by Carole Losee © 2005-2020






by Carole Losee © 2005


Elizabeth Seeger's retelling of the extraordinary Indian epic, The Mahabharata, is an intellectual gift to us all, old and young. It tells a remarkable story of the life of five fatherless princes who grow to manhood in their uncle's kingdom, learning the arts of warfare, the duties of their caste, and the path of an honorable life. Through deception they are forced to experience years of exile and when they return to reclaim their kingdom, are forced into a deadly cataclysmic battle involving armies from many kingdoms.

This master of storytelling has preserved the flowing storyline for us from a complex epic that she described as being three times as long as The Bible. What remains is a crystal-clear, enthralling story of five Indian heroes who are the embodiment of Indian ideals within the context of Hindu philosophy. For those of us in the Western world who are steeped in Judeo-Christian traditions, it is an introduction to a world of belief that is different from our own but at the same time strikingly familiar. Their story of love, loyalty, betrayal, duty, and honor are universal themes. This brilliant retelling has brought this masterpiece to life and made its wisdom most accessible to us some two millennia after its original compilation.

Carole Losee
Bridgehampton, New York
April, 2005




by Elizabeth Seeger © 1967


The great epic stories of the world are few and their number will probably not increase--unless, for our sins, a new flood washes mankind from the face of the planet, leaving only another Noah or a Manu to start the long course of civilization again.

For the great epics came out of the dawn of the world, when everything was new: before man wrote or read, when intuition and experience were the only sources of his knowledge; when, amazed and stirred by the cosmic drama in the midst of which he found himself, he tried to find his part in it, his relation to the earth and its creatures, to the heavenly bodies and to his fellow men. He searched his memory to find a cause and a beginning and cast his vision far ahead to seek a purpose and an end. His findings were infinitely important to him and to all who have come after him. In order to record them, he put them into stories that caught the rhythm of the turning earth. There is no better way to remember and to make others remember than to make a story and to put it into rhythmic speech.

Because the epics were composed before writing was known or before it was widely used in the country of their origin, they were not individual works but collective: for they were told by teacher to disciple, by parent to child, by storyteller to storyteller, each generation, each unusual person adding something until the story grew, like a Gothic cathedral, including many centuries in its final form. And, like a Gothic cathedral, it gathered in its growth the history, the beliefs and customs, the economy and the arts of the times it passed through, and preserved them for us. Only a great framework can hold all these things together and keep its own shape through so much handling; the epic, therefore, is always a magnificent story.

For these and other reasons, it seems unlikely that further tales of this magnitude will be produced, and for these reasons the ones we have are particularly precious. There are none greater or more precious that the two epics of India, the Mahabhárata and the Ramáyana.

The Mahabhárata in its entirely is the longest of all scriptures and of all poems; for it is three times as long as the Bible and eight times as long as the Iliad and the Odyssey put together. For two or three thousand years the story that forms its nucleus has been the vehicle for the moral philosophy and for the highest spiritual teaching of Hinduism; it has acquired not only enormous elaboration in the telling, but also enormous digressions amounting to whole volumes that are purely philosophical and only tenuously connected with the original narrative. It has become the very encyclopedia of Hinduism: "The storehouse," as one scholar says, "of Indian genealogy, mythology, and antiquity."

Since history, as understood in the West, has not been congenial to the Hindu mind, it seems impossible to find out, even approximately, the time when the events of this poem may have taken place. Some Hindu scholars say 3000 B.C. and others about 1500 B.C.; Western scholars, after exhaustive research, say any time between 1700 B.C. and 700 B.C. There is no mention of the great battle in the vague historical records, although the Bháratas were known in very early times as powerful rulers of northwestern India who, indeed, gave it its early name--Bhárata-varsha. There seems to be no doubt, however, that the story is based on actual events, though they were not of the colossal proportions claimed by the poem. For one of the quaint results of its long growth is the contrast between the claim of the Bhárata kings to be "lords of the whole earth with its belt of seas" and a certain incident which proves them to be no more than tribal chieftains who raid each other's borders to steal cattle.

The poem, on the other hand, has its place in history. Professor Edward Washburn Hopkins in his book, The Great Epic of India, states that lays, or song cycles, about the Bháratas were current by 400 B.C., that this story, with its familiar characters, was known between 400 and 200 B.C., and that the book had attained its present form and length at some time between 200 and 400 A.D. By that time it was written in Sanskrit and was available to priests and scholars.

During those centuries and afterward, the story, its incidents and characters, became known to everyone in India and in those countries colonized or influenced by India: Ceylon, Southeast Asia, and the Indies. It was and is now told in the homes, chanted in the temples, recited under the village trees; it was carved on the walls of Angkor and in the temples of Java; it was and is now shown in the shadow plays of Burma, Siam, and the Indies, played also by living actors and danced in exquisite ceremonial dances. Indeed, it is so well known in the Indies that the Javanese began their history with these legends, believing them to be their own tradition.

The great arts of India, Indonesia, and Southeast Asia are as hard to understand, if one is ignorant of the two Hindu epics, as the arts of Europe would be if one did not know the Greek myths and the Bible. Kunti and Dráupadi are of the stature of Penelope, Antigone, and Alcestis, but one knows them better because the Indian legends are much longer and more detailed than the Greek; Bhishma and Vidura, Yudhistra and his brothers stand beside David and Solomon, Odysseus and Achilles, Arthur and Roland and Galahad. Is it not time for us to become as familiar with these great figures of Indian tradition as we are with those of our own? Is not the Aryan heritage ours also? And is it not well to know the sources of the culture of a great people who will become increasingly important in the world?

The Indian epics do not belong so much to the past as ours do, for they are alive and active in the life of India today. The grandmother or the mother tells them to the children; bands of actors and of minstrels travel about presenting them in town and village, where amateurs, too, love to enact them; priests recite the sonorous Sanskrit verses while interpreters translate them for the listeners; scholars and poets rhapsodize on solemn and festive occasions, taking one incident and improvising upon it, after the manner of the Greek rhapsodes. The Pándavas, Kunti, and Dráupadi are great examples of noble and virtuous behavior, held up to children and adults; their misfortunes still draw tears from the listener or spectator and their victory brings an ever-returning joy.

I seem to have forgotten that it is not the mighty Mahabhárata that I am introducing, but my own humble version of its story. Yet this volume has its place in the great tradition, for the noble tale has been in the hands of every sort of storyteller; many versions and condensations of it have been made in all the vernaculars of India and the many shorter stories included in it--those of Sakuntala, Nala and Damayanti, Savitri, for example--have been told and retold in India and abroad. That great spiritual poem, the Bhagavad Gita, which is contained in the Mahabhárata and yet is complete in itself, is known to all the world.

The whole of the text has been translated from the Sanskrit into several of the modern languages of India, such as Bengali, Hindi, Tamil, and Canarese, and other editions are in progress. Two complete translations into English have been made by Hindus: one--which I have used, since I am ignorant of Sanskrit--by Kisari Mohan Ganguli, published in ten volumes by Pratap Chandra Roy, from 1883-1893; and another by M.N. Dutt, published in eighteen volumes from 1895-1904; the labor of translation and publication covering, in both instances, ten years. To my knowledge, only one complete translation has been made in the West: a translation into French, made by Hippolyte Fauche in 1863. There is great need of a readable and condensed version of it by someone who is master of both Sanskrit and English and who can do justice to the beauty and nobility of the subject. It seems to me that until this is done, any version, which might make this living legend more familiar to us, is justified.

When I first read the edition so devotedly published by Pratap Chandra Roy, I was amazed and delighted to find that the story, which I was primarily seeking, ran through the vast accumulation of digression, repetition, and accretion as a clear brook might run through marsh, meadow, and forest, never losing its direction and falling at last into a great river. It never loses its logic or its continuity; after disappearing from view for two or three hundred or even more than a thousand pages, it emerges in all its purity, rises to a mighty climax, and comes to a beautiful ending.

In the same way, the characters are completely consistent throughout. They are so clearly drawn, so human, admirable, and lovable that one feels that they must either have been real people whose powerful personalities have come down to us unchanged, or that the original dramatis personae were recreated by so great a poet that no other dared to alter his conception of them. For they, like the narrative but unlike the chaotic whole, emerge pure and convincing after millenia of handling.

It is this story and these characters that i have wished to bring to the knowledge of Western readers, together with the moral philosophy of India on which the epic is built and which the characters exemplify. Following he thread of narrative through the labyrinth of text, I have chosen those incidents which seem to me essential to the story of to the understanding of one or another of the characters. This has been my only purpose in selecting, perhaps, one incident from a hundred incidents, one conversation from fifty conversations, one significant paragraph from innumerable ones. Much that is very beautiful has had to be left out so that this book might not be too long. My hope is that other people may find the same delight in it that I have found.

I believe that children are particularly attuned to epic stores, which came out of the youth of the world, and I believe that the best education for them is to relive the world's life through its folk and fairy tales and its heroic legends. Therefore, this book has been written with the utmost simplicity, so that children may enjoy it; and, for the same reason, I have avoided all unnecessary complication, knowing that the setting and circumstances and the names are already alien and may present obstacles to the reader.

The names, perhaps, present the greatest difficulty. There are many characters in this complicated tale and they must be given their names, which are not only unfamiliar but often long, with the stress in an unexpected place. The blind king who is such an important personage is called Dhritarashtra. To avoid such a long and difficult word, I have given him his family name of Kuru, which also makes clearer the constant differentiation between his sons, the Kúravas (or Kauravas) and the Pándavas, the sons of Pandu. So also the name Dhrishtajumna, which means Clear Light, has been shortened to Jumna, Light. I have been told, on excellent authority, that the contractions of Yudhishthira to Yudhistra, of Sahadeva, to Sadeva, of Duryodhana to Duryodha,is allowable. The stressed syllable in such names as Dráupadi, Shákuni, Pádava, is indicated by an accent so that the stress may not be placed, as is usual in the West, on the penultimate. All unnecessary names have been omitted,even that of Drupada, king of Panchala, in order not to confuse it with Dráupadi,his daughter's name, which is derived from his. Since these changes have been made for the sake of ease and pleasure in reading, I hope that scholars, in the East or in the West, will not be offended by them.

Because my purpose has been simply to tell the story, religious doctrines that are not relevant to it have been omitted. From the Bhagavad Gita only those verses that give the necessary answer of Krishna to Arjuna have been included, for there is no place in a condensed narrative for that great poem. The part of Krishna himself, which is believed to be a later accretion, is also not given the supreme importance that it has in India. Krishna appears as the wise and powerful friend and cousin of the Pándavas, not as an incarnation of God, as that idea might be more confusing than clarifying. The miracles attributed to him have been omitted: in the famous incident of the unclothing of Dráupadi, although she called upon Krishna, it was Dharma, God of Righteousness, who clothed her in miraculous garments; I have simplified this situation by making her call upon Dharma.

Much has been omitted, but I have not been so presumptuous as to add anything of my own, excepting one small paragraph, in the first chapter, to explain the Kshatria code of honor. This is implicit in the whole book and is well known to Indians, but it is not known to Western readers, and several important episodes might be puzzling to them if it were not made clear. It was necessary to rearrange the beginning of the story, for in the text there are three beginnings, one of which starts with the creation of the world; but I have rearranged only what is told in various parts of the book and have not added or invented anything. My part has been to select, to reduce ten large volumes to one small one, to connect intelligibly the selected episodes and to change the rather formal, stiff, and complicated style of the translator into what I hope is clear and simple English. If, in so doing, I shall have increased, in any degree, the fame of the sons of Pandu, I shall be well pleased.

Elizabeth Seeger
Bridgewater, Conn.

January, 1967


Seeger, The Five Sons of King Pandu, Print edition, op. cit., pp. xi-xvi.