Indian Idylls from the Sanskrit of the Mahâbhârata - Edwin Arnold - ebook


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First digital edition 2017 by Gianluca Ruffini












Some time ago I wrote and published, in a paper entitled “The Iliad and Odyssey ofIndia,” the following passages:

“There exist two colossal, two unparalleled, epic poems in the sacred language of India, the Mahâbhârata and the Râmâyana, which were not known to Europe, even by name, until Sir William Jones announced their existence; and one of which, the larger, since his time, has been made public only by fragments, by mere specimens, hearing to those vast treasures of Sanskrit literature such small proportion as cabinet samples of ore have to the riches of a mine. Yet these most remarkable poems contain almost all the history of ancient India, so far as it can be recovered; together with such inexhaustible details of its political, social, and religious life, that the antique Hindu world really stands epitomized in them.

The Old Testament is not more interwoven with the Jewish race, nor the New Testament with the civilization of Christendom, nor the Koran with the records and destinies of Islam, than are these two Sanskrit poems with that unchanging and teeming Population which Her Majesty, Queen Victoria, rules as Empress of Hindustan. The stories, songs, and ballads; the histories and genealogies; the nursery tales and religious discourses; the art; the learning, the philosophy, the creeds, the moralities, the modes of thought, the very phrases, saying, turns of expression, and daily ideas of the Hindu people are taken from these poems. Their children and their wives are named out of them; so are their cities, temples, streets, and cattle.

They have constituted the library, the newspaper, and the Bible-generation after generation-for all the succeeding and countless millions of Indian people; and it replaces patriotism with that race, and, stands in stead of nationality, to possess these two precious and inexhaustible books, and to drink from them as from mighty and overflowing rivers. The value ascribed in Hindustan to these too little known epics has transcended all literary standards established in the West. They are personified, worshipped, and cited as being something divine.

To read or even listen to them is thought by the devout Hindu sufficiently meritorious to bring prosperity to his household here, and happiness in the next world; they are held also to give wealth to the poor, health to the sick, wisdom to the ignorant; and the recitation of certain parvas and shlokas in them can fill the household of the barren, it is believed, with children. A concludingpassage of the great poem says:

“‘The reading of this Mahâbhârata destroys all sin and produces virtue; so much so, that the pronunciation of a single shloka is sufficient to wipe away much guilt. This Mahâbhârata contains the history of the gods, of the Rishis in heaven and those on earth, of the Gandharvas and the Rákshasas. It also contains the life and actions of the one God, holy, immutable, and true, who is Krishna, who is the creator and the ruler of this universe; who is seeking the welfare of his creation by means of his incomparable and indestructible power; whose actions are celebrated by all sages; who has bound human beings in a chain, of which one end is life and the other death; on whom the Rishis meditate, and a knowledge of whom imparts unalloyed happiness to their hearts, and for whose gratification and favor all the daily devotions are performed by all worshippers. If a man reads the Mahâbhârata and has faith in its doctrines, he is free from all sin, and ascends to heaven after his death.’“

The present volume contains such translation, as have from time to time made out of this prodigious epic, which is seven-fold greater in bulk than the Illiad and Odyssey taken together. All the stories here extracted are new to English literature, with the exception of a few passages of the Sâvitrî and the“Nala and Damayanti,”which was long ago most faithfully rendered by Dean Milman, the version being published side by side with a clear and excellent Sanskrit text edited by Professor Monier Williams, C. I. E. But that presentation of the beautiful and brilliant legend - with all its conspicuous merits - seems better adapted to aid the student than adequately to reproduce the swift march of narrative, and old-world charm of the Indian tale, which I, also, have therefore ventured to transcribe; with all deference and gratitude to my predecessors.

I believe certain portions of the mighty poem which here appear, and many other episodes, to be of far greater antiquity than has been ascribed to the Mahâbhârata generally. Doubtless the“two hundred and twenty thousand lines”of the entire compilation contain in many places little and large additions and corrections, interpolated in Brahmanic or post Buddhistic times; and he who ever so slightly explores this poetical ocean will, indeed, perceive defects, excrescences, differences, and breaks of artistic style or structure. But in the simpler and nobler sections the Sanskrit verse (ofttimes as musical and highly wrought as Homer’s own Greek) bears, as I think, testimony-by evidence too long and recondite for citation here to an origin anterior to writing, anterior to Purânic theology, anterior to Homer, perhaps even to Moses.


LONDON, August, 1883.



“I mourn not for myself’,” quoth Yudhisthir, “Nor for my hero-brothers; but because Draupadi hath been taken from us now. Never was seen or known another such, As queenly, true, and faithful to her vows, As Draupadi.”

Then said Markandya: Wilt thou hear, Prince, of such another soul, Wherein the nobleness of Draupadi Dwell, of old days, the Princess Sâvitrî?

THERE was a Raja, pious-minded, just, King of the Mâdras,-valiant, wise, and true; Victorious over sense, a worshipper; Liberal in giving, prudent., dear alike To peasant and to townsman; one whose joy Lived in the weal of all men-Aswapati - Patient, and free of any woe, he reigned, Save that his manhood passing, left him ]one, A childless lord; for this he grieved; for this Heavy observances he underwent, Subduing needs of flesh, and oftentimes Making high sacrifice to Sâvitrî; While, for all food, at each sixth watch he took A little measured dole; and thus he did Through sixteen years, most excellent of Kings Till at the last, divinest Sâvitrî Grew well-content, and, taking shining shape, Rose through the flames of sacrifice and showed Unto that prince her heavenly countenance. “Raja,” the Goddess said - the Gift-bringer - Thy piety, thy purity, thy fasts, The largesse of thy hands, thy heart’s wide love, Thy strength of faith, have pleased me. Choose some boon. Thy dearest wish, Monarch of Mâdra, ask; It is not meet such merit go in vain.”

The Raja answered: “Goddess, for the sake Of children I did bear these heavy vows: If thou art well-content, grant me, I pray, Fair babes, continuers of my royal line; This is the boon I choose, obeying law: For - say the holy seers - the first great law Is that a man leave seed.”

The Goddess said: I knew thine answer, Raja, ere it came; And He, the Maker of all, hath heard my word That this might be. The self-existent One Consenteth. Born there shall be unto thee A girl more sweet than any eyes have seen; There is not found on earth so fair a maid I that rejoice in the Great Father’s will Know this and tell thee.”

“Oh, so may it be The Raja cried, once and again; and she, The Goddess, smiled anew, and vanished so.- While Aswapati to his palace went. ‘there dwelled he, doing justice to all folk; Till, when the hour was good, the wise King lay With her that was his first and fairest wife, And she conceived a girl (a girl, my liege Better than many boys), which wonder grew In darkness, - as the Moon among the stars Grows from a ring of silver to a round In the month’s waxing days, - and when time came The Queen a daughter bore, with lotus-eyes, Lovely of mould. joyous that Raja made The birth-feast; and because the fair gift fell From Sâvitrî the Goddess, and because It was her day of sacrifice, they gave The name of “Sâvitrî” unto the child.

In grace and beauty grew the maid, as if Lakshmi’s own self had taken woman’s form. And when swift years her gracious youth made ripe, Like to an image of dark gold she seemed Gleaming, with waist so fine, and breasts so deep, And limbs so rounded. When she moved, all eyes Gazed after her, as though an Apsara Had lighted out of Swarga. Not one dared, Of all the noblest lords, to ask for wife That miracle, with eyes purple and soft As lotus-petals, that pure perfect maid, Whose face shed heavenly light where she did go.

Once she had fasted, laved her head, and bowed Before the shrine of Agni, - as is meet, And sacrificed, and spoken what is set Unto the Brahmans - taking at their hands The unconsumed offerings, and so passed Into her father’s presence - bright as ‘Sri, If ‘Sri were woman! - Meekly at his feet She laid the blossoms; meekly bent her head, Folded her palms, and stood, radiant with grace, Beside the Raja. He, beholding her Come to her growth, and thus divinely fair, Yet sued of none, was grieved at heart and spake “Daughter, ‘tis time we wed thee, but none comes Asking thee; therefore, thou thyself some youth Choose for thy lord, a virtuous prince: whoso Is dear to thee, he shall be dear to me For this the rule is by the sages taught Hear the commandment, noble maid - ‘That sire Who giveth not his child in marriage Is blamable; and blamable that king Who weddeth not; and blamable that son Who, when his father dieth, guardeth not His mother.’ Heeding this,” the Raja said, Haste thee to choose, and so choose that I bear No guilt, dear child, before the all-seeing Gods.”

Thus, spake he - from the royal presence then Elders and ministers dismissing. She, Sweet Sâvitrî, -low lying at his feet, With soft shame heard her father, and obeyed.

Then, on a bright car mounting, companied By ministers and sages, Sâvitrî Journeyed through groves and pleasant woodland-towns Where pious princes dwelled, in every spot Paying meet homage at the Brahmans’ feet; And so from forest unto forest passed, In all the Tirthas making offerings: Thus did the Princess visit place by place.

THE King of Mâdra sat among his lords With Narada beside him, counselling: When - (son of Bhârat!) entered Sâvitrî From passing through each haunt and hermitage, Returning with those sages. At the sight Of Narad seated by the Raja’s side, Humbly she touched the earth before their feet With bended forehead.

Then spake Narada: “Whence cometh thy fair child? and wherefore, King, Being so ripe in beauty, giv’st thou not The Princess to a husband?”

“Even for that She journeyed,” quoth the Raja; “being come, Hear for thyself, great Rishi, what high lord My daughter chooseth.” Then, being bid to speak Of Narad and the Raja, Sâvitrî Softly said this: “ In Chalva reigned a prince, Lordly and just, Dyumutsena named, Blind, and his only son not come to age; And this sad king an enemy betrayed Abusing his infirmity, whereby Of throne and kingdom was that king bereft; And with his queen and son, a banished man, He fled into the wood; and, ‘neath its shades, A life of holiness cloth daily lead. This Raja’s son, born in the court, but bred ‘Midst forest peace, - royal of blood, and named Prince Satyavan, - to him my choice is given.”

“Aho!” cried Narad, “evil is this choice Which Sâvitrî hath made, who, knowing not, Doth name the noble Satyavan her lord: For, noble is the Prince, sprung of a pair So just and faithful found in word and deed The Brahmans styled him ‘Truth-born ‘ at his birth. Horses he loved, and ofttimes would he mould Coursers of clay, or paint them on the wall; Therefore ‘Chitraswa’ was he also called.”

Then spake the King: “By this he shall have grown Being of so fair birth - either a prince Of valor, or a wise and patient saint.”

Quoth Narad: “Like the sun is Satyavan For grace and glory; like Vrihaspati For counsel; like Mahendra’s self for might; And hath the patience of th’ all-bearing earth.”

“Is he a liberal giver? “asked the King; Loveth he virtue? wears he noble airs? Goeth he like a prince, with sweet proud looks?”

“He is as glad to give, if he hath store, As Rantideva,” Narada replied. Pious he is; and true as Shivi was, The son of Usinara; fair of form (Yayâti was not fairer); sweet of looks (The Aswins not more gracious); gallant, kind, Reverent, self-governed, gentle, equitable, Modest, and constant. justice lives in him, And Honor guides. Those who do love a man Praise him for manhood; they that seek a saint Laud him for purity, and passions tamed.” “A prince thou showest us,” the Raja said, “All virtues owning. Tell me of some faults, If fault he hath.”

“None lives,” quoth Narada. But some fault mingles with his qualities And Satyavan bears that he cannot mend. The blot which spoils his brightness, the defect Forbidding yonder Prince, Raja, is this, ‘Tis fated he shall die after a year; Count from to-day one year, he perisheth!”

“My Sâvitrî,” the King cried; “go, dear child, Some other husband chooses. This hath one fault; But huge it is, and mars all nobleness: At the year’s end he dies ‘tis Narad’s word, Whom the gods teach.”

But Sâvitrî replied: Once falls a heritage; once a maid yields Her maidenhood; once doth a father say, Choose, I abide thy choice.’ These three things done, Are done forever. Be my Prince to live A year, or many years; be he so great As Narada hath said, or less than this; Once have I chosen him, and choose not twice My heart resolved, my mouth hath spoken it, My hand shall execute; -this is my mind!”

Quoth Narad: “Yea, her mind is fixed, O King, And none will turn her from the path of truth! Also the virtues of Prince Satyavan Shall in no other man be found. Give thou Thy child to him. I gainsay not.”

Therewith The Raja sighed: “Nay, what must be, must be. She speaketh sooth: and I will give my child, For thou our Guru art.”

Narada said: Free be the gift of thy fair daughter, then; May happiness yet light! -Raja, I go.” So went that sage, returning to his place And the King bade the nuptials be prepared.

HE bade that all things be prepared, - the robes, The golden cups; and summoned priest and sage, Brahman and Rity-yaj and Purôhit; And, on a day named fortunate, set forth With Sâvitrî. In the mid-wood, they found Dyumutsena’s sylvan court: The King, Alighting, paced with slow steps to the spot Where sat the blind lord underneath a sâl, On mats woven of kusa grass. Then passed Due salutations; worship, as is meet: - All courteously the Raja spake his name, All courteously the blind King gave to him Earth, and a seat, and water in a jar; Then asked, “ What, Maharaja, bringeth thee?” And Aswapati, answering, told him all. With eyes fixed full upon Prince Satyavan He spake: “This is my daughter, Sâvitrî Take her from me to be wife to thy son, According to the law; thou know’st the law. Dyumutsena said: “ Forced from our throne, Wood-dwellers, hermits, keeping state no more, We follow right, and how would right be done If this most lovely lady we should house Here, in our woods, unfitting home for her? Answered the Raja: “ Grief and joy we know, And what is real and seeming, - she and I Nor fits this fear with our unshaken minds. Deny thou not the prayer of him who bows In friendliness before thee; put not by His wish who comes well-minded unto thee; Thy stateless state shows noble; thou and I Are of one rank; take then this maid of mine To be thy daughter, since she chooseth me Thy Satyavan for son.”

The blind lord spake: It was of old my wish to grow akin, Raja, with thee, by marriage of our blood; But ever have I answered to myself, ‘Nay, for thy realm is lost, forego this hope Yet now, so let it be, since so thou wilt; My welcome guest thou art. Thy will is mine.”

Then gathered in the forest all those priests, And with due rites the royal houses bound By nuptial tie. And when the Raja saw His daughter, as befits a princess, wed, Home went he, glad. And glad was Satyavan, Winning that beauteous spouse, with all gifts rich And she rejoiced to be the wife of him, So chosen of her soul. But when her sire Departed, from her neck and arms she stripped jewels and gold, and o’er her radiant form Folded the robe of bark and yellow cloth Which hermits use; and all hearts did she gain By gentle actions, soft self-government, Patience, and peace. The Queen had joy of her For tender services and mindful cares; The blind King took delight to know her days So holy, and her wise words so restrained; And with her lord in sweet converse she lived Gracious and loving, dutiful and dear.

But while in the deep forest softly flowed This quiet life of love and holiness, The swift moons sped - and always in the heart Of Sâvitrî, by day and night, there dwelt The words of Narada, - those dreadful words!

Now, when the pleasant days were passed, which brought The day of Doom, and Satyavan must die (For hour by hour the Princess counted them, Keeping the words of Narada in heart), Bethinking on the fourth noon he should die, She set herself to make the “ Threefold Fast,” Three days and nights foregoing food and sleep; Which, when the King Dyumutsena heard, Sorrowful he arose, and spake her thus: “Daughter, a heavy task thou takest on Hardly the saintliest soul might such abide.” But Sâvitrî gave answer: “Have no heed: What I do set myself I will perform; The vow is made, and I shall keep the vow.” “If it be made,” quoth he, “ it must be kept; We cannot bid thee break thy word, once given.” With that the King forbade not, and she sat Still, as though carved of wood, three days and nights. But when the third night passed, and brought the day Whereon her lord must die, she rose betimes, Made offering on the altar flames, and sang Softly the morning prayers; then, with clasped palms Laid on her bosom, meekly came to greet The King and Queen, and lowlily salute “The gray-haired Brahmans. Thereupon those saints - Resident in the woods - made answer mild Unto the Princess: “Be it well with thee, And with thy lord, for these good deeds of thine.” “May it be well! “she answered; in her heart Full mournfully that hour of fate awaiting Foretold of Narad.

Then they said to her: Daughter, thy vow is kept. Come, now, and eat.” But Sâvitrî replied: “When the sun sinks This evening, 1 will eat, - that is my vow.”

So when they could not change her, afterward Came Satyavan, the Prince, bound for the woods, An axe upon his shoulder; unto whom Wistfully spake the Princess: “Dearest Lord, Go not alone today; let me come too I cannot be apart from thee to-day.”

“Why not ‘to-day’?” quoth Satynvm. “The wood Is strange to thee, Belovèd, and its paths Rough for thy tender feet; besides, with fast Thy soft limbs faint; how wilt thou walk with me?”

I am not weak nor weary,” she replied, And I can walk. Say me not nay, sweet Lord, I have so great a heart to go with thee.”

“If thou hast such good heart,” answered the Prince, I shall say yea; but first entreat the leave Of those we reverence, lest a wrong be done.” So, pure and dutiful, she sought that place’ Where sat the King and Queen, and, bending low, Murmured request: “My husband goeth straight To the great forest, gathering fruits and flowers; I pray your leave that I may be with him. To make the Agnihôtra sacrifice Fetcheth he those, and will not be gainsaid, But surely goeth. Let me go. A year Hath rolled since I did fare from th’ hermitage To see our groves in bloom. I have much will To see them now.”

The old King gently said: In sooth it is a year since she was given To be our son’s wife, and I mind me not Of any boon the loving heart hath asked, Nor any one untimely word she spake; Let it be as she prayeth. Go, my child; Have care of Satyavan, and take thy way.”

So, being permitted of them both, she went, That beauteous lady, - at her husband’s side, With aching heart, albeit her face was bright. Flower-laden trees her large eyes lighted on, Green glades where pea-fowl sported, crystal streams, And soaring hills whose green sides burned with bloom, Which oft the Prince would bid her gaze upon; But she as oft turned those great eyes from them To look on him, her husband, who must die, (For always in her mind were Narad’s words). And so she walked behind him, guarding him, Bethinking at what hour her lord must die, Her true heart torn in twain, one half to him Close-cleaving, one half watching if Death come.

THEN, having reached where woodland fruits did grow, They gathered those, and filled a basket full; And afterwards the Prince plied hard his axe, Cutting the sacred fuel. Presently There crept a pang upon him; a fierce throe Burned through his brows, and, all a-sweat, he came Feebly to Sâvitrî, and moaned: “O wife, I am thus suddenly too weak for work; My veins throb, Sâvitrî; my blood runs fire; It is as if a threefold fork were plunged Into my brain. Let me lie down, fair Love! Indeed, I cannot stand upon my feet.”

Thereon that noble lady, hastening near, Stayed him, that would have fallen, with quick arms; And, sitting on the earth, laid her lord’s head Tenderly in her lap. So, bent she, mute, Fanning his face, and thinking ‘twas the day The hour - which Narad named - the sure fixed date Of dreadful end - when, lo! before her rose A shade majestic. Red his garments were, His body vast and dark; like fiery suns The eyes which burned beneath his forehead-cloth Armed was he with a noose, awful of mien. This Form tremendous stood by Satyavan, Fixing its gaze upon him. At the sight The fearful Princess started to her feet. Heedfully laying on the grass his head, Up started she, with beating heart, and joined Her palms for supplication, and spake thus In accents tremulous: “Thou seem’st some god Thy mien is more than mortal; make me know What god thou art, and what thy purpose here.”

And Yama said (the dreadful God of death) Thou art a faithful wife, O Sâvitrî, True to thy vows, pious, and dutiful; Therefore I answer thee. Yama I am! This Prince, thy lord, lieth at point to die Him will I straightway bind and bear from life; This is my office, and for this I come.” Then Sâvitrî spake sadly: “It is taught, Thy messengers are sent to fetch the dying; Why is it, Mightiest, thou art come thyself?

In pity of her love, the Pitiless Answered, the King of all the Dead replied: “This was a Prince unparalleled, thy lord Virtuous as fair, a sea of goodly gifts, Not to be summoned by a meaner voice Than Yama’s own: therefore, is Yama come.”

With that the gloomy God fitted his noose, And forced forth from the Prince the soul of him Subtile, a thumb in length - which being reft, Breath stayed, blood stopped, the body’s grace was gone, And all life’s warmth to stony coldness turned. Then, binding it, the Silent Presence bore Satyavan’s soul away toward the South.

But Sâvitrî the Princess followed him; Being so bold in wifely purity, So holy by her love: and so, upheld, She followed him.

Presently Yama turned. “Go back,” quoth he; “pay him the funeral dues. Enough, O Sâvitrî! is wrought for love; Go back! too far already hast thou come.”

Then Sâvitrî made answer: “I must go Where my lord goes, or where my lord is borne; Nought other is my duty. Nay, I think, By reason of my vows, my services Done to the Gurus, and my faultless love, Grant but thy grace, I shall unhindered go. The sages teach that to walk seven steps, One with another, maketh good men friends; Beseech thee, let me say a verse to thee:

Be master of thyself, if thou wilt be Servant of Duty. Such as thou shalt see Not self-subduing, do no deeds of good In youth or age, in household or in wood. But wise men know that virtue is best bliss, And all by someone way may reach to this. It needs not men should pass through orders four To come to knowledge: doing right is more Than any learning; therefore, sages say Best and most excellent is Virtue’s way.

Spake Yama then: “Return! yet I am moved By those soft words; justly their accents fell, And sweet and reasonable was their sense. See, now, thou faultless one. Except this life I bear away, ask any boon from me; It shall not be denied.”

Sâvitrî said Let, then, the King, my husband’s father, have His eyesight back, and be his strength restored, And let him live anew, strong as the sun.”

“I give this gift,” Yama replied: “thy wish, Blameless, shall be fulfilled. But now go back; Already art thou wearied, and our road Is hard and long. Turn back, lest thou, too, die.”

The Princess answered: “Weary am I not, So I walk nigh my lord. Where he is borne, Thither wend I. Most mighty of the gods, I follow whereso’er thou takest him. A verse in writ on this, if thou wouldst hear: -

There is nought better than to be