Book Reviews

Bibek DebRoy: The Mahabharata

Bibek DebRoy: The Mahabharata, volume 7, Penguin, 2013, pp. xxxviii+562, Rs. 599/-

“How are the mighty fallen in the midst of battle,
and the weapons of war perished!”—David’s lament over Saul

Bibek Deb Roy, professor of economics in New Delhi, has shouldered the massive enterprise of translating into English prose the “critical edition” (CE) of the Mahabharata (nearly 74,000 shlokas). As a single-handed effort, it surely deserves admiration. The 7th volume covering the deaths of Karna (“I have been born for valour and for fame,” p.140), Shalya (“The two Krishnas, stationed on their chariot…though united, they are not my equal in strength of arms,” p.336) and Duryodhana (“Who can be more fortunate than I am?... I will go to heaven…You will sorrow here,” p.545), brings the formal war to an end, closing with Duryodhana lustrating Ashvatthama as general.

The first attempt to English Vyasa’s massive magnum opus was begun possibly in 1872 by Kishori Mohon Ganguli who was commissioned by Pratap Chandra Roy. Why Roy chose Ganguli we have no idea. The publication began in 1883 and was complete in 1896. From Ganguli we learn that, as a specimen, he had been handed a draft of an attempt by a German friend of Max Muller’s done in the 1850s, which he found very clumsy. The enormous enterprise was completed single-handed except for parts of the Adi and the Sabha Parvas where Charu Charan Mookerjee and Krishna Kamal Bhattacharya helped, and another portion by an unnamed person. Ganguli depended largely on the Bengal recension and also used the Bombay recension.

The Rector of Serampore College, M.N.Dutt, authored another translation (1895-1905) drawing largely on Ganguli, immediately after completing his translation of the Ramayana (1889, 1892-94). Both Ganguli and Dutt provided only prose renderings, Latinising or omitting passages that would shock Victorian sensibilities. There has been no complete English translation as yet.

Romesh Chunder Dutt ICS produced the first verse condensation in Locksley Hall metre in 1893, following that up with a similar one of the Ramayana. R.T.H. Griffith had already rendered Valmiki into verse during 1870-75. J.A.B. van Buitenen began translating the so-called “Critical Edition” produced by the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Poona, for the Chicago University but could complete only the first five books and the Gita (1973-1981). In continuation, out of sequence, James Fitzgerald’s translation of books 11 (Stri) and part of 12 (Shanti) has been published. The Clay Sanskrit Library started publishing different parts of an English translation of the Bombay recension in pocket-sized diglot editions from 2005, but ran out of funds after publishing 8 books and parts of some others. All these have been prose translations. In December 1968 Professor P.Lal of St.Xavier’s College, Calcutta, published the first fascicule of his verse-and-prose translation of the complete Mahabharata, known in academia as the “vulgate,” from his Writers Workshop. He not only translated all by himself but also published single-handed, combining Ganguli and P.C.Roy! Before his death, he had published revised editions of all but the Shanti and Anushasana Parvas.

In this 7th volume, for the first time we find Sanjaya fighting in the war, losing his armour and being saved by Vyasa as Satyaki is about to behead him. He reports to Dhritarashtra on returning from the battlefield following the death of each general. The “divine vision” is his ability to know not only what is occurring everywhere in the field but also the thoughts of the combatants which vanishes after the death of Duryodhana as does his role as rapporteur that began in the Udyoga Parva.

Stylistically, Karna Parva is a highlight of poetic beauty. That is why the prose translation dissatisfies and the Lal version scores. Look at the translations of the deaths of Karna and Shalya:

“The body-less head of Karna
blazed on the battlefield
like a mountain peak
downed by a storm,
like a yajna-flame extinguished,
like the sun-orb setting
in the Asta hills.” — P.Lal

“It was as if the untainted and extinguished fire was lying down in the expansive sky, after the end of a sacrifice. Karna’s body was beautiful, like the rays of the sun in the firmament” — Deb Roy

“Like a fire scattered by a great wind when it is at rest in the morning at the termination of a sacrifice. Karna’s body shone like the sun with its rays.” — Hiltebeitel

“The bull among men fell down affectionately on the ground, like a beloved wife who falls down on the chest of her dear husband. The lord had enjoyed the earth for a long time, like a beloved wife. He seemed to go to sleep now, clasping her with all his limbs.” — Deb Roy

“And the earth
lovingly clasped
that bull-brave hero
to herself,
Like a lovelorn girl
embracing her lover
to her breasts.
Long did he lie there,
passionately enjoying
the earth,
Covering her
with all his limbs,
sleeping with her peacefully.” — P. Lal

Just before Karna’s chariot wheel sinks into the boggy ground, Krishna lifts the Kapidhvaja chariot out of the ground, which Karna is unable to emulate because his charioteer, Shalya (whose name we learn here is ‘Aartayaani’), does not stir a finger. The relationship between charioteer and warrior is revealed as the secret underlying victory or defeat, where the fighters are equally matched. Even at the end Krishna protects Arjuna by making him descend first. The moment Krishna steps down, the chariot goes up in flames (p.547).

Karna critiques dharma: “But instead of protecting one who is devoted, it (dharma) is now bringing me down. I think that dharma does not always protect” (p.299). In the Sabha Parva, Bhishma’s reply to Draupadi’s anguished query was: “What a strong man says/ often becomes the only dharma;/ a weak man may have dharma on his side,/ but who listens to him? (P.Lal).” Yudhishthira voices the cold truth after Duryodhana falls: “Pandava has accomplished his desire. How does it matter whether it was dharma or adharma?”

Karna’s character remains a puzzle. His motto “I have been born for valour and for fame” (p.140) supersedes the professed dedication to Duryodhana. For glory he releases four Pandavas after defeating them. It would be wrong to ascribe this to the promise he had made to Kunti, because to her he had pledged not to kill any of the brothers save Arjuna. Nothing had been said about imprisoning them. Had he captured Yudhishthira (as Drona had planned), the war would have been over. Strangely enough, Arjuna and Krishna never worry about this where Karna is concerned. We have to look back to the secret meeting between Krishna and Karna at the end of the Udyoga Parva to understand why.

Karna’s picture of society in Gandhara (Kabul valley), Bahlika (Bactria-northern Afghanistan) and Madraka (northern Punjab in Pakistan) is violently vituperative, reminiscent of Sodom and Gomorrah. Hence it is curious that Bhishma chose princesses from there for Dhritarashtra and Pandu. Sahadeva’s wife Vijaya is also from Madra. Further, easterners are regarded as slaves while southerners are considered contemptible. Hence, the sudden paean to the Pandya king’s valour is singular. In the Southern recension Chitrangada is the Pandya princess of Manilura. The Kaurava allies are from the East, the South and the North-west.

We discover why Shiva is called Mahadeva: the gods gave him half their energy for destroying the triple cities (chapter 24). Here Duryodhana emerges as a riveting narrator of the cosmic myth. The universe is figured forth as a chariot and the gods empower Shiva with weapons, a motif recurring in the crowning of Skanda in the Shalya Parva, and in Durga’s investiture in the Devi Bhagavata.

It is interesting that each Pandava has a designated opponent as his “share” — even Yudhishthira whom Krishna exhorts to kill Shalya and not drown in this puddle having crossed an ocean. Nakula alone has none.

The war descriptions follow a formula of metaphors and similes, the predominating one being a river of blood, similar to the picture in the Iliad (Book 21) of the river Scamander, but poetically far more elaborate. Like the Valkyries, Apsaras take dead warriors to heaven. Unique to the war books is the deliberate conjunction of lovely pictures from nature with the violence of death, reminiscent of the English metaphysical poets’ technique: bloody arms are like golden standards, lopped-off heads are like crimson flowers, bloodied bodies are like flames-of-the-forest. The deities invoked are all Vedic, like Indra, Surya, Soma, Vayu, Agni and the later Skanda. Vaishnavism is not prevalent in the war books, which is one reason for their being regarded as the ‘original’ epic.

Arjuna is generally considered invincible, yet in the Karna Parva the Trigarta king Susharma knocks him unconscious, injures Krishna and immobilises their chariot. His warriors climb on to it and physically grab hold of Arjuna and Krishna (chapter 37). Ashvatthama and Karna both succeed in injuring Krishna and we notice that although charioteers were unarmed, there was no compunction in killing them. The code of battle Bhishma had prescribed no longer obtained.

When Arjuna is about to kill Yudhishthira (chapter 49), Krishna reads him a homily on non-violence being the supreme virtue (which is what the dundubha snake had told Ruru in the Adi Parva, Arjuna argued in the Gita, and Yudhishthira always stresses). Lying is preferable to killing and Dharma is subtle, he says, echoing Bhishma’s reply to Draupadi in the gambling hall. Twice Krishna repeats when one should lie: when being robbed of everything, when in mortal danger, during enjoyment and in marriage! Krishna says, “A person who is always based on truth is but a child. A person who can differentiate between truth and falsehood can alone follow dharma... Everything is not laid down in the sacred texts.” This is where he defines dharma: “Dharma is so called because it holds everything up.”

From Ashvatthama we learn that he and Kripa cannot be killed (p.289) but the reason is not given. As with Richard Crookback, Duryodhana’s horse is slain under him, a unique instance of an equestrian hero, Shakuni’s Gandharans being the only cavalry division. Only then is he described as fearfully taking shelter within a lake. When discovered, he offers the kingdom to Yudhishthira who, for a change, scornfully refuses and insists on a fight to the death. But then, to Krishna’s fury, the gambler in him takes over, and he promises that should Duryodhana defeat any one of them, the kingdom will be his! Krishna furiously berates Yudhishthira for placing the enemy on equal footing, as Duryodhana is more skilled than any Pandava with the mace. “It is almost as if the ancient and unequal gambling match between you and Shakuni is being enacted again,” exclaims Krishna.

Chapter 2 of the Shalya Parva contains a deeply moving plangent lament by Dhritarashtra repeatedly calling out to Duryodhana, “Come to me…where have you gone!” that harks back to his memorable lament that begins the Mahabharata: “Then I no longer hoped for victory, Sanjaya!”

There is an interesting footnote Deb Roy provides about Narada’s lute: the original word is kacchapi, i.e. it is made of the shell of a tortoise. This recalls the Greek Hermes whose lyre was made out of tortoise shell and who, like Narada, was the celestial messenger. When Bhima lists Duryodhana’s crimes, he mentions having slain the “Pratikami” (servant) who dragged Draupadi by the hair which is puzzling unless he is demeaning Duhshasana. More intriguing is the absence of any reference to the greatest offence viz. the attempted stripping of Draupadi anywhere outside the Sabha Parva. Was it added later? Chapter 38 of the Shalya Parva (p.465) provides a mini-myth about Rama that is missing from the Ramayana: Rama had shot off a rakshasa’s head which got stuck in the thigh of sage Mahodara. This embedded skull fell off when he bathed in the Aushanasa tirtha of the Sarasvati, which came to be known as “Kapalamochana”. Deb Roy’s footnote 66 on p.17 mentions that Abhimanyu slew one of the six who encircled him, namely Brihadbala, but does not add that he was king of Kosala and possibly the last in Rama’s lineage.

To avoid taking sides in the war, Balarama goes on a pilgrimage which reveals the pre-eminence of Sarasvati among rivers, even though it no longer flowed to the sea having disappeared at Vinasana. The tirthas bring out the unique ability of Bharatavarsha to hold together two diametrically opposite beliefs: one pilgrimage celebrates Shrucavati attaining heaven unmarried, while another is holy because Kuni-Gargya’s aged daughter bought a husband with half her merit for one night because spinsters cannot reach heaven! The Jaigishavya-Asita story extols sanyasa above the householder’s dharma, whereas elsewhere it is dutiful domesticity that is said to surpass renunciation. A fascinating insight into the predicament of gods is provided in the account about Kurukshetra (p.516). If by dying there men reach heaven, they will no longer sacrifice and so the gods will cease to exist! The problem is that the boon Indra grants Kuru to offset this seems to be the same thing: “great merits to those who give up their lives here.” Do “great merits” preclude heaven and make sacrifices obligatory? Janamejaya does not ask Vaishampayana to clarify.

Balarama condemns Krishna’s prevarication and Bhima’s cheating. Sanjaya bluntly calls it, “deceptive exposition of dharma by Keshava” and describes a heavenly shower of celestial blossoms, divine music, fragrant breeze and clear sky celebrating Duryodhana’s last words to Krishna, “I will go to heaven…You will sorrow here.” The Pandavas are said to be ashamed and distressed. Is their morale restored by Krishna declaring that he had strategised thus because in a fair fight the Kaurava heroes were undefeatable, confirming Duryodhana’s indictment, “Had you fought (us) through fair means, it is certain that you would not have been victorious. However, you adopted ignoble and deceitful methods”? When Krishna restrains the furious Balarama by saying, “Their prosperity is our prosperity,” the Yadava interest is revealed. It is Krishna’s great grandson Vajra who is installed at Indraprastha, the Pandava capital, with the Yadava survivors. Duryodhana trusts that Charvaka will avenge him which is of a piece with his contemptuous treatment of rishis and the absence of a priest in the Hastinapura court. Duryodhana was a materialist. Hence all the sages backed the Pandavas to preserve their hegemony in society.

It reflects adversely on the professionalism of the publishers that they not only misspell “Shalya” as “Shalaya” throughout the page headings (pp. 319-377) but have not bothered to correct the errors in the Introduction reprinted from the first volume. The genealogical chart has serious errors, showing Yayati married to Anantaa who is his son Puru’s daughter-in-law. Ganga is shown born to Pratipa and Sunanda, i.e. sister to Shantanu whom she marries. Kuru is not the grandson of Bharata (p.xix) but at least five generations after him. Nowhere is it said that the original “Jaya” was of 8,800 verses. This is the number of riddling shlokas (Vyasa-kuta) Sauti mentions and his name is Ugrashrava, not Lomaharshana, which is his father’s name (p.xxi). The critical edition (CE) does not “eliminate later interpolations” (p.xxii) but only retains readings that are common to the maximum number of manuscripts, taking the Kashmir Sharada manuscript as the basis. In the process, the editors created gaps in the narrative which Deb Roy bridges very helpfully by supplying missing links. On p. 209 he points out an important editorial oversight: Ashvatthama is described as of Bhrigu lineage whereas he is of Bharadvaja lineage. The translations by Ganguly and Dutt are not unabridged (p.xxvii) but Latinised or omitted objectionable passages. Deb Roy pats himself on the back for being one of the Bengalis who alone have translated the entire epic into English, but in the process transforms the Punjabi P.Lal into a Bengali! He claims that Ramayana is post-Mahabharata as it depicts a more sophisticated society where rocks stones and fists are not used in battle. However, that is precisely how the vanara fight the rakshasa, and so do warriors in Kurukshetra in his own translation (p. 88). Footnote 795 mistakenly states that Parashurama had cursed Karna his chariot would be stuck in the earth. That was the curse of a Brahmin whose cow Karna had killed by mistake. On p.435 “parshni charioteers” and on p. 496 “nairrtas” have not been glossed. “King of deer” (p.323) is an inaccurate translation of mrigendra which means, “Indra/Lord of beasts”, as mriga means “wild beasts,” not merely, “deer”.

A shorter version was published on 6th October 2013 in The Sunday Statesman’s 8th Day Literary Supplement.


More by :  Dr. Pradip Bhattacharya

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Views: 3492      Comments: 4

Comment Hello Sir,

It’s been a pleasure reading your articles. I luckily chanced upon your write ups and I am glad that I did. I am myself a student of Indian mythology both out of interest and a sort of compulsion, reasons for which are hard for me to describe at a public forum.

I have read various versions of the Mahabharat and have also read ''Krishna Charitra'' by Bankim. In the book, Bankim wrote a line which has always struck a chord with me. He gives an example of European conquerors such as Alexander and blames them of causing mass scale genocide of humanity in their lust for power. He also compares them with thieves.

Keeping this point in mind I wish to understand the context of Rajasuya and Ashwamedha yajna. The way they have been described in the Mahabharat, to my eyes are very similar to any conquest by a power hungry king in any culture. In my understanding (even though I hope and wish that it is incomplete so that I can reach a different and constructive conclusion), Pandavas conducting Rajsuya and Ashwamedha yajnas, which they conducted on the advice of Krishna, is equivalent to Alexander''s ruthless conquest or a conquest by any other power hungry monarch; the history is replete with such examples.

Unfortunately, I fail to understand the ''Dharma'' here. Why would we consider doing a Ashwamedha and a Rajasuya yajnas, which are essentially meant for engaging neighboring states/countries in to an uninvited war, in the garb of a religious ritual? The states which are attacked or are asked to accept the supremacy of Pandavas would essentially try to defend their money from the attack of our heroes the Pandavas. In my understanding, if the practices of Rajsuya/Ashwamedha were still prevalent and the terms still in common use, then the English historians would write about the golden rule of the English, where the sun never set, in the garb of the same fancy nomenclature, giving it a religious/ethical/dharmic overtone. Only the innocents who suffer from such attacks know the anguish of it and as Indians we are very much familiar with the pain.

I will be grateful, if you could explain to me the true meanings of such bloody yajnas (if there is any true meaning behind it, which never caught my eye, even though I highly doubt of such a possibility). I have done extensive research and asked many a experts but they have failed to explain me a thing, making me loose all hope.

But still I await an answer.


13-Feb-2015 06:19 AM

Comment Nice article, sir.
Could you kindly enlighten me whose translation is most authenticate.
If Duryodhana is said to have ruled well then why did Sri Krishna wanted him vanquished? What is Dharma according to Krishna? and what was Duryodhana missing? some say Duryodhana was only fighting for his birth rights- that he is the rightful king of undivided hastinapur. Kindly enlighten me in this matter.
Thank you.

rakshit rao
20-Oct-2014 04:20 AM

Comment the Lal transcreation is available from

pradip bhattacharya
16-Jun-2014 01:58 AM

Comment The P. Lal translation is out of print. Does anyone know if it is available online, as is the Ganguli translation?

Stanley Brookoff
13-Jun-2014 16:40 PM

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