Towards the end of the 13th century A.D. we notice a common literary feature emerging in eastern India that becomes very prominent by the 16th century not only in the east but also in the south. Vyasa’s Mahabharata was translated first into Bengali and then into Assamese, Oriya, Telegu and Kannada. The reasons for this remarkable synchronicity deserve further study. For the present, let us look at the picture in Bengal.
According to Dinesh Chandra Sen, the renowned historian of Bengali literature, it was a Muslim ruler of Bengal, Sultan Nusrat Khan or Nasir Khan (1285?-1325) who commissioned the first translation of Mahabharata in Bengali entitled “Bharat Panchali.” The work is not traceable but Kabindra Parameshwar states in his Bengali Mahabharata: “The glorious leader Nasrat Khan had the panchali composed, the ultimate in merit.” However, history is ignorant of any sultan of Bengal by this name ruling for forty years at that time. After examining the evidence, Major General S.K. Sen suggests that the reference might actually be to Nasiruddin Nusrat Shah (1519-1531 AD) who succeeded his father Sultan Alauddin Hussain Shah of Bengal (1493-1519 AD). Nusrat Shah went to Chattagram (Chittagong) with general Paragal Khan as the king’s representative in 1515-1516. Paragal became governor there and got the Mahabharata translated by Kabindra Parameshwar, which came to be known as the Paragali Mahabharat. Hussain Shah was a distant ruler while Nusrat, the crown prince, was a powerful patron at hand in Chittagong as is evident from the verses of Shrikara. Kabindra would be referring to this Nusrat and to Srikara’s panchali, not to a distant ruler. Paragal’s son Chhuti Khan succeeded him as governor and got the Jaiminiya Ashvamedhaparva translated by Shrikara or Shrikaran Nandi which came to be known as Chhuti Khaner Mahabharat. Part of it was included in Kashiram Das’ Bengali Mahabharata (composed 1604-1610) and Krittibas’ Ramayana (c. 1st half of 15th century).
Kabi Sanjay is the first translator of the complete Mahabharata into Bangla for regaling rustic audiences, composed in payar metre in the first half of the 15th century, prior to the rule of Sultan Hussain Shah in Bengal. He precedes Chaitanya (1486-1533), unlike most other vernacular renderings of the epic, as there is no trace of Vaishnava bhakti in his work. His date is uncertain, but he might be a contemporary of Krittibas, the translator of the Ramayana (not later than the 15th century). However, on the basis of language and style some scholars place him in the 17th century AD. A resident of Laur in the Sunamganj subdivision of Shrihatta district in East Bengal, he belonged to the Bharadvaja gotra. An interesting point is that he praises Bhagadatta as the ruler of Laur and also calls him ruler of Bengal, although Vyasa’s Mahabharata does not do so, because Shrihatta was at one time part of Pragjyotishpura, the capital of Bhagadatta. While his version is almost unaffected by the devotional movement, it contains several unusual Shakta-influenced episodes. He departs quite freely from the Sanskrit epic’s contents, unlike Kashiram Das a later translator. The narration is interspersed with laachari to be sung and various ragas and raginis are indicated in the text such as Vasant, Kamod, Bhatiyal (not a raga, but the typical boatman’s song of Bengal), Shri, Barari, Pathamanjari.
Kabi Sanjay created a new genre, the Pauranik fairytale in his translation of the epic. The key elements are given below:-
- Sanjay provides a novel start to the epic. Janamejaya (J) charges Vyasa with failure to prevent his ancestors from the fratricidal battle of Kurukshetra. Vyasa laughs and says that people do not listen to prohibitions. As an example he issues an injunction that to avoid misfortune J must not make Kantavati his chief queen, which is precisely what he proceeds to do. He also insults sage Rishyashringa who curses him to be afflicted with bhagapida, syphilitic sores, all over his body. Vyasa reappears and tells him that to be cured he should listen to the epic recited by Vaishampayana. That is why the recital begins. At the end of Svaragarohana parva, J is cured, rounding off the narrative.
- In Astika parva he adds a new story of Takshaka, pursued by Garuda, marrying his daughter Sarada to Parikshit and thus escaping death. A folktale of the ojha (curer of snake-bite) of Shankhapura is added and a novel treatment of J’s serpent sacrifice.
- The Shantanu-Ganga story is given a novel twist. Brahma curses Mahabhisha for his shameless ogling of Ganga’s nudity to be born a vanara. He worships Shiva who grants his wish to possess Ganga. Shiva commands Ganga who takes the vanara aside and tells him that first he must become hairless like her and can do so by entering fire. To persuade him she magically protects him when he tests a finger in a flame and remains unhurt. When he enters the fire she does not protect him and he dies. King Kuru is performing a sacrifice and finds a dry place overflowing with hot water which he and the sages cannot cross. The monkey’s corpse comes floating by and they use it as a bridge. Thereupon the vanara is liberated and is born as Kuru’s son, Shantanu. Shiva berates Ganga and forces her to wed Shantanu.
- Amba’s love for Bhishma is a creation of Sanjay’s who makes of it a long love-story.
- Chitrangad dies of TB. Vichitravirya violates Bhishma’s injunction against entering his palace in his absence and is crushed there by the elephant with which Bhishma used to wrestle daily to exercise.
- Dhritarashtra plots with Duryodhana to build the house of lac.
- In the Khandava conflagration the survivors are sage Lomasha, Surabhi the cow, Danavendra lord of demons and Vishvakarma.
- The Rajasuya yagya is held because Pandu, insulted in Swarga, sends Narada to urge his sons to hold this sacrifice so that he can regain status. During the conquests, on his return from Lanka Arjuna encounters Hanuman. This becomes an interesting folk-tale.
- Duryodhana and Drona send a band of fasting sages to Yudhishthira in exile but Krishna’s miracle saves the Pandavas.
- In Udyoga parva a folktale is added about Kakalilasura.
- In Bhishma parva the story of Brahmachandala is added and the beauty and valour of horses are elaborated at great length.
- In Drona parva after Abhimanyu’s death Draupadi leads an army of women against the Kauravas. Karna refuses to fight them. Duryodhana is routed.
- In Karna parva the story of Tarakaksha and Makaraksha is added.
- Ashvamedhaparva mostly follows the composition of Jaimini, Vyasa’s disciple, omitting the retelling of the Rama story. Sanjay adds Yadava and Pandava women fighting the enemy when the Pandavas are defeated. He has Surya give Vrishaketu a chariot during the battle with Anushalva. Jaimini’s Jvala is turned into Jana and glorified in particular. She dies and turns into an arrow that lies in Babhruvahana’s quiver with which he kills Arjuna. Girish Chandra Ghosh, the father of Bengali theatre, wrote an extremely popular play, Jana, about her in 1894. The battle descriptions surpass Vyasa’s. The stories of Jana, Sudhanva, Babhruvahana, Chandi, Chandrahasa are magnificently related. Chandrahasa’s story has been substantially changed, especially Vishaya’s subterfuge in replacing the word visha (poison) with her name, Vishaya. Jayadratha’s son does not die of fear but fights bravely with Arjuna. Jaimini’s Bakadalbhya has become Bakradanta and he steals the horse so that he can see Krishna. Viravarma becomes Virabrahma and his daughter Malini becomes Ratnavati. Uddalaka is renamed Udyana in the story of Chandi and the curse is dispelled when both the horse and Arjuna touch the stone. The remarkable story of the many-faced Brahmas is absent. Sanjaya describes Chitrangada as a veshya, a prostitute, while in Jaimini Arjuna says that Babhruvahana must be a son of a vaishya. The description of the horse required for the sacrifice is different too and the parva ends with Krishna’s return to Dvaraka with the Yadavas which is a departure from Jaimini.
- In Ashvamedhaparva Sanjay goes beyond Jaimini to invent the grand episode of Vivek, son of Sudhanva, who immediately after birth takes on Arjuna and Krishna to avenge his father’s death, routs Arjuna’s army, vanquishes Arjuna and Krishna, defeats Bhima, Nakula and Sahadeva and the combined army of Yadava and Pandava women. Finally, on his grandfather Hamsadhvaja’s request, Bibek surrenders to Krishna.
- Certain incidents are taken from Vyasa: the Pandavas go to Kailasa with Krishna to obtain the wealth of Marutta, the story of Parikshita’s birth, Arjuna’s horse goes to Kirata and Yavana lands, Trigartya, Pragjyotisha, Chedi, Magadha, Kashipura, Deshartha, Nishada, Kirata again, the kingdoms of Ugrasena, Kuntibhoja, Panchala, Gandhara, etc.
- Mausala parva has Arjuna accompany Krishna at the end and, as they rest together, Krishna is shot and killed.
- Svargarohana parva has new tirthas come up where each Pandava falls. The route is along the Ganga. Meghanada Daitya tries to abduct Draupadi and is slain by Bhima.
In Bengal the influence Jaimini’s Ashvamedhaparva was felt most powerfully. According to Dinesh Chandra Sen, Sanjaya, Kabindra Parameshwar, Shrikara Nandi and almost all the later translators have recorded that they translated the Mahabharata following the Jaimini-Samhita. Little is taken from Vyasa, except a few references. Jaimini was a leader among the revivalists of Hinduism (Shankara came later). His disciple, Bhattapada, defeated the Buddhists in King Sudhanva’s court. Many ancient Bengali books contain references to the Jaimini Bharata.
In the early 16th century AD Kabindra Parameshwar translated the Mahabharata in brief (so that it could be heard in a single day) up to Stri Parva under the patronage of Paragal Khan. This came to be known as the Paragali Mahabharata and also as Pandab Bijoy. This includes basically the battle stories, especially in the Ashvamedhaparva which, as in Sanjaya, is taken from Jaimini. Most of the stories of the original epic are omitted.
Dinesh Chandra Sen states that after this there are many translations of which the important ones are Dvija Abhirama’s Ashvamedhaparva, Ananta Mishra’s Ashvamedhaparva, Nityananda Ghosh’s Mahabharat, Dvija Ramchandra Khan’s Ashvamedhaparva, Kabichandra’s Mahabharat, Shashthibar Sen’s Bharat, Gangadas Sen’s Adi and Ashvamedhaparva, Rameshwar Nandi’s Mahabharata, Kashiram Das’s Mahabharat, Trilochan Chakravarty’s Mahabharat, Nimai Das’s Mahabharat, Dvija Krishnaram’s Ashvamedhaparva, Dvija Raghunath’s Ashvamedhaparva, Bhriguram Das’s Bharat, Dvija Ramkrishnadas’ Ashvamedhaparva and Bharat Pandit’s Ashvamedhaparva. W.L. Smith mentions complete Bengali versions of Ashvamedhaparva by Ghanashyam Das and Dvija Premananda and more recent versions by Rajaram Dutt (19th century), Kaliprasanna Vidyaratna (Jaiminibharata in verse, 1884). Chandranath Basu’s Ashvamedhaparva in free prose came out in 1317 B.S. i.e. 1910-11 AD. Munindra Kumar Ghosh mentions Nandaram Das, Dvija Govardhan, Bhabani Das and Dvija Srinath among others. Asit Kumar Bandyopadhyay mentions the name of Dvija Haridas too. It is not clear whether these works are based on Vyasa or on Jaimini.
The most popular Bengali verse translation remains Kashiram Das’ Mahabharat which follows Jaimini’s Ashvamedhaparva. In him the influence of Chaitanya’s Vaishnavism is overwhelmingly perceptible. The work was a major influence on Bengali literature.
Kaliprasanna Singha (1840 or 1841 to 24 July 1870) authored the first prose translation of the Mahabharata. Educated in Sanskrit, Bengali and English, he left school in 1857 at the age of 16 and established the Vidyotsahini Theatre in his own house where he enacted Venisamhara. Encouraged by its success, in the same year he translated Kalidasa’s Vikramorvashiya. In 1858 he wrote the play Savitri-Satyavan and in 1859 Malati-Madhava. These plays were staged in his theatre with him in the main roles. Purana-sangraha, a collection of Puranic stories from the Mahabharata was published between1860-66. His greatest literary feat was translating the Mahabharata into Bangla in 17 volumes, for the first time in Bangla literature. The work was begun in 1858 with a team of seven pandits and completed in 1866, omitting and adding nothing. 3000 copies of each parva were printed, being unsure of the reception. He excluded Harivamsha as he found its composition to be plainly later than the epic. However, he had a plan to publish its translation along with those of the Puranas, as the title page indicates.
What the BORI editors of the critical text of the Mahabharata have done now, Kaliprasanna began at the age of 18 in 1858 all by himself, collating manuscripts from the Asiatic Society, Shobhabazar Palace, the collections of Asutosh Deb, Jatindramohon Thakur and his own great-grandfather Shantiram Singha’s collection in Kashi. He acknowledges with gratitude the help he received in resolving contradictions in the texts and making out the meaning of knotty Vyasakuta verses from Taranath Tarkavacaspati teacher at the Calcutta Sanskrit Vidyamandir. He records with profound gratitude that Ishvarchandra Vidyasagar began a translation of the epic and had published some parts of it in the Brahmo Samaj’s Tattavabodhini magazine, but stopped the work on hearing of Kaliprasanna’s project. Vidyasagar not only went through Kaliprasanna’s translation but supervised the printing and the work of translation in his absence. Kaliprasanna writes that he has no words to express the benefits Vidyasagar showered upon him. Apparently, Vidyasagar provided him seven pandits for the project. Kaliprasanna gives special thanks to several friends viz. the famous poet Michael Madhusudan Dutt for promising to turn the best parts of the translation into Amritakshar metre and a play; the Purana expert Gangadhar Tarkabagish, Raja Kamalkrishna Bahadur, Jatindramohon Thakur, Rajendralal Mitra, Dvarkanath Vidyabhushan (editor of Somprakash), Rajkrishna Bandopadhyay (professor of Bengali literature in Presidency College), Nabinkrishna Bandopadhyay (former editor of Tattvabodhini), Dinabandhu Mitra (the playwright of Nil Darpan) and Kshetramohon Vidyaratan (editor of Bhaskar). Deploring the death of ten members of his team of translators, he thanks by name those engaged till the end and the proof readers (mentioning all their names).
Daily in the evening the translation, as it progressed, was read out to Raja Radhakanta Deb and other prominent leaders of Hindu society like Raja Kamalkrishna Bahadur and Rajkrishna Mitra. In villages, he writes, the translation is read out in important gatherings morning and evening. He pays a fulsome tribute to Kashiram Das’ translation in Bengali verse, regretting that details of his life and dates are not recorded anywhere. He leaves out discussion and summaries of Sanskrit literature based on Asiatic researches and Max Muller’s edition of texts to avoid any controversy that might harm the unrestricted acceptance of his translation.
The work took eight years to complete and was printed at his Tattvabodhini Press. It was provided to readers who wrote in, free of charge. Readers were advised not to send any postage stamps. In every district an agent was appointed to distribute the book so that it could be obtained without spending anything. It was and remains a unique project of making wisdom literature available without charging anything for it.
Many laughed his herculean effort to scorn, ascribing it to a quest for immortal fame by buying up pandits to translate. In response he merely stated that he had no craving for public fame, but only that should, by the grace of God, the Bengali language exist anywhere and this book fall into someone’s hands who might be able to make out its meaning and understand the pillar of glory of the Hindu race that was the Bharat, then all his labour would have been successful.
Kaliprasanna dedicated his translation to Empress Victoria in gratitude for the British rescuing Bharatavarsha from the mortal clutches of the Mughals. He compared his offering to the gods offering the Parijat flower churned out of the ocean to Purandara-Indra. The intention behind the translation was a faith that it would redound to the country’s good. He hoped that Hindusthan would be lit up during her reign by hundreds of lamps of Sanskrit literature as it was during Vikramaditya’s reign by Kalidas etc. and in Queen Elizabeth’s reign by Shakespeare etc. to make her reign unforgettable.
Today one is surprised that there is no mention of the 1857 Mutiny although the translation was started the next year. The elite of Bengal were not enamoured of the aborted effort, preferring to proclaim their loyalty to the British Empress as vociferously as possible.
 Dinesh Chandra Sen, Bangabhasha O Sahitya, Gurudas Chattopadhyaya & Sons, Kolkata, 7th edn, 1st edn. 1896
 Rhyming verse that can be sung.
 Sen op.cit. and Munindra Kumar Ghosh, Kabi Sanjaya birachita Mahabharata, Calcutta University, 1969, p. 153
 Asit Kumar Bandyopadhyay, Bangla Sahityer Itivritta, Vol 1, Modern Book Agency, Kolkata, 2006, p. 462
 According to Munindra Kumar Ghosh up to Ashvamedhaparva, the later parvas being interpolations.
 Asit Kumar Bandyopadhyay, op. cit. p. 441-2
 Dinesh Chandra Sen, ibid, p. 455-456
 W.L. Smith, “The Jaiminibharata and Its Eastern Vernacular Versions,” Studia Orientalia, The Finnish Oriental Society, Vol 85, Helsinki, 1999, p. 402
 Asit Kumar Bandyopadhyay, op. cit. p. 434
 Binod Ghoshal, “Kaliprasannar Katha Amrita Saman,” Binodon supplement to Ananda Bazar Patrika, 20.8.2016, pp. 10-4.
 Binod Ghoshal, op.cit.