close logo

In Search Of India’s Lost Epic

The beginnings of Western scholarship on the Sanskrit epic, the Mahābhārata, are marked by a great puzzlement at the work. The text does not fit Western canons of literature—too heterogeneous its contents, too abstract its ideas that Western scholars can make sense of it.1 The “confusion” of fact and fantasy—a cosmological narrative that begins with Brahmā, the Creator, and descends through the repeated names of obscure dynastic kings to connect with present-day “history”—violates all Western expectations of narrative consistency and reality. In contrast to the Vedas, considered the earliest documents of “Indo-European” civilization, the Mahābhārata appears a corrupted work, and German scholars are quick to identify the culprits: the “aboriginal” population of India, those from “the darker side” (Garbe). In the German scholars’ view, the aboriginal influence can be seen in features such as the emphasis on gift-giving to the Brahmans, the belief in karma and rebirth, and the “repugnant” cults of Viṣṇu, Śiva, and the Devī—features they consider inimical to the “Aryan” inheritance of ancient India.2 The task of scholarship can only be to excise these elements from the “old, genuine Mahābhārata” (Holtzmann Jr.). The Mahābhārata, they reason, must have arisen as an amalgam of a heroic culture (whose extent Holtzmann Sr. identifies in 1854 with a common Indo-Greek-Germanic epic tradition stretching from the Baltic to the Gangetic plain) and the debased views and religious practices of the negroid inhabitants of the subcontinent that the Aryans, invading from the north, encountered. Contrasting—by first identifying—the religious ideas of the latter (chiefly, nature worship, pantheism if not a rational monotheism, and worship of warlike gods such as Indra) with those of the former becomes a favorite pastime of theirs and, not incidentally, gives rise to the disciplines of comparative religions and comparative mythology.

These racial prejudices find an easy anchor in the text. The Mahābhārata, at least to the uninitiated, appears a war narrative of the kind Hermann Oldenberg yearns for, when he exults over the Aryan victories over the natives, the “battles in which the land was taken away from the dark-skinned foes, [and] the shattering of their strongholds” (Das Mahābhārata, 7). Does the text not recount the story of a great battle? Does it not relate the names of some of the combatants to color? Is this not definitive evidence for the great Völkerwanderung that Friedrich Schlegel has been fantasizing about since at least 1806 as part of his plans for a great Universalgeschichte? Is it not the long-sought evidence required to finally anchor the biracial theory—the view that the Indian population comprised a mixture of the white, “Caucasian” race (the “Hindus”) and a black, negroid race—that theoreticians of race such as A. W. Schlegel had been propounding in Indian history?3 The turn to a “historical” interpretation of the Mahābhārata is finally taken in 1837 when Christian Lassen, a student of A. W. Schlegel’s, proposes that the Mahābhārata is a historical record of the battle fought between “the originally native black [race] and the Sanskrit speaking, light-skinned [race] that had immigrated from the north, whose western racial relatives are, even now, successfully fighting a similar battle with similar superiority over the red races of America” (“Beiträge zur Kunde des indischen Alterthums,” 1: 75; Lassen’s italics). Henceforward, ignoring the text’s self-presentation as a philosophical treatise, a law book, and a salvific history; ignoring, also, its own time reckoning, the sole task Western scholarship will pursue is the separation of this (imagined) historical fact from its narrative trappings—a project it advertises to Indians as the necessary “critical” clarification of their texts so that they may be admitted into “history.”4

As tendentious as they were, Lassen’s pseudohistorical investigations provided a structuring principle for Western researches into the Mahābhārata. Scholars could now dissociate the text into its alleged “core,” identified either with a spontaneous bardic composition hymning the deeds of the bard’s liege lord or a historical recollection of the primordial racial battle, and its “accretions,” variously imagined as attempts by Brahmans either to inculcate the warriors in the spirit of their theology5 or to challenge them for their position at the head of the social order.6 A text that Western scholars could not interpret and that would remain eternally mysterious to them could at last be made sense of, even if this “sense-making” consisted in something as banal as identifying the various motivations postulated behind the text. The basic assumption, after all, was that the text was meaningless; that the only reason it could have been put together as it was was due to the vagaries of historical time—the changing dictates of political reason and theological fashion, which scholars would painstakingly, if speculatively, map over the next two centuries. In an era of condescension, what Hindus had to say about the text mattered less than what Western scholars could clarify about their history and traditions to them, and the imputation of a cognitive deficiency to the Indians accorded well with the charge of primitivism laid upon them once it had been decided that, as Winternitz declared, “the critical historian of Indian literature will not join in this praise of the Mahābhārata. He will not see in it as a whole a work of art at all, but a literary monstrosity” (“The Mahābhārata,” 347). Perversely, every attempt by Hindus to insist otherwise would now be interpreted as evidence of their lack of critical self-reflexivity, that very Mündigkeit that the German Indologists had arrogantly arrogated to themselves,7 or, in an act of racial segregation, labeled as support for a militant Hindu nationalism.8

As we showed in The Nay Science, for the past two hundred years, scholars have seldom approached the Mahābhārata as a text. They have been interested neither in what the text had to say about itself nor in what it had to say about the universe or reality nor in what it had to say about the intellectual cosmos in which Hinduism unfolds. Rather, the text was read primarily for what it could reveal about the racial history of the Hindus, that is, for the story of how, “mixing with the dark-skinned aborigines [had] transform[ed] the invaders, cause[d] the Aryan to turn into the Hindu” (Oldenberg, “Indologie,” 640). The German scholars identified this narrative with the content of history and the Mahābhārata itself was considered historical and of interest only insofar as it cohered with this story. Thus, whereas Holtzmann Jr. could assert that the Mahābhārata “had, until now, made an impression on every impartial reader that it is historical […] [,] that here real history wishes to be presented” (Zur Geschichte und Kritik des Mahābhārata, 41–42),9 Lassen would call it “that Indian work that contains the maximum [number of] fragments of ancient history” (Lassen, “Beiträge,” 61), that is, that Indian work that contained the maximum number of fragments useful for the German narrative of invasion, racial mixing, and racial decline. The Mahābhārata was pressed into a historical narrative that was both racist and anti-Semitic in intent.10 Extending the argument of The Nay Science, Philology and Criticism makes four points:
1. German Mahābhārata scholars did not actually contribute to textual criticism. Despite claiming that, unlike the tradition, they were critical,11 they contributed neither to a mechanical reconstruction of the archetype based on an exhaustive recensio of the extant witnesses and a genealogical analysis of the relations of filiation between them nor to an objective history of the text. Rather, what they presented in the name of “text-critical” (textkritische) or “text-historical” (texthistorische) investigations were anti-Semitic and anti-Brahmanic resentments (see The Nay Science), theological maxims, and racial prejudices (about ancient Aryans, Indo-Germans, etc.). Their “criticism” consisted entirely of separating parts they thought were Brahmanic in origin from those they considered to be reflective of a Kṣatriya outlook.
2. Even after the completion of a critical edition in 1966, German Indologists persisted with the kind of subjective and unscientific “higher critical” reconstructions of the text that they had previously undertaken. Not one of the critics, whose work we examined, identified new significant errors. Not one collated a manuscript. They had no idea of how manuscripts were classified or how the editors had reconstructed the reading of the archetype. Instead, aware that a critical text would end their arbitrary speculations, they raised irrelevant objections to the editorial process and redefined the constituted text as a Brahmanic redaction.12 Even those who, like Bigger, argued that “these are arguments from higher textual criticism, whose application to lower textual criticism I already refused myself” (Bigger, Balarāma im Mahābhārata, 121), did not actually contribute to lower criticism. Rather, their “lower criticism” consisted of proposing recondite models for why readings the editor had rejected from the constituted text (readings the critics thought were typical of a “heroic epic”) could nevertheless be older or why the editor might have overlooked them.
3. The resultant fragmentation of the text was not the unintended consequence of applying a valid scientific procedure to the text, necessary in order to recover better readings or to provide a more readable text. Rather, it was explicitly desired. As we have seen, no such procedure existed, and Mahābhārata scholars were not interested in preserving the text or making it accessible to its readers. Their sole aim in pursuing Mahābhārata “criticism” was to ensure that the text, which articulates a comprehensive vision of the Hindu cosmos, did not survive as a unity. No critic doubted the Mahābhārata’s centrality to Hinduism. No critic was unaware of its theological significance. As comments by the rabidly evangelical Nazi Indologist Paul Hacker and his acolytes such as Gerhard Oberhammer and James T. Laine attest,13 there was an urgent need to deconstruct the text, in full awareness of the challenge it posed to Christianity. The invocation of a “critical” procedure merely served as a pretext. Thus, “layers” were made up, the theory of “euhemerism” was brought in to explain the worship of Kṛṣṇa Vāsudeva, and, when all else failed, the preposterous notion of “inclusivism” was postulated, as though the “Hindu mind” (Hacker) was incapable of comprehending difference or polytheism had to be some kind of epistemological mistake, an illusion resulting from several monotheistic sects competing for influence over the same text.14
4. The scholarly reception of the Mahābhārata has been inherently racist. It repeatedly ignored what the Hindu tradition had to say about the text, even though a rich tradition of philosophical commentary on the text has existed since at least the tenth century. Indeed, as Cerequas reminds us, the basic presumption has been that “men so poor in philological training and so rich in melanin” could not “have a commentarial tradition in the first place” (“Ātman, Psuchê, Anima,” 8). German Indologists even excluded twentieth-century Indian scholars from discourse on the specious grounds that “each author establishes his own hermeneutics on the basis of the religious or philosophical tradition he adheres to” (Malinar, The Bhagavadgītā, 7),15 a curious justification since the Indologists saw no difficulty in citing Nazis such as J. W. Hauer and Paul Hacker. Scholars repeatedly attributed a cognitive deficiency to the Indians, whether it was an inability to see the real (Oldenberg), an inability to separate myth from (historical) fact (van Buitenen), or an inability to liberate themselves from the bonds of religion (Hanneder). The Indologists’ “philology” has thus unfolded primarily as an ethnology, led, as Hegel says, “of itself to investigate and to trace the basic lines of the common element, the principles of the Indian consciousness” (Humboldt-Rezension, 75). Measured against the German scholars’ prejudices, the classical commentators, who interpret the text with careful attention to its letter and the reader’s ultimate concerns, appear surprisingly modern. Instead of explaining the text anthropologically-ethnographically by referring to “the increasingly documented peculiarity of the Indian mind” (ibid.), they read the text thoughtfully and philosophically, relating it to the conventions of Vedic and śāstric literature and concepts in  Sanskrit poetics. It is time we looked to them rather than to the German Indologists or their indigenous collaborators for clarification of Indian texts.


An earlier version of this essay was distributed at the 17th World Sanskrit Conference in Vancouver,Canada. This version has been revised and expanded.

1. “The Mahābhārata began its existence as a simple epic narrative. It grew in the course of the centuries to a monstrous chaos: besides the main narrative there are true primal forests of smaller narratives, furthermore, countless and endless teachings about theological, philosophical, natural-scientific matters, law, politics, worldly wisdom and practical advice. A poem full of deep dreaming and intuition, gentle poetry, school-masterly platitudes—full of the sparkling play of colors, overpowering masses of images that crush each other, of showers of arrows of endless battles, cries upon cries of heroes that scorn death, overly pious ideal humans, overwhelmingly beautiful women, wrathful ascetics, adventurous mythic beasts, amazing miracles—of empty flood of words and of wide, free insights into the order of the world-unfolding” (Oldenberg, Das Mahābhārata, 1).
2. How deeply rooted this prejudice is can be seen from the following comments, which document a history of negating the text’s actual contents insofar as they mention the Hindu pantheon: “If this exit of the old gods is an irreplaceable loss, the interference of the younger gods, in contrast, of Viṣṇu, of Śiva, of Devī led to the almost total destruction of the poem. In place of the poetic-miraculous, which let fantasy perform the work of the understanding, entered the degenerate-miraculous that resists the representing [faculty of] fantasy just as much as it does the thinking reason” (Holtzmann Sr., Indische Sagen, ix); “Buddhism has disappeared from its Indian homeland. What has triumphed is the power we call ‘Hinduism’. Its gods are the misshapen, wild, cruel, [and] lascivious Hindu gods, at their head Shiva and Vishnu. Its books are the gigantic epic, the Mahābhārata, and an unsurveyable host of literature [made up] of epic poems, legendary works, narratives, fairy tales, dramas. Everywhere we find how this people, this faith, this literature, whose familial context, pointing to the West, clearly appears in the old period, distanced itself ever further from those origins [in the West] in the course of centuries. A transformation that affects the innermost core of the people, of the soul of the people. Mixing with the dark-skinned aborigines transforms the invaders, causes the Aryan to turn into the Hindu” (Oldenberg, “Indologie,” 640); “There is no bridge from the radiant forms of the Veda to the forms of the modern gods [of Hinduism], whose monstrous representations with their tastelessly multiplied animal limbs and so on, should be familiar to all, at least as a type. … In spite of their Aryan names, I consider the modern Hindu gods—Shiva, Vishnu, Durga, Hanuman, and whatever else they may be called—not to be Aryan conceptions, but to be conceptions of the aborigines” (Garbe, Indische Reiseskizzen, 85).

3. Compare Schlegel’s account of the “Hindus”—“The face of an oval shape, the forehead high and dominating the lower parts; the cheekbones effaced by the cheeks; the eyes placed horizontally, large, though veiled by thick eyelids, and mostly well split; a nose prominent and often aquiline, of which the ridge is well marked, the nostrils close together and widening little, the opening of the nostrils turned downwards; the two rows of teeth placed vertically the one above the other; the mouth small, delicately traced, and lined by lips moderately swollen; the chin rounded; finally, the hair black, long, silky, and wavy, but not frizzy; in men of a virile age, a thick beard which, if it is not cut, grows to a great length; add to this a slender waist, especially among the women, a fine proportion between the height of the legs and thighs and the part of the body between the shoulders and the hips; hands and feet of a remarkable elegance: such are the traits which place the Hindus incontestably in the race of men to which belong the Persians, the Arabs, the inhabitants of anterior Asia and of Europe […]”—whom he contrasts with the aboriginals thus: “Though, for the reasons I have just developed, we cannot accept that the nation of the Hindus has been formed by the fusion of two peoples coming from different stock, and perhaps from different races, from a conquering people and a subjugated people; it seems that their ancestors were not the first occupants of the country; that they found already there inhabitants more anciently indigenous. There exist even today, in northern India, in some mountainous districts where nature presents great obstacles to the clearing and cultivation of the land, tribes of savage hunters. Without regular cult, having for their entire religion only some confused superstitions, recognizing in no way the Brahmanic law, they live on the products of the hunt, or upon wild roots and fruit; they eat even the most impure meats. Almost nude, but armed with bows, spears, and maces, they go forth from time to time from their inaccessible lairs and commit depredations among their neighbors in the plains. […] This population belongs to a race totally different than that of the Hindus. They are indeed blacks, and their planar forehead, their woolly hair, their flat nose, their figure and stature mark them as Asiatic negroes” (“On the Origin of the Hindus,” trans. E. P. Butler, 423–24).

4. “For us, however, we who regard the Mahābhārata not as faithful Hindus do, but rather, as critical historians of literature, it is nothing less than an artificial work, and we in no way may we see in it the work of a [single] composer, indeed, not even of a skilled collector and arranger. The Mahābhārata as a whole is a literary absurdity. Never has an artist’s hand attempted—and it would hardly have been possible—to combine the conflicting elements to a unitary poem. Only unpoetic theologians and commentators and untalented copyists have ultimately welded together the parts that are, in fact, irreconcilable and derive from different centuries into a disorganized mass” (Winternitz, Geschichte der indischen Litteratur 1: 272). It is only a late echo of this when Pollock claims that “successful applicants for admission to the twenty-first-century temple of disciplinarity will have to [subject themselves to the test of] historical self-awareness. [They] cannot remain arrogantly indifferent to their own historicity, constructedness, and changeability” (World Philology, 23).

5. “It is in the nature of their [social] position and can also be deduced from various provisions of their legal code that the Indian priestly caste had a clear awareness of the means suitable for securing it lasting dominance over the minds of the remaining folk. It therefore cannot surprise us that we find epic poetry being used as a tool of an addiction to spiritual domination. […] There was no more suitable means of raising the warrior caste in the priestly spirit than linking instruction about religious and social laws to the narratives that already enjoyed general approval. That such an intention was realized in the diaskeusis of the Mahābhārata is clear to me, […[ The Indian priestly caste had a clear understanding of the appropriate means […] for securing it lasting dominance over the minds of the remaining people. It therefore cannot surprise us that we find epic poetry used as an instrument of an addiction to spiritual domination. […] There was no means as appropriate for raising the warrior caste in the priestly spirit than linking instruction about religious and social laws to the narratives that already enjoyed universal favor. That such an intention was realized in the diaskeusis of the Mahābhārata appears clear to me from the large number and the extent of the didactic portions” (Lassen, “Beiträge zur Kunde des indischen Alterthums,” 1: 86).

6. “A record of the greatest martial event of ancient India would have emphatically been claimed as the property of the second or military caste, the Kshattriyas. […] But such an exaltation of kingly splendour and of the importance of the military caste, would as naturally threaten to depress that of the first or Brahmanical caste. Brahmans, therefore, would endeavour to become the arrangers of the national epos; and as the keepers of the ancestral lore, as the spiritual teachers and guides, as priestly diplomatists, too, they would easily succeed in subjecting it to their censorship. […] It became thus the aim of the Brâhmanas to transform the original legend of the great war into a testimony to the superiority of their caste over that of the Kshattriyas. And this aim was effected not only by the manner in which the chief story was told, but also by adding to the narrative all such matter as would show that the position and might of a Kshattriya depends on the divine nature and favour of the Brâhmana caste” (Goldstücker, “Hindu Epic Poetry: The Mahābhārata,”388–89).

“But we are Europeans, and our precedence, our spiritual maturity [Mündigkeit] lies precisely therein that we survey the globe with its inhabitants, and have the drive to trace the history of both back to the most remote prehistory. Consequently, no monument of venerable antiquity should solicit us in vain for its interpretation” (A. W. Schlegel, “Ueber den gegenwärtigen  Zustand der Indischen Philologie,” 25).

8. Compare Franco’s review of our book, which interprets our call for a more sensitive reading of the Mahābhārata as “an open invitation for reading and using a text like the Gītā as a justification of the abominable concepts and practices of caste distinction, Hindu nationalism, Brahmin supremacy, Right-wing militarism and fascism, to mention but a few possibilities” (Franco, review of The Nay Science, 698). This is rich coming from someone who collaborated in covering up the anti-Semitic and Nazi background of his predecessors in Leipzig.

9 Note the identification of “real history” with this story. This is not to say that the invasion happened or did not happen or that its vector was reversed. Rather, a decision about what is to count as “the real” is being made here. It is only once this decision is made that Oldenberg will be able to say, “Only later—for the period of which we shall speak, this lies for the most part in the future—one learns, instead of the imaginary occurrences, to see the real” (Die Lehre der Upanishaden, 12), a statement that makes a massive threefold assumption, namely, that we ourselves know “the real,” that we know what is to count as “the real,” and that we can, therefore, now determine whether other people have learned to see “the real.” It is from this decision that Indology’s Bildungsauftrag (pedagogic responsibility) flows: Indians, who do not know “the real,” must now be taught to recognize it. They must become historical in a Western sense. We have learned to identify a highly determinate experience, a specific way of ordering events and endowing them with meaning that was invented in nineteenth-century Germany with history as such and to identify this history, in turn, with “the real.” Herein lies the deepest root of not only India’s intellectual colonization, but also all other peoples.

On the racial interpretation of the text, see Lassen, Indische Alterthumskunde, 1: 643: “Since the Pāñcāla definitely belonged to the Aryan peoples, we may not interpret the relationship between them and the Pāṇḍavas in such a way that the former, through the black color ascribed to Kṛṣṇā [Draupadī] should be understood as being described as belonging to the black natives of India, the latter as the white Aryans. Nonetheless, the distinction in terms of color must have a meaning, and this can only be that the Pāñcāla, as well as the Yādava who are represented by Kṛṣṇa [Vāsudeva], both belonged to the Aryan peoples who had immigrated [into India] earlier, [that they] had become darker through the influence of the climate than the more recent  immigrants from the north and, in contrast to these, were called the black ones.” On the anti-
Semitic association of the category of “epic” see ibid., 414–15: “History is evidence that the Semites lacked the harmonious balance of all psychic powers through which the Indo-Germans became preeminent. […] The Semite cannot separate the relationship of the world to man in general from the relationship of the world to his own ‘I.’ He cannot represent ideas in the mind in pure objectivity. His way of looking at things is subjective and egotistical. His poetry is lyrical [and] hence subjective. His spirit expresses its joy and its pain, its love and its hatred, its admiration and its scorn. […] Even if he expands his horizon it is only to represent his tribe as an individual over against other tribes. […] He is unsuccessful at [creating] epic because here the ‘I’ of the poet recedes before the object [and] even less at dramatic works, which demand that the poet shed his personality even more completely. [In contrast,] the Indo-Germans possess, alongside the lyrical, also the other genres of poetry. They alone produced a national drama. They alone produced the great heroic poems that reflect the great deeds of antiquity handed down in the legend in glorified form, that present the entire worldview of the spirit of a people to us and are present as the result of the poetic effort of an entire people. The Semite is lacking in the material of the epic, but not the saga, which he poetically ornaments and develops but does not combine into larger cycles and, instead, preserves in his memory as primordial history.”

11. Compare Stietencron’s comment: “The analytical thinking of Western scholars trained in historical and philological methodology stood in contrast to the traditional Indian commentators. The latter not only generously harmonized all the disjunctions in the text but, above all, attempted to recognise in particular passages of the text their own philosophical and theological concepts. This was done in order to secure for themselves the divine authority of Kṛṣṇa. In this manner, several philosophical schools developed Gītā interpretations of their own—a spectrum that has been further expanded through politically motivated, modern interpretations since the beginning of the Indian independence struggle” (Stietencron, “Editor’s
Introduction,” 6).

Here is how Simson characterizes the edition: “If, however, we proceed from the assumption the redactions had before them older versions of the Mahābhārata, then we must reckon with the fact that these older versions were already revised in various ways and that interpolations entered into them before they were evaluated for our Mahābhārata [the critical edition]. Further, we may assume that even after the completion of the final redaction, for a certain period of time until the final separation of the north and south Indian recensions, interpolations entered into the text, and which hence could not be eliminated using the editorial principles of the Poona edition [the critical edition]. The history of development of our Mahābhārata text can
then be outlined as follows: (1) In the beginning there was […] the short epic transmitted as an oral, improvised composition in the tradition. Here it is meaningless to inquire into the original text and the author: the poem was realized by several epic bards in constantly changing form; bard and author were identical in this stage. From this period arise many of the formulaic expressions of our Mahābhārata, the technique of the adhyāya introductions and conclusions, the schematic development of the small battle-scenes, etc. (2) There followed a period of written fixation of the text; indeed, we can also assume with certainty that different versions of the poem were written down at different times, of which remains can still be traced in our text. (3) Finally, an individual diaskeuast or a committee of diaskeuasts, compilators, or redactors took up the task of forging together from the different written versions in circulation a great epic intended to exceed all previous versions in both extent and comprehensivity. The result was a text one can characterize as the goal of the Poona edition, a goal that could, of course, only be partially attained due to the inadequacy of the written transmission” (Simson, “Altindische epische Schlachtbeschreibung,” 283–84).

13 For Hacker’s comments, see Adluri and Bagchee, “The Passion of Paul Hacker”; for Laine’s comments, see Adluri, “Hindu Studies in a Christian, Secular Academy.” On Oberhammer, see Marlewicz, “The Religious Hermeneutics of Gerhard Oberhammer.”

14. Mertens provides the best illustration of this inane approach, which serves no purpose except to validate its central assumption about the primacy of monotheism. Here is her reconstruction of the alleged historical development of the motif of Rudra’s deconstruction of Dakṣa’s sacrifice, mentioned in Mahābhārata 7.173, 13.145–46, 10.18, 12.270–74, and App. 1, no. 28. “The religious orientation of this version reveals itself to be unambiguously Śaiva: the redactor, who has developed the Vedic mythologeme into an epic episode, seeks recognition of Rudra’s claim to power. Hence two parties confront each other in the battle: on one side, Dakṣa, the vidhi following sacrificer and prototype of the Brahman, and the gods participating in the sacrifice including Pūṣan, Ṛṣis, and Asuras; on the other side, Rudra alone. As yet, Rudra’s manifestation corresponds entirely to the dark Vedic ideas […]. But what is new in contrast is the motivation for Rudra’s actions, his claim to universal power […]. […] The gods of the ‘orthodox’ Vedic pantheon have lost their power. The motifs developed thus in the interests of Śaivism reflect the historical situation: a small or a young following of the rising outsider-god Rudra [that] fights against ‘orthodox’ Brahmanism for recognition in cult and society” (Der Dakṣa mythus in der episch-purāṇischen Literatur, 20–21; italics added); “The inevitable conclusion is that the redactor of the Mahābhārata 13 version took over an entire chapter from its original context into a new context. It is evident that he undertook this interpolation in the interest of Śaivism merely from the fact that he retained Kṛṣṇa, who has the role of a narrator in this context, as a spokesperson to announce the Rudra doctrine and thus subordinated him [Kṛṣṇa], who is Viṣṇu incarnate, to his ‘rival’ Rudra. Inasmuch as Kṛṣṇa must acknowledge that he recites the śatrudrīya every morning, he reveals himself practically as a loyal devotee of
Rudra […]. That the previous chapters, which postulate worship of the powerful Brahmans, do not show any traces of Śaiva theology strengthens us in the assumption that the entire passage was interpolated by a Śaiva redactor in Mahābhārata 13 with the aim of degrading the rival Vaiṣṇavism” (ibid., 24); “To assess the religious orientation of this version we must examine the opposed parties as in Mahābhārata 7 and 13. Rudra’s nature is ambiguous: we find ‘archaic’ (ṛg) vedic traits in his representation, but also qualities that characterize his situation, which is undergoing transformation, and, additionally, facets that already hint at a milder character (as propagated by his devotees in later texts). […] It is practically bitter mockery that Rudra, who appears in this [martial] guise, is described as an eternal Brahmanic pupil (brahmacāriṇam avyayam 9). The incorporation of Brahmanic ideas of ritual is intended to legitimate Rudra’s sacrilegious action and his new status in the sacrifice to the gods resulting therefrom. […] Although there is no victor in this battle, the author of this version of the myth unequivocally sympathizes with the Śaiva side. The redactor’s attitude becomes clear not only from Rudra’s manifestation but also from a formal criterion: Kṛṣṇa-Viṣṇu is, once again following the Mahābhārata 13 version, the narrator of the episode. In this function, he must prove himself to be a knower of Rudra’s deeds (e.g., the attainment of a share of the sacrifice) and to elevate the god with his own words to the universal lord (10.17.9). Thus, here also Kṛṣṇa is manifestly subordinated to his rival and, moreover, represented as his worshipper. In this way, the historical situation is reflected in the narration of an individual: this version of the myth attests to the fact that Śaivas had infiltrated the existing Brahmanic order and, moreover, sought to assert themselves vis-à-vis Vaiṣṇava groups” (ibid., 27–30; italics added); “The Mahābhārata 12.274 version represents a Śaiva transformation of a mythologeme previously transmitted in context with the ‘Dakṣa myth’.” […] The final redaction of these four chapters [270–74] is Vaiṣṇava: myths of diverse theological provenance were revised by a Vaiṣṇava redactor and combined in this Mahābhārata section. […] Summing up, we can conclude regarding the redaction history of chapters 12.270–71 that an older doctrinal text was successively viṣṇufied [viṣṇuitisiert]: 1. through the introduction of new (narrated) persons, 2. through taking up and viṣṇufying the preexisting doctrine of rebirth, and 3. through the interpolation of a Vaiṣṇava doctrinal segment. […] Whereas chapters 270–71 must be regarded as a Vaiṣṇava revision of an older text core, we can identify at least three levels of redaction in chapters 272–73: an older text core, a Śaiva, and one or possibly two Vaiṣṇava revisions. […] If one compares the respective intensity of the sectarian revision and the presence of the relevant sectarian highest god thus produced it is conspicuous that the Śaiva revision represents a complete penetration of the Vṛtra myth theme and the Vaiṣṇava revision appears to be added secondarily and superficially. […] The inevitable conclusion is that the Śaiva [revision] represents the primary and the Vaiṣṇava [revision] the secondary revision of this passage. This means that the original text was transformed by a Śaiva redactor in his interest, and this Śaiva Vṛtra myth version was then added superficially, using the crudest means, by a Vaiṣṇava redactor with the goal of assimilating it to the already viṣṇufied chapters 270–71. […] Thus already in this epic version of the myth we find the beginnings of the method of orienting the text to specific religious interests, which will be further refined and enriched in the later Purāṇic literature [my italics]: the fundamental Śaiva orientation is underscored here 1. via the substantial-mythological route and 2. through concrete statements about the god” (ibid., 30–31, 34, 36, 40–41, 50; italics added); and “In contrast to the previous Mahābhārata versions, this version, which has been developed along Śaiva lines, reveals a new image of Rudra, which simultaneously lends emphasis to the transformed self-assurance of his followers: Rudra is a rival for the other (high) gods and, especially, Viṣṇu, who must be taken seriously, and the conflict between Śaivas and Vaiṣṇavas is conducted openly for the first time. The indications for this development are found not only in the substantial-mythological route and statements about the god but also in a specific Rudra theology: 1. The substantial-mythological route: Besides the addition of new actors (Dadhīci, Bhadrakālī, the Raumyas), the function or significance of familiar actors has been significantly expanded: With Umā’s role is associated a displacement of the motivation, which affects the intention of the entire myth. Thus, as the reason for the destruction of the sacrifice is mentioned not the achievement of a share for Rudra, but rather, repeatedly, the elimination of Umā’s fury. This shift in motivation corresponds to the new status of Rudra: he is already the god, to whom all sacrificial activities are addressed (61–42), he no longer has to demand his place among the others. […] Dakṣa is no longer the vidhi following merely nominal sacrificer supported by the gods of the ‘orthodox’ pantheon: the redactors continuously expands his role by presenting him first as a representative of Viṣṇu’s devotees and, later, as the paradigmatic example of one who has converted to Śaivism. But before this ‘orthodox’ Brahman and confessing devotee of Viṣṇu is violently converted to Rudra and his theology, he defends Viṣṇu before Dadhīci as the sole lord of the sacrifice and denies Rudra’s existence. The argumentation in this manifest religious conflict certainly corresponds to the historical situation” (ibid., 67–68; italics in last sentence added; all others in original).

15. The circumstance that some Indian scholars from the colonial period (Bhandarkar) or shortly thereafter (Bhargava) and Jewish scholars, both before and after World War II, collaborated in this episteme does not negate the charge. A demonstrated pattern exists of incentivizing collaboration with the discipline, both institutionally through jobs and career advancement and intellectually through citation and favorable peer-review. Jewish scholars faced such dire challenges in Germany that many were forced to emigrate. Their stories make for harrowing reading as documented in Adluri and Bagchee, “Jews and Hindus in Indology,”

This article is an introductory note for the book tour for ‘Philology and Criticism; A Guide to Mahābhārata Textual Criticism’, the new book by Vishwa Adluri and Joydeep Bagchee, authors of ‘The Nay Science: A History of German Indology’

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article belong to the author. Indic Today is neither responsible nor liable for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information in the article.

Leave a Reply