MAHABHARATA IN TRANSLATION
PRADIP BHATTACHARYA, trans. from Bengali, The Mahabharata of Kavi Sanjaya, Volumes I & II, Das Gupta & Co., Kolkata, 2019, pp. 637, Rs. 1495/-
While Kaliprasanna Sinha (1841-1870) is the most renowned and popular Bengali translator of Mahabharata in prose, Haridas Siddhantavagish is more known to researchers, and Kashiram Das’s 16th century retelling, Kashidasi Mahabharata, is the most popular rendering in verse, few know that there had been Kavi Sanjaya in the 15th century, who can be considered the Adi Kavi of Bengal in the Mahabharata genre of translation and retelling. This is surprising given that the Kavi has his place secured in the cultural history of Bengal courtesy Munindra Kumar Ghosh’s edited ‘Kavi Sanjaya Birochito Mahabharata’ published by Calcutta University in 1969, restoring Sanjaya’s Mahabharata written in unique poyar metre (each line of the rhymed couplet consisting of eight syllables followed by a caesura and six syllables) in panchali form. Despite Ghosh’s historic effort, evidently, Sanjaya has not been much in Mahabharata discourse, either academic or popular, until now. After fifty years of his work, Dr. Pradip Bhattacharya resurrects him from slipping into the recesses of cultural memory once again, but to a wider world audience this time through his verse-by-verse English translation, perhaps re-confirming the ironic dictum that Bengalis do not wake up to their glories without the involvement of English.
Bhattacharya’s new venture—a project sanctioned by West Bengal Government’s Higher Education Department through the Netaji Institute of Asian Studies— comes in two hard-bound volumes, beautifully encased in dignified brown overtone, and printed on quality paper. Volume-I contains 7 parvans: Adi (Book 1) to Drona (Book 7), and Volume-II the rest. Kavi Sanjaya has innovations after Shalya Parvan (Book 9): Gada Parvan (10), Daho Parvan (14) and Sthan parvan (16).
Images of terracotta panels depicting Mahabharata episodes as cover design — Arjuna hitting the fish target at Draupadi’s svayamvara on the front cover, sheshashayi Narayana as frontispiece and Arjuna piercing the ground to quench Bhishma’s thirst on the back cover— from terracotta temples of Bankura-Bishnupur (West Bengal) aptly add to the ambience. They also act as Bhattacharya’s hint-commentary on the possible cultural interaction of the literary and terracotta genres, and of Sanjaya’s possible influence on the terracotta sculptor-poets of the 16th-17th centuries. One may even read them symbolically: Arjuna piercing the target as Bhattacharya’s statement of having achieved a gargantuan task, and Arjuna quenching Bhishma’s thirst as his optimism to quench the never waning thirst of Mahabharata lovers for amrita drops from the Mahabharata Ocean.
An appendix of Arjuna’s ten names from Prof. P. Lal’s Virata Parvan transcreation serves the purpose of reference, comparison with Sanjaya’s verses, Bhattacharya’s contextualizing his work and also his tribute to Prof. P. Lal through remembrance.
Bhattacharya has done a very interesting experiment with spellings of nouns and consonant sounds. Bengali, a language with Magadhi Prakrit as her ‘mother’, often has ‘o’ pronunciation of consonants that Sanskrit renders as ‘a’ ; often has a stop at the end-consonant of a word, no difference in pronunciation between ‘v’ and ‘b’, and absence of the sibilant ‘s’ which is pronounced as ‘sh’. Retaining spellings of Sanskrit words as found in the Oxford English Dictionary, Bhattacharya spells proper nouns in tune with Bengali pronunciation. Thus, Mahabharata is Mohabharot, Kavi Sanjaya is Kobi Sonjoy, Vyasa is Byas, Vana Parvan is Bono Porbo, Drona is Dron, Amba is Omba etc. Even his own name on the second title page is Prodeep Bhottacharjyo. This is unique for an English translation. Indeed, he has provided the ‘flavour of the Bengali pronunciation’ as claimed.
Bhattacharya has taken all precautions against any possible confusion from this experimentation. Other than providing footnotes and clarifications for every such usage on every page, he takes care to eliminate any residual confusion with his Bengali ‘flavoured’ spelt nouns by listing them with their corresponding Sanskrit transliteration along with brief explanations in a detailed glossary.
In the Preface, Bhattacharya provides valuable information and analysis on the historicity of Sanjaya and his Mahabharata, as also on interesting aspects of its content like variations from Vyasa’s Mahabharata, complete with a comparative analysis of the variations of Sanjaya’s and Kashiram Das’ Mahabharatas. His observation that ‘some of (Kashiram’s variations) must have been taken from Kobi Sonjoy’ is a clue for future research to situate Sanjaya historically and understand the import of his work.
Locating Sanjaya is important not only to understand his time, but also to understand the significance of modern Mahabharata works and studies including Bhattacharya’s work of reviving him in English. Bhattacharya has rightly pointed out that Mahabharata re-emerged with prominence in cultural discourse through literature in the 15th-16th centuries in a somewhat synchronized fashion in eastern and southern India. Kavi Sanjaya’s venture is paralleled by Kumara Vyasa in Kannada, Sarala Das in Odiya, Rama Sarasvati in Assamese, and Ezhuthachan in Malayalam. Only the last is a complete translation, but all are characterized by free thinking and imagination in incorporating materials from local lore or innovations, and in leaving out most philosophical discourses of Vyasa’s Mahabharata.
Obviously, something happened in the cultural sky of Bengal and India then that Mahabharata needed to be rediscovered. Bhattacharya’s tentative suggestion that it might be the felt need to assert indigenous identity in the context of Muslim invasion holds merit. It definitely ‘calls for further study’ as he suggests, particularly so if we see how the Mahabharata fascination continues in the next centuries and almost dominates the consciousness of all key figures of the Bengal/Indian Renaissance of the 19th century.
Looking back into Indian history, we find how Mahabharata has been remembered during every crucial historical juncture, or ‘golden age’. Starting from Bhasa (4th cent. BCE), through the Satavahana Queen Goutami-Balashri’s Nashik-Prashasti Inscription (149 CE), Vishakhadatta’s Mudrarakshasa ( 4th century CE), Gupta Inscriptions, Ravikirti’s Aihole Inscription of Pulakeshin II (610–642 CE), the Indonesian Bharata–Yuddha (1157 CE) of Mpu Sedah and Mpu Panuluh and Emperor Akbar’s commissioned Persian translation Razmnama (three editions 1584-1617) show the great impact of Mahabharata in India and beyond.
Inheriting this brilliant tradition, Sanjaya’s Mahabharata assumes the miniature replica of the melting pot with mingled ingredients of Ramayana and Mahabharata tradition, and influences of Buddhism, Jainism, Vaishnavism and Shaktaism. For example, Sanjaya makes King Nala the grandson of Rama’s son Kusha, thereby bringing together Ramayana and Mahabharata. Here he is in the direct tradition of Vyasa’s Mahabharata where we have Markandeya’s Ramayana, Hanuman’s interaction with Bhima, and Rama’s bloodline Brhadbala dying by Abhimanyu’s hand.
Just as Sanjaya creates and narrates a new parvan (Gada parvan), one is startled to find that Al-Biruni’s India (973–1050 CE) too mentions Gada parvan as Book 9. Could there be any connection between Al-Biruni and Sanjaya’s source despite their distance in space and time (5 centuries), or is it a glorious coincidence?
Again, Sanjaya’s Ashvamedhaparvan, which largely follows the Jaiminiya Mahabharata, provides an interesting variation in that Bokrodonto instead of Baka Dalbhya steals the horse so that he can meet Krishna. In the ancient Jain Sutrakrtanga (1.6), Dantavakra is the best of Kshatriyas as a parallel to Mahavira the best of sages. Whether Sanjaya’s giving such importance to Bokrodonto (Dantavakra) is owing to Jain influence would be an interesting query for researchers. After all, the Jain community known as Saraks, though isolated and separated from the main body of the Jain community following Bakhtiyar Khalji’s invasion, still maintained a significant presence in Bihar, Bengal, Orissa and Jharkhand.
Sanjaya’s Karna is born from Kunti’s ear, thus getting the name Karna. The same narrative is found in the Bheel Bharata and folk narratives in other parts of India.
Sanjaya’s most dramatic innovation is introducing Draupadi as a warrior. In Drona Parvan, following Abhimanyu’s death, Draupadi leads an all-woman army of Yadava women including Subhadra, Uttara, Krishna’s queens and Revati against the Kaurava army at night and routs them, though finally sparing the key figures for their male counterparts to fulfil their vows. In a series of wish-fulfilling dramas, Draupadi defeats Drona, Ashvatthama and Duryodhana, and whirls about Duhshasana by his hair, avenging her similar humiliation at his hands in the Kuru Sabha. Similarly, Subhadra ties up Jayadratha’s hands and feet and has him kicked unconscious by maids. Jayadratha seems to be at the worst receiving end from Sanjaya. Earlier too, in Vana Parvan, after Bhima had rescued Draupadi from Jayadratha, Draupadi’s maids had kicked him. Uttara beheads Duhshasana’s son Rudradev who killed Abhimanyu. Here, Sanjaya is undoubtedly influenced by the Shakta tradition and represents women as Shakti evoking the imagery of Mahishasuramardini. Or, he might be remembering two marginalized episodes of Vyasa’s Mahabharata in which Draupadi exerts physical prowess and hurls her molesters Jayadratha and Kicaka to the ground. While Vyasa does not name Duhshasana’s son, Sanjaya’s naming him Rudradev gives a face to the faceless killer of Abhimanyu and has an ironic humanitarian dimension.
Sanjaya’s Adi Parvan has Janamejaya charging Vyasa with failure to prevent the fratricidal battle. This dramatic situation of Vyasa-Janamejaya interaction as the narrative frame has a curious parallel in Peter Brook’s Mahabharata (1989) which begins with Janamejaya and Vyasa interacting. Peter Brook introduced folk elements in his Mahabharata. It seems, the ‘folk mind frame’ of creative artists, perhaps, visualizes dramatic situations in similar ways.
Kavi Sanjaya, of Bharadvaja Gotra, was a resident of Laur village in present Bangladesh. While in Vyasa’s Mahabharata, Pandu and Indra’s friend Bhagadatta is ruler of Pragjyotishpur, Sanjaya hails him as him as ruler of Vanga-Desh including Laur. The exalted place accorded to him might point to a Bhagadatta cult in the region covering present day Assam and Bangladesh because, as evident from the Nidhanpur copperplate inscription, the Kamarupa king Bhaskaravarman (7th century CE) eulogized Bhagadatta as Deva and traced his ancestry to Bhagadatta’s successors.
Like the character Ahiravana in Krittibas’ Ramayana, Sanjaya creates a character named Viveka, Sudhanva’s infant son, who vanquishes Krishna, Pandavas and Hanuman. Finally, on his grandfather Hongshodhvoj’s request, Viveka surrenders to Krishna. In Bengali, ‘bibek’ connotes conscience. Besides, in the Yatra (folk-theatre) tradition, there is a character called ‘Bibek’, conscience-personified. Given that the fratricidal Kurukshetra War did not bring peace and joy to Yudhishṭhira’s mind owing to qualms of conscience, whether Sanjaya’s introduction of Viveka is an echo-metaphor for Viveka-conscience, or Bibek of Yatra tradition with the role of conscience might be another interesting point of query.
In the same Ashvamedhaparvan, Sanjaya introduces the story of King Niladhavaja’s wife Jana (Jvala in Jaimini) who, failing to incite his brother against Arjuna for avenging her son Prabir’s death, immolates herself, transforms into an arrow and enters Babhruvahana’s quiver. Later Babhruvahana kills Arjuna with that arrow, and Jana’s revenge is accomplished. Girish Chandra Ghosh, the father of Bengali theatre, wrote a powerful play ‘Jana’ in 1894 with her as the central character.
The cultural interaction of early Bengali literature and Yatra is quite evident in that, the Krishna Jatra genre, evolved through the devotional singing and dancing of the followers of the Krishna Bhakti movement, was inspired by Rasa-lila and dramatic poetry like Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda (12th century), Chandidas’ Srikrishna Kirtan15th century) and later further propelled by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s mystic Krishnaism. There is also Nata Gita, an operatic folk drama form in medieval Bengal, filled with singing, dancing and music sans dialogue, which provided an early model for the Krishna Jatra.
One unique aspect of Sanjaya’s Mahabharata pointed out by Bhattacharya is that his narration is interspersed with Lachadi couplets of twenty syllables accompanied by dance, to be sung in various ragas and raginis such as Basant, Kamod, Bhatiyal, Shri, Barari and Pathamanjari. Obviously, dramatic elements abound in Sanjaya’s Mahabharata. This is further evident from the narrative twists. In Mausala Parvan, Kavi Sanjaya has Arjuna accompany Krishna at the end, and true to Yatra appeal and high drama, Sanjaya’s Krishna breathes his last while resting his head on his best friend Arjuna’s lap.
Bhattacharya’s easy flowing English, constantly reminding us of the richness of Bengal’s culture, makes a pleasant and illuminating read.
At the end, one would certainly agree that Bhattacharya’s translated volumes merit an imperative place in libraries and collections for serious researchers of Indian and Bengal history and for Mahabharata-lovers and lay readers alike.
Department of English