Maha·bhárata IV: Viráta

Translated by Kathleen Garbutt

Maha·bhárata IV: Viráta

‘Viráta’ is the fourth book of the Maha·bhárata and details the Pándavas’ 13th year in exile, when they live disguised in King Virata’s court.

The Pandavas suffer the humiliation of becoming servants; a topic explored both through comedy and pathos. They manage to maintain their disguise until the very end of the year, when their troubles really begin. Bhima is forced to come to Dráupadi’s rescue when King Viráta’s general, Kíchaka, sets his sights on her. Later, taking advantage of his demise, Duryódhana and the Tri·gartas decide to invade Viráta’s kingdom, unaware the Pándavas are hidden there. In the ensuing battles the Pándavas play a crucial role and, after saving Viráta, reveal their true identities to him.

The book ends on a note of celebration, with the Pándavas ready to return from exile and reclaim their kingdom. However, the ‘Viráta’’s battles foreshadow the war to come, proving it will not be easy.

The winds blow fierce and dry, raining down gravel, and the sky is covered with darkness and an ashen luminescence. The clouds have taken on a strange form; both water laden and yet dry in their appearance. Various weapons are slipping out of their sheaths. Pitiless jackals howl on all sides of the blazing horizon. The horses are weeping and our banners tremble without any visible cause.

The winds blow fierce and dry, raining down gravel, and the sky is covered with darkness and an ashen luminescence. The clouds have taken on a strange form; both water laden and yet dry in their appearance. Various weapons are slipping out of their sheaths. Pitiless jackals howl on all sides of the blazing horizon. The horses are weeping and our banners tremble without any visible cause.

When such numerous omens appear great danger is at hand, so protect yourself, and arrange your army. Expect butchery and protect the wealth of cattle! This hero, the great archer, the best of all who wield weapons, who has come wearing eunuch’s clothes, is in fact Partha, no doubt about it!

516 pp.  |  ISBN-13: 978-0-8147-3183-3  |  ISBN-10: 0-8147-3183-X  |  Co-published by New York University Press and JJC Foundation


“Disguises for Viráta’s Court”
(Canto 1-13, pp. 23-43)
(28 pp, 1.35mb)

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Download the title page and table of contents and one chapter of the book (in English and Sanskrit on facing pages), bundled together as a .pdf file. You can also download the CSL Front Matter (6pp, 1.3mb). It describes how we transliterate the Sanskrit text in the Roman alphabet and includes a guide to pronunciation. It also explains our system of representing phonetic fusion (sandhi).

You can set Adobe Acrobat Reader to display the Sanskrit text and translation in facing page view. Simply go to “View” in the toolbar, select “Page Layout” and click on “Facing.”

About the Translator

Kathleen Garbutt translates and edits Sanskrit literature for the JJC Foundation, co-publishers (with NYU Press) of the Clay Sanskrit Library. She also translated Maha·bhárata V: Preparations for War (volume one of two) and Maha·bhárata V: Preparations for War (volume two of two) for the CSL.

Translator‘s Insights

As a seven year old I told my parents that I wanted to be a classicist, mainly because I was convinced that this would merely entail reading myths and getting credit for it. Later on, as a classics student, I discovered the Indian culture with its rich vein of tales to explore, but it was still this basic love of stories which drew me in. So being able to translate the Maha·bhárata for a living was a dream come true.

I have to admit that when I came to translate Virāṭaparvan my experience of the Maha·bhárata in Sanskrit was limited to the story of Nala and Damayánti, which every Sanskrit student inevitably must translate, and in general to a wonderful technicolour comic book version I found in Varanasi. However, the Maha·bhárata had always held a magical place in my imagination. At roughly four times the size of the Bible and seven times the size of the Iliad and Odyssey combined, the Maha·bhárata is the Everest of the ancient literary world. And just as mountain climbers often put it, it must be conquered because it is there.

But though it is a classicist’s greatest challenge it should equally be brought to everyone. For too long it seems that the epic literature of India has been inaccessible to the west. Certainly its scale is intimidating, but once I actually started working on it, I realised how instantly captivating it can be. It is a shame epic poetry has become such a niche market, for though there is certainly much to study and analyse academically and religiously in the Maha·bhárata, there are also wonderful tales which would appeal to everyone. Epic poetry in its very nature is designed for the masses and so it is in this light that I have tried to translate the Virāṭaparvan.

This book is in many ways one of the lighter parts of the epic, with less emphasis on expounding religious doctrine. So perhaps, with the timeless themes of comedy and humiliation which dominate it, the Virāṭaparvan is one of the most accessible books of the Maha·bhárata. It is filled with light-hearted flourishes, even in the most dramatic scenes, and it retains its playful tone throughout. This is one of the main reasons I enjoyed translating it so much. The Virāṭaparvan starts with the tales of how the Pándavas suffer and survive in disguise, but ends with their discovery, when their power, heroism and majesty are finally revealed in battle. Their trials are many and varied but in every scene there is a balance between dramatic tension and playfulness. As an example I include this passage, the comedy of which only serves to demonstrate the pathetic nature of Árjuna’s position as he presents himself to King Viráta, pretending to be a eunuch.

Then another handsome man of enormous proportion appeared, wearing women’s ornaments. He had decked himself with dangly earrings, which on him resembled fortified rampart walls, and beautiful gilt conch-shell bracelets. The long-armed person whose stride was like that of an elephant, shook out his long and plentiful hair. Making the earth tremble with his approach, he came up to Viráta in the presence of his assembly. Seeing great Indra’s son, the abuser of his foes, enter the assembly hall with the stride of a mighty elephant, concealed by his disguise, but shining with his conspicuous brilliance, the king asked all his attendants in the court: “Where has this man come from? For I have not heard of him before.”

When the men then replied that they had no idea who this newcomer may be, the king spoke in wonder, “You are a god-like man endowed with true power. Dark skinned youth that you are, with your hair tied in a braid and decked with beautiful gilt conch-shell bracelets and earrings, you resemble the leader of a herd of elephants. Alternatively you are like one of those who drive about riding a chariot; a shining garlanded creature with beautiful hair and a retinue, bearing armour and carrying a bow and arrow. Become my sons’ equal or even mine, for I am old and eager to resign. So rule over all the Matsyas. To my mind it seems that a person with an appearance such as this bears no resemblance to a eunuch at all!”

“I sing, dance and play instruments. I am a gifted dancer and an expert singer. Assign me to your own Uttará, and I will be the princess’ dance tutor, Lord of men. What will be the result of your forcing me to explain my form, other than greatly increasing my grief? Know me, God among men, as Brihan·nala,—the Large-reeded lady—a son or daughter without a mother and father.”

“Very well, I will grant your wish Brihan·nala. Teach my daughter and those like her to dance. But in my opinion this task does not seem equal to you, for you deserve the earth encompassed by the ocean.”

Then, once the king of the Matsyas had examined Brihan·nala in the tone of his songs and in dances and similarly in the playing of musical instruments, he consulted with his various ministers. Then quickly having had an examination made by the women as to whether he was really a eunuch, and finding that his lack of manhood was a permanent condition, the king then let him loose on the royal women’s quarters.

So it was that the mighty Dhanam·jaya taught Viráta’s daughter and her friends and attendants to sing and play musical instruments, and the son of Pandu became dear to them. Self controlled Dhanam·jaya lived there in disguise, enjoying their company, but neither the people outside nor even those inside that place recognised him.