these magical pieces of grass turn into clubs as part of the curse, and they club each other to death. And Krishna stands out of it, and the text says, because he knew everything, because he was omniscient, because he knew exactly what had to happen, he took no part in it. And then they kill Krishna’s two sons. Then Krishna gets mad and picks up a club and kills more people than anybody else. So you have him being God standing by, you have him being a human being, which he is when he’s incarnate, and participating in the order, but not dying at this point, but then dying in a more controlled way.

Krishna himself decides to do yoga, he’s in charge of it. No, again, someone else comes in, somebody shoots him. He was planning to meditate himself to death. He lay down to die, and he could have just died like that. But no, this hunter comes and shoots an arrow into him. So Krishna is always going back and forth – being I am God, I am in charge, I will do yoga, I will die when I want to die, and I will not fight in this fight. Then he’s again a human being, and he gets mad because he’s seen someone kill his son. It’s a wonderful mixture of statements about how death happens, even for a God, in multiple ways, combinations of ways. Some of which are foretold in the first place, some of which are foretold long before Gandhari is ever on the scene, everybody knows how this has to end.

Indeed, in the big picture at the end, all of the heroes are actually incarnate gods who came down to earth in order to free the earth from her burden. At the end, when everybody is dead, they go back up to heaven, and they turn back into gods again. Nobody really died. There’s a weird metaphysical case. Before we get to that, people die. They hate dying, their parents miss them, and their wives miss them. The humanity of death is visibly portrayed. What it is to be a human being and to die and to see your friends and family die, and then at the end, as it turned out, nothing actually happened. It was all just a little play the gods put on, which is not very convincing. It’s sort of a sugar coating, which metaphysically, to me, does not carry back into me. They did it, and it came out nice in some way. I don’t think is the spirit of the novel.

You’re right. That part was strange to the point of being surreal. They all go down into the river bank, and it is night, and there’s a Moon. And it’s almost as if there’s somebody who, millennia later, had some conception of all souls and used that kind of a construct to resurrect them, albeit temporarily. While that, I’m going to use the word, lagna, was still there. Vyasa says to the wives, if you really want to join your husbands, go plunge in this holy river, at this magical moment, and you’ll be united with them forever.

So yes, very strange. Talking about strangeness and talking about strange occurrences, one was also struck, and I want to contrast this, if you would permit, with the death of Krishna, and that is the end of Vidura. I’m hesitating to call it death, because it’s this really strange, supernatural transmigration of his soul. Do you want to talk about it and maybe just read out from that passage?
It’s such a strange passage. So Vidura, to begin with, is a strange character. He is actually the brother of Yudhishtira, but he doesn’t function as his brother. He’s born in a very peculiar way. He’s really an incarnation of Dharma, just as Yudhishtira is the son of Dharma, which is not the same as an incarnation, but they are both dharmic in their genes and their chromosomes. So Vidura is living a life as a holy man apart from everything, whereas Yudhishtira, of course, is the hero of the Mahabharata. He’s had a long active life, done millions of things, had women, killed people, went to war and everything like that.

Whereas, Vidura has always been apart. He’s the servant of Yudhishtira. Vidura is a peculiar character altogether anyway, but he is, in any case, disengaged. He's always been disengaged from life. So when it’s time for him to die in Book 15, he goes into the forest and Yudhishtira goes looking for him. And this is what happens.

So Yudhishtira comes into the forest.

“In a lonely deserted place deep in the forest, Vidura stood leaning on a tree. The intelligent king Yudhishtira recognized that intelligent man only by his general shape. He was almost entirely wasted away. He’d been fasting for hundreds of years. Standing in front of Vidura, within his hearing, the king said, I am Yudhishtira. And the other replied with a gesture of understanding. Vidura, deep in meditation, looked right at the king without blinking, yoking his own gaze to the other’s gaze. The wise Vidura entered limbs with limbs, placing breaths in breaths, senses in senses. Using the power of yoga, seeming to blaze with the brilliance of the Dharma king, that is Yudhishtira, Vidura entered the king’s body. And then the king saw the body of Vidura just standing right there, eyes fixed, leaning on the tree, emptied of consciousness.”

Now, I know no other death like that in the Mahabharata. It’s a strange melding of consciousness. Vidura’s body is still there. Eventually, Yudhishtira burns it with the funeral. But Yudhishtira feels himself doubled in power and strength. He feels that he’s not just Yudhishtira, but he’s Yudhishtira and Vidura in his essence. For me, I can translate the passage. But, I can’t say I can see what happened. I can imagine it. But I can’t say that I understand it. It’s a very mysterious passage. And there are things later on in later Sanskrit literature. But in the Mahabharata, I don’t know anything like this.

That’s strange in so many different ways. So clearly, point one, Vidura was already in a state of near-death Samadhi (final stage of Yoga) by the time Yudhishtira comes across him in the forest. Point two, and this again goes back to the question of teleology, particularly with regard to death, not just all the occurrences, but death.

The very fact that it is Yudhishtira who goes looking for him in the forest when there are so many of these hundreds of other people around, means or tends to suggest that Vidura would have chosen in that dream, in that samadhi state, for it to be Yudhishtira, whose body, soul, or being Vidura wanted to inhabit.
He’s already his half-brother through their mutual link to the god Dharma. And Vidura has been Yudhishtira’s servant, has been close to him all his life. If he’s going to enter somebody’s body, that’s the person. But nobody enters anybody else’s body. It doesn’t happen. When you die, your soul goes someplace else. Maybe you become reincarnate. But not reincarnate in someone who’s already there. You’re reborn in someone who is just an embryo. You don’t become reincarnate inside someone else’s already 40-year-old body or whatever it is. So that’s what makes it strange. The Mahabharata is full of surprises. Just when you think you understand everything, it says, How about this? Try this on for a second. It’s full of surprises.

That actually leads me to my next question. When you’re talking about what happens to us when we die, we know that there are myriads of ways or means of death that are described right through the Mahabharata, particularly all of the books that deal with the battle and many of them. This is something that you pointed out in earlier discussions and also in your writings, the heroes in particular, many of the main characters, die very gruesome, unheroic, tremendously violent deaths. Then there are the almost anticlimactic, if I may call it that, deaths of the four Pandavas and that of Draupadi right at the very end before Yudhishthira carries on with the dog following him. But across all of these deaths, is there a common construct? Is there a common thesis in the Mahabharata that emerges, which answers the most fundamental question, what happens to us when we die?
The Mahabharata has no single answer to anything at all in the Mahabharata. There are always several answers, sometimes contradictory. This is the complexity of the text. The Mahabharata, historically, is dealing with several different ideas about death. It looks back in many ways to the Indo-European period. It has Indra as king of the gods and it has a system of death, which is mentioned on numerous occasions and really comes in at the end too.

This is the old model of what we know best from Wagner’s Valhalla, which is the story of the good warrior – when he dies and goes up to heaven, the Valkyries carry him up. There he is in heaven with beautiful women and lots to eat and drink and he has a wonderful time. And there’s not too much said about people who go to hell. That’s sort of the glory. That’s what you want. You want to get to Valhalla. That’s part of the Vedic view also. Indra takes you up to heaven, with the funeral hymns. There are some beautiful hymns in the Rigveda. Agni carries you up through the smoke of the fire. You go to heaven and there are Apsaras in heaven, dancing girls. It’s kind of a man’s idea of heaven, if I may say so. Lots to drink, lots of cool water – this is India, after all. And that is still there in the Mahabharata, really. What you get later on, from the time of the Upanishads and right straight through, is the idea of transmigration of souls.

Depending on how you have behaved, depending on your karma...when you die, your soul leaves your body and does not go to heaven necessarily. But it may go to heaven, or may go to hell. There’s also a hell, Indo-European Hell, a fiery underground, all that kind of stuff. Not a good place. You may go to heaven, or you may be reborn as a Brahmin, as a man, as a woman, or as an animal. So the idea of reincarnation is widespread by this time. But you haven’t entirely ever, not throughout the mediaeval period in Hinduism, given the idea of heaven and hell.

There are stories about people going up to heaven, how they meet Indra and see the Apsaras, or going down to hell and meeting people down in hell. Those stories persist. So the idea of heaven and hell is still powerful, and the idea of incarnation is also powerful, and the Mahabharata plays with them.

So that there’s finally a compromise near the end where they say, when you die, if you have mostly good karma and just a little bit of bad karma, you go to hell. This may be counter-intuitive. You might think, “well, mostly good karma.” You go to hell for a little while, but you don’t mind it very much, because you know that after that, you go to heaven for a long time. And indeed, if you have mostly bad karma, you go to heaven, which is counterintuitive, for a little while, but you don’t really enjoy it all that much, because you know that after that, you’re going to go to hell for a long time. So the Mahabharata has those ideas in it as well.

Yudhishthira goes to heaven, and he doesn’t find his brothers there. He says, “I don’t want this.” And they tell him, “your brothers are in hell, actually.” So he says, “Okay, I want to go where my brothers are.”

That’s where he makes that wonderful speech – “To hell with kingship, to hell with power, to hell with heroism, to hell with the dharma of kshatriyas”. It’s a wonderful speech. He’s really mad. I’ve translated “to hell” from the Sanskrit which is “dik”, which used to be translated as “fie on it”. It means, you know, get it out of here. I hate it.

It’s hard to translate. That was the best I could do. So he goes down to hell, and he sees his brothers, and he says, “wow, what are you doing here?’ They say, “We’re suffering. But when you’re here, a cool and perfumed wind comes to us.” Hell stinks, one of its qualities is a horrible smell. So here we are in this horrible place, and this lovely smell comes from your body and cools us. Stay here, they say. Yudhishthira says, I’m going to stay here. So it’s a kind of generosity, a transfer of karma. This is also a post-Vedic, a later Hindu idea, the transfer of karma that comes in the Upanishads. So it’s in there. And then the gods say, Yudhishthira, you don’t belong here. You’re just visiting them. You really belong in heaven. And Yudhishthira says, as long as my brothers are here, I’m going to stay here. Abra-cadabra, it was a dream. There were no brothers in hell. Yudhishthira wasn’t in hell. It was just a vision. It vanishes. Your brothers are in heaven, so forth.

So what is this? It was just a dream. Then, they say that years ago Yudhishthira told one tiny lie. When they were trying to get a very powerful warrior not to fight, they said, Ashwatthaman is dead. His son’s name was Ashwatthaman. And that was a lie. Yudhishthira had to say it because everybody knew Yudhishthira didn’t lie. But he said Ashwatthaman is dead. And then this great warrior said, oh, my God. And he didn’t fight him. The good guys won the fight. Whereas actually there was an elephant named Ashwatthaman.

And what Yudhishthira really said was Ashwatthaman, the elephant, is dead. So he sort of lied and didn’t lie. So the Gods say at the ending, remember that thing with the elephant? Well, you sort of went to hell and sort of didn’t go to hell because you sort of lied and sort of didn’t lie. And really you’re in heaven. That’s a real mess of a plot. It doesn’t make a lot of sense. And it’s the Mahabharata trying to get everything in at once. You do go to hell, but Yudhishthira doesn’t go to hell, but he sort of went to hell. And really he’s in heaven because he goes to heaven. And actually he isn’t a human being at all. He’s really the god Dharma. So he never really was on earth. So at the end, all these screens, these curtains are pulled away. Pulled away metaphysically.

And what it is, is different scribes over the centuries adding their own two cents to the Mahabharata to try to make sense of everything. It’s not a single authored work. Vyasa did not actually write the whole of the Mahabharata. Hundreds of people did. So at the end, they try to get everything but the kitchen sink into it. And it’s a wonderful mess of an ending. Everything you could possibly think of to explain death is there at some point in Book 18 of the Mahabharata. And, narratively, it’s kind of a mess. But it’s great fun to read. And it’s also enormously rich. You could just see these guys had so many ideas, they could hardly get them onto paper fast enough. They didn’t get them onto paper. They were saying them orally. And later on, other guys wrote them down. So when you ask me what the Mahabharata thinks about death, I say, wait, how much time have you got?

When you’re talking about that part, particularly when, you know, the abracadabra moment happens and it was all really a dream. It was all really an illusion. It was all really a game. It was play. Some of the texts that came to mind are not the Mahabharata, but the texts written between the 1940s and 50s.

And I’m particularly reminded of Hermann Hesse, for example, you know, what happens at the end of Steppenwolf or Journey to the East, where all of this happens and then there’s the realization, was it all a dream? Was it all a trance? It just struck me. But going back to what you were saying earlier, this seems to be...
It’s an old trick and it’s a new trick. They used it in American television. There was a series called Dallas. At the last minute, one of the actors either died or left the show. They had an unfinished sequence and they reran it as a dream that someone had dreamed after this guy had died. So it was used in American television in the 50s.

Going back to what you were talking about, you know, my destiny is shaped by this incredibly complicated mathematics, this bookkeeping, these debit and credit entries, if you will, of virtues and sins, of what we have done. That is fascinating.
There’s another “It Was a Dream” sequence.

So let’s talk about animals in the Mahabharata. The dog is central to it. Do you want to tell the story of the dog and Yudhishtira as they go up to heaven and then deconstruct it?
I’ll tell you briefly. And mind you, it is another example of the Mahabharata being inconsistent when it can’t solve a problem in the history of religions. So the Pandavas are going to heaven and, basically, one by one they fall behind and only Yudhishtira is there. Yudhishtira is alone except for a dog that’s been following them up the mountain all this time.

He gets to the gates of heaven and Indra says, Yudhishtira, welcome, come into heaven. Yudhishtira says, thank you very much and I’ll just bring this dog with me. Indra says, there are no dogs allowed in heaven. Dogs are unclean. He’s speaking now like a Hindu. They lick the sacrificial elements. Dogs are unclean and so forth. You can’t bring the dog in. Yudhishtira says, this dog is my bhakta. That didn’t yet mean what it came to mean in Hinduism. It simply meant he’s been following him, it’s what dogs do. He’s devoted to me.

Then, there are rules and he quotes the rules in law books, laws of Manu and so forth – that if you turn away someone who is your bhakta, it’s the equivalent of killing a Brahmin. I won’t go to heaven without this dog. And it’s a whole philosophy of Bhakti really. It’s not Bhakti yet like Krishna and Radha, but it is the idea of personal devotion. As opposed to the idea of ritual purity, which is Vedic, something which Indra is going by. No dogs. And Yudhishtira finally says, well, that’s it then. I’m not going to go to heaven. He turns away. And the dog turns out to be Dharma. Yudhishtira’s father incarnated as a dog. This is like saying, for a Jew that Jehovah was incarnated in a pig. It’s an extraordinary thing to say that Dharma became a dog.

And Dharma says this was just a test. It was the last of several tests. You’re a good guy. You can go to heaven. So, on the one hand, you have the philosophy of Vedic ritualism, which is no dogs. On the other hand, you have a new philosophy coming up now, this idea of bhakti. And you can’t put them together. Either you do or don’t have dogs in heaven.

Since the Mahabharata cannot solve that problem, it was a dream. There was really no dog. No problem. You can go to heaven, Yudhishtira, without betraying a bhakta. Because there was no bhakta. So you can see the Mahabharata posing itself this moral problem of the clash of two religions, incarnated in the idea of a dog. However, it then basically is copping out and saying we can’t solve this. We’re going to say it’s a dream. Just as they really couldn’t solve what Yudhishtira was doing in hell. And so they said that was a dream. It’s a wonderful idea of the Mahabharata trying to grow, trying to change, and being unable yet to make the jumps that the later religious text would make which is indeed the dog goes to heaven and Vedic ritualism doesn’t count. So that’s a wonderful moral moment. It’s a wonderful animal moment as well, Yudhishtira and his dog.

But it still leaves the basic question, doesn’t it? Why, in the formulation, is it this form? Why is it the shape of a dog that Dharma has to inhabit? After all, we’re talking about the very cold upper reaches of the mountains of the Himalayas. Surely a snow leopard would not be out of place. I’m speculating...why a dog? In the Hindu canon, a horse...or the horse of the Ashwamedha would probably be admitted into heaven.
The horse is the Kshatriya animal. The dog is an untouchable. The untouchables are often called Swapakas, people who cook and eat dogs. So the dog is dealing with...This is the beginning of caste revolution. This is the beginning of challenges to caste. And the Mahabharata begins with a dog. Janamejaya is beginning to give a big sacrifice. And Sarameya, these are the dogs that are the children of the bitch Sarama.

So in the story of Sarama, we’re not in the caste system yet in the Rigveda. Sarama is the bitch of Indra. She’s his hunting dog and she saves his life on several occasions. Dogs are just fine in the Rigveda. In the Mahabharata, you’re already getting into caste system. And Sarama’s sons, the Sarameyas, come to Janamajeya’s sacrifice. She drives them out with stones. And the dogs go back to their mother and say what happened. And she curses Janamejaya to have serious problems with animals. And that’s when Janamejaya’s problem with snakes begins.

And so the whole Mahabharata really, it’s at Janamejaya’s sacrifice that the Mahabharata is recited. The Mahabharata begins with the wrongful and unethical mistreatment of dogs. And it ends with the challenge to the ethical treatment of dogs. So dogs are important. They frame it in that sense. They pose their clues, their signs that come up to us that the Mahabharata is dealing with moral questions. It cannot yet answer. That will only be answered in later centuries in more developed texts of ethics and of ritualism. And finally, the challenge to caste that comes with Bhakti, the real Bhakti in the medieval period. It all begins in the Mahabharata. Everything is in the Mahabharata. Just as it says, everything is here. It’s right. Everything is here. I’s a true statement.

I’m talking to Wendy who, if I’m not mistaken, by the time she was 16, had gone through all the Western classics. The Greeks in the original Greek, the Latin epics in the original Latin...and having consumed and exhausted all of them, turned her gaze eastward. That is when she was directed to Kalidasa, if I’m not mistaken, at the age of 17. Kumarasambham, and that began this lifelong love affair with the Indian Sanskrit epics, etc.

Having read so much of world literature, in particular the classics, in particular the ancient epics, is that assertion, is that incredibly proud assertion something that you agree with? That the essence of life as you have seen it, as you know it to be, is really contained in the Mahabharata and whatever is not there is not to be found in our universe, at least in this earthly universe.

Is that something you agree with?
I think so. I think there’s much more in the Mahabharata than there is in Homer. I think the Odyssey and the Iliad, for one thing, they’re shorter books. They’re also much more focused books. Each tells a story. There are little side stories. But there’s a basic line. They are limited. They have wonderful things in them, and I love them dearly, but they are limited. The Mahabharata is much messier, much more promiscuous. It has different kinds of literature in it. It covers centuries of composition. Whereas the Greek epics were composed over a much shorter period of time, if not by one author, but just one or two authors.

The Mahabharata is like the Encyclopedia Britannica in a way. It tries to put every single thing into it that there is. It claims to do so, and I think it probably does. I’m not much of a philosopher. There is philosophy in the Mahabharata, but I don’t think it’s nearly as developed as later Indian philosophy. There is poetry in the Mahabharata, but it’s not as beautiful as much later poetry. It’s not the
only book you ever have to read. But I think there isn’t a single human question that the Mahabharata doesn’t tackle. A single ethical question, a single moral question, a single dramatic question... birth, death, life, marriage, war, money, power, animals.

There’s no important human topic about life on the planet Earth. And perhaps in hell and heaven, who knows...which the Mahabharata doesn’t approach. And intelligent. It has its limits. It has its beliefs of what human beings can do, which are much more limited than what we now think human beings can do, I think. There are women in the Mahabharata, but not as many as there are in the world. There are low-caste people in the Mahabharata, but not as many as there are in the world. So it has its boundaries. But I do think it talks about everything that’s important in human life. And it’s right about a lot of it. I disagree with its views on some subjects, but they’re always intelligent. And they’re always interesting. Always interesting.

An apt way to end the conversation would be to talk about the way that the Mahabharata itself, the epic itself, ends. I’m going to talk about somebody you and I both like, a mutual friend, the poet and novelist Amit Chaudhuri.

Back in 2020, when there wasn’t very much to do, all of us were stuck indoors, we were just having conversations about everything, the “meaning of life”, as Douglas Adams would have called it. We were talking about creative re-imaginings of the basic narrative structure. And Amit told me, “You know what, just once in my life, before I’m done, I want to write a book which is full of paragraphs. Each of these paragraphs could be the beginning of a book.”

If you see the obverse of it, if you see the ending of the Mahabharata, and this is something that you have remarked as well in your annotation, that it almost seems as if there are multiple endings and sub-endings, different variations of endings, as if it is a book of endings, with each of its distinct different possibilities.

Do you want to talk about the way that it ends, and possibly the way that, obviously we’re talking about multiple authorship, the poets would have finally been able to bring it to conclusion and fruition?
Well, there are these multiple endings, almost like codas. There are multiple blessings. There are multiple statements about what you get if you read the Mahabharata. There are claims for how wonderful the Mahabharata is. If you read it, a woman will have a strong child and a man will be a great warrior, whatever it is. All these ideas. And then there is the famous statement – some things in this book are also found elsewhere, but nothing that is found elsewhere is not in this book.

So its claim is really to be coterminous with the world, with the human world. And then there are the blessings that are brought to you if you recite it here and if you recite it there. If you kill a Brahmin in the morning and say the Mahabharata at night, you’re sinless. That’s one of the great claims of it. It projects itself into the world as a tool by which one can live. And indeed, since so much of it is devoted to ethics, it is a tool to live in the world.

The project I’m working on now, having done these four last books, I’ve gone back to books 12, 13, and 14 and right before the books I did, where there are miscellaneous stories that have nothing to do with the main plot, nothing to do with the Pandavas in the battle. A king needs to have some money and he says to a Brahmin, how am I going to get this money? And the Brahmin says, well, you can get it the way Maruta got it. And the king says, who was Maruta and how did he get his money?

And therefore an entirely irrelevant story is told. There are about 150 of these stories scattered through the last books of the Mahabharata, almost all with a moral or ethical point. Stories about kings, stories about Gods, how the world was created, how the jackal fooled the lion, how the mouse fooled the cat, a man who fed his entire family on one husk of rice...I don’t know yet what the order is, but I’m translating these stories. I’m going to find out. They’re all messed up. They’re all hidden there. They’re never decided together. People skip them in translations because they’re not about the story. So I’m going to find out a lot more about the Mahabharata than I know now. And I look forward to it. There’s more to come.