A complete Mahabharata comes to the WMC Library
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A complete Mahabharata comes to the WMC Library

A recent donation[i] has added, to our WMC library, a twelve volume English edition of the epic poem The Mahabharata, attributed to Vyassa, from the ancient culture of India. The work is well known as a source for many stories retold by  the sages and through many plays still popular as entertainment in villages and cities throughout India. The West has only tasted this monumental work through translations of extracts. Selections in English were made over the years by at least 5 European scholars including Monier-Williams (who produced our Sanskrit dictionary).

The complete English translation represented a huge undertaking; commissioned by an Indian publisher and carried out by a respected Indian scholar in the late nineteenth century. The project was considered impossible by contemporaries of the time

Some of our WMC members will have seen Peter Brook’s 1989 television series, which we have on video and DVD in the WMC library. While this series was highly lauded, it remains a very truncated depiction of the original that probably existed as part of oral tradition for several hundred years. The work in producing a script for the Brook series would have been a major undertaking for Brooks and his two co-writers.

As far as I know our 12 volume set of books is the only complete English translation that has been produced, but it did not arrive on our shelves without its own drama.

The translator of this work was Kisari Ganguli, an Indian scholar of some stature. In spite of the misgivings of his countrymen as to the success of the venture, the edition was published in separate volumes between 1883 and 1896.

The demand for further editions was met, in the 1920s, by a series of corrupt versions; with the publisher of the original edition wrongly identified as the translator. Ganguli’s heirs finally, in 1970, convinced the publisher that a disservice had been done to both the text and the translator. In September 1970, the publisher reinstated the original text and credited Ganguli as translator. There appears to have been three editions issued over the next two years with our copy being from the third.

Readers should be warned, that for many interested western readers, Indian names and the complexity of the Mahabharata story, is a considerable barrier for recreational reading, despite the original target market being that of an unsophisticated audience. The first Parva (volume) is noted as requiring more attention than others. Indian translators into English of sacred literature needed to depart from the officialise of the administrative English that was taught in the Raj. The only other model Indian translators could adopt was that of the King James bible. The result has resulted in a style of language that was dated even when it was first used. However, I have not found that Ganguli’s text is excessive in this regard.

A more serious drawback is the lack of any index. Finding stories that our Shankaracharya, or others, may have told in their teaching  is not possible without considerable work,

As our copy of the Mahabharata is a rare and hard to replace item, those who would like to delve into it must do so in the confine of our refurbished library. Loans may be arranged only with our Librarian’ explicit agreement and with suitable precautionary caveats.

Ron Ward


[i] Thanks to the Jackson Family and Chris Paice.

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