39.) More on the Critical Text of the Mahabharata

When nowadays people cite from the Mahābhārata they routinely cite from the critical text. I would like to challenge this habit now, not in an obscurantist but rather a stimulating way. After all, every impediment is an incentive and every obstacle a challenge in disguise.

We are all familiar with the so-called critical text, otherwise onomastically called the Poona text of the Mahābhārata, which claims to restore the text of the epic to the state it might have been in, towards the end of the Gupta period (or end of the fifth century A.D.) I do not wish to be construed as running down such a massive intellectual and editorial enterprise, of which the critical text is an outcome. I use it myself, why, some of my best friends use it and it is an interesting example of what might result, if the modern tradition of text-critical scholarship is applied to the Mahābhārata.

But should it have been so applied?

In deciding how to deal with a text, we must also bear in mind what the tradition itself has to say about it, or at least seems to imply about it. I would like to spell out three such implications which seem relevant here.

(1) According to tradition, recorded in the Mahābhārata, Kṛṣṇadvaipāyana Vyāsa, taught recensions of it to five of his disciples – Sumantu, Jaimini, Paila, Śuka (his son) and Vaiśampāyana. This is stated in verses 74-75 of the 57th chapter of the ādiparva, of course as per the critical text. When one turns to the second line of verse 75 one reads: samhitās taiḥ pṛthaktvena bhāratasya prakāśitāḥ. This leaves room for claiming that different (pṛthaktvena) versions of the epic were publicized.

If, then, to begin with, we have five versions of a text, then have we not, in preparing the critical edition, reconstructed something which did not exist to begin with? After all, the version of the Mahābhārata we have claims to be the version imparted by sage Vyāsa to his disciple Vaiśampāyana. This was presumably a unitary identifiable text. We are presuming here only such text of the epic. However, one can see the force of the skeptical thrust of the critique, which, moreover, also operates longitudinally and not just latitudinally. What about the other four?

(2) For the next point we focus only on the Vaiśampāyana version.

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 as he learnt it on that occasion. Even according this tradition, recorded in the epic itself, before it reached its present dimensions, it had passed through three recitations.[1]

There is the further tradition that the size of the epic grew with each recitation, in its threefold recitation as Jaya (8,800 verses); Bhārata (24,000 verses) and Mahābhārata (100,000 verses).[2]

Should it not then be proposed that in the Hindu conception, the Mahābhārata is supposed to grow and not diminish with time. The critical text reduces it from a size of approximately 110,000 verses to approximately 75,000 verses. Thus the telos of the text, as understood in the tradition, is at odds with the very goals of modern scholarship and to that extent, once again, the critical text, in rendering a great service to Indology has also done grievous harm to Hinduism. The critical blow can be softened however. It might be argued that the critical text is only an attempt at a snapshot at one stage of the growth of the text. It is not meant to question the growth of the text itself. So one can still hold a brief for the critical text against a traditionist critique of it, but although one might want to hold on to the belief one may also not want to cling to it.

(3) This brings me to the third point – not only is the text of the Mahābhārata multiple, not only is it dynamic, it is also oral. Here even modern scholars and not merely traditionists note that, in such an oral context, the concept of a critical tradition is perhaps

an artificial concept. Can there be a ‘critical edition’ of the kind of oral transmission that 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 scared narrative often transcends.[3]

Here again the criticism could be softened. Arguably preparing a critical text of a work like the Rāmāyaṇa, on which the tradition confers the dignity of an ādikāvya may, makes more sense. But on the whole the argument has to be taken seriously.

In conclusion, then, what has happened with the preparation of the critical text is that yet another recension of the Mahābhārata has been produced, like the Southern, the Northern, the Kashmiri or the Javanese. Which may be called the Poona recension and which, along with the rest, will constitute the database from which some scholars might try to reconstruct the critical text of the Mahābhārata in the next millennium!


[1] M.A. Mehendale, “Language and Literature,” in R.C. Majumdar, ed., The Age of Imperial Unity (Bombay: Bharatna Vidya Bhavan, 1951), p. 246.

[2] For a slightly different version see Klaus K. Klostermaier, A Survey of Hinduism (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1994), p. 83.

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

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3 Responses to “39.) More on the Critical Text of the Mahabharata”

  1. Pratibha Says:

    The Mahabharatha is a story, an epic, nothing more. Should it be counted as a Hindu ‘holy’ book?

    • kumar Says:

      to pratibha – well, It is not a holy book in the mohamedan or judeo-christian sense. There is no dogma. But It provides the setting for the Gita, which if you have read it or heard it, distills the essence of so-called hinduism.

  2. kumar Says:

    to pratibha:- It is not a holy book in the mohamedan or judeo-christian sense. There is no dogma. But It provides the setting for the Gita, which if you have read it or heard it, distills the essence of so-called hinduism.

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