Our Mahabharat and Our Geeta (1)

Madhavi Kolhatkar

It is a general practice to take survey of the literature published on the topic while postulating an analytical discernment of any field of scholarship. Though very useful, the practice has lost its importance now because of the internet. It is literally at one’s fingertip now. With a click of the mouse, all the relevant bibliographical information is available to scholars.

However, though not survey of all the books, I am going to introduce one particular book in detail, since:

  1. It is a book on the history of literature and also deals with the history of a nation.
  2. It tells the readers how the history, culture, religion etc. of a nation affect the literary history also.
  3. It deals with both, the prescriptive and restrictive manner, of how the literature of one culture and also its history should be judged by the other.
  4. The book is about some German Indologists. Very few scholars now are conversant with German language and hence have direct access to German literature. The authors of the present book, however, have translated passages after passages from German into English which is very useful for readers.
  5. The book is an Oxford University Press Publication and would not perhaps be easily available in India even though one might have desire to read it.

This is a book titled ‘THE NAY SCIENCE’ by two young scholars Dr. Vishwa Adluri and Dr. Joydeep Bagchee, Oxford University Press, 2014.

While introducing their book to the readers, after describing first in the neti neti way, they state, “ this book ... addresses wider historical issues, such as the longing for national identity seen in the creation of an Aryan ideology and the institutional dominance of German scholarship but the focus remains squarely on the writings themselves and, above all, on the writers …The function of the history recounted here is to trace the vicissitudes, which, ...in European history, advanced a claim to being science and dominated Europe’s encounter with the Orient, (Intr. p. 6).”  

It is a well-known fact that there is ample literature, praiseworthy pioneering work done in German language by scholars of various nationalities and also by German scholars in Indology, especially in the Vedic field which cannot be ignored, rather without taking note of which one cannot proceed. Hence presupposing that objections would be raised in this regard, the authors further explain what they mean when they say German Indologists, “...One would not, for instance, want to place a scholar such as Heinrich Lüders (forced to resign his professorship at the University of Berlin in 1935 by the National Socialists) on the same level as Jakob Wilhelm Hauer or Erich Frauwallner of  NSDAP member and proponent of theories of racial superiority. Nor ought one overlook the small but significant minority of Jewish scholars such as Walter Ruben, Richard Simon, and Otto Stein or women Indologists viz. Else Lüders, Betty Heimann etc.”

The focus mainly is on the Tübingen and Bonn schools of Indology and mainly on the work of Christian Lassen, amateur historian and anthropologist of race.

The book starts with the reception of Bhagavadgītā in Germany, which was in two different ways: Humboldt was inspired by Schlegel’s edition, which had become popular and described it as “a work rich in philosophical ideas.” Following him, C.R.S. Peiper, Robert Boxberger were also quite impressed by it.

In spite of all such praise, after 1827 the German interest in this Indian poem took a sharp downturn and in the twentieth century, it was received not as a philosophical work, but more as a historical document. In this, scholars like Christian Lassen, Adolf Holtzmann Sr. and Jr., Edward Washburn Hopkins, and Hermann Oldenberg had a major role.

Among them Lassen was pedantic, self-assured and confident, who greatly impressed a generation of scholars, viz. Albrecht Weber, Theodor Goldstücker, and Adolf Holtzmann Jr. and on the whole the German reception of the Mahābhārata took a different turn after him.

Lassen’s central tenet was that there had been two races in ancient India: the light-skinned Aryans invading from the north and the dark-skinned native Dravidians. According to him, the names Pāṇḍu and Kṛṣṇa, white and black are to be interpreted as reference to the two races that fought with each other in Indian prehistory: the originally native black [race] and the Sanskrit-speaking, light-skinned [race] that had immigrated from the north, whose western racial relatives are, even now, successfully fighting a similar battle with similar superiority over the red races of America.”

 “Early on, the two groups fought for control of the subcontinent; in this conflict, the Aryans, being physically and militarily superior to the Dravidians, were able to subjugate the latter. Those of them who did not flee into remote mountain areas (where they endured as the Adivasis or tribals) were reduced to forming the lower castes of Indian society. Lassen’s main source for these assertions was the Mahābhārata, which he read as a record of this historical conflict in Indian prehistory. ...  according to him, in its core the epic still preserved the recollection of this primordial conflict.”

He assumed that the Mahābhārata, a didactic book, a śāstra, though originally the property of the warrior caste, would have been taken over by the Brahmans at a later date, leading to the transformations and was used as an instrument of an addiction to spiritual domination.

Thereafter he introduced his thesis of the epic as originally a Kṣatriya text. He states, “The collection was primarily intended for the warrior caste; their ancestors are the ones who are mainly praised therein; the epic poem was recited most solemnly at the royal sacrifices and although the lower castes were not excluded from hearing these poems, nonetheless no particular consideration was shown them [in the text].” This thesis was to dominate two centuries of the Western reception of the epic

Later, the Mahābhārata remained central to Lassen’s work in the reconstruction of ancient Indian history, geography, and ethnography. It was the key text that allowed him to anchor his theory of a racial conflict between white and black races within Indian history. Thus, in the first volume of his Indische Alterthumskunde, he repeated his conviction that the Mahābhārata is to be interpreted as an allegorical reference to political events in northern India. He once again emphasized that the names of the epic characters hold the key to this allegorical interpretation.Thus he emphasizes, “... As was already mentioned, Arjuna, the ancestor of the later Pândava kings and the foremost hero of the ancient Indian heroic epic, signifies white; their most loyal friend, [and] their counselor in all their plans and the leader of all their initiatives is Kṛṣṇa, that is, the black one; the daughter of Drupada, the king of the Pañcāla, the common wife of the five brothers, is called Kṛṣṇā or the black one. 85

In spite of the language of white and black, however, Lassen did not have in mind a union between the two races, as might be thought to be implied by the fact of the alliance between the fair Pāṇdavas and the dark daughter of Drupada. Rather, what he had in mind was a process of acclimatization or naturalization of the northern races to their new found home, leading to a relative darkening of the earliest invaders vis-à-vis later entrants into India. Thus, he argued that, “since the Pañcāla definitely belonged to the Aryan peoples, we may not interpret the relationship between them and the Pândava in such a way that the former, through the black color ascribed to Kṛṣṇā [i.e., Draupadi]should be understood as being described as belonging to the black natives of India, the latter as the white Aryans.” “Nonetheless,” he continued, “the distinction in terms of color must have a meaning, and this can only be that the Pāncāla, as well as the Yādava who are represented by Kṛṣṇa [Vasudeva], both belonged to the Aryan peoples who had immigrated [into India] earlier, [that they] had become darker through the influence of the climate than the more recent immigrants from the north and, in contrast to these, were called the black ones.”