The Mahabharata of Vyasa Books 1 and 2:
The Complete Adi and Sabha Parvas transcreated from Sanskrit by P. Lal
What is it in this epic-of-epics, eight times larger than the Iliad and the Odyssey combined — denounced as “a literary monster” and “monstrous chaos” by Occidental Indologists Winternitz and Oldenberg — that appeals so irresistibly to modern man in search of his soul, when the audience for which it was composed — the enthroned monarch and the forest-dwelling sage — has long since sunk into the dark backward and abysm of time?
The account that follows shows the web of enchantment it weaves:
“Shells were exploding over Leningrad. Enemy bombs were falling on the streets stirring up clouds of dust…Sanscrit language was being heard in the building of the Academy of Sciences on the Neva River embankment…First, in the original, and then in translation, Vladimir Kalyanov, a specialist on India, was reading Mahabharata, a wonderful monument of Indian literature, to his colleagues, who remained in the besieged city…He translated during the hard winter of 1941, with no light, no fuel and no bread in the city…The translation of the Indian epic into Russian was never interrupted.”
Vyasa, master raconteur, weaves together a bewildering skein of threads to create a many-splendoured web from which there was no escape for the listener of those days and there is none even for the reader of today. The thousands of years that separate us from Vyasa have not, surprisingly, dimmed the magic of his art that had entranced Janamejaya and Shaunaka.
We find here a storyteller par excellence laying bare, at times quite pitilessly, the existential predicament of man in the universe. If, later in the epic, Vyasa shows us what man has made of man, here, in the first two cantos, he plumbs the depths of the humiliatingly petty pre-occupations of the Creator’s noblest creation. Indeed, the dilemmas the characters find themselves enmeshed in cannot even be glorified as ‘tragic’. Perhaps, that is why we find the epic so fascinating — for, how many of us are cast in the heroic mould? We do not have to strain the imagination to reach out and identify with Yayati or Shantanu. We need no willing suspension of disbelief to understand why the Brahmin Drona should sell his knowledge to the highest bidder, or why Drupada does not protest too much when his daughter is parcelled out among five brothers who had routed him in a skirmish.
Passions do, indeed, spin the plot and we are betrayed by what is false within. Then, as now, there is no need to look for a villain manoeuvring without.
If we resonate in empathy with the sense of tears in human things, we also thrill with joy on meeting the indomitable spirit of woman in an epic that many misconceive as celebrating a male chauvinist outlook. Whether it is Shakuntala proudly asserting her integrity and berating the mean-minded Dushyanta in open court; or Devayani demanding that Kacha return her love and imperiously brushing aside a lust-crazed husband; or Kunti refusing to pervert herself into a mindless son-producing womb to gratify the twisted desires of a frustrated husband; or Draupadi rescuing her five husbands from slavery despite being staked by them at dice-time and again it is woman standing forth in all the splendour of her spirited autonomy as a complete human being that rivets our attention and evokes our admiration.
The transcreation by Prof. P. Lal — Padma Shri awardee, Jawaharlal Nehru Fellow and Distinguished Visiting Professor at many American colleges — was begun in 1968, published in monthly fascicules from plates of his inimitable calligraphy. The single volume editions of each canto (so far the Book of Beginnings and the Book of the Court are published) allow us to grasp each in its entirety (though depriving us of the artistry of the calligraphy), letting the epic grow on the reader through 19 and 11 chapters respectively without any critical paraphernalia, for “the story’s the thing, catching conscience of commoner and king” as the transcreator writes so perceptively. Forthcoming volumes contain the individual prefaces, notes and glossaries. This is the only English rendering that follows the Sanskrit text of the epic verse by verse as it is current today (the “vulgate”) in all the recensions — “the full ragbag version” as he puts it — eschewing the not very consistent text of the Critical Edition that JAB van Buitenen translated with its numerous excisions (being continued under Fitzgerald’s supervision).
Unlike the 19th century translators KM Ganguli and MN Dutt, Prof. Lal neither omits sexual passages “for obvious reasons”, nor Latinises them. The sole translation that is a transcreation, it consciously aims at providing a sense of the original by effortlessly shifting from lyrical verse to trenchant prose, as Vyasa’s text demands, preserving the Sanskrit ethos throughout. We are not brought up short by jarring medieval turns of phrase that are anything but Vyasa as with van Buitenen’s “barons”, “chivalry” and the like, nor have we to stumble over the Victorian prose of Ganguli and Dutt. Mahatma, pranama, namaskara, ashrama and similar words, redolent with the flavour of Bharatavarsha’s air and earth and water, abound. It is a transcreation that is, above all, meant to be heard, for that is what the hermits in the Naimisha forest were doing. Prof. Lal himself has been giving public readings of the transcreation every Sunday from October 1999, bringing home the oral and aural quality of the epic.
How true are Vyasa’s prophetic words in the Adivamsavatarana (“Down-comings”) chapter:
“What is in this epic
on Dharma, Artha, Kama, Moksha,
may be elsewhere.
What is not in this epic,
is nowhere else…
It is recited in the present,
it will be recited in the future.”
The opening verses describing Creation are some of the most majestic compositions of all time, transcreated with biblical and Rigvedic reverberations:
“At first, there was no light,
no radiance, only darkness;
then was born the egg of Brahma,
exhaustless and mighty seed of life…
Prof. Lal’s verse rendering is far better than any of the translations; terse yet poetically evocative and mellifluous:
“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.”
Tapati is another Cleopatra indeed in Chitraratha-Enobarbus’ glowing description, which is immeasurably superior to the Ganguli and van Buitenen prosaic translations. Or take the unconventional rakshas rhythm he adopts for Hidimb’s slavering monologue where one feels as if Vyasa were writing in English itself; so natural, unforced and appropriate is the transcreation:
The Astika chapter has Vyasa at his best as the weaver of tales: stories spring from within one another in delightful succession till the parva becomes a veritable Chinese box of unending surprises with Sauti the raconteur weaving a magic web spellbinding his audience.
James Fitzgerald, translator of the critical text of the Stri and Shanti parvas published in 2004, makes an extremely important point about the epic:
“I have come to see the Mahabharata not simply as an ancient monument of bygone times. Many themes and motifs in this epic require consideration by the thoughtful people of all kinds today, whether they are particularly interested in India and its history or not.”
Looking back at the Adi parva, a multitude of salient features — thematic, stylistic and eschatological — swim into one’s ken. Here we get to know that the epic has three beginnings: “Some read the Mahabharata from the first mantra, others begin with the story of Astika; others begin with Uparichara.” There is the recurrent motif of Lust in Action with its attendant Quest for Immortality. Initially, they emerge as two separate themes in the Churning-of-the-Ocean and the Kacha-Devayani episodes, which coalesce in the existentially tragic figure of Yayati. Yayati, inheriting the taint of lust from his father Nahusha, sums up in himself the entire experience of the self-destructive poison of lust, with its initial violence of sensual orgiastic bliss, seeking in vain to gorge itself to satiation until the body is worn out. Yet, the flames of desire continue to lick the spirit into fresh agonies of torment, forcing Yayati into the very apotheosis of lust in replacing his worn-out senses by the vibrantly youthful body of his son, only to discover that lust is insatiable. Unfortunately, this blood-taint follows his dynasty as its nemesis, virtually wiping it out. It kills Vichitravirya and Pandu. The Pandavas are foster-children by unknown surrogates, veritable parvenus aspiring to the ancestral throne.
Yet another pattern is that of the disqualified eldest son beginning, again, with Yayati whose elder brother Yati becomes a sage. Of Yayati’s five sons it is the youngest, Puru, who becomes the dynast. Next, it is Riksha, Ajamidha’s youngest son, who founds the Hastinapura dynasty. Of Pratipa’s sons, the youngest Shantanu becomes king of Hastinapura. Instead of Devavrata, Shantanu’s eldest son, it is the youngest, Vichitravirya, who becomes king.
At this stage, the theme of the disqualified eldest is interwoven with an interesting set of parallels: Bhishma-Vyasa and Satyavati-Kunti. Both Bhishma and Vyasa are born of Ganga and Satyavati respectively before the dynastically crucial Shantanu-Satyavati marriage. Both are celibate and deeply involved with the Kurus, one as protector, the other as surrogate-dynast. Kunti, like her grandmother-in-law, has a pre-marital son who disappears immediately after birth. Here the Parallelism dovetails into the Pattern, for Karna, the eldest Kaunteya, cannot inherit because of his illegitimacy. In relation to the Pandavas, he stands much in the same relationship as Bhishma to the Shantvanas. All the eight Pandava sons are killed and Kunti’s dynasty replaces Satyavati’s, continuing through Parikshit, Arjuna’s grandson via his junior wife Subhadra, a Yadava, thereby restoring the throne to the line of Yadu, Yayati’s eldest disinherited son.
An allied motif is the difficulty in begetting successors. Beginning with Bharata who had to adopt Bharadvaja, it recurs with Shantanu who discards the eminently eligible Devavrata only to have his eldest son by Satyavati die prematurely, followed by the death of his second son Vichitravirya also without any heirs. The engendering of Dhritarashtra and Pandu is itself a traumatic affair and both are physically challenged. The Pandavas lose all their sons. Their unborn grandson Parikshit is mortally wounded, having to be revived by Krishna, just as Gandhari’s aborted foetus is saved by Krishna-Dvaipayana-Vyasa.
From the stylistic viewpoint, there are such highlights as the all-prose Paushya parva and the dynastic account after Samvarana-Tapati; the story of Yayati almost wholly in dialogue-form; the majestic Vedic chants in the Paushya, Pauloma and Khandavadahana parvas, all addressed to Agni, the mystic fire of the Rig Veda; and the exquisitely plangent lament of Dhritarashtra tada nasamse vijayaya Sanjaya.
The Vyasan technique - or perhaps the raconteur Sauti’s - is to weave in skilled unmindfulness, presenting the pith of the matter first, allowing details to be drawn out gradually through answers to questions skillfully interposed at critical stages of the narrative. It is not only the professional bards, Sauti et. al, who recite the epic, but also Brahmins such as Lomasha, Markandeya and, of course, Vaishampayana. It is not, as van Buitenen argues, that the baronial-bardic lore was giving way to a tradition of wandering reciters of brahminic lore. After all, Vaishampayana recited the epic before Sauti picked it up.
The two cantos take Vedic mythology to a new stage where Indra has been reduced to being worsted by the bird Garuda and the men Krishna and Arjuna, powerless to protect Takshaka who seeks sanctuary, paying the price of arrogance by being imprisoned in a cave by Shiva and forced to incarnate on earth. He is no longer the mighty Vedic rescuer of the celestial herds stolen by the Panis, riving open Vritra or Vala to release the celestial streams and shattering a hundred forts (a feat credited to Krishna by Bhishma). The accent has shifted to a new duo of divine sages: Nara and Narayana. By identifying Krishna and Arjuna with them, beginning with the invocatory verses, the new myth is given more ‘body’ and appeals powerfully to the popular imagination. The day of Vedic Indra, Agni and Varuna is past and the puranik Shiva-Vishnu rivalry is implied through the strenuous attempts to make each extol the greatness of the other in the Anushasana and Shanti parvas.
How does the Adi Parva leave us where the story of the Kurukshetra War and the Pandava-Kaurava conflict are concerned? The seeds of the fratricidal feud are sown during the childhood sports, culminating in the lacquer-house episode. In the meantime, a new figure has been introduced: Karna, who will figure prominently in the coming feud. The Drona-inspired attack on Drupada has laid the basis of a deep hatred of the Kurus in the defeated king that moves him to seek alliance with the Pandavas as a counterpoise against the Dhartarashtras and Drona. The intervening period, occupied by the Hidimba, Chitraratha and Baka episodes, is the training ground for the future inheritors of the Kuru kingdom. The marriage with Draupadi and the coming of Krishna provide the Panchala-Vrishni-Pandava triangular set-up to oppose the Kurus of Hastinapura. This alliance is strengthened through Arjuna’s exile during which Krishna has him abduct and wed his sister (and Arjuna’s maternal cousin) Subhadra. The confrontation becomes inevitable with the establishment of a new court at Khandavaprastha on the Yamuna facing Hastinapura on the Ganga.
The Sabha Parva is concerned with these two capitals and their two Halls of Kings. Against the capital of the Lunar Dynasty, Hastinapura, is set Indraprastha, founded on the holocaust of the Khandava forest (duly censored in the TV version out of environmental sensitivity!). Curiously, Khandavaprastha was the capital of Yayati’s kingdom, and it is here that the Pandavas establish Krishna’s grandson Vajra when they retire, thus restoring to Yadu’s lineage his original heritage. In this parva, we are in the thick of political intrigue. Krishna uses the Pandavas to remove the greatest threat to his clan: Jarasandha of Magadha, clearing the way for Yudhishthira being crowned emperor. Then, in the coronation ceremony, he removes a rival clansman, Shishupala. The doomsday bell begins to toll with the insult to Duryodhana coming from the magical Pandava assembly hall, where the Pandavas behave like the noveau-riche, much in the manner of the “night-grown mushroom” Gaveston in Edward II’s court. The devastating reply to the thoughtless slight is tortuously prepared and delivered in the Kaurava Sabha in Hastinapura, repeating the earlier exile-gambit. Nothing prepares Krishna and the Pandavas for the catastrophe of the game of dice in which Yudhishthira’s greed (as he admits in the Vana Parva) for winning Hastinapura leads to Draupadi (significantly, called “Panchali” here, one meaning of which is “puppet”) being staked and lost. But this puppet breaks out of the assigned role and exposes the feet of clay of the colossi we imagine the Kuru elders to be, putting a question that remains unanswered to the very end of the epic — has she been rightly won or not? It calls forth an admission from Bhishma:
“Dharma is subtle…What a strong man says
Often becomes the only dharma…
I do not know what to say…
Our elders, learned-in-dharma,
Drona and others,
Sit here with lowered eyes like dead men
With life-breaths gone.”
The deadly riposte this time is not a sugar-coated poison-pill like Varanavata, but full thirteen years in exile in the forests. This Yudhishthira secretly welcomes, glad in his heart of hearts to be free from the burden of kingship. We find him ill at ease in the Sabha Parva and most himself in exile amid the sylvan surroundings of Vana Parva, which we look forward to in the P Lal transcreation.
The Mahabharata of Vyasa Books 1 and 2: The Complete Adi and Sabha Parvas transcreated from Sanskrit by P. Lal, Writers Workshop, Kolkata, 2005, pp. 1218 and 499. Rs 1200 and Rs 600 (hardback), Rs 800 and Rs 500 (flexiback). (A special numbered-and-signed edition has original hand-painted frontispieces by a patua-artist of Jagannatha temple, thematically appropriate for each volume)