Book Reviews

First Bengali Mahabharata of Kavi Sanjaya

Pradip Bhattacharya, trans. from Bengali, The Mahabharata of Kavi Sanjaya, Volume I & II, Das Gupta & Co (P) Ltd., Kolkata, 2019, pp. 637, Rs. 1495/-

While Kaliprasanna Sinha (1841-1870) is the most renowned, popular and widely read Bengali translator of Mahabharata in prose, Haridas Siddhantavagish is more known to researchers, and Kashiram Das’s (16th century) retelling, Kashidasi Mahabharata is the most popular rendering in verse, few know that there had been Kavi Sanjaya in the 15th century, who can be considered the Adi Kavi of Bengal in Mahabharata genre of translation and retelling. This is surprising given that the Kavi has already his place secured in the cultural history of Bengal courtesy Munindra Kumar Ghosh edited ‘Kavi Sanjaya Birochito Mahabharata’ published by Calcutta University in 1969 restoring Sanjaya’s Mahabharata written in unique poyar metre (each line of the rhymed couplet consisting of eight syllables followed by a caesura and six syllables) in panchali form. Despite Ghosh’s historic effort, evidently, Sanjaya has not been much in Mahabharata discourse, either academic or popular, until after 50 years of his work, Dr. Pradip Bhattacharya resurrects him from slipping into the recess of cultural memory once again, but to a wider world audience this time through his verse by verse translation of the work in English, perhaps re-confirming the ironic dictum that Bengalis do not wake up to their glories until and without the involvement of English.

Bhattacharya, already a renowned figure in Mahabharata studies as one of the leading Mahabharata scholars today, has significant research works to his credit, including English translation of Mokshadharmaparvan of Shanti-Parvan (2016), a seminal work taking up the unfinished job of Padma Shri Professor Purushottam Lal’s “transcreation” of the Mahabharata (sixteen and a half of the epic’s eighteen books during the period 1968-2010), and (jointly with Sekhar Kumar Sen) a critical edition with English Translation (2017) from the Grantha Script of the episodes of Mairavanacharitam and Sahasramukharavanacharitam of the Jaiminiya Mahabharata.

Bhattacharya’s new venture of translation of Sanjaya’s Mahabharata – a project sanctioned by the Higher Education Department, Government of West Bengal through the Netaji Institute of Asian Studies in 2014 - comes in two volumes, hard bound, beautifully encased with dignified brown overtone, and printed on quality paper. Volume-I contains 7 parvans - Adi Parvan (Book 1) to Drona Parvan (Book 7), and Volume-II the rest. Kavi Sanjaya has innovations after Shalya Parvan (Book 9), so that the rest parvans are Gada parvan (Book 10), Sauptikaparvan (11), Oisheek parvan (12), Stri Parvan (13), Daho parvan (14), Shanti-Parvan (15), Sthan parvan (16), Anushasana Parvan (17), Ashvamedha Parvan (18), Ashramavasika Parvan (19), Mausala Parvan (20) and Svargarohana Parvan (21).

Images of terracotta panels depicting Mahabharata episodes – Arjuna hitting the fish target at Draupadi’s Svayamvara on the front cover, Sheshashayi Narayana as frontispiece and Arjuna piercing the ground to quench Bhishma’s thirst on the back cover – from famous terracotta temples of Bankura-Bishnupur (West Bengal) as cover design aptly add to the ambience other than acting as Bhattacharya’s hint-commentary to the possible cultural interaction of the literary and terracotta genres, and of Sanjaya’s possible influence on the terracotta sculptor-poets of 16th-17th century. One may even read them symbolically; Arjuna piercing the target as Bhattacharya’s statement of having achieved a gargantuan task, and the back cover image of Arjuna quenching Bhishma’s thirst as his optimism to quench the never waning thirst of Mahabharata lovers for Amrta drops of Mahabharata Ocean.

An appendix of Arjuna’s ten names from Prof. P. Lal’s ‘transcreation’ serves the purpose of reference, comparison with Sanjaya’s verses, Bhattacharya’s contextualizing his work and also his tribute to Prof. P. Lal through remembrance.

Bhattacharya has done a very interesting experiment with spellings of nouns and consonant sounds. Bengali, a language with Magadhi Prakrt as her ‘mother’, has often ‘o’ pronunciation of consonants that Sanskrit renders ‘a’ ; has often a stop at the end consonant of a word, no difference in pronunciation between ‘v’ (wa) and ‘b’, and absence of sibilant ‘s’ which is pronounced as ‘sh’. Retaining spellings of Sanskrit proper nouns and words as found in Oxford English Dictionary, Bhattacharya has spelt proper nouns in tune with Bengali pronunciation. Thus, he has spelled Mahabharata as Mohabharot, Kavi Sanjaya as Kobi Sonjoy, Vyasa as Byas, Vana Parvan as Bono Porbo, Drona as Dron, Amba as Omba etc. and even his own name in the inner cover as Prodeep Bhottacharjyo. This is unique for an English translation. Indeed, he has provided the ‘flavor of the Bengali pronunciation’ that he claims in his ‘Acknowledgments and Note on Pronunciation and Spelling.’

Bhattacharya has taken all precaution against any possible confusion from this experimentation. Other than providing footnote and clarification to every such usage at every page, he takes care to eliminate any residue confusion with his Bengali ‘flavoured’ spelt nouns by listing them with their corresponding Sanskrit transliteration along with a brief explanation in three columns in a detailed glossary at the end of Vol II.

In the Preface, Bhattacharya provides valuable information and analysis on historicity of Sanjaya and his Mahabharata, as also on interesting aspects of its content like variations from Vyasa’s Mahabharata, complete with an outline comparative analysis of the variations of Sanjaya and Kashiram Das’ Mahabharata. His observation that ‘some of (Kashiram’s variations) must have been taken from Kobi Sonjoy’ is a clue to future research for situating Sanjaya historically and understanding the import of his work.

Locating Sanjaya is important to not only understanding his time, but also to understand the significance of modern Mahabharata works and studies as also Bhattacharya’s work of reviving him in English.

Bhattacharya has rightly pointed out that Mahabharata re-emerged with prominence in cultural discourse through literature in the 15th-16th century in a somewhat synchronized fashion in the eastern and southern India, because Kavi Sanjaya’s venture is paralleled by Kumara Vyasa in Kannada, Sarala Das in Oriya, Rama Sarasvati in Assamese, and Ezhuthachan in Malayalam. Only the last is a complete translation of Mahabharata, but all are characterized by free thinking and imagination in incorporating materials from local lore or innovations, and leaving out most philosophical discourses of Vyasa’s Mahabharata.

Obviously something happened in the cultural sky of Bengal and the then India that Mahabharata needed to be rediscovered. Bhattacharya’s tentative suggestion that it might be owing to the felt need to assert indigenous identity in the context of Muslim invasion holds merit. It definitely ‘calls for further study’ as Bhattacharya suggests, particularly so, if we see how the Mahabharata fascination continues in the next centuries and almost dominates the consciousness of all key figures of the Bengal/Indian Renaissance of the 19th century.

Other than Kashiram Das’s Mahabharata - as Bhattacharya has pointed out – Bengal’s Mahabharata treasures include Chhuti Khaner Mahabharata (17th century), a translation of Jaimineya Ashvamedha-Parvan by Shrikaran Nandi, Dvija Abhirama’s Ashvamedhaparva, Ananta Mishra’s Ashvamedhaparva, Nityananda Ghosh’s Mahabharata, Dvija Ramchandra Khan’s Ashvamedhaparva, Kabichandra’s Mahabharata, Shashthibar Sen’s Bharata, and many others, which goes to show how Bengal has been the melting pot of different cultures and perspectives, further proving beyond doubt that the impact of Mahabharata percolates deeper than understood into Bharatiya Civilization and Culture.

Looking back into Indian history, we find how Mahabharata has been remembered during every crucial juncture of history, or ages which we prefer to term golden ages. Starting from Bhasa (4th cent. BCE), through Satavahana Queen Goutami- Balashri’s (149 CE) Nashik-Prashasti Inscription, Vishakhadatta’s Mudrarakshasa (c. 4th century CE), Gupta Inscriptions, Ravikirti’s Aihole Inscription of Pulakeshin II (c. 610–642 CE), the Indonesian Bharata-Yuddha (1157 CE) of mpu Sedah and mpu, and Mughal Emperor Akbar’s commissioned translation titled Razmnama (Book of War) (three editions between 1584 and 1617) shows great impact of Mahabharata in India and beyond.

Inheriting this brilliant tradition, Sanjaya’s Mahabharata assumes the miniature replica of the melting pot with mingling ingredients of Ramayana and Mahabharata tradition, and influences of Buddhism, Jainism, Vaishnavism and Shaktaism. For example, Sanjaya makes King Nala the grandson of Rama’s son Kusha, thereby bringing together Ramayana and Mahabharata, and here he is in the direct tradition of Vyasa’s Mahabharata where we have Markandeya’s Ramayana, Hanuman’s interaction with Bhima, and Rama’s bloodline Brhadbala fighting in Kurukshetra War and dying at Abhimanyu’s hand.

Just as Sanjaya creates and narrates a new parvan- Gada parvan, one is startled to find that Al-Biruni’s (973 - 1050) India too mentions Gada parvan as Book 9. Could there be any connection between Al-Biruni and Sañjaya's source despite their distance in space and time (5 centuries), or is it a glorious coincidence?

Again, for example, Sanjaya’s Ashvamedha Parvan, which largely follows the Jaiminiya Mahabharata, provides an interesting variation in that, Bokrodonto instead of Baka Dalbhya steals the horse so that he can meet Krishna. In the ancient Jain Sutrakrtanga (1.6), Dantavakra is mentioned as the best of Kshatriyas as parallel to Mahavira as the best of sages. Whether Sanjaya’s giving such importance to Bokrodonto (Dantavakra) is owing to Jain influence would be an interesting query for researchers. After all, we know, the Jain community known as Saraks, though isolated and separated from the main body of the Jain community following Bakhtiyar Khalji’s invasion, still maintained significant presence in modern Bihar, Bengal, Orissa and Jharkhand.

Sanjaya’s Karna is born from Kunti’s ear thus getting the name Karna. The same narrative is found in Bheel Bharata and folk narratives in other parts of India.

Sanjaya’s most dramatic innovation is introducing Draupadi as warrior. In Drona Parvan, following Abhimanyu’s death, Draupadi leads an all-woman rmy comprising of Yadava women including Subhadra, Uttara, Krishna’s queens and Revati (Balarama’s wife) – against the Kaurava army at night and routs them, hough finally sparing the key figures for their male counterparts to fulfill their vows. In a series of wish-fulfilling drama, Draupadi defeats Drona, Ashvatthama and Duryodhana, and whirls about Duhshasana by his hair avenging her similar humiliation at his hands in Kuru Sabha. Similarly, Subhadra ties up Jayadratha’s hands and feet and has him kicked by maids till he loses consciousness. Jayadratha seems to be at the worst receiving end from Sanjaya. Earlier too, in Vana Parvan, after Bhima had rescued Draupadi from Jayadratha, Draupadi's maids had kicked him. Uttara beheads Duhshasana’s son Rudradev who killed Abhimanyu. Here, Sanjaya is undoubtedly influenced by the Shakta tradition and represents the women as Shakti evoking the imagery of Mahishasuramardini. Or he might be remembering two marginalized episodes of Vyasa’s Mahabharata in which Draupadi indeed exerts physical prowess and hurls her molesters Jayadratha and Kicaka to the ground. While Vyasa’s Mahabharata does not name Duhshasana’s son, Sanjaya’s giving him a name – Rudradev – giving a face to the faceless person who killed none other than Abhimanyu, has an ironic humanitarian dimension.

Sanjaya’s Adi Parvan has Janamejaya charging Vyasa with failure to prevent the fratricidal battle. This dramatic situation of Vyasa-Janamejaya interaction as the narrative frame, though not the nature of the interaction, has a curious parallel in Peter Brook’s Mahabharata (1989) which begins with Janamejaya and Vyasa interaction. Peter Brook introduced folk elements in his Mahabharata. It seems, the ‘folk mind frame’ of creative artists, perhaps, visualizes dramatic situations in similar ways.

Kavi Sanjaya, of Bharadvaja Gotra, was a resident of Laur village in present Banagladesh. While in Vyasa’s Mahabharata, Pandu and Indra’s friend Bhagadatta is ruler of Pragjyotishpur, Sanjaya hails him as him as ruler of Vanga-Desh including Laur. The exalted place accorded to Bhagadatta might point to a Bhagadatta cult in the region covering present day Assam and Bangladesh because, as evident from the Nidhanpur copperplate inscription, the Kamarupa king Bhaskaravarman (7th century CE) eulogized Bhagadatta as Deva and traced his ancestry to Bhagadatta’s successors.

Like the character Ahiravana in Krittibas’ Ramayana, Sanjaya creates a character named Viveka, Sudhanva’s son, who vanquishes Krishna, Pandavas and Hanuman. Finally on his grandfather Hongshodhvoj’s request, Viveka surrenders to Krishna. In Bengali, Viveka connotes conscience; besides, in Yatra (theatre) tradition, there is one character called Viveka, the personified conscience. Given that the fratricidal Kurukshetra War did not bring peace and absolute joy in Yudhishá¹­hira’s mind owing to qualms of conscience, whether Sanjaya’s introduction of Viveka as an echo-metaphor for Viveka-conscience or Viveka of Yatra tradition with role of conscience might be another interesting point of query.

In the same Ashvamedha Parvan, Sanjaya introduces the story of King Niladhavaja’s wife Jana who, failing to incite his brother against Arjuna for avenging her son Prabir’s death, immolates herself in fire and transforms into an arrow and enters Babhruvahana’s quiver. Later Babhruvahana kills Arjuna with that arrow, and Jana’s revenge is accomplished. Girish Chandra Ghosh, hailed as the father of Bengali theatre, wrote a powerful play ‘Jana’ in 1894 with her as the central character.

The cultural interaction of early Bengali literature and Yatra is quite evident in that, the Krishna Jatra genre, evolved through the devotional singing and dancing of the followers of the Krishna Bhakti movement, was inspired by Raslila and dramatic poetry like, Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda (12th century), Chandidas’ Srikrishna Kirtan 15th century), and later further propelled by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s mystic Krishnaism. There is also Nata Gita, an operatic folk drama form in medieval Bengal, filled with singing, dancing and music sans dialogue, which provided an early model for the Krishna Jatra.

One unique aspect of Sanjaya’s Mahabharata pointed out by Bhattacharya is that his narration is interspersed with Lachadi couplets of twenty syllables sung, accompanied by dance) to be sung in various ragas and raginis such as Basant, Kamod, Bhatiyal, Shri, Barari and Pathamanjari. Obviously dramatic elements abound in Sanjaya’s Mahabharata. This is further evident from the narrative twists. In Mausala Parvan, Kavi Sanjaya has Arjuna accompanying Krishna at the end, and true to Yatra appeal and high drama, Sanjaya’s Krishna breathes his last while resting his head on his best friend Arjuna’s lap.

Bhattacharya’s easy flowing English constantly reminding of the richness of Bengal’s culture makes a pleasant and illuminating read.

At the end, one would certainly agree that Bhattacharya’s translated volumes merit a must place in libraries and collections for serious researchers of Indian and Bengal history and of Mahabharata, for Mahabharata-lovers and lay readers alike.


More by :  Indrajit Bandyopadhyay

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