Monday, December 2, 2019

Markandeya Purana, tr by Bibek Debroy

The Markandeya Purana, translated by Bibek Debroy

s far as Puranas go, the Markandeya Purana is the shortest Puranas. It is nowhere as long as the Skanda Purana (81,000 shlokas) or the Padma Purana (55,000). For more reasons than one, I like the Markandeya Purana a lot. The most obvious one is that it begins with questions about the Mahabharata. Those maddening, unending, unanswerable questions about the Mahabharata that anyone and everyone would have asked - why did the nirguna Janardana assume a human form? Why did Droupadi have to have five husbands? Why did Balarama have to travel to the tirthas to atone for the sin of killing a brahmana? And why did the sons of Droupadi have to die the death they did? Remember that they were killed after the war, in their sleep, by the son of Drona.

With those four questions begins the Markandeya Purana. Actually, it is more subtle than that. In a manner that some may find similar to the style of the Mahabharata, and which needs some elaboration, these questions are asked of Markandeya by Jaimini, who was one of Vyasa's disciples and to whom Vyasa taught the Samaveda. Markandeya would not answer since it was not the time for speaking, but he directed Jaimini towards some birds.

These birds were the sons of Drona (no, not that Drona) who Markandeya considered wise enough to answer Jaimini. And who where these birds? Why did they come about to be born as birds? And how were they qualified to know these answers? To take the story forward, the Markandeya Purana takes us back to a time when Narada visited Indraloka and wanted to see the best dancer among the apsaras dance for him. True to form, Narada's challenge threw up a veritable fight among the apsaras. Unable to decide, Narada suggested, again true to form, that the best dancer would be she who was successful in disturbing Durvasa's penance! As expected, one apsara, Vapu, was able to disturb the sage's austerities, and was promptly cursed to be born as a bird!

And how did that come to happen? It so happens that among the descendants of Garuda were two brothers, Kanka and Kandhara. Kanka was killed by a rakshasa named Vidyarupa and Kandhara killed him to avenge his brother's death. Now, Vidyarupa's wife was Madanika, who was Menaka's daughter. After Vidyarupa's death at the hands of Kandhara, she agreed to become his wife, and lived with him in the form of a bird - remember that Kandhara was a bird. She game birth to a daughter, and you should have guessed it - who was none other than the cursed apsara, Vapu, born as Tarkshi. She married Drona, and conceived in due course of time.

When the conception was seven fortnights old, she went to Kurukshetra. Why she chose to go to Kurukshetra when the war between the Pandavas and Kouravas was raging we are not told. But go she did. As it happened, an arrow from Arjuna's bow pierced her stomach and four eggs fell down. Even as Tarkshi died, fate willed the eggs to live. At the same time, an arrow severed the bell around Bhagadatta's elephant, Supratika, which fell down on top of the eggs, sheltering them from any further harm. After the war, a sage named Shamika arrived on the battlefield, to the spot where the four birds were, heard their sounds, retrieved them from under the bell and had them sent to his hermitage. It is these four birds that Markandeya sent Jaimini for answers to his four questions!

The Mahabharata was certainly a starting point for the Makandeya Purana, but this Purana is perhaps best known for being the home of the Devi Mahatmya.

The Devi Mahatmya is a set of 700 shlokas, contained in 13 chapters in the Markandeya Purana, devoted to the greatness of the goddess and is considered one of the most important texts of Shaktism in Hinduism. It describes the origins of the devi and her incarnations in her battle against evil. Having been defeated by Mahishasura, the gods, along with Brahma, went to Shiva and Vishnu. The combined energies of the gods was united in the form of a woman.

"Her face was formed out of Bhava’s energy. Her hair was formed out of Yama’s energy. Vishnu’s energy formed her arms. Soma’s energy formed her two breasts and the space between them was formed by Indra’s energy. Varuna’s energy formed her hips and thighs, her buttocks were formed out of the earth’s energy. Brahma’s energy formed her feet and Arka’s energy formed her toes. Her fingers were formed out of the energy of the Vasus and Kubera’s energy formed her nose. Her teeth were formed out of Prajapati’s energy. Her three eyes originated in Pavaka’s energy. Her eyebrows were formed out of Sandhya’s energy. Her ears were from Anila’s energy. All the other gods contributed their energies to form the auspicious one."

Each god gave her his weapon - Krishna gave her a chakra out of his own chakra, Indra fashioned a vajra out of his own vajra, and so on. Thus she went and fought first with Mahishasura's generals - Chikshura, Chamara, Ugra, Mahahanu, Bashkala, Asiloma, Bidala, and others. After Mahishasura is killed, the gods praise her, and call her Alakshmi for the asuras.

After Mahishasura, it was the turn of the asuras Shumbha and Nishumbha. The gods came together and recited shlokas in praise of the goddess, Vishnumaya, which are now known as the Devi Sukhtam (देवीसूक्तम), also known as the Chandipath (चंडीपाठ). The refrain here is नमस्तस्यै नमस्तस्यै नमस्तस्यै नमो नमः ॥ (We bow down before her. We bow down before her. We bow down. We prostrate ourselves.)

This translation of the Markandeya Purana is based on Sanskrit edition brought out by Nag Publishers in 1983. Bibek Debroy tells us, for the sake of consistency, he is using the Sanskrit texts from Nag publishers for all his Purana translations, starting with the Bhagvata Purana translation that came out in 2018. The Markandeya Purana has 6,449 shlokas, much less than the 9,000 shlokas it was supposed to have. It has 134 chapters, divided into five sections, of which the fourth section is the Devi Mahatmya, from chapters 78-90. While it is impossible to determine the exact period of time in which this Purana was composed, based on different estimates and research, we are told that the Markandeya Purana was composed around the 4th century CE, and the Devi Mahatmya a couple of hundred years later.

Between reading the original in Sanskrit on the one hand and reading snippets and episodes from the Puranas in an Amar Chitra Katha lies a huge space for the reader. Bibek Debroy's translation of the Markandeya Purana presents the English reader with an opportunity to read the unabridged version in English. As he writes in the Introduction, "But all said and done, there is no substitute to reading these texts in the original Sanskrit." If you cannot read the original in Sanskrit, this is perhaps the next best thing.

© 2019, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.