The Mahabharata in Arabic and Persian
BY: SUN STAFF
Illustration from Persian Mahabharata
Oct 11, 2013 CANADA (SUN) By Pradip Bhattacharya, from 'Mother India'.
The record of foreign invasions in India's own itihasa is not available in any systematic form. However, the references to foreign tribes are several, as in the Vashishtha-Vishvamitra conflict, Sagara's conquests, the Rajasuya sacrifice, the Kurukshetra war and Kalayavana's attack. What we do not find is accounts of foreign rulers except in the cryptic statements regarding the descendants of Yayati's four sons, Yadu, Turvasu, Anu, Druhyu.
In historical times when the Arabs and Mughals
invaded and settled down here, they found that to understand Indians it
was necessary to comprehend the two poetic compositions that appeared to
wield overpowering influence over the population. The unfortunate fact
is that in modern India there has been no effort to study what these
foreigners made of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The
only papers available are quite old: R.G. Harshe's on the Arabic version
of the Mahabharata (Bulletin of the Deccan College Research
Institute, Pune, Vol.2), and the studies by M.A. Chaghatai (BDCRI,
vol.5) and J.J. Modi (ABORI, vol.6) on Akbar's illustrated edition of
the Persian Razm Nama (the Book of War, as Akbar named the
The first Arabic text on the Mahabharata belongs to the 11th
century AD. In 1845 M. Reinaud, Membre de l'Institut, Paris, published a
book containing French translations of Arabic and Persian fragments
about India with a chapter entitled, "History of the kings of India and
their chronological order according to the information which has come to
our knowledge". This was a translation thrice removed, being a French
version of the Persian work Modjmel-altevarykh (1125 AD) by
Abul-Hasan-Ali, keeper of the city library of Jurjan located near the
Caspian seashore, written for a chieftain of the Dilemites. This Persian
work was itself a translation of the Arabic "Instruction of the Princes"
(1026 AD) by Abu-Saleh who had translated it from the Sanskrit. The
first Arab invasion was of Sind in the early 9th century AD, co-terminus
with the Umayyad invasion of Spain. Kunti's narration of the Vidula's
fiery exhortation to her son Sanjaya in the Udyoga Parva of the
Mahabharata could have this in the background. Abu-Saleh's work
contains not only the Mahabharata story but also others that have not
been identified. A summary, based on Harshe's paper, is given below of
what is found in the French translation pertaining to the Mahabharata.
Typically, it begins with Sind.
"Two tribes, Meyd (Madra) and Zath (Jat), descended from Ham, dwelt
in Sind. In Arabic the Indians are referred to as from the country
Zath. Driven out by the Meyd, the Zath withdrew to the banks of the
river Pehen and becoming expert navigators overcame the Meyd.
Desiring a settlement, the Zath approached king Dujoshan (Duryodhana?)
son of Daharata (Dhritarashtra) requesting that he depute a ruler
over them and the Meyd. Dujoshan gave the land of Sind to his sister
Dusal (Duhshala), daughter of Daharata. She married Jandrat (Jayadratha),
a powerful chieftain, who ruled for over 20 years till power went
from the hands of the Bharata. The princess was extremely wise and
wrote to her brother about the lack of learned, wise people. At her
request her brother sent thirty thousand Brahmanas from different
parts of India along with their families to Sind. Lengthy accounts
of their discussions are given in the original work along with
descriptions of the country and its strange features. The capital
was called Askelend (Asandivat, capital of Janamejaya, ancestor of
Pandavas). One part of Sind was given to the Zath whose chief was
named Joudarat (Yuddharatha?). The Meyd received another territory.
Fur (Puru?) emperor of India was a son of Mahran (Mandhata?) at the
time of Dahak/Zahak and Faridun, descended from Ham. Ham left two
sons, blind Dehran (Dhritarashtra) and the minor Fan (Pandu).
Enemies seized parts of the kingdom. After Fan came of age, at
Dehran's behest he rid the kingdom of evils and enemies. Dehran
offered him the throne and, when he refused, gave him half the
Dehran's wife Qandhar (Gandhari) gave him a daughter Dusal and many
sons of whom the eldest was Dujoshan. All of this dynasty were
called Bharata. The other family was named the Fanimin (Pandava)
consisting of five sons of Fan. The eldest was Jehtal, the second
Bhimasena, the third Ajun, these three from Fundar; the fourth
Shahdeb, the fifth Newal, being twins. Each had a special talent. In
addition, Fan had another son like himself (Karna?) who lived with
The incident of Fan killing a coupling hermit couple metamorphosed
into gazelles and being cursed to die on trying to satisfy his
passion is related. Fan's wives were Fundar and Madhar. Being cursed
he withdrew to the mountain, informing king Dehran. One day near
sunset Fan was asleep. Madhar asked Fundar to wake him to eat as
customary at this time. Fundar refused and waited till he awoke at
night, being amorously moved. He asked her what she wanted. She told
him. Fan said, "What pleasure do I derive from my wives when even
the Sun halts to look at them?" He got a funeral pile prepared, gave
away all he had to the Brahmanas and told his wives, "No human being
can, nor ever will, gratify your desires." Then, while gratifying
Fundar, he died and was burnt. The two wives lived for a long time.
The dwellers of the air would gather round them out of desire and
they were overcome by their passions for these jinns. "The
author tells the most ridiculous stories about this subject", writes
Each son of Fan was educated by a pious man who prayed to God to
grant whatever the pupil would desire. Jehtal asked for a mighty
rule and a firm minister; Bhimasena for great strength; Ajun for
mastery of the bow; Newal for skill in horsemanship and courage;
Shahdeb for wisdom, knowledge of hidden things, astronomy. The
empire left the Bharatas to come to them.
The pious men took the princes with their mothers to king Dehran who
gave half his kingdom to them, appointing Jehtal their overlord. The
other half he gave his own sons led by Dujoshan. People preferred
Jehtal, which aroused Dujoshan's jealousy who built an inflammable
pavilion and persuaded the Fanimin to reside in it. Dehran warned
Jehtal to be obedient to Dujoshan who was his elder and not to trust
him. The Fanimin had an uncle Bhimasena (Vidura) who sent a sapper
to prepare an underground passage for them to escape from the
pavilion, and informed his nephews of the danger. Soon thereafter
Dehran died and Dujoshan took charge of all royal authority. The
Fanimin with their mothers, a group of seven, went into Saman
(wilderness?) and had many adventures before joining king Droupada
whose daughter Dropadi became their wife when Ajun hit with his
arrow the eye of a golden fish atop a tower. She was the wife for
all five brothers, "the narrative tells strange things in regard to
this subject." Thereafter they went into another land and the story
of their adventures with the divs (gods) is too long to reproduce.
Finally they obtained kingship.
After some years, war began between them and Dujoshan who would not
agree to any settlement and called his brother-in-law Jandrat from
Sind. Finally all were killed. Jehtal pierced Dujoshan with an
arrow. When Dusal heard of it, she burnt herself. Thus ended the
empire of the Bharata. When grieving Qandhar refused to be consoled
by a Brahmana, he left and she found herself going mad with grief
not having eaten anything. One night, seeing something resembling
food in the air, she stood up on the corpse of one of her sons but
could not reach it. Vainly she kept making a pile of the corpses of
her sons but it was always too high. The Brahmana appeared again,
urging her to heed his advice. She replied, "What you say is true.
The veil is rent: you see how far the desire to eat has carried me."
He gave her something to eat. Then she burnt all the bodies of her
children and rested.
Jehtal ruled over all Hindustan. Sendjura, son of Jandrat, was
pardoned and Sind given to him. Finally, Jehtal decided to retire to
the mountain of hermits like his forefathers. His brothers agreed,
installed Parik, son of Ajun, on the throne and withdrew to the
mountain where they performed religious practices till their death.
Parik reigned for thirty years and was succeeded by Janamedjaya who
reigned for twenty years and was replaced by his son Sahdaniq (Satanika)
who ruled for twenty five years. Then Safsanica (Sahasranika) ruled
justly for twenty four years, followed by his son Yesra who ruled
for fifty years and people tired of him. There was disorder. After
his death his brother Couyahour (Citraratha or Shuchidratha?) ruled
but was a bad ruler. He was killed after fifteen years and the
empire went out of the hand of the Fanimin."
This version is veritably Hamlet without the prince of Denmark, for
where is Krishna? His absence is, indeed, most intriguing.
In the early 9th century AD Khalifa Al-Mamun, son of Haroun-al-Rashid,
who had two Hindu doctors in his court, used to hold religious
conferences like Akbar in which Sanskrit knowing scholars were included.
Indian medical works of Charaka and Sushruta were translated into Arabic
in the court of the Pahlavi Gajashta Abalis (c. 825 AD). The
Tarikh-i-Ferishta records that Feroze Shah Tughlaq got some Sanskrit
works lying in a Hindu temple in Nagarkote (Nagrota in Kangra valley)
translated into Persian. According to the local legend Alexander had
placed an image of his wife Nowshaba here, which was worshipped by the
Brahmins as Jwalamukhi.
Akbar got as many as 15 Sanskrit texts translated into Persian. These
were: Atharbed by Badaoni and others; Bhagwad Gita by
Faizi and another; Gangadhar by Abul Fazl; Haribans by
Maulana Sheri; Jog-Bashishta by Maulana Faraniuli; Katha Sarit
Sagara by Badaoni; Kishen Joshi by Abul Fazl; Lilavati
and Nal Daman by Faizi; Mahesh Mohanand by Abul Fazl;
Singhasana Battisi by Badaoni, called "Nama-i-Khird Afza";
Tajak on astronomy by Muhammad Khan; treatise on elephants by Mulla
Sheri; Ramayana and Mahabharata by Badaoni and others.
Abdul Qadir Badaoni records that in 1582 AD Akbar felt that instead of
translating fictitious narratives like Ferishta's it would be worthwhile
to get translated into Persian the rich material of philosophy and
history in the Mahabharata for the edification of his nobles. Badaoni
states that it narrates the wars of the tribes of Kurus and Pandus who
ruled in Hind more than 4000 years ago, which the people commonly say is
over 80,000 years ago. Akbar took personal interest in the enterprise,
explaining the meaning to Naqib Khan the first few nights so that he
could make a Persian summary. Some of the Sanskrit scholars who were
called in to assist were: Debi Misra, Satavadana, Madhusudana Misra,
Rudra Bhattacaraj, Chaturbhuja, Sheikh Bhawan (a Dakhini Brahmin
converted into Islam). Of these Debi Misra (author of Bharata artha
dipika), Chaturbhuja Misra (author of Bharata upaya prakasaka
bharata tatparya prakashika) are from Bengal, well known for their
commentaries on the epic. Madhusudana Misra edited the play
Mahanatakam. They assisted Naqib Khan, Shaikh Sultan (Haji)
Thanesari, Mulla Sheri and Abdul Qadir Badauni who wrote the text in
Razmnama is not an exact translation but a free Persian
adaptation, as Badaoni states. Badaoni translated two of the 18 books.
In 1588 he finished translating the Ramayana for which he received 150
Ashrafis and 10,000 tangahs, the Singhasan Battisi as "Nameh-i
Khirad-Afza" and the Atharva Veda in which he found that
Hindus eat beef, bury their dead and that it has a passage guaranteeing
salvation that resembles the Muslim "La-illah illa 'llah". Mulla
Sheri (who also translated the Harivamsa as Haribans,
which Albiruni says is an authority on Indian matters) and Naqib Khan
did a part. The rest was finished by Sultan Haji of Thanessar. Faizi,
Abul Fazl's brother and Akbar's personal friend, converted two books
into elegant language. Sultan Haji further revised these two and his own
portion for over four years, carefully checking against the original,
saying, "I render into modern language the knowledge of 10,000 years."
Badaoni, on the other hand, calls it as "puerile absurdities, of which
the 18000 creations may well be amazed…Two parts were written. Such
discussions as one never heard! As, Shall I eat forbidden things? Shall
I eat turnips? But such is my fate to be employed on such works…But the
Emperor took exception to my translation and called me a Haramkhur
and a turnip-eater, as if that was my share of the book." He felt that
all the translators were destined for hell. Akbar suspected him of
importing his bigoted ideas into the translation and Badaoni had to
defend himself at length over a passage in the Shanti Parva
dealing with rebirth.
The first draft of the text was completed in August-September 1584 and
contained translations of one lakh verses of the epic. It was then
copied by expert calligraphists. Abul Fazl wrote a lengthy preface.
According to him, recital of the Harivamsha was known to cure
sterility. After the text was prepared, Akbar asked his court artists to
illustrate it. Prominent among these master artists were Daswant,
Basawan, Lal, Mukund, Kesav, Muhammad Sharif and Farrukh Chella who
produced some of the finest specimens of Mughal miniature painting.
There are 168 paintings in Akbar's copy (the Ramayana translation has
176). It was bound in four lavish volumes and presented to the emperor
who named it Razmnama, The Book of War. The Sanskrit word
"bhaara" means "war", as in the play Karnabhaara. Akbar asked his
nobles to get copies made for their own study. Akbar's own copy,
acquired by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh of Jaipur in the 1740s, is in the
Maharaja Sawai Mansingh-II Museum in Jaipur City Palace, unavailable for
study owing to court cases. Jai Singh ripped off the gold-embroidered
goat-skin covers of the original like a vandal on religious grounds.
Another copy of lesser quality was produced in 1598-1599. Most of the
other illustrated Razmnama are lost or scattered all over the
world in museums and personal collections. One was prepared for
Jahangir's commander-in-chief, Abdur Rahim Khankhanan, in 1616-17, which
too has been dispersed across the world. In 1602 AD Tahir Muhammad
prepared an abridgement of the Persian translation including the
Harivamsha. Firishta states in the introduction to his history of
India and Hindus that he used the Razmnama as his source.
Unfortunately, the editors of the critical edition of the Mahabharata
did not study the Razmnama to check what episodes featured in the
epic in the 16th century, which would have enabled us to determine what,
if any, has been interpolated since then.
The parva-wise summary of contents of the Persian adaptation are given
below as stated by the translators, indicating the number of verses in
the original (southern recension) and the Persian separately as in
Chaghatai's paper. The differences in names of characters of the later
parvas show Thanesari's correction of Naqib Khan and others' errors in
the earlier parts.
Adi: 8884 verses in both
(Persian "Ad"), giving an account of the Kurus and Pandavas.
Sabha: 2511 verses in both. Jadthal sends his brothers on
world-conquest; Rajasuya held; gambling assembly arranged.
Vana: 11664 verses Sanskrit; 11360 Persian "Ban". 12 years exile of
Pandavas in the forest.
Virata: 2050 verses Sanskrit; 2005 Persian "Barat". Return of
Pandavas from forest to city of Barat to hide there.
Udyoga: 6698 verses Sanskrit; 6238 Persian "Odam". Pandavas reveal
identity and move to Kurkhat and arrange army.
Bhishma: 5884 verses in both (Persian "Bhikam"). Battle and Bhikam's
fall. Death of many sons of Dhartashak over 10 days battle.
Drona: 8909 verses in both (Persian "Daruna"). Jarjodhan holds
council; fall of Dorun on 5th day. Account of other 5 days
concerning Bhikam's sustaining wounds
Karna: 4964 verses in both (Persian "Karn"). 2 days' fighting and
death of Karn. Account of his fight with Jadshal and being killed by
Shalya: 3230 verses Sanskrit; 3208 verses Persian "Shal". Account of
Shal and others being hanged. 90 persons killed. Daryodhan hiding
and his brothers killed by mace in battle lasting 18 days.
Sauptika: 870 verses Sanskrit; 880 verses Persian "Sapat". Night
attack led by Karl Barmha (Kritavarma), Astham, Karya (Kripa) on
army of Pandavas.
Stri: both 775 verses; Persian "Astari". Weeping of women of both
sides. Gandhari, mother of Daryodhana, curses Krishna.
Santi: 14725 verses Sanskrit; 19374 verses Persian "Sant". After the
victory Jadshall wanted to renounce the world. Krishna urges him in
the company of Bhikam who was still alive and Jadshall listens
attentively to the advice and admonitions.
Anusasana: 8000 verses both versions. Bhikam's alms and charities.
Asvamedhika: 3320 verses Sanskrit; 3308 verses Persian "Asmed". An
account of the Asmed sacrifice when Bhikam, on copletion of the
admonitions, renounces the faithless world. Jadshall wanted to
follow the path of renunciation. Vayas praised supremacy and urged
Yudhishtar and for his satisfaction ordered a sacrifice.
Asramavasika: 1506 verses Sanskrit; 300 verses Persian.
Renuniciation of Dhrastik, Gandhari the mother of Jarjashan, Kunti
the mother of Jodishtar and their going to the jungle in Kurukshetra
where Vayas lived and Pandavas followed to see them.
Mausala: 320 verses Sanskrit; 300 verses Persian "Mosal". Account of
Jadwan (Balarama) and Krishan dying in miserable circumstances and
Mahaprasthanika: 360 verses Sanskrit; 320 verses Persian "Jan".
Jadishtar and his brothers' renunciation of the world and entrusting
the kingdom to people and their departure to the Himalaya
Svargarohana: 209 verses Sanskrit; 200 verses Persian "Sarkawahan".
Pandvas resigning the souls to the mountain and the physical
ascencsion of Yudhishthira to the higher world.
Harivamsha: Khatimas Harbans: account of Jadwan (Balarama).
Recently Mapin Publishing has brought out the Birla
Razmnama edited by
Prof. Asok Kumar Das (formerly curator of the Sawai Man Singh museum in
Jaipur) containing the paintings. This Birla Razmnama, kept in the Birla
Academy of Art and Culture, Kolkata, is a signed work of Mir Sayyid Ali
Tabrizi Judai in three volumes with 629 folios including 84 full-size
miniatures by the court artists of Akbar. Its scribe is Pir Muhammad bin
Muhammad Hafiz and it is dated the year of Akbar's death, 1605 AD. Das
has pointed out that when compared to the Jaipur Razmnama, "the subjects
vary widely." Some stories chosen are not common and some others that
are depicted in more than one miniature in the Jaipur copy have been
condensed into one in the Birla copy.
The Ashvamedhaparva is of particular interest because, as Das writes,
"The exploits of the sacrificial horse—related in the Ashvamedhika parva—are
shown in 47 illustrations in the Jaipur copy, 22 in the 1598-99 copy
against only four in the Birla copy." In fact, as Shekhar Sen has
pointed out, there are five illustrations, not four. Das has missed the
fifth one, plate 79. In the Razmnama this particular parva is taken from
Jaimini, not Vyasa. The episodes depicted in the Birla copy are those of
Babhruvahana, Yudhisthira's yajna, Anushalva, Hamsadhvaja and the demon
Why did the authors of most of the medieval vernaculars, especially the
eastern, prefer Jaimini to Vyasa? Vyasa had asked each of his four
disciples to compose their versions of his work. Of these, only
Jaimini's single parva exists today. This version is much more
sensational. Vyasa's parva is full of philosophical issues that do not
appeal to the ordinary reader and the tour of the horse is very brief.
Arjuna runs through the opposition, stumbling only once at Manipura
(also called Manalura, located near Madurai). After the tumultuous war
books the story of these battles comes as a damp squib. Jaimini,
however, is full of action, variety, color and a series of absorbing
stories with few philosophical outpourings. It celebrates the exploits
of the children of the heroes slain in the great war and Arjuna comes
off quite poorly. In addition, it is liberally spiked with
Krishna-bhakti, which must have appealed particularly to the
sensibilities of medieval readers and re-tellers. For these reasons,
perhaps, the Jaimini parva almost invariably replaced Vyasa's
Ashvamedhika Parva in later renderings of the Mahabharata. Jaimini has
not been accessible to the English reading public so far. The first
shloka-by-shloka English translation by Major General Shekhar Sen has
now been published by Writers Workshop, Kolkata to sate the curiosity of
The Death of Bhisma
Illustration from Razmnama (Book of Wars),
a Persian translation of Mahabharata
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