The Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan – that Institute of Indian Culture in Bombay – needed a Book
University, a series of books which if read, would serve the purpose of providing higher
education. Particular emphasis, however, was to be put on such literature as revealed the
deeper impulsions of India. As a first step, it was decided to bring out in English 100
books, 50 of which were to be taken in hand almost at once. Each book was to contain from
200 to 250 pages.
It is our intention to publish the books we select, not only in English, but also in
the following Indian languages: Hindi, Bengali, Gujarati, Marathi, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada
This scheme, involving the publication of 900 volumes, requires amply funds and an
all-India organization. The Bhavan is exerting its utmost to supply them.
The objectives for which the Bhavan stands are the reintegration of Indian culture
in the light of modern knowledge and to suit our present-day needs and the resuscitation of
its fundamental values in their pristine vigour.
Let me make our goal more explicit:- We seek the dignity of man, which necessarily
implies the creation of social conditions which would allow him freedom to evolve along the
lines of his own temperament and capacities; we seek the harmony of individual efforts and
social relations, not in any makeshift way, but within the frame-work of the Moral Order; we
seek the creative art of life, by the alchemy of which human limitations are progressively
transmuted, so that man may become the instrument of God, and is able to see Him in all and
all in Him.
The world, we feel in too much with us. Nothing would uplift or inspire us so much
as the beauty and aspiration which such books can teach. In this series, therefore, the
literature of India, ancient and modern, will be published in a form easily accessible to
all. Books in other literatures of the world, if they accessible to all. Books in other
literatures of the world, if they accessible to all. Books in other literatures of the
world, if they illustrate the principles we stand for, will also be included. Illustrate the
principles we stand for, will also be included.
This common pool of literature, it is hoped, will enable the reader, eastern or
western, to understand and appreciate current of world they flow through different
linguistic channels, have a common urge and aspiration.
Fittingly, the Book University’s first venture is the Mahabharata, summarized by one
of the greatest living Indians, C. Rajagopalachari; the second work is on a section of it,
the Gita by H.V. Divatia, an eminent jurist and a student of philosophy. Centuries ago, it
was proclaimed of the Mahabharata: “What is not in it, is nowhere.” After twenty-five
centuries, we can use the same words about it. He who knows it not, knows not the heights
and depths of the soul; he misses the trials and tragedy and the beauty and grandeur of
The Mahabharata is not a mere epic; it is a romance, telling the tale of heroic men
and women and of some who were divine; it is a whole literature in itself, containing a code
of life; a philosophy of social and ethical relations, and speculative thought on human
problems that is hard to rival; but, above all, it has for its core the Gita, which is, as
the world is beginning to find out, the nobles of scriptures and the grandest of sagas in
which the climax is reached in the wondrous Apocalypse in the Eleventh Canto.
Through such books alone the harmonies underlying true culture, I am convinced, will
one day reconcile the disorders of modern life.
I thank all those who have helped to make this new branch of the Bhavan’s activity
Preface to First Edition
It is not an exaggeration to say that the persons and incidents portrayed in the great
literature of a people influence national character no less potently than the actual heroes
and events enshrined in its history. It may be claimed that the former play an even more
important part in the formation of ideals, which give to character its impulse of growth.
Don Quixote, Gulliver, Pickwick, Sam Weller, Sir Roger de Coverley, Falstaff, Shylock, King
Arthur, Sir Lancelot, Alice and her wanderings in Wonderland, all these and many such other
creations of genius are not less real in the minds of the British people than the men and
women who lived and died and lie buried in British soil. Since literature is so vitally
related to life and character, it follows that so long as the human family remains divided
into nations, the personae and events of one national literature have not an equal appeal to
all, because they do not awaken the same associations. A word or phrase about Flastaff or
Uncle Toby carries to English men a world of significance which it does not to others.
Similarly, a word or phrase about Hanuman, Bhima, Arjuna, Bharata or Sita conveys to us in
India, learned and illiterate alike, a significance all its on, of which an English
rendering cannot convey even a fraction to outsiders, however interested in Indian mythology
In the moving history of our land, from time immemorial great minds have been formed
and nourished and touched to heroic deeds by the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. In most
Indian homes, children formerly learnt these immortal stories as they learnt their
mother-tongue-at the mother’s knee; and the sweetness and sorrows of Sita and Draupadi, the
heroic fortitude of Rama and Arjuna and the loving fidelity of Lakshmana and Hanuman became
the stuff of their young philosophy of life.
The growing complexity of life has changed the simple pattern of early home life.
Still, there are few in our land who do not know the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, though
the stories come to them so embroidered with the garish fancies of the Kalakshepam and the
cinema as to retain but little of the dignity and approach to truth of Vyasa or Valmiki. It
occurred to me some years ago that I might employ some of the scanty leisure of a busy life
in giving to our Tamil children in easy prose the story of the Mahabharata that we, more
fortunate in this than they, heard in our homes as children. Vyasa’s Mahabharata is one of
our nobles Heritages, and it is my cherished belief that to hear it faithfully told is to
love it and come under its elevating influence. It strengthens the soul and derives home-as
nothing else does-the vanity of ambition and the evil and futility of anger and hatred. Some
years ago, I wrote the story of Sisupala under the caption “Mudal Tambulam” (precedence in
Guest-Worship) for a Tamil magazine. The editor liked it so much that he persuaded me to
take up the task of giving the whole of the Mahabharata to our people in the form of
stories. The work, which I began with some diffidence, soon cast its spell on me, and
presently I came to love it and imagined myself telling these stories to dear Tamil
children, clustering eager-eyed to hear the deeds of the godlike heroes of our motherland. I
also hoped that the reading of these stories might enliven village evenings, which rustics
gather socially in the chavadi or temple after their day’s work is done. I covered the
Mahabharata in 107 stories. The writing recaptured for me sacred and touching associations
which are part of my life; every sentence had for me a fragrance of the living past. This
quality can never of course be preserved or brought out in an English translation. All the
same, I hope this book will serve some purpose. I did a substantial part of the translation
myself, but a great part was done for me by kind friends. I tender my most grateful thanks
to Sri P. Seshadri and to Sri. S. Krishnamurti, without whose labours this book would not
have been possible. Last but not least, I am grateful to Sri Navaratna Rama Rao, whose help
by way of careful revision of the entire manuscripts is as much a precious memento of
personal affection as public service.
Preface to Second Edition
This is not a reprint but a carefully revised new edition and I once again record my
gratitude for the loving care with which Sri Navaratna Rama Rao has helped to bring this
about. This book is as much his handiwork as mine, so far as the difficult and delicate task
of translation goes. In most translations, as Sir Walter Scott once humorously remarked, the
noble transmutation is from gold into lead. If this has not happened in this case, the
credit is due to my friend Sri Navaratna Rama Rao.
The realities of life are idealized by genius and given the form that makes drama,
poetry or great prose. Since literature is closely related to life, so long as the human
family is divided into nations, literature cannot escape the effects of such division. But
the highest literature transcends regionalism and through it, when we are properly attuned,
we realize the essential oneness of the human family.
The Mahabharata is of this class. It belongs to the world and not only to India. To
the people of India, indeed, this epic has been an unfailing and perennial source of
spiritual strength. Learnt at the mother’s knee with reverence and love, it has inspired
great men to heroic deeds as well as enabled the humble to face their trials with fortitude
The Mahabharata was composed many thousand years ago. But generations of gifted
reciters have added to Vyasa’s original a great mass of material. All the floating
literature that was thought to be worth preserving, historical, geographical, legendary,
political, theological and philosophical of nearly thirty centuries, found a place in it. In
those days, when there was no printing, interpolation in a recognized classic seemed to
correspond to inclusion in the national library.
Divested of these accretions, the Mahabharata is a noble poem possessing in a
supreme degree the characteristics of a true epic. Great and fateful movement, heroic
characters and stately diction.
The characters in the epic move with the vitality of real life. It is difficult to
find anywhere such vivid portraiture on so ample a canvas. Bhishma, the perfect knight: the
venerable Drona; the vain but chivalrous Karna; Duryodhana, whose perverse pride is redeemed
by great courage in adversity; the high-souled Pandavas, with god-like strength as well as
power of suffering; Draupadi; most unfortunate of queens; Kunti, the worthy mother of
heroes; Gandhari, the devoted wife and sad worthy mother of heroes; Gandhari, the devoted
wife and sad mother of the wicked sons of Dhritarashtra – these are some of the immortal
figures on that crowded, but never confused canvas. Then there is great Krishna himself,
most energetic of men, whose divinity scintillates through a cloud of very human
characteristics. His high purposefulness pervades the whole epic. One can read even a
translation and feel the overwhelming power of the incomparable vastness and sublimity of
The Mahabharata discloses a rich civilization and highly evolved society which,
though of an older world strangely resembles the India of our own time, with the same values
and ideals. India was divided into a number of independent kingdoms. Occasionally, one king,
more distinguished or ambitious than the rest, would assume the title of emperor, securing
the acquienscence of other royalties, and signalized it by a great sacrificial feast. The
adherence was generally voluntary. The assumption of imperial title conferred no
overlordship. The emperor was only fist among his peers. The art of war was highly developed
and military prowess and skill were held in high esteem. We read in the Mahabharata of
standardized phalanxes and of various tactical movement.
There was an accepted code of honourable warfare, deviations from which met with
reproof among kshatriyas. The advent of the Kali age is marked by many breaches of these
conventions in the Kurukshetra battle, on account of the bitterness of conflict, frustration
and bereavements. Some of the most impressive passages in the epic centre round these
breaches of dharma.
The population lived in cities and villages. The cities were the headquarters of
kings and their household and staff. There were beautiful palaces and gardens and the lives
led were cultured and luxurious. There was trade in the cities, but the mass of the people
Besides this urban and rural life, there was a very highly cultured life in the
seclusion of forest recesses, centred round ascetic teachers. These asramas kept alive the
bright fires of learning and spiritual thought. Young men of noble birth eagerly sought
education at these asramas. World-weary age went there for peace. These centres of culture
were cherished by the rulers of the land and not the proudest of them would dare to treat
the members of the hermitages otherwise than with respect and consideration.
Women were highly honoured and entered largely in the lives of their husbands and
sons. The caste system prevailed, but intercaste marriages were not unknown. Some of the
greatest warriors in the Mahabharata were brahmanas.
The Mahabharata has moulded the character and civilization of one of the most
numerous of the world’s people. How did it fulfil-how is it still continuing to fulfil-this
function? By its gospel of dharma, which like a golden thread runs through all the complex
movements in the epic; by its lesson that hatred breeds hatred, that covetousness and
violence lead inevitably to ruin, that the only real conquest is in the battle against one’s
Indeed the Mahabharata has another name known among scholars-JAYA-which means
victory, conveying the moral herein indicated. ‘Jaya’ is the name, by which the work is
referred to, in the first invocatory verse of the epic.
If a foreigner reads this book-translation and epitome though it is-and closes it
with a feeling that he has read a good and elevating work, he may be confident that he has
grasped the spirit of India and can understand her people-high and low, rich and poor.
Preface to Third Edition
I do not find anything new to say by way of Preface to the Third Edition of this book. One
may tour all over India and see all things, but one cannot understand India’s way of life
unless one has read the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, at least in a good translation.
Preface to Fourth Edition
With their characteristic zeal, the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan are bringing out a fourth edition
of this boo. Asked to write something by way of a fresh preface, I think of the days when I
first began to write these chapters in Tamil for KALKI. The Congress had then resigned from
its position in all the provincial governments and Hitler’s war was on. I was in a double
wilderness. I remember what great peace I found then in re-reading this great epic of our
land and telling it in simple Tamil. This was twelve years ago. Again, in the middle of
1954, when I laid down the office of Chief Minister of Madras after a difficult and critical
period of two years, I found the peace that I needed in Valmiki’s epic. I re-told the
Ramayana in weekly chapters to the Tamil people. I have just concluded that work as I write
this preface. I have lived a pretty active life. But I feel that these two things that I
have done are the best service I have rendered to my people. These two books of mine have
been widely read and enjoyed. They have helped the simple folk in the Tamil country to
realize their higher selves. Naturally, this has been a source of great joy to me in the
evening of my life. It is good to be a political and national worked and to take office and
work hard. But I have seen that it is better to be able to leave it and enjoy the company of
the sages of our land and to help them to speak to our men and women again.
The English rendering of my Mahabharata has been distributed by the Bharatiya Vidya
Bhavan with remarkable success and I tender to them my warm gratitude for this service. The
sages of our land had never any thought of land or sea boundaries. They thought in all
things for all mankind and we are fulfilling their intention when we render our classics
into English in a form suitable for the present-day international world.
I am grateful to the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan which has brought out these fresh
reprints of my Ramayana and Mahabharata books. The Bhavan has achieved great success by the
very wide distribution organized by it of these two books, which seek to bring Valmiki and
Vyasa near to those who have no access to the unrivalled original classics. The characters
and incidents of these two itihasas have come to be the raw material for the works of
numerous poets and saints that came later to write dramas and sing poems and hymns to keep
this nation in the straight path. Oral discourses have further played with them in order to
entertain and instruct pious audiences and not a few variations and additions have been made
to the original. All the languages of India have the Ramayana and Mahabharata retold by
their poets, with additions and variations of their own. It is good to have the narrative
written up for young people as told in the original epics, and these two books of mine seek
to serve that object.
I appeal particularly to the young men in schools and colleges to read these books.
There is not a page in them but after reading you will emerge with greater courage, stronger
will and purer mind. They are not just story books, although they are very good in they way
too. They are the records of the mind and spirit of our forefathers who carved for the good,
ever so much more than for the pleasant and who saw more of the mystery of life than we can
do in our interminable pursuit for petty and illusory achievements in the material plane. We
should be thankful of those who preserved for us these many-centuries-old epics in spite of
all the vicissitudes through which our nation passed since Vyasa and Valmiki’s time. Even
the poets who wrote these epics in the original did not create but built out of the
inherited bricks of national memory prior to their own time Reading the Ramayana and
Mahabharata even in the form I have given them. We go back to live with our ancient forbears
and listen to their grand voices.
Mythology is an integral part of religion. It is an necessary for religion and
national culture as the skin and skeleton that preserve a fruit with its juice and its
taste. Form is no less essential than substance. We cannot squeeze religion and hope to
bottle and keep the essence by itself. It would neither be very useful nor last very long.
Mythology and holy figures are necessary for any great culture to rest on its stable
spiritual foundation and function as a life-giving inspiration and guide.
Let us keep ever in our minds the fact that it is the Ramayana and the Mahabharata
that bind our vast numbers together as one people, despite caste, space and language that
seemingly divide them.
I wish I were gifted with greater vision and greater ability so that I could have
done this work, to which I was called better than I have done. I am thankful however for
what I have been enabled to do. Thorough familiarity with our ancient heritage is necessary
if we desire to preserve our individuality as a nation and serve the world thorough dharma
which alone can save mankind from error and extinction.
Back of the Book
Chakravarti Rajagopalachari, popularly known as “Rajaji” or “C.R”, was a great patriot,
astute politician, incisive thinker, great visionary and one of the greatest statesmen of
all time. He was a close associate of Mahatma Gandhi, hailed as conscience-keeper of the
Mahatma. As an ardent freedom-fighter, as Chief Minister of Madras, as Governor of West
Bengal, as Home Minister of India and as the first Indian Governor General of India he
rendered yeoman service to the nation and left an indelible impression on our contemporary
Rajaji was closely associated with Kulapati Munshiji and he was among the
distinguished founder-members of the Bhavan. The Bhavan had the privilege of publishing 18
books (see page ii) by him so far, the copyright of which he gifted to the Bhavan.
Rajaji’s books on Marcus Aurelius, the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishadsa are popular.
But in Mahabharata he displays his inimitable flair for telling stories and applying their
moral to the needs of modern times. The stories were originally written in Tamil and have
been rendered into English, mainly by Rajaji himself. To have preserved the beauty and
spirit of the great original in refined and simple English is an achievement of the highest
Rajaji passed away in 1972 at the age of 94.
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