Sunday, March 18, 2012

Mahabharata Vol. 3, by Bibek Debroy - review

Mahabharata, Vol. 3, translated by Bibek Debroy"A Time for Learning and Preparing"

(Amazon, KindlePenguin BooksInfibeamIndia PlazaFlipkart, Flipkart e-book)
(My review on Amazon )

5 stars  This is a notable book I read and reviewed. Click to see more such books.
(Revised and edited Sep 08, 2012)
Review in brief:
This volume contains most of and completes the Aranyaka Parva. The Pandavas' time in the forest is spent mostly in listening to the words of the wise, and in going on  pilgrimages. To some extent, much of the content in this parva seems like later insertions, simply because there is little here that advances the story, and little that happens in this parva has a direct bearing on the story, with three exceptions. Having said that, the stories that are recounted in this parva are themselves well-known and probably owe their survival in no small way to their inclusion in the Mahabharata.

This volume completes the Aranyaka Parva, the third Parva (as per the 18-parva classification), which began in Vol 2, and is a time of learning for the Pandavas. While Arjuna treks to heaven to obtain knowledge of weapons and dance from Indra, Yudhishtra is educated on dharma by a host of learned men, primary among them being sage Markandeya.

From the Aranyaka Parva, this volume contains Sub-Parvas 33 through 44, 33 being the "Tirtha Yatra" parva, and Sub-Parva 44 being the "Araneya" parva  (within the 100-parva classification). The very first sub-parva, "Tirtha Yatra" is massive, clocking in at 2,422 shlokas, and is by far the longest sub-parva in the epic so far. (However, there seems to be some anomaly when adding up the shlokas in the Teertha Parva. The table in the Introduction states the Tirtha Parva as having 2422 shlokas, while page 1, where the Tirtha Parva starts, states that it has 2294 shlokas.) This sub-parva however is going to be eclipsed in length by nine sub-parvas before the epic ends!

After the almost frenetic pace of the Sabha Parva, which sets the frame for the war to take place and also where several pivotal incidents take place, the Aranyaka Parva is almost glacial in pace. There are possibly three major episodes in this volume of note which have a direct bearing on the story. One is Arjuna's departure to Indraloka in search of divine weapons, that Yudhishtra has determined will be needed if the Pandavas are to win against the might of the Kurus. This episode, while part of the Aranyaka Parva, is present in Vol. 2.

Vol. 3 therefore has two major episodes. The first is the kidnapping of Droupadi by her brother-in-law, Jayadratha, the husband of Duhshala, sister of the 100 Kaurava brothers. This is recounted in the Droupadi-Harana Parva, the 42nd sub-parva, and runs for more than 1200 shlokas. Letting Jayadratha go alive has a very direct bearing on the happenings on the 13th day of the battle in Kurukshetra. This parva also sees the retelling of two tales - the Ramayana, and the story of Savitri and Satyavan, as a result of Yudhishtra's lament on the state of affairs. The stories are recounted by sage Markandeya in response to two specific questions by Yudhishtra. When Yudhishtra laments, "Is there any other man who is more unfortunate than I? Have you seen, or heard of, any such person earlier? " Markandeya tells the story of Rama and his travails in 18 chapters. Yudhishtra's second question, in response to which the story of Savitri is recounted, is, "Have you ever seen, or heard of, a woman as immensely fortunate and as devoted to her husbands as Drupada's daughter?" Perhaps sage Markandeya was trying, gently, to tell Yudhishtra about the circle of time - what has happened in the past is repeated in the future, what is happening has happened before, and what is to happen will also have happened in the past.

The second major episode is even more critical to the epic. It is the Kundala-harana Parva, and is recounted immediately after the Droupad-harana Parva. In this parva, Indra, Arjuna's celestial father, disguised as a brahmana, comes down to earth to ask, beg, rob, Karna of his armour, his "kavacha", that make him invincible in battle. Karna parts with them - and gets an unanswerable, use-once, weapon from Indra in return, and which will return to Indra after it has killed one person it is fired at. Therefore, we can see that several fates have been sealed as a result of this exchange. Karna is now no longer invincible. He will die on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. The weapon that Karna has obtained will kill one of the mighty warriors on the Pandava side. While Karna intended to use it on Arjuna, he would end up using it on Ghatotakacha, the mighty son of Bheema. Arjuna's life will be spared as a result. Whatever hope the Kuru army, and Duryodhana, may have harboured of victory till that point will vanish.

Apart from these two well-known stories, some of the other stories recounted in this volume, and parva, are that of sage Agastya, Lopamudra Ilvala and Vatapi, Indra and Vritra (and which is expounded upon in greater detail in Vol. 4), Ganga, sage Rishabha, sage Kashyap's son Rishyashringa, who was born as the son of a deer, sage Jamadagni, his wife Renuka, and their fifth son Parshurama, Sage Chyavana and Sukanya, King Shibi, and Ashtavakra. One gets the feeling that the Aranyaka Parva became, over time, the repository of stories that were deemed important and needed to be made part of the Mahabharata to ensure their permanence. While you have sections in the epic that serve as mini-philosophical treatises, tales as those found in this Parva may have been acutely incongruous elsewhere. The Pandavas have to spend twelve years in the forest, so telling and hearing stories to pass the time seems quite a natural thing to do.

Summary and Excerpts:
Arjuna has gone to the heavens in search of divine weapons that the Pandavas know they will need to get their kingdom back. The remaining Pandavas are missing Arjuna terribly. The sage Narada comes visiting, and Yudhishtra asks him to expound on the merits "obtained by someone who circles the earth and visits all the tirthas". The sage asks the Pandavas to listen in turn to what rishi Pulastya had told Bhishma in response to the same question. Thus begins Tirtha Parva. While we have been told in some detail the importance of Kurukshetra in Vol 1, in the Adi Parva, this parva contains more details on the holiness of Kurukshetra as a tirtha. "Even if one only wishes to go to Kurukshetra in one's mind, all one's sins are destroyed and one goes to to Brahma's world." and later "But in all the three worlds, Kurukshetra is special. Even the dust carried away by the winds in Kurukshetra takes the performer of evil acts to the supreme objective. ... Those who live in Kurukshetra live in heaven, "I will go to Kurukshetra, I will live in Kurukshetra," He who utters this single sentence is cleansed of all sins."

The stories of Agastya, Lopamudra Ilvala and Vatapi, Indra and Vritra (which is expounded upon in greater detail in Vol. 4), the Vindhyas are also to be found in this single tirtha. The story of Ganga, and how the ashes of the sons of King Sagara were immersed in the Ganga is then recounted starting with adhyaya 104 (of the Aranyaka Parva). We then get to hear about sage Rishabha, sage Kashyap's son Rishyashringa, who was born as the son of a deer, sage Jamadagni, his wife Renuka, and their fifth son Parshurama. The story of Sage Chyavana and Sukanya, which is also available as an Amar Chitra Katha, is recounted in chapter 122 and 123. The story of King Somaka and his lone son Jantu is heart-rending in some ways. A line from that adhyaya (128) is worth repeating here:
Dharma replied, 'O King!No one ever obtains the fruits of someone else's action.'
Chapter 130 and 131 retell the story of King Shibi, who was confronted with a familiar dilemma of dharma, whereby protecting a dove would have meant depriving the hawk. (Read the Amar Chitra Katha, "Indra and Shibi", for a nice illustrated retelling of the story). Chapters 132 onwards the story of Ashtavakra is recited. Chapter 134 contains the famous debate between Ashtavakra and Bandi. You could read that adhyaya again and again, such is the cascading crescendo of the debate between the learned sage and the twelve-year old Ashtavakra.

There is a considerable amount of space devoted to Bhima's travels towards the Gandhamadana mountains and his meeting with his half-brother, Hanuman. It is in chapter 161 that we see Arjuna return after completing his stay in the heavens.

Ajgara Parva is somewhat similar to Araneya parva. In both, it is Yudhishtra's knowledge of dharma that saves his brothers. One can also interpret these parvas in different manner. While it was Yudhishtra's love of gambling that saw him lose his kingdom, his brothers, and his wife, in gambling to Shakuni, it is his recently acquired knowledge from the sages in the forest that sees him redeeming himself and saving his brothers.
While it is Bhima in the Ajgara Parva, it is all his four brothers that Yudhishtra saves in the Araneya Parva.

From the Ajgara Parva, there are a few lines that bear repeating, if only to highlight what Yudhishtra has to say about who is learned and who is not; in other words, who is a brahman and who is not.
Yudhishtra replied, "If these traits, not even found in a brahmana, are seen in a shudra, he is not a shudra. A brahmana in whom a brahmana's traits are not found, is a shudra." In other words, it is conduct that determines your caste, so to say. Putting it in even simpler words, one is noble or not based on actions. Karma is prime; birth is not. "All men are equal in speech ... birth, and death."
Immediately afterwards, in Chapter 178, we see a profound exchange between Nahusha and Yudhishtra on dharma. Yudhishtra asks,
"O serpent! Between generosity and truthfulness, which is seen to be superior? Between non-violence and good conduct, which is superior and which is inferior"
'The serpent replied, "The superiority or inferiority of generosity versus truthfulness or non-violence vis-a-vis good conduct is determined by whether the effects of these deeds are more or less important."
This emphasis on karma, deeds, is a recurring theme in the epic.This parva, Ajgara Parva, is profound in itself and bears resemblance to some of the principal Upanishads themselves.

There is yet another fascinating episode where the sage Markandeya tells the Pandavas the story of the sage Koushika, who, on being berated by the wife of a householder as not being conversant with the true meaning of dharma, left for the city of Mithila, where a hunter, who bought and sold the meat of deer and buffaloes, enlightens the sage on dharma. Yet another reminder of how it is our deeds that define who we are, and not where we are or how we were born. There is a passage where the hunter tries to disabuse sage Koushika of the notions of ahimsa (violence) by saying:
"Agriculture is known to be a virtuous occupation. But it has been said that there is great violence in this. Ploughing kills many beings that lie inside the ground and many other hundreds of beings. What is your view on this? ... Man hunts, kills and eats animals. They also cut trees and herbs. O brahmana! There are many living beings in trees and fruit. There are many in water too. What is your view on this? O brahmana! Everything is full of life and living beings. Fish eat fish, What is your view on this? O supreme among brahmanas! Beings live on other beings. O supreme among brahmanas! Beings live on other beings. ... But in this world, who does not injure living beings?"
This volume ends, as does the Aranyaka Parva, with chapter 299, and with the Pandavas ready to enter the thirteenth year of exile incognito.

Bibek Debroy, the translator, is an economist with a difference. How so? Well, let's just say different. Consider this. In the early 1980s, while at the Presidency College in Kolkata, the author wrote a paper where he did a "statistical test on the frequency with which the five Pandavas used various weapons in the Kurukshetra war." Yes. Different. While his interest in the Mahabharata "remained, I got sidetracked into translating. Through the 1990s, there were abdridged translations of the Maha Puranas, the Vedas and the eleven major Upanishads."

The author has followed the Critical Edition from the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, in Pune, for his translation. The entire series is expected to run into ten volumes, and so far, at the time of my writing this review of the third volume, four volumes have been released, with each volume appearing roughly every six months, the most recent one, Vol. 4, published in Nov. 2011.

As far as purchasing these volumes are concerned, you can get these books from Amazon in the US. In India there is a plethora of choices. Several brick-and-mortar stores sell them, including Crosswords and Landmark. For online shopping, while Flipkart continues to offer amazing service and blazingly fast deliveries (a less than 24-hour turnaround time from order to delivery is not uncommon!), their discounts on books have fallen steeply over the past several months. They are selling this book for Rs 440, a healthy 20% discount off the list price of Rs 550 Rs 468, 15% discount. However, check out other sites like Infibeam, that is selling the book for Rs 413 (25% off), and IndiaPlaza, which is selling the book at a whopping 40% discount, for Rs 330 - truly a bargain.

Mahabharata, Vol. 1
Amazon, KindleFlipkartInfibeamIndiaPlaza
My blog post
My review on

Mahabharata, Vol. 2
Amazon, KindleIndia PlazaFlipkart
My blog post
My review on

Mahabharata, Vol. 4
Amazon, Kindle, Penguin BooksIndia PlazaFlipkart


Kindle Excerpt:

© 2012, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.