Interpretive histories


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FEW works of Indian literature have attracted as wide a range of scholarly interpretations as the great Sanskrit epic, the Mahabharata. From European scholarship’s first exposure to the vast corpus of Sanskrit literature right down to the present day, the poem has provoked a dizzying range of interpretations. The text has been read as a source for political, social and economic history of ancient India, a nature myth, a religious and philosophical text, an ethnography, a unified literary masterpiece, a chaotic jumble of disconnected elements, a guide to the psychological roots of Indic civilization, and a record of the struggle between the Hindu and the Buddhist, to a name a few. We offer the present essay as a guide to the general reader who wishes to place the epic in the context of its rich interpretive history.

The interpretative history of the Sanskrit epics is a long one and it extends, of course, much farther back than the era of European scholars’ ‘discovery’ of India and its cultural legacy. At least one portion of the Mahabharata, the Bhagavad Gita, was early on the subject of sectarian scholasticism, as it was taken up by Adishankaracarya, who provides it, like other upanishads with a thoroughgoing advaitin reading. He was to be followed by the founders of the Vaishnava Vedantic schools, Ramanuja and Madhva, who similarly read the Gita as a foundational text of the Vishishtadvaita and Dvaita Vedantas respectively, and wrote commentaries (in the case of Madhva, two) from these perspectives. That this one, relatively small text within a text could be claimed as scriptural by three such philosophically and theologically divergent – and, in fact, mutually hostile – traditions as these is perhaps the earliest indication of the extraordinarily protean quality of the poem that would later puzzle, fascinate and irritate so many modern scholars.

In addition to these philosophical and theological readings, the epic became the object, from late antiquity onward, of two distinctly different forms of interpretation. Probably the oldest of these is that offered by the literary, performative and sectarian adaptations of the works that have proliferated in South and Southeast Asia from at least the age of the Sanskrit dramatist Bhasa. Poets and playwrights such as Bhasa, Magha, Bharavi and Shriharsha provide starkly different representations of characters and episodes from the epic and even very different denouements to the epic stories than those found in Vyasa’s text.


On the sectarian side one might consider the various Jain remaniements of the epics, such as Subhacandracarya’s (1516-1556) Pandava Purana, where the thrust of the author is not only to ‘Jainize’ the narratives and their characters, but also to distinctly rationalize them by substituting more realistic events and personae for the supernatural and hyperbolically described situations and mythic cast of characters which the Jain authors represent as the superstitious or imaginings of the ‘Hindu’ epic poets.

Then there are the various Sanskrit glosses and commentaries, the tika-s that have been written by way of exegeses of the various recensions of the poems. Many of these have been published in whole or in part along with various editions of the poem or of its sections, notably Nilakantha’s Bharatabhavadipa. These works, although they often clearly reflect their authors’ sectarian affiliations and not infrequently engage in theological exposition and disputation, are by no means religious tracts. Rather, they are scholarly companions to the epic text which seek to provide lexical, grammatical, textual, contextual, and rhetorical illumination of its meanings by drawing on the whole corpus of the Vedic, poetic, shastric, and commentarial literature. Thus these commentaries often employ strategies similar to those used by later, western style scholarship on the epics, although their methods and goals may differ considerably.


Unlike much modern scholarship, however, the indigenous tradition of epic textual criticism never seeks to athetize large sections or major themes of the received texts. This point highlights one of the two largest and most thoroughgoing distinctions between the indigenous reception of the epic in India by scholarly, literary and general audiences and the ways in which they have often been read by western and western style epic scholarship. As was just indicated, no recoverable indigenous voice in pre-modern India seriously questions the integrity of the Mahabharata or indeed the tradition that the poem is – with the exception of the occasional interpolated verse or short passage – essentially the work of a single inspired author who was a contemporary of the central events of his narrative.

Much western scholarship, however, including the earliest and most highly regarded studies, has tended to see the work as having grown in perceptible stages from simple bardic lays concerned with the exploits of legendary local warrior chieftains into a complex, monumental, and encyclopedic pan-Indian Vaishnava epic, whose chaotic textual history cries out for the surgical intervention of the philologist to restore them to their original form.

So, according to various highly influential modern scholars, the Mahabharata has, at various points in its long and chequered career, been Kauravized, Pandavized, brahmanized, Bhriguized, Vaishnavized, and generally reworked at the hands of bards, redactors, diaskeuasts, and so on, to the point that it can be represented as consisting of two large and starkly differing strata known as the epic and the ‘pseudo-epic’.1

The second major point of distinction between traditional and modern scholars in their readings of the epics centres on the historicity of the poem. For indigenous scholars and audiences, the epic is essentially a history of real events that took place in known locations at a determinable, if very remote, moment in the past; a history that has been skilfully wrought into moving verse and infused with a rich moral texture at the hands of an inspired poet-sage.

In this, the receptive traditions, both lay and scholarly, simply follow the text itself, which contains its own meta-narrative in which the circumstances under which it came to be composed and first performed are described in detail. Thus Vyasa is not only contemporary with the events he narrates, but is himself a significant actor in them and is, moreover, a witness through a combination of participant observation and clairvoyance of all that befalls the numerous characters whose tragic histories he retells.


Modern scholarship on the Mahabharata has generally taken a diametrically opposed view of the historicity of the poem, although here there is not the unanimity that one finds in this regard among the commentators. Western and western style scholarship, while not denying the historiographic value of the poem for the study of an era that has left us little in the way of a reliable historical or archaeological record, has rarely been willing to accept the poem as a direct record of historical events.

Instead, there has been a tendency to read the poem as shedding indirect light on larger historical processes such as the ‘Aryan’ colonization of the Doab, the shift from a predominantly nomadic-pastoralist to a largely sedentary agriculturalist mode of production, the hyper stratification of late Vedic society, the formation of the monarchical state, and the rise of Bhagavatism as a major religious movement, rather than to the specific events and figures of any determinate region or period. In other words, modern scholarship has tended to read the epic as chiefly a literary work that is of value to historians only to the extent that it reflects, however obscurely, the social, economic, political and religious conditions of North India during the late first millennium BCE and early first millennium CE.


To summarize the general tendencies of these two interpretive traditions, it would be fair to say that the pre-modern and ‘traditional’ Indian reception has been largely one of acceptance of the epic at its face value. The poem is seen as a carefully structured and unitary composition of a single, historical author who narrated actual events that occurred in historical time.

For Indological scholarship as it has developed from the late eighteenth century onwards, however, the prevailing mode of reception has been that of criticism. From a text-historical point of view, the Mahabharata has been regarded as a pastiche cobbled together by innumerable, anonymous bards and redactors over a period of centuries or even millennia. From a literary perspective it was felt to lack any coherent structure, having simply grown by processes of unplanned, random accretion. As a historical document it is thought to provide at best a glimpse of the various processes – social, political, economic, and religious – through which North India passed during the first millennium BCE.

Given this understanding of what the Mahabharata is and how it has evolved, it was natural for Indological epic scholarship, particularly that belonging to the mode described by Edward Said as ‘Orientalist’, to see as its project the recovery of the oldest available form of this text through the tools of philology. This project has thus had two major thrusts, the textual and the interpretive. The first has sought to strip the poem of those sections that appeared to early orientalists to be suspect, that is, not to belong to the earliest form of the work. Here the task became one of radical surgery, of ruthlessly cutting away what was seen as the virtually malignant growth in the form of all the bardic, brahmanic, and Vaishnava interpolations which had been allowed to compromise the elegance of the simple, original warrior odes.

The second project was that of reducing the seeming jumble of stories, prescriptions, descriptions, sententia, etc., to some single, central ‘meaning’. By this dual strategy it was hoped that this vast and seemingly chaotic literary monument could be reduced to manageable size while at the same time it could be made to yield up its treasure trove of information, the truth of what it was ‘really’ about.


European scholarship on the Mahabharata, from its earliest days, was noteworthy for a general conviction that the great poem that was its object was radically different from its prototypes both in form and content and that, most importantly, no approximation of its original character could be achieved without the massive intervention on the part of scholars imbued with the values of the European enlightenment viz., reason, a sense of order, a particular sense of form and aesthetic value, and the tools of scientific philology.

The perception that the Mahabharata was not a coherent and integral work – the so called ‘analytical approach’ – came early to western savants; and the theme has been pursued virtually continuously since then. As early as 1829, Bopp had expressed his suspicion that the Mahabharata was not the work of a single author or even a single period. From 1834 onward Lassen, who evidently had first been exposed to the idea by his teacher, A.W. von Schegel, argued that there were three recensions of the epic, the earliest core being pre-Buddhist and final stage being the addition of the Krishnaite material. While few modern scholars would agree with Lassen’s stages of the epic, the understanding that the Mahabharata is not a unitary composition is still widely held by Indologist and historians.


The analytical text historical approaches employed by the nineteenth and early twentieth century European students of the Mahabharata are too numerous and diverse for us to discuss in any great detail here. They are, however, linked not only by the common themes mentioned above, but by what appears to be virtually a common ethos. It is difficult to read much of this scholarship without feeling that many of these scholars were profoundly disturbed by these poems and found them somehow distasteful and unsettling in their vastness, apparent structurelessness, seeming contradictions, and what struck many as their confusion about the divinity of their heroes. Typical of the sentiments of early European scholars, then, is Oldenberg’s famous comment: ‘The Mahabharata began its existence as a simple epic narrative. It became, in the course of centuries, the most monstrous chaos.’2

Perhaps the most enduringly influential of the analytical theories of the development of the Mahabharata is that of the American epic scholar E. Washburn Hopkins who made so bold as not only to postulate five distinct strata in the formation of the text but to actually provide dates for them. He hypothesized a prehistorical stage prior to 400 BCE during which Kaurava ‘lays’, perhaps beginning to be combined, flourished without constituting anything like a coherent epic. From 400-200 CE, he discerned the formation of an organized Bharata epic with the Pandavas as its protagonists and with Krishna at most a semi-divine warrior hero, not identified with any supreme divinity. Between roughly 200 BCE and 200 BCE, Hopkins argued, the epic was reworked around the theme of Krishna as the ‘All-God’ and greatly expanded with didactic passages, puranic episodes and other additions.

The two centuries from 200 to 400 CE, he continued, witnessed the accretion of prefatory and epilogic materials in the form of additions to the opening Book and the addition of the closing chapters as well as the splitting off of a new Anushasana Parvan from the now massively expanded Shanti Parvan. From ca. 400 CE to the present, Hopkins concluded, the poem has been subject to only occasional amplification.


One of the most critical and enduring issues raised by the proponents of various analytical methods of epic criticism is the role, if any, of Vaishnavism in the formation of the oldest strata of the epic poems. For while few if any scholars today can regard the nature-mythological or inversion theories of earlier generations of scholars as anything other than quaint curiosities of a vanished era, the pronouncements of some influential early scholars of the epics regarding the very critical question of whether or not these poems were always religious in nature are still generally regarded as among the postulates from which study of the epic must proceed.


Through statements such as these it is possible to sense that early epic scholarship in some ways became a part of the colonialist-orientalist project of describing non-European cultures and of ‘saving’ them from themselves. It is hard not to think, in our post-Said, post-Foucauldian intellectual universe, that the Mahabharata had become a virtual metaphor for India itself in all of its perceived extravagance, chaos, and degeneration from some Golden Age. The improving hand of the European philologist, equipped with the tools, the aesthetic, and the methods of rational discourse prepared to pare back these hypertrophied and chaotic texts, can easily be seen as the scholarly equivalent of the practical hand of the colonial legislator and administrator, armed with the principles of the Enlightenment and selflessly engaged in the rescue of India from the depths into which they were trained to see her as fallen.

Although the analytic approaches to the epic – so different from the traditional Indian reception of this text – established themselves as the norms of the discipline in its earliest and most formative years, they did not pass without significant dissent even during the nineteenth century. Noteworthy among the dissenters were Sörenson, chiefly known for the preparation of his massive index to the Mahabharata, who in the early 1880s argued for the epic’s being a unified saga at least in its earliest core, and Barth, who likewise argued for a uniform text.

Perhaps best-known and certainly the most radical propounder of what came to be known as the synthetic approach to the epic was Dahlmann who read the Mahabharata as an extensive but essentially unitary moral tale composed by a single author which brought together a diverse corpus of legendary, philosophical, and didactic material in the service of illustrating the triumph of the forces of Good (the Pandavas) over those of Evil (the Dhartarashtras). This integrative approach found an adherent in the person of V.S. Sukthankar, ironically perhaps, the founding editor of the great analytical philological project of the critical edition of the great epic. This approach has been strongly advocated in recent years by a number of Mahabharata scholars such as Madeleine Biardeau, Alfred Hiltebeitel and Simon Brodbeck.


But just as theories about the textual history of the poem were beginning to develop, so did an even greater array of interpretations. According to these, the epics could either be explained as popular reworkings of Vedic or even Indo-European nature mythology or as disguised (but recognizable to the trained and insightful European savant) histories of social, political, or religious movements. Thus Lassen (1837) regards the Mahabharata as an occluded record of the appropriation of India by the northern white (pandu, arjuna) race from the dark-skinned (krishna) indigenous peoples.

Von Schroeder (1887) and others argued that the Mahabharata narrative shows evidence of an original Kaurava or even Buddhist provenance, but that the text was appropriated by other elements over the course of time. This line of thinking culminates, one might say, in the so-called ‘inversion theory’ – first hinted at by Adolf Holtzmann (the elder) in 1846 – but later fully developed by his nephew, Adolf Holtzmann (the younger), in his Das Mahabharata und seiner Theile (1892-1895).


This theory holds not only that the epic, as we know it, has been expanded from its original form, but that its central thematic has been utterly changed, indeed ‘inverted’ at the hands of later redactors for a variety of political and religious reasons. The elder Holtzmann felt that the poem was originally a creation of the Kuru bardic tradition whose purpose was to celebrate the deeds of Kaurava heroes, but that it was appropriated and significantly modified by poets allied with a related rival clan, the Pandavas, who coming later to power sought to inscribe themselves as heroes in their rival’s epic. It was then argued that it was the incomplete revision of the poem that accounts for the transmission of a version in which the villains of the piece (Duryodhana and his allies) often appear to be more virtuous than the heroes (Krishna and the Pandavas).

Von Schroeder (1887) saw the alleged inversion in more religious terms as involving the metamorphosis of the poem from a celebration of Brahma worshipping Kauravas to a Vaishnava text at the hands of the Krishnaite Pandavas. Ludwig (1895) read the Mahabharata as a mythic drama based on a seasonal solar mythology in which the pallid pale (Pandu) and mist shrouded (blind Dhritarashtra) sun retreats as the dark earth (Krishna Draupadi), which is shared in turn by the five seasons (Pandavas) is stripped bare of her covering of vegetation in winters (draupadivastraharana). Grierson (1908) saw the shift away from the Brahmanist Kurus to the non-Brahmanist Pandavas.

The critical thing to keep in mind when evaluating the contributions of the various champions of these early analytic and synthetic approaches is that their authors were theorizing in the absence of the most essential instruments for the verification of their claims, viz., critical editions of the epic texts and, of course, most recently, instantly searchable electronic data bases of the epics and many other related Sanskrit texts.

Only with the availability of such invaluable tools as the critical editions of both Sanskrit epics and the subsequent electronic versions of both texts painstakingly prepared by John Smith and Muneo Tokunaga, the Digital Corpus of Sanskrit created and maintained by Oliver Hellwig at the University of Heidelberg, and other web based resources, have scholars been able to initiate a more complete evaluation of the work of previous scholars and the history of the text.


These editions and tools cannot, of course, take us back to a period in the development of the epics prior to the date of the oldest surviving manuscripts (roughly 11th-12th century CE). Nonetheless, it is clear that they generally do not support and, in many cases, definitively falsify the most radical textual claims of the proponents of both the analytic and the synthetic methods. Thus, for example, while the critical editions unambiguously demonstrate that many significant and often very popular passages and episodes of both epics cannot have been included in anything like their ‘original’ versions, thus revealing the extravagance of the notions of unitary composition put forward by Dahlmann and others, at the same time they offer absolutely no support whatever to the claims of scholars who held that entire Books of the poems were spurious or who argued that the divinity of Rama and Krishna is asserted only in demonstrably late strata of the works.3

The late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have witnessed a number of noteworthy developments in the field of Epic Studies. In a general way these developments, like their earlier precursors, can similarly be described as either analytic or synthetic. In the former category might be placed not only those approaches that seek to break the epics into chronological strata on the basis of new criteria such as metrical or linguistic distinctions, but those studies that proceeded from the postulates laid down by the nineteenth century masters.


This century has also produced a renewed tradition of synthetic approaches to the epics, moreover one that is informed by the existence of the critical editions and imbued with the more self-aware ethos of cultural studies that has arisen in recent decades.

Some of the earlier and more influential examples of twentieth century synthetic approaches were proposed by Indian scholars who had been trained in Germany in the philological method, often at the hands of the older generation of analytical epic scholars. Noteworthy here are Sukthankar, the principal scholarly impetus behind the production of the critical edition of the Mahabharata, and Dandekar. These scholars seem to have been moved by a burning desire to demonstrate that the arguments of the great exponents of the analytical method such as Holtzmann and Oldenberg were hopelessly misguided.

In this it would appear that these Indian scholars had in many ways accepted the unstated metaphor that seems to have underlain much of European scholarship in the field in which the epics stood for India itself. If, they seemed to say, European savants had denigrated the great epics of India as chaotic pastiches cobbled together by ever more ignorant bards, redactors and diaskeuasts under the sway of superstition and irrational religious beliefs, then that was because they had no way of appreciating and understanding the peculiarly Indian genius that animated these poems.

If nineteenth century criticism of the epics can be read as a rationale for and defence of the colonial project, then the recuperation of these texts from the orientalist critique becomes, in the twentieth, a part of nationalist discourse. Indeed the association of the epics with the nationalist project become increasingly clear when we see that what had been described as the hyperinflated maunderings of bardic traditions can now be confidently described as the national epics of India. In fact, as van der Veer (1999) has pointed out, the production of the critical edition of the Mahabharata was conceived of and carried on as an explicitly nationalist undertaking.


The great textual critic Sukthankar (1957), near the end of his life, delivered a series of lectures at the Asiatic Society in Bombay in which he stingingly refuted the analytical theories of his predecessors and of those who argued that the divinity of Krishna was a late addition to the Mahabharata.4 Earlier he himself had proposed an influential new theory according to which the original Mahabharata had, at some point early in its existence, been subjected to a thoroughgoing revision at the hands of and in the interests of redactors associated with the Bhargava lineage.

Dandekar (1954) too provided a detailed critique of the proponents of the analytical method. Far from accepting the prevailing European view of the Mahabharata as a grossly inflated and chaotic mass of loosely associated text built up through ages of unregulated accretion, he contended that the indigenous tradition according to which the original poem was in fact far longer than the 100,000 verse version we know, while mythical, undoubtedly ‘contains some indications regarding the history of the text.’ He saw, in fact, the history of the epic as being characterized by process of compression as well as expansion. As to the claim that the poem was a structureless mass of text, he replied that ‘on a closer study, the epic, as a whole, would present itself as a surprisingly well-balanced and harmonious structure.’5


The works of all these pioneering scholars, the creation of the critical editions of the two epics, and the new attitudes and ideas that have been the legacy of postcolonial cultural scholarship, have all combined to create the conditions for the production of a new form of epic scholarship, one that interrogates the ideological presuppositions of the authors and redactors of the epics and of the various scholars on both sides of the analytic-synthetic divide even as it attempts to bring to bear a variety of theoretical and methodological approaches to bear on the critically established texts.

Approaches range the gamut from the historical (Kosambi, Thapar, Pollock), the archeological (Lal), textual (Brockington, Fitzgerald, Jezic), comparative/mythological (Dumezil, von Simson, Zhirmunsky, Vassilkov), the literary/folkloric (Gitomer, Grintser, Ramanujan) to the religious/ historical (Biardeau, Hiltebeitel), philosophical (Matilal), psychological (R. Goldman), or the feminist (S. Goldman, Brodbeck, Dhand), to name but a few of the areas and scholars. Many scholars, of course, are confined to one interpretive strategy. Readers interested in a much more inclusive treatment of epic scholarship to date are referred to J. Brockington’s detailed and learned survey of the field.6


That such diverse approaches to this text can all be fruitful is a tribute to the extraordinary way, alluded to above, in which the epic has become virtually co-terminous with much of traditional Indian culture. It operates, as Sukthankar suggested, on a number of levels, the ‘mundane’, the ethical, the metaphysical, and, we believe, many more. The Mahabharata (and the Ramayana) is, as Ramanujan has argued, not just a text but whole tradition. As such it cannot be reduced to any one ‘meaning’ any more than the rich and diverse culture it serves can be reduced to any one belief or individual.

The text is immensely polyvalent and although reductionist or monolithic interpretations are therefore wholly inadequate in and of themselves as interpretations of the epic as a whole, many of them are ‘correct’ in that they tease out one significant thread from the intricate fabric of the poems. Given the richness of the Mahabharata and the many scholarly approaches to which it has lent itself, we see epic scholarship not at an end, but as facing a new beginning.



1. E. Washburn Hopkins, The Great Epic of India: Its Character and Origin. Scribner, New York, 1901.

2. Herman Oldenberg, Das Mahbharata: seine Entstehung, sein Inhalt, seine Form. Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, Gottingen, 1922.

3. See Alf Hiltebeitel, ‘Krsna and the Mahabharata: A Bibliographic Essay’, ABORI 60, 1979, 65-107.

4. V.S. Sukthankar, On the Meaning of the Mahabharata, The Asiatic Society, Bombay, 1942/1957.

5. R.N. Dandekar, ‘The Mahabharata: Origin and Growth’, University of Ceylon Review 12, 1954, 65-85.

6. John Brockington, The Sanskrit Epics. Brill, Leiden, 1998.