Close

Why Should We Read Mahabharata Part II


In the first part of this essay, we explored Mahabharata from the dimension of Civilizational Philosophy. The contemplations presented in the first part are for thinkers, philosophers, institution builders, and statesmen to ponder.

The philosophies discussed in the first part specifically of – Dharma, Arth, Kama, and Moksha need to leverage in the rebuilding of the nation. However, their implications are for the future. Mahabharata has a repository of something else that is of immediate concern as well. This is in the dimension of history.

The historical dimension of Mahabharata needs an explanation. The classical literature of Bharatavarsha is fundamentally literary, metaphorical, metaphysical and philosophical in nature. Some are in the realm of Science.

Very few can be directly categorized as purely historical. Stone inscriptions are certainly so, but they are not categorized as literature in the strictest sense of the word. We must change that, but that is beside the point. Classical literature or Kavyas in the context of Bharat which are metaphorical do contain a historical dimension. We need to evolve a unique methodology to extract historical information from such works.

A Long Semi-Historical Lineages of Kings and Branches

Mahabharata refers to many Kings belonging to various dynasties. They are placed across different Parvas to serve a philosophical reading. At other times, they come as assorted stories enriching the journey of some other character – say Arjuna or Yudhishthira. The stories are brought to life through Markandeya, Ugrashrava, or Bheeshma.

Adi Parva, Vana Parva, Shanti Parva, and Anushasana Parva are a mine of such stories. These accounts are really fascinating. They not only help us build a tree of kings. They give a glimpse of conflicts and evolution of the very Kingship and culture from ancient times. Apart from material history, they also help us reimagine the civilizational flow.

Since they serve a philosophical or a metaphorical purpose, their relevance in history is lost. If a tree is drawn based on a relationship between these stories you get a fascinating lineage of various dynasties. We get an integrated view of the lineages of Chandra, Puru, Bharata, Panchala, Kashi, Yadava, and the Ikshvakus.

That apart, Hari Vamsha, which comes at the end of Mahabharata, consists of chapters that can be considered nearly historical. Harivamsha and related accounts in Bhagavata stretch to almost the late Magadha era. As a result, one gets an unbridled history from Vedic times to the Modern era. However, Indian History is written with disregard to these accounts.

Modern Indian History has been written based on Greek accounts as sheet anchors. Sultanate Court Chronicles have largely dominated recent narratives. Many aspects have not been sufficiently questioned. Why then have we ignored Mahabharata and Hari Vamsha?

The reason is clear. Modern historians have conveniently dubbed all these as mythical, in order to create space to begin history from Buddha. In addition, extracting historical information from Mahabharata (and related works) requires new methodologies.

This requires one to be steeped in a body of traditional works, which few in the modern world have. It is not that nobody did this at all. F.E. Pargiter and Pandit Kota Venkatachalam have made scholarly contributions that have not been furthered.

From Mahabharata, in conjunction with other epics, we can rebuild our history into the Vedic times at two levels

  • A Definite History
  • A Plausible History

We must accept that certain accounts are semi-historical. We must include them in formal history with a qualification as semi-history. This is how we build a sense of the Past. We must not be shy about this. This is far more honest than pitching everything as hard history. We do not need to conform to the strictest notions of history coming from the west.

Worse, many accounts that we currently think of perfectly historical aren’t. The greatest example is that of Ashoka. There is every piece of evidence that he was a Buddhist before the Kalinga war. There are other kings in history who claimed the title Devanampriyadarshi. Yet we read what we read. Yet, we leave Mahabharata/Harivamsha accounts outside of History.

Bring them to history as semi-historical accounts with partial evidence. Leave the complete building of evidence to future generations. Present an integrated picture of the Past to our children. We owe this to our ancestors.

This historical narrative is not just about Kings. A similar lineage and evolution can be constructed for the great sages of Bharatavarsha too. Mahabharata presents fascinating accounts of the Bhrigu-s and the Angiras-s.

In addition, there is a fine presentation of the conflicts within and the gradual evolution. It presents accounts of how new clans of sages evolved. One can reconstruct how the sagehood evolved in Bhartavarsha. In that evolution, it presents their purpose, value, and need in society.

In summary, Mahabharata contains Civilizational Evolution from ancient times in its deep belly. It contains a flow of the Ideas and Concerns of our civilization. It’s a fascinating flow of conflicts and reconciliations.

In that, it presents how society has engaged and evolved with the notion of Dharma and Purushartha. One can see paint a picture of changes in social life and the pursuits of all kinds. The larger philosophy continued to guide society through this entire journey. That is presented to us through multiple Kulas, Dynasties over generations.

Saraswati River & Ancient-ness of Vedic Civilization

In the previous section, we looked at the historical flow of civilization in general. In this section, let us explore a specific part of Mahabharata in its historical importance. In the Shalya Parva, Balarama who had been on a Teerthayatra returns to the battleground of Kurukshetra. He then narrates his Teerthayatra in great detail.

This narration is so fascinating and in excess of a hundred verses. His Teerthayatra starts effectively from one end of the Saraswati River meets the sea, all the way to its birth. A series of places and the nature of the river’s flow at each place are described. For many years, few gave any importance to this narration as Saraswati was perceived to be mythical.

However, technology has transformed the analysis of river paleochannels. Satellite imagery and new instruments of geological analysis have stunned the modern world. There was indeed a river that did flow once upon a time. It died by 1800BC due to a change in the Monsoon pattern.

Balarama Teertha’s yatra description of places indeed matches the satellite imagery flow of the river. Whatmore, the Teerthayatra describes the river slowly drying up and partial in its flow. This clearly establishes two things

  • Mahabharata retains a memory of 1800BC and beyond
  • At least parts of it were written or were seen or composed by 1800BC

This pushes the date of our civilization beyond 1800BC. More importantly, it gives a death blow to the Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT)/Aryan Migration Theory (AMT). Dr. Michel Danino has explained in great detail in his book on the  river Saraswati.

The book is a must-read for every Indic Civilization enthusiast. All AIT/AMT champions now have to cross the mighty Saraswati River – which is gloriously described in the Rig Veda as ‘ambi tame nadi tame devi tame saraswati’. The river must now flow in our consciousness forever. Civilization must flow along with it.

Astronomical Description & Dating of Indian History

India is well known as a nation of astronomy experts in the past. India’s passion for astronomy is so high that the entire daily life of India revolved around many astronomical phenomena. That passion reflects in Mahabharata. For many events, Vyaasa provides a description of the positions of stars, the Sun, and other planets.

Little did he know that in some time in the future, they will tell a tale to save our civilization. Maybe, he knew that Bharatavarsha will see a civilization crisis in the future. He coded his present into the text. Now, this past of ours speaks itself into the future.

There are three kinds of descriptions

  1. Specific Descriptions
  2. Descriptions needing interpretations
  3. Astrological descriptions using astronomy

Balarama goes on a Teerthayaatra in the Pushya Nakshatra and returns in Shravana Nakshatra with an overall duration of 42 days. This is a crystal clear specific description. A description of the moon in metaphorical words matching a particular day in the fortnight is an interpretation. The Kurukshetra Yuddha is full of such partial descriptions. Astrology descriptions all of us are quite well aware of.

Out of these only, the first qualifies itself for historical interpretations. Using such descriptions many have arrived at various dates for the Mahabharata war. But one aspect of it is undeniable. Many astronomical phenomena date themselves beyond 1500BC. Clearly, the Vedic Civilization parallels the Sindhu-Saraswati civilization and beyond. All of Mahabharata is not yet fully analyzed from this perspective. There is a lot more to be mined.

Why is our Nation named as Bhaarata?

Let us now turn our attention to an aspect of nomenclature and self-reference. Ever since the Sultanate stepped in, gradually we became Hindustan-Dakhan. Ever since the British stepped in, we have hastened towards being called India. After 1947, we called ourselves – India, that is Bharat. However, Bharat remains a poor cousin of India, often at the mercy of it. Nevertheless, we need to know why we call ourselves Bharat. Mahabharata holds the key to it.

In Adi Parva, Mahabharata presents King Bharata of the Puru dynasty. He is the son of Dushyanta and Shakuntala of Hastinapura. Bharata’s claim to fame is threefold

  • He expanded the Kingdom into distant regions covering large parts of India. (There are no other records beyond to state this apart from Mahabharata, RigVeda, and Bhagavata).
  • The formalization of RigVeda started during his reign. One of the Great Goddesses of RigVeda is Bharati.
  • His reign was greatly just.
  • He chose a worthy successor for the Kingdom, not his own son, but the son of Sage Bharadvaja. This grand sacrifice created a culture of Kingship.

Well, there is no other evidence to corroborate the above. But the Civilization has come to be known as Bharatavarsha and continues to be so till this date. Many inscriptions refer to the larger region of Bharatavarsha, Bharatamandala, or Bharatakhanda. This is over the millennia and true of South India. This is how we retain the memory of the great Chakravarthy Bharata.

Bharatamandala in Mahabharata – Kingdoms, Places & Rivers

Often, it is stated that India became a politically unified geo-region only after the British stepped. Fundamentally, denying any status to the civilization of the past as a region. It is often argued that Bharatavarsha may have been a cultural unity but never a political unity. Such a consciousness itself is recent.

Well, Mahabharata demolishes this narrative completely. What constitutes today’s political India is very much part of what is described as Bharatavarsha in Mahabharata. What more, regions that are outside of today’s political India are also mentioned. South Indian Kingdoms participated in the Kuru War. Bharatavarsha/Bharata was definitely part of our consciousness way back then.

Here is a representation of all Kingdoms, Places, Rivers mentioned in Mahabharata as part of Bharatavarsha. (AncientVoice – World’s first Wiki Platform dedicated for Veda, Itihasa, Puranas – reflecting the eternal voices from the past).

Some Social Descriptions in Mahabharata

The description of women in Mahabharata is worth a mention. Look at all women in Mahabharata. Not one of them comes across as submissive and subservient to men. All have a strong personality and character. They make decisions. Through their personality, they retain the ability to influence situations in specific directions.

They participate in statecraft, decision making, they are educated. They could even be crowned as rulers in certain situations (Sri Vyaasa explicitly mentions the same in Shanti Parva). They question the decisions of their spouses, fathers, and brothers.

Satyavati, Kunti, Gandhari, Draupadi, Rukmini – all are extraordinarily etched characters. A special mention must be made of Savitri who goes in search of a husband for her own self and chooses one. Shakuntala’s address to King Dushyanta in the court of Hastinapura should remain an inspiration for all times.

A special mention must be made of respect for all segments of society. King Shantanu does not force his decision on the Fisherman. The latter retains the right to reject the King’s offer of marrying his daughter. Kaushika, a Brahmana, learns Dharma from Dharmavyaadha.

Kings are often questioned by their advisors who are not necessarily Brahmanas or Sages. Vidura and Yuyutsa, born not from the Brahmana, Kshatriya brothers, occupy high seats in the Royal authority. They are respected by all in society. Mahabharata is full of such stories.

Now, one may argue that these are characters and narratives within a story. There is no historical proof of their existence. That may be true or false. Irrespective of that, the composers of the time, the great Vyaasa and others, thought of such characters. Either they truly existed or society aspired for such personalities. It is more likely the former.

In any case, that paints a wholly different kind of Indian society than what is handed over to us from our current history books. Time for correction.

The Notion of a Past

Mahabharata’s greatness is it presents us a Past in a great continuum. In the flow of this great Past, the present can be understood and the future visualized. This is a Past with a definite sense of history but without being lost in it. It is a synthesis of historical information into a metaphor and perspective. Mahabharata’s present is the Kurukshetra war.

Many characters of Mahabharata have a sense of their past. This past is brought into their present as stories. In the narration of their past, there is a message for us. One is not to be lost in history but that is to be distilled and brought to the present in a form that helps us interpret the present and build a future.

In a way, that sense has been a dominant sensitivity and sensibility of India until recent times. In the last 200 years, we have suffered the onslaught of a stronger historical sense of the West. This had a twofold impact on us. On the one hand, it has created false inferiority that we never had sufficient historical sense.

In desperation we are lost in creating a history for ourselves. On the other hand, this sense of ‘Past’ that our ancestors carefully constructed and handed over to us, is weakening. It is a clear double whammy.

Time has come to regain our confidence from Mahabharata. We must retain our sense of Past. We cannot be lost in History. At the same time, we need to construct a History. Our classical works are sources of both. We may need to construct our own methods. It is possible. Dr. Koenraad Elst, Dr. Meenakshi Jain, Dr. Michel Danino, Dr. Vishwa Adluri, and others doing this for us.

In Summary, Mahabharata is the flow of our Civilization in all its rivers, rivulets, tributaries, and streams. It is a narrative of narratives – of all those lakes and ponds naturally springing from the earth, formed by rainwater. They think of the ocean irrespective of whether they flow towards it or stay where they are. We find ourselves in this eternal flow. We must flow with it.

Explore  Part I


We welcome your comments at feedback@indictoday.com