Alumni Author: Completing Vyasa’s Mahabharata – Abhinav Agarwal, PGSEM 2006

Abhinav Agarwal’s book “Completing Vyasa’s Mahabharata: 67 Upakathas for the Modern Reader” delves into the lesser-known sub-tales within the Mahabharata, offering a fresh perspective on these narratives. In this interview, he sheds light on the significance of these sub-tales and their connection to the main narrative. Abhinav explains how he curated the selection of 67 upakathas, retelling them in a fast-paced style to engage both modern readers and purists. He also shares stories that offer unique insights into characters and events, enhancing our understanding of their complexities. Abhinav’s journey in bringing this book to life is discussed, along with the challenges and joys he encountered during the writing process. Through his work, he aims to provide readers with a comprehensive reference to delve deeper into the rich tapestry of the Mahabharata’s sub-tales.

Your book “Completing Vyasa’s Mahabharata: 67 Upakathas for the Modern Reader ” dives into the sub-tales within the Mahabharata. Could you give us a glimpse of what readers can expect from this collection of lesser-known narratives?

“Completing Vyasa’s Mahabharata” brings the 67 upakhyaanas (upakathas) of the Mahabharata alive in a fast-paced narration, in a style that will appeal to the modern reader and with a focus on rigor and accuracy that will appeal to the purists, too.

These upkathas, sub-tales, are an integral part of the Mahabharata. Without them, the Mahabharata is incomplete. It is my assertion that Vyasa wrote the Mahabharata along with these sub-tales and he always intended these sub-tales to be a part of the Mahabharata and to be read with the epic. You cannot separate the two.

The 67 upa-kathas are the ones identified by the late Mahabharata scholar Alf Hiltebeitel. I talk about that in the Introduction.

These are not a translation but retellings, written in a manner to mirror, in many cases, the style, pace, and structure of a fast-paced thriller.

Lastly, this has been done without introducing any distortions or misrepresentations in the stories themselves. For people so interested I have also provided more than 1000 references. It is my hope the reader will get interested in delving into the epic in greater detail, and if they do so, the footnotes will provide a guide for them to dive into the Mahabharata.

Unlike traditional verse translations, your book focuses on presenting the upakathas as threads that connect the text and provide answers to readers’ questions. Could you elaborate on how you selected these 67 upakathas, and what guided your choice of narratives to include in your book?

The selection of these 67 upakathas was very straightforward. Alf Hiltebeitel had already done this identification. He looked at all the stories where they were introduced or referred to as an upakhyaana or where the Parva-samgraha parva calls them as such. Based on that enumeration you come up with a list of 67. So that is the first part. The choice of narrative was also interesting because if you look at some of the upakhyaanas like Nala-Damayanti, Yayaati, Amba, and others, their tale is so fascinating that telling them or retelling them in the style of a thriller just seemed a very natural choice. For some other tales, the style is more conversational. Above all, the underlying principle that I applied was to keep the style easy, not overloaded with interpretations, explanations, or philosophical analyses.  

Your book seems to provide a fresh perspective on characters and events within the Mahabharata. Could you share a story from the collection that you personally found the most enlightening or surprising in terms of its impact on the main narrative?

Frankly, I wouldn’t call it so much a fresh perspective on the characters as much as retelling the stories and making a new generation of readers connect with the stories, the characters, and the epic itself. For example, if you read the Nala Damayanti upakhyaana and you read the unabridged version, one thing that strikes you is that it is Damayanti who’s actually the protagonist of the entire tale. She is the one who takes the initiative, she is the one who displays presence of mind, intelligence, and immense courage; and she is the one who actually ends up bringing Nala back.

Or if you read Savitri, here is a woman who, for the sake of her love, her husband, literally takes on death. She walks seven steps and more with Yama. She talks such words of such wisdom and insight that Yama is practically forced to give her boon after boon after boon till such time as he basically gives Savitri what she wanted all along—her husband, Satyavan’s, life.

Another upakhyaana that I found fascinating is that of Amba. Here is the redoubtable warrior Bheeshma, who agrees to fight the invincible Parsahuraama, and emerges victorious. The fight is over the rights of the princess of Kashi, Amba.  In an ironical twist of fate, the same Bheeshma finds himself many, many, many years later, on the same battlefield of Kurukshetra, this time facing Amba, now reborn as Shikhandi, and loses his life at her hands.

While the Mahabharata is a timeless epic, its sub-tales might not be as widely known. What motivated you to delve into these lesser-known stories and bring them to the forefront through your book?

First, the choice was these 67 upakhyaana, as I have said. I did not want to exercise any editorial judgement in picking some and leaving out others. I chose to retell all 67 upakhyaana, even though it meant that the length of the book exceeded 450 pages; it’s more than 150,000 words. The second motivating decision was that once these 67 upakhyaana had been retold they would serve as a complete reference for any English reader, and with enough footnotes and references to dig into the details if the reader so desired.

The complexity of the Mahabharata’s characters is a hallmark of the epic. Could you discuss how the upakathas you’ve curated help us better understand the internal struggles, virtues, and flaws of these characters?

Let us take a few upa-kathas as examples. Why did Ganga marry Shantanu? Why were the first seven sons of Ganga fated to be drowned by her mother immediately upon birth? Why did Bheeshma/Devavrata, the eighth son, stay alive? Why was Vidura, the wisest of the three brothers— Dhriatraashtra, Pandu, and Vidura—fated to never become the king? These are but just a few fascinating questions that readers of the Mahabharata will generally have, and without these upa-kathas that provide the answers, the Mahabharata itself will feel incomplete. Why did Draupadi marry the five Pandavas? The Mahabharata tells us it is on account of Kunti’s statement, made in the spur of the moment, but it is the Panchendra upa-katha that tells us who these five Pandavas were and who Druapiadi had been in a previous life; without the upa-kathaas, this context is missing.

Writing a book like “Upakhyaana: Unravelling Mahabharata’s Lesser Known Stories” is undoubtedly a significant undertaking. Could you share some insights into the process of bringing this book to life? What were some of the challenges you faced, and how did you overcome them?

The process itself was very enjoyable, though it did require a fair amount of research. I think when working on a book on the Mahabharata, the yin and the yang balance each other out. The sheer joy of bringing these stories alive for a new generation of readers, in a fast-paced manner, on the one hand, and putting in the rigour to make sure that the book is accurate and that it does not misrepresent or distort the epic and providing all these references on the other, I think, balance to each other out!

My primary source was the Critical Edition of the Mahabharata, brought out by the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute and its unabridged translation by Shri Bibek Debroy (published by Penguin). I also consulted the Gita Press translation of the Mahabharata. For additional references and information, I had Sorensen’s Index to the Names in the Mahabharata, and Vettam Mani’s Puranic Encyclopedia. Any errors that have crept into the book are obviously mine.

Authors often have unique experiences while writing, such as moments of writer’s block or interesting quirks that influence their creative process. Could you tell us if you encountered any particular challenges while working on this book? Additionally, were there any unexpected or amusing incidents that stood out during your writing journey?

With the Mahabharata, the question of a writer’s block did not arise because the story was already there, and so was the passion. But, yes, it did take several rounds of editing to bring a cert level of consistency in the narrative style across all 67 upa-kathas. One challenge, and I talk about that in the Introduction to the book, was the decision on how to spell names, because, if you use diacritical marks the pronunciation becomes accurate but the readability suffers. On the other hand if you do not use them the readability is good but some uncommon names may end up being mispronounced.

One incident that has stayed in my mind is from the Yayaati upa-katha, where Sharmishtha pushes Devayani into a well, and as a result Sharmishtha, the daughter of the king of the Asuras, becomes a servant of Devyani, the daughter of the guru of the asuras. She has to accompany and serve Devayani, even after Devyani marries Yayaati. As we know, Sharmishtha gives birth to a son through Yayaati, taking him as a husband. When Devayani finds out about, she confronts Sharmishtha. How and what Sharmishtha answers is, to be honest, sheer brilliance, it is wicked, but it is also genius. I will not reveal any spoilers here; I would strongly urge and recommend you to take a look at the book itself to understand what I’m talking about. 😊