A Strong Start to a Marathon
An unabridged translation of the Mahabharata is a tall order. This book starts strongly; and this is going to be a marathon, with a total of 10 volumes planned.
Bibek Debroy is the translator of the unabridged Mahabharata, a mammoth eleven volume series being published by Penguin India. It started off as a ten-volume series, and the author recently indicated there is going to be an eleventh volume in this series. Bibek Debroy is an economist with a difference. How so? Well, consider this. In the early 1980s, while at the Presidency College in Kolkata, the author wrote a paper where he did a “statistical test on the frequency with which the five Pandavas used various weapons in the Kurukshetra war.” Yes. Different. While his interest in the Mahabharata “remained, I got sidetracked into translating. Through the 1990s, there were abdridged translations of the Maha Puranas, the Vedas and the eleven major Upanishads.”
This then is the first volume of the author’s unabridged translation of the Mahabharata.
The author has followed the Critical Edition from the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, in Pune, for his translation. There have been only five unabridged translations of the Mahabharata to-date, three of them by Indians, and two that have originated in the United States (one from the University of Chicago, and the other from the Clay Institute – both translations are as yet unfinished). This work is therefore, the sixth such translation.
The first volume contains most of the Adi Parva – “90 percent of Adi Parva“, and contains 199 chapters and a little less than 6,500 shlokas. It contains 15 parvas (as per the 100 sub-parva classification of the Mahabharata), and ends with the Rajya-labha Parvav (as per the 100-parva classification), where the Pandavas establish the partitioned region of Khandavaprastha as their kingdom, and turn it into Indraprastha through dint of hard work.
The first public retelling of the Mahabharata was done by the sage Vaishampayana, at King Janamejaya’s snake sacrifice, and at Krishna Dvaipayana’s (aka Ved Vyasa) instructions:
“Relate in full, exactly as you heard it from me, the account of the ancient quarrel between the Kurus and the Pnadavas.” [Ch 54, Section VI, Adi-vamshavatarana Parva]
The story at this point begins with Vaishampayana starting off with the story of Uparichara (also known as Vasu), and the birth thereof Satyavati, and so on…
Before getting to this point however, which most consider a logical point to begin the story of the Mahabharata from, though some prefer starting even later, the story has an elaborate digression into the world of snakes, the snake king Takshaka, before settling down to this territory that is more familiar to most of us.
Even as he starts to retell the story of Parikshit’s ancestors, sage Vaishampayana, not knowing whether King Janameeya would be interested in the full story, rattles off the entire story of the epic in the three pages of a single adhyaya (chapter) in the Adi-vamshavatarana Parva. The king is not satisfied with this extra-concise summary, and requests the sage to elaborate:
“… But now I feel a great desire to hear this wonderful history in detail, with all descriptions. You should therefore recite it in its entirety. … It cannot be for a trifling reason that the virtuous Pandavas killed those who should not be killed, and yet continue to be praised by men.” [Chapter 56, Adi-vamshavatarana Parva]
What is good about this translation is that the translation itself is not needlessly archaic, nor does it seek to get lost in the minutiae of whether “krisna” or “krsna” or “Krishna” is the correct way to write the lord’s name. No, it seeks instead to make the book accessible to the reader of today.
I will not go over a review of the entire book; rather, I will quote from the book excerpts and lines that I found to be particularly interesting, profound, or simply noteworthy.
Shakuntala, wife of Dushanta, mother of Bharata, daughter of the celestial apsara Menaka and rishi Vishwamitra, is not a timid, subservient lady seeking the benediction of the king in sanctifying their union. Rather, she is a strong-willed lady who is not afraid to speak her mind when angered, nor is she particularly upset or cares whether the king recognizes her as his wife or not.
Sample these lines spoken by her to King Dushanta, when he refuses to acknowledge their son, Bharata. She begins by enlightening him of the value of children, and sons in particular.
“Those who have wives can be householders. Those who have wives are happy. Those who have wives have good fortune.”
The wise have said that a man is himself born as his son. Therefore, a man should regard the mother of his son as his own mother.
The wife is the sacred ground in which the husband is born again.” [Sambhava Parva, Chapter 68]
When the good king insults Shakuntala, saying, “I do no know you. Go away, as you please.“, she is angered, and addresses him with harsh, harsh words.
“You see the faults of others, even though they are as small as a mustard seed. But you do not see your own, even though they can be seen as large as a bilva fruit.
O Dushanta! My birth is nobler than your own. O lord of kings! You are established on earth. But I roam the sky. Know the difference between you and me is that between a mustard seed and Mount Meru.
Like a pig searches out filth, the fool seeks out evil words when hears good and evil in men’s speech. … Those who seek no evil live happily. But fools are happy when they find evil.” [Sambhava Parva, Chapter 69]
That’s not a demure, subservient woman. Hats off to the strong-willed lady. In some ways, we can also witness the gradual decline in the standing of women in society, from the strong-willed and independent Shakuntala to the equally strong-willed Droupadi, but who is married off to five brothers, then bartered away to the Kouravas in a crooked game of dice by her husbands, and then humiliated in front of a court by her brothers-in-law, even as her husbands stand as mute spectators.
The akashvani (“disembodied voice from the sky“) ends the conflict between wife and husband, even as Shakuntala is about to walk off and out from the king’s court, by telling all present that Bharata is indeed Dushanta’s son.
The story of Parikshit is quite an interesting one. Here is a person who was born as a direct result of divine intervention from Lord Krishna, who brought him to life after he had been killed in his mother’s womb by a celestial weapon released by Ashwatthama. It is for this reason that Parikishit is also known as the posthumous son of Abhimanyu, since he was still-born, and only later revived by Krishna. And yet, Parikishit’s end was quite a gory one, bitten to death by a serpent, his body set aflame as a result of the serpent’s poison. That apart, this particular line is a grim reminder of the power of words. Words spoken in jest, words spoken in anger, even words spoken with the most honest of intentions can have consequences. Parikishit, in his finite wisdom, thought he was only doing the world of sages a good, by uttering the words he did. Little could he have realized the prophetic nature of his words. Therefore, think before you speak.
“The sun is setting. Today, I no longer have any fear from poison. Therefore, let this worm become Takshaka and bite me. Let the words of the hermit become true and let a falsehood not be committed.”
“Having said this, the king of kings smilingly placed the small worm on his throat, about to die and robbed of his senses. He was still laughing when Takshaka, who had come out of the fruit that had been given to the king, coiled around him.” [Section V, Astika Parva, Chapter 39]
In a karmic way, the noble king had but himself to blame for his horrific death. In some sense, he actually invited his own death. Or we can say that our actions inform our destiny.
Lastly, in these turbulent times that we live in today, where the corrupt roam free and where their crimes are condoned by those in power, these lines from the Mahabharata sound eerily prescient. Those in power would do well to read them.
“But if a crime doesn’t find a punisher, many in the worlds will commit crimes. A man who has the power to punish a crime and doesn’t do so, despite knowing that a crime has been committed, is himself tainted by the deed, even if he is the lord.” [Ch 172, Chaitraratha Parva]