Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Introduction to Rajadhirat translation

To date the Rajadhirat epic has not received much attention either as a historical text or as literature. Only the Burmese version, the Razadarit Ayeidawpon, has been translated into English.

An unpublished manuscript of this translation has been available for some time in Bangkok, at the Siam Society library, for instance. Copies of the translation were handed out at the Mon conference at Chulalongkorn University in October, 2007.

The senior Burmese scholar U San Lwin who is now near 80 and who lives in Burma was the translator. His fine translation displays great literary artistry in rendering the events of the epic in English. Unfortunately, the political situation in Burma probably means that this publication will never see the light of day. This project takes U San Lwin's translation as a starting point and makes some important sections of the epic available in English with a discussion of some of the interesting Burmese words and phrases found within it. Going back to the original Burmese, I have changed the translation in several ways. First, quoted speech is rendered as quoted speech and not paraphrased. Second, I have strictly followed the order of the original narrative and try to paraphrase as little as possible. Third, I have used the Burmese names in U Kala's Mahayazawingyi which means substituting a "y" for an "r" in many cases. U San Lwin apparently tried to go back to the original Mon spelling for Mon names. A comparative table of names used in the Burmese, Mon, and Thai versions of the work would definitely be useful. Mon names should be spelled according to their Mon translation and eventually I will extract this out of Nai Maung Toe's edited Mon edition. Fourth, lengthy prose in the original translation has sometimes been shortened if clarity and readability is enhanced. For instance, when the Mon and Burmese sides are shouting over the moat of the Mon stockade, short realistic bursts of spoken English are better. Fifth, idiomatic English words that sound dated or out-of-place has been substituted with more general language. My goal is solely to maintain interest in it and keep the ball rolling so that it does get the last stage of editing and then prompt publication.

The Rajadhirat epic is a huge topic that has hardly been touched on at all by historians or scholars studying Burmese literature.

A version of events quite close to that of the epic can be found in Burmese chronicles such as U Kala's Mahayazawingyi and the Hmannan Yazawin[Glass Palace Chronicle].

I have chosen to start with events near the end of the epic, leading up to what is arguably the climax of the epic, the death of Burmese Prince Min-ye-kyaw-swa. Most Burmese and Mon people know of this tale which reads much like a combination of traditional Buddhist Jataka tale of the Buddha's previous lives on earth and the Buddhist Mahavamsa epic of Sri Lanka.

Min-ye-kyaw-swa was said to be the reincarnation of Rajadhirat's son Baw-law-kyan-taw whom, according to tradition, Rajadhirat himself had murdered because of the perceived threat he posed to his rule.

U San Lwin's translation is also unique in another respect. Along with U Pe Maung Tin and Gordon Luce's translation of portions of the Hmannan Yazawin, his translation stands as a parallel corpus of pre-modern Burmese prose.

Historical works stand as the first real instances of Burmese prose outside of Jataka tales and Mahavamsa translations from Pali into Mon and Burmese. There are a lot of words and phrases in the Rajadhirat epic that are not in any currently available dictionary, so reverse engineering U San Lwin's translation to extract a glossary will hopefully provide an valuable aid to students learning to read Burmese.

The Rajadhirat epic is about warfare plain and simple. The inclination of most people, quite reasonably, is to shun warfare, in real life or in writing. After all, reading about violence perhaps begets more violence.

Anthropologists have even published a very popular manifesto, the Seville Statement on Violence, denying that warfare is an intrinsic part of human nature.

Whether warfare is part of human nature or not, works such as Rajadhirat and the Mahavamsa clearly show that warfare has plagued Burma and Sri Lanka for a long time.

Western historians can be said to have systematically avoided and underplayed the role of warfare in pre-modern Burmese history, despite the fact that warfare dominates the narratives of most indigenous historical chronicles. This is probably due to the increasing popularity of Buddhism in the west creating a focus on this particular dimension of Burmese culture. I am a Buddhist too, so I appreciate this, given the centrality of warfare in Burma's post-WWII political problems the legacy of warfare in Burma's pre-modern history should be dealt with in greater depth.

Towards the end of the Buddha's life in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta itself, the tribal Vajji people were wiped out by the kingdom of Magadha under the rule of Ajattasattu, regicide son of King Bimbisara who ruled during most of the Buddha's life (See Steven Collins, 1998, Nirvana and other Buddhist Felicities, 437-445). Again, most people would probably wish to avoid this unsavory part of the Buddhist scriptures. Contemplating the human activity of warfare in all its terrible detail might, in the final analysis, be likened to meditations on a human corpse in a cremation ground, as found for instance in the Visuddhimagga. It is in this vein and to provide such a lesson that this translation has been done.