Sunday, March 11, 2012

Mahabharata Vol. 2, by Bibek Debroy - my review

Mahabharata Volume 2 (The complete, unabridged Mahabharata) - Translated by Bibek Debroy

"Coronation, The Game of Dice, The Exile - The Empire Strikes Back"
5 stars This is a notable book I read and reviewed. Click to see more such books.
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(My blog post of the first volume, my review on Amazon)
This is the second volume of the author's unabridged translation of the Mahabharata, published in April 2011. It starts off from where the first volume had ended, naturally so, and completes the "Adi Parva", contains the entire "Sabha Parva", and contains about a quarter of the third parva, "Aranyaka". As per the 100-parva classification of the Mahabharata, this contains Parvas 16-32 ("Arjuna-vanavasa" to "Indralokabhigamana" parvas). Interestingly enough, the book starts off with Arjuna having to leave Indraprastha and ends with Arjuna again leaving the Pandavas for the heavens in search of divine weapons from his divine father, Indra.

In this volume, there are several stories-within-stories, and also what I would call a mini-Arthashastra. When the sage Narada arrives at Indraprastha, he is worried about a potential rift between the Pandavas arising as a result of Droupadi, their wife. Therefore, he recounts the story of Sunda and Upasunda and how they, "incapable of being killed by anyone else, except each other", did in fact kill themselves over Tilottama, a celestial beauty created by Vishwakarma. What is interesting is that the daityas Sunda and Upasunda ask for the boon of immortality from Brahma. However, Brahma, expectedly, refuses this boon, replying:
"Since you have performed these austerities with an objective in mind, the boon of immortality cannot be granted to you." [Ch 201, Adi Parva, Arjuna-Vanavasa Parva]
Is there a hint there, that the boon of immortality comes to only those who actually do not need it, or do not ask for it, and do not desire it?

The "Harana Harika Parva" sees Droupadi mouth these famous words in response to Arjuna's bringing home a second wife, Subhadra, "A second load always loosens the first tie, however strong."

The "Khandava Daha Parva" is where Arjuna and Krishna burn the Khandava forest in response to a request from the Sun-god Surya, who approaches them in the form of a brahmana. Arjuna is given the Gandiva, and Lord Krishna the chakra and a mace, the "Koumadaki". Ch 217 describes the terrible, terrible scene of the great fire. The description is fairly gruesome at times. Sample this: "As Khandava blazed, thousands of beings leapt in the ten directions, uttering frightened yells. Some were burnt in one spot. Some were scorched. The eyes burst out for some. Some withered away. Some lost their minds and scattered. Some clung to their sons, others to their fathers and mothers. Out of affection, they were unable to let go and perished. Others rose up in the thousands, their forms distorted....". In the end, Takshaka's son Ashvasena, the asura architect Maya, and the four Sharngakas were the only six beings that were spared in that great fire.

Maya then returns the favor to Arjuna by offering to and designing and building the grandest palace of all for the Pandavas, the Maya Sabha. The hall where the envy of Duryodhana would be fuelled beyond tolerance, and would start in motion the steps that would lead to the fateful 18 days on the battlefield of Kurukshetra more than thirteen years later. In the Sabha Parva, there is an eminently illuminating and the first of several philosophical mini-treatises that are to be found in the Mahabharata, the greatest of them all of course being the "Bhagvad Gita".  This one however is more political and administrative in nature, where Sage Narada visits the Pandavas at Indraprastha and questions Yudhishtra. The Sabha Parva also tells us how the asura architect Maya brought Bhima a club (gada) and Arjuna his Devdutt conch. Sage Narada advises Yudhishtra to hold the Rajsuya Yagya, which Yudhishtra, "after reflecting a great deal, made up his mind to perform...". However, the king wanted honest advice, so he sends a message for Krishna to Dwarka. Krishna arrives at Indraprastha. Yudhishtra then asks him for advice.
"Out of friendship, some do not notice faults. Out of desire for riches, some say that which is pleasant to hear. some consider that to be the best course of action which brings them self-gain. it is often that people's advice is like this. You alone are above all motives, beyond desire and anger." [Ch 12, Mantra Parva]
It is then that Krishna recites the story of Jarasandha's birth and why he is the biggest obstacle to the Rajsuya Yagya.

The next several adhyayas (chapters) are decidedly pivotal in the epic. The Arghabhiharana Parva is where the first offering has to be made, and upon Bhishma's advice, Sahadeva offered the first arghya to Krishna. And after that, in a manner of speaking, all hell breaks loose. Shishupala begins by asking certain pointed and valid questions of the Pandavas in their choice of Krishna as the receiver of the first arghya. Valid if you ignore Lord Krishna's divinity, which Shishupala obviously does. Yudhishtra pacifies Shishupala, ending his entreaties with this statement, "If Shishupala considers that this homage was undeserving, let him act as he sees fit, for this undeserving honour." Things escalate rapidly after that, with Shishupala instigating the other kings to disrupt the sacrifice. The "Shishupala Vadha Parva", as the name suggests, sees Krishna behead Shishupala. But not before Shishupala has had his fill of hurling insults at Bhishma and Krishna. The back-and-forth between Shishupala, Bhishma, and Krishna is worth reading and re-reading in its entirety, and repeatedly, such is the rapidly escalating tension that the exchange conveys. With the slaying however, the sacrifice comes to a somewhat somber and inauspicious end, and all the kings and guests depart. That is, with the exception of Duryodhana and Shakuni. And we all know what happens next. Except that it is not Droupadi who insults Duryodhana, but the servants and the others who laugh out loud when Duryodhana falls into the water, not Droupadi. However, Duryodhana does recount has having seen Droupadi having laughed at him, but along with all the others who also did. Did Duryodhana imagine that Droupadi had also joined in the laughter? Because the original verses that recount the incident where Duryodhana falls into the water do not mention Droupadi by name. Why is it that Droupadi was singled out and solely implicated in this royal and grievous insult later on I don't know. Whatever the case, it is the combination of this insult and seeing the riches of the Pandavas at Indraprastha that drives Duryodhana to extreme distress.
"This ordinary prosperity does not please me. I am miserable on seeing the blazing prosperity of Kunti's son."
Duryodhana is very clear as to who his enemies are, and he argues with Dhritarashtra thus:
"... because he knew that enmity towards a foe is eternal. Like a snake swallows a rat, the earth swallows up two - the king who does not strive and the brahmana who does not live at home. O lord of the earth! No one is by nature another man's enemy. The enemy is that whose pursuits are the same as one's own, and not anyone else." [Ch 51, Sabha Parva, Dyuta Parva]
Dhritarashtra gives in to his son's demands, and Vidura carries the invitation, much to Bhishma's grief. The gambling starts. Seventeen times Yudhishtra and Shakuni gamble. Seventeen times does the king lose. The seventeenth roll of the dice where Dharmaraja loses Droupadi.

The Sabha Parva ends with the Pandavas having lost the second round of gambling, where a single stake, exile for thirteen years, sees Yudhishtra losing, once again, to Shakuni. The next parva in the book, as per the eighteen parva classification, is the Aranyaka Parva. It is not completed in this book, and goes on for much of the third volume also.

Ch 29, Kairata Parva (Parva 31 in the 100 parva classification), part of the Aranyaka Parva (of the 18-parva classification), has this exchange between Droupadi and Yudhishtra, where she recounts an ancient story of a conversation between Prahalad and Bali on the subject of forgiveness. When Bali asks Prahalad, his grandfather, whether "forgiveness leads to welfare, or is it better to seek revenge?", Prahalad expounds on the merits and demerits of both. Excerpts:
"Revenge is not always superior. Nor is forgiveness always superior. Learn the nature of both, so that there is no scope for doubt.
A man who always forgives suffers from many faults. His servants treat him with contempt and others are also disrespectful. ... Therefore, the learned say that perpetual forgiveness should be avoided. ... Those with limited intelligence try to take his riches away from him. ... To be ignored in this world is worse than death.
Now listen to the faults associated with those who never forgive.If in the wrong place, or even in the right one, a person is afflicted with passion and anger and metes out various punishments on the strength of his energy, he will be clouded because of his energy and will face conflicts with his allies. ... If he equally uses his force on benefactors and those who wish him ill, such a man is shunned in the world, like a snake inside a house.
Listen, I will now tell you in details about the time when one should be forgiving.
If a former benefactor commits a crime that is not too great, in view of the earlier favour, this transgression should be pardoned. Those who commit an offence out of stupidity and seek pardon should be forgiven, because learning is not easily available everywhere to men. Even if the offence is slight, an offender who commits a crime with full knowledge, but claims he did not know, should be punished, because this is crookedness. The first offence should be forgiven for all beings. But when they commit the second one, however slight, it should be punished." [Ch 29, Kairata Parva (Parva 31 in the 100 parva classification), part of the Aranyaka Parva (Parva 3 in the 18-parva classification)]

The entire series is expected to run into ten volumes, and so far, at the time of 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 (KM GanguliPC Roy, and MN Dutt), and a fourth work, recently completed, from the Writers Workshop (see my paragraph below), 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.

There are several episodes that have been excised from the critical edition, and are therefore missing from this translation also: these are some that I am aware of:
. Akshay-patra gifted to Droupadi:
. Arjuna worships Shiva:
. Urvashi curses Arjuna:

In some ways, these popular episodes add to the grand epic, and it is not clear to me why they were removed from the Critical Edition. This makes me wonder if I should not add to my wish-list the P. Lal transcreation published by the Writers Workshop; this is now complete and available in 18 volumes, each corresponding to a parva of the epic. They total more than 11,000 pages, and cost close to 13,000 rupees. The longest book is Volume 3, corresponding to the "Vana Parva", is 1572 pages long, and costs Rs 2000, while the shortest is the "Mahaprasthanika Parva", Volume 17, at 36 pages. According to Wikipedia, this transcreation " a non-rhyming verse-by-verse rendering, and is the only edition in any language to include all slokas in all recensions of the work (not just those in the Critical Edition)". I have not read reviews of this work, but the fact that it includes all shlokas (verses) alone makes it worth buying/reading for the serious Mahabharata reader.

Kindle Excerpt:

In India, Flipkart offers amazing service and blazingly fast deliveries (a less-than 24 hour turnaround time from order to delivery is not uncommon!). However, they are selling the book for Rs 508, which is a miserly 8% discount off the list price of Rs 550. You may also want to check out other sites like Infibeam and IndiaPlaza, which is selling the book at a whopping 40% discount, for Rs 330 - truly a bargain.

© 2012, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.