Sunday, March 4, 2012

Mahabharata, Vol. 1, by Bibek Debroy - my review

The Mahabharata, Vol. 1, Translated by Bibek Debroy - my review
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A strong start to a marathon...
5 stars
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An unabridged translation of the Mahabharata is a tall order. This book starts strongly; and this is going to be a marathon, with a total of 10 volumes planned.

Bibek Debroy, the translator, is an economist with a difference. How so? Well, 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."

This then is the first volume of the author's unabridged translation of the Mahabharata. The entire series is expected to run into ten volumes, and so far, at the time of my writing this review, four volumes have been released, with each volume appearing roughly every six months, the most recent one, Vol. 4, published in Nov. 2011. The fifth one, then, can be expected in April 2012. At this pace, the tenth, and last, volume should be published in Nov 2014.

The author has followed the Critical Edition from the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, in Pune, for his translation. There have been only five unabridged translations of the Mahabharata to-date, three of them by Indians, and two that have originated in the United States (one from the University of Chicago, and the other from the Clay Institute - both translations are as yet unfinished). This work is therefore, the sixth such translation.

This first volume contains most of the Adi Parva - "90 percent of Adi Parva", and contains 199 chapters and a little less than 6,500 shlokas. It contains 15 parvas (as per the 100 parva classification), and a little less than the entire Adi Parva (as per the 18-parva classification), and ends with the Rajya-labha Parvav (as per the 100-parva classification), where the Pandavas establish the partitioned region of Khandavaprastha as their kingdom, and turn it into Indraprastha through dint of hard work. The book is organized into "parva" and "adhyayas". There is no identification of the individual shlokas however.
If you include the Hari Vamsha, the number of shlokas in the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute's Mahabharata critical edition is a shade under 80,000. This first volume, then, represents a little over 8% of the entire work that is to be translated.

The first public retelling of the Mahabharata was done by the sage Vaishampayana, at King Janamejaya's snake sacrifice, and at Krishna Dvaipayana's (aka Ved Vyasa) instructions:
"Relate in full, exactly as you heard it from me, the account of the ancient quarrel between the Kurus and the Pnadavas." [Ch 54, Section VI, Adi-vamshavatarana Parva]
The story at this point begins with Vaishampayana starting off with the story of Uparichara (also known as Vasu), and the birth thereof Satyavati, and so on...

Before getting to this point however, which most consider a logical point to begin the story of the Mahabharata from, though some prefer starting even later, with the meeting of Shantanu and Ganga, the story has an elaborate digression (or pre-gression?)  into the world of snakes, the snake king Takshaka, before settling down to this territory that is more familiar to most of us.

Even as he starts to retell the story of Parikshit's ancestors, sage Vaishampayana, not knowing whether King Janameeya would be interested in the full story, rattles off the entire story of the epic in the three pages of a single adhyaya (chapter) in the Adi-vamshavatarana Parva. The king is not satisfied with this extra-concise summary, and requests the sage to elaborate:
"... But now I feel a great desire to hear this wonderful history in detail, with all descriptions. You should therefore recite it in its entirety. ... It cannot be for a trifling reason that the virtuous Pandavas killed those who should not be killed, and yet continue to be praised by men." [Chapter 56, Adi-vamshavatarana Parva]
What is good about this translation is that the translation itself is not needlessly archaic, nor does it seek to get lost in the minutiae of whether "krisna" or "krsna" or "Krishna" is the correct way to write the lord's name. No, it seeks instead to make the book accessible to the reader of today.
I will not go over a review of the entire book; rather, I will quote from the book excerpts and lines that I found to be particularly interesting, profound, or simply noteworthy.

Shakuntala, wife of Dushanta, mother of Bharata, daughter of the celestial apsara Menaka and rishi Vishwamitra, is not a timid, subservient lady seeking the benediction of the king in sanctifying their union. Rather, she is a strong-willed lady who is not afraid to speak her mind when angered, nor is she particularly upset or cares whether the king recognizes her as his wife or not.
Sample these lines spoken by her to King Dushanta, when he refuses to acknowledge their son, Bharata. She begins by enlightening him of the value of children, and sons in particular.
Those who have wives can be householders. Those who have wives are happy. Those who have wives have good fortune."
The wise have said that a man is himself born as his son. Therefore, a man should regard the mother of his son as his own mother.
The wife is the sacred ground in which the husband is born again.
" [Sambhava Parva, Chapter 68]
When the good king insults Shakuntala, saying, "I do no know you. Go away, as you please.", she is angered, and addresses him with harsh, harsh words.
"You see the faults of others, even though they are as small as a mustard seed. But you do not see your own, even though they can be seen as large as a bilva fruit.
O Dushanta! My birth is nobler than your own. O lord of kings! You are established on earth. But I roam the sky. Know the difference between you and me is that between a mustard seed and Mount Meru.
Like a pig searches out filth, the fool seeks out evil words when hears good and evil in men's speech. ... Those who seek no evil live happily. But fools are happy when they find evil.
" [Sambhava Parva, Chapter 69]
Ouch! That's not a demure, subservient woman. Hats off to the strong-willed lady. In some ways, we can also witness the gradual decline in the standing of women in society, from the strong-willed and independent Shakuntala to the equally strong-willed Droupadi, but who is married off to five brothers, then bartered away to the Kouravas in a crooked game of dice by her husbands, and then humiliated in front of a court by her brothers-in-law, even as her husbands stand as mute spectators. 

The akashvani ("disembodied voice from the sky") ends the conflict between wife and husband, even as Shakuntala is about to walk off and out from the king's court, by telling all present that Bharata is indeed Dushanta's son.
"Born from the father, the son is the father himself."
Later on, when Devayani curses Kacha for refusing to marry her:
 "...your knowledge will never achieve success.", Kacha replied, "Nevertheless, you have cursed me, not out of dharma, but out of desire. Therefore, your desire will never be satisfied. ... You have said that my knowledge will never bear fruit. So be it. But it will bear fruit for the one I teach it to." [Sambhava Parva, Chapter 72]
This exchange led me to wonder whether the same does not hold true, in some ways at least, in modern society, with those who teach and those who create and run businesses. The truly knowledgeable teachers are truly the repositories of knowledge and expertise in our society, but it is their students, who they teach this knowledge to, who go out in the world and create enterprises that bear the fruit of this knowledge. I wonder...

The story of Parikshit is quite an interesting one. Here is a person who was born as a direct result of divine intervention from Lord Krishna, who brought him to life after he had been killed in his mother's womb by Ashwatthama. It is for this reason that Parikishit is also known as the posthumous son of Abhimanyu, since he was still-born, and only later revived by the Lord. And yet, Parikishit's end was quite a gory one, bitten to death by a serpent, his body set aflame as a result of the serpent's poison. That apart, this particular line is a grim reminder of the power of words. Words spoken in jest, words spoken in anger, even words spoken with the most honest of intentions can have consequences. Parikishit, in his finite wisdom, thought he was only doing the world of sages a good, by uttering the words he did. Little could he have realized the prophetic nature of his words. Therefore, think before you speak.
"The sun is setting. Today, I no longer have any fear from poison. Therefore, let this worm become Takshaka and bite me. Let the words of the hermit become true and let a falsehood not be committed." [Astika Parva, Chapter 39]
"Having said this, the king of kings smilingly placed the small worm on his throat, about to die and robbed of his senses. He was still laughing when Takshaka, who had come out of the fruit that had been given to the king, coiled around him." [Section V, Astika Parva, Chapter 39]
In a karmic way, the noble king had but himself to blame for his horrific death. In some sense, he actually invited his own death. Or we can say that our actions inform our destiny.

In these turbulent times that we live in today, where the corrupt roam free and where their crimes are condoned by those in power, these lines from the Mahabharata sound eerily prescient. Those in power would do well to read them.
But if a crime doesn't find a punisher, many in the worlds will commit crimes. A man who has the power to punish a crime and doesn't do so, despite knowing that a crime has been committed, is himself tainted by the deed, even if he is the lord. [Ch 172, Chaitraratha Parva]
In this first volume, the lord, Krishna, makes an appearance only in the Droupadi-Svayamvara Parva, at Droupadi's svayamvar. The Hari Vamsha, a little over 6000 shlokas in the Critical Edition, recounts in detail the history of Krishna. This is however considered a supplement to the Mahabharata. I believe that Bibek Debroy intends covering Hari Vamsha at the end, perhaps as Vol X?

In the critical edition, there is no mention that Droupadi forbade Karna from attempting to string the bow at her swayamvar. Later, in the second volume, we read that it was not Droupadi but the other Pandavas that laughed aloud at Duryodhana's missteps in the Maya Sabha at Indraprastha. Both these incidents, or rather, the lack of Droupadi's involvement in these incidents, and more specifically, culpability, does raise interesting questions. Droupadi was even more innocent of the crimes perpetrated on her during the game of dice. When did these incidents get added to the Mahabharata - where Droupadi, perhaps at Krishna's behest, prohibits Karna from attempting the svayamvar, by stating he was of inferior birth, and then in the palace of the Pandavas where she laughs at Duryodhana's missteps, contemptuously referring to him as the blind son of the blind king ("andhe ka andha" - which, when said in Hindi, hurts even more)? Were these later interpolations meant to try and justify the acts of the Kauravas later on? Or were they meant to interject a sense of cause-and-effect? A karmic cause to Droupadi's sufferings?

In India, Flipkart offers amazing service and blazingly fast deliveries (a less than 24-hour turnaround time from order to delivery is not uncommon!). They are selling the book for Rs 440, a healthy 20% discount off the list price of Rs 550 (I re-checked and this is now whittled down to a 14% discount, with a net selling price of Rs 471, a real pity). However, you may also want to check out other sites like Infibeam, that is selling the book for Rs 407, and IndiaPlaza, which is selling the book at a whopping 40% discount, for Rs 330 - truly a bargain.

Kindle Excerpt:

© 2012, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.