Monday, June 01, 2020

300 BCE - 200 CE : Mahabharata (Part 1)

Mahabharata : Introduction, context, historicity

As I have written elsewhere, Mahabharata originated out of what could have been a turf war between cousins in a large chiefdom in Nothern India, that of the Kuru dynasty whose capital was at Hastinapur. The war is supposed to have happened at Kurukshetra, in current Haryana, around 170+ km from Hastinapur. It was fought between sides led by Pandavas (5 brothers and sons of Kunti and Pandu) and Kauravas (innumerable brothers, thought to be around 100, sons of Gandhari and Dhritharashtra) which finally the Pandava side won after 18 days of brutal battle. This is the gist of the overall story.
However, more than the core story itself, it is the impact that this "itihasa" has had on Indian culture, art, history, politics, and overall social narrative that makes it one of its kind. What started of as a 8800 shloka (simplest meaning, verse) long "Jaya" a celebratory poem of victory of Pandavas in the battle sung by charioteers (soothas and magadhas, classes assigned to care for horses and in evening sing paens of kings around the war camp fires) grew to become 25,000 odd shloka Bharata, and finally in its last stage becoming 100,000 shloka strong Mahabharata, which has been among other things called a "most monstrous chaos" by befuddled western scholars.
They can be pardoned for becoming flummoxed by something that is 8 times the size of Iliad and Odyssey put together. (You might want to read what I have written on the same a year back, here).

Mahabharata (here after referred only as MB for efficiency) is not just an epic for Indians. MB itself calls it "itihasa" - meaning "thus it happened", which makes it to mean in simple terms, history. Though there has been debate as to whether any part of MB has real historicity, it has now been more or less accepted by everyone that there indeed was a war that happened in Kurukshetra around 1000-900 BC or slightly latter based on archaeological diggings at main sites and the weapons excavated from the area etc. It is worth noting here that there are some far left historians, atheists and even some western scholars who maintain that nothing of that sort ever happened and it is all pure myth which are no amenable to scientific scholarship. (Personally, in transparency of stating my position, I do not agree with them)

Though I tend to believe the war referred to in Jaya (and by extension in MB)  did happen, it is impossible for the war to have been as grand as it is proclaimed in MB. MB says the Pandava faction had 7 akshauhinis (comparable to platoons in today's military terms) and Kauravas had 11. Each akshauhini is composed of around 2,20,000 people. This in fact means the total war had around 40 lakh people. To have a 4,000,000 strong army, the country should have had around 40 Million people (assuming as high as 10% of the society are in military, which obviously is too high a number). The absurdity of this number hits hard when you realize population of whole of India even in 500 BC (almost 300-500 years after MB) was around ~25 Million. Hence it is fair to say some war happened but not at the grandeur that it is mentioned in the book.

Narrative structure

Narrative structure of MB is probably one of the most complex in any written literature. In many ways it can be attributed to the vast refinements and additions that the text has had in its multi century  development from sometime in 300-400 BCE all the way to 200-300 CE. So its absolutely not clear when did first narration start, who narrated about someone narrating it which was witnessed by someone else who then narrates etc etc. You peel the onion peel by peel - challenge is you don't know where to start because you don't know which is the outer peel, which is the inner one.

Originally, the contexts of narratives are as follows

1. There was once a 12 year yagna (ritualistic sacrifice) being conducted in the forest named Naimisha, into which comes a bard named Ugrashrava. Shaunaka and other rishis present there asks him where from is he coming to which he answers that he is coming from up north after having seen the blessed land of Kurukshetra from where he heard the blessed story of Bharata clan (MB). At the Kuru land there was a snake sacrifice being conducted on behalf of king Janamejaya ( who was son of Prikshit who was son of Abhimanyu, a young war hero who died in MB and was in turn son of one of the Pandavas named Arjuna). Vaishampayan (student of Vyasa, supposed author of MB) had recited the MB there for the audience - this is where Ugrashravas says he heard the story from.

The first narrative structure of MB thus is, as told by Ugrashrava to Shaunaka and other rishis at Naimisha forest.

2. Ugrashrava is not the author. He just hears the story. He hears it from Vyasa's student Vaishampayan. Janamejaya had a grudge against snakes (likely a tribal chiefdom with snake totem as symbol instead of the reptiles itself) who had killed his father Parikshit. The tribals kill Parikshit ,in turn, as revenge for destruction of their forests and land by Parikshit's grand father, Arjuna with the help of Krishna. To avenge this, Janamejaya starts a sarpa satrah (huge sacrifice to kill all snakes, likely symbolically means preparing for a way against the tribal chiefdom). It is said Vaishampayan retells the story to let Janamejaya know the futility of revenge and of war and asking him to let bygones be bygones. Bloodshed begets more bloodshed and in the end no one really wins.

3. Vaishampayan is not the author either. He is just retelling the story written by his guru (teacher) Ved Vyas. Vyas literally means "an editor". Many scholars are clear that there is no way a single authorship can be attributed to something as complex and huge as MB. That too something that developed over 1000s of years unless one assumed Vyas was immortal. Earliest references to authorship of MB (likely Jaya) assumes it was written by someone named Krishna Dwaipayana (literally a black man from an island, likely someone who took birth in one of the many islands in river Ganga or Yamuna) who is assumed to be the first Vyasa (compiler). He likely compiles the victory songs of all the sautas (bards) through whose tongues the story of a major war has survived over the course of 500 +years to form Jaya 8800 shlokas.

Ved Vyas is not only the author but also a participant in the story, which complicates matters even further.

So it is fair to assume Vyas composed the core of MB - but it is worth noting that he taught 5 of his students (including his own son, Shuka) and that the narratives for each was supposedly slightly different. One of the narratives survive to this day (Vaishampayana's), 3 are completely lost (that of Sumantu, Pyla, Shuka) and one has survived partly (Jaimini's). Some of the tribals and scholars believe Jaimini's version had Kauravas as the dharmic (righteous) fighters and not Pandvas. Essentially Pandavas cheated their way to victory !

It's also worth noting that MB is not sruti (its no revelation like vedas, which mantra drashtas, seers, "see" in their minds), its part of Smriti (that which is remembered) and hence human derived.

The other much debated aspect of narrative structure and ownership is one based on class structure prevalent in India at that time. Ugrashrava is soota (one of the lower castes) where as every other narrative is shown as brahmins. It wouldn't have been any miracle if Ugrashrava himself had the narrative ownership since anyways the core of MB were songs of victory that people like him had sung for ages at war tents. This has inspired some scholars atleast to profess that MB originally was literature coming from sub-alterns whose ownership was usurped by the brahmins while putting it into text. It is difficult to prove it one way or the other, but it is nevertheless an important point to note.


1 comment:

Anuradha Sridhar said...

Love this, especially the calculations around the grandeur of the war!