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The First Bengali Mahabharata

Kabi Sanjay is the first translator of the complete Mahabharata into Bangla for regaling rustic audiences, composed in 'payar' metre in the first half of the 15th century, prior to the rule of Sultan Hussain Shah in Bengal [1494-1520] and also prior to Chaitanya [1486- 1533] as there is no trace of Vaishnav Bhakti in his work. A resident of Laur in the Sunamganj subdivision of Shrihatta district in East Bengal, he belonged to the Bharadvaj gotra. Interesting point: he praises Bhagadatta as the ruler of Laur and also calls him ruler of Bengal, though the epic does not so call him, because Shrihatta was at one time part of Pragjyotishpura.

Sanjay provides a novel start to the epic. Janamejaya charges Vyasa with failure to prevent his ancestors from the fratricidal battle of Kurukshetra. Vyasa laughs and says that people don't listen to prohibitions. As an example he issues an injunction that to avoid misfortune J must not make Kantavati his chief queen. J fails to observe this, and proceeds to make her his chief queen and insults the sage Rishyashringa who curses him to be afflicted with haga- pida', possibly syphilitic sores, all over his body. Vyasa comes again and tells him that to be cured he should listen to the epic from Vaisampayana. That is why the recital begins. At the end of Svaragarohana, J is cured-thus the tale is brought to a circular end. In Astika parva he adds a new story of Takshaka, pursued by Garuda, marrying his daughter Sarada to Parikshit and thus escaping death. A folktale of the ha' (curer of snake-bite) of Shankhapura is added and a novel treatment of the serpent sacrifice of J.

The Shantanu-Ganga story is given a novel twist. Mahabhisha is cursed by Brahma for his shameless ogling of Ganga's nudity, to be born a vanara. He worships Shiva who grants his wish to possess Ganga. Shiva commands Ganga who takes the vanara aside and tells him he must first become hairless like her and can do so by entering fire. To persuade him she magically protects him when he tests a finger in a flame and is unhurt. But when he enters the fire wholly, she does not protect him and he dies. Kuru is performing a yajna and finds a dry place overflowing with hot water which he and the rishis cannot cross. The corpse of the vanara comes floating by and they use it as a bridge. Thereupon the vanara is liberated and is born as Kuru's son, Shantanu. Shiva berates Ganga and forces her to wed Shantanu. Amba's love for Bhishma is a creation of Sanjay's who makes it a long love-story.

Chitrangada dies of TB. Vichitravirya violates Bhishma's injunction against entering his palace in his absence and is crushed there by the elephant with whom Bhishma used to wrestle daily to exercise. Dhritarashtra plots with Duryodhana to build the lacquer house. In Khandava the survivors are sage Lomasha, Surabhi, Danavendra and Vishvakarma.

The Rajasuya yajna is held because Pandu is insulted in Svarga and despatches Narada to tell his sons to hold this sacrifice so that he can regain status. During the conquests, on his return from Lanka, Arjuna encounters Hanuman and it is an interesting folk-talish account.

Duryodhana sends a band of fasting sages to Yudhishthira in exile but Krishna's miracle saves the Pandavas. In this plot Drona is also involved.

In Udyoga parva a folktale type story is added about Kakalilasura. In Bhishma parva the story of Brahmachandala is given and special emphasis on the beauty and valour of horses occupies a lot of space.

In Drona parva after Abhimanyu's death Draupadi leads an army of women against the Kauravas. Karna refuses to fight them. Duryodhana is routed.

In Karna parva the story of Tarakaksha and Makaraksha is added.

Ashvamedhaparva is wholly based on Jaimini's work, omitting his retelling of the Rama story. Sanjay adds Yadava and Pandava women fighting the enemy when Pandavas are defeated. Jana is glorified particularly. She dies and turns into an arrow that lies in Babhruvahana's quiver with which Arjuna is slain. The battle descriptions surpass those of Kurukshetra. Stories of Jana, Sudhanva, Babhruvahana, Chandi, Chandrahas are magnificently told. From Vyasa he adds at the end the story of the half-golden mongoose.

Mausala Parva has Arjuna accompany Krishna at the end, and as they rest together Krishna is shot and killed. Svargarohana Parva has new teerthas where each Pandava falls. The route is along the Ganga. Meghanada Daitya tries to abduct Draupadi and is slain by Bhima.

The narration is interspersed with 'Lachari' to be sung and various ragas and raginis are indicated in the text such as Vasant, Kamod, Bhatiyal, Shree, Barari, Pathamajnari.

Sanjaya has created a new genre, the auranik fairytale' in his translation of the epic.

Pradip Bhattacharya, 29 May, 2004