It says ‘rereading’ but I have never read the whole critical edition of Mahabharata ever before. I can claim to have read several other versions though – the Class VII NCERT book which was brief but broadly managed to cover up the main outline of text, the Rajaji’s Mahabharata which is much more wholesome but an abridged version still, and finally the most comprehensive and much more enjoyable – the Amar Chitra Katha’s comic book adaptation of the whole epic. It was ACK’s 42 issues long version that made me realise just how long, how complex and how immensely interesting the epic poem actually is.
Besides these books there are two other things that I innately associate with Mahabharata – an old switcheroo perhaps as old as Mahabharata, & B.R. Chopra’s TV series.
The conversation around the ‘joke’ went like this:
Person A: ओए, बता महाभारत किसने लिखी थी ?
(Oye, tell me who wrote the Mahabharata.)
Unsuspecting innocent Me: अबे यार ये तो सब जानते हैं कि महाभारत तो वेदव्यास ने लिखी थी।
(Abe, everyone knows that Veda Vyasa wrote it)
Person A: ना।
Person A: लोल। गणेशजी ने लिखी थी, वेदव्यास तो बस बोल रहे थे।
(Lol. Ganesha wrote it, Vyasa was just narrating)
(Everyone laughs while I stand there sulking)
This conversation sounds silly now but those were simpler times and I remember being on both the ends of this joke several times.
Vyasa narrates the Mahabharata to scribe Ganesha. Painting by Paresh More.
What can I say about B.R. Chopra’s Mahabharata. I watched its rerun on Doordarshan when I was about 10 and have watched it several times since. There have been several TV adaptations but this is the only one that managed to stick with me and for a very good reason too. Chopra’s team had limited resources but they tried their best to stay true to the spirit of the epic. They did not embellish the original with any distracting alterations of their own. The characters, script, dialogues and even the set design and costumes were faithful to the original text. The only innovation in terms of storytelling was the use of Time as the narrator, quite harmless concerning any possible alteration to the story but very essential as a prop to provide context as the stories kept going back and forth over the time scale.
The good ol’ Samay, introducing himself.
Almost everyone in India is aware of the main outline of the Mahabharata – the events leading up to the war, the war itself and the conclusion. But this part only forms Jaya, the core corpus of the whole epic, consisting of just 8,800 verses composed by Krishna Veda Vyasa. Vyasa narrated his work to his son and a chosen few of his pupils. One of these pupils, Rishi Vaisampayana recounts the story at the Snake Sacrifice (A type of yajña done to exterminate all snakes on earth. Believe me, there is a lot of context behind this. It will come up eventually.) to King Janamejaya, who is the great-grandson of Arjuna and wanted to know about his ancestors. This account of Jaya as retold by Vaisampayana is 24,000 verses long and is called Bharata (Now you know where I am going with this).
Janamejaya’s Snake sacrifice.Sketch by Devdutt Pattanaik (Source)
Among Vaisampayana’s audience at the sacrifice was Ugrasrava Sauti, who later recounts the account of Bharata to a group of sages assembled in Naimisha forest. It is now with Sauti’s retelling of the story that the epic gains its grand proportions and swells up to almost 1,00,000 verses. Thus, the ‘Mahabharata’ is actually read through three different layers of retelling (which occasionally increases, for example when Sanjaya narrates the incidents of war to Dhritarashtra).
It is also worth noting that the difference between what we perceive Mahabharata to be and what it actually is, is enormous. A difference of (1,00,000 – 8,800) verses. This difference contains a number of side stories that are peripheral to the main storyline of the Kurukshetra war but are important works in their own right. The story of Shakuntala, later developed upon by several great poets (including Kalidasa) is first encountered as a part of Mahabharata. The story of Yayati, an ancestor of both Kuru and Yadava clan, who wanted his children to give up their youth for him, has been a subject of plays (Girish Karnad’s debut play) and books (Yayati, in Marathi by V.S. Khandekar).
It is to read all of these stories that I wanted to read the critical edition of Mahabharata, for which I chose the ten volume translation of Mahabharata by Shri Bibek Debroy (for reasons that I shall later describe). I have only managed to read Adi Parva until now (the first of the Parvas, according to the 18 Parva classification) but it was such a satisfying read that I am sure I would have read all the volumes by the time when the next semester starts (two months). Adi Parva tells the story of Shwetaketu, who formulate the first rules for marriage, before which all the marriages used to be open (This deserves a separate article of its own). I would have never known about Shwetaketu and his rules if I hadn’t read this Parva. This is the merit of reading this epic. It is like a gift that never stops giving.
About the Translator
Shri Bibek Debroy is an economist by training and profession. He is currently a member of the NITI Aayog, the think-tank that Narendra Modi government set up to replace the Planning Commission. It might seem surprising for an economist to take up such a gigantic task outside of his professional domain but it should not considering his previous body of work. He has already translated the Vedas, Bhagavad Gita and several Puranas from Sanskrit to English and his expertise and competence can’t therefore be doubted. (I confess that I am going by the consensus here. If any such failing existed, I would be the last person to recognise it. Well, not the last probably but certainly not the first either).
At some level I actually find it comforting that I am reading someone’s words that they wrote taking bits of time out of their rather busy schedule simply because the work is dear to them. Since Mr. Debroy’s interest in mythology and Mahabharata is not borne out of his profession but is organic like mine, I find the translator and hence the translation closer to me than the work of say, a pedigreed professor of Sanskrit, probably heading some named chair at an American university.
About the Translation
Debroy’s translation is based upon the critical edition of Mahabharata compiled by Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Pune, also called BORI edition or Pune edition. This critical edition was compiled with the assumption that Mahabharata’s core story was embellished by multiple authors later on, leading to the generation of multiple versions of the epic as we see today. If all of these versions are looked at and only the parts that are common to most of them are taken then the original story or at least its closest resemblance can be arrived at. This exercise edits out a number of popular beliefs from the epic. For example, the story of Ganesha being dictated the Mahabharata by Veda Vyasa is not a part of this version.
Other than the translation in question, only five unabridged english translations of Mahabharata exist – by Kisori Mohan Ganguly, by Manmatha Nath Dutt, by the University of Chicago and J.A.B. van Buitenen, by P. Lal and Writers Workshop and the Clay Sanskrit Library edition. Bibek Debroy is the fourth Bengali to undertake this task as he gleefully points out in the preface. Why should this translation be specially picked up then? I would rather let him answer this question himself.
Of these, P. Lal is more a poetic trans-creation than a translation. The Clay Sanskrit Library edition is not based on the critical edition, deliberately so. In the days of Ganguly and Dutt, the critical edition didn’t exist. The language in these two versions is now archaic and there are some shlokas that these two translators decided not to include, believing them to be untranslatable in that day and age. Almost three decades later, the Chicago version is still not complete, and the Clay edition, not being translated in sequence, is still in progress. However, the primary reason for venturing into yet another translation is not just the vacuum that exists, but also reason for dissatisfaction with other attempts. Stated more explicitly, this translation, I believe, is better and more authentic—but I leave it to the reader to be the final judge.
There are other bits that make the effort laudable. The translator assumes almost no familiarity with the Sanskrit language, making the translation extremely fluid and readable. The footnotes are copious. They cover 114 pages at the end of the book while the translated material itself covers only 514 pages. These footnotes are what make the book really come alive. To a person who has no familiarity with Sanskrit, they provide lots of additional context that only comes through a deep knowledge of the language, like the stories behind names, how different translations of a particular word end up changing the whole narrative etc. To a person like me who has a very basic knowledge of Sanskrit grammar but a decent sized vocabulary of the language (through तत्सम Hindi words), these footnotes open up new layers of insight into the old stories compelling me to re-evaluate my previously held notions of several characters. The nuances come alive, so to speak, in this translation. It never feels like a dry and humourless reading of an ancient epic. It feels like a long story being told around a bonfire by a master storyteller.
I would like to delve into the nuances of the epic and will try to write-up a few posts, as the recently mentioned new layers of thinking open themselves up to me. I am only on the second volume right now but I have already witnessed how teeming the Mahabharata is with significant stories which are overlooked simply because they do not contribute to the main story. These stories are significant not simply for their literary value (which is great) but also for the perspective that they offer us into the society of their time, the Vedic period of Indian history. It is my opinion that maybe it is these stories and not the main story of the Pandava-Kourava war that entitle Mahabharata to be categorised under ‘Itihasa‘.
If time and inclination permit, I would also like to make a visualisation about the story of origin and the subsequent genealogy of all living beings which has been so grandly recounted in the Adi Parva.
- You can buy the book at Amazon or Flipkart.
- Bibek Debroy is on Twitter. You can follow him here.