Jahnavi Bidnur

The 17th World Sanskrit Conference was held from July 9–13 at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. The peaceful and serene university campus recalled a tapovana from Sanskrit literature. I attended the conference on behalf of Indic Academy. Thanks to financial support from DV Sridharan and the Shrimati Jayalakashmi Narasimhan endowment, I could read a paper in the special panel on the Mahābhārata organized by Professor Vishwa Adluri from Hunter College, New York.

Honourable Minister for Human Resources Development, Republic of India Prakash Javdekar inaugurated the conference on July 9. He congratulated the assembled Sanskrit scholars for their efforts to disseminate Sanskrit learning. His speech emphasized the importance of preserving and promoting Sanskrit language and culture. The Honourable Minister also hosted the conference banquet later that day.

My presentation was on the first day of conference, in the special panel “After the Critical Edition: What Next for the Mahābhārata Studies?” The panel was organized by Professor Vishwa Adluri of Hunter College, New York. It was dedicated to examining the next tasks for Mahābhārata scholars after the two ground-breaking books The Nay Science: A History of German Indology and Philology and Criticism: A Guide to Mahābhārata Textual Criticism. In these books, Prof. Adluri and his student Joydeep Bagchee discussed the problems with the Western reception of the itihāsa as an “epic.” Whereas in the first book, they showed the origins of Western prejudice that the Mahābhārata was originally about a real war, in the second they discuss how Western scholars kept trying to prove that Brahmins had corrupted this original text. Both books have been well received.

The panel was well attended. Many international scholars of Mahābhārata studies and Purāṇas were present, eager to hear about the challenges for Mahābhārata scholarship after the Critical Edition created by V. S. Sukthankar and his colleagues at the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Pune, and the two scholars’ work defending Sukthankar’s edition. Professor Adluri first introduced the speakers. He described the importance of the Mahābhārata for Hinduism, and why previous Mahābhārata scholarship had been inadequate to the task of understanding the text. Dr. Joydeep Bagchee presented a two-hour presentation on the Critical Edition. He discussed several common misconceptions about the edition: that it reprints what the majority of manuscripts contain, that its main contribution is to eliminate spurious narratives, etc. For me, the most interesting section was when he showed how German Indologists were removing some passages and adding others to the constituted text to show that Brahmins made changes to an older oral epic, a process by which, he said, they had “framed” the Brahmins. Both scholars made a strong plea for reading texts respectfully.

My presentation focused on three commentaries of the Mahābhārata: by Devabodha (A.D. 1100), Vādirāja (A.D. 1600), and Nīlakaṇṭha (A.D. 1700). Mahābhārata commentaries have so far been studied as cultural and religious accounts of the text. My work is unique because it focuses on the traditional reception of the text, which I contrast with the Western reception. German Indologists such as Christian Lassen, Adolf Holtzmann Sr., and Adolf Holtzmann Jr. claimed that the Mahābhārata originally existed as a heroic epic (the so-called Heldenepos) and that “Brahmins” had corrupted this original work. Adluri and Bagchee have shown how hypothetical theories like the Bardic hypothesis, the Kṣatriya hypothesis, the War Narrative hypothesis, and the Brahmanic hypothesis proposed by the German Indologists dominated the field of epic studies. I began reading the commentaries to clarify the hermeneutic project of the Mahābhārata commentators, who were the earliest readers of this text. Understanding the commentators’ models and methodological apparatus allows us to reclaim the traditional view of the text. This positive understanding of tradition is an argument against common prejudices about the commentaries—for example, that they are “religiously coloured sentiments” or that they represent “politically motivated interpretations” (Jürgen Hanneder, Heinrich von Stietencron, Angelika Malinar, etc.). These prejudices delegitimized the native tradition of commentaries. The comparative study of three commentaries reveal that, despite coming from different communities or socioeconomic backgrounds, the commentators shared certain insights such as the four prerequisites of the text, beginning and concluding the text with devices like prayojana (purpose) and phala (attainment or fruition), etc. This insight reveals that readers who share a cultural background interpret the text in similar ways, whereas those lacking access to the various meanings of the text like the German Indologists come up with arbitrary and fantastic theories in their vain attempt to make sense of the text and “explain” it to the Indians. This work requires, immanent and respectful reading of primary sources in Sanskrit and work on careful interpretation of traditional sources, which is why it was passed over by most Indologists, including Indian scholars who had been trained in Germany (for example, D. D. Kosambi and Iravati Karve). Ironically, even though the work of these scholars wreaked havoc on our texts, the Indian government continues to fund scholars to study in Germany!

In spite of another special panel and parallel sessions occurring at the same time, between 60–65 enthusiastic scholars attended the panel. Their feedback was positive, acknowledging the contributions Prof. Adluri and Dr. Bagchee have made to Mahābhārata studies. Most important, there was agreement that the anti-Brahminism of Indology had become unsustainable. In the question session, Dr. Bagchee cited many instances where the Brahmins were compared with Jewish rabbis. He said that German Indologists saw their project as a Reformation of Hinduism, to remove the Brahmin “priests” and advance evangelism. Prof. Adluri clarified why it was important to study the Mahābhārata commentators to recover India’s intellectual heritage after these attacks. He is currently raising funds to publish and translate the main commentaries.

The two scholars’ work has changed the field of Mahābhārata studies. There was tremendous recognition for their efforts in publishing Philology and Criticism, a book they spent 10 years writing. Fortunately, this book is available in open access (, so it can be the foundation for teaching textual criticism and research into the great epic of India. Supported by Indic Academy, the scholars have also taught workshops on the Mahābhārata in Delhi, Hyderabd, Bengaluru, and Pune. On a sad note, I noticed that opportunities for young Indian scholars to present were limited. Even though the World Sanskrit Conference is supported by the Indian Government, scholars presenting critical scholarship or working to preserve India’s cultural heritage have to struggle for funding. Despite its importance to India’s classical heritage, Prof. Adluri and Dr. Bagchee’s work did not receive any support from ICCR or ICHR. My work, too, which makes an enduring contribution to the Sanskrit tradition by reviving interest in the commentaries, has not been supported by the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute—even though V. S. Sukthankar himself said that the study of the commentaries must be urgently taken up as the next step in Mahābhārata studies! 

I attended some of the other sessions on Vedas, Epics and Purāṇas, Grammar and Linguistics. Dharmaśāstra, Sāhityaśāstra etc. There were also special panels on Rāmāyaṇa, Buddhist Studies, Commentaries and Intellectual life of South Asia. It was an academically enriching experience to listen to research papers on rare Sanskrit texts and intellectual commentarial traditions of India. There were around 600 delegates from different countries. Śāstracarcā, Digital Technology, Kavisamavāyaḥ (gathering of Sanskrit poets) were some other noteworthy events. The next World Sanskrit Conference will take place in three years time in Canberra, Australia. I hope that Indic Academy continues its support of academic ventures and makes it possible for more young scholars to attend this event of scholarly interaction and preservation dedicated to promoting the Devavāṇī.