King Akbar’s Mahabharata, or the Razmnama (Book of Wars)

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The battle of Duryodhana and Bhima (among others.) From the 1616-1617 edition of the Razmnama. By Kamal.
Image source: Simon Ray


When I was little I used to come across prints (much less elaborate than the above) in my house of scenes from the Mahabharata—with (what I assumed to be) Urdu writing on them! It confused me. I looked it up. Turns out, the Mughal king Akbar had a copy of the Mahabharata translated into Persian. Mystery solved. I put it to the back of my mind until recently when, while trying to plug gaps in my knowledge base I found out that there is actually a pretty interesting cast of characters behind this translation. An impassioned, suicidal artist, and his apollonian counterpart! An Islamic fundamentalist tasked with translating infidel texts! A king motivated by both religious toleration, and the maintenance of his regime’s legitimacy! Plus, it’s a good focal point around which to examine Indian art history which gives me the opportunity to post pretty pictures. Swiftly onwards–

Akbar’s Translation movement:

Akbar has a well-earned reputation as the most tolerant and humane of the Mughal kings. His formal policies towards non-muslims displayed liberality, and the composition of his court bespeaks of inclusivity. The range of art and music he chose to patronize also knew no religious bounds.[1] He even founded “Din-e-Ilahi,” a new syncretistic religion that earned the scorn of the orthodox Muslim intelligentsia.

Given these tolerant and syncretistic tendencies, it is no surprise that Akbar was interested in gaining access to the literature of the non-Persian speaking world. During his reign Akbar’s scholars translated works from Sanskrit, Hindi, Arabic, Greek, and Latin into Persian, and also did substantial translation work from Persian into Hindi. Though the Mahabharata was the center of his project, Akbar also had the Ramayana, the Artha Veda, the Lilavati (a treatise on mathematics), and other Sanskrit texts translated into Persian.[2] [3]

Court historian Mulla Daud writes that Akbar “ordered, that the rational contents of different religions and faiths should be translated in the language of each, and that the rose garden of the traditional aspects of each religion should, as far as possible, be cleared of the thorns of bigotry.” Akbar’s reputation for tolerance has helped this explanation for the translation movement stick.[4] However, one should treat anything explanation given by court historians as suspicious. The Razmnama’s text has an array of strangely translated passages, additions, or omissions which justify this suspicion. While I’m sure that Akbar was genuinely interested in reading Hindu texts and spreading knowledge of them amongst his nobility, I also think that the translation project had distinctly fetishistic and propagandistic elements to it.

But First—

The Translation Process:

Ok, here’s the basic process. First, Sanskrit literate Brahmans (many of whom were converts to Islam) translated a common North Indian variant of the Mahabharata from Sanskrit into Hindi both in text, and verbally. Then the Hindi text was translated into Persian by a staff of Muslim, Persian speaking scholars. [5] Then that raw translation was converted into poetic verse by the project’s head, a scholar named Abu al-Fazl. [6] So obviously “translation” is a very loose term. It’s really more of a retelling.

script

A folio from a 1616 copy of the Razmnama in which: “Asvatthama Fires the Narayana Weapon (Cosmic Fire) at the Pandavas.” You’ll notice I have so far posted no images from the 1587 manuscript which is under discussion here. That is because it sits in the City Palace Museum in Jaipur off limits to all historians. So thanks for nothing City Palace Museum in Jaipur.
Image source: Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Playing Duryodhana’s Advocate

Duryodhana

“The humble sages, by virtue of true knowledge, see with equal vision a learned and gentle brahmaṇa, a cow, an elephant, a dog and a dog-eater.” (Bhagavad Gita 5.18)[1]

When I discuss the Mahabharata with my Hindu friends and relatives I am often struck by their insistence on Duryodhana’s unambiguous wickedness. This is a common sentiment online as well as in published commentaries, but I find it odd. It is uncontroversial to point out that the character depth of the entire cast of the Mahabharata comes largely from their moral ambiguity. Why is Duryodhana the lone exception to this?

Here I offer an alternative view of Duryodhana and his role, which I believe to be more properly supported by the Mahabharata’s text, and historical context.

I posit that Duryodhana while certainly the antagonist of the Mahabharata was written as a morally nuanced, or even sympathetic character. His role is to embody a philosophy of ritualism and Kshatriya Dharma (warrior morality), which inevitably and irreconcilably conflicts with the Bhakti (devotional) Dharma represented by Krishna. However, as I will show, Duryodhana conforms too well to the image of a “good Kshatriya”, and is treated far too well by divine figures to be a pure villain.

His admirable traits such as loyalty, efficient governance, honorable and skilled warfare, power, and boldness represent Kshatriya Dharma at its best, uncontextualized by devotional religion. His negative traits such as wrathfulness and treachery, as well as his defeat at the battle of Kurukshetra serve to illustrate the perils of pursuing one’s earthly duties without devotion to Krishna and the self-control, which it brings.

Duryodhana’s Crimes: Since are commonly repeated and well known, I will make this section short.

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