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A landmark in Indological studies

Pradip Bhattacharya |

Samsad Companions to The Mahabharata and The Ramayana 


Shishu Sahitya Samsad 

Rs. 1200 and Rs.800

The sheer magnitude of India&’s epics has proved a great challenge as much to the scholar as to the aficionado, besides putting off the common reader… but no longer. Thanks to the amazing labour of Smt. Madhusraba Dasgupta, who has put together single-handedly everything there is to know about both epics, even the quizmaster will now have an easy time finding material to draw upon. For the Mahabharata, she has used the Pune Bhandarkar edition, the Bengal Asiatic Society edition, and its translation by K.M. Ganguli, which she unaccountably refers to as “PC Ray” although he was only the publisher.  Every entry is referenced with respect to both editions — an extremely useful feature. The publisher, Debajyoti Dutta, deserves our gratitude for publishing these volumes with such excellent production values.

Long ago, Sorensen had compiled an index to the Mahabharata arranged in dictionary form. A Hindi version by Ramkumar Rai was published in several volumes in the Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series, with a parallel kosha for the Ramayana  in the early 1980s. If, however, one wishes to find out what weapons were used, what the terms mean and what the army formations were, that information was not found there. Dasgupta groups the data under eight headings “to kindle enthusiasm and ease the exertion of the reader who wants to see beyond a mere account of facts.” These are: the  parvas and sections; identities; the ancient world (then and now); races, tribes, castes; troop formations, weapons, accessories; specific terms; other names of characters; an appendix providing select genealogies, the last without providing any reference to the text. She has formulated her own pronunciation guide, departing from the internationally accepted diacriticals, finding that inadequate.

The introduction to the Mahabharata volume is rather slender. She makes the interesting point that no detailed physical description of any character is found — what we have is quite vague. Besides listing characters and places, she also provides the inhabitants of different regions, the social orders. She points out the lack of mention of any temple or idol. However, in Ganguli&’s translation of the Sabha Parva section 79, we find Vidura telling Dhritarashtra, “And jackals and vultures and ravens and other carnivorous beasts and birds began to shriek and cry aloud from the temples of the gods and the tops of sacred trees and walls and house-tops.” In section 32, there is reference to temples of gods, and to a temple of Shiva in section 15 in which Jarasandha imprisoned princes. Dasgupta claims that there is archaeological evidence of the Kurukshetra battle. Actually, no such evidence has been found. Only pottery was dug up in the early 1950s, but nothing that connects to what we find in the  Mahabharata.  Strangely enough, there has been no excavation here since then, despite all the breast-beating about unearthing and preserving ancient Indian heritage. The astronomical evidence she refers to as fixing 1500 BC, as the time of the war is as dubious as the Yudhishthira Era of 3102 BC is. She refers to the epic having had 8,800 verses initially, an erroneous notion propagated by Weber. This is the number of verses that Sauti refers to as “knotted  slokas,” very difficult to understand. Nor does the Mahabharata consist of one lakh  slokas, but extends to over 90,000 verses.

Anyone wanting a list of all the pilgrimage spots mentioned will find it readily in this volume. The spots Balarama visits could have been mentioned in a cluster as has been done for the Pandavas.  All forests, lakes, rivers, mountains, kingdoms, cities, villages and even steeds and standards are listed! Besides  vyuhas (troop formations), parts of the chariot, the various modes of fighting, celestial weapons and normal ones are catalogued. She has tried to identify, as far as possible, the current names of the places mentioned, so that the geography comes alive to us today. Unfortunately, there is no map in both volumes, which would have enhanced their usefulness.

The entry on Shiva seems to contain a few errors. He did not gift the Gandiva bow to Arjuna and his  pinaka is not a small drum but a pike or trident. What he holds is a dambaru which is an hour-glass shaped small drum. His going before Arjuna killing those whom his arrows later slay has been omitted. Some of the entries could have been a little more informative. Where can we find the names of the eight sons of Kavi? Surya was named Martanda (dead-egg) because he was stillborn (like Parikshit). Also, as Martanda is also the name of Yama, it hints at why he was called lord of death. Again, Ekalavya is not the son of Nishada king Hiranyadhanu, but his adopted son, born to Krishna&’s paternal uncle Devashrava who gave him away. He is, thus, Krishna&’s agnate cousin whom he kills, as he does his aunt&’s son Shishupala. Again, Jara, Krishna&’s killer was  his stepbrother, being Vasudeva&’s son from a Shudra wife who became a Nishada chief (cf. Harivansha,Vishnu Parva, 103.27). In the genealogy provided in the Appendix, these relationships are not indicated, nor the fact that Pritha-Kunti was of Yadu&’s lineage and the sister of Vasudeva, and names of the mothers of Balarama, Krishna and Subhadra. Balarama and Krishna&’s wives are also missing. One would have thought that the very critical role women play in the  Mahabharata would have motivated  Ms Dasgupta to include all the names of women in the genealogies. She overlooks references in the Ashramavasika Parva to two more wives: another wife of Bhima is the sister of Krishna&’s inveterate foe  (Shishupala/ Jarasandha/ Dantavakra?) and a wife of Sahadeva is a daughter of Jarasandha. Their names and progeny are not mentioned. How many of us realise that when Abhimanyu killed Brihadbala, ruler of Kosala, it was in effect the Lunar Dynasty wiping out Ayodhya&’s Solar Dynasty! In the genealogy, no link is shown between Pratipa (Paryashravas in a parallel version) and Shantanu, despite their being father and son. The fact that Bharata adopted Bhumanyu from Bharadvaja, disinheriting his nine sons, has not been indicated.

One misses a list of the partial descents (amshavatarana) of gods, demi-gods and anti-gods that is an important part of the framework of the epic, which is to relieve the earth of its burden of demonic rulers. Surya&’s two wives, their progeny and how Surya was partly shorn of his blaze are missing. Though the names of Yayati&’s disinherited sons are given, what happened to their lineages is missing. However,  bhaktas will readily find here the 1008 names of Shiva and Vishnu conveniently grouped at one place.

The introduction to the Ramayana Companion is satisfyingly long, providing features of the three cities that are in conflict — Ayodhya, Kishkindha and Lanka, along with the living patterns, culture, and an overview of the characters and the pantheon. Unlike the other volume, this draws not upon the Baroda critical edition, but only on the vulgate, i.e. the Gita Press and the Calcutta edition of 1907. Besides the sectional headings of the preceding book, added here are creatures, heavenly bodies, flora-fauna, gems, musical instruments, food and drink, transport, units of measures and weights. These additional sections indicate that the society of the Ramayana is more developed than that of the ostensibly later  Mahabharata which is quite Hobbesian in being nasty and brutish. Interestingly enough, there is no paean listing multiple names of any deity in Valmiki&’s composition, which does suggest an earlier culture. The geographical section omits the name of Shravasti, the capital of Northern Kosala ruled by Lava. The unfortunate omission of an index in the Mahabharata volume has been remedied here so that one can easily locate the relevant entry.

No praise is adequate for the extraordinary work Smt. Dasgupta has done. Hers is a signal contribution to Indological studies. The publisher, too, richly deserves accolades from all readers.

The reviewer, former Addl. Chief Secretary, West Bengal, studies myths