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Variations on Vyasa:
The First Bengali Mahabharatas
|by Dr. Pradip Bhattacharya|
The first attempt to render Vyasa’s Mahabharata in a regional language was in Telegu by Nannaya in the middle of the 11th century C.E. It was, however, restricted to the first two books and a part of the third. Tikkana in the 13th century took this further but it was Yerrapragada who completed the Telugu adaptation of the unfinished Aranya Parva in the 14th century. In the 15th century a literary feature emerged in eastern India that became prominent by the 16th century not only in the East but also in the South. In the 15th century Vyasa’s Mahabharata was translated into Bengali (by Kobi Sonjoy), Kannada (by Kumara Vyasa, ten books only), then into Oriya (by Sarala Das) and in the 16th century into Assamese (Rama Sarasvati). None of these were literal, complete translations but rather adaptations, considerably reducing the massive bulk of the original Sanskrit composition. The reasons for this remarkable synchronicity in eastern India could be attributed to the felt need to assert the indigenous identity in the context of the Muslim invasion, but this calls for 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 of the Mahabharata into Bengali named Bharat Panchali (S.K.Sen, 2008, 61), “panchali” signifying the Bengali language. The work is not traceable but Kobindro Poromeshvor (early 16th century) states in his Bengali Mahabharat: “The glorious leader Nasrat Khan had the panchali composed, the ultimate in merit.” However, history is ignorant of any sultan of Bengal by this name who ruled for forty years. Examining the evidence, 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) (S.K.Sen, 2008, 61). 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 condensed in Bengali, so that it could be heard in a single day, by Kobindro Poromeshvor who completed it up to the Ashvomedh Porbo (Ghosh, 1969, p.152). This came to be known as the Poragoli Mahabharat and also as Pandob-Bijoy (Bandopadhyay, 2006, pp.441-2). It includes basically the battle stories, especially in the Ashvomedh Porbo which draws on Jaimini’s version omitting most of the incidents of Vyasa’s composition. 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 Shrikor Nondi. Kobindro would be referring to this Nusrat and to Shrikor’s panchali, not to an older unknown ruler and poetic work (S.K.Sen ibid.). Paragal’s son Chhuti Khan succeeded him as governor and got the Jaiminiya Ashvamedhaparva translated by Shrikor or Shrikoron Nondi which came to be known as Chhuti Khaner Mahabharat. Parts of it were included in the later Kashiram Das Mahabharat.
Like Nannaya in Telegu, Kobi Sonjoy was Bengal’s Adi Kavi, the first poet to write in Bengali and the first to translate the complete Mahabharata into panchali (Bangla) for rustic audiences using the poyar meter. He states that as Vyasa’s Sanskrit composition remained shrouded in darkness, its salvific nectar not available to the public, he translated it into Bangla to succour the sinful. M.K.Ghosh dates this work to the first half of the 15th century, before Chaitanya (1486-1533) and prior to the rule of Sultan Hussain Shah in Bengal (1494-1520) (Ghosh, 1969, p.123), being wholly devoid of any trace of that Vaishnava bhakti that permeates old Bengali literature. Instead, it contains several unusual Shakta-influenced episodes. Dinesh Chandra Sen feels that Kobi Sonjoy was possibly a contemporary of Krittibas, the translator of the Ramayana, not later than the 15th century (Ghosh, 1969 p.153). However, on the basis of language and style other scholars prefer to place him in the 17th century (Bandopadhyay, 2006, p.462).
A resident of Laur in the Sunamganj subdivision of Shrihatta (Sylhet) district in north-eastern Bangladesh, Sonjoy was a Brahmin pundit of the Bharadvaja gotra. Laur is famed as the birthplace of Chaitanya’s companion Advaitacharya. Sonjoy praises Bhagadatta as the ruler of Laur and also calls him ruler of “Bangadesh” though the Sanskrit Mahabharata does not do so. This is because Shrihatta was part of Bhagadatta’s kingdom of Pragjyotishpura (modern Assam). Sonjoy departs quite freely from the Sanskrit epic’s contents unlike Kashiram Das, a later and much better known translator. The narration is interspersed with lachari (songs with dance) to be sung in various ragas and raginis indicated in the text such as Basant, Kamod, Bhatiyal, Shri, Barari, Pathamanjari. Sonjoy is the only poet whose composition owes nothing to the patronage of a ruler.
Kobi Sonjoy created a new genre, the Pauranik fairy tale in his version of Vyasa’s epic. Intending to put across to ordinary folk ignorant of Sanskrit the core of the epic, he pursues a single thread to tell the tale, omitting the numerous upakhyanas and philosophy that litter Vyasa’s composition, adding inventions of his own. A vivid reflection of contemporary social mores is found in the description of women’s rites during Draupodi’s marriage. He creates a world full of magical elements to capture the attention of villagers. The key elements are given below:
• Amba’s love for Bhishmo is a creation of Sonjoy’s. Her inveterate pursuit of revenge rises from love spurned.
• Dhritorashtro plots with Durjodhon to build the lacquer house.
• In the Khandob (Khandava) conflagration the survivors are sage Lomosh, Surobhi, Danobendro (Maya) and Bishvokorma (Vishvakarma), with no sign of Vyasa’s bird-sage Mandapal and his family and Takshaka’s son.
• The Rajasuya yajna is held because Pandu, insulted in Svarga, despatches the sage Narod (Narada) to tell his sons to hold this sacrifice so that he can regain status. During the conquests, while proceeding to Lonka, Arjun encounters Honuman and an interesting folk-tale is spun. As Ram had shattered the bridge spanning the ocean, Arjun builds one with arrows which Honuman fails to break, much to his astonishment, and finds that it is supported by Narayan. Honuman accompanies Arjun to meet Bibhishon (Vibhishana) and obtains considerable tribute for Judhishthir. In the Southern recension of the Sanskrit text, Sahadeva dispatches Ghatotkacha to Vibhishana for the tribute. After returning from Lonka, Arjun breaks the bridge of arrows and Honuman gifts him a terrifying flag featuring himself.
In Bengal the influence Jaimini’s Ashvamedha Parva was felt most powerfully. It influenced the Assamese and Oriya Mahabharats too and it was very popular in Kannada (Lakshmisha’s translation). Its pre-eminent popularity in the country in the 16th century is testified to by the emperor Akbar preferring Jaimini’s version to Vyasa’s for the book of the horse-sacrifice when he had the epic translated into Persian in 1582-84 as Razm Nama, the Book of War (S.K.Sen, 2008, p.67).
According to Dinesh Chandra Sen (op.cit.), Kobi Sonjoy, Kobindro Poromeshvor, Shrikor Nondi and almost all the later translators have recorded that they translated the Mahabharat following the Jaimini-Samhita. Little is taken from Vyasa except for a few references. Jaimini was a leader among the pre-Shankaracharya revivalists of Hinduism. His disciple Bhattapada defeated the Buddhists in King Sudhanva’s court (S.K.Sen op.cit. p.22). Many ancient Bengali books contain references to the lost Jaimini-bharata. W.L.Smith (1999, p.402) mentions complete Bengali versions of the Ashvamedhaparva while A.K.Bandyopadhyay (op.cit. p.434) mentions Chandranath Basu’s Ashvamedhaparva in free prose (1317 B.S. i.e. 1910-11 AD). M.K.Ghosh refers to several others (Ghosh, 1969, p.214). Unfortunately, none of them state whether these works follow Vyasa or Jaimini, and what variations they contain.
The most popular Bengali verse translation remains that by Kashiram Das (17th century) which also follows Jaimini’s Ashvamedha Parva, but the influence of Chaitanya’s Vaishnavism is prominent. Kashiram’s work was a major influence on Bengali literature. He makes several innovations. Vyasa leaves his audience wondering about Janamejaya’s reaction to his project to annihilate serpents being aborted by Astika. The folk imagination is seen at work when Kashiram Das provides the answer in a sequel he creates:-
Jonomejoy (J) was furious with sages for foiling his vengeful enterprise. He determined to follow the example of Karttabirja, the Haiheya monarch, who had waged war against the Bhrigu Brahmins. His ministers restrained him pointing out that this had invited the destruction of the Haiheyas by Poroshuram. Instead, they advised, he should uproot all “kush” grass without which Brahmins would not be able to perform their rituals. J had ghee, milk, honey and molasses poured at the grassroots so that ants destroyed them. Noticing the distress of the sages Byas visited J and, telling him that his father could not have escaped what was fated, persuaded him to abandon the campaign against Brahmins. J now wished to expiate the sin of having killed innumerable innocent snakes by performing the horse sacrifice as his ancestors had done after the fratricidal war. Byas told him that in Kali Yuga sacrificing horse or cow was prohibited, as was obtaining a son through the younger brother-in-law (niyoga) and serving meat in funeral rites. J, however, was insistent and went ahead with the sacrifice. After the horse had been beheaded, Indra made the decapitated head jump about, humiliating the king. A Brahmin youth clapped and laughed aloud at the spectacle. Enraged, J cut him in two with his sword. The assembled guests fled in horror, condemning him for brahminicide and boycotted him. Byas appeared before the dejected king and pointed out that the disaster had occurred because he had not heeded the warning. J, his pride humbled, fell at his feet and begged him to advise how his subjects could be reconciled to him. Byas told him that all the sins he had committed would be purged if he listened to the hundred thousand verses of the Mahabharat under a black canopy which would turn white when the recital ended. Not having the time to recite the epic, Byas engaged his disciple Boishompayon to do the needful. When the entire Mahabharat had been recited, everyone was amazed to see that the pandal had turned a pristine white. Everyone praised J who honoured Boishompayon profusely, drinking the water in which his feet had been washed, and distributed gold, cows, land and food to sages.
Kashidas states that his composition is based upon what he had heard from itinerant rhapsodes. Hence the folk element is strong in his composition. The variations from Vyasa created by him are:-
• Shib’s infatuation with the Mohini avatar leading to the Ardhanarishvar manifestation;
Kaliprasanna Singha (b.1840/1841, d. 24 July 1870) authored the first Bengali prose translation of the Mahabharata. Educated in Sanskrit, Bengali and English, he left school in 1857 at the age of 16 and established the Bidyotsahini 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 1859 Malati-Madhava. These plays were staged in his theatre with him in the main roles. Purana-sangraha, a collection of Puranik stories from the Mahabharata, was published between 1860 and 1866. His greatest literary feat was his translation of the Mahabharata 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. Being unsure of the reception, 3000 copies of each parva were printed. Singha excluded the Harivamsha as he found its composition to be evidently of a much later date than the epic. He planned to publish its translation along with those of the Puranas, but this never came about because of his early demise aged only 30.
What the team of BORI editors of the critical text of the Mahabharata have done now, young Kaliprasanna did in 1858, collating manuscripts from the Asiatic Society, Shobhabazar Palace, the collections of Asutosh Deb, Jatindramohon Thakur and from 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 Vyasa-kuta verses from Taranath Tarkavacaspati teacher in 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 upon 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) and 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 each proof reader. As it progressed, every evening the translation was read out to Raja Radhakanta Deb and other prominent leaders of Hindu society such as 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 (obviously, Kobi Sonjoy’s was little known), regretting that details of his life and dates are not recorded anywhere. He leaves out discussion and summaries of Sanskrit literature based on the Asiatic Society’s researches and Max Muller’s edition of texts to avoid any controversy that might harm the unrestricted acceptance of his translation.
Dedicating his translation to Empress Victoria in gratitude for the British rescuing Bharatavarsha from the mortal clutches of the Mughals, Kaliprasanna compares 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 trusts that Hindusthan will be lit up during her reign by hundreds of lamps of Sanskrit literature as during Vikramaditya’s reign by Kalidasa etc. and in Queen Elizabeth’s reign by Shakespeare etc. to make her reign unforgettable. Today one is surprised that there is no mention of the 1857 Mutiny although the translation was started the next year. The elite of Bengal were not enamoured of the aborted effort, preferring to announce their loyalty to the British Empress as vociferously as possible.
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