Book Reviews

Are Sub-tales Digressions

or Ancillary Stories in the Mahabharata?

V. Adluri and J. Bagchee:
Argument and Design—the unity of the Mahabharata.
Brill, 2016, 478 pages, price not stated.

Traditional Indological scholarship has believed in early Kshatriya ballads being edited into the Mahabharata (MB). Alf Hiltebeitel, once of the most prolific and provocative of MB scholars, has persistently been advocating that it is the written work of a committee of Brahmins of the Panchala area between 150 BCE and 100 CE. A few years ago Adluri, his devoted shishya, and Bagchee, Adluri’s nephew-cum-chela in the parampara, collected the guru’s papers in two volumes running to over 1200 pages. Now they have edited a superb collection of papers by twelve MB scholars from Europe, Australia, Canada and the USA with two articles by Hiltebeitel preceding and rounding off the set. As usual with conferences held abroad, India is not represented although the epic is grounded there. In India, on the other hand, no seminar on her ancient traditions is considered worthwhile unless some foreign scholars feature, irrespective of the standard of their contribution.

What provoked this book’s riveting outpouring is Hiltebeitel’s proposition that the “sub-tales” are not fringe episodes or “digressions” as Sukthankar, the editor of the Critical Edition, called them, but are central to the architectonics of the MB. The papers, all focusing on this argument, featured in the 41st annual conference on South Asia in Madison, Wisconsin, in October 2012. From the excellent Foreword by R.P. Goldman, editor of the translation of the Ramayana’s Critical Edition (R), it is clear that the book is very much of a Festschrift from loving friends, admiring colleagues and students. Adluri provides a fine Introduction happily titled, “From supplementary narratives to narrative supplements,” presenting a succinct survey of the highlights. As Goldman points out, thematic proximity is what characterizes these stories which are by no means lesser or subordinate tales. Adluri proposes that they are the best way to rethink the nature of the MB as the repository of all knowledge.

Hiltebeitel notes that among the various terms the MB applies to itself one is upakhyana, a non-Vedic word which might be used for the first time here and not occurring in the R. He lists 67 stories (almost 15% of the epic’s total slokas) that are so termed, taking “the reverberations between them as a kind of sonar with which to plumb the epic’s depths.” Bowles and Brodbeck in their papers locate 5 more. Whereas akhyana is a long narrative often interrupted, the upakhyana is a major tale that is not broken up. These are almost all addressed to the Pandavas (primarily Yudhishthira) and a few to Duryodhana and Karna. In saying that only one is narrated by a woman (Kunti to Pandu) Hiltebeitel overlooks the fiery tale of Vidula she tells Krishna for retelling to her sons for screwing their courage to the sticking place so as not to fail. Where tales are repeated, they are always from a different angle. Because of this, Hiltebeitel argues for reading the Shanti and the Anushasana Parvas as part of the total design, not as the consequence of “an anthology-by-anthology approach.” It is relevant that the MB’s oldest parva list occurring in the Spitzer manuscript (c. 250 CE) does not have the Anushasana. It might have formed part of the Shanti at that time as it does in the Indonesian MB. These stories build up a nexus of values such as anrishansya (non-cruelty), friendship, hospitality, gratitude. This is not so clear in the R. In discussing the Parashurama-Rama encounter, Hiltebeitel erroneously states that the former demands that the latter break Vishnu’s bow and he does so (p. 50). Actually, Parashurama challenges him to shoot an arrow with the bow, which Rama does, blocking his path to Swarga. There is a pattern in the encounters Rama has with sages: Hiltebeitel claims that he meets all the eight founders of Brahmin lineages, arguing not very convincingly that Rishyashringa is a substitute for his grandfather Kashyapa and Parashurama for Jamadagni. Childless Parashurama cannot be considered a gotra-founder. Seven of these rishis make up the Saptarshi constellation, pointing Rama southwards. Hiltebeitel argues that the two epics have similar designs and therefore the MB’s story of Rama, beginning with material from canto 7 of the R, cannot be an epitome of Valmiki’s epic. Valmiki went beyond it to posit new values about dharma based upon a bhakti relationship between subjects and monarch, bolstered by rishis of Vedic antiquity. In the course of this discussion, Hiltebeitel very uncharacteristically calls for correcting the Critical Edition of the MB (held sacrosanct by him and his ilk), for having turned the 18 chapter “Narayaniya” section of the Mokshadharma Parva into 19, thereby spoiling his ideal “18” paradigm. This smacks of that very “higher criticism” which he is wont to condemn. He contends that these upakhyanas aim at churning out the secret of achieving liberation through dharma and truth, something that Shuka attains and finally Yudhishthira too. But does he? After all, in Swarga he is prevented from putting a question to Draupadi-Shri.

Robert Goldman argues that upakhyana does not connote subordinate tales but rather complementary or supplementary narratives that are instructive in nature, repeating motifs in the main story. He examines the R’s Uttarakanda as such a narrative encapsulating core components of the MB’s central story. Here the poet appears to be attempting to project Rama as the chakravartin who achieves universal imperium through conquest as idealised in the MB. It is only in this last canto that we find mention of armies of 300 rajas massing, too late, to help Rama in besieging Lanka. After the rajasuya yagya Yudhishthira’s sway extends from Antioch in the West to China in the East. But why should this imperial concept be seen as emulating the Persian Empire? Further, Yudhishthira certainly does not “lay waste to all rival kingdoms” and commit “wholesale slaughter” for the rajasuya. Unlike the Dharmaraja, Rama does not annex kingdoms (not even Lanka). He establishes Shatrughna to rule in Mathura. Bharata conquers Gandhara by releasing a WMD annihilating thirty million gandharvas— veritable ethnic cleansing— and establishes his sons at Pushkaravati (Peshawar) and Takshashila. Then Rama commands Lakshmana to take over Karupatha without bloodshed. He refrains from the rajasuya because Bharata convinces him that the world is already under his sway. The horse-sacrifice which he performs instead at Lakshmana’s suggestion emulates Dasharatha’s in being devoid of conquests or battles. It is not only Bhavabhuti (8th century CE) who sought to remedy this omission by introducing the battle with Lava and Kusha in Uttararamacharita, as Goldman notes, but also Jaimini who did the same in his MB’s Ashvamedha Parva. Rama is the ideal pacific and righteous emperor, very different from Dharmaraja Yudhishthira who does not shrink from imperial conquests. The Uttarakanda fails to remodel Rama “in the model of the idealized chakravartin, Yudhishthira, held up as an ideal template for Kshatriya rule in the Mahabharata.” Goldman believes that its authors were familiar with the MB. He goes further to suggest a probable chronology as Pushkaravati and Takshashila were major towns of the Persian satrapy of Gandaris and then under Alexander (4th c. BCE) and Menander (2nd c. BCE). Their importance would have inspired the authors to claim them as part of the Kosalan Empire. Would that not hold equally true for the MB which is recited to Janamejaya in Taxila?

Bagchee focuses on the variations in the Shakuntala story in the northern and southern recensions. Like Yagyavalkya defying his maternal uncle-and-guru Vaishampayana, he challenges grand guru Hiltebeitel’s views and proposes a novel concept, viz. that southern scribes composed extra slokas restoring a better sequential order of chapters in terms of Paurava genealogy. He asserts, they “heal the breaches in the text” as they had “an architecture in their heads” (emphasis in the original). This is very much like the “higher criticism” which he condemns strongly otherwise. The order in the southern recension is superior to the northern in which “the transitions…are quite awkward.” He also alleges that the scribes deleted entire segments, as in the beginning of chapter 90. To him the southern version is “a more complete retelling of the Mahabharata.” Hence he suggests rethinking the relation between the two recensions. As he and Adluri are revising the Critical Edition, we will be seeing the results of their editing work seeking to preserve the tradition of the Indian scribes, as they claim. Bagchee asserts that the southern is not descended from the northern, as argued by T.P. Mahadevan and strongly backed by Hiltebeitel. In proposing a common source for both he is reverting to the German theory of an “Ur-Mahabharata”. According to him, Mahadevan is mistaken in saying that Sukthankar chose the shortest text as the archetype because of his training in the German school of Philology. Bagchee himself reveals his own Germanic affiliations by speaking of this being “a case of Vorlage that makes a certain Vorgabe”.

Greg Bailey shows how the section in the Vana Parva dealing with Markandeya’s narratives mirrors the use of multiple and mixed genres in the MB text, besides aiming at providing a “totalistic view of things.” There is theogony, cosmogony, tyrannical rajas, raging rishis and differing views of dharma. There is no overarching plot holding this part together, except that all of it educates Yudhishthira. This is particularly interesting because nothing happens to the Pandavas who are the interlocutors all through. The only actors are the sage and Krishna. The focus appears to be on presenting Brahmins with a unified interpretation of dharma through tales of widely varied content.

Sally Goldman examines the MB’s Ramopakhyana and the R’s account of the Rakshasas in the Uttarakanda to show that sexual transgression by females and misogyny inhere in the demonic in Valmiki’s imagination, not in Vyasa’s. Vyasa is not bothered about Rakshasa women and even omits Ravana’s mother Kaikasi. She holds that the Ramopakhyana is refashioning the Uttarakanda to fit in with its views. Why can it not be the other way round, particularly when it is quite certain that the Uttarakanda is later (cf. Hiltebeitel)? Goldman does not notice that the MB’s version of the R matches its conception of a divine plan played out on earth. Here Brahma sends an apsara to become Manthara in order to ensure Rama’s forest exile.

Bruce Sullivan seeks to find out what Bhima’s encounter with Hanuman can tell us about the MB. Firstly, the MB mostly uses the name “Hanoomaan” instead of “Hanumaan”. Sullivan makes the excellent point that there is no reason to assign several centuries for the size of the MB, or a committee as Hiltebeitel proposes, when Isaac Asimov could write 500 books on subjects covering all ten major categories of the Dewey Decimal System while working as a professor of biochemistry. This episode is the only instance in which Bhima cites knowledge of the quality-less supreme soul (nirgunah paramatmeti) as the reason for not jumping over the monkey, and refuses the amrita-like food offered. Further, he mentions this meeting to no one, not even Hanuman’s presence on Arjuna’s pennant. Even later, when the Pandavas hear the Ramopakhyana, Bhima does not mention that he has met Hanuman. Yet, when he meets Hanuman, he says he is aware of his exploits in the R. Hanuman refers to Rama as Vishnu and uses the word avatara. Besides this, it is a parallel to first Arjuna and then Yudhishthira meeting their fathers, with Bhima’s encounter with Hanuman appropriately in the middle. It also links up with the burning of Khandava when Arjuna received the celestial chariot with a divine ape on the flagstaff, which we are now told is Hanuman. This episode, therefore, seeks to explain Hanuman’s presence on Arjuna’s flagstaff. In this episode Hanuman is linked four times to Indra. In the Rigveda Indra is “Vrishakapi,” the bull-ape. Nowhere else in the MB is the ape on the banner known as Hanuman, which suggests that this episode was added at the very end of its composition. Hanuman’s assuming his incomparable form to teach Bhima about dharma and the yugas, advocating puja with bhakti, is modelled on Krishna’s Gita, as is the forgiveness both brothers beg of the deities. Just as Arjuna alone can see this form of Krishna and hear him, so it is with Bhima and Hanuman, Yudhishthira and Dharma. Sullivan sees a parallel between Bhima’s double quest for wondrous flowers on Gandhamadana and Indra’s mountain-climbing to seek the source of golden lotuses floating in the Ganga. Since here Hanuman is depicted as more divine than in the R, does that indicate composition at a time when he was worshipped as a deity (c. 1st century BCE - 400 CE)? Possibly not, as evidence of such worship comes much later.

Fernando Alonso’s thesis is that the committee writing the MB was presenting an answer to competing ideologies like Buddhism and bhakti following Alexander’s invasion. He focuses on “the architectures of power and the role of Indra”. In doing so he surveys the epic of Gilgamesh where the heroic king is punished by gods for misrule. Both the MB and this epic deal with kings who are intermediaries between men and gods and need to be righteous. Though Alonso asserts that both epics have a divine plan of massacre, in the MB this affects not all humanity, as in Gilgamesh, but only Kshatriyas. Further, how is the good side “degraded…paving the way for their slaughter” when the Pandavas are left unscathed with a resurrected heir? Nor do bad kings or the absence of kings imply attacks by demons or perversion of the social order and a lack of yagyas. None of these occur during Duryodhana’s reign which is extolled by the subjects when they bid tearful farewell to Dhritarashtra. An excellent insight is how sages contribute to the daivic plan through rape (of Matsyagandha), boons (to Kunti, Gandhari, Drona), curses (on Dyaus-Bhishma, Dharma-Vidura, Karna), engendering (by Bharadvaja, Vyasa). Besides incarnating, the gods empower both parties (Arjuna, Shikhandi, Dhrishtadyumna, Draupadi, Jayadratha and Ashvatthama) while the demons possess Duryodhana and Karna. In this list, Alonso misses out Duryodhana whose torso is adamantine being Shiva’s creation but waist-downwards is delicate having been made by Uma. As for Indra, he is much more of a figurehead than Homer’s Zeus who actively intervenes in the Trojan War. In the upakhyanas he is shown as lecherous and scared, never as the demon-smiting Rigvedic hero, but a god who bows to Brahmin-dom. The tirtha stories show that the gods are not all that superior and can be overcome by rishis, asuras and even humans. Their inferiority to Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, to kings like Kuru and even to asuras like Bali and Namuchi is made amply clear. The bhakti trinity has overtaken the Rigvedic deities and Indra has no place in the new bhakti ideology. His Swarga is rejected as inferior to moksha. The critical role is played by Kshatriyas who act like Brahmins (Bhishma’s celibacy, Yudhishthira’s ahimsa) and vice-versa (Drona, Kripa, Ashvatthama) the latter being all on the Kaurava side: “there is no MB without out-of-role Brahmans.” The very onset of the Dvapara epoch is because of Brahmin Parashurama’s massacres, while Yudhishthira’s obsession with nonviolence ushers in Kali Yuga. Alonso proposes that the makers of the MB made it a war story so that it was closed off to competing groups like the Shramanas and their cycles of tales. Thus, the Samyutta Nikaya shows Indra as a devotee of Buddha and the gods as inferior to arhants. It would have been similar in Jain texts.

Adheesh Sathaye tries to make sense of the Madhavi episode by using a unique approach. He conceptualizes the architectonics of the MB as resembling a modern museum whose text panels guide the audience’s reaction to the exhibit. He argues that the story of Galava and Madhavi provides “a unique fusion of morality and political discourse” advocating gathering power through friendship, not conquest. He notes Dumezil’s linking of Madhavi with the Celtic epic heroine Medb, both names deriving from the Indo-European root “medhua” meaning “intoxicating”, which we hear still in the Santhal “mahua,” the Sanskrit “madhu”. It is not cognate to the English “mead” as Sathaye says, that word being Germanic. Sathaye argues that Garuda is shown to be “a morally problematic friend and guide” as he disrespects women in the encounter with the female sanyasi Shandili, foreshadowing Galava’s “pimping” of Madhavi. As he is a pupil of the arch-rebel Vishvamitra, we are predisposed to accept his operating at the fringes of social propriety and his being as stubborn as his guru. Here a story about a different kind of Brahmin is glued on to the Vishvamitra meta-myth. Vishvamitra’s very birth is linked to the black-eared horses he demands from Galava which is also the name of Vishvamitra’s son in the Harivansha. Ashtaka, his son from Madhavi, is a Rigvedic seer. The yagya the grandsons of Yayati perform for him is the epic’s version of the Rigvedic verse 10.179 attributed to three of the same kings (Shibi, Pratardana and Vasumanas) ruling over Kashi, Ayodhya and Bhojapura plus Ashtaka at Kanyakubja, all important sites in early Buddhist and Jain literature. Shibi, in particular, is an epitome of moral kingship in both Brahminical and Buddhist traditions. Sathaye suggests that linking these kingdoms through matrilocal genealogy constructs a new way of looking at consolidating power through regional alliances instead of conquest following the collapse of the Mauryas. To these Sathaye adds Pratishthana, Yayati’s capital, identifying it with the Satavahana capital of Paithan in the post-Mauryan period, known as important commercially in Buddhist texts. He overlooks that Khandavaprastha is given to the Pandavas as having been the capital of their ancestor Yayati. Simultaneously, the Galava-Garuda tale highlights the supremacy of Vishnu which is stressed in the story of Dambodhbhava that follows. This arrogant king is trounced by Nara with a fistful of grass. This is very interesting because in the Mairavana and the Sahasramukharavana tales from the Jaiminiya Mahabharata, both Hanuman and Sita use similar mantra-infused grass to destroy the demons. Vaishnava theology is thus being brought to the fore. As these stories focus on obstinate pride leading to destruction, the audience is guided to realise the anxieties of post-Mauryan rulers in whose despotic times the MB is trying to push a new vision of moral rule, dharmartha, for governing effectively, ruthless conquest no longer being a feasible option.

The lengthiest paper, running to 45 pages, is by the editor Adluri: a provocative contribution claiming that Amba-Shikhandi represents Ardhanarishvara. The name, of course, is that of the Goddess-as-Mother, but how does her turning male recall Shiva’s “gender ambiguity”? Nor does ardhanarishvara mean “half woman” but rather “the-half-woman-God.” The MB does not know the Ardhanarishvara concept. Adluri argues that Arjuna, empowered by Shiva, and Shikhandi resemble the Purusha-Prakriti dyad. However, the Purusha is always a witness, never acting, whereas it is Arjuna’s arrows, not Amba-Shikhandi’s, that bring down Bhishma. It could be argued that by using Shikhandi as a stalking horse, Arjuna is, in effect, pretending to be witness, but Adluri does not resort to that. For him, the “ultimate androgyne” Shikhandhi challenges the “ultimate masculine figure” Bhishma (but does not celibacy undercut this maleness?), and the ultimate mortal (Nara-Arjuna) opposes the ultimate immortal (Bhishma). There is no evidence that Amba/Shikhandi remembers “to become the divine androgyne.” Adluri calls the Arjuna-Shikhandi pair “the double androgynes” referring to the former’s year as Brihannada. He could have added the instances of Bhangashvana (man to woman by Indra), Ila (woman to man by Shiva), particularly as the story of the former is related by Bhishma and of Samba (born by Shiva’s boon) whose cross-dressing results in the doom of his clan. Adluri, while making the perceptive point that feminist interventions alter the Kshatriya dynasties, as through Ganga, Satyavati, Draupadi, forgets the most important of these, viz. Kunti. If Satyavati abruptly replaces the dynasty sought to be founded through Ganga and the heavenly Vasus by her own, Kunti substitutes her grandmother-in-law’s designs by reverting to the gods for progeny. Merely by producing offspring how can Ambika and Ambalika be parallels to Vinata and Kadru when they are not rivals in any way? Pandu abdicates in favour of Dhritarashtra. If progenition makes a character a symbol of “the sristi aspect of the pravritti cycle,” then why leave out the amazingly fecund Gandhari? The point is well made that the rejection of Amba creates the void in which the epic action occurs—a space that “rapidly folds in on itself” with her return, for she symbolizes the laya (destruction) motif. Germanic study of the New Testament, which is what informs the Critical Edition of the MB, again rears its head with Adluri’s reference to “the Wirkungsgeschichte of this text”. Adluri reaches out very far indeed in claiming that as a crocodile-infested river Amba symbolizes the MB at whose end Arjuna sees Krishna and Balarama as dead crocodiles. In agreeing with Hiltebeitel that the text never allows anyone to run amuck (even Parashurama), Adluri overlooks Parashurama and Ashvatthama who do exactly that, the latter with the support of Rudra. Instead, he claims that the story of Amba shows Shiva and the Devi acting jointly as the divine androgyne, overcoming gender. He adds a section showing how the number five is significant: the fifth Veda, the five Pandavas, Shuka as the fifth son (the 4 pupils being like sons) who attains moksha, the five elements that combine for creation, the five-tufted Shiva in Uma’s lap as the symbol of birth whom Indra seeks to strike and is paralysed.

Adam Bowles focuses on 3 ancillary tales about fish, doves and the ungrateful man. The first of these does not feature in Hiltebeitel’s list, because, Bowles finds, the list of colophons in the Critical Edition is erroneous (all the more reason for a properly revised edition, a proposal being stoutly resisted by Western Indologists who will only correct typos). These tales are mirrors for rulers on the art of governance, and resemble those in the Buddhist Jatakas, in which the fish tale occurs (as well as in the Panchatantra), and shares concerns found in the Arthashastra rather than the dharmashastras. These impart lessons on proper alliances, distinguishing traitors from friends and right action. The doves’ tale with its motif of sheltering the refugee recurs often, climaxing in Yudhishthira not abandoning the dog accompanying him (but what about abandoning his dying wife and brothers?) Like the female dove, Draupadi exhorts her spouses to practice appropriate dharma. However, to equate the female dove’s burning herself on her mate’s pyre with Draupadi adopting sahagamana is incorrect, because she does not follow her dead spouse. On the contrary, at Yudhishthira’s command all the husbands abandon her when she falls. The tale of the ungrateful Brahmin is not the only instance of a Brahmin acting abnormally, as Bowles thinks. Parashurama, Sharadvat, his son Kripa, Drona, his son Ashvatthama, Raibhya, Paravasu and Aravasu all violate the Brahmin code. Further, though this tale comes after the end of the war, it precedes the internecine massacre of the Yadavas where the harbingers of death are, again, Brahmins. These are the arch-rebel Vishvamitra, father of Shakuntala founder of the Bharata dynasty, Kanva her foster father, and the ubiquitous mischief-maker Narada. Thus, the founders of the Bharatas usher in the decimation of one of its descendant branches.

Nicolas Dejenne deals with Madeleine Biardeau’s crucial contribution in highlighting ignored aspects of the upakhyanas. Thus, she considered that Damayanti, a reflection of Draupadi and suffering earth, takes up the role of the avatara, bringing in a new dimension to the epic. That, in turn, prompts rumination on the connection between Krishna as avatara and Draupadi. Biardeau argued that the MB was an ideological instrument countering the prevalence of Buddhism in society. In the R, she posited, the Buddhists were displaced to Lanka as rakshasas. She focused on the “mirror-stories” noting how the Virataparva reflects part of the epic plot. Without these tales we would miss significant analogies. It is a great pity that her major study of the MB has not been translated into English.

T. Mahadevan’s paper is on Mudgala, the gleaning Brahmin of the MB, the ideal ritualist whose story Vyasa himself narrates in the Vanaparva and again in the Mokshadharmaparva. He features in the Rigveda’s Shakala branch in east Panchala and Kosala. These gleaners are presumed by Hiltebeitel to be in small kingdoms like the Shungas in the 2nd century BCE, interfacing with Vyasa and writing out the first draft of the MB. Mahadevan finds Mudgala to be a real person with a gotra identity, part of a distinct Brahmin group found in the Rigveda and continuing through the epic into the future. Vaishampayana, the reciter, is also the redactor of the Taittiriya Samhita belonging to Panchala where the elaborate Soma rituals developed. Vyasa’s other pupils Jaimini and Paila are founders of Vedic schools of rituals. Mudgala rejects being sent bodily to Swarga, preferring to practise serenity on earth for nirvana. These gleaners were part of Brahmin migrations of whom the Purvashikhas came south around 150 BCE (mentioned in Sangam poetry) followed by the Aparashikhas (6th to 17th centuries CE), both carrying the MB. Epigraphic evidence for them exists. They still exist performing complex soma rituals and narrating the MB in Srirangam, covering a remarkable history of nearly 3000 years and providing evidence of organised Brahmin migrations of at least four gotra affiliates—a unique phenomenon. There is a major error here when the 8th regnal year for Rajendra Chola is given as 1929-31 instead of 1022-23.

Simon Brodbeck is the only scholar in this collection to study the upakhyanas in the Harivansha (HV). Andre Couture is the only other foreign Indologist to research this neglected text. Dr. A. Harindranath and A. Purushothaman have been researching it within India. Brodbeck asks the reader to consider what these ancillary stories might mean to him, for we are as much receivers of the tales as Yudhishthira (to whom 49 of the 67 are addressed) but even more so Janamejaya who, like us, hears them all. Thus, the frame-story is an integral part of the MB. At no stage was it merely a Kuru-Pandava story. Shulman and Hiltebeitel argue that the statement that Vyasa made a Bharata of 24,000 verses without upakhyanas could mean a digest, not an “ur-text” that was later enlarged. There is no reason why an upakhyana-less MB should be a bizarre idea as Brodbeck feels. After all, all the retellings for children in Indian languages are precisely that. Like Couture, Brodbeck argues that the HV is part and parcel of the MB, as it is mentioned in the list of contents of 101 parvas, the last being called “the greatly wondrous Ashcharyaparva”. Hiltebeitel’s list of upakhyanas leaves out those of the HV, chiefly the ancillary story of Krishna and his clan. Brodbeck points out that even the MB itself is called an upakhyana at 1.2.236, which indicates the risk in treating it as a technical genre. Hence, to depend upon the colophons for the classification is erroneous, especially as they were added much later. Brodbeck adds 4 sub-stories from the HV to Hiltebeitel’s 67, two which are alluded to in the Shanti Parva. He shows how these four stories serve “as stepping stones” through the text and are inter-related, suggesting a new approach to the upakhayanas. For instance, the “Dhanya upakhayana,” which is the last one, contains the birth of Samba by Shiva-Uma’s boon, whose dressing as a woman (a parallel to the androgyne Amba-Shikhandi, Arjuna-Brihannada) precipitates the curse leading to the destruction of Krishna’s clan.

The final paper is Hiltebeitel’s study of the geography of the ancillary stories proposing, as suggested by Rajesh Purohit of the Sri Krishna Museum Kurukshetra, that they fit the main story into the spatial and temporal geography of the MB, constructing a Bakhtinan “chronotype”. He suggests that this is the first text to project the Ganga-Yamuna doab “as a total land and a total people,” while the R “envisions India as a total land but not as a total people”. Unfortunately he does not elaborate. These tales also help to build “its cosmograph into its geography” (a concept formulated by R. Kloetzli). Hiltebeitel asserts that Kuru and his parents Tapati and Samvarana are invented by the MB composers because the stories are “especially dreamlike and elliptical”—hardly an objective criterion! He shows how the story of Shakuntala is part of accomplishing the devas’ plan by engendering the Bharata dynasty. So is the story of Yayati who divides the world among his five sons, assigning four to the north-western lands and Puru to rule in the heartland. There is another series of stories centred on Kurukshetra that imply familiarity with it on part of the composer(s) who “may actually be writing a Mahabharata ethnography out of their own experience there.” Here he adopts Mahadevan’s thesis of the Purvashikha Brahmins of this area composing the MB around the second to first century BCE.

What we have here a scintillating necklace of twelve iridescent gems with a Hiltebeitel solitaire at either end. It is a collection that no Mahabharata acolyte can afford to miss.

A shorter version of this was published in the 8th Day supplement (p. 2) of The Sunday Statesman of 15th October 2017.


More by :  Dr. Pradip Bhattacharya

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