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Re-reading a Text

Arshia Sattar

By Chaturvedi Badrinath
Orient Longman, New Delhi, 2006, pp. 683, Rs. 1095.00


Chaturvedi Badrinath’s The Mahabharata: An Inquiry in the Human Condition does what it promises in that it enquires into who we are and elicits ways in which the Mahabharata suggests that we might be better or, understand ourselves and our place in this world better. This massive tome functions as a commentary on the Mahabharata, and in doing so, falls within classical traditions of commentary as an Indian literary and philosophical genre. Important texts were always parsed in great detail by later scholars in order for the lay reader to gain access to the material therein, like, for example, the commentaries of Sankaracharya, Madhava and more recently, S. Radhakrishnan, on the meaning and content of the Bhagavad Gita.   Moreover, Badrinath treats the Mahabharata as a sastra, recalling a traditional taxonomy that names it the ‘fifth Veda” and which elevates it well beyond its self-definition as itihasa and more general definitions that classify it an epic. To emphasize the Mahabharata’s sastra-ic nature, Badrinath forgoes the immense pleasures of the text’s complex and compelling narrative to seek out its position on philosophical imperatives, such as they are. His emphasis is on samvada, the philosophical discourses that punctuate the narrative as it moves towards the apocalyptic war and its aftermath of destruction and despair.   Badrinath is a philosopher as well as a (now) retired civil servant and he brings both his interest and his profession together in his analysis of the Mahabharata. His book contains eighteen chapters (the preferred number for works related to the Mahabharata and the Gita), each of which examines a particular idea, such as ‘the self,’ ‘the other,’ ‘dharma,’ as well as perception, knowledge and proof, among other discursive categories. Badrinath extracts an epistemology and an ontology from the Mahabharata. His system for making his arguments gleaned from the text is quite simple: he chooses the big idea that he wishes to explore and which has a resonance across other Indian texts. Then he mines the text of the Sanskrit Mahabharata, excavates the appropriate verses, translates them and ends each chapter with a statement of what he believes is the Mahabharata’s position on these ideas and concepts. Badrinath sets the context for his discussion by acknowledging that there are western paradigms for the examination of these metaphysical categories, but then confines himself to exploring them through other Indian ideas and belief systems. Which, I believe, ...

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