Our Mahabharat and Our Geeta (3)

Madhavi Kolhatkar


          After stating the position of various German indologists, and among them mainly of Holtzman, the authors vehemently put forth their very valid objections, “… we find serious flaws in the argument. For instance, although initially imagined as a Brahmanic redaction, it now appears that this textual undertaking must have been multiple, scattered, and gotten underway at different times in different parts of India, for, if we read Holtzmann correctly, it seems that when the Brahmans got together to undertake their revision, they already had multiple redactions before them. In the first place, they were dealing not with an Indo-Germanic epic, but with an Indo-Germanic epic tradition. This tradition, moreover, was transmitted orally and itself kept shifting, as bards composed new narratives and embellished or recast old ones. Holtzmann does partially resolve this problem by introducing the thesis of a Buddhist poetic composition. But even this offers only a partial solution, since it does not explain how the Brahmans then replaced all of the oral epic tradition. Even if they revised the Buddhist poetic composition, what of the other oral narratives in circulation? Holtzmann also did not explain how or why the contents of the oral epic tradition, which after all was warlike and concerned with the deeds of Indo-Germanic heroes on the battlefield, could have survived unchanged into a Buddhist poetic composition. Surely, if we are to seek a change to the outlook of the original epic, it must be here at the juncture of the Indo- Germanic and Buddhist traditions!”…

Citing thus the passages translated by them in English from original German the authors come to the conclusion, “The story Holtzmann recounted of Buddhism was thus essentially identical to the one he recounted of the Indo-Germanic tradition. Indeed, he seems to have considered Buddhism an organic outgrowth of the latter. In his narrative, as Protestantism was to Germanic antiquity, Buddhism was to Indo-Germanic antiquity. Buddhism, for him, represented the fulfilment of the rational spirit of the former. In essential aspects, it replicated Protestantism: it was a tolerant, rational, and austere faith that, at least in its purer incarnations, had little patience with ritual and even less for Brahman priests. Little wonder, then, that he explicitly described it in terms of an Enlightenment: The rise, growth, battle and decline of Buddhism could not but leave its traces in the development of the Indian race; Buddhism and Indian literature, in particular, must have mutually influenced each other much more strongly than it is possible to realize given the present state of research. Such a violent catastrophe as the expulsion of a religion that stood for so long in full blossom and was battled with all the means of politics and of science could not remain without a powerful influence on the development of Indian literature. Art and poetry were eagerly pursued at the courts of Buddhist kings; indeed, Theodor Benfey was inclined to ascribe even the scientific development of grammar, that is, one of the most illustrious aspects of Indian intellectual activity, to Buddhism. Thus he states, “The blossoming of the intellectual life of the Indians proceeded essentially from Buddhism. I have many reasons to think that even one of the most illustrious points of Indian intellectual development, [namely] grammar, was a Buddhist creation.”

“Thus for Holtzmann the epic was a mere object in his quest to define German identity as secular, Enlightened, and rational. In this quest, the hypostatized concept of “Brahmanism” no less than that of “Buddhism” offered him a means of making certain points about the relationship of Protestantism to Catholicism. His characterizations of Buddhism and Brahmanism were primarily drawn from his ideas of Protestantism and Catholicism.

This is true not only of Holtzmann, but also of other scholars such as Albrecht Weber, Christian Lassen, and Hermann Oldenberg. As a rule, the story Western critics of the Indian epics told replicated their own understanding of European cultural history, especially as concerns the reformation of social and political institutions and the enlightenment of the human mind. ...

Holtzmann, moreover, thought there was a direct connection between the Brahmans’ corruption of the epic and their corruption of the values of their people. The old epic, which preserved a recollection of the archaic age, had been the principal source of moral guidance for the ancient Indo-Germanic tribes. It had instructed them in values (death is preferable to dishonour), afterlife representations (for the warrior dying on the battlefield, entry into heaven is assured), social codes (the knightly code in warfare, the duty of blood-vengeance), and, in general, promulgated a virile, free-spirited outlook. By contrast, Brahmanism had tied the people down to ritual, made them fearful of gods and punishments, rendered them passive through ideas of karma and rebirth, and in general, caused them to become, by turns, underhanded and subservient.

His comparison of Buddhism to Protestantism shows that he had an extremely positive evaluation of Protestantism. He saw in it the fulfilment of the rationalistic, free-spirited mindset of the Germans. For him, it was only Buddhism that was the legitimate successor to Indo-Germanic antiquity, much as Protestantism was the legitimate successor to Germanic antiquity. From Holtzmann Jr.’s explicit comparisons of Brahmans with Catholic priests and Scholastics, it is clear that he was ultimately using the Indian epic as a foil for German history.