Sunday, April 9, 2023

Mahabharata The Epic and the Nation, by GN Devy - Review

Mahabharata The Epic and the Nation, by GN Devy

What gives the Mahabharata its "timeless magic", what about the epic has captivated the imaginations of millions, do its characters make it so captivating, or is it the philosophical ideas captured therein? The book avers that it answers all these questions. 

Ved Vyasa is considered the author of the Mahabharata. The appellation Ved Vyasa means someone who divided the Vedas. Ved Vyasa can therefore refer to more than one person. Krishna Dwaipayana is also called Ved Vyasa. 'Krishna' means dark, and Dwaipayana means 'island born' and is derived from 'dweep', which means island. He was dark in color and was born on an island, which is why he was called Krishna Dwaipayana. The author translates it as 'Krishna of the Dark Island'. A cursory look at any Sanskrit dictionary may have sufficed by way of clarification, like Monier-Williams or Apte. The author didn't deem it necessary. One expected better from someone who has written and edited ninety books and was awarded a Padma Shri in 2014.

The Mahabharata itself tells us, in the 1st chapter of the 1st upa parva of the 1st parva, that Vyasa composed a shorter version of 24,000 verses and which was called Bharata. He also prepared a summary in 150 verses along with an index. The shorter version, with 24,000 verses, was without 'minor narratives'. But these minor narratives add up to a little over 10,000 verses if one goes by the upakhyanas identified by Alf Hiltebeitel; perhaps 11,000, if we are generous. That still does not bring us down to 24,000 from the current corpus of 100,000 verses. Even the Critical Edition excised the verses to 73,000. This is one of those self-referential jokes that Vyasa played on the reader, one can assume. But which has consumed the imaginations and egos of researchers everywhere.

The author relies on someone named David Reich to indulge in speculation about the genetic ancestry of Indians. The somewhat rambling pasages lead to a restatement of the Aryan Invasion theory, nowadays presented as an Aryan Migration theory. Neither have stood either the test of evidence or science, but it was not deterred people. Then there is the minor matter that Reich believes race is a social construct, but then conflates race with population. 

The author also uses the familiar trope of justifying the inclusion of all manners of hypotheses and outlandish theories by adding a disclaimer that those are all conjectures, possibilities, probabilities, and hypotheses. Sly, but the author evidently believes it is par for the course. Imagine someone pushing the flat-earth theory by adding - "Some have claimed..."

The author writes that it is the inclusion of the Bhagavad Gita that "created an impression that the Mahabharata is a dharma grantha." Perhaps, then, it is best to ignore that the Mahabharata describes itself as a dharmashastra, arthashastra, upakhyana, nitishastra, and much more. Despite centuries of attempts by scholars to identify those verses in the Bhagavad Gita that are supposed interpolations and insertions, the results have left people none the wiser. For example, Adolf Holtzmann Jr. considered only 146 verses of the Bhagavad Gita as "original"; F. Otto Schrader only 85; Herman Oldenberg only 82, and so on. So much for consensus and the certitude of what was and what was not an interpolation, an insertion. But you won't get that sense from the book.

The author's argument is that the inclusion of the Gita was done to counter the rise of Buddhism. But this is also done slyly. One on page, the author writes, "Therefore, one cannot overlook the possibility of the Mahabharata having imbibed some key Buddhist symbols and integrated them into the narrative.", and then, a few pages later, " It would, therefore, be judicious to maintain that the epic narrative Bharata and the Dhammapada of The Enlightened had not crossed paths." Running with the hare and hunting with the hound do a disservice to the reader.

There is a liberal smattering of Greek epics, references to Shakespeare, Keats, tribal versions of the epic, and dynasties, and an effort to date the Mahabharata. All this is putatively in service of the book's claim to academic rigour. But no argument is fleshed out convincingly enough. Assertions are made, but without clean organization.

As things stand, despite the author's laudatory attempts, the patina of pretence and a lack of coherence in the structure and organization leaves the book mired somewhere between the mediocre and pedestrian.

Publisher: ‎ Aleph Book Company
Date of publication: 5 February 2022
Length: 152 pages 
ISBN-10: ‎ 9390652901
ISBN-13: ‎ 978-9390652907

© 2023, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.