The completion of the Critical Edition of the Mahabharata 1 in 1966 constitutes a significant event in this epic's history. A long and venerable tradition of textual criticism assisted V. S. sukthankar in forging this edition-thus, at the very outset of this essay this scientific method is to be congratulated.' The significance of sukthankar's achievement is best illustrated in the following anecdote related to me by Prof. Dhadphale during the 14th World Sanskrit Conference:
Towards the end of his life Sukthankar increasingly had doubts about the sovereignty of the text-historical approach.' He began to wonder about the meaning of the text itself," When D. D. Kosambi came to visit Sukthankar on his death-bed, it was quite a sad moment. Kosambi wanted to cheer him up, so he said, "Sukthankar, all your life you have sought to reconstruct the oldest possible version of the Mahabharata, but what would you have to say if tomorrow it were announced that an even older manuscript has been discovered, older than any of the manuscripts you have seen?" Kosambi probably thought sukthankar would express regret. sukthankar, however, was quite a serious fellow. He didn't understand that Kosambi was teasing him, so he replied, "how old, Damodar?" Kosambi was surprised, but continued, "Let us say, century or so, definitely pre- Gupta." At this, Sukthankar looked straight at Kosambi and said, "Damodar, if such a manuscript were to be discovered tomorrow, I can tell you that it will correspond exactly to my manuscript excepting a few padas, and even those padas will be the ones under which I have drawn a wavy line."
This anecdote underlines something that is often forgotten in Mahabharata studies: that the critical method has fulfilled its promise and created a workable text-a text ready for a brave new world of interpreting the epic. This is the basic premise of the papers in this volume." Once textual criticism has fulfilled its promise and created not just a workable text, but a comprehensive text that encompasses all the major manuscript traditions, we stand before the challenge of understanding this text. Now by interpretation, I specifically mean a task distinct from recovering and preserving the text. The Mahabharata itself notes these dual tasks of preservation and inter- pretation: "Learned men elucidate the complex erudition in this Grand Collection; there are those who are experienced in explaining it, others in retaining it."" The former task explains the meaning of the text using many interpretive methods to suit the plural needs of any real life situation." But one method that is directly engendered by the text itself is to use the text to interpret it- the hermeneutic method." NOW, the task of explaining obscure or confusing portions of the text by keeping in view the larger contexts and aims of the text necessarily relies on the organic unity of the text. This unity cannot be first stated positivistically and then applied dogmatically. Nor can the unity be denied without demolishing the text. But this unity is not such that one is confident that every word in the text was written simultaneously by a single author. The hermeneutic approach is a living circle, where the text's unity is presupposed precisely in order to recover and substantiate this unity.
Even serious scholars who have made profound contributions to Mahabharata studies nevertheless view any attempt at interpreting the text with suspicion and out- right derision. For example, van Buitenen, in his introduction to his translation of the Udyogaparvan, includes an entire section of polemic titled "On Myth and Epic-1. Levels of Critictsm. He criticizes those who approach "the epic itself as one titanic myth on its own; and they attempt once more to put holistic interpretations on the Epic. The historical dimension of the text, which after all is an event in history, is in the process forgotten, or rather, consciously cast aside.?" van Buitenen's criticisms are specifically aimed at the French scholars Madeleine Biardeau and Georges Dumezil, although he also includes Dahlmann within the list of unhistorical approaches. But this polemic ends up ascribing views to Biardeau and Dahlmann they neither espoused nor could seriously have contemplated defending. Neither scholar would deny that the text is an event in history, or that this history can be studied-either separately or in conjunction with the text. The point of contention, rather, is whether a text can be reduced to the historical processes that have left their trace in it. The text is indeed an event in history, but is it itself a representation of it? Or is the history of texts a complicated affair, where texts attempt to both preserve and overcome their historical facticity? Apart from the fact that the interaction between texts and history is complex and reciprocal, the "history" a text presents is not necessarily a direct unmediated reproduction of its contemporaneous situation. Add to this the vagaries of histories of texts which are not the same as histories of textual traditions. Indeed, were we to also take our own historical facticity into account, we would use the word "history" with greater caution than scholars commonly do. The equation "history = fact = truth" represents a naive view of both the Enlightenment project and of Hegel's philosophy of history.
Brahma Sutras (81)
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