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Harivamsha Paperback – 9 Sep 2016
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About the Author
Bibek Derbroy is a renowned economist, scholar and translator. He has worked in universities, research institutes, industry and for the government. He has widely published books, papers and articles on economics. As a translator, he is best known for his magnificent rendition of the Mahabharata in ten volumes, published to wide acclaim by Penguin. He is also the author of Sarama and Her Children, which splices his interest in Hinduism with his love for dogs.
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The Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune, over several decades, compiled a Critical Edition of the Mahabharata. The Harivamsha also forms part of this Critical Edition. The critical edition of the Harivamsha contains a shade less than 6000 shlokas – thus bringing the total length of the Critical Edition of the epic to just under 79,000 shlokas.
If you have read the unabridged Mahabharata (I have read Dr. Debroy’s English translation, not the original Sanskrit), you will find the Harivamsha to be different. For one, its narrative has more in common with a Purana than the Mahabharata. Part of this is by design, since as Dr. Debroy informs us, for a Purana to be classified as such, it had to cover five topics – “the “original creation”, the periodic cycles of secondary creation and destruction, the genealogies of gods and the rishis, the eras, and the solar and lunar dynasties.” And that is what you get – especially detailed accounts of genealogies. For example, chapter 8 tells us the story of Martanda and Yamuna, chapter 9 of the Ikshvaku dynasty, chapter 10 of the Raghu dynasty, chapter 11 of the ancestors of Bhishma and Shantanu, and so on. There is also some repetition to be found, but with slight variations – chapter 22 tells us the story of Yayati, but the curses are slightly different. Another difference is the absence of philosophy that otherwise abounds in the main epic.
The Harivamsha, apart from covering stories of the births of the gods, sages, and kings, goes into some depth of the life and experiences of Krishna as a baby and youth, upto his killing of his evil uncle, Kamsa, and then his education in rishi Sandipani's ashram.
In the same vein of events recurring in the Mahabharata, you have the theme of sacrifices never ending the way their organizers planned. If it was Yudhishthira’s Rajsuya yagya ending with the death of Shishupala at the hands of Krishna, you had the Ashwamedha yagya at the end of the war, ending with the appearance of a half-golden mongoose, who dismissed the sacrifice as “in no way comparable to the one that involved the giving away of one prastha of saktu.” The Mahabharata begins with Janamejaya’s Sarpa Satra (snake sacrifice) ending before its completion. Harivamsha ends with an Ashwamedha yagya (horse sacrifice), but which itself ends with an end being pronounced on all horse sacrifices!
In some ways, Harivamsha is perhaps the first instance of a sequel. Written after the Mahabharata was composed, it sought to fill what would have been a much-perceived need to have a text on the life of Krishna. Krishna as a character makes his appearance in the Mahabharata only at the time of Droupadi’s swayamvar. There is nothing about Krishna’s birth, childhood, or exploits outside of his interactions with the Pandavas. Harivamsha fulfilled that gap. And like all good sequels, how does the Harivamsha end? Souti asks Janamejaya – “What else do you desire that I should speak to you about?”
Thus, was set the stage for the Puranas?
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