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What makes the Critical Edition of the Mahabharata so appealing?

55 years after it was first published by the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, it continues to attract scholars, students and history enthusiasts

BORI has been conducting online courses on the 18 parvans (parts) of the Mahabharata based on its Critical Edition. Photo: courtesy BORI/Nyansa
BORI has been conducting online courses on the 18 parvans (parts) of the Mahabharata based on its Critical Edition. Photo: courtesy BORI/Nyansa

On 1 July, the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune, Maharashtra, organised the first edition of its English-language online course on the 18 parvans (parts) of the Mahabharata. It was based on the Critical Edition of the great epic, compiled by a board of scholars at the institute from 1919-66, that takes into account over 800-plus regional variations as well as Ved Vyasa’s Mahabharata. Attended by over 400 people from across the globe—journalists, history enthusiasts, writers and students—the nearly 23-day course examines all the 18 parvans, such as Adi, Sabha, Aranyaka, Sabha, Virata, Udyog and Bhishma, as well as little-known facets of the text.

It explains Vyasa’s “jigsaw homogeneity” style of writing as well as the delightful upakhyanas, or sub-stories, that pepper the text. Most importantly, though, it takes a colossal body of work—accessed mainly by scholars and authors—to the common person who may or may not be familiar with Sanskrit, the language of the Critical Edition.

The second edition was held later that month, from 26 July. Given the response, the institute is organising a third edition—with two introductory sessions and 18 lectures by scholars such as Sucheta Paranjape, Prasad Bhide and Saroj Deshpande—from 7 October.

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What makes the Critical Edition so relevant, some 55 years after it was first published in 19 volumes? “This is an authenticated text produced by a board of scholars and seeks to eliminate later interpolations, unifying the text across the various regional versions,” writes author-economist Bibek Debroy in the introduction to his unabridged translation of The Mahabharata, published by Penguin between 2010-14; he too drew upon the Critical Edition, among other sources. “Before this, there were regional variations in the text and the main versions were available from Bengal, Bombay and the south. However, now, one should stick to the critical edition…”

Some do miss the lyricism and philosophical digressions of the original. Debroy himself points out: “One should mention that the critical edition’s text is not invariably smooth. Sometimes the transition from one shloka to another is abrupt, because the intervening shloka has been weeded out.” Out of the 100,000 shlokas the epic is supposed to have, the Critical Edition has a little less than 75,000.

For most authors, the greatest advantage of the Critical Edition is its accessibility in terms of language and length. Photo: courtesy BORI/Nyansa
For most authors, the greatest advantage of the Critical Edition is its accessibility in terms of language and length. Photo: courtesy BORI/Nyansa

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But the compilation has made the epic accessible to so many more people that it makes up for any shortcomings. Over the decades, several authors, scholars and scriptwriters have done just that, relying on the Critical Edition for their work. Who can forget B.R. Chopra’s iconic TV series, which kept everyone captivated every Sunday, between 1988-90? It claimed to have used the Critical Edition as its main source. In 2009, John D. Smith, who studied Hindi and Sanskrit at Magdalene College, Cambridge, UK, published his contemporary retelling of the classic using the Critical Edition as reference.

Most recently, Ira Mukhoty referred to it for her debut in fiction, Song Of Draupadi, published by Aleph in August. She started looking at translations of the Mahabharata nearly 15 years ago, when she decided to write the story solely from the point of view of some of the principal female characters. “The problem with the epic for a general reader is the length of the book, some 15 times the length of the Bible, for example, and the obscurity of the original, written in Sanskrit some 2,000 years ago at least. Moreover, the Mahabharata was first created as an oral text, and was transmitted orally for centuries before being written down in Sanskrit through many iterations and versions,” Mukhoty says on email. This made the possibility of her reading anything resembling an “original” entirely impossible. The Critical Edition, with its attempt to define the oldest Sanskrit version, made it the most logical choice of text for her.

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For Mukhoty, the greatest advantage was its accessibility in terms of language and length. “Especially for researchers such as myself, who are primarily interested in one aspect of the text—this could be a gendered reading, underprivileged representation, or a need to look at only one character from the Mahabharata—it is far easier to go through the much shorter Critical Edition. The language is clear and concise, and does away with all the excessive ornamentation and effusions that plagued the earlier translations and versions,” she adds.

And because the Critical Edition does away with later interpolations that intrude upon the text in the form of divine episodes, Mukhoty could construct a story that gave back a great deal of agency to women. So, in the scene of Draupadi’s humiliation in the gambling hall for instance, she was able to show Draupadi as the sole guardian of her dignity, saving herself through her presence of mind, fiery intelligence and bravery, instead of relying on the transcendent presence of Krishna to supply her with endless reams of cloth.

Travel writer-editor and history enthusiast Sudha Ganapathi had always known of the Critical Edition but wasn’t aware that it had been created by the institute. “My interest was kindled in 2015 while doing a course in Indian aesthetics from Jnanapravaha, Mumbai. It had a lot of mentions of incidents from the Mahabharata. I would wonder that I have read stories from the epic but have never heard of these incidents. That’s when I got to know about the Critical Edition,” she says.

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During the pandemic-triggered nationwide lockdown last year, she started attending the institute’s online programmes, such as one on traditional manuscript traditions. And when she heard of the course of 18 parvans, she felt she had to attend it. She also started reading Debroy’s The Mahabharata. “It is exhilarating to know the details. It is difficult to ignore the misogyny and casteism underlying some of the stories. But I have been making notes based on the course and Bibek Debroy’s books,” she says.

For the institute, work on the epic remains an ongoing process. Since 1986, a team of four scholars has been working on a cultural index, a catalogue of people, places and objects mentioned in the epic. Scholar Dr Gauri Moghe, who joined the team as a research assistant seven years ago and is now assistant editor, was fascinated by the text and felt compelled to share it.

That’s when the idea of an online course took birth. “I spoke with chairman of the executive board, Bhupal Patwardhan, about it. If you ask someone names of the 18 parvans, most might not be able to answer, or they may not know much about the institute. The course could be an initiation to all of this. That’s how the discussion started,” she says.

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Three volumes of the cultural index have been published so far—about serpents, birds and animals; weapons and missiles; astronomy; and geographical details such as cities and formations. All of these are based on the Critical Edition. “The index hopes to offer a user-friendly interface for scholars as well as for the layperson.” Now putting together information on the main characters, Moghe says they have completed three fascicules on Agni, Arjuna and Ashwathama. The last one has gone to press. “If you wish to know about the family of Arjuna, you can go to the fascicule and look up the subcategory of marriages or children; or know more about the battles he was part of.”

Meanwhile, the team is working on more online courses, such as on dialogues from the Mahabharata and upakhyanas. The enduring appeal of the Critical Edition is closely enmeshed with the continuing fascination with the epic. As Debroy writes in his book: “The Mahabharata is one of the greatest stories ever told. It has plots and subplots and meanderings and digressions. It is much more than the core story of a war between the Kouravas and the Pandavas.”


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