Maha-bharata - The Epic of Ancient India Condensed into English Verse
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Far along the shore and sandbank of the sacred sealike stream Maid and matron laved their bodies 'neath the morning's holy beam,

And ablutions done, the Kurus slow and sad and cheerless part, Wend their way to far Hastina with a void and vacant heart.



(Sacrifice of the Horse)

The real Epic ends with the war and the funerals of the deceased warriors. Much of what follows in the original Sanscrit poem is either episodical or comparatively recent interpolation. The great and venerable warrior Bhishma, still lying on his death bed, discourses for the instruction of the newly crowned Yudhishthir on various subjects like the Duties of Kings, the Duties of the Four Castes, and the Four Stages of Life. He repeats the discourses of other saints, of Bhrigu and Bharadwaja, of Manu and Brihaspati, of Vyasa and Suka, of Yajnavalkya and Janaka, of Narada and Narayana. He explains Sankhya philosophy and Yoga philosophy, and lays down the laws of Marriage, the laws of Succession, the rules of Gifts, and the rules of Funeral Rites. He preaches the cult of Krishna, and narrates endless legends, tales, traditions, and myths about sages and saints, gods and mortal kings. All this is told in two Books containing about twenty-two thousand couplets, and forming nearly one-fourth of the entire Sanscrit Epic!

The reason of adding all this episodical and comparatively recent matter to the ancient Epic is not far to seek. The Epic became more popular with the nation at large than dry codes of law and philosophy, and generations of Brahmanical writers laboured therefore to insert in the Epic itself their rules of caste and moral conduct, their laws and philosophy. There is no more venerable character in the Epic than Bhishma, and these rules and laws have therefore been supposed to come from his lips on the solemn occasion of his death. As a storehouse of Hindu laws and traditions and moral rules these episodes are invaluable; but they form no part of the real Epic, they are not a portion of the leading story of the Epic, and we pass them by.

Bhishma dies and is cremated; but the endless exposition of laws, legends, and moral rules is not yet over. Krishna himself takes up the task in a new Book, and, as he has done once before in the Bhagavat-gita, he now once more explains to Arjun in the Anu-gita the great truths about Soul and Emancipation, Creation and the Wheel of Life, True Knowledge and Rites and Penance. The adventures of the sage Utanka, whom Krishna meets, then take up a good many pages. All this forms no part of the real Epic, and we pass it by.

Yudhishthir has in the meantime been crowned king of the Kurus at Hastinapura, and a posthumous child of Abhimanyu is named Parikshit, and is destined to succeed to the throne of the Kurus. But Yudhishthir's mind is still troubled with the thoughts of the carnage of the war, of which he considers himself guilty, and the great saint Vyasa advises the performance of the aswa-medha, or the Sacrifice of the Horse, for the expiation of the sin.

The Sacrifice of the Horse was an ancient Hindu custom practised by kings exercising suzerain powers over surrounding kings. A horse was let free, and was allowed to wander from place to place, accompanied by the king's guard. If any neighbouring king ventured to detain the animal, it was a signal for war. If no king ventured to restrain the wanderer, it was considered a tacit mark of submission to the owner of the animal. And when the horse returned from its peregrinations, it was sacrificed with great pomp and splendour at a feast to which all neighbouring kings were invited.

Yudhishthir allowed the sacrificial horse to wander at will, and Arjun accompanied it. Wherever the horse was stopped, Arjun fought and conquered, and thus proclaimed the supremacy of Yudhishthir over all neighbouring potentates. After various wars and adventures in various regions, Arjun at last returned victorious with the steed to Hastinapura, and the sacrifice commenced. The description of the sacrifice is somewhat artificial, and concerns itself with rites and ceremonious details and gifts to Brahmans, and altogether bears unmistakable evidence of the interpolating hand of later priestly writers. Nevertheless we cannot exclude from this translation of the leading incidents of the Epic the last great and crowning act of Yudhishthir, now anointed monarch of Kuru land.

The portion translated in this Book forms Sections lxxxv. And parts of Sections lxxxviii. and lxxxix. of Book xiv. of the original text.


The Gathering

Victor of a hundred battles, Arjun bent his homeward way, Following still the sacred charger free to wander as it may,

Strolling minstrels to Yudhishthir spake of the returning steed, Spake of Arjun wending homeward with the victor's crown of meed,

And they sang of Arjun's triumph's in Gandhara's distant vale, On the banks of Brahmaputra and in Sindhu's rocky dale.

Twelfth day came of magha's bright moon, and auspicious was the star, Nigher came the victor Arjun from his conquests near and far,

Good Yudhishthir called his brothers, faithful twins and Bhima true, Spake to them in gentle accents, and his words were grave and few:

"Bhima! Now returneth Arjun with the steed from many a fray, So they tell me, noble brother, who have met him on the way,

And the time of aswa-medha day by day is drawing nigh, Magha's full moon is approaching, and the winter passeth by,

Let the Brahmans versed in Vedas choose the sacrificial site, For the feast of many nations and performance of the rite."

Bhima heard of Arjun's coming,—hero with the curly hair,— And to do Yudhishthir's mandate did with gladsome heart repair,

Brahmans versed in sacrifices, cunning architects of fame, Builders of each various altar with the son of Pritha came,

And upon a level greensward measured forth the sacred site, Laid it out with halls and pathways for the sacrificial rite.

Mansions graced with gem and jewel round the bright arena shone, Palaces of golden lustre glinted in the morning sun,

Gilt and blazoned with devices lofty columns stood around, Graceful arches gold-surmounted spanned the consecrated ground,

Gay pavilions rose in beauty round the sacrificial site, For the queens of crowned monarchs wending to the holy rite,

Humbler dwellings rose for Brahmans, priests of learning and of fame, Come to view Yudhishthir's yajna and to bless Yudhishthir's name.

Messengers with kindly greetings went to monarchs far-renowned, Asked them to Hastina's city, to the consecrated ground,

And to please the great Yudhishthir came each king and chieftain bold, With their slaves and dark-eye damsels, arms and horses, gems and gold,

Came and found a royal welcome in pavilions rich and high, And the sealike voice of nations smote the echoing vault of sky!

With his greetings doth Yudhishthir, for each chief and king of men, Cooling drinks and sumptuous viands, beds of regal pride ordain,

Stables filled with corn and barley and with milk and luscious cane Greet the monarchs' warlike tuskers and the steeds with flowing mane.

Munis from their hermitages to the sacred yajna came, Rishis from the grove and forest uttering BRAHMA'S holy name,

Famed Acharyas versed in Vedas to the city held their way, Brahmacharins with grass-girdle, chanting rik or saman lay,

Welcomed Kuru's pious monarch, saint and sage and man of grace, And with gentle condescension showed each priest his fitting place.

Skilled mechanics, cunning artists, raised the structures for the rite, And with every needful object graced the sacrificial site,

Every duty thus completed, joyful Yudhishthir's mind, And he blessed his faithful brothers with an elder's blessings kind.


The Feasting

Men in nations are assembled, hymns are sung by saint and sage, And in learned disputations keen disputants oft engage,

And the concourse of the monarchs view the splendour of the rite, Like the glorious sky of INDRA is the sacrificial site!

Bright festoons and flaming streamers o'er the golden arches hung, Groups of men and gay-dressed women form a bright and joyous throng,

Jars of cool and sparkling waters, vessels rich with gold inlaid, Costly cups and golden vases Kuru's wealth and pride displayed!

Sacrificial stakes of timber with their golden fastenings graced, Consecrated by the mantra are in sumptuous order placed,

Countless creatures of the wide earth, fishes from the lake and flood, Buffaloes and bulls from pasture, beasts of prey from jungle wood,

Birds and every egg-born creature, insects that from moisture spring, Denizens of cave and mountain for the sacrifice they bring!

Noble chiefs and mighty monarchs gaze in wonder on the site, Filled with every living object, corn and cattle for the rite,

Curd and cake and sweet confection are for feasting Brahmans spread, And a hundred thousand people are with sumptuous viands fed!

With the accents of the rain-cloud drum and trumpet raise their voice, Speak Yudhishthir's noble bounty, bid the sons of men rejoice,

Day by day the holy yajna grows in splendour and in joy, Rice in hillocks feeds all comers, maid and matron, man and boy,

Lakes of curd and lakes of butter speak Yudhishthir's bounteous feast, Nations of the Jambu-dwipa share it, greatest and the least!

For a hundred diverse races from a hundred regions came, Ate of good Yudhishthir's bounty, blessed the good Yudhishthir's name,

And a thousand proud attendants, gay with earrings, garland-graced, Carried food unto the feeders and the sweet confections placed,

Viands fit for crowned monarchs were unto the Brahmans given, Drinks of rich and cooling fragrance like the nectar-drink of heaven!


Sacrifice of Animals

Victor of a hundred battles, Arjun came with conquering steed, Vyasa, herald of the Vedas, bade the holy rite proceed:

"For the day is come, Yudhishthir, let the sacrifice be done, Let the priests repeat the mantra golden as the morning sun!

Threefold bounteous be thy presents, and a threefold merit gain, For thy wealth of gold is ample, freely thy dakshina rain!

May the threefold rich performance purify the darkening stain, Blood of warriors and of kinsmen slaughtered on the gory plain!

May the yajna's pure ablution wash thee of the cruel sin, And the meed of sacrificers may the good Yudhishthir win!"

Vyasa spake; and good Yudhishthir took the diksha of the rite, And commenced the aswa-medha gladdening every living wight,

Round the altar's holy lustre moved the priests with sacred awe, Swerved not from the rule of duty, failed not in the sacred law.

Done the rite of pure pravargya with the pious hymn and lay, To the task of abhishava priests and Brahmans led the way,

And the holy Soma-drinkers pressed the sacred Soma plant, And performed the pure savana with the solemn saman chant.

Bounty waits on squalid hunger, gifts dispel the timid fear, Gold revives the poor and lowly, mercy wipes the mourner's tear,

Tender care relieves the stricken by the gracious king's command, Charity with loving sweetness spreads her smile o'er all the land!

Day by day the aswa-medha doth with sacred rites proceed, Day by day on royal bounty poor and grateful myriads feed,

And adept in six Vedangas, strict in vow and rich in lore, Sage preceptors, holy teachers, grew in virtue ever more!

Six good stakes of vilwa timber, six of hard khadira wood, Six of seasoned sarvavarnin, on the place of yajna stood,

Two were made of devadaru, pine that on Himalay grows, One was made of wood of slesha which the sacrificer knows,

Other stakes of golden lustre quaint with curious carving done, Draped in silk and gold-brocaded like the ursa major shone!

And the consecrated altar built and raised of bricks of gold, Shone in splendour like the altar Daksha built in days of old,

Eighteen cubits square the structure, four deep layers of brick in height, With a spacious winged triangle like an eagle in its flight!

Beasts whose flesh is pure and wholesome, dwellers of the lake or sky, Priests assigned each varied offering to each heavenly power on high,

Bulls of various breed and colour, steeds of mettle true and tried, Other creatures, full three hundred, to the many stakes were tied.

Deva-rishis viewed the feasting, sweet gandharvas woke the song, Apsaras like gleams of sunlight on the greensward tripped along,

Kinnaras and kim-purushas mingled in the holy rite, Siddhas of austerest penance stood around the sacred site!

Vyasa's great and gifted pupils, who the Vedas have compiled, Gazed upon the aswa-medha, on the wondrous yajna smiled!

From the bright ethereal mansions heavenly rishi Narad came, Chetra-sena woke the music, singer of celestial fame,

Cheered by more than mortal music Brahmans to their task incline, And Yudhishthir's fame and virtue with a brighter lustre shine!


Sacrifice of the Horse

Birds and beasts thus immolated, dressed and cooked, provide the food, Then before the sacred charger priests in rank and order stood,

And by rules of Veda guided slew the horse of noble breed, Placed Draupadi, Queen of yajna, by the slain and lifeless steed,

Hymns and gifts and pure devotion sanctified the noble Queen, Woman's worth and stainless virtue, woman's pride and wisdom keen!

Priests with holy contemplation cooked the horse with pious rite, And the steam of welcome fragrance sanctified the sacred site,

Good Yudhishthir and his brothers, by the rules by rishis spoke, Piously inhaled the fragrance and the sin-destroying smoke,

Severed limbs and sacred fragments of the courser duly dressed, Priests upon the blazing altar as a pious offering placed,

And the ancient bard of Vedas, Vyasa raised his voice in song, Blessed Yudhishthir, Kuru's monarch, and the many-nationed throng!



Unto Brahmans gave Yudhishthir countless nishkas of bright gold, Unto sage and saintly Vyasa all his realm and wealth untold,

But the bard and ancient rishi who the holy Vedas spake, Rendered back the monarch's present, earthly gift he might not take!

"Thine is Kuru's ancient empire, rule the nations of the earth, Gods have destined thee as monarch from the moment of thy birth,

Gold and wealth and rich dakshina let the priests and Brahmans hoard, Be it thine to rule thy subjects as their father and their lord!"

Krishna too in gentle accents to the doubting monarch said: "Vyasa speaketh word of wisdom and his mandate be obeyed!"

From the rishi good Yudhishthir then received the Kuru-land, With a threefold gift of riches gladdened all the priestly band,

Pious priests and grateful nations to their distant regions went, And his share of presents Vyasa to the ancient Pritha sent.

Fame and virtue Kuru's monarch by the aswa-medha wins, And the rite of pure ablution cleanses all Yudhishthir's sins,

And he stands amid his brothers, brightly beaming, pure and high, Even as INDRA stands encircled by the dwellers of the sky,

And the concourse of the monarchs grace Yudhishthir's regal might, As the radiant stars and planets grace the stillness of the night!

Gems and jewels in his bounty, gold and garments rich and rare, Gave Yudhishthir to each monarch, slaves and damsels passing fair,

Loving gifts to dear relations gave the king of righteous fame, And the grateful parting monarchs blessed Yudhishthir's hallowed name!

Last of all with many tear-drops Krishna mounts his lofty car, Faithful still in joy or sorrow, faithful still in peace or war,

Arjun's comrade, Bhima's helper, good Yudhishthir's friend of yore, Krishna leaves Hastina's mansions for the sea-girt Dwarka's shore!


The real Epic ends with the war and with the funerals of the deceased warriors, as we have stated before, and Yudhishthir's Horse-Sacrifice is rather a crowning ornament than a part of the solid edifice. What follows the sacrifice is in no sense a part of the real Epic; it consists merely of concluding personal narratives of the heroes who have figured in the poem.

Dhrita-rashtra retires into a forest with his queen Gandhari, and Pritha, the mother of the Pandav brothers, accompanies them. In the solitude of the forest the old Dhrita-rashtra sees as in a vision the spirits of all the slain warriors, his sons and grandsons and kinsmen, clad and armed as they were in battle. The spirits disappear in the morning at the bidding of Vyasa, who had called them up. At last Dhrita-rashtra and Gandhari and Pritha are burnt to death in a forest conflagration, death by fire being considered holy.

Krishna at Dwarka meets with strange and tragic adventures. The Vrishnis and the Andhakas become irreligious and addicted to drinking, and fall a prey to internal dissensions. Valadeva and Krishna die shortly after, and the city of the Yadavas is swallowed up by the ocean.

Then follow the two concluding Books of the Epic, the Great Journey and the Ascent to Heaven, so beautifully rendered into English by Sir Edwin Arnold. On hearing of the death of their friend Krishna, the Pandav brothers place Prakshit, the grandson of Arjun, on the throne, and retire to the Himalayas. Draupadi drops down dead on the way, then Sahadeva, then Nakula, then Arjun, and then Bhima. Yudhishthir alone proceeds to heaven in person in a celestial car.

There Yudhishthir undergoes some trial, bathes in the celestial Ganges, and rises with a celestial body. He then meets Krishna, now in his heavenly form, blazing in splendour and glory. He meets his brothers whom he had lost on earth, but who are now Immortals in the sky, clad in heavenly forms. INDRA himself appears before Yudhishthir, and introduces him to others who were dear to him on earth, and are dear to him in heaven. Thus speaks INDRA to Yudhishthir:

"This is She, the fair Immortal! Her no human mother bore, Sprung from altar as Draupadi human shape for thee she wore,

By the Wielder of the trident she was waked to form and life, Born in royal Drupad's mansion, righteous man, to be thy wife,

These are bright aerial beings, went for thee to lower earth, Borne by Drupad's stainless daughter as thy children took their birth!

This is monarch Dhrita-rashtra who doth o'er gandharvas reign, This is brave immortal Karna, erst on earth by Arjun slain,

Like the fire in ruddy splendour, for the Sun inspired his birth, As the son of Chariot-driver he was known upon the earth!

'Midst the Sadhyas and the Maruts, 'midst immortals pure and bright, Seek thy friends the faithful Vrishnis matchless in their warlike might.

Seek and find the brave Satyaki who upheld thy cause so well, Seek the Bhojas and Andhakas who in Kuru-kshetra fell!

This is gallant Abhimanyu whom the fair Subhadra bore, Still unconquered in the battle, slain by fraud in yonder shore,

Abhimanyu, son of Arjun, wielding Arjun's peerless might, With the Lord of Night he ranges, beauteous as the Lord of Night!

This, Yudhishthir, is thy father! by thy mother joined in heaven, Oft he comes into my mansions in his flowery chariot driven,

This is Bhishma, stainless warrior, by the Vasus is his place, By the god of heavenly wisdom teacher Drona sits in grace!

These and other mighty warriors, in the earthly battle slain, By their valour and their virtue walk the bright ethereal plain!

They have cast their mortal bodies, crossed the radiant gate of heaven, For to win celestial mansions unto mortals it is given!

Let them strive by kindly action, gentle speech, endurance long, Brighter life and holier future into sons of men belong!"


Ancient India, like ancient Greece, boasts of two great Epics. One of them, the Maha-bharata, relates to a great war in which all the warlike races of Northern India took a share, and may therefore be compared to the Iliad. The other, the Ramayana, relates mainly to the adventures of its hero, banished from his country and wandering for long years in the wildernesses of Southern India, and may therefore be compared to the Odyssey. It is the first of these two Epics, the Iliad of Ancient India, which is the subject of tile foregoing pages.

The great war which is the subject of this Epic is believed to have been fought in the thirteenth or fourteenth century before Christ. For generations and centuries after the war its main incidents must have been sung by bards and minstrels in the courts of Northern India. The war thus became the centre of a cycle of legends, songs, and poems in ancient India, even as Charlemagne and Arthur became the centres of legends in mediaeval Europe. And then, probably under the direction of some enlightened king, the vast mass of legends and poetry, accumulated during centuries, was cast in a narrative form and formed the Epic of the Great Bharata nation, and therefore called the Maha-bharata. The real facts of the war had been obliterated by age, legendary heroes had become the principal actors, and, as is invariably the case in India, the thread of a high moral purpose, of the triumph of virtue and the subjugation of vice, was woven into the fabric of the great Epic.

We should have been thankful if this Epic, as it was thus originally put together some centuries before the Christian era, had been preserved to us. But this was not to be. The Epic became so popular that it went on growing with the growth of centuries. Every generation of poets had something to add; every distant nation in Northern India was anxious to interpolate some account of its deeds in the old record of the international war; every preacher of a new creed desired to have in the old Epic some sanction for the new truths he inculcated. Passages from legal and moral codes were incorporated in the work which appealed to the nation much more effectively than dry codes; and rules about the different castes and about the different stages of the human life were included for the same purpose. All the floating mass of tales, traditions, legends, and myths, for which ancient India was famous, found a shelter under the expanding wings of this wonderful Epic; and as Krishna-worship became the prevailing religion of India after the decay of Buddhism, the old Epic caught the complexion of the times, and Krishna-cult is its dominating religious idea in its present shape. It is thus that the work went on growing for a thousand years after it was first compiled and put together in the form of an Epic; until the crystal rill of the Epic itself was all but lost in an unending morass of religious and didactic episodes, legends, tales, and traditions.

When the mischief had been done, and the Epic had nearly assumed its present proportions, a few centuries after Christ according to the late Dr. Buehler, an attempt was made to prevent the further expansion of the work. The contents of the Epic were described in some prefatory verses, and the number of couplets in each Book was stated. The total number of couplets, according to this metrical preface, is about eighty-five thousand. But the limit so fixed has been exceeded in still later centuries; further additions and interpolations have been made; and the Epic as printed and published in Calcutta in this century contains over ninety thousand couplets, excluding the Supplement about the Race of Hari.

The modern reader will now understand the reason why this great Epic—the greatest work of imagination that Asia has produced—has never yet been put before the European reader in a readable form. A poem of ninety thousand couplets, about seven times the size of the Iliad and the Odyssey put together, is more than what the average reader can stand; and the heterogeneous nature of its contents does not add to the interest of the work. If the religious works of Hooker and Jeremy Taylor, the philosophy of Hobbes and Locke, the commentaries of Blackstone and the ballads of Percy, together with the tractarian writings of Newman, Keble, and Pusey, were all thrown into blank verse and incorporated with the Paradise Lost, the reader would scarcely be much to blame if he failed to appreciate that delectable compound. A complete translation of the Maha-bharata therefore into English verse is neither possible nor desirable, but portions of it have now and then been placed before English readers by distinguished writers. Dean Milman's graceful rendering of the story of Nala and Damayanti is still read and appreciated by a select circle of readers; and Sir Edwin Arnold's beautiful translation of the concluding books of the Epic is familiar to a larger circle of Englishmen. A complete translation of the Epic into English prose has also been published in India, and is useful to Sanscrit scholars for the purpose of reference.

But although the old Epic had thus been spoilt by unlimited expansion, yet nevertheless the leading incidents and characters of the real Epic are still discernible, uninjured by the mass of foreign substance in which they are embedded—even like those immortal marble figures which have been recovered from the ruins of an ancient world, and now beautify the museums of modern Europe. For years past I have thought that it was perhaps not impossible to exhume this buried Epic from the superincumbent mass of episodical matter, and to restore it to the modern world. For years past I have felt a longing to undertake this work, but the task was by no means an easy one. Leaving out all episodical matter, the leading narrative of the Epic forms about one-fourth of the work; and a complete translation even of this leading story would be unreadable, both from its length and its prolixness. On the other hand, to condense the story into shorter limits would be, not to make a translation, but virtually to write a new poem; and that was not what I desired to undertake, nor what I was competent to perform.

There seemed to me only one way out of this difficulty. The main incidents of the Epic are narrated in the original work in passages which are neither diffuse nor unduly prolix, and which are interspersed in the leading narrative of the Epic, at that narrative itself is interspersed in the midst of more lengthy episodes. The more carefully I examined the arrangement, the more clearly it appeared to me that these main incidents of the Epic would bear a full and unabridged translation into English verse; and that these translations, linked together by short connecting notes, would virtually present the entire story of the Epic to the modern reader in a form and within limits which might be acceptable. It would be, no doubt, a condensed version of the original Epic, but the condensation would be effected, not by the translator telling a short story in his own language, but by linking together those passages of the original which describe the main and striking incidents, and thus telling the main story as told in the original work. The advantage of this arrangement is that, in the passages presented to the reader, it is the poet who speaks to him, not the translator. Though vast portions of the original are skipped over, those which are presented are the portions which narrate the main incidents of the Epic, and they describe those incidents as told by the poet himself.

This is the plan I have generally adopted in the present work. Except in the three books which describe the actual war (Books viii., ix., and x.), the other nine books of this translation are complete translations of selected passages of the original work. I have not attempted to condense these passages nor to expand them; I have endeavoured to put them before the English reader as they have been told by the poet in Sanscrit. Occasionally, but rarely, a few redundant couplets have been left out, or a long list of proper names or obscure allusions has been shortened; and in one place only, at the beginning of the Fifth Book, I have added twelve couplets of my own to explain the circumstances under which the story of Savitri is told. Generally, therefore, the translation may be accepted as an unabridged, though necessarily a free translation of the passages describing the main incidents of the Epic.

From this method I have been compelled to depart, much against my wish, in the three books describing the actual war. No translation of an Epic relating to a great war can be acceptable which does not narrate the main events of the war. The war of the Maha-bharata was a series of eighteen battles, fought on eighteen consecutive days, and I felt it necessary to present the reader with an account of each day's work. In order to do so, I have been compelled to condense, and not merely to translate selected passages. For the transactions of the war, unlike the other incidents of the Epic, have been narrated in the original with almost inconceivable prolixity and endless repetition; and the process of condensation in these three books has therefore been severe and thorough. But, nevertheless, even in these books I have endeavoured to preserve the character and the spirit of the original. Not only are the incidents narrated in the same order as in the original, but they are told in the style of the poet as far as possible. Even the similes and metaphors and figures of speech are all or mostly adopted from the original; the translator has not ventured either to adopt his own distinct style of narration, or to improve on the style of the original with his own decorations.

Such is the scheme I have adopted in presenting an Epic of ninety thousand Sanscrit couplets in about two thousand English couplets.

The excellent and deservedly popular prose translation of the Odyssey of Homer by Messrs. Butcher and Lang often led me to think that perhaps a prose translation of these selected passages from the Maha-bharata might be more acceptable to the modern reader. But a more serious consideration of the question dispelled that idea. Homer has an interest for the European reader which the Maha-bharata cannot lay claim to; as the father of European poetry he has a claim on the veneration of modern Europe which an Indian poet can never pretend to. To thousands of European readers Homer is familiar in the original, to hundreds of thousands he is known in various translations in various modern languages. What Homer actually wrote, a numerous class of students in Europe wish to know; and a literal prose translation therefore is welcome, after the great Epic has been so often translated in verse. The case is very different with the Maha-bharata, practically unknown to European readers. And the translators of Homer themselves gracefully acknowledge, "We have tried to transfer, not all the truth about the poem, but the historical truth into English. In this process Homer must lose at least half his charm, his bright and equable speed, the musical current of that narrative, which, like the river of Egypt, flows from an undiscoverable source, and mirrors the temples and the palaces of unforgotten gods and kings. Without the music of verse, only a half truth about Homer can be told."

Another earnest worker of the present day, who is endeavouring to interpret to modern Englishmen the thoughts and sentiments and poetry of their Anglo-Saxon ancestors, has emphatically declared that "of all possible translations of poetry, a merely prose translation is the most inaccurate." "Prose," says Mr. Stopford Brooke, further on, "no more represents poetry than architecture does music. Translations of poetry are never much good, but at least they should always endeavour to have the musical movement of poetry, and to obey the laws of the verse they translate."

This appears to me to be a very sound maxim. And one of my greatest difficulties in the task I have undertaken has been to try and preserve something of the "musical movement" of the sonorous Sanscrit poetry in the English translation. Much of tile Sanscrit Epic is written in the well-known Sloka metre of sixteen syllables in each line, and I endeavoured to choose some English metre which is familiar to the English ear, and which would reproduce to some extent the rhythm, the majesty, and the long and measured sweep of the Sanscrit verse. It was necessary to adopt such a metre in order to transfer something of the truth about the Maha-bharata into English, for without such reproduction or imitation of the musical movement of the original very much less than a half truth is told. My kind friend Mr. Edmund Russell, impelled by that enthusiasm for Indian poetry and Indian art which is a part of him, rendered me valuable help and assistance in this matter, and I gratefully acknowledge, the benefit I have derived from his advice and suggestions. After considerable trouble and anxiety, and after rendering several books in different English metres, I felt convinced that the one finally adopted was a nearer approach to the Sanscrit Sloka than any other familiar English metre known to me.

I have recited a verse in this English metre and a Sloka in presence of listeners who have a better ear for music than myself, and they have marked the close resemblance. I quote a few lines from the Sanscrit showing varieties of the Sloka metre, and comparing them with the scheme of the English metre selected.

Esha Kuntishutah sriman esha madhyama Pandavah Esha putro Mahendrasya Kurunam esha rakshita

—Maha-bharata, i. 5357.

Yet I doubt not through the ages one increasing purpose runs And the thoughts of men are widened with the process of the suns

—Locksley Hall.

Malancha samupadaya kanchanim samalamkritam Avatirna tato rangam Draupadi Bharatarshabha

—Maha-bharata, i. 6974.

Visions of the days departed shadowy phantoms filled my brain; Those who live in history only seemed to walk the earth again

—Belfry of Bruges.

Asuryam iva suryena nirvatam iva vayuna Bhasitam hladitanchaiva Krishnenedam sado hi nah

—Maha-bharata, ii. 1334.

Quaint old town of toil and traffic quaint old town of art and song, Memories haunt thy pointed gables, like the rooks that round thee throng.


Ha Pando ha maharaja kvasi kim samupekshase Putran vivasyatah sadhun aribhir dyutanirjitan

—Maha-bharata, ii. 2610.

In her ear he whispers gaily, If my heart by signs can tell, Maiden I have watched thee daily, And I think thou lov'st me well

—Lord of Burleigh.

It would be too much to assume that even with the help of this similarity in metres, I have been able to transfer into my English that sweep and majesty of verse which is the charm of Sanscrit, and which often sustains and elevates the simplest narration and the plainest ideas. Without the support of those sustaining wings, my poor narration must often plod through the dust; and I can only ask for the indulgence of the reader, which every translator of poetry from a foreign language can with reason ask, if the story as told in the translation is sometimes but a plain, simple, and homely narrative. For any artistic decoration I have neither the inclination nor the necessary qualification. The crisp and ornate style, the quaint expression, the chiselled word, the new-coined phrase, in which modern English poetry is rich, would scarcely suit the translation of an old Epic whose predominating characteristic is its simple and easy flow of narrative. Indeed, the Maha-bharata would lose that unadorned simplicity which is its first and foremost feature if the translator ventured to decorate it with the art of the modern day, even if he had been qualified to do so.

For if there is one characteristic feature which distinguishes the Maha-bharata (as well as the other Indian Epic, the Ramayana) from all later Sanscrit literature, it is the grand simplicity of its narrative, which contrasts with the artificial graces of later Sanscrit poetry. The poetry of Kalidasa, for instance, is ornate and beautiful, and almost scintillates with similes in every verse; the poetry of the Maha-bharara is plain and unpolished, and scarcely stoops to a simile or a figure of speech unless the simile comes naturally to the poet. The great deeds of godlike kings sometimes suggest to the poet the mighty deeds of gods; the rushing of warriors suggests the rushing of angry elephants in the echoing jungle; the flight of whistling arrows suggests the flight of sea-birds; the sound and movement of surging crowds suggest the heaving of billows; the erect attitude of a warrior suggests a tall cliff; the beauty of a maiden suggests the soft beauty of the blue lotus. When such comparisons come naturally to the poet, he accepts them and notes them down, but he never seems to go in quest of them, he is never anxious to beautify and decorate. He seems to trust entirely to his grand narrative, to his heroic characters, to his stirring incidents, to hold millions of listeners in perpetual thrall. The majestic and sonorous Sanscrit metre is at his command, and even this he uses, carelessly, and with frequent slips, known as arsha to later grammarians. The poet certainly seeks for no art to decorate his tale, he trusts to the lofty chronicle of bygone heroes to enchain the listening mankind.

And what heroes! In the delineation of character the Maha-bharata is far above anything which we find in later Sanscrit poetry. Indeed, with much that is fresh and sweet and lovely in later Sanscrit poetry, there is little or no portraiture of character. All heroes are cast much in the same heroic mould; all love-sick heroines suffer in silence and burn with fever, all fools are shrewd and impudent by turns, all knaves are heartless and cruel and suffer in the end. There is not much to distinguish between one warrior and another, between one tender woman and her sister. In the Maha-bharata we find just the reverse; each hero has a distinct individuality, a character of his own, clearly discernible from that of other heroes. No work of the imagination that could be named, always excepting the Iliad, is so rich and so true as the Maha-bharata in the portraiture of the human character,—not in torment and suffering as in Dante, not under overwhelming passions as in Shakespeare,—but human character in its calm dignity of strength and repose, like those immortal figures in marble which the ancients turned out, and which modern sculptors have vainly sought to reproduce. The old Kuru monarch Dhrita-rashtra, sightless and feeble, but majestic in his ancient grandeur; the noble grandsire Bhishma, "death's subduer" and unconquerable in war; the doughty Drona, venerable priest and vengeful warrior; and the proud and peerless archer Karna—have each a distinct character of his own which can not be mistaken for a moment. The good and royal Yudhishthir, (I omit the final a in some long names which occur frequently), the "tiger-waisted" Bhima, and the "helmet-wearing" Arjun are the Agamemnon, the Ajax, and the Achilles of the Indian Epic. The proud and unyielding Duryodhan, and the fierce and fiery Duhsasan stand out foremost among the wrathful sons of the feeble old Kuru monarch. And Krishna possesses a character higher than that of Ulysses; unmatched in human wisdom, ever striving for righteousness and peace, he is thorough and unrelenting in war when war has begun. And the women of the Indian Epic possess characters as marked as those of the men. The stately and majestic queen Gandhari, the loving and doting mother Pritha, the proud and scornful Draupadi nursing her wrath till her wrongs are fearfully revenged, and the bright and brilliant and sunny Subhadra,—these are distinct images pencilled by the hand of a true master in the realm of creative imagination.

And if the characters of the Maha-bharata impress themselves on the reader, the incidents of the Epic are no less striking. Every scene on the shifting stage is a perfect and impressive picture. The tournament of the princes in which Arjun and Karna—the Achilles and Hector of the Indian Epic—first met and each marked the other for his foe; the gorgeous bridal of Draupadi; the equally gorgeous coronation of Yudhishthir and the death of the proud and boisterous Sisupala; the fatal game of dice and the scornful wrath of Draupadi against her insulters; the calm beauty of the forest life of the Pandavs; the cattle-lifting in Matsyaland in which the gallant Arjun threw off his disguise and stood forth as warrior and conqueror; and the Homeric speeches of the warriors in the council of war on the eve of the great contest,—each scene of this venerable old Epic impresses itself on the mind of the hushed and astonished reader. Then follows the war of eighteen days. The first few days are more or less uneventful, and have been condensed in this translation often into a few couplets; but the interest of the reader increases as he approaches the final battle and fall of the grand old fighter Bhishma. Then follows the stirring story of the death of Arjun's gallant boy, and Arjun's fierce revenge, and the death of the priest and warrior, doughty Drona. Last comes the crowning event of the Epic, the final contest between Arjun and Karna, the heroes of the Epic, and the war ends in a midnight slaughter and the death of Duryodhan. The rest of the story is told in this translation in two books describing the funerals of the deceased warriors, and Yudhishthir's horse-sacrifice.

"The poems of Homer," says Mr. Gladstone, "differ from all other known poetry in this, that they constitute in themselves an encyclopaedia of life and knowledge; at a time when knowledge, indeed, such as lies beyond the bounds of actual experience, was extremely limited, and when life was singularly fresh, vivid, and expansive." This remark applies with even greater force to the Maha-bharata; it is an encyclopaedia of the life and knowledge of Ancient India. And it discloses to us an ancient and forgotten world, a proud and noble civilisation which has passed away. Northern India was then parcelled among warlike races living side by side under their warlike kings, speaking the same language, performing the same religious rites and ceremonies, rejoicing in a common literature, rivalling each other in their schools of philosophy and learning as in the arts of peace and civilisation, and forming a confederation of Hindu nations unknown to and unknowing the outside world. What this confederation of nations has done for the cause of human knowledge and human civilisation is a matter of history. Their inquiries into the hidden truths of religion, embalmed in the ancient Upanishads, have never been excelled within the last three thousand years. Their inquiries into philosophy, preserved in the Sankhya and the Vedanta systems, were the first systems of true philosophy which the world produced. And their great works of imagination, the Maha-bharata and the Ramayana, will be placed without hesitation by the side of Homer by critics who survey the world's literatures from a lofty standpoint, and judge impartially of the wares turned out by the hand of man in all parts of the globe. It is scarcely necessary to add that the discoveries of the ancient Hindus in science, and specially in mathematics, are the heritage of the modern world; and that the lofty religion of Buddha, proclaimed in India five centuries before Christ, is now the religion of a third of the human race. For the rest, the people of modern India know how to appreciate their ancient heritage. It is not an exaggeration to state that the two hundred millions of Hindus of the present day cherish in their hearts the story of their ancient Epics. The Hindu scarcely lives, man or woman, high or low, educated or ignorant, whose earliest recollections do not cling round the story and the characters of the great Epics. The almost illiterate oil-manufacturer or confectioner of Bengal spells out some modern translation of the Maha-bharata to while away his leisure hour. The tall and stalwart peasantry of the North-West know of the five Pandav brothers, and of their friend the righteous Krishna. The people of Bombay and Madras cherish with equal ardour the story of the righteous war. And even the traditions and tales interspersed in the Epic, and which spoil the work as an Epic, have themselves a charm and an attraction; and the morals inculcated in these tales sink into the hearts of a naturally religious people, and form the basis of their moral education. Mothers in India know no better theme for imparting wisdom and instruction to their daughters, and elderly men know no richer storehouse for narrating tales to children, than these stories preserved in the Epics. No work in Europe, not Homer in Greece or Virgil in Italy, not Shakespeare or Milton in English-speaking lands, is the national property of the nations to the same extent as the Epics of India are of the Hindus. No single work except the Bible has such influence in affording moral instruction in Christian lands as the Maha-bharata and the Ramayana in India. They have been the cherished heritage of the Hindus for three thousand years; they are to the present day interwoven with the thoughts and beliefs and moral ideas of a nation numbering two hundred millions.


University College, London, 13th August 1898.


ABHISHAVA, a religious rite. ABBHISHEKA, sacred ablution. ACHARYA, preceptor. AJYA, a form of sacrificial offering. APRAMATTA, without pride or passion. APSARAS, celestial nymphs. ARGHYA, an offering due to an honoured guest. ARYA, noble. ASRAM, hermitage. ASURA, Titans, enemies of gods. ASWAMEDHA, sacrifice of the horse.

BAIDURYA, lapiz-lazuli. BRAHMACHARIN, one who has taken vows and lives an austere life.

CHANDAN, sandalwood, the paste of which is used for fragrance and coolness. CHOWRI or CHAMARI, the Himalayan yak, whose bushy tail is used as a fan.

DAKSHINA, gifts made at sacrifices. DASAPUTRA, son of a slave. DEVA, gods. DEVADARU (lit. heavenly tree), the Indian pine. DEVA-KANYA, celestial maid. DEVA-RISHI, celestial saint. DHARMA-RAJA, monarch by reason of piety and virtue. DIKSHA, initiation into a sacred rite.

GANDHARVA, a class of aerial beings; celestial singers. GANDIVA, Arjun's bow. GHEE or GHRITA, clarified butter. GURU, preceptor.

HOMA, a sacrificial rite or offering. HOWDA, the seat on an elephant.

IDA, a form of sacrificial offering.

KANKA, a bird of prey. KHADIRA, an Indian tree. KIMPURUSHA, a class of imaginary beings. KINNARA, a class of imaginary beings with the face of a horse. KOKIL, an Indian bird answering to the English cuckoo, and prized for its sweet note.

MAGHA, a, winter month. MAHUT or MAHAMATRA, elephant driver MANTRA, hymn or incantation. MLECHCHA, outer barbarian. All who were not Hindus were designated by this name. MUNI, saint, anchorite.

NAGA, dweller of the snake-world; also a tribe in Eastern India. NISHADA, an aboriginal race. NISHKA, gold pieces of specified weight, used as money and also as ornament.

PANKHA (from Sanscrit paksha, wing), a fan. PISHACHA, ghost or goblin. PITRI-MEDHA, sacrifice and offering due to departed ancestors. PRAVARGYA, a religious rite. PURANA, a class of religious works. PURUSHA, the soul.

RAJASUYA, imperial sacrifice. RAKSHA or RAKSHASA, monster or goblin. RIK, hymn recited at sacrifice. RISHI, saint; a holy man retired from the world and devoting himself to pious rites and contemplation.

SAMADHI, austere religious practice. SAMAN, hymn chanted at sacrifice. SAMI, an Indian tree. SANKHA, sounding conch-shell. SARVAVARNIN, an Indian tree. SASTRA, scriptures and religious works. SAVANA, a religious rite. SAVITRI, a hymn; also the goddess of the hymn. SIDDHA, holy celestial beings. SLESHA, an Indian tree. SUPARNA, celestial bird. SWARGA, heaven. SWASTI, a word uttered to dispel evil. SWAYAMVARA, a form of bridal, the bride selecting her husband from among suitors.

TIRTHA, holy rites at the crossing of rivers. TRIRATRA, a three nights' penance and fast.

VEDA, the most ancient and holiest scriptures of the Hindus. VIJAYA, Karna's bow. VINA, the lyre.

YAJNA, sacrifice. YATO DHARMA STATO JAYAH, where there is virtue there is victory. YUGA, the period of the world's existence.

In view of the comprehensive character of the "Temple Classics," it has seemed desirable to include Mr. Dutt's version of India's great Epic—the work of a distinguished soldier and patriot. The importance of the poem is sufficiently explained in Mr. Dutt's Note. The translator's high position in Modern Indian Literature is attested by the following reference in Mr. R. W. Frazer's recent "Literary History of India" (an excellent survey of the whole subject, to which the reader should turn, more especially for its luminous account of the Epics and Dramas of Ancient India):—"A worthy follower of India's first great novelist (Bankim Chandra Chatterji) appeared in Romesh Chandra Dutt, the ablest native member of the Indian Civil Service. His novels have now passed through five of six editions in the Bengali.... His translation of the 'Rig Veda Sanhita' into Bengali appeared in 1887; his valuable 'History of Civilisation of Ancient India,' in English, in three volumes, from 1889, &c. &c.... A whole library of 'Sorrow and Song' was poured forth by this Dutt family of Rambagan." Mr. Dutt is at present resident in London, holding the office of Lecturer in Indian History at University College, and devoting himself to literary and other labours.


Nov. 15th, 1898


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