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Mahabharata Sanskrit epic by Krsnadvaipayana Vyasa. It is perhaps the longest in the epic literature. Its basic theme is the conflict between the Kurus or Kauravas, the one hundred sons of Dhrtarastra, and the five Pandavas, the sons of Pandu, the brother of Dhrtarastra. The Kurus, who drew their name from that of their forefather, Kuru, were led by their eldest brother, Duryodhana. The leader of the Pandavas was their eldest brother, Yudhisthira. The war between the Kurus and the Pandavas took place at Kuruksetra. The Kurus were assisted mainly by Bhisma, Drona and Karna, while the Pandavas were assisted by Sri krishna.

There is a difference of opinion concerning the time of the composition of the Mahabharata. Originally, the epic was believed to have been composed prior to 3,000 BC. Scholars today, however, date it between 200 BC and 200 AD. At the beginning the Mahabharata was known as Jaya and had 8,000-10,000 shlokas or stanzas. However, with subsequent accretion, the slokas have increased ten-fold. The Mahabharata currently in circulation contains 100,000 slokas.

The Mahabharata is divided into 18 books, or parva. The initial book (Adi) contains the genealogies of the characters, the enmity between the Kurus and Pandavas, the winning of Draupadi and her marriage to the five Pandavas; the second book (Sabha, or assembly) describes the gambling match in which Yudhisthira lost everything and the Pandavas were forced into exile for default of pawn; the third book (Vana, or forest) describes the life of the Pandavas in the forest; the fourth book (Virata) describes the adventures of the Pandavas living in disguise at the court of the king of Virata. The next eleven books describe the great battle between the Kurus and the Pandavas, interspersed with lamentations at losses, the revelation of the mystery of Karna's birth, discourses on peace and governance, the duties of a ruler and the ways of dealing with emergencies. The sixth book (Bhisma) contains Krishna's advice to Arjun, the famous Gita or Shrimadbhagavadgita. The twelfth and thirteenth books (Shanti, or peace, and Anushasana, or precepts) contain the advice given by the wounded Bhisma as he lies on his bed of arrows and end with his death. The terrible battle between the Kurus and the Pandavas ends with victory for the Pandavas. The fourteenth book (Ashvamedha) describes the horse sacrifice performed by the victorious Yudhisthira. The remaining books describe the last, sad days of Dhrtarastra and his wives, their deaths, and the final journey of the Pandavas as they ascend with Draupadi to heaven where they meet Krishna.

The Mahabharata represents a unique synthesis of beliefs and ways. Thus, it attempts to synthesise the philosophies of shiva, Durga and vishnu. Apart from its poetic qualities, it is a comprehensive representation of ancient India. It includes history, myths, anecdotes, puranas, theology, economics, warfare, the art and science of sex, philosophy, morality and the idea of salvation. Because of its significance, it is known as the fifth Vedas.

Apart from being a narrative of adventure and heroic deeds, the Mahabharata also portrays the ordinary lives of people-their hopes and aspirations, greed and follies, expectations and despair, profit and loss, goodness and evil, piety or lack of religion. The epic also contains a cast of characters, most of whom have become archetypes: wise and brave Bhisma, virtuous Yudhisthira, majestic Gandhari, learned Bidur, patient Kunti, wise and spirited Draupadi, valiant Karna and Arjuna, and great Krishna. These characters have become sources of inspiration. From the Mahabharata emanates a sense of the greatness of life. On the other hand, the malicious and immoral Duryodhana and the evil genius Shakuni appear as symbols of greed, lust, and villainy.

For centuries, poets like Bhasa, kalidasa, rabindranath tagore and kazi nazrul islam, as well as painters and sculptors have drawn allegories and metaphores from the Mahabharata. This great epic has inspired people of all ages, and all religions and cultures. The Mahabharata has immensely influenced bangla literature. It is regarded by the common people as a source of pleasure, moral lessons and solace at times of trials and tribulations.

The Mahabharata has been translated into almost all the regional Indian languages, including Bangla. With each translator bringing his own perception of life, social consciousness and individual composing skills, these translations become almost original poems.

There were several Bangla translators of the Mahabharata, dating from the 16th century. kavindra parameshwar composed the first Bangla Mahabharata, which was known after him as Kavindra Mahabharata (c 1515). This is a fairly brief version and uses the traditional payara (couplet) and tripadi (an arrangement of lines into sets of three). Kavindra Parameshwar was the court poet of paragal khan, the ruler of chittagong, and he composed the poem at his ruler's command. Accordingly, his version is also known as Paragali Mahabharata. A poet named Sanjay, a contemporary of Kavindra, also translated the Mahabharata. Some believe Sanjay's version is the older of the two. However, as these two versions are almost the same, some critics believe Kavindra and Sanjay - of whom nothing is known - to be the same person. kashiram das (c 17th century) who is popularly believed to be the first translator of the epic into Bangla, actually composed his version of the epic a long time after Kavindra.

Nityananda Ghosh's Mahabharata (c 16th century) used to be popular, but has now been replaced in popularity by Kashiram Das's version. Kashiram Das's Mahabharata, called the Kashidasi Mahabharata (c 17th century) after him, is much longer than the Kavindra Mahabharata. Other translators of the Mahabharata subsequent to Kashiram include Ghanashyam Das, Ananta Mishra, Ramnarayan Datta, Ramkrsna Kavishekhar, Shrinath Brahman, Kavichandra Chakravarti, Sasthidhar Sen and his son Gangadas Sen, Vasudev, Trilochan Chakravarti, Daivakinandan, Krsnaram, Ramnarayan Ghosh, Loknath Datta, Rajendra Das, Gopinath Dutta, Srstidhar Sen. The Mahabharata was also translated into Bangla prose by kali prasanna singh and rajshekhar basu in the 19th century. Around this time some writers also translated the epic into English.

Many poets translated parts of the Mahabharata. Thus, Shrikar Nandi, the court poet of Paragal Khan's son, Chhuti Khan (real name Nasrat Khan, 1519-1532), made a free translation into Bangla of the Asvamedha, called after his patron, Chhutikhani Mahabharata. Dvija Raghunath, court poet of Mukundadev, the last independent Hindu king of Orissa, also translated the Asvamedha, as did Ramchandra Khan of Uttar Radh. Other sections of the epic were also translated, such as the Vana parva, describing the sojourn in the forest, by Ramsarasvati, court poet of the king of Cooch Bihar, and Naladamayanti Upakhyan (the story of Nala and Damayanti), by Pitambar Das. [Sambaru Chandra Mohanta]