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Lessons From Mahabharata – Reclaiming The Epic For The 21st Century


As India continues on its journey from a $3 trillion to $10 trillion economy, as it reorients its political pendulum from permissions and entitlements to development and prosperity, as it resets its strategic stance from apologetic-defensive to confident-expansive, and redefines its cultural arc from being moored in a timid crust to one that carries international hues, it needs not merely the modern tools of engagement and technology to negotiate the world’s constantly-changing landscape but a stronger civilisational base upon which it can stand with knowledge, dynamism, force and stability; it needs to re-imagine itself and re-identify with its own ethos and its own experiences.

Amongst its experiential kaleidoscope evolved over millennia, there are four important civilisational legs that have sustained India for more than five millenniums – the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Puranas and the Epics (the Ramayana and the Mahabharata). The Vedas captured the insights of rishis and eternalised them into words and three notes, a combination of language and sounds that resonates with our deepest parts even today as truth, a living entity in our being, and a universal reality. The Upanishads condensed them into an intellectual treatise of spiritual knowledge using which a seeker could confirm her intuitions with experience and not be limited to logic of the mental mind. The Puranas, essentially commentaries on the Vedas and the Upanishads, converted the knowledge into stories and metaphors. The Epics brought all this knowledge to the people through two of India’s greatest sagas, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.

This essay focusses on the Mahabharata and how it had been lost and now finally reclaimed by scholarship (and for scholarship) over the past five decades. As every Indian knows, the Mahabharata brings together not just the scriptural knowledge of the Vedas and the Upanishads into one comprehensive Indian treatise, but is equally an encyclopaedia of all practical matters, from complexities of governance to intricacies of statecraft . The idea of creating and using the bureaucracy to run a kingdom, for instance, is rooted in this text, the world’s largest, ten times longer than the Iliad and the Odyssey combined. With equal intensity the Mahabharata showcases models of governance, military and strategy.

The ideas of dharma, artha, kama and moksha the Mahabharata expresses and which were relevant five millenniums ago to kings, kingdoms and praja (the ‘governed’), remain equally relevant to individuals and families, organisations and companies, communities and nations today.

In the course of Islamic invasions, much of this knowledge and culture residing in temples was systematically exiled to the peripheries of India. The conscious decimation of the education system by the next set of rulers, the British, impoverished it. As if the physical and economic strangulation of Indian knowledge were not enough, 19th century European Indologists created a narrative that hijacked the Mahabharata, colonised it intellectually and pointed fingers of suspicion on its authenticity, its origins, its culture, its authorship, its characters, its physical and metaphysical truths. Despite these assaults, the Mahabharata refused to die. The knowledge of a civilisation – different from the confines history places on scholars – rests in the consciousness of its people and the dictum that ‘no Indian reads the Mahabharata for the first time’ is something every Indian can vouch for experientially.

Post-Independence, the rebirth of a free India also saw the resurgence of the Mahabharata. Today, a three-pronged scholarship is according the Mahabharata its rightful place, cleaning it of colonial contamination, bringing India’s definitive text back to the people of India, in whose DNA it resides, in whose blood it runs, in whose bones it thrives, in whose consciousness it becomes ubiquitous, in whose souls it has always been present, and will remain. Stripped of all biases and politics embedded into it, this scholarly troika has taken 50 years to mature and reclaim the epic verse by verse. And now, it has brought a new direction to the way we can view our ancient moorings.

First, through the heroic effort of V.S. Sukthankar, who, as the first general editor, created the Critical Edition of the Mahabharata, published by the Pune-based Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute. Supported by fellow scholars and adventurers who continued Sukthankar’s work, including the use of mathematical methods to arrive at the precise text, one parva after another, one verse at a time, the scholars consulted 1,259 manuscripts over five decades to release the complete Critical Edition in September 1966. Until then, there were multiple recensions of the text from all over India, with varying narratives and details.

Through the Critical Edition, Sukthankar established the definitive text, the earliest source from which all surviving manuscripts were copied, which scholars call the ‘archetype’. This text has not only put out the final word – including, for instance, the fact that the Mahabharata has 73,569 verses across 1,995 chapters, plus an additional 6,073 verses in 118 chapters in its Harivamsha appendix — but also preserved all the regional recensions in the form of a gigantic apparatus of variant readings and additional episodes. Many of these manuscripts have since been lost, so the Critical Edition now represents the Mahabharata and through it the intellectual and material heritage of India. This must now be preserved in every form, using every available technology.

Second, the conversion of this text from Sanskrit into English for a wider reach, access, critical examination. The first attempt at translating the Critical Edition was by J.A.B. van Buitenen at the University of Chicago, who between 1973 and 1978 published five volumes till Virata Parva, and remains a work in progress under his successor James L. Fitzgerald. Other major translations have come from the Clay Sanskrit Library that began the translation of the Kinjawadekar Edition in 2006 but abandoned it in three years. Of course, the earliest attempted English translation of the Mahabharata remains the Calcutta Edition, first by Kisari Mohan Ganguly in 1896 and followed by Manmatha Nath Dutt in 1905. More recently Bibek Debroy has successfully translated all the volumes of the Critical Edition and made it accessible to the lay reader, a herculean effort spread over four years of intense work that concluded in 2014.

And third, using the Critical Edition as a base and deep scholarship as a tool, reframing the narrative such that the Mahabharata returns to where it belongs – a timeless-seamless flow of the story in its mundane, ethical and metaphysical planes, containing every aspect of the Indian experience in it. In the war of interpretation of the Mahabharata, Vishwa Adluri and Joydeep Bagchee through rigorous study have explored the idea of the scientific method in the human sciences (The Nay Science in 2014) and the history of Western interpretive approaches to the Mahabharata and their evaluation in terms of their intellectual cogency using textual criticism (Philology and Criticism in 2018). Together, these two books give us robust arguments about the Mahabharata, expose the biases of Western scholarship that has dominated the intellectual discourse around it, and motivate us towards deeper understanding and further explorations.

All three – Sukthankar’s text, Debroy’s translation and the Adluri-Bagchee resituating – are tools to recover the Mahabharata. In a modern Mahabharata of sorts, a war of ideas and views fought on an intellectual Kurukshetra between the dominant Western and Leftist views on the one side and the Indian tradition on the other, truth, a complex one, has finally emerged. Sukthankar revealed the text in its entirety with meticulous line-by-line comparisons, the manuscript stemmas or the relationships between a text and its various versions, and delivered to us the final word. Debroy made it accessible to the English reader, in a more contemporary language. And finally, Adluri-Bagchee framed their arguments to illustrate that the Indian intellectual tradition has the means and knowledge to interpret its texts in its own way, recognising the philosophical-logical path of Adi Shankaracharya.

The 20th century saw Mahabharata scholarship being snatched away from India to the West, and then shredded and discarded argue Adluri and Bagchee in their Philology and Criticism. Here were born theories of contamination, ideas of reconstruction, arguments of a single manuscript. This line of thinking had reduced the Mahabharata to an extension of Brahminism, the original story nothing more than a fratricidal struggle for kingdom, the light-skinned and handsome invaders from the north who brought culture to a dark, weak, ugly, savage people who needed to be civilised. It was conveyed that the text is little more than an expression of several hands that have twisted and moulded the story of invaders and made it Indian.

Politically, it complemented the quest for power and powered colonialism. When reduced to caste and religion, it became a weapon.

In the war of civilisations, this weapon attempted to shred the dignity of the colonised and catalysed the capture of many imaginations. In the conquests of Africa, South America and Asia, if guns and canons were the tools of physical control, scholarship laced with religion was the medium of psychological subjugation and cultural appropriation. In the areas of social sciences, as scholarship degenerated into creating motivated narratives, scholars become mercenaries of control, missionaries of evangelisation.

Pulling the Mahabharata out of these narratives would have been impossible had it not been for these three legs of scholarship – the text, the translation and the analysis – now giving the Critical Edition the stability of form, its translatio n a global access, its analyses an Indian intellectual context. They allow us to reclaim learnings, experiences and histories from the hands of those whose entitlement to knowledge is questionable. Wendy Doniger, for instance, has termed the Critical Edition a “Frankenstein’s monster, pieced together from various scraps of different bodies”, and its editors “the Frankensteins”. She is not alone in her contempt for another’s reality, but for scholars this is a trait devoid of scientific temperament and humility.

In fact, the Critical Edition is a rigorously scientific and logical text – it is not an amalgamation of several texts; it is a mathematical synthesis to arrive at textual precision. It has created a dharmic context for its timeless expression. It has shown how the Mahabharata is indeed the fifth Veda with spirituality compressed into its pages, and equality of access an integral part of its structure. It has offered us a handbook containing every nuance of Indian thought, from the individual to the State, foreign policy to strategy, rituals to dharma, well-being of the people to their taxation. It has delivered a philosophical treatise that captures the essence of Indian civilisation through the idiom of storytelling.

Above all, it has given us the literary infrastructure upon which to ride, to explore and to produce new knowledge. This is now leading India to salvage the Mahabharata, through fictional retellings, through non-fiction books and papers, through theatre, cinema, mass media, feeding an unquenched thirst for Indian knowledge. The new reclamation is a function of new facts, new contexts – and eternal truths of the Indian intellectual tradition. We need to appreciate the labour, understand both the text as well as the politics, and set sail on an intellectual adventure to discover the unknown. On the Kurukshetra of scholarship, India has won the Mahabharata, and reclaimed its civilisation.

The way forward lies in having the conviction to bring the Mahabharata into the Indian mainstream – in literature, of course, but equally in statecraft, foreign policy, military studies, philosophy, economic management, administration and justice.

In strategic studies, for instance, our policymakers need to study the 4,512 verses in the Rajadharma Parva (part of the 12th chapter, Shanti Parva). These verses must essential reading for policy professionals in the areas of military studies and international relations. In policy conversations, they need to be able to use and quote Ved Vyasa’s Mahabharata or Chanakya’s Arthashastra, at least half as well as they do Sun Tzu’s The Art of War or Machiavelli’s Prince.

Narratives need communities. And communities comprise people, who grow and evolve. The new and young demographic of India needs to take learnings from the Mahabharata and apply them to present day questions, from geopolitical strategies to the future of work in the fourth industrial revolution, that have deep, lasting and robust answers in the Mahabharata. No conversation about a ‘New India’ can be complete without an intense reading of the Mahabharata, an eternal text that awaits the country’s preordained 21st century manifestation.

This article was first published by the Observer Research Foundation and has been reproduced here with permission.


Gautam Chikermane
Gautam Chikermane is Vice President at ORF. His area of research is international and Indian economic policy.

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