At 200,000 verse lines and 1.8 million words, it took more than half a millennium to write the Mahabharata. The epic Sanskrit poem, spanning the tale of love and warfare between rival families, is seven times the length of The Iliad and The Odyssey combined.
Yet, it’s proven to be endlessly adaptable, with films that date back to the 1920s, along with television series, comic books and novels. This past fall, Disney+ announced a new series adaptation set to premiere in 2024, in collaboration with Bollywood producer Madhu Mantena. And in February, Ontario’s Shaw Festival debuted a dynamic two-part play offering a modern retelling.
Sohini Sarah Pillai, a comparatist of South Asian religious literature and professor at Michigan’s Kalamazoo College, says, “The Mahabharata is the OG Game of Thrones.” That’s down to the themes of bloody warfare and family feuds, and even the body count, though the Mahabharata’s, at 1.6 billion, far eclipses the HBO show’s still impressive 6,887.
How has the longest poem in the world – and one that dates back roughly 4,000 years – stayed so relevant? According to Miriam Fernandes, who co-wrote and co-adapted the epic with Ravi Jain for the Shaw Festival, “It’s a story that’s meant to be digested over a lifetime. It doesn’t leave us with any answers. It leaves us with more questions, which we can come back to at different points in our lives.”
The story includes countless broad themes: family, warfare, love, misogyny, patriarchy. And as the pair worked on their labour of love, the world shifted in ways that unexpectedly added a new gravity to their script’s narrative, with the murder of George Floyd, the #MeToo movement, the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, the list goes on. As Fernandes explains, “I think that’s part of what it means to adapt an epic.”
Pillai explains, “If there’s anything to do with anything in the world, it’s in the Mahabharata. It’s an encyclopedic kind of work that contains everything.”
Needless to say, it was key for Fernandes and Jain to find a unique perspective. They decided to focus on the concept of dharma, which refers to a social order where the most privileged take care of those with the least. The pair knew that “the secret to unlocking the meaning of the text is knowing it’s not just in words, it’s through feeling,” Jain notes. That meant offering more than just dialogue. Their Mahabharata is a cavalcade of creativity that presents its diverse South Asian cast against a backdrop of art projections, soundscapes, live music (including opera), classical Indian dancing (including odissi and kathakali) and, of course, food – the ultimate unifier.
In a rare feat, the play does – to a degree – tell Mahabharata’s story from beginning to end. The two parts can be seen on separate days, but if seen in one, the show includes a Khana (community meal) interlude.
Many adaptations came before theirs, serving as inspiration. “There are as many Mahabharatas as there are characters,” said author Anand Neelakantan, who has written two novels based on the poem. “Some say there could come to be more than 1,000 versions, and even more as it keeps reinventing itself and as the characters evolve over centuries. It’s not the religious instruction book as it is made out to be by some; it’s much more deeply layered with so many contradictions in itself.”
The epic poem does indeed touch on the evolution of Hinduism, with the Bhagavadgita chapter considered an essential text on the matter. That’s also been a point of contention, however, as some schools in India – currently a Hindu nationalist country – have made the Bhagavadgita compulsory, without celebrating the plurality and diversity of the Mahabharata (which also contains, it’s worth noting, a fair bit of caste violence), notes Pillai. Even so, it has seen Muslim, Jain and Sikh retellings, too.
Keen to strip it of its emphasis on religion and violence, author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni reimagined the Mahabharata with her 2008 bestselling novel, The Palace of Illusions, which is written through the lens of Draupadi, the epic’s main female protagonist, as she navigates a patriarchal system.
Divakaruni was raised with the Mahabharata, but it was only as she grew older that she realized it was almost always told from a male perspective, even as it dwells significantly on women, both as heroes and victims, and the violence waged against women during conflict. Taking inspiration from Margaret Atwood, who retold The Odyssey through The Penelopiad, and Madeline Miller, who retold the same epic through Circe, it became vital to re-examine the Mahabharata in hopes of spotlighting the cost of war to women.
“Even today, so many stories of this heft are being told from the male angle and the woman is interpreted through the male gaze,” says Divakaruni, “They’re always seen as someone’s mother, wife, daughter; they have no identity other than that. That really bothered me, because I could see the strength of these women and how interesting they were.”
Zeroing in on the motivations of these characters makes the poem more accessible, adds the author, whose book is taught today in classrooms around North America and the U.K.
The Mahabharata has become a story that belongs to everyone. From its mixed media to its diverse cast, the Shaw Festival production alone is a product of the world, and that was intentional for Fernandes and Jain.
Along with keeping the basis of the famous narrative, the play offers a new gender balance in characters and cast – and less of a toxic patriarchy. Adds Jain, “We’re hoping to curb the expectations of the white audience, because some are going to come in and be like, ‘Where’s the Bollywood number?’ We focused on how we can take you into a world in a way that everyone can feel like they belong, and it’s at once familiar and at once foreign for everyone.”
Ultimately, just like the many adaptations before it, the pair’s interpretation of the Mahabharata continues to prove it has something for everyone – it’s simply too grand not to.
As Jain says: “It’s time travel; you’re buying a ticket to go somewhere else and hopefully when you come back, you will be different, and you will be changed.”