Translations of the Mahabharata



Bhaktivedanta Book Trust

Apr 18, 2011 — CANADA (SUN) —

Over the course of nearly five years, the Sampradaya Sun has featured each day a serial presentation of the great Indian epic, Mahabharata. Our series began in July 2006, and will last for several more years before the entire work is completed. We seldom receive feedback from our Sun readers on this series, other than the occasional word of thanks for our daily presentation of it, or questions about the artwork, but yesterday, we received an interesting comment from Sunanda das, who writes:

    "Below is a section from today's Mahabharata posting on Sampradaya Sun. I only occasionally read this section, as there is so much to read on your wonderful site. The concern I want to bring to your attention is that the below illucidation by Vasistha to King Karala as translated by Ganguli is a classic and perfect explanation of Shankarite impersonalism. It couldn't be stated any better than here. The attributeless Absolute becomes overcome by ignorance on consequence of His union with Prakrti and undergoes various modifications of His divine nature ultimately resulting in becoming the jiva who is overwhelmed by the three modes of nature with the only possibility of reform through knowledge. That's what it says in a nutshell. Do you really want to post such things here, although Ganguli's Mahabharata is considered the best? Again, I rarely read this section so maybe I'm taking this out of context:

      "It is that Unmanifest (Prakriti), which, when endued with body (in consequence of union with Chit) dwells in the hearts of all creatures endued with body. As regards eternal Chetana (the Indestructible), although he is without attributes and without form, yet he (in consequence of a union with Prakriti) assumes all forms. Uniting with Prakriti which has the attributes of birth and death, he also assumes the attributes of birth and death. And in consequence of such union he becomes an object of perception and though in reality divested of all attributes yet he comes to be invested therewith. It is in this way that the Mahan-Soul (Hiranyagarbha), becoming united with Prakriti and invested with Ignorance, undergoes modifications and becomes conscious of Self. Uniting with the attributes of Sattwa and Rajas and Tamas, he becomes identified with diverse creatures belonging to diverse orders of Being, in consequence of his forgetfulness and his waiting upon Ignorance. In consequence of his birth and destruction arising from the fact of his dwelling in upon with Prakriti, he thinks himself to be no other than what he apparently is. Regarding himself as this or that, he follows the attributes of Sattwa, Rajas, and Tamas.

      Under the influence of Tamas, he attains to diverse kinds of conditions that are affected by Tamas. Under the influence of Rajas and Sattwa, he attains similarly to conditions that are affected by Rajas and Sattwa. There are three colours in all, viz., White, Red, and Dark. All those colours appertain to Prakriti (so that He it is who becomes White or Red or Dark according as the nature of the Prakriti with which is He becomes identified for the time being). Through Tamas one goes to hell. Through Rajas one attains to and remains in the status of humanity. Through Sattwa, people ascend to the regions of the deities and become sharers of great felicity. By adhering to sin continuously one sinks into the intermediate order of beings. By acting both righteously and sinfully one attains to the status of the deities. In this way the twenty-fifth, viz., Akshara (the Indestructible), the wise say, by union with the unmanifest (Prakriti), becomes transformed into Kshara (destructible). By means of knowledge however, the Indestructible becomes displayed in His true nature--"

      Thus ends Part Three, Section 313 of the Santi Parva of the Mokshadharma Parva of Sri Mahabharata

While Sunanda prabhu may read the Mahabharata column only occassionally, we're appreciative of his sharp eye for philosophical deviation, and thank him for pointing the issue out for the benefit of us all.

Unfortunately, even the Sun editors don't always have time to read the Mahabharata each day, and must rely on watchdog readers like Sunanda das to catch any anomalies. The difficulty of having access to a reliable translation of Mahabharata has long been an issue for the devotees. Our choice to use the translation by Kisari Mohan Ganguli was driven in large part by the fact that it is the only digitized version readily available. This version has a reasonable reputation amongst the Gaudiya community, compared to many other versions, so it seemed an acceptable choice.

In the introductory segment of our Mahabharata series, we offered some background information on the history of this great epic, including some of the various translations that have been made. But Sunanda das has given us an opportunity to present some additional views on the issue of translations of Mahabharata, which we will now present over a few segments.

Following is part one, excerpted from a book entitled "History of Bengali Language and Literature by Dinesh Chandra Sen, B.A. The book is comprised of a series of lectures the author delivered to the Calcutta University, which published the collected writings in 1911.

Dinesh Chandra Sen offers an interesting overview of the many different early translations of Mahabharata, with particular emphasis on the Bengali recensions. His opening remarks underscore the fluid nature of this epic literary work, which also helps to put the issue of quality of translations into a broader context.

The Mahabharata, an epitome of Indian thought

"The story of the Mahabharata is not so compact as that of the Ramayana. It is by no means, however, the less popular of the two. The Mahabharata is an encyclopedic collection — an epitome of Indian thought and civilisation, the successive stages of which are, as it were, mirrored in it. There is a Bengali adage which says, "What is not found in the Bharata (the Mahabharata) is not in Bharata (India)."

Round about the main plot— the great war between the Kauravas and the Pandavas, — there is a wild growth of wonder-tales in which the current literature and traditions of ancient India are undoubtedly entangled. From the din of warfare to the quiet and contemplative philosophy of the Gita, the reader is carried without an apology; and descriptions of heroic exploits and unmatched chivalry are interspersed with accounts of austerities and penances undergone for the sake of religion and with… accounts of gods.

To add a chapter to such a work is the easiest thing that one can do. One has simply to put a query in the mouth of Janmejaya and that never-wearied narrator, the sage Vaiyampayana, is sure to relate whatever may be asked him in earth or heaven. The poem is like the fabled Sari of Draupadi which may be dragged out indefinitely to any length.

In the Bengali versions, the poets lost no opportunity to introduce new stories and incidents from comparatively modern life. The pathetic tale of Srivatsa and Chinla is their addition; and it is not the only one which they have added to the epic in its Bengali garb.

We need not proceed with the tale of the Mahabharata at any length. The main story is not the whole preoccupation of the poem. The Gita in the Udyoga Parva, together with the moral and the spiritual discourses of Bhisma, in the Santi Parva, yields to no episode of the main plot, in the interest which they evoke in the mind of the readers. The story of Nala and Damayanti, of Sakuntala, of Narmista and hundreds of such engrafted pieces, which are now inseparable from the main poem, have little bearing on the incidents of the Great War. An account of the Kauravas and the Pandavas only would convey a very inadequate idea of the contents of the epic. Briefly speaking, the story is as follows:

The princes of the lines of Kuru and of Pandu were born and brought up under circumstances which led to feelings of animosity on either side, ultimately bursting into the most sanguinary warfare on the fields of Kuruksetra. The five brothers, Yudhisthira, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva, tried by all possible means to avert the war. They were the rightful heirs to half the kingdom; but Duryyodhana and his brothers would not part with this. Yudhisthira, the eldest Pandava, asked of King Duryyodhana a grant of five villages only, so that the five brothers might have some refuge in the world. Even this Duryyodhana refused to give, saying "Not half the earth, that may be covered by the point of a needle, will I give without war."

Added to this were the great wrongs committed against the Pandavas by Duryyodhana from boyhood upwards, — the conspiracies to assassinate them, from each of which they had a narrow escape, and the last act, surpassing all the rest, — the atrocious insult upon Draupadi, the wife of the Pandavas. A war was inevitable and the Ksatriya Princes of India rallied on either side when it actually broke out. The Pandavas with the help of Krsna gained the victory, though nearly the whole race of Ksatriyas was extirpated, in a terrible battle that raged for eighteen successive days incessantly on the plains of Kuruksetra.

Yudhisthira was afterwards smitten with remorse for having waged a cruel war which had resulted in the death of his relations and friends. This grief was accentuated by the news of the death of Krsna… the great friend of the Pandavas. Yudhisthira, with his brothers and Draupadi, made the great pilgrimage up the snowy ranges of Himalayas to Mount Meru. On the way each of the brothers dropped dead; and Yudhisthira was alone left for the crowning scene of the Mahabharata, his ascent into heaven in mortal form.

The earliest Bengali recension of the Mahabharata that we have come across, is by a Brahmin poet, named Sanjaya who belonged to the illustrious family of Bharadwaja whom Adipura of Gauda had brought to Bengal. The task of translating the eighteen Parvas of Vyasa's Mahabharata was immense and Sanjaya justly claims the credit due to the pioneer in this held. He frequently refers to his work in the following strain in his Vanita.

    "The Mahabharata, which was like an ocean of impenetrable darkness, is now unveiled to sight (made accessible to the masses) having been rendered into Bengali verses (Panchall) by Sanjaya."

Yet Sanjaya's work is one of the shortest epics of the honour tomes of the Mahabharata that we know of; it is 'pioneer' characterised by simplicity of style, and does not even possess any uncommon poetic merit. The manuscripts of Sanjaya's Mahabharata have been recovered from all parts of Eastern Bengal. The great popularity it once commanded is explicable only by reason of its being the earliest Bengali recension.

Generally speaking, manuscripts of Sanjay's Mahabharata are very voluminous, as chapters written by subsequent poets have been added to them at different times. The Adiparva by Rajendra Das, the Dronaparva by Gopi Nath Datta and numerous compositions by other writers are now inseparable factors in many of such manuscripts; and these two poets at least excel Sanjaya in the wealth of their descriptions and in the beauty and elegance of their style. Sanjaya's antiquated forms of expression give him no advantage in contrast with Rajendra Das's racy and poetic lines; yet the whole manuscript, about two-thirds of which belongs to other writers, is popularly known as the Mahabharata of Sanjaya. This writer evidently then enjoys precedence because he was the first in point of time.

Sanjaya takes care in his Vahita that his name may not be confounded with that of the great Sanjaya, gifted with clairvoyance, who relates the incidents of the war to the blind monarch Dhritarastra in the Mahabharata itself, and frequently emphasises on the point of his authorship of the work as distinguished from their recitations by Sanjaya. We however know very little of his life, — the autobiographical account which was undoubtedly appended to the work as we find in every old Bengali book, has not yet been recovered; and we are in utter darkness about Sanjaya. From the early date of some of the manuscript copies of his works that we have been able to secure, we are inclined to believe that he lived at about the time of Krittivasa and was probably his contemporary.

Though some of the later poets excel Sanjaya in the elegance of expression, the earlier poet frequently displays a highly forcible style. Sanjaya particularly excels in describing martial feats. Here is a passage showing his vigorous and animated style:

    "In order to excite the anger of Karna, Salya says 'If you are once hit by Arjuna's arrow you will cease to boast in such way. There is no friend, Karna, to advise you rightly. When a fly willingly rushes into a flame, none can save it. A child in the arms of its mother stretches his arms out to catch the moon; your aspiration is like that of the child; you want to drag Arjuna down from his chariot. Like a mad man you attempt to scratch your own body with a sharp spear. Like a fawn challenging a lion, you call Arjuna to fight with you. You are like a jackal swollen (with pride) by eating a corpse, and challenging the majesty of a lion. Oh son of a charioteer, how foolish it is for you to challenge the son of a king to fight with you. You are like a gnat defying the elephant. The venomous snake whose bite is deadly, while unharmed lies coiled up in a hole, and you are teasing it with a stick. Like a snake going out to fight the bird Garuda (which lives upon snakes) you aspire to fight Arjuna. The moon appears on the furthest limits of the sea, you want to cross the sea without a boat and catch the moon. A frog mimics the thunder. I set the same estimate upon all your fretting.''

The next Mahabharata, to which we have already alluded, was written at the order of Nasarata Saha. This translation is referred to in the Mahabharata of Kavindra Parameyvara in the following couplet.

    "Nasarata Saha blessed with all good qualities had a translation of the Mahabharata compiled in Bengali verses (Panchali)."

We have not yet been able to recover this Mahabharata.

Reference has also been made in the first chapter to the next two Mahabharatas, one of which was written by Kavindra Parameyvara and the other by Srikarna Nandi. Kavindra Parameyvara began his poem with the following preliminary account:

    "The Emperor Husen Saha was a high minded monarch, prised by all throughout the Five Gaudas (Panca Gauda). He was expert in the use of arms; and was like a second Krsna in the Kaliyuga. Laskara Paragal, a commander of the army of Husen Saha, the Emperor of the Gauda, was a generous-minded noble man. He obtained royal presents in the shape of a golden dress, and horses of the speed of the winds; and he was further endowed with a grant of an extensive estate in Chittagong where the high minded Khan settled. He enjoyed his territories with his sons and grandsons."

At the command of Paragal Khan Kavindra Paramesvara undertook to translate the Mahabharata. This Mahabharata which comes down to the Stri Parva, contains 17,000 slokas or verses. It was composed during Husen Saha's reign (1494-1525 A.D.). Close to the sub-division of Feni in the district of Noakhali lies Paragalpur, founded by Husen Saha's great general who had conquered Chittagong and had obtained a grant of the neighbouring provinces as a reward for his valour. There is a tomb in the village, raised in honour of Rasti Khan (father of Paragal) whose name we also find mentioned in this Mahabharata. Paragal Khan's son was the valourous prince Chhuti Khan. In Paragalpur, tanks dug by the orders of the illustrious father and the son still exist and are called after them respectively.

Kavindra Paramesvara, as I have said, translated the Mahabharata down to the Stri Parva. Paragal Khan had in the meantime died and his son Chhuti Khan succeeded him. He followed in the footsteps of his noble father and appointed a poet named Srikarana Nandi to translate the Asvamedha Parva. We find the following historical account in the introductory chapter of his book.

    "The father of Nasarata Saha (Husen Saha) was a great king. He ruled the kingdom like a second Ram. Husen Saha, the great monarch, ruled the earth by Sama (preserving of peace), Dana (offering of gifts), Danda (punishment) and by Bheda (bringing about division amongst his enemies). Laskar Chhuti Khan was one of his generals. He settled near Tipperah on the north of Chittagong, — in the valley of the Chandra Sekhara Hills. The abode of his father had been in the Charlol Hills. The town is so beautiful that only a god could have built it. People of four castes and various races live there. The place is almost surrounded on all sides by the River Fani (modern Feni, lit. a snake). On the East are seen vast mountainous ranges without a limit. Chhuti Khan, the son of Paragal Khan, is dauntless in battle. His manly arms reach to his knee-joints. His eyes are like full-blown lotuses. He moves majestically like the elephant. Sixty four qualities dwell in him and God has granted him world-wide renown. In magnanimity of soul and in his charity he matches Vali and Karha. In his great war-like qualities and in the dignity of his mien, however, there is none with whom he may be compared. On a report of his excellent qualities reaching the Emperor (Husen Saha) he was called to his court. He received great honour from the Emperor and obtained those rewards to which only the distinguished generals of the court are entitled. Chhuti Khan began to rule his kingdom by Sama, Dana, Danda and Bheda. The King of Tipperah left his country being afraid of Chhuti Khan. He took refuge in the mountain (of Udaypur). He further sent elephants and horses as tribute to Chhuti Khan and built his palace in the midst of a dense forest. Chhuti Khan has not yet done anything to inspire fear in him. Yet he lives in constant alarm. Chhuti Khan gave friendly assurance to the King of Tipperah and he dwells happily in his own capital. The khan's royal glory is increasing every day and he looks upon the people of the country as his children.

    "One day while Chhuti Khan was seated in his court in the company of scholars and friends, he seemed to be much delighted on hearing the story of the sacred Mahabharata. He heard the Asvamedha Parva, written by the great sage Jaimuni, and expressed a wish to his courtiers that the book might be translated into the vernacular dialect. If any courtier of his would undertake and complete the task, it would add lustre to his glory throughout the country. Placing the garland of royal order upon the head, Srikarana Nandi composed the poem in Payara."

The reference to the king of Tipperah in the above extracts is a distortion of historical facts made by the poet to please his master. Early in the 16th century Dhanya Manikya was the king of Tippera. He was a powerful monarch who, with the help of his celebrated general Chaichag, had successfully checked the advance of the invading Muhammadan armies into his territories by adopting prompt and vigorous measures; and Chhuti Khan had to remain contented with his possessions in the Chittagong hills.

We have come across thirty-one old writers in all, who compiled translations of the whole or portions of the Mahabharata. We give a list of them below:

    (1) Mahabharata by Sanjaya.

    (2) Bharata Panchali written by the orders of Nasarata Saha (not yet recovered).

    (3) Mahabharata by Kavindra Paramesvara.

    (4) Asvamedha Parva by Srikarana Nandi.

    (5) Do by Dwija Abhirama.

    (6) Santi Parva by Krisnananda Vasu (Mss. found dated 1694 A.D.)

    (7) Agvamedha Parva by Ananda Misra.

    (8) Mahabharata by Nityananda Ghosa.

    (9) Asvamedha Parva by Dwija Ram Chandra Khan.

    (10) Mahabharata by Dwija Kavi Chandra.

    (11) Adiparva to Bharata Parva by Saraha.

    (12) Bliarata by Sasthlbara.

    (13) Adiparva and Asvamedha Parva by Ganga Das Sen.

    (14) Adiparva by Rajendra Das.

    (15) Drona Parva by Gupi Nath Datta.

    (16) Mahabharata by Ramesvar Nandi.

    (17) Do by Kasi Ram Das.

    (18) Bhisma Parva, Droha Parva and Karna Parva by Nandaram Das (adopted son of Kasiram Das.

    (19) Mahabharata by Trilochana Chakravarti.

    (20) Do by Nemai Das.

    (21) Drona Parva by Dvaipayana Das.

    (22) Bharata by Ballava Das.

    (23) Asvamedha Parva by Dwija Krisnaram.

    (24) Do by Dwija Raghunath.

    (25) The Nala Upakhyan by Loknath Datta.

    (26) Do by Madhusudan Napit.

    (27) The story of Savitri by Siva Chandra Sen.

    (28) Bharata by Bhriguram Das.

    (29) Asvamedha Parva by Dvvija Ramakrisna.

    (30) Do by Bharat Pandit.

    (31) Mahabharata compiled by the order of Dharma Manikya, king of Tippera.

Of these writers Kavindra Parmesvara, as we have originally said, translated nearly the whole of the Mahabharata, also translated by — Sasthivara, Rameshvar Nandi, Trilochan Chakravarty, Nityananda Ghosa, Nimai Das, Ballabha Dev, and Bhriguram Das also attempted to translate the whole of the epic. Translations, in those days, as I have said, were not closely restricted to the texts. Besides omissions and changes, stories and incidents were freely added to the poems by the writers. The Bengali recensions, as compared with the original of Vyasa, appear to be, in many respects, quite different poems. One would hardly find in many of these works a score of lines together which would conform to the Sanskrit text.

The Ramayana and Mahabharata were, so to speak, reborn in these Bengali recensions, which resembled the Sanskrit epic only - as the child does its father. They offer many striking points of difference which cannot be ignored. In the history of these differences is to be found the peculiar bent of the Bengali genius which, moulding the great epics in its own way, gave the Bengali recensions an air of originality of which we shall have to speak hereafter."

(To be continued…)


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