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.

Even when not in direct competition with their source material, commentaries on the Sanskrit epics involve a distinctive reading strategy that one seldom encounters in essays or scholarly works on contemporary or classical literature. This comes out of the way these commentaries handle their subject—as texts with an independent array of references, ethics and actions. In his essay “Sanskrit Literary Culture from the Inside Out,” the scholar Sheldon Pollock describes the distinction made in theories of Sanskrit literature between texts created by a normal human agent (kavya, or literature), by a special agent or a mythic seer (itihasa-purana, or epics such as the Mahabharata and Ramayana) and from no agent whatsoever (revealed texts, such as the Vedas). These categories were, however, permeable and unstable, the best example of this instability being Ved Vyasa’s Mahabharata, which has elements of both kavya and itihasa. However, there remains a crucial difference between commentary on a work of kavya, which is in the nature of critique and interpretation, and on an itihasa-purana, which can take the form of interpolation. According to Pollock, this is true of the Mahabharata. Further, a “whole history of reading the epic, which is sedimented in centuries of commentary on it, never treats the work as anything but a text of the seers, with an ontology, authority, and referentiality radically different from kavya.

In an essay from 2010, titled “Sanskrit Philosophical Commentary,” Jonardon Ganeri, a professor of philosophy at New York University, describes the different kinds of commentaries that have been prevalent in the Sanskrit tradition. Those primary texts, known as sutras—such as Nyaya sutra and Vaisesika sutra—are highly compact, so some commentaries on them, such as bhasya, were mere simplifications of what was contained in the original text. There were other commentaries, though, known as varttika, that critically engaged with the source text by looking into what has been said (ukta), what has not been said (anukta) or what lacks clarity (durukta). This engagement, however, was superseded by the kind of freedom assumed by a gudhartha commentary, which was an all-out interpretation, a close reading of the text. As the name suggests, gudharthaor “hidden meaning”—took it upon itself to reveal the text’s deeper resonances and produce alternative readings of it. Madhudusana Saraswati’s sixteenth-century commentary, Gudartha Dipika, is one such work about the Gita.

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

Keywords: Indian Literature Ramayana Mahabharata epics Three Hundred Ramayanas