Our Mahabharat and Our Geeta (2)

Madhavi Kolhatkar

After Lassen had laid the grounds for a thoroughgoing historicization of the Mahābhārata, Adolf Holtzmann Jr., who, combining Lassen’s hypothesis of an original Bhārata with his own interests in Indo-Germanic antiquity, created the myth of an Indo-Germanic original epic, the so-called ‘Urepos’ in 1892. For that his uncle Adolf  Holtzmann Sr.’s idea of a heroic epic or “Heldensage” was decisive for Holtzmann Jr.—and, beyond him, for an entire generation of Western scholars.

Holtzmann’s views were so influential that almost every Mahābhārata scholar of the nineteenth century in the West, with the exception of a few scholars such as the French Sanskritist Madeleine Biardeau, simply did not consider it necessary to either take the text in its extant form or its philosophical doctrines seriously. Rather than the philosophical poem that had aroused the admiration of von Humboldt, the Gītā now appeared as a composite text comprising many conflicting and contradictory views. The stage was thus set for its “historical” analysis and reconstruction in the laboratories of the Indologists. Curiously, in this concatenation of revisions, Holtzmann Jr. saw real complementarity between the Indo-Germanic and Buddhist outlooks. According to him, Buddhism would have been sympathetic to the martial Indo-Germanic epic. He argued that later Brahmanic redactors undertook a thoroughgoing revision of the text.

Holtzmann preferentially searched in the war books of the epic for evidence of Indo-Germanic parallels. In general, the more cruel or more brutal the passage, the more likely he considered it to be borrowed from a German source. For instance, he cited the blood-drinking scene of the Indian epic as evidence of a connection between the Mahābhārata and the Nibelungenlied. He argued that... an attempt was undertaken to replace the Mahābhārata with a new, purely Brahmanic heroic poem, albeit one based on the old epic lore. Thus if Lassen was the founder of German Mahābhārata studies, Holtzmann Jr. can, with justification, be called the father of modern Mahābhārata studies.

However, Lassen lacked objectivity, since he considered research into Indian antiquity primarily as a means to sharpen the contrast between the “Indo-Germanic” and “Semitic” peoples. From him, Holtzmann Jr. acquired the ideas of the Indo-Germans as a fair-skinned northern race. From Holtzmann Sr., he acquired his ideas of a pan-Asian Germanic race spanning the Eurasian continent from Germany in the west, via Greece and Persia, to India in the east. However, he advocated the epic as the record of an actual conflict. This conflict, according to him, would have taken place alternatively between Indo-Germanic peoples and Brahmanic protagonists and between Buddhist and Brahmanic protagonists.

To this tripartite confusion (confusion of  Lassen’s pseudo-historical researches with Holtzmann Sr.’s literary researches and confusion of Holtzmann Sr.’s epic researches with his literary researches), Holtzmann Jr. added a third, fatal one: he confused Lassen’s and Holtzmann Sr.’s theories of a Brahmanic revision of the text with the epic narrative itself. Lassen in 1837 had already postulated that the Brahmans would have taken over the original warrior epic, centering on the rivalry of the Kaurava princes for the throne of Hastinapura. However, beyond pointing to the theosophic elements of the epic as likely candidates for Brahmanic additions, he had not further specified how this takeover might have occurred. Lassen’s central concern remained the conflict between the two races he had postulated; the Brahmanic hypothesis remained marginal to his concerns.

Next, Goldstücker considered it beyond question that the Brahmans’ “object” would have been “to make the Mahâbhârata a Brahmanical encyclopedia for the military caste, and a powerful means in the hands of the Brahmans of swaying the Kshattriya mind.” Holtzmann Jr. Further, argued that the Mahābhārata epic was itself the record of these religious conflicts. Kṛṣṇa represented the rising ideology of Brahmanism ... and the key conflict at the center of the epic was not between heroic warriors versus other heroic warriors, but between heroic warriors and cowardly priests. …

Goldstücker, likely motivated by his sympathies with the colonial administration, and though focused more on the Kṣatriya-Brahman conflict, was nonetheless still in agreement with Lassen that the original epic, which he, like Lassen considered to be the epic of 24,000 verses, centered around a Kṣatriya-Kṣatriya conflict. … The Brahmans, through no fault of theirs, had become the counter-concept to Indo-Germanic Aryans. The theory could now emerge of the Mahābhārata as a record of a conflict between Indo-Germanic and Brahmanic partisans—a theory that was to have a long and powerful Wirkungsgeschichte in modern Mahābhārata studies.

It was Holtzmann who, by expanding Lassen’s idea into a comprehensive theory of multiple redactions: a Buddhist poetic composition around second century BCE, a Vaiṣṇavaite-Kṛṣṇaite revision around the third century CE, and a final Saivaite and/or Puran!ic redaction around tenth century CE 174, first created a matrix broad enough to accommodate the Gītā scholars’ variform analyses of the poem’s different layers.”

Finally, Holtzmann also left a very specific legacy to Bhagavadgītā studies through his assertion that the Bhagavadgītā had originally been a pantheistic text reflective of Indo-Germanic views of heroism in battle and fearlessness in the face of death before it underwent a revision at the hands of Brahmans.