The Word and the World

Bimal Krishna Matilal on the epics

01 March 2019
kevin ilango for the caravan
kevin ilango for the caravan

IN AN ESSAY on Virginia Woolf’s critical writings, James Wood discusses how Woolf dealt with the competition that she faced from the subject matter at hand: other people’s books. This competition, combined with Woolf’s talent as a writer, gave the language of her criticism a metaphorical—or literary rather than explanatory—quality, not different from that which imbues her own fiction. “A flurry of trapped loyalties,” as Wood calls it, drives this tone of intimacy, where the usually distant language of criticism is perforated with the linguistic finesse and play of the primary material, both competing with it and “speaking to fiction in its own accent.”

Indian commentaries on the classical epics, Mahabharata and Ramayana, tend to use a comparable critical language, one that combines close assessment of the epic with a creative recasting. The long tradition of commentaries by Sanskrit authors on the whole or part of the epics began in the eleventh century. These commentaries were tailored to the interests of the commentator, or the school of thought to which she belonged. Devabodha’s Jnanadipika, an eleventh-century commentary on the Mahabharata, is one of the earliest examples of writings on the epic, along with Abhinavagupta’s early-eleventh-century Gitartha Samgraha, a commentary on the Bhagavad Gita that reads this episode of the Mahabharata as prevailing over the dichotomy of the self and the other.

Before Devabodha’s commentary, the epics were often treated as textbooks of ethical principles, as dharmashastras. For scholars such as the eighth-century Kumarila Bhatta, they were indistinguishable from texts of systematic philosophy. On the other hand, aesthetes such as Anandavardhana and Kuntaka, who wrote in the ninth and tenth century respectively, saw in the Mahabharata the success of literary archetypes. Over time, just reading the epics was not enough, and commentaries became the medium through which to approach, or appropriate, them. These commentaries were also the basis of various philosophical positions, with commentators from Karnataka, such as Vadiraja Tirtha, using them to endorse devotional movements such as Vaishnavism. Some Sanskrit scholars and commentators, such as Debi Misra and Chaturbhuja Misra, were called to Akbar’s court from Bengal to assist with the Persian adaptation of the Mahabharata, titled Razmnama.

Mantra Mukim is a postgraduate student of English literature at Delhi University.

Keywords: Indian Literature Ramayana Mahabharata epics Three Hundred Ramayanas