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Breaking Away from Two Centuries of Western Indology


Pradip Bhattacharya

READING THE FIFTH VEDA: STUDIES ON THE MAHABHARATA--ESSAYS BY ALF HILTEBEITEL VOL. 1
Edited by Vishwa Adluri & Joydeep Bagchee
Brill, Leiden, 2011, pp. 646 xlviii, $240.00

WHEN THE GODDESS WAS A WOMAN: MAHABHARATA ETHNOGRAPHIES--ESSAYS BY ALF HILTEBEITEL VOL. 2
Edited by Vishwa Adluri & Joydeep Bagchee
Brill, Leiden, 2011, pp. 624 xlvii, $232.00

VOLUME XXXVII NUMBER 9 September 2013

Among modern scholars of the Mahabharata none has been as prolific, varied and intense in his research as Alf Hiltebeitel. Besides several books breaking new ground, he has numerous papers covering an astonishing variety of topics stretching from Indus Valley seals to Tamil street plays and festivals of the third sex, all with connections with the epic. Adluri and Bagchee have grouped 41 of these articles under two themes with excellent introductions, bibliographies and indices in two handsomely produced hardbound volumes covering 1365 pages. Within the tight compass of a review it will be possible only to mention highlights.   The editors note the influence of Madeline Biardeau in turning Hiltebeitel from theorizing about the epic to the composition itself, i.e., what it meant for the reader in philosophical, narrative and literary terms, showing that it ‘had to be read from the outside inwards’, that it transmits the Indian tradition ‘without the need for western “critical” surgeries’.   The 21 papers of the first volume largely focus on Hiltebeitel’s proposition, constituting a radical break from two centuries of western scholarship, that the Mahabharata is a deliberate literary composition written around 150-100 BCE when the Sungas reasserted brahminism against Buddhism and that the Ramayana is somewhat later (pace Biardeau). He gets around the problem of Panini mentioning the Mahabharata characters much earlier merely by suggesting that these may be interpolations. Yudhishthira, he proposes, was possibly modelled on Ashoka whose making of dharma the imperial concern led to the composition of the epics which sought to interpret dharma in terms of a new bhakti ideology. No reasons are advanced for disagreeing with Biardeau’s propositions that the Mahabharata was written during Ashoka’s time with Jarasandha modelled on Ashoka (pre-conversion?) as a brahminical manifesto against Ashokan diktats. For Hiltebeitel, Jarasandha represents the Buddhist tempter Mara (death, Jara). Asti and Prapti, Jarasandha’s daughters, are non-Vedic names but prominent terms in Saravastivadin Buddhism. Girivraja, Rajagriha and Magadha were centres of Buddhism. The Shanti Parva account of the svayamvara of the Kalinga princess has Jarasandha and a king named Ashoka present, besides rulers from the North (Sakas etc., represented by Kalayavana) and the Buddhist dominated East. Shaunaka’s advice to Yudhishthira in the Vana Parva opposes the Buddhist eightfold path by the Vedic eight-limbed yoga. The picture of Kali Yuga Markandeya draws echoes Ashoka’s prohibition of religious assemblies, the worship of edukas (Buddhist reliquaries) instead of ...


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