On “Maha·bhárata IV: Viráta” Kathleen Garbutt

As a seven year old I told my parents that I wanted to be a classicist, mainly because I was convinced that this would merely entail reading myths and getting credit for it. Later on, as a classics student, I discovered the Indian culture with its rich vein of tales to explore, but it was still this basic love of stories which drew me in. So being able to translate the Maha·bhárata for a living was a dream come true.

I have to admit that when I came to translate Virāṭaparvan my experience of the Maha·bhárata in Sanskrit was limited to the story of Nala and Damayánti, which every Sanskrit student inevitably must translate, and in general to a wonderful technicolour comic book version I found in Varanasi. However, the Maha·bhárata had always held a magical place in my imagination. At roughly four times the size of the Bible and seven times the size of the Iliad and Odyssey combined, the Maha·bhárata is the Everest of the ancient literary world. And just as mountain climbers often put it, it must be conquered because it is there.

But though it is a classicist’s greatest challenge it should equally be brought to everyone. For too long it seems that the epic literature of India has been inaccessible to the west. Certainly its scale is intimidating, but once I actually started working on it, I realised how instantly captivating it can be. It is a shame epic poetry has become such a niche market, for though there is certainly much to study and analyse academically and religiously in the Maha·bhárata, there are also wonderful tales which would appeal to everyone. Epic poetry in its very nature is designed for the masses and so it is in this light that I have tried to translate the Virāṭaparvan.

This book is in many ways one of the lighter parts of the epic, with less emphasis on expounding religious doctrine. So perhaps, with the timeless themes of comedy and humiliation which dominate it, the Virāṭaparvan is one of the most accessible books of the Maha·bhárata. It is filled with light-hearted flourishes, even in the most dramatic scenes, and it retains its playful tone throughout. This is one of the main reasons I enjoyed translating it so much. The Virāṭaparvan starts with the tales of how the Pándavas suffer and survive in disguise, but ends with their discovery, when their power, heroism and majesty are finally revealed in battle. Their trials are many and varied but in every scene there is a balance between dramatic tension and playfulness. As an example I include this passage, the comedy of which only serves to demonstrate the pathetic nature of Árjuna’s position as he presents himself to King Viráta, pretending to be a eunuch.

Then another handsome man of enormous proportion appeared, wearing women’s ornaments. He had decked himself with dangly earrings, which on him resembled fortified rampart walls, and beautiful gilt conch-shell bracelets. The long-armed person whose stride was like that of an elephant, shook out his long and plentiful hair. Making the earth tremble with his approach, he came up to Viráta in the presence of his assembly. Seeing great Indra’s son, the abuser of his foes, enter the assembly hall with the stride of a mighty elephant, concealed by his disguise, but shining with his conspicuous brilliance, the king asked all his attendants in the court: “Where has this man come from? For I have not heard of him before.”

When the men then replied that they had no idea who this newcomer may be, the king spoke in wonder, “You are a god-like man endowed with true power. Dark skinned youth that you are, with your hair tied in a braid and decked with beautiful gilt conch-shell bracelets and earrings, you resemble the leader of a herd of elephants. Alternatively you are like one of those who drive about riding a chariot; a shining garlanded creature with beautiful hair and a retinue, bearing armour and carrying a bow and arrow. Become my sons’ equal or even mine, for I am old and eager to resign. So rule over all the Matsyas. To my mind it seems that a person with an appearance such as this bears no resemblance to a eunuch at all!”

“I sing, dance and play instruments. I am a gifted dancer and an expert singer. Assign me to your own Uttará, and I will be the princess’ dance tutor, Lord of men. What will be the result of your forcing me to explain my form, other than greatly increasing my grief? Know me, God among men, as Brihan·nala,—the Large-reeded lady—a son or daughter without a mother and father.”

“Very well, I will grant your wish Brihan·nala. Teach my daughter and those like her to dance. But in my opinion this task does not seem equal to you, for you deserve the earth encompassed by the ocean.”

Then, once the king of the Matsyas had examined Brihan·nala in the tone of his songs and in dances and similarly in the playing of musical instruments, he consulted with his various ministers. Then quickly having had an examination made by the women as to whether he was really a eunuch, and finding that his lack of manhood was a permanent condition, the king then let him loose on the royal women's quarters.

So it was that the mighty Dhanam·jaya taught Viráta's daughter and her friends and attendants to sing and play musical instruments, and the son of Pandu became dear to them. Self controlled Dhanam·jaya lived there in disguise, enjoying their company, but neither the people outside nor even those inside that place recognised him.