Translations of the Mahabharata, Part Two


The Battle of Kurukshetra
Kashmir c. 1820

Apr 19, 2011 — CANADA (SUN) —

Today we offer the second half of an interesting excerpt from the book, History of Bengali Language and Literature by Dinesh Chandra Sen, B.A., who is describing the history of early Mahabharata translations, and in particular, those recensions coming out of Bengal.

The Mahabharata, an epitome of Indian thought
Published by Calcutta University, 1911

Of the episodes translated from the Mahabharata, the story of Sakuntala bv Rajendra Das, who flourished in the middle of the 17th century, is one of the best that we have found in the whole book. Though mainly following the Sanskrit text of Vyasa, the poet is indebted to Kali Das's Sakuntala and to Bhatti Kavya, from which he culls many beautiful blossoms to adorn his tale. The fine poetical touch in — "There was no tank without its wealth of lilies, no lilies without bees, and no bees that did not hum under the enchantment of the honey," — is evidently borrowed from a well-known passage in Bhatti Kavya.

In the Drona Parva bv Gopinath Datta, Draupad, the wife of the Pandavas, comes to the battlefield and fights. We do not find anything of this nature in the Sanskrit Epic. The author probably wrote from his imagination.

Prithvi Chandra of Pakur wrote a poem in Bengali named Gauri Mangal. The work is interesting to us for its preface, in which he takes a bird's eve view of old Bengali literature, and gives us a list of some of the noteworthy Bengali writers, who had preceded him. He refers thus to the translations of the Mahabharata:

    "Eighteen Parvas of the Mahabharata were rendered into Bengali verses by Kashiram Das and before him by Nityananda."

In Eastern Bengal, the Mahabharata by Ravindra Parmeyvara once enjoyed great popularity, but in Western Bengal Nityananda's Mahabharata was in high favour with the people until the advent of Kashiram Das.

We know very little of Nityananda Ghosh, but that Kashiram Das, whose Mahabharata yields to no Bengali hook in its popularity amongst the masses, drew largely from Nityananda Ghos's work, which was earlier in the field, admits of no doubt.

The Kathakas and the professional singers of the Puranas had already popularised the story of the Mahabharata in the country. Those amongst them who attained celebrity, by their proficiency in the art of recitation and singing, found numerous engagements all over the province. In their professional tours they visited all the important villages of the country, and thus the very language they used became familiar to the people. It is probably owing to this reason, that in all the Bengali recensions of the Mahabharata, from Sanjaya and Kavindra to Kagi Das and even to more modern writers, we frequently come across the same lines almost word for word, as if the authors whose fields of activity lay at different places and who lived at remote distances of time from one another, had copied from the same source. If this is, generally speaking, true of the different Bengali recensions of Sanskrit works in our old literature, it is most of all so in the case of Kashiram Das's work and that of Nityananda which preceded it.

We often find page upon page of the two works to be almost identical, the slight difference, observable in the Kashiram two works, is no more than what we may find in Nityananda, two different manuscripts of the same book. We have evidence to prove that Kashiram Das did not himself write the whole of the Mahabharata, the authorship of which is attributed to him; and in many portions he simply revised Nityananda's compositions and incorporated them in his work. Kashiram Das was, however, an expert recensionist and showed much originality in his work. This point will be dealt with hereafter. In the meantime let us refer our readers to two stray passages of the two recensions (vis, one by Nityananda and the other by Kashiram Das) to show how closely the two texts agree with each other. One extract will be sufficient for both, the slight difference being indicated in the footnote:

    The Lamentation of Gandhari

    "When Krsna's consoling words she heard, she was restored to consciousness. The chaste Gandhari, daughter of Vichitraviryya and Queen of Dhritarastra, said again to Krsna, "Behold Krsna — my hundred powerful sons lie dead on the held, struck by the iron mace of Bhima. O, look, my daughters-in-law, all princesses, are crying most bitterly — those whom the sun or the moon could not see, — whose body is tender as sirisa flower, and whose beauty is a wonder, which the sun stops his chariot in the sky to observe — these ladies have come to the field of Kuruksetra, poorly dressed and with hair dishevelled. Look at them, they are singing wildly — owing to excess of grief — their voice is heard like the sound of the lute of Narada, There, some widows, maddened by grief, have taken weapons in their hands and hero-like are dancing wildly, — I cannot bear it; I cannot find peace anywhere. O, where is my son Duryyodhana! Where has he gone leaving his mother! Look at his condition now, O Krsna. Over his head the regal umbrella of gold used to be spread. His body which was bedecked with pearls lies in the dust!"

    From Nityananda Ghos's Mahabharata

Kavi Das gives exactly the same poem with the following alterations. This almost verbatim agreement cannot be explained by the fact of the two works' being equally translations from a common Sanskrit original. As I have said, Bengali recensions scarcely ever follow their texts closely; and in this instance the difference between the original and what is believed to be its translation, is really similar to that between the deep and measured tone of a European organ and the soft and melodious lav of an Indian lute.

We now come to Kashiram Das, admittedly the best of all recensionists of the Mahabharata. He draws largely from the preceding writers. Indeed his purpose is to revise their works and incorporate them in his own. But in spite of this, his poetic individuality is deeply impressed on many of those lines with which he illumines their compositions. But this is not all. He introduces episodes not to be found in the original Mahabharata, nor in any extant translation earlier than his own: and it is mainly in these additions that he displays the peculiar traits of his poetry.

Kashiram Das was a poet of the people. Indeed his education, scope of intelligence and mode of treatment of his subjects were all such as to meet the requirements of the masses. Those deep problems of the soul, which are worked out in so many chapters of the original Mahabharata, he scarcely notices, or if he touches them at all, he dismisses very briefly. He narrates a story in an intensely popular fashion. His dogmatic pronouncements on religious matters and great reverence for the Brahmins are all characteristic of the views and beliefs of the crowd, and he scarcely ever rises above their level in the narration of the story of the great epic. He often worries the readers by repetition of common places; his exaggerations, besides, are such as sometimes to verge on the grotesque. But throughout his writings one feels a constant current of devotion, which flows like a noble stream purging and refining all grossness, and beautifying what is awkward and inelegant. The strength of popular Indian Literature lies in the vehemence of faith which underlies its somewhat vulgar humour.

There are many passages in Kashiram Das's insult to Mahabharata which bear testimony to his ardour of belief, and in such passages, the Bengali recensionist wonderfully develops the materials at his command. The episode of the insult to Bibhisan, which does not occur at all in the original of Vyasa, is introduced by Kayiram with singularly happy effect. The piece shows the grandeour of Yudhisthir's Rajsuya sacrifice which was, it is said, attended by all the princes living in the vast continent, bounded on the North by the North Kurus, on the West by the dominions of the Yadavas, on the East by the Sea and on the South by Ceylon.

Here had come King Joy Sen of Giribraja (Bhagalpurj) with his gigantic array of boats that "covered sixty miles of the Ganges." Here was the Lord of Chedi with numerous feudatory chiefs who waited at the gate for days till he could obtain entrance into the Great Hall. Here the King Dirghajangha of Ayodhya (Oudh), with a picturesque array of noble steeds, elephants, and camels, patiently awaited the command of the Great Emperor; and other mighty princes, too many in number to be mentioned, approached Yudhisthir with presents of immense gold, silver, pearls, diamonds, corals, invaluable stuff made of silk, fur and cotton, — big tuskers, musk-bearing deer and curious animals as horses with horns, — nay the very gods of Heaven were present here to do honour to Yudhisthira.

In this grand assembly Bibhisan, the King of Lanka, declined to bow down before Yudhisthira, saying that he never bowed to any body on the earth except to Krsna — the divine Incarnation. Insulted at every gate, in which the king of Rakshasas witnessed the grandeour of the Rajsuya Sacrifice, he still persisted in his determination not to do homage to the paramount Emperor. Krsna vainly tried to convince him of the greatness of Yudhisthira and when Bibhisan was still inexorable in his attitude of pride, the Lord took to a device to humiliate him.

Entering the great Hall, Krsna found Yudhisthira seated on his throne situated on a flight of 100 steps, and himself taking his stand above fifty steps manifested himself in his Viswa-Rupa. Yudhisthira seated behind him could not see this manifestation of his, but all others present saw it. Suddenly tiaras of gold coins — a thousand of them — shone forth from the Divine Head. The astonished multitude saw thousands of arms holding resplendent weapons, thousands of eyes, that looked like solar orbs —the diamond Kaustava — the great bow Saranga— the conch Panchajanya, the mace and the lotus — the sacred emblems of Divinity. This appeared as a vision too glorious, not only for human sight, but even for that of demigods.

The great god Siva had come to see the Rajsuya Sacrifice under the guise of a Yogi, but the sight made him unconscious, and he revealed himself to all by falling at the feet of Krsna. Brahma also fainted there and his rosary and kamandalu dropped from his hands as he fell prostrate. Indra, the holder of the thunderbolt, with his host of gods, fell stunned by the sight, at the feet of Krsna, and all the princes, Bibhisan not being excepted, that had assembled there, fell prostrate at this glorious vision which even the gods could not bear to look upon. Thus Krsna made the vast assembly of gods and men bowed down in reverence apparently before the royal throne on which sat Yudhisthira in full glory.

Pointing to this phenomenal sight of the bowing down of all, Krsna addressed Yudhisthira calling him the mightiest of all monarchs, to whom even the great gods had made their obeisance. The humble reply of Yudhisthira showed his devotion to the Lord, his great meekness and piety. The story thought crude in many respects, is a masterpiece of tender faith and it is in this point that Kavi Das always excels.

Kashiram Das was born in the village of Indrani in the district of Burdwan. This village is situated on the river Brahmani, and it was formerly known as Siddha or Siddhi. The poet belonged to the Ksyastha caste, and his brothers and son were all gifted with poetic talent. His elder brother Krsna Das wrote a poem describing the events of Krsna's life. The third brother, Gadadhara, wrote a very elegant book in honour of Jagannath of Puri in 1645 A.D. and named it "Jagat Mangala."

From a reference to the Mahabharata by Kashiram Das in the above poem, we conclude that the former work was written before 1645 A.D.; and in fact we have further evidences of this, which will be dealt with hereafter. Kashiram Das's adopted son Nandaram Das (a son of the poets' brother Gadadhar) wrote the Drona Parva, which we find incorporated with Kashiram's Mahabharata, though the authorship of that Parva is popularly ascribed to Kashiram. There is a saying current in the country to the effect that Kashiram Das died after having finished the Adi, Sabha, Rana and portions of the Virata Parvas. The easy flow of verses characterised by its Sanskritic expressions, which indicate the poetic individuality of Kashiram Das is traceable in those cantos which are ascribed to him in the saying; and we believe that the latter part of the Mahabharata consists mostly of Nityananda Ghos's writings revised and incorporated into the work, a few more chapters having been added by Nanda Ram, the son of Kashiram Das. In these we miss the genial flow of Kasi Das's style and that sprinkling of choice Sanskritic expressions which abound in his compositions.

Evidences have quite recently been found to substantiate this point. In an old M.S. of this Mahabharata, Nandaram says that his uncle and father Kasi Das at the hour of his death regretted the circumstance of not being permitted to live to complete the great work he had undertaken, and piteously asked Nandaram to do the task left unfinished by him.

We know very little of the life of Kashiram Das. It is said that he was a school-master in the village of Awashgarah in the district of Midnapore; and that the above village having been an important resort of the Pandits and Kathakas, who recited the Puranas in the house of the local Raja, Kasi Das first conceived the desire to undertake a translation of the Mahabharata in their learned company.

In Singi, the native village of the poet, there is a tank, which is called after him. We are in possession of several dates which have a bearing on his time. The year in which "Jagat Mangal" was written by his brother Gadadhar has already been referred to. We know of a manuscript of Kashiram Das's Mahabharata in the handwriting of Gadadhar; it was written in the year 1632 A.D. Nanda Ram Das, made a deed of gift to his family priest in 1678 A.D. This must have been drawn up after Kasi Das's death, as during the lifetime of his father, Nanda Ram could not possibly have made a gift to the priest — a duty generally devolving upon the head of the family. From these dates we may safely conclude that Kashiram Das was born towards the latter part of the 16th century and lived till the middle of the seventeenth.

At the instance of some young men of the village Singi, the Vangiya Sahitya Parishat of Calcutta is showing great activities in raising subscriptions for erecting a suitable memorial in honour of the poet in his native village.

Kashiram Das's Mahabharata and Krittibasa's Ramayana are the two books which have been, for some centuries, par excellence, the great educative agencies of Bengal. What may appear as incongruous, crude and unpolished in them is, as 1 have said, due to the poets having adapted their works to the humble intellectual capacity of our uncultured peasantry, whom it was their aim to elevate. These poets have been, for ages, the fountain-heads from which have flowed wisdom and spirituality, striking the finer chords in the hearts of multitudes of Bengal, and their works are up to the present, a living source of inspiration throughout the country.

Dinesh Chandra Sen, B.A., Fellow of the Calcutta University, Associate Member of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, Honorary Member of the Indian Research Society, Author of Banga Bhasa-Sahitya and other Bengali works.


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