What do we get if we turn our attention away from the text of the ‘Critical Edition’ of the Mahabharata, and focus it on the recensions which were left out?
Indians like me begin their love affair with the Mahabharata from nanima’s stories. Epic metaphors and references pervade our Weltanschauung and values along with our earliest memories. As A K Ramanujan once famously said, “No Hindu reads the Mahabharata for the first time. When we “grow up” a little, we might read C Rajagopalachari’s abridged (might I add, sanitised) version. Few of us go on to read the unabridged epic in any language, and even fewer in the original Sanskrit.
Those of us who do may notice that the colophon or introduction specifies whether it is the Calcutta edition, the Bombay one or another. Further study brings us to the realisation that each edition has variations — in words, verses, even complete episodes. Important episodes in one edition may not exist in another. In the same episode, verses can be omitted and the verse order can differ, which affects narrative continuity and the literary and philosophical impact of a given passage.
Given the bewildering variety and variation in the different recensions of the Mahabharata, in the late nineteenth century a movement began to create a “critical edition” of the epic. This task was undertaken at the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Pune, in 1917 and was completed nearly 50 years later in 1966. Teams of Indian and Western Indologists, supported by traditionally trained sastris and highly qualified university students, undertook this gargantuan task.
My first thought was — what is a critical edition, and how does it relate to all the manuscripts and recensions it is based on?
V S Sukthankar, who led this project, explained that it is an approximation of the earliest recoverable form of the epic. He was careful not to claim that it was a “discovery” of the original Mahabharata. In Sukthankar’s own words, “What the promoters of this scheme desire to produce and supply is briefly this: a critical edition of the Mahabharata in the preparation of which all important versions of the great epic shall have been taken into consideration, and all important manuscripts collated, estimated and turned to account.”
The general idea is to collect as many manuscript copies from around the country (literally Kashmir to Kanyakumari); to represent as many regions as possible by using Sanskrit manuscripts in different scripts (Malayalam, Grantha, Nevari, Devanagari, Bengali, Sarada, to name a few); and to balance newer, younger well-maintained manuscripts with older ones, which might be partial or even illegible — the latter being considered more valuable. As it turned out, the Malayalam and Sarada manuscripts — so far removed from each other geographically — shared commonalities and gaps, allowing the editors to take informed calls about what the archetype might have been.
The editor and team for each parvan (or chapter) went through and tallied all the manuscripts they collated — stanza by stanza, line by line, word by word. In the final form, verses which occur on the greatest number of manuscripts are deemed to be authentic and included. Some of those included have wavy lines indicating that they are doubtful. Those verses that do not make the cut are put in footnotes at the bottom of the page — and longer passages are put into appendices at the end of the parvan. A typical page from the critical edition looks like this:
Ever since the critical edition (also known as the Poona edition) of the Mahabharata was completed, practically all Western scholarly work has focused on it. The Chicago translation based on the critical edition began in the 1970s with J A B van Buitenen and was continued by his students after his death. It is still incomplete. Indian economist and Sanskritist Bibek Debroy recently completed his English translation, also based on the critical edition. The Clay Sanskrit library deviated from this trend by translating the vulgate (the most commonly accepted version of the epic, and on which the famous seventeenth century commentary (Bhavadipa) of Nilakaṇṭha is based). Gita Press Gorakhpur also uses the vulgate for its Hindi translation.
The question still remains: how does the critical edition stand in relation to the vulgate and other recensions? For instance, two episodes which are considered axiomatic by Indian audiences, are not in the critical edition: the story of Gaṇesa as a scribe and, more famously, the re-robing of Draupadi by Kṛṣṇa through a divine miracle. This means these episodes did not exist in enough of the manuscripts to make the cut.
Does that make them any less “authentic” in the popular mind? What about all the bits that get left out? Are they questionable? Or limited to only some sects and regions? An example is the Adityahṛdayam stotra (which we “know” occurs in the Ramayaṇa). It is not in the critical edition of that epic, having been found only in a few recensions.
James Hegarty, professor of Indian religions at Cardiff University, points out that while the critically reconstituted text (the critical edition) has been applauded by philologists, it has been rubbished by those who have an interest in the anthropology of the Mahabharata tradition. These scholars are equally (if not more) interested in the footnotes and appendices. In that which has been left out.
At a recent session of the SOAS Sanskrit Reading Room, an initiative wherein leading academics from different streams of Sanskrit study in the UK present to an academic audience comprising students, teachers and scholars of various proficiencies, Hegarty drew our attention to the extraordinary variety of these footnotes and appendices — material from every manuscript consulted in the process of constructing the critical edition.
He called them an “embarrassment of riches” and expressed frank surprise that there hadn’t been an efflorescence of publications taking up the “rejected” rich range of literary data. Instances of critical instability, he said, they offer excellent products for study.
“The advantage of translating from the footnotes and appendices is that one has a clear and detailed account of the manuscripts from where these readings came. This allows us to do all sorts of interesting things; we can reconstitute individual manuscripts, groups of manuscripts or translate all the variants — a sort of mega-composite that goes beyond even the vulgate and is the mirror image of the critically edited text, which contains only that which was common to all manuscripts,” said Hegarty.
Considering the Adi Parvan alone, some 235 were consulted, which included 32 manuscripts in the Bengali script, 31 in Grantha, 28 in Teḷugu, 26 in Malayalam, five in Nevari, three in Sarada, one in Maithili and one in Devanagari. Of these 235, some 60 were finally used. In the process of constructing the archetype, it matters not only what is used, but also what is left out.
He demonstrated, for instance, that a reconstituted text including all the footnoted material which had been left out of the critical edition made this section of the Adi Parvan decidedly more Vaiṣṇava in orientation (lines in bold indicate those verses are not in the critical edition):
I will tell in full the great creation of
Sagacious Vyasa, who is known to all. (23)
All honour to him, of limitless might!
By grace will I tell Narayaṇa’s tale. (21*1-2)
No sacred waters nor cloistered grove
Can offer reward as this story can. (21*3-4)
Nothing that is, was or will be equals
Narayaṇa; by these words is wealth achieved! (21*5-6)
Poets told it and, telling it, they will
Tell it again: what was the world over. (24)
Kept by Brahmins; whether epitomized
Or told in full; the three worlds know it. (25)
Adorned with virtue and well chosen words,
Varied in rhythm; it delights the wise. (26)
Quite rightly, he points out that some recensions have far more detail in their narrative, which the reader of the critical edition misses out on. He treated us to a reconstituted passage from the Viraṭa Parvan, including verses from five Malayalam manuscripts used in critical edition, and which contain a large number of readings unique to themselves.
We came to see that the inclusion provided: a) a display of virtuosic myth-knowledge on the theme of powerful beings in disguise and b) a richer description of Yudhiṣṭhira’s disguise as the Brahmin gambling master, Kaṅka. “None of this rich textual ‘life’ is apparent if one translates either just the critically reconstituted text or the vulgate,” said Hegarty.
Hegarty is driven by two deep interests — one in the incredible variety of materials left out of the critical edition, and the second in how to render the Sanskrit into elegant English. He shared two translations of the opening of Milton’s Paradise Lost — one rather tongue in cheek, suggesting how an Indologist might translate — to make his point. I have to say in all honesty I preferred the second, but that says as much about me as it does about the translation. Here are the two translations:
Of Mans First Disobedience, and the FruitOf that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tastBrought Death into the World, and all our woe, With loss of Eden, till one greater Man Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,  Sing Heav'nly Muse, that on the secret topOf Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed, In the Beginning how the Heav'ns and Earth Rose out of Chaos: Or if Sion Hill  Delight thee more, and Siloa's Brook that flow'd Fast by the Oracle of God; I thence Invoke thy aid to my adventrous Song, That with no middle flight intends to soarAbove th' Aonian Mount, while it pursues  Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime.
Sing heavenly Moûsa (a minor Greek deity) of the first defiance of humankind and of the fruit of the proscribed tree, whose death-taste, brought mortality into the world and the loss of Eden (a pre-lapsarian paradise in Christian traditions) and considerable sorrow, until a more powerful man restored us and re-obtained the throne of ecstasy; [sing] of Mt. Horeb (the place of origin of the ten commandments—a set of ethico-legal requirements authoritative within Jewish and Christian traditions) or Sinai (see above on Mt Horeb), which inspired that shepherd to teach the people of Israel (a reference to Exodus 19-20) about the creation of both heaven and earth from the void or, if Mt Zion is more pleasing or the brook of Siloa (a rock cut pond outside Jerusalem) that passed the Ark of the Covenant [sing of these]. I thus request your help in this brave composition, which intends to fly unimpeded above Mt Helicon, pursuing things that have not been attempted either in prose or by means of rhyme.
Upon being asked about the dangers of mistranslation (intentional or otherwise), Hegarty was quite unequivocal. “Literal is not always faithful… A literal translation can misrepresent and distort. (Yet) I am all for the ‘literal’ style of translation, (as) there are ‘dangers’ in all forms of translation. Translation is one of those things that the more you think about it the more impossible it becomes and yet it is done every day. I experience the Mahābhārata as a dynamic, rhythmic, powerfully exciting and insightful text. I know that this is how it has been experienced by generations of Indians. I would like to create English that reflects this,” he said.
This article was first published on Mint and has been republished here with permission.