I recently came across a question that sought review of a certain book based on the great Indian epic Mahabharata. What caught my attention is a few responses to this request. And they said the same thing — I strongly recommend not to read any novels or other books written by any author whatsoever. They always distort every character.
Now I must disagree with this. And my disagreement doesn’t stem just from the selfish fact that I too am an author of one such epic fiction around Mahabharata, but from the fact that derived narrative is the hallmark of our great epic tradition propagated by Sruti-Smriti tradition.
Are we so afraid of distortions that we don’t trust our grand epic to survive them? Our epic may survive those distortions, but can it survive our lack of trust and fear?
Should we reject all derivatives?
But for a moment, if we consider the powerful argument extended in those answers, that would mean that we should reject the grand epic retelling Ramcharit Manas as it is a derivative work and not the original work!
Let us take another example. Perhaps one of the most respected work on Mahabharata which I recommend personally to Mahabharata enthusiasts is a six volume compilation of Neelkantha commentary by Gita Press. It is the same reference material that is used for the first English translation by Kisari Mohan Ganguli (KMG). But there are multiple omissions in KMG compared to Neelkantha. So should we reject KMG?
Let us go one step further. Is Neelkantha the original work? Nay, Neelkhantha Chaturdhara, based his work on Devbodh’s Kashmiri Mahabharat and Arjun Mishra’s commentary on Bengali version and added his own thoughts to it. So shall we reject Neelkantha also?
Even many great narratives that are part of our proud epic heritage can’t claim originality or complete authenticity
What about the originals?
Maharishi Valmiki faced an interesting dilemma before creating the original epic Ramayana not very different from what we the contemporary writer’s face. Was he there with Rama throughout his life? Was he a firsthand witness of what happened at every juncture? At any juncture? How was he supposed to present the vivid detail of his life without adding an element of imagination there? Imagine, if you were to sit down and write your own biography, could you remember every incident of your life from decades ago, exactly?
Then there is the other side of the coin — If you can’t recollect an event accurately would that become an existential crisis? Would that make your entire narrative fictional? No, your narrative would be valid as long as you don’t betray the essence of the narrative, don’t distort the soul of the narrative.
Brahma himself answered Valmiki’s predicament — Do your best and you won’t be wrong! Why Valmiki couldn’t have been wrong? Was it because of some divine blessing or because of his honest intent?
The essence of our epic is not memorization of the fact, but it’s adherence to Dharma
Are all deviations, distortion?
One of my all-time favourite narratives from the Ramayana is the concept of Lakshmana Rekha. Favourite, because it a proof of the divine nature of our Sruti-Smriti tradition. By all accounts, Lakshman Rekha is a later add-on to the epic. But should we call it distortion? Or decoration?
There would be a hair line partition between deviation and distortion, defined by your intent defines. Are you being honest to the soul of the epic? Or are deliberately trying to portray it as something it was not.
Lakshman rekha doesn’t violate any of the epic trait. It doesn’t present contradict the core message, neither does it try to defame or degrade any person or social structure. Can we call it a distortion?
Next we consider another narrative from a modern fiction — Angada kidnaps Mandodari, the wife of Raavana and strips her in public! Now can you imagine what purpose this modern narrative can serve? First, to make an impression that there wasn’t much difference between Rama and Ravana. Both were kidnappers and abusers — perhaps Rama worse of the lot, as even Ravana didn’t brutalize Sita this way. Second, as the narrative progressed it was a reminder that Ravana didn’t abandon his wife despite her public humiliation. Can you see, where the story is going? Can we say it is not a distortion, just a minor deviation?
But we must understand the difference in the two incidents is not of fiction or originality, but the intent.
It is intent that defines a deviation as distortion or decoration or just a style of narration
Why should we anyway read fiction when more authentic works are available?
I would urge you to do a bit of research around you. Find out how many people have read the authentic versions of Mahabharata. Forget reading, find out how many of them actually know the terms BORI, KMG and Neelkantha. The Gita Press version of Neelkantha commentary spans in six volumes with each volume having over six hundred pages! How many people, do you expect, would be inclined to read such a massive work?
Another interesting set of questions — Do we consider all incidents mentioned in those thousands of pages accurate? Is the English translation by KMG and Hindi translation exact? What about BORI?
But I, who pride myself, of having read Gita Press, KMG and BORI recently had an interesting conversation (debate) with a lady on the social media. Modern fictions completely influenced her views, which not only she proudly accepted but also condemned references from BORI CE or Neelkantha. Some of her arguments were —
- Why should I trust two, so-called, authentic books instead of twenty other books (fictions) that I have read and they all say the same story? Isn’t the possibility of two being wrong is over twenty being wrong?
- TV Shows like BRChopra and Suryaputra Karna have shown few incidents. They must have done their research. I don’t care what a couple of books says. Nobody knows the truth!
Interestingly, she concluded — I think, you know more than I do. But I don’t care. I would stick to what I believe rather than going with authentic narratives!
And it was not an isolated incident. We often come across people who have not read ancient narratives — they don’t know, they don’t care — but they still matter. Can we say ignore these people? They are the flag bearer of our tradition. They would narrate their version to their children — our generation next!
What do we want? Let the epic be lost because they won’t read those tens of thousand of ancient pages. Or do we want them to go ahead with those fictions that are distorting our epic?
Let us be clear —
I had a choice to make. Be just the part of an endless inconclusive debate, or create a narrative which I would like next generation to treasure and that can make them proud and connected to our rich tradition.
I would recommend judge a narrative based on its sincerity toward the epic rather than taking a strong instance of rejecting them without evaluating them.