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.