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Srimanta Sankaradeva’s Translation of the Bhagavata: A Note on Translation Strategy from Sanjib Kumar Borkakoti's blog

by Dr Madan Sarma

Translation has played a crucial role in the development of Assamese literature. In fact, translation and adaptation of important Sanskrit texts-both religious and secular-have helped the growth  and development of various forms/genres of literature in a number of Indian languages. The early Indian writers/poets, particularly those spearheading the Vaishnavite or neo-Vaishnavite movement  between the twelfth and the sixteenth  centuries of the Christian era , seemed to have been conversant with Sanskrit and one or two neighbouring languages. For spreading the message of Vaishnavism among the masses some of these poets took it upon themselves to  translate some of the important religious  texts  written in Sanskrit into the languages spoken by the common man. While translating such texts, the poet-scholars  took creative liberty without distorting the content or message of the original and also without worrying too much about the the highness of such texts. In fact, most regional translators of the epic The Rāmāyana took such  liberty. The Indian epics The Rāmāyana and The Mahābhārata  were rewritten in/ translated into many Indian languages to suit regional ethos and cultures. Mādhava Kandali’s translation(around 1350 CE) of The Rāmāyana  is the earliest translation of the epic in a modern Indian language. Kandali’s translation is remarkable for another reason. Among the early Indian writer-poets Kandali is, perhaps, the first to spell out his method (and theory?) of translation and rewriting in his Ramayana :

I have considered it with care and what I have been able to comprehend I have rendered into verse...poets compose their works up to the popular taste (loka vyavahare ). They put in something fabricated by them along with the original, because this (what the poets write) is no divine revelation (deva-vani ) but things of earth (laukika katha ). (Neog 28)


 Kandali’s translation appears to be a bhangani ,rather than an anuvāda,  (the Assamese word  bhangani comes from the verb  bhang,  meaning  to break/dismantle), which, in practice, appears to imply simplification, explicitation and elucidation which are considered to be universal strategies of translation.Kandali`s translation was actually a rewriting which results from a new reading of the original in a new context. A comparison of the original Sanskrit and Kandali’s translation leads one to posit that the fourteenth century translator`s method involved the following:

interpretnation of the source text, simplification of difficult expressions and concepts, condensing parts of the text, editing out elaborations, retaining the essence (sārodhrita), and finding suitable rhetorical-prosodic features in the target language (Assamese) .

Furthermore, the demand of the local culture and the need for removing the alienness of certain experiences or concepts made Kandali localize on occasions. Localization(in Translation Studies) involves adding local features to make the translated text more comprehensible or culturally closer to the readers.

Sankaradeva and Madhavadeva  distinguished themselves as two of the most accomplished translators of Assamese. While translating important Sanskrit texts into Assamese, they attempted to avoid  foreignness (except for certain essential religious  concepts) by rewriting the original to some extent and by using Assamese idioms for rewriting.Sankaradeva translated cantos I,II,III,VII,VIII,IX,X (part) and XII of the Shrimadbhagavata.The importance of Sankaradeva’s translation of this text has been highlighted by Dr. Birinchi Kumar Barua in the following manner:

The rendering of the Bhagavata marks an era of renaissnce in Assamese poetry; its literary influence on Sankarite literature was manifold and immense and proved a shaping force upon Sankara’s writings (Barua 70).

Barua shows how Sankaradeva translated the revered text into Assamese idioms by citing a few examples.Barua rightly observes that  ..“Sankaradeva’s translations  are of an interpretative character“ (Barua 70). Interestingly, modern experts of translation studies suggest that any translation is a re-reading (which means interpretative reading) and a rewriting.

This paper makes an attempt to identify some of the strategies adopted by Sankaradeva in the Translation of the Shrimadbhagavata. The verses included in the section ‘Biprapatni Prasada’ of Sankaradeva’s Dasama contain translation and adaptation of the verses of Chapter 23, Canto X of the Shrimadbhagavata. This section narrates the story of the hungry cowherds led by Krishna and Balorama who requested Krishna to do something to satisfy their hunger. Krishna asked them to approach the Brahmins who were busy performing a yagna in a nearby place. When the Brahmins showed utter disregard for Krishna and his faithful cowherds, Krishna asked them to seek food from the Brahmins’ wives who were his devotees. 

Verse 931 included  the section ‘Biprapatni Prasada’ of Dasama  is a translation of the following verse of the Shrimadvagavata:

śrī-gopa ūcuḥ

rāma rāma mahā-bāho

kṛṣṇa duṣṭa-nibarhaṇa 

eṣā vai bādhate kṣun nas

              tac-chāntiṁ kartum arhathaḥ     (10.23.1)

The translation of this verse into Assamese shows that without distorting the meaning of the original, Sankaradeva has added something of his own to the text:

he balarama krishna dushtabinasana 

tumise amara prabhu parama jivana

asilo prabhate dadhi bhataka nakhai

  cintiyoka upai kshudhata dhatu zai.      (Dasama,  p.173)

This hunger is distressing, please do something to counteract it-this is what the cowherd boys say in the original. Sankaradeva has conveyed this with an idiomatic expression “kshudhata dhatu zai”. Lines 2 and 3 (‘asilo prabhate…nakhai’) are not found in the original but they are very much relevant as they provide the background—the cowherds did not have meal in the morning. Sanskrit ‘dusta-nibarhana’ has been beautifully translated as ‘dushtabinaxana’.

The verses of the Shrimadbhagavata have a  certain compactness. As Sankaradeva is translating these into rhymed couplets to be read aloud/recited by/to the devotees, he needs to shorten in some places and expand a little in some other places:

Original:   śrī-śuka uvāca

iti vijñāpito gopair

bhagavān devakī-sutaḥ 

bhaktāyā vipra-bhāryāyāḥ

                    prasīdann idam  abravīt            (10.23.2)

prayāta deva-yajanaṁ

brāhmaṇā brahma-vādinaḥ 

satram āṅgirasaṁ nāma

                      hy āsate svarga-kāmyayā     (10.23.3)

For maintaining continuity and fulfilling the requirement of the metrical scheme, Sankaradeva takes these two verses together (10.23.2-3). In Sankaradeva’s translation ‘bhagavan devaki-suta’ is replaced by ‘narayana’ and the name of the jagya angirasa has been omitted as this is not an important piece of information. The meaning of the original is retained fully.

hena suni gunila manata narayane

bipra patnisabaka prasada dibe mane

gowalaka bolanta satvare saliyoka

kare jagya swargak asaya bipraloka    (Dasam 932) 

In the Assamese rendering of the following verse (10.23.4) Sankaradeva has begun with the translation of the expression brāhmaṇā brahma-vādinaḥ of 10.23.3.

tatra gatvaudanaṁ gopā


kīrtayanto bhagavata

                        āryasya mama cābhidhām   ( 10.23.4)

(After going/reaching there, o, cowherd boys, ask for some food. Mention the name of my elder brother Balorama and also my name and say that we sent you. )

 vedata pargata sabe brahmana sampanna  (brahmana brahmavadinah of 


nama dhari dobhairo magiyo goia anna     (shortened)

krishnara basane soli goila gopasoya        (ity ādiṣṭā bhagavatā/ gatvā 

                                                                  yācanta te tathā23.5)

paila jagyasala sabe biprara                      (added)     (Dasam, 933)

Such adjustments are needed for presenting a coherent narrative in verse. Sankaradeva’s purpose was to narrate the story in an interesting manner with a view to emphasizing the supremacy of Krishna and also of the selfless devotion ‘bhakti’  over ‘karma kanda’ aimed at   reaching heavenly abode (svarga kamyaya).

A careful comparison between the verses of Chapter 23(Canto X) of the Shrimadbhagavata and those occurring in the section ‘Biprapatni Prasada’ of Dasama brings out the following aspects of Sankaradeva’s translation strategy:

General strategy: translate /rewrite most of the original verses, omit some verses(e.g., 6,8) or keep only the gist of such verses (e.g.,7,10,11,14)  that might appear to be redundant in view of the meaning already elaborated to some extent in the translated ones. 

Sankaradeva added his own verses for enlivening the narrative and bringing it closer to the usual experiences of his possible readers/listeners. 

The wives of the Brahmins eagerly bring food for Krishna, Baloram and the cowherds. The Shrimadbhagavata  just says:

catur-vidhaṁ bahu-guṇam

 annam ādāya bhājanaiḥ

abhisasruḥ priyaṁ sarvāḥ

 samudram iva nimnagāḥ

 (Bringing four categories of (to be chewed, drunk, licked and sucked) food with rich tastes all of them went to their beloved as rivers flow to the ocean)

Sankaradeva expands it to give a detailed description of the food items/dishes brought for Krishna and others:

govindaka lagi  anna aneka sugandhi

bichitra patrata bhari loilanta prabandhi    ( 948)

bahubidha byanjana aneka sararasa

ikkshu akhoi sira ladu gurara kalasa

sugandha kadali dadhi dugdha madhu ghrita

pitha pana panasa payasa panchamrita      (949)

‘pitha- pana’ is an interesting expression as it is still frequently used in modern Assamese.

The chapter of the Shrimadbhagavata ends in-

 iti svāgham anusmṛtya

 kṛṣṇe te kṛta-helanāḥ

didṛkṣavo vrajam atha

 kaṁsād bhītā na cācalan

(Thus reflecting on the sin they had committed by neglecting Lord Kṛṣṇa, they became very eager to see Him. But as they were  afraid of incurring  King Kaṁsa’s wrath, they did not dare go to Vraja.)

Sankaradeva, however, concludes thus-

ehimate sura     karila biprara

karmara garba sakale

                      brahmanisabaka  dilanta prasada

                       anna magibara sole

In Sankaradeva’s translation of the section on Rasalila in Dasama and Kirtana one observes the following strategies:

a. Instead of translating literally he tries to retain the most salient meaning/interpretation of the original.

b. At times he takes two or three verses (original) together and goes for more concise expression in just one verse. In doing so he tends to avoid some rhetorical features of the original or replace them with his own more ‘homely’ expressions:

Original :  tadoḍurājaḥ kakubhaḥ karair mukhaṁ

          prācyā vilimpann aruṇena śantamaiḥ

     sa carṣaṇīnām udagāc chuco mṛjan

   priyaḥ priyāyā iva dīrgha-darśanaḥ   (10.29.2)

         dṛṣṭvā kumudvantam akhaṇḍa-maṇḍalaṁ

 ramānanābhaṁ nava-kuṅkumāruṇam

 vanaṁ ca tat-komala-gobhī rañjitaṁ

              jagau kalaṁ vāma-dṛśāṁ manoharam (10.29.3)

               Trans: bhoilanta udita chandra purbadisha hante

kamatura strira zena santapa marjante

akhanda mandala chandra dekhilant hari

kungkume aruna lakshmi mukhapadma sari (Dasama, 1211)

While translating the verse 10.29.2 the translator has retained  the most important meaning of the  original, avoiding embellishments: the original says “then the moon rose, smearing the face of the eastern horizon with the reddish hue of his comforting  rays and wiping away the unhappiness of all those who watched him rise”, but the translator has replaced this with a very simple expression “bhoilanta udita chandra purbadisha hante”  (the moon rose in the east). The simile of the original “the moon was like a beloved husband who returns after a long absence and  smears kungkuma on his beloved wife’s face” is replaced by a ‘stronger’ expression, perhaps to emphasize the longing of a deprived wife/beloved: “kamatura strira zena santapa marjante.”

The last two lines of the verse of Dasama capture the meaning of a part of 10.29.3. The remaining part of this verse is translated as follows: 

banako dekhila chandra rashmiye ranjita

susvara madhura kari hari gaila geeta

puria panchama nada barhaila madana

suni kame bimohita bhoila gopigana.     (1212)

However, Sankaradeva’s translation is not literal at all. He takes some liberty for maintaining the tone, rhythm and meter of his verse.

Any careful reader of Sankaradeva’s  Kirtana  and Dasama will notice that the ‘rasa-lila’ section in these two texts contains a number of verses that are either similar or same simply because they are translations of certain verses of the tenth canto (chapter 29) of the Shrimabbhagavata. However, in Kirtana Sankaradeva has used only selected verses translated from the Sanskrit text. In a few cases the translation of the same verses from the text  tends to be different in the two Assamese texts. The following example may illustrate this:


dṛṣṭaṁ vanaṁ kusumitaṁ




tad yāta mā ciraṁ goṣṭhaṁ

 śuśrūṣadhvaṁ patīn satīḥ

krandanti vatsā bālāś ca

                                     tān pāyayata duhyata                      (10.29.21-22)

(First four lines: You have  seen the forest full of flowers and brightened by moonlight, you have seen the trees with their leaves beautifully swayed by the breeze from the Yamuna.)

Trans: Dasama :dekihilaha ito brindavana bikasita

           purna chandramara saru rashmiye ranjita

jalabayu lagiya kompawe kishalaya

hema briksha lataye shovita atishaya                                 (1240)

bhramare surabhi gandhe gunjare athake

kokilara nade madanaka zena daka

anande dekhila divya brindavabasthali

ulati brajaka zaha sabe awe soli(1241)

kande sishugana tak piyayoka stana

bebai batsa kara goiya dhenuka dohana..(1242)

Lines 4-7 are not found in the original. While  ‘śuśrūṣadhvaṁ patīn’  of the original is left out, the last two lines of it have been expanded a little, making the meaning more explicit.

Kirtana : dekihilaha ito brindavana bikasita

sasanke dhavala naba pallabe shovana

ulati brjaka zaha kande sishugana

tasambaka pratipali piyayoka stana                       (822)

It is obvious that while Sankaradeva has elaborated and expanded the original for Dasama, he has gone for  precision in most cases for Kirtana. This was done as the purposes for which  the two texts were produced were different. 

Sankaradeva appears to have used the strategy of ‘explicitation’ (making what is implicit in the original much more explicit) in his translation of the verses from the Shrimadbhagavata,  keeping in mind his possible readers/listeners (when the verses are read aloud). While he takes care not to deviate from the original, his poetic genius leads him to innovate and expand  by  adding something extra to the original. It appears that the overall strategy adopted by Sankaradeva in translating a number of cantos of the  Shrimadbhagavata  into Assamese is similar to the one used so creatively by Madhava Kandali in his translation of the Ramayana.

Notes :

Original texts consulted

Sankaradeva . Dasama . Dhalarsatra Puthibharal, Jorhat,2008

 Sankaradeva. Kirtanaghosa aru Namghosa. Ed. Suryakanta Kazarika. Bani Mandir, 


Shrimadbhagavatam:Canto 10.www.shrimadbhagavatam.og/canto 10/html.

Works cited :

Barua, Birinchi Kumar. 1959(1953) “ Sankaradeva: His Poetical Works” in Banikanta Kakati ed.  

    Aspects of Early Assamese Literature. Guwahati: Gauhati University, 65-125.

Neog, Maheswar.1959 (1953). “Assamese Literature before Sankaradeva” in Banikanta Kakati 

     ed.  Aspects of Early Assamese Literature.Guwahati: Gauhati University, 17-64.

[The author is Professor of English, Tezpur University, Tezpur 784028. Email:madansarmajan@gmail.com]

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