Book Reviews

The Dharma of Moksha

— The Way of Liberation

The Mahabharata of Vyasa: The Complete Shantiparva Part 2: Mokshadharma
translated from Sanskrit by Dr. Pradip Bhattacharya,
Writers Workshop, Kolkata, 2016, pp. 1107, Rs. 2000/-

Padma Shri Professor Purushottam Lal, D. Litt., Jawaharlal Nehru fellow, began transcreating the Mahabharata in 1968 in free flowing English verse. It was indeed a mammoth effort and unique because no one else had attempted a translation of the epic in verse before him. Unfortunately, he could transcreate and publish sixteen and a half of the epic’s eighteen books before he breathed his last in 2010. Mokshadharma Parva of Shanti Parva and the Anushasana Parva remained to be completed. Perhaps, like a true guru, he wished to test the abilities of his shishyas to take up the challenge of completing his unfinished project. And Dr. Pradip Bhattacharya, a worthy shishya of a great guru, took up the challenge of translating, and not transcreating as he says, the remaining part of the Shanti Parva, the Mokshadharma Parvadhyaya. It is indeed very brave of Bhattacharya as this part, in my opinion, is the most difficult section of the epic revealing the essence of Vyasan philosophy. In many ways, Bhattacharya is the right person to undertake this work, given his deep and extensive scholarship about the epic. Besides, he has his own reasons. He writes in the Preface:

‘Professor Lal was my much-admired guru and beloved acharya in every sense. He gifted me a copy of his extensively revised edition of the complete Adi Parva (2005) with the inscription, “for Pradip, chela extraordinaire, shubham te astu,” leaving me overwhelmed. It was therefore, a wonderful opportunity to offer dakshina when his son, Professor Ananda Lal, handed me the Professor’s copy of the Gita Press Shanti Parva volume and asked me to complete the project – a signal honour and a great challenge.”

The book under review has a short preface, the main text and a few interesting annexures. These include maps of Aryavarta and of India at the time of the Mahabharata sketched by Prof. Lal, a list of stories narrated in the Moksha Dharma Parva (courtesy Madhusraba Dasgupta’s Samsad Companion to the Mahabharata) and reviews penned by Bhattacharya of Karna Parva, Stree Parva and Shanti Parva, Part 1, (Raja Dharma) transcreated and published by Prof. Lal earlier. These elegant reviews were published in The Statesman’s 8th Day literary supplement and provide interesting reading. The Preface explains the methodology followed: keeping to the original syntax as far as possible, in free verse and prose faithful to Prof. Lal’s objective of providing the full ragbag version. “The text is a conflation of the editions published by the Gita Press...Aryashastra and that edited by Haridas Siddhantabagish Bhattacharya with the Bharatakaumudi and Nilakantha’s Bharatabhavadipa annotations, cross-checked with Kaliprasanna Sinha’s Bengali translation, the first English translation by K.M.Ganguly and the shorter Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute edition.”

After the Kurukshetra holocaust, Yudhishthira, stricken with sorrow and guilt, receives instruction from Bhishma on three aspects: Rajadharma, principles of governance, Apaddharma, principles to be followed in extremity and Mokshadharma, principles for attaining liberation. The book under review deals with Mokshadharma. It starts from Section 174 of the Shanti Parva (Section 168 of the Pune Critical Edition).

Having been instructed on the principles of governance, Yudhishthira shifts gear and ascends to the higher level of philosophy with the question,

“O Pitamaha-grandfather, you have
spoken on auspicious
Rajadharma, the dharma of governance.
O Earth-lord, speak.
now of the best dharma of ashramites!”

He follows it up with a series of questions which reveal a supremely disturbed mind trying to find solace, seeking a way, a method by which he can get over the guilt, the sorrow and the confusion arising out of losing all his relations and friends in the pyrrhic battle for which he holds his own greed responsible. Bhishma tells him that everyone must try to obtain moksha, liberation, by way of detachment which can only come if one remains unaffected by worldly emotions and possessions. One must rise above sorrow and happiness as these are ephemeral. True nature of the Self, atma-gyana, must arise before liberation can be achieved. That emancipates him from the liability of rebirth and that is the highest goal of human existence. That is the only cure for the affliction Yudhishthira suffers from.

Easier said than done! So, for the next two hundred and one chapters, Bhishma holds forth on how to succeed in obtaining liberation, answering myriad questions from the troubled Yudhisthira, opening up the vast expanse of epic philosophy, proceeding from one concept to the other. He talks about removal of sorrow and attainment of supreme joy, removal of attachment and giving up of desire, renunciation, truth, samadarshana-equity, importance of japa, reciting the name of god, dhyana, dana (gift) and tapasya-ascesis. He talks about the four ashramas and due observation of the duties prescribed for each, underlining the importance of sadachara, virtuous conduct. Non-violence must be practised and therefore slaying of animals in sacrifices cannot be approved (even though we observe the continued performance of Ashvamedha!). To explain each concept Bhishma narrates stories and dialogues. There are fifty-five such engaging stories (with, of course, many sub-stories, stories within stories), in the Mokshadharma Parva establishing a tradition followed later perhaps by works like Panchatantra, Hitopadesa, etc.

Samkhya philosophy has been dealt with at some length because ignorance is the root cause of misfortune. An ignorant man can never achieve moksha. Therefore, knowledge is of primary importance. In this Parva we find the Samkhya theories of Devala and Panchasikha, a detailed delineation of the cosmic principles by Yagyavalkya to Janaka and also discussions on concepts like avyakta, gyana, buddhi, manas, mahat, ahamkara, prakriti, pancha-bhuta, vikaras – the twenty-four principles later modified to twenty-five and then to twenty-six, in short. Panchasikha of course had thirty-one principles in his conceptualisation. It assumes the three gunas and that everyone comes under the influence of these. Therefore, Samkhya basically emphasises that renunciation and knowledge of all these principles are necessary preconditions for obtaining moksha. Dharmadhvaja-Janaka says to Sulabha, disciple of the Samkhya philosopher, Panchasikha,

“...renunciation is the supreme
means for this moksha and
indeed from knowledge is born renunciation
which liberates.
...That supreme intelligence obtained, I
free of opposites,
here indeed, delusion gone, move free of attachment.”

Though this is the basic tenet of samkhya, interestingly Sulabha takes this far deeper in response to his question, who she was and from where she had come, saying,

“Who I am, whose I am, from where I have
come, you asked me.
...If you are free from dualities of
“This is mine,” perhaps
“This is not mine,” O ruler of Mithila,
then what need of
words like, “Who are you? Whose? From where?”

She goes on to deliver a very lengthy lecture on Panchasikha’s Samkhya, saying,

“Not attached am I to my own body.
...Not, surely, did you hear the entire moksha
from Panchasikha,
with its means,its Upanishad, its adjuncts
and its conclusions.”

For Sulabha, nothing is one’s own. One’s self is part of the same self in any other body which is composed of the elements that revert to the unmanifest source. For Asita Devala the ultimate goal is Ananda in the state of Brahman.

Yoga is a necessary addendum of Samkhya. Mahabharata describes two kinds of yoga: the Raudra and the Vedic ashtanga, laying down the rules of diet etc., and the methods of attaining ultimate bliss. Samkhya gives knowledge and Yoga, health. Through Samkhya one attains knowledge and through Yoga one attains direct perception. According to the epic, both are complementary and both are equally efficacious.

In course of the Brahmanisation of the epic, many stories were added almost deifying the Brahmins. But the epic still reflected thoughts displaying a great extent of catholicity. One becomes a Brahmin not by birth but by his gunas, qualities and consequent karma, not by birth. In the Vana Parva Nahusha tells Yudhishthira,

“Truth, self-control and charity,
non-violence, tapasya,
and the practice of dharma –
not caste and not family –
are the means to perfection.” (Vana Parva, 181-42/43).

The Gita displays similar catholicity and the same generosity is displayed in the Mokshadharma Parva too. Having described the characteristics of various gunas, Bhrigu tells Bharadvaja,

“If these characteristics exist in
a shudra and
they are not in a twice-born Brahmin,
that Shudra is
indeed no Shudra and that Brahmin is
not a Brahmin.” (Shanti Parva, 189.8)

That is the reason why even in a strong Brahmin-dominated society this Parva celebrates non-Brahmins like Sulabha the Kshatriya, Pingala the prostitute, Tuladhara the merchant, etc. and bestows great wisdom on them.

In fact, a major part of the Gita is included in the Mokshadharma Parvadhyaya. The concepts of Karmayoga, Gyanayoga, Rajayoga, etc are more or less covered in this Parva and though Bhakti is not specifically mentioned, it flows as an undercurrent through the Parva. Many of the protagonists mention bhakti in passing as an essential element for achieving success. The resplendent Bhagwan appeared before Narada and told him that the maha-rishis Ekata, Dvita and Trita craved for his darshan, but

“They were unable to see me. None can
see me save those
excellent ones exclusively devoted
to me, and indeed you
believe in the ultimate.”

Bhishma’s total surrender to Krishna is sufficient to indicate that Bhakti was never far from his thought process.

While going through Bhattacharya’s translation, two things appear to be worthy of specific note, viz., the emergence of Shiva and the Nara-Narayana duo as important deities in this Parva in the Krishna-dominated epic. Though we have seen Shiva earlier in the Samudra-manthana (Adi Parva), Kirata and Arjuna episodes (Vana Parva) and the Ashvatthama-Shiva encounter (Sauptika Parva), it is in this Parva that Shiva gets his due place as a principal deity. In the story of Vritra, it is Shiva who infects Vritra with fever and empowers Indra with his energy which enables Indra to slay Vritra. This is immediately followed by the Daksha-sacrifice episode in which Shiva creates Virabhadra and Parvati, Bhadrakali, born of her anger. The two together destroy the sacrifice. Most importantly, at the conclusion of the sacrifice Shiva, who till now was not entitled to a divine share in sacrifices, a mark of godhood, becomes entitled and consequently gets recognition as a deity. Daksha sang a paean to Shiva describing his greatness and reciting his one hundred and eight names. In the Shukracharya episode Kubera approaches Shiva requesting him to recover his wealth from the usurper, Shukracharya. Shiva subdues Shukracharya in the most interesting manner, confirming his divine powers. In the story of Shuka, Vyasa himself prays to Shiva for a son, as pure as the five elements. By Shiva’s boon Vyasa gets Shuka as his son.

The Supreme Soul Narayana incarnated in four parts as Dharma’s sons, Nara, Narayana, Hari and Krishna. Of these, Nara and Narayana performed severe ascesis in Badrikashrama where Narada met them. To behold Narayana’s original form Narada, with the permission of Nara and Narayana, went to Shvetadvipa where he met the divine inhabitants, supermen who were totally dedicated to Narayana. Narayana was pleased to appear before him in his cosmic form. Some scholars locate Shvetadvipa somewhere near Egypt or Asia Minor and claim that the legend is influenced by Christian thought. Winternitz however says, “In my opinion, the description of Shvetadvipa...does not remind us of the Christian Eucharist, but of heavenly regions such as Vaikuntha, Goloka, Kailasa and the Sukhavati paradise of Buddha Amitava (History of Indian Literature, Vol. 1, p 440).”

However, Narayana goes on to describe his characteristics, incarnations and activities which involve removal of evil and establishment of good, etc. During that dialogue he mentions that when he, with Arjuna, destroys the Kshatriyas in Kurukshetra, it will be said that Nara and Narayana destroyed the Kshatriyas. So, Nara and Narayana are incarnations of the Supreme Soul and, therefore, gods. To establish that concept on firm footing, the duo are depicted as defeating Shiva-Rudra in a battle. Narada returned to Badrikashrama, spent a thousand years there and worshipped Nara-Narayana. Since then Nara and Narayana are worshipped as gods.

At the end of it all, Yudhishthira asks his last question of Mokshadharma Parvadhyaya:

“Grandfather, the dharma relating to
the auspicious
moksha-dharma you have stated. The best
dharma for those
in the ashramas, pray tell me, Sir!”

In fact, that was his first question too! Bhishma then proceeds to tell him the story of the Brahmin Dharmaranya and the Naga chief Padmanabha. The Brahmin faced a dilemma: there are so many dharmas; for moksha, which one should he follow? Padmanabha told him the story of the Brahmin who obtained moksha by unchhavritti, gleaning, once again by the grace of Shiva. The Brahmin’s doubts were removed and he took up unchhavritti. Unchhavritti seems to be the favourite option for Vyasa as through it all the behavioural parameters for moksha can be achieved. He not only ends the Shanti Parva with such a story but also the Ashvamedhika Parva. There, too, another Brahmin attains moksha by practicing unchhavritti.

But all of Bhishma’s wise discourses fall on deaf ears. Yudhishthira is not fully convinced and tells Bhishma, “You have described to me many fine tenets by which to obtain peace. But even after listening to all of it attentively, I am not getting peace.” So, Bhishma continues with the Anushasana Parva. But that is another story.

The most important quality of any translation is its readability and authenticity. Most translations suffer from the use of extraneous verbiage and loss of material. Bhattacharya has very carefully avoided these traps. He has stuck to the text diligently. Moreover, he has managed to communicate the content and meaning of the concepts, which are, to say the least, very difficult to comprehend. One can move easily with the easy flow of language of the text. Bhattacharya has worked hard indeed to bring Mokshadharma to the readers’ easy comprehension.

The second quality that strikes one is the excellent poetry of Bhattacharya. It is rich yet simple. The reader never stumbles as he goes along. The use of rhetoric is fetching. It has the easy flow of a river and the cadence of raindrops and that is what makes the translation so attractive. Consider just one stanza,

“Wrapped in many-fold threads of delusion
as a silk-worm envelopes itself, you
do not understand.” (329.28)

Also, it must be remembered that Bhattacharya is the first scholar who has translated the Mokshadharma Parva in verse.

Lastly, the depth of research that has gone into this translation is amazing. He has gone through so many other editions, viz., the Mahabharat of Haridas Siddhantabagish, the Critical edition of BORI, K.M.Ganguly’s English translation, Kaliprasanna Singha’s Bengali translation, the Southern recension, etc. The additional stories and verses that he found have been included in the translation, justifying Prof. Lal’s objective of providing the reader with a “full ragbag version”. The additional stories that he has included are two from the Southern recension (Narada and Rishi story), four from Haridas Siddhantabagish (Nibandhana-Bhogavati, Narada, Garuda and Kapila-Asuri) and many verses not found in the Gorakhpur edition. This has given the book the kind of comprehensiveness which even Prof. Lal did not achieve.

Now a few words about the annexures. The map of India at the time of Mahabharata gives us the location of all the principal monarchies in the country. Similarly, the map of Aryavarta gives us a detailed description of the places and kingdoms in the northern part of India where the main events of the epic took place. These are very informative and help us to visualise the events as they occur while reading the text.

The production of the book is excellent. The readers will be pleased to see that Writers Workshop continues Prof. Lal’s innovation of handloom sari-bound production with gold-lettering in his unique calligraphy. In his own words, “Gold-embossed, hand-stitched, hand-pasted and hand-bound by Tulamiah Mohiuddin with handloom sari cloth woven and designed in India, to provide visual beauty and the intimate texture of book-feel…Each WW publication is a hand-crafted artifact.” Happily, it still is.

What makes the reviews penned by Bhattacharya most interesting is his frequent references to characters and events from folk literature, literature of other Indian languages and world literature, which he uses to draw comparisons. Comparing Karna with Achilles (Iliad) and Edmund (King Lear), reference to Karna in Gujarati songs, comparing and contrasting Hecuba and Gandhari, reference to the works of Hiltebeitel and Fitzgerald, Haribhadra’s Jain text, the text engraved on the Garuda pillar of Heliodorus, David’s lament, Deor’s Lament, reference to Arthashastra and various Dharmashastras etc are fascinating. Besides enriching the knowledge of the reader, these make the reviews multi-hued, enhancing the readability level manifold.

The Mahabharata, like the ocean, hides many gems in its huge bulk, generally not available in the popular editions offered in the market. It requires deep insight and study to find them. Bhattacharya has these in good measure. He has brought out information not easily perceived by the reader. Karna, considered “the never-retreating hero” by Dhritarashtra, who haunted Yudhishthira wherever he went and of whom Krishna himself was apprehensive, actually fled the field thrice during Drona’s command, was knocked unconscious by Yudhishthira and Bhima and mangled and dazed by Abhimanyu’s arrows during the war. Even before that he was bested by the Gandharvas in the Vana Parva and by Arjuna in the Virata Parva. In Vana Parva he becomes infused with the Asura Naraka and in the Tullala songs of Kerala he is the demon Sahasrakavacha reincarnated! Chitrangada is actually a Pandya (not Manipur) princess in the Southern recension. Interestingly, in the epic the slayer of Mahishasura is Skanda, not Durga. We also are informed about a mini-myth of Shiva engaging Parashurama to annihilate the Daityas. We come to know that Karna was 168-finger length taller than Arjun. Bhattacharya has also identified the possible interpolations at various places of the Parvas reviewed. No one really knows who slew Abhimanyu. Bhattacharya informs that Sudarshana, son of Duhshasana, slew him. He points out how Vidura’s concept of the dama-tyaga-apramada triad forms the basis of Buddhist teaching. Even though Yudhisthira fears Karna and is angry with him for his misconduct, his anger strangely dissipates when he looks at Karna’s feet because they resemble Kunti’s! Sibling instinct? Or an interpolated afterthought?

Some of us may feel somewhat uneasy to know that cow-slaughter in honour of a special guest is a Vedic practice and King Rantideva killed 20000 cows to feed guests. We also are informed by Bhattacharya that the insect that bores through Karna’s thigh resulting in Parashuram’s curse, is in fact the demon Damsha cursed by Bhrigu for raping his wife. Administrative policies appear to be both catholic and practical. Shudras could hold the exalted position of a minister and daughters could become the ruler if and when necessary. Lying, prohibited in the Gita, is permitted to save a life, for sake of one’s guru, to win over a woman and to arrange a marriage. Krishna’s lament giving vent to his frustrations over the despicable behaviour of his kith and kin is another unknown but moving vignette Bhattacharya draws our attention to. The most telling observation however comes in the last review (on Rajadharma) in which Bhishma equates the ruler with Fire, Sun, Death, Yama and Vaishravana. The ruler must have the qualities of these gods. As Bhattacharya says, “There is more than enough guidance available here (Bhishma’s advice in Shanti Parva) for our own times – provided we are interested.” He has also underlined Prof. Lal’s philosophy reflected in the Introduction to the Shanti Parva, his last transcreation, where he explains the implication of Chaturvarga: Artha, Kama, Dharma and Moksha. Each of these have two distinct alternatives, individual and universal. Which one should be chosen? “…it is our disciplined choice that changes one into the other.” Says Prof. Lal. How true!

The reviews of Bhattacharya have these and many more insights. These make the reading informative as well as interesting. After reading these the reader will no doubt wish to read the text and find out for himself.

The only problem I perceived was the inclusion of what Bhattacharya calls “memorable shlokas”. These cause the reader to stumble; he must pause and try to read and comprehend, which causes a break in the continuous reading. These perhaps were not really needed. Also, while discussing the appearance of Karna on the Bengali stage (review of Karna Parva), he could have mentioned Buddhadev Basu’s remarkable play, “Pratham Partha”. However, these are minor issues. In short, Dr. Bhattacharya, a difficult and colossal job, well done!

The Spitzer manuscript, a highly-fragmented Sanskrit manuscript discovered in Qizil in Eastern Turkestan, does not have the Virata and Anushasana Parvas. Most probably, the texts of these two parvas were included in the preceding Vana and Shanti Parvas. That appears to be logical since the story of the secretly-lived one year, the Virata Parva, is just a part of the Pandavas’ stipulated period of exile (the Vana Parva) while the Anushasana Parva, Bhishma’s continued instruction of Yudhishthira, is merely an extension of the Shanti Parva. We hope Bhattacharya will go on to complete his guru’s project by translating the Anushasana Parva too. Having done the Mokshadharma, it should not be difficult for him at all.

A shorter version was published in The Sunday Statesman’s literary supplement 8th Day on 25 December 2016.


More by :  Maj. Gen. Shekhar Sen

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