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the Complete Review
the complete review - poetry

The Life of Harishchandra


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Title: The Life of Harishchandra
Author: Raghavanka
Genre: Poetry
Written: 1225 (Eng. 2017)
Length: 636 pages
Original in: Kannada
Availability: The Life of Harishchandra - US
The Life of Harishchandra - UK
The Life of Harishchandra - Canada
The Life of Harishchandra - India
  • Original Kannada title: ಹರಿಶ್ಚಂದ್ರ ಚಾರಿತ್ರ್ಯ
  • Popularly known as: ಹರಿಶ್ಚಂದ್ರಕಾವ್ಯ
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Vanamala Viswanatha
  • This is a bilingual edition, with the Kannada text facing the English transation

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Our Assessment:

B+ : builds up nicely

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Hindu A 9/3/2017 C.N.Ramachandran

  From the Reviews:
  • "Although the frame story of this epic talks about gods and sages, in its motif and tenor, it is a secular narrative (.....) As a translator, she has done a remarkable job of recreating the experience of the Kannada epic in English. She resorts as a translator to many semantic and linguistic strategies (.....) Congratulations are due to Vanamala Vishwanath and the editorial staff of MCLI on a brilliant work, faultlessly produced." - C.N.Ramachandran, The Hindu

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Harishchandra is a (legendary) king whose story appears in a variety of classical texts. He is held up as a "paragon of truth" -- and Raghavanka's epic is meant to be (so the author): "a virtuous paean that celebrates Harishchandra's unswerving commitment to truth". The fourteen chapter (728 verse) narrative is bookended by an introductory chapter and an it's-all-good one after all the action has been settled, while the twelve middle chapters neatly chronicle the king's rise (across the first six) and then (accelerating) fall (over the next six chapters).
       The introductory chapter has a very confident Raghavanka introduce himself and his work -- very certain that: "there can be no equal to this composition", this: "beautiful and flowing narrative" with its: "plentiful array of strengths" -- and challenging the: "carping critics" from the outset. The basic story, too, is summarized - though presumably it would be familiar to most of his audience in any case. Still, the conclusion is foregone: there will be testing trials for Harishchandra, but he will emerge triumphant, living up to his ideals (and he'll get that kingdom and family he loses along the way back again).
       Harishchandra does have quite a reputation to live up to. Bigger than life doesn't seem to begin to describe him:

Such was King Harishchandra's charisma that the radiant sun turned a dull black before his resplendent form; ocean fire became ice cold before his scalding ire; Kalpataru, the wish-granting tree, looked miserly before his munificent hand; the love god's form lost its luster before his magnificent figure; the blue ocean appeared shallow before the depth of his majesty; and the moon felt tepid before his cool equanimity.
       Naturally, he is a great leader, too, and it seems impossible to find any fault with him:
Undimmed radiance, untarnished fame, undiminished courage, unmatched reputation, unassailable confidence, unwavering attention, unalloyed discernment, and wisdom, free from illusion blended naturally in King Harishchandra. His life was marked by speech without falsehood, devotion without indolence, wealth without avarice, and advancement without regress.
       At the court of Indra, two enlightened souls, "the great Vasishtha and the mighty Vishvamitra", have differing opinions. Vasishtha is completely taken by Harishchandra -- never previously had he come upon a: "king who has kept his word. But now there is Harishchandra". The contrary Vishvamitra, already upset that his opinion wasn't asked for first, and generally taking the other side of whatever argument Vasishtha makes, sees things differently -- but then he would:
all Vishvamitra could see in his universe was evil, given that he had no eye for the good side of life.
       The two argue, Vasishtha convinced that: "The fact beyond doubt is that Harishchandra stands for nothing but truth", while Vishvamitra doesn't want to believe it. So they make a bet, Vasishtha putting a lot on the line:
Should Harishchandra speak an untruth even in a moment of forgetfulness, I shall give up this wealth of merit, renounce my wife, untie my sacred tuft, and walk away naked, southward, drinking spirits from a human skull.
       The apparently no-holds-barred challenge appears a bit open-ended:
Vasishtha: "When will Harishchandra's ordeals begin ?"
    Vishvamitra: "Whenever I feel like it."
    Vasishtha: "How long would they last ?"
    Vishvamitra: "As long as Harishchandra lives on this earth."
    Vasishtha: "How would you put Harishchandra to the test ?"
    Vishvamitra: In a thousand ways."
       Indeed, Vishvamitra really gets into this:
The desire to prove that Harishchandra was capable of lying, and thereby to cause Vasishtha to give up his vows, became an obsession for Vishvamitra.
       His devious plan unfolds slowly. For a while all remains well and good in the kingdom, with Harishchandra the much-loved ruler of these happy lands. But going after the agricultural basics is a good point of attack:
How do I describe this menace
that reduced wet fields of lush green crops to arid plains,
wreaking havoc in the lives of common people ?
       When animals are tossed into the mix (all neatly orchestrated by Vishvamitra, of course), Harishchandra calls in all the hunters he can and sets out to set things right again. The fierce hunt seems to go relatively well at first -- but Vasishtha does pop up to warn Harishchandra that this is a trap, and that at all costs Harishchandra must avoid stepping into Vishvamitra's grove:
If you do, he will lure you with his cunning, make you forget yourself, and push you into the abyss of despair.
       The battle heats up, with a boar ("directed by Vishvamitra", of course), mowing down: "entire rows of hunters / in no time". But Harishchandra is there to save the day, chasing the boar -- but not quite able to catch it. Of course, Vishvamitra's aim is merely to lure Harishchandra into his grove -- and once that's done, as it is, it's all downhill from there.
       Vishvamitra now has the edge in his bet, with Harishchandra on his turf -- and so: "The king has fallen into my hands; / it is now only between us". He has some good tricks up his sleeve, including trying to get Harishchandra to marry two decidedly (caste- and otherwise) inappropriate maidens -- enough to egg on Harishchandra to say:
If you persist in taunting me like this, I would rather give away my entire kingdom than grant you this privilege.
       Of course, Vishvamitra immediately takes him up on this. Taking advantage of Harishchandra being prone to rather big talk -- but also always bound to his word -- Vishvamitra quickly reduces the king to former king, and twists things so that Harishchandra also is in (enormous) debt to him. When Harishchandra sets off to raise the funds to pay, Vishvamitra does everything he can to assure that Harishchandra will be thwarted in his efforts (after all: "Whether he returns the money or not is immaterial"). He wants Harishchandra tormented along the way -- and then he'll join in for the final blows:
I will break him and make him say 'yes' to a lie.
Who can defeat me at this game ?
       Harishchandra -- with his wife and young son -- suffers greatly as they try to make their way to possible salvation -- though he valiantly fights on. So, for example:
How do I praise the king's brave attempt to dodge the onrush of burning carcasses and move on with the queen ?
       Things go from bad to worse. Even when he reaches his destination he has trouble raising any money, and is forced to sell everything he has left -- his wife and son. Harishchandra himself is reduced to accepting a position keeping watch on the cremation grounds, where he has to demand a fee for every corpse that is burned.
       Tragedy doesn't end there: on duty, he is eventually forced to prevent his wife from cremating their son because she does not have the necessary funds. Duty-bound, he even accepts that he must act as executioner when his wife is sentenced to death for a crime she did not commit (but admits to).
       The depths are pretty deep -- but proving the extent to which he is willing to go and his refusal to speak untruth, Harishchandra of course emerges triumphant. Or rather, the gods to jump in, at the last possible minute, and set things right again. Obviously, Harishchandra has proven himself, and even Vishvamitra sees the light and admits he is the paragon everyone has claimed.
       The happy ending is almost too happy -- not only is Harishchandra fairly restored to his throne, but even his dead son is revived --, and so other than some bad memories and a bit of trauma, Harishchandra and his family really are none the worse for wear. That's perhaps fair, after being abused like this just for the sport of the gods, but still, it seems a rather easy out.
       But then, exactly what ending was coming was known from the beginning. Indeed, each of the foruteen chapters comes with a brief summary of its events: The Life of Harishchandra is meant, neither in whole nor in part, to offer any big surprises. Nevertheless, it proves surprisingly suspenseful. If the build-up -- despite the bet set at the outset -- is gradual, once Harishchandra is tested, and then on the road of his private hell, it's really very colorful and engaging.
       Some of the imagery is very striking, especially in the hunt and then when they are more or less on the run. Some of the happier scenes are nicely done too -- even a detour to a brothel -- "A den of erotica, dale of alluring beauties / fount of passion, courtyard of wiles, lair of lies", etc.
       Yes, Harishchandra is pretty much too good to be true -- but helpfully he gets himself in unnecessary difficulties with his grand and sometimes rash pronouncements. A rectitude that could otherwise be annoying is thus made slightly more human -- and then makes for good drama, as Harishchandra forges ahead, true to himself and the truth, damn the consequences.
       Vanamala Viswanatha acknowledges the: "fundamentally different sound-and-sense dynamic between the original text and the translation". The Murty Classical Library style and approach is one of prose translation, and most of The Life of Harishchandra is in prose. Interestingly, however, Viswanatha occasionally tries out different approaches for specific stanzas. Some, for example, lend themselves more obviously to a list-like approach, which Viswanatha emphasizes in rendering them in verse.
       Relying less on endnotes than most of the Murty volumes, Viswanatha does utilize more untranslated vocabulary in her translation (and there is a glossary covering words and names). Interestingly, and effectively, there are stanzas where she presents the polysemy (the play with words that have more than one meaning) by relying on the original -- for example:
swelling with viṣa/water, yet anything but viṣa/poison;
teeming with fresh kamala/lotus, yet free of kamala/deer;
thick with kumuda/night lilies, yet devoid of kumuda/evil pleasures
       A stanza devoted to a massive fire has five lines (in the translation) of the sounds of the raging fire simply transliterated from the original rather than inventing English-sounding equivalents, which is similarly effective.
       It is a shame that the poetry of The Life of Harishchandra largely defies any equivalent English rendering; the prose-solution certainly seems best here, and there are at least quite a few passages where the poetry shines through.
       Despite the antagonism from near the outset between Vasishtha and Vishvamitra, and the bet, the story takes a while to really get going. Once Vishvamitra -- a fine villainous figure -- really gets going, however, it really is a very engaging read.
       The ease with which everything is set right make the story appear a bit too simplistic -- there are few consequences and (lasting) scars to lesson-learning here, unlike in say, Greek tragedy -- but it's otherwise an impressive and engaging work. In its English presentation, it is also a fascinating introduction to an example of classical narrative Kannada epic poetry.

- M.A.Orthofer, 20 April 2017

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The Life of Harishchandra: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Poet Raghavanka lived ca. 1185 to 1235.

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© 2017-2021 the complete review

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