On the meaning of the Mahabharata – Early Rebuttal to German Indology (Part 1)

A book that gives us a whole new understanding of the depths of the Mahabharata.

On the meaning of the Mahabharata – Early Rebuttal to German Indology (Part 1)


I became aware of this masterpiece of a book, On the Meaning of the Mahabharata by Shri V. S. Sukthankar, when Joydeep Bagchee mentioned it as a must-read for anyone with an inkling of interest in the Mahabharata (MB). This was in a Mahabharata lecture series by Joydeep Bagchee and Vishwa Adluri. I got the book, read it, and thought of making a small correction in Bagchee’s statement that, it is a must-read for anyone calling oneself an Indian, nay, a human being (of course, with a knowledge of English reading). If I had my say in the education system I would make this book a compulsory reading, after translating it into all Indian languages, in every school curriculum. I remember books like ‘The Tale of Two Cities’ or ‘David Copperfield’ as ‘non-detailed’ reading in our school and then proceeding with discussions on the French Revolution or the conditions of Victorian England. Great books, no doubt, but the issues dealt rarely made sense to my delicate mind.

If only we had something like this book whose message could give us a deeper understanding of ourselves and our country. This book by VS Sukthankar is a wonderful exposition on the meaning of the Mahabharata in four lucid chapters. It gives us more than enough reasons to understand why the MB is simply the most important literature of our land. It also tells us why the MB belongs to all Indians irrespective of ‘varna’, ‘jati’, tradition, and language. Sukhthankar brilliantly communicates to us the message of the MB at different levels, from the plain narrative to the highest philosophical ideal. MB has perhaps a role to play in the moulding of any human being from when the brain begins to understand language to the point of death.

Amazingly, such is the strength of our deracination that this book of 1957, as a compilation of lectures delivered in 1942, came to my reading list only in 2019. The MB, termed as the fifth Veda, is filled with hundreds of stories with connected loops of narratives; it describes history, men, kings, gods, philosophy, administration, political theories, and righteous living. It is an encyclopaedia covering all aspects of human life. The most famous statement describing the MB says, ‘What is in this work may be found elsewhere, but what is not in this work is to be found nowhere.’ This unique work’s message represents the epitome of truth as long as humans exist in this present form of evolution. And Sukhthankar tells us why.  

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VS Sukthankar  

Vishnu Sitaram Sukthankar (1887–1943) was an eminent Indologist and scholar of Sanskrit. He initially trained as a mathematician at Cambridge after completing his basic education in Bombay. He turned his interest towards Indology and obtained his doctorate from Germany which occupied an important place in Indological studies in the nineteenth century and the first few decades of the twentieth century. After briefly working in the Archaeological Survey of India, he returned to Britain in 1919 to re-join his family.  

In 1925, Sukthankar became the General Editor of the Critical Edition of the Mahabharata at the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune. The Critical Edition involved the great labour of many scholars and intellectuals studying and collating the many manuscripts of the MB in different languages. The first part of this monumental work was the Adi Parva (the first of the eighteen books of MB) published in its entirety in 1933. This involved collating about 60 partial manuscripts of the Mahabharata in ten different scripts belonging to two major recensions (Northern and Southern). A framework of ‘Textual Criticism’, evolved mainly by Sukthankar’s efforts, brought out finally the Critical Edition of the whole Mahabharata in 1966, two decades after his death. The Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute has done a huge service to the cause of our nation and its heritage in this landmark publication. This work is the base foundation for many future scholarly studies. Later, Oriental Institute at the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda in the years between 1951 to 1975 brought out a Critical Edition of Ramayana based on Sukthankar’s principles of textual criticism. In January 1943, Sukthankar had an invitation to deliver a series of four lectures on the meaning of Mahabharata at the University of Bombay. Unfortunately, on the day of the fourth and final lecture, he died suddenly.

These lectures remained lost to the world for a period of fifteen years. In 1963, a combined effort involving LV Sukthankar (son of VS Sukthankar) and members of Asiatic Society of Bombay like Dr BG Gokhale, GC Jhala, Vasumati Parekh, NC Parekh were successful in publishing the manuscripts of the lectures in the form of a book, On the Meaning of the Mahabharata. These lectures represent the pinnacle of lucid thinking, crisp writing, and effective communication any human being can hope to achieve.

The Critics of Mahabharata

The first chapter takes down brutally the German Indologists like Hermann Oldenberg who believed the MB to be ‘monstrous chaos.’ The German Indologists, a powerful group studying the Indian texts, had a serious view of the MB as originally consisting of a simple ‘core’ or ‘nucleus’ describing a war story between the Pandavas and the Kauravas. Later, there was an addition of a huge number of stories, philosophies, characters, and events thanks to the efforts of story-tellers, specifically the evil Brahmins. One Indologist, Hopkins, had 200,000 verses with him and yet he goes on to say that the MB is a ‘text that is no text.’ For him, the MB enlarged and altered by every recension, chapter after chapter, in a land without any sense of history. Poets simply added their pet gods, men, events, poetry, and philosophies to evolve an original Ur-MB into a complex epic which did not make sense.

German Indologists climbed on each other’s shoulders to make higher and higher claims about the MB and cut off pieces as they saw fit in search for the core MB without the interpolations. In this method of ‘Higher Criticism’ or ‘Analytical Criticism’, the Gita became a later addition, at times even comprising of just 20 verses. Some saw the Gita ending with the second chapter, the later ones simply being additions. One group believed that there was an ‘inversion’ in the MB over the centuries-the Kauravas were the true heroes; Pandavas, with polyandry in their tribe, being the true villains. Krishna was not a god at all but became one by these corruptions. And it was the job for the genius of an army of Indologists to strip the MB of all the superficialities to get to the original core of the poem. Many Indian counterparts unfortunately subscribed to these toxic narratives of the German Indologists. One German Indologist believes the MB to be in praise of King Asoka!

This effort of German Indologists to purge the interpolations takes a severe beating in the hands of Sukthankar. He rubbishes the efforts and shows that such studies come from a superficial understanding. He calls these studies as wild aberrations and speculations causing intense violence to the status of MB. Analyzing many of such narratives, Sukthankar shows clearly the spuriousness of their efforts and establishes that the MB has a well-defined coherent unity as one individual conceived the unity of a plan between the different parts of the poem, thus rendering successive expansions out of the question. The MB was a finished product by no later than 5th century BCE. Only one Jesuit scholar, Joseph Dahlmann, according to Sukthankar, came closest in the understanding of the MB. Most of the other efforts were arbitrary, supported by the flimsiest of arguments, without a basis in neither the work itself nor Indian tradition. In contemporary times, the great Indian philosophers, Vishwa Adluri and Joydeep Bagchee in their The Nay Science emphatically and correctly reject the German Indologists in an extremely detailed manner. There is no doubt about the dubiousness of the entire German Indology project which still finds takers in contemporary American Indology. 

Mahabharata On the Mundane Plane

The next lecture is a wonderful summary of the story of the MB itself without considering its deeper philosophy. The heart of the MB is a story of warring cousins who grow up from childhood together. Ultimately, a quest for power leads to a war of gigantic proportions, the Kurukshetra war, which then leads to near-total death of the warring factions. Krishna is an Avatara and sides with the wronged and the good Pandavas; where the Kauravas are the villains. Despite all the machinations of the evil Kauravas and plenty of suffering of the Pandavas, including a twelve-year banishment to the forests, it is the Pandavas who finally win. The MB runs into 100,000 verses with 200,000 lines which is eight times that of Iliad and Odyssey put together, and three and a half times of the entire Bible.

Hundreds of stories and didactic material weave into this basic story to create a huge treatise covering law, philosophy, religion, custom, geography, cosmology, and culture of the land and its people. The loops of narratives in the descriptions; the author himself, Vyasa, playing a key role in the story; gods and saints entering and leaving the narratives at different times freely mixing with the mortals; courageous women coaxing their men to fight; these were all elements comprising a coherent whole which most Indians never questioned. The telling of the story is in a matter of fact manner and we never seemed to have any problems with that. The Western Indologists, however, had severe problems as their minds could not grasp it and thus attempted to break it into smaller elements.

Sukthankar feels that the brightest element of the epic poem is the usage of the meter par excellence. Only Indians and Greeks could master the art of evolving a simple and elegant measure for lengthy poems without getting repetitive. Not only that, the linguistic Indian meter could generate endless variety, always appearing as new. The asymmetrical combination of four pairs of tetrads is a poetic genius in writing the MB, says Sukthankar. The perfect expression of the poem in the form of meter makes the work real, spontaneous, and convincing.

The main characters of the MB are distinct in their characterization throughout the poem. The Pandavas are just, moderate, and generous; the Kauravas are envious, arrogant, and malignant; Karna is proud, malignant with a streak of generosity; Dhritarashtra is weak and vacillating; Vidura and Drona are always with a sense of justice and loyalty; Bhishma is the picture of perfect nobility, benevolence, and asceticism; and Draupadi is gracious womanhood with the purity of character. The highest peak of idealism, the Perfect Man, is undoubtedly Bhishma. His sense of justice, asceticism, duty, and loyalty stands unparalleled in the entire epic.

Karna has a tragic story, but that does not absolve him of the negative qualities he had. He surprisingly had a streak of generosity, but even that arises from pride and arrogance. It was not in the true spirit of charity. Unfortunately, he has been glamorised as the wronged one to extreme levels by our contemporary storytellers and filmmakers. In Telugu films especially, the depiction of Karna, Duryodhana, and even Shakuni, have severe distortions. Shakuni was pure evil, and the influential films showing him in good light, as a supporter of Pandavas in a surreptitious manner, is violence to the original.   

Vidura is a victim of his circumstances just like Karna, but he is completely different in terms of his wisdom and judgement. The most typical personality, of course, is Dhritarashtra who is a mix of good and evil and constantly vacillates between bad decisions, regret, correcting himself, and again falling prey to bad decisions because of blind love for his son. Krishna is different from Dhritarashtra in that he is beyond both good and evil. Sukthankar thus briefly narrates the principal characters of the story in a captivating manner. The importance of MB extends obviously beyond the mundane plane. There is something about the poem which has stood like a rock in the public conscience and is part of the shared geography of this land despite a lapse of thousands of years. What is this everlasting message of the MB to which the people still connect to and call it their own? The answer lies in the ethical and philosophical planes of the poem.

Continued in Part 2

About Author: Pingali Gopal

Dr Pingali Gopal is a Neonatal and Paediatric Surgeon practising in Warangal for the last twenty years. He graduated from medical school and later post-graduated in surgery from Ahmedabad. He further specialised in Paediatric Surgery from Mumbai. After his studies, he spent a couple of years at Birmingham Children's Hospital, UK and returned to India after obtaining his FRCS. He started his practice in Warangal where he hopes to stay for the rest of his life. He loves books and his subjects of passion are Indian culture, Physics, Vedanta, Evolution, and Paediatric Surgery- in descending order. After years of ignorance in a flawed education system, he has rediscovered his roots, paths, and goals and is extremely proud of Sanatana Dharma, which he believes belongs to all Indians irrespective of religion, region, and language. Dr. Gopal is a huge admirer of all the present and past stalwarts of India and abroad correcting past discourses and putting India back on the pedestal which it so truly deserves.

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