Book Reviews

Three Disciples Katha

The “Three Disciples Katha,” reprinted from the Paushya Parva of “The Complete Adi Parva”, section 3, pp. 73-93, however falls short of expectation, not in terms of quality but in terms of content. This also has an Introduction by Pradip Bhattacharya. The quality of the transcreation is so fascinating that one cannot resist the temptation of quoting a small passage from Upamanyu’s prayer to the Ashvins: 

Who free the time-trapped bird of life,
Thus bringing great joy!
How foolish are they who think
of you as having forms,
O Formless Ones,
how sense-deluded!”

This one is a proper Katha, a story within a story and an important one because it takes us to the beginning of the epic, Janamejaya’s snake sacrifice, during which Vaishampayana, under the instruction and supervision of Vyasa, narrates the entire Mahabharata. It contains the stories of the three disciples of the sage Ayodha-Dhaumya, Aruni-Uddalaka, Upamanyu and Veda, including the sub-story of Utanka, disciple of Veda. In fact, in the entire 184 shlokas, the story of the three disciples is completed in 59 shlokas whereas Utanka’s story requires all of 103 shlokas. It is a very small book of 31 pages out of which the main text covers only twenty. This obviously does not satisfy a serious reader. Lal should have included the Utanka story retold in the Ashvamedhika Parva with some interesting differences. In it desert-dweller Utanka, a disciple of Gautama, meets Krishna. Interestingly, the meanings of the names Veda and Gautama are the same. The characters are different, some incidents are slightly different.  We get some additional information in this story, e.g. the significance of the name ‘Utanka’ – the cloud that rains in the desert is called Utanka, the qualities of the gems in question, etc. This story should have been included in the volume and that would have completed the story of the three disciples.
Fortunately, PB has provided the gist of this story in his introduction. The spelling of the name Utanka, causes a minor flutter. Curiously, two Sanskrit versions of the epic spell the name as “Utanka” in the Adi Parva and as “Uttanka” in the Ashvamedhika Parva. The Bengali versions of Rajsekhar Basu and Kaliprasanna Singha spell it as “Utanka” in both parvas. Monier-williams resolves the issue by bracketing both the spellings and declares that both have the same meaning. Lal has adopted the spelling Uttanka throughout.
In consonance with the text, PB too has kept his Introduction to the bare minimum of three pages and a half with a footnote informing the reader that the symbolic implication of these stories have been discussed in his book “Secret of the Mahabharata”. Both the text and the introduction have a strange similarity: to complete the reading of the story one has to go to the Ashvamedhika Parva and to complete reading the introduction one has to go to another book. After reading PB’s outstanding introduction of the Draupadi Svayamvara Katha, this one is a bit of a come-down. He could have provided a glimpse from the “Secret of the Mahabharata.” However, even in the short space of three and a half pages, he has managed to dig out new information from his vast knowledge of Indian mythology and provide us with some interesting insights. He tells us of the contribution of Aruni and his son Shvetaketu to Indian lore, the reason for Upamanyu’s excessive craving for milk, how Upamanyu’s blindness is a blessing in disguise, causing him “to turn his sight inwards and invoke a vision of dazzling beauty with numerous Rigvedic echoes,” how these stories “cast fascinating light on the teacher-taught relationship in ancient Bharat”, the nature of curses, etc. 

But when he says that here is a “master story-teller at work”, one is a little confused. Though it is true that Sauti deftly leads the reader to the beginning of the epic, namely, the Sarpasattra sacrifice, it is also equally true that Sauti loses his way right at the beginning – the first twenty-two shlokas have no relevance to any part of the epic, they “remain in limbo” as PB himself says. That hardly is a quality of a master story-teller.
Both the volumes are very elegantly produced with Writers Workshop’s signature handloom cloth cover. The printing is excellent. The occasional typos do not hamper the story or comprehension. We look forward to more Kathas from Writers Workshop.
Shekhar Sen
P.Lal: The Bhagavad Gita, Writers Workshop, Kolkata, 2010, 12th edition, pages 407, price Rs. 200 (Hardback Limited Edition) and Rs 100 (Flexiback Limited Edition).
Prof. P. Lal’s Bhagavad Gita, trancreated in free verse, is widely known and well-acclaimed by the discerning readership. Besides the main text, the book includes an Interpretative Synopsis, a one-liner synopsis, an extract from an article published in the Span magazine comparing Arjuna and Achilles and a long Introduction. 

The one-liners and the synoptic notes are fascinating. These contain what Lal considers to be the key concept in each canto, his own perception of the significance of the concept and occasionally, their contemporary relevance. These notes also establish the logical transition of thought from canto to canto – how one canto dovetails into the next. His eclectic devotion shines through these notes and surely without this devotion it would not have been possible for him to conceptualise so sensitively and lead the reader so precisely through the text.
In the Introduction, Lal basically discusses what he considers to be the three focal points of controversy in the Gita. The first involves the opposing stances assumed by Arjuna the pacifist and Krishna the militarist and there does not seem to be any “reconciliation between these two fearfully opposed philosophies.” The second is that Krishna attempts to meet Arjuna’s “logic with magic,”--his cosmic revelation when he fails to satisfy a warrior’s stricken conscience by rational arguments. Lal questions the ethical justification of such an act. In raising these two controversies he is acting as the devil’s advocate, reflecting the thoughts of “the modern unimpressed mind.” The third moral and religious insight, and the most significant one, involves the splendid retelling of the fable of the cosmic fig tree and the discussion of the underlying philosophy. Very sensitively he guides the reader through the philosophy behind the metaphor, “The tragedy of the world is not that we do not get what we want but that we always get what we want – along with its built-in opposite.” Therefore the need to slice the cosmic fig-tree with the sword of detachment, which not only takes one away from the overpowering influence of the cosmic fig tree but also enables one to avoid the cycle of birth, the punishment for good deeds, heaven, or bad, hell.
He ends the Introduction by raising some pertinent questions – “can the ordinary human being ever give up the fruits of action...Is Hinduism again talking so big and positing goals so idealistic that, with the exception of saints, all must despair of success? …The Gita does not say. Only life can teach us. Very few learn.” Arjuna obviously did not. In spite of the Gita, he continued as he would have had without it. During the war, he never acts as a ‘sthitaprajna”, his emotion still rules him, fights half-heartedly (mridu-yuddha) with elders, loses his cool often during moments of stress (deaths of Abhimanyu, Drona, etc). The situation becomes worse confounded when, not much later, he asks Krishna during a moment of leisure to repeat what he had said during the war because he has forgotten what he had heard! Arjuna’s capitulation at the end of the Gita is probably because he is scared of his more powerful charioteer after the cosmic revelation and, further, Krishna hardly leaves him any route of escape.  
The 12th edition is the result of Lal’s long and relentless search for excellence (which in fact launched him into the task of transcreating the epic itself, shloka-by-shloka, in verse). What sets it apart from other versions is that it is in free verse and in a styke so unique to P.Lal. Besides being elegant and sparkling, there is a distinct Indian flavour to the language – words reflecting Indian thought have not been Englished. This has become the hall-mark of Lal’s transcreations. All the oversights, omissions, repetitions, etc. that had crept into the earlier 11 editions have been taken care of and the entire text has been thoroughly revised. A specific improvement that characterises this edition is that the language freed of gender bias. In his own words, “So, I have weeded out all gender nouns and pronouns that seem to suggest, in English, that Krishna is advising and inspiring only male listeners.”  
There are a few questions that create some confusion. Why does Lal hold that Krishna meets Arjuna’s logic with magic? In the Gita Krishna never volunteers information. He merely responds when asked. He reveals his cosmic form, the so-called “magic”, only at Arjuna’s behest, “O Purushottama! O finest of men! Grant me a revelation of your divine form.” (11:3). Lal says, “The ‘beatific’ vision brings a sea-change in Arjuna, he asks no more questions.” Actually Arjuna asks five more questions but there is no longer any challenge in them. They are merely for clarification. Verse 2:58 has been translated as “as the tortoise pulls in its head”. It should have been “pulls in its limbs” as the word in question is ‘anga’.
On shlokas 8:24-25 Lal writes, “No commentator has satisfactorily glossed the two shlokas that speak of Time that makes yogis return to the world (by the dark path) and not return (by the bright path).” Therefore, Lal makes his own assessment, “Perhaps, fire, brilliance, daytime, the bright fortnight and the six-monthly course of the northern sun (uttarayana) refer to the mystic insights into one pole of the ambivalence of maya. The opposite pole of the dark path might refer to the insights of occult or tantric ‘wisdom’ – the dark side of ambivalence which ensures not salvation (moksha) but rebirth.” The self-imposed brevity of the notes prevents any further journey into this philosophy and the ordinary reader gets stuck in a maze of words and concepts. On the other hand Jagadish Ghosh (Srimadbhagavad Gita, Presidency Library, Kolkata, 1352 BS, pp.361-363) has directed our attention to the striking resemblance between these two shlokas and the concepts of Devayana and Pitriyana of the Chandogya Upanishad which uses very similar words. Those who meditate in the forest choosing Devayana never return to the mortal world, whereas householders doing pious work who choose Pitriyana always do. That is why Bhishma chose to die during the northern course of the sun. Krishna, the rebel, does not accept the entire wisdom of the Upanishad but only accepts the definition of time, the dark and the bright path, as alternatives available to his devotees. He rejects the rest of the shloka. His “sthitaprajna” does not have to be forest-dwelling yogi, essentially a non-performer. These paths are eternal and even a householder yogi who understands their true nature never has to return to this world. It is not necessary to bring in tantric wisdom to explain the dark path.
The pocket-book volume is, as usual, very attractively brought out. A special feature of the edition is the frontispiece, an original folk pat-painting (Krishna and Arjuna in Kurukshetra) by an anonymous artist attached to the Jagannatha Temple of Puri. It is included only in 100 numbered and signed copies. 
P. Lal, The Three Disciples Katha, Writers Workshop, Kolkata, 2009, pages 34, Rs. 100 (Hardback Limited Edition) and Rs. 80 (Flexiback Limited Edition)   


More by :  Maj. Gen. Shekhar Sen

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