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the Complete Review
the complete review - poetry

Arjuna and the Hunter


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Title: Arjuna and the Hunter
Author: Bharavi
Genre: Poetry
Written: ca. 600 (Eng. 2016)
Length: 415 pages
Original in: Sanskrit
Availability: Arjuna and the Hunter - US
Arjuna and the Hunter - UK
Arjuna and the Hunter - Canada
Arjuna and the Hunter - India
  • Sanskrit title: किरातार्जुनीयम्
  • Edited and translated by Indira Viswanathan Peterson
  • This is a bilingual edition which includes the original Sanskrit text

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Our Assessment:

A- : grand poem, in an impressive edition

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Indira Viswanathan Peterson's translation of Bharavi's sixth century (or so) Kirātārjunīya is not the first in English, but as she notes, R.C.Dutt's 1894 version, The Hunter and the Hero is: "a dated verse rendering in the archaic diction and style of English ballads and translations of bardic poetry, modeled on Tennyson and other Victorian English poets" (though it must be said, it's not without its charms), while K.P.Kaisher Bahadur's translation of chapters 1-12 (of 18) is apparently marked by the translator's: "determination to prove that Bharavi was a Nepali poet and his work, a poem about Nepal" (in his defense: much of it is set in the Himalayas), so a complete and modern translation is obviously welcome.
       This bilingual Murty Classical Library of India edition helpfully prints the original Sanskrit text facing Peterson's translation (properly in the Devanagari script -- in a good-looking commissioned-and-designed-for-the series Murty Sanskrit typeface, no less --, unlike, for example, the Clay Sanskrit Library); challenging though the original is (to put it mildly), it's helpful to see and have immediate access to what Bharavi does with language (helpfully pointed out and explained in Peterson's Introduction and endnotes). While Arjuna and the Hunter is a fine story pretty much regardless of translation, the Sanskrit is -- even for readers with only the most rudimentary sense and understanding of it -- dazzling; some engagement with the original version -- even if only by noting what Bharavi is doing via the endnote observations and explanations -- readily makes clear the significance of the work in Sanskrit literature (it: "had become a seminal text in the Sanskrit literary canon almost from its origins, and remains so to this day", as Peterson notes).
       Arjuna and the Hunter is basically simply a retelling of a familiar episode from the epic Mahābhārata. It begins when the Pandavas are in exile, after Yudhishthira lost their kingdom, cheated out of it in a game played with loaded dice, and Yudhishthira gets a report on how Duryodhana is ruling over what should be their lands. Draupadi -- the Pandavas' wife -- was humiliated at the loaded dice-game (as Yudhishthira staked even her in his gambling-frenzy) and still bears a great grudge and tries to incite Yudhishthira to take action against the Kauravas; Yudhishthira's younger brother, Bhima, also argues for going on the attack. Yudhishthira is reluctant, but listens to the wise counsel of Vyasa, who notes that:

The earth can be won back only through bold military action, but the enemy is stronger in martial spirit, arms, and troops. We must therefore devise a plan to gain superiority, for victory in battle is obtained only through superior military strength.
       The plan he suggests is sending Arjuna into the Himalayas, where he:
will perform severe austerities to obtain the means to your end. Acquiring invincible martial powers, he will annihilate these men.
       After all, as someone later notes: "no goal is beyond reach when austerity is the means". Arjuna is up to the task, and heads off for the mountains, where he becomes an ascetic -- very successfully:
Haloed by gentle rays that spread in the sky, he shone like the moon. Although he was dwelling on a single mountain peak, his presence filled the entire mountain range. [...] Though emaciated from long ascetic observances, he was strong as a mountain; though committed to tranquility, he was invincible by nature; though alone in a remote place, he was resplendent like a king accompanied by his retinue
       Indra tests him, sending nymphs to seduce him, but Arjuna is single-minded in his pursuit and that plan fails:
       The nymphs had been sent to seduce the ascetic with their beauty, but it was they who fell in love with him. How unpredictable is the outcome of any undertaking !

       As they danced, the women's seductive eyes failed to express the requisite emotions, or follow the cue of hand gestures articulated by graceful movements of the fingers. Once the women's gaze had fallen on Arjuna, it simply refused to move.
       And Arjuna can't even be won over by arguments such as:
There will surely be many other opportunities for pursuing austerities, but it is not easy to find a worthy young woman who truly loves you.
       When that doesn't work, Indra comes in person -- albeit disguised as a hermit (though: "Even through his disguise his figure radiated a light that overpowered the world"). Arjuna explains himself -- including that:
I seek instead to wash away, with the tears of our enemy's grieving widows, the mud of disgrace that treachery has heaped upon us !
       Finally, it is Shiva -- who can provide the weapon he needs -- who tests Arjuna, tricking him into combat by means of a hunting-ruse involving a boar. It works, and Arjuna takes on first Shiva's troops and the Shiva himself, with several chapters devoted to the conflict. Arjuna can, of course, not defeat Shiva, but Shiva is sufficiently impressed to grant him what he needs.
       The poem concludes there, Arjuna returning home after Shiva sends him off with an encouraging: "Go forth and conquer your enemies !" -- but the actual tirumph over these is left for another day (and other works -- though of course readers know what happens next from the source material, the Mahābhārata)
       Given the familiarity of the story -- certainly to his original audience -- it's really the presentation here that counts. Bharavi spins a fairly exciting tale -- certainly at the beginning, as the Pandavas seethe over the unfairness of what has happened to them and are itching to set things right again, as well as in the scenes of disguise and combat. There's also quite a bit of poetic exposition: descriptions of nature (those impressive mountains), as well as the lovely, seductive nymphs and what they get up to (Arjuna isn't the only game in town; there's a whole chapter devoted to 'The Lovemaking of the Apsarases and Gandharvas'), all of which allows Bharavi to strut his stuff.
       A great deal of Arjuna and the Hunter is about the poetry, and Peterson's translation -- "cast in elevated poetic prose in the modern English idiom", as she describes it -- can only capture parts of that. Much of the imagery -- perhaps the most straightforward aspect of the translation -- comes across very nicely (even as there is rather a lot of hyperbole for modern tastes):
Tossed up in play by the women with full breasts and wide hips, the river water climbed up on the banks with swelling waves, surging forward as if it were driven by desire.
       A great deal is 'simply' supernatural -- but occasionally there's more depth to it, as in the appealing almost-thought-experiment:
The arrow flew so swiftly that no one could tell exactly when it had left the bow, or how long it stayed in the air. Did it strike its target with the speed of thought, or even before thought arose in the mind, or perhaps without ever leaving the bow ?
       Some of the interplay between language and meaning is lost even in fairly exact translation -- as in this suggestive description of the hunted boar, which obviously works better in the original:
Destined for destruction, like a coded syllable placed between a grammatical base and ending when they have come together to make a word, the beast was caught between Shiva, sole cause of the destruction of the universe, and Arjuna, warrior with the white horse, as they contended for the prize.
       So too the exaggeratedly-simple sounding hyperbolic assessments have to be placed in the context of philosophical and moral teachings that the characters are familiar with. What sounds a bit silly in English actually does have more depth in its larger context -- e.g.:
Your speech is pleasingly clear, yet complex; brief, yet profound; tightly constructed, yet not elliptical; of wide implication, yet not confused
       Many of the more subtle games -- and Arjuna and the Hunter is packed full of them -- are lost to the (immediate) eye in translation (though pointed out in the extensive endnotes). Peterson does make readers aware of some of what is going on in her Introduction -- noting, for example, that:
Besides favoring polysemy and other kinds of wordplay throughout the poem, the poet also devotes portions of an entire chapter in Arjuna to verse forming palindromes and other aural and visual patterns, a practice enthusiastically embraced by later poets.
       (Fans of Oulipo, in particular, should enjoy some of the remarkable things Bharavi does -- some fifteen hundred years avant la lettre, as it were.)
       If not a 'poetic' translation, Peterson's reads well and conveys the original well (the endnotes helping quite a ways with the layers that don't translate). Few choices are too glaring -- though, for example, one of Arjuna's names (and one that is repeated several times), कपिध्वजः, given here as: "hero with the monkey banner", though literally correct (कपि is 'monkey') perhaps didn't need to be; Peterson glosses it, explaining that: "Arjuna's banner displayed an image of the monkey god Hanuman, the hero Rama's helper", and surely Hanuman is iconic enough to be familiar to non-Indian readers as well and might serve better than (mere) 'monkey', which doesn't convey quite the same grandeur in English.
       Even as stand-alone English text, without the supporting material, Arjuna and the Hunter is a very enjoyable piece of work. This excellent edition, providing also the original Sanskrit, a helpful Introduction (and notes on the translation) as well as detailed supporting material, gives readers a chance to delve deeper into what is remarkable and very rewarding work -- though you really have to work on your Sanskrit to get anywhere near a full impression.

- M.A.Orthofer, 20 April 2016

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Arjuna and the Hunter: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Bharavi (भारवि) lived around the 6th century.

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