The Mahabharata, 1: The Book of the Beginning


The Mahabharata, Volume 1: Book 1: The Book of the Beginning, Translated and Edited by J. A. B.van Buitenen (AmazonGoogle Books, University of Chicago Press, Flipkart, my review on Amazon.com)
2 stars
Academically laudable but soulless, rancorous translation of an epic

It is perhaps, and deservedly so, a commendable work of scholarly output. The mammoth exercise in translation started more than thirty years ago, and as of my writing this review, still continues. The last translation published was in 2003, of the first part of the "Shanti Parva". Not only have the translators translated the Critical Edition ("the present translation is naturally based on this critical edition") of the Mahabharata into English, but they have also reconciled, in the appendix, the Bombay (now called Mumbai) and Pune Critical Editions. This book, titled "The Book of the Beginning" is the full translation of the first parva of the Mahabharata, the "Adi Parva". In addition to the reconciliation of the Bombay and Poona editions, it also contains thirty-five pages of copious notes at the end, that are also illuminating. Like the example of Shakuntala's meeting with King Duhsanta (also spelled as Dushyanta or Dushanta), where they refer to Kalidasa's Sanskrit play "Abhijnana Sakuntala" as judged by "many to be the finest example of the Sanskrit play." As I also wrote in my review (blog post link), Shakuntala is a bold and fearless lady. "Nothing in the play of Kalidasa compares with with the tongue-lashing that Shakuntala gives Duhsanta in this story, and it is a relief when a divine voice interferes to set matters right." [pg 449].

Despite the obviously scholarly nature of the work, and the copious research that has gone into this first volume, I was also left with somewhat of a bitter aftertaste, and which had nothing to do with the story itself.

The tone of the translation, and particularly the Introduction, is petty at times, and singularly devoid of indications that the translators have grasped the soul of the epic. The translation is strewn with some rather graceless choices in translation and poor choices of words. I will illustrate with a handful of examples:

Page xxiii (Introduction): "The wise Bhisma, ... interminably exponds on the varieties of dharma in what must be the longest deathbed sermon of record." Yes, very droll. Wink wink. We are appropriately amused.

Page xxiii (Introduction): on the topic of the the Mahabharata revered as being all-encompassing of the range of human emotions and experiences found in this world, the translators are ready with a repartee for that too. "Almost any text of "Hindu" inspiration could be included in this expanding library, so that in the end the custodians could rightly boast that "whatever is found here may be found somewhere else, but what is not found here is found nowhere.". See, there is nothing great or profound in the epic; it's just the decidedly janitorial effort over three thousand years of some egomaniacal brahmins to add in the text any and sundry inclusions. Yes, we are smart; we can see through these pretensions of the epic and its followers.

Page 2 (Introduction): "... the rambling narrative..."


Page 6 (Introduction): when describing the birth of the Kuru princes, the sentence goes like "... and begets the blind Dhrtarastra, the ... Prince Pandu whose name means "pallid", and the bastard Vidura." That is a curious epithet to apply to only one of the three songs of Vysa.

Detect a trend? We are not even in the actual translation, and the translators have exercised their eminent scholarship to the fullest, as much as they can without inviting obvious aspersions on their motivations and agenda, hidden or otherwise.

Page 44 (Pausya Parva): "The bitch of the Gods, Sarama...", repeated later on the same page, and elsewhere also referred to as "... the divine bitch...". Whereas calling her "dog of the Gods" would have been equally sufficient, something that Bibek Debroy's Mahabharata chooses. The choice of the word and the construction of the phrase seems deliberate at best, and in rather poor taste in any event.

It seems to me, the reader, that whenever a choice presented itself to the translators of this monumental epic, one that required grace and  appreciation, and the other an opportunity to be petty and geelfully contemptuous, they chose the latter. In some ways this is not surprising, given the antecedents of some of the Indologists who have worked on this series, but even when evaluated from an impesonal objective, the effectiveness of the translation at times is somewhat undermined by a subterranean flow of spleen that regularly bubbles to the fore.

Bibek Debroy's work (my blog postAmazonFlipkartInfibeamIndiaPlaza) is in my opinion more faithful to the spirit of the Mahabharata, even as it also stays true to the Critical Edition. And that, in the final reckoning, counts for a lot more than the somewhat soulless if possibly academically more complete work that is the (at least the first volume) from the University of Chicago Press. When Bibek Debroy completes his translation and all the ten planned volumes have been published, I hope it offers a creditable and better alternative for the modern reader wishing to read this ancient Indian epic in its entirety.



© 2012, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.