A Landmark in Indological Studies
Madhusraba Dasgupta: Samsad Companions to The Mahabharata and The Ramayana, Shishu Sahitya Samsad, Kolkata, Rs. 1200 and Rs.800; pp. (large format) 608 & 400
Faced with the sheer magnitude of the Mahabharata (MBH), it was a European scholar, Sorensen, who compiled an index in 1904, covering people, episodes and places to enable negotiating this uncharted ocean. A Hindi version by Ramkumar Rai was published in several volumes in the Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series in 1964, with a parallel “kosha” for the Ramayana in 1965. If, however, one is interested in what were the weapons used, what certain terms mean and what the army formations were, that information is not to be found there. No longer need the scholar, the aficionado or the common reader despair in such a quest thanks to the astonishing labour of Smt. Madhusraba Dasgupta. She has put together single-handedly everything there is to know about both epics. Even the quizmaster will now have an easy time finding material to draw upon. For the MBH she has used the Pune Bhandarkar edition, the Bengal Asiatic Society edition and its translation by K.M. Ganguli, which she unaccountably refers to as “P.C. Ray” although he was only the publisher. Every entry is referenced with respect to both editions—an extremely useful feature. The publisher, Debajyoti Dutta, deserves our gratitude for publishing these volumes with such excellent production values. There are just a couple of typographical errors.
Sorensen’s index is alphabetical. Dasgupta groups the data under eight headings “to kindle enthusiasm and ease the exertion of the reader who wants to see beyond a mere account of facts,” viz., the parvas and sections; identities; the ancient world (then and now); races, tribes, castes; troop formations, weapons, accessories; specific terms; other names of characters; an appendix providing select genealogies but without any textual reference. She has formulated her own pronunciation guide, departing from the internationally accepted diacriticals, which she finds inadequate.
The introduction to the MBH volume is rather slender. She makes the interesting point that no detailed physical description of any character is found—what we have is quite vague. Besides listing characters and places, she also notes the inhabitants of different regions and the different social orders. She points out the lack of mention of any temple or idol. However, in Ganguli’s translation of the Sabha Parva section 79, we find Vidura telling Dhritarashtra, “And jackals and vultures and ravens and other carnivorous beasts and birds began to shriek and cry aloud from the temples of the gods and the tops of sacred trees and walls and house-tops.” In section 32, there is reference to temples of gods, and in section 15 to a temple of Shiva in which Jarasandha imprisoned princes. Dasgupta claims that there is archaeological evidence of the Kurukshetra battle, though no such evidence has been found. Only pottery was dug up in the early 1950s, but nothing that connects to what we find in the MBH. Strangely enough, there has been no excavation here since then, despite all the breast-beating about unearthing and preserving ancient Indian heritage. The astronomical evidence she refers to as fixing 1500 BC as the time of the war is as dubious as the Yudhishthira Era of 3102 BC. She refers to the epic having had 8,800 verses initially, an erroneous notion propagated by Weber. This is the number of verses that Sauti refers to as “knotted slokas,” very difficult to understand. Nor does the MBH consist of one lakh slokas, but extends to over 90,000 verses.
Anyone wanting a list of all the pilgrimage spots mentioned will find it readily in this volume. The spots Balarama visits could have been mentioned in a cluster as has been done for the Pandavas. All forests, lakes, rivers, mountains, kingdoms, cities, villages and even steeds and standards are listed! Besides vyuhas (troop formations), parts of the chariot, the various modes of fighting, celestial weapons and normal ones are catalogued. She has tried to identify, as far as possible, the current names of the places mentioned, so that the geography comes alive to us today. Unfortunately, there is no map in both volumes, which would have enhanced their usefulness. The Oxford Historical Atlas of South Asia has excellent maps for both epics.
The entry on Shiva contains a few errors. He did not gift the Gandiva bow to Arjuna and his pinaka is not a small drum but is a pike or trident. What he holds is a dambaru which is an hour-glass shaped small drum. His going before Arjuna, killing those whom his arrows slay later, is omitted.
Some of the entries could have been a little more informative. Where can we find the names of the eight sons of Kavi? Surya was named Martanda (dead-egg) because he was stillborn (like Parikshit). Also, as Martanda is also the name of Yama, it hints at why he was called lord of death. Again, Ekalavya is not the son of Nishada king Hiranyadhanu, but his adopted son, born to Krishna’s paternal uncle Devashrava who gave him away. He is, thus, Krishna’s agnate cousin whom he kills, as he does his paternal aunt’s son Shishupala. Again, Jara, Krishna’s killer was his stepbrother, being Vasudeva’s son from a Shudra wife who became a Nishada chief (cf. Harivansha,Vishnu Parva, 103.27). In the genealogy provided in the Appendix, these relationships are not indicated, nor the fact that Pritha-Kunti was of Yadu’s lineage and the sister of Vasudeva, nor the names of the mothers of Balarama, Krishna and Subhadra. Balarama and Krishna’s wives are also missing. One would have thought that the very critical role women play in the Mahabharata would have motivated Smt. Dasgupta to include all the names of women in the genealogies. She overlooks references in the Ashramavasika Parva to two more wives: another wife of Bhima is the sister of Krishna’s inveterate foe (Shishupala/Jarasandha/Dantavakra?) and a wife of Sahadeva is a daughter of Jarasandha. Their names and progeny are not mentioned. How many of us realise that when Abhimanyu killed Brihadbala, ruler of Kosala, it was in effect the Lunar Dynasty wiping out Ayodhya’s Solar Dynasty! In the genealogy, no link is shown between Pratipa (Paryashravas in a parallel account) and Shantanu, despite their being father and son. The fact that Bharata adopted Bhumanyu from Bharadvaja, disinheriting his nine sons, has not been indicated.
One misses a list of the partial descents (amshavatarana) of gods, demi-gods and anti-gods that is an important part of the framework of the epic, which is to relieve the earth of its burden of demonic rulers. Surya’s two wives, their progeny and how Surya was partly shorn of his blaze are missing. Though the names of Yayati’s disinherited sons are given, what happened to their lineages is missing. However, bhaktas will readily find here the 1008 names of Shiva and Vishnu conveniently grouped at one place.
The introduction to the Ramayana Companion is satisfyingly long, providing features of the three cities that are in conflict: Ayodhya, Kishkindha and Lanka, along with the living patterns, culture, and an overview of the characters and the pantheon. Unlike the other volume, this draws not upon the Baroda critical edition (an unfortunate feature from the viewpoint of indologists), but only on the vulgate, i.e. the Gita Press and the Calcutta edition of 1907. Besides the sectional headings of the preceding book, added here are creatures, heavenly bodies, flora-fauna, gems, musical instruments, food and drink, transport, units of measures and weights. These additional sections indicate that the society of the Ramayana is more developed than that of the ostensibly later MBH which is quite Hobbesian in its nasty brutishness. Interestingly enough, there is no paean listing multiple names of any deity in Valmiki’s composition, which does suggest an earlier culture. The geographical section omits the name of Shravasti, the capital of Northern Kosala ruled by Lava. The unfortunate omission of an index in the MBH volume has been remedied here so that one can easily locate the relevant entry.
No praise is adequate for the extraordinary work Smt. Dasgupta has done. Hers is a signal contribution to Indological studies. The publisher, too, richly deserves accolades from all readers.
A shorter version of this article has been published in the 8th Day literary Supplement of The Sunday Statesman of 19th April 2015