In 1973 the University of Chicago Press published the first volume of what has come to be called the Chicago Mahābhārata. The project was intended to be a complete English translation of the Mahābhārata, the sprawling Sanskrit epic attributed to the marvelous Vyāsa, and all of it (it is about eight times as long as the Iliad and Odyssey combined) was to be translated by J. A. B. van Buitenen, Professor of Sanskrit and Indic Studies at the University of Chicago. Professor van Buitenen completed only five of the eighteen parvāni (or books) before his sudden death in 1979 brought the project to a halt. Fortunately, Sanskrit scholars at the University of Chicago and the editors of the University of Chicago Press refused to let it die. New translators were enlisted, new plans were made, and at last the first fruits of the determined effort have appeared. The Chicago Mahābhārata has resumed. Now more than ever, it is an epic undertaking.
The Chicago Mahābhārata resumes with volume 7, skipping volumes 4 through 6 (they will follow later) to present all of parvan 11, the Strīparvan, and part one of parvan 12, the Śāntiparvan. The five skipped parvāni deal with the slaughter at Kuruksetra, nothing less than a world war, with all the great armies and all the great warriors of the world participating, and almost all dying of arrow and ax wounds, clubbings, and decapitation. For the purely literary war buff, it would have been better to see the edition proceed regularly, through the order of battle and the millions killed, but volume 7 has a timeliness as valuable as bold battle words and descriptions of chariot warfare.
Strīparvan, The Book of the Women, deals with war's aftermath, the field flooded with blood, heaped with bodies, strewn with body parts, and alive "with jackals, jungle crows, ravens, storks, crows, eagles, and vultures, and it resounded with the ghastly howling of the jackals" (11.16.9). To this scene come thousands of women, to mourn dead sons, brothers, and fathers. Some mourn husbands.
Śāntiparvan, The Book of Peace, features the victorious prince Yudhiststhira, who is consumed with grief at what victory has cost him. "Now we live with our kinsmen dead and our wealth exhausted," he cries, then vows to retire from the world (12.7.9). The remainder of The Book of Peace sets down the guiding rules for the ruler, validated by reason, sacred learning, and noble example. [End Page 1103] The first of these rules, most urgent and most difficult to prove, is that war is necessary.
Most English readers get their first dose of the Mahābhārata from one of the best known excerpts in world literature, the Bhagavad Gītā, which is part of the sixth parvan (Professor van Buitenen's translation of the Gītā was published by the University of Chicago Press in 1981). But the Gītā is only one the Mahābhārata's several didactic sections. The Book of Peace is the epic's longest lesson in political science, delivered by the dying hero Bhīsma to Yudhiststhira. Readers eager to explore the wide range of Sanskrit wisdom literature should welcome this translation, though the wisdom it imparts might shock those expecting consolations about the soul and universe. A wise man says, "He who is killed gains heaven and he who kills gains glory—for us, these are both superbly excellent" (11.2.10).
The Śāntiparvan, by far the longest of the epic's eighteen parvāni, has three sub-parvāni, two of which are translated in volume 7: the Rājadharmaparvan, or Law for Kings, and the Āpaddharmaparvan, or Law in Times of Distress. They provide a wealth of information about law, ritual, religion, marriage, capital accumulation, spies, diplomacy, and war. The principles proposed are often typical of wisdom literature around the world: "Any fault attached to wealth can only grow greater" (12.20.7); "Greed is the...