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Encyclopaedia of Ramayana, Mahabharata

An 'epic' task

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READY RECKONER: Sanskrit scholar Nrisingha Prasad Bahduri and his four research assistants pore over hundreds of pages of text a day

Confused between Ramayana and Mahabharata? A Kolkata scholar's encyclopaedia that chronicles five centuries of ancient texts will make for easier referencing.

This is, in more ways than one, a truly epic task. In a Herculean and daunting, first-ever attempt of its kind, an Indologist and renowned Sanskrit scholar in Kolkata is compiling an exhaustive encyclopaedia of the Ramayana, Mahabharata and the Puranas. The mission, which started in 2010, is expected to be completed by 2015. What's more, the encyclopaedia will shatter the colonial hangover that a lot of the research into our ancient scriptures in recent times have suffered from and will present many historical figures in a new light. Once complete, the voluminous encyclopaedia will have every name, event, myth and subject chronicled in the five centuries of our ancient texts indexed for ready reference.

Nrisingha Prasad Bahduri, who used to teach Sanskrit at Kolkata's Gurudas College and was famed for his eloquent narration of stories from the ancient texts that appeared in leading Bengali journals, was approached by the owner of Sahitya Sansad, a renowned publisher of Bengali dictionaries, to start working on an encyclopaedia of either the Puranas or the Mahabharata 15 years ago.

"I thought it would be a good idea since all the smaller encyclopaedias I came across on the Puranas were incomplete and didn't have proper reference labels. I started poring through the Puranas and making card entries. After sometime, I thought I should include the Mahabharata also since the stories in the Mahabharata have a parampara (continuity and tradition) with the Puranas. For instance, names of some kings, conventions and rituals for marriages, childbirth and funerals that are found in the Vedas find mention in the Mahabharata as well. And gaps in the Mahabharata's stories, I discovered, can be filled from the Puranas and the Vedas. And since the story of Ramayana is found in a gist in the Mahabharata, I finally decided that a complete encyclopaedia of the epics and the Puranas is necessary since all these texts and scriptures complement each other, " Bhaduri told TOI-Crest.

However, his day job as a teacher took up a lot of his time and the work on the encyclopaedia progressed at a snail's pace till the day Bhaduri retired in 2010. "The day I retired, Sahitya Sansad owner Debojyoti Dutta requested me to take up the work seriously. From the next day, I started going to a room he had set aside for me in his office and plunged headlong into the project, " said Bhaduri. He was worried about the massive funds that would be required for the work, but help came from Bratya Basu, the education minister of the new Mamata Banerjee government that came to power last year. "I knew Basu well and told him about this work. He agreed immediately. "

Support also came from vice chancellor of Calcutta University Suranjan Das, who got the Netaji Subhas Institute of Asian Studies (which is funded by the state government) to grant an initial tranche of Rs 12 lakh to the project. "That enabled me to appoint four research assistants, " said Bhaduri.

Bhaduri says that the Ramayana and Mahabharata have to be looked at in their totality and not as periodic interpolations of various events and developments as many scholars do. "The Mahabharata, for instance, has changed and evolved, down the ages and this can't be called interpolation. For example, the Mahabharata has earlier references to untouchability and the caste system, but at the time Buddhism was gaining ground and challenging the rigid Brahminical caste order, the Mahabharata of those times evolved with the changing times and held that Brahmins must be of high character and learned and caste is not necessarily hereditary;thus, even a learned shudra of good character could become a Brahmin. The encyclopaedia I'm preparing will have complete references of all characters and events, including contrary opinions of pundits, " says Bhaduri.

He is against sanitising characters like Krishna and Rama that many scholars in the Raj and post-Raj era have done. "Western scholars and their Indian compatriots who I say suffer from a colonial hangover hold that the Krishna of the Mahabharata and of the Puranas are two different characters. In the Puranas, Krishna is a flirt and spends his time cavorting with women and in the Mahabharata, he is an astute politician. So, they say, the two Krishnas are different. I have tried to trace Krishna through the ages and show that the two are the same person who matures over time. Krishna needed a lot of astuteness to keep so many women happy when he was young and carefree and this was the same astuteness that he displayed in the Mahabharata. "

Under Western influence, he maintains, Indian scholars had tried to sanitise Krishna's character. "In Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay's Krishnacharitra, Krishna does not have a single consort!" says Bahduri. Rama too had his failings - particularly his attitude to Sita after her return from Lanka - and these need to be recorded along with his noble deeds to make his character whole, says Bhaduri. "You this happening today. Some of our top statemen may have some failings but that doesn't take away from their statesmanship. "

Bhaduri's encyclopaedia, to be published in Bengali first and then translated into English, will also challenge popular notions. For example, Karna gets a lot of sympathy for being an abandoned child. But, says Bhaduri, a close reading of the epics show Karna as restless, jealous, power-hungry and battle happy. Bhaduri is undettered by the kind of effort he has to put into the project but adds that he'll need another tranche of funds to keep the massive project going.

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