Thursday, August 09, 2018

Dr. Vishwa Adluri on the Mahabharata

Read the whole thing here.

In an interview with Swarajya, you stated, “Itihāsa is history that has overcome historicism: history that has become critical and self-consciousness.” Can you elaborate? How does this affect one’s understanding of the Mahābhārata?

Let us start with a philosophical problem. What is the reality of the external world and what is the validity of sense perception, our primary source of knowledge about the external world? Until we answer these questions, every history is merely contingent. We only have sense perceptions. Often, what we have is not perceptions of events but of artifacts, which we use to draw inferences about their underlying events, ultimately connecting the events into a narrative in view of some overarching purpose. There is thus no bare historical cognition. Rather, history is something we generate.

What we call “world history” is a creation of German scholars and philosophers in the nineteenth century. They provided a new intellectual framework for arranging events: the idea of a common historical space, a world stage on which cultures enter and successively vanish. This was a new way of looking at the world’s cultures—and of extrapolating the law of their succession. For Hegel, history was the process by which Spirit actualized itself, developing from primitive forms of statehood such as China and India to its ultimate expression, Prussia.

Compare this with the Mahābhārata: external reality is problematized through the author’s interventions in the narrative. Human affairs mimetically enact the paradigmatic conflict, the devāsurayuddha. Humans themselves follow the paradigm of their divine archetypes, the devas and asuras. Instead of a linear, progressive history, we have cycles of time. Instead of a distant salvific event, we have the inexorable rise and fall of souls caught between the conflicting imperatives of dharma and adharma. There is no national salvation; only singularized jīvas. This is a different understanding of history, closer to Empedocles, Plato, and Nietzsche than to Hegel and Ranke. Thus, itihāsa is a history that has become critical about external reality and self-conscious about history’s status as a narrative. And it is asking the Nietzschean question about the uses and disadvantages of history for life: Why do we need history? What purpose should history serve?


As progressive as Hiltebeitel’s stance on composition is vis-à-vis the German Indologists, it still grants them too much credence. Ultimately, all speculations as to authorship are trivial before the work, which by its very nature as a great literary work resists reductive analyses about the circumstances or motivations for its composition. This has been the greatest failing of Sanskrit studies generally. Every year more vapid dissertations appear, asserting that some work was written because the author wanted to enhance his status or to oppress someone or to insinuate himself with some sect or to assert the superiority of “his” gods. Every year more papers, these “unlovely exercises exacted by the scholarly code” as Arrowsmith calls them, are added to the pile. We are drowning in scholarship, yet little work of philosophical or artistic merit is done. Through Protestant literalism and its emphasis on the realia, we have entered a non-literary, indeed, a non-literate age. In Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche mocks the anti-intellectualism of the German university. Ironically, Sheldon Pollock runs around exalting the nineteenth-century German university (see my review of World Philology) when the best of the Germans already saw through it and discarded it.