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Tangible and the Intangible Heritage
of the Mahabharata
by Maj. Gen. Shekhar Sen Bookmark and Share

Neera Misra and Rajesh Lal (ed), Mahabharata Manthan, Vols. 1 & 2,
B. R. Publishing Corporation, New Delhi, 2019, Pp 431, Price Rs 5000.

Draupadi Dream Trust, New Delhi, has recently brought out a two-volume set, Mahabharata Manthan, edited by Neera Misra, founder trustee and chairperson of the Trust and Air Vice Marshal Rajesh Lal, a Mahabharata scholar. It is a compilation of twenty-eight papers (though there are thirty papers actually), which were part of the deliberations of the International Conference Mahabharata Manthan: A Critical Revisit to the Tangible and the Intangible Heritage, held in July, 2017 at New Delhi. The main focus of the book is on the historiography and historicity of the epic and a critical evaluation of the Critical Edition of Mahabharata of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (BORI). Related topics like geography, archaeology, astronomical dating, philosophical perspectives, etc have also been covered. The valedictory address delivered by Dr. Bibek Debroy, an eminent economist and Sanskrit scholar who has translated the Critical Edition into English, prefaces the book. The book also has some nice plates printed at the end of Vol. 1.

There is much truth in the Hindi saying, pehle darshandari phir gun vichari. What is striking about the book at the first glance is its presentation. It is tastefully conceived, very elegant and pleasing. The miniature used on the cover is beautiful and relevant. The editors and the publishers must be congratulated for such an attractive production. It is indeed a collector’s item.


Of the thirty essays, six examine the question of the date of the Mahabharata (MB). No doubt this is one of the most interesting and hotly debated questions among the scholars of the epic. These papers examine this area from various angles, - literary, archaeological, astronomical and geographical – deluging us with a plethora of differing dates. B. B. Lal gives us a date of 900 BCE depending on the genealogical tables of the Pauravas from Matsya and Vayu Puranas and some archaeological finds of pottery-ware. D. K. Hari and Hema Hari, while attempting to establish the historicity of Krishna, follow an interdisciplinary approach and generally agree with Narahari Achar’s date of 3067 BCE as the date of the MB. After a fairly detailed discussion of the astronomical and other evidence culled from the epic and other literature and using the Planetarium software, they give us the exact date of Krishna’s birth, 27 July, 3112 BCE, the date of the beginning of the MB war, 22 November, 3067 BCE and many other connected dates. Additionally, they bring out the evidence of a Mohenjodaro steatite, dated 2600 BCE, depicting the Yamalarjuna episode of Krishna’s life, proving that Krishna definitely existed before 2600 BCE. This could be interesting provided it is accepted that the story depicted on the steatite is surely the story from Krishna’s life. So far it has not been accepted. Another interesting piece of information in this essay is regarding the three-headed seal found at the Dvaraka excavations. It tallies with the description of the identity seal “given to the people of Dvaraka in the Mahabharata text”. However, no date of the seal has been given by Hari but one presumes that it was found by S. R. Rao during his excavations and, as Nalini Rao indicates in her essay, should be dated to the second millennium BCE. This could be interesting information – an archaeological find supported by textual evidence.

Nilesh Oak and Aparna Dhir in a very interesting article have concluded that the MB war took place in 5561 BCE. They base their research on “more than 215 specific astronomy references” within the text of the epic. This is further fortified by non-astronomy evidence available in the MB such as, hydrology, climatology, oceanography, anthropology and genetics. They have also given the dates of the first day of the war arrived at by other scholars, e.g., 22 Nov 3067 BCE (S. Raghavan and N. Achar), 13 Nov 3143 BCE (PV Holay), 4 Nov 2449 BCE (PC Sengupta), 31 Oct 2156 BCE (Anand Sharan), 18 Oct 5774 BCE (VM Shaligram), 17 Oct 1952 (Mohan Gupta) and 13 Oct 3140 (Saroj Bala).

In an excellent article, B. R. Mani considers most of the views, astronomical, historical, archaeological, anthropological, literary, etc, relating to the date of MB, examines the arguments for and against systematically and arrives at a logical conclusion. Normally, for lay people, any discussion on such heavily technical subjects appears to be impenetrable. But Mani deftly makes it quite lucid. He then discusses the puranic evidences of Lal, evidence from Bhishma Parva and astronomical evidences gathered from the epic and many other sources, including the Aihole stone inscription of Pulakesin II, finally arriving at the possible date of 3102 BCE as the year of MB war.

Mohan Gupta, in another fine essay, first arrives at a tentative year for the MB war, 1924/1952 BC, on the basis of puranic evidence and 1949 BC on the basis of astronomical evidence after considering the Nirayana, Sayana and Ayanamsa data. Then, considering further evidence regarding position of planets, comets, and stars as given in the epic, he arrives at the precise date of the commencement of MB war: 17th October, 1952 BCE (and other connected dates). It is a very well-researched and cogent paper with a lot of puranic and astronomical data. Though dating the MB is not the objective of Nalini Rao’s essay, she gives some dates, - 1400 BCE for the submerged city wall, 1500-1300 BCE for the inundation of the city, 1800 BCE for the conch-shell seal. In her essay she has briefly discussed S. R. Rao’s famous archaeological discovery of Dvaraka. Ashok Bhatnagar uses astronomical references to determine the time of MB. In a highly technical essay, using astronomical software, with reference “to a large number of astronomical events mentioned in MB”, he pinpoints the dates of all the important events of the epic, viz., Bhishma’s demise 20 September, 1793 BCE, start of MB war 14 October, 1793 BCE, and so on.

Thus, there is total confusion. The possible date ranges between 900 BCE to 5561 BCE! But one thing is clear. The scholars are on the right track. There are possibly some glitches in the Stellarium and Planetarium softwares which need to be looked at. More intensive research may bring out more accurate genealogical tables. Archaeological evidence must be more conclusive. With these technological and scholarly advancements, there is no doubt that the date of the epic would be within the grasp of the scholars sooner or later. For the present, the reader is enriched with the tremendous amount of information presented through these essays.


The Critical Edition of the Mahabharata (CE) of BORI is a mammoth editorial project seeking the original text of the epic. The work was completed in forty-seven years (1919-1966). It has 89000+ verses in 15000 pages. 1259 manuscripts were examined, the earliest being from the 14th century AD. Each verse was examined and the ones that occurred in 66% of the manuscripts were accepted as genuine. The verses that fell within the 1% -65% bracket were deemed as less worthy and not accepted. Interpolations were sorted out and removed. It is in nineteen volumes (18+1), entirely in Sanskrit, without any translation. The Nepali manuscript of 12th century AD, though seen by Sukthanker as admitted by him, was not taken for examination. A scroll containing the complete epic, seen by Edgerton, was not examined too, though available. The reason is not known. Very recently, Dr. Bibek Debroy has brought out an English translation of the CE.

Ever since its publication, it was received with mixed reaction. Encomiums were heaped upon it as it was truly a remarkable feat. On the other hand, it was criticised as it not only changed the inclusive and accommodative character of the epic which is the essence of its design, but it also contained a lot of inconsistencies. Five articles deal with the CE and all are basically critical in nature. Jhanavi Vidhur systematically traces the history of the publication of the CE and holds that the CE is created to meet the requirement of the German scholars: “... (it) satisfies not Indian readers but European scholars” who “delegitimized the traditional reception of the MBh as a Dharmashastra and a Mokshashastra.” At the same time, she admits that only once in a generation a work of this scale and complexity is attempted. She opines that the epic can be called an “inter-text” or an “inter-genre”, a source of many texts and genres. As a combination of kavya and shastra it should be studied with the required tools, the commentaries. A nice essay but I was not sure about the author’s position on the CE – does she want some changes in the CE or is she happy with the present version of the CE?

Pradip Bhattacharya’s essay approaches the CE through the attempt to strip Draupadi. It is a veritable storehouse of information. First he has discussed very thoroughly the need to take a “hard look” at the CE since it had not taken into consideration so many important versions extant at the time of its writing, e.g., the Nepali palm-leaf Mss, the Razmnama, the Arabic translation and so many others. Also, he reiterates, the inconsistencies, contradictions and repetitions that exist in the CE must be removed. He has listed out many of these, underlining the need for revision. One of these is the episode of stripping of Draupadi. And that is his second proposition – he has quoted incident after incident from the entire epic and cited collateral evidence from other works in Sanskrit literature to establish that Draupadi was dragged by the hair, insulted in the assembly in the Sabha Parva but never stripped by Duhshasana. Still the CE includes it. This view has given rise to a lot of controversy but the author’s well-laid arguments can hardly be ignored. Other eminent scholars of the epic too have had serious reservations about the CE. Pradip has reproduced their views in support of his arguments. In short, this is a very comprehensive, informative and readable article. It also has three interesting plates depicting the disrobing of Draupadi.

The CE has relegated many portions of the Harivamsha to the appendices even though Indian tradition has held it as a part of the MB. Harindranath and Purushottaman, having gone through the CE of the Harivamsha, are “compelled to make several strong statements by way of criticism”. They have explained why it is called the ‘Khila’ of the epic and have critically looked at this excision by the CE and the reasons offered by the editors. They have in this connection examined eight sections, e.g., Aryastava, Paundrakavadha, Pushkaraparva, etc. in detail and have claimed that these should never have been excluded and moved to the appendices. Though a bit too long, the essay is rich in information.

Abhay Kumar Singh holds that history is made by incorporating both historical facts and cultural truths. If civilisation has a chronological history of human past, cultural history is a complex of the histories of the interaction between multiple civilisations, situated at different places, at all levels. The CE is a great work, no doubt. But the methodology adopted has the risk of missing out the cultural truths of that society. The MB is like a free-flowing river, an oral tradition, gathering stories and facts as it travels, reflecting the social and individual values of the time. It is therefore futile to try to get to the root. So, the CE is just another version. “The best way is to let the streams of diversity flow unabated without diverting.”

BVK Sastry speaks about identifying heritage monuments related to the epic, (which have to be places only, like Kurukshetra) declaring them as heritage sites and preserving them as such. The problem is that any such monument to be called a heritage monument must be validated by a textual reference. And there lies the problem which is basically created by the CE. “The Critical Edition ... purges much of the religion, culture and spiritual values associated with the Mahabharata to the domain of ‘faith-hyperbole and unverifiable and intangible’ ...” Consequently, much of the passages which could have authenticated the heritage sites have disappeared. While the CE is a great achievement, it is necessary to take another look at the CE and bring it in consonance with the flexibility and continuity that the vulgates provide and also provide the necessary references for the heritage sites. One may not agree completely with Sastry on declaring every MB site as heritage site (there will be hundreds), considering the burden such a step will create on the authorities but his point about the revision of the CE is well-taken. A long essay, full of insights and an engrossing read.

One big problem for the ordinary MB enthusiast is that the CE is entirely in Sanskrit without any translation and the readers are not adept in that language. Consequently no one, except the scholars, really knows what has been excised from the vulgate. But none of the essayists except Pradip Bhattacharya and Harindranath-Purushottaman have described what exactly they want removed from or restored to the CE. Therefore many useful and interesting arguments are lost on a confused reader.


Historicity of the MB is another area which has been investigated by the participants. The western scholars, most of them, do not consider the epic as history and tend to relegate it as mere mythology. It may not qualify as history in the western framework but to Indians it is itihasa, a combination of chronology and ever-developing socio-cultural-spiritual traditions, a much more comprehensive frame than the limited western module. Heramb Chaturvedi touches upon the history of history writing and shows how the Indian system of history writing is different than the European system. It is more comprehensive and eternal. He narrates how the Vasisthas, the Bhrigvangiras (Veda Vyasa included) and sutas were responsible for the development of the historical tradition as well as the sacred tradition. He emphasizes that to understand the intricacies of the MB, one does not need to use the western model of historiography because it goes much beyond that as Monier-Williams says “...in expressing those universal feelings and emotions which belong to human nature... Sanskrit epic poetry is unrivalled...”

MB is itihasa by its own definition, says Susmita Pande, as it describes itself as dharmashastra, arthashastra and mokshashastra. It not only records the contemporary facts for posterity but also reflects the culture of the society – its “values, norms and symbols of the age”. And in that, it is a storehouse of ideas, containing within itself ideas born long back, “gleaning the footsteps of the past”. All the Vedic and Upanishadic ideas are reflected in it, namely, sankhya, yoga, ahimsa, pravritti, nivritti, ekantika dharma, bhakti, avataras, vyuhas, etc. in fact, Mahabharata dharma which pervaded natural, social and spiritual life, was modelled on Vedic rita.

Keonraad Elst wants “to restate the proper relation of the Mahabharata’s narrative to the norms of historicity.” Having discussed the position of the traditionalists and the neo-traditionalists, he goes on to conclude that after sifting through the debatable literary inputs, it is possible to identify a core of objective history in MB: the war of succession which, he believes, must have taken place in the second millennium BCE, and not in the fourth millennium BCE; possibly the conquest of Mathura by Krishna; ascendancy of the iron-rich Magadha Empire (Jarasandha?) which of course could be a back-projection, etc. but the most important historical but non-Mahabharatan evidence is the king-lists available in the various puranas. “They give a backbone to the common history of ancient Indian literature.”

Frederick Smith in a fascinating article writes about the development of the regional MBs through the ages. Published Sanskrit text is important and rich but the ever-developing local and oral versions are also equally important and rich. His conclusions are based on his long research in the Himalayan regions of Garhwal, especially in the study of the performances of Pandava Lila or Panduan. Many of these include local modifications, other genres and texts, songs of twelve months, activities of agriculturists, seasonal flowers, etc. The most fascinating aspect is that it has roots in Indian religious culture that are “so deep that the Paharis themselves are barely aware of its extent.” Substantiating this, Smith spotlights a characteristic of these performances -- the actors identify with the epic characters, “acting as magnetic centres through whom the local people see and identify with their deep history.” He explains this with a “snapshot” of one incident in a performance of Panduan in Raithal village near Bhatwari which he witnessed. There, the actor who performed as Arjuna for forty years, decided to pass his role on to his son. The procedure he followed was almost exactly as the one described in Brihadaranyaka and Kaushitaki Upanishads!

Geography / Archaeology

Jijith Nadumuri Ravi has traced the geographical information contained in what he has identified as the Jaya section of MB, (even though Sukthankar said in the Prolegomena “...Ur-Bharata, that ideal but impossible desideratum) - from Bhishma parva till Sauptika parva, the duration of Sanjay’s cosmic sight. Being objective, he admits that since Jaya is dissolved into the MB due to retelling by Vaishampayana and Sauti, the starting and end markers of Jaya can only be ‘guessed’. Vyasa, “the visionary behind a united India”, had tremendous knowledge of geography, including the geography of the earth, as evident from the descriptions in the Jambukanda Nirmana Parva. He has identified logically locations of the epic, regions, mountains, rivers, oceans, with the present ones, with charts and maps, ignoring information that appears unreasonable and exaggerated. He has listed 220 kingdoms/provinces including those ruled by non-Kshatriya rulers. Then he has gone on to analyse the geographical data in the whole of MB, beyond the Jaya portion. In this way, he has identified around 100 names of villages, towns and cities, 30 forests, 30 lakes, 80 mountain ranges, 60 geographic regions, 300 pilgrim centres and 80 kingdoms. He has also recorded geographical data available in the travel narratives, pilgrimages and military travels. Detailed maps accompany these descriptions. A long essay, but highly readable, simply written, devoid of technical jargon and full of interesting information.

Bhuvan Vikrama writes about cities in Panchala times: an archaeological perspective. He has explained how the cities, as evident from the excavations at Ahichhatra and other similar cities like Sravasti, Mathura, etc in what is presumed to be the Panchala region, developed more or less following the Arthashastra plan. Notwithstanding the description of cities in the Pali and Sanskrit texts, how can we be sure that these remains are of the epic cities? The essay does not contain any such evidence. It has some plates depicting the excavations.

Yvette Ram Rani Dosser, in an emotional article, rues the negative and mocking attitude of the occidental Indologists and Occi-centric Indian scholars and historians towards Indian ethos and traditions. Indraprastha, “a culturally vaulted location...understood and remembered from within an Indic Historiographical perspective”, has sadly been ignored, “elided and excluded by mainstream historians.” Very true. After Dr. B. B. Lal’s path-breaking discovery, nothing has been done as follow-up in these 60+ years. Now there is need to show some positive intellectual backbone. The Draupadi Dream Trust has made efforts to “right a wrong” by organising conferences in 2015 on Indraprastha and in 2016 on Rig-Veda, the Aryans, etc (and now Mahabharata Manthan in 2017). So all is not lost; times are changing.

Vasant Shinde and Pratik Chakravari have given a short summary of Dr. Gouri Lad’s book, Mahabharata and Archaeological Evidence.


Virendra Bangroo and Pradip Jyoti Mahanta describe the epic traditions in Kashmir and Assam. We are informed how Barbarik has become a local resident of Kashmir and Hidimba a Kirata princess of Assam. That is MB, an inclusive, unifying and ever-expanding text of the people that pervades the entire country with equal force. Shashi Tiwari, in a short article, has explained Apaddharma in MB as explained by Bhishma in Shanti Parva. However the essay leaves the reader with a sense of incompleteness, a void, probably because of its short length. He has mentioned the Vishvamitra episode but nothing else. He says, “Bhishma quoted many interesting stories to elaborate the policies for a king” but does not describe any. It would have been interesting if he had narrated the Palita, Pujani and Bharadvaja story to substantiate his views. Having seen the sorry state of the Indian democratic polity from close quarters, a disillusioned Praful Goradia feels the need for an alternative system of governance. Given the nature of our people, he looks for a system based on indigenous traditions, not an imported one. So he zeroes in on Krishna, (in preference to Rama) – an intrepid warrior and strategist, philosopher, statesman and leader. That is the rationale, as the title of his article declares, for his book, Krishna Rajya.

Alexis Pinchard, however, takes the discussion to the rarefied sphere of theology, ontology and philosophy. He states that MB is a story of tangible and intangible heritage - the intangible world of gods and the tangible world of their human avataras born to fulfil some purpose. The intangibles know their avataras but the tangibles do not know their intangible selves. And that enables the human tragedy to be played out.

Come Carpentier de Gourdon holds that the epics have a definite role to play in a nation’s “identity construction”. It is a “... pan-Indian dharmic unifying epic ... while reminding them (Indians) of a common history...” He bases his discussion on chapters 1 to XV of the Sabha Parva trying to establish that in the Sabha Parva the epic makes definite effort to bring in this sense of unity by pointing out past connections among people and present sameness. For example, he refers to the coming together of the kings and sages, “political dynasties and spiritual lineages”. Another effort to unify the nation is by the conquests of the Pandava brothers, describing and bringing together of a land that is full of variety.

Satya Chaitanya sets out to search for Karna’s real father. He narrates the two stories of Kunti-Pritha’s boon from Durvasa (Adi Parva) and the unnamed resplendent ascetic (Vana Parva) who, according to many scholars, must be the real human father of Karna. But, in the light of the fact that Kunti menstruated for the first time after the departure of Durvasa/resplendent Brahmin, he negates that theory and concludes that, at a human level, the epic does not give a single clue as to who Karna’s father is. In fact, the same is the case with Kunti’s other children. This is one of the unsolved mysteries of the epic. But what is the point of the essay? Perhaps the justification of the title of the essay, Mahabharata: the search for Karna’s real father, is the quest – the quest continues.

Indrajit Bandyopadhyay travels through the maze of Vedic-Puranic literature to find the similarities between Draupadi and the Vedic Vak-Sarasvati. He shows how Draupadi, Krishna, Brihati, Pandita, a dynamic, strong, bold woman must have been the inspiration, a model, for the Vedic Vak-Sarasvati, another Krishna, Brihati, “majestic among the mighty ones,” a protector, a dynamic, strong and bold woman who is also the goddess of war, wealth and power. The “lost Sarasvati” of the Vedas is indeed the “lost Draupadi” of MB, both suffering from narrative loss. But in spite of that, Draupadi is still central in the Mahabharata-Itihasa and Sarasvati is central to Vedic literature. And since MB battle took place in 1200 BCE (Wintzel 1995), “the rishi of SBr (Satapatha Brahmana - 900 BCE), without any other tradition behind, may have imagined Sarasvati as Krishna (dark) with Draupadi in mind.” Bandyopadhyay discusses the personality of both, delving very deep (sometimes so deep that it becomes difficult to keep up with him) into the scriptures, to establish their real as well as spiritual and metaphorical identities. He describes Draupadi beautifully, Brihati essence in an anushtup body. So is Sarasvati. A very erudite and remarkable essay that makes us take a second look at Draupadi. As he himself says, “...as we start to see Draupadi as Vak-Sarasvati, our conventional ideas rather notions about her and Mbh as a whole would give way to newer visions into the essence of not only Mbh but also of ancient Bharatiya Itihasa...penetrating the Surface Layers and realizing the Deep Layers.”

Jana Bandyopadhyay compares two Draupadis – Bharavi’s in Canto 1 of Kiratarjuniyam and Vyasa’s in Vana Parva, with the help of Mallinatha’s commentary on Bharavi. Quoting copiously from the two texts, she narrates how Bharavi depicts the aggressiveness of Draupadi’s character and how Vyasa portrays multiple aspects of her character as a learned, compassionate, considerate and understanding wife. She points out that “Draupadi is capable of shattering patriarchal norms and stereotyped boundaries” and that “she is a bold and determined kshatriya woman representing the status and empowerment of woman in ancient India”.

Neera Misra wonders why the MB, a repository of wisdom, referred to as the Pancham Veda, is shunned and kept away from Indian homes. She observes that if it is for the fratricidal war and its presence at home is likely to create family feud, then Ramayana too has them, viz., Bali-Sugreeva, Ravana-Vibishana. Why single out MB? She blames Akbar’s Razmnama (literally, Book of War) as this describes the epic as a book of war for the first time. And since this book was “popular”, the epithet stuck on the epic and therefore it was shunned. My experience of this in middle-class, traditional families, who have never even heard of Razmnama, is that the book is shunned exactly for the reason which Misra does not accept – a belief that it will create a fight in the family. In Ramayana, the rift between brothers is not the main issue, it is just a side story whereas in MB that is the central point – the entire story revolves around the fratricidal rift. Secondly, the Bali-Sugreeva and Ravana-Vibishana episodes are matters concerning monkeys and rakshasas, non-humans and, therefore, can safely be ignored. But MB deals with humans, members of a royal family. It is too close for comfort!

One notices one problem in many of the essays. Most of the authors believe that Jaya consisted of 8800 shlokas, Bharata 24000 and Mahabharata more than a lakh. The vulgate clearly mentions that the 8800 verses are the riddling, knotty verses strewn through the epic to confuse Ganesha. Vyasa created Bharata-samhita first with 24000 verses and later increased it to 60 lakh of which one hundred thousand was meant for the human world to be recited later by Vaishampayana.


A rose must have its thorns and a book its devils. It was not really necessary to repeat the introductory pages in the second volume too. A table of contents for the second volume should have been sufficient. Readers who want to have the book would want to have both the volumes.

One major problem with the essays is that most of the Sanskrit texts and verses quoted do not have translations. Even though the readers have a diacritic-infested avatara of the text in English alphabet in front of them, most readers have very little or no knowledge of Sanskrit and diacritics. The assumption of the learned authors that the readers have mastery over the language is futile to say the least. Since the readers do not follow the meaning of the verses, much of the arguments of the writer are lost on them. Consequently, they lose interest.

Another problem is use of technical jargon. The authors writing on astronomy, archaeology, geography, etc use a lot of jargon and abbreviations without an explanation. With these the essays become fairly obscure to the reader.

Lastly, I must regretfully mention that the book required more careful editing and proof-reading. Lack of it has rendered some articles somewhat unintelligible.

The e-mails of authors is a good idea. A few lines introducing each author, may be along with their essays, would be very helpful.

It is quite obvious that a lot of research is still required in all areas to establish the epic’s date and historicity firmly. The CE too needs revision. The Draupadi Dream Trust and its untiring chairperson, Neera Misra, need to be congratulated for the immense contribution the Trust is making towards this end. They have till now organised three manthans and a lot of amrita has already appeared. The volume of information and insights that has been presented in these two beautiful books to the scholars and the general readers is phenomenal. We wish the Trust all success for the future manthans which we are sure will come in due course.

A shorter version of this was published on 17th March 2019 in the 8th Day Literary Supplement to The Sunday Statesman.

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