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The Mahabharata: Its Antiquity
by Dr. Pradip Bhattacharya Bookmark and Share

Neera Misra and Vinay Kumar Gupta (eds):
The Mahabharata: Its Antiquity, Historicity and Impact on Society,
Reseach India Press, New Delhi, 2019, pp.308. Rs. 4500/-
ISBN: 978-93-5171-165-0

This book compiles 18 papers of which 17 were presented in an international conference held on November 2012 by the Draupadi Dream Trust. The American contributors are Alf Hiltebeitel, the most prolific of Mahabharata (MBH) scholars, and his student Vishva Adluri. The first such study of the epic’s date and reality was in “Mahabharata: Myth or Reality—Differing Views” by S.P. Gupta and K.S. Ramachandran in 1976 (Agam Kala Prakshan, New Delhi).

There are four papers on archaeology, led by B.B. Lal who, in 3 pages, repeats his well-known findings regarding Hastinapura near Meerut with evidence of its abandonment due to floods and the shift to Kaushambi where the same Painted Grey Ware (PGW) has turned up in its lowest level. Udayana ruled in Kaushambi (c. 500 BCE, contemporaneous with Buddha). 24 rulers preceded Udayana till Parikshit, yielding a date of 860 BCE. So, the Kurukshetra war may be dated c. 900 BCE, which falls in the PGW period. The paper is valuable for 13 plates of the findings. Surprisingly, Lal commits the common error that the text began with 8,800 slokas whereas that is the number of riddling verses. The original was 24,000 verses. Why his 1952 findings were not pursued is a mystery. The editors could have clarified this in their introduction.

Dilip Chakrabarti briefly outlines geographical data. Reference to Chinas, Shakas, Yavanas, Hunas and Parasikas along with Ashokan knowledge of the Mediterranean area suggests a period pre 300 BCE. He feels a beginning around 1000 BCE for the composition is not unreasonable.

B.R. Mani deals with the Rajgir region, believing A.D.Pusalkar’s date of 1400 BCE for the war. Rajgir reveals a cyclopean wall as in Mycenae and Tiryns which are dated 1400-1300 BCE. However, excavations at Rajgir, Juafaradih near Nalanda and Ghorakatora near Giyak take us back to 1500 BCE. He urges detailed study at Rajgir for more definite dates.

D.P. Tewari writes on Kampilya (Kampil in Farrukhabad, U.P.), Drupada’s capital, birthplace of Vimala Natha the Jain Tirthankar and of Varahamihir the astronomer, where Charaka also lived. Excavations in 2002-3 dated the earliest of many findings to around 3200 BCE. Rice, barley and grams were grown and amla berries in plenty.

B.N. Narahari Achar’s 56 page paper with 22 illustrations on dating the war through astronomy is very interesting. The text (about 150 references) refers to the war, calamity to the Kuru dynasty, entire armies being destroyed and the population endangered. Each involves different planetary positions. Using Planetarium software he fixes 3067 BCE for the war, agreeing with Raghavan’s 1967 finding. Others, by the same software, have fixed the date as 3022, 2559, 1793, 1478 and 1198 BCE! He rejects these for not considering several planetary references. 3067 BCE is based purely on information in the epic and tallies with Aryabhatta. He pre-dates the Maurya dynasty to 1535-1219 BCE, stressing that Samudragupta is the Priyadarshin of the Rock Edicts III and XIII that mention Antiochus and Ptolemy. He discounts archaeological evidence from Meerut (c.950 BCE) and Bet Dwaraka (1500 BCE) as they do not match the epic descriptions. He demolishes at length criticisms of his proposed date.

G.U. Thite deals with differences from Vedic rituals in the epics and puranas to show that the composers were unaware of their technical details, possibly because the transmitting Sutas were not ritual experts. He asserts that the very elaborate, lengthy Ashvamedha-horse-sacrifice described here with many contradictions is fictitious.

Hiltebeitel’s is a fascinating study of what the MBH tells about its tribal and other histories. He places the Northern edition of the epic to 1st century BCE and the Southern to the beginning of the 3rd century BCE. The references to Greeks, Chinese and Shakas (but not Pahlavas or Kushanas) shows completion before the end of the BCE by late Shunga or Kanva times, possibly by Brahmins of the Kurukshetra region. Hiltebeitel points out that MBH is the first text to see a regional area, Bharatavarsha, as “a total land and a total people set in a still wider word”. It distinguishes the general populace from “the others”, viz. tribals, barbarians etc who were a special danger to Kuru kings. He argues that Kuru is a MBH invention featureing in no early or late Vedic text. MBH uses only one term for tribals, he asserts, “atavika,” (forest-dweller). Yet, “Nishada” frequently indicates them in both epics. Contesting the propositions of international and Indian scholars, his analysis concludes that MBH is not an oral bardic epic about a Kuru tribe as is mostly supposed.

S.G. Bajpai’s case is that as the Vedas are the gift of the Sarasvati, so the MBH is of Ganga. He deals with the rise of Ganga culture from Shantanu to the end of the dynasty in the 4th century BCE, with the text spanning a millennium from 800 BCE to 200 CE. The primacy of Ganga among rivers is highlighted with the MBH providing her myth and history.

Michel Danino studies the epics socio-cultural impact. Its retelling in every region, including tribal, is a testament to the cultural integration it brought about along with the Ramayana. He points out the mistake of locating the war in 3000 BCE because that is the Early Harappan phase when cities had not emerged and cultures were Neolithic or Chalcolithic, but nothing like what the epic describes. He prefers a date not before 500 BCE.

V.K. Gupta, one of the editors, describes the Vrishni Cult in the Vraja region around Mathura. Varshaneya is the most frequently used epithet for the clan in the epic. Kautilya (4th century BCE) speaks of war between Vrishnis and Dvaipayana (Vyasa?). Earlier, the Brahmanas and Panini also mention them. Gupta suggests that Tosha in the Mora well inscprition in Mathura Museum is the village Tosh, mentioned in the Bhagavata Cult. An important site is the Chamunda Tila pillar capital whose symbols indicate the same cult. An ancient structure in Vrindavan on the river front has Mauryan and Shunga/Kushana/Gupta bricks with inscriptions referring to Bhagavata. Another inscription on a carved door-jamb in the museum shows a bhagavata temple in the 1st century BCE. A late-Kushana period sculpture depicts the four forms (chatur-vyuha) of Vasudeva-Krishna, his elder brother, son and grandson. There is also numismatic evidence from 4th-3rd century BCE of the Bhagavata-Vrishni Cult which was popular as far as Afghanistan, Vidisha and Malhar, originating in Vraja. 12 excellent colour plates are provided.

In another paper Gupta describes the 84 krosha (1 krosha = 3 km) circumambulation of Braj (Vraja), the villages of cowherds near Mathura laid out in the Mathura-mandala section of the Varaha Purana, with its own dialect Brajbhasha. This tradition was founded by Narayan Bhatta in 1552 CE identifying 333 spots. A significant insight is that in the Skanda Purana’s Shrimadbhagavata Khanda, Krishna’s great grandson Vajranabha is made king by Arjuna not of Indraprastha, as in the epic, but of Mathura and, at Parikshit’s behest, he re-establishes the places related to Krishna’s life there. The Jaina text Vividhatirthakalpa of Jinaprabhasuri (14th CE first half) mentions a pilgrimage covering 5 spots and 12 woods.. Archaeology has dated half of the sites to the PGW period (1200 to 400 BCE), most of the rest to early CE. A valuable map of the area is added.

Haripriya Rangarajan deals with Draupadi as the manifestation of the supreme feminine energy and argues that she was the first to fall in the final journey as she had to return to Vaikuntha following Krishna’s death. Being in human form, she had to suffer like humans. The presentation is not convincing.

Nanditha Krishna’s valuable paper deals with MBH in the reliefs of Angkor Vat after surveying the depictions in art since 800 BCE showing the Bhagavata cult, with as many as 51 plates. In Angkor Krishna is the hero as his childhood exploits are depicted. Here his companions are not milkmaids but cowherds. He is not the erotic god but always a warrior and ruler. She claims that the four-faced figure of Angkor Thom is Vishnu. Nowhere is that god described as having four heads except in Cambodian reliefs.

G.D. Bakshi writes on strategy, war and weaponry in the epic. He compares Krishna’s strategy to the British one of making Germany and Russia fight in WW-2. The evolution of the art of warfare is studied in terms of localized revolutions in military affairs (RMA) and the MBH paradigm examined in terms of battle formations, wearing down the foe and rules of fair-fight. He fails to deal with the last concept being consistently violated in the war.

Kavita Sharma’s paper is on P.K.Balakrishnan’s novel, And Now Let Me Sleep which is a series of nightmares, dreams and flashbacks involving mostly Draupadi but also Yudhishthira and Kunti. She fails to note how the novel evades dealing with Karna ordering the stripping of Draupadi, by having her see him reproaching himself for it.  It focuses on glorifying him and making Draupadi imagine her as his consort at the end.

Vishwa Adluri’s is a very significant study of the architecture of the MBH as having a double-beginning with frame settings creating a cyclical narrative accommodating both pravritti and moksha, while holding them apart. He states, but does not explain, that the Gita echoes the lament of Dhritarashtra in the beginning, while the Narayaniya in the Mokshadharma Parva reverses the descending cosmology in the beginning of the Adi Parva. Vishnu is the moksha/nivritti figure while Indra/Bhishma is of pravritti. The Gita teaches living in pravritti serenely. Narayaniya breaks through to Moksha. Adluri is the first to note that Shaunaka refers to Janamejaya’s massacre of snakes as a sacrifice, whereas Ruru, to whom his father tells the tale, calls it “violence”. MBH creates steps beginning with violence, then sacrifice and finally moksha. He presents a new way of seeing how the multiple narrations are related. The outer and inner frames are actually sheaths, where one can add yet another tale. The whole Vaishampayana narrative of the snake massacre is contained in Ugrashrava’s account, all of which is doubled and enclosed in the Pramati-Ruru frame. MBH is an ahimsa text on structural and semantic levels and violent on the aesthetic level. The architectonics is made up of two themes: eternity and time. He argues for going beyond the current literary approach of scholars to an aesthetic one of shared and disputed judgements about how we experience the text. This will not contrast history and myth, but focus on narrative elements common to both.

Savita Gaur’s short paper studies the Shanti Parva as a manual of practical wisdom, noting some significant teaching about principles of governance and harmonious living. There is no clamouring for rights. Instead, a stress on duties of all officials and subjects to benefit society. The qualities emphasised are for all time and all people. Human dignity is stressed as supreme. Gaur states that the epic’s ethics are based on the Upanishads, which raise it to a spiritual plane. Equanimity is the key to successful and blissful living.

Sibesh Bhattacharya’s profound paper discusses literary devices used in the epic “to break free of the time-space constraints.” He subscribes to the tradition that it was orally narrated (still done in parts of India), which Hiltebeitel has challenged forcefully as a fictional trope adopted by the composers to feign antiquity. He adopts the usual diachronic approach to the narrative structure, that Adluri has so significantly departed from, to provide revealing insights. He shows how the placing of Dhritarashtra’s lament at the beginning defies the chronology of events: “The form of this post-factor overview is one of prognosis” dissolving time-space boundaries. It also provides a tragic dimension to the epic from the loser’s viewpoint. The epic’s narrative mode is conversational story-telling, not dialogical except in the Gita. It is very significant that the audience for this very violent saga of Kshatriya massacre is celibate ascetic Brahmans in a peaceful forest ashram. This duality characterises the locales in the epic. Through such devices, the epic breaks out of the conventional boundaries of time and space.

A very impressive collection indeed, well published, with few printer’s devils marring the production. It ought to have had at least a line about each contributor. The insights have not lost their value over the six years it took to publish it.

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