Sunday, June 07, 2020

Fortnightly Book, June 7

Kuru Pradesh was a tribal nation that consolidated territory in northern India, in what became known as the Kurukshetra region. Its culture at the height of its power was a significant formative influence on the Vedas, but it maintained a notable cultural influence long into the post-Vedic Mahajanapada period,and it is the origin of India's most renowned epic, the Mahabharata. The Mahabharata depicts an intratribal war, the Kurukshetra War, between two major clans of the Kuru Kingdom, the Kauravas and the Pandavas; if the war was historical, it would have occurred somewhere around 1000 BC, but the Mahabharata as we have it is much later and historical confirmation of anything in it is only sporadic. In any case, the chief protagonist of the epic is the mighty warrior Arjuna, prince of the Pandava clan and close friend of one of the avatars of Krishna.

The most famous episode of the epic is the Bhagavad Gita, the celestial song, part of the book Bhisma Parva, in which Arjuna and Krishna are preparing for battle with the Kauravas, and Arjuna wonders whether the bloodshed is justified, particularly given that these were his relatives. Krishna encourages him to the fight.

I'll be reading this in a Heritage Press edition, which means the translation will be the nineteenth-century translation of Sir Edwin Arnold. Most famous in his own day for his poem, The Light of Asia, on the life of Buddha, his posthumous fame is due almost entirely to this translation of "The Song Celestial". It has an introduction by Shri Sri Prakasa; Sri Pakasa was a notable politician and the son of the more famous Bhagavan Das. It is illustrated with fifteen color plates of watercolors by Y. G. Srimati (each one with commentary by the artist), who also designed a yellow, red, and gold binding suggestive of the kind of binding one often sees on older books from India. It has the Sanskrit Devanagari as well as the English text; the latter is in Egmont type, which is a distinctive and, as far as I can tell, rare typeface.

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