“Poets have told this history before;
others tell it now;
yet others shall tell it on earth in times to come.”
The Mahabharata, abridged and translated by John D. Smith, Penguin, 834 pages, 2009 including pronunciation guide, map, glossary and key to names, genealogical tables, bibliography and index.
The Mahabharata Vol.1, translated by Bibek DebRoy, Penguin, 495 pages, 2010 with Bharata family tree and map.
Every generation makes a new redaction of the national epics for itself. But the 21st century seems, so far, to belong to the Mahabharata, particularly for Penguin Books. In 2005 they republished Meera Uberoi’s abridgement and now, in successive years, they have given us another by John Smith, the Cambridge Sanskrit scholar who maintains the electronic text of the Critical Edition prepared by Prof. Muneo Tokunaga of Kyoto University, the first volume of economist Bibek DebRoy’s complete prose translation and Devdutt Pattanaik’s retelling, “Jaya”. 2010 has also seen retellings for children by Namita Gokhale, and a new edition of Samhita Arni’s version (completed when she was 12).
Millennia ago the rhapsody Sauti said:
“Poets have told this history before; others tell it now; yet others shall tell it on earth in times to come” for, “What is here may be elsewhere; what is not here is nowhere else.”
Penguin depends on a single scholar in its race to beat the Chicago project to publish a complete translation of the critical edition of the epic by American Indologists (7 books published so far). The Clay Sanskrit Library prefers to translate the more complete “vulgate” in a diglot (Sanskrit-English) format (9 books published). Neither is publishing in sequence.
The problem with all the translations so far — except R.C. Dutt’s selections in Locksley Hall metre — is that they are in prose, whereas Vyasa’s composition is mostly poetry. Necessarily, therefore, much of the beauty of the original is lost, the exception being Padma Shri Professor P. Lal’s shloka-by-shloka transcreation of the vulgate (16 books published so far out of the 18). Take, for instance, the description of the Stri Parva (naturally omitted by Smith):
DebRoy: “The great-souled author composed the story of Bharata so as to move the hearts and bring tears to the eyes of good people.” (This is a mistranslation as the reference is not to the entire epic but to the 11th parva, “Stri”).
Lal: “To hear it is to be moved, if the heart has feeling; to read it is to weep, if the eye has tears.”
Other striking instances are of the assassin Takshaka fleeing, the descriptions of Mount Meru, the ocean, the isle of snakes in the Astika sub-parva, Hidimb’s terrifying forest, his speech to Hidimba and, memorably, Tapati:
DebRoy: “The black-eyed lady stood on the mountain slope, with its trees and creepers, like a statue of gold.”
Lal: “She stood, a black-eyed beauty
on the hill-top,
like a golden girl.
The hill, its creepers,
its bushes, all flamed
with the golden beauty
of the golden girl.”
Through Tapati the lunar Kurus are linked to the Solar dynasty, a fact usually overlooked.
DebRoy translates the first 15 chapters covering the introduction, list of contents, the Paushya, Pauloma and Astika sections, the lineages and partial incarnations, the birth and education of the Pandavas and Dhartarashtras, the house-of-lac, the killing of Hidimb and Baka, the marriage with Draupadi and the obtaining of Khandavaprastha as the Pandava kingdom.
I approached Dr. Smith’s book with some doubts—how could the world’s longest poem be squeezed into less than 800 pages? The attempts by Narsimhan, R.K. Narayan and others deprive the reader of the thematic richness and the brilliance of Vyasa’s narrative art. But the felicity with which Smith negotiates Vyasa’s labyrinthine forest is astonishing: pruning outgrowths, mowing down undergrowths, skirting deceptive byways! His strategy is to abridge without leaving out anything by providing précis of less important sections and translating fully the parts most significant in terms of narrative and style (about 11% of the original). Dr. DebRoy steadily, at times stodgily, takes every twist and turn of the original, trying to bridge with annotations the hiatuses created by the critical edition—a distinct improvement over the Van Buitenen translation whose evocation of medieval knight-errantry is totally out of sync with the Vyasan ethos. One cannot but admire Deb Roy’s courage in taking on Vyasa—specially the 8,800 “Vyasa-kuta” knotty verses—despite not being a Sanskrit scholar, to present “a better and more authentic” translation. The greatest difficulty he faced, he says, was with Vidura’s speeches at times, perhaps because he was skilled in “mleccha” language.
The problem common to both has been noted in DebRoy’s Introduction. By dropping passages not found in the majority of the manuscripts studied, the critical edition often creates a narrative hiatus besides leaving out mini-myths that have become integral parts of our heritage, such as Ganesha becoming Vyasa’s amanuensis, Krishna clothing Draupadi, the epic imaged as a mighty tree and the most interesting account of a chariot duel in which Krishna decapitates his aunt’s son Shishupala. A telling instance of such a gap occurs when Urvashi’s curse turning Arjuna into a eunuch is omitted leaving us wondering why this supreme warrior should choose, of all disguises, that of a “large penised female” Brihannada.
In his introduction DebRoy falls victim to the general misconception that the original had 8,800 verses (p.xx) although his own translation correctly mentions it as “24,000 twenty (sic.) verses” (p.6). 8800 is the number of riddling shlokas Vyasa composed, says Sauti, to make Ganesha pause and thus win some time for composing fresh verses. DebRoy is wrong in stating that the translations by K.M. Ganguly and M.N. Dutt are unabridged (p.xxvii). The former Latinises while the latter expurgates passages offensive to contemporary Victorian sensibilities, effectively bowdlerizing Vyasa. DebRoy erroneously states that the reciter of the epic is Lomaharshana whose proper name is Ugrashrava (p.xxi). The latter is the son of the former and is the rhapsode of the epic. There is no evidence of the Kuru kingdom flourishing between 1200 and 800 BC, nor has archaeology fixed the date of the Kurukshetra war at 900 BC (p.xxx), that being merely the date of the pottery found. No evidence of the war has emerged. And surely the Ramayana which has inspired country-wide devotion and great literature is not “like a clichéd Bollywood film”? In Garuda’s battle with the gods (p.96) DebRoy incorrectly describes Renuka, Tapana, Nimesha as birds. They are Yakshas. Again, the ten Prachetas were not themselves “burnt with the lightning from clouds” (p.204) but burnt forests with fire from their mouths.
There is a very interesting statement in Sauti’s introduction (p.8): Yudhishthira killed Jarasandha and “the swollen-head king of Chedi” through Krishna’s wise counsel and the prowess of Bhima and Arjuna, thus earning the right to perform the Rajasuya ceremony. The vulgate has no reference to Chedi, which fits in with the events (Krishna beheaded him on being publicly insulted). However, if the critical edition’s version is accepted, it would imply a deliberate plot by the Dharma-king to create a situation whereby Shishupala invites his own doom. Yudhishthira, generally presumed to be somewhat of a twerp, is revealed as an extremely intelligent strategist in deliberately staying in the inflammable building (p.357). On p.35 in the summary of the Sauptika Parva Sauti speaks of Drona’s son cursing Vyasa of which there is no trace in that Parva, indicating loss in transmission which no translator has noticed. A very significant fact is often overlooked: the family priest Dhaumya only performs Draupadi’s marriage with Yudhishthira and leaves the palace (p.471). Then the others take her hand on successive days without the priest and daily she regained her virginity. Scholars have not analysed the implications and by only summarising the wedding section Smith deprives us of this fact. The magical rite performed to obtain a Drona-killer for Drupada has not received adequate attention either. Yaja, the priest, summons Drupada’s queen saying: “Come for mithuna” (p.401). The word means both “intercourse” and “twins”. The former sense hints at what actually happened in the “putreshti” (wishing-for-a-son) rites. Royalty’s problem in engendering sons and having to turn to surrogates to obtain successors is a theme common to both Vyasa and Valmiki.
Repeatedly one is brought up short by DebRoy replacing the standard transliteration “au” (pronounced as in “how”) in “Draupadi”, “Kaurava”, “Gautama”, “Sauti” etc. by “ou”. Proper nouns are not capitalised (p.444). In saying that the Poushya (sic.) parva is irrelevant (p.41) he overlooks the fact that it is because Sarama curses Janamejaya that the snake-sacrifice is aborted and that it is Utanka, Takshaka’s victim, who goads the king into holding the sacrifice. This holocaust is paralleled by that of Rakshasas held by Vyasa’s father Parashara. As Astika aborts the snake-holocaust, so did Pulastya stop the Rakshasa-sacrifice. Similarly, the curse of death in intercourse is common to childless Kalmashapada and Pandu, while blind Dirghatamas and Dhritarashtra are prolific begetters. Both Gandhari and Kalmashpada’s wife Madayanti forcibly end abnormally long pregnancies, the latter cutting her womb open with a stone (the operation ought to be named “Ashmakan section” instead of Caesarean!) Bali and Vichitravirya’s queens send their maids as substitutes being revolted by the sages Dirghatamas and Vyasa.
Smith’s introduction packs an enormous amount of information and insight in its 70 pages. There is the gem of Rudyard Kipling’s dismissal of the “monstrous…monotonous… nebulous” narrative in his 1886 review of Ganguli’s translation and his claim that India’s youth had rejected the two epics which were “surely dead”. Smith suggests that Yudhishthira and Bhima represent two contrasting world-views caught in dialectical tension: nivritti (detachment) and pravritti (engagement), daiva (pre-ordination) and purushakara (human effort). There is also the tension between dharma, wealth and pleasure as goals of life celebrated by Yudhishthira, Arjuna and Bhima respectively. Typically, Vyasa provides no easy answer favouring any. The narrative technique adopted ensures that the audience knows in advance what will happen, taking away the element of surprise but reinforcing the overpowering sense of inevitability: Kala, Time, is omnipotent. Multiple narrators are used to build this up, creating a series of frames nesting within one another.
Vaishampayana’s summary in the critical edition states that Arjuna’s exile was for a year and a month, not the popularly presumed twelve years as in the vulgate. In response to the summary, Janamejaya puts a series of questions that still intrigue the reader, none being answered. With a sure eye, this is where Smith begins to translate in full: why did those heroes tolerate the torment, especially Bhima? Why did Draupadi not consume her molesters? Why did the brothers unquestioningly obey Yudhishthira despite noticing the cheating in the dice game? Why did Yudhishthira tolerate grave injustice? However, Smith’s translation of the last question makes little sense: how did Arjuna decimate the huge armies of his foes? Both DebRoy, translating the same critical edition, and Lal, transcreating the vulgate, make better sense: why did Arjuna tolerate persecution when he could annihilate armies? They make an excellent starting point for an analytic reading of Vyasa’s magnum opus.
First published in the 8th Day supplement of The Sunday Statesman of October 31, 2010.