Sankirtana Das disciple of A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada is a sacred storyteller, workshop leader and author of Mahabharata: The Eternal Quest. The book was recently awarded Finalist in 2014 Next Generation Indie Book Awards. He is interviewed by Lilasuka Devi Dasi, Communications Director at New Vrindaban.
Question From Lilasuka: Congratulations. So how does it feel that your book is a Finalist in the 2014 Next Generation Indie Book Awards?
Sankirtana Das: I’m delighted. It’s a confirmation that the book has an appeal greater than just a devotional audience. On the other hand, I also feel that I didn’t write the book, that somehow, Krishna, kindly, just let it all fall into place. I’m amazed that all the major elements and personalities of Mahabharata are all there in just 280 pages.
Q.: Mahabharata is 100,000 slokas. How did you manage to fit it into 280 pages.
A.: I worked on it on and off for over ten years, strategizing on how to piece it all together to make it work. The writing was at times both a joyous and a nerve wracking experience. It’s like a huge puzzle, and every piece had to fit into place. Sometimes I had serious doubts about if it would actually work. I wanted the book to be for college courses, so the text couldn’t be too long. The book is fast-paced. I applied the art of oral storytelling – which is to focus on the action and the characters with only minimal description. The idea is to just give enough description to activate the imagination of the reader or listener so that they themselves can fill in the scenes. Now that it’s out, the response from scholars and readers has been tremendous.
Q.: How did you go about writing the book?
A.: I knew pieces and segments of Mahabharata from Prabhupada’s first and tenth canto of Srimad Bhagavatam and from performing scenes from it over the years. But I didn’t know the details of how the entire story unfolded. I wrote the book, primarily, to get a better understanding of it for myself. So I looked at those chapters from Bhagavatam and also used the first complete English translation of Mahabharata, written by Mohan Ganguli in 1896.
Q.: There have been a number of Mahabharatas in the last few decades. What is the need for another Mahabharata?
A.: A few devotees have asked me that. Different renditions of a story serve different purposes. When Lokamangala prabhu and I toured with our two-man drama of Mahabharata years ago, people would sometimes say we should do a movie. That never happened. So the question I posed to myself in writing this book was: what would the Mahabharata look like if I had the chance to make it into a movie? In my rendition of Mahabharata I bring to bear my background in theater, cinema and literature. I wanted to get to the essence of the Mahabharata and offer a very dramatic and cinematic reading experience. A book that is character-driven.
Q.: Who was your target audience?
A.: Mahabharata: The Eternal Quest is meant as a resource to help devotees introduce Mahabharata to the public in general, and especially to their college audiences and contacts. I structured Mahabharata so it could easily be studied and enjoyed in college courses. Right now many courses are using William Buck’s version.
Q.: And what’s the difference between the two?
A.: There are many discrepancies and omissions in his book. For instance, Yudhuisthira’s Rajasuya sacrifice is not there. It’s an important scene, which motivates Duryodhan to sink into his profound depression and envy. Buck often departs from the meaning and intention of the original text. He’s popular because he intentionally leaves things nebulous.
Q.: So, what’s the message of your book? You spoke about getting “to the essence.” What do you consider the essence?
A.: The essence is Krishna’s intimate relationship with the Pandavas. Drama is all about relationships and emotions. Also, I wanted to give people a proper understanding of dharma, and to show succinctly that this ancient text is still relevant today. In making Krishna-consciousness available to the public, devotees need to demonstrate its relevancy to today’s issues and concerns. And Srila Prabhupada explains that our philosophy is very relevant on many levels. Mahabharata does all this while telling a fantastic story. It’s for story lovers. So, all around, I think my book can be a vital tool for devotees.
Q.: What advice do you have for writers?
A.: Be focused. Be very organized. It will save you a lot of headaches. I’m speaking from personal experience. And if you let others read your work, don’t accept their advice unless you intuitively feel it’s right for what your doing. Have a good editor and proofreader go over it.
Q.: When did you begin to think of yourself as a writer?
A.: When I was a kid – twelve or thirteen – I was struck by the impact books and movies made on me. I wanted to give that experience to others.
Q.: And finally, what projects are you working on?
A.: One thing – just promoting your book takes up a lot of time. I eventually want Mahabharata: The Eternal Quest to be the basis of a theater production, performed by a college drama department or regional theater company. And although I have two uncompleted book projects, I want to start on a third book, which I feel is more important. Also, I plan to do several storytelling CD’s. I’m just about ready with Brahma’s Song. It’s thematic, all about Brahma. The subtitle is: A Concert of Storytelling, Music and Chants.
If readers want to know more about the book they can go to www.Mahabharata-Project.com[ book-review ] [ mahabharata ] [ sankirtana ]