Irawati Karve Studies the humanity of the Mahabharata’s great figures…with
all their virtues and their equally numerous faults…sought out by an inquirer
like her, whose view of life is secular, scientific, anthropological in the
widest sense, yet also appreciative of literary values, social problems of the
past and present alike, and human needs and responses in her own time and in
antiquity as she identifies them…
Seen through her eyes the Mahabharata is more than a work which Hindu look upon as divinely inspired, and venerate. It becomes a record of complex humanity and a mirror to all the faces which we overselves wear.
Irawati Karve (1905-1970) was born in Burma and educated in Pune. A Master’s degree in Sociology from Bombay in 1928 and a Doctoral degree in Anthropology from Berlin in 1930 marked the onset of a long and distinguished career of pioneering research. She wrote in both English and Marathi, on academic subjects as well as on topics of general interest, and thus commanded an enviably wide circle of readership. Whether through her Hindu Society: An Interpretation, a scholarly treatise in English, or through Yuganta: The End of an Epoch, her study in Marathi of the characters and society in the Mahabharata, we obtain ample illustration of the range and quality of Irawati Karve’s mind.
The second essay in this book was written in July 1962. I had no idea at the time that I would write any more essays about characters in the Mahabharata. However, in the next five years one essay led to another and that to the next. When each essay was finished, there was no plan for the publication of this book means the end of these essays. With the completion of each essay I felt that it was the last, that any further writing would only be repetitive, and should not be done. At this moment I feel the same. Whether the feeling lasts or whether I shall write more cannot be predicated at this time. It is not possible to answer the question many of my friends ask me-why did I write these essays? As far as I am concerned, there is only one purpose behind speech or writing-to communicates to others something one feels strongly. This is an irrepressible primary impulse. These writings have not, as far as I am aware, been motivated by anything more. A teacher by profession, I naturally want to be understood as fully as possible. I am therefore very particular about lucidity in writing. I do not feel sorry if, after understanding me fully, a readers finds anything wrong or objectionable in my writing and points it out to me. However, I do feel sorry if, perhaps because of careless writing, something I have written is misinterpreted.
These essay are based on the critical edition of the Mahabharata published by the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute. This explains why a number of things which have been popularly accepted as part of the Mahabharata have been omitted. The critical edition however, does include certain parts which are obviously later interpolations. The reason for this is that this edition is based on the manuscript which was judged the oldest among the many which were scrutinized. Parts which were entirely absent in the oldest text but present or partly present in any of the newer editions were deleted. Thus what the critical edition gives us is what the editors found in the oldest available manuscript. This however does not date further back than the eighth or ninth century A.D. The critical edition can now become the basis for further research and study.
So far the research has been based mainly on the external from of the text. This is why the critical edition has many parts which have been obviously interpolated later, and which have no connection with the story. These need to be studied and excluded. This may force the deletion of a lot that now forms part of the critical edition, and yield another revised critical edition. The process need not stop here. It may even be possible to go further and establish the text of the original book called Jaya which was the source of the Mahabharata, Counting research gives us newer method of research and help us find the errors committed by researchers of the older generations. No specific piece of research, therefore, can be considered the last word on a subject.
Sanskrit is not my field of study. I read the Mahabharata because I like it. In these essays I have referred to several parts of the Mahabharata as interpolated. Such references are based only on my own impression formed while reading the Mahabharata. The impression is not based on research to be interpolations at all, then to that extent my interpretations must be considered wrong. Otherwise a reader can only say that he does not agree with my interpretation, not that it is necessarily wrong. The Mahabharata is an inexhaustible mine. There are various ways of making it yield its riches. No one person can encompass it entirely. Everyone uses part of this culture wealth according to his own ability. Student of astrology, linguistics, archaeology can write about the people and events in the Mahabharata from entirely different angles. I have written according to my own ability and inclination. Some ideas I have barely touched on and not researched. I have mentioned this for the benefit of some young reader who might get interested in this type of research, follow it up and make up for the deficiencies in my writing.
After the essay ‘Gandhari’ was published, a young Indian friend asked me, ‘Who on earth was this Ghandhari?’ The question made me sad. I felt that I was useless in this age, merely an impediment, because I lived in the past. In a moment of weariness I even felt that I should stop writing altogether. Alternatively, I felt I should give the whole story of the Mahabharata in the Introduction. But, after thinking them over, I abandoned both alternatives. I am a very obstinate person. The younger generation is constantly trying to convert me to their point of view. I am for ever meeting the assault of my three very modern children and my young Ph.D. students. These essays are in a way an attempt to make the younger generation understand my point of view. I shall consider it a victory if they think that my interpretation is wrong and read the Mahabharata merely to prove it wrong.
‘Mahabharata’ is the name of a book in the Sanskrit language telling in very simple verse from the story of a family quarrel ending in a fierce battle. To this author, and to Indians in general, this is not an imaginary, made-up story, but represent a real event which took place about 1000 B.C. In the course of this narration, stories of the ancestors of the ancestors of the heroes who ruled at a city called Hastinapura, situated somewhere near modern Delhi. The most illustrious king among these ancestors was Bharata. From the name Bharata is derived the word ‘bharata’, which might mean: (a) ‘any descendant of Bharata’, or (b) ‘any other aspect of Bhartat’, as for examples a poem. Maha means ‘the great’. The word ‘Mahabharata’ lets us recognize stages in the making of this poem. Perhaps there was a simpler and less extensive story called Bharata and then, by century-long accretions, it became a Maha (the great) bharata.
‘The present version of the book, however, lets one know that there was a still earlier time when the narration had the much shorter and simpler name, Jaya (victory). This means that in its earliest from the narration was a poem of triumph, and told of the victory of a particular king over his rival kinsmen. Very probably it was sung by bards at the court of the king and, as the narration itself says, was also sung by wandering minstrels and eagerly listened to by the people. In the story as it is preserved, the chief narrators are different bards called sutas.
A class of people called sutas, representing the illegitimate progeny of the Kahatriyas, performed various functions at the court. They were counsellors and friends of kings, charioteers, and also bards. Some of them moved from place to place, wherever they knew that people were likely to assemble, and told their stories which consisted mainly of exploits of love and adventure of ancient and ruling kings and princes. A book in many respects like the Mahabharata was the Ramayana, a narrative sung from place to place. Out of these grew a later type of literature called the Puranas. These, besides the stories of various Kshatriya dynasties, contained cosmogonies and a lot of didactic matter. The narrators of the Puranas were also sutas. The Mahabharata, the Ramayana and the Puranas have been given a special name by a scholar, Dr. S.V.Ketkar, who called these the sauta literature, that is, literature belonging to the sutas, preserved and sung by the sutas and perhaps largely composed by the sutas. This literature embodies the secular political tradition of Sanskrit literature as against another branch which he called mantra. ‘Mantra’ in Sanskrit means ‘a hymn’ or ‘a magical formula’. Mantra literature embodied hymns to gids, magical verses, descriptions of ritual and the uses of hymns in ritual in addition to minute details of the various sacrifices. There was also philosophical and esoteric discourse. This literature later branched out into grammar, semantics and philosophy. As against the sauta tradition, this branch represented ritual and religious literature and, later, speculative literature. The traditional keepers of this literature were the people of the priestly class, the Brahmans.
It has been convincingly shown by the late Dr. V. S. Sukhtankar that the Mahabharata at a certain point in time went from the sutas into the keeping of a Brahman clan named Bhrigu. This clan took the opportunity to add the stories of its own clan to the Mahabharata. Fortunately, these additions are so crude and so out of context in relation to the original story that they can be detected easily. This author thinks that not only the Mahabharata but almost all the literary tradition in Sanskrit passed into the hands of the Brahmans who henceforth became jealous custodians of this literature to which they added, from time to time, whatever came into their hands. The particular historical and social conditions that made this possible and the time when this occurred would be worth investigating.
The mode of narration of this book became the standard for some kinds of story literature in Sanskrit, in Ardhamagadhi Jain literature and in Prakrit stories like the Brihat-Katha. There are stories within stories, and the thread of the main story seems almost forgotten or lost but then it is taken up again. Readers of the Arabian Nights this form, which was apparently borrowed from the Indian model. Another feature of this narration is that it is told by many narrators, wherever such opportunities arose, in the words of the actual actors. A story is told as follows-‘In the forest of Nimisha, the Brahman Shaunaka was engaged in performing a ritual which would go on for twelve years, involving many kinds of sacrifices and performances of rites in the mornings and evenings. The afternoons were free. Such a performance needed the help of many priests and also attracted many people who helped of many priests and also attracted many people who helped to perform it.’ It also attracted, among others, story-tellers. Famous among them was the suta story-teller, Lomaharshana (the hair-raiser).
His son Ugrashrave Lomaharshani came along one day and was greeted with cries of joy and implored to tell about his wanderings and also a story. He told of how he had visited many sacred places and of how King Janamejaya of Hastinapura had performed a sacrifices. This sacrifice was undertaken to avenge his father, King Parikshita, who was killed by a Naga. The terrible slaughter of the Nagas was cleverly stopped by a man named Astika. The sage Vyasa appeared before Janamejaya and persuaded him to give up ideas of revenge. Then Janameajaya expressed a wish to hear the story of the exploits of his ancestors. Vyasa deputed one of his disciples, named Vasihampayana, to tell the story. From this point onwards the story is told as narrated by Vasihampayana to King Janamejaya. When the battle in the Mahabharata started, the blind King Dhritarashtra wanted to know what was happenings on ‘the battlefield. The eyewitness account of the battle was given to the king by a suta called Sanjaya. This portion is told in the words of Sanjaya.
So we have the first narrator, Ugrashrave, who telles the story up to a point, and the then tells it as told by the second narrator, Vaishampayana, who in his turn is the chief narrator, Vaishampayana, who in his turn is the chief narrator up to a point and then tells it as told by the third narrator, Sanjaya, and after the battle portion resumes telling. Besides these three, there are a number of people recounting occasional stories of lesser importance.
The Mahabharata is supposed to have been composed by the sage Vyasa, who played a part in the events and who was an eye-witness of many of them. He is supposed to have told his stories to his disciples. Of these one was Vaishampayana and the other was Jaimini. It is thought that the Vaihampayana version, which is the one before us, differed from the version given by Jaimini. Of this latter version only a fragment apparently remains. As already mentioned above, the original Mahabharata was called Jaya and for centuries people have been adding to it, so we have our present Mahabharata. Vyasa is supposed to be chiranjiva, a word which can be translated to mean either ‘ever-alive’, ‘an immortal’ or ‘one who lived long’ which apparently he did. Indian tradition credits Vyasa with editing and putting into order the hymns of the Rigveda, Atharvaveda and Yajurveda. The words ‘Vyasa’ is a title which means ‘arranger, a man who throws together of orders’. From the Mahabharata story we know that his own name was Krishna Dvaipayana. If we take into consideration this tradition, then, perhaps, Vyasa was not the original composer of the story but the man who might have taken it as told by the suta bards and arranged it.
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