May 29, 2023
May 29, 2023
Return to Mahabharata Text, Heart and 'German Scholars'
(Discussion on Mahabharata and Bengal/Indian Renaissance Thinkers in course of review of Vishwa Adluri and Joydeep Bagchee’s The Nay Science, Oxford University Press, 2014)
A book that informs well, stirs thought - that goads one to reflect and research and hone one’s creative and critical faculty, is a valued book, and Prof. Vishwa Adluri and Joydeep Bagchee’s The Nay Science passes that test for me.
We, Mahabharata readers, generally find the German Indologists in citation of Scholars, and now to get precise Information on them and their work critically within two covers is a very cherished experience.
In The Nay Science, Adluri and Bagchee trace the history of Mahabharata and Gita study in Germany among German scholars whose research and findings have had wide impact in the Western Construction of Ancient Indian History.
Adluri and Bagchee propose a wider aim in their selection of Indology:
“Our main aim however, has been to use Indology as an example to raise certain questions regarding the sociology of human sciences … Indology offers a perfect example for thinking about the humanities’ problematic entanglement in method in the past two centuries” (p-433)
Adluri and Bagchee’s one Key critique of German Indologist is as follows:
“They were not just proposing that one could study Indian History, which historians had in any case done to varying extents for centuries. Rather, they were proposing that Indian texts could only be studied as dead letters, within a metanarrative of history that accounted for their being dead in terms of the movement of historical reason. The same metanarrative did double duty, since it also justified why the Western Indologists had to be taken seriously: he was the embodiment of that selfsame reason in its latest, perhaps, final incarnation.” (p-390)
One primary reason I find The Nay Science interesting is that in many ways, Adluri and Bagchee’s Thesis resonates the thoughts of Bengal/Indian Renaissance – indeed stimuli to Thought on the complex relation of German Indology to Indology in general, and to the indigenous Indology that flourished during Bengal/Indian Renaissance in particular.
The mid-half of Bengal/Indian Renaissance was aware and cynical of this bookish approach despite welcoming the Book Culture; thus, from Raja Rammohun Roy, Keshava Candra Sen, through Shri Ramakrishna, Bankim Chandra, Swami Vivekananda, Rsi Aurobindo to Rabindranath Tagore and Gandhi - we find an apathy to mere Book-Learning – that Shri Ramakrishna most effectively called Shukno Panditya (“Dry” Scholarship or Rasa-less Scholarship).
Adluri and Bagchee’s The Nay Science interests me particularly because of its relevance: the Modern arena of Social Science seems to be witnessing a Re-Birth or Ressurection of “Dead Letter Scholarship” suffering from an incurable Flat Treatment of Texts and lacking the subtle understanding of Etymology, Context, History of the Text, and History itself. Quite a few examples come to my mind – self-professed Social Scientists and critiques of Bengal/Indian Renaissance like Prof. Sumit Sarkar, Prof. Partha Chatterjee and Prof. Narasingha Sil in particular. I would of course waste no further word on these Gems of Bengal, here. (See for some idea - Sumit Sarkar, Text Manipulation,“Rammohan Roy and the Break with the Past” and Narasingha P. Sil, Vulturous Scholarship, and Shri Ramakrishna)
Adluri and Bagchee define the scope of their inquiry thus:
“Although this book is intended as a history of German Indology, it naturally cannot claim to be exhaustive. German Indology is a huge and diverse field … however, the scope of our inquiry was delimited by its double concern of presenting a history of German Indology from the perspective of its method and a history of its method from the perspective of its theological inheritance (the two, in the end, being one and same). It would make no sense to castigate lower criticism work for its ideological perspective. For this reason, it seemed more appropriate to focus on German interpretations of the Indian epic, the Mahabharata, and a portion of the epic, the Bhagavad-Gita.” (p-19)
Adluri and Bagchee further caution that “reader must keep three things in mind at all times”: “This epithet (German Indology) refers strictly and exclusively to an Indology based on historical-critical method and following certain agendas that can best be understood out of German Protestantism” (p-22)
Adluri and Bagchee’s critique is therefore, focused on Historical-Critical Method of German Indology rather than German Indology in general.
I would underline their word Agenda here, noting that Bankim Chandra and Rsi Aurobindo had earlier detected this Agenda in their discourses on Mahabharata. In this review-article, my use of the epithet German Indology will be in the same sense as Adluri and Bagchee propose. (See for some idea of Agenda - Hiltebeitel, “Fifth Veda,” and the Panini Factor)
Adluri and Bagchee observe:
“German Indology thus sees itself not merely as learning and collecting objective knowledge as in the case of natural sciences. It is more: the German Indologist directly intervenes in history and changes it. On one hand, Indians are to be shown to be at the mercy of the tyranny of their misshapen, lecherous and fantastical Gods. Even more urgently, they are to be shown as being subject to the tyranny of priestly authority. Texts need to be purified of Brahmanical interpolations and metaphysical speculations.” (p-391)
In footnote, they quote Oldenberg (Indologie, p-641) as commenting “its God [i.e. Gods of Hinduism] are the misshapen, wild, cruel, [and] lascivious Hindu Gods, at their head SHiva and Vishnu” (p-391, fn.126)
This brings us to an important point of discussion – that I propose to deal in this article. If Oldenberg said this in 1907, earlier Raja Rammohun Roy had said almost the same thing almost a hundred years back in 1817.
The irony is: the Hindu History is such a vast and complex sphere, that this Negative view of some Gods go well with the Hindu Reform Movement particularly during Bengal/Indian Renaissance. The Real Krishna and the “Corrupted Krishna” had been a very relevant discourse.
The Agenda of course bifurcates from here. Rammohun’s Reaction to the Text is primarily what he Felt, and the German Indologists’ is primarily what they Thought – and this is because they had not the “inwardness” and “possession” that Kierkegaard suggested as essential for distinguishing “historical truth.” (p-409-10, fn.179)
This brings us to a very interesting dilemma – that I hope Adluri and Bagchee would give a thought to.
Were the German Indologists constructing Indian History, or were they merely in tradition of the Indian’s construction of Indian History? (The so-called Marxist Construction of Indian History though “recent” is also a part of Tradition now, we cannot deny that!) By ‘India’ here I would mean Bharatvarsha, and by ‘History’ I would include the ancient and expansive form Itihasa-Purana. Indeed, Mahabharata itself is a Text that records Construction and Re-Construction of Itihasa. Vyasa to Ugrashrava Sauti to the unknown redactor (the final Narrator) is a long way – and the product is what we have – Present Written Mahabharata.
Ugrashrava Sauti and Shaunaka etc.’s, and Janamejaya and Vaishampayana’s Interactive Mahabharata definitely points to Itihasa-Construction in Action. The Present Written Mahabharata is all about this Interaction – therefore, it cannot be Vyasa’s verbatim.
This Construction becomes all the more visible when we find mention of Janamejaya Parikshit as a historic person in many Ancient Texts (e.g. Satapath Brahmana, Atharva Veda) though there is no similar mention of his ancestors other than occasional mention in Satapath Brahmana (to some extent), Chandogya Upanishad (Devaki-Putra Krishna), Panini’s Ashtadhyayi, Kautilya’s Arthashastra, Vatsyayana’s Kamasutra, Patanjali’s Mahabhashya, Ashvaghosa?’s Buddhacarita and in some Buddhist and Jain Texts.
Adluri and Bagchee’s charge against German Indologists is that they tampered with History, and in their hand, the phenomenon “historicism”, the second aspect “as underwriting the scientific character of indology” indeed “led to a wrong turn.” (p-393)
We may lodge the same charge against Janamejaya Parikshit, Vaishampayana and Sauti for transforming Vyasa’s Mahakavya (ideally it should be Neutral and Impartial – and Vyasa himself intends so as per Mahabharata) into a dominantly Pro-Pandava Narrative. That is of course not to endorse the other extreme – the Inversion Hypothesis of Holtzmann. I would come to that.
In The Nay Science, Adluri and Bagchee propose to argue “in the humanities, scientific and methodological considerations are inseparable from ethical ones.” (p-29) And for this, they take a “concluding look at Gandhi” (p-444) – though not to offer any conclusive Solution (“To be sure, this concluding look at Gandhi is not meant to solve all textual problems”) – and their “aim is to outline an alternative to the scientism of Indology” (p-444).
With this “concluding look at Gandhi”, Adluri and Bagchee confirm my position that we must take into account the Bengal/Indian Renaissance Thinkers in any discussion on German Indology and Indology – because they precede Gandhi; and Gandhi widely acknowledged his indebtedness to them.
Adluri and Bagchee’s stress on Ethics is to me a call to Return to the Heart – Hrdaya – the very core of Human Existence and Human Essence, and the very core of Upanishadik Philosophy (because no Heart, no Ethics) – as opposed to Brain-Centricity; and the call for this shift is – as I would discuss – also Adluri and Bagchee’s attempt to Return to the Mahabharata-Text – implied in their criticism:
“And thus a generation of Indologists from Holtzmann to Malinar understook their dissections of the text, knowing neither what the text said nor what it actually took to interpret it.” (p-444)
The Mahabharata-Text, and Interpretation of the Text are therefore, two Key-Discourses in The Nay Science relevant to Mahabharata-study and Indology – and German Indology and German Indologists and their Historical-Critical Method are the launchpad.
1. Adluri and Bagchee’s Critique of German Indologists
(Critique of Christian Lassen, Holtzmanns etc)
Reading Adluri and Bagchee’s very informative documentation of German Indologists’ not “knowing … what the text said”, the first person who flashes in my mind is Bernard Shaw.
In Shaw’s Man and Superman, the Devil tells Don Juan:
“The Englishman described me as being expelled from Heaven by cannons and gunpowder; and to this day every Briton believes that the whole of his silly story is in the Bible. What else he says I do not know; for it is all in a long poem which neither I nor anyone else ever succeeded in wading through. It is the same in everything.”
The Devil’s reference here is to Milton’s The Paradise Lost – and through the Devil, the ‘Devil’ Bernard Shaw says that none has ever read the poem though everyone nourishes Belief about it without having actually read it. By ‘none’, Bernard Shaw includes Miltonian Scholars too.
“It is the same in everything” – well, in case of Mahabharata too.
How many Readers and Scholars have actually Read every word of Mahabharata? How many of them have “ever succeeded in wading through”?
And then, Reading word by word is only the Surface Layer – and one has to go deeper – the Deep Layer. In fact, Mahabharata itself in Bhishma’s voice defines Deva and Asura in terms of this Surface-Layer Reading and Deep Layer Reading. The one who is stuck at the Surface Layer of Vak and cannot penetrate to the Three Hidden Layers of Vak are Asurik. Bhishma calls these ‘Wordy’ people ‘traders in learning’ and ‘Rakshasa among men’ (tan vidyavanijo viddhi rakshasan iva – 12.140.15) – that hints at Artha-inclined Asurik nature – obviously the double Artha (meaning) of Artha in play. In short, Asurik people manipulate discourses on Dharma and interpret scriptures to suit their Self-centric needs.
Well, isn’t Bhishma apeaking about Agenda?
Taking Anandavardhana’s Dhvanyaloka analogy of ‘Word = Body’ and ‘Dhvani = Soul’, ‘Wordiness’ in the realm of language and ‘bodiness’ - both are manifestations of Asurik nature, because Asuras being alienated from Svadharma (12.110.20) – the essence of being – have no access to Dhvani or Soul.
Were the German Indologists sub-consciously subscribing to the view that the Original Culture was the Asura Culture?
On a serious note, Agendalogy springs from deliberate “manipulation of the text,” as much from Mis-Reading of the Text, and as much from Little Reading or even No-Reading of the Text. Little learning is a dangerous thing – we all know; Little Reading is perhaps even more dangerous – particularly when it concerns Mahabharata.
Now, by Reading I am not privileging Dry Intellect, or socially privileged Literacy over Actual Interest. There are instances where even the Illiterate has better understanding of Mahabharata. The foremost example that comes to mind is Shri Ramakrishna.
Adluri and Bagchee find this dearth of Reading Mahabharata in the German Indologists:
‘The idea of an original epic, as we have seen, was a specifically German notion answering to specifically German needs. German scholars had deployed the idea in pursuit of an ideal of a heroic Aryan race. It permitted them to make polemical points against Roman Catholicism as being essentially alien to the spirit of the German people. It permitted them to identify defining traits of the “Indo-Germanik” or “Aryan” peoples – nobility, free-spiritedness, suspicion of priestly authority, a warrior culture and so on – in contradistinction to “Semitic” tribes. It permitted them to undertake a sustained critique of non-Germanic cultures’ (p-153)
In other words, the German Indologists’ pursuit of Ideal – in this case, the Ideal of Superior Aryan Race – is an Agenda catering to specific German needs; that Constructed Mahabharata.
Now, we already find similar criticism in the voice of Rsi Aurobindo:
“For it is no exaggeration to say that European scholarship has shed no light whatever on the Mahabharata beyond the bare fact that it is the work of more than one hand. All else it has advanced, and fortunately it has advanced little, has been rash, arbitrary or prejudiced; theories, theories and always theories without any honestly industrious consideration of the problem. The earliest method adopted was to argue from European analogies, a method pregnant of error and delusion. If we consider the hypothesis of a rude ballad-epic doctored by ‘those Brahmins' — anyone who is curious on the matter may study with both profit and amusement Fraser’s History of Indian Literature — we shall perceive how this method has been worked……The German scholarship possesses infinite capacity of acuteness, labour, marred by an impossible and fantastic imagination” 
Regarding Lassen as the “founder of German Mahabharata studies” (p-40), Adluri and Bagchee note on Lassen: ‘There is little doubt that Lassen was one of the foremost theoreticians of race of the nineteenth century, responsible in large part for supplying the “historical” data that led to the creation of the Aryan race concept. This makes the present day enthusiasm for him even more puzzling.’ (41, n.54).
I wish, Adluri and Bagchee could have explored this “puzzle” more because what they find “puzzling” might not be so from the Bengali/Indian perspective, because even if the Bi-Racial Theory and Aryan Invasion Theory is cliché, and though ‘Lassen’s “history” was actually a form of racial theory’ (41, fn.57), Adluri and Bagchee perhaps overlook the power of the word “history” because Lassen’s “interest in the epic, from the very beginning, was historical” (p-42).
Given the peculiarity of Human Nature, we are bound to have Love-Hate Relation to scholars like Lassen; we would have a selective approach to them; we would take what we like, and we would reject what we don’t. This “we” is not just “we”-Readers but also “we”-Scholars, or even the “we” Layman.
Lassen being the First in many respects, many of our Modern Nationalists [mostly self-professed and Professional ones (Professional = Rceiving Artha for Patriotism)], believers of Mahabharata as Itihasa/History, and believers of Ancient Hindu glory (both Liberal and Bajrang type) will find the German Scholar as their natural ally for that very word “history.” Again, Casteists and Politicians playing Caste-Card (that is, modern day proponents of Aryan Invasion Theory in its new Avatara) will find their confirmation in German Scholars in their Bi-Racial Theory, and will therefore need the German Indologists without admitting reverence and Inspiration.
As in case of Lassen, we would certainly discard his Bi-Racial Theory (no more supported by archeology or geneology) of the conflict of White Aryans [Weisse Arier] and Black Aborigines [Schwarzen Urbewohner]. However, we cannot discard his ‘historical approach’ – because India needs her own history. This same urge was also felt during the Bengal/Indian Renaissance, as evident in Rshi Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyaya’s Krishnacaritra – though with difference, as we shall see.
Adluri and Bagchee observe how “Comte has been thoroughly absorbed into this discipline (i.e. ‘Mahabharata studies’)” (p-378), and Comte’s Law corresponds to the textual history offered by Indologists – “where most Indologists do not even realize that they are Comteans!” (p-378)
The ‘Textual History” is the division of the Text into Three Layers – “an initial militaristic phase; followed by a second phase in which scheming power-hungry Brahmans (Comte’s lawyers and jurists?) interpolated ‘abstract’ ideas into the text, corrupting it; and finally a positive phase, marked by a critical approach, which German philology must fulfill.” (p-378)
The Comtean influence however, ends there – because – as Adluri and Bagchee points out: “German Indology did not follow Comte down this path. It accepted a popular (and clichéd) view of positivism (even making it the basis of its “scientific” praxis), but it did not think through positivism to its end, as Comte had” (p-380)
For some understanding of the Love-Hate relation of Bengal/Indian Renaissance Thinkers vis-à-vis German Indologists particularly Lassen, and to see Comte’s Law ‘in action,’ let us read Bankim Chandra, for example.
Bankim Chandra expressed his indebtedness to Comte; and he appreciated Lassen for his admission of the historicity of Mahabharata and for arguing that the Kurukshetra War was basically a Kuru-Pancala war (- and let us remember Bankim Chandra distinguishes Itihasa and History in Krishnacaritra), but criticized Lassen for eliminating the very existence of Pandavas; that is, Bankim Chandra appreciated Lassen for his Historical-Critical Method and rejected Lassen for his tampering with History.
Bankim Chandra was in fact deeply indebted to Lassen’s formulation of the theory of Three-Layered-Mahabharata (though he does not acknowledge that directly, and says he arrived at that conclusion on his own reading of Mahabharata), and differed only on the subtleties of identification of the Layers – and regarded the 1st Layer as the Primary (Prathamik) and Primal (Adim) Layer.
We find the same concern in Rshi Aurobindo: “For that assurance there are three necessary requisites, the possession of certain sound and always applicable tests to detect later from earlier work, a reasonable chance that such tests if applied will restore the real epic roughly if not exactly in its original form and an assurance that the epic when recovered will repay from literary, historical or other points of view the labour that has been bestowed on it.”
As long as Mahabharata exists, the search for the Original Mahabharata or Ur-Mahabharata would also exist – it is almost an Existential Reality, whether Scholars like this approach or not. Even Adluri and Bagchee approve this approach though not directly. They find convincing demonstration in Sukthankar’s edition on the basis of manuscript evidence “the basic contours of the oldest possible archetype.” (p-408, fn.177)
Now, Rational Belief and “oldest possible archetype” is the very Whole of Mahabharata – the topic of Bankim Chandra and Rsi Aurobindo’s search.
If a journey from the scattered lot of “manuscript evidence” to “oldest possible archetype” is possible convincingly, and if Rationality is at the core of the manifest Text, isn’t it a pointer to the historicity of Mahabharata’s growth in form and size? Again, on that basis, isn’t it a logically pointer that the “oldest possible archetype” itself is a collection of historical growth containing the Rational Text?
Further Adluri and Bagchee admiringly quote Gandhi: “Krishna of the Gita is perfection and right knowledge personified; but the picture is imaginary. That does not mean that Krishna adored of his people, never lived. But perfection is imagined. The idea of perfect incarnation is an aftergrowth.”
Adluri and Bagchee regard Gandhi’s “statement” as “quite radical.” (p-443)
Now, what Gandhi says actually suggests his Belief in Layers – later imagination added to the Original Krishna – the same thought we find in Raja Rammohun Roy, Swami Vivekananda, Bankim Chandra, Rsi Aurobindo and Rabindranath Tagore.
If Bankim Chandra had a Rational Approach to Mahabharata-Text (well, in Tradition of Raja Rammohun Roy we may call it Spiritual Rationality), Lassen too had Rational Approach in some matters at least. Thus, if Bankim Chandra discarded Supernatural Narratives, Lassen too believed that Pandavas could not have been godsons and were in fact fathered by Pandu himself.
That the Pandavas were fathered by Pandu is my Belief too from my Reading of the Text. I have a Bengali book and article on that subject (See – Pandava Birth-Mystery Reconsidered)
I was aware of Jain Purana and some Folk Mahabharata particularly Gadvali Folk Mahabharata saying the same thing; however, I did not know that Lassen had also said the same thing. I, of course am not sure of Lassen’s method of arriving at that conclusion, and the Method must be outcome of Agenda that Adluri and Bagchee suggests. Yet, can I entirely discard Lassen from the Personal-Tradition of my own research?
Interestingly, I got renewed interest in Lassen only after reading The Nay Science; and it is only after reading The Nay Science that I read more about Lassen including Bankim Chandra’s ideas on him which I had earlier mostly overlooked in his Krishnacaritra.
Now, this “I” is certainly not my isolated being alone. I am the “Every Reader’ here.
What I mean to say by this personal reference is that: Adluri and Bagchee have perhaps to live with the irony of producing effects in the reader that they do not intend. Well, I would say, this is their success as Author.
Now, Bankim Chandra suggests cautious use of Mahabharata to search Krishna’s historicity on the basis of Mahabharata, and for that caution it is necessary that “We will not believe in whatever is mythical or supernatural (yaha atiprakrtik ba anaisargik tahate amra bisvas karbo na).” 
In other words, Bankim Chandra emphasizes the necessity of searching for the Rational Text for search of the historic materials of the Primary/Primal Layer. He also departs from Lassen very significantly.
He has dual approach to the 3rd Layer. He values this layer for its didactic value and particularly for its purpose of Loka-SHiksha (Mass Education) for the Veda-learning deprived woman and Shudra. Pertinent to mention here, Loka-Shiksha has a central place in the thought of all great thinkers of Bengal/Indian Renaissance – from Raja Rammohun Roy to Rabindranath Tagore through Shri Ramakrishna, Swami Vivekananda and Gandhi.
Bankim Chandra believes in Brahmanik Hypothesis but with a difference. His Brahmana is not the all-exploitative Brahmana-Class – resembling the Marxian Bourgeoisie; nor the anti-Aryan anti-Indo-German anti-Buddhist Brahmana of the German Indologists; nor the anti-Buddhist anti-Ashoka Reactive-Creative Brahmanas of Hiltebeitel and some modern Indologists.
Bankim Chandra’s Brahmanas had Idealism – they thought of Loka-SHiksha, and with that aim, they wanted to Balance Orthodox Tradition (that excluded Woman and Shudra from Vedas) and Modern need for Mass Education. Mahabharata became Fifth Veda at the hand of these Brahmanas. [Lassen had almost similar idea; to him, this didactic element consisted of “instruction concerning religious and social laws” (p-46)]
(Since Bankim Chandra himself was a Brahmin, it may be argued that he had his Agenda of justifying the Brahmana Re-Construction of Mahabharata; however, such a caste-based argument is best forsaken because it would be a Trap from which no Author – even the one penning such argument - would escape. Let us accept then that Agenda is a Human Existential Reality – manifest in both the Creative and Critical Faculty of human.)
Lassen conceded “that the Mahabharata could also be contemplated from the perspective of poetry” (p-43), and that “the Mahabharata is to be interpreted as an allegorical reference to political events in northern India” (p-47), but by this allegory he primarily meant considering the name of characters and the characters as allegorical rather than historical entity, though the broad frame was historical to him. Thus, Pandu and Arjuna both suggested to him allegory of White (because both connotes White) – and by extension White-skinned – that ultimately leads to his Bi-Racial Theory.
As I said, long before Lassen and German Indologists, Raja Rammohun Roy first proposed Rational Reading and Allegorical Reading of Mahabharata-Text, and he was the first to prefer a literary reading of Ancient Indian Literature.
Interestingly, Modern Indologists like Hiltebeitel are also speaking of the same realization that Mahabharata should be primarily taken as Literature. Hiltebeitel says: “The largest inadequacy in Mahabharata scholarship, including my own … is simply the failure to appreciate the epic as a work of literature. The western scholarly reception of this epic is straightforwardly built on and entrenched in the premise, aired most magisterially by Moriz Winternitz and Hermann Oldenberg—that the Mahabharata is a ‘literary monster’.” 
Indians and Hindus (the Not-so-Orthodox ones) have a peculiar Intuitive understanding of Mahabharata despite all the so-called Contradictions it contain; and it is this Intuition that is proof of Mahabharata’s Organic Unity.
Scholars with vibrating Heart to feel have realized that. For example, Woods, impressed by the work of Biardeau, feels that
“. . . the work of recent Western scholarship thus seems to confirm, in a more methodical manner, what generations of Indian readers have intuitively understood; that despite its enormous bulk and diversity, the Mahabhhta does indeed constitute a single literary design with unity of purpose and continuity of meaning.” 
The fact is: Mahabharata itself regards itself Kavya; so, what is the logic of reaching that conclusion in a roundabout fashion? In fact, to reach conclusions on Mahabharata without examining whether Mahabharata itself has reached that conclusion is symptomatic of German Indology in Action that Adluri and Bagchee denounces.
Earlier, Anandavardhana (CE 820-890) expresses indebtedness to Bharata Muni's Natyashastra, and discussing in details the Rasa elements of Mahabharata opines that Shanta Rasa predominates in Mahabharata. Needless to say, Anandavardhana’s comprehensive literary appreciation of Mahabharata is unparalleled. Milton’s (1608–1674) “calm of mind all passion spent” (in Samson Agonistes) is Anandavardhanian, after all.
Now, when Hiltebeitel regards Mahabharata “a work of literature,” what he admits without explicitly admitting is that: Mahabharata, like any other literary Text, must have a core Rational Text (As the Bengal/Indian Renaissance Thinkers have taught us, Rational does not mean Dry Intellect or Brain-Centricity). Literature might distort Rationality, and we call that the effect of poetic licence; but the Rational element as its root cannot be denied, because the very urge that creates a Text has Material Existence, and is therefore, Rational.
The Upanishads speak of Brahma – however, the Upanishads also regard Prana and Anna as the highest Gods; implying, the Upanishadik Rshis were never unaware of the Material basis of life – and Material precedes Spiritual – the same thought we find in Vyasa’s Jiva-Dharma Tattva.
Thus, if Mahabharata is a work of Literature, full of Metaphors, Allegories, Imagery and Symbols – that cannot be and should not be taken literally, the existence of the Rational Text cannot be denied. It is only after understanding the Rational Text that its Mythical and Supernatural layering can be understood in relation to each other. And here Bankim Chandra’s ideas become relevant. Though we may discard the Supernatural from the Rational Text, we cannot discard them from the Kavya, and we cannot discard them too from the point of Social Value because the Didactism and intention of Loka-Shiksha is unmistakable in them.
Similarly, from the point of History, Supernatural Power attributed to a character does not mean the character could not have a real existence – and this possibility validates the search for the History in Mahabharata. Gandhi – as quoted by Adluri and Bagchee – suggested the same thing. Our Modern Godmen also claim to have Supernatural Power; we can throw them to the litterbin, but we cannot certainly deny their real or ‘historic’ existence.
If Shakespeare’s Macbeth means there were three Macbeth at least – the one in Shakespeare’s mind, Macbeth the Text, and the historic Macbeth, it can be similar with Mahabharata.
Now, if Lassen is in Tradition of interpreting Mahabharata as Kavya, the departure point of Agenda is equally interesting. Unique Human Beings that we are, even appreciation of Kavya has different Layers – confirming the Ancient Rshis’ wisdom that Vak has Multiple-Layers.
As Adluri and Bagchee point out, Lassen carried his White and Black concept to extreme absurd levels. He not only interpreted the colours as literally skin-colours – a very shallow-reading, he also had a peculiar explanation of how the Black Krishna and Krshna (Draupadi) could be on the White-skinned Aryan side: “the distinction in terms of colour must have a meaning, and this can only be that the Pancala, as well as Yadava who are represented by Krishna (Vasudeva), both belonged to the Aryan peoples who had immigrated [into India] earlier, [that they] had become darker through the influence of climate than the more recent immigrants from the North, and in contrast to these, were called the black ones.” (p-47)
Well, both fair-complexioned and dark-complexioned Indians would certainly find great comic relief in such scholarly pronouncements. And needless to say, ‘Fairness-Cream’ companies could launch better products taking cue from Lassen.
The German Agendalogy becomes clear from such interpretation, and I would add, the Agenda betrays a pathetic dearth of Reading; because one who has some knowledge of Vedas, Brahmana Texts and Upanishads knows the significance of White-Black (See my attempt here on some ideas- Krishna and Arjuna on One Chariot - Rotating Night and Day), and would simply laugh at Lassen’s thesis. That again of course does not mean that the White-Black interpretation denies historicity. Metaphor and History need not be in Conflict – in fact, Kavya blends the two, and Mahakavya effects perfect Synthesis.
2. The Inversion Hypothesis
Adluri-Bagchee’s quote from Holtzmann Jr. gives us an idea what Inversion Hypothesis is:
“According to the older poem, right and virtue is on the side of Karna and his party, according to the younger [poem] on that of Arjuna; Duryodhana is the lawful king, Arjuna and his brothers rebels, Karna is the embodiment of the knightly battle-code, Krishna always advises trickery and deception: this is the stand point of the old poem. Yudhishthira and Arjuna are paragons of every virtue, Duryodhana and Karna sinful criminals; Krishna, however, the embodiment of the highest God: this is the standpoint of the new poem. How one, however, came to leave the old interpretation and to take up the new opposed [interpretation] is a puzzle whose solution must be sought there where Indian history has its genuine ground, the field of history of religion. It was Vishnuism that demanded and enforced this transformation.” (p-55)
Obviously, there are enough elements in Mahabharata that bolsters Holtzmann’s “Inversion Theory”. (See - Why Krishna Red-Carded Duryodhana out of Dharma-Raajya?)
For example, Karna as Dharma is possible given Durvasa’s boon of mantra to Kunti that she would be Dharma’s mother – “O blessed damsel, O thou of beautiful face, thou wilt become the mother of Dharma (dharmasya janani bhadre bhavitri tvam varanane, 15.38.6a).” Logically, Karna being Kunti’s eldest born is therefore, Dharma.
There are quite a few Shlokas in Mahabharata that suggests that Duryodhana was elder to Yudhishthira (e.g. 2.46.23; 2.49.24), and therefore, the actual claimant to the Hastinapura throne. Mahabharata clearly states that Gandhari conceived Duryodhana one year earlier to Kunti’s invocation of Dharma for Niyoga: (samvatsarahite garbhe gandharya, 1.114.1a). By biological logic, one conceived one year earlier has to be born earlier.
This probability of Duryodhana being the eldest tilts the scale in his favour. He was then actually fighting for his Right that the Pandavas sought to hijack.
Again, there is equally strong possibility that Vidura was the eldest brother of Dhrtarashtra and Pandu (See - Vidura - The Eldest Of The Trio; and in that case, Duryodhana and Yudhishthira’s claim to throne is actually a Free Play.
The Mythical Narrative that Duryodhana stayed in Gandhari’s womb for 2 years till Yudhishthira was born (samvatsaradvayam tam tu gandhari garbham ahitam, 1.107.9a) does not pass the test of biological reality, and therefore, definitely points to the work of some pro-Pandava poet to confirm Yudhishthira’s claim to Seniority.
Even going by the identification of Kauravas with Asuras and Pandavas with Devas, Duryodhana seems to be elder to Yudhishthira because Vyasa mentions Deva-Asura fight as a historical reality – in which Asuras were elder-Gods and Devas the younger Gods (asura bhrataro jyeshtha devash capi yaviyasah, 12.34.13), presaging the Greek myth of the war of old-Gods Titans and new-Gods Olympians.
There are several passages in Present Classical Mahabharata that portray Duryodhana as Hero – Duryodhana’s comparison with SHiva when he rises from Dvaipayana-Lake to fight Pandavas, the unique eulogy showered on him after his fall, praise of his rule by ‘people’s representative’ Shamba, a Brahmana – are something to remind us.
Here is an example, how the Brahmanik Hypothesis (I will come to that) clashes with the Inversion Hypothesis. If Shamba-Brahmana eulogizes Duryodhana, it bolsters the Inversion Hypothesis; however, it does away with the Brahmanik Hypothesis because why would the Brahmanas allow the retention of a Brahmana’s praise of Duryodhana? Now, if that is a case of “Brahmanik magnanimity” then the “Corrupt and Corrupting Brahmana” does not entirely hold good.
I think, the Inversion Hypothesis and the resultant Blood-Thirsty Indo-Germanik/Indo-European Kshatriya Hero stems from Reading (or Misreading) the Vedas. Any reader of Vedas will surely find that other than eulogy for or prayer to Devas (and/or Natural Forces), the recurrent theme is “War,” “Conquest over Enemies” and “Acquisition of Artha.”
Now, a scholar with locale in an Artha-Centric dominant Culture will surely fail to penetrate the Surface Layer ‘Artha’ (Meaning) of “War,” “Enemy” and “Artha.” Here, Adluri and Bagchee is right how the German Indologists were merely Reacting to Re-Created Text produced by their own Agenda rather than understanding the Context of Concepts and Ideas of Ancient Bharatvarsha. For this, the approach to Vedas needed approach through Brahmana Texts, Aranyakas and Upanishads - which in fact, suggest in many ways the Method of Reading and Interpretation of Vedas - other than Direct Approach. Mahabharata – the ‘Vedan Pancaman’ (1.57.74) – encompasses the Whole of Ancient Indian Literature. For example: Mahabharata anachronistically mentions Yajnavalka’s Satapath Brahmana and the Itihasa of its Creation. Therefore, to understand Mahabharata necessitates understanding the Brahmana Texts because Mahabharata itself suggests it.
What I suggest is: Mahabharata suggests in many ways, the Mode and Method of its Reading – and the German Indologists simply overlooked this, or rather, failed to find them. For example, Mahabharata does not even define the boundary of its own Text – in fact, the Reader is granted the Liberty to define the Boundary. Thus, Ugrashrava Sauti says:
“Some read the Bharata beginning with the initial mantra (invocation), others with the story of Astika, others with Uparichara, while some Brahmanas study the whole’ -
manvadi bharatam ke cid astikadi tathapare /
tathoparicarady anye viprah samyag adhiyate // (1.1.50)
The reader is also given the Freedom to choose his own purpose of reading the Text. Sauti says, ‘Men of learning display their various knowledge of the institutes in commenting on the composition. Some are skilful in explaining it, while others, in remembering its contents’ -
vividham samhitajnanam dipayanti manishinah /
vyakhyatum kushalah ke cid grantham dharayitum pare // (1.1.51)
Mahabharata-Text even denies itself any fixed Title and refuses to identify itself with any fixed Genre. (See - Mahabharata – Text and Textuality)
Coming to Gita, most Readers fail to notice that after his lecture-discourses, Krishna does not dictate. He says to Arjuna to do as he wishes (vimrshyaitad asheshena yathecchasi tatha kuru, Gita-18.63, MBh-06.40.63). No doubt, Krishna was a Teacher par excellence.
Similarly, after advising Yudhishthira on the necessity of killing Jarasamdha for performing Rajas?ya, Krishna tells him to decide on his own (svayam nishcitya, 2.13.68c).
Inversion Hypothesis that finds the Blood-Thirsty Indo-Germanik/Indo-European Kshatriya Hero and the Spirit of Inversion Hypothesis that seeks Balance (reacting to the other extreme pole of timidity, cowardice, passivity – in short Tamah Guna) - are two different things.
The Spirit of Inversion Hypothesis has Tradition in Ancient Bharatvarsha as evident in Bhasa (2nd century BCE to 2nd century CE, or as early as 5th century BCE), and even in the later Bharavi to some extent (6th century CE). Even if Bhasa’s (and Bharavi’s) portrayal of Duryodhana does not exactly fit the “Inversion Theory” it is beyond doubt that they found some exceptional Merit in Duryodhana – which, I believe must have a Tradition behind.
It seems, Adluri and Bagchee have missed that Holtzmann’s Inversion Hypothesis has even a stronger validity in the complex Indian society – because one Gadvali Folk Version of Mahabharata in modern Uttarakhanda, retains Duryodhana and Karna as the original heroes, and even Gods in those regions of Gadval – a fact, the Holtzmann’s would certainly have been jubilant to hear about.
However, Holtzmann would have been depressed too by the same evidence, because the Gadvali Duryodhana and Karna are peace loving Devas. After initial skirmish with the Pandavas, Duryodhana even gives them back their Kingdom and then they leave peacefully. There is even no Kurukshetra War in this region.
What emerges: Mahabharata is the Mother of Paradox and Irony.
Some sort of the Spirit of Inversion Hypothesis has always been there in the Bengal-air.
Michael Madhus?dan Dutta’s Meghnad Badh (1861) found heroism in Indrajit more than Rama or Lakshmana. And in Bengali Folk Culture, of which Kathakata was an important traditional art, there are several instances of Vyasa, Krishna, and Pandavas being mocked, and the Kurus glorified. For example, Sumanta Banerjee, referring to Radhamadhav Kar, an old theatre personality of Calcutta, gives an illustration of a Kheur (a folk art) in a jatra performance (a sub-genre of rural theatre) in the middle of the nineteenth century. It was sung by Ambalika, as a repartee directed against her mother-in-law, Satyavati. When Satyavati, in her desire to preserve the family line, wanted her to beget a child with Vyasa, Ambalika satirizes the leering behaviour of the old Vyasa.
It is thus not surprising that Ravana and Duryodhana are common names to be found in rural Bengal even to this day.
The sympathy for Duryodhana and Karna springs from a sympathy for and identification with the loser. Even if the German Indologists were never born, sympathy and admiration for Karna is Always-Already, because every side, with or without conscious Agenda, will find oneself, at some phase of life, as a loser with “chariot-wheel stuck in Earth”.
The Karna-Archetype is not of Indo-Germanik/Indo-European Kshatriya Hero, but the Everyman, who finds himself in a deadlock situation, overwhelming adversities, and situations (both Internal-External) Beyond Control. (And here I differ with Kevin Mcgrath)
Is there any person, who has not felt like Karna, at some phase of life?
Bankim Chandra had a pro-Pandava and pro-Krishna interpretation of Mahabharata, however, in his Krishnacaritra he remarked: “Karna-caritra ati manohar” (‘Karna’s character is mind-pleasing’). This gives us a clue to Bankim Chandra’s approach to Original Mahabharata – the significant point of difference of German Indologists and Bengal/Indian Renaissance Thinkers despite some similarity of approach.
There is also no denying the fact that Kshatriya-Ideology was a very dominant Ideology in Ancient Bharatvarsha. The Kshatriya-setting of Gita testifies to that. Besides, the all-important term Dharma has also sanctioned Kshatriya-association. For example, in Brhadara?yaka Upanishad, Dharma is regarded as Kshatrasya Kshatram Dharma (Brhadara?yaka Upanishad- 1.4.14).
The Interpretation of Kshatriya however, becomes problematic unless we read Ancient Indian Literature and Mahabharata properly. The Agenda of the German Indologists obscured the Real Kshatriya and substituted it with a Blood-Thirsty one.
Whereas, Kshatriya may be a Varna in the Varna System; but Kshatriya-Ideology is not confined to Varna Identity. This Kshatriya is the Spirit that every Human Being needs to incorporate in one’s nature in the Struggle for Survival. Thus we have Yudhishthira learning from Bhishma that when Varna-Kshatriya fails to do his duty and protect people and Dharma, every other Varna including Shudra has the right to become Kshatriya to usurp the Varna-Kshatriya and Rule the Rashtra.
Of course the German Indologists were stuck at the Surface Layer of Varna System – just like many of our Modern Indologists.
I will next discuss the Brahmanik Hypothesis and what Adluri and Bagchee say.
(To be continued …)
 Sri Aurobindo. “The Problem of the Mahabharata” in The Harmony of Virtue, Early Cultural Writings — 1890-1910, Valmiki and Vyasa. Notes on the Mahabharata
 Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, Krishnacharitra, 1st Khanda 12th pariccheda, in Bankimchandra Rachanavali, 2nd Khanda. Sahitya Samsada, Kolkata, 1390, P- 430
 Alf Hiltebeitel, “Reconsidering Bhr?guization,” in Composing a Tradition: Concepts, Techniques, and Relationships, ed. Mary Brockington and Peter Schreiner (Zagreb: Croatian Academy of Sciences and the Arts, 1999), 156; cited in Reading the Fifth Veda: Studies on the Mah?bh?rata— Essays by Alf Hiltebeitel, Volume 1. Edited by Vishwa Adluri and Joydeep Bagchee. Brill 2011, xiv  Woods, Destiny and Human Initiative in the Mahabharata. p. 159; cited in Aditya Adarkar’s Karna in the Mahabharata, Chicago 2011, p-26, fn.52
 Banerjee Sumanta. Bogey of the Bawdy: Changing Concept of 'Obscenity' in 19th Century Bengali Culture.Economic and Political Weekly Vol. 22, No. 29 (Jul. 18, 1987), pp. 1197-1206
More by : Indrajit Bandyopadhyay
|"What else he says I do not know; for it is all in a long poem [Paradise Lost] which neither I nor anyone else ever succeeded in wading through. It is the same in everything.” |
How many readers and scholars have actually read every word of Mahabharata? How many of them have “ever succeeded in wading through”?
|You mention Milton's 'Paradise Lost' as of unreadable textual duration; however, I have had the luxury of an armchair audition of the said epic via a set (was it 4 or 6?) of CD recordings obtained from a library. The thing that struck me about Milton's characterisation of Satan was to render this evil spirit as some sort of fallen hero, who dared to stand up to God. And it is a syndrome that affects every religious epic, where the Infinite is reduced to virtual nullity in the realm of exploits of creatures, or is even made to join in as though it was an opportunity for the taking. How laughable it is to stand in awe of Satan as Milton does; likewise, how pathetic the exploits of heroes in myths. The analogy is that of a coin of small value, a penny, say, held up over the eye to eclipse the sun. So we humans tend to eclipse the Infinite by the expanded medium of myth and legend. When God does appear as man in history, an inversion takes place that seems bewildering, but is explained by Christ (God made man) being of low social status, meek and humble, a teacher in the streets, that is at odds with the Infinite splendour of poetic (Miltonic) appeal. God resumes his state of oblivion save in the preaching of what God holds dear, love and self-sacrifice. It explains why Milton. who one presumes was a Christian, did not write an epic about Christ. Infinite values dwindle by inversion to nothingness in the context of human values.|