Sunday, December 27, 2009

Buck's Mahabharata

In 1955 22-year-old William Buck was in the state library at Carson City, Nevada one day when he came across an old illustrated edition of "The Sacred Song of the Lord, the Bhagavad-Gita of Lord Krishna." The enthusiastic young scholar followed his sources upstream. In the earlier, English-language phase, he started what would be a long involvement with Indian publishers when he helped one to complete a reissue of an eleven-volume translation of the Mahabharata, the Sanskrit epic in which the Bhagavad-Gita is embedded (more on the text in a moment). Somewhere along the line he came to believe that a new English version of the Hindu epics was needed, a vernacular rendering abridged for story.

Sanskrit studies came next, but Buck is an autodidact and there is no clear line between collations of English versions and collations of Sanskrit and Hindi editions. We may be sure that he eagerly examined each and every edition that passed through his hands, regardless. In his case the accomplishment is stark enough: after fifteen years of work, he died in 1970 at the age of 37. He left behind completed versions ("rewrites" was his own preferred term) of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana and an uncompleted Harivamsa. There continue to be remarkably few alternatives to this text, and it is a fine work of literature that creates a persuasive, phantasmagoric atmosphere to convey the experience of beings who are half human, half god.

As to gods: these medieval Indian epics date back to the older, classical Vedic period (as early as 9th century BC). As the literature of the Hindu culture moved from the classical Vedic Sanskrit to the vernacular Hindu Sanskrit these epic stories became vehicles for transmitting information of historical, philosophical and religious importance. Upanishads were originally reflective commentaries attached to classical Vedas. Sometime during the centuries-long process of accretion and insertion someone took an upanishad and wove it into the Mahabharata as a conversation between Arjuna and Krishna, on the occasion of Arjuna's emotional turmoil on the eve of a battle in which he will face beloved cousins, uncles and even brothers.

It is an artful insertion and the one that first entranced him but William Buck in time left it behind. He found what all explorers of this sort of philological territory discover: the most important and authentic texts are also often the ones encrusted and encumbered with scholarly apparatus, annotations, translation issues, ritual technologies like repeated mantras, genealogies and lists of names. The Indian epics are doubly difficult this way as the text itself includes additions and commentaries. Buck wanted to dig a good story out of this Swiftian obscurity.

His cause was the story of the Kurukshetra War, a dynastic struggle between the related clans of Kauravas and Pandaras, that is the original scaffolding of the now densely-layered text. The Mahabharata is to Indian literature what Homer is to European literature. Both offer popular accounts of wars that probably have some basis in fact, although dates and geography have always been debated (both the Kurukshetra War and the Siege of Troy are reasonably dated as late Second Millennium). Both provided subsequent centuries with gods and heroes, who mix and intermarry (well interbreed at least) in both. Mythologized heroes are avatars (Sanskrit word) of various virtues and fatal flaws. There is a constant tension between the pull of worldly entanglements and the path of honor.

There is also to be found here a great deal of macho swagger and warrior virtue. The scenes of battle, with individual kings pushing into the battle under their own colorful banners and painted chariots and armor, are some of the best in the book. There is also a good sense of the interplay of magic and human causes. That enlightenment entails that one lose one's fear of death, in favor of embracing one's role in the larger process of passing away and coming to be, is basic Hindu ethos that comes ringing through during climactic battles when the higher beings fight each other to the death with comradely good humor and respect, earthly motives of revenge and ambition mixed in well throughout. That Buck was working during the golden age of the American cowboy genre doesn't feel coincidental.