A few months ago I wrote a post criticising the views on the historical-critical method expressed by Vishwa Adluri in a couple of interviews. In that essay, I referred to his paper “Frame Narratives and Forked Beginnings: or, How to Read the Ādiparvan” (2011) and said that I would provide a detailed critique of it subsequently. I have done so in this post.
In the said paper, Adluri rebuts the claim – based on “text-historical” methods – that the Ādiparvan, the first major book of the Mahābhārata, is a “badly composed text” and it sketches a grand and complex scheme to demonstrate that the text was deliberately and purposefully constructed that way.
One may wonder as to why am I criticising a work that is seeking to defend the integrity of an ancient Indian text from the censure that it has been subjected to by Western scholars? I am, of course, well aware of the prejudiced and harmful ways in which Western scholars tend to interpret ancient Indian texts but in opposition we need to correct their misconceptions, not replace them with new ones that may appear favourable to us. I just don’t think Adluri has interpreted the Ādiparvan correctly and the conceptual model he has built to justify the messy and chaotic structure of the Ādiparvan neither facilitates an understanding of the text nor resolves the problems evident in the text.
A brief summary of the initial minor books of the Ādiparvan
The main complaint against the Ādiparvan, from the point of view of the structure of the text, is the problem of the double introduction. To understand this problem and the flawed manner in which Adluri has tried to explain it away, we need to familiarise ourselves with the initial minor books of the Ādiparvan.
In the first minor book of the Ādiparvan – the Anukramaṇikā-parvan (1) – a paurāṇika (bard) called Ugraśravas arrives at the twelve-year sacrificial session of Śaunaka in Naimiṣa forest and tells the ṛṣis, assembled for the occasion, that he is coming from the sarpa-satra (serpent sacrifice) of king Janamejaya of Hastināpura where Vaiṣaṃpāyana, the disciple of Kṛṣṇa Daiyāpayana Vyāsa, narrated the Mahābhārata. On the request of the ṛṣis, he begins to relate what he has heard and in proper paurāṇika fashion opens with a cosmic narrative describing the origins of the world.
In the second minor book – the Parvasaṅgraha-parvan (2) – he gives a summary of the different books in which the Mahābhārata is divided.
The third minor book – the Pauṣya-parvan (3) – consists of three main parts. First, Janamejaya performs a sacrifice in which Saramā, the celestial hound, curses him that an unseen danger would befall him. Janamejaya finds a ṛṣi called Somaśravas who can ameliorate the curse and appoints him as his purohita. Then, he goes off to conquer Takṣaśilā.
The narrative suddenly shifts to a ṛṣi Āyoda Dhaumya and relates the terrible ordeals through which he puts his three students before releasing them from studentship. Later, one of these students, Veda, has a student of his own called Uttanka. In the last part of the Pauṣya-parvan, Uttanka gets into trouble with the serpent lord Takṣaka. He goes to Hastināpura and reveals to Janamejaya that his father Parikṣita had been assassinated by Takṣaka and beseeches him to avenge his father by killing Takṣaka in a sarpa-satra (serpent sacrifice).
Now just as one is expecting the commencement of the sarpa satra, the fourth minor book – the Pauloma-parvan (4) – begins by narrating that Ugraśravas arrived at the twelve-year sacrificial session of Śaunaka in Naimiṣa forest (again!). On Śaunaka’s request, he narrates to him the genealogy of his Bhṛgu clan. The Pauloma-parvan ends on the note that Ruru, one of the Bhṛgus, heard the story from his own father about how Janamejaya had organised a sarpa satra to slay the serpents and that Āstīka, the son of a ṛṣi and a serpent-woman caused him to abort it.
This arouses Śaunaka’s curiosity and the fifth minor book – the Āstīka-parvan (5) – which inter alia relates many narratives, such as the birth of the serpents and of Garuḍa, the churning of the ocean, the assassination of Parikṣita, and so on, eventually narrates the sarpa-satra of Janamejaya and its abortion on the arrival of Āstīka.
The problems of the Ādiparvan text
This brief outline of the first five minor books of the Ādiparvan should make it clear that too many narratives, the relevance of which is not clear, have been stuffed together when really what we should have is a neat unfoldment of events leading to the sarpa-satra which forms the setting for the Mahābhārata. Strangest of all is the second beginning in the Pauloma-parvan (4) which describes Ugraśravas’ arrival in Naimiṣa forest with the very same verse as the first beginning in the Anukramaṇikā-parvan (1). Surely, there must have been two versions of the beginning and at some point in the transmission of the text, they got included together without consideration of the narrative flow.
It is the objective of text-historical criticism to deal precisely with these kind of inconsistencies in ancient texts and explain how they might have come about historically. Now with regards to the application of such interpretive methods to ancient Hindu texts, there is, firstly, no reason to feel embarrassment. Inconsistencies and contradictions have been discovered in various ancient texts, including the Bibles. After all, these are enormous texts that have been transmitted over many centuries. Do we really expect them to reach us in mint condition? Secondly, we will never arrive at a perfect answer of how the text was originally constituted. Some answers will appear more plausible than others and even if they do not absolve us of the regret that we have before us a flawed text, attempting to solve these interesting puzzles can provide us with great insights about the humanity of these texts.
So it is quite baffling that scholars like Adluri should go to such absurd lengths to prove that the Ādiparvan as we have received it is a well-composed text, that the double beginning and the multifarious narratives connected with sudden breaks were purposefully structured to inform the reader of how the text was supposed to be read. I find this approach problematic not only because it sounds implausible that such a messy and chaotic structure was premeditated but in attempting to show that it was, Adluri has transformed a riveting and poignant human drama into an abstruse philosophy, in the course of which, he has brazenly misrepresented the text.
Alleged self-references to a double beginning
In order to show that the text is self-conscious of the double beginning and intentionally admits it, Adluri makes two arguments. Firstly, he points out that all the manuscripts collated for the preparation of the Critical Edition, which have been produced in the last four centuries, contained the double introduction. His argument is that no scribe or redactor in this period regarded the double introduction as a serious problem necessitating a correction. If they would have believed that these are different versions of the same event, then one of them would have been excised by now. The fact that it has been retained for so long proves that “the double beginning was felt to be a necessary and meaningful component of the text”.
This is not a valid argument. All one can say on the manuscript evidence is that in the view of the ancient redactors, both the beginnings were important enough to be communicated to the reader. It does not indicate that they found them coherent or that they jointly made sense to them. As Sukhtankar, the chief redactor of the Critical Edition, himself says about the double introduction:
Here we have an old conflation of two different beginnings. They were not harmonious in juxtaposition, but each was too good to lose, in the opinion of the ancient redactors. They therefore put both in, making but a poor compromise.
Secondly, Adluri refers to a couple of verses in the Parvasaṅgraha-parvan (2) where Ugraśravas allegedly makes a reference to his narration in the Pauloma-parvan (4) suggesting that there were, indeed, two narrations corresponding to the two beginnings. However, it is likely that these two verses are also inaccurate. This is the first one from the Critical Edition (CE):
यत्तु शौनकसत्रे ते भारताख्यानविस्तरम्।
आख्यास्ये तत्र पौलोममाख्यानं चादितः परम्॥१.२.२९॥
[1.2.29] “I shall narrate to you the full story of The Bhārata from The Book of Puloman onward, as it was told at Śaunaka’s Session” (trans. van Buitenan).
It would appear from this verse, which occurs in the Parvasaṅgraha-parvan (2), that Ugraśravas is telling the ṛṣis assembled at Śaunaka’s session that he has already narrated the Mahābhārata story at Śaunaka’s session. This alleged previous narration would be the one which occurs in the Pauloma-parvan (4). One could thus argue that there are two introductions because there were two narrations by Ugraśravas at Śaunaka’s session in Naimiṣa forest.
However, it appears quite implausible that there would have been two such narrations. The equivalent verse in the Gītā Press Edition (GPE) makes better sense for it suggests that the previous narration is the one which occurred at Janamejaya’s sarpa-satra:
यत्तु सौनक सत्रे ते भारताख्यानमुत्तमम् ।
जनमेजयस्य तत् सत्रे व्यासशिष्येण धीमता ॥१.२.३३॥
कथितं विस्तरार्थं च यशो वीर्यं महीक्षिताम् ।
पौष्यं तत्र च पौलोममास्तीकं चादितः स्मृतम् ॥१.२.३४॥
“O Śaunaka! As for the great epic Bhārata [being narrated] at your session, it was narrated at the session of Janamejaya by the intelligent pupil of Vyāsa. To expand on the fame and glory of kings, at first the Pauṣya, Pauloma and Āstika were recalled.”
The problem is that in both the variants (1.2.33 in GPE and 1.2.29 in CE) a narration at Śaunaka’s session is referred but in neither of them is the tense of its occurrence given. The Hindi translator of the GPE has therefore used the present tense (which I have translated here in brackets as “being narrated”) since Ugraśravas is currently at Śaunaka’s session. The other narration, evident in the GPE rendition but not in the CE one, is the one which occurred at Janamejaya’s session.
This narration, which was done by Vaiṣaṃpāyana, begins after the Āstika-parvan. Ugraśravas is going to retell that narration but what he is telling the ṛṣis in this couple of verses is that the Pauṣya, Pauloma and Āstika minor books are “recalled” prior to that and thus at Śaunaka’s session, which is currently in progress, he will begin the narration from the Pauṣya-parvan (3) onwards. I think this makes better sense and resolves the implausible case of there being two narrations at Śaunaka’s session.
The second verse of the Parvasaṅgraha-parvan (2), adduced by Adluri as evidence of a double narration, is:
एतत् पर्वशतं पूर्णं व्यासेनोक्तं महात्मना ।
यथावत् सूतपुत्रेण लोमहर्षणिना पुनः ॥
कथितं नैमिषारण्ये पर्वण्यष्टादशैव तु ॥१.२.७०-७१॥
[1.2.70-71] “This full century of [minor] books, which was recited by the great-spirited Vyāsa, was later exactly so recounted by Ugraśravas, son of the Bard Lomaharṣaṇa, in the Naimiṣa Forest, but in eighteen [major] books” (trans. Van Buitenan).
Here, too, it appears that Ugraśravas is telling the ṛṣis assembled at Śaunaka’s session that he had “recounted” (in the past) in the form of 18 major books, what Vyāsa had narrated in the form of 100 minor books.
However, the fact that this verse refers to Ugraśravas in the third person suggests that it is not he who is its speaker but the omniscient narrator who begins the epic at the very outermost level and introduces Ugraśravas to us. If Ugraśravas himself was reciting verse 1.2.71, would he not have said “I recounted in the Naimiṣa Forest”? But if it is the omniscient narrator then the past tense makes perfect sense for he is telling us that whatever was recited by Vyāsa in 100 minor books, exactly that was recounted by Ugraśravas in the Naimiṣa Forest.
I hope that settles the matter. But for those who are yet not convinced, let me allude to the reference in the Pauloma-parvan (4), which I have given above, to Ruru having heard the story from his father of Janamejaya’s sarpa-satra which is said to have occurred in the past. But if this is so, then how could Ugraśravas have attended the sarpa-satra as he claims in the Anukramaṇikā-parvan (1)?
Thus, if we are to follow Adluri’s double narration theory in order to justify the Ādiparvan as a well-composed, purposefully structured text, not only do we need two twelve-year Śaunaka sessions for Ugraśravas to attend and narrate the Mahābhārata twice, we also need Janamejaya to perform the sarpa-satra twice, one prior to Ruru’s time and one after the “second” beginning, for Ugraśravas to attend and then return to Naimiṣa forest in order to make the “first” beginning! Is this even possible? Maybe anything is possible for those who believe in cyclical time but in a rational world that does not make any sense.
Adluri’s Thesis of Double/Forked Beginning of the Ādiparvan
Next, let us consider how Adluri has attempted to show that the irregular structure of the Ādiparvan was intentional and planned. He explains that the main theme in the first beginning (i.e. the first two minor books) is cosmological while that of the second beginning (i.e. the fourth minor book) is genealogical. In the fifth minor book, the cosmological and genealogical elements are fused together and the two cosmological and genealogical beginnings lead to the sarpa-satra of Janamejaya, “and it is within that sacrificial setting that the raṇa or the battle of Kurukṣetra must ultimately be placed – and understood” (p. 164).
He refers to these four themes – cosmology, genealogy, sacrifice and war – as the four “genera of becoming” or “knowledges of becoming” and says that these “are crucial to understanding the Mahābhārata as the entire epic is articulated in terms of these four genera” (p. 197). These are supposedly discussed by Adluri in a work entitled Sacrificial Ontology and Human Destiny in the Mahābhārata but that appears to be yet an unpublished manuscript so it is not clear what they mean.
To take a text with two beginnings, one of which depicts cosmological elements and the other genealogical, and then say that these are the two ways to enter into the narrative is merely stating the obvious. One needs to have some kind of a theory that explains the necessity of double beginnings of this kind, if it is a feature of a certain genre of text, and so on.
On the other hand, it is quite plain why a cosmology has been described at the beginning of the Mahābhārata. It is because the Mahābhārata is an itihāsa-purāṇa; Ugraśravas is identified as a paurāṇika; it is only expected that he should begin his narration with a cosmology for that is the formal requirement of the purāṇa genre.
The need for a genealogy in the Pauloma-parvan (4), however, is not clear. Even if there was such a need, it is not clear why that genealogy required to be that of the Bhṛgu clan and specifically the lineage of Śaunaka? What value does it provide in the understanding of the Mahābhārata? Whoever proposes that the description of the genealogy was a structural requirement of the text needs to satisfactorily resolve such doubts. Otherwise, one is inclined to believe, as “text-historical” scholars suggest, that perhaps the earliest redactors of the Mahābhārata was a Bhṛgu and he started his variant of the Mahābhārata with the genealogy of his own clan.
Between the cosmological beginning of the first two minor books and the genealogical beginning of the fourth minor book, Adluri suggests that the authors of the Mahābhārata have inserted the third minor book – the Pauṣya-parvan – as a hermeneutical beginning. He claims that it forms a “non-narrative space” which “defines a hermeneutical program”. He explains that the “hermeneutical apparatus” in the Pauṣya-parvan consists of three sacrifices, at the end of each of which someone “interprets” the sacrifice and triggers the next one:
Saramā appears during Janamejaya’s first sacrifice and warns him that he has not overcome his mortality. Her warning sends him in search of fame and conquest through conquering Takṣaśilā, the next “sacrifice” in the series. While historical fame grants a limited form of immortality, it cannot lead to true salvation. For this reason, following Janamejaya’s conquest of Takṣaśilā, a further interpreter appears. Uttaṅka criticizes the king for his conquest of Takṣaśilā, and urges him to perform the third sacrifice. Janamejaya finally gains salvation through the third sacrifice with the appearance of Āstīka, the savior. Saramā’s warning of an unseen danger … sets in motion a series of events that results in the appearance of being itself.
This is nothing but a gross misrepresentation of the Pauṣya-parvan. Saramā does not “interpret” the first sacrifice or warn Janamejaya of his mortality. She curses him that an unseen danger would befall him because his brothers had unfairly beaten her son. In response, Janamejaya does not march on Takṣaśilā but goes in search of a person who could protect him from Saramā’s curse and he finds such a person in Somaśravas, whom he appoints as his purohita (whom Adluri does not mention at all because, I suppose, it does not fit his scheme). Then, Janamejaya marches on Takṣaśilā but the text does not say that it was in search of fame to overcome his mortality.
If the text depicts the performance of a sacrifice whenever a sacrifice is required, it is not clear why the conquest of Takṣaśilā should be allegorically interpreted as a second sacrifice. If the text wanted to say that Janamejaya performed a second sacrifice, then it would have said so. Uttaṅka’s criticism of the conquest of Takṣaśilā is entirely for personal reason. He has been discomfited by Takṣaka and he seeks revenge. So he instigates Janamejaya to perform the serpent sacrifice by revealing to him that Takṣaka had slain his father Parikṣita.
As for the “third” sacrifice, it does not occur in the Pauṣya-parvan at all and it is a erroneous to depict Āstīka as a saviour of Janamejaya. Āstīka actually prevented Janamejaya from completing his sacrifice and so he is really the saviour of Takṣaka and the serpents. If Janamejaya did gain salvation in the end it was due not by the sarpa satra or by Āstīka or by the hearing of the Mahābhārata but on account of the grace of Vyāsa, who reunited him with his father Parikṣita, to avenge whose death Janamejaya had undertaken the sacrifice.
Adluri claims that the hermeneutic beginning of the Pauṣya-parvan is the closest to the reader whom he identifies with Janamejaya. This is flanked by the two genre of becoming – the cosmological and the genealogical – and they lead on to the sarpa satra, the “third” sacrifice – when being appears in the form of Āstīka and salvation is attained. Trying to find some kind of an esoteric connection in the names of “Janamejaya” and “Āstīka” Adluri declares:
Why Janamejaya? Why this king whose name means ‘victorious over birth’? Janamejaya, I argue, is the one who hears the entire story of the Mahābhārata, that awesome narrative of the destruction of the Kuru line, and understands its meaning. Once being, in the form of Āstīka, arrives through this textual yajña … with the monumental sarpa-satra, Janamejaya has finally overcome the ‘unseen danger’ … of death: he is one who is ‘victorious over birth’.
The ‘unseen danger’ is obviously a reference to Saramā’s curse but, as just mentioned, Janamejaya overcomes that problem by employing Somaśravas as his purohita. What possibly could Janamejaya achieve through the “monumental sarpa-satra” when it was aborted just as it was nearing completion and failed to attain its objective of killing Takṣaka? Finally, and most importantly, “Janamejaya” does not mean “victorious over birth”. The word is formed by a combination of जन (people) and the causative of एज् (tremble) and it means “causing the people to tremble”.
These misinterpretations aside, what is not clear (and what bothers me the most) is on what basis Adluri declares the Pauṣya-parvan to be a “non-narrative” space? Non-narrative means a formal text like legal documents, journal articles, and so on, that does not flow in the form of a story. But there is a narrative in the Pauṣya-parvan – of Janamejaya being cursed by Saramā and requiring to employ Somaśravas to ameliorate the curse, and of Uttanka getting into trouble with Takṣaka and inciting Janamejaya to avenge his father’s assassination. If this is not narrative, then what is?
But the problem for Adluri is that if it is admitted that the narrative portion of the Mahābhārata begins with Pauṣya-parvan, as is so bleeding obvious, then how does one explain the sudden rupture introduced by the Pauloma-parvan, without also conceding that the Ādiparvan is a malformed text, a concession Adluri does not wish to yield? The only solution is to deny the Pauṣya-parvan the status of a narrative and interpret its contents as a “hermeneutical apparatus” which, as I have shown above, makes no sense.
There are other errors besides these but what I have explained here should suffice to give a general idea of the quality of Adluri’s essay. The net result is that by transforming characters and events into a philosophical symbolism both the literary and historical value of the Mahābhārata is lost. But for all his misrepresentation of the text, what baffles me the most is the confidence with which Adluri asserts that his hermeneutic is actually derived from the text itself, that it:
… takes the text’s self-understanding seriously and attempts to understand the text out of the text itself rather than applying preconceived notions to the epic. (p. 172)
I simply fail to understand how Adluri could have missed just how much of his own fiction he has superimposed on the text only to make it seem that the Ādiparvan as we have received it was purposefully structured that way.
Adluri is regarded as an authority on the Mahābhārata in some Hindu circles. A few months ago, I shared these critical observations on Adluri’s paper with some of my Hindu friends and the response was blank. They couldn’t refute my arguments but they also wanted to continue their reverence for Adluri’s scholarship. The reasons are two-fold. Firstly, Adluri has written critically of German Indologists in particular and historicism in general. Historicism is a problem to the Hindus because it denies the presence of eternal, sacred meanings in texts and German Indologists are a problem because they most commonly employ historicism in their textual analysis. Hence, by exposing their alleged faults, Adluri is seen as an “ally” of the Hindu tradition. Secondly, he interprets the Mahābhārata as a work of grand spiritualist metaphysics and which Hindu is not a sucker for that kind of hermeneutic? Therefore, if Adluri’s analysis of the Mahābhārata is faulty, it does not bother them anymore than leftist people are bothered by the faulty analysis of leftist intellectuals. I requested some of my interlocutors to read the initial minor books of the Ādiparvan and verify Adluri’s analysis for themselves. Some of them claim that they have read the text and find Adluri’s analysis, as explained during his Mahābhārata workshops, to be insightful. So I have nothing further to say. I can only place before the world my findings for the sake of anyone who might benefit from them.