The Renaissance Man
The Renaissance Man

Bibek Debroy’s fascinating story of mighty Mahabharata, line by line in English

When Bibek Debroy, the economist who first marshalled evidence in support of the Gujarat model of development, sat down to translate the Mahabharata, word for word, he shared his plan with Wendy Doniger. The American Indologist, who was in the news for the withdrawal of her magisterial work, On Hinduism, by Penguin India following Hindutva threats, reminded him of the fate of the only other contemporary translator of the epic. J.A.B. van Buitenen, another famous Indologist at the University of Chicago, where Doniger has been teaching since 1978, had passed away in 1979 midway through his effort to translate the Mahabharata into modern English. And, he was only 51.


Debroy, 59, has thus far proved Doniger wrong — and they share the same publisher. He has completed eight volumes of his translation of Veda Vyasa’s ageless epic, progressing at two volumes a year since 2009 and writing 1500 to 2000 words a day. His last two volumes are slated to be out this year. It has been by all counts a monumental effort. The Mahabharata is made up of 18 Parvas or books and a total of over two million words. Not only is he not fazed by the substantial ground he has to cover in the remaining two volumes, but he is also gearing up to start work on a similar word-for-word translation of Valmiki’s Ramayana.


Along the way Debroy has also found time to write dozens of books, including his now famous Gujarat: Governance for Growth and Development, which is sure to be in the limelight in the coming months. In addition, there have been dozens of academic papers, weekly newspaper columns, and India Today magazine’s annual State of the States Report. Debroy also guestblogs at (an initiative of Rohin Bakshi of the School of Oriental and African Studies, in London), and, of course, tweets regularly on contemporary affairs. And, this mild-mannered, ‘right-of-centre, market oriented’, and dog-loving economic theorist, trained at three prestigious academic institutions — Kolkata’s Presidency College, Delhi School of Economics and Trinity College, Cambridge — has a full-time job at one of the country’s leading think tanks, Centre for Policy Research (CPR), where he is in the company of intellectual powerhouses such as Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Rajmohan Gandhi.


Yet, he has never missed his date with Veda Vyasa, daily between 4.30 and 6.30 pm, the time he sets apart for his translation exercise. He says it is possible because, after being the Director of the Rajiv Gandhi Institute for Contemporary Studies, and the Secretary General of PHDCCI, the chamber of commerce, he opted for his CPR job, which pays him less but leaves him with more time to pursue his passion. He is, without doubt, India’s Renaissance Man.


Debroy’s feat mirrors a similar single-handed effort by the 19th-century Kolkata writer, Babu Kisari Mohan Ganguli, whose publisher and printer, Pratap Chandra Roy, walked away with the credit for the translation that was published under his name between 1883 and 1896. Ironically, it was Roy’s premature death after the publication of the ninth volume that brought to light Ganguli’s role in the entire exercise, after the real translator revealed his existence in the 11th volume. But, that’s another story.


A similar translation exercise was carried out by Manmatha Nath Gupta between 1895 and 1905, but, as Debroy points out, it was “clearly plagiarised” from Ganguli’s pioneering work. Gupta’s translation, in fact, has passages that have no equivalents in the Sanskrit original. And, both translators avoided passages with sexual overtones. There was clearly a need, Debroy believed, for a contemporary translation that could be read and enjoyed by the country’s English-knowing population.


When Debroy took up this lonely and, at times, frustrating enterprise, he had one friend to help him wrestle with the intricacies of Veda Vyasa’s language. It was the two-million-word critical edition of the Mahabharata in 19 volumes, put together by scholars of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (BORI) after scrutinising 1259 manuscripts between 1916 and 1966. Debroy, in fact, used to be a regular at the BORI library, in Pune, in the years (1983-87) when he was on the faculty of the neighbouring Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics.


True to his style, he even wrote papers for the academic journal brought out by the venerable institute, which were published as a book in 1989 under the rather uninviting title, Some Aspects of the Ramayana and Mahabharata, which, in his own words “sank without a trace”. Thirty years on, he believes that the long hand of destiny was at work from then on, leading him to the project that takes up most of his free time these days.


The e-edition of BORI’s Mahabharata, covering all the 18 Parvas and more than 85,000 shlokas of the Mahabharata, travels with Debroy wherever he goes. Interestingly, this authoritative edition has no references to the myths of Lord Ganesha serving as Veda Vyasa’s scribe, or of Lord Krishna coming to Draupadi’s rescue when Duryodhana’s younger brothers were stripping her in the crowded court of Hastinapura after the famous rigged chess match.


Another constant companion is the soft copy of the Sanskrit-English Dictionary compiled by Sir Monier Monier-Williams, the scholar who defeated the more brilliant Friedrich Max Mueller in the 1860 election to become the second occupant of the Boden Chair of Sanskrit at Oxford University. He turns to this lexicon whenever he’s foxed by a Sanskrit word and cannot find a satisfactory meaning in Vaman Shivaram Apte’s equally popular dictionary.


For religious references, Ganguli’s Mahabharata is his best friend because it contains extensive footnotes on even obscure references. It took Debroy half a day, for instance, to figure out that the 60 divisions into which Lord Shiva’s 1008 names are categorised are actually the 60 principles of Sankhya Darshana (one of Hinduism’s six schools of philosophy). “Sanskrit words often mean different things in different contexts,” Debroy says, pointing to the challenges a translator has to contend with. “Volume One was the toughest for me, but I have now understood Veda Vyasa’s language.”


Debroy’s story of how he got drawn towards mythological and philosophical classics is as hilarious as the way Kolkata’s academics appear to philistine outsiders. One of his good friends was Ashok Rudra, a left-wing economist and respected newspaper columnist, who had “utter contempt for my brand of economics”. In the interest of their friendship, the two decided never to discuss economics and, instead, stick to their other passion — the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Encouraged by Rudra, Debroy wrote his first Mahabharata-inspired article on a statistical analysis of the weapons used by the Pandavas in Kurukshetra as described in the Drona Parva. That was in the early 1980s and it was also the time when Debroy began to study Sanskrit.


In the 1990s, Debroy retold the stories of the Vedas, Upanishads and Puranas in yet another book that didn’t get much notice. His life changed after his masterly translation of the Bhagavad Gita, first published by Penguin in 2006, and then, two years later, after rejection slips from 15 publishers (a novel experience for a man who has published 90 books on economics), came his tribute to his love for canines. Sarama and Her Children: The Dog in Indian Myth is a one-of-its-kind book that is crowded with interesting nuggets. Did you know, for instance, that the Rig Veda has references to dogs being used as beasts of burden? Or, that Yajur Veda has a hymn dedicated to dogs?


Today, it’s his Mahabharata project that defines Debroy. What has it done to him? Debroy pauses for a moment and replies with intensity, “It changes you. You don’t gain anything, but you lose a lot. You lose anger, you lose your sense of not being at peace with yourself.” The underlying worldview of the epic, Debroy continues, is that there are conflicts within us all the time. “There are no absolute rights or wrongs, but you have to live with the consequences of your decisions,” he says. It’s a message that can never get old. That is also why the importance of the challenge that Debroy has taken on his hands, despite Doniger’s warning, cannot be understated.




By Sourish Bhattacharyya | Photograph by Shiv Ahuja



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