One of the signal achievements in Indology that Indian scholars can be proud of is the publication by the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Pune, of the Critical Edition (CE) of the Mahabharata (MB) and the Harivansha(HV) in 22 volumes, along with a Pratika Index and a Cultural Index. However, scholars the world over have turned this into another instance of “Others abide our question; thou art free!” It was the French scholar Madeline Biardeau who, in the 1990s, stated her preference for the Vulgate text, free of the CE&’s excisions and for treating the MB as a whole instead of as a hotchpotch of materials. Actually, way back in 1901-2 Aurobindo Ghose, had done this in his Notes on the Mahabharata, which scholars are unaware of. A case for taking a second look at the CE was made out by Alf Hiltebeitel, the American scholar and the most prolific writer on the MB. Wendy Doniger and David Shulman “have also expressed reservations about the CE.” A justification for revising the CE was advanced by me in a national conference held by the National Mission for Manuscripts in 2007. Papers relating to this trend of thought, which is gathering momentum, have been compiled in this important publication edited by Vishwa Adluri of Hunter College, New York, with an elaborate Introduction and a 16-page bibliography. Two essays bring out the thematic unity of the epic while others explore historico-textual issues and the question of Greek influence.
The first essay is a riveting study of the Uttanka story at the beginning of the MB, recurring in the Book of Horse-Sacrifice, which apparently has nothing to do with what follows, bringing out its symbolism as an “education in becoming” and its relevance in the epic. All on a sudden, why should Sarama, the hound of heaven, curse Janamejaya that his sacrifice will face a serious impediment? Here Adluri painstakingly lays out the narrative structure of the Adi Parva, the Book of Beginnings, showing how Vyasa&’s epic has two sacrifices (Shaunaka&’s and Janamejaya&’s) in two tales, one embedded within the other. There are other sacrifices he overlooks: Parashara’;s to annihilate rakshasas, Drupada&’s birthing Dhrishtadyumna and the doom of Kshatriyas Draupadi leading to the Kurukshetrawar, repeatedly referred to in terms of a holocaust. And it all has its origins in yet another yajna: the sacrificial ritual the gods hold in Naimisha forest with Yama as the butcher-priest. Adluri highlights the multiple levels of the text: Vaishamapayana&’s narrative; the allegorical sacrificial rites and, thirdly,Uttanka&’s interpretative tale, the last providing the key to how the story is to be read. Besides this, however, the Uttanka tale also contains Vedic symbols related to a spiritual journey, which Adluri does not touch upon. Vyasa states he has retold the secrets of the Veda in the MB, an aspect explored utilizing nirukti (etymology) in my Secret of the Mahabharata (1984).
Hiltebeitel&’s fascinating paper investigates the possibilities of the MB as history, itihasa, as it calls itself 8 times (which the Ramayana never does, always referring to itself as kavya). From 2001 onwards, several Western scholars besides himself, like Biardeau, Fitzgeraldand Sutton, have agreed that the MB is a post-Ashokan composition. He argues that references to Cinas suggest a date post 221 BC of China&’s first emperor. It is curious that he does not cite the reference to denarius, which would also date the MB to early Roman times in the 3rd century BC.Hiltebeitel shows why the MB predates Ashvaghosha&’s Buddhacharita (1st-2nd century AD), suggesting that it was composed between 150 BC and 100 AD.
Hiltebeitel accepts T.P. Mahadevan&’s thesis that the MB was composed by Purvashikha Brahmins (wearing tufts on the front of their heads) of the Kuru-Panchala area, taking historical data from the Vedas, between 300 and 100 BC. The Yuga Purana dated around 60-25 BC has 12 slokas on the MB, refers to Greek-Panchala-Mathura forces sacking Pataliputra (the end of the Mauryas c.190 BC), to Shaka invasions and to safe havens in the south where the Purvashika Brahmins migrated during the Tamil Sangam culture, carrying the MB. Fromthis, written on bark or palm-leaf in Brahmi script, the elaborate Southern recension was created, drawing upon the HV, in Grantha script in the Tanjavur area. A subsequent migration was in the 7th century AD by Aparashikha Brahmins (wearing tufts on the back of their heads) under the Pallavas who produced the inflated version in Telegu Grantha script. Meanwhile, in the 5th century AD, in the context of the Kalabhra Interregnum, a chaotic period in Tamil history,some Purvashikha Brahmins (the future Nambudiris) moved to Malabar region carrying the MB where it is found Aryaeluttu script. One branch of the Purvashikhas remained under the Cholas creating the Krishnaism in the MB from the HV. Mahadevan draws attention to an untraced complete text of the MB lying in the Bharat Itihasa Sanshodhaka Mandal of Pune referred to by Edgerton, editor of the Sabha Parva of the CE. It is a great loss that the National Mission for Manuscripts has not pursued this. An exciting development is the mention of a joint project by Hiltebeitel and Mahadevan to compare the Sastri southern recension with the CE to reveal how the text took shape.
Taking off from an earlier paper by Adluri on Ruru and Orpheus using etymology (nirukti) to plumb the symbolism, Joydeep Bagchee shows that the myth of Ruru is part of the epic&’s response to the philosophical problem of time and eternity.The introduction itself states that one who knows the etymology of the MB is liberated from all sin, niruktam asya yo veda sarvapapaih pramucyate (1.209). Salvation inheres in turning to self-knowledge. The entire Bhrigu cycle (Pauloma and Astika Parvas) is about a fall from being into becoming. It is the snakes who form the interpretative apparatus for comprehending the action of time amongst humankind.
Simon Brodbeck analyses the analytic and the synthetic approaches to the MB suggesting that with the CE it is the latter that is appropriate. The former seeks to outline the historical process by which the MB came to be built, varying from a thousand years (400 BC to 400 AD) to a couple of generations (150 BC to 100 AD). The focus is on the “original” form of the MB. He critiques Tokunaga&’s paper on Bhishma&’s advice to Yudhishthira to expose weaknesses in the analytic approach, such as Yudhishthira being enthroned twice, which does not occur. The search for historical clues within the text blinds the analyst to narrative subtleties within it. Brodbeck points out the basic flaw in the assumption of the CE, viz. that scribes only add to and do not subtract from texts they copy. There is a case for re-examining the decisions of the CE&’s editors about including and leaving out passages.
The book ends with FW Alonso&’s paper arguing that the MB drew upon a vast quantity of Greek materials, particularly the Homeric cycle and the myths about Heracles. He finds as many as seven parallels between the former and the design of the MB. There are numerous commonalities between Achilles and Bhishma, Helen and Draupadi, Alcmaeon and Parashurama, the lament of Yudhishthira over Karna and of Menelaus over Agamemnon, Arjuna and Rama with Odysseus in the contest for Draupadi/ Sita/ Penelope. Alonso finds as many as 11 themes common to the tenth book, the Sauptika Parva, and the tenth book of the Iliad. He claims there are 8 clear borrowings from the account of the fall of Troy. But why can it not be the other way around? From this evidence, Alonso suggests that the epic was written after Alexander&’s invasion which provides the historical basis for relationships with Greek and early Roman culture. During the same time (1st century BC), writing pervades Roman culture and the Aeneid is composed with Greek materials.
This is truly a very important book, which every Indologist dealing with the epics ought to study. Unfortunately, for such a significant collection, BORI has produced a disappointingly shoddy publication. There is not a word about the editor and any of the six contributors, nor any index; the cardboard covers are of the poorest quality; the typeface used is shabby; some articles are followed by a blank page, others by none, suggesting that each article was printed separately and the lot stitched together without regard to consistency in composition and printing. For an institution that will be a hundred years old in 2017, this is a lamentable display indeed.
(the reviewer retired as additional chief secretary, west bengal, and specialises in mythology)