Rechurning Turbulent Waters of Mahabharata Studies: Removing Poison, Revealing Nectar
Two weeks back, I received several quizzical looks when people found out that I had traveled from New York to Delhi for a 4-day workshop on the Mahabharata, conducted by Vishwa Adluri and Joydeep Bagchee and organized by the Indic Academy & Indic Book Club. They responded with variations of, You came all the way here for a conference on the Mahabharata? Perhaps they would have been less surprised if I had come for a wedding or a sports event.
The truth is I would have flown to Mars if I had to in order to learn about the Mahabharata. From childhood, I had been drawn to the Mahabharata but as someone growing up in the West without access to Sanskrit or texts written in Indian vernacular languages, the Mahabharata remained elusive for me. Yes, there was the TV serial, the Amar Chitra Katha comics, the slim paperback abridgments by C. Rajagopalachari and others, but none satisfied me. The idea of ‘abridging’ the Mahabharata left me longing for the original in its full glory. It left me anxious about what was being cut out, what I was missing. But in those days, nothing was available, at least to one like me. This longing for the real, uncut Mahabharata, to delve into its world of larger-than-life figures and unearthly drama, persisted.
In recent years, I started reading the English translation of the unabridged Mahabharata by Bibek Debroy, but even that was not enough. I quickly discovered that having all the words of the epic at one’s fingertips was not enough to reveal the meaning of the words. What was I to make of all these stories within stories, the meandering pattern of the narrative that started, stopped, started again, picking up threads in seemingly arbitrary fashion, offering bizarre and sometimes unfathomable images and stories? I knew it was I who was missing the meaning but I did not know how to find it. Then in the background were the sinister whispers of Western scholars, casting doubt upon the very existence of a unified text of the Mahabharata, reading into it all kinds of genocidal intent, racism, and positing that the Gita and other sections of high philosophy were merely later interpolations influenced by Buddhism.
So, I had come eagerly to Delhi for the workshop, for any hints that may illumine corners of the world of the Mahabharata for me. I had thought I would get some intellectual insights, some critical scholarship of the text and its history, that it would be supplemental to the reading and research I had already undertaken.
Instead, I and all the participants in the workshop received something much richer. We were transported into a Naimisharanya of sorts, a forest of tranquility unfettered by the anxiety and doubts foisted on us by Western Indologists who had read into the Mahabharata, we learned, their own anxieties and insecurities based on their issues of national and religious identity. Freed of their shackles, we delved anew into the rich world of the Mahabharata, free at last to discover for ourselves the philosophy, beauty, depth of human insight and feeling embedded in the text. I had not realized how it would transform me, that it would not be a teaching of the Mahabharata but an immersive experience of the Mahabharata itself, that Adluri and Bagchee had come not just to teach us but to give back to me, to all of us, the gift of the Mahabharata.
Even now, a week later, I am continually thinking about what was covered in the course, still unpacking its meaning and lessons.
The Hermeneutics of Respect
I realized this was going to be a special workshop at the very beginning of the first day itself when we were doing introductions. Bagchee introduced himself as Adluri’s shishya and said he would always think of himself first and foremost as Adluri’s shishya. This was movingly bookended at the end of the workshop when Adluri emotionally remarked how we all recognize the blessings bestowed by gurus, the gods, the acharyas but we also have to recognize the blessings bestowed by a true shishya. He then honored Bagchee in a very special moment that brought the audience to their feet.
It was this beautiful relationship that the two have with each other as well as the reverence they show for V.S. Sukthankar, the eminent scholar and General Editor of the Critical Edition of the Mahabharata, and the tradition of scribes and acharyas who have kept the Mahabharata alive, that elevated the workshop into something above mere dry scholarship, something that does not just teach the tradition but is part of the tradition itself.
Many of us have heard the admonition that the shastras must be read with shraddha. We wrongly interpret shraddha to mean blind faith, when actually it means trust and reverence. Just as readers must engage in a ‘suspension of disbelief’ when reading a novel in order to enter the world and experience of the novel itself, this shraddha is the key to unlocking the shastras for us. Adluri and Bagchee refer to this as the hermeneutics of respect. They cite the commentary of Sayanacharya, who beautifully said that the Vedas must be approached like a beautiful lady, with trust and gentleness, or else she will never reveal herself to the reader.
This is crucial to understanding the crux of the work by Adluri and Bagchee, which is not a journey in pursuit of historical truth in the sense of facts and figures, of plotting events into a linear timeline, but rather a search for meaning and understanding through the stories that tell us about ourselves in terms of human nature and the nature of the world and life. They read the Mahabharata as literature, not merely as a historical document. For them, it is a chronicle of human nature, metaphysical mysteries, philosophy and the search for truth, and to the extent, there is a chronicle of any one particular war or lineage in the Mahabharata, such history merely serves as the vessel to carry a more universal story that tells us our History. There is more to be gained from understanding the philosophical meaning of the text than trying to ascertain the historical veracity or dating of any particular war or dynasty.
In that sense, if one’s aim is to derive meaning and insight from the text, then one has to enter it with the hermeneutics of respect vs. the hermeneutics of suspicion. To be clear, not all texts qualify for this kind of deference but a text that has withstood the test of time over many centuries, that has been foundational in shaping the civilizational ethos and artistic sensibilities of one billion people, that has inspired philosopher saints without number, whose excerpts are recited and memorized daily in households across India and the diaspora – such a text, the Mahabharata, certainly does.
The Smriti Project
At one point during the workshop, Bagchee affectionately referred to the work they are doing as the Smriti Project. It is important to understand the overall vision of what they are trying to do to appreciate the critical importance and strategic value of their work. First and foremost, they see the Mahabharata as the Fifth Veda, which brings to the masses the philosophy of the Upanishads and Vedas. They demonstrate this connection by pointing out how so many of the stories in the Mahabharata have direct parallels and serve as allusions to the Upanishads, which would be apparent to those familiar with the Upanishads. They also show how Advaita Vedanta permeates the entire text.
If we dismiss the Mahabharata simply as a collection of stories that we eschew in favor of the ‘high’ philosophy of the Upanishads or other ‘Vedantic’ texts, then we have misunderstood completely what the Mahabharata is and what Veda Vyasa and the other rishis and acharyas intended it to be for us. This kind of denigration of the Itihaasa and Puranas is the creation of a false divide between the Vedas and Puranas / Itihaasa – when the latter is simply the distillation of the former in a more accessible form.
Second, Adluri and Bagchee defend and demonstrate the integrity of the Mahabharata as a text. The significance of this cannot be overstated. For hundreds of years, German Indologists and others have deconstructed the Mahabharata as being a series of interpolations into what fundamentally, in their view, was once a simple romantic war ballad. The philosophy and morality parables were sneaky Brahmanical usurpations of a popular heroic tale, bogging down in religious superstition what was once a clean, fun action story. The Gita was a post-Buddhist invention that could not possibly have been in the original, because how could several hundred verses of dialogue take place after the war conches had already sounded? Even more pernicious than that, the Indologists super-imposed a racial divide onto the text that simply did not exist – the Kauravas were the original heroes, Pandu pretended to be ‘white’ by taking on the name of the pale one, Krishna was the dark god helping the dark people, etc. These were not mere scholarly debates – they were attacks on the very unity of Hinduism as a continuity of religious thought and tradition – that quickly gained traction in the colonial world and has carried on into Marxist critiques of the epics today. This creation of distrust against the epic and its author(s) leads to a lack of shraddha not just in the Mahabharata but in the tradition as a whole – there is no text more hardwired into the cultural DNA of an Indian or a Hindu than the Mahabharata. It is the first story we hear from our grandparents; it permeates the culture and arts of our civilization. By deconstructing and discrediting its integrity as an epic, as a story, the very identity of being Hindu is loosened and unmoored.
Adluri and Bagchee show that this whole interpretation by German Indologists – this suspicion of the Brahmin priesthood, this racial reading of Aryan vs. Dravidian into the text, this rejection of the priesthood in favor of the warrior class – this was all the projection onto the canvas of India of their own identity crisis. German Indology arose in the backdrop of Luther’s reformation against the Catholic church and the breaking away from much of the rest of Europe in rejecting the formal religion of Catholicism. The German Indologists sought a new base upon which to forge their identity, and thus began the quest for a racial identity as Aryans. To draw this picture for themselves, they first projected it onto India, devising an Aryan vs. Dravidian divide in India and creating a villainous priestly class of Brahmins to replicate the Catholics and Jews whom they despised. The Buddhists then became the Protestants who overthrew the Hindus. In other words, the German Indologists saw the Mahabharata and India not as we were but as they were.
The irony is that those who are now peddling this kind of radical racialist readings of the Mahabharata – the very same kind of racialism that led to the rise of Hitler – are self-professed leftist liberals who through their adamant defense of this kind of Indology are in fact keeping alive this brand of ugly racialism that should have died long ago.
Adluri and Bagchee go far beyond simply reversing the gaze, however. They pick up the work started by Sukthankar long ago in the project to compile the Critical Edition of the Mahabharata. The Critical Edition, completed over four decades by teams of dozens of scholars through painstaking, meticulous, rigorous scholarship, demonstrated that the vast majority of the text of the Mahabharata – 75,000 out of 100,000 verses – is consistent across all extant manuscripts. This means that the traditional methods of transmission by which the text was preserved – families assigned to the scribe tradition where generation after generation was devoted to transcribing and preserving a particular portion of the Mahabharata – succeeded to an astonishing degree. That means that we can read the Mahabharata unstressed by worries about whether what we are reading is an interpolation or later distortion of the original text or not. In other words, the Critical Edition project proved to us (to the disappointment of many of those Western Indologists) the fundamental integrity of the Mahabharata as a text.
Adluri and Bagchee continue this work of demonstrating the fundamental integrity of the Mahabharata text by using literary analysis and textual study to show how the entire text of the Mahabharata hangs together from a literary and philosophical perspective. For example, the motif of Pralaya, the symbolism of birds vs. snakes, of even little things, like a piece of hair or reference to a woman with disheveled hair – how they recur across the text, mirroring and building on each other, to weave together a worldview and narrative that is wholly consistent and cohesive. Stories that appear random have deeper, profound meaning when read carefully, with the help of nirukta and understanding traditional meanings attached to certain symbols. Verses that appear to be duplicative are not there by mistake and are actually intentionally included to serve different purposes.
For example, there is Adluri’s explanation of the ‘problem of the double beginning’. The verse with which the story begins, when Ugrashravas comes to the Naimisharanya forest and is requested to tell the story of the Mahabharata, occurs twice. Many history-based approaches call this an interpolation and call for one of the beginnings to be excised. But Adluri shows how both beginnings are needed from a literary perspective. The intervening passages between the two beginnings provide not only the ‘table of contents’ – a summary of the different books of the Mahabharata – but provide an initiation into the Mahabharata itself. A series of stories is given about different students who are tested by their guru in different ways and the different qualities shown by the students in order to pass the tests – ranging from strict obedience to the word of the guru, forbearance and endurance, and finally the ability to interpret the word of the guru. In the last of these stories, a student is praised for not following the literal word of the guru but understanding and interpreting correctly the spirit and more subtle meaning of the guru’s words in accordance with Dharma and the shastras. This is an important clue that it is not enough simply to read the words of the Mahabharata – one must have the adhikara to interpret them correctly.
It is only after the literary initiation into the Mahabharata by reading these passages, after orienting oneself into the worldview and structure of the Mahabharata, that one can once again pick up the thread of the story and begin again. How much richer and profound is our experience of the Mahabharata through the use of the double beginning – even if we lack the insight to understand the intent behind it, subliminally, it does its work on us by putting us in the proper mindset and attitude towards the Mahabharata even without our realizing it. If we simply followed blindly the crass historical interpretation that is based on the hermeneutics of suspicion – which would have us reject something in the text if we do not immediately understand why it is there – we would have lost the richness of the text due to our arrogance and misunderstanding.
This is why the hermeneutics of respect is important – it is not blind faith, it is a trust, an opening of the mind, so that with careful study and ripening, through becoming a qualified reader, the secrets of the text are revealed to us and we experience and learn for ourselves that which we trusted but could not earlier verify. In other words, if you think a verse does not belong, trust in the text to show you in time why that verse is there. More often than not, the text will humble us by its profundity and subtlety.
Restoring Humanity to the Humanities
Ultimately, Adluri and Bagchee see the Mahabharata as an important text not just for India or Hindus but for humanity as a whole. We are in a time of great crises and violence, the prospect of cataclysmic war casting a constant shadow, and it is in these times that the Mahabharata is especially relevant. It is only when Dharma is in decline, as they have noted, that Dharma can be learned and understood. The Mahabharata speaks to us in times when heroes are in decline, when greed and other vices are in ascendancy, when nothing is black and white, when nothing is clear or certain, when everything is shaded in gray and clouded with uncertainty. That is when the lessons of the Mahabharata help us discern the right meaning, the right course of action, the subtlety of karmic consequences that we cannot foresee with our puny intellects – that is when Dharma is revealed to us. That is when we develop the vairagya, the dispassion, to see the impermanence in the ebb and flow of history, the rise and fall of individuals, dynasties, nations, when we see that constancy is there only in that which lies beyond – the realms of Vedanta and Bhakti.
Instead of quibbling over historical details, instead of reading into the Mahabharata all kinds of fantastical interpretations to suit our pre-conceived ideologies, instead of polemicizing the Mahabharata, let us read and listen to the Mahabharata for what it is and let it unfurl its beauty, majesty, and depth of meaning of us through the tradition of reading it the way our ancestors and acharyas taught us that it should be read. That is Adluri and Bagchee’s exhortation to us, one we must heed.
To lose the traditional study of the Mahabharata would be to lose the keys to unlocking its meaning, and to lose the true meaning of the Mahabharata through propaganda from the other side and neglect from our own side would be an incalculable loss not just to Hindus, but to humanity.
It is in this context we must understand and appreciate the work being done by Adluri and Bagchee. It goes beyond mere scholarship – it is stewardship. Stewardship of the tradition by which the Mahabharata has been preserved and interpreted over centuries, not just by scholars but by grandmothers, artists, writers, filmmakers who imbued the epic with their own vision and kept the epic alive and relevant for us. In their upcoming book, Adluri and Bagchee have listed all of the traditional commentaries on the Mahabharata – almost none of which have been published, most of which are languishing and decaying, soon to be lost forever, if they are not digitized soon. It is their hope to facilitate the digitization, publication and translation of these commentaries as doctoral projects under their guidance. They have given their lives to the service of preserving the Mahabharata for us.
It is time for us to give back, to keep the work going, to take care of those who take care of the Mahabharata for us.
To close on a personal note, the workshop took place one week before I had to travel to Chicago for the one-year shraddha ceremony for my father, who passed away last year. I thought to myself the timing was a bit unfortunate because the two events felt compressed with each other and I would have liked to have more time in between to properly prepare myself for the ceremony. But, as the ceremony approached and concluded yesterday, I realized it was not unfortunate and was actually serendipitous.
The Mahabharata is itself recited at the time of the great Sarpa Satra, snake sacrifice. As Adluri so beautifully and vividly described, while this sublime recitation is taking place, there is the primal scream of snakes as they are being devoured by the thousands into the great fire, hissing and crying out in agony. The sacrifice is stopped by the appearance of Astika, the appearance of wisdom, of understanding that which is in the midst of that which is not. The Mahabharata is wrapped around the concepts of Time, Death and Dying – of showing how the cosmos is always in flux, how violence is endemic to the web of samsara, but in the midst of that, in the midst of the death and dying, there is Brahman in the form of Narayana, that which is Achyuta, which can never fall or decay. Learning cannot be separated from action; just as the Gita had to be recited at the time of war, we learn in the crucible of life and death at the times of intense activity and action. We are tested and forged in fire.
It was a message that helped prepare me for the ceremony, for the conclusion of one year of grieving, pondering the mysteries of death and mortality and the afterlife, of feeling painfully the transience of human life and groping towards that which does not decay, that which does not pass, that which is constant, that which lies beyond samsara, not outside, but beyond. And I thought perhaps Krishna intended it this way, that this be the recitation of the Mahabharata I hear, before this final yajna for my father.
For, the hermeneutics of respect applies not just to texts but also to life itself – to see and understand that nothing is coincidence, nothing accidental, nothing is other than as it should be, to see the hand of Krishna in everything – as beautifully captured in the words of Alexander Pope:
“All nature is but art, unknown to thee;
All chance, direction, which thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good.
And, spite of pride, in erring reason’s spite,
One truth is clear, ‘Whatever is, is right.”
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