Towards the end of the 13th century we notice a common literary feature emerging in eastern India that becomes very prominent by the 16th century A.D. not only in the east but also in the south. Vyasa’s Mahabharata was translated first into Bengali and then into Assamese, Oriya, Telegu and Kannada. The reasons for this remarkable synchronicity deserve further study. For the present, let us look at the picture in Bengal.
According to Dinesh Chandra Sen it was a Muslim ruler of Bengal, Sultan Nusrat Khan or Nasir Khan (1285?-1325) who commissioned the first translation ofMahabharata in Bengali named “Bharat Panchali.” The work is not traceable but Kavindra Parameshvara states in his Bengali Mahabharata: “The glorious leader Nasrat Khan had the panchali composed, the ultimate in merit.” However, history is ignorant of any sultan of Bengal of this name ruling for forty years at that time. After examining the evidence, Major General S.K. Sen suggests that the reference may actually be to Nasiruddin Nusrat Shah (1519-1531 AD) who succeeded his father Sultan Hussain Shah of Bengal (1493-1519 AD). Nusrat Shah went to Chattagram (Chittagong) with general Paragal Khan as the king’s representative in 1515-1516. Paragal became governor there and got the Mahabharata translated by Kavindra Parameshvara, popularly known as Paragali Mahabharata. Hussain Shah was a distant ruler while Nusrat, the crown prince, was a powerful patron at hand in Chittagong as is evident from the verses of Srikara. Kavindra would be referring to this Nusrat and to Srikara’s panchali, not to an older unknown ruler and poetic work. Paragal’s son Chhuti Khan succeeded him as governor and got the Jaiminiya Ashvamedhaparva translated by Shrikara or Shrikaran Nandi which came to be known as Chhuti Khaner Mahabharata. Some part of it was included in Kashiram Das’ Bengali Mahabharata and Krittibas’ Ramayana.
Kavi Sanjay is the first translator of the complete Mahabharata into Bangla for regaling rustic audiences, composed in payar metre in the first half of the 15th century, prior to the rule of Sultan Hussain Shah in Bengal (1494-1520) and also prior to Chaitanya (1486-1533) unlike most other vernacular renderings of the epic there being no trace of Vaishnav bhakti in his work. His date is uncertain, but it has been suggested that he was a contemporary of Krittibas, the translator of the Ramayana(not later than the 15th century). However, on the basis of language and style other scholars place him in the 17th century AD. A resident of Laur in the Sunamganj subdivision of Shrihatta district in East Bengal, he belonged to the Bharadvaja gotra. An interesting point is that he praises Bhagadatta as the ruler of Laur and also calls him ruler of Bengal, though the Mahabharata does not do so, because Shrihatta was at one time part of Pragjyotishpura. While his version is almost unaffected by the devotional movement, it contains several unusual Shakta-influenced episodes. He departs quite freely from the Sanskrit epic’s contents, unlike Kashiram Das a later translator. The narration is interspersed with lachari to be sung and various ragas andraginis are indicated in the text such as Vasant, Kamod, Bhatiyal, Shri, Barari, Pathamanjari. Kabi Sanjay has created a new genre, the Pauranik fairytale in his translation of the epic. The key elements are given below:
- Sanjay provides a novel start to the epic. Janamejaya (J) charges Vyasa with failure to prevent his ancestors from the fratricidal battle of Kurukshetra. Vyasa laughs and says that people do not listen to prohibitions. As an example he issues an injunction that to avoid misfortune J must not make Kantavati his chief queen, which is precisely what he proceeds to do. He also insults sage Rishyashringa who curses him to be afflicted with Bhagapida, syphilitic sores, all over his body. Vyasa reappears and tells him that to be cured he should listen to the epic recited by Vaishampayana. That is why the recital begins. At the end ofSvaragarohana parva, J is cured, bringing the tale to a circular end.
- In Astika parva he adds a new story of Takshaka, pursued by Garuda, marrying his daughter Sarada to Parikshit and thus escaping death. A folktale of the ojha(curer of snake-bite) of Shankhapura is added and a novel treatment of J’s serpent sacrifice.
- The Shantanu-Ganga story is given a novel twist. Brahma curses Mahabhisha for his shameless ogling of Ganga’s nudity to be born a vanara. He worships Shiva who grants his wish to possess Ganga. Shiva commands Ganga who takes thevanara aside and tells him he must first become hairless like her and can do so by entering fire. To persuade him she magically protects him when he tests a finger in a flame and is unhurt. When he enters the fire she does not protect him and he dies. Kuru is performing a sacrifice and finds a dry place overflowing with hot water which he and the sages cannot cross. The monkey’s corpse comes floating by and they use it as a bridge. Thereupon the vanara is liberated and is born as Kuru’s son, Shantanu. Shiva berates Ganga and forces her to wed Shantanu.
- Amba’s love for Bhishma is a creation of Sanjay’s who makes of it a long love-story.
- Chitrangada dies of TB. Vichitravirya violates Bhishma’s injunction against entering his palace in his absence and is crushed there by the elephant with which Bhishma used to wrestle daily to exercise.
- Dhritarashtra plots with Duryodhana to build the lacquer house.
- In the va conflagration the survivors are sage Lomasha, Surabhi, Danavendra and Vishvakarma.
- The Rajasuya yajna is held because Pandu is insulted in Svarga and despatches Narada to tell his sons to hold this sacrifice so that he can regain status. During the conquests, on his return from Lanka Arjuna encounters Hanuman and it is an interesting folk-tale account.
- Duryodhana and Drona send a band of fasting sages to Yudhishthira in exile but Krishna’s miracle saves the Pandavas.
- In Udyoga parva a folktale is added about Kakalilasura.
- In Bhishma parva the story of Brahmachandala is added and special emphasis on the beauty and valour of horses occupies a lot of space.
- In Drona parva after Abhimanyu’s death Draupadi leads an army of women against the Kauravas. Karna refuses to fight them. Duryodhana is routed.
- In Karna parva the story of Tarakaksha and Makaraksha is added.
- Ashvamedhaparva mostly follows the composition of Jaimini, Vyasa’s disciple, omitting the retelling of the Rama story. Sanjay adds Yadava and Pandava women fighting the enemy when the Pandavas are defeated. He has Surya give Vrishaketu a chariot during the battle with Anushalva. Jaimini’s Jvala is turned into Jana and glorified in particular. She dies and turns into an arrow that lies in Babhruvahana’s quiver with which he kills Arjuna. The battle descriptions surpass Vyasa’s Kurukshetra. The stories of Jana, Sudhanva, Babhruvahana, Chandi, Chandrahasa are magnificently told. Chandrahasa’s story has been substantially changed, especially Vishaya’s subterfuge in replacing the word Visha (poison) with her name, Vishaya. Jayadratha’s son does not die of fear but fights bravely with Arjuna. Jaimini’s Bakadalbhya has become Bakradanta and he steals the horse to see Krishna. Viravarma becomes Virabrahma and his daughter Malini becomes Ratnavati. Uddalaka is renamed Udyana in the story of Chandi and the curse is dispelled when both the horse and Arjuna touch the stone. The remarkable story of the many-faced Brahmas is absent. Sanjaya describes Chitrangada as a veshya, a prostitute, while in Jaimini Arjuna says that Babhruvahana must be a son of aVaishya.
- In Ashvamedhaparva Sanjay goes beyond Jaimini and invents the grand episode of Vivek, son of Sudhanva, who immediately after his birth takes on Arjuna and Krishna to avenge his father’s death, routs Arjuna’s army, vanquishes Arjuna and Krishna, defeats Bhima, Nakula and Sahadeva when they come to rescue Arjuna, defeats the combined army of Yadava and Pandava women. Finally, on his grandfather Hamsadhvaja’s request, Bibek surrenders to Krishna.
- Certain incidents are taken from Vyasa: the Pandavas go to Kailasa with Krishna to obtain the wealth of Marutta, the story of Parikshita’s birth, Arjuna’s horse goes to Kirata and Yavana country, Trigartya, Pragjyotisha, Chedi, Magadha,, Kashipura, Deshartha, Nishada, Kirata again, the kingdoms of Ugrasena, Kuntibhoja, Panchala, Gandhara, etc. He has also changed Jaimini’s stories. Jaimini’s Jvala becomes Jana here and much later Bengal’s most celebrated playwright Girish Chandra Ghosh wrote an extremely popular play, Jana, around this character from Kabi Sanjaya. He ignores the Kusha-Lava story entirely. The description of the horse required for the sacrifice is different too and the parvaends with Krishna’s return to Dvaraka with the Yadavas which is a departure from Jaimini.
- Mausala parva has Arjuna accompany Krishna at the end and, as they rest together, Krishna is shot and killed.
- Svargarohana parva has new tirthas come up where each Pandava falls. The route is along the Ganga. Meghanada Daitya tries to abduct Draupadi and is slain by Bhima.
In Bengal the influence Jaimini’s Ashvamedhaparva was felt most powerfully. According to Dinesh Chandra Sen, the renowned historian of Bengali literature, Sanjaya, Kavindra Parameshvara, Srikara Nandi and almost all the later translators have recorded that they translated the Mahabharata following the Jaimini-Samhita. Little is taken from Vyasa, except a few references. Jaimini was a leader among the revivalists of Hinduism (Shankara came later). His disciple, Bhattapada, defeated the Buddhists in King Sudhanva’s court. Many ancient Bengali books contain references to the Jaiminibharata.
In the early 16th century AD Kavindra Paramesvara translated the Mahabharata in brief (so that it could be heard in a single day) up to Stri Parva (according to Munindra Kumar Ghosh up to Ashvamedhaparva, the later parvas being interpolations) under the patronage of Paragal Khan. This came to be known as theParagali Mahabharata and also as Pandavavijaya. This includes basically the battle stories, especially in the Ashvamedhaparva which, like Sanjaya, is from Jaimini. Deities and most of the stories of the original epic are omitted.
Dinesh Chandra Sen states that after this there are many translations of which the important ones are Dvija Abhirama’s Ashvamedhaparva, Ananta Mishra’s Ashvamedhaparva, Nityananda Ghosh’s Mahabharata, Dvija Ramchandra Khan’sAshvamedhaparva, Kabichandra’s Mahabharata, Shashthibar Sen’s Bharata, Gangadas Sen’s Adi and Ashvamedhaparva, Rameshwar Nandi’s Mahabharata, Kasiram Das’s Mahabharata, Trilochan Chakravarty’s Mahabharata, Nimai Das’sMahabharata, Dvija Krishnaram’s Ashvamedhaparva, Dvija Raghunath’sAshvamedhaparva, Bhriguram Das’s Bharata, Dvija Ramkrishnadas’Ashvamedhaparva and Bharat Pandit’s Ashvamedhaparva. W.L. Smith mentions complete Bengali versions of Ashvamedhaparva by Ghanashyam Das and Dvija Premananda and more recent versions by Rajaram Dutt (19th century), Kaliprasanna Vidyaratna (Jaiminibharata in verse, 1884). Chandranath Basu’sAshvamedhaparva in free prose came out in 1317 B.S. i.e. 1910-11 AD. Munindra Kumar Ghosh mentions Nandaram Das, Dvija Govardhan, Bhabani Das and Dvija Srinath among others. Asit Kumar Bandyopadhyay mentions the name of Dvija Haridas too. It is not clear whether these works are based on Vyasa or on Jaimini.
The most popular Bengali verse translation remains Kashiram Das’ Mahabharatawhich follows Jaimini’s Ashvamedhaparva. In him the influence of Chaitanya’s Vaishnavism is overwhelmingly perceptible. The work was a major influence on Bengali literature.
Kaliprasanna Singha (1840 or 1841—24 July 1870) authored the first prose translation of the epic. Educated in Sanskrit, Bengali and English, he left school in 1857 at the age of 16 and established the Vidyotsahini Theatre in his own house in which he enacted Venisamhara. Encouraged by its success, in the same year he translated Kalidasa’s Vikramorvashiya. In 1858 he wrote the play Savitri-Satyavan and in 1859Malati Madhava. These plays were staged in his theatre with him in the main roles.Purana-sangraha, a collection of Puranic stories from the Mahabharata was published between 1860-66. His greatest literary feat was his translation of theMahabharata into Bangla in 17 volumes, the first work of its kind in Bangla literature. The work was begun in 1858 with a team of seven pundits and completed in 1866 omitting and adding nothing. 3000 copies of each parva were printed, being unsure of the reception. He excluded Harivamsa as he found its composition to be plainly later than the epic. He had a plan to publish its translation along with those of the Puranas.
What the BORI editors of the critical text of the Mahabharata have done now, Kaliprasanna did in 1858 all by himself, collating manuscripts from the Asiatic Society, Shobhabazar Palace, the collections of Asutosh Deb, Jatindramohon Thakur, and his own great-grandfather Shantiram Singha’s collection in Kashi. He acknowledges with gratitude the help he received in resolving contradictions in the texts and making out the meaning of knotty Vyasakuta verses from Taranath Tarkavacaspati teacher at the Calcutta Sanskrit Vidyamandir. He records with profound gratitude that Ishvarchandra Vidyasagar began a translation of the epic and had published some parts of it in the Brahmo Samaj’s Tattavabodhini magazine, but stopped the work on hearing of Kaliprasanna’s project. Vidyasagar not only went through Kaliprasanna’s translation but supervised the printing and the work of translation in his absence. Kaliprasanna writes that he has no words to express the benefits Vidyasagar showered on him. He gives special thanks to several friends viz. the famous poet Michael Madhusudan Dutt for promising to turn the best parts of the translation into Amritakshar metre and a play; the Purana expert Gangadhar Tarkabagish, Raja Kamalkrishna Bahadur, Jatindramohon Thakur, Rajendralal Mitra, Dvarkanath Vidyabhushan (editor of Somprakash), Rajkrishna Bandopadhyay (professor of Bengali literature in Presidency College), Nabinkrishna Bandopadhyay (former editor of Tattvabodhini), Dinabandhu Mitra (the playwright of Nil Darpan), Kshetramohon Vidyaratan (editor of Bhaskar). Deploring the death of 10 members of his team of translators he thanks by name those engaged till the end and the proof readers (mentioning all their names). Daily at evening the translation as it progressed was read out to Raja Radhakanta Deb and other prominent leaders of Hindu society like Raja Kamalkrishna Bahadur and Rajkrishna Mitra. In villages, he writes, the translation is read out in important gatherings morning and evening. He pays a fulsome tribute to Kashiram’s translation in Bengali verse, regretting that details of his life and dates are not recorded anywhere. He leaves out discussion and summaries of Sanskrit literature based on Asiatic researches and Max Muller’s edition of texts to avoid any controversy that might harm the unrestricted acceptance of his translation.
Kaliprasanna dedicated his translation to Empress Victoria in gratitude for the British rescuing Bharatavarsha from the mortal clutches of the Mughals. He compared his offering to the gods offering the Parijat flower churned out of the ocean to Purandara. The intention behind the translation was a faith that it would redound to the country’s good. He hoped that Hindusthan would be lit up during her reign by hundreds of lamps of Sanskrit literature as it was during Vikramaditya’s reign by Kalidas etc. and in Queen Elizabeth’s reign by Shakespeare etc. to make her reign unforgettable.
* This article draws heavily on the research by Maj. Gen. S.K. Sen VSM whose generous assistance is acknowledged with gratitude.
- Dinesh Chandra Sen, Bangabhasha O Sahitya, Gurudas Chattopadhyaya & Sons, Kolkata, 7th edn, 1st edn. 1896.
- Sen op.cit. and Munindra Kumar Ghosh, Kabi Sanjaya birachita Mahabharata, Calcutta University, 1969, p. 153
- Asit Kumar Bandyopadhyay, Bangla Sahityer Itivritta, Vol 1, Modern Book Agency, Kolkata, 2006, p. 462
- Asit Kumar Bandyopadhyay, op. cit. p. 441-2
- Dinesh Chandra Sen, ibid, p. 455-456
- W.L. Smith, “The Jaiminibharata and Its Eastern Vernacular Versions,” Studia Orientalia, The Finnish Oriental Society, Vol 85, Helsinki, 1999, p. 402
- Asit Kumar Bandyopadhyay, op. cit. p. 434