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Mahabharata Paperback – November 14, 2000
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"Buck recaptures a spirit which is lacking in the more [literal and complete] translation; there is a poetry of expression, an atmosphere of awe, a liveliness of appreciation. . . . Buck captures much of the beauty of the Sanskrit thought. . . . A pleasure to read and to look at; the many illustrations by Shirley Triest have a magical quality in total harmony with the magic of the text."--"Times Literary Supplement
Text: English (translation) --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Buck created his version in the 1960's, resolving to tell the story in his own way, which would be accessible to readers in English but remain faithful to the spirit, if not the letter, of the original. He condensed, rewrote, and reinterpreted in order to make a work which he hoped would please and delight his readers while preserving the essential story. The result is very controversial, and the controversy continues to this day (Buck died in 1970).
Many readers, including me, appreciate the artistry and skill of Buck's writing. I am puzzled, however, by the changes that he made in the story. For example, Buck has Krishna kill Dushsasana prior to the battle (in Vyasa, Dushsasana is killed by Bhima at Kurukshetra). For another example, in Buck's version, it is Virata's son Uttara who breaks into the Kuru's Lotus formation during the battle (and is subsequently killed). In Vyasa, the protagonist is Abhimanyu, son of Arjuna. For a third example, Buck has Draupadi volunteer, after having been won by Arjuna, to become the wife of the other four Pandava brothers as well; in Vyasa she has no choice, since her mother-in-law, Kunti, commanded Arjuna to share "whatever he had brought" with his brothers.
These are major characters, and it seems arbitrary for Buck to change their stories in this way; it is like Paris, instead of Hector, being killed by Achilles!
It is also important, I feel, for a translator to bring across the beauty, grandeur, religious ecstasy, and sorrow of Vyasa's conception; the Battle of Kurukshetra is a Ragnarok, an Armageddon, a monumental epic, the end of an age, the banishing of gods and demigods from earth; I do not find such elevated emotions in Buck's version, although it must be admitted that I have not found it in other translations either, and probably only the original Sanskrit can do it justice. In my view, the Mahabharata is a tragedy, perhaps the greatest tragedy ever written, and the tragic viewpoint is what I find most lacking in Buck's version, in spite of its many felicities of incident and style.
For readers who are unfamiliar with the Mahabharata, it is easy to get lost in the multitude of characters and their complicated relationships. Buck makes a sincere effort, but he lapses at a few important points. For example, when Bhima cries to Drona that "Aswatthaman is slain", the reader may not realize that Aswatthaman is Drona's son, since there is no entry for Aswatthaman in the glossary.
The glossary, as in the example above, omits many crucial relationships and names. An index and a geneaology chart of the major characters would have been very helpful, but are not included in the book. There are only seven footnotes. The edition that I am reviewing (University of California paperback, 1981) was apparently typeset from the original plates, since it contains all of the original typographical errors.
Buck's version omits the Bhagavad Gita, the "Song of God" that is uttered by Krishna just before the climactic battle. The Gita, although now considered to be a relatively late interpolation to the basic story, is absolutely essential; its importance is analogous to the story of Job in the Old Testament, and any version of the Mahabharata is fundamentally incomplete without it.
In summary, I recommend that readers who are not that familiar with the Mahabharata should read first a modern version such as R. K. Narayan, which tells the basic story clearly and accurately; first-time readers should also obtain a contemporary translation of the Gita, and read it when they reach the appropriate point in the Mahabharata narrative. I do like Buck's version; the writing is very fine, and I feel a certain nostalgic connection to it (Buck and I are both children of the 60's); but I have to admit that on the whole, it really does not meet contemporary standards of scholarship or accuracy.
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I am thankful there is a translation. Enjoy!!!