Saturday, December 17, 2022

Vishnu Purana, tr. by Bibek Debroy

Vishnu Purana, translated by Bibek Debroy

A book that stays close to its definition

Why was Drupada, father-in-law of the Pandavas and Draupadi’s father, called a Panchala? Because one of Puru’s descendants was Haryashva, who had five sons — Mudgala, Srinjaya, Brihadishu, Yavinara, and Kampilya. So confident was Haryashva in his five sons’ valour that he declared that these five alone were capable of protecting the kingdom. Thus, these five brothers came to be known as Panchalas.

Or why was the capital of the Kurus called Hastinapura? Because one of Puru’s descendants was Hasti, and who established the city of Hastinapura. Both nuggets of information come to you in the 19th chapter of the 4th part of the Vishnu Purana.

King Rituparna was a descendant of Bhagiratha; the same Bhagiratha who brought down Ganga from the heavens. Karna’s foster father was Atiratha. He found the infant Karna floating on the Ganga, took him home, and was raised by him and his wife, Radha. It turns out that Atiratha was one of Anu’s descendants. Anu was one of Yayati’s sons. This is described in the 4th chapter of the 4th part of the Vishnu Purana.

Shantanu, Bhishma’s father, became king, even though his elder brother, Pratipa, was still alive at the time. Why was that? It’s there in the Vishnu Purana. By the way, the name Shantanu is derived from the word shanti (peace), but it is a shloka in chapter 20 of the 4th part that tells us that he was so named because all his deeds brought peace.

All this, and much more, is in the unabridged Vishnu Purana, translated into English by Bibek Debroy. The text is divided into six parts, with the fifth part being the longest (1,517 verses), and the sixth the shortest (698 verses).

After translating the unabridged Mahabharata, Harivamsha, and Valmiki Ramayana, Debroy turned to translating the Maha Puranas. Starting with the very popular Bhagavata Purana (2018, in three volumes), he then translated the Markandeya Purana (2019, in one volume), and then the Brahma Purana (2021, in two volumes). The Vishnu Purana is his latest translation.

Even within the corpus of the many Puranas, there are eighteen that are considered the most important, and are therefore called Maha Puranas. Chapter 6 of the 3rd part lists these eighteen Puranas. The same chapter also tells us that the Vishnu Purana comes after the Padma Purana in this list. There are also several minor Puranas called Upa Puranas. There are also Sthala Puranas, which, as the names suggest, extol the virtues of different pilgrimage sites. Together, the eighteen Maha Puranas add up to more than four-lakh verses — a number five times greater than the verses in the Mahabharata. Tradition holds that Vyasa was the composer of these Puranas. The Vishnu Purana has been recited by sage Parashar, Vyasa’s father.

Purana literally means ‘old’. But not every old text became a Purana — that much should be clear. For a text to be considered a Purana, it had to possess five attributes (pancha-lakshana) — sarga (original creation), pratisarga (secondary cycles of creation and destruction), vamsha (genealogies), manvatara (the reigns of different Manus), and vamshanucharita (descriptions of the surya and chandra dynasties).

Following this structure, you have detailed descriptions of solar and lunar dynasties in the Vishnu Purana. The fifth part of the Vishnu Purana is the longest of the six parts, and is all about Krishna. But there are many other nuggets and descriptions one can read in this Purana. If you want to know more about the twenty-eight types of hell (naraka), you will find those in chapter 6 of the 2nd part. For example, did you know that a person who breaks a contract goes to Viloha, whereas a bad astrologer goes to Puyavaha – a place where the sinner is borne along with pus.

How many times did Hiranyakashyipu try to kill his son, Prahlada, for being a devotee of Vishnu? Eleven times, if my counting is correct. This is in chapters 17 through 20 of the 1st part. Dhruva’s story is in chapters 11 and 12 of the 1st part. You can also read Brahma’s stuti (invocation) to Vishnu in chapter 9 of the same part. Indra’s stuti to Shri after getting nectar from the churning of the ocean is also in chapter 9. There are several such stutis in this Purana.

In chapter 3 of the 1st part, you can read about the units of time, starting with the smallest unit (a nimesha), continuing up to one of Brahma’s days (306 million human years), and ending with a kalpa (one hundred of Brahma’s years).

The sixth part talks about Kali Yuga. But even before that, in chapter 24 of the 4th part, you can read brief descriptions of Kali Yuga. One may conclude that Sage Parashara was spot on when he says that in Kali Yuga, ‘Wealth alone will be the cause for respect’, ‘Desire will be the only cause for a relationship between a husband and wife’, ‘If a person wears a Brahmana’s sacred thread, that will decide whether he is a Brahmana’, and ‘A cheat who wears good clothes will be regarded as great’.

One may have heard that Shishupala had once been one of the dwarpalas (gatekeeper) of Vishnu who was cursed to be born thrice on earth, to be killed by Vishnu before he would be allowed to return to heaven. The first of these births was as Hiranyakashyipu, the second as Ravana. Both were killed by Vishnu in his Narasimha and Rama avatars, respectively. A curious thing happened with the third — when Shishupala was beheaded by Krishna, his soul merged with Krishna. Why was that, and why didn’t it happen when Hiranyakashyipu and Ravana were killed? The Vishnu Purana gives us the explanation. So great was Shishupala’s hatred for Krishna that he could not get him out of his mind. No matter what he did — eating, walking, lying down — all Shishupala could see was Krishna; all he could do was utter his name, even if in rage, even at the moment of his death. Thus, when he met his end at the hands of Krishna, his sins burnt up, and he merged with Krishna.

There is also a most curious case of Bharata, the great son of Shakuntala and Dushyanta, who was reborn as a deer and then as a Brahmana, but one with such outward behaviour as to be labelled an ‘idiot’ (jada). Yet some of the most insightful passages in the Vishnu Purana can be found in the chapters on Jada Bharata, where he asks the king whether the palanquin, on which the king was travelling, and made of wood cut from a tree, should be called wood or tree. When asked by the king for more wisdom, he remarked: ‘There is no doubt that if the material used is perishable, the object attained will also be perishable.’ A particularly sharp observation is when he says that the ‘union between the jivatman and the paramatman is spoken of as the supreme objective. But this is also false. Two different objects cannot become one’, concluding that ‘the essence of the supreme truth is that there is no duality in anything.’

For the Mahabharata and Ramayana, Bibek Debroy used Critical Editions of the texts as his sources, prepared by the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune and the Baroda Oriental Institute, now part of Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, respectively. For the Puranas, he has used a series published by Nag Publishers. Even though we are told that the original Vishnu Purana had 23,000 shlokas, this translation has 6,403 shlokas. What happened to the other verses? The original text, believed to have been composed more than two-thousand years ago, has been lost. The extant text, however, in its current, truncated form, is still considered to follow the structure of a Purana most faithfully among all Puranas and has the most carefully preserved of all Puranas.

HH Wilson translated the complete Vishnu Purana in 1840 in English. The second full translation in English was done by the redoubtable Manmatha Nath Dutt, but his was based on Wilson’s translation, and acknowledged by Dutt as such. There is another unabridged translation that came out in 2021, which means that in nearly two centuries, there have been only three unabridged English translations of the Vishnu Purana — this one, by Bibek Debroy, is the fourth.

Why read the unabridged translation, as opposed to, say, a retelling, an abridgement, or a commentary? For at least two reasons. First, a translation tells you what the text says, not what someone thinks of the text. To be able to judge how close, or far, from the text a commentary or retelling is, one must have read a faithful translation. Second, each Purana is similar, but also different. You cannot get that sense and appreciation in an abridgment. Of course, there is no substitute to reading these texts in their original language, Sanskrit. A translation is the next best alternative, however.

Chapter headings are a new addition in this translation and provide much-needed context to the chapter’s contents. Bibek Debroy’s unabridged translation brings his trademark felicity of prose. Copious footnotes, numbering over a thousand, and a scrupulous attention to keeping this a translation and not an interpretation make this a much-needed and valuable text.

This review was first published in Firstpost on October 8, 2022.

© 2022, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.

Friday, August 19, 2022

Buried (Hush Collection), by Jeffrey Deaver

Buried (Hush Collection), by Jeffrey Deaver

'Buried' is a short novella, at under 100 pages, and runs at a fast clip, keeping me - the reader - engaged throughout. 
The plot is simple enough - a serial killer has returned to the small town of Garner and a too-old-to-be-taught-new-tricks journalist, Edward “Fitz” Fitzhugh, heads out to report on the story the old fashioned way. Meanwhile, the kidnap victim is in a race against time to free himself before time, air, and opportunity run out. One eyewitness to the kidnapping refuses to reveal himself and come out in the open, till Fitz employs good old journalistic skills to track him down and get some hints about the probably kidnapper. 

There are some brief passages where the pace slackens and one gets the impression that Deaver is perhaps filling the pages, but those passages are brief. This is a fast-paced novella that kept me turning the pages. All in all, a satisfying read. 

In particular, the opening chapter grabs you by the neck. If I were in a store leafing through books at random and if I came across this book, the first three pages would be enough to make me buy it. Yes, openings matter.

© 2022, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.

Saturday, July 16, 2022

Classified: Hidden Truths in the ISRO Spy Story”, by J. Rajasekharan Nair - Review

Classified: Hidden Truths in the ISRO Spy Story, by J. Rajasekharan Nair 

A Sharp Look at the ISRO Spy Case.

The short of the matter, for people who have not followed the case closely, is that Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) scientist S. Nambi Narayanan and others were accused of spying and conspiring to sell to Pakistan cryogenic engine technology. For close to three decades the matter rolled around in the corridors of the judiciary, roiling and ruining lives, till 2018, when the Supreme Court ruled that Narayanan’s arrest had been unwarranted, and ordered compensation of Rs. 50 lakhs to be paid to him. Another accused, scientist K. Chandrashekhar, slipped into a coma hours before the verdict was announced, and died soon thereafter. 

Veteran journalist J. Rajasekharan Nair has been following the case since it broke out. His book, “Classified: Hidden Truths in the ISRO Spy Story”, is an updated version of the book he had written in 1998, “Spies from Space: The ISRO Frameup”. He has brought out additional facts and updated the book based on the Supreme Court verdict of 2018 and developments since. What the book reveals is a story of bureaucratic egos and petty revenge dramas, of foreign agents embedded high up in the government, of political games and apathy, cover-ups galore, and international games of espionage and arm-twisting. 

Saturday, March 26, 2022

The Reacher Guy: The Authorized Biography of Lee Child, by Heather Martin - Review

The Reacher Guy: The Authorized Biography of Lee Child, by Heather Martin

(Amazon India, Kindle)

Heather Martin’s authorised biography of Lee Child, ‘The Reacher Guy’, is the story of James Grant the person, Lee Child the author, and Jack Reacher the character.

James Dover Grant goes out on 1 September 1994 and buys “three pads of lined paper, one pencil, one pencil sharpener and an eraser for a total of £3.99.” In March 1995, he sends out his first ever letter pitching his novel. Writing as Lee Child, his first book, Killing Floor, is published in 1997. It is the first book to feature Jack Reacher as the protagonist. Two decades later, by 2018, it is estimated that approximately 400 Lee Child books, on average, sell every hour of every day. Night School, published in 2016, sells 18,000 copies a day. Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books have sold well over a hundred million copies.

Thursday, January 6, 2022

Krishna Vasudeva and Mathura, by Meenakshi Jain - Review

Vasudeva Krishna and Mathura, by Meenakshi Jain


Indians may know Mathura as an important railway station on the way to Agra, as the site of a large oil refinery and a place of connection with the Hindu god, Krishna. But not many will know of its significance in India’s socio-political landscape. Even fewer will know enough to separate fact from fiction. Meenakshi Jain’s Vasudeva Krishna and Mathura attempts to summarise, in a short and readable book, the available literature about Mathura, its history, and association with Vasudeva Krishna over the ages.

While the book is divided into 10 chapters, it can be broken into three logical parts. In the first part, going back to almost 3,000 years, ancient Sanskrit grammarian Yaska’s treatise Nirukta gives an indication of the transition from “the gods of sacrificial fires to the deities of the Epics and Puranas”. The Svetasvatara Upanishad propounded the idea of bhakti and there was also the emergence of images (murti, vigraha, pratima) where “images served the same purpose as Agni in Vedic rites”. There was a gradual merging of Bhagavata and Vaishnava, with Vasudeva Krishna being identified with the Vedic Vishnu.

So if Vasudeva Krishna was associated with the Vedic Vishnu, was Krishna a historical person? Without getting into his divinity, the question of his historicity has been examined and settled based on the evidence presented. Historian and epigraphist DC Sircar concluded that the “weight of evidence attested to the human character of Krishna”. Indologist RN Dandekar and Sanskrit scholar EW Hopkins also expressed similar views. Further corroborating evidence came in the form of literary attestations from the Greek historian Megasthenes (350-290 BCE) and also the Roman historian Quintus Curtius.

The Heliodorus column, located in Besnagar (in Madhya Pradesh), is the earliest inscriptional evidence available that references Krishna. This pillar “was erected in honour of Vasudeva, God of gods, by Heliodoris of Takshashila” and has been dated to the 2nd century BCE. An eight-and-a-half feet tall doorjamb, dating to 15 CE, is the earliest discovered epigraphic artifact in Mathura. Its inscription referred to a quadrangle at the shrine at the mahasthana of Bhagavata Vasudeva.

The second part of the book covers the medieval history and the destruction of temples at Mathura. Mahmud Ghaznavi attacked and plundered Mathura in 1071. His secretary Al-Utbi recorded this destruction, writing that Ghaznavi ordered “all the temples should be burnt with naptha and fire, and levelled to the ground”. It was in Jahangir’s reign (1605-1627 CE) that Bir Singh Deo Bundela, ruler of Orchha, rebuilt the Keshava Deva Temple at an estimated cost of Rs 33 million (when gold was priced at Rs 10 per tola). French merchant Jean-Baptiste Tavernier

(r. 1605-1689 CE) described it as “one of the most sumptuous buildings in all India”. Niccolao Manucci, Venetian writer and traveller, wrote that the temple “was of such a height that its gilded pinnacle could be seen from Agrah”. Mughal king Aurangzeb (r. 1658-1707) issued a general order for the demolition of Hindu schools and temples and in 1670, specifically ordered the destruction of the Keshavadeva Temple. Chronicler Saqi Musta’id Khan wrote that “the destruction of this strong foundation of infidelity was accomplished and on its site a lofty mosque was built by the expenditure of a large sum… The idols, large and small, set with costly jewels… were brought to Agra, and buried under the steps of the mosque of the Begum Sahib in order to be continuously trodden upon”.

The third part of this book covers the legal status of the land and the challenges thereof. It was only in 1770 that control over the entire Katra Keshavadeva area was wrested out of Mughal by the Marathas and the area declared as nazul (government land). Even after the defeat of the Marathas at the hands of the East India Company in 1803, the land continued to be treated as nazul. A few years later, in 1815, it was sold by auction to Raja Patnimal of Banaras and was duly recorded.

Alexander Cunningham, the founder Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India, did several surveys of Mathura and estimated that “the destroyed temple would have had a total length of 250 feet, with an extreme breadth of nearly 72 feet… Judging from these dimensions, the temple of Kesava Deva must have been one of the largest in India”. Several decrees passed reinforced the ownership of the land. The next major development came in 1944 when Rai Kishan Das, heir of Raja Patnimal, transferred Katra Keshavadeva in favour of Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya and others, the purchaser being Seth Jugal Kishore Birla, who created the Sri Krishna Janmabhumi Trust and endowed all his rights in favour of the trust in 1951.

On September 26, 2020, a group of devotees moved a civil court in Mathura on behalf of Bhagwan Shree Krishna, asking for the removal of the encroachment and superstructure. While the book ends with this last update, the last word on the matter has not been written, nor will be for years to come. Jain’s book emulates what her earlier works have achieved—sift through copious literature, go over it with a scholar’s rigour and historian’s eyes and present them in a readable manner. The endnotes, references and index are valuable. The colour illustrations add to the appeal of this timely and scholarly book.

Publisher: ‎ Aryan Books International (14 October 2021)
Hardcover: ‎ 234 pages
ISBN-10: ‎ 8173056587
ISBN-13: ‎ 978-8173056581

This review was first published in The New Indian Express on 13 February, 2022.

© 2022, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.

Rukmini, by Saiswaroopa Iyer


Rukmini: Krishna's Wife, by Saiswaroopa Iyer

Writing fiction based on our epics is easy. Writing fiction based on our epics is tough. Somewhere along this dichotomy lies the secret to writing a story that holds your attention and interest while at the same time staying faithful to the original.