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MAHABHARATA - HISTORY OR MYTHOLOGY?


SPEAKER:

Dr. Robert Goldman (Ph.D. 1971 University of Pennsylvania) is the William and

Catherine Magistretti Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Sanskrit and Distinguished

Professor in the Graduate School at the University of California at Berkeley. He is the

General Editor and a principal translator of the Rāmāyaṇa of Vālmīki, a scholarly

translation and annotation of the critical edition of the epic and the author of Gods,

Priests and Warriors: the Bhṛgus of the Mahābhārata and numerous scholarly

monographs and articles. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences

and is a recipient of the President’s Certificate of Honour for Sanskrit (International)

2013, awarded by the President of India.


SYNOPSIS:

The Mahābhārata, originally known as the Jaya Samhita and later as the Bharata Samhita, has been engulfed in a plethora of debates with respect to its nature, age, authorship, and, historicity. The text can be classified as a Smriti, an Itihasa as well as Kavya, consisting of 18 Parvas and over 100,000 verses at present. The puissant stories centered around the internecine battle of Kurukshetra have enraptured the masses over the centuries and have instigated a course of active interpretation and deliberation, especially about the historical occurrence of these events.


The text talks about magical occurrences, legendary creatures, and supernatural weapons, which may lead one to believe that it can be best categorized as mythology. However, the 2013 Chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), Prof. Y.S. Rao argued that the Mahābhārata is not a work of mythology, rather it holds historical credibility.

In the past few decades, with technological advancement, several archaeological excavations have been undertaken at places mentioned in the Mahābhārata – Hastinapur, Mathura, Kurukshetra, Bairat; that suggests that these places were inhabited by Painted Grey Ware (PGW) cultures around this time; with marine archaeological explorations also leading to the discovery of the submerged city of Dwarka.


However, archaeology cannot prove or disprove the veracity of epic events as it is best utilized for

uncovering the general patterns of material culture rather than corroborating textual details of literary works.

Some historians have argued that history and mythology need not be diametrically opposed to each other, because history can be understood as a broad term that relates to past events- not only as a result of discovery and interpretation but also as a collection of memory and presentation; on the other hand, mythology revolves around symbolic narratives and metaphors of human experiences. Therefore, both disciplines share similar traits where the narration of human endeavours becomes an area of convergence.


This leads us to question the strict dichotomy between mythology and history that came to the forefront in the era of ‘positivism’ in 19 th century Europe, and subsequently around the world, which emphasized an a posteriori approach driven by objectivity, facts, and evidence.

Here, one has to understand that texts like the Mahābhārata, whose compilation spans from the 3 rd century BCE to the 3 rd century CE, are bound to be affected by changing societal & cultural

circumstances, along with geographical, and religious settings. For instance, the tribal version of the text by the Bhils does not mention the vastra haran (disrobing) of Draupadi. Moreover, given the extensive timespan, what is indeed the original form of the text becomes extremely hard to determine.


Therefore, we at Argumentative Indians call for a dispassionate understanding and interpretation of this recurring debate over the historicity of the Mahābhārata.



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