As an epilogue to the greatest epic of all time, the Harivamsha further elaborates on the myriad conflicts of dharma and the struggle between good and evil. Stories abound-from the cosmogony of the universe to the legends of the solar and lunar dynasties, and even a foreshadowing of kali yuga in the future. At the centre of all these magnificent tales is the mercurial figure of Krishna, whose miraculous life and wondrous exploits are recounted in vivid detail. In offering a glimpse into Krishna's life-as a mischievous child, as an enchanting lover, as a discerning prince-the luminous text sheds light on many questions left unanswered in the Mahabharata.
Brimming with battles and miracles, wisdom and heroics, philosophical insight and psychological acuity, Bibek Debroy's splendid translation of the Harivamsha is absolutely essential reading for all those who love the Mahabharata.
Bibek Debroy is a renowned economist, scholar and translator. 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 Book India. He is also the author of Sarama and Her Children, which splices his interest in Hinduism with his love for dogs.
The Harivamsha is not a Purana, though it is often loosely referred to as a Purana. The word Purana means ancient and, as texts, the Puranas are ancient accounts. There are many texts that are referred to as Puranas. To be classified as a proper Purana, a text needs to cover five topics: (1) sarga, the original creation; (2) pratisarga, the periodic cycles of secondary creation and destruction; (3) vamsha, the periodic cycles of secondary creation and destruction; (3) vamsha, the genealogies of the gods and the rishis; (4) manvantara, the eras, each presided over by a Manu; and (5) the solar and lunar dynasties. In lists of the Puranas, there are the great Puranas, the Mahapuranas, and the minor Puranas, the Upapuranas. There is no consensus on what counts as Upapurana nad what does not. Lists vary from one part of the country to another. However, there is consensus on the list of Mahapuranas. There are eighteen of these and their names are; (1) Agni Purana; (2) Bhagavata Purana; (3) Brahma Purana; (4) Brahmanda Purana; (5) Brahmavaivarta Purana; (6) Garuda Purana; (7) Kurma Purana; (8) Linga Purana; (9) Markadeya Purana; (10) Matsya Purana; (11) Narada Purana; (12) Padma Purana; (13) Shiva Purana; (14) Skanda Purana; (15) Vamana Purana; (16) Varha Purana; (17) Vayu Purana; and (18) Vishnu Purana. In some cases, the Bhavishya Purana is included in the list of eighteen. When that is done, either the Shiva Purana or the Vayu Purana is included in the list, but not both. In greater or lesser degree, all the Mahapuranas satisfy those five characteristics, the Vishbu Purana more than the others.
The Mahabharata was composed by the sage Krishna Dvaipayana Vedavyasa. There were many regional versions of this Sanskrit text. Between 1919 and 1966, the Bhandarkar Orietal Research Institute in Pune sifted through these various versions and brought out a Critical Edition of this Sanskrit text. Since unabridged translation of the Mahabharata in English are rare, translation was published by Penguin Books India between 2010 and 2014 and a boxed set has been brought out in 2015. The Harivasha needs to be read in conjunction with the Mahabharata, and not independently. This translation should also be read in conjunction with the Mahabharata translation and not independenty. It is a continuation and incidents and characters will not necessarily be clear without that continuity. After the Critical Edition of the Mahabharata was published, the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute also published a Critical Edition of the Harivamsha (1969-71), as khila (meaning supplement or appendix) to the Mahabharata text. The Mahabharata composed by Vedavyasa includes the Harivamsha. This translation is based on the Critical Edition of the Harivamsha, as was the case with the Mahabharata translation. Two points need to be made about this Critical text. First, at the risk of some subjectivity, the quality of editing in the Critical version of the Harivamsha is not as good as that of main Mahabharata. In some instances, we have had the temerity to point this out. Second there are versions of the Harivamsha floating around, in Sanskrit with translations in vernacular languages. Compared to those, the Critical text has done some ruthless slashing. We will return to this point later. Therefore, many incidents one associates with the Harivamsha are missing from the Critical text and will also be missed in this translation. To the best of my knowledge, there are only two unabridged translations of the Harivamsha in English. The first was done by Manmatha Nath Dutt in 1897, after he had completed his translation of the Mahabharata. The second is an ongoing online translation.
The pattern followed in this Harivamsha translation also follows that of the Mahabharata translation. The intention is to make the translation as close to the original Snaskrit text as is possible. In the process, the English is not always as smooth as might have the case had one taken more liberties. If a reader has the Sanskrit in front, there will be an exact correspondence between the Sanskrit and the English. This cannot be achieved with a verse translation, though the Harivamsha is in verse. Hence, the translation is in prose. Some words cannot satisfactorily be translated, dharma being a case in point. Therefore, such words are not translated. This is a translation, it isn't an interpretation. However, a straightforward translation may make everything clear to the reader. This explanation is done though footnotes and should be sufficient to explain the text. Because this translation is meant to be accessible to the ordinary reader, there was a conscious decision to avoid diacritical marks. Names, proper names and geographical names, are therefore rendered as close phonetically as is possible. The absence of diacritical marks sometimes can cause confusion, such as between Vasudeva (Krishna) and Vasudeva (Krishna's father). When there is a danger of confusion, not obvious from the context, this has been avoided by rendering Krishna as Vaasudeva and Krishna's father as Vasudeva.
What is the Harivamsha about? In a general sense, it is about Krishna's life. When we first encounter Krishna in the Mahabharata, he is already an adult. Here was he born? What were his childhood and other exploits, those not recounted in the Mahabharata? The Harivamsha answers such questions. But such questions are also answered in the Puranas, at least some of them. The belief is that after composing the Puranas. The Mahabharata is believed to have had 100,000 shlokas or couplets. The Critical Edition of the Mahabharata has a little short of 75,000. Even that, in then ten-volume translation, converts into something like 2.25 million words. Together, the eighteen Mahapurana amount to another 400,000 shlokas. The Mahapuranas differ greatly in length, from around 10,000 shlokas in the Brahma Purana to more than 80,000 shlokas in the Skanda Purana. Nor were they necessarily composed at one point in time, with a range of anything between second century CE to tenth century CE. In all probability, Vedavyasa composed an original Purana that is now lost and all the present Puranas are additions and embellishments on that lost original. The Puranas are classified in different ways. For instance, some emphasize creation and are therefore identified with Brahma. Some are identified with Vishnu and some are identified with Shiva. But these are not neat silos and all of them traverse similar ground, with minor variations in the stories too. Among the ones identified with Vishnu and known as Vaishnava Puranas are the Vishnu Purana and the Bhagavata Purana. Most of what is found in the Harivamsha will be found in these two texts. In the Mahabharata, Krishna may have been elevated to the status of a divinity in some parts. But in other parts, he does display human attributes. Purely in those relative terms, in these two Puranas and in the in the Harivamsha, Krishna's divine status is primary and the human traits are secondary.
Once he composed the Mahabharata, the Harivamsha and the Puranas, Vedavyasa taught these to disciple, Vaishampayana. Janamejaya was the son of Parikshit, Abhimanyu's son. On the occasion of King Janamejaya's snake sacrifice, Vaishampayana recounted all three texts to Janamehjaya and the assembled sages. On a subsequent occasion, Ugrashrava Souti recounted the same story to sags who had assembled for a sacrifice in the Naimisha forest. It is by no means essential that the Harivamsha, as we have it today, was necessarily composed at a single point in time. The earlier parts, and it is impossible to disentangle the earlier from the later, probably go back to the first or second century CE.
Standard texts of the Harivamsha are divided into three sections or parvas-'Harivamsha Parva', 'Vishnu Parva' and 'Bhavishya Parva'. In general, 'Harivamsha Parva' has stories that precede Krishna. There are stories about the Vrishni lineage, but not about Krishna. 'Vishnu Parva is about Krishna's exploits and 'Bhavishya Parva' is about the future, about kali yuga. Compared to non-Critical versions that float around, the Critical text of the Harivamsha has been merciless slashing across all three sections. What remains is 118 chapter: forty-five chapters in 'Harivamsha Parva', sixty chapters in 'Vishnu Parva' and five chapters in, Bhavishya Parva'. There are 2,392 shlokas in 'Harivamha Parva', 3,368 shlokas in 'Vishnu Parva' and 205 shlokas in 'Bhavishya Critical versions will often have double this number, reflective of the slashing. Instead of numbering the chapters within the three sections separately, we have used a continuous numbering, one that the Sanskrit text uses.
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