R.K. Narayan’s abridged, prose version of India’s national epic,The Mahabharata, is concise, fast paced, well written, and – unfortunately – passionless. Narayan has excised nearly everything not directly related to the Pandavas (Yudhistira, Bhima, Arjuna, and Nakula and Sahadeva) and their wife, Draupadi. In the process, he’s also stripped the story of any emotional power. For the most part, it’s like reading a book summary rather than a proper story. For example, there’s the chapter that has come down to us as The Bhagavad Gita, one of the more profound scriptures by anyone’s reckoning. In Narayan’s telling, it’s reduced to:
When Arjuna fell into a silence after exhausting his feelings, Krishna quietly said, “You are stricken with grief at the thought of those who deserve no consideration.”
Krishna then began to preach in gentle tones, a profound philosophy of detached conduct. He analyzed the categories and subtle qualities of the mind that give rise to different kinds of action and responses. He defined the true nature of personality, its scope and stature in relation to society, the world, and God, and of existence and death. He expounded yoga of different types, and how one should realize the deathlessness of the soul encased in the perishable physical body. Again and again Krishna emphasized the importance of performing one’s duty with detachment in a spirit of dedication. Arjuna listened reverently, now and then interrupting to clear a doubt or to seek an elucidation. Krishna answered all his questions with the utmost grace, and finally granted him a grand vision of his real stature. Krishna, whom he had taken to be his companion, suddenly stood transformed – he was God himself, multidimensional and all-pervading.
Time, creatures, friends and foes alike were absorbed in the great being whose stature spanned the space between sky and earth, and extended from horizon to horizon. Birth, death, slaughter, protection, and every activity seemed to be a part of this being, nothing existed beyond it. Creation, destruction, actity and inactivity all formed a part and parcel of this grand being, whose vision filled Arjuna with terror and ecstasy. He cried out, “Now I understand!”
The God declared, “I am death, I am destruction. These men who stand before you are already slain through their own karma, you will be only an instrument of their destruction.”
“O Great God,” said Arjuna, “my weakness has passed. I have no more doubts in my mind.” And he lifted his bow, ready to face the battle. Krishna then resumed his mortal appearance. (pp. 147-8)
If all you’re looking for is a readable English synopsis of the epic, then I would recommend this book. But if you’re looking for an English version that captures the gravitas of the original, you won’t find it here.