Dr. Bibek Deb Roy: The Mahabharata, volumes 9-10, Penguin India, pages 718 and 683, 2014, 2015. Rs.499/- each.
In modern times it was Padma Shri P. Lal, poet and transcreator, who first took up translating the massive corpus of the Mahabharata (MB), publishing the first monthly instalment in December 1968. It is “the only complete, strictly śloka-by-śloka rendering, not excepting enjambements, in any language” He alone, faithfully following Vyasa, has used verse and prose as in the original, completing 16½ of the 18 books before his death. 1973 onwards the Chicago University Press published J.A.B. van Buitenen’s translation of the “critical edition” of the MB published by the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Pune. This is a good 12,000 verses shorter than the Southern, Bombay and Calcutta editions, the last being translated in the late 1890s and early 1900s by Kisari Mohon Ganguli of Howrah and by Manmatha Nath Dutt of Serampore. The Chicago project is not even halfway through despite engaging several scholars after van Buitenen’s death in 1979. The Clay Sanskrit Library translation of the longer Nilakantha “vulgate” edition by a battery of Indologists stopped halfway. The Chicago and the Clay translations are in prose, varying from the outlandish “barons” and “chivalry” of van Buitenen to the gripping in some Clay volumes. The completion by Padma Shri Bibek Deb Roy, economist and Niti Aayog member, of a prose translation of the “critical edition” marks a watershed in epic studies, all the more so because he finished the 73787 slokas within the amazingly short span of six years, which Penguin India published with admirable alacrity between 2010 and 2014. And it is certainly interesting—as he notes—that the only “complete” (sic.) translations so far are by Bengalis—Ganguli, Dutt and himself. Actually, Ganguli Latinised and Dutt omitted passages “for obvious reasons” (in view of Victorian sensibilities). Another Bengali, R.C.Dutt of the ICS, wrote a condensation of the MB in Locksley Hall couplets published in 1898.
Cunningly, Penguin have spread the text uniformly across ten volumes. None of the 18 books is available as a stand-alone volume. Thus, volume 9 opens with the 32nd chapter of the Mokshadharma sub-parva and ends with chapter 56 of the Anushasana Parva. Volume 10 contains the rest of it plus the remaining five books of the MB. In a monumental publication such as this one expects, besides a general introduction, parva-specific key insights. That has been the standard format for all translations since the Lal transcreation. Instead, here the very same general introduction features in every volume.
Deb Roy’s remarkable achievement does not excuse the errors Penguin have persisted with in the Introduction in all volumes despite these being flagged in reviews of the first and the seventh volumes. The genealogical tree contains grave errors and omissions. Who is “Ananta” shown alongside Devayani and why? Ganga is Pratipa’s descendant while Vichitravirya is married to Amba instead of Ambika! Draupadi has just one son, Prativindhya. There is no indication that Bhima was also married to Draupadi. Yuyutsu is missing as Dhritrarashtra’s son, despite being the sole survivor. Kuru is made the grandson of Bharata (p.xix), whereas he is seventh in descent from him. Lomaharshana’s name is not Ugrashrava (p.xxi), who is his son. The original “Jaya” did not have 8,800 slokas (p.xx). Those are the knotted (kuta) slokas Vyasa composed for Ganesha to mull over. The Bhandarkar edition does not “eliminate later interpolations” (p.xxii). It includes mechanically only what appears in most manuscripts, ignoring any hiatuses in continuity and meaning caused thereby. Deb Roy claims that the fighting in the Ramayana is more civilized because rocks and trees are not used, although that is precisely how the vanaras attack the rakshasas. The names of the four yugas are proper nouns, yet throughout the text—except in the Introduction—these are in the lower case. The Penguin editors have nodded off. They have also taken the easy way out by providing neither a glossary nor an index. In note 89 on page 602 of volume 10, he identifies Bhima’s chief wife as Shishupala’s daughter, whereas we know from the Adi Parva she was the Kashi king’s daughter Balandhara. Referring to Madhusraba Dasgupta’s Companion to the Mahabharata would have prevented such errors. The king of Kashi was also an inveterate foe of Krishna, as Deb Roy will find in Harivansha. The departure from internationally accepted spelling of Sanskrit names makes for irritating reading experience, as Deb Roy replaces “au” for no justifiable reason by “ou”, as in “Droupadi”, “Kounteya”. Deb Roy is now translating Harivansha in which, hopefully, these defects will be rectified.
The dissertation on moksha is an extraordinary exegetical document recording the different doctrines existing simultaneously in the period 1st century BCE to 3rd century CE. The oldest MB manuscript (c.230 CE) in Brahmi script (found in the Kizil Caves of north-west China) as well Kshemendra’s Bharatamanjari (c.11th century CE) from Kashmir lack the Anushasana Parva but include the Shanti Parva. Therefore, right from the 3rd century CE the epic was disseminated with considerable doctrinal material, which is evidence of deliberate composition.
In the section on moksha, Vedic figures like Indra, Bali, Namuchi and Vritra are plucked out of their world and used to enunciate Buddhist (cf. Digha Nikaya) and Jain doctrines stressing the inexorability of karmic fruit. The emphasis is on renunciation and ahimsa, abandoning pride and samsara. The four ashramas are introduced: celibate study, domesticity, forest-life and wandering as a renunciant. As yet they are not successive stages of life. Any can be chosen by one at any time. The paths to liberation through Sankhya’s 26 principles, Yoga (breath-control and dhyana) and japa are described. Bhakti enters as another salvific way in the elaborate description of the White Isle of Narayana and the multiple names of Vishnu and Shiva (repeated in the Dana-dharma parva). It also includes Vyasa’s traumatic loss of his son Shuka. The narrative mode is that of dialogue emboxed within other dialogues, Russian doll fashion, which characterises the MB.
The Book of Instructions continues the karmic thread, discoursing at length on the benefits of donating, with fascinating tales like the origin of footwear and parasol, of trans-sexual Bhangasvana who prefers being a woman, of Uttanka foregoing his chance at immortality by refusing to drink a chandala’s urine when parched with thirst in the desert, of Vishvamitra justifying stealing dog-meat from an untouchable to survive, etc. The MB introduces as alternatives to expensive Vedic sacrifices doing puja with flowers and lighting of lamps. It proclaims that visiting tirthas and satisfying unexpected visitors (atithi) confer superior benefits. The latter extends even to the wife surrendering herself if a guest demands (the story of Oghavati). The supreme benefit, however, is obtained from hearing or studying the MB, which sought to establish itself as an alternative to the Vedas in the changed times. This was possibly in response to the imperial Mauryan patronage of Buddhism when the Brahminical Sungas replaced them.
Volume 10 contains an astonishing scene in the Ashramavasika section. Vyasa works the miracle of bringing forth the spirits of the dead heroes from the Bhagirathi (paralleled in Homer and Virgil). As the only other translation is by Prof. Lal, a comparison is instructive:-
“A tumultuous sound arose from inside the water, caused by those who had earlier been Kuru and Pandava soldiers.” (Deb Roy)
“What a tumultuous clamour
sprang from the waters!
It resembled, O Janamejaya,
the combined uproar
of the battling armies
of the Kauravas and Pandavas.” (P. Lal)
The shock comes hereafter. Vyasa asks all wailing widows to plunge into the river in their thousands to join their dead husbands. Thus, as Hiltebeitel has pointed out, he becomes the only author of a mahakavya to make a mass of his creations commit suicide. By doing so he rids Yudhishthira’s kingdom of the inauspicious sound of lamentation.
In these doctrinal books certain tales are re-told with very interesting variations. The story of Parashurama beheading his mother at his father’s behest is given a different spin. Incensed with Ahalya’s adultery, Gautama directs their son Chirakari to kill her. Chirakari ruminates long on the mother’s status vis-à-vis the father (providing us with several quotable quotes), affording Gautama enough time to regret his command and bless his son’s procrastination. When Shuka passes by, apsaras continue bathing unperturbed. But when Vyasa appears, seeking his son, they hastily cover up because he has not attained detachment. Uttanka’s tale from the Adi Parva is embellished in the Ashvamedha Parva with his lament at having grown silver-haired serving his guru without permission to leave—a sly dig at Brahmin gurus’ callousness and the exploitative institution of brahmacharya itself.
The earlier Book of Peace contains statements such as, “the shastras are full of contradictions,” and “The Vedas do not cover everything” (section 109). While ascesis is extolled above sacrifices, it does not mean mortifying the flesh but connotes non-violence, truthfulness, self-control, compassion—reflecting Jain and Buddhist influence. The Vedas are only three in number. Clearly, the Atharva Veda is post-MB. It is stressed that conduct, not birth, determines class in society. The mokshadharma section consistentlys debunk traditional concepts of Brahminical superiority. Thus, Bodhya tells Nahusha that in achieving serenity through total indifference, “Piṅgalā the prostitute, the osprey, the snake, the bee searching in the woods, the arrow-maker and the virgin, these six are my gurus.” Women and animals, not Brahmins, are the role-models—a far cry from Manusmriti. It is the householder’s way of life, particularly hospitality, that is praised, the devotion of a shopkeeper (Tuladhara) to his parents, of a wife to her husband (Shandili), at the expense of elaborate austerities (Jajali). The seer-king Janaka, proud of having achieved serenity, is humbled by the female sanyasi Sulabha. Vishnu’s mount, almighty Garuda is shorn of his feathers by the female ascetic Shandili. However, the section on donation glorifies Brahmin superiority over kings and gods, showing the prevalent turmoil of ideas.
The glorification of sacrifices is undermined by the scornful laughter of the mongoose with the half-golden pelt closing the Book of Horse Sacrifice. Here the gift of food by a starving Brahmin living by gleaning is extolled as far superior to Yudhishthira’s manifold. Let us not forget that Yama-Dharma himself has to be born of a Shudra maidservant and remains an ineffectual angel beating in the void his luminous wings of dharma in vain. Time and again the concept of dharma is examined and re-examined. At times, it is said to be too subtle to unravel (as Bhishma mutters to the molested Draupadi) or, as Vyasa tells Kunti in the Ashramavasika Parva, it is whatever the powerful do.
Arjuna, Krishna’s chosen, is soundly berated for forgetting the Gita discourse. Krishna, unable to reproduce it, has to rest content with delivering the uninspired Anugita. Earlier, Krishna has lamented to Narada how miserable his life is in Dvaraka because of his relatives’ bitter words. The victorious Pandavas are devastated when their mother Kunti and guardian Vidura desert them, electing to accompany Dhritarashtra, the root of the war, into forest-life. There Vidura dies starving, running mad, naked and filthy through the woods (a variation on the digambara Jaina way of dying?). Kunti, Gandhari and Dhritarashtra are burnt alive in a forest fire. Strangely, the Pandavas made no arrangements for seeing to their welfare. Even the Purushottama, despite taking up arms, cannot prevent his own people from massacring one another and suffers an inglorious death. His impregnable city Dvaraka is submerged. In Punjab, staff-wielding Abhirs (ironically, cowherds, like the beloved friends of Krishna’s childhood and also his Narayani army of gopas) loot the refugee Vrishni women— many going with them willingly— from a helpless Arjuna. Yudhishthira cites moral failings as the cause of the deaths of Draupadi and his brothers on the Himalayan slopes. Taken to Swarga, Yudhishthira is furious to find Duryodhana enthroned and joins his loved ones in hell. Most intriguing, returning to Swarga, he is stopped by Indra from putting a question to Draupadi. We are left wondering what it was. Most ironic of all, at the very end of the “Ascent to Heaven” is the anguished cry of its mighty composer. Deb Roy’s translation of this “Bharata Savitri”, the MB’s core, is grossly erroneous:-
“I am without pleasure and have raised my arms, but no one is listening to me. If dharma and kama result from artha, why should not one pursue artha?”
Here is the correct version by P. Lal:-
“I raise my arms and I shout
But no one listens!
From Dharma comes Artha and Kama—
Why is Dharma not practised?”
Thus ends Sauti’s rendition of Vyasa’s account of his descendants recited by Vaishampayana, which is also his autobiography. Its tragic climax is not these lines of frustrated questioning. That occurs in volume 9 in the Mokshadharma section. It is his agony at losing his beloved son Shuka, who merges into the elements. When Vyasa calls out his name in anguish, all he hears in response is an echo from the mountains. The Mahabharata remains an intensely human, personal document on the existential predicament of humanity in the universe.
 P.Lal: Preface to The Complete Adi Parva, Writers Workshop, Kolkata, 2005, pp.5, 6.
 Madhusraba Dasgupta: Samsad Companion to the Mahabharata, Sahitya Samsad, Kolkata, 1999.
 A. Hiltebeitel: Rethinking the Mahabharata, University of Chicago Press, 2001.