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the Complete Review
the complete review - poetry

The Killing of Shishupala


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Title: The Killing of Shishupala
Author: Magha
Genre: Poetry
Written: 7th/8th century (Eng. 2017)
Length: 737 pages
Original in: Sanskrit
Availability: The Killing of Shishupala - US
The Killing of Shishupala - UK
The Killing of Shishupala - Canada
  • Sanskrit title: शिशुपालवध
  • Edited, translated, and with an Introduction by Paul Dundas
  • This is a bilingual edition which includes the original Sanskrit text

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Our Assessment:

B+ : slightly dulled in the English translation, but enough here -- including the Sanskrit original -- to give a sense of the poem's grandeur

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The Killing of Shishupala is a mahākāvya -- indeed, it was recognized: "By the early centuries of the second millennium C.E." as one of the five: "prime representatives of this prestigious mode of poetic composition". In his Introduction translator Dundas notes about the mahākāvya-form, that: "attempts to define it as analogous to more familiar literary forms are misplaced" -- and that while there are similarities to epic poetry, there's considerably more to the mahākāvya. The poetry -- form and approach, and the use of language (specifically, what can be done in Sanskrit), including: "an elaborate array of figurative devices", as well as, in this case, the extensive use of śleṣa (polysemic wordplay allowing for multiple possible meanings of words (or entire verses ...)) -- is as significant as the (usually derivative) story.
       What story there is to The Killing of Shishupala is based on an episode in the Mahabharata -- and was, of course, presumed to be familiar to his audience. Dundas summarizes it briefly in his Introduction but also notes that: "Magha pares down the Mahabharata's narrative of an attempted disruption of ritual order" -- considerably, in fact. Essentially: Shishupala offends Krishna (and, basically, the whole world order), and Krishna decides enough is enough and goes to teach him a lesson. As the title makes obvious, there's absolutely no doubt about where this is headed, or what the outcome will be. There's some debate, and there are a few obstacles -- notably Krishna's vow many years earlier that he would tolerate a hundred crimes by Shishupala, without retribution -- but, again: there's no doubt as to the outcome.
       Dundas tallies:

     The Killing of Shishupala is a poem of twenty chapters, consisting (in the edition offered here) of 1,638 verses composed in forty-one different meters.
       Dundas' rendering is the first complete one into English, and while he notes that recent efforts: "have been confined to very literal versions of the opening chapters, produced for the aid of Indian university students studying Sanskrit literature", he also offers a version that he (accurately) describes as being: "in straightforward prose". This does make for some disconnect from the verse-original -- all the more notable, because it really isn't so much about the story here, but rather the (very creative) telling. Extensive endnotes do give some sense of the often inimitable wordplay that is missed in translation, but arguably most of the poetry is missing.
       While the larger story may be relatively simple, The Killing of Shishupala is very much an epic of digression -- asides and scene-setting (often of secondary sites, along the way), with both individual verses and whole chapters devoted to the more incidental. On a verse-by-verse basis, the prose translation does often capture or suggest the essence of the Sanskrit -- if not quite in the same language, so to speak. (A lot does come across quite well, but more than most translations of a classical work, The Killing of Shishupala pushes readers to the Sanskrit original -- which, thankfully, the lovely Murty Classical Library edition provides facing Dundas' English renderings. Not that, even as such, it is very readily accessible -- another reason to be thankful for the at least literally largely faithful translation (though as noted, in this śleṣa-heavy text, 'literal' really doesn't get the half of it).)
       The first chapter has Narada come to Krishna to deliver a message, warning of Shishupala, whom he describes in his various manifestations -- first as Hiranyakashipu (embodying: "all the malice in the word 'demon', and it was because of him that fear entered the gods' minds for the very first time") then taking birth: "as another terrible demon called Ravana". And Narada notes: "now he has entered upon another existence, like an actor assuming a new role, and concealed himself behind the name Shishupala" -- but still, at heart and in soul, the very same, very bad demon.
       Narada's suggestion and advice is simple:
Shishupala has transgressed the command of the creator, so make him a guest in the palace of the lord of the dead.
       The second chapter is 'The Discussion in the Council Chamber', as Krishna is prevented from acting hastily and actually solicits advice. He's not worried about the personal affront -- though he kind of started that, injuring Shishupala "in taking Rukmini, his betrothed, as a wife" -- but rather the big picture:
I am not troubled that Shishupala, my aunt Satvati's son, is wronging me; what concerns me much more is the fact that he is menacing the world.
       There's also the problem that Krishna kind of promised to turn a blind eye to Shishupala's naught/nastiness: as he is reminded:
As is well-known, you promised your father's sister that you would tolerate as many as a hundred sins committed by her son Shishupala. She deserves respect, so you must uphold that commitment.
       Of course, considering the extent of Shishupala's misdeeds, Krishna can argue that the hundred-count has now easily been met .....
       Krishna listens to the different arguments, but settles on taking care of business: chapter three sets off with the 'Departure for Indraprastha', to catch up with Shishupala.
       It turns out to be a long journey, with Magha devoting much of the rest of the poem to the traveling itself -- and the stops along the way. There's impressive 'Mount Raivataka' - and there are lots of eager women. Chapters proceed from 'Forest Flirtations' to 'Water Games' to 'Romantic Encounters after Sunset' and 'Wine and Women'. Yes, while The Killing of Shishupala might be a story of conflict and culminates in a grand clash, much of it is also devoted to the simpler pleasures of life.
       Reaching their destination, things don't immediately come to a head. Instead, Shishupala finds more reasons to be aggravated: "When others prosper, the self-absorbed harbor envious thoughts" -- and shows no respect for Krishna: "You lie and deceive; you are a con man, a trickster, a cheap showman !" The angry -- even outrageous -- outburst also allows for one of Magha's many tours de force, when an emissary brings a message from Shishupala to Krishna, ostensibly an apology -- but the message is one that can be read -- and is presented in -- two ways, as: "He was a man crafty with words and his message was ambiguous, as everybody realized". (The double-reading is presented in full, so this also comes across in the English, if not quite as immediate-effectively.)
Its message is amenable on the surface but disagreeable within, and can just as well be interpreted the other way around.
       Unsurprisingly, there's no possibility for reconciliation. Bring it on, Shishupala says, in essence -- bringing it all on himself. And he's cocky, too:
Shishupala is not afraid to meet you in combat, Krishna, any more than he fears a tawny cat.
       (And, yes, there's word play in that particular comparison, too.)
       Once things get going, they really get going. Yes, "The earth buckled so much from the weight of the elephants' tread that it merged with the underworld below"; yes: "Torrents of gore sprang up".
       There are some nice individual images:
Pradyumna became so terrible to behold that not even Shiva, who had nonchalantly immolated him in a previous existence, would have had the audacity to cast his third eye upon him again.
       And even in the heat of battle, Magha nicely ties content to form:
The army, drawn up in various formations, was difficult to assault on any front; it was organized like a complex poem with verses composed in configurations such as "Correct in Every Direction," "The Wheel," and "Zigzagging like Cow's Urine."
       Okay, sometimes the effect isn't quite there -- "So light overcame darkness, just as proper legal proceeding prevails over false testimony" -- but overall the battle scenes are impressively spectacular. The conclusion is foregone, and almost anti-climactic -- readers long ready for the off-with-his-head moment, which comes quickly and abruptly -- but Shishupala is allowed a nice penultimate blow:
Krishna's enemy now knew his foe was immune to his arrows, for though straight and true, they were not deadly. So he struck at him with the shafts of his words, wounding to the core, crooked and false.
       Much of the English does convey Magha's scenes and images and action well enough. Both the amorous frolicking and the battlefield horrors are quite evocatively rendered. Yes, there are some bits that, while capturing the original, still sound a bit off -- "To revive its appetite, a jackal drank down a refreshing aperitif of blood and digested the remains of its previous meal", or: "When the ocean swells at doomsday, what benefit to the world is an overflow pipe ?" -- but the translation does capture much of the imagery well.
       Lost, however, are many of Magha's linguistic and poetic games -- and what a loss ! The allusions and double-meanings can be suggested -- and much is helpfully discussed in the endnotes -- but there are aspects of the poem that just can't be rendered or echoed in the English. Some of the famous examples are obvious even to the reader who can't make heads or tails of the devanagari: consider, for example:
जजौजोजाजिजिज्जाजी तं ततोऽतितताततुत्।
भाभोऽभीभाभिभूभाभू- रारारिररिरीररः॥

taṃ tato'titatātatut

He was relentless in his enmity, always victorious in battles where warriors showed their mettle, striking down the arrogant. Blazing like a star as he sped forward in his chariot, Balarama was full of a vigor that could overcome any elephant, however fearless.
       Sure, the English version gets the meaning across -- but just look at Magha's sequential use of only four consonantal phonemes !
       Even more spectacularly:
दाददो दुद्ददुद्दादी दाददो दूददीददोः ।
दुद्दादं दददे दुद्दे दादाददददोऽददः ॥

[dādado duddaduddādī dādado dūdadīdadoḥ
duddādaṃ dadade dudde dādādadadado'dadaḥ]

Bounteous with gifts, punishing assailants of the virtuous and then offering them protection, destroying with his mighty arms the demons oppressing the world, liberal toward the generous and the miserly without discrimination, but extirpating the greedy -- as such a hero Krishna had taken up arms against the enemy.
       If you ever need an example for what's lost in translation .....
       (Never mind the palindromes and double palindromes. And all that polysemic wordplay.)
       Dundas' prose rendering gives a decent impression of Magha's grand poem, but it can't help but feel like a black-and-white drawing of a (colorful) painting. There's probably no better way of Englishing it -- but readers should be aware how very much of the original can't adequately be conveyed or represented in translation. If any text can serve as an incentive to learn Sanskrit, in order to be able to appreciate the original, this might well be it.
       Regardless, the beautiful Murty Classical Library of India edition, with the Sanskrit text facing the English, is ideal any which way you want to or can enjoy it.

- M.A.Orthofer, 22 March 2017

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The Killing of Shishupala: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Magha (माघ) was a poet who lived in the 7th or 8th century, in what is now Rajasthan.

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© 2017-2021 the complete review

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