25.) Against the Critical Edition of the Mahābhārata

Indian scholarship, pursuing a trend set by Western scholarship, has produced a ‘critical edition’ of the Mahābhārata. Let us take a closer look at the whole idea, shielding our eyes from the blinding glare of the Western sun for a moment.

One immediately notes that the idea of a critical tradition in the Hindu context is

an artificial concept. Can there be a ‘critical edition’ of the kind of oral transmission that the itihāsa represents? Similarly, it is futile to seek out ‘the original text’ of either epic. Critical editions of oral epics are the constructs of scholars; with variant readings and addenda as footnotes they give us an idea of the main story-line as it has developed over time in style and content. This has its uses as we shall see, but on a level which sacred narrative often transcends.[1]

The point is fine as far as it goes, but does it go far enough? The text of an oral epic is not meant to be fixed in the same sense as the Vedic text – part of the point of the epic text could well be the scope permitted for improvisation – albeit formulaic, if one insists. The text is meant to be a magnet, which draws material to it and not a crystal, which must stand in pristine purity. And if the text of the epic is thus even conceptually somewhat fluid, and actually perhaps even more fluid – then does not the critical text end up in creating a text which did not exist in the first place? Western writings on Hindu themes often carry allegations of fabrication. Has the cycle turned full circle and the misguided pursuit of Western methodology have culminated in the recreation of what never existed? One does not wish to run down the enterprise of which the critical tradition is an outcome, but such considerations need to be taken into account.

The situation gets worse before it gets better. We are presented with a critical text of the Mahābhārata. Let us now turn to the Mahāhbhārata itself and see what it has to say about it. According to the Ādiparva (I.57. 74-75) of the critical text, Vyāsa the “great lord, eminent granter of boons, taught the Vedas, and the Mahābhārata as the fifth Veda, to Sumantu, Jaimini, Paila, and his own son Śuka as well as to Vaiśampāyana. It is they who in their separate ways made public the collections of the Bhārata.”[2]

To begin with then, the Mahābhārata is plural document available in at least five recensions according to the critical edition; now how can there be one critical edition of a text with five recensions to begin with? This conclusion is a bit overwrought but it makes an important point. It is overwrought because the critical text claims to restore only one version of it – the one publicized by Vaiśampāyana.

One is not out of the woods yet, however.

The introduction of the great epic informs us that Vyāsa imparted his poem first to his pupil Vaiśampāyana, who in his turn recited the whole of it at the time of the great snake-sacrifice of king Janamejaya. It was then heard by the Sūta Ugraśravas who, being entreated by the Rishis assembled at the sacrifice of Śaunaka in the Nimisha forest, narrates to them the whole poem at he learnt it on that occasion. Even according to this tradition, recorded in the epic itself, before it reached its present dimensions, it had passed through three recitations.[3]

It has plausibly been suggested that the work grew in size with each recitation. Could it then not be proposed, in view of this, that the Mahābhārata as a Hindu text is supposed to grow and not diminish, that its telos as it is understood in the tradition is at odds with the very goals of modern text-critical scholarship and to that extent, once again, the critical text, in rendering a great service to Indology has done a grievous harm to Hinduism by trying to convert a lengthening sari into a shortening skirt? Here again the blow can be softened. It might be urged that the critical text is only an attempt at a snap shot of one stage of the growth of the text – in the time of the Gupta period or roughly around 500 A.D. Nevertheless it is clear that, at every step, the idea of a critical text seems to go against the grain of the tradition – it is an example of pratiloma Indology.


[1] Julius Lipner, Hindus: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices (London and New York: Routledge, 1994) p. 336, note 39.

[2] J.A.B. van Buitenen, tr., The Mahābhārata (London and Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973) Vol. I, p. 134.

[3] M.A. Mehendale, “Language and Literature”, in R.C. Majumdar, ed., The Age of Imperial Unity (Bombay: Bharativa Vidya Bhavan, 1951) p. 246. Also see Klaus K. Klostermaier, A Survey of Hinduism (second edition) (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1994) P. 83-84.

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7 Responses to “25.) Against the Critical Edition of the Mahābhārata”

  1. pandita indrani Says:

    Prof Sharma makes a very important point about Hindu scholarship trying to fit itself in a western mould.

    It is critical that academics begin to appreciate the Hindu point of view and that more people start researching from this perspective instead of trying to square pegs in round holes.

    I applaud the professor for raising consciousness on these kinds of issues.

  2. N.S. Rajaram Says:

    Professor sharma has made a very good point. What is ‘the’ Mahabharata? The original composition by Vyasa (Jaya)? The one recited by Vaishampayana (Bharata)? Or the omnivorous text that we call the Mahabharata?

    We must define the target in question before embarking on a critical edition. Kehavaram Shastree Bambhania has at least stated his goas as recovering the Jaya Samhita and the Bharata Samhita even though one may not agree with his final product.

    N.S. Rajaram

  3. The Critical Edition of Mahābhārata | DesiPundit Says:

    […] is an artificial concept in the Hindu context and the misguided pursuit of Western methodology has created something which never existed. To begin with then, the Mahābhārata is plural document available in at least five recensions […]

  4. Ashwani Peetush Says:

    One of the key elements in an oral tradition such as this is that it is open-ended in the sense that it allows adherents to negotiate and critically engage with issues that confront them on the basis of a horizon or background of meaning and significance that is fluid enough to structure such negotiation and engagement. While the written text is somewhat more fixed, the oral “text” allows adherents to read tradition in its best possible light; of course, none of this excludes arguments and debate about consistency and coherence. I think Sharma is right here that the idea of a critical edition limits the axio-neotic dialogical telos that has allowed Indian thought to cope with both external and internal diversity in this context. In the dim light of a setting sun, I think that the critical edition will be seen by some to be the only text worth considering.

  5. Indian History Carnival - 5 | DesiPundit Says:

    […] On seeing a critical edition of Mahābhārata, Dr. Arvind Sharma notes that this Western trend is an artificial concept in the Hindu context and the misguided pursuit of Western methodology has created something which never existed. […]

  6. sirensongs Says:

    —then does not the critical text end up in creating a text which did not exist in the first place? Western writings on Hindu themes often carry allegations of fabrication. Has the cycle turned full circle and the misguided pursuit of Western methodology have culminated in the recreation of what never existed?—-
    Probably so…such texts may be more useful for what they reveal about the western and west-influenced scholars themselves than anything else.

  7. sirensongs Says:

    There seems to be quite a bit of competition for the title of “the fifth Veda” (Natya Shastra, Vaastu shastra, Mahabharata etc). ;-)

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