In the opening chapter of the Mahabharata, Sauti describes the epic thus,
'It is like clouds to man, exhaustless.
It is, to illustrious poets, a source of livelihood.' (P.Lal, Adi Parva, 1. 92)
Truly the Mahabharata is a magic box of stories from which story after inter-weaving story appear in delightful succession providing future generations of poets with an inexhaustible source of plots. Consequently, we have a formidable crop of Mahabharata literature that includes Abhijnana Shakuntalam, Kiratarjuniyam, Madhyamavyayoge, etc.
But for the ordinary man of the IT-infested twenty-first century, there is a problem. He begins his career-seeking life attending school as a mere two-year old, racing breathlessly through his days and nights, inevitably missing out on most of the exquisite things that adorn the hours of childhood and early youth, including the stories of the Mahabharata.
Sculpture of Sagar-Manthana on display at Suvarnabhumi Airport, Thailand
Possibly, aware of this problem and considering that it has become impossible for the general reader to get acquainted with the Mahabharata, Writers Workshop is publishing a Katha-series. So far, five are from the Adi Parva and two from the Vana Parva. What makes them unique are two compelling features: the exquisite transcreation by Prof. P.Lal in verse and the splendid introductions of which six are by Pradip Bhattacharya and one by Prema Nandakumar. One would have liked to know a little about both.
The most precious asset of the series is the outstanding transcreation of the Sanskrit text by Prof. Lal taken entirely from his masterpiece, the unabridged shloka by shloka English version of theMahabharata. The style of his narration breathes life into the text. One can almost hear the dialogues and see the scenes, the incidents and the characters as one reads. We are transported to yesteryears when the kathaks, the roaming raconteurs, enthralled rural audiences under the village banyan tree with puranic tales. Like the kathak of yore, Prof. Lal recounts tale after tale from Vyasa in riveting English. Listen to him describing Tapati:
Her beauty radiated from her
like sunrays from the sun.
Her body shone
like a straight flame,
her spotless beauty
was like the moon's.
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. (The Vasistha-Visvamitra Katha, 173.25-28)
A sculptor could not have done better!
A striking feature of his narrative style is the double-naming of the characters e.g. Shri-Lakshmi, Purandara-Indra, Bibhatsu-Arjuna. It is not only an extraordinary device but also relevant since many of us may not be aware of the multiple names of our mythological characters. Further, he has left some Sanskrit words untranslated because they are either well-known or exist in English dictionaries, e.g. bhagavan, maha-chariot, Sanatana Dharma, namaskara, maya, tapasya,maha-atmaned, etc. On occasion, he has relented a little by providing a translation within the text without breaking the easy flow of the narrative, e.g. sandhya-twilight, Agneya fire-missile, tata-dear brother, prabhu-lord, etc. It adds a certain flavour to the text that is essentially Indian and gels very well with the ambience the narrative creates.
However, the section numbers at the top of the texts in the books are confusing. Savitri Kathabegins with Section two hundred ninety-two and Mandapala Katha with Section two hundred twenty-four. These indicate the numbering of the sections of the source text and an explanatory note somewhere would have been helpful. Why Prof. Lal keeps naming Vashishtha's son 'Sakti', instead of 'Shaktri', and king 'Svetaki' as 'Svetika' is not understood. An interesting point is that Prof. Lal explains Arjuna's name Bibhatsu as 'dreadful-deed-doer' (he has explained his reasons in the introduction to his Virata Parva) while Arjuna himself tells Uttara in the Virata Parva that he is so called because he never did a dreadful deed in battle.
The reason for choosing these stories for the series is not difficult to see. Each occupies a position of paramount importance in Indian mythology in more ways than one, containing the roots of many themes that recur repeatedly in the epic. The Naga motif spans the epic as if holding it together like the covers of a book. Samudra-Manthana Katha begins with the births of Astika, theNagas and their mortal foe Garuda. The epic ends with Astika stopping Janamejaya's snake sacrifice during which Vaishampayana narrated the Mahabharata. In Samudra-Manthana, the pivotal Indian myth, Shesha Naga, upon whom Narayana rests, uproots Mandara mountain for the gods, which becomes the churning rod. Vasuki Naga becomes the churning rope. In MandapalaKatha, Indra saves Ashvasena, Takshaka Naga's son, while Arjuna kills Ashvasena's mother. In revenge, Ashvasena enters Karna's arrow in the Karna Parva, but Krishna saves Arjuna who kills Ashvasena. Takshaka avenges the deaths of his family by killing Parikshit, Arjuna's grandson and Janamejaya's father. In revenge, Janamejaya performs the mighty snake-sacrifice in which snakes die en masse as a fall-out of their mother Kadru's curse in the Astika Parvadhyaya. The Naga theme continues as Aryaka Naga, Kunti's maternal grandfather, saves Bhima; Karkotaka Naga helps Nala; Ulupi resurrects Arjuna after Babhruvahana has killed him; Vishnu saves Sumukha Naga from Garuda etc.
The quest for immortality is another theme appearing here that plays a seminal role in Indian mythology. The Devas and the Asuras seeking Amrita, the elixir of eternal life, churn the sea.Amrita appears and is promptly confiscated by the Devas, more by crook than hook. A battle ensues, laying the foundation of another recurring myth: the feud between the Devas and the deprived Asuras. Kadru, seeking immortality for her sons, the Nagas, sets Garuda to snatch it from the Devas. Garuda obeys but manages to prevent the Nagas from consuming it. In the story of Yayati too this theme continues. The Devas want the Sanjivani Mantra from Shukracharya, theAsuras' mentor, who ceaselessly resurrects those who are slaughtered. So they send Kacha to Shukracharya to obtain the spell through his daughter Devayani. Kacha succeeds in his mission but spurns Devayani's advances. Again, Yayati craving everlasting youth when he is afflicted with premature decrepitude for offending Devayani, transfers his senility to his son Puru.
In the Ramayana Ravana seeks immortality from Brahma and obtains a conditional immortality. Finally, the story of Savitri conquering death lifts this theme on to a different plane. Amrita orSanjivani Mantra are not required; death can be conquered through goodness and ascesis. The philosophical implications of the story have been dealt with very competently in the Introduction. Savitri and Satyavan live on in the everyday life of Indian society, instilling such values that enrich our lives. That is real immortality which eluded all others who sought it. This wish to conquer death is an overarching theme in Indian mythology. It is therefore no wonder that Yudhishthira, in conversation with the Yaksha, says,
'Everyday creatures die. They go to the realm of Yama.
Yet everyone thinks he will live forever.
What is more wonderful than this?' (Lal, Vana Parva, 313.116)
The Samudra Manthana Katha has other aspects with long-range implications. The Nara-Narayana motif is one. The epic begins by invoking Nara and Narayana who play a major role in defeating the Asuras in the post-churning strife. The principal protagonists of the epic, Krishna and Arjuna, are their incarnations. We are introduced here to the Trinity of Indian mythology, Brahma, Vishnu and Maheshvara and many other gods and goddesses who will play significant roles in the epic.
A powerful motif tainting the characters of the Mahabharata, especially the Pauravas, is lust. Shakuntala, the product of Vishvamitra's lust, falls prey to the lust of flamboyant Dushyanta, Puru's ancestor. Yayati, hungering for sex, has to beg his son Puru to give him his youth. Earlier he had given in readily to Sharmishtha's entreaties on the sly, producing three sons including Puru. In Vashishtha-Vishvamitra Katha Samvarana lusts for Tapati so desperately that he ignores his kingdom for twelve long years. In Mandapala Katha, Mandapala declares his desire for Lapita quite unabashedly. Mandapala is not a Paurava but Vyasa, himself the result of Parashara's lust, never flinches from recounting a story of lust when he finds one. In theRamayana, Ravana's lust for women brings about his downfall due to their curses. Later we shall find many other Pauravas'Shantanu, Vichitravirya, Pandu'who were felled by lust.
Another important aspect of these stories is that we get to know about the ancestry of most of thedramatis personae of the epic. In Samudra Manthana Katha we learn about the ancestry of theNagas and Garuda. Shakuntala's son, Sarvadamana-Bharata, is the eponymous ancestor of the Pauravas after whom our country is named. In Kaca-Devayani-Yayati Katha we are introduced to Yayati, a dynast who is a watershed in Indian proto-history. His sons found all the important families which provide the Mahabharata with its principal characters, viz. Yadavas from Yadu, the Kauravas and Pandavas from Puru, Yavanas from Turvasu, Bhojas from Druhyu andMlechchhas from Anu. In Ramayana we find the origin of the Rakshasas and the Vanaras.
The Vashishtha-Vishvamitra story is important for another recurring motif of our mythology: the Brahmin-Kshatriya feud running as an undercurrent all through.
Another recurring motif in the Paurava dynasty is violation of the law of primogeniture. Puru becomes king over-riding the claim of his elder brothers. Yayati becomes king because his elder brother Yati became a hermit. Shantanu becomes king because his elder brother Devapi, suffering from a skin-disease, turns ascetic. Pandu becomes king as Dhritarashtra is blind. Bharata rejects his sons for not possessing kingly qualities.
The Mandapala Katha is significant for various reasons. Available here is the glimpse of a society where drinking by women was not considered taboo. Arjuna and Krishna get their famous weapons from Varuna'originally Rigveda's greatest Asura'through Agni. We meet Maya here, the Danava architect who builds Indraprastha palace, the cause celebre of the Pandavas' misfortunes. The scene where the four Sharngakas, Jarita and Mandapala talk, the conversation oscillating between the sublime and the ridiculous, against the backdrop of hugely conflagrating Khandava is one of the most vividly compelling spectacles in the Mahabharata. With this grand spectacle the Adi Parva ends. It is perhaps symbolic: the Pandavas are about to enter a life where another Khandava of intrigue, strife and war awaits them.
The Ramayana Katha is used by Markandeya to compare the fortunes of Rama and Yudhisthira. It is a very concise version with striking differences from Valmiki's Ramayana, indicating that Valmiki's composition was not yet available. Vyasa must have conceived the story from the extant lore. It is also significant that, beginning with the births of Rama and Ravana, it ends with the slaying of Ravana and Rama's return to Ayodhya. The Uttarakanda is absent.
Reading the stories, narrated in Prof. Lal's inimitable style, is a fascinating and rewarding experience. But what adds immense value to the slim volumes are the erudite introductions which are highly gratifying intellectually. Pradip Bhattacharya delves deep into Vedic literature, thePuranas, Sanskrit literature and the epic itself to find the roots and backgrounds of the stories, the incidents and the characters. He deftly draws parallels from Greek, Assyrian, Egyptian, Iranian, Mayan, Teutonic and Middle-Eastern mythology, world literature and history and our own vernacular literature. He also provides interesting bits of information in the process, like, who wrote the Gayatri Mantra and why snakes have forked tongues. He analyses and interprets various motifs and myths going to their roots and how they pervade Puranic literature, establishing different dimensions of an episode. He points out inconsistencies and unexplained areas in the stories ' 'How are we to reconcile the ruthless, indiscriminate slaughter of all living creatures'with the character of Arjuna who was called Bibhatsu because he never committed any horrifying deed?' (Mandapala Katha) He also underlines how these stories have taken different shape in the hands of different writers and the extent to which they differ from the original (e.g. Shakuntala of Vyasa and Kalidasa, Ramayana of Vyasa and Valmiki). Most importantly, he has discussed the highly confusing and involved genealogy of the Mahabharatan characters, pointing out errors and trying to find some logic in their order. He takes the genealogies much beyond the epic to show the relationships and the intermingling of races occasioned by diverse requirements. His analysis of the characters, bringing out various shades and complexities, is brilliant. These introductions, written in immaculate English, enrich the experience of reading the texts immensely.
Prema Nandakumar's introduction to the Savitri Katha is highly illuminating, though a trifle too long. Underlining the existence of a Savitri Parampara in Indian culture, she shows how Savitri has become 'a role model for womankind' and how her five dharma vachanas in conversation with Yama 'make a compendium for faultless living.' She has brought out the Vedic connections, referred to the Puranic versions and to the English versions of Romesh Chandra Dutta and Toru Datta. Her discussion on Sri Aurobindo's Savitri, arguably his greatest work, is short but illuminating. The highlight of her introduction is the section describing the Savitri traditions of women in Tamilnadu and her discussion on the Savitri Paadam (a Tamil masterpiece translated into English by her) indicating how the story has integrated 'with the everyday life of women as homemakers.'
Madhusree Gupta's Sita is a novel about a socio-economically backward Indian woman. Sita, a domestic help in the residence of Mr. Bose, falls prey to the charms of Ravi and elopes with him, rejecting the comforts of the Bose household and the prospect of a good marriage, little knowing that Ravi was already married. The inevitable happens ' Ravi's wife storms in and whisks him away. Spurned by society, Sita is raped by a politician and his cronies and later by policemen. She turns a street prostitute living on railway platforms and footpaths, her clients the riff-raff of society. She dreamt of and pined for the Bose home and her dreams turned into nightmares. The novel ends with the death of her child. She concludes, 'In her inconsolable sorrow, she was one with all the sorrowing women of the world'It was suffering that bestowed on them an undying quality, that led them to their apotheosis.' The plot of this novelette is simple, taken from life around us and narrated sensitively. An English translation of the Bengali chant on page 15 would have helped the non-Bengali reader. Dialogues, which are completely missing, would have made the novel livelier. Sudden use of capital letters was not necessary. Mistakes like, 'traffics', 'khol' (instead of kohl), 'so-workers', 'small fishes', 'waiting for him in futile' are not expected from a lecturer in English.