Whittling the words of history

‘An economist by profession and a writer by passion, Bibek Debroy opens up to Shrabasti Mallik about his love for the ancient Indian texts and his aim of translating all the Puranas into English’

The chairman of the Economic Advisory Council to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the man credited for the most number of translations of ancient Indian texts – Bibek Debroy needs no introduction. From the Ramayana and Mahabharata to the Puranas, his latest ambitious project, Debroy has, over the years, been translating these works from Sanskrit to English. So it did not surprise me when, during a candid interview in his office at NITI Aayog in New Delhi, he happened to mention that he holds honorary doctorates in both Economics and Sanskrit.

After successfully publishing 10 volumes of the Mahabharata in English, Debroy has turned to the Puranas, with an aim to translate them into English. I met with him just days after The Markandeya Purana, his second translation of the Puranas was published, and I walked away with not only a newfound love for our ancient texts but also a profound respect for the man who seems to have struck a harmonious balance between his passion and profession. Excerpts from the interview.

Being an economist, you harbour a strong passion for the ancient texts.When and how did this interest generate?

It began when I was teaching at Presidency College in Kolkata in the ’80s. At that time, I used to know economist, the late Ashok Rudra, who also used to write extensively. I once mentioned to him how each one of the Pandavas were proficient in one weapon – Bhima in the gada, Arjuna in all weapons and so on, and discussed the possibility of a statistical study of the frequency in which these weapons were used during the course of the Kurukshetra war in the Mahabharata. He asked me to read the Drona Parva [seventh of the 18 Maha Parvas or books of the Mahabharata] to find the answer to my question. I studied and wrote an essay in Bengali and several more after that, for various publications. That was the beginning.

When you were referring to original texts of the Puranas for translation, which versions were you looking at?

When I began somewhere in the ’90s, I wasn’t as knowledgeable or proficient in the matter as I am now. So when I decided to read the Puranas, my models were the works of Panchanan Tarkaratna, a renowned Sanskrit scholar. During the end of the 19th century he had translated a few Puranas to Bengali. I tried to acquire all his translations but several of them had gone out of print and not even one copy was available. I got hold of a few and started my work. Many years later, after Ihad translated the Valmiki Ramayana and also the Mahabharata, I was contemplating working on the Puranas. It was then that I was invited to be the special guest at the convocation ceremony of Shri Lal Bahadur Shastri Rashtriya Sanskrit Vidyapeetha in New Delhi, one of the few universities in the country where the entire curriculum is taught in Sanskrit. There I met the university’s vice chancellor, professor Ramesh Kumar Pandey and we discussed about my plans of working on the Puranas. A few days later, he gifted me 11 of the Puranas. I managed to get hold of the other seven and things just fell into place.

Tell us about the sequence in which you plan to publish the translated Puranas.

It is important to understand that there is not much known about the Puranas as compared to the epics. So there was a need to create a market first. And for that, I had to start with the Purana which was most popular – Bhagavata Purana. After that, I worked on the Markandeya Purana .

Do you feel that the Puranas give a glimpse of life and society of ancient India?

During my research, I have come to understand that the texts were written in various parts of the country. So the differences that I found were mostly related to geography and the food habits of the characters. That being said, all the Puranas have undergone a process [of creation]. Maybe sage Veda Vyasa composed one original Puran Samhita, which, over the course of time, took off in different directions. We don’t have the original text. What we have instead, are the final form of the Puranas which would probably date back to somewhere between the 4th and 12th centuries. By then, Panini, the ancient Sanskrit philologist, had already formatted the language. So, there is standardisation in the language.

In the introduction of The Markandeya Purana you have mentioned that while you translate, there is a certain amount of interpretation involved.

More often than not, a translator will use a permutation of a combination of similar words. For example, he/ she may have a different take on whether ‘vanara’ should be translated as an ape or monkey or kept as it is. However, I have mentioned in the book’s introduction that I have deliberately tried to stick to the positions of the words in the Sanskrit text, so the English is not very structured. Also, there are several interpretations of one single reference or mention. If I mention every interpretation, the style of the narrative will change and it will become an academic book. So my style has been to explain my interpretation of choice in the footnote, making it clear to the reader that it is one of the many interpretations. So yes, there is a little bit of bias involved, but that appears only in the footnotes.

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