Epic Studies and Europe

Dr. Jahnavi Bidnur, Independent Researcher, Mahābhārata

(Paper presented in the seminar Sanskrit and Europe

Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, New Delhi, 9 -10 October 2016 )


     Theories, frameworks and different methods can be referred to as tools of textual analysis and textual interpretation.  Interaction between Indian Texts and European theories, models, frameworks and methodologies is the common and well accepted phenomenon in the area of Epic Studies. Undoubtedly “Classical Philology” has contributed largely in the advances of Epic Studies, but this interaction also leads the researcher to certain challenges. I try to fit my argument   on the “andhagajanyāya” (maxim of blind men and elephant.) Mahābhārata is an elephant, because of its expansion and gigantic volume. Researchers try to unfold its “form” and “content” and come up with different claims regarding the analysis and interpretation of  parts of this epic. This is analogical with abovementioned maxim. Each blind man touches a different body-part of elephant and claims that, elephant is like pole, elephant is like rope, or elephant is like a winnowing basket etc. But all these claims are partially true. So is the form of this epic elaborated by each theory and framework. Sometimes theories and frameworks themselves have undergone “modifications” after application to this epic. Thus, one can say Mahābhārata is a text, which has contributed to classical and modern theories for their advancements.

     This paper excavates what can be possible departures to study the epics in Indian way then. The great epics of India, Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata have been studied with immense interest by researchers belonging to the field of Epic Studies and other interdisciplinary fields like folklore, oral performance and various other fields. Here, one of them i.e. Mahābhārata has been focused.  Present paper proposes two case studies. In which theories originated in Europe have been applied to the Mahābhārata. Theory of textual criticism which is sort of starting point of Mahābhārata Scholarship. In spite of being aware of the worthy efforts of commentators of the Mahābhārata and traditional tools developed by them in the form of commentaries, Critical Edition of the Mahābhārata is the first critical and systematic effort made to reach “archetype” of the Mahābhārata. It has used the historical principles provided by Classical Philology. Having this in mind it has been chosen.  Another theory discussed here, is the theory of oral performance proposed by Lord and Parry (1960).

II   Textual Criticism

Word “textual” is generally defined as “relating to text” or “based on text”. What Sukthankar (1933) discusses in the Prolegomena to Ādiparvan is mostly valid for any orally transmitted text of Sanskrit. Sukthankar aptly remarks, “Ours is a problem in textual dynamics rather than textual statics.”(Sukthankar 1933:128)   Sanskrit textual tradition has been since long time benefitted by the theories and frameworks proposed in Philology in ancient times and some modern theories in recent times.

Textual Criticism[1] has two established meanings:

  1. The scholarly study of manuscripts in an effort to establish the original text (Lower Criticism)
  2. Literary Criticism emphasizing a close analysis of the text (Higher Criticism)


     The Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute published a complete critical text of the Mahābhārata for the first time in (1966). The Mahābhārata Critical Edition was the result of the interaction between European and Indian Philology, where orientalist views of the epic conflicted with the traditional reception of the text. An oriental institute working on the basis of “colonial consciousness” was a product of colonial ways and critical methods of studies, nonetheless produced an edition that defended and legitimized the text’s traditional reception. Winternitz (1899), proposed a CE, which satisfies not Indian readers but European scholars.[2]

     Although, many scholars including Alf Hiltebeitel conclude that, the CE is an evidence of an archetype and this archetype must have been written and they also argue that such an archetype must define a synchronic moment. It is essential to understand what lies beneath the principles of historical-critical method accepted for editing this text. None other than chief editor Sukthankar can convey this to the reader.

      Critical Edition of the Mahābhārata has been based on the critical principles of Classical Philology and comparative method. Sukthankar (1933:97,98) explains limitations of classical philology, when it is applied to Mahābhārata. Historical comparative principles and diachronic approach had been predominant in the history of Philology and Linguistics. This method was basically used for reconstruction of the text and reconstruction of language. Linguistic reconstruction reaches back to Prototype[3] and textual reconstruction reaches to Archetype[4]. In linguistics, a prototypical form is discussed as an open category with some features (+) and (-). Prototypical bird has wings, feathers and ability to fly and these features enable us to recognise it as “proto bird.” 

Sukthankar (1933: 128) remarks on how this problem has been resolved, “.......all important deviations in the manuscripts are noted in the critical apparatus, so that every reader has, at his disposal, the entire material for controlling and correcting the constituted text, where necessary.” This reveals how he perceives the phenomenon of CE and the kind of liberty he gives to his readers is noteworthy. In the critical apparatus he collects all variant readings as if all plus features of this text. CE of the Mahābhārata could be seen as the best illustration of the European theories applied to Indian texts and modified to the need of Indian texts.

II Oral Performance Theory (Lord: 1960)

Parry and Lord (1960) studied the live traditions of Yugoslavic oral performance and proposed theory of formulaic language. It was very significant to study the language of an artist “Kunstsprache” with reference to the Epic. They proposed the theory of “formulaic language” based on their observations. This theory is an interplay between Theme, Grammar and Metre. This theory was applied to the Mahābhārata to study the powerful technique of composition in the Mahābhārata. Sound patterning is one pivotal aspect of metrical composition. While doing this I came up with a significant observation that cases, tenses, aspects and other grammatical intricacies of Sanskrit form the basic building blocks of this metrical composition. It was also evident from the observation in the Mahābhārata, that it is not just the “group of words repeated at the given metrical position” which means formula as defined by Parry & Lord (1960) but these were “species of grammar” which were repeated. It was interesting to see, how the grammatical patterns fit themselves on these metrical patterns of half lines and full lines. This observation led me to study the “grammatical patterns” in the Mahābhārata. I proposed the need to redefine the formula as a group of grammatical species that is repeated at the given metrical position. Sanskrit being a strong inflectional language these grammatical features played crucial role in composition. Features like absolute genitive, absolute locative became formulae at given metrical position.

Mahābhārata had been studied so far from the Epic Syntax perspective, keeping the focus on grammar and issues of syntax etc. But these findings led me to pursue the research in another direction which was a branch of linguistics, i.e. “Stylistics.” This unfolds another perspective to study the Indian Epics. Samuel Wesley defines style as a “dress of thought” as given in Crystal (1989:66). This definition could be modified a little to serve bard’s purpose as : style is a “dress of theme”. The bard has a theme for narrative in its broader sense in his mind, and metre and grammar come to help him to dress the theme. There comes in the discussion, the central principle of stylistics:  “choice.” The bard is making choices on various levels. This include, thematic level, metrical level, grammatical level and also lexical level on which choices are made. These are mainly structural levels of metrical composition except for the thematic level.

     Both these methodologies supersede the traditional approaches taken up for studying Epics. First of all these enable us to do quantitative analysis of the half lines and full lines of Anushtubh, which in turn gives statistical output of grammatical patterns. These are the specific departures from the historical comparative methodology, diachronic approach. With the help of computer aided research I can snapshot Mahābhārata and try to investigate the results.  This almost ends up the discussion of “Layers” and “Interpolations” in the text. In diachronic approach so far, the epic was studied on the “temporal axis” and the whole focus was which part of the text is earlier, which is later interpolated. The concept of diachrony and concept of change are strictly inseparable. “change” is a notion common to Historical Linguistics and Epic Studies on the basis of historical method. Language change is the basic principle underlying the hypothesis of “living language”. If one wants to claim the epic tradition as a living tradition then “change” becomes an essential notion there as well.

     But with the advent of statistical methods one can get the picture available for all the 18 parvans and talk about it synchronically. This is something like, de-contextualizing the epic and doing the structural analysis of its “pattering” on metrical and grammatical levels. This is another advantage of the method used for analysis. The Epic can be studied as an “object” in Physics and one can make strict structural observations about the epic.

Limitations of formulaic language:

  1. Density of formulicity is no longer a criterion to call the part of narrative as bardic or orally transmitted.
  2. How far we should treat the presence of formulaic material as an index of orality? Just counting the repetitions does not suffice to argue on the “style” of Epic.
  3. An author is capable of modulating his style, especially to fit the contents of different sections or to make different points.
  4. Considering a piece of literature as a “physical object” and trying to put forth set of observations. Statistical study or stylistic study gives that kind of objectivity to the study of literature.        

IV Concluding Remarks:

     Discussion of these two theories reveals the process of application of European theories to Mahābhārata. It also puts forth difficulties, limitations and challenges faced by the researchers doing this and the modifications suggested by them. This process leads to some new findings and innovative pathways to Epic Studies. To sum up the discussion, I must say the field of Epic Studies is filled with interaction of perspectives, approaches and attitudes along with internal contradictions, agreements and disagreements. However, these approaches may appear to be belonging to antithetical attitudes, they can be read to be in fact complementary. These different approaches and efforts made by scholars could be seen as a “….neti….neti” pathway put forth by Indian Philosophy to reach the final destination. Objectification can be seen as two fold. One, considering a piece of literature as a “physical object” and trying to put forth set of observations. Statistical study or stylistic study  based on quantitative analysis of the material gives the researcher that kind of objectivity to study the literature. Second type of objectification, is the objectification imposed by the colonialism on the colonized. Orientalism has given us enough insight into the way the colonial subjectivity constructed itself through the objectification of the colonized. Therefore this second type of “objectification” can be eliminated from the Epic Studies. One must be conscious, that these modern methodologies and theories, under the disguise of self-reflexivity and critical consciousness must not replace Indian commentarial Traditions.[5] That is the reason, selecting Nīlakaṇṭha’s edition of the Mahābhārata along with commentary as a vulgate for the CE is one of the efforts of the editors of CE to be rooted in Indian Tradition even when applying principles of textual criticism. In future it is essential to explore the kind of engagement the commentators of the Mahābhārata had/have with the epic. Of course, the idea of commenting itself sounds bizarre as the epic is not a śāstra text or ornate literary piece of literature to command an importance of commentarial interpretation.  But I think there is a lot more of historical hermeneutic angle to it, a certain Brahminical identification of the epic as a sacred text etc. We are curious to study what kind of engagement these commentators had with the epic, what are their attitudes betrayed through the commentary, what is the extent and scope of the commentary etc.


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[1] It may be defined as the skilled and methodical execrcise of the human intellect on the settlement of texts. (Katre, Gode:1954:1)

[2] What we really need, and what seems to me to be the sine quâ non for historical and critical researches regarding the text of the MBh., is a CE which should neither satisfy the people of Northern India nor those of the Dekkhan, but which should satisfy the wants of Sanskrit scholarship. I repeat what I said at the last Congress in Paris, that ‘a CE of the MBh. made by European scholars according to the principles followed in editing any other important text, is wanted as the only sound basis for all MBh. studies—nay, for all studies connected with the epic literature of India.” Moriz Winternitz


[3] Prototype - Prototype theory, in linguistics, provides an explanation for the way word meanings are organized in the mind. It is argued that words are categorized on the basis of a whole range of typical features. For example, a prototypical bird has feathers, wings, a beak, the ability to fly and so on. Decisions about category membership are then made by matching the features of a given concept against a prototype.


[4] Archetype – Original model or prototype, applied to the hypothetical common ancestor of a family or a group of manuscripts. (Katre, Gode:1954:90)

[5] Ibid. pp.263