Saturday, March 21, 2015

Mahabharata Vol. 9 (First review)


Mahabharata: Volume 9
Translated by Bibek Debroy

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The Beginning of the End

After the seventeen day war was over, the battlefield at Kurukshetra littered with the bodies of the millions who had died, Hastinapura under the control of the Pandavas, the survivors no more than what could be counted on one's fingertips, what else was left? When all had been said and done, or so one thought, it turns out that there was still a lot left to be said.  If you believe that the Mahabharata at one point consisted only of a small and relatively short core of approximately twenty-thousand verses, then its current size of a hundred thousand shlokas is sure to baffle (though it must be pointed out that the Critical Edition, including Hari Vamsha, is a shade less than eighty thousand shlokas). Among the many questions that may arise, the principal one is likely to be - "where?!" "Where" as in where did the epic become an epic, in a literal manner of speakingiterally speaking? When did "Jaya" become "Bharata" and then "Mahabharata"? The short answer, and I use the word "short" deliberately, is in the Shanti and Anushasan Parvas - the twelfth and thirteenth parvas respectively. The long answer is nineteen and a half thousand verses. If you take the seventy three thousand shlokas that constitute the Critical Edition of the Mahabharata - as compiled over nearly half a century by the scholars at Pune's Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, and not counting the approximately six and a half thousand shlokas of Hari Vamsha, which is considered a "kheel" (appendix) to the epic -  then twenty six per cent - a full quarter and then some - of the epic is contained in these two parvas.

If you have not heard of these two parvas, then the fault is not really yours. Almost all re-tellings, adaptations, abridgments have given these two parvas short shrift. C. Rajagopalachari's timeless retelling does not devote much space to these two parvas. Devdutt Pattanaik's recent bestseller, "Jaya", also devotes no more than half a chapter - out of one hundred chapters in the book. Even John Smith's very novel semi-abridged translation summarizes the Shanti and Anushasan Parvas in a little over a hundred pages - out of the nearly eight hundred pages in the book, and with no translation, just abridged chapter-wise summaries! Why these two parvas got the short end of the stick in abridgments and re-tellings is not difficult to decipher. Pretty much the story is all but over by the time the Shanti Parva begins. Bhishma lays dying on the battlefield, waiting for Uttarayana to commence so he can leave his mortal body. What little is left to be told will be told with brutal brevity in the Ashramavasika, Mousala, Mahaprasthanika, and Svargarohana Parvas. The destruction of Dwarka will take place only in Mousala Parva, and it is dealt with in less than three hundred shlokas of densely-packed action. Even the Pandavas' journey heavewards and Yudhishthira's reconciliation to heaven takes up less than two hundred shlokas of Svargarohana Parva. Most of what is recounted in the Shanti and Anushasan Parvas is then really Bhishma's advice to Yudhishthira on statecraft, on dharma, donations, interspersed with countless stories.

It is in these stories that the reader is likely to find the maximum interest as well as frustration. Yes, the plot is not really moving anywhere, and there is hair-tearing meandering at times, along with several passages that seem very out-of-place, what Dr. Debroy calls "later insertions", and what John Smith called "densely didactic" (in the introduction to his abridged translation). But that is not the point. If you do not care for these parvas, then any number of abridged retellings will do. To truly understand the Mahabharata it is, in my opinion, vital to read it in its entirety. Ideally in its Sanskrit form. If not, then in whatever language you are most comfortable with.

Volume 8 had the Raja-dharma, Apad-dharma, and a little less than a thousand shlokas from Moksha-dharma parvas within Shanti Parva. Volume 9 contains the rest of the approximately six thousand shlokas of Moksha-dharma Parva, as well as two-and-a-half thousand shlokas from Dana-dharma Parva of Anusasan Parva - all about attaining salvation.

In Volume 9 we get to read how Shiva's bow came to be known as Pinaka, how Shukra got his name - he who used to be known as Kavya Ushanas, how Vritra was killed by Indra using the power of yoga, or several stories concerning creation, including one where Brahma, after being asked by Narayana to create "different categories of subjects", worries where he would get the strength to do so, thereby laying the need for Narayana to express himself on earth in various avatars. Or that the demons Madhu and Kaitabh were created on Narayana's instructions himself, invested with tamas-ic and rajas-ic qualities. These two demons are mentioned countless times in the epic, mostly when referring to Krishna or Vishnu. It is in Moksha Dharma Parva that we actually get to read in some detail about Madhu and Kaitabh. Then there is the oft-heard story of how the moon came to wax and wane, and there are several variations there - this time on account of Daksha's curse. Perhaps the most fantastical tale is that of the people of Shvetadvipa - massive beings with more than sixty teeth and who have been cleansed of all sin. Or the story of Shuka, Vyasa's son, born from the rubbing together of kindling sticks - it makes for an interesting read for sure!

The thousand names of Vishnu figure in the Anushasan Parva - but they are to be found only in the tenth volume. However, this ninth volume does reward the reader with the thousand names of Siva, in the seventeenth chapter of Dana-dharma Parva (within Anushasan parva). As is the tradition in the Mahabharata, not only is the content important - in this case the thousand names of Siva - but also equally important is to establish how this knowledge came to be in the possession of the narrator. In this case, starting with Brahma, this knowledge passed through more than ten people before being recited to Yudhishthira. Even the thousand names represent the "essence" of the more than ten-thousand names of Siva that Brahma had first revealed!

Among the innumerable stories contained within this volume, perhaps the most fascinating is told as a response to a question from Yudhishthira to Bhishma. The story of Bhangashvana and Shakra (Indra) is well-worth reading, and I will leave it at that!

In any translation, a critical measure of its success is in its fidelity to the original. In this case, since the original is in Sanskrit, Sanskrit scholars can best opine on that. Since I do not know the (Sanskrit) language, I have nothing to add on that topic. In some ways, what a translation does achieve is normalization - the better and inferior passages are all normalized during the course of the translation, with the result that the reader can focus more on the plot than the style. This has its merits as well as demerits. For example, there is little of the beauty of the passages in the Gita that come across as a result. On the other hand, some of the frustrations faced by the translator, Dr. Debroy in this case, are only hinted at - as in Chapter 303, where the title of the chapter itself is footnoted as being "extremely difficult to understand" and therefore which necessitated "liberties"!

This then is Volume 9 of Dr. Bibek Debroy's unabdridged translation of the Mahabharata, based on the Critical Edition from Pune's Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute. The tenth and concluding volume in this humongous translation was released concurrently with ninth volume, so the latest unabridged English translation of the Mahabharata is now complete.

Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.
ISBN-13: 9780143422914, 9789351186649 (ebook)
Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 720

This review first appeared in DNA on March 4, 2015.
Review of Volume 9 in DNA











© 2015, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.

Mahabharata Vol. 9 (Second review)


Mahabharata: Volume 9
Translated by Bibek Debroy

"A wife must always be honoured and cherished. When women are not honoured, all the rites become unsuccessful. When daughters-in-law grieve, the family is destroyed." Very strong words spoken in defence of women - and pointedly addressed to both the husband and the parents-in-law. The sanctity of marriage not only results from the vows, but also from the "injunction of dharma that a husband must regard his wife as having been given to him by the gods." What about parents who sell their sons - basically yoke a son to the family who will give the maximum dowry? Such a person has to "progressively pass through seven terrible hells known as "Kalasahvya". After death, he feeds on sweat, urine and excrement." An unpalatable fate that still does not seem to deter many.
Forget dowry, even the act of giving to the undeserving can invite such a fate - "the giver remains in hell for ten years - surviving on excrement."

Monday, March 16, 2015

NH3 Thal Ghat

This is the Thal Ghat (also known as Kasara Ghat) section of NH3, near the town of Kasara, and before Igatpuri. This was shot during the monsoons, and the lush greenery and mist made for a memorable drive.

After you cross Kalyan, NH3 opens up, and upto Nashik is one of the better national highways.



© 2014, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.

Incredible History of India's Geography - Review

The Incredible History of India's Geography, by Sanjeev Sanyal
5 stars


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History books come in many flavours. There are the dry tomes that are read by few, yet quoted by many. There are the popular histories - the "pulpy" versions that are written by high-brow intellectuals who dress themselves as socialists yet work their connections at prestigious B-schools to get the sales that deliver impressive royalties. There are however a few notable exceptions here - like the books written by Michel Danino for instance (and Sanjeev Sanyal's "The Land of the Seven Rivers", but more on that later). Then there are the so-called histories written for children - the worst of the lot because not only do they dumb down history to the point of rendering it useless from both an educational and informational perspective, but they also commit the unpardonable sin of perpetuating discredited myths and vile lies about India and her history. The Aryan Invasion myth being the most favoured among them.

Friday, March 6, 2015

For Sir Wiston Churchill Was an Honourable Man

I penned a short article on Sir Winston Churchill that appeared in Swarajya Magazine on Feb 7, 2015. It, to my surprise, went viral and attracted more than one thousand "shares" on social media.

Here is the full article as it appeared:
For Sir Winston Churchill was an Honourable Man

24th January, 2015 was the fiftieth death anniversary of Sir Winston Churchill. While many celebrated the legacy and work of this British statesman there were also others who pointed out Churchill’s other side

Sir Winston Churchill authored the six-volume magnum opus, “The Second World War”, that proved to be a blockbuster bestseller, helped earn the author millions of dollars in today’s value, and even more – earned him a Nobel Prize in Literature. This work was written substantially by a team of ghost writers called The Syndicate – which researched and wrote the drafts for most of the book, as well as pulling material from the war records and archives. Sir Winston Churchill alone would collect the substantial royalties, credit, and the Nobel Prize.While Sir Churchill’s erudition on geography is well known – where he remarked that India was no more a country than the equator, it is his views on Indians that are to be cherished even more. He told his private secretary that ‘the Hindus were a foul race “protected by their mere pullation from the doom that is their due”‘ “He wished that Air Chief Marshall Arthur Harris, the head of British bomber command, could “send some of his surplus bombers to destroy them.”” No opprobrium would come Sir Churchill’s way.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Tales from the Mahabharata 7- Of Conditions and Exceptions

Tales from the Mahabharat, Episode 7 - Of Conditions and Exceptions - my seventh installment of "Tales from the Mahabharata" was published in the Swarajya Magazine on January 10, 2015.

This is the full text of the article as it appeared:

The Mahabharata presents many a different face to different people. A story of friendship, filial jealousies, passions run amok, and much more. In between the main story, there are a number of side stories and tales that have found their way into the epic. Even one version of the Ramayana is contained in the Mahabharata! The other fascinating element found frequently enough is one of conditions and exceptions. Ignoring or acting upon these results in unintended consequences, which is the thread that pervades the epic. Like the story of Karna's earrings and armour, and how an anxious Indra came in the guise of a brahmana to ask Karna to give them away.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Tales from the Mahabharata - 6 - To renounce the throne or not

My sixth installment of "Tales from the Mahabharata - To Renounce The Throne Or Not" - was published in the Swarajya Magazine on December 14, 2014.

This is the full text of the article as it appeared:
Arjuna benefited from Krishna's wisdom - most famously before the start of the eighteen day war at Kurukshetra. The wisdom helped guide Arjuna through the war, helping keep his focus on what his dharma was. Arjuna still found himself giving in to his emotions, but by and large he proved to be the ideal warrior. Yudhishthira on the other hand had to wait till after the war to bathe in an elder's wisdom - Bhishma. What he received by way of wisdom was much longer than the 700 verses of the Bhagavad Gita though. But more on that later.

When the war came to an end, Duryodhana was dead, Ashwatthama had committed the unpardonable sin of foeticide and had been cursed by Krishna for it, Gandhari had cursed Krishna, the final rites of those departed had been performed (described in Shraddha Parva - and the death toll stood at more than one billion (the exact number given by Yudhishthira in response to a question by Dhritarashtra in Shraddha Parva is "One billion, twenty thousand and sixty six crore" - bringing the total number of 1,660,020,000. The ninth verse from the twenty sixth chapter of the eleventh parva has the shloka: दशायुतानामयुतं सहस्राणि च विंशतिः 
कोट्यः षष्टिश्च षट्चैव येऽस्मिन्राजमृधे हताः ).

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Tales from the Mahabharata 5 - Parikshit: Ego, Deja Vu

My fifth installment of "Tales from the Mahabharata - Parikshit: Ego, Deja Vu" - was published in the Swarajya Magazine on December 2, 2014.

This is the full text of the article as it appeared:
Parikshit’s is a most unusual tale, in more ways than one. The posthumous son of Abhimanyu, Parikshit was given life by Krishna himself. Yet he died a most gory death, burnt to ashes because of the poison of Takshaka. Why? Because of the curse of Shringi, the son of sage Shamika. Yes, but why Takshaka, the serpent king? Well, one could argue that Takshaka’s abode, the Khandava forest, had been burned to the ground by Arjuna and Krishna. So what better revenge than to kill Parikshit—the grandson of Arjuna who had been given life by Krishna. But Takshaka per se is not what I want to dwell upon here.
Let us take a brief look at the incidents that led to Parikshit’s demise.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Tales from the Mahabharata - 4 To Forgive or Not

My fourth installment of "Tales from the Mahabharata - Forgive Now and Fight Later?" - was published in the Swarajya Magazine on November 16, 2014.

This is the full text of the article as it appeared:


Forgive Now and Fight Later?

Was Yudhishthira a forgiving man? One might be forgiven, pardon the pun, for thinking that he was. After all, didn't he forgive Duryodhana and the entire Kauravas for the many evils they perpetrated on the Pandavas over the years? Well, yes, he did, for the most part. Yudhishthira also quoted these lines from a song sung by sage Kashyapa on the topic of forgiveness:
"क्षमा धर्मः क्षमा यज्ञः क्षमा वेदाः क्षमा श्रुतम्
...क्षमा ब्रह्म क्षमा सत्यं क्षमा भूतं च भावि च
क्षमा तपः क्षमा शौचं क्षमया चोद्धृतं जगत्
...."
Translated: "Forgiveness is dharma. Forgiveness is sacrifices. Forgiveness is the Vedas. Forgiveness is the sacred texts... Forgiveness is the brahman. Forgiveness is the truth. Forgiveness is the past and the future. Forgiveness is austerities. Forgiveness is purity. Forgiveness holds up the entire world."

Tales from the Mahabharata - 3 - Fratricide, Suicide, and more!

My third installments of "Tales from the Mahabharata - When Krishna Stopped Arjuna from Killing Yudhishthira" - was published in the Swarajya Magazine on November 2, 2014.

This is the full text of the article as it appeared:
When Krishna Stopped Arjuna from Killing Yudhishthira.
Attempted fratricide, attempted suicide - a bizarre turn of affairs on the seventeenth day!

Krishna may have uttered the most profound 800 shlokas ever at the beginning of the war (Bhagvad Gita Parva). He was successful there - Arjuna picked up his weapons, and the rest, so to say, is history. His words however failed to prevent the war itself. His visit to Hastinapura (Bhagavat-yana Parva in the Udyoga Parva), as a last resort to get Duryodhana to cede to the Pandavas at least five villages did not yield the desired results. Krishna was successful on at least two other occasions in preventing needless violence, once against Arjuna and once against Bhima - but that's another story for another day and time though. Happily enough, Krishna's war prevented at least one fratricide during the war itself - between Arjuna and Yudhishthira!

Friday, December 5, 2014

NH3 Before Igatpuri

This is a fairly recognizable section of the National Highway 3, as it makes its way towards the picturesque town of Igatpuri, and beyond that to Nashik. It is at this point that the highway bifurcates, and the eastward highway snakes to the left while the westward highway is what you can see in the photo below.

https://www.google.com/maps/@19.6796264,73.5209861,13z





© 2014, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Shani Shingnapur, Maharashtra



Truth be told, I do not have many photographs of the Shani Shingnapur Temple in Maharashtra. This is because they do not allow photographs inside the temple, and I was too enthralled by the entire experience to remember to take my camera out. The temple town is about 35kms from Ahmednagar - so it can be done as a quick detour if you're on your way to Aurangabad - and about 70kms from Shirdi. Shirdi is, of course, famous for Sai Baba, and going to Shingnapur and back from Shirdi can be done in about four hours. The road is OK for the most part, except for about a 15 km stretch that is not so OK.

However, this was a somewhat striking moment outside the temple, in the parking lot. Apart from the shops that hawk every knick-knack you could want for instant moksha and to protect you from the evil eye of anyone envious of your prosperity - which could be almost everyone and anyone - there was this loads of color (gulal, kumkum, call it what you will) on a cart that was being tended to by this elderly gentleman. Nothing out of the ordinary till you realize the gentleman is a Muslim. While trite and overused to death cliches do come to mind, it is a measure of India's enduring spirit of inclusiveness that binds people together. Commerce of course is a highly underestimated glue.


© 2014, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Oracle Restaurant and Bar


Either Oracle, the enterprise software and hardware company, is getting into the consumer space in an example of brand expansion gone horribly wrong, or someone's been getting a bit creative with trademarks and all. In any case, you can't fault the person from sticking with the Oracle "red" color theme. The cuisine also promises to be international - Punjabi, Maharashtrian (OK so far it's all Indian), Chinese (yes, venturing out), Indian (back to the homeland), and seafood (ok, so not that international after all).

Shot somewhere on NH10, between Shirdi and Rahuri in Maharashtra.



© 2014, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Tales from the Mahabharata - 2 When Arjuna Wanted to Behead Yudhishthira

The second installment of my series, "Tales from the Mahabharata", appeared in the Swarajya magazine, on October 7 2014.

The article as it appeared:
-------------------------------
When Arjuna Wanted to Kill Yudhishthira
A little-known episode of the Mahabharata illustrates a new idea in the field of social psychology: Ego Depletion.

It was the seventeenth day of battle on the field of Kurukshetra. A most bloody war that had taken a huge toll of human lives and emotions. Even though most maharathis of the Kaurava army had fallen—including Bhishma on the tenth day and Drona on the fifteenth, Karna still remained.

Tales from the Mahabharata - 1 Unintended Consequences

The first installment of my series, "Tales from the Mahabharata", appeared in the Swarajya magazine, on September 30, 2014.

The article as it appeared:
-------------------------------
Unintended consequences – tales from the Mahabharata
While everyone has their favorite story or episode from the Mahabharata, and most have more than one, I have found the theme of unintended consequences to be the most fascinating one. Actions taken not only have reactions, but unlike the Third Law of Motion, actions also have quite unexpected results at times.

The story of Abhimanyu and how Jayadratha became the stumbling block in the efforts of the four Pandava brothers to rescue him from within the fearsome chakra vyuha is well known. If not, then that is a topic for a future article! Here I will talk about a little known but equally potent illustration of unintended consequences from the Mahabharata.

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