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Sunday, May 30, 2010

A mammoth Mahabharata series begins admirably --- M. Veerappa Moily is Union law minister THE MAHABHARATA: Volume 1 Translated by BIBEK DEBROY

A mammoth Mahabharata series begins admirably


M. Veerappa Moily is Union law minister THE MAHABHARATA: Volume 1 Translated by BIBEK DEBROY Penguin Pages: 536 Rs 550


THE Mahabharata, together with the Ramayana, is one of the greatest stories ever told.
These two epics have influenced norms, values and culture not just in India, but elsewhere in Southeast Asia too. Hinduism is difficult to pinpoint and define. Nor is Hinduism only manifested in Sanskrit texts, a point Wendy Doniger makes in her recent The Hindus: An Alternative History (2009). The Sanskrit corpus itself is huge, spanning the Vedas, Vedanta, Vedangas, Smritis, Puranas and the Dharmashastras, not to speak of classical Sanskrit literature. However, popular attitudes are often shaped not by the Vedanta literature, or even the Gita, and the speculations of religious philosophers, but by the stories recounted in the two epics and the Puranas. It is said that even before Valmiki could pen his Ramayana in Sanskrit, many folk Ramayanas had been orally passed from one generation to the next. The imagery of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata recurs in our everyday life and jargon.


The Valmiki Ramayana, thus, isn't the only Ramayana. I myself have written an epic poem Sree Ramayana Mahanveshanam in Kannada, which has now been translated into English and other languages. If we wish to communicate our history, myths and culture to the rest of the world, English naturally becomes the medium. It is easy to blame westerners for having got the nuances wrong, but the appropriate response would be for us Indians to do the rendering, instead of waiting for modern-day Max Muellers.

The Sanskrit Valmiki Ramayana now has an authenticated and critical edition, brought out by the Oriental Institute in Baroda. And the Vedavyasa Mahabharata too has an authenticated and critical edition, brought out by the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune.

It is somewhat surprising that English translations of these texts are not yet available. Abridged translations often fail to capture the nuances and the emotions of all the characters.

An unabridged translation of the Mahabharata is therefore welcome and it is surprising that Bibek Debroy, who is known more as an economist (though I have personally known him as one interested in law reform), should have embarked on this venture. It is another matter that he has already translated the Vedas, Upanishads, Puranas and the Gita.

This is the first of 10 volumes and covers the period from the beginning to the Pandavas' obtaining their share of the kingdom. Volume 1 thus covers most of Adi Parva and runs into almost 500 pages. From this, one can gauge the size of the entire Mahabharata and the scope of the endeavour Debroy has embarked on. There is also an excellent introduction that sets the background.

We all have our favourite version of the Mahabharata, translated into English in unabridged form. For many of my generation, Rajaji's versions of both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata must figure on that list, because of easy-to-read English. Debroy's translation is easy and smooth as well, compared with the 19th century translations of K.M. Ganguli and M.N. Dutt (which predated Bhan darkar's Critical Edition) or even the half-complete University of Chicago version (which was based on Bhandarkar). I only hope Debroy can speed up his translation, so that we do not have to wait five years for all of the 10 volumes to be available.

There seems to be a resurgence of interest in the epics. Gurcharan Das authored a book based on the Mahabharata. There is the Clay series, based on vernacular versions of the Mahabharata, now funded by N.R. Narayana Murthy. There has been my effort as well as the present one by Debroy. I am not sure why this should suddenly happen.

Although the Ramayana and the Mahabharata have always been of interest, much before the TV serials happened, the last time there was this great enthusiasm seems to have been in the second half of the 19th century. Nor is it obvious to me why there should be this interest on the part of those who are not quite run-of-the-mill Indologists or Sanskrit scholars. 

Whatever be the reason, an accurate rendering of our history and culture is welcome, because it neutralises attempts by right-wing fundamentalist groups to hijack what they perceive to be their version of Hinduism. When we scan the Vedas and epics like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, we find a thread of secular ethos. 

In fact, even the Sapta Rishis who composed the Vedas and the authors of Ramayana and Mahabharata do not belong to the Brahmin varna. They actually belong to Shudra and the lower classes of the society. It is a paradox that we find a reversal of secular ethos to the detrimental of the philosophy of unity in diversity.

According to the poet A.K. Ramanujan, a translator has to obey three sets of conflicting allegiances: to the reader, to the culture of the original text and to the text's historical context or tradition. 

Debroy, in his acknowledgment and introduction, says, "Most people thought I was mad, even if they never quite said that." I had a similar feeling when I embarked upon Sree Ramayana Mahanveshanam, which is my own version of the Ramayana. On venturing into the voluminous poem, I felt like being in the midst of a dark ocean the shore of which I would not find. Having gained confidence, I have now started another epic poem, on Draupadi, called Sreemudi Parikramanam. All big ideas will find their own destiny. Hence I am confident that the journey undertaken by Debroy in translating the other parvas will find a happy climax.

Initially, I was surprised that a creative writer like Debroy had ventured upon a translation of epic dimensions.

It requires absolute concentration, discipline and restraint. Having read his book, I must say that the author has conformed to all parameters and excelled as a model translator. He has really carved out a niche for himself in crafting and presenting a translation of the Mahabharata, which is the need of the century. The presentation of a family tree and also the Bharatavarsh (6th century BCE) reflects his insistence on historical authenticity.

I wish that Debroy emerges in the scholarly world of this country to present our past. The book takes us on a great journey with admirable ease.

M. Veerappa Moily is Union law minister THE MAHABHARATA: Volume 1 Translated by BIBEK DEBROY Penguin Pages: 536 Rs 550

1 comment:

  1. After some exhaustive research, I have reached to a conclusion that versions of Ramayana exists in many languages, including Annamese, Balinese, Bengali, Cambodian, Chinese, Gujarati, Javanese, Kannada, Kashmiri, Khotanese, Laotian, Malaysian, Marathi, Oriya, Prakrit, Sanskrit, Santhali, Sinhalese, Tamil, Telugu, Thai, Tibetan, etc. In Sanskrit itself there are 25 different versions. According to A. K. Ramanujam, more than 300 tellings of Ramayana exist.

    Each has newer dimensions, more fascinating than the other.

    Read them in reverse order here- http://souravroy.com/?s=too+many+ramayanas

    ReplyDelete

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