Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Mahābhārata, Part I: The big ... everything

Photos by your humble blogkeeper
The Mahābhārata consists of 100,000 verses plus long passages of prose and, by one account, 1,660,020,000 people die in it. Complete translations, near as such a thing is possible, fill 18 or 19 volumes.

My favorite character so far (Dhritarāshtra, a king in one of the two family factions in the war that forms the work's core), starts to complain, and, this being the Mahābhārata, he goes on complaining for 60 verses, each ending with: O Sanjaya I had no hope of success. The song is a kind of reverse "Dayenu," and the rhythm induced by the repetition is beguiling. Complaints are a marvelous way to tell a story, invested each reported fact or incident with urgency.

Indian have always loved big numbers, so no surprise in any of this. (They also loved grammar [they were thousands of years ahead of the West in the study of linguistics], and ancient Indian art and literature have more sex in them than any other ancient literature and art I know.) 

What is the biggest number you know of in literature or science? (If it ends in -illion, it has so be a real number. No bajillions allowed.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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14 Comments:

Blogger Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Manas, the Kyrgyz epic, is "two and a half times the length of the Indian epic Mahabharata," and is orally transmitted, sung, which seems impossible.

April 29, 2014  
Blogger RT said...

It depends upon what you mean by "biggest." Do you mean quantitative or qualitative? I could be a bit flippant and say that 40 -- given its recurrence in the Bible -- might be the biggest in terms of symbolic, qualitative significance. Of course, that evades and trivializes your question. Sorry.

April 29, 2014  
Blogger RT said...

And 7 has always some legs -- both in the Bible and at the crap table.

April 29, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Tom: I had not heard of Manas. Thanks.

As for oral transmission, I suspect that repetition of the kind I mentioned in this post were aids to memory and oral transmission. I have read scholarly opinion that the standard epithets in Homer could have served a similar function. So oral transmission may not be as far-fetched as we think.

April 29, 2014  
Blogger RT said...

As for oral "texts" becoming written texts, who can say whether or not the written text faithfully represents the oral versions.

In the case of Homer, for example, I have long surmised that our written versions are different from the many oral versions that were circulating through the years prior to the writing of one version. The recitations of the oral versions were really improvisations upon the framework of themes and outlines.

April 29, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T.: How all those lifespans in Genesis, men who are said to have lived hundreds and hundreds of years.

For whatever reason, other cultures just did not reach as far (or count as high) when striving to grasp the infinite as Indians did. What thus signifies, I have no idea.

As for craps, you have spoken with greeter relevance to the Mahābhārata than you may know.

April 29, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., I think we express similar thoughts about oral transmission and the multiplicity of versions this may imply. I wonder where the idea that authenticity inhered in word-for-word repetition and transmission originated.

April 29, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Perhaps with this legend.

April 29, 2014  
Blogger RT said...

We have always been suckers for the inerrant written word. There is something in our DNA. We see something printed, we tend to believe it as gospel. (I intend the pun!) We hear people talk to us, we may be less committed to belief. We see something they have written, we are already on our way to being convinced. Argue any sacred text with a believer and you quickly discover the depth of the issue.

April 29, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

One can't say we have always been suckers for the inerrant written word, since words were not always written. I have read that the earliest examples of cuneiform that we have are of mundane business accounts, rather than of Gilgamesh or some law code. So the question is not when writing was invented, but when critical reading first appeared.

April 29, 2014  
Blogger Patrick Murtha said...

What translation of the Mahabharata are you reading? I have been curious to undertake it myself.

Amateur Reader's link to the excerpts from the Kirghiz epic Manas is much appreciated!

April 29, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Patrick: I started reading the Ganguli translation, which is available free online. Then I bought the Penguin Classics version, selected and translated by John D. Smith, which has all kinds of good introductory and supplementary material.

April 29, 2014  
Blogger Patrick Murtha said...

Thanks! The Ganguli sounds good; I'm attracted to impossible projects that take forever.

May 01, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Good luck with the project. Should we meet, I'll expect you to recite the Mahabharata. And no, before you ask, I will not do what Ganesha did and write it down as fast as you recite it.

May 01, 2014  

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