Narrative Art in the Mahabharata – The Adi Parva

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Item Code: NAC749
Author: Pradip Bhattacharya
Publisher: Dev Publishers and Distributors
Edition: 2012
ISBN: 978938140601
Pages: 404
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 9.0 Inch X 5.8 Inch
Weight 680 gm
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“a solid, original work of scholarship...unusually well written, with flare and elegance, and carefully edited...l actually enjoyed reading it, and learned much from it...And I welcomed the continuous concern to present the agency of women throughout the Epic, a focus on the strong women in the story.”
— Dr. Wendy Doniger, Chair of the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations. University of Chicago.

“This is a most valuable and original contribution to the field of Hindu Studies. It contributes to new understanding...l learned a lot from this work.”
— Dr. Sushil Mittal. Associate Professor of Hinduism, James Madison University, USA.

One does not very often come across a work of such elegance and depth...Thematic analysis and highlighting have made it an experience of a special kind.”
— Maj. Gen. 5K. Sen. VSM, translator of the Jaiminiya Ashvamedhaparva.

“(His) observations are insights what really help us to get glimpse of the Vyasan Vision and Master’s mastery of his epic art in all its nuances?’
— Prof. (Dr.) Gauri Dharmapal, renowned Sanskrit scholar.

From the Jacket

The study analyses the baffling nebulous mass of material with which the epic begins, bringing out the central theme of each of the sub-parvas to provide insights into the Vyasan Vision and the Masters mastery of his epic art, It helps the reader to understand the intricate web of inter-connections of events and characters so that a clear, logical and intelligible picture emerges of the very involved and confused panorama of the Mahabharata. Parallels from comparative mythology and literature enrich the study and there is a continuous concern to highlight the agency of women throughout the epic.

Pradip Bhattacharya, International HRD Fellow (Manchester), retired in 2007 as Additional Chief Secretary (Development and Planning), Government of West Bengal. Chaired the Eastern Zonal Cultural Centre’s National Symposium on “The Pancha Kanya of Indian Epics”, Dec. 2003; panelist for the 2nd International Conference on Indic Culture and Civilization’s panel on “Pancha Kanya” organised by MANUSHI and the ICCR, Dec. 2005: chaired sessions on “the Mahabharata and Media” in the National Manuscript Mission’s national seminar, Feb.2007 and on “Narrating the Mahabharata” and Cultural rooting of Mahabharata” in the IGNCA’s international conference, Feb.2011.

Now Regional Editor (East) for the Mahabharata Encyclopaedia Project of the Mahabharata Pratishthanam, Bangalore; Member, Board of Governors, IIM Calcutta and of the editorial boards of the Journal of Human Values and MANUSH!. Edited and authored thirty books and numerous articles on values in management, public administration, ancient history, comparative mythology.


Vyasa, master raconteur, weaves together a bewildering skein of threads to create a many-splendoured web from which there was no escape for the listener of those days and there is none even for the reader of today. The thousands of years that separate us from Vyasa have not, surprisingly, dimmed the magic of his art that had entranced Janamejaya and Shaunaka. Here is stunning evidence of the power the epic exerts:

“Shells were exploding over Leningrad. Enemy bombs were falling on the streets stirring up clouds of dust. On one of those spring days during the siege, Sanskrit language was being heard in the building of the Academy of Sciences on the Neva River embankment, in a room overlooking the side that was safer during the artillery strikes. First, in the original, and then in translation, Vladimir Kalyanov, a specialist on India, was reading Mahabharata, a wonderful monument of Indian literature, to his colleagues, who remained in the besieged city. He had started the translation before the war. He translated during the hard winter of 1941, with no light, no fuel and no bread in the city. Two volumes of books—one published in Bombay and the other in Calcutta—were lying on the table in the room. In the dim light of a wick lamp, he was comparing these two editions of Mahabharata, trying to find the best and the most accurate translation of the Sanskrit into Russian.

“When, after the war the first book of Mahabharata—Adi Parva was published in Leningrad, Jawaharlal Nehru, Prime Minister of India, noted with great satisfaction that, even during the hardest times, the translation of the Indian epic into Russian was never interrupted.”

What is it in this epic-of-epics, eight times larger than the Iliad and the Odyssey combined—denounced as “a literary monster” by Winternitz, and as “monstrous chaos” by Oldenberg—that appeals so irresistibly to the modern man in search of his soul, when the audience for which it was composed—the enthroned monarch and the forest-dwelling sage—has long sunk into the dark backward and abysm of time?

Seeking answers to questions such as these, I found a storyteller par excellence lying bare, at times quite pitilessly, the existential predicament of man in the universe. If, later in the epic, Vyasa shows us what man has made of man, here, in the very first book, he plumbs the depths of the humiliatingly petty preoccupations of the Creator’s noblest creation. Indeed, the dilemmas the characters find themselves enmeshed in cannot even be glorified as ‘tragic’. Perhaps, that is why we find the epic so fascinating—for, how many of us are cast in the heroic mould? We do not have to strain the imagination to reach out and identify with Yayati or Shantanu. We need no willing suspension of disbelief to understand why the Brahmin Drona should sell his knowledge to the highest bidder, or why Drupada does not protest too much when his daughter is parceled out among five brothers who had routed him in a skirmish. Passions do, indeed, spin the plot and we are betrayed by what is false within. Then, as now, there is no need to look for a villain manoeuvring without.

If we resonate in empathy with the sense of tears in human things, we also thrill with joy on meeting the indomitable spirit of woman in an epic that many misconceive as celebrating a male chauvinist outlook. Whether it is Shakuntala proudly asserting her integrity and berating the cowardly Dushyanta in open court; or Devayani demanding that Kacha return her love and imperiously brushing aside a lust-crazed husband; or Kunti refusing to pervert herself into a mindless son-producing machine to gratify the twisted desires of a frustrated husband— time and again it is woman standing forth in all the splendour of her spirited autonomy as a complete human being that rivets our attention and evokes our admiration.

I have pursued a method that allows the epic to grow, as it were, upon the reader. Taking the P. La) transcription as the peg on which to hang the analysis, I have gone through the Mi Parva chapter by chapter, section by section, bringing out the delicate nuances of meaning, the deft dovetailing of one tale into another, the underlying thematic unity, the incisive and at times relentless exposé of the frailties that the flesh is heir to, that make up the genius of Vyasa. Begun in 1968 and brought out in monthly fascicules, a completely revised transcreation, each Parva contained in a single volume, was published from 2005 correcting all the errors of commission and omission I had noted in my studies. I have followed this revised edition. Why the P. Lal transcreation? It is the only English version to follow the complete “vulgate” shloka-by-shloka, eschewing the not very consistent text of the Critical Edition with its numerous excisions in favour of the extant complete redaction. Possibly because of the same reason the Clay Sanskrit Library based its translations on the edition with Nilkantha’s commentary, but they are almost all in prose. Further, Prof Lal’s is the only translation that is a transcreation, consciously attempting to provide a sense of the original by effortlessly shifting from verse to prose as Vyasa’s text demands, simultaneously preserving the Sanskrit ethos. We are not brought up short by jarring medieval turns of phrase that are anything but Vyasa as with J.A.B. van Buitenen’s “barons”, “chivalry” and the like. Mahatma, pranama, namaskara, ashrama and similar words, redolent with the flavour of Bharatavarsha’s air and earth and water, abound. The Lal version does not, however, have many passages occurring in the Southern and the Bengal recessions (such as Arjuna’s wooing of Subhadra disguised as a hermit, Draupadi’s previous births as Nalayani, Mudgalani and Vedavati, the chariot duel between Krishna and Shishupala, etc.)

The attempts at translating the longest epic in the world in full began with H. Fauche’s French translation (1863-1870). Unfortunately, he died leaving it incomplete. Now L. Ballin continues the work. A new French translation by Guy Vincent and Gilles Schaufelberger has brought out four volumes so far arranged thematically, not following the original chronological schema. In St. Petersburg, the Russian translation was started in 1941 by V. Kalyanov and is nearing the end. In the USA, J.A.B. van Buitenen of Chicago University died after finishing the first five Parvas. Two other American Universities are continuing the work, but do not follow the sequence of the original. The other American project by the Clay Sanskrit Library has run out of sponsors. We have to revert to the 19th century for an almost complete English translation by KM. Ganguli published by P.C. Roy (1 883-1893). A parallel effort was undertaken by the Rector of Serampore College, M.N. Dutt slightly later. Both are vitiated as they either omit or Latinise passages “for obvious reasons” in the prevalent Victorian ambience. In 1968 Professor P. Lal took up the first verse-by-verse transcreation of Vyasa’s monumental composition in English. As of now, 16 and a half of the 18 books have been published before Prof. Lal passed away in November 2010, leaving the moksha-dharma portion of the Shanti Parva and the Anushasana Parva in its entirety to be completed.

I have avoided use of diacriticals as they impede the flow of the text, except where necessary to indicate elongaged vowels: “a” instead of “aa” as in “arm”, “1” instead of “ee” as in “see”, “u” instead of “oo” as in “too”.


Acknowledgements xiii
1. Anukramanika: The Genesis and the Vyasan Vision1
2. Parvasamgraha: The Contents 21
3. Paushya Parva: The Raison D’etre of the Snake Holocaust 27
4. Pauloma Parva: Weaving in Skilled Unmindfulness 35
5. Astika Parva-I: The Raconteur’s Art 43
6. Astika Parva-II: Amrita, the Apple of Eris 53
7. Astika Parva-III: The Snake Holocaust 86
8. Adivamshavatarana: Ineffectual Birth Pangs 108
9. Sambhava Parva-I: Shakuntala 138
10. Sambhava Parva-II: Lust and the Quest for Immortality 149
11. Sambhava Parva-III: Yayati, Yima and Eochaid Feidlech 186
12. Sambhava Parva-IV: Lust in Action 192
13. Sambhava Parva-V: Kunti 236
14. Sambhava Parva-VI: Kunti-Bhima 256
15. Sambhava Parva-VII: Vashishtha and Vishvamitra 289
16. Sambhava Parva-VIII: Svayamvara and Restoration 307
17. Sambhava Parva-IX: Arjuna’s Amours and Khandava in Flames 345
18. Looking Back 371
Bibliography 382
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